Thursday, April 21, 2016

Anarchism in archaeology: Trivial or insightful?

There has been a surge in interest in anarchist theory among archaeologists in the past few years (e.g., Angelbeck & Grier 2012). I alternative between thinking that this approach is pointless and unnecessary, and thinking that it has something useful to offer. My focus here is on anarchist theory as a tool for understanding and explaining the past, not as a means to understand the present and not as a political position or guide to action today. In brief, it seems to me that the basic ideas of anarchist theory -- as described and used by archaeologists -- are just poor versions of anthropological theory. Archaeologists would be better off using anthropology. But on the other hand, anarchist theory as model of generative processes in urban societies may have some useful insights.

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,
Colin Ward

“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:
  • voluntary
  • functional
  • temporary
  • small

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.


James Birmingham said...

The theories of the 'classic' anarchists aside - there are plenty of anthro informed anarchists. We are also talking about Scott, Clastres, Graeber, Barclay, and others in relation to archae. I think it is reductive to infer that anarchism informing archaeology means using Kropotkin or the like /instead/ of anthro (or other social) theory - instead it is about bringing in anarchist ideas to bolster or re-conceptualize other social theory. Y'know like uhh Foucault, Deleuze and a ton of other theorists we use in archae and anthro did.

Michael E. Smith said...

Well, for the kind of research I do, if anarchist theory is like Foucault an Deleuze, then it has no value at all. Its attraction for me is that it is UNLIKE these philosophical, abstract theoretical approaches, being grounded in the real actions of real people, and seeking explanation at the level of individuals and groups. Once I started reading beyond anthropology, the work of Scott and these others started sounding naive and simplistic. But if this stuff helps one think about social phenomena in a new way, then it is useful.

bill angelbeck said...

As a longtime reader of your blog, I admit to finding myself highlighted an unusual experience. It's not great to be on the end of dismissive treatment, especially when the statements appear to not have actually considered the ideas actually at hand here currently at the Amerind workshop, for instance. Anarchism can't be reduced to the ideas of Kropotkin studying small-scale societies (he was actually a geographer). Unlike Marxism, which can as its title implies be distilled to Marx, anarchists rely upon a plurality of numerous thinkers (Mikael Bakunin, Elisee Reclus, Murray Bookchin, Gustav Landauer, Emma Goodman, Errico Malatesta, Emma Goldman, Voltarine de Cleyre, Colin Ward, and others--including the ones mentioned by James above for anthropology), each of which provides a unique vantage point in which think through human sociopolitical dynamics--and yet none of those thinkers could be pointed to as central; there is no Zeus among that pantheon of thinkers. Yet, there are shared principles of thought among them all that boil down to anarchism itself as a word. We tend to think of it as: "an-" (without) + "arche" (ruler). But, a better translation of it is perhaps "without domination" or as an active stance of "against domination". It's a theory explicitly about human relationships without recourse to coercive forms authoritarianism, hierarchy, or exploitation of other humans (others extend that even further to non-human relationships with other species and the environment). So, while the info Kropotkin supplied about hunter-gatherers may certainly be outweighed by the rich anthropological literature since his time, it's not true that his ideas regarding forms of social relationships are outdated--in fact people increasingly turn to think through such social dynamics. At base, it's a theory about power, and for that reason anarchists have influenced thinking about social power in the social sciences and philosophy, affecting Nietzsche and Foucault. This hits on the basic point made by Bertrand Russell that the natural sciences are about the dynamics of energy, while the social sciences are about the dynamics of social power. As archaeology increasingly uses the language of natural sciences (as it should), it should also use realms of thought about social power, and anarchists have been at the source of that.

James Birmingham said...

I think it is also sort of disingenuous to infer that 'anarchist archaeology' would mean throwing our anthro or other social theory in favor of anarchist thought.

it isn't as if Marxist archaeologist only use Marx, Engels, Gramsci and the like or as if Feminist Archaeologists only cite women. etc etc

Michael E. Smith said...

@Bill - I would just like to see an informed argument of the ways in which anarchist theory improves on traditional anthropological theory with reference to small-scale societies. I read this stuff because it looks promising, but then my reaction is usually the feeling that anthropologists figured this stuff out decades ago. Perhaps there are areas of useful contribution in the anarchist literature. I would like to see a dispassionate analysis (that is, an intellectual analysis by someone not ideologically committed in favor or against anarchism) of just what anarchist theory contributes to our knowledge of small-scale societies, and how it may help archaeologists figure out past social dynamics.

For me, the picture for state societies is more intellectually complicated. Many anarchist accounts of contemporary society are interesting and insightful, but they tend to address themes and institutions that may not be directly comparable to those in past state societies (that is, issues of capitalism and the nation-state). The work of Colin Ward is distinct in that the urban issues, such as housing, that he addresses transcend political and economic forms, and have a greater direct comparability to premodern cities. For that reason I use his work in my own research.

Please don't take my comments as dismissive or a rejection of anarchist theory. If I had more time I would work on a more scholarly analysis of these issues. My goal is to get you guys to produce work that will provide a much clearer picture of the strengths and weaknesses of anarchist theory for a variety of archaeological purposes. It is probably very useful for some topics, and not useful at all for others. What are those topics? It probably intersects well with some theoretical approaches and less well with others. What are those approaches? I find some of the work attractive, and other accounts less so. But I have yet to see an account that convinces me of the value (or the lack of value) of anarchist theory for archaeologists working on diverse problems.

Michael E. Smith said...

@James - I'm not sure I follow what you are saying.

James Birmingham said...

I was responding to: "Archaeologists would be better off using anthropology."

We are using anthro (and other social theory) - you seemed to be saying that by using the adjective 'anarchist' we were somehow throwing out other theory. This isn't the case any more so than it is for 'marxist' 'feminist' 'queer' or similar adjectives being added to the front of archaeology.

bill angelbeck said...

These are important points, Michael. I have actually come around to anarchist theory by way of attempting to understand dynamics that the existing anthropological literature for the region I was working in, the Northwest Coast. Centralized hierarchical approaches were not appropriate; Marxist approaches had been too rigid and really were better fitting for societies with hierarchical relations as well. Conversely, the egalitarian concepts of most hunter-gatherer approaches also did not fit the complex foragers of the NWC at all. Frankly, I was confounded by the archaeological materials I was dealing with decentralized expressions of often temporary forms of chiefly authority, for instance. So, I simply found it explanatory in way other approaches. Anarchism allowed for theoretical tools to engage that were better than notions of transeglatiarianism, for instance. Heterarchical approaches certainly relate, and we have Crumley here at Amerind to discuss that engagement.

I have attended three anarchist theory sessions among archaeologists now, and several pieces have been presented by people who don’t self-identify as anarchists and yet were presenting because they had found utility with the theory in helping to explain their data. So, in a sense, they were dispassionate. I think in a way, most people employing a particular method, whether processualist, evolutionary, Marxist, or postprocessualist, are all generally “advocates” of the perspective; it’s rare that someone doesn’t have a certain inclination towards a theory that they use, and aren’t actually dispassionate about it.

I admit that archaeologists of states have useful tools; even archaeologists working with egalitarian societies have useful tools to work with. It’s these other societies that don’t fit etiher molds that it’s helpful. However, our discussions here have indicated that there’s some applicability to other societies as well. Appreciate the discussion. #anarchaeology2016

Michael E. Smith said...

@Bill - Along these lines (how to deal with societies of intermediate complexity), I assume you have seen this:

Wengrow, David, and David Graeber
2015 Farewell to the ‘childhood of man’: ritual, seasonality, and the origins of inequality. Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute 21(3):597-619.

bill angelbeck said...

Yes, indeed. I find that an important work, and incorporated into my last SAA talk in Orlando.

Jason Baird Jackson said...

James Scott's two recent Patten Lectures at Indiana University show him reading and drawing upon a large amount of archaeology, thus I would think that you would find his efforts of interest. In his second lecture, he revisits arguments (and extends to some degree) made in The Art of Not Being Governed: An Anarchist History of Upland Southeast Asia (I am reading it now). It (his second lecture)("A Brief History of Flight from the State) can now be watched here:

His first lecture ("The Domestication of Fire, Plants, Animals and ... Us”) can be found and streamed here:

Michael E. Smith said...

@Jason - I don't know if I can bring myself to read more of Scott. Maybe videos would be more tolerable. I always find the ideas of his books interesting and attractive, but then when I read them, I am deeply disappointed. Consider Domination and the Arts of Resistance. It starts out with this quote: "When the great lord passes the wise peasant bows deeply and silently farts. - Ethiopian Proverb ." epigram, page v. This is resistance? Farting? As a materialist I am flabbergasted. Resistance means people taking up arms and fighting back.

I was able to understand some of the source of my vague disappointment with Seeing Like a State when I read Michael Mann's review of the book (Am Jr. Solciology 104-6), "This is a book of powerful case studies and weaker theory. The case studies allow Scott to attribute many appalling disasters to modernism overdosing on statism. But the attribution really requires a better theory of modern states than he possesses." But to try to apply Scott's ideas to ancient states really seems impossible. Scott posits states as far more powerful, coherent, and unified than most models (like Mann's) admit, and even more so in relation to premodern states.

I find two anarchist writers rigorous, useful, and relevant to my concerns: Colin Ward (on housing and other urban issues), and Michael Taylor (on communities). Maybe these archaeologists at Amerind will come up with something useful, but looking at the Tweets gives me doubts. (Did I just use Twitter to render a scientific judgment? Am I falling down the slippery slope of media superficiality?) I think my concerns are based less on the anarchist theory per se, and more on the epistemologies concerned.