Interview completed: 11/19/2014
How did you first hear about anarchism? What was that encounter like?
Through my work on the Catholic Worker movement. I’ve always had an interest in social justice partially through a Catholic, Jesuit education. But it wasn’t until I began my dissertation on the Catholic Worker movement that I became conversant in anarchism. It started with becoming familiar with the Catholic Worker movement’s Catholic or Christian Anarchism. Then it was through Jacques Ellul’s small, but fascinating book (Anarchy and Christianity) that I became familiar with traditional anarchism and anarchist theory. But what really did it was Hurricane Katrina. In the aftermath of the storm and the rising flood water, newspapers around the country included the word “anarchy” in their headlines to succinctly capture the perceived lawlessness and looting in New Orleans. I was in the midst of writing my dissertation on the Catholic Worker farms steeped in Emma Goldman, Murray Bookchin, Proudhon and others talking about cooperation, a limited to non-existent state, changing our orientation to property, mutual aid—the whole thing. And yet here was a mass media peddling a fear-filled, race-baiting ideology of anarchy. So I wrote about it.
Since then, anarchism has remained in my writing and teaching, but stealthily and in broader strokes. Whether writing about the Catholic Worker movement or the sustainability (both environmentally and organizationally) of family farmers, justice and care animate my arguments and my familiarity with anarchism definitely continues to influence that. My hope is to write about the hidden influences of anarchism in sustainable agriculture along the lines of parallel arguments for decentralization, devolution of power, subsidiarity or appropriate scale of decision making and appropriate or human scaled technology.
What within sociology and anarchism are the most compatible?
Again, I think the pursuit of justice is the key connection. More recently, I’ve pursued some inquiries via utopia. The sociologist Ruth Levitas writes about utopia as a method for doing sociology. I’ve thought of it this way—in sociology we study a lot of what’s wrong in society—one of our core undergraduate classes is social problems. But teaching problems assumes that there is an idea of what a society might look like without those problems—sexism, racism, classism.
Along the same lines, the critiques of the state, party politics, the education system, patriarchal family structures, you name it, sociologists for the most part lean a certain way with preconceptions of how the world can look that resemble if not outright mimic (unacknowledged) anarchist positions.
There’s also a shared interest in community though many people confuse anarchists with poor libertarians—a selfish pursuit of the individual as sacred.
For me the most interesting aspects of sociology have been its emancipatory possibilities of recognising inequity (for me mostly around issues of food and the environment) and then trying to do something even if it’s just be at the level of telling stories of the marginalized (like the CW, family farmers) or teaching these vital classes. In both, there is a passion for working on the major issues that prevent people, families and communities from enjoying their full human-ness.
Has anarchism contributed anything to sociology?
Anarchism’s influences strike me as indirect—at least on contemporary sociology. In the pursuit of justice though sociology seems to gloss over the vital contributions of anarchism in relationship to gender relations, political critiques, and activism.
In fact, much of the theoretical and practical wrestling in sociology over modernism, post-modernism, and the changing self seem to be in conversation with a long history of anarchism.
Now my anarchist history is weak, but I’ve loved learning bits about how Marx and the anarchists tussled in the early days of the Internationals. In sociology, Marx has been this looming figure and almost beyond reproach—even the idea that communism (and only the good flavour) is inevitable runs through a discipline that is often pretty rigorous about what is good research takes this inevitability as a fact, not as the utopian presupposition that it is. So yes, anarchism has contributed much, but for the most part goes unrecognized.
What could anarchism contribute to sociology?
Along the lines of your project on Anarchy and Society, anarchism has so many ideas that can address both the theoretical and practical issues we face today. In environmental sociology, there’s been a wonderful project of resurrecting classic sociologists and digging up their environmental credentials the most famous of which is the metabolic rift. In many ways, the same could be done with anarchist theorists—we cannot so much recast them but bring them into the sociological fold as social theorists, not just anarchists.
Second, anarchists often occupy a marginal place in the discourse which lends itself to a kind of humility. By diligently working on the issues at hand and knowing it’s an uphill battle, those on the margins tend to be good listeners and observers. These traits—common to nonviolent communication—are often missing in the wider academy that thrives on competition and self-promotion.
You mentioned Goldman, Bookchin, and Proudhon. Are there others in the anarchist tradition that strikes you as sociological?
Well, as a sociologist that studies food and agriculture, Kropotkin comes to mind. The wrestling with cooperation as the explanatory narrative rather than competition provides such a different tone for sociology. One of my biggest struggles as a scholar has been coming of age in the vacuum of the erosion of the Marxist theoretical stronghold in sociology and elsewhere. While certainly influenced by it—we live in a sociological era without a default theoretical presumption. That being said, Kropotkin offers a significant, subtle, but significant challenge to biology, sociology and all ways of trying to understand the world and it’s structures that since Darwin’s survival of the fittest. We look first to the conflicts that make changes in the world rather than cooperation. Now there is certainly a dialogue between the two. In teaching environmental topics in a heavily Christian evangelical state, this dialogue helps address not just Biblical literalists and the denial of evolution, but also the emergence of climate change denial. To be able to drawn on language that is both about conflict and cooperation, I feel it enables me to teach in a less antagonistic way.
What classical sociologist is the most anarchistic?
Now keeping Kropotkin in mind, I’m going to go with Durkheim. Now, this is a bit off the cuff, but I do have a folder labeled “Durkheim as Anarchist?” and the major thing that I turn back to is Durkheim’s emphasis on guilds as moral arbiters. Now his was definitely professionally oriented and about moral order, but it strikes me as a middle ground between an emphasis on the State and the utopianism of Marx’s communism—so while not very anarchistic, as a classical sociologist, he certainly sees the value of persons in conjunction with one another to stabilize and provide for themselves. That being said, I think Marx (species-being), Weber (rationalization and bureaucracy), Simmel up through the giants of today, at heart really struggle with the exact same issues as anarchism in general and that is the proper balance between the person and relationships larger than the person up to and including the state. I’ll be interested to see what others think in this area.
Now more recently, though nearing the point where his work could be considered classical is the work of James C. Scott. In terms of farming, agriculture and the state, Scott’s work is always kind of there. Most notably the ability to use anarchist-inspired analogies like “seeing like a state” and “weapons of the weak” are succinct tools that get at the nuance of complex social relationships. So Scott’s work is kind of background to just about everything I do—that combination of political ecology, environmental and development sociology and anarchism.
Why has anarchism not had as much impact upon Sociology as other movements (e.g., Marxism, feminism)?
Well again, it has. It’s just gone by other names I think. I just finished reading sociologist of religion, Christian Smith’s The Sacred Project of American Sociology. And it’s blowing my mind. Much of the issues I’ve had with much mainstream sociology line up with a pretty narrow, yet unspoken vision of how the world should be and so much of it lines up with a bigger, enlightened State. Now with this assumption, anarchism does not have much of a role. That all being said, I think the reason it has not had much of an impact is twofold. One, people don’t want to be affiliated with the word. There’s a lot of negative baggage, much of it from misinterpretation as I write about in the Katrina article. And related, there’s a lot of hidden anarchism in the academy—distaste of hierarchy, disappointment at organizational power, etc., but rarely is it discussed in explicitly anarchistic terms.
How could academic sociology be more anarchist?
One thing that’s struck me, is not just sociology, but the academy (to somewhat contradict my answer in the last question) at large is this tendency towards policing students. Not in their personal lives in terms of sexuality, surveillance or anything like that, but in terms of maintaining the hallmarks of the university of credentials, hierarchy and licensure and that students can’t somehow subvert those structures. As if students are looking to systematically “beat the system.” And I sit in these committee meetings with people I normally can talk to about structural issues that impair human freedom and they turn into hierarchy police trying to write into policies phrases that might address a “problem” that has come up only once before. Polices for the blue moon occurrence you might say.
Ever encountered anarchists in the classroom? What was their response to Sociology?
Sure, and there’s always a great synergy. At the same time, there seems to be a reluctance for students—at least anarchist students—to pipe up. It seems that we are in a strange era where neither the anarchist nor the evangelical feels comfortable speaking their mind and that to me feels like we’ve completely neutered the purpose of the academy. It’s something I actively work on in my teaching is how can we keep the university classroom as a spot to encourage dialogue about difficult topics.
Is it possible for anarchists to work as professional sociologists? (Especially within the academy?)
This is a tough question. For me, it’s a struggle with the Groucho Marx proverb, “Never join a club that would have you.” At the same time, I’m personally much more comfortable in the academy struggling with these ideas in a way suited to my strengths of teaching, reading and writing. But I completely understand the struggles with bureaucratic machinery, hierarchical concerns of departments, approved knowledge, and all of the things that indicate the neoliberalisation of the academy and I don’t have good answers. But I’m happy that there are networks evolving where we can talk about these developments.
Paul V. Stock is an Associate Professor of Sociology and the Environmental Studies Program at the University of Kansas. As a rural and environmental sociologist, Paul is concerned with the practices farmers and their families employ to sustain their families, identity, livelihoods, and ecological systems in the context of changing political, economic and social pressures. Paul has written extensively on the global food system and how it impacts people’s everyday life including the books New Farmers (2019), Food Utopias (2015) and Food Systems Failure (2011).