Rik Scarce

Interview completed 08/27/2019

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

It wasn’t a personal encounter. Instead, it was in the pages of the Earth First! Journal. So I was introduced to anarchism through eco-anarchism.

There was a rootedness in tribal culture that appealed to me romantically at first, then in a practical sense. Radical—later, “revolutionary”—environmental anarchism was and is such a beautiful thing. It is tied to the concept of bioregions, at least for me: knowing, caring for, and for the most part living in a watershed. Fighting for it if necessary—and when is such activism not necessary today? I’d heard of bioregions before I encountered anarchism through radical environmentalism, but it all came together through Earth First!—that philosophical/theoretical outlook that explains and prompts deeper questioning.

Could I say a bit more about that journey? I think it speaks to anarchism’s built-in confrontational and revelational character. The anarcho-tribal understanding was there at the founding of Earth First! in the early 1980s. But when anarchists with a thoroughgoing understanding of the implications of anarchist theory for contemporary capitalist society discovered the Earth First! movement and started arriving at actions en masse, the Earth First! founders couldn’t handle it. The founders saw the norm-based character of tribal societies and loved it. But when those new folks came around and began pointing to capitalism as a major problem, misogyny, racism—hierarchy—as problems, the old guard freaked out. The first generation of eco-anarchists pointed the way toward a different environmentalism than had ever existed, but the implications of the underlying praxis? That was a bridge too far for them. All but one of them left the movement… but because the movement they’d created was non-centralized, it survived and morphed into something more richly anarchist. I just think it’s a beautiful, instructive story overall.

What within sociology and anarchism are the most compatible?

Without a doubt the critique of hierarchy. The moral center of sociology has always existed, whether in the work of Marx or Durkheim or DuBois, and it has always been about reflecting back on modern society the repugnant character of its built-in inequalities. Anarchism isn’t founded on many essentials, but rejecting the fetishization of difference in whatever form is basic to it.

Has anarchism contributed anything to sociology?

Almost nothing. The discipline’s gatekeepers haven’t allowed it to. Anarchism’s understanding of social movements—and the anarchist movement in its various guises in particular—has hardly been explored by sociologists. And anarchist theory? “Nah, give us Marxism! We’re good, thanks,” is all you hear. It is the case that there are strong affinities between Marxism and anarchism as philosophies, theories, and even in practice (I’m reading Merriman’s history of the Paris Commune, and even Marx welcomed the anarchists at that moment…though he certainly did not in his later writings!). But anarchism, in theory and particularly in practice, has always had a far more expansive and realistic understanding of power than Marxism.

Marx’s unidimensional perspective on power as equivalent to the control of wealth ignored all those other terrible modern hierarchies—those based in gender, race, ability, education, and on and on. Anarchist thought has been brilliant in recognizing that, yes, economics is an essential part of every society, but modernism’s ugly underbelly is its insatiable lust for magnifying what ought to be (for purposes of power) inconsequential differences between groups of people and making them the bases of social life.

What could anarchism contribute to sociology?

First of all, a broader understanding of power—I prefer “domination.” You have to torture Marxism to make it speak to domination broadly, and generations of scholars have made their careers doing exactly that. Anarchism has that critique built right into it!

What classical sociologists were the most anarchistic?

I’ve alluded to Marx’s affinities for—and, on the other hand, his outright rejection of—anarchism. DuBois was there as well. I love Weber for so many reasons having to do with the inherent uncertainty of social theory, but I see only an eagerness to explain social life sui generis, not a willingness to critique it from without. And Durkheim was much the same.

We need to read Bakunin and Kropotkin, and most certainly Emma and Berkman! I don’t like some of what they have to say—“propaganda by the deed” (“anarchism” in the most negative sense—creating chaos, killing, destroying property) is noxious stuff to me in practice except in the most extreme of cases—but their reasons for advocating what they did need to be discussed. What should citizens do when we are confronted by nightmares, be they oil pipelines or state-sponsored child kidnappings or rampant sexual harassment or or or? In our classrooms we do need to talk about mass civil disobedience versus, as one Earth First! activist described the destructive wing of her movement, “fucking things up.”

But we don’t provide forums for those conversations in our classrooms. I only teach undergraduates, but I get no sense that in our grad programs we are addressing the important challenges anarchism poses to Marxism as the radical theory, much less are we discussing the nuances of activism (again, things like civil disobedience versus property destruction—more contemporaneously, I guess it would be Antifa fighting cops and fascists) and of praxis that anarchism gives rise to.

Our students think of anarchism as either crazed or utopian. They don’t know its history in tribal cultures or in labor movements or in the environmental movement. They’re not being taught this theory, which can provide both insights for interpreting contemporary phenomena and guideposts for creating social change.

What anarchist(s) (whether classical age or contemporary, individuals or a group) seem(ed) to have the strongest sociological imagination?

Well, there are those Williams and Shantz characters! Seriously, it’s your work that I teach in Contemporary Theory, and I teach Jeff’s book in my Social Theories of the Environment course, too.

A couple of things about your work appeal to me, in addition to its accessibility (which isn’t to say that it lacks depth!): first, you do situate the individual in a broader social context. I think Mills had it right (he said this implicitly): sociology is hollow if it is only structural. If a theory fails to integrate the agent, it is profoundly limited (yeah, I’m looking at you, Marxism).

Second, and a related point: you and Jeff make connections to social movements. Praxis comes alive, and I think that’s what we need for lots of reasons, not least is that’s where agents enact/begin structural change. And that point strongly appeals to students who quickly tire of theory that borders on philosophy in terms of its unpracticality or distance from the real.

Third, you point to theoretical commonalities with Marxism. It would be so easy to construct an intellectual silo that ignored those affinities and to carry on the fights that consumed Marx and Proudhon. Rather, you admit and accept the points of overlap. There remains vital points of distinction, but as with my second point, this one speaks to your approach’s realism—I love using that word with regard to anarchism, because almost no one understands it that way. But realistically “from each according to his abilities to each according to his needs” could easily have been written by Kropotkin!

As I mentioned above, Earth First! exposed me to anarchism, and the group’s arc of growing sophistication regarding anarchism has been exciting to follow. It has evolved from advocating or tolerating racist and misogynist perspectives to recognizing that an eco-anarchist future has to be socially inclusive and that the social and ecological are inextricably linked (the Earth First! cofounders essentially ignored the importance of women, communities of color, and others in the fight for ecological preservation).

Otherwise, all of the great old anarchist theorist-activists understood the biography-structure connection: Proudhon, Bakunin, Kropotkin, Goldman, Voltairine de Cleyre.

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

You know, on my journey to jail I found out just how conservative our discipline really is. So it’s not surprising to me that many who are steeped in traditional, well-established, broadly-accepted theories would build those silos I mentioned earlier. That’s one problem: the sociological-industrial complex and all that goes with it.

Another is that Marxism seems workable or practical to many, not least because of all the “Marxist” revolutions and states that we’ve seen since 1917. (Let’s not get into how un-Marxist they have proven to be.) In the absence of actual anarchist states (!?), this line of thinking goes, there is no substance to anarchist theory. That argument ignores the fact that most human social groups through history have been anarchic, gatherer-hunter societies in particular. But those societies aren’t modern, and anarchism wouldn’t promote modern life, would it?, the detractors say.

Sociology is a discipline of the modern. It could work with industrial-Marxism. I doubt it is capable of envisioning anarchism’s critique of modernity. After all, ours is a discipline that has almost completely ignored that supposed hallmark of modern life, the notion of social “freedom”—almost no one has written about it. So how could a theory that takes freedom as its central tenet be viewed seriously?

How could sociology (as a discipline, a practice, etc.) be more anarchist?

Maybe I just answered your question! I do think your and Jeff’s work, as well as that of Jonathan Purkis, has been important in mapping the way. I love the attention you give to freedom, and I think it has pedagogical and methodological implications as well as theoretical ones. How do we teach freedom? What does a freedom-centered sociology curriculum look like? How does a freedom-centered classroom behave (and what is the role of the professor in it)? And our research: de-centering the researcher is a vital first step in their interactions with fellow participants, but what else shall we do?

Regarding the latter, I think one of the Frankfurt School’s most profound arguments was that social research without activism is a noxious undertaking, and I think anarchist sociology easily accepts that point of view. Essentially, those folks were pointing out how inhumane it is to treat humans as little different from lab rats and their problems as phenomena that the researcher need care little about resolving. Point out the problems, yes. But actively address them? How dare you! Of course, plenty of sociologists do take action in their communities. But we don’t do enough of it—I certainly don’t! We do need to reorient our discipline—it has the tools and the people to contribute so much more to social change than we’re now doing.

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

I have recruited more liberals to anarchism than I have encountered anarchists and had to explain sociology to them! This “recruitment” process is simple: I tell them on Day 1 of class that our course will be one of the only undergraduate theory classes in the nation to discuss anarchist theory, then I don’t get to that section of the course until about two-thirds of the way through. By then we’ve extensively covered Marxism (classical, neo, and the subtle ways Marx affects diverse perspectives) and so much more: functionalism, rational choice, feminist theory, and others. It’s almost all new to them, but there is a sameness—a distancing of the intellectual from the actual. Then we spend a week an anarchist theory and they clamor for more!

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, we can do it, but we make compromises when we do. As soon as you sign on for this gig, you accept hierarchy: its control over you and your control over others, the positionality that your salary sets up up for, and more. Your freedom is limited, and you limit others’ freedom. Hello cognitive dissonance! However, I think we can do a lot of good by creating open, deeply-engaged classrooms; by exposing our students to work they wouldn’t have otherwise seen; by involving them in research that itself is creating anarchist methodologies; and by becoming activists on our campuses.

We have to be reflexive. We’ve got to be honest. We need to resist. And we need to model those things for our students as best we can.

What kinds of things in “environmental sociology” measures up well to [eco-]anarchism? What kinds of bridges can be built between these two?

Environmental sociology covers all of the myriad interactions that societies have with the non-human world, and some of them are actually antithetical to an anarchist perspective. For instance, “ecological modernization theory” accepts that capitalism is a central part of contemporary social life and asserts that it is gradually seeing the light and shifting toward ecological awareness. Once the state finds ways to collaborate with industry, real progress toward ridding us of environmental ills will be made.

But other areas integral to environmental sociology mesh well with an anarchist perspective. Certainly the discussion of movements as diverse as environmental justice, anti-fracking, and, of course, radical/revolutionary environmentalism are where there are exciting overlaps and even where we see serious discussion of and research into eco-anarchism.

Generally speaking, I think a serious environmental attitude comes with ready affinities with anarchism. We are seeing with climate change just how little leeway there is for environmental destruction by our species. To make the changes we must, which boil down to living more “simply”—in ways that incorporate ecology in all we do so that we reintegrate social and ecological life—I think focusing more on the “local,” immediate environment is essential. Anarchism’s emphasis has always been on the local, so that’s how I see ecology and anarchism comfortably merging: ridding our societies of all hierarchies, including anthropocentrism—human-centeredness.

You hinted at spending time in jail. Could you tell the story behind that? And, because it’s relevant to this interview, were there connections with that whole episode/experience to sociology and anarchism?

It’s a long story, but the gist goes like this: my first book Eco-Warriors, was published in 1990, and that fall I began a Ph.D. program in sociology at Washington State University. My plan was to conduct a more “scholarly” study of radical environmentalism than the journalistic take in Eco. The following summer the Animal Liberation Front broke into a lab at WSU and caused $100,000 worth of damage.

I was eventually subpoenaed as part of the investigation into the break-in, but I refused to fully cooperate with the grand jury investigating the raid because doing so would force me to violate promises of confidentiality that I’d made to research participants. I argued that, as a scholar, I was protected by the First Amendment against compelled testimony. The judge saw things differently, and I was jailed for an indefinite term. People aren’t “sentenced” for contempt of court. Instead, they are “held in” contempt, and there is no limit on the time someone can be incarcerated for contempt. So when I went to jail, I had no idea when I would be released. It ended up being 159 days, a little more than five months. The judge threw in the towel when he realized I was not going to answer the grand jury’s questions, something I’d told him I would not do from the start. (I wrote a book, Contempt of Court, about my ordeal.)

Rik Scarce wrote the first history of the radical environmental movement, Eco-Warriors: Understanding the Radical Environmental Movement, and he went on to earn a Ph.D. in sociology. He teaches at Skidmore College, with emphases in environmental sociology, social theory, and visual sociology.