So what, then, is the central problem in the midst of all this positive feeling about the social anarchist approach to daily life questions? The answer for me lies in what Bookchin calls “the anarchist disdain for power” (2014: 139; as represented, for example, in John Holloway’s Change the World Without Taking Power (2010)). And behind this, of course, lies the thorny problem of how to approach the question of the state in general and the capitalist state in particular.
Simon Springer (2014) has written a lively and polemical piece in which he argues that a radical geography must be freshly anarchist and not tired-old Marxist. As with any polemic of this sort, his paper has its quota of misrepresentations, exaggerations and ad hominem criticisms, but Springer does raise key issues that are worthy of discussion.
Stability Are Dictators Worse than Anarchy
Geographers have a very special and perhaps privileged niche from which to explore the possibility of collaborations and mutual aid. As Springer points out, some of the major figures in the nineteenth century anarchist tradition – most notably Kropotkin, Metchnikoff and Reclus – were geographers. Through the work of Patrick Geddes, Lewis Mumford and later on Murray Bookchin, anarchist sentiments have also been influential in urban planning, while many utopian schemas (such as that of Edward Bellamy) as well as practical plans (such as those of Ebenezer Howard) reflect anarchist influences. I would, incidentally, put my own utopian sketch (“Edilia”) from Spaces of Hope (2000) in that tradition.
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The radicalism that remained in the discipline (after many of my erstwhile colleagues had run for the neoliberal hills or, in the British case, to seek their knighthood) was thereafter dominated by the postmodern turn, Foucault, post- structuralism (Deleuze and Guattari along with Spinoza clearly displacing Marx), postcolonial theory, various shades of environmentalism and sophisticated forms of identity politics around race, gender, sexual orientation, queer theory, to say nothing of theories of non-representation and affect. During the 1990s, before the rise of the alter-globalization movement, there was little interest in Marxian political economy or Marxism more generally within the discipline or without. As always there were some islands of resistance in various departments. With the exception of The Condition of Postmodernity (1989) – which stood out as a pillar of resistance within Marxist thinking to postmodern trends and which elicited fierce criticism from radical, particularly feminist, quarters within and without geography (as at the AAG in 1990) – most of my really “influential writings” have come out over the last ten years. Springer’s bowdlerized history of Marxism in radical geographical thought suggests he is simply concerned to build a fantasy narrative of anarchism in geography as victimized by Marxism to support his central objective, which is to polarize matters at this particular historical moment (for reasons I do not understand). Sadly, this comes not only at a time when the conjuncture is right for a revival of interest in Marxist political economy, but it also coincides with a political moment when others are beginning to explore new ways of doing politics that involve putting the best of different radical and critical traditions (including but not confined to Marxism and anarchism) together in a new configuration for anti- capitalist struggle.
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So what are the main differences and difficulties that separate my supposed (but often suspect) Marxism from Springer’s anarchism? On this I find Springer’s discussion less than helpful. He caricatures all Marxists as functionalist historians peddling a stages theory of history, besotted with a crude concept of a global proletarian class who believe in the teleology of a vanguard party that will inevitably establish a dictatorship of the proletariat in the form of a communist state that will supposedly wither away as communism approaches its steady state to end history. Now it is undeniable that some communists and in some instances communist parties at certain historical periods have asserted something along those lines as party dogma (though rarely in so crude a form). But I have not personally encountered any geographer with Marxist leanings who thinks that way and there are a mass of authors in the Marxist tradition who come nowhere near representing anything of this sort (start with Lukacs, Gramsci and then go to E. P. Thompson, Raymond Williams and Terry Eagleton). And much of contemporary Marxist political economy is so busy trying to figure out what is going on with the crisis tendencies of contemporary capital to bother with such nonsense. But all we Marxists do, Springer asserts, is re-hash tired old themes which he (rather than any geographer with Marxist inclinations) has selectively identified and which have been so obviously disproven by historical events. Furthermore, when we Marxists look at anarchists the only thing we apparently see are people who are against the state as the unique and only enemy, thus denying that anarchists are anti-capitalist too. All of this is pure caricature if not paranoid nonsense. It crams all the actual and intricate complexity of the relation between the two traditions into an ideological framework defined at best by the fight between Marx and Bakunin in 1872, which occurred at a time when the bitter defeat of the Paris Commune poisoned the political atmosphere. Strange that Springer, the open-minded freedom-loving anarchist, should seek to foreclose on the intellectual and political possibilities open to us at this time in this way.