Review: Strategy and Geography: The Anarchist Horizon by Simon Springer
From Earth First! Newswire by Alexander Reid Ross
The Anarchist Roots of Geography explores the groundwork of anarchist theory in the works of Emma Goldman, Peter Kropotkin, Mikhail Bakunin, and Elissee Reclus, in particular. Locating crucial premises of solidarity grounded in geographic decentralization, Springer hones in on the works of Kropotkin and Reclus. Both geographers of considerable academic prestige, Kropotkin and Reclus are rendered in clear and accessible terms by Springer, who suggests that their contributions maintains an important influence in the different fields of geography today. In particular, Springer suggests that these geographers and philosophers advanced notions that would later foster today’s idea of “prefiguration”—the production of alternative structures that can foster “small, loving, intelligent societies,” in the words of Reclus, with the ultimate goal of a larger, global commons. Springer notes, “Reclus advanced a relational notion of the commons by employing a decidedly geographical imagination that envisioned a connection between the immediate context and the wider social frame” (7). Such geographic imagination was also presented by Emma Goldman, who “turned a new page in anarchist geographies” by bringing anarchism “in direct conversation with feminism,” and by writing dispatches from Russia and Spain involving prescient analyses of political geography (32). Springer observes that the social ecology of Murray Bookchin owed much to the important work of Reclus, Kropotkin, and Goldman, while developing new political concepts of libertarian municipalism that would inspire geographers to come.
Despite the ongoing relevance of the work of Reclus and other anarchist thinkers to today’s geographers (for instance, Elinor Ostrom and Vicky Lawson), Springer observes that geographers have drifted toward Marxism against anarchism. Identifying the radical geographer, David Harvey, as a trend-setter in this pattern, Springer shows how the Marxist turn has involved a bitter struggle against anarchist influence. Here, Springer locates the concept of the national liberation state as a problematic aspect of Marxist geography, in so far as it advances a statist solution that tends to reproduce the colonial apparatus. Rather than seek a statist response to empire that will ensure various aspects of a social welfare safety net (but not much else), Springer urges the reader to address all aspects of modern life with a critical faculty that can draw out radical potentials for universal freedom and equality. “[T]o be ‘postcolonial’ in any meaningful sense is also to be ‘post-statist’ or anarchic, wherein the hierarchies, order, authority, and violence upon which these parallel state projects have been built are rejected outright” (55).
While his perspective precludes Marxian statism, Springer does not reject outright aspects of Marx’s thought that mark clear contributions to the study of capital and society, and which are carried forward by autonomists and anarchists today. Indeed, his proposals for decentralized geographies of anarchism reflect deliberation on and developments of autonomous structures: “Childcare co-ops, street parties, gardening clinics, learning networks, flash mobs, community kitchens, unstopping groups, independent media collectives, rooftop occupations, freecycling activities, direct action organization, radical samba, peer-to-peer file sharing, sewing workshops, tree sitting, monkey wrenching, spontaneous disaster relief, culture jamming, book fairs, microradio, building coalitions, collective hacking, dumpster diving, wildcat strikes, neighborhood tool sharing, tenants’ associations, workplace organizing, and squatting are all anarchism in action, each with decidedly spatial implications, and this is just the tip of the proverbial iceberg” (73).
While Springer is correct that each of the forms of autonomous self-activity listed above compose some aspect in a web of anarchist theory of practice—and that their geographical relationships become incredibly important over time—it is important to note that not one single point on this web is necessarily anarchist. Dumpster diving can of course be carried out by anyone, as can squatting, street parties, and even treesitting. At the same time, there is perhaps no general theory that is better reflected in the ends-and-means indicated by those forms. Here, however, anarchism exposes what could be a weakness: If each of these forms manifests an end in itself as related to the overall goal of achieving a global, free society of societies, then how can the decentralization truly translate to coordination on a mass scale? If anarchism is, more than an anti-state critique, a process of producing freedom through mutual aid, then the recovery of anarchist geography becomes crucial to strengthening global movements everywhere in their quest for justice and liberation.
The question remains: While anarchism can have an important impact on liberation movements, particularly by promoting anti-authoritarian decentralization, can anarchism itself gain hegemony in these movements and their coordination? If we recognize that such coordination is necessary for the fulfillment of universal goals, we have to reconcile with multifarious dilemmas plaguing the anarchist movement, such as it exists today. Rather than investigate internal conflicts, however, Springer assembles an understanding of anarchism as an “attitude,” drawing from a variety of anarchist thinkers who do not necessarily hold much internal agreement—Stirner, Bakunin, Graeber, Hakim Bey—in order to propose the adaptive, daily work of producing a new world over and against a perfect, reproducible model of ideological consistency.
Suggesting that anarchism exists to radicalize democracy, not to stand as a singularity or totality, Springer opens a network of left-wing theories to formulate a devastating critique of the spatial implications of statism and other geographic potentialities. This network includes Marxists like Jacques Ranciére and Henri Lefebvre to critique the spatial function of police (controlling the seen and unseen) and everyday urban space while deliberating on the radical nature of democracy as a system of power-sharing. It also includes non-Marxist radical thinkers like Walter Benjamin and Giorgio Agamben, who conceive of the implications of the state’s juridical composition on public space and the distribution of power. The third grouping includes post-marxists like Chantal Mouffe, whose work focuses on the implementation of direct democracy and left populism. It is this section that I found the most difficult, in part due to the rapid shifting of gears between different philosophers whose individual voices seem tangled up together for lack of more space to unravel their independent discourses from one another. At the same time, the development of their theories alongside Springer’s is conducted aptly enough to avoid dissimulation and contradiction. Moreover, Springer adds to these more noted names a host of lesser-known academics and theorists who take the discussion in directions that will be unfamiliar to those outside of university geography departments, potentially opening up new areas to explore for future development of anarchist geography. On the other hand, the extent and weight of theory in Springer’s work can prove daunting, even if it does put to rest the old canard about the lack of anarchist theory.
In the end, this is perhaps the most important contribution made by Springer in The Anarchist Roots of Geography—not just rehashing the classic “Golden Era of Anarchism” when anarchists were anarchists and the bosses were scared, but endeavoring into the contemporary contours of geography and anarchism as they intertwine today. There is less discussion of movement strategy here. However, the key points are made: Anarchism exists in a different terrain today than it did a hundred years ago, but it remains firmly engaged in its traditional line of inquiry into the human spirit and its capacity for liberation. The global tumult and unrest of the 21st Century is unleashed here, and the reader is provoked to imagine a world where revolution appears out of everyday activities that unite people through important moments in history. Its importance is not only addressed at labor or at the climate or at social structures or at the government, but at all of those important hubs and more. This is the anarchist horizon to which Springer gestures with his important book that will likely become a touchstone for a new generation of geographically minded anarchists, scholars, and radical academics.
The Anarchist Roots of Geography: Toward Spatial Emancipation (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2016).
Alexander Reid Ross is a lecturer in the Geography Department of Portland State University and the author of Against the Fascist Creep (AK Press, 2017). He also edited the anthology, Grabbing Back: Essays Against the Global Land Grab (AK Press, 2014), and helped edit the Earth First! Journal from 2009-2011, as well as co-founding the EF! Newswire. His favorite tree is the Hemlock.