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Anarchist Anthropology: Power without hierarchy

Anarchist Movement

Anthropology is known – most notoriously – as a discipline still grappling with the shackles of its murky colonial past. It’s perhaps slightly less well known for its affinity with anarchy. But if we take anarchism to mean the belief in democracy free from state apparatus, then it’s unsurprising that there’s a natural resonance between the two. A certain propensity for analysing societies without asymmetrical power structures goes a long way to explaining why so many anthropologists prefix their job title with the word ‘anarchist’.

Anarchist Anthropology: Power without hierarchy

Sarah Lester
1/10/2013
The Journal of Wild Culture

Sarah Lester investigates what budding anarchists might glean from anthropologists' field notes.

Anthropology is known – most notoriously – as a discipline still grappling with the shackles of its murky colonial past. It’s perhaps slightly less well known for its affinity with anarchy. But if we take anarchism to mean the belief in democracy free from state apparatus, then it’s unsurprising that there’s a natural resonance between the two. A certain propensity for analysing societies without asymmetrical power structures goes a long way to explaining why so many anthropologists prefix their job title with the word ‘anarchist’. They have empirical evidence that stateless societies are within the realms of possibility. As David Graeber – an academic anthropologist recently hailed as the anti-leader of the Occupy Movement – insists, any belief in a system of anarchy has to stem from the optimistic assumption that another world is possible.

For all its paradoxes and exoticising tendencies, anthropology is arguably the only discipline which attempts to consider the full range of societal and political structures on equal terms. It has attempted to better understand societies that operate without a formal law or state, even – or especially – where these societies have been deemed irrelevant. Modernity’s fixation with progress gave rise to a view of stateless societies as static and embryonic, as existing outside of history. Without the propelling force of the dialectic, so-called primitive societies stagnate in prehistory. Such societies are seen, therefore, as “entirely outside the concern of the philosophy of history” – in the words of Hegel, buffeted along by his commitment to teleology.

Hegel’s view of history emphasises the importance of reason, rationality and progress. Above all else, Hegel’s philosophy focuses on the state, which he views as the universal principle with which the subjective wills of the citizens must coincide to reach some kind of perfection. Whilst anthropologists’ close scrutiny of stateless societies always risks incurring accusations of facile primitivism, on a most basic level, direct experience of fieldwork amongst the – dare I say – savages, has highlighted the fact that valid alternatives to the state model do exist. They’ve found that societies can successfully operate without constant regulation from a systematic structure of coercion. And, counter to prevalent beliefs, they don’t all end up killing each other. Regardless of how practical its implementation might be, analyses of power which is not hierarchal, and leadership which is not authoritative, can challenge the very notions upon which our conception of civilisation is based. The results can be astonishing.

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