The New Anarchism

I am just finishing proof reading the galley proofs for Volume Three of Anarchism: A Documentary History of Libertarian Ideas, The New Anarchism (1974-2012). The book should be out by mid-November. Here, I reproduce an excerpt from the afterward, in which I survey the history of anarchist thought.

The New Anarchism (1974-2012)

Anarchism, George Woodcock once wrote, is like the river of the ancient Greek philosopher, Heraclitus: constantly changing, with different sources, eddies and currents, sometimes percolating below the surface, at other times bursting forth in revolutionary torrents, but generally moving “between the banks of certain unifying principles” (1977: 16).  Contrary to popular misconceptions, those unifying principles are not chaos and terrorism, but a rejection of hierarchy, authority and exploitation, and an alternative vision of a society without domination based on freedom and equality. Anarchists reject the State and its institutions, advocating societies based on free association, without anyone having the power to dominate or exploit another.

Long before anyone consciously articulated anarchist ideas, people had lived in societies without a state for thousands of years. So-called primitive and prehistoric peoples lacked any formal institutions of government and hierarchical social structures based on relationships of command and obedience (Clastres, Volume Two, Selection 64). As the anthropologist Harold Barclay puts it, “Ten thousand years ago everyone was an anarchist” (1982: 39). Around 6000 years ago, the first hierarchical societies began to emerge in which a minority of their members assumed positions of prestige and authority, from which they came to exercise power over others (Barclay, Volume Three, Selection 17).

It took thousands of years for this process of state formation finally to encompass the entire globe, with some people continuing to live in stateless societies into the 20th century. Members of stateless societies lived in roughly egalitarian communities without rank or status (Taylor, 1982). For the most part, stateless societies had sustainable subsistence economies based on relationships of equality, reciprocity and mutual aid (Clastres, Volume Two, Selection 64; Bookchin, Volume Three, Selection 26; Sahlins (1974), Barclay (1982) and Kropotkin (1902)).

Relatively few states emerged from within their own societies: ancient Mesopotamia, Egypt, China, Mexico, Hawaii, Tahiti, Tonga, Samoa and possibly India (Barclay, 2003). State institutions were forced on most societies by external powers, or were created in response to such power. According to Barclay, a combination of factors led to the emergence of state forms: 1) increased population; 2) sedentary settlement; 3) horticulture/agriculture; 4) redistribution of wealth; 5) military organization; 6) secondary significance of kinship ties; 7) trading; 8) specialized division of labour; 9) individual property and control of resources; 10) a hierarchical social order; and 11) ideologies of superiority/inferiority (Volume Three, Selection 17).

As most people were innocent of government, having lived without it for thousands of years, they had nothing against which to compare their so-called primitive forms of social organization until it was too late. “Anarchy” was for them a way of life, not a concept. Although they may have had nonhierarchical conceptions of their societies and the natural world (Bookchin, Volume 3, Selection 25), it is unlikely that they conceived of anarchy as some sort of ideal. Anarchist ideas only began to be articulated after people started living within hierarchical societies based on exploitation and domination. When looking for precursors of the anarchist idea, one must be careful then not to read too much into the writings of people who never identified themselves as anarchists and never explicitly endorsed anarchy as an ideal.

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One CommentLeave a comment

  1. Really looking forward to this.


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