Outline of a relational realist theory of anarchism

In the last few days I read David Graeber’s new book which begins to develop a novel left-wing critique of bureaucracy. I’d seen Graeber lecture but hadn’t read anything by him previously. His anarchism comes through much more clearly in his book than it did in the lecture I saw him give on the the history of debt at the International Association for Critical Realism conference last year.

It’s left me thinking about my own anarchism: something which was central to my outlook on the world and my activism for a long time but which I gradually drifted away from in the process of my transition into a sociology department. In part this was because I began to realise that my anarchism had been sociologically naive (something I realise now was a statement about my anarchism rather than anything intrinsic to it as a political outlook) and I was troubled by the individualism I increasingly saw as latent in it in spite of my frequent invocations of the nebulous concept of ‘community’. I also had an increasing awareness of the usefulness of bureaucratic organisations that sat uneasily with my professed anarchism. I’ve always endorsed what Noam Chomsky sees anarchism to be but I’ve never been convinced he’s describing anything more than anti-authoritarianism when he makes statements like this:

Well, anarchism is, in my view, basically a kind of tendency in human thought which shows up in different forms in different circumstances, and has some leading characteristics.  Primarily it is a tendency that is suspicious and skeptical of domination, authority, and hierarchy.  It seeks structures of hierarchy and domination in human life over the whole range, extending from, say, patriarchal families to, say, imperial systems, and it asks whether those systems are justified.  It assumes that the burden of proof for anyone in a position of power and authority lies on them.  Their authority is not self-justifying.  They have to give a reason for it, a justification.  And if they can’t justify that authority and power and control, which is the usual case, then the authority ought to be dismantled and replaced by something more free and just.  And, as I understand it, anarchy is just that tendency.  It takes different forms at different times.

I’m increasingly wondering if relational realism provides a useful starting point for conceptualising the theory and practice of anarchism. From this perspective, much of sociological thought has either assumed relations and treated them as epiphenomenal or dealt with them in a basically minimalistic way: as internal relations between social roles (e.g. landlord/tenant, teacher/student), the occupancy of social position within distributional structures or as trajectories of iterated interaction. The former view treats role incumbents as basically interchangeable while the latter view presents social life as ceaseless transactions. What all miss is the quality of the social relationship which has crucial causal implications for how the parties so related act in relation to each other.

These qualities exist for those related in virtue of the relationship. For instance, you can’t point to the ‘trust’ in a trusting relationship but this quality is integral to those who are related in such a way. It’s something produced through interaction but irreducible to that interaction: it can be lost even if both parties value that trust. This is the foundation of collective concern because the character of our relations matters to us. This is what Archer and Donati talk about as collective reflexivity: ‘collective orientation to our collective outputs’. The notion of a safe space is an interesting example of this: one in which a group is concerned to develop social relations in which all members feel able to voice their concerns without censure. But collective reflexivity can be found wherever there are social relations.

This offers us a way of theorising collectivity between people that has no need to impute identical beliefs, identities or commitments to members of the collective. It’s a theory of shared commitment and I think it has important implications for political theory which I’m in the process of trying to elucidate. One of these is for anarchism itself: it seems to me that it offers a way of thinking about communality that fiercely critiques bureaucracy without lapsing into individualism. I’m playing with the idea that hierarchies in themselves tend to be corrosive towards relational goods and that there are other features of bureaucratic modes of organisation which contribute to this corrosiveness in different ways e.g. impersonality. We could see bureaucracy as a social technology which seeks to turn thick relationality (of the kind that generates relational goods) into thin relationality (links between roles within an organisation) and in doing so has an inherent tendency towards the impoverishment of human life. I think relational realism has a lot to offer Graeber’s project of trying to develop a language in which we can be much more precise about what it is we object to in bureaucracy.

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