Will Armaline

Interview completed: 05/08/2014 (with additions December 2018)

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

My first experience with anarchism—critical approaches to hierarchical systems, namely capitalism and the state—came from growing up as a working class/poor kid from Youngstown, OH. Coming out of the rust belt, in communities of working poor Italians, Greeks, African Americans, Puerto Ricans, and ‘Eastern Europeans,’ there was a shared culture of distrust toward the boss, the cop, and the politician. My first political lessons came from playing under the dinner table while the adults in our family discussed the local paper over meals. Politics were not avoided—and it was an environment of informal working class intellectualism. It wasn’t until adolescence that I learned about a “left.” I thought all poor kids grew up like us.

I grew up in Columbus and went off to undergrad in Toledo, Ohio—all hard-core working class communities. In my adolescence and early adulthood, I was lucky enough to be turned on to (early) Marx, the Black Panthers, the Weather Underground, and any number of classic “critical” and “radical” works. This, and the discovery of zen/martial arts helped me to focus the unbridled anger I felt from growing up in poverty, and watching my mother (like so many others) struggle with poverty, insanity, and addiction. [It’s important for us to understand our psychological connections to our political narratives, so not to cloud our judgment.] Reading and exposure to grounded theory helped me make sense of all the kitchen table conversations from my youth. It made sense of the struggle that defined so many of our lives.

Plus… There was a potential revolution popping off.—so we hoped. I graduated high school as the EZLN and anti-globalization movement hit the scene. We sharpened our teeth on anti-racist struggles on the University of Toledo campus, developed a healthy disregard for private property and the corporate owning class, and drowned ourselves in resistance cultures of all kinds. Participation in more formal anti-war, anti-racist, and anti-capitalist movements came in graduate school.

I was first introduced to anarchism in the anti-globalization movement. The “fuck the law” approach of the black bloc, and direct conflict approach of Anti-Racist Action appealed to me. I was fortunate enough to befriend a couple students in my graduate cohort who were heavily steeped in anarchist literature, and actively participated in international anarchist organizing networks. Anarchist theory became part of my intellectual training and we soon surrounded ourselves with others on similar intellectual and political paths—to contemplate and achieve meaningful revolutionary social change.

My politics and understanding of anarchism was, and continues to be heavily affected by my work with youth in/from the dependency and delinquency/criminal justice systems. My research and personal activism has always focused on the lives of often poor youth of color—I was originally a high school teacher and manager of an inner-city boys and girls club. In graduate school, I conducted multiple ethnographies with homeless and incarcerated youth—also teaching incarcerated youth, and participating in the then emergent prison abolition movement. I continue to work very closely with youth and young adults grappling with current or former incarceration. My understanding of anarchism, and anarchist pedagogies in particular, is largely shaped by the many relationships formed with young people surviving the most brutal forms of structured inequality and violence imaginable. These young adults, along with those in my classrooms, provide the hope and inspiration necessary to imagine a different—better—world. Such hope and imagination will be necessary to stare down the extinction of our (and other) species, let alone the tyranny of capitalism and the state. Fortunately, these Herculean tasks have common solutions. But this is another conversation entirely… Ha.

What within sociology and anarchism are the most compatible?

This, to me, is relatively uncontroversial. Anarchism (libertarian socialism, libertarian communism, etc.), like strands of Marxism (or state socialism), offers another critical approach to political economy, other massive social systems (racism, patriarchy, etc.), and the state. It is as easily identifiable—in scholarship and in real world application—as its fascist, liberal capitalist, or state socialist counterparts throughout (for the West at least) the 19th, 20th, and 21st centuries when it comes to theoretical frameworks for organizing society and social life.

In The Human Rights Enterprise (Polity Press), we include anarchism alongside other competing “theories of the state,” for instance.

Has anarchism contributed anything to sociology? What could anarchism contribute to sociology?

Yes, but us red and black folks are only now getting any play in major publications and public political discourse since the inter-world war years, with the rare exception of a Zinn, Chomsky, or Bookchin. This is of course from two things: the undeniable significance of anarchism in nearly all of the globally significant social movements/revolutions/protest activities since the mid-1990’s (struggle); and the efforts of a handful of us who have been building together to carve out space for anarchist thought, scholarship, and political work. Now, thanks to organizations like AK or PM Press, and thanks to those who persisted long enough to release anarchist works through mainstream outlets, anarchist theory and political discourse is beginning to demand a seat at the broader intellectual table.

I’m not certain that I would answer the second question as posed. The real question at this point is: “What might anarchism offer our mutual survival?” Sociologists worth their salt are arguably concerned with studying society in order to change it for the better, and public intellectuals educate for the purpose of collective enlightenment and mutual benefit (ideally)—these are, in fact, fundamental threads in even core sociological theory as argued by Feagin and Vera among others—so sociology confronts the major social problems of our time by definition. It is likely a fairly safe logical argument to suggest that our mutual survival (social, political economic, and ecological sustainability) trumps all other social problems in the list of priorities.

It so happens that forms of anarchism—or similar varied alternatives to our current global political economy—may offer the blended solutions to achieve social, political economic, and ecological sustainability. The clear trend in progressive climate science solutions is to blend social and natural science to seek sustainable paths forward. As a partial result, the scientific community is becoming increasingly comfortable with prescriptions that are markedly anti-capitalist. [This requires a much longer conversation. See, for example, The End of the World as We Know it? (Shannon, AK Press, May 2014) and upcoming editions of Theory in Action, Fall 2014.]

Sociologists should be concerned with current anarchist, socialist, and indigenous theories/movements—just as they should be interested in carbon capture and alternative energy technologies—for the same reason as the rest of us. The future of life on Earth may depend on it.

What classical sociologist is the most anarchistic (maybe outside of Marx)? And why?

Though this isn’t the kind of theoretically tight argument you’re looking for, I’ve always thought of C.W. Mills as an anarchist at heart. His analysis of the power elite is essentially a deconstruction of institutionalized (hierarchical) power via capital and the state. My thoughts here are as much about the spirit of his work, however. He was an incredible thorn in the side of dominant American sociologists, and had a counter-cultural flavor to his academic work (and personal life, apparently).

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

It has, but hasn’t received the necessary credit. It’s difficult to give one reason for anarchism’s relative exclusion from academe, but it likely includes some combination of the following:

  1. Anarchism is scary to most—and tends to be “risky” to talk about from a legal or professional standpoint.
  2. While it has become “acceptable” to criticize capitalism and other oppressive social systems, suggesting that we re-organize society without hierarchical states is still a “radical” and nearly unspeakable position.
  3. Anarchists tend to reject the status hierarchies that ultimately structure the academic world. For obvious reasons, anarchist work is blackballed from major publications largely because such a theoretical position directly challenges the work, identity, and privileged position of those who serve as gatekeepers to major institutions and publications. That said, there are some exceptions to this, and many of us have worked hard to carve out some now growing space for black and red folks to have a legitimate seat at the intellectual table.
  4. Many black and red folks frankly don’t go into academe… This is a strength of ours, btw… But this is another conversation

How could academic sociology be more anarchist?

Ha. Maybe it can’t. If sociology can become the organic intellectual terrain of the PEOPLE who then populate and attend universities and other learning centers to further themselves and their own democratic communities—then sociology becomes “more anarchist.” Hopefully this makes some sense. Trends in public/organic intellectualism, and efforts for intellectuals to “accompany” (see Lynd) or engage in “pragmatic solidarity” with relevant social movements provide some paths forward in this regard.

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

Yes! Their experience in sociology tends to depend a great deal on those who teach in the particular program. I’ve had some students who end up loving Soc, and some who end up hating it. However, those who end up hating it are perhaps also responding to some of the general aspects of academe mentioned above.

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

If not, I must be a living paradox.

It isn’t easy. You often have to be 3x’s as good as everyone else to survive, let alone thrive. But this is the grind if we’re to win the war of position. I/we try to demonstrate a three pronged strategy for a war of position in the major intellectual institutions of our time:

  • Infiltrate major institutions, think tanks, and media outlets through “legitimate” grind—also making room for others to do the same behind you;
  • Re-appropriate resource and space (physical and discursive) that would otherwise go to supporting the status quo; and
  • Sabotage policies and practices within these institutions that contribute to the systems of domination we seek to dismantle and replace.

Hopefully this contributes a bit more to the conversation!

You work in a justice studies program. How do themes of “justice” intersect with sociology and anarchism? And are there any borders regarding “justice” that need to be pushed in respect to either sociology or anarchism?

We should make some clarifications. I work for what used to be the oldest cop shop (formerly, “the police school”) in the country. Some really smart and capable scholars before us decided to take a traditional criminal justice department in a different direction—to also consider forms of social/community justice, human rights (my job), and so forth. I was hired along with some other pretty critical, multi-disciplinary folks as part of a move to a “justice studies” department. Our past 5-6 years have been spent writing/implementing this new curriculum and new programs—such as the Minor in Human Rights. That said, fundamental changes are typically met with blowback when they confront dominant ideology, let alone dominating institutions like the police and prison industrial complex. So—the conflicts over “what we do” as a department are still alive and well. The good news is that us black and red folks have the truth on our side—prisons and our wars on crime/drugs/terror are manifest failures. Capitalism is ecologically and socially unsustainable, even according to the most conservative scientific journals in the Western world. This is where that “legitimate grind” comes into infiltration. If you’re better at the game than the dominant players, and your scholarship is better informed/supported, you don’t have to lean on politics. Feel me? So it’s been a takeover—a legit one. Now the hard part is gaining ground and making moves…

Concepts of “justice” have always been central to social science. This is not terribly controversial, if not simply from an historical-empirical perspective. Feagin and Vera do a pretty good job of documenting this history of engagement in Liberation Sociology. All sorts of borders need pushed. I’ll skip the post-ey arguments—everyone can watch the classic Chomsky vs. Foucault debate on YouTube for that.

In my work lately (forthcoming), I’m playing with the implications of threats to human extinction. It actually changes the entire conversation on “justice” in any number of ways: (1) for the first time in human history there is an actual clock ticking (climate change beyond +4 degrees); (2) the realities of our collective needs of survival, brought to the surface as we face the brink, directly confronts dominant ideology…..

Justice must always be reconsidered (the legitimate contribution of Foucault and Co.) within ever-shifting contexts. Our strategies—and we must have some beyond bitching about things—must do the same.


 (Update: December 2018):

I’ve since transferred to the Department of Sociology and Interdisciplinary Social Sciences after general dysfunction in the Department of Justice Studies became prohibitive.  I’ve become even more deeply engaged in policy work as we plan to launch the SJSU Human Rights Institute in summer/fall 2019.  Specifically, we’ve been heavily engaged in areas of immigration reform, drug policy/cannabis policy reform, record clearance, and housing/homelessness.

It may also be worth noting that much of this work and the conditions of the world have affected my perspective on the place and relevance of anarchist thought and politics.  To be clear and rather blunt, we face a massive species extinction with a very small window of time to radically reconfigure modern human civilization (primarily including, but not exclusively the global capitalist political economy).  We are in a position where socialists of all stripes will need to work cooperatively and incredibly fast in order to affect such a change/vision to avoid the more terrifying fascist/authoritarian alternatives—if history is a proper guide of what crisis tends to bring.  This must also be done (again) incredibly fast, without sparking internal genocides or international war, and in some way where some reliable institutions remain to make all the necessary transitions (don’t just think politics and social or educational programs—think nuclear warheads and power plants).  Many of our “revolutionary politics”—of which anarchists tend to adhere if not (at times) romanticize—are based in a long past, and very different context.  We face the most powerful military/police state (think surveillance capability alone) in the hands of the most concentrated owning class the modern world has ever known, while also facing the now certain (not existential) threat of climate change that adds a ticking clock along with a host of massive substantive needs (mitigation, new energy infrastructure, etc.) to any plans for fundamental social change.

To be incredibly blunt:

  • Though revolutionary violence and violence in self-preservation continue to have their place, any attempt at forceful revolution, without the complete counterhegemonic “taking” of the military/police rank-and-file by working class civil society, would be an absolute bloodbath in the U.S. and much of the industrialized world. Further, much of this talk typically comes from those who (1) are working from literature in a 19th century context, and or (2) have absolutely no experience in or knowledge of combat.
  • Any revolutionary movement that, for any reason, yields considerable institutional destabilization, could seal the fate of the species. This is because (1) the ticking clock of climate change will not allow us such a rest period to “figure our shit out”; (2) we are dependent on some level of continuity to (for instance) make sure nuclear facilities are contained.

This does not mean I’m no longer a libertarian socialist (that is, one who finds use in this philosophy and politics), or that I’m now some sort of moderate or counter-revolutionary.  What this means is that we have to have an unflinching view of our contexts and strategize accordingly.  It means that we will have to be creative in how we think about and achieve fundamental social change that (again) offers a socialist/democratic alternative to authoritarian capitalism without throwing us into such a shit-storm that we’re doomed to the world of Mad Max.  This is a tough pill for many folks to swallow…  It also tends to reveal the weakness (and, ironically, self-interested) nature of some of those in our own ranks.  “Accelerationists” in this context, for instance, can be genocidal—noting those most at risk from climate change are the poorest, blackest, and most dispossessed in the global economy.

It also means that we will have to work, in incredibly good faith, with people who might not share the exact same politics or social vision.  We will have to build a broad socialist movement that is less concerned with hammering out its ideological purity (people obsessed with “being right”), and more concerned with making tangible progress in remaking the world and taking real resource and territory from our mutual owning class enemies.  I think this is one of many reasons that we see (I think this is incredibly positive) a return to more orthodox Marxism in the growth of the DSA and other socialisms in the U.S./West—people are returning to more fundamental notions of organizing to build measurable working class resource and political power (rather than fighting the cultural/ideological battles of the “new left”).  We have no choice but to be optimistic that the world’s young and dispossessed will continue to build a new international left coalition where socialisms have a shot.  There are some signs of this at the various international climate change meetings (recently in Poland), in movements in the U.S./UK/Europe (Sanders/DSA – Corbin’s Labor Party – The “Progressive International”), and elsewhere in the world.

I guess this also places me on the nationalist vs. internationalist left question—international all the way.

Hopefully these political musings make some sort of coherent sense.

William Armaline is the founder of the Human Rights Minor Program, Director of the Human Rights Collaborative (emergent Institute), and an Associate Professor in the Department of Sociology and Interdisciplinary Social Sciences [SISS] at San José State University. His formal training and professional experience spans sociology, education, and human rights. Dr. Armaline’s interests, applied work, and scholarly publications address social problems as they relate to political economy, environmental sustainability, racism and anti-racist action, critical pedagogy and transformative education, inequality and youth, mass incarceration, and drug policy reform. In 2019, Dr. Armaline and the emergent institute will continue their work in the areas of drug policy reform, housing and homelessness, immigrant rights, and the development of a sustainable political economy and Green New Deal. Follow his work and all things Human Rights at SJSU on Twitter: @SJSUHumanRights