[Reader-list] 21st Century Anarchism

Harsh Kapoor aiindex at mnet.fr
Wed Jan 7 13:21:55 IST 2004

[* Forwarder's note: Both authors contribute to 
Jai Sen et.al (eds), World Social Forum: Against 
All Empires. New Delhi: Viveka. 25-C DDA Flats, 
Shahpurjat, New Delhi 110 049, India. Tel: 
91-11-2649 2473 / 2649 7586. 
<india at vivekafoundation.org> <viveka4 at vsnl.com>]


By David Graeber and Andrej Grubacic*

It is becoming increasingly clear that the age of 
revolutions is not over. It's becoming equally 
clear that the global revolutionary movement in 
the twenty first century, will be one that traces 
its origins less to the tradition of Marxism, or 
even of socialism narrowly defined, but of 

Everywhere from Eastern Europe to Argentina, from 
Seattle to Bombay, anarchist ideas and principles 
are generating new radical dreams and visions. 
Often their exponents do not call themselves 
"anarchists". There are a host of other names: 
autonomism, anti-authoritarianism, horizontality, 
Zapatismo, direct democracy... Still, everywhere 
one finds the same core principles: 
decentralization, voluntary association, mutual 
aid, the network model, and above all, the 
rejection of any idea that the end justifies the 
means, let alone that the business of a 
revolutionary is to seize state power and then 
begin imposing one's vision at the point of a 
gun. Above all, anarchism, as an ethics of 
practice-the idea of building a new society 
"within the shell of the old"-has become the 
basic inspiration of the "movement of movements" 
(of which the authors are a part), which has from 
the start been less about seizing state power 
than about exposing, de-legitimizing and 
dismantling mechanisms of rule while winning 
ever-larger spaces of autonomy and participatory 
management within it.

There are some obvious reasons for the appeal of 
anarchist ideas at the beginning of the 21st 
century: most obviously, the failures and 
catastrophes resulting from so many efforts to 
overcome capitalism by seizing control of the 
apparatus of government in the 20th. Increasing 
numbers of revolutionaries have begun to 
recognize that "the revolution" is not going to 
come as some great apocalyptic moment, the 
storming of some global equivalent of the Winter 
Palace, but a very long process that has been 
going on for most of human history (even if it 
has like most things come to accelerate of late) 
full of strategies of flight and evasion as much 
as dramatic confrontations, and which will 
never-indeed, most anarchist feel, should 
never-come to a definitive conclusion. It's a 
little disconcerting, but it offers one enormous 
consolation: we do not have to wait until "after 
the revolution" to begin to get a glimpse of what 
genuine freedom might be like. As the Crimethinc 
Collective, the greatest propagandists of 
contemporary American anarchism, put it: "Freedom 
only exists in the moment of revolution. And 
those moments are not as rare as you think." For 
an anarchist, in fact, to try to create 
non-alienated experiences, true democracy, is an 
ethical imperative; only by making one's form of 
organization in the present at least a rough 
approximation of how a free society would 
actually operate, how everyone, someday, should 
be able to live, can one guarantee that we will 
not cascade back into disaster. Grim joyless 
revolutionaries who sacrifice all pleasure to the 
cause can only produce grim joyless societies.

These changes have been difficult to document 
because so far anarchist ideas have received 
almost no attention in the academy. There are 
still thousands of academic Marxists, but almost 
no academic anarchists. This lag is somewhat 
difficult to interpret. In part, no doubt, it's 
because Marxism has always had a certain affinity 
with the academy which anarchism obviously 
lacked: Marxism was, after all, the only great 
social movement that was invented by a Ph.D. Most 
accounts of the history of anarchism assume it 
was basically similar to Marxism: anarchism is 
presented as the brainchild of certain 19th 
century thinkers (Proudhon, Bakunin, 
Kropotkin...) that then went on to inspire 
working-class organizations, became enmeshed in 
political struggles, divided into sects... 
Anarchism, in the standard accounts, usually 
comes out as Marxism's poorer cousin, 
theoretically a bit flat-footed but making up for 
brains, perhaps, with passion and sincerity. 
Really the analogy is strained. The "founders" of 
anarchism did not think of themselves as having 
invented anything particularly new. The saw its 
basic principles-mutual aid, voluntary 
association, egalitarian decision-making-as as 
old as humanity. The same goes for the rejection 
of the state and of all forms of structural 
violence, inequality, or domination (anarchism 
literally means "without rulers")-even the 
assumption that all these forms are somehow 
related and reinforce each other. None of it was 
seen as some startling new doctrine, but a 
longstanding tendency in the history human 
thought, and one that cannot be encompassed by 
any general theory of ideology. On one level it 
is a kind of faith: a belief that most forms of 
irresponsibility that seem to make power 
necessary are in fact the effects of power 
itself. In practice though it is a constant 
questioning, an effort to identify every 
compulsory or hierarchical relation in human 
life, and challenge them to justify themselves, 
and if they cannot-which usually turns out to be 
the case-an effort to limit their power and thus 
widen the scope of human liberty. Just as a Sufi 
might say that Sufism is the core of truth behind 
all religions, an anarchist might argue that 
anarchism is the urge for freedom behind all 
political ideologies.

Schools of Marxism always have founders. Just as 
Marxism sprang from the mind of Marx, so we have 
Leninists, Maoists,, Althusserians... (Note how 
the list starts with heads of state and grades 
almost seamlessly into French professors - who, 
in turn, can spawn their own sects: Lacanians, 

Schools of anarchism, in contrast, almost 
invariably emerge from some kind of 
organizational principle or form of practice: 
Anarcho-Syndicalists and Anarcho-Communists, 
Insurrectionists and Platformists, 
Cooperativists, Councilists, Individualists, and 
so on. Anarchists are distinguished by what they 
do, and how they organize themselves to go about 
doing it. And indeed this has always been what 
anarchists have spent most of their time thinking 
and arguing about. They have never been much 
interested in the kinds of broad strategic or 
philosophical questions that preoccupy Marxists 
such as Are the peasants a potentially 
revolutionary class? (anarchists consider this 
something for peasants to decide) or what is the 
nature of the commodity form? Rather, they tend 
to argue about what is the truly democratic way 
to go about a meeting, at what point organization 
stops being empowering people and starts 
squelching individual freedom. Is "leadership" 
necessarily a bad thing? Or, alternately, about 
the ethics of opposing power: What is direct 
action? Should one condemn someone who 
assassinates a head of state? When is it okay to 
throw a brick?

Marxism, then, has tended to be a theoretical or 
analytical discourse about revolutionary 
strategy. Anarchism has tended to be an ethical 
discourse about revolutionary practice. As a 
result, where Marxism has produced brilliant 
theories of praxis, it's mostly been anarchists 
who have been working on the praxis itself.

At the moment, there's something of a rupture 
between generations of anarchism: between those 
whose political formation took place in the 60s 
and 70s-and who often still have not shaken the 
sectarian habits of the last century-or simply 
still operate in those terms, and younger 
activists much more informed, among other 
elements, by indigenous, feminist, ecological and 
cultural-criticitical ideas. The former organize 
mainly through highly visible Anarchist 
Federations like the IWA, NEFAC or IWW. The 
latter work most prominently in the networks of 
the global social movement, networks like Peoples 
Global Action, which unites anarchist collectives 
in Europe and elsewhere with groups ranging from 
Maori activists in New Zealand, fisherfolk in 
Indonesia, or the Canadian postal workers' union 
(2.). The latter-what might be loosely referred 
to as the "small-a anarchists", are by now by far 
the majority. But it is sometimes hard to tell, 
since so many of them do not trumpet their 
affinities very loudly. There are many. in fact, 
who take anarchist principles of 
anti-sectarianism and open-endedness so seriously 
that they refuse to refer to themselves as 
'anarchists' for that very reason (3.).

But the three essentials that run throughout all 
manifestations of anarchist ideology are 
definitely there - anti-statism, anti-capitalism 
and prefigurative politics (i.e. modes of 
organization that consciously resemble the world 
you want to create. Or, as an anarchist historian 
of the revolution in Spain has formulated "an 
effort to think of not only the ideas but the 
facts of the future itself". (4.) This is present 
in anything from jamming collectives and on to 
Indy media, all of which can be called anarchist 
in the newer sense.(5.) In some countries, there 
is only a very limited degree of confluence 
between the two coexisting generations, mostly 
taking the form of following what each other is 
doing - but not much more.

One reason is that the new generation is much 
more interested in developing new forms of 
practice than arguing about the finer points of 
ideology. The most dramatic among these have been 
the development of new forms of decision-making 
process, the beginnings, at least, of an 
alternate culture of democracy. The famous North 
American spokescouncils, where thousands of 
activists coordinate large-scale events by 
consensus, with no formal leadership structure, 
are only the most spectacular.

Actually, even calling these forms "new" is a 
little bit deceptive. One of the main 
inspirations for the new generation of anarchists 
are the Zapatista autonomous municipalities of 
Chiapas, based in Tzeltal or Tojolobal-speaking 
communities who have been using consensus process 
for thousands of years-only now adopted by 
revolutionaries to ensure that women and younger 
people have an equal voice. In North America, 
"consensus process" emerged more than anything 
else from the feminist movement in the '70s, as 
part of a broad backlash against the macho style 
of leadership typical of the '60s New Left. The 
idea of consensus itself was borrowed from the 
Quakers, who again, claim to have been inspired 
by the Six Nations and other Native American 

Consensus is often misunderstood. One often hears 
critics claim it would cause stifling conformity 
but almost never by anyone who has actually 
observed consensus in action, at least, as guided 
by trained, experienced facilitators (some recent 
experiments in Europe, where there is little 
tradition of such things, have been somewhat 
crude). In fact, the operating assumption is that 
no one could really convert another completely to 
their point of view, or probably should. Instead, 
the point of consensus process is to allow a 
group to decide on a common course of action. 
Instead of voting proposals up and down, 
proposals are worked and reworked, scotched or 
reinvented, there is a process of compromise and 
synthesis, until one ends up with something 
everyone can live with. When it comes to the 
final stage, actually "finding consensus", there 
are two levels of possible objection: one can 
"stand aside", which is to say "I don't like this 
and won't participate but I wouldn't stop anyone 
else from doing it", or "block", which has the 
effect of a veto. One can only block if one feels 
a proposal is in violation of the fundamental 
principles or reasons for being of a group. One 
might say that the function which in the US 
constitution is relegated to the courts, of 
striking down legislative decisions that violate 
constitutional principles, is here relegated with 
anyone with the courage to actually stand up 
against the combined will of the group (though of 
course there are also ways of challenging 
unprincipled blocks).

One could go on at length about the elaborate and 
surprisingly sophisticated methods that have been 
developed to ensure all this works; of forms of 
modified consensus required for very large 
groups; of the way consensus itself reinforces 
the principle of decentralization by ensuring one 
doesn't really want to bring proposals before 
very large groups unless one has to, of means of 
ensuring gender equity and resolving conflict... 
The point is this is a form of direct democracy 
which is very different than the kind we usually 
associate with the term-or, for that matter, with 
the kind of majority-vote system usually employed 
by European or North American anarchists of 
earlier generations, or still employed, say, in 
middle class urban Argentine asambleas (though 
not, significantly, among the more radical 
piqueteros, the organized unemployed, who tend to 
operate by consensus.) With increasing contact 
between different movements internationally, the 
inclusion of indigenous groups and movements from 
Africa, Asia, and Oceania with radically 
different traditions, we are seeing the 
beginnings of a new global reconception of what 
"democracy" should even mean, one as far as 
possible from the neoliberal parlaimentarianism 
currently promoted by the existing powers of the 

Again, it is difficult to follow this new spirit 
of synthesis by reading most existing anarchist 
literature, because those who spend most of their 
energy on questions of theory, rather than 
emerging forms of practice, are the most likely 
to maintain the old sectarian dichotomizing 
logic. Modern anarchism is imbued with countless 
contradictions. While small-a anarchists are 
slowly incorporating ideas and practices learned 
from indigenous allies into their modes of 
organizing or alternative communities, the main 
trace in the written literature has been the 
emergence of a sect of Primitivists, a 
notoriously contentious crew who call for the 
complete abolition of industrial civilization, 
and, in some cases, even agriculture.(6.) Still, 
it is only a matter of time before this older, 
either/or logic begins to give way to something 
more resembling the practice of consensus-based 

What would this new synthesis look like? Some of 
the outlines can already be discerned within the 
movement. It will insist on constantly expanding 
the focus of anti-authoritarianism, moving away 
from class reductionism by trying to grasp the 
"totality of domination", that is, to highlight 
not only the state but also gender relations, and 
not only the economy but also cultural relations 
and ecology, sexuality, and freedom in every form 
it can be sought, and each not only through the 
sole prism of authority relations, but also 
informed by richer and more diverse concepts. 
This approach does not call for an endless 
expansion of material production, or hold that 
technologies are neutral, but it also doesn't 
decry technology per se. Instead, it becomes 
familiar with and employs diverse types of 
technology as appropriate. It not only doesn't 
decry institutions per se, or political forms per 
se, it tries to conceive new institutions and new 
political forms for activism and for a new 
society, including new ways of meeting, new ways 
of decision making, new ways of coordinating, 
along the same lines as it already has with 
revitalized affinity groups and spokes 
structures. And it not only doesn't decry reforms 
per se, but struggles to define and win 
non-reformist reforms, attentive to people's 
immediate needs and bettering their lives in the 
here-and-now at the same time as moving toward 
further gains, and eventually, wholesale 

And of course theory will have to catch up with 
practice. To be fully effective, modern anarchism 
will have to include at least three levels: 
activists, people's organizations, and 
researchers. The problem at the moment is that 
anarchist intellectuals who want to get past 
old-fashioned, vanguardist habits-the Marxist 
sectarian hangover that still haunts so much of 
the radical intellectual world-are not quite sure 
what their role is supposed to be. Anarchism 
needs to become reflexive. But how? On one level 
the answer seems obvious. One should not lecture, 
not dictate, not even necessarily think of 
oneself as a teacher, but must listen, explore 
and discover. To tease out and make explicit the 
tacit logic already underlying new forms of 
radical practice. To put oneself at the service 
of activists by providing information, or 
exposing the interests of the dominant elite 
carefully hidden behind supposedly objective, 
authoritative discourses, rather than trying to 
impose a new version of the same thing. But at 
the same time most recognize that intellectual 
struggle needs to reaffirm its place. Many are 
beginning to point out that one of the basic 
weaknesses of the anarchist movement today is, 
with respect to the time of, say, Kropotkin or 
Reclus, or Herbert Read, exactly the neglecting 
of the symbolic, the visionary, and overlooking 
of the effectiveness of theory. How to move from 
ethnography to utopian visions-ideally, as many 
utopian visions as possible? It is hardly a 
coincidence that some of the greatest recruiters 
for anarchism in countries like the United States 
have been feminist science fiction writers like 
Starhawk or Ursula K. LeGuin (8.)

One way this is beginning to happen is as 
anarchists begin to recuperate the experience of 
other social movements with a more developed body 
of theory, ideas that come from circles close to, 
indeed inspired by anarchism. Let's take for 
example the idea of participatory economy, which 
represents an anarchist economist vision par 
excellence and which supplements and rectifies 
anarchist economic tradition. Parecon theorists 
argue for the existence of not just two, but 
three major classes in advanced capitalism: not 
only a proletariat and bourgeoisie but a 
"coordinator class" whose role is to manage and 
control the labor of the working class. This is 
the class that includes the management hierarchy 
and the professional consultants and advisors 
central to their system of control - as lawyers, 
key engineers and accountants, and so on. They 
maintain their class position because of their 
relative monopolization over knowledge, skills, 
and connections. As a result, economists and 
others working in this tradition have been trying 
to create models of an economy which would 
systematically eliminate divisions between 
physical and intellectual labor. Now that 
anarchism has so clearly become the center of 
revolutionary creativity, proponents of such 
models have increasingly been, if not rallying to 
the flag, exactly, then at least, emphasizing the 
degree to which their ideas are compatible with 
an anarchist vision. (9..)

Similar things are starting to happen with the 
development of anarchist political visions. Now, 
this is an area where classical anarchism already 
had a leg up over classical Marxism, which never 
developed a theory of political organization at 
all. Different schools of anarchism have often 
advocated very specific forms of social 
organization, albeit often markedly at variance 
with one another. Still, anarchism as a whole has 
tended to advance what liberals like to call 
'negative freedoms,' 'freedoms from,' rather than 
substantive 'freedoms to.' Often it has 
celebrated this very commitment as evidence of 
anarchism's pluralism, ideological tolerance, or 
creativity. But as a result, there has been a 
reluctance to go beyond developing small-scale 
forms of organization, and a faith that larger, 
more complicated structures can be improvised 
later in the same spirit.

There have been exceptions. Pierre Joseph 
Proudhon tried to come up with a total vision of 
how a libertarian society might operate. (10.) 
It's generally considered to have been a failure, 
but it pointed the way to more developed visions, 
such as the North American Social Ecologists's 
"libertarian municipalism". There's a lively 
developing, for instance, on how to balance 
principles of worker's control-emphasized by the 
Parecon folk-and direct democracy, emphasized by 
the Social Ecologists.(11..) Still, there are a 
lot of details still to be filled in: what are 
the anarchist's full sets of positive 
institutional alternatives to contemporary 
legislatures, courts, police, and diverse 
executive agencies? How to offer a political 
vision that encompasses legislation, 
implementation, adjudication, and enforcement and 
that shows how each would be effectively 
accomplished in a non-authoritarian way-not only 
provide long-term hope, but to inform immediate 
responses to today's electoral, law-making, law 
enforcement, and court system, and thus, many 
strategic choices. Obviously there could never be 
an anarchist party line on this, the general 
feeling among the small-a anarchists at least is 
that we'll need many concrete visions. Still, 
between actual social experiments within 
expanding self-managing communities in places 
like Chiapas and Argentina, and efforts by 
anarchist scholar/activists like the newly formed 
Planetary Alternatives Network or the Life After 
Capitalism forums to begin locating and compiling 
successful examples of economic and political 
forms, the work is beginning (12.). It is clearly 
a long-term process. But then, the anarchist 
century has only just begun.

* David Graeber is an assistant professor at Yale 
University (USA) and a political activist. Andrej 
Grubacic is a historian and social critic from 

1. This doesn't mean anarchists have to be 
against theory.  It might not need High Theory, 
in the sense familiar today. Certainly it will 
not need one single, Anarchist High Theory. That 
would be completely inimical to its spirit. Much 
better, we think, something more in the spirit of 
anarchist decision-making processes: applied to 
theory, this would mean accepting the need for a 
diversity of high theoretical perspectives, 
united only by certain shared commitments and 
understandings. Rather than based on the need to 
prove others' fundamental assumptions wrong, it 
seeks to find particular projects on which they 
reinforce each other. Just because theories are 
incommensurable in certain respects does not mean 
they cannot exist or even reinforce each other, 
any more than the fact that individuals have 
unique and incommensurable views of the world 
means they cannot become friends, or lovers, or 
work on common projects. Even more than High 
Theory, what anarchism needs is what might be 
called low theory: a way of grappling with those 
real, immediate questions that emerge from a 
transformative project.

2. Fore more information about the exciting 
history of Peoples Global Action we suggest the 
book We are Everywhere: The Irresistible Rise of 
Global Anti-capitalism, edited by Notes from 
Nowhere, London: Verso 2003. See also the PGA web 
site: www.agp.org

3. Cf.  David Graeber, « New Anarchists », New 
left Review 13, January - February 2002

4. See Diego Abad de Santillan, After the 
Revolution, New York: Greenberg Publishers 1937

5. For more information on global indymedia project go to : www.indymedia.org

6 .Cf. Jason McQuinn, "Why I am not a 
Primitivist", Anarchy : a journal of desire 
armed, printemps/été 2001.Cf. le site anarchiste 
www.arnarchymag.org . Cf.  John Zerzan, Future 
Primitive & Other Essays, Autonomedia, 1994.

7. Cf. Andrej Grubacic, Towards an Another 
Anarchism, in : Sen, Jai, Anita Anand, Arturo 
Escobar and Peter Waterman, The World Social 
Forum: Against all Empires, New Delhi: Viveka 

8. Cf. Starhawk, Webs of Power: Notes from Global 
Uprising, San Francisco 2002. See also : 

9. Albert, Michael, Participatory Economics, 
Verso, 2003. See also: www.parecon.org

10. Avineri, Shlomo. The Social and Political 
Thought of Karl Marx. London: Cambridge 
University Press, 1968

11 .See The Murray Bookchin Reader, edited by 
Janet Biehl, London: Cassell 1997. See also the 
web site of the Institute for Social Ecology : 

12. For more information on Life After Capitalism forums go to :

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