What is Anarchist Economics?
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“The Accumulation of Freedom: Writings on Anarchist Economics” develops both the anarchist critique of capitalism and the project of an anarchist society.”
by George Fish
Political economy is the name originally given to economics during its early days of development under the classical economists such as Adam Smith, David Ricardo, John Stuart Mill, and its enfant terrible, Karl Marx. But I want to use it in a different, a “new,” sense here, as the intersection of politics and economics; because, while economics itself has become a highly technical field, it is more often politics that informs economic policy and practice—that is, just what is done to create jobs, promote equality, produce goods and services that benefit all, and basically provide for the material benefit of society. Further, while much of economics, or classical political economy for that matter, is implicitly or explicitly pro-capitalist, significant objections to capitalism have been raised through the economic analysis of capitalism itself, as well as through the positing of an alternative political order to capitalism—chiefly, of course, by the left. Both historically, and in the present, the left divides broadly on the alternative polity to capitalism into two main camps: socialism and anarchism.
“The Accumulation of Freedom: Writings on Anarchist Economics” develops both the anarchist critique of capitalism and the project of an anarchist society and its achievement through nineteen essays written by anarchist scholar/activists, not all of them professional academics. This scholarly activism is exemplified in the biographies of the three editors themselves, Deric Shannon, Anthony J. Nocella II and John Asimakopoulos. Appropriately for the discussion of “new” political economy and economic analysis as seen through anarchist eyes, “The Accumulation of Freedom” is subtitled “Writings on Anarchist Economics.”
Anarchist critiques of both capitalism and socialism have taken on an active new life in recent years on the left, and anarchist movements are now an integral part of it. The anarchist notion of direct participation in the restructuring of society, the notion of non-hierarchical social arrangements, and full democratic participation in all decision-processes have become integrally part of the world left theory and practice, often displacing previous left attraction to socialism and Marxism-Leninism. Anarchism and anarchist movements have come prominently into play since the Seattle demonstrations against the World Trade Organization (WTO) in 1999, and are integrally involved in both the activism and the political theory of Occupy movements. The “Postscript” in “The Accumulation of Freedom” written by the three editors in November 2011, at the height of Occupy Wall Street, expresses both the indebtedness of anarchism to the Occupy notion, its cross-fertilization by Occupy, and posits directions within an anarchist perspective that build on and extend Occupy notions.
An important development concomitant with the rise of contemporary anarchism is the notion of effective socialist-anarchist alliances around issues of common concern, and friendly, if critical, dialogue between socialists and anarchists. Three contributions to this notion of positive socialist-anarchist alliance have been articulated by socialists who see commonality despite differences with anarchist activists. The first of these was Ursula McTaggart’s “Can We Build Socialist-Anarchist Alliances?” in the socialist bimonthly Against the Current . A more restrained, but equally positive, assessment of socialist-anarchist alliances was given by Marvin Mandell in his review article in New Politics , “Anarchism and Socialism.” Mandell ends his review by writing, “I think Marxists and Anarchists can learn from each other and, in fact, need each other.” George Fish also contributed to the positive discussion of socialist-anarchist alliances from a socialist perspective in his review of Noam Chomsky’s “Chomsky on Anarchism,” in New Politics , “Chomsky, Anarchism, and Socialism,” and has a review of “The Accumulation of Freedom” forthcoming in New Politics 54 (Winter 2013).
“The Accumulation of Freedom” reciprocates this socialist appreciation by several contributors borrowing much of their analyses and critiques of capitalism from socialist and Marxist sources and, in some cases, openly expressing appreciation for Marx and Marxist ideas themselves. This is sometimes quite hard to do for anarchists, as Marx was a foremost critic of anarchism and engaged in vigorous polemics with two of its leading proponents, Mikhail Bakunin and Pierre-Joseph Prudhon. Yet in many ways the socialist and anarchist critiques of capitalism dovetail, and few socialists would have quarrel with the extensive critiques of contemporary capitalism and its destructiveness laid out here. Further, these analytical essays, contained in Parts 2 and 3 of the book, are extensive, well documented, and well done, giving great elucidation and development to the topic. The only analytical essay in these sections I was disappointed with was Abbey Volcano and Deric Shannon’s “Capitalism in the 200os: Broad Strokes for Beginners,” which I found more descriptive than analytical, but perhaps that is why it is subtitled as it is—it is aimed at beginners to economic analysis of capitalism, not so much at veterans like me.
There are many essays that discuss the how-to-do-it aspect of anarchist social transformation, but they all share in common the Do-It-Yourself (DIY) and cooperative, mutual aid and support approach that is an integral part of contemporary anarchism. Unlike many socialists, anarchists rely more on direct action and determined groups of people just doing it, from Occupy movements to workers taking over factories and running them themselves, as detailed in Marie Trigona’s “Occupy, Resist, Produce! Lessons from Latin America’s Occupied Factories.” Here anarchists differ in emphasis and tactics generally from socialists in that they are impatient with socialist efforts to gain control of state power and use the power of the state to transform capitalism and create the new socialist state order because, of course, anarchists oppose the very existence of the state itself. But they also believe that the people themselves can organize to provide for their needs and wants independently of, and without reliance on, the state and state power.
“The Accumulation of Freedom” also contains useful guides on tactics of resistance, protest and effective opposition. Chief among these is Robin Hahnel’s “The Economic Crisis and Libertarian Socialists,” based on a speech Hahnel gave in Greece to anti-austerity activists. Hahnel lays out a multi-point guide for political action to restructure the European economies such as Greece’s that have been devastated by neoliberalism, and articulates in this a program many a supposedly “tamer” socialist would heartily agree with. D.T. Cochrane and Jeff Monaghan’s “Fight to Win! Tools for Confronting Capital” draws lessons on tactics and strategy from anti-corporate struggles that have been found useful and effective in a number of cases, from opposing sweatshops to getting divestment from arms manufacturing to stopping destructive research on animals.
The “Introduction” by the editors, “Anarchist Economics: A Holistic View,” the “Preface” by Ruth Kinna, and the “Afterword” by Michael Albert, “Porous Borders of Anarchist Vision and Strategy” articulate points of convergence and divergence among anarchists themselves, and elucidate in detail that there is no more only one sole variety of anarchism than there is only one sole variety of socialism. These three essays are especially useful for beginners in anarchist thought, though they have much also to teach the veterans, and they teach positively to all across the board—anarchists, socialists, as well as to interested political science and economic specialists and students who are neither.
Nor are people of color, both in the US “internal colony” and the Third World, slighted; Ernesto Aguilar takes note of their struggles in “Call It an Uprising: People of Color and the Third World Organize against Capitalism,” emphasizing a positive intersection of race, class and resistance in sparking rebellion of the darker-skinned vast majority of the world’s oppressed against global capitalism. While insightful in many ways, I did find this essay burdened too much with rhetorical flourish when it seemed to need more in-depth analysis. Aguilar raises many an intriguing thought, but then drops it without further discussion.
But all this only demonstrates the extensiveness and diversity to anarchist thought. It certainly belies any notion of an anarchist “party line” or generic “one-size-fits-all” variety of anarchism. The essays are well chosen, expressive of a wide diversity of approaches, and interesting and exciting to read. I read ‘The Accumulation of Freedom” virtually nonstop; once I started, I simply could not put it down. “The Accumulation of Freedom” is an important contribution to the study of this “new” political economy defined at the beginning, and is a book to heartily recommend.
George Fish is a veteran socialist writer and poet in Indianapolis, Indiana, who has contributed to many left and alternative publications. He has appeared in New Politics, In These Times and Socialism and Democracy, among many others. He has written on economics (in which he has a university degree), Marxism and socialism, mental health issues and pop music, also writes on Indiana and Indianapolis as a journalist for Examiner.com, and has a political blog, “Politically Incorrect Leftist.”
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