Interview completed: 02/23/2015
How did you first hear about anarchism? What was that encounter like?
I first heard of anarchism as an adolescent involved in the hardcore music scene in Southern California. I began buying hardcore records and going to shows as a teenager. I became particularly interested in bands that had leftist politics. I started reading fanzines, then started my own zine with some friends. The first thing I ever wrote outside of essays for school was a short essay critiquing war and patriotism in the socialization of youth in public schools. The radical ideas eventually led me in getting involved in radical social movements as a teenager. Toward the end of my sophomore year in high school, I also decided to start reading books here and there on my own that were not part of my “homework”. The first book I read was Henry David Thoreau’s Walden and Civil Disobedience.
The opening line contained in Civil Disobedience really sparked my interest:
“I heartily accept the motto, ‘That government is best which governs least’; and I should like to see it acted up to more rapidly and systematically. Carried out, it finally amounts to this, which also I believe- ‘That government is best which governs not at all’; and when men are prepared for it, that will be the kind of government which they will have.”
By the time I was a senior in high school, I was getting active immersed into the environmental movement and the animal liberation movement. I read a lot of “Deep Ecology” which had strong ties to anarchism.
What within sociology and anarchism are the most compatible?
Sociology and anarchism both study the social world. Sociologists study power, inequality, and institutions, as do anarchists. The difference comes in the aims of both approaches. Anarchists seek a liberatory society but not all sociologists do (just the radical ones). I was not a sociology major as an undergraduate so I’m less identified as a party-line sociologist. My classes are interdisciplinary and are set up for students to question power, domination, and exploitation.
Has anarchism contributed anything to sociology?
Anarchism has certainly contributed to the discipline of sociology. It seems, Marxists have always had a stronger presence within the discipline, but as someone such as myself who studied anarchism before I ever read sociology, I tend to view sociological concepts from a much more anarchist frame. My understanding of things like solidarity, struggle, social movements, activism, and inequality, all were first informed by my early exposure to radical thinkers—not sociologists, so I think that has shaped the way I approach the “discipline” and teaching. In fact, I think my anarchist background makes me less rigid when it comes to asking questions that might trouble the existing canon.
What classical sociologist is the most anarchistic?
My two favorite “old school” sociologists are W.E.B. Du Bois and C. Wright Mills. Du Bois, although not an anarchist, was the most influential classical sociologists on my own work. I study labor as it intersects with racism and the ways in which workers are divided along racial-gender lines. Mills was a rebel sociologist, with clear anarchistic tendencies, especially his work on the power elite. Mills was also critical of the discipline of sociology. The professional side of the discipline doesn’t interest me much. I’m inspired by the sociologists who engage real people on a daily basis. I like the kind of sociology where the work has real-world application.
What anarchist(s) (whether classical age or contemporary, individuals or a group) has the strongest sociological imagination?
Emma Goldman, Murray Bookchin, and Bhagat Singh. All three of these anarchists have critiques that I find extremely valuable in my own work. Goldman’s feminist approach was uncompromising and inspiring. I learned a lot from Bookchin’s work, and appreciate his synthesis with anarchism and ecological thinking. Finally, although some might not consider Bhagat Singh, a Punjabi revolutionary a “classical” anarchist—I do. His anti-colonial form of anarchism was also very influential on my view of radical anti-colonial struggles.
Why has anarchism not had as much impact upon Sociology as other movements (e.g., Marxism, feminism)?
Anarchists have always been more skeptical of academia, and for good reasons. Anarchists have never been about “converting” people, at least not in the way Marxists operate. We tend to be less integrated into the mainstream but we are here.
How could academic sociology be more anarchist?
Academic sociology isn’t that interesting to me. I can’t stand the ASA, it feels stuffy, egocentric, and seems removed from regular people’s lives. To this day, when I teach, I incorporate a wide range of material, much of which is not technically sociology. I was really influenced by radical women of color feminism when I graduated college, before grad school, so those scholars…
Ever encountered anarchists in the classroom? What was their response to Sociology?
Yes, I have had a few over the years. Anarchists in the classroom tend to push the conversation into a more radical direction and I appreciate that. I like classrooms where students from different backgrounds and political stances come together to question power, inequality, and authority.
Is it possible for anarchists to work as professional sociologists? Especially within the academy?
Yes. We need more anarchist teachers and academics. I work at the Cal State system school in Long Beach, CA. Most of the students who take my classes are from working-class backgrounds, most of whom are first-generation college students of color. I imagine if I were teaching at some elite school to a bunch of rich white kids, I might find the connection between radical ideas and anarchism and the profession to be more distant. There is a strong skepticism among some self-identified anarchists who are critical of the bourgeois nature of academia, which I can see, but that’s not what I’m doing. I came from community college and that informs how I teach. If ideas aren’t real, or relatable, they don’t translate. At CSULB I work with working-class students every single day. I learn about their lives, they teach me a great deal. We work together to build their critical thinking skills and I try to support them to reach their individual and community goals. That sounds like anarchism to me.
Jake Alimahomed-Wilson is Professor of Sociology at California State University, Long Beach. His research interests are in the areas of logistics, racism and labor, and global workers’ struggles. He is the co-editor (with Immanuel Ness) of Choke Points: Logistics Workers Disrupting the Global Supply Chain and author of Solidarity Forever? Race, Gender, and Unionism in the Ports of Southern California and co-author (with Edna Bonacich) of Getting the Goods: Ports, Labor, and the Logistics Revolution. His work has been featured in Jacobin, Critical Sociology, Race & Class, and the Journal of Social Justice. Over the years, Jake’s activism has included anti-fascist organizing, where he co-organized efforts against white supremacist and neo-Nazi groups in Southern California. In addition, he also has a background in radical environmental activism and in supporting workers’ movements for justice. Recently, he participated in the Pluto Press’ Podcast “Radicals in Conversation.”