Anarchism in a small liberal arts college

Recently I had the pleasure of teaching a section of one of our Honors classes at my university.  This particular class is broken up into four sections with a different instructor assigned to each section.  We are given total freedom to design our topic for our section and for mostly personal reasons I chose – Anarchy!  My personal reasons for choosing anarchy are twofold: 1) I was (and maybe still am) ignorant of the anarchist intellectual tradition.  In other words, I had not read a lot of anarchist work.  2) I wanted to see how much of an anarchist I actually am.  Occasionally, I like to affect a radical posture but when it all goes down (or the bullets start to fly as the case maybe) the sniveling liberal side of me will most likely win out.  Our reading list is below.  I tried to cover the terrain as best as I could for only  four weeks:

“Anarchism” by Kropotkin

Notes on Anarchism by Chomsky

Property and Exchange by Rothbard

Society and Ecology by Bookchin


Two Cheers for Anarchism by Scott

We started with Kropotkin to give us a basic definition and a base to start from.  His definition of anarchism we thought was thorough and useful.  To wit:

The name given to a principle or theory of life and conduct under which society is conceived without government – harmony in such a society being obtained, not by submission to law, or by obedience to any authority, but free agreements concluded between various groups, territorial and professional, freely constituted for the sake of production and consumption, as also for the satisfaction of the infinite variety of needs and aspirations of a civilized being.

This definition gave us an important starting point, namely that anarchism is not chaos, disorder, and violence as may be commonly assumed.  The definition also gave us the theme that I kept coming back too throughout our section which is how necessary is hierarchy?  Can we as human live without hierarchies?  Obviously anarchism says yes but this was the main question we wanted to explore.  For the students, all of them felt that some hierarchies are necessary (e.g. parents over children) but many of them also felt that many of the hierarchies in their (and our – the contemporary U.S.) lives were unjust.  For example, almost all of them agreed with James Scott’s critique of the American education system and its over reliance on standardized tests and squelching of creativity (maybe the perils of high school were still fresh in their minds?).

For myself, I haven’t come up with an adequate answer to the question.  Much of what we read was inspiring (with the exception of Rothbard) and invigorating making me want to head out for the next commune I could find.  On the other hand, I recognize that the state is necessary to carry out certain large scale tasks and (in some instances) justice.  Sometimes the state needs to step in to protect the vulnerable from oppression and violence from others.  The obvious irony here is it is also the state that engages in such oppression and violence often itself.

My tentative takeaway then from my brief study of anarchism is that it is worthwhile to adopt what James Scott calls the “anarchist squint.”  In other words, to look at the world from the anarchist lens to see not only the instances of violence and repression that the state can deliver but also the order than can come from local and vernacular modes.  Scott himself is not a full blown anarchist, his book is called two cheers for anarchism after all, but his way of looking at the world (derived from long time observation and study of peasants and rural communities) is useful to utilize.  It’s not bad to engage in what one of my students called “mild instances of anarchy” just to keep the state honest I suppose.


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