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Developing an Anarchist Theory of Activism while Encountering Academic Thieves: an interview with scott crow

Activist, anarchist, social commentator and political organizer, scott crow has over three decades of experience working across communities in order to foster liberation, autonomy, resistance to oppression, and self-direction. Summarizing his work does little compared to seeing what he has done; take a moment and check out his website. In sharp comparison to many philosophers, theorists, and academic radicals, crow develops his theory by synthesizing lived experience with texts, ideas, and ideologies drawn from multiple disciplines. Lived experiences that help remove real world oppressions have priority. Essentialisms and academic code talking do not.

While Gramsci’s notion of organic intellectuals is perhaps one way to frame the kind of thinking and work that crow does, another is along the public intellectual lines of Edward Said. At a more fundamental level, crow’s social and political work is centered on praxis: the only meaningful theories are those that lead to actions, whether personal or group. As such, they are the only ones worth pursuing. In and of itself, this positions crow mostly outside the scope or interest of many academic researchers, theoriticians, or practitioners. While many academics are interested in potential, possibility, or thought experiments, crow wants to focus on shifting and improving material experience for others if possible.

In his work as an activist, writer, and engaged intellectual, crow has encountered, collaborated, and participated with academic researchers and their projects. While some have value, either short term for the development of new radical intellectuals or documenting social movements, other projects and efforts have been parasitic, exploitative, dismissive, or condescending. The piece’s point is not to denigrate the honest, intentional, and purposeful work of academics who are also activists, radicals, and movement members. Instead, as an outsider, crow can help academic activists understand some of the problematic tensions involved with researching radical social movements and people. Additionally, he can help us identify where and how our methods, assumptions, and behaviors continue to reflect and express colonialist, extractive, and elitist practices.

If social or poltical academic research and work is going to be relevant to more than themselves and their community of scholars, academics need to look to experienced activists from multiple cultures and communities and ask what their theories are, how they were developed, and then attribute the results—often after decades of costly financially, physically, and emotionally struggles—to those who have helped developed them. As crow indicates in the interview, it appears that many academics seem to be more interested in harvesting or extracting interesting content to pad their papers or support their theories and claims than they are in behaving in equitable, liberatory, and ethical ways. In other words, some scholars thieve from movements, convert into academic capital, and seek individual gain while ignoring, obfuscating, or denying that the majority of the labor was done by working people, working activists, who had few to none of the protections afforded many academic researchers.

An additional goal of this interview is to work to center and platform the voice of an activist and theorist who offers radical and revolutionary visions of how our world could change and why we need to change. Quite possibly we, as academics, might stop trying to prescribe or define how social change should take place, or what the best means are, and instead listen to what communities are asking for, provide as much support and resources as we and our institutions can, and then continue to revise our views and understanding based on the lived experience of oppressed communities as well as our own experiences.

Would you discuss your view on, your relationship with, theory?

I grew up working class poor, and I have always worked for, and through, the developmental ideas that I have created whether it was art, business or politcs. I’ve always muddled through ideas and experiences, even if I didn’t have the answers. I was driven by questions towards a true praxis – action, reflection, and then action. A synthesis of theory and action- with warts and all.

Even though what I have been developing can be considered non-traditional and possibly very impoverished “theory.” I have been consciously reflecting and building on all of these ideas for decades – taking disparate ideas and putting them together novelly, and framing it in a language for that speaks to us all in developing new synthesis of old histories and thoughts. It’s been a fucking lot of practical work, not just theoretical. My theories have ONLY come out of practical applications and a lifetime of mistakes I am always learning from.

Stokely Carmichael (Kwame Ture) used to say, just do the organizing work first and then later you can develop the theories around it. I would add that all of us at some levels engage in activities that aren’t completely thought out, then later we construct the narratives about how, why and what ways we engaged or reflected on them. And of course adding a lot of learned lessons along the way. My experiences through cooperatives, business, music, activism and organizing have echoed that. An interviewer recently told me, “You know, you’re a very American anarchist, the way you look at these ideas.” It is true, because that is what I know, because that’s what I am raised and lived in and there is still validity in that praxis. I understand when I talk about this it’s from my limited world view.

What’s your experience been with academics?

For the last nine years I’ve been interviewed by a lot of academics of all types, which for me was a crash course on learning about academic subculture and institutions. It’s been ironic since I’m a high school dropout. I didn’t know shit about any of this insular world before, like how tenure , chair-ships or fucking any of it worked! Adjunct professor? These are words that were never-ever in my vocabulary because it didn’t intersect in my life with meaning or context except as an outsider who read journal articles and books until the last decade.

But now, because of those interviews and meeting so many more people in those fields, when I became serious about writing, all of a sudden real writers or academics wanted to talk to me! (laughs) I was meeting people who were getting their PhDs or Master’s, or whatever. I’ve probably been interviewed 30 times for academic thesis- often as an anonymous source- I found out later which was very frustrating, but also cited as a source too.

Would you be interested in discussing the periIs of academic parasitism in the field of anarchy or anarchism?

I think that some people approach the engagements in a more parasitic way. It’s all about extraction and arranging of information for them based on others’ ideas, work and lives. I’ve found it in all research disciplines including wide ranging subjects like: anarchy, animal rights, radical environmentalism, decentralized disaster relief, activism, guns and violence, or other leftist kind of subjects. The overall approaches by aspiring or tenured academics are very parasitic and less than helpful. I say this even if I have seen some really good analysis or history pieces come out of these methods. 

I can only think of a handful of examples where if I didn’t fight for recognition of my ideas and work that the academics would claim as their own. I think Dr. David Pellow’s book’ Total Liberation’ or Dr. John P. Clarks ‘ The Impossible Community’ are pretty watershed in being transparent and letting people have their own voices and recognizing the contributions. And I’m not just saying that because I appear in these books. Had I not been in them I’d still think they were both watershed books in these approaches in lookng at the other voices in them.

The part I have a problem is when a student or researcher is doing that ethnographic survey or whatever, and they fucking interview me and they use my work as a longtime organizer, as a thinker, as a philosopher or any of those things, and don’t quote me or cite my writing. They don’t give proper credit, but they just say “an activist said,” or “this is what an anarchist was thinking about this,” or some other vagaries in the descriptions.

I’m like, fuck that! I developed this – it’s my life’s work, this is my life, you’re just going to school to create yourself. It’s infuriating, you know. Or, if they barely even cite what they’ve taken from my books, essays or interviews. It’s not just because I think I’m so personally important, but I think that it becomes dishonest. It erases the person, and how they got to those ideas. It’s kind of a neo-colonial mentality. I know marginalized people have had this critique, rightly so, for decades too. I am in no way unique in this treatment, but I continually engage within some academic subcultures so I continually see it repeated. It’s definitely a more ethically challenged part of academia.

What do you think that does to other people who are doing the same kind of work? Do you see this as a form of – is this theft, is it laziness? Does it incentivize, dis-incentivize activism? I’m just curious what some of the impacts are on people who look at this, or they witness this going on.

I think it can be OK if you’re doing ethnographic studies or mapping, and you don’t want to quote new or low-level activsts, or someone just beginning in what they do, because they haven’t developed their work, or analysis,-unless it’s around something that happens to have significance or immediate impact on others-that might be open to circumstance that need the reflections of that particular time; for example, writings right after a disaster or major event. But if you’re talking to people who have been around for 10, 20, or 30 years, or have written literature and you don’t quote their work, you would never do that with anybody else! If it was Ursula Le Guin or someone like that, you would quote her! You’re not just saying that “this American writer thought this one time.”

Again, not seeing all activists, communities or societies as resources to be extracted, or not seeing every activist’s engagements on the same levels, I think are steps towards moving past the colonizing mentality. It’s a beginning to recognize that there are different levels of engagement and expression in it. Sadly I’m not the only person that has this discontent with it. I’ve had other friends-and of course read lots of essays critiquing these problems in academia from anarchist academics who want to challenge these issues; it’s still a problem for other activists who may not be published in their work, but they’ve written a few things or made videos instead, and they have developed analysis and praxis from decades of engagements that they often don’t get credit for in journals and papers.

The other piece that I want to bring up is the disrespect of people’s time often happens-from either lack of experience or unrealistic expectations of the researchers, or because they only see the subject as a resource for their research: which makes us almost disposable as subjects. I’ve done hundreds of interviews in the last 35 years, so when I see a list of interview questions I have a pretty good idea how long it could take from experience, but most people don’t. Too often I see researchers thinking ‘ I’m gathering my theoretical work, so I want to get as much information as I can.’ So they end up asking a lot of irrelevant questions or going down series of questions far outside of the scope of the initial project only to use a paragraph or a sentence from the multi-hour interview.

But my time-and other interview subjects’- is valuable, even if only to us. These days to take three or four hours I would need to see deeper value in the research to block the time out. But if they don’t even ask me or even say ‘Hey, I think I’m unrealistic in my research goals…”

All of this is to remind researchers and academics that these realities of extraction and not of giving credit rooted in others’ lives, works, or ideas to make their own academic careers is unethical at the least, but is largely theft and erasure of us developing valid theories outside the towers of academia at the least.

Do you think these issues are inherent, or isolated within academia?

I think it’s inherent. It’s the model. I think it’s more institutional, backed up by the rules of academia, but it’s also cultural, it’s transmitted and reinforced subtly by deep channels already carved out in the past, so others follow the same paths. I wouldn’t blame individual researchers; I think it’s the cultural model to produce within academia specifically. And if I could note this is funny to talk to me, because I’m totally outside of this world except for this one little space where I intersect with it as a subject. I fully understand that to get their degrees to get tenure, to get professorships, academics and professors have to publish; which is the crux of it all. It’s ironic to me that while many academics are developing novel or innovative theories they are not using novel or even liberatory approaches to their research. Instead, they’re using capitalist models of seemingly efficient information extraction and perpetuating the social orders they may be writing about challenging in social or political movements.

Could you talk about other approaches to developing theory, other ways to use language when doing theory?

One easy step is to stop using the obfuscated words, the internal language that happens within academia that is fucking just outside of the rest of the world. Of all the subcultures I’ve paid attention to, academia is literally littered with such a subcultural, ossified language. Everybody tries to pile on more complicated phrasings and concepts to impress their peers, to sound more legitimate or because ‘them’s the rules.’ All of which are bad ideas for perpetuating bad ideas as far as I’m concerned. There are far more words than necessary to explain everything in these papers. And secretly I think everyone in it knows, but just continues anyway. But the reason I hate the language is because it has no connection to any reality outside of that academic subculture of obscure journals. It has no relevance to everyday people. Those theories don’t mean a fucking thing to me or anybody around me, or to people like my mom or the brother and sister on the block, nobody! And that is the biggest issue I have with it all, is that it’s in-and-of for itself. You know, it’s like the whole culture sets it up, the extraction, and just so it can self-perpetuate without giving back or supporting those who are written about.

I would credit people within the Institute for Anarchist Studies, like Lara and Paul Messersmith — Glavin and Kevin Van Meter — for helping me with recognizing this part about the isolation from the rest of social movements that comes from obfuscation of language in academia, and to really think about it and differentiate liberatory approaches to research. The IAS really helped me think about having theory that has practical application to it, whether you’ve done the actions first and you develop a body of theory around it, or whether you develop theories and you put it into actions. But the recognition that almost all social or political theories need to have practical and concrete understanding and outcomes for real people or situations. It can’t just be in an academic’s head in an institution somewhere or locked away in unaccessible papers.

I can, for example, sit around all day and theorize whether we’re part of a computer simulation-which seems to be really big in pop science philosophy these days. Sure it’s fun, but that doesn’t have anything to do with feeding people, stopping oppression, or trying to build towards a greater sense of autonomous and resilient, networked communities. It doesn’t change anyone’s material life in any real or meaningful way, yet academics and philosophers are building careers on ideas that have no application. There is a place for that type of imaginative thinking that has no practical impacts, yet, and it’s needed, but it can’t be the overarching method across all disciplines-especially ones that involve social or political philosophies.

We should demand more from researchers and academics, to shift the culture away from appropriation , and obfuscation of peoples’ lives for the researchers own academic gains, but to express them in realities that are supportive and build power for others, and to make them available for everyone to gain insight and shared knowledge from. To me those are steps towards academic theories, processes, and approaches that are liberatory.

Interview & introduction by Luther Blissett

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