Anarchy and the Academy


Lund University, Sweden.

Anarchism and academia have always been curious bedfellows. On the one hand, they ought to be complimentary; anarchism is the belief that societies are best organised through the autonomy of those within them, and education is as important to self-mastery as the freedom necessarily entailed by the authenticity of such mastery. Yet academia itself is often tied to the augmentation, cultivation and justification for elite power: education was historically a tool used by the clergy and the aristocracy in order to rule over the serfdom, and then once again by elite actors in order to rationalise and legitimise their worldviews in the modern era. Scientists burned at the stake, theologians massacred for their appraisal of biblical ethics, and dissidents butchered for their politics: history is often a sketchbook written in blood. But what of contemporary societies, and what of the humanities in the context of the commodification of education? What is the role of the educator, the political theorist, the philosopher, in the emancipatory project of class struggle?

In order to consider this potential relationship, we must first examine what it is that the academy does, and how its function could potentially serve the anarchist cause. I believe the purpose of the academy is twofold: firstly, to educate others in their fields of expertise, and secondly, to progress their fields of expertise in order to acquire hitherto unknown contributions to knowledge. For the purpose of this article, we shall focus purely on the humanities: although there are plenty of arguments to suggest that mathematics and science education can indeed by politicised, it is in the theatre of the arts and social sciences where ideology flourishes, and radical politics can be discursively entertained.

The immediate reaction might appear initially obvious: educators in the humanities neglect anarchism. They ought to put it back on the agenda when it comes to political analysis, and allow students to understand the ideology and methodology of the movement in an academic environment; or, researchers ought to focus on the merits of anarchism, and be more vocal in their support for radical political solutions to the world’s problems. I would say there are two problems with this approach: firstly, it’s a little hypocritical; secondly, I don’t even think the academy needs to endorse anarchism in order to form a counterweight to elite ideologies, or even instantiate greater class consciousness.

My first objection is that to claim that the problem with universities is that they aren’t filled with enough access to anarchism is misleading and hypocritical of the leftist critique of statist indoctrination. Universities ought to provide an environment which provides student the freedom to walk many different intellectual paths, and anarchism ought to be one of many. It may seem to be a simple straw man, but from anecdotal experience, I have met plenty of anarchists that resent the absence of Bakunin from discussions of Marxism, Kropotkin from discussions of the state of nature, and statelessness as a viable option in the contemporary orthodoxy of political science in mainstream university modules. However, I struggle with this line of reasoning: universities are a hotbed of leftist activity, even in the absence of anarchist education, and it’s not as if adding more right-wing thinkers to certain modules will illicit anything more than a snort of derision from the politically active student population.  We ought not to be advocating specific professorial commitments to certain ideologies: professors ought to teach what they know, but perhaps the importance of the anarchist educator is their vocal stature on campus, especially engaging with issues that affect change within the university and the local community, not just within the bubble of graduate seminar rooms.

My second objection is that I don’t believe that one’s teacher needs to be an anarchist in order to allow students access to the critical thinking skills and the empathic detachment from one’s politicised social identity in order to become class conscious, and willing participants in any potential anarchist movement. I know someone who became an anarcho-communist courtesy of reading Robert Nozick and concluding ‘nah, capitalism can go too‘. I know another who was a state socialist before they started university, and left an anarchist due to engaging with right-libertarian arguments against government. I also know right-wingers who joined the movement when they disagreed with Hobbes, and found themselves surprisingly nodding sagely whilst reading Marx, free from the discomfort and disdain of their family home. The key to class consciousness is self-awareness, and the key to criticising any institutional power is an understanding that authority ought to be questioned, and critical thinking ought to be exercised- but these habits can be learned from a liberal environment, as well as a radical one.

So what is an anarchist professor to do? Well, they are in a difficult position: anarchists believe that you must liberate yourself, and yet professors have a duty to impart knowledge. Without wrestling too much with the semantics of the problem, is teaching the virtues of anarchism to a student an abuse of the power-structure, exercising authority in order to discredit your own authority, thereby rendering your initial political argument without the authority of a professional educator? I offer a potential solution.

1: Critical thinking ought to entail a critical scepticism of institutions.

2: The academy ought to encourage critical thinking.

3: Anarchism, in its broadest sense, could be defined as a position of extreme critical scepticism of all institutional power.

Conclusion: The academy ought to encourage a critical appraisal of institutional power, including its own. Thus fulfilling one of the sufficient conditions of broad anarchism.

Provided that professional academics are challenging students to question not just their arguments, but their position in relation to the student, and indeed the university’s institutional position in relation to society writ large, there will be an intellectual base for the expansion of anarchist ideas within the academic community. With any luck, this will allow universities to begin the internal struggles with market forces, its own administrative staff, and governmental whims, to reshape the relationship between education and privatization, as well as the transition of universities from exclusionary, elitist environments to heterotopic spaces for universal self-improvement, regardless of colour, creed, class or gender identification.

In short, an academic telling you that their analysis is correct because they are an academic, is failing to do their job. A university vice-chancellor telling you that they know what is best for the university because they are the vice-chancellor is failing to do their job. But conversely, an individual failing to consider that their supposed politically-neutral, ‘normal’ worldview may be affected by ideology is failing to think critically- this is what academia in the humanities ought to coax out of people; this is the academy’s contribution to anarchism. Just as Colin Ward spoke of anarchism as the seed beneath the snow, it may be the freedom to be wrong, the freedom to think independently, and the freedom to question how the world appears to be structured, that causes that snow to thaw.



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Jamie Ranger graduated with a BA in Politics and Philosophy from the University of Sheffield, and is currently an Msc student in Political Theory at the London School of Economics. When he isn't encouraging his coursemates to overthrow Capital and the State, he can be found whining about football, the distinct lack of global anarcho-communism and trying to be funny on Twitter at @jamieandhisego.

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