Anarchist theory developed when non-anthropologists (like Peter Kropotkin), who knew little about small-scale nonwestern societies, discovered that not all social situations are hierarchical, that there are ways of organizing society without rulers or elites, and that cooperation among individuals has positive benefits. For people whose experience and knowledge is limited to modern nation-states, these may be real insights that describe attractive alternative social patterns. But anthropology developed as a discipline that studied small-scale nonwestern societies. Non-hierarchical social arrangements, lacking rulers and elites, where cooperation reigns, are not a big deal. The world is (was) full of such societies, and anthropologists long ago figured out what they were like and how they worked.
So why would archaeologists wan to use anarchist theory -- developed by people without much knowledge of small-scale nonwestern societies, writing about alternatives within modern nation-states -- instead of the fruits of more than a century of ethnographic research and anthropological analysis? Yes, Kropotkin hung out with villagers in Siberia and learned something about their way of life. But ethnographers lived for decades in villages all over the world, and produced far better knowledge about small-scale society than Kropotkin or the other anarchists could ever produce. This is my puzzlement about the adoption of anarchist theory by archaeologists. Anthropology has better data and better theory about small-scale societies.
On the other hand, one of my favorite urban scholars is British anarchist Colin Ward, whose work I find insightful. I encountered his work when I was researching informal settlements and their urban attributes (Smitih 2010; Smith et al. 2015). Ward worked with radical housing advocate John F.C. Turner in the 1970s, writing the preface of Turner's 1977 book, Housing by People. On shantytowns, Ward (1973:70) states,
“The poor of the Third World shanty-towns, acting anarchically, because no authority is powerful enough to prevent them from doing so, have three freedoms which the poor of the rich world have lost. As John Turner puts it, they have the freedom of community self-selection, the freedom to budget one’s own resources and the freedom to shape one’s own environment. In the rich world, every bit of land belongs to someone, who has the law and the agents of law-enforcement firmly on his side.”
For Ward, shantytowns in the developing world exhibit the basic principles of his "anarchist theory of organization (Ward 1966). The act of building in informal settlements is:
I enjoy teaching Ward's (1973a) chapter on shantytowns, "We house, you are housed, they are homeless." It challenges students views that slums are terrible places of crime and social breakdown, and it also challenges their views of anarchism. Students often think anarchists are old guys holed up in a cabin in the woods with their guns and dogs. The notion that anarchism is a collective and communal way of life is a good discussion topic.
For me, the theoretical value of Ward's work is that it is based on the notion of the generative power of social collectivities:
· “An important component of the anarchist approach to organisation is what me might call the theory of spontaneous order: the theory that, given a common need, a collection of people will, by trial and error, by improvisation and experiment, evolve order out of the situation—this order being more durable and more closely related to their needs than any kind of externally imposed authority could provide.” (Ward 1973b:31).
While I like Ward's work and his perspective, I don't find much analytical power. That is, he has a nice descriptive account of generative processes, but without the causal mechanisms and theoretical power of many alternative social-science approaches to generative processes. For example, collective action theory (Levi 1988), cooperation research in economics (Bowles & Gintis 2011), neighborhood analysis (Sampson 2012), and Elinor Ostrom's (1990, 2005) institutional analysis are examples of theoretical approaches that have more power and (for me) more usefulness than Colin Ward's anarchist theory. And the urban scaling research I am involved with now is based on a generative theory that derives quantitative urban patterns from the social interactions among people within built environments (Bettencourt 2013). Colin Ward's anarchist theory is entirely consistent with the scaling model, but the latter is a far more powerful model.
So, is anarchist theory useful? I guess if it helps one think about important issues, then it is useful. In this sense, Colin Ward's anarchist theories of architecture and urbanism have been useful to me (for analyses of Ward's thought, see Honyewell 2011, or especially White 2007). But for more powerful explanatory models, I need to look elsewhere. As for more generalized anarchist theory, it is hard to understand why archaeologists would take the word of anthropologically-clueless anarchists over anthropologists who have been studying "anarchist" societies for more than a century.
Angelbeck, Bill and Colin Grier (2012) Anarchism and the Archaeology of Anarchic Societies: Resistance to Centralization in the Coast Salish Region of the Pacific Northwest Coast. Current Anthropology 53(5):547-587.
Bettencourt, Luís M. A. (2013) The Origins of Scaling in Cities. Science 340:1438-1441.
Bowles, Samuel and Herbert Gintis (2011) A Cooperative Species: Human Reciprocity and its Evolution. Princeton University Press, Princeton.
Dugatkin, Lee A. (2011) The Prince of Evolution: Peter Kropotkin's Adventures in Science and Politics. Createspace.
Honeywell, Carissa (2011) A British Anarchist Tradition: Herbert Read, Alex Comford and Colin Ward. Continuum, New York.
Levi, Margaret (1988) Of Rule and Revenue. University of California Press, Berkeley.
Ostrom, Elinor (1990) Governing the Commons: The Evolution of Institutions for Collective Action. Cambridge University Press, New York.
Ostrom, Elinor (2005) Understanding Institutional Diversity. Princeton University Press, Princeton.
Sampson, Robert J. (2012) Great American City: Chicago and the Enduring Neighborhood Effect. University of Chicago Press, Chicago.
Smith, Michael E. (2010) Sprawl, Squatters, and Sustainable Cities: Can Archaeological Data Shed Light on Modern Urban Issues? Cambridge Archaeological Journal 20:229-253.
Smith, Michael E., Ashley Engquist, Cinthia Carvajal, Katrina Johnston, Amanda Young, Monica Algara, Yui Kuznetsov and Bridgette Gilliland (2015) Neighborhood Formation in Semi-Urban Settlements. Journal of Urbanism 8(2):173-198.
Ward, Colin (1966) Anarchism as a Theory of Organization. Anarchy 62:97-109. Reprinted at "The Anarchist Library, Anti-Copyright".
Ward, Colin (1973b) the Theory of Spontaneous Order. In Anarchy in Action, pp. 31-39. George Allen and Unwin, London.
Ward, Colin (1973a) We House, You are Housed, They are Homeless (chapter 6). In Anarchy in Action, pp. 67-73. George Allen and Unwin, London.
White, Stuart (2007) Making Anarchism Respectable?: The Social Philosophy of Colin Ward. Journal of Political Ideologies 12:11-28.