Lesley Wood

Interview completed: 08/26/2014

How did you first hear about anarchism? What was that encounter like?

I’m honestly not sure. I suspect I first heard about it at a hardcore show in either my last year of high school or my first year of university. It could also have been through reading MaximumRockNRoll that I saw the anarchy symbol. But at the time I know that I was looking for a name for my politics. I had been raised in by lefties without a particularly ‘named’ ideology. It was more, “don’t trust the government, especially the US government, and believe that ordinary working people matter” sort of framework. I’d also been raised Unitarian, which in the version I got, had a general emphasis on autonomy, non-hierarchical relationships and an awareness of an unjust world. I was in high school during the 1980s and the atmosphere was one where I thought we were all going to be blasted in a nuclear holocaust. It was clear to me that our whole system was corrupt. I probably called myself a socialist, but many of the socialists I saw didn’t seem to be talking enough about an overall grassroots transformation. I began to see the class-über-alles framework as a bit limiting. I saw patriarchy and racism as destructive as class.

A bunch of friends of mine and I formed the Student Liberation Front and freaked out the administration of our high school—talking about revolution, punk rock, and nuclear war. Then in my final year of high school I did a project on freeschools, read Summerhill, and visited a bunch of projects. I started to feel like this politics was real beyond the circle A—it had institutions, conferences, and people. The year after first year university, there was the Toronto Survival Gathering, an anarchist conference. I read about it, but didn’t attend. But I did go to the San Francisco anarchist gathering in 1988 and it blew my mind. I still didn’t identify as an anarchist. And I definitely didn’t identify with a lot of the people there, and their weird and wild subcultures. I was fascinated and attracted to this idea that we could create social relationships that were nurturing, creative and just—and that through that transformation of those relationships we could transform ourselves and challenge unjust systems and authorities and thus create a better world. That was something I could get behind.

What within sociology and anarchism are the most compatible?

I was attracted to sociology with a similar motivation as I was attracted to anarchism. I wanted to know how the world got so fucked up and how it could be changed. When I was an undergraduate I remember a woman in my class paraphrasing Marx saying that “we need to understand the world in order to help us change it”.

Sociology thinks about power and systems of oppression, about socialization and the conditions for agency or freedom—as does anarchism.

Has anarchism contributed anything to sociology?

I’m sure it has—but who is an anarchist? So many people I think have aspects of an anarchist analysis. Personally I often don’t name my politics—because I don’t know that naming it always helps me to connect with people. Not that I want to hide my politics, but the term is so broad, it doesn’t always clarify things. I’d rather talk about types of work rather than identities. That said, I think a more nuanced and developed set of anarchisms is becoming more visible—thanks so some amazing work people are doing.

What could anarchism contribute to sociology?

The ideas that I take from anarchism that I feel are central to my sociology are as follows:

  • The state is not the only form of macro-social organization
  • That hierarchy has effects that limit most human agency
  • That the intersections of different relations of power play out differently
  • That agency is possible, within constraints
  • That process is important, the means are as important as the ends
  • That pedagogy is important

What classical sociologist is the most anarchistic?

Well we know that both Marx and Weber hung out with anarchists (see Whimster). That was the moment they were living in—anarchists were everywhere! Of the three old white fellows (Marx, Weber and Durkheim), I could argue that either Marx or Weber have elements of anarchism in their approach. That’s probably a silly thing to say, and Marx is rolling in his grave as I write. But they share an awareness of the importance of inequality, and an interaction between social structure and social life. Both also point out the ongoing transformation of society, and critique the modern, capitalist system. Marx however is more hopeful about both collective action, and of the dialectical possibility of revolution, while the depressed Weber kept on drinking his coffee and scrawling dark poems.

Why has anarchism not had as much impact upon Sociology as other movements (e.g., Marxism, feminism)?

I think there are three reasons. First, as David Graeber notes, anarchism has been more of a practice rather than a scholarly literature—limiting its inclusion into the academy. I think he’s right. Second, I think that the limited impact of explicit Anarchism on sociology is also a product of a demonization of anarchist ideas and anarchists. Third is maybe the result of an anarchist movement culture which (probably rightly) is suspicious of people who make their living and establish legitimacy talking about anarchism. So that may lead anarchists in the academy to code their language so that their anarchism seems invisible.

How could academic sociology be more anarchist?

It’s clearer for me if I ask myself, “can academic sociology help to build dual power?” I’m a pretty optimistic person so I’m going to say yes—but add that we need to differentiate between the university, the classroom and the scholarship when we’re talking about academic sociology.

Clearly the corporate driven university and its increasingly neoliberal logic need to be challenged. As it stands it’s an institution which reproduces all sorts of hierarchies in pervasive and dangerous ways. However it is also an institution that can offer subversive spaces where power can be challenged and capacity built; spaces of relative autonomy and capacity building and provide resources for the larger community. The time and space of universities can allow us to do research on how colonialism and capitalism operate, and how movements and communities are working to resist the status quo. One of the biggest challenges to using universities is of course cooptation—where our voices as academics are broadcast, but it’s separated from the context of struggle—so simply becomes a new commodity that the university is marketing. Another problem is exploitation. It is far too easy for universities to start using our labour and connections to further build themselves and their mandate. We can make the university more anarchist by challenging these dynamics and the hierarchies within the university.

The classroom also needs to be a space where people’s ability and confidence to build a better world can be nurtured. And it can be—countless people gain access to ideas and like minded individuals within university classrooms. But as it stands, professor-student hierarchies, grades and tuition fees and the broader social structure limit the possibilities for collective transformation and capacity building. There is also the question of content. We can teach anarchist ideas and bring anarchism more directly into our discussions of social structure. We can question the statist nature of much sociology, and talk about intersectionality in our discussion of power and resistance.

In terms of the scholarship around anarchism—how might it be more anarchist? It would be more useful to anarchists if we made explicit the ways that power, both structural and processual are playing out in our knowledge construction. So, let’s talk about how race and racism are playing out in our definitions of what is ‘real sociology’. Let’s talk about how disability, or sexuality or another boundary operates to affect hiring and peer review and the evaluation of journals. In our research we can also refuse to dehumanize and/or objectify the people we are researching. We can build their/our power as subjects to control the knowledge about them/us.

Ever encountered anarchists in the classroom? What was their response to Sociology?

I have—but I teach upper year students social movement theory. They often find sociology incredibly useful for understanding the world and the struggles they are part of. That’s why they are there.

Is it possible for anarchists to work as professional sociologists? (Especially within the academy?)

I hope so! But there are challenges. The phrase, “Power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely” often reverberates in my mind. Sometimes even anarchists can gain power over but be deluded about this—identifying as we do as part of a marginalized underclass. It’s essential to remain reflexive and try to be accountable to the movements we’re part of and/or in solidarity with. If we are, we have a better change of maintaining our politics and not becoming ‘only’ academic anarchists. Without the ties to those outside the institution, this will be harder. I’m reminded of the Malcolm X quote—”If you’re not careful the newspapers will have you hating the people who are being oppressed, and loving the people who are doing the oppressing.” If you replace the word newspapers with professional academia, you’ll have the same outcome. So we need to be careful.

To flip the question about anarchistic sociologists, who would you say are the most sociological anarchists (classic, contemporary, whomever)?

Well assuming sociology is about understanding processes, power, meaning and structure, and anarchists are engaged in challenging hierarchies and the consolidation of power—most anarchists who are trying to be effective and reflexive are sociologists of one form or another. When we think through how to make change, we engage in sociology. When we think through how we are who we are, we often engage in sociology—understanding how class, race, gender, sexuality and dis/ability has helped to construct us, and the society we live in. When we’re facilitating in meetings and in classrooms, we’re being sociological. I’m rebelling a bit in terms of identifying the most sociological anarchist. But some people who I’d describe as anarchists who influence me a great deal lately and who I think are sociological in their approach include Harsha Walia, Chris Crass, Leanne Simpson, James C. Scott, Gerald Taiaiake Alfred, Jeff Corntassel, Richard Day, Marina Sitrin and of course David Graeber. Call me indecisive if you must!

I know you worked with Chuck Tilly on his Social Movements, 1768-2008 text. What kind of ideas/implications for anarchists would you draw from Tilly’s work? Anything of significance from the broader “social movement” literature in sociology?

This is definitely a question I’m excited to answer. Because I know that Charles Tilly’s history of social movements can be read as a celebration of liberal democracy. He definitely wasn’t an anarchist—but he was someone deeply suspicious about state power and a bit pessimistic about the possibility of challenging it on a fundamental level. What I take from Tilly’s intense research on contention are four things.

First, the title of one of his 1985 pieces is “War Making and State Making as Organized Crime.” He sees that powerholders are constantly at war fighting internal and external enemies. These struggles in the 18th and 19th centuries built the modern Western European state and the contemporary social movement. These authorities needed resources to fight their wars and some of those resources came from people far away (colonial exploitation) and some of those resources came from people nearby (repression). State authorities argued that they needed to do what they did in order to protect the population. And so they insisted on getting what they needed—like mobsters demanding payment. State authorities warned that chaos would erupt if they didn’t maintain order. They needed money in order to ‘protect’ the population from real and manufactured threats. Thus the emergence of the state. But sometimes people fought back—and authorities had to give concessions, and this set of performances evolved into the social movement. But what the modern social movement as a way of doing politics through ‘claimsmaking’ doesn’t effectively challenge those authorities at a deep level. I think this helps anarchists to understand the state more effectively and points out the limits of a social movement strategy that simply asks the state for concessions.

A second element of Tilly’s framework that I think is useful is the way that he shows that repertoires are tied to the structure of power. In the current moment, it looks like authorities are globalizing, inequality increasing with a lot of uncertainty in terms of political power—and this helps to explain why the form that contention takes is changing.

Third, I like Tilly’s explanation of identity. He sees identities as being made up of boundaries, stories and the patterns of relationship. This approach to identity can let us see how inequalities, stories and small scale patterns of interaction are related. This can help us understand why culture matters.

Finally, his approach to studying democracy is useful both at the micro and macro level. He breaks democracy into four elements—protection from unjust authority, equality of influence, the extent to which all sections of society have influence, and the amount of meaningful consultation the population with leaders. I think this offers anarchists a more nuanced way of understanding different moments in the way that states operate and how it can affect our response.