Anarchish: James C. Scott’s “Two Cheers for Anarchism”

By Malcolm HarrisNovember 7, 2012

    Two Cheers for Anarchism: Six Easy Pieces on Autonomy, Dignity, and Meaningful Work and Play by James C. Scott. Princeton University Press. 198 pages.

    SEPTEMBER 12, 2012 WAS SUPPOSED TO BE a day of reckoning on the left: best-selling liberal author Chris Hedges would finally be called to account for his opportunistic attack on anarchists within Occupy Wall Street. In a piece posted widely around the progressive internet press, Hedges called Black Bloc protesters — a reference to people associated with small-scale property destruction who show up to marches all in black — "the cancer of the Occupy movement," asserting that the movement would be better off turning window breakers over to the police. After a few aborted attempts, Hedges would sit down to defend himself mano a mano against a bona fide anarchist in front of a large audience at the CUNY Graduate Center. Brian Traven sat on the other side of Hedges: a member of the anti-authoritarian publishing collective CrimethInc., an organization associated more with the image of smashed Seattle Starbucks locations than any of their actual texts.    

    But while the crowd showed up ready for a clash of rhetorics and ideologies, the event was in fact characterized by deference and agreement. While Hedges barely deigned to address his opponent, Traven was hardly the aggressive bomb-thrower some spectators expected. He had the patience, good faith, and white-boy dreads of a yoga instructor, responding calmly and concisely to Hedges's points and taking care not to speak on behalf of anyone else. His lines about treating other protesters with respect, not using eliminationist language, and people having control over the decisions that affect them went over well with a crowd that ranged from jeering communists to scandalized Democrats. I'm not sure anyone left the auditorium with their mind changed about the tactical viability of property destruction; had there been a poll after the debate about who won, the result would have been a dead heat. If the event proved anything, it's that in the wake of OWS, the appeal of anarchism has come a long way since CrimethInc. published the anti-globalization crust-punk Bible Days of War/Nights of Love 12 years ago. Consensus and twinkle fingers aren't just for kids with Crass patches any more.

    It's in this situation, with the anarchist position apparently rehabilitated for reasonable leftists, that a book like James C. Scott's Two Cheers for Anarchism: Six Easy Pieces on Autonomy, Dignity, and Meaningful Work and Play seems to make sense. With the “A” on its cover circled in red (a symbol first used in 1868 by the Federal Council of Spain but popularized in Italy in the late 1960s), Two Cheers might at first appear to be preaching to the converted, but in fact it's an attempt to explain and advocate for an anarchist perspective to a readership not already disposed to smash the state (as the title's echo of E.M. Forster's 1938 slogan "two cheers for democracy" may be meant to signal). That Scott, an anthropology professor at Yale, even took the time to put these (admittedly disorganized) fragments of thought into book form suggests that he thinks there are people who could be convinced to adopt what he describes as an "anarchist squint" at the world. Touching all the familiar progressive touchstones (the Civil Rights Movement, the New Deal) along the way, Scott makes the case for everyday insubordination and disregard for the rules in pursuit of freedom and justice.

    But rule breaking and insubordination aren't, in and of themselves, anarchist, and neither is Scott. Instead, Two Cheers is the best articulation of an inconsistent mode of thinking that has earned the deserved ire of committed leftists of many stripes. Espousing a philosophy that's one part Bush Administration "ownership society," one part Apple "think different," Scott represents the other side of the Hedges coin: the latter would eliminate revolutionary anarchists by excision, the former by assimilation into liberal-progressive narratives. In Scott's hands, anarchism is not an insurrectionary politics but a self-help strategy, a personal faith that promises a freer and more productive life.

    Scott explains his position on revolutionary anarchism clearly in the book's preface:

    I believe that both theoretically and practically, the abolition of the state is not an option. We are stuck, alas, with Leviathan, though not at all for the reasons Hobbes had supposed, and the challenge is to tame it. That challenge may well be beyond our reach.

    His regretful acquiescence does not distinguish the author from most Americans, as the Congressional approval rate hits an all time low of 10 percent. It’s a long-standing premise of American politics that the only thing worse than having a government is not having a government. But if the abolition of the state isn't even theoretically an option for Scott, then Two Cheers isn't about anarchy or even anarchism so much as an anarchist-type attitude: it's not anarchist but anarchish. This is anarchism, in other words, in the mold of reform Judaism: show up for some holidays (marches) and try to live a good anarchist life, and you can feel comfortable with the expectation that if the messiah does ever happen to arrive, you'd find yourself on the right side of divine judgment. If you're unable to tell the difference between your behavior and that of your more genteel gentile neighbors, name them honorary anarchists. But don't hold your breath, or rearrange your life, waiting for a prophet you don't really expect to show.

    It's hard to find a line that would distinguish Scott from the kind of Democrat that Bhaskar Sunkara, writing at Dissent, has called an "anarcho-liberal," one "who can neither manage the capitalist state nor overcome it, and aspires to do both and neither at the same time." In Two Cheers not only does Scott transmute anarchism into twentieth century liberal progressivism, he claims that anarchists make the best progressives of all. Speaking of the Civil Rights activists of the 1960s, for instance, he writes that,

    immanent in their willingness to break the law was not so much a desire to sow chaos as a compulsion to instate a more just legal order. To the extent that our current rule of law is more capacious and emancipatory than its predecessors were, we owe much of that gain to lawbreakers.

    These conclusions put Scott right in the ideological neighborhood of legal scholar and Obama appointee Cass Sunstein, who writes in Why Societies Need Dissent, that "[w]e can even see the beneficial role of misfits and malcontents, who perform a public service in getting otherwise neglected materials and perspectives to others."

    In an attempt to craft an unobjectionable anarchism, Scott reaches way too far into the mainstream American symbol bag. Wedging Martin Luther King Jr. and Franklin Roosevelt into an ostensibly anarchist thesis because they modulated their rhetoric and actions according to crowd response isn't just an unreasonable expansion of the term, it's condescendingly unserious. It’s hard to imagine from the cover that Scott’s book would contain the line “in certain circumstances elites work very hard […] to harmonize their message with the wishes and tastes of their listeners and spectators” in a positive context, but there it is. In trying to link the rejection of authority to effective leadership, the author crosses into "counter-intuitive management techniques" territory; he's taking a tradition based on the imagination of a life without authority and fashioning a guide on how to win friends and influence people.

    Anarchism, for Scott, seems to be a way to rephrase familiar entrepreneurial desires as a sort of counter-intuitive leftism. In the chapter "Two Cheers for the Petty Bourgeoisie," Scott tries to redeem a class that he sees as unfairly maligned by Marxists. On the contrary, he writes, "the petite bourgeoisie and small property in general represent a precious zone of autonomy and freedom in state systems increasingly dominated by large public and private bureaucracies." The author takes pains to distinguish himself from so-called anarcho-capitalists with their belief in free enterprise, but in his love for shopkeepers and peasants, he makes a common anarchist mistake by treating state oppression differently than other forms of domination. That Scott is able to see the petty bourgeoisie as relatively benign because "the exploitation they practice is largely confined to the patriarchal family" betrays a cruel calculus that assigns a small property holder's autonomy more weight than his wife and children's. Whereas someone like John Berger might occasionally romanticize peasant life from an anarchist perspective, as in his Into Their Labors trilogy, he's always keenly aware that anarchists’ toilsome existence is a historical phenomenon. Scott, on the other hand, concocts an idealized Frankenstein class by picking and choosing aspects from three centuries worth of social archetypes.

    To lump into a single sub-class tenant farmers, Gypsies, and migrant laborers with artisans, small independent professionals, and smallholder farmers, as Scott does, without bringing up the ways race and gender slice through the abstraction, is irresponsible; to say that “what they all have in common […] is that they are largely in control of their working day and work with little or no supervision” is an overstatement. While the white male petty bourgeoisie is characterized by rugged independence, the jobs or roles coded as female, black, and brown don't hold the same allure. When the author favorably compares the life of a petty bourgeoisie to that of a clerk at Home Depot, the day laborers waiting outside the store suddenly fall out of the former category; the enclosure of common lands introduced an assimilating desperation that goes unaccounted for. In his attempt to outmaneuver orthodox Marxism, Scott jams together the petite bourgeoisie and the lumpenproletariat into some bizarre entrepreneurial superclass meant to rival the proletariat for hegemony. But beware the professor who admires his gardener's autonomy.

    When Scott does find an effective model for thinking about how life might be lived without authority, he lands in symbolic territory already well trod by actual anti-statists. In one fragment, Scott hits on the idea of the playground as metaphor for, and instance of, anarchist sociality, concluding that open environments with minimal supervision make for the best play. He touches on the playground example just enough to make his point, but the 2010 zine negate politics//affirm cuteness takes the concept of "playground anarchism" as a premise for further thought. While Scott glosses over, ignores, or resolves the antagonisms of free, unsupervised play ("Quarreling and a number of raids to plunder tools and material broke out […] But after only a few days many of the youngsters organized a 'salvage drive' to recover the materials and set up a system for sharing"), the anonymous writers of affirm cuteness recognize that "[c]hasing, wrestling and pouncing upon a playmate, breaking, smashing, and tearing apart things are all aspects of play that is free of rules." It does not occur to Scott to question the legitimacy of the "salvage drive," as some of the children no doubt did, or to consider the political efficacy of the most universal of playground utterances: "Fight!" Such a smoothing over of contradictions is the difference between a simple and simplistic narrative; "everyone decided to share and they were all better off" is a lie adults tell to children, not politics. Politics is the struggle between friends and enemies, and there's always a loser.

    To fighting, whether physical or intellectual, Scott prefers "Infrapolitics" — his neologism, first adopted in his anthropological work, for "such acts as foot-dragging, poaching, pilfering, dissimulation, sabotage, desertion, absenteeism, squatting, and flight:" a category of disorganized and individual resistance that, he's right to say, standard political histories often miss. But because this is a self-help book, he focuses on those actions — like poaching from enclosed lands or fragging a reckless officer — that offer an immediate benefit or relief to the actor. Scott's anarchists, in other words, are driven by maximization principles, not passions like desire or hate.

    Compare these examples of infrapolitics to the story of Jamal Thomas as related in the pamphlet Union of Arsonists, put out by The Phoenix Class War Council. Thomas was a Domino's Pizza employee who was unjustly fired after being mugged on the job. When he recovered from his injuries, Thomas went from one Domino's location to another in his old uniform, claiming to be an inspector, and proceeded to burn them all down. His sabotage actions don't fit into Scott's narrative, because it's hard to imagine how they'd benefit him, or lead to anything resembling progress: Domino's being much more likely to upgrade their fire insurance than reassess employee grievance procedures. Although Scott mentions episodes of structural change marked by "riots, attacks on property, unruly demonstrations, theft, arson, and open defiance," such revolutionary instances are neither theoretically or practically his concern. Like neoliberalism itself, Scott’s “infrapolitics” are anchored in an everlasting capitalist present, which can’t comprehend an attack on its very premises.

    If, as the maxim goes, there are no revolutionaries before the revolution, then by the same token there are no anarchists before anarchy either. This is what happens when you try and live like an anarchist under capitalist liberal democracy: you get Scott, or you get Hedges. Either your resistance teaches new tricks and lends legitimacy to the structures you detest, or you get cut out like a cancer, regardless of your supposed rights. Netroots and Kickstarter or batons and pepper spray: if the capitalism doesn't get you, the riot police will. All too often it's both: the occupations got clubbed out of the parks into the ballot booths; Pussy Riot landed themselves in prison and Hot Topic simultaneously. Scott says nothing about how to live under such intolerable circumstances, or how to bring them to an end, though he does allude vaguely to some future time when we might need something more than infrapolitics.

    To this end, Two Cheers for Anarchism starts with what this reader hopes is a self-consciously goofy proposal called "Scott's Law of Anarchist Calisthenics." It's an exercise cribbed without attribution from social psychologist Philip Zimbardo's own self-help manual The Lucifer Effect — a book whose detailed and pragmatic instructions on how not to accidentally become a Nazi make it substantially more useful for life under capitalism than Two Cheers. Scott tells the story of living in newly reunified Germany and crossing against the light on his daily walk. While he disobeyed this most trivial of regulations, Scott would repeat a mantra to himself:

    You know, you and especially your grandparents could have used more of a spirit of lawbreaking. One day you will be called on to break a big law in the name of justice and rationality. Everything will depend on it. You have to be ready. How are you going to prepare for that day when it really matters? You have to stay "in shape" so that when the big day comes you will be ready. What you need is ‘anarchist calisthenics.’ Every day or so break some trivial law that makes no sense, even if it's only jaywalking. Use your own head to judge whether a law is just or reasonable. That way you'll keep trim; and when the big day comes, you'll be ready.

    But while Scott waits by the phone, it's been ringing off the hook. The spirit of anarchy is ancient: Milton imagines Lucifer’s rebellion occurring before the birth of man, and Hesiod and Aeschylus put Prometheus’s insubordination soon after. To wait for "one day [when] you will be called on" is antithetical to the anarchist tradition's proudly existential tendencies; an anarchist is always already called. There is no ideology with a longer continuous legacy than anarchism, precisely because would-be anarchists have been compelled to break big laws at all the wrong times, knowing full well that history watches through the rear-view mirror and the right time is only ever recognizable in retrospect.

    The missing link between Scott's anarchist calisthenics and the day when breaking a big law might matter is the real movement which abolishes the present state of things — about which Two Cheers for Anarchism says nothing. Though it shares a family resemblance with the passive-aggressive rebellion that interests Scott, revolutionary politics requires the drawing of lines of antagonism through the here and now. Not just through the designation of illegitimate authorities, but also the identification of comrades and contestation across the divide. It's the difference between a politics and an opinion.

    What the sky will look like on the big day, Scott doesn't reveal. In the meantime, he's just a guy walking to work faster.


    LARB Contributor

    Malcolm Harris is an editor at The New Inquiry and a freelance writer. He lives in Brooklyn.


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