Anarchists and Academics

I learned today from  Chris Blattman’s blog that James C. Scott, the man who wrote Seeing Like A State and The Art of Not Being Governed and Weapons of the Weak, etc. has a new book out called Two Cheers for Anarchism.


How exciting!  Blattman quotes two selections:

What I aim to show is that if you put on anarchist glasses and look at the history of popular movements, revolutions, ordinary politics, and the state from that angle, certain insights will appear that are obscured from almost any other angle.

…One thing that heaves into view, I believe, is what Jean-Pierre Proudhon [sic: it’s supposed to be Pierre-Joseph Proudhon] had in mind when he first used the term “anarchism,” namely, mutuality, or cooperation without hierarchy or state rule. Another is the anarchist tolerance for confusion and improvisation that accompanies social learning, and confidence in spontaneous cooperation and reciprocity.


…To what extent has the hegemony of the state and of formal, hierarchical organizations undermined the capacity for and the practice of mutuality and cooperation that have historically created order without the state?

And then adds on his own:

That is Jim Scott in his new book, Two Cheers for Anarchism. Loved it. But I can’t decide if it’s a perfect introduction to his work or a perfect capstone, unpersuasive unless you had time to mull over his earlier tomes: Seeing Like a State and The Art of not Being Governed. Read all, seriously.

Probably the biggest problem in international development is that it is not anarchist enough. The impulse of virtually every UN, World Bank, and NGO project or manager I’ve seen is to plan and order. But growing wealth and freedom is inherently messy, and the small NGOs and the bureaucrats that recognize this are the more successful (or, at least, the least disenchanted).

For the most part, the RCT movement [Randomized Controlled Trial, increasingly popular in political science and development economics] suffers from the same failings. It sees like a state, not an anarchist.

I’ve often fantasized about teaching a course called “The Art of Not Being Governed”, and I think the core of my syllabus would look something like this (in roughly chronological order of when they were written):

  1. Peter Kroptkin – the entry on “Anarchism” in the 1910 Encyclopedia Britannica. Wikipedia wants NPOV. This is from when encyclopedias had a POV and were proud of it. This is probably enough that we wouldn’t need to read selections from his book on mutual aid, but that’s also an option. As is a tiny selection from E. O. Wilson’s Sociolobiology, a lot of which is about collective versus individual survival and the power of mutual aid.
  2. Marcel Mauss – The Gift. Most later works I’d call anarchist build off this. Fun fact: Mauss was Durkheim’s nephew. For more on Mauss, Marcel Fournier has written an excellent biography of him and Graeber’s “Give It Away” is also fun for students.  But any class on “not being governed” would need to start with a discussion of the logic of gift exchanges versus the logic of the market.
  3. Pierre Clastres – Societies Against the State. He seems to be the best known “anarchist academic” temporally between Mauss and Scott. Was supposed to be Levi-Strauss’s heir in French anthropology but died young (age 43).
  4. Marshall Sahlins — his 1966 article “the Original Affluent Society” (the title’s a play on John Kenneth Galbraith’s book about American called The Affluent Society, but this is about hunter-gatherers). A supplement to this, very much in the same vein, is Jared Diamond’s “The Worst Mistake in the History of the Human Race“. Both are great for sheltered undergrads, “But you mean we don’t live in a world of Protestant Progress where things always get better and better? I can’t believe it!”
  5. James C. Scott — anything and almost everything, but especially Seeing Like a State and the Art of Not Being Governed. Maybe parts of Weapons of the Weak or that article on comparative Agrarian tax resistance.
  6. James Ferguson’s Anti-Politics Machine.  A detailed study of a development project in Lesotho and the way states (and ideas about “development”) fail daily.
  7. David Graeber — his Fragments of an Anarchist Anthropology (pdf available free) made me want to be a social scientist instead of go into religious studies (though I quick discovered anthropology wasn’t for me).   Also, this book is put out by the incomparable Prickly Paradigm Press run by Marshall Sahlins.  We kept a copy in our bathroom in college (oh, U Chicago nerds…). Probably selections from Debt would also make it into any syllabus I taught. Direct Action might too, but I find it less interesting. His essay on Mauss, “Give It Away”, is what introduced me to Mauss in the first place.
  8. Something by wunderkind Kieran Healy on the exchange of blood and organs; it’s relevant but a little different (state obviously has a big role in this). I might use the book or just one of his articles depending how the course was and how much attention I wanted to give to this. He also has a working paper on open source software that might also be worth including. Generally a rising star in sociology (or has his star already risen)?
  9. Hakim Bey’s Temporary Autonomous Zone. Hakim Bey (Peter Lamborn Wilson) has supported NAMBLA. I feel like I need to acknowledge that every time I mention his name. But at the same time, it’s one of the more worthwhile “anarchist political theory” books, and the only one that I’d be inclined to use on a syllabus. Maybe I’d include a tiny Proudhon.  And maybe a little Bob Black or contemporary anarchist theorist, or something on PARECON.

People have told me Polyani belongs on here, too.

What to take from this list?  It’s pretty interesting that many of these guys, Clastres and Scott most clearly, are not interested so much in how to “smash capitalism and governments and hierarchy” and all of that, but in how to escape from it and avoid it and function without it.  The solutions aren’t radically refiguring society–the solution is opting out (when it’s opportune to).  They also, if I think about it, rarely deal with class.  There’s no revolutionary classes or bourgeois classes or reactionary class so much as those who want to rule, those who have to obey the rules, and those who get away.  Just like economics deals with choices in ideal conditions, and sociology deals with constraint, and sociology deals with relationality and psychology emphasizes individuality, anarchism emphasizes “freedom” and “cooperation” and Marxism emphasizes “fair distribution” and “money”.

You can see this reading list is heavily weighted towards anthropology, without enough sociology or political science (never mind economics). I would think of adding articles on informal economy, maybe something from Sudhir Venkatesh, probably selections from Off the Books (definitely not Gang Leader for a Day), but maybe one of his articles. There’s a chance I might use some of (economist) Peter Leeson’s stuff, either his work on Somalia or on historical pirates. Possibly some stuff on intentional communities (and what leads to their success and more often failure).

Is there anything that’s academic and anarchist that I’m missing?  Any suggestions for reading, dear strangers of the internet?

2 Responses to “Anarchists and Academics”
  1. JCB says:

    Just to keep things straight, people on Blattman’s blog suggested:
    Joel Migdal’s States in Society
    “If Planning Is Everything, Maybe It’s Nothing” by Aaron Wildavsky
    Timothy Mitchell’s Rule of Experts
    “National Economic Planning: What is Left?” by (economist) Don Lavoie
    “Eric Hobsbawm’s Revolutionaries includes an excellent essay on anarchism from the view of the left”
    “Evolutionary economics literature, especially the work by Giovanni Dosi. There is also something about Brian Arthur’s work on complexity and increasing returns that makes it particularly appealing for any firm disbeliever of organized chaos….”
    ““The New Liberty: The Libertarian Manifesto” by Murray N. Rothbard is a book that every Libertarian must read. Rothbard, anarcho-capitalist intellectual, talked about spontaneous order and the flawed morality of our rulers. ”
    “Friedman, M. (1982). Capitalism and freedom.”
    Hans-Hermann Hoppe: “Anarcho-Capitalism: An Annotated Bibliography”
    “Rothbard and Hoppe, both representing the Austrian school of economics, are one of the best for introduction to anarcho-capitalism (even though I would recommend to start with Mises’s Human Action). For development economics, I would recommend Conquest of Poverty (Hazzlit), Better off stateless: Somalia before and after government collapse (Leeson), Institutional Stickiness and the New Development Economics (Boettke et al) and Entrepreneurship and Development: Cause or Consequence? (Boettke and Coyne).”

  2. liz says:

    reading this for a class this week: Freedom Dreams: The Black Radical Imagination. Robin Kelley

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