Anarchist All Along

by Pat Huff

Anarchy is not a utopian goal to aspire to but rather a reality to be recognized and honed. It is a basic aspect of the human condition that manifests in our daily lives and our relations with other people. That’s the premise of a recent book by James C. Scott, Two Cheers for Anarchism: Six Easy Pieces on Autonomy, Dignity, and Meaningful Work and Play (Princeton University Press, 2012).

At 169 pages, including notes, acknowledgments and an index, and written in a breezy conversational style, the book makes for a relaxing Sunday afternoon read. It consists of 29 short essays on subjects ranging from the Civil Rights movement to playground instruction to traffic rules in Holland to peasant resistance.

Through extensive field research among peasant communities and in-depth historical analysis of social struggles, Scott has come to recognize anarchy simply as “cooperation without hierarchy or state rule.” Scott is not particularly interested in contemporary anarchist political groups or social movements. He leans toward what he identifies as anarchy’s “infrapolitics,” or the anarchy of daily life. Scott juxtaposes what he calls the “vernacular order” with the “official order.” By the term vernacular order, Scott refers to a social order embedded in a particular place, with particular practices and knowledge rooted in local history.

The state’s official order, by contrast, relies on reductive (over-simplified) generalizations: complex lived experiences and local knowledge are reduced to only those features of interest to elite planners. These reductions take familiar forms: official maps, legal titles, standardized paperwork, the imposition of an official language.

Through these reductive projects, elite planners construct what Scott calls a “synoptic view” of society. For example, planners can learn the facts important to them by glancing at a table or chart detailing a region’s annual oil production, but this view will say little about working conditions on off-shore rigs, environmental damage resulting from decades of leaks and spills, decreases in local quality of life, or daily struggles to make a living in an increasingly limited job market.

Through the imposition of official order and its being valued over vernacular orders, society becomes increasingly oriented toward the service of elite interests and concerns. “It is no exaggeration,” Scott says, “to view the past three centuries as the triumph of standardized official landscapes of control and appropriation over the vernacular order.” (p. 35)

This “triumph” has hardly been total, however, and may be compared to the “triumph” of a parasite in maintaining a relation to its living host. Just because elite planners wish and need to view reality through reductive glasses does not mean that reality is ever totally reduced to synoptic representation. As Scott points out, “[t]he more highly planned, regulated, and formal a social or economic order is, the more likely it is to be parasitic on informal processes that the formal scheme does not recognize and without which it could not continue to exist…” (p. 45)

Organized workers who make use of the “work-to-rule” tactic understand this point well. To employ the “work-to-rule” tactic means that workers collectively decide to obey to the letter every single code and regulation that they’d usually (and necessarily) ignore in the course of regular work. As demonstrated time and again, once this happens the work process begins to stutter and stall. This proves Scott’s point that even in the most highly formal conditions, informality must necessarily persist.

What does all this have to do with radical struggle in Louisiana and the larger Gulf Coast? Scott points to existing substrata of history and social reality that are always already anarchist. We might call this implicit anarchy. Based on this, we can find a potential organizing strategy for anarchists of the more explicit variety.

For a research project I recently interviewed a number of explicit (meaning self-declared) anarchists living in New Orleans. A subset of those interviews provided some grounds for the messages I take from the work of Scott and others: those I spoke to with life histories within New Orleans’ African American community reflected on the anarchy of daily life within New Orleans’ black communities. This is hardly surprising given the history of the black working class’s efforts at organizing mutual aid and self-help societies. The self-organization within and across communities during Katrina is another powerful example of implicit anarchy that has shaped the city in recent years.

It’s no secret that explicitly anarchist communities can be somewhat off-putting for folks not already in the “scene.” I would argue that if the explicit anarchist community in New Orleans or any other locale wishes to expand beyond a pre-selected aesthetic and cultural niche, the challenge will be to figure out how to respectfully and genuinely engage with the currents of implicit anarchy that already exist in their communities. This is a strategy of movement building. The task is not to create something totally new, but rather to organize and expand what already exists.