The touchstone for many of the struggles currently enveloping us—from the Arab Spring to the Occupy Movement to the events in Quebec—is the question of how far our conception of democracy extends and especially as it relates to the economic (dis)organization our respective societies and the world as a whole. A new generation of youth, in particular, have discovered that as it concerns “the free market,” the parameters of the debate are narrow, indeed. In fact, what our media and our governments increasingly insist upon is that no matter how glaringly obvious and systemic the flaws of global capitalism are, it is still the only “realistic” option available. If such a narrative was essentially accepted in, say, 1989, the dissatisfaction in the streets of Cairo and Athens is proof that this is simply no longer the case.
This is not to say that what we are witnessing is a wave of anti-capitalist insurrections, per se, but it is to suggest that our collective understanding of what constitutes a just and rational social order is being drawn into serious question.
It is not that people have turned against the promise of democracy (though this prospect remains pertinent in periods of crisis, as we have seen in the recent election of neo-fascist parties in Greece) it is that that they have grown suspicious of the mantra that democracy and capitalism are interchangeable concepts. We are re-discovering a debate about the democratization of the economy, and how this is inseparable from our conception of formal political democracy.
This having been said, I believe that our present conditions make a book like The Accumulation of Freedom: Writings on Anarchist Economics, published by AK Press, indispensable reading. Edited by Deric Shannon, Anthony J. Nocella II and John Asimakopoulos, the text features contributions from a dozen other writers on the subject of and debates surrounding the question of anarchist conceptions of economic (re)organization. In a period where the anarchist boogeyman is frequently invoked, substantive considerations of the philosophy and the tenets which its proponents advocate for have been sparse.
I am particularly pleased by the emergence of this volume in that it bridges a somewhat gaping chasm in contemporary anarchist literature: the relatively large number of “introductory” texts that have emerged since the early 2000s on the one hand, and the growing (and often turgid) academic literature on the subject, on the other. The contributions here are a worthy representation of the sophistication and depth of contemporary and historic anarchist thought, while still being accessible to the un-initiated reader. Moreover, the text is structured in such a way that we are led from the simple to the complex—with early chapters refreshing us on relevant histories and basic principles, while latter essays tackle more difficult questions such as the actual implementation of anarchist economic principles. As such, theorists and activists alike will find engaging material contained within.
Indeed, here the focus on the specific question of economics is particularly important. Aside from this volume being unique in the existing swell of anarchist literature due to this focus, the editors, as well as the individual contributors, also remind us that economics is not merely the science of exploitation—though the dominant thrust of its historical trajectory has often made it so. At its base, economics is simply another aspect in the study of human organization, specifically as it relates to our “productive” capacities and their distribution. The importance of understanding such arrangements necessitates the development of a liberatory economic analysis.
To this end, the editors suggest to us that this volume is meant to be the beginning of a conversation rather than a definitive statement. In this light, I believe the intra-anarchist debates which inform these essays would be of particular interest for otherwise non-anarchist readers. With the coercive model of the state rejected, along with the exploitative principles of capitalism, these writers engage in a much more substantive and complicated task when attempting to formulate the basis for a new social order. Even those who would remain ultimately unconvinced by any of these arguments, would nonetheless benefit from the intellectual exercise in which we are asked to partake.
Precisely because anarchists reject systemic violence and exploitation, the development of our vision(s) of just economic and political arrangements is necessarily more participatory and original, for lack of a better term. All the same, readers will find no shortage of actually existing examples of anarchist economic experiments (or otherwise similar projects, such the advent of Ithaca Hours). Having spent many an evening dispelling the oft-repeated claim that “it sounds nice in theory, but it would never work in practice,” I found this dimension of the collection particularly useful. In this respect, the essays by Deric Shannon, Abbey Volcano, Uri Gordon and Caroline Kaltefleiter are especially enjoyable reading.
We are in a period of immense social transformation. Across the globe, reactionary and progressive forces are competing to fill the vacuum left by the slowly crumbling edifice of a political and economic system which has been explicitly premised on the institutionalized dispossession of working and poor peoples. If these transformations are to in any way represent an improvement in our lives, new arrangements must be considered. The ideals offered to us in The Accumulation of Freedom represent a fruitful repository of such arrangements. Most importantly, the serious consideration and implementation of these ideals would likely offer up the potential for still brighter horizons.
***Interested readers should also consult The Accumulation of Freedom Facebook page for scheduled talks coming to a soon to be liberated area near you.
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