The Government of No One

From Times Higher Education

The Theory and Practice of Anarchism, by Ruth Kinna

Jorell Meléndez-Badillo considers a globe-spanning study of the political philosophy that explores it at the intellectual and the street level

On 15 July 2019, thousands of Puerto Ricans clashed with police officers in a street confrontation that lasted several hours and included fires, tear gas and makeshift barricades. At moments, the streets of Old San Juan resembled a war zone. The following day, the city walls were covered with anarchist slogans and circled As. While many people thought it was just a one-off brawl, the people’s demand for the resignation of Ricardo Rosselló became a multi-sectoral movement. Two weeks later, on 24 July, the territory’s governor announced that he would leave office in two weeks.

For some, the graffiti might have seemed just an expression of youthful exuberance. However, as Ruth Kinna demonstrates in The Government of No One, anarchism is a vibrant, centuries-old political philosophy.

What has come to be understood as “modern anarchism” emerged in the context of 19th-century Europe. Since then, it has proliferated across the globe, albeit modified or transformed to meet local needs. Popular misunderstanding may stem from the fact that anarchism is not composed of a single canon of thinkers or intellectual traditions. Rather, it is part of a constellation of cultures, conditions and prospects. Historically, anarchists have shared a set of goals and practices, but they also developed multiple, and often divergent, ideas about what an anarchist society should look like as well as how to achieve it.

Kinna’s book is an accessible introduction for those interested in exploring anarchism’s vast complexity and fluidity. Throughout, she focuses on the ways anarchists have interpreted some of the ideology’s most basic concepts and practices in different parts of the world. In doing so, she creates a dialogue of ideas across space and time. As she notes, the waves of 19th-century debates on how to bring about revolution and create new worlds continue to resonate in anarchist movements. However, it is also important to note that the historical conditions and systems of domination that anarchists face today can differ greatly. Thus, instead of considering solely how anarchism as an idea has been interpreted, Kinna also explores contemporary practices.

The book works well as an introduction – complete with tables, biographies and definitions – but it also contributes to anarchist historiography more broadly. Kinna presents an up-to-date analysis that includes theories of intersectionality (the analysis of multiple and interlocking forms of oppression), critical feminism, the events that took place in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina and also the revolutionary organising happening in Kurdish Rojava.

The Government of No One will undoubtedly become obligatory reading for those who wish to learn about anarchism, as well as for scholars of radical politics in general. Here, Kinna joins the mostly male-dominated canon that has crafted comprehensive and far-reaching histories of anarchism over the past century, such as Max Nettlau (1865-1944), Daniel Guérin (1904-88) and Peter Marshall (born 1946). As the graffiti that were spray-painted in San Juan a few weeks ago demonstrate, anarchism is not a thing of the past but is very much alive. Kinna provides a guide for exploring the global cartography of contemporary anarchist organising, theorising and practice.

Jorell Meléndez-Badillo is currently Mellon faculty fellow at Dartmouth College, where he will serve as assistant professor of history from 2020.

The Government of No One: The Theory and Practice of Anarchism
By Ruth Kinna
416pp, £20.00
ISBN 9780241396551
Published 1 August 2019

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The Government of No One by Ruth Kinna review – the rise of anarchism

From terrorists to Groucho-Marxists ... the story of one of the most daring political currents of the age

The first suicide bomber in English literature is a crazed anarchist professor in Joseph Conrad’s novel The Secret Agent who stalks around London wired up with explosives. Entranced by a vision of pure nothingness, he has only to squeeze a rubber ball in his pocket to annihilate the present and clear a space for a utopian future. His political comrades are a bunch of sinister continental freaks who succeed in blowing up a young boy with learning difficulties.

Anarchism, in short, has something of an image problem. Even Ruth Kinna, in this sympathetic, impressively well-informed history of the movement, has to admit that it has had its fair share of bombers and assassins. Yet she also illustrates its extraordinary creativity. Born in the 19th century, a brainchild of the Unholy Trinity of French libertarian socialist Pierre-Joseph Proudhon and Russian revolutionaries Mikhail Bakunin and Peter Kropotkin, anarchism rejected what it saw as Karl Marx’s narrow economic and proletarian viewpoint. Nevertheless, the two creeds have a lot in common. Both believe in class struggle, the abolition of private property and the overthrow of the state. Both see the role of the state as defending private property, a view that you can also find in Cicero. Marx thinks that the state will eventually wither away, while anarchists believe in helping it on its way as soon as they can.
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Where the two camps really collide is on the question of power. Power for Marxists is in the service of material interests. It isn’t the last word. Anarchists agree about the material interests, but see power as more primary than that. Domination of any kind is to be rejected. Anarchism isn’t opposed to government as such, just to any form of it that isn’t self-government. For many, this includes democracy, which involves the tyranny of the majority over the individual. Marxists will work with liberal democracy, whereas anarchists won’t. For them, it is just a more kid-gloved kind of coercion.

Yet no society can survive without coercion. There is nothing despotic about being made to drive on the left, or stopping your flatmate from playing the bagpipes all night. Rules can facilitate freedom as well as obstruct it: if everyone drives on the same side of the road, I’m less likely to end up in a wheelchair. The political state is indeed a source of lethal violence, but it also arranges for children to learn how to tie their shoelaces. Not all power is repressive, nor all authority obnoxious. There is the authority of those who are seasoned in the struggle against patriarchy, which one would do well to respect. Telling someone something they need to know isn’t always “hierarchical”. Nor is knowledge, as some slightly wackier libertarians have maintained. Some anti-hierarchical anarchists believe that all opinions hold equal weight, in which case the view that all opinions don’t hold equal weight is also true. When the young Noam Chomsky (an anarchist, no less) came to Europe in the late 1960s with vital information on the political turmoil in the United States, some students refused to listen to him on the grounds that lecturing is a form of violence.

Even so, anarchism has been among the most daring, imaginative political currents of the modern age, from the Paris Commune of 1871 to the Occupy movement of 2011-12 (20,000 Parisians were slaughtered in the wake of the Commune, a fact that those appalled by the French revolutionary terror generally fail to recall). By the end of the 19th century, the movement had become a global presence from Uruguay to Japan. Rejecting state socialism and revolutionary vanguards, it devoted itself instead to direct action, self-governing cooperatives, experiments in education, flexible networks and grass-roots organising. Kinna’s book is packed with information about this rich history, all of it delivered in a curiously toneless, styleless way. Some of the pioneering figures of modern anarchism, such as Emma Goldman and Paul Goodman, are appropriately honoured.

Anarchists don’t like restrictive labels, including the word “anarchism”. Yet the term isn’t all that restrictive: as Kinna points out, it includes class-struggle anarchism, social anarchism, anarcho-syndicalism, post-left anarchy, individualistic anarchism and quite a lot more. Post-left anarchy, one of whose advocates once sponsored something called Groucho Marxism, is basically just a matter of having a good time. There are those activists for whom there can’t really be anarchist parties or political programmes, since parties and programmes are part of the problem rather than the solution. Anarchist politics thus becomes a form of anti-politics. You can only bring down the state by organising, but organisation hampers the free spirit. Disruption and transgression thus become the order of the day. Only by keeping on the move can you avoid becoming part of the system yourself.

Pressed to an extreme, freedom means freedom from the constraints of other people, and thus an unbridled individualism. This was the view of the 19th-century thinker Max Stirner, with his so-called philosophy of egoism. (As some wag remarked, one would like to know what Mrs Stirner thought about that). Philosophical egoism, however, has not had many takers in anarchist circles, as opposed to the common-or-garden variety. What has been more popular is the view that human nature is inherently good but is corrupted by external powers. One of the many problems with this view is that power works as well as it does because we internalise it, so that to violate it would be to violate ourselves.

The Government of No One ends with a useful set of brief anarchist biographies, but overlooks the career of Michel Foucault, one of the most influential of modern political thinkers, who was an anarchist at heart. There is also no entry for Edward Carpenter, who around the year 1900 ranked among Britain’s most celebrated anarchist writers and was a pioneer of gay politics. I should declare a personal interest in drawing attention to this fact, since I once spent four dreary years writing a doctoral thesis on him.

• Humour by Terry Eagleton is published by Yale. Government of No One by Ruth Kinna is publishsed by Pelican (£20). To order a copy go to Free UK p&p on all online orders over £15.

lol, Foucault " anarchist at heart" lmao

No Jorell, the city walls Old San Juan were not covered with anarchist graffiti. There was a circled A here and there, but there was probably just as many V for Vendetta signs, and definitely more dick graffiti around. Most of the people protesting will vote for the same party that the resigning governor belonged to. The protests were not against government, but against a candidate and his public image.

Anarchism is as irrelevant to a global scale of things, as are the micro electoral politics of Puerto Rico to a history of anarchism and to this book review.

"The political state is indeed a source of lethal violence, but it also arranges for children to learn how to tie their shoelaces."...I hope the state never withers away, else we will all be tripping over our untied shoelaces

Quite a cute-looking book IRL. Bit of a surprise to see the publisher (Pelican) doing it in hardback form.

the flags on it r pretti


a couple glaring points of disagreement:

- "Post-left anarchy ... is basically just a matter of having a good time. "

that is a perfect example of how individuals should NEVER represent a position they CLEARLY do not understand.

"The political state is indeed a source of lethal violence, but it also arranges for children to learn how to tie their shoelaces."
seriously? so parents/siblings/etc have absolutely nothing to do with that, and children always arrive at their first day of school with untied shoes.

somebody stop me...

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