With Trump attacking “anarchist jurisdictions,” a scholar of anarchism discusses the use and misuse of the A-word.
By Joshua Keating
Anarchism is having a moment—or at least the word is. President Donald Trump spent much of the summer blaming violence at protests around the country on “radical-left anarchists.” His election rival, Joe Biden, has made clear that while he supports peaceful protests, he strongly opposes “anarchists” as well. Some of Trump’s critics have suggested that with his disregard for the norms and institutions of American politics, he’s the real anarchist. The A-word got its most dubious usage in September when Trump released a directive to federal agencies instructing them to find ways to withhold funding for designated “anarchist jurisdictions” like the cities of Portland, Oregon; Seattle; and New York. The memo blamed Democratic city governments for allowing “anarchy, violence, and destruction in America’s cities.”
The designation was immediately met with scorn and ridicule—the three cities are among the safest in the nation, for one thing. But perhaps because of recent state failures, there is something of an anarchist spirit in the air.
In response to the pandemic, “mutual aid” groups—a term originated by the Russian anarchist Peter Kropotkin—took off in cities throughout the world to deliver services to those in need. Activists in Seattle maintained a police-free “autonomous zone” for several weeks. Leaderless protest movements are on the rise, while once-radical ideas for limiting the state’s power, like defunding police forces and abolishing prisons, are gaining mainstream acceptance.
To discuss what anarchism really means, I spoke with James C. Scott, a professor of political science and anthropology at Yale. Scott has applied an “anarchist squint” to politics and the study of peasant and nomadic societies in books like the classic Seeing Like a State and his recent critical history of agriculture, Against the Grain. In his 2014 book Two Cheers for Anarchism, he makes the case for an anarchist approach to both political activism and everyday life. We discussed the recent protests, how anarchism got such a bad name, and whether anarchism could ever get a Bernie Sanders–style rebranding. This conversation has been edited and condensed for length and clarity.
Joshua Keating: When you look at the leaderless anti-racist protest movements we’ve seen in recent months, or the autonomous zones that have appeared in a couple of cities, do you see those as examples of anarchist practice?
James Scott: Yes. I think when Trump talks about antifa [the commonly used shorthand for anti-fascist activists], he imagines, I suppose, a kind of organization that is plotting and then directing from some command structure, telling its minions to go out and do this or that.
It seems to me that when you look at almost all of modern—and I mean modern going back to the French Revolution—progressive movements, social uprisings, almost all of them begin as grassroots phenomena without any leadership, or a leadership that grows organically from the streets.
By and large, it’s not organizations that start movements. It’s movements that, by their activity and growth, then precipitate out, if you like. Organizations then carry a legislative or an actual program forward, but the organizations are the product of an eruption of anger.
That was true for the civil rights movement with [the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee]. It was true for all the wildcat strikes during the New Deal as well. It wasn’t unions that created those strikes—they erupted against union instructions by and large.
Why do you think there’s this persistent use of anarchist as an epithet?
I suppose it’s two things. One of them, of course, is that it’s not as if there wasn’t, historically, a section of anarchism did believe in violence. The “anarchists of the deed” had this idea that if you bombed train stations and prime ministers and parliaments and command structures of the military and so on, you could destroy the state. So it’s not as if it there isn’t a grain of truth about the history of anarchism deploying violence in a strategic way. But today it has just become a synonym for violence and chaos and the absence of order. It’s a product, if you like, of a kind of a capitalist mindset, especially when it comes to the destruction of property.
How did your interest in anarchism first develop?
In two stages, I suppose. I used to teach courses on theories of peasant revolution. And there was a time when I worshipped at the altar of Ho Chi Minh and Mao and Sékou Touré and so on. And it dawned on me, of course, by looking more closely at them, and actually then reading a tremendous amount about the French Revolution and the Bolshevik Revolution, that most revolutions ended up installing a state that was more oppressive than the state that they had destroyed. So, that was bracing.
Then, when I was teaching courses on social change, I found myself saying things, which, in the back of my head, I thought, Hmm, that sounds like what an anarchist would say. And it happened enough times that I decided, well, I better make sure. I better teach a couple of courses on anarchism and read all the classics. And so that’s how I came to make a deeper dive, if you like, into the arguments against the state for anarchism.
But, as you know, the reason my book is called Two Cheers is because there are aspects of anarchism that I don’t agree with.
So you wouldn’t describe yourself as an anarchist?
No, you could say I’m a sympathizer. The problem is that while in most people’s mouths it’s just a synonym for chaos and violence, in fact, etymologically, it just means a kind of order without hierarchy. It seems to me that describes many of the most progressive and important structures of social protests historically.
In your book, you write a lot about figures like Martin Luther King and Jane Jacobs as examples of anarchist practice, even though people wouldn’t normally identify them—and they wouldn’t identify themselves—as anarchists. Are there more traditional anarchist movements we can learn from?
Of course, during the Spanish Civil War, the Republican side was identifiably, in large parts, an anarchist movement emphasizing local autonomy and so on. The only postwar example that I think is extremely important is the Solidarity movement in Poland [in the 1980s]. It never had a centralized leadership. It depended on both rural and urban and labor and the middle class coming together voluntarily. And because of the widespread hatred for martial law under [President Wojciech] Jaruzelski, it was a tremendous success. That was a successful, peaceful, and anarchist revolution in the full meaning of the term.
Can you explain what you mean by the “anarchist squint”?
The point of the anarchist squint is to show how much social action actually depends on this heterogeneous coming together of people whose anger has many of the same targets. This action depends on popular improvisation by a large number of people who don’t have the same objectives in mind, nor a formal means of agreeing on exactly what to do.
I think, for example, of things like desertions from Napoleon’s army, or by poor white soldiers from the Confederate forces during the Civil War—people defected as whole units. The same is true for squatting. Squatters don’t announce their objectives. They just squat and then maybe move out when they’re threatened and then move back again.
The Black Lives Matter movement now has spokesmen we can listen to on the cable news. But Black Lives Matter was precipitated out of Black anger on the streets over time. And the formal organization is a product of an improvised explosion of anger.
Over the years you’ve been teaching these topics, have you noticed an increasing interest in anarchism?
I haven’t taught formal anarchism for some time, but when I taught the course, I was astounded by the number of people who turned up. I used to say during those three years during which I taught courses on anarchism, if you dropped a bomb on my class, you would have destroyed the Yale undergraduate left.
And now I think it’s actually partly because people are particularly concerned about the technology for state control through the use of personal information. I think we know a fair amount about how far this is going in China, with facial recognition technology and so on, in the Uighur areas. So people are paying attention, if you like, to Leviathan.
And now it seems to me that the kind of control that the state has at its command is far more granular and microtargeted.
Is there a way to rehabilitate anarchism for the general public?
I guess one reason why you called me is the way in which anarchism has just become an insult to hurl, and it’s actually quite effective. It’s not as if I imagine I’m going to take the rest of the American public to a little seminar for three hours and convince them that anarchism isn’t such a bad thing, even if there’s more of an appetite now.
It’s a little like the process by which Eastern European command economies gave socialism a bad name, and then it became an insult. In fact, much of what the public would like to have happen in public life, in terms of legislation and security and so on, has historically gone under the name of socialism. And yet when you call it socialism, it implies that thought control and a command economy and everybody telling you what to do. Whereas capitalism still has a relatively good name, to the point where Elizabeth Warren calls herself a capitalist.
Well, that raises the question. There’s been a rehabilitation of socialism’s brand in American politics lately, thanks to Bernie Sanders and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and others. Could there ever be a “Democratic Anarchists of America”?
[Laughs] There could be, but as you appreciate, democratic socialism is not a contradiction in terms. A formal organization called the Democratic Anarchists of America is at the edge of being self-contradictory: The “president of the Anarchist Association” and the “board of trustees of the Anarchist Association of America”—it somehow doesn’t sound right. It’s better as a practice than as a label.