The Iron Laws of Anarchism

by Carl Dyke

I’ve been reading reactions to a couple of James Scott’s latest books, Seeing Like a State (1999) and The Art of Not Being Governed (2009). I haven’t read the books themselves, which by all accounts are iterations of themes from earlier books I have read such as Weapons of the Weak (1985) and Domination and the Arts of Resistance (1990). Scott has made an admirable career out of sticking up for plucky folk resisting domination by the powerful. He’s good at what he does.

I’ve read widely and sympathetically in this genre over the years, so for casual readers uninvested in exploring further I’ve boiled down some basic principles. I call them ‘the iron laws of anarchism’. They go like this:

*States are monolithic.

*States must not be claimed to be monolithic, because that would obviously be simplistic.

*States’ purposes are inherently nefarious, and must be resisted.

*Any act or non-act by ordinary people not rigorously consistent with monolithic State purposes must be interpreted as resistance, unless it turns out it was a sneaky (‘hegemonic’) way for the State to get what It wanted after all.

*States are both comprehensively effective and universally inept, depending on what makes them look worse in the analysis at hand.

*Ordinary people are both comprehensively defiant and universally downtrodden, depending on what makes them look better (and States worse) in the analysis at hand.

*For ‘State’, substitute Capitalism, Patriarchy, Colonialism, Imperialism, The Liberal Media, Fox News, The University Administration, My Older Brother, and/or The Devil at will. Modify ‘ordinary people’ accordingly.

Of course this is all pretty silly. Nobody actually thinks like this. Any relationship between such crude caricatures and real persons making real arguments is purely fortuitous. There are costs of not reading carefully. For much more careful and substantive thoughts on Scott’s recent work, check out the links below:

Kerim on The Art of Not Being Governed at Savage Minds

Henry Farrell of Crooked Timber’s long review of that book and Benedict Anderson’s Under Three Flags at American Interest Online, The State of Statelessness

Eric Brandom on Seeing Like a State at Learning Curve

Kerim again on Seeing Like an Economist, with more great links, including

Economist J. Bradford DeLong on James Scott and Friedrich Hayek, arguing that the Austrian liberal economists in their rejection of socialist central planning were the natural allies of local knowledge systems

And, not on Scott but a great demo of how to do really good State/civil society analysis (in the Russian case), Greg Afinogenov on the trouble with cynicism. In which, incidentally, Greg makes amends for an earlier snarky piece of hackwork much like this one, only with better graphics.

11 Responses to “The Iron Laws of Anarchism”

  1. I was just about to respond to your comment on Scott at my blog. I’m really, really irritated by James Scott, despite (or perhaps because of) being an anarchist myself. Scott’s MO is obviously something like this:

    1) Pick a situation involving an expanding or merely functioning state.
    2) You’ve found your bad guys! Now find some good guys. Typically, these are peasants who spit on the ground and wear funny hats.
    3) Are there any instances in which the bad guys have not succeeded in turning the good guys into a Matrix-like society of totally controlled robot slaves, regardless of whether or not this was their original intention?
    4) You’ve found an example of successful resistance! Now make something up to fill in the blanks.

    In fact, Scott has become proverbial among the grad students in my department: a single mention of his name in an introduction immediately provokes loud outrage and eye-rolling, because of how reliably it seems to presage lazy epigonal pseudo-New Leftism that unreflectively reproduces traditional liberal mythologies. Unfortunately, the guy still seems to be trendy in Russian/Eastern European studies, which are always ten to twenty years behind their Western equivalents.

  2. Greg, your haughty dismissal of spitting on the ground and wearing funny hats sickens me. As for the Scott’s seemingly formulaic MO, surely the analysis always goes that way because the world always goes that way.

  3. The Brandom link reminds me, however, that Scott isn’t alone. I think Habermas has, if anything, wreaked even more damage on poor old Clio. (Although I suppose he’s not really to blame for the Canticle for Leibowitz-esque cargo cult that has sprouted up around a bad translation of his Habilitationsschrift.)

  4. Sure he is. He’s had ample opportunity to set the record straight. But I guess I’ll agree just on the normal dynamics of the vulgarization of concepts once they get out into the world.

    Btw, on the subject of vulgarization, and irritation by Scott, what he does to Gramsci’s multilayered, nuanced theory of hegemony ought to be grounds for public nose-twisting.

  5. Getting serious again for a second, I really do think Scott is good at what he does. I think you’ve summed up the method brilliantly, and I think the core worldview is just as lazy and flabby as we’ve outlined. But these faults are much more apparent in the people who are citing Scott, who unfortunately mine him for exactly what’s weakest, the facile conceptual superstructure. If I’m careful to ignore the conceptual flailing I can read Scott’s work with great pleasure for all the reasons ably discussed in the above links, perhaps especially the Farrell piece.

  6. I wholeheartedly concur. Scott tells good stories which are (for anarchists, anyway) as viscerally satisfying as any Hollywood movie. (He’s not as far from Avatar as he’d probably like to think.)

  7. Coming late to the conversation, I note that it has been mainly about Scott. How about shifting focus to resistance, which, it seems to me, is one of those massively overextended ideas that, if actually useful, needs to be sharpened a bit. I note, for example, Carl’s remark, “As for the Scott’s seemingly formulaic MO, surely the analysis always goes that way because the world always goes that way.”

    To which one has to reply, no, the world does not always go that way. In stable situations where the powers that be are firmly in control, resistance may be reduced to “critical readings,” other forms of shuck and jive, minstrel show parodies, or ritualized inversions, all of which leave the system intact and may also reinforce it. But revolutions do occur, heads do role, existing systems change. Even in cases where Marx (or was it Engels) was right and the first-time-tragedy, second-time-comedy rule applies, the powers that be don’t always win.

  8. One final thought: some scholars of faculty governance have used Scott to discuss the ongoing conflicts between administration and faculty over the direction of university. I think there’s a lot of validity to using Scott in this way. But it’s equally clear to me that a book like Wannabe U and its critique of the contemporary university shows the limits to this kind of analysis: ultimately, the author Tuchman ventriloquizes the faculty members’ perspective towards administrators, without any awareness of how other groups in the universities (TAs, adjuncts, students, etc.) might fit into the picture. So it seems that a less horizontal model of relations is necessary to describing how things are really working in a complex organization, let alone “society.”


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