The American Interest

Books, Film, and History

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The State of Statelessness

Two books on anarchism suggest a new role for an old political philosophy.

Published on January 1, 2011


Under Three Flags:
Anarchism and the Anti-Colonial Imagination

by Benedict Anderson
Verso, 2006, 255 pp., $25

The Art of Not Being Governed:
An Anarchist History of Upland Southeast Asia

by James C. Scott
Yale University Press, 2009, 464 pp., $35

On August 8, 1897, Michele Angiolillo, an Italian anarchist, shot Antonio Cánovas del Castillo, the Prime Minister of Spain. Cánovas had dominated Spanish politics for decades, even during periods when he was nominally out of office, helping shore up Spain’s tottering monarchy and its possession of Cuba and the Philippines through torture and wide-scale military repression. Spanish imperialism in the Americas died with him: Cuba and the Philippines soon drifted out of Spain’s sphere of control and into that of the United States. A bullet from an anarchist’s pistol had changed global politics.

A century later, anarchists have largely given up on violence. Some break windows and get into fights with policemen at protests, but this is far from the plague of bombings and assassinations that transfixed Europe in the late 19th century. They have also lost much of their political salience, though the political philosophy of anarchism has seen something of a revival over the past twenty years. Thanks to Noam Chomsky, the Internet and the anti-globalization protests of the late 1990s, multitudes of young activists now either see themselves as anarchists or are attracted to aspects of anarchist philosophy. Yet this hardly adds up to a coherent political movement.

While anarchism still inspires political action, anarchists do rather little to organize that action into a larger program for change. Like other activists, they have taken advantage of the Internet to organize protests, but the Internet is no substitute for a directed organization. It can create solidarities and facilitate simple forms of collective action, such as raising money or turning up in the same place for a protest. But it cannot easily sustain complex activities that require long-term commitments. Here, in particular, the Internet actually accentuates some of anarchism’s inherent weaknesses.

Unlike its great competitor, Marxism, anarchism was never associated with a coherent program of political change. While there were influential anarchist theorists, such as Mikhail Bakunin and Peter Kropotkin, they tended to be non-systematic thinkers and to have highly romantic theories of politics. In some instances, this romanticism slipped into an indiscriminate enthusiasm for the emancipatory power of violence, a notion famously taken up by Georges Sorel. Most strains of modern anarchism do not emphasize violence, but they still do not provide a coherent strategy to provoke the radical changes that they would like to see. Noam Chomsky represents a broader pattern: While he is extremely specific in his criticisms of the “world system” that the Western industrialized powers have created, he has little to say about how best to replace it, let alone what to replace it with.1

Understanding anarchism today requires a better understanding of its past. Just such an understanding is provided in Benedict Anderson’s Under Three Flags and James C. Scott’s The Art of Not Being Governed. Both authors are academic sympathizers of sorts, but neither aims specifically to revive anarchism as a political force (although Anderson is a little more hopeful than Scott about its future possibilities). Rather, they tease out the historical role of anarchism before the onset of late modernity by taking two very different routes. Anderson’s anarchism lies in the 19th-century social milieu that gave birth to Angiolillo’s assassination of the Spanish Prime Minister and helped sustain a variety of nationalist insurrections. It is a crucial moment in the historical development of the modern state, when subversive newspapers, letters and novels helped build and sustain collective indignation at the viciousness of the colonial powers’ behavior abroad and their repressive regimes at home. Scott’s anarchism is more profound, but also far more difficult to recreate: It alights in the space of possibilities that surrounded nascent states before they were fully assured in their power.


Anderson’s political sympathies are complex. He is a former Marxist who lost belief in the explanatory power of Marxian materialism when the Soviet Union and China began to behave toward each other as states rather than as fellow participants in a global struggle for the liberation of the working class. He suffers from what Ernest Gellner once cruelly but aptly described as the “Wrong Address” theory of nationalism, under which History was supposed to confer group consciousness and solidarity upon Class, yet somehow ended up delivering it to Nationality instead. Unlike many of his fellow sufferers, however, Anderson clearly recognizes his ailment. Under Three Flags is perhaps intended as a cure in that it tries to show how nationalist sympathies and anarchists’ concern with class injustice can work together rather than against each other.

To make this argument, Anderson builds on and partly contradicts his most famous book, Imagined Communities (1983). Imagined Communities has suffered the usual indignities of academic fame. Its argument about the origins of nationalism, which is subtle, complex and not entirely unambiguous, has been reduced in the general discourse to a single claim: that “print capitalism” is the most important progenitor of modern nationalism. We imagine ourselves to be members of the same national community, expressed in both society and state, because we read newspapers that tell us we are Irish, English, Filipino or American, and because we know that others of our nationality are reading the same newspapers and experiencing the same understanding. Novels, by portraying a national community, also help create national consciousness. The products of print capitalism unite us in secular communion with our fellow nationals.

Under Three Flags turns this argument on its head. Print capitalism and communications technologies still play a crucial role in forming political consciousness, but work toward different ends. The community they form is not a nation-state, but an entity built across existing national boundaries and to some extent against them. Anderson explores how newspapers, letters and person-to-person encounters bound individuals in the great cities of Europe together with their counterparts in Manila, Havana, Hong Kong and Tokyo. Underwater telegraph cables, an improved postal service and steamships made possible a “vast rhizomal network” of nationalists, writers and anarchists, all of whom opposed the conservatism of the great imperial powers. Anderson is particularly interested in the Philippines and in two Filipino nationalists: the famous novelist José Rizal and the forgotten folklorist Isabelo de los Reyes. Yet he emphasizes that the focus on these two is the result of his particular intellectual predilections and personal history. One could have started studying this network from any of dozens of different points.

This loose network Anderson describes was genuinely global. Its participants were comfortable speaking several different languages. Indeed (and this is Anderson’s key argument), both 19th-century anarchists and nationalists always spoke to a world audience. They were caught within a world system that had been created by corrupt European powers that were now losing influence and control. Both anarchists and nationalists sought to break this system up. When they acted, they were acutely aware that they were being observed by audiences both foreign and domestic. They acted precisely so that the whole world would take note. The “anarchism of the deed”—public bombings, assassinations of rulers and other techniques of mayhem—was aimed not only at provoking domestic change, but also at influencing those in other countries. For their part, nationalists who were concerned with their own struggles for self-determination could take heart in others’ successes. Sometimes they even shared founding documents: Filipino insurgents borrowed their constitution from their Cuban equivalents rather than writing their own.

Anarchists and nationalists often had quite different goals, of course, but they shared an anger directed at the conservative regimes of the European metropole and their administrators in the colonies, as well as local allies of these regimes. The corruption of Catholic religious orders in the Philippines fostered much resentment, for example. This anger helped to unite nationalists with anarchists—ideological diffuseness allowed anarchism to accommodate a variety of causes, as long as they were aimed against the ruling powers. It was also a radicalizing influence. Angiolillo most likely wanted to kill Prime Minister Cánovas because he had seen the deformed bodies of men tortured under Cánovas’s regime at the notorious prison of Montjuich. Montjuich further served (as political prisons often do) to create political solidarities among its prisoners, including both nationalists and anarchists. De los Reyes, perhaps the most admirable and attractive character in Anderson’s history, became an anarchist and a municipal political activist as a result of his time in Montjuich.

Under Three Flags has important lessons to offer. Anderson’s emphasis on the relationship between communications technology and anarchism sheds light on today’s anarchists as well as their 19th-century predecessors. Even so, the book is less than it could be. Its argument peters out and its specifics are often frustratingly difficult to discern. Anderson devotes much space to analyzing Rizal’s little-read second novel, El Filibusterismo, which features a mysterious wanderer whose plots seems to foreshadow the anarchist bombing campaigns of 1892–94. However, it is not clear why this is important. Did El Filibusterismo inspire anarchists? From the evidence presented by Anderson, it seems unlikely. Was there some shared set of ideas and influences that inspired both anarchists and nationalists? Again, there is no evidence. Sometimes clear relationships are drawn between them, but all too often Anderson is forced into conjecture about the books that one person or another must have read or the people that he likely met.

The book also lacks focus. While this sometimes results in excursions down delightful byways—for instance, the covert gay politics of 19th-century Filipino novels or the failed effort to assassinate a Cuban Captain-General with a bomb above his toilet—they are just byways. The book does have important lessons, but they are for the most part imparted indirectly, which is to say that they depend as much on what a reader brings to the book as on the book itself.

Scott’s The Art of Not Being Governed has its flaws, too, but vagueness and lack of force are not among them. It is a clearly and beautifully argued book. (Unlike most political scientists, both Anderson and Scott are wonderful stylists.) It aims to rescue the many peoples who have lived outside the grasp of the state from the enormous condescension of posterity. However, its dramatic form is that of tragedy: Even if these peoples can be redeemed by the historically minded social scientist, the conditions of their freedom have been irrevocably shattered by the state.

The Art of Not Being Governed fits together nicely with its predecessor, Seeing Like a State, as a landmark work of early 21st-century social science. The two books have complementary arguments; The Art of Not Being Governed might equally well have been titled The People States Can’t See. It is, first and foremost, a history of escape from the state, chronicling the stories of the various peoples who have fled to highlands, swamps and archipelagos where the state cannot easily reach them. Scott’s particular object of study is “Zomia”, the mountain marches of Southeast Asia that stretch from southern China down to Laos and northern Thailand, taking in parts of Burma and eastern India. Scott calls Zomia a “shatter zone” that has actively resisted incorporation into the various states around it and served as a refuge for peoples fleeing those states.

For Scott, the relationship between states and the peoples fleeing them is cyclical. Pre-modern states in this region needed people desperately, not only to replenish their own populations after famine, floods or war, but to mitigate the constant loss of people fleeing their rule. Nor could they rely on natural population growth, given the ever-present threat of natural or manmade catastrophe. Hence states constantly warred on one another to replenish their populations; wars and slave-taking expeditions were very nearly synonymous. Hence, too, states continually worried about how to prevent the flight of their subjects.

This leads Scott to a theory of historical change quite at odds with the usual narrative, in which states gradually grow to assimilate and civilize the barbarians around them. Scott argues that states create their own barbarians. The peoples in the “uncivilized” zones around them are very often their own former subjects or those subjects’ descendants. History is not a steady march toward the joys and comforts of civilized life. Until very recently, it was instead a cycle in which precarious states continually hemorrhaged their people and tried to stanch their wounds by taking slaves from other states or from the shatter zones across their borders. Most failed. The jungles of Southeast Asia are littered with ruins that mark the systole and diastole of the state-building process; they are the remnants of states and statelets that fought to survive and lost.

Thus, Scott’s anarchical history is a history of those who have fled state control to build their lives around flight, invisibility and illegibility. They cultivate crops that are easy to conceal. They form tribal units that Scott compares to jellyfish—formless and liable to dissolution if outside powers try to grasp them too tightly. Their social relations are based on kinship connections that are for the most part fictional and easily adaptable to changing circumstance. Rather than hewing to a single identity imposed upon them by the state, they may shift from one ethnic identity to another, depending on which seems most advantageous under a particular set of circumstances.

Scott even speculates that such deliberate “barbarian” anarchists systematically avoid the written word for fear of providing the state with a lever it could use to control them. He argues, too, that many of the peoples who succeeded in hiding from the state adopted relatively egalitarian social structures. History suggests that their lives were never idyllic: Some groups preyed upon others, often in order to provide slaves for the lowlands. Nonetheless, they had their attractions. For Scott, the implicit equation under which state subjects alone consider themselves civilized is an ideological confection of the lowlands intended to flatter their inhabitants’ prejudices, not an objective description of any kind.

Scott’s work is partly synthetic. Its cyclical view of history owes something to the great medieval Arab political theorist Ibn Khaldun and to his most astute modern disciple, the aforementioned Ernest Gellner. However, it is largely original in its broad sweep and its particular theory of the relationship between the stateless and the state. As with most such broad sweeps, however, it is open to criticism. The historian Victor Lieberman argues that there is little evidence to support its account of great movements back and forth between the state and the inaccessible regions surrounding it, and that its history is one-dimensional.2 Highland peoples have their own stories, entirely apart from their relationship or non-relationship with the states in the valleys and plains beneath them. Nonetheless, even when it is wrong, The Art of Not Being Governed errs magnificently. Scott has expressed derision for political scientists who spend their lives answering trivial questions with approved technical tools, opting instead for large ambitious explanations of world-secular forces. Even if his own explanation does not explain as much as it aspires to, it casts patterns of history into sharp relief that would otherwise languish in obscurity.

If Scott admires the anarchism of stateless people, their deliberate refusal to be governed, what prospects does he see for anarchism today? Little or none. Technological changes mean that zones that states were once incapable of penetrating have now become accessible. The bureaucratic state has the machinery to keep track of and categorize its subjects, rendering them too “legible” to hide or flee so easily. There are few ungoverned zones left in the world. Counterintuitively, individuals today are far less free to choose their own identity than they used to be; they must adapt instead to the identities that states impose upon them. Where Scott’s account of all this is not tragic it is elegiac. He admires the efforts of stateless peoples to use, for example, millenarian religions to mobilize against common external threats. However, he does not seem to hold out much hope that they will succeed.

Scott’s message, if a message it is, is that the possibilities of anarchy are fundamentally limited by the modern state. We cannot get away from the state, so the best we can do is to chasten and moderate it through the institutions of representative democracy. This speaks well to the incoherencies of modern anarchists. It is difficult to imagine anarchism succeeding for the simple reason that there is no reasonable prospect that the state will wither away. The inherent vagueness of anarchism, its frequent unwillingness to articulate and interrogate its own goals and its methodologies directly, and its sometime elevation of mere action over the calculable political results of those actions are all part of the implicit tribute anarchism pays to its enemy. Anarchists even struggle to persuade themselves that they would want to live in a truly stateless society, let alone to persuade the vast majority of their fellow citizens to do so.

Anderson’s history draws us to rather different conclusions and expectations. He suggests that anarchism’s ideological weakness is connected to its very real strength; the one is the obverse of the other. It is true that 19th-century anarchists did not achieve what they wished for any more than their modern counterparts are likely to do. Although Angiolillo’s pistol shot hastened the decline of the Spanish empire, Cuba and the Philippines found themselves swapping one imperial master for another—the United States. If global politics changed, they did not change in the direction anarchists desired. Even so, anarchism did have consequences, as marked not so much by Angiolillo’s anarchism of the deed but by the tireless work of Anderson’s real hero, Isabelo de los Reyes, at the local level. When de los Reyes’s newspaper was banned by the American colonial regime in the Philippines, he turned to organizing workers and starting strikes, and then ran successfully for the municipal council.

De los Reyes was no sophisticated theorist of the decline of capitalism and the state. Yet he found in anarchism a kind of inspiration, a spirit of fellowship with others who were trying to remedy the evils of the world, great and small. The network that anarchists helped sustain, which brought together insurrectionists, journalists, novelists and the odd liberal intellectual, was formed less by a common ideological project than by profound indignation and solidarity with others agitating against injustices. Here, the very incoherence and malleability of anarchism proved to be an advantage. If it did not achieve much in itself, it allowed others who were associated with it to achieve much indeed. Anarchist newspapers and journalists helped make the Montjuich prison into a source of great shame for Spain, so much so that it proved impossible successfully to prosecute the man who assassinated the prison’s chief torturer.

Here we see the links between the anarchist network of the 19th century, bound together by letters, novels and personal travel, and the anarchist network of today, bound together by the blogs, forums and listservs of the Internet. Anderson closes his book by recounting his discovery of Manila’s Indymedia node. Indymedia, a kind of distributed news medium of the anti-capitalist Left, is not as intellectually sophisticated as the 19th-century networks, which were based on shared literary and scholarly interests as much as political sympathies. It publishes an awful lot of nonsense. Very often, its editorial filters are either skewed or entirely absent. Yet Anderson is entirely correct to see a strong resemblance between networks like this one from the early period of globalization and the networks of today. They create links of solidarity across borders. As I write, the lead topics on the Indymedia website include a non-violent prank by the Black Hooded Commando, who agitate for Puerto Rican independence; a campaign against European Union ministers’ plans to toughen anti-immigrant policy; a strike in the Mexican state of Sonora; a German union’s campaign against de-recognition by the government; and campaigns for women’s rights in Guyana, India and Los Angeles.

It is extremely unlikely that these add up to a coherent program for global change. However, they may help build a feeling of common cause between groups that would otherwise never know of each other, and can now provide each other with encouragement and perhaps even a little material support. An anarchism of occasional and interconnected little victories against the arrogance of the tenured powerful is very different from an anarchism of no victories at all.

If Scott provides good reason to believe that anarchism will never achieve its global ambitions, Anderson suggests that perhaps those global ambitions were never the most interesting thing about anarchism. Even in a world where the state is here to stay—notwithstanding all the chic nostrums and prophecies about its rapidly growing porosity and looming obsolescence—global networks founded on sympathy, solidarity and a real if diffuse sense of common purpose can help balance against the abuses inherent in the form of the state. Here, anarchists resemble the American Founders, who saw the spirit of liberty as a necessary bulwark against concentrations of power, and were themselves partly embedded in international networks preaching revolution and social upheaval. In building a truly global economy, the great states have given anarchists the opportunity to rebuild their networks of sympathy and common political purpose across borders. Today’s anarchists want to change the world through distributed action rather than a pistol shot. It seems to be working out better.

1See, for example, Chomsky interviewed by Tom Lane for ZNet, December 23, 1996.
2Victor Lieberman, “A Zone of Refuge in Southeast Asia? Reconceptualizing Interior Spaces”, Journal of Global History (June 2010).

Henry Farrell is an associate professor of political science and international affairs at George Washington University and a fellow at the Woodrow Wilson Center.