on 14 October 2008
Review of Anarchy Alive! by Alex Prichard
Anarchist Studies 16:1 (2008)
Re-Posted with permission
It is widely recognised that these are exciting times for anarchist theory. Uri Gordon's book is one of many by the young veterans of the varied anarchist practices of the last ten years (at least) and can only add to this excitement. It is hugely learned and yet easy to read; it is also short and to the point, un-pompous and hugely informative, for the adept or novices in anarchist thought alike. For those with more theory than practice, this book ought to be required reading. In fact, I'd say that not only will it become required reading in the anarchist movement, but it will have a sizeable impact on the academy, (or `anarchademics' (p. 163) - one of a number of neologisms, like `r/evolution', I loved). In short, I believe this will be a defining text in anarchist circles for the next few years at the very least.
But why? What are the virtues of the book and where do they come from (aside from style and length of course)? Let's begin, somewhat conventionally with the introduction. It is short but clear in positioning itself in pedagogic social praxis. It is the product of participant observation and theoretical reflection and it is unashamedly contemporary in terms of both. The book is not designed to contribute to academic debates about the fineries of anarchist theory (though, as I will show, it does), but is designed as a tool for activists trying to understand anarchism, and inadvertently helps theorists see that practice helps us understand theory. The book does this through engaging with some key practical and theoretical conundrums facing the contemporary movement. This makes it something of a user's manual for anarchist activism, written by an engaged and intelligent academic that has seen his fair share of the front line.
The impact of Gordon's Oxford background, particularly the ideas of Michael Freeden who has blazed a trail through the study of ideologies, is clear. Gordon discuses anarchism as a `political culture' or social praxis, ironically simply allowing Gordon to be an anarchist in refusing to reduce ideas to other social, economic or political forces and to see anarchism as a lived plethora or `network' of ideas and practices in social and historical context. Unfortunately Gordon's historical context does not stretch far enough back into the past and so the novelty of contemporary ideas is overplayed. For example, Gordon argues that "the most prominent feature of the new anarchist formulation [...] is the generalisation of the target of anarchist resistance to all forms of domination in society" (p. 30). This presentism is a standard flaw in contemporary anarchist literature. Anarchism has always been about more than just the state and capitalism. Emma Goldman was a feminist, Reclus an ecologist, Landauer and Rocker were concerned with race and ethnicity. Still, this is not to detract from the force of Gordon's work, only to contextualise it within the dominant discursive frameworks set by Marxism as a way of understanding the left's past.
However, the book is not a history of ideas. It is about how anarchist practice can help us understand and develop anarchist theory. Chapter 3 investigates the ongoing issue of power and authority within the anarchist movement and settles a number of debates in unexpectedly clever ways. For example, Gordon argues that democratic participation is not always a good in itself. Rather, the values of democratic practices need to be understood in context. Protesters cannot always be transparent and not everyone wants to take part, so neither democracy nor transparency is a transcendent good. Gordon claims that while both participatory democracy in anarchist communities and consensus are valuable, they are not imposable because "anarchist organising is built on pure voluntarism" (p. 76). The ethic is clear here, but perhaps he overstates this a little. Gordon discusses how patriarchy clearly affects social dynamics in anarchist groups, and voluntarism in this context is not always possible and not always protected, let alone protested. Anarchist organising is far messier than the concept of voluntarism implies. But this is a minor quibble, born of a rare example of overstatement.
Chapter 4 looks at the issue of violence which, I found interesting to read, is no longer an issue in the movement - it having been settled according to the principle of "diversity of tactics". Still, violence raises important questions about anarchist praxis, which Gordon investigates at length. Here he leans on the concept of prefiguration to understand how to legitimise and understand the rationale behind acts of violence. Again this implies context. Right and wrong can only be understood in context, means are ends in the making, and that there is no mathematical formula for social right, only the constant interpenetration of theory by practice and vice versa.
Chapter 5 looks at technology and its place in society and the movement. One chapter had to come last in terms of how it appealed to me and this was it - though of course the bar had been raised quite high by this point. This may have been because the debate itself is rather tired and we all know the arguments about technology and power, nature and capitalism and so on. Gordon solution is also unsurprising: permaculture, low-tech lifestyles and anarchist principles.
If there is one sticky issue I've always worried about, it is how to support or affect macro-social change as anarchists, and nationalism and self-determination within a statist structure of social relations, the focus of Chapter 6, are a case in point. Again, Gordon's solution is far simpler that I had anticipated and one which makes me so glad that anarchism is in such rude health. Gordon shows that direct action helps in the here and now and that that issues of global politics cannot be lived in micro communities and by activists. Gordon suggests we ought to understand it the other way around. We ought to think about how micro social practices help generate macro change. Thus the importance of thinking about how to organise along anarchist lines. This helps us support the emergence of self-governance and communal modes of emancipation without the need for grand historical blueprints and appeals to mass constituencies. To paraphrase Ghandi, anarchist prefiguration is nourishing the change we want to see in the world within our groups.
In sum, Gordon makes clear that anarchism is all about context and prefiguration and the constant struggle for emancipation from all forms of domination. Anarchism demands and seeks to institute the creation of forms of community and institutions that help us to achieve this without foreclosing on the idea that we may have to change our minds and our institutions as society changes in the future. In fact, as technology and ideas change society we must constantly reflect on the impact of all three on self-governance and structures of exploitation. Theory is important to understand how the world works; but we need to act to make theory truly valuable. But this ought to compel us to be reflective on our practices, implying that anarchism will always be in a process of change. Basically, anarchism is a messy business, but this book has the potential to chart a path through this messiness, and arm us with conceptual and practical clarity at the very least.