Anarchism without anarchism: searching for progressive politics

Richard Falk, professor emeritus of international law at Princeton University and now 80, demonstrates it’s never too late in life to start a blog. In his latest post, he says “I wanted to introduce a perspective about progressive politics, and citizen engagement, at a time of fallen hopes.”

Recent explorations of the anarchist heritage are to be welcomed, bringing to a contemporary intellectual audience the politically and morally inspiring thought of such major thinkers as Bakunin, Kropotkin, Proudhon, and more recently, Harold Laski and Paul Goodman. This rich tradition reminds us strongly of the relevance of anti-state traditions of reflection and advocacy, as well as the indispensable role of cooperation, non-violence, community, small-scale social organization, and local solutions for human material needs if the aspiration for a just and sustainable society is ever to be rescued from its utopian greenhouse. There is every reason to celebrate this anarchist perspective for its own sake, although in a critical and discriminating manner. Non-violent philosophical anarchism has a surprising resonance in relation to the ongoing difficult search for a coherent and mobilizing progressive politics in the aftermath of the virtual demise of Marxist/Gramsci theorizing, as well as even socialist thought and practice.

At the same time, it should be acknowledged that this anarchist tradition has accumulated a heavy public burden of discrediting baggage, which adds to the difficulty of relying upon it to engender a new progressive mobilization within the current global setting. An immediate barrier to the wider acceptance of philosophical anarchism as a tradition of thought is its strong identification with exclusively Western societal experience, despite the existence of some affinities with strains of late Maoist praxis, especially the distrust of bureaucracies and political parties. In contrast, Gandhi’s inspiration and influence is often explicitly or implicitly evident in some recent attempts to espouse nonviolent anarchist perspectives as, for instance, in the Green Revolution that has been ongoing in Iran since their contested presidential elections of June 2009. Even within the Western framework of political thought and action there are two formidable obstacles to reliance on anarchism as political posture resulting from widespread public confusion and media manipulation.

First, is the widely endorsed stereotype of the anarchist as a sociopathetic bomb thrower, an understanding given credible cultural currency by way of Dostoyevski’s great anti-terrorist novel, The Devils. In our post-9/11 world it is unrealistic for public opinion to separate this dominant image of the anarchist from its preoccupation with terrorists and terrorism. To refer to someone as an anarchist invokes a discrediting term that is generally accepted as such without any qualifications. At best, ‘anarchists’ are popularly depicted as those seeking to turn peaceful demonstrations into violent carnivals of anti-state behavior, radical activists with no serious policy agenda. The mainstream media blamed anarchist elements for the violent disruptions that took place during the infamous ‘battle of Seattle’ at the end of 1999, which was the first massive populist expression of radical resistance to neoliberal globalization. In certain respects, by playing the anarchist card, the media and pro-globalizing forces were able to divert attention from the expanding populist resistance to non-accountable, non-transparent, anti-democratic, and hegemonic institutional actors (World Bank, IMF, and WTO). Most of those participating in Seattle neither regarded themselves as anarchists nor wanted to be portrayed as marching in step behind the black banners of anarchist militancy. The self-proclaimed anarchists at Seattle were also sharply criticized as ignorant about and indifferent toward the substantive anti-globalization concerns that motivated most of the demonstrators.

Secondly, our ideas about international relations often associated with Hobbes to the effect that relations among states are characterized by the absence of government, and in realist thinking that emanates from this source, the irrelevance of law and ethics to the pursuit of order and security on a global level.

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1 thought on “Anarchism without anarchism: searching for progressive politics

  1. Christopher Hoare

    Thanks for drawing our attention to this, Paul. Not an easy read but a very rewarding study.
    I notice that the substance of Falk’s thought is inclusive of longtime green ideas such as those of Schumacher and Bookchin. Is Green the hope for the future after all, and after all the false starts?

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