Interview completed: 01/21/2019
How did you first hear about anarchism? What was that encounter like?
Over the years, I’ve noticed that most people enter anarchism as teenagers, often connected to some kind of punk music or scene. I have a totally different entry into the ideas. Back in 1993, I was working on my master’s thesis, which involved the Frente Sadinista the Liberacion Nacional in Nicaragua. As such, I was curious to understand how a Marxist group of revolutionaries would end up, by 1993, as really wealthy people. Something has gone wrong here, and I examined their ideological foundations. In doing that, I found early anarchist critiques of Marxism, mainly of the Leninist concept of the vanguard. This was my initial introduction, when I was about 21 years old.
That simmered a few years in my head and it really came to full bloom in the late 1990s, when I met a few anarchists in Tempe, Arizona. By that point, there were different anarchist groups forming there, as well as in different part of the United States. It was at this point that I really dug into the ideas, and found them easy to adopt. From there, I joined some friends in starting an group of folks that based their ideas in the anarchist tradition, but had more of a racial understanding of them. As a LatinX, it made perfect sense to me.
What within sociology and anarchism are the most compatible?
That is a tough question. I generally don’t conceptualize anarchist thought in a sociological context. So, my project has never been about connecting the two. Rather, I have used classical anarchist writings and ideas to help guide how I work in the world. My guess is that the location where they are the most compatible has to be around analysis of power, inequality, and distribution. Here I am thinking of the work by Max Weber, or even W.E.B. DuBois (who trained with Weber), who did amazing analysis on the function of bureaucracies and power. And DuBois was the first to do surveys of Black communities around the end of the 19th Century or beginning of the 20th. As I write this, I realize that the compatibility with sociology has very little to do with methodology, but more with the critical intention and questions of the research. Is the research meant to undo power inequalities? If so, then there is a lot of compatibility.
Has anarchism contributed anything to sociology?
I don’t know if it has directly. I know that there are many sociologies/criminologists who have produced a lot of work based on anarchist tendencies. I am thinking of Jeff Ferrell, Randall Amster, Anthony Nocella, to just name a few (there are lots more). I don’t know if the work of these folks have done anything to the monolith that is “sociology”, but at the very least has created nooks and crannies in the fissures of the discipline that allow younger folks to do anarchist-based work with intellectual legitimacy.
What could anarchism contribute to sociology?
My guess is that anarchist thought could revolutionize the discipline, but it would take a lot. Over the last decade, there were lots of folks who tried to influence sociology, but I think they ended up influencing criminology a lot more. It seems to me that anarchists come from a variety of disciplines and are not disciplinary bound. Here I am thinking of Jeff Juris (anthropology), Joel Olson (political science), David Graeber (another anthropologist), Hal Kapinski (criminologist), Randall Amster (Peace Studies), etc. So, the relation to sociology is not direct.
What classical sociologists were the most anarchistic?
Again, a tough question. I find very few of the sociologist theorists anarchistic. I go to political science for that. However, there is one classical sociologist (he may be a political scientist) who I really like. He is the guy who came up with the concept of the Iron Law of Oligarchy. Look him up if you have not read him: Robert Michels. The idea is that institutions can develop different internal interests, often separating the leadership from the rank and file. The key is that this hold true in unions, corporation, parties, and even universities. That is to say, even organizations that are meant to be democratically representative develop into hierarchical entities that start representing people but eventually represent themselves. Oh, now that I think about it, I think that Foucault has lots of anarchist in him, but not in an obvious way and not a sociologist. Foucault is the ultimate critic, presenting incredible analysis and refusing to provide any prescriptive view of politics or power.
Given that, I tend to focus more closely on criminologists. And there are lots of great folk doing anarchist criminology, some who I have mentioned already.
What anarchist(s) (whether classical age or contemporary, individuals or a group) seem(ed) to have the strongest sociological imagination?
Oh, that is a different kind of question. I like it. I think that almost all the early theorists have a strong sociological imagination. That is, all of them are trying to tell us how to engage with authority, power, and the law. All of this has aspects of the sociological imagination, but it also has political theory, anthropology, and other disciplines. So I invest less on the sociological imagination part and focus on the interdisciplinary nature of the endeavor.
Why has anarchism not had as much impact upon Sociology as other movements (e.g., Marxism, feminism)?
Part of it is because anarchism is not a prescriptive set of principles. I am not sure that anarchism is a theory or that it explains anything. Rather, anarchism tells you how to be. For example, Kropotkin famously said that we should not “Respect the law,” we should say “Revolt against all laws!” Not that this is not an explanation, but rather a position on how to relate to the law. Thus, anarchism is not a theory, but rather a set of principles that allow us to know how to live in the world. This is where I find anarchism most useful, as a kind of moral/political philosophy that outlines values that I use on a daily basis. Recently I was elected chair of my department. As I encounter tough issues, as I am asked to lead, I rely on anarchist principles. This means that I try to set up collective processes for decision making, figure out ways to allow the faculty to determine their own future, guide their own lives, and lead collectively. This is very, very hard because people don’t know how to do this, or don’t trust it, since it is often outside of their experience. So, you have to show it, live it, over and over again until people see it. So, anarchism is often a lived set of principles and does not set out to give a critique of capital, like Marxism does. Early theorists tried, but I think much of that early work is incorrect, particularly the one that makes assumptions about human nature.
Given that, I think that anarchism has had a lot of influence. For example, look at Mills’s work and his critiques of the elite. I see lots of anarchism in it, as much as Marxism.
How could sociology (as a discipline, a practice, etc.) be more anarchist?
To be more anarchistic, I would have to drop all the pomp and circumstance of the hierarchy of academia. This would be tough for those who benefit from that hierarchy. As a practice, it could be more open to collective work, community projects, and engagements where the work is driven from the bottom up. The conferences would have to be entirely reorganized. I think that SSSP is a relatively good model of some of the possibilities, but I would have to go much further, of course.
Have you encountered anarchists in the classroom? What was their response to Sociology?
I use anarchist principles in the classroom all the time. In fact, perhaps that is one of the locations in academia that it shows up the strongest in my experience. I started every single class that I’ve taught in 14 years with the following: “This is your syllabus. Everything it is negotiable, as long as you can all come together, dialogue, and collectively come to agreement.” I am rarely taken up on it, which is really scary and demonstrates how education is counter to participation, mutual aid, and cooperation.
And yes, I have encountered many anarchists in the classroom. I rarely name anarchism directly, but rather express the ideas, concepts, and arguments. Students eat it up. In the past, I’ve had several students talk to me after class, asking me if I’ve ever heard about anarchism, which often makes me laugh a bit. Given that, I gravitate away from the students who openly identify as anarchist and move toward students who are activist and working directly with working class people. This is, of course, very intentional. The main problem I see with openly identified anarchist students (and non-students) is that there is a kind of anarchist performance of the identify that puts me off. That is, it becomes not about living the ideas, but about performing a kind of identity. Given that, I also try to mentor young anarchists when possible. I do this not through lecturing, but rather by showing what anarchist political work can look like, how classrooms can be organized, and how to work directly with working class people based on anarchist principles without having to perform the identity.
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?
Yes, I think it is not only possible, but it is required. In my view, all of us who live in a capitalist ordered world have to make a living. We are required to do so through the arrangements, and there is no location that is free of this. That is, there is NO location that is not somehow interlinked (some more than others of course). But this means there is no place we can stand and be pure of heart. That is one of the performances part that I see often, people performing anarchism is such a way that would lead you to believe that they, and only they, are standing on clean ground free of anything but pure anarchism. I think this is not only wrong, but also harmful. Give that, the academy has very specific problems. It pretends to be democratic, but it has strong hierarchies that are very harmful, and these are getting stronger. The creation of a two or three tier system of labor is devastating. That is, I have seen my university increase the numbers of non-tenured track people, pay them less, and give them more work. It is inherently unfair, and a reproduction of that kind of flexible labor moves that the rest of society has experienced over the last three decades. So, as anarchists, we have to exist in the world and fight to ensure that all have the right to live, love, and work.