Book Review

“Anarchy for Beginners”

Two Cheersa review by Keith Woodhouse

Two Cheers for Anarchism: Six Easy Pieces on Autonomy, Dignity, and Meaningful Work and Play
By James C. Scott
198 pages. Princeton University Press, 2012.

James Scott has written a small book about a big topic. Two Cheers For Anarchism: Six Easy Pieces on Autonomy, Dignity, and Meaningful Work and Play is a collection of six loosely related chapters, each made up of loosely related sections that Scott calls “fragments.” All of these fragments add up to an argument for a citizenry less bound by rules and more willing to interrogate them. In both its content and its structure, the book questions rigid systems of order.

Scott calls for neither revolution nor reform; his book is unusual in that it is concerned with anarchism but not with the structure of government (or with dismantling that structure). Instead, Scott argues for an anarchistic sensibility in how we act and think day-to-day. “What I aim to show” he writes, “is that if you put on anarchist glasses and look at the history of popular movements, revolutions, ordinary politics, and the state from that angle, certain insights will appear that are obscured from almost any other angle.” (p. xii) Those insights, Scott claims, can be put into action in seemingly mundane ways that are in fact deeply meaningful. Scott makes a practice of crossing the street against red lights if no cars (and no children) are in the vicinity. “One day you will be called on to break a big law in the name of justice and rationality,” he imagines himself telling those who pointlessly wait at the curb. “Every day or so” he advises, “break some trivial law that makes no sense, even if it’s only jaywalking… That way, you’ll keep trim; and when the big day comes, you’ll be ready.” He calls this “anarchist calisthenics.” (pp. 4-5)

At this point we are talking about anarchism in only the broadest possible sense. A general spirit of skepticism and disobedience is far from a coherent political theory; there are plenty of people with “Question Authority” bumper stickers who might be described as anarchistish but not as anarchist. Scott goes further, though. He argues that lawbreaking is not only a useful ethos but also a crucial means of achieving progressive change in democratic societies. In moments of significant reform, Scott says, like the 1930s and 1960s, institutions – governments, certainly, but also unions and left-wing political parties – have never led the way but instead have followed the lead of spontaneous and grassroots uprisings. Democratic progress has generally rested on “major episodes of extra-institutional disorder,” a fact “in contrast to the promise of democracy as the institutionalization of peaceful change.” (pp. 18-19) If you are willing to defy red lights, you will be more willing to defy social injustice.

Most people, though, remain curbside. Why are people so unwilling to break rules, even when doing so makes sense? In answering this question, Scott speaks in terms more familiar to anyone who has read his Seeing Like A State. The last three centuries, Scott explains, have witnessed the triumph of standardized “lansdscapes of control” over vernacular practices. From the assembly line to official naming systems, national law, centrally planned neighborhoods and towns, and large-scale irrigation and electrification projects, the state and other large, hierarchical organizations have sought to make places and processes more legible from a modernist perspective, and so easier to order. Even more insidiously, authority-driven institutions like schools, factories, and offices have lulled people into passivity and drained them of the sort of spontaneity and cooperative spirit valued by not only anarchists but liberal democratic theorists as well.

What to do? One answer is to keep up the lawbreaking by crossing against the light and relying on one’s own judgment rather than on a preprogrammed system that takes no account of actual traffic conditions. Another answer is to build self-reliance into the traffic system’s own rules. Scott describes the sort of spontaneous order beloved of all anarchists when he tells the story of Drachten, the Netherlands, where in 2003 an engineer removed traffic lights from the city’s busiest intersection, leading to fewer accidents and less delay as drivers paid more attention to other vehicles and began to think for themselves instead of simply waiting for red to turn green.

Still another answer is to argue, frequently and passionately. For Scott, few things erode democracy more than quantitative measurements that stifle discussion and purport to bring objective clarity to subjective concerns. Reducing complex questions to numbers, the way that cost-benefit analyses do, leads to “the spurious depoliticization of momentous decisions” and robs the public of one of the things that anarchists value most: the investment and engagement that comes from civic participation. Scott describes this sort of participation as “politics, conflict, and debate, and the perpetual uncertainty and learning they entail.” (p. xiii) Quantitative measurements like standardized testing, the reduction of non-economic amenities to dollar figures, and citation indices used to determine tenure awards (a closer-to-home issue for academics, and one that Scott dwells on at length), all stifle debate, discussion, and the consideration of alternate points of view. Such measurements click red, yellow, or green, frustrating thought and encouraging an obedience to numbers.

Two Cheers For Anarchism is smart, and thoughtful, and fun, and well worth reading. It is a good example of how a scholar can write something that is short, light, and substantive. But it’s not, in the end, about anarchism. Scott wants us to talk, to argue, to exchange ideas, and to engage in the back-and-forth of democratic deliberation; it’s one thing, though, to advocate open debate among citizens, and another to figure out exactly how that sort of debate could happen in a relatively egalitarian and participatory manner, a question at the heart of anarchist theory. In awarding tenure, for instance, Scott grants that even qualitative evaluations are in no sense a pure determination of a candidate’s merits. “I entertain few illusions about the typical quality of that dialogue,” he writes. “Are there interests and power relations at play? You bet. They’re ubiquitous.” (p. 122) He seems willing to accept this ubiquity. And of course whatever interests and power relations are at work in the tenure process are child’s play compared to the interests and power relations present in the legislative process. For that reason among others, to most anarchists representative democracy – which Scott stubbornly holds to – is a system so rife with hierarchy, inequity, and corruption as to be nearly useless. This is why anarchists have traditionally considered voting “an act that betrays freedom, both symbolically and actually,” in the words of anarchist scholar George Woodcock.[i] Representative democracy is far too indirect for anarchist theorists, who are therefore always concerned with questions of scale – something that Scott does not address. There are few if any anarchists who believe that their own ideals could work in a community of over 300 million people. Small, for anarchists, is beautiful.

Even direct democracy, though, presents problems for anarchists. Take away the power of representatives and the favoritism and corruption that such power fosters and replace it with direct, majority-rules democracy, and anarchists would still not give their assent. Not that anyone would ask for it, and that’s the point; the belief that the authority of democratic government comes from the consent of the governed assumes that every citizen is asked, regularly, whether they approve of the government in place. But they aren’t, even though many would say they don’t. Majoritarian systems of democracy are those in which it is possible to be coerced, again and again, into following policies and principles that you are against, with the cold comfort that at least you got to cast a losing vote.

Scott knows this. He makes clear from the beginning that he is neither a zealous anarchist nor even a consistent one (thus, only two cheers). He describes himself as “[l]acking a comprehensive anarchist worldview and philosophy,” and admits that not only does he disagree with the view that the state is inevitably the enemy of freedom but in fact believes that government can, in certain circumstances, expand freedom. (Scott offers as evidence the role of the National Guard in protecting black students from angry white mobs in Little Rock, Arkansas in the 1950s. But then, it was government that created Jim Crow segregation in the first place). (pp. xii-xiv) To believe that government can act in an emancipatory manner is to disavow the most fundamental – and defining – claim of anarchism.

“All anarchists deny authority; many of them fight against it,” George Woodcock writes. “But by no means all who deny authority and fight against it can reasonably be called anarchists.”[ii] This is not just a matter of semantics. Anarchism is inherently radical; Scott’s prescriptions are not. In fact, Scott advocates extra-legal actions and anti-hierarchical grassroots movements primarily as a means of advancing reform through conventional democratic institutions, and so buttressing those institutions. There is no call to end the state because, in the end, the state is Scott’s mechanism of choice for achieving justice. Nor does Scott question modern society’s commitments to property, majoritarian democracy, and technology, as did classic anarchist theorists like Proudhon, Kropotkin, and Bakunin and twentieth-century anti-statist publications like Fifth Estate and Green Anarchy.

The fact that Two Cheers For Anarchism is diametrically opposed to some of the most essential tenets of anarchism does not mean it doesn’t take its subject seriously. Many political philosophers are interested in anarchist criticisms; few are interested in anarchist prescriptions. It is possible, as Scott demonstrates, to believe that anarchists are on to something when they raise their fists in anger and still believe that they are missing the point when they clap their hands in approval. Anarchists might argue that crossing against red lights leads to fighting against unjust laws and that fighting against unjust laws leads inexorably to questioning the legitimacy of the state. To abandon this logic anywhere along they way, they might say, is to remain willfully ignorant. And they would have a point – Scott’s implicit line in the sand beyond which he is not willing to advocate extra-legal action is, finally, arbitrary. But then anarchists generally refuse to offer any sort of blueprint for what might come after the revolution, so they are not in a position to accuse anyone else of lacking precision.

Two Cheers For Anarchism does not attempt to make grand claims or offer final answers. It is a brief and thoughtful discussion of how the ethos of anarchism, if not the theory, has played and continues to play an important role in our politics that we could much better appreciate. In the literature on anarchists and anarchism Scott’s views are moderate, but given the lack of seriousness with which anarchist views are treated both politically and historically this sort of consideration from a major scholar is significant, and worthy of attention.

[i] Woodcock, George Anarchism: A History Of Libertarian Ideas And Movements (Cleveland: The World Publishing Company, 1962), p. 33.

[ii] Woodcock, p. 9.

Keith Woodhouse studies American environmental history, focusing on the ideas and politics of environmentalism in the twentieth-century United States. He received his Ph.D. from the University of Wisconsin-Madison.  His book project, A Subversive Nature: Radical Environmentalism in the Late-Twentieth-Century United States, is a history of radical environmentalism and its relationship to mainstream liberal democratic politics.

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  1. So glad I read this before my last PhD exam.

    I’m serious — mostly about how this passage relates (or doesn’t) to academic culture:

    One answer is to keep up the lawbreaking by crossing against the light and relying on one’s own judgment rather than on a preprogrammed system that takes no account of actual traffic conditions. Another answer is to build self-reliance into the traffic system’s own rules.

    Emersonian self-reliance? In academe, can we ever get away with saying, “a foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds”?

    And where in academic culture is this self-reliance “built in”? The summation of Scott’s discussion of tenure seems to be, “The academy is not perfect, but everywhere else is worse.” I repeat some version of this judgment to myself and/or others on a semi-regular basis. Cue Peggy Lee: “Is that all there is?”

    Or is what is built into academic culture a belief in the potential for self-reliance, for unruliness? And should I say “merely” a belief, or should I think of that belief in a pragmatic way, as doing work in the world of academe?

    What work might that belief do in academe? I mean, besides clearing the way for someone to survive the exam process, or the job market, or the tenure process, or the small-stakes squabbles within departments, or the border disputes between disciplines, or…

    Ah. Never mind.

    • I know what you mean.

      The flip side is that in the humanities we often preach an ethic of communalism and a practice of fierce individualism. Rarely is there theoretical coherence.

  2. I very much enjoyed this review which, to some extent, jibes with a couple of things I’ve read elsewhere. Although I think I understand the motivation that animates your concluding remark about “the lack of seriousness with which anarchist views are treated both politically and historically,” I wonder if that holds true in most academic and intellectual fora (the ones that ‘count’ anyway!). I recall—and perhaps it was exceptional—a rather popular undergraduate course I took in the early 1980s on anarchist thought and practice in a Political Science department at UC Santa Barbara, and my experience in activist Left groups and social movements, especially among the Greens (owing in large measure to the works of Murray Bookchin), testifies to an abiding interest in, if not passion for, anarchist thought. With regard to the former, we were exposed to Godwin’s classic work on philosophical anarchism, as well as seminal anarchist thinkers like Bakunin and Kropotkin. This course prompted many of us to acquaint ourselves with contemporary works and activists identifying with and ably exemplifying the anarchist tradition.

    There is of course a fairly large body of well-known secondary literature on anarchist thought and practice (in addition to Woodcock, titles by Joll, Avrich, Guerin, Sonn, among others) which suggests anarchism is in fact taken quite seriously, although mass media accounts of anarchist acts of violence (even if not interpersonal) at uprisings or demonstrations invariably serve to reinforce (inaccurate) stereotypical images of the anarchist tradition. In our time and place we’re fortunate to have the publicity provided by the inimitable Noam Chomsky, a self-described anarcho-syndicalist who continues to disseminate anarchist ideas. And Gandhi’s moral and political thought and praxis, with its strong and profound anarchist strains (especially but not only in his vision of the ideal society), likewise inspires others in and outside the academy. Indeed, Gandhi’s notion of a “constructive programme” (which was, in small measure at least, realized) reminds one that, historically,

    “Anarchists hope to make the services of the state redundant by performing them themselves. People needed to form alternative communities, businesses, schools, newspapers, cafés, marriages, libraries, and so on that were nonhierarchical, nondominative, nonexploitive.* In a negative sense, the anarchist doctrine might imply sabotaging the boss’s factory or not paying rent to the landlord; in a positive sense the anarchists wished to form mutual aid societies and credit banks…. The anarchists tended to believe that a change in attitudes must precede any large-scale social transformation.” (Richard Sonn)

    The last sentence accounts for the existence today of not a few Buddhist anarchists, particularly in this country, many of whom are in an informal lineage that goes back to the poet Gary Snyder’s 1961 essay on “Buddhist anarchism”(since revised and re-published several times).

    * This calls to mind works on the “underground press” in the 1960s and books like the edited volume by John Case and Rosemary C.R. Taylor, Co-ops, Communes & Collectives: Experiments in Social Change in the 1960s and 1970s (1979) and John Curl’s For All the People: Uncovering the Hidden History of Cooperation, Cooperative Movements and Communalism in America (2nd ed., 2012).

    • Glad to hear your experience was as you describe. You’re right, of course, that within certain academic communities anarchism is treated with a lot of respect and rigor. Those communities are small, though, almost to the point of vanishing. Most of the really serious scholars of anarchism were writing decades ago. Occupy Wall Street has changed that a bit, reinvigorating interest in anarchist thought, but it’s not clear that’s much more than a momentary burst of popularity.

      It’s great that you were dealing with Bookchin in the 1980s, a writer who I don’t always agree with but who is way too smart and provocative to get the limited attention he generally receives.

  3. Funny you should mention the occasional disagreement with Bookchin, as I wrote some essays for our local Greens many years ago pointing out how many of his critiques against so-called Deep Ecology Greens were wrongheaded and needlessly vituperative, recalling some of the worst sectarian polemics on the Left in the late 1960s (I even wrote a book-length manuscript on the debate between ‘deep’ and ‘social ecology’ greens at the time but decided it would only appeal to a limited circle of folks and because at that time I was not in academia, decided not to try to publish it). Several of his acolytes have carried on in this vein: it was sadly divisive and wasteful of much energy in the nascent Green movement. About the only by-product of that ‘debate’ from his side that I found useful was the critique of the naivete and lack of historical knowledge among many Greens regarding the history of, in the broadest sense, ‘Left’ (and third party) movements and politics and the corresponding naivete regarding the nature of capitalist economics

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