Anarchism: A Radical Critique of Modernity





“This is how one perceives the angel of history.  His face is towards the past.  Where we perceive a chain of events, he sees one catastrophe, which keeps piling wreckage upon wreckage and hurls it in front of his feet.  The angel would like to stay, awaken the dead, and make whole what has been smashed.  But a storm is blowing from Paradise; it has got caught in his wings with such violence that the angel can no longer close them.  This storm irresistibly propels him into the future to which his back is turned, while the pile of debris before him grows skyward.  This storm is what we call progress.”
Walter Benjamin, “Theses on the Philosophy of History

The social science I hope to encourage has three essential elements:
  1. a vision of a future;
  2. a critique of existing circumstances, and
  3. a way to get from the existing to the future through our actions (praxis).
As I stated in in the entry to my blog "Doing Modernity" “Towards a Critical Analysis of Modernity” (May 9, 2008) a central goal of social science is to be able to critically examine the structures and processes of modern social life:
“In examining social life, I try to imagine what type of society would allow the most people to reach their full potentiality.  …  In looking at the society in which we live, I want to expose the ways in which so many people’s potentiality is squashed and severely limited.  I want to have a vision of a better society and urge us all to become social change agents, who work toward making the world a better place for us all to life in.” 
Recently a long-lost friend from high school saw on my facebook page my political views described as “very progressive, if not anarchist” and wrote to me asking when did I become an anarchist. I hope to lay down some notes here answering that question.

I understand her concern.  To most Americans, anarchists are bomb-throwing kooks bent on the destruction of “our way of life”.  The media constantly circulates images of “anarchy” as destructive chaos, and “anarchists” as terrorists.  So why would anyone use that term to describe their own political views?

When I began graduate school in 1983 I was drawn to sociology’s ability to “critique” modern ways of life, and I spent several years immersed in “critical social theory”–that line of thinking begining with Karl Marx and Frederick Engels’s radical examination of capitalism in the 1840s, and continuing over the next 150 years with many great thinkers including Georg Lukasc, Antonio Gramsci, Theodor Adorno, Walter Benjamin, Herbert Marcuse, etc.  Capitalism is seen as an inherently flawed economic system in which the poor are exploited to serve the interests of the ruling elite.  Marx and Engels argued that history is largely about class struggles.
There are still many great marxian-inspired writers I am interested in, including Perry Anderson, Robin Blackburn, Tariq Ali, Mike Davis, Goran Therborn, Jurgen Habermas, Stuart Hall, Frederic Jameson, Immanuel Wallerstein, Slavoj Zizek, Terry Eagleton, etc.  Unlike some anarchist thinkers, I do not find dialogue with these writers a waste of time, and find much of value in them for my explorations of political economy, ideological domination, or other critical concerns.

Throughout my blog, I have advocated an approach called “critical interactionism“, which I envision as a microsociology of everyday life in which focus is on processes of domination and liberation, and other concerns derived from critical social theory.  Unfortunately, in the critical social theory I learned in graduate schoool there was never any talk of anarchism.  It was only outside the classroom that I began to be exposed to the ideas of Peter Kropotkin, Mikhail Bakunin, Emma Goldman and other great “classical” anarchist thinkers.  Indeed, there is a great body of anarchist thinking and praxis, both classical and modern, whose work is very worthy of being included in the canon of critical social theory.  Noam Chomsky certainly stands out as one of the greatest anarchist thinkers of our era, and in this blog I have already urged reading his prolific works.
I have added a large number of other anarchist writers to my reading lists, including Howard Zinn, Paul Goodman, Todd May, Saul Newman, John Moore, Jason Adams, Jason McQuinn, Bob Black, Murrary Bookchin, Guy Debord, Voltairine de Cleyre, William Godwin, Errico Malatesta, Fredy Perlman, Max Stirner, John Zerzan, CrimethInc., and David Graeber.

The radical sociology of the 1970s and 1980s drew upon “New Left” thinkers whose work was indebted to a dialogue with Marxism (e.g., E.P. Thompson, T.B. Bottomore, etc.).  With the fall of state socialism, the tide turned, and Marxism lost some of its hold on academic thought.  While there is much to be learned from Marx’s materialist approach to history and critique of capitalism, over time I began to see Marxism as “authoritarian socialism”, for reasons I will explain below.  I believe that anarchism has much to offer the radical sociology of the twenty-first century.  I have come to see anarchism as “libertarian socialism”.

Why do we need anarchism?  I think that humanity is in a very grave situation–perhaps the gravest situation we have even been in as a species.  As I survey modern life on our planet, I see massive social problems:
  • 40-50 million American living below the poverty level;
  • 18 million people starving to death each year across the globe;
  • the planet being ruined by global warming, industrial waste, etc.;
  • an economy which is made to serve the top 20%;
  • lifestyles centered around mass consumption;
  • a mass psychology of misery and alienation;
The central institutions of modernity, including capitalism, patriarchy, industrialization, rationalization, and urbanization have made our lives a total mess.  I don’t know how long we will be able to sustain ourselves in this way of life.  I want intellectual tools that can help us to understand these problems and their interrelations.  And I want a vision of a better society. 
Anarchism as Vision, Critique and Praxis
Anarchism as a term means “no state” or “no rulers”, and anarchists are generally against all organized governments, and the power that they have over us.  Anarchism is a vision of a future without domination, a critique of hierarchical forms of social organization, and a mode of praxis guiding us on how we are to move forward in the present moment.
Anarchism provides a critique of all forms of domination.  While classical Marxism provided much insight into the machinations of capitalism and class domination, it bought into an acceptance of the ability of the State to serve the needs of a populace.  Moreover, issues of gender inequality, racism, ecological ruin, homophobia, etc. have lead me to think that rather than attempting to salvage Marxism, we need a theoretical approach inherently concerned with all forms of oppression.  Anarchism, I believe, can allow us to examine all aspects of modernity, including many that are ignored by other strands of critical social theory.  Anarchism questions the very premises of modernity, including our notions of progress, rationality, civilization, democracy, freedom and justice.

Anarchism is not merely a critique of domination in modern society.  It provides a vision of what human beings are capable of becoming, how we might organize our lives and how our potential is squashed by hierarchical social relationships.  Anarchism is a vision of a social world in which each person actively participates directly in the decisions that affect their own everyday lives.  It is a vision of society without authority.

Some key ideas of anarchism include:
  1. mutual aid;
  2. decentralization;
  3. voluntary association;
  4. network model;
  5. consensus decision-making;
  6. rejection of the idea that ends justify the means;
  7. direct action
Of course, there are many different definitions of these terms and many different varieties of anarchism, and not all would agree with my listing above.  We live in a times in which, finally, there are healthy debates in a lively anarchist political movement.


Anarchist modes of praxis involve “walking the talk”.  This means that we cannot achieve liberating and non-hierarchical goals through oppressive and non-consensus forms of organizing.  Anarchists, unlike some other radical perspectives, do not simply hope to grab power and force their way of doing things on others.  Anarchism provides a way to move forward through voluntary association, consensus decision-making, decentralized and non-hierarchal organization.  “How we get there” is very important!  Moreover, there is a carnivalesque, Dionysian, and celebratory aspect of much of the contemporary anarchist social movement, in which politics is often infused with performance, poetry and parade.

As I have stated, I have come to see Marxism as “authoritarian socialism”, not only because of Marx’s ideas about the potential benevolence of the State, and his trust that the “dictatorship of the proletariat” would eventually whither away.  Marx’s personal behavior at The First Internationalin 1872, in which he secretly had Mikhail Bakunin expelled, reveals an authoritarian personality. Bakunin rightly saw Marx as a genius and took much from his materialist conception of history.  But Bakunin also thought that Marx’s communism would lead to “red bureaucracy”. One only need look at the USSR and Eastern Europe in the 1980s to see Bakunin’s insights into Marx’s communism.



When I taught at UC-Santa Cruz (1990-1992) I got turned on to the writings of Murray Bookchin and the social ecologists.  Later, I was greatly impressed by Hakim Bey’s The Temporary Autonomous Zone(1985), John Zerzan’s Future Primitive(1994).  Recently, I read David Graeber’s Fragments of an Anarchist Anthropology(2004).  There have been numerous recent adventures into post-anarchism (Hakim Bey), post-structuralist anarchism (Todd May) and postmodern anarchism (Lewis Call).  Take some time to explore some of the links (the links have been eliminated but are easily googled) below, which give a sampling of some current work in anarchism.  Have fun!


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