Interview completed: 05/30/2014
How did you first hear about anarchism? What was that encounter like?
Many of my peers ‘got anarchism’ initially through listening to punk rock as teenagers in the late 1970s and made their own political conclusions from that music! My introduction was a little different, not least because I was listening to ‘progressive rock’, jazz-fusion and the US west coast psychedelic scene (!) but because it came through campaigning. My parents were allied to the Quakers, CND, animal welfare and rights groups, and I think I had a lot of exposure to debates about big issues within the relatively small political spaces of the city I grew up in, Hull in East Yorkshire, England. There were a lot of different leftist voices in and around the anti-nuclear movements, including a branch of the anarcho-syndicalist group DAM (Direct Action Movement), which one of my friends became involved in. So I became intrigued by his posters and pamphlets and I did borrow and read Errico Malatesta’s Anarchy, though I found some of the ‘workerist’ language of DAM hard to relate to (it felt just like the Socialist Workers Party). But it clearly got me thinking, because a few months later I read through Murray Bookchin’s Post-Scarcity Anarchism (1971) which really did connect with me. I have never thought of it this way, but that may have been the most influential political book which I have ever read, because relative to my life experience and political outlook it helped me make really significant ‘leaps’ of awareness in terms of how one thinks about power in the world (and there are few moments where we can honestly say that this happens). I do remember feeling genuinely excited by the discussions of technology, ecology and forms of political control.
What really consolidated my understanding of anarchist history and helped to galvanize that twenty year old sympathizer, was doing a module on ‘Modern Anarchism’ for my degree in Sociology and Politics at the University of Lancaster. This was pretty unique for a UK academic institution in 1986! It was taught by Tom Cahill who edited the Bulletin of Anarchist Research, which was the newsletter of the (London-based) Anarchist Research Group (ARG), and eventually became Anarchist Studies (in 1993). He was a very open minded, charismatic tutor, and the small nature of the class meant we could be pretty flexible with the structure! Tom was also highly supportive of the student anarchist and ‘green action’ groups at the University which I was involved in and later encouraged me to come to the ARG and other academic and anarchist events. So, to answer the question!: my first proper encounter with anarchist ideas was quite extensive and many of those ARG people who I met in the late 1980s—Tom, David Goodway, Sharif Gemie, Martyn Everett, Carl Levy, Karen Goaman, Judy Greenway and the (late) John Moore—I have done publications or projects with. It was certainly the bedrock for the (hopefully eclectic) collections that I’ve subsequently co-edited with my friend James ‘Bar’ Bowen (Twenty-first Century Anarchism, Cassell, 1997; Changing Anarchism, Manchester University Press, 2004) which certainly owe something to the intellectual vibrancy of those ‘early days’.
What within sociology and anarchism are the most compatible?
I suppose at the root of both is the question what holds societies together? Obviously, as intellectual disciplines which emerged at a similar time, they were both looking at societies undergoing huge transitions—industrialization and urbanization, massive political revolutions and the formation of new types of politics around work and community—but from different standpoints. Anarchist theorists wanted to understand and motivate the best ways for people to take control of those forces determining their lives, whereas Sociologists were very clearly identified with the emerging State apparatuses and the process of ameliorating or alleviating some of the worst impacts of modernity. So initially, there were quite broad political differences based around insurrectionary versus reforming models of action because of the structures of nineteenth century societies. But as those clearly differentiated fields of Modernity—State, Economy, Politics—have become blurred and civil society inhabited with social movements ‘negotiating’ or ‘facilitating’ the voices and needs of those who are at the sharp end of life, this is increasingly being done by intellectually engaged ‘activists’. So, in the last few decades in particular, the worlds of activism and academia have become ever closer in some societies, even if they are not necessarily connected with anarchism per se. This has consequences, because it means that the question of what bonds people together is being addressed by people who can personally empathize with those struggles and are usually ‘writing up’ their findings in highly ‘qualitative’ or ethnographic forms of representation.
I think that this has always been close to the surface within Sociology – to stand in ‘other folk’s shoes’, see how the world presents itself and offer constructive philanthropic solutions to the problems which may afflict them – but it was isolated people of the ilk of C. Wright Mills or Howard Becker, rather than any kind of intellectual movement, who tried to fulfill that potential. Yet the more that the academic process has been demystified and knowledge democratized, the greater the obligation to attribute real value to those social building blocks and privilege the voices of the ‘subjects’ (as well as the ethnographer). Feminist Sociology has been incredibly important at getting us to this point, but also work in Cultural Studies; both of these areas have added something of a phenomenological dimension to the critical sociological approaches associated with political economy. I think that is the value of activist-based Sociology, it craves a multi-disciplinary approach, and those strands which have either been very Structuralist in their focus or overly Interactionist have had their work cut out in the last few decades because they seem a little two dimensional by comparison.
So, with the best will in the world, both Sociology and Anarchism ought to be about enabling an understanding of the world. But because Sociology has been and is frequently still part of the think tanks of the powerful—who pay for it—the questions which are posed during research inevitably may be limited. I have always been amazed how ‘surprised’ and ‘excited’ the sociological world is when it ‘uncovers’ some complex aspect of human behavior that functions regardless of official organization, such as those self organizing areas like the ‘gift economy’, ‘informal’ work networks, web based communities such as ‘couch surfers’ or file sharers. This may be because there has been a paternalistic rather than empathetic or empowering sensibility behind Sociology and may explain why to date Anthropology has been more fertile ground for exploring non-State and non-Market driven forms of association, because they are not seen to ‘apply’ to Western situations .
Has anarchism contributed anything to sociology?
This is a hard question, to which I believe the answer is a tentative ‘yes’. But if someone posed this question to a sociologist in a hundred years time, I hope that there will be a substantial retrospectively created genealogy, but in early 2014 it is hard to do anything more than ‘officially’ identify a few areas and people. In part it has to do with Anarchism not having made enough purchase in the academy, either in terms of people or getting onto the curriculum in the way that Marxism has done for four decades or more. This really struck me when I was thinking about how to utilize anarchist concepts to understand the theory and practice of the Earth First! group who were the subject of my doctoral research in the mid 1990s. I was struggling to apply all kinds of contemporary sociological ideas to a deeply committed set of radical environmental activists who identified with specific historical traditions and clear anti-authoritarian ways of working: most postmodernism was a non-starter, the reflexivity literature worked a bit but was dominated by liberal critiques of ‘bad’ institutional practice, the social movement theory assumed too much about lobbying the State and so forth. Yet I was told I could not just ‘graft’ Anarchism onto existing sociological frameworks, as it was a political ideology! I was struck then by both the official absence of Anarchism from the sociological tradition, but also how the entire history of Sociology has been made up of similar situations where it has been resistant to emerging paradigms (or hadn’t recognized the politics in its own traditions or assumptions). C. Wright Mills suggested that some of his accessible and activist driven sociology was ‘outside the whale’, and I think that Anarchist-Sociology may well take even longer than say its Feminist counterpart to have an influence, but perhaps we are looking for @ signs that are spray painted onto the walls of prestigious universities, rather than something a little subtler!
Thirty years ago the British Sociologist John Urry described Sociology as being necessarily ‘parasitic’ on other disciplines in order to develop itself, and I wonder whether Anarchism has played a small role in this process, as an analytic ‘Other’, serving as an unspoken resource for sociologists to draw upon when it suits. So, for example, when you look at those substantial literatures on the so-called New Social Movements from the 1970s and 1980s, many of the characteristics which were ‘surprising’ and ‘exciting’ sociologists around that time were actually the organizational things that anarchists had always emphasized: ‘pre-figurative politics’ whether in terms of consensus decision-making or strategy, the necessary linking of lifestyle and political action, and the critiques of authority including science. You’ll be hard pushed to find many references to Anarchism in the indices of those books, rather you find two sets of ‘new’ theories: on the one hand, the European meta-theorists looking at these movements as indicative of a shift in protest to address the more technocratic ecologically-damaging form of capitalism; on the other, a swathe of North American political scientists who were fixated on the strategies of groups and how they mobilized resources and created influence. This is old news and now there are whole journals devoted to the study of social movements, but with hindsight, what I think that these literatures have done, by accident and under their own rubrics, is to bring out the ‘anarchist aspects’ of political cultures and make it easier to talk about decentralist ways of working!
That anarchist sensibility is much more apparent now, particularly if you think about how models of ‘complexity’ and other non-deterministic and self-organizing ecological metaphors have been applied to social movements who do not present as hierarchical. The work of Ian Welsh and Graeme Chesters, especially in Complexity and Social Movements: Multitudes at the edge of chaos, (Routledge, 2006), is very significant in this sense, in that it is both a major contribution towards a more formalized Anarchist- Sociology, but primarily engaged with dealing with ongoing difficulties in the literature which overemphasize the role of the State or the economy, and means of influencing them. I suppose because the world has become less governable in the way that it was during the period when Sociology was in its infancy, and people are much more active in the contesting the forces which influence them, that Anarchism (or anarchisms for those who prefer the plural!) seems to have ‘come of age’ as a reference point. Obviously, many people have tried to understand aspects of the Occupy movements and (some of the initial formations during) the Arab Spring, as indicative of this, but those who study the International Relations/ Political Sociology end of things also seem to saying that ‘anarchy’ has crept back in fashion in a different (less pejorative) way than used to be the case when describing the relationship between States!
Of course, if we take that retrospective position and we ask the question ‘who is in’ our Anarchist-Sociological genealogy from before 1914, that relationship between Anarchism as a theoretical ‘Other’ and Sociology is undoubtedly harder to identify. Some would say that the obvious starting point is Kropotkin, as the most sociological of the classical anarchist theorists, who was very focused on that question of what bonds societies together and how it works best when the State intervenes least. Urban sociologists have utilized him, but a lot later, as has been the fate on many libertarian thinkers (Lewis Mumford being a case in point, but arguably Paul Goodman too). Then there is the thorny question of how much Marx is actually Proudhon, which I know Iain Mckay has done lots of work on. Who else? Well, you’d have to look hard through the work of Max Weber, but he socialized with anarchists at one point and I do think there are things in his work that decry the power of instrumentalist theorizing and recognize that this way of thinking may become a problem for Sociology itself. More tangibly, Marcel Mauss was a libertarian socialist whose theories of a ‘gift economy’ have been recognized as a legitimate part of any economy, and he has received a lot more attention in the light of alternative economic experiments and currencies. Then there is Simmel [see below].
You would have to say that in terms of his work on the organization and political interests of the mass media, Noam Chomsky has had a significant impact with the ‘propaganda model’ that he devised with Edward Herman, but Chomsky is a bit of an exception to the rule (as he has frequently pointed out). Lesser known, at the other end of the spectrum there is the whole area of ‘alternative media’ in the Humanities and this has featured prominent anarchists such as Chris Atton and Mitzi Waltz. I suppose that it is in the study of popular culture, especially around DIY movements, that there has been a little more scope to utilize anarchist ideas, as somehow it is a ‘containable area’; the sort of thing young academics do in their misspent post-graduate years!
Someone whom I hope will not get forgotten over time is Paul Feyerabend, the ‘anarchist’ philosopher of science. The Sociology of Science and Technology owes him a lot at the very least! Although he always claimed not to know much about the philosophy of anarchism, he subtitled Against Method, his most influential book—Outline of an Anarchistic Theory of Knowledge—which is a pretty striking statement. Not only were his sharp engagements with assumed scientific knowledge, its premises and how it became utilized by elites within society pioneering, but he also was an advocate (in Science in a Free Society) of public engagement with those findings and their proposed applications.
Who is the most anarchistic of the classical sociologists?
I am sure there is a ‘minor name figure’ whose work I do not really know, who is way ahead of the usual suspects, but I am going to go for Georg Simmel of the ‘big names’. To me he is the most indicative of the sociological thinker who seems to ‘fit’ with how anarchists might want to engage with the world, rather than just having a couple of ideas which may have anarchist associations or usefulness. There is an adventurous eclecticism in his work which I like, a refusal to be bound by rigid categories or the idea that one could find a coherent theory to suit everything (or everyone, given how excluded he was professionally for being Jewish, popular and idiosyncratic). And because he was an outsider of sorts—his own ‘stranger’ in effect—then that seemed to influence how he looked at the world, mixing the rational sociological of structures and classifications with studies in consciousness and subjectivity. The analysis of exchange in ‘The Philosophy of Money’ seems to have that complexity, in that it goes beyond the obvious instrumental matters governing transactions to looking at emotional attachment to whatever is the thing which is being exchanged (he even looked at ‘gratitude’ which I find very inspiring). It seems to mirror what Mauss was doing around gift economy in that by looking at the social complexities of exchange we learn more about the possibilities of different political structures. His observations on urban living in ‘The Metropolis and Mental Life’ feel very active—partly in the way that it just reads well which is important—but because he was refusing to be bleak about the city’s strange anonymity and sensory overload (like many sociologists of the time) and was thinking about the new forms of association which were cropping up within it, based on shared interests and temporary association rather than economic categories or geography. It’s a lesson in non-totalizing perspectives and a great one to throw into teaching post-modernity and see if your students can estimate when it was written!
Simmel does talk about anarchy as an ‘order without the State’ in his work on Secret Societies, which is why I think he has appealed to late twentieth century writers on urban tribes and lifestyles, but I suppose what is most anarchistic about his work is the process of demystifying the teleology or optimism of other theorists of modernity, by showing other ways of looking at it. In Modernity and Ambivalence, Zygmunt Bauman suggests that Simmel anticipates the post-modern critique through his disappointment with modernity’s ideals of progress and rationality. That he did this by embracing some of the non-rational aspect of Enlightenment thought, raises perennial methodological questions about form and content in sociology, as well as maybe explaining why Simmel ended up writing more speculative philosophical and literary-based stuff later in life!
What could anarchism contribute to sociology??
Firstly, there is the actual analysis and what one privileges in terms of concepts. Sociology is inevitably a mirror of the structures of the society which it is part of, so is there a reason why it has to be so driven by authoritarian concepts, premises and structures, apart from the fact that this is how things have been done thus far? OK, so we have a fairly reflexive set of sociological practices now that recognize the complexity of global forces which construct everyday life, yet it still filters into social policy in a top-down manner that is too easily detached from the people it affects. Obviously, this depends which areas of the subject we are talking about, but it is too easy, as James C. Scott says in a more anthropological context, to ‘see like a State’ and not appreciate the hidden histories, informal economies and the ‘practical knowledge’ and skills that are already there! If one is doing big number crunching surveys, these things are harder to measure in a classical sociological way: how for instance does one ‘quantify’ the effects of a random act of kindness, as evident in hitchhiking or couch-surfing, or offering advice to a stranger online or the social significance of just saying ‘hello’ and offering to help the widower around the corner who can’t get out because of the snow, or something?
Everyone is searching around for metaphors and models to describe the way that globalisation has impacted on daily life, hence the popularity of terms such as ‘chaos’ and ‘complexity’, ‘webs’ and ‘networks’, ‘mobilities’ and ‘flows.’ In a way this is a good thing, as it makes the idea of top-down research seem a trifle detached from these more flexible concepts, yet it depends what you do with them! So, if one starts one’s sociological analysis with these different priorities—maybe even through the use of Anarchist-Sociological variables, which I know that Jeff Shantz and yourself and I have tried to make a bit of a start on in some of our work—then you can build up a very different understanding of the world based on cooperative, anti-authoritarian, volunteer-driven, informal ways of working and so forth. Once you’ve started out on that road, and began to construct some kind of analytic matrix based on anarchist variables then it becomes hard to look at the world the same again. Any of those examples of ‘gift economics’ signify very differently, so with hitchhiking—it is largely (but not always) in opposition to forms of transport where money exchanges hands, it endorses a unique form of cooperation, education and exchange, it allows one to observe power differences in a society much more directly (particularly if you are a refugee), consider the respective pace of different cultures, and take place in all kinds of DIY culture associations which otherwise may have remained invisible. It also changes so much over time and location that as a phenomenon it can never be absolutely ‘placed’ by some meta-category!
On a bigger scale, if you look at what is happening in so many places around the world as a response to the post-2008 capitalist implosion and the new ‘structural adjustment policies’, it is very much something which has to be understood in sociological terms that emphasize self-organising and mutualism, because this is how people are surviving.
A little more indulgently, as someone who has spent a lot of time teaching the Sociology of Culture, and Media and Cultural Studies, it would be highly useful to start introducing these anarchist variables to representations of society and who creates them. You could begin doing textual analysis utilising concepts of authority and cooperation and so forth, and look at the entertainments industry as implicated in ecological destruction rather than worrying about the social construction of nature in a wildlife programme or something! I am so relieved that there is a journal now—Anarchist Developments in Cultural Studies—to help facilitate this process.
Secondly, it all depends on the institutional context as to how successful one’s concepts become! Individual researchers and practitioners in Sociology may be quite progressive, but they do not always own their ideas, and there is a long history of buying off academics, research never seeing the light of day, people being fired for spurious reasons. It is sometimes hard for liberal thinkers bound up in their own pet research areas to conceive that they are part of something which is linked to forms of institutional violence. I’ve obviously written about Sociology and the environment a fair bit, and one of the most interesting pieces I have read about the role of the academy in that sense was Alwyn Jones’ 1987 piece for Sociological Review entitled ‘The violence of materialism in advanced society: an eco-sociological approach’ (35, 1, 19-47) which basically challenged our discipline to rewrite itself on more ecological lines! It is very easy to study human impact sociologically and think that one is being progressive, but more difficult to think about the ecological impact of what one is conceptually invested into. So, as well as avoiding instrumental rationality, maybe one has to be personally consistent in a means ends sense too! I remember sitting on a departmental research committee once, where we were looking at proposals from a number of (UK-based) academics to fly to Australia and or the States to give fifteen minute papers and raising the question of rating a proposal in terms of the University’s environment policy, as well as its academic merits (which didn’t go down too well!)
There is the point that Anarchist-Sociologists may simply not be able to make much impact so end up forming their own informal think tanks! But this depends how much they want to show their political colors, which so far in this interview I have assumed was something one would do. In one issue of Anarchist Studies we raised this about the role of the journal: what is actually being ‘studied’? Is it anarchist theory and practice per se, or anything else but from an anarchist point of view? Then there is the issue of was the journal recognisable as something put out by an ‘anarchist community of scholars’? By contrast, being an open anarchist in the academy in terms of pedagogy is hard work—I do remember just how hard it was getting any kind of reference to anarchism into the courses I have taught, unless it was my specialist area such as radical environmental or alter-globalisation movements (again when it is more ‘acceptable’!).
All of which leads onto a third area where I hope anarchism can be of benefit to Sociology: effective communication! Here I think that there is some precedent in terms of the impact of Feminist research, particularly in terms of qualitative material, the ethics and responsibilities of the researcher, the use of the first person and different modes of address. In that sense to what extent can one be a facilitator rather than a good old fashioned ‘expert’, authoritative not authoritarian and so forth? Paul Feyerabend used the phrase ‘fruitful cultural collaboration’ in his autobiography as being necessary to avoid the worst aspects of ‘development’ when trying to pursue and apply knowledge. So, whilst I am very conscious that everyone from Nietzsche onwards has made a point about revolutionary content needing to be communicated through a revolutionary form, I am a little less sure of this, when we are talking about collaboration in sociological research. Who is participating and why? What does an Anarchist-Sociology look like in terms of its form (as well as its content!) and who is it comprehensible to? Perhaps we need to all go back and read C. Wright Mills again for lessons in articulacy!
Lastly, whilst I am very optimistic about the new interest in Anarchist-Sociology and how it might flourish practically and theoretically, I have a nagging suspicion that we are somehow only ‘half way’ there in terms of the kind of epistemology we would like to see mirror our political commitments. I’ve just been reminded by something which Niklas Luhmann talks about in Observations on Modernity (1998), that there is a framework of ‘being modern’ which he says has not really changed despite all of the actual material shifts which have taken place within it. In which case, maybe we are just anarchist interpreters of Sociology as it was classically formed, even though there have been many attempts to claim that a new ‘Global Sociology’ exists (perhaps including myself!), particularly because of the interconnected nature of social problems such as global warming. But, maybe all of the things we are now formulating as part of a future Anarchist-Sociology are indicative of an imminent ‘paradigm shift’, the full extent of which we cannot fully grasp, because we are still within the old one!!
Ever had an anarchist in class? How did they react?
Whenever I have encountered a really ‘politicized student’ it has always been a positive experience, although the number of ‘out’ anarchists have been few. In the mid-1990s as a junior lecturer I did have a few students who were involved with the (marginalized and persecuted) travelling cultures in Britain who were very motivated and wanted to really discuss these things sociologically. I managed to establish something of a rapport with them (and some anti-roads protestors) on that score—and learned from them too—but the frameworks of the courses were wrong to really frame it all in terms of anarchism. Sometimes it was hard to tell with students, because those who were into environmental issues from a sociological perspective began to think in anarchist terms but didn’t really have any framework that could do justice to their intuitive feelings—and everything was swamped by postmodernism on the courses I was teaching.
In my time as a lecturer one of the most comforting things is the fact that no student has ever really made me feel that I am any kind of sell-out, which I suppose is one of those things we all dread!
Can we be an anarchist in the academy?
This kind of goes back to the discussion of Simmel in terms of how one fits in and I suppose it is a qualified ‘yes’. I have always felt that one must try and be an anarchist wherever one is, whether in terms of how one relates to one’s community or how one conducts one’s lifestyle. You don’t put the anarchist bit in parentheses just ‘cos one is at work, although it can obviously be tactically difficult when dealing with notoriously sluggish bureaucracies or unions. I was lucky to get hired as a lecturer with the ‘A’ word already on my C.V. and just tried to use my libertarian intuition as a ‘guide’ when in situations where it felt as though the frameworks of debate were limited. Sometimes it was obvious: you stand up to bullying and injustice (there’s a lot of it in academia, which is basically a medieval power structure); other times you try your luck, like insisting that you rotate the ‘chair’ when you do staff meetings as a way of getting people to think about their role and to decentre the authority in the room. As I indicated above, in one institution I ended up opportunistically writing the environment policy, simply because it was an area where I thought I could politicize the day to day activity of staff and students (as the original document had fallen by the wayside). It was not much, but it was pretty thorough for its time, and it meant I could raise those (aforementioned) questions about individual accountability within a formal framework.
It is a peculiar situation though when you’ve overcome that initial ‘here’s my research submission and it mentions anarchism’ thing and that becomes your selling point—as the specialist in radical theory or something! Obviously you can choose to push this, or co-exist with whatever is asked of you, but there are going to be consequences if you get a bit too smug about it all. We all know the high profile cases where it’s gone horribly wrong, and a lot more that don’t get a mention on @ infos or the ‘anarchist academics’ list! I was never under any illusions of what might happen if I stuck my head above the parapet too much, but if you are an activist in other areas of your life you know that pushing the boundaries is never easy!
In some respects this bit doesn’t matter—it is how one imparts the knowledge you have the opportunity to disseminate and doing so in meaningful ways which is more important. One thing that is obvious is that you’ve got to do this in interesting ways and not just be content with teaching supposedly ‘radical theory’, although obviously even that can reach someone and make a difference. I know that even moderate political lectures that I have made have changed lives, so you must never undervalue the position that you are in, and that you may be talking to people who are so relatively uninformed that anything can be potentially liberating. For me, the real challenge is conveying those ideas in ways that students can engage with, which are vaguely anarchist in form as well as content.
This can be really hard, especially if one is team teaching, but there is plenty of potential if you can orient colleagues towards some of the more officially sanctioned bits of progressive teaching. One of the best teaching experiences I have had was doing lots of ‘problem based learning’ exercises around the politics of globalisation, which had been organized by an anarchist sympathising feminist colleague. The students just ran with it: imagining how to adopt the mode of delivery of a protest group, how they would organize meetings (we really got them to role play this!) in different media forms on a range of political concerns etc. They had to learn about designing press releases, doing book reviews of ‘important texts’ on the course and so forth; in short to think about communication of messages on different levels, including how it was organized. On one level, it’s just another part of content teaching, but somehow the spaces always seemed to open up within that structure, to challenge all sorts of wider issues about the politics of knowledge. Also, pointing out to students that they have more skills than they thought they had is no bad thing, when you consider the limited frameworks which careers advisors may operate within.
However, given that many Social Sciences and Humanities departments are dominated by Marxists who perceive anarchism as being limited to nineteenth century white men, one should not knock content! I have tried to bring anarchism into sociology through ecological thought and environmental politics, but there is plenty of scope for slipping other contemporary stuff ‘under the radar’ as it were, so go for it!
Based on your own research, how can we understand (via both anarchism and sociology) people who hitchhike? Are there radical and transformative benefits to hitchhiking, and what can we learn from those who hitchhike?
I suppose the first thing one can say, is that a common approach to hitchhiking from both anarchism and sociology is possible; that there is a recognition that people who are doing it are part of a ‘gift’ or ‘trust economy’. Anarchism has always recognized the value of the informal bonds and different notions of work in their own right (as a fundamental part of its vision), whereas sometimes it feels as if sociological work on any marginal movements, lifestyles and identities start from the premise of how they might be ‘managed’. Given the long history of propaganda against hitchhiking in the West, and pressures from vested transport interests who have feared revenue loss, it is not surprising that there has been limited sociological work. When hitchhiking was at its post World War 2 peak, in the early 1970s, there was a tendency to look at it either in terms of ‘deviance’ or as part of youth cultural identities (licensed rebellion, search for authentic cultural experiences etc). Hitchhiking was rarely seen as political or socially beneficial, being defined in terms of an assumed stage of the life cycle before one settles down and becomes a proper consumer and individual car user. Since the late 1990s there has been better sociological theorising of hitchhiking, in the context of globalisation and the environmental crisis, whether in terms of a ‘slow travel’ experience or through the use of new technologies as to how a variation on ‘pure’ hitchhiking might sit alongside other sustainable transport options with a little bit of bureaucracy and allaying of societal fears.
How different States deal with hitchhiking usually reveals their relative openness, tolerance or distribution of power, so it can be a useful sociological touchstone for examining aspects of its social structure, transport politics and media. So, to take New Zealand, which is one of the most hitchhiker friendly countries in the world, it has had to balance the enormous influx of adventure seeking backpackers (boosted by the Tolkien film franchises!) with the small grim statistic that once every six or seven years one hitchhike out of tens of thousands will end in a fatality. Since every popular tourist destination has the eyes of the world on them these days, a draconian ‘hitchhiking: it’s not worth the risk’ message would send the wrong signals, so the Tourist Board have to opt for a ‘if you must, be sensible’ approach. There was a huge furore a couple of years ago when a Christchurch councillor wanted to have a formal ‘hitchhiking post’, which in the more ecologically minded Netherlands it is perfectly normal, like another bus stop.
So, if this is a relatively positive message, what is interesting is when one alters the hitchhiking demographic to poor indigenous communities who don’t bring much money into a region. You can see this in the coverage of the ‘Highway of Tears’ murders and disappearances of First Nation women near or on Route 16 in British Columbia, Canada over the last twenty years. Several of these were assumed to have occurred whilst hitchhiking, which is a part of everyday life for young men and women. For years, the police investigations were lacklustre and media attention minimal, until a Caucasian student doing tree planting vacation work vanished whilst hitching. Then the international media arrived, so the First Nation communities used the opportunity to frame the events in terms of racism, misogyny and lack of resources rather than ‘there’s a serial killer on the loose’. In the recommendations to a special Symposium on the issue, there was an acceptance that many young people would keep hitchhiking, so they needed to be supported rather than blamed for putting themselves at risk. As a result, short distance buses rather than expensive Greyhounds were proposed, more call boxes and ‘safe houses’ along remoter stretches (lacking cell phone coverage), and leafleting campaigns designed to be aimed at those with a ‘victim profile’. Not all of it has happened, but hitchhiking became part of a wider conversation, which given the often ghoulish reporting of such stories was an unusual outcome.
As an anarchist sociologist I obviously think of hitchhiking as part of the history of transport mutual aid and there are so many examples where a society or community manages to transform their attitudes because of petrol shortages or war or some very localized reason (such as in the Eastern Cape of South Africa in 2008/9 when loads of taxi-using commuters rebelled against the service they were getting and started hitching and paying drivers more reasonable fares!). Plenty of car-pooling and temporary hitching initiatives have occurred in the capitalist nations—the OPEC crisis of 1973 prompted many—but hitchhiking is so easily seen in individualist terms. The more enduring examples of organized hitchhiking schemes have been in former Communist nations such as Poland, which was very effective for about thirty years (less so now I think) and I understand in a somewhat antagonistic relationship with those who did not want to ‘register’ as hitchers, and Cuba (from 1990 to the present). The former involved all kinds of incentives to drivers to pick up and cash in tokens, the latter used government officials (‘Amarillos’—the yellow jackets) to fill cars up with people at junctions out of cities.
I’ve always felt that anarchists have under theorized transport generally, and when they have addressed it, hitchhiking rarely gets a mention. I was initially motivated to write something on this (see ‘The Responsible Anarchist’ in Twenty-first Century Anarchism) because I’d been struck by how much one’s journeys reify the environment and communities which one passes over or through, and that one could see this as another form of power. If travel is potentially about experiencing community, then the more connection one has with people, the more one savors custom and company, the less alienating a world we build. It seems another aspect of the old ‘means and ends’ maxim, so hitchhiking and couch-surfing and all of those more direct trust economy arrangements surely must be part of an anarchist praxis. It is a unique vantage point, both observing forms of hierarchy within societies and because the hitcher has been relentlessly been defined by them. From an analytic point of view travel—defined by ‘space’ and ‘time’—opens up new opportunities which is why I like the idea of the ‘hitchhiker as a theorist’ or an ethnographer, because one ‘sees’ so much from the roadside—without ‘gatekeepers’ or ‘intermediaries’ and one taps more readily into that informal world.
With regards to the radical and transformative aspects of hitchhiking, some writers have compared it to an alternative course in ‘personal development’, simply because one has to ‘learn’ a significant number of navigational and social skills, to demonstrate tolerance and communicate. Few forms of transport (especially in the West) require one to be sociable or to engage in forms of reciprocity; we’ve become very privatized in our little technological bubbles, so getting from A to B for many people is an instrumental rather than communicative process. Hitchhiking is its own touchstone for how the world could be experienced differently, which is why I love all of the travelers who talk about being ‘cultural ambassadors’ (outwith governments), or spreading messages of love or believing that the ‘universe will take care of you’ once on the road. I’ve been very taken by the photojournalism of Jacob Holdt, the Danish campaigner, whose hitching around the USA in the 1970s generated the remarkable anti-racist and anti-poverty document American Pictures. Not only did this book offer a shocking insight to the nineteenth century reality of the lifestyle of some Americans, but that even amongst them he was able to observe the amazing philosophy that being on the road with nothing had its own ’security’. Reciprocity works in even the most extreme of situations, in fact is probably most alive in them; so what Holdt called a ‘vagabond sociology’, I saw as rather akin to the ideal anarchist ethnographic experience: one is a participant, a theorist and a collaborationist (and later an intellectual ambassador or mediator).
That is all very intense! Yet if one picks up that idea of hitching as self-actualizing and an alternative education, one can see this process in the writings of the post-WW2 generation who seemed genuinely transformed by the opportunities which (for example) the new Europe offered to travelers from all over the world. The sense of freedom and internationalism born out of their experiences meeting other cultures on the kerbside and in the youth hostels is striking: this was a very articulate generation with new educational opportunities (especially for women and the aspiring working classes), and the travel became part of the sense of political possibility. In a very different way, the youth of the Soviet Union countries during the 1950s were also engaged in an educational project around hitchhiking, as it was something which many regimes encouraged to get to know their own people’s and understand difference without venturing beyond national borders. In Russia they called it ‘opening a country’ and there was something of a youth infrastructure of licensed ‘vagabonding’ going on, which in the long run has actually meant that the ethos of sharing transport has persisted, whatever else has gone on.
So, whilst some of those post-War experiences are easily framed in that ‘freedom from’ and ‘freedom to’ dichotomy of liberal political philosophy, what the hitchhikers seem to be grasping at (and this is the trust economy coming through) is a ‘freedom for‘, where one senses that a different world is possible, beyond some of those relations of domination and hierarchy, and not determined by their agendas. It is interesting how often one sees in those roadside memoirs of traveling in the1950s, phrases such as ‘if only a politician could go hitchhiking and see what the world is really like’. So that is something a moderate sociologist might seize on: how to glimpse the same world presuming the same structures and relations as continuing, albeit from a slightly ‘shocked’ viewpoint (which is also the aforementioned Holdt position). An anarchist sociologist would look deeper, avoid getting too drawn on the psychological profiles of those who hitchhike, instead consider how individual biographies are shaped by power relations. A ‘freedom for’ is not always clearly articulated by those who hitchhike (obviously I am generalizing from a ‘particular’ ideal traveler) but the liberties and connections which one makes whilst part of those communities does seem to move people to write and sing about something which is radically different from what most people experience as everyday life in capitalist societies. So I would place it alongside all of those other anarchist glimpses of what is possible—the housing coops and social centres which work, the campaign group which actually does do consensus decision-making, the temporary communities which Occupy represented etc.
I suppose that this deals with the final matter of what one can ‘learn’ from those who hitchhike—that the roadside is not a place of disempowerment and hitching is far from an individualist activity. It has been for many thousands of people in terms of the reasons how they came to be there, but I think that in many places hitchhiking has become more of a proactive culture that people choose as much as it is (and obviously has a long history of being) linked to economic scarcity The emphasis upon the cultural value of hitchhiking and the trust economy within which it thrives is something which every generation of hitchhiker seems to understand (even if they utilize different terminology for it). I have been very inspired by contemporary lift seekers in that they seem to be immune from the mainstream media-driven mythology of ‘the Fall’; that somehow the world has become less trusting and more dangerous when in fact falling crime rates, greater safety awareness, more cultural interactions and dialogues have shown that the opposite is true. What is disappointing is when the Western progressives of the baby boom era buy into their own ‘golden age of hitchhiking’ myth and conveniently ignore the massive hitchhiking cultures which continue to thrive in Lithuania and the other Baltic states, in Russia and Poland. So I suppose there is an educational aspect there for anarchists, in terms of how we construct our own ‘radical pasts’, as well as being very Euro- or American-centric about what is important!
This has become very apparent to me recently being in touch more with what happens in the former Soviet Union as far as hitchhiking goes. There is a significant culture of ‘auto-stop competitions’, for instance, in these countries (in Germany too, and most recently Scotland), with hundreds of participants sometimes, the value of which is heavily debated within the various hitchhiking clubs, associations and annual gatherings which exist. So, although the idea of a ‘race’ seems counter-intuitive and against the cooperative ethos of hitchhiking, there is actually a long history of this ‘sport hitchhiking’—so suddenly all of those ideas about the ‘quality’ of travel are transformed by being in a different context. Something as simple as standing by the roadside once again takes on yet another set of associations, providing an opportunity to explore that classic dualism between competition and cooperation, which is pivotal to anarchist and sociological thinking.