Review: Anarchy alive! Anti-authoritarian politics from practice to theory - Uri Gordon

Despite its interesting account of organisational preoccupations among global protesters, Tom Jennings doubts Anarchy Alive!’s coherence as theory.

Submitted by Tom Jennings on March 1, 2009

Reinventing Wheels. Book review – Tom Jennings
The formidable organising capabilities of the last decade’s global protest networks have helped gather many thousands of folks to disrupt late-capitalism’s world cannibalism junkets – registering spectacularly in the corporate media and making links with an impressive variety of grass-roots groups worldwide.

This book celebrates their achievements as a radical coalescence of single-issue ‘new social movements’, with younger generations of activists graduating from animal rights, anti-nuclear and peace campaigns through environmentalist direct action to the various anti-neoliberal mobilisations at Seattle and thereafter. Many of those involved cite inspiration from libertarian philosophy, and the author plausibly interprets these trends as heir to the sixties countercultures given the complementary focus on ‘alternative’ lifestyles and subcultures. Supporting anthropologist David Graeber’s assessment that this current ‘revival’ represents anarchism’s “real locus of historical dynamism” [1], Uri Gordon proposes that a workable politics can be distilled from dialogues generated among participants in groups engaged in action rather than privileging ideas dispensed by elite intellectuals. Purportedly avoiding vanguardism, theory can subsequently emerge as ‘facilitated consensus’ analogous to the group decision-making processes favoured.

His substantive arguments map the developing ‘Anarchism Reloaded’ as a ‘political culture’ abandoning fixations on the state and capitalism to recognise multiple separate dimensions of domination (based on gender, race, sexuality, etc, as well as class) – whose “family resemblances” require diverse and open-ended resistance via prefigurative direct action connected in “tribal solidarity”. A surprisingly conventional account of interpersonal power relationships, coercion, democracy and accountability follows, concluding that creative blends of initiative, feedback and consensus-seeking counteract authority, hierarchy and centralisation. The book’s second half then tackles topical themes within the milieux, stressing the implications of autonomous networking as the central mode of activity. Yet while valuable in clarifying specific controversies around violence, technology and nationalism, the conclusions drawn scarcely require the conceptual tools elaborated earlier – generally revolving around distinguishing tactics from strategy, with disagreements mirroring pre-existing presumptions and prejudices. Thus, despite grand claims for an overall theoretical framework, Anarchy Alive!’s rather aimless trajectory suggests instead a fetishisation of form comparable to those criticised in classic anarchism, the Left and liberal politics – except that the goal of transcending oppression is now supposedly already achieved through individualistic “pure voluntarism” within and between affinity groups.

Gordon does convincingly capture the fertility of horizontal networks of autonomous collectives in developing novel structures to facilitate action in contemporary contexts where more traditional methods often yield alienated stagnation. However, while reluctant to endorse sectarian divisions between these currents and class-struggle affiliates, he gives serious attention to neither the effects of class nor concrete economic struggles – whereas Ben Franks, for example, seeks common ground [2]. A symptomatic disjunction here may be slippage between concepts of affinity and solidarity – alternately reified or ritualised, but equally taken for granted as unproblematically positive. So distant indigenous movements like the Zapatistas are respected for confronting power with innovative tactics based on organic community bonds, yet the rich and continuing parallel history of communal cultural-political resistance closer to home is ignored. The latter’s failings may be more painfully apparent, whereas romanticising exotic others allows the downplaying of our own biographical roots and embedding in problematic social matrices. This cannot be wished-away by magically reimagining ‘primitive communism’ through rationally-formalised ideal-type group-engineering, any more than meaningful working-class solidarity survives through obsessive-compulsive sloganeering.

But collective action around shared interests doesn’t depend on liking or friendship, so Anarchy Alive!’s appeal to voluntary association as the foundation for liberation seems misplaced if its material preconditions can’t be freely chosen. After all, Western youth subcultures with genuinely oppositional overtones regularly emerge from disempowered lower-class strata, whereupon consumerist recuperation enforces distinctions between vulgar origins and the cultivation of middle-class sensibility. Social positioning, mobility and lifestyle preferences are inextricably intertwined, as are the varied mechanisms of subjugation that successions of liberal apologists (from Rainbow Coalitions to radical democrats with identity politics) insist are essentially unrelated. Poststructuralist insights to the contrary – that the evolution of governance has progressively fragmented operations of disciplinary power and control – are likewise denied in Gordon’s individualistic understanding of domination, which disavows its historical, social and material-discursive dynamics (and helps explain why his treatment of group process is strangely reminiscent of management jargon). In general, solidarity unintentionally narrows to superior sympathy rather than humble empathy, and the here-and-now modelling of personal freedom – at best providing mere glimpses of utopia – risks shading into self-delusional arrogance and patronising charitability towards us abject backward mugs outside the enlightened circle.

Not that the formal-membership anarchist organisations avoid such tendencies – their pronouncements occasionally seeming completely devoid of substance, whereas intermittent more flexible joint operations have looked promising. And if the horizontal interplay of temporary associations correlates with a lively and healthy grassroots public sphere – perhaps too readily assumed even as we’ve witnessed an implacable erosion of community – then this book’s careful delineation of its characteristics and strengths and weaknesses in the specific experiences described could certainly contribute to more effective engagement in other contexts too. However, prefigurative direct action must surely sometimes deal with conflict and difference as a matter of urgency without the luxury of protracted consultation, and furthermore changes of direction with long-term and wide-ranging implications may require general ratification. So federal and assemblyist structures appear inevitable – though such mechanisms should never pre-empt thorough prior deliberation among those affected wherever feasible. Conversely, secession and opting out seem self-indulgent, like voluntary exodus (and summit-hopping tourism) betraying an unwillingness to nurture roots and thrash out collective solutions. But in any case, many situations referenced in Anarchy Alive! already foreshadow productive combinations of autonomy and assembly [3]. Ultimately, whether in miners’ strikes, Reclaim the Streets and Liverpool dockers, anti-Poll Tax campaigns, peasant insurrections or shanty-town movements, social centre coordinations or Coalitions Against Poverty, anarchy is most alive when its proponents immerse themselves in local life while simultaneously pursuing the broadest possible connectivity.

1. David Graeber, ‘The New Anarchists’, New Left Review, 13, 2002 (
2. Ben Franks, Rebel Alliances: The Means and Ends of Contemporary British Anarchisms, AK Press, 2006.
3. other historical and contemporary examples feature in important recent contributions from Paul Mason (Live Working or Die Fighting: How the Working Class Went Global, Vintage, 2008) and Mastaneh Shah-Shuja (Zones of Proletarian Development, OpenMute, 2008).
Uri Gordon, Anarchy Alive! Anti-authoritarian Politics from Practice to Theory, Pluto Press, 2007 (183pp, £15.99).

Book review published in Freedom, Vol. 70, No. 3, February 2009.
For other reviews and essays by Tom Jennings, see: