Article written by

Abraham DeLeon

Abraham DeLeon is an assistant professor at the University of Rochester’s Warner School of Education, where he directs the social studies teacher preparation program. His research interests include social studies education, cultural studies, Foucault, anarchist theory, and critical pedagogy. Professor DeLeon’s critiques are grounded in critical theory and its relationship to social studies education. This has led him to explore how social studies education and radical theory can be combined to equip students with the knowledge and understanding of how ideology is reproduced.

10 Responses

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  1. David Hursh
    David Hursh at |

    I agree with much of what Abe has written. Where we disagree is on the value of the state or, more precisely, whether elections and the state make a difference. While I agree with Erwin Knoll, friend and former editor of The Progressive magazine, who once said to me, “voting is the least significant political act you can do,” who holds political office does make a difference.
    For example, president-elect Barack Obama will make a difference in who he appoints to the Supreme Court, and his approach to civil rights and international law. He will end spying on civilians and observe the Geneva Convention. Moreover, federal education policy will be different under an Obama administration, not least because he has more respect for educators than Bush does and is relying on leading education professionals, such as Linda Darling-Hammond, to head up the transition in the education department.
    On the other hand, Abe is correct to remind us that our elected officials serve within a capitalist structure in which reforms are limited and often do not reflect what would serve most people best but, instead, primarily serve the corporate elite and the investor class. That Obama “needs to reassure the market” and is considering appointing as Treasury Secretary Lawrence Summers, who, when he previously held the position during the Clinton administration, radically deregulated our economy thus leading to our current economic crisis, shows how difficult it is for political leaders to make real economic change.
    Moreover, I agree with Abe that much more important than voting is developing community based, non-hierarchical structures, and that social change, such as the Civil Rights Movement came about not only or even primarily because of voting but because of “direct action strategies of sit-ins, marches, protests, and boycotts.”  Indeed, as someone who started a cooperatively-governed elementary-middle school, has been active in the Civil Rights and Anti-War Movements, and helped found the Coalition for Common Sense in Education, a community-based non-hierarchical organization that examines educational issues and lobbies for change at the local, state, and federal levels,  I understand how local non-state sanctioned activities contribute to real social change.
    So, yes, voting is the least important political act in which we can engage. We need to create other ways of living and working together that will change the social structure and shift power away from the corporate and political elite. We need a real democracy in which those who produce the wealth earn their fair share. On the other hand, who holds political office can and sometimes does make a difference. Whether this is one of those times depends in part on whether we can advise and pressure those in power to think differently about how the world works and to whom they should pay attention.

  2. Jim Johnson
    Jim Johnson at |

    Thanks for your thoughts. I agree that electoral politics (voting, etc.) is an anemic vision of politics – whether as a description or as an ideal. After reading the post, though, there are three major questions (at least) that are nagging me.

    First, how do you draw the line between politics and other domains. I find it difficult to see individual decisions about consumption – what to eat or wear, or not –  as political in any plausible sense. It is not that I want to identify politics with elections or partisan activities, but politics is something we engage in together (sometimes as adversaries) and so, minimally, is an enterprise that requires some coordination and organization. Consumption decisions are not, at least not in the same way. (I do not need others when I decide whether to eat at fast food joints. and I might do so not because I am opposed to big corporations, but because I narcissistic and want to protect my girllish figure fromm the fat content of fast food.) Consumption decisions may be more or less justifiable. That is a different matter. But it also is a matter that, in my experience, has a tendency to degenerate into potentially unseemly moralism.

    Second, even if we do not buy the caricature of anarchism that you sketch and (rightly) dismiss, how do you see it as a viable way of providing, say, mass transportation or widespread inoculations against disease (or any other public health provision)? These, arguably, are nice progressive objectives. It seems to me that the vision you advance presupposes a lot of social and material and political infrastructure that anarchist arrangements themselves are unlikely to be able to provide.
    maybe I am wrong. But some indicaiton of how anarchism might actually work on an ongoing basis is in order.

    Finally, localism and decentralization are notoriously susceptible to the exigencies of power and exploitation of the weak by the less weak and the less weak by the strong. It seems to me that you stack the deck more than a bit with the examples of nice progressive activities that might be carried out by small communities.  In short, there is nothing to support your inference from allowing  “human beings to form their own collectivities and communities” to the expectation that the resulting communities would be “non-hierarchical” and “characterized by “community-based, shared and mutual authority structures” that “promote an agenda for social justice for both human and nonhuman animals on the planet.”

    I might go on, but that seems like a good enough place to stop. Thanks

  3. Alfred Vitale
    Alfred Vitale at |

    What great comments!  It is refreshing to see that critical thinking is not being forgotten while America dances in the streets, acting as if oppression and suffering are about to end.   As probably the only other unrepentant Anarchist at Warner, i have to concur with Abe and what he wrote in his post.   There are important reasons for this discussion to be brought to the fore, and it’s certainly an appropriate time for it…so thanks Abe, and David and Jim for keeping it going.

    Having had many discussions with Abe about our own perspectives and experiences steering Anarchism into institutional waters, I see where Anarchism is being understood not as an enduring perspective, but as a reactionary phase…a doomed ideology of ineffective and utopian thinking.  Yet, what evidence is there for this view?  Resistance is as ubiquitous, historically and intellectually, as acquiescence. 

    One reasons that Anarchisms (there is no monolith) have had a tenuous place in Academia is because they do not necessarily situate themselves in a teleological trajectory.   And many collective actions guided by Anarchist perspectives thrive and continue, but they do so without requiring public validation.  This desire for unmediated presence may also be co-constructed with public media because if collectivity was seen as viable, it might be contagious.  This is why many academics are hard-pressed to find “successful” models of Anarchism in action, and why it is difficult to envision the type of changes that Jim Johnson’s post reminds us are needed.  And I agree with Jim that it is very easy to slide into moral positions when it comes to politicizing consumption, for example.  It is perhaps one of the main obstacles for cohesion that comes not just from Anarchists, but is also evident in most “left-leaning” movements (e.g., “How can you say you care about the environment and still drive an SUV?”).  So of course we can wonder how Anarchisms can actually produce sustainable change.   I want to share an example.

    In 1976, in Philadelphia, a small group of Anarchists got together and decided to start a radical bookshop.   The bookshop, Wooden Shoe Books, would not only be a bookshop, but it would serve as an information shop–a place for learning and sharing and collaborating.   It was decided to be collectively run and all-volunteer.   Nobody earned a dime.  They opened up in a small basement store at the edge of Center City, Philadelphia.  It is 32 years later, and Wooden Shoe remains the same.  I was fortunate enough to be part of the collective for a few years, and even held the role of “president” of the Wooden Shoe corporation.  Yes…we were a corporation.  The decision to do so was easy:  non-profits had to be far more accountable for their funds.  All we had to do was produce minutes for one annual meeting and hold elections.  My title was completely for the purposes of the annual report….there were no leaders of the Wooden Shoe, and there still aren’t.  Over the 32 years, the shop has moved once (a suspicious fire burnt down the original store in 1996, and I helped get us a new space immediately in a busier part of town) and has been a site for public tensions at various times, especially with regards to our anti death-penalty efforts (a hot issue in Philly), but it thrives and has been instrumental in much social change across a vast spectrum of society in that area.  The Shoe has orchestrated or supported many of the direct actions that Abe mentioned, and also served as a clearing house and contact place for movements like Critical Mass, Food Not Bombs, Books through Bars, Anti-Racist Action, microbroadcasting, anti-death-penalty groups, and numerous other active, organizations and actions.

    Staffers volunteer and a schedule is coordinated collectively…you sign up for a day, and you come in.  We’d have a staffer who does the accounting, one or two who handle orders, and the rest do what’s needed.  There are many years worth of log books that staffers fill in while they are there…wonderful musings about the world, the store, and themselves.  So we preserves institutional memory.  We’d have meetings a couple of times per month, and decisions are made by consensus.  And yes, of course there were the occasional (rarely, in fact) staffers who disrupted the collective…but in 32 years, even a fire couldn’t stop Wooden Shoe from continuing. 

    A day at the Shoe, for me, consisted of time spent talking with people who came in to buy books, magazines, records, tee shirts, or whatever, and sharing ideas.  Collaboration happened often.  Our customers were extremely diverse…and we worked with many communities to help them organize and change their neighborhoods for the better.  We had staffers who were teenagers and staffers who were in their 50s.   The store was a safe space for people whose lives, situations, and practices pushed them outside the mainstream…we even had a sign for shoplifters, suggesting they shoplift at a chain store instead of us because we were much more sympathetic to them and had little to offer.   Our base of community and friends was large and when we got the new store, all renovation was done collectively with the help of supporters and friends, as well as some local businesses.

    Yes, Wooden Shoe uses some of the tactics of businesses.  But what makes it different?  The fact that  profit is funneled back into the collective endeavor for which we have volunteered.  This would seem to violate predicted ideas about the effectiveness of Anarchist perspectives.  Yet it happens.  And this is only ONE, small example.   It does not address the public health concerns Jim Johnson noted, but I would suggest that public health concerns ARE localized, and are embodied in social arrangements rather than policies.  Health is a large issue, though, and I only wanted to point out that suffering is reproduced socially, as well as politically. 

    Finally, I want to mention that while we hear repudiation of Anarchist perspectives, we dare not explore them–but what if we could?  We talk at Warner about critical pedagogy…which is something that Anarchisms have often advocated and embodied.  What if we lived it?  Heck, what if we actually considered that it was possible?  As Abe pointed out, Crimethinc’s statement rings true: “Expect resistance, the future is unwritten.”

  4. Will Armaline
    Will Armaline at |


    I love when people say that something is “too big” for anarchist-inspired organizational structures/strategies to tackle.  We have these conversations as if the ways we have addressed such “big” endeavors are, in any respect, successful.

    Some examples:

    Health Care:  We assume that corporations will choose public health over profit when the two (as they often do) conflict.  Richest country in the world, ranked 37th by the WHO?  How’s that working for us?

    Transportation:  Public transportation???!!!  HA!!!  Over the past 80-odd years, we have given the oil and automobile industries control over the design of our cities, and our very way of structuring space and life.  Now this organization has brought us ecological disaster, complete dependency on a dead and unsustainable industry, modern urban segregation, etc.  Our rulers now wag their fingers at the auto execs that line their pockets in some attempt to fake conflict and actual public representation.  Now, how’s that working for us?

    To be clear, all anarchism suggests is a DIFFERENT organizational structure.  One that is not hierarchical and based on the unsustainable accumulation of capital.  But, yes, it will be hard.  And, yes, it will require people actually think and work for themselves:  meaning, executives will have to learn to work just like welfare mothers do.

    As a second point:  people’s selective historical amnesia is getting really old.  You can’t argue that anarchism is somehow a romantic, idealistic, misled, or naive perspective as you sit there enjoying your 40 hour week.  May Day anyone?  People often forget that every single right that we enjoy, in any consistent way as working people, HAD TO BE WRESTLED FROM THE HANDS OF RULERS–elected or not.  Not to mention the rights of women, non-heteros, people of color, and so forth.  But as soon as we start suggesting more “wrestling”–everyone suddenly forgets where they, and what little power they enjoy, came from.

    As a third, and equally brief point:  The liberals (read: vs. radicals) have had their chance.   We’ve now spent our “margin for error” (read: privilege of distance), and can no longer simply change this or that small thing, and go right back to our pretty little life as if the system (or Obama) will make everything OK.  For example:  If the polar ice caps will melt (read:  coastal cities under water, a full 2 degree global climate rise, and massive species migrations and extinctions) by MID CENTURY with THE CARBON ALREADY IN THE AIR TODAY, how are our liberal conversations about 40 MPG vehicles and “green consumption” not simply polishing the brass on the capitalist titanic???  

    Again, maybe there was a time when we could tinker with reformism, and it would matter.  Now, we must face the urgency of the problems in front of us.  They require more than tinkering, and the clock is ticking.

    peace and much love.       w.

  5. Brian D. Barrett
    Brian D. Barrett at |

     I think David summed things up nicely in his response.
     I’ve consciously avoided getting too excited about Obama all along because I’m skeptical, like Abe, that he’s personally going to bring about any radical – and truly necessary – change (this is someone who’s worked to privatize public housing in Chicago, who’s flirting with Larry Summers and, maybe even worse, people like Joel Klein)  but I agree with David that there are aspects of Obama’s policies that represent very positive changes from Bush/McCain. Also, despite the concerns about co-opting the African American cause for capitalism, etc – watching the responses of African Americans on election night and seeing more personally the responses of the students in my urban ed class (where only one student is white) was very powerful. This was a huge and affirming experience for many people and I’m willing to give it some time to see how it plays out. If Obama, for example, doesn’t speak directly on things like school resegregation, then maybe his election will embolden others to (as Kozol and Orfield and others call for in Shame of the Nation). Clearly more citizens were involved in this election than in recent ones and perhaps this can serve of the “roots” of the grassroots democratic movements that, have in the past and can again, bring about the more radical changes we’re (Abe, the other respondents here, and many many others) looking for in this country.

  6. Cory D. Maley
    Cory D. Maley at |


    Thank-you for opening up this forum to discuss the concerns and directions of anarchism in a considerate forum of discussion. Thanks also to those of you who have also given your energy to this forum. I understand your concerns with Obama, perhaps not as a person, but as a functionary of a hierarchical system that is in so many ways mechanistic and beyond the scope of one person or administration to do much of anything about. You know where I stand on anarchism, but I’m also pragmatically inclined to see the hierarchical system as one that has yet to run its course, though I think not inevitable, nor unassailable. I see anarchism’s future not in resistance to technocracy as has been its common revolutionary experience with the marxist wing of the Left. On the contrary, anarchism’s viability is post-revolutionary, transcendent of the state. David Graeber’s argument for anarchy as democracy in the spaces-in-between is a useful notion worth further exploration for anarchists to re-envision the role of anarchism in building towards the positive vision that are at the core of its philosophy, without burning through its energies in opposition to a monolithic beast that it cannot possibly undo. So much more powerful is the water in the cracks when comes the frost than it could ever be as raindrops upon them, though they may fall with great force. For me I wonder how as anarchists we can engage in a positive vision that engages those within the system to move towards that positive vision in kind? How do we keep the anarchist vision dialed in rather than one that tends to drop out? And, how do we mitigate the anger and frustration of people who tend to gravitate towards anarchism, and turn it into constructive and formational energies, rather than as a means to stick it to the man?

  7. Jim Johnson
    Jim Johnson at |


    As the person here who most clearly identifies with the “people [who] say that something is “too big” for anarchist-inspired organizational structures/strategies to tackle.” I hope you won’t mind if I reply in a very frank way.

    If anarchism is to be anything more than wishful thinking, those who advocate it actually do owe the rest of us some account of how it might conceivably work for tasks of providing the sorts of things needed, say, by the people who live a city the size of Rochester, New York.  Think trash removal. Think, snow plowing. Think maintaining the sewers or public water supplies. Anarchists will have to do more than simply “suggest” that there is some different and superior institutional arrangemment for undertaking such tasks. To paraphrase your remark, “I love it when anarchists assume that the failure of others absolves them of having to demonstrate a grasp of reality.”  And the reality is that a person’s (or group’s) ability to run a cool bookstore or restaurant, while inspiring and useful, does not mean that she is (or they are) capable of actually coordinating services and institutions that will meet the needs of even moderately large populations. (This, by the way, from someone who has put in time working in a “radical” restaurant where all proceeds went to anti-war & social justice outfits. I know the good things such enterprises can do and how difficult it is to make them work.)

    Do I think we have anything resembling adequate public transportation or health care or what have you? No. Does anything I wrote imply that I do. No again. I just don’t think that anarchism provides anything resembling the resources for remedying that state of the world. Let’s take the example you offer: just what is the anarchist plan for dealing with climate change? How do you propose to relocate and house and employ all the folks who’ll be displaced by rising coastal waters? TYPING IN CAPS doesn’t cut it. Those are large scale policy matters about which anarchists have, as far as I can tell, nothing constructive to say.

    Jim Johnson

    PS: As for the history lessons you offer, my recollection is that anarchists hardly have a monopoly on the legacy of May Day and working hours legislation.  It has been a long time since my graduate school days when I researched and published on May Day and the movement for the eight hour day, but I seem to recall that across Europe, the Second International (good old Social Democrats) were instrumental in pushing that agenda and instituting that holiday. And, as a good anarchist, of course, you will not be interested in state legislation that defines working hours, right?

    I will not bother to ask about the central role of anarchists in securing “the rights of women, non-heteros, people of color, and so forth.”  I am not a historian, but you’ll be hard pressed to demonstrate that anarchists played any significant role in the movements by which people organized for and secured, say, civil rights legislation. And, sorry, but that too involves state backed guarantees. They are imperfect, partial, precariously established and all that, sure; but absent state monitoring and enforcement rights are worthless.

    You’ll forgive this snarky comment p.s. ~ I just want to make a point. There is a difference between discussing and debating and arguing a point and being patronizing. The latter is unbecoming, just the sort of moralism I mentioned in my comment. Don’t assume you are dealing with idiots or amnesiacs. You aren’t.

  8. Will Armaline
    Will Armaline at |

    Jim and all,

         My apologies if my being frank was mistaken for being “snarky.”  Let me clear up a few points here:

    1)  Clearly, the 8 hour day (as with many other struggles), was won by a large coalition of the left that included socialists of all stripes (libertarian, state, and democrat).  I mean to suggest with my comment that anarchists and anarchist theory/strategies were central to this movement, and that this is often forgotten.  Not necessarily by you (Jim), but by the broader public.  This matters, not because I think anarchists have done everything good for the world, but because we need to realize that our “rights” (state granted or not) and power (what little there is) as working people have been gained through challenging rule, not apologizing for it, or waiting for rulers to “legislate” empowerment. (Even when this has happened, it has been in response to or in order to prevent popular revolt/unrest.)

    2)  It is interesting to me that you take such offense to my/others frankness when you hold the opinion that anarchists: have no “grasp on reality” and “have nothing constructive to say” concerning social problems.  This illustrates two things:  a) your real feelings about our political position (This is why I got “snarky” with you.  I knew, like with many academics, that when your ego got threatened, we would learn more of your position–so thank you.), b) that you hold  the same common misconception of the anarchist position as most others do:  Anarchism, in many ways, does not suggest “answers”–it suggests processes of critical reflection and democratic, organic community building and problem solving.  So (in comparison to say, state socialists), when you ask how we would (for example) plow the snow, the anarchist “position” simply suggests that this decision should be made horizontally amongst stake-holders in that decision.  Chomsky discusses this misconception a great deal in his work, along with the common misconception that anarchists don’t believe in industry, organizing large systems, and so forth (such as those that could be used for snow removal or public transportation).

    If you are actually interested in reading about anarchist inspired solutions (that would still be subject to democratic processes by stakeholders), there are many to be had… I like Murray Bookchin’s stuff for example–but that’s old school.  Another great contemporary example would be the work and strategies of the EZLN.  Seriously, in the interest of building here–let me/us know if you are interested in seeing stuff (old or new–another good place to start is with adbusters folks as well ( so we can throw it your way!  But don’t assume that just because you haven’t read them yet, they don’t exist :-).

    3)  In many ways, my post (and Abe’s to some extent, I think) voice a common frustration:  That given the urgency of climate change and other sustainability crises, it is very difficult to continue patiently with liberal (vs. radical) social change.  There is a very real time constraint if we are concerned (for example) with the 1/4th of the worlds mammals now marked for extinction within our lifetimes.  This is not to suggest that “anarchists have all the solutions because anarchists have been responsible for all good things”–far from it.  It is only to suggest that we deserve a seat at the table, and that fundamental change should be considered at a time when our social systems are manifestly unsustainable.

    4)  I have met many very thoughtful and brave anarchists in the movement.  For anyone familiar with contemporary direct action, there is one no-brainer observation:  anarchists are, by far, the most sophisticated and willing when it comes to directly challenging coercive (police and military) forces.  One might want to reflect before suggesting that these folks “have nothing constructive” to offer…  I know that if (more accurately, when) the police line comes my way, I hope there’s black hoods on either side of me–not brown tweed jackets and laptops.

    Thanks for engaging in the conversation.  My apologies again for prodding you with ALL CAPS–but it did work, after all….  Thanks all for tolerating the temporary back and forth–no more from my end, I promise.

    peace and much love y’all.  when it’s all said and done, everyone here is an ally in my book…. if we want “enemies” there are plenty on



  9. Shane
    Shane at |

    “What Blaine summarizes so nicely is the deep sense of dread and frustration that radicals like myself feel over the entire electoral process and the way(s) in which political action and participation are so neatly defined and delineated within the contemporary United States.”

    I agree with this statement in that the two parties are always plotting against one another, often flip flopping on the issues, just to secure votes. I also never buy into bi-partisanship as I do not believe it exists. I call that more flip flopping on the issues. But, I did not choose to vote during this election for a different reason. In my home state, it will always be “blue” no matter how many times I vote. It must be exciting to live in a swing state, where your vote actually counts.

    Shane Haith
    CEO Nicole Iana Designs

  10. dioltaxia
    dioltaxia at |

    I’m new there
    Nice forum!

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