Monday, July 14, 2014

Ruth Kinna's "Anarchism: A Beginner's Guide": Book Review

Rather than provide a chronological narrative introducing great anarchist thinkers and then current concerns (as Colin Ward's "Anarchism: A Very Short Introduction" or the not short at all "Demanding the Impossible" history of the idea and the movement by Peter Marshall; both reviewed by me), this British lecturer and editor of Anarchist Studies addresses a readership which may already have some familiarity with these thinkers, and involvement in contemporary social and progressive issues. Ruth Kinna's beginner's guide appears geared for a political studies seminar, but a reading group or curious inquirer might benefit as well from its range. Each chapter is not only footnoted thoroughly but enriched by a bibliography and a list of websites. The informative contents are neither too jargon-filled nor too slogan-stuffed. (It must be noted that "IWW" stands for not "International" but "Industrial" Workers of the World, a regrettable if understandable lapse. But we learn who designed the symbolizing Proudhon's "anarchy is the mother of order": Anselme Bellegarrigue ca. 1850.) Kinna keeps enough distance from the rivalries, competing theories, and hard-headed activists from many factions. Still, she asks questions, and prods readers to do likewise.

Chapter one takes on the contested definition of anarchy and the negative connotations dogging it. She addresses its past uses, its key exponents, the various forms the concept takes, and a quick history. Then, its critique of the State (not the same as society, and perhaps as government, a tricky distinction for some to parse and debate, as are power and authority as accepted or not) follows. "Natural" authority and "social" power precede her consideration of liberty. As she cites one thinker, liberty is granted, while one is born free. I found chapter three valuable for its investigation into competing arguments whether a natural, pre-industrial community of anarchists existed or survives today, and whether some older notions that anarchism imitates or returns to such a condition are upheld by anthropological evidence today. (Oddly, no mention of David Graeber appears here.)

Utopian experiments, including an aside to a New Zealand novel (one aspect of Kinna's study is that it looks a bit at Maori and Australian responses to anarchism, which get ignored in many European or British-centered studies) that smacks of the hippie era, find mention, as do the heavily analyzed (by others) experiments attempted in Spain and Ukraine during the past century. Primitivism gains throughout these sections extended attention, and Kinna shows in helpful charts how its precepts align or differ from the classic 19 and early-20c thinkers as well as some competitors from communitarians and anarcho-capitalists. The graphic summation of the range of responses by anarchists-with-adjectives helps greatly to illustrate their various positions.

The last part looks at tactics, who takes charge, whether a platform, a union, a collective, or individuals take charge. The difficult questions of success given the scope of resistance vs. the crackdowns imposed, and the adjustments of earlier decades' models of factory workers or ruralists in terms of those in cubicles, in odd jobs or none, squatters, and the like get some mention. I'd have liked more on how workers in the electronic era and the age of dispersed work and downsizing and global competition might fare in relation to the sentiment that a general strike can bring down the system once and for all. Also, while Kinna shows how state socialism and Marxist models diverge from anarchism, and the dangers of compromise, she might have taken more time to address those who advocate or at least accept some cooperation with the political system to advance some change, in light of those who reject any such collaboration as unacceptable. In light of present protests and the indifference many have shown towards anti-globalization campaigns and actions, how to get anarchism taken seriously appears still a topic needing more reflection and more guidance. However, her closing portions, as to tactics, seem to hint pacifism may not suffice. (Amazon US 6-12-14)

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