Interview completed: 05/22/2015 (extended 1/4/2019)
How did you first hear about anarchism? What was that encounter like?
I’m not entirely sure when I first encountered anarchism. Anarchism and anti-authoritarian politics have been a part of most of the political spaces and struggles that I’ve participated in since I became politically active in a consistent way around 1999. I became politicized, like so many middle-class young people, during my undergrad. In part, this happened through some amazing courses I took with some amazing and radical professors but it also happened though music, current events, and people I met at the time. In the mid-1990s, I was profoundly inspired by the Zapatista uprising that began in Chiapas, Mexico on January 1, 1994. I came to know about the Zapatistas though mainstream media coverage but also through the music of the band Rage Against the Machine. While not anarchist in any sense (in fact, a label they have rejected) the Zapatistas embodied a distinctly anti-authoritarian, anti-capitalist, radically democratic trajectory to radical social change and Zapatismo—the political practice and philosophy of the Zapatista movement—would come to form the kernel of my political thought and commitments right up to today. Reading commentary about the Zapatistas by journalists, activists, and academics was important and insightful but most inspirational was the writing emerging from the movement itself, particularly the texts penned by Zapatista spokesperson Subcomandante Marcos. Departing dramatically from the bankrupt legacy of social democratic compromise and the lackluster, bureaucratic, and all-too-often horrifying experiments in state-sponsored socialism that marked the modernist Marxist left across so much of the world and the 20th Century, the Zapatistas offered a breathtaking, non-dogmatic, non-teleological, blueprint-free provocation to collectively build a “world capable of holding many worlds.” Combining Indigenous experience with some of the best lessons offered by the anti-authoritarian, revolutionary left both in Latin America and elsewhere, the Zapatistas ushered me into a political world both practically and intellectually where I would eventually encounter anarchism and other radically democratic, anti-capitalist attempts to reconfigure the world.
What within sociology and anarchism are the most compatible?
I’m not sure there’s anything about any academic discipline that is particularly compatible with anti-authoritarian praxis. The academy and its disciplines, to say nothing of its structure and its role in reproducing dominant institutions and practices, are often mired in hierarchy and privilege. That said, sociology’s interest in understanding the way society is ordered and reproduced, its desire to take people’s lived realities seriously, and, frequently, its practitioners’ desires to see the world changed into something better, less unequal, less violent, less dominating and exploitative, often resonates strongly with an anti-authoritarian/anarchist ethic. I’m a bit more sympathetic to David Graeber’s claim that anthropology and anarchism have a closer affinity, largely because anthropology has always taken non-state peoples and their life ways as its object of interest. This has hardly been unproblematic, of course—anthropology has all too often served as the handmaiden of colonialism and, more recently, imperialism. But anthropology’s explicit focus on ethnography and lived realities, its desire to explore radically divergent socio-political and economic realities from our own, and its greater qualitative focus all suit themselves a little more readily to an anti-authoritarian academic practice. But to be clear, there’s no university and no university-based discipline that lives up to this promise. The very structure of our work, our subjectivities as academics, our institutional role, and the node we occupy in larger structures of power positions most of us who would seek to ground our anti-authoritarian aspirations in our academic work in an agonistic relationship both with our avowed political commitments and the institutions we work within and so help reproduce. Resolving this contradiction is central to realizing a truly liberatory, anti-authoritarian, and radical form of social inquiry.
Has anarchism contributed anything to sociology?
Only at its margins but in undoubtedly interesting ways. Some of the very best contemporary sociology bears the marks of anarchist/anti-authoritarian influence and can be best seen, perhaps, in some of the sharpest work on social movements produced by radical scholars over the last 20-30 years. There are some truly excellent theorists and engaged researchers (for example, Richard Day and Gary Kinsman in the Canadian context) working from a sociological place whose work is clearly anti-authoritarian and even explicitly anarchist. But outside of this movement-based focused I’d be hard-pressed to say that it’s been anything more than superficial. The academy loves its fads and flavors and adopting a radical posture or innovating neologisms or some niche theoretical flourish in order to accumulate academic capital is far more common, I think, than an academic discipline or its practitioners coming to be genuinely transformed by their encounter with radical and revolutionary praxis. I think, frankly, that this has everything to do with the class composition of faculty in universities, the socialization process that goes into training and advancement, and the elitist attitudes that tend to inhabit most faculty. Academic disciplines and their practitioners could learn so very much from a whole variety of radical social justice struggles but the legacy in the academy has been one of co-optation, not mutual transformation.
What could anarchism contribute to sociology?
A great deal. Anarchism and anti-authoritarian thinking and practice could, for a start, transform the very way we envision social inquiry and the way it’s carried out as well as the ends to which it is directed. Taken seriously, anarchism would mean a fundamental transformation of the way the university as an institution is envisioned and the purposes toward which it is directed. This question is really so huge it’s difficult to answer in anything but the most abstract terms but taking anarchism seriously within the discipline of sociology would mean rethinking social research as a process of co-inquiry aimed at understanding the roots of the oppressive and exploitative systems that currently structure our world on the way to subverting and replacing them with something much more democratic, premised on mutual aid and not exploitation, and liberator rather than dominating.
What classical sociologist is the most anarchistic?
I’m an anthropologist and not a sociologist so my understanding of the sociological cannon—which is limited—leads me to say “none, really.” Marx was inspired by the anthropological work of Lewis Henry Morgan on the Iroquois so perhaps he could be a candidate but I’d actually say that the activist anthropological work of someone like Franz Boas and some of his students (Margaret Meade being an important example) aimed at confronting entrenched systems of power, inequality, and violence and while not anarchistic in any distinct sense at least offered something genuine to struggles for a more liberated world and refused to play the game of power. Boas even went so far as to out and denounce anthropologists in the early 20th century who worked abroad as spies, calling them traitors to the discipline, and was censured by the American Anthropological Association for his principled stand. Not a bad legacy if you ask me.
Why has anarchism not had as much impact upon Sociology as other movements (e.g., Marxism, feminism)?
For me this is a fairly straight forward answer. Sociology, like most modern academic disciplines, arises alongside the state and often in its service. It’s no coincidence that a science of society comes into being as matters of social control, population, large-scale social problems, and forms of state organization become increasingly central for elites and other decision-makers. Technologies and techniques of managing masses of people require a science to inform them. Anarchism is antagonistic to the notion that the enlightened, enriched, and privileged few should comment on the lives of the great many in the interests of the very few. Anarchism is also obviously not interested in helping to hone the technologies of state control and social order. Unlike Marxism which has found relatively easy acceptance in certain segments of the academy, anarchism is a political ideology that requires and insists upon grassroots direct action. The major political traditions that have emerged most directly from Marxism implicitly or explicitly celebrate vanguardism, hierarchy, and imposed discipline (coercion). Obviously Marxism has a great deal to offer radical politics. Indeed, there is no better existing critique of capitalism than the one marshalled by Marx. But as a political ideology it isn’t a theory of political organization or practice. It’s been the inspiration for ideologies like Leninism and Stalinism as well as a variety of social democratic tendencies, almost all of which have centred the state, the seizure of political power, and the top-down imposition of revolutionary change on the masses by the revolutionary elite. So anarchism is the antithesis of this – it offers a revolutionary horizon charted by the radical, collective, egalitarian self-activity of the people themselves. This flies in the face of the kind of authoritarian hierarchy so common in the academy. It has rendered anarchism much less popular than other political traditions in this context until very recently. The same could be said for feminism. While liberal feminism has found a fairly comfortable home in the academy, radical, socialist, or anarcha-feminisms have found a much less warm reception. Again, the issue is what kind of order is being reproduced and whose interests are served.
How could sociology (as a discipline, a practice, etc.) be more anarchist?
I’m not sure and I’m not sure this is a question that makes much sense to me. I cannot imagine convincing the majority of sociologists to be anarchists largely because the university is a central institution under capitalism and non-precarious academics are a privileged class of workers within it. The class backgrounds of most academics (to say nothing of their racialized, gendered identities) militate strongly against radical action and perspectives. I also think it’s a question only academics would ask and concern themselves with. No one engaged in a living struggle to change their reality is concerned with whether English, Engineering, or Sociology are anarchist or not. The more important question is, I think, how can social research be done in radical ways that feed into struggles for collective liberation. Social researchers of a wide variety ought to be much more connected to the struggles we study and find ways of supporting those struggles. As teachers, we also ought to be committed to subverting the forms of authoritarian socialization that dominant forms of education seek to instill. As members of a (for the time being) peer-governed institution, we also need to find ways to forge more egalitarian, radically democratic ways of relating to each other and the others with whom we share space and time. We need to be committed to uncovering opportunities to subvert relations of ruling and inject radical ideas and practices into our research, teaching, and communication practices.
Have you encountered anarchists in the classroom? What was their response to Sociology?
Yes, and mostly positive. People who are drawn to anti-authoritarian radicalism tend to want to understand how relations of ruling have come to be and how we might change them. In general, anti-authoritarians see social research positively as long as it comes from a radical perspective. That said, I do not think anti-authoritarians see anything uniquely important in any specific discipline, nor should they.
Is it possible (to say nothing of desirable?) for anarchists to work as professional sociologists? (Especially within the academy?) What are the concerns or challenges?
It is certainly possible for anarchists to work as professional sociologists, anthropologists, and other kinds of social researcher, just as it’s possible to be an anarchist carpenter, martial arts instructor, or family caregiver. As I noted previously, the university is a central institution under capitalism and in this sense it’s important to have radicals within it willing to put its resources to work for purposes of collective liberation. We cannot afford to simply abandon the institutions of modern society, no matter how problematic they might be. That said, that doesn’t mean every space or role is worth occupying. An anarchist administrator, for example, is a contradiction in terms and academics in particular (due to the individualized, egocentric, and privileged nature of our work) need to guard carefully against being conscripted into doing the work of ruling class interests. We should in a very real and material sense cultivate a strong disposition of disloyalty to the institutions of which we are a part. Grassroots struggles for social change are what we should use as our orienting points, not careerist achievements, institutional acknowledgment, or personal accolades. At all costs, we must avoid turning the movements or issues we study into academic capital. The work we do can have value but in my experience the contributions it makes to social change struggles is important but modest, we need to keep that realization very clearly centred. At the end of the day, if our struggles for collective liberation are successful, the university and formal education will be dramatically transformed too. That’s the horizon toward which I am stumbling, not one marked by discipline-building or professional accolades.
Alex Khasnabish teaches sociology and anthropology at Mount Saint Vincent University in Halifax, Nova Scotia on unceded and unsurrendered Mi’kmaw territory. A radical anti-capitalist and anti-authoritarian writer, researcher, and teacher, he is the author of The Radical Imagination: Social Movement Research in the Age of Austerity (with Max Haiven), Zapatistas: Rebellion from the Grassroots to the Global, and Zapatismo Beyond Borders: New Imaginations of Political Possibility. Find him at alexkhasnabish.com.