Constitutionalising Anarchy

Why constitutionalise anarchy?

At the same moment that the reclamation of sovereignty is being championed as a solution to the problems of the diminished authority of international organisations, the legitimacy and functioning of the institution of the nation state is being widely contested. Campaigns for devolution and independence, claims for cultural, linguistic and regional autonomy, as well as disengagement from the EU and political parties in general, invites a reconsideration of the statist paradigm at the heart of modern politics. These issues are compounded by the crisis of capitalism since 2008.

Anarchism is routinely dismissed in these debates: the association of anarchy with chaos and the carnivalesque travelling circus, is deeply embedded in popular consciousness. Given this context, bringing anarchist practices and principles into the heart of debates about modern constitutionalism might seem risky. However, given the legacy of tinkering with political institutions, and the failure to deliver the change that is needed, there may not be a better time to experiment with and transform constitutional praxis.

Understanding the different ways in which members of anarchist(ic) groups constitutionalise is an important first step in analysing the distinctiveness of far left practices vis-à-vis constitutionalism more broadly. In this project, we are working with two distinctive groups, the IWW (or the Wobblies) and Radical Routes, to understand what’s unique about anarchistic constitutionalising. How do anarchists and libertarian communists understand the role and function of rules and constitutions? Is there anything distinctive about how the far left resolves conflicts?

Our aim in uncovering and giving new voice to the values of non-domination and horizontality,  the virtues of prefiguration and solidarity, and the processes of radical democracy that have been experimented with over the past century and more, is to open up public and academic debate and move beyond the tired old stereotypes of anarchist organisation.

anarchy symbol

There are significant conceptual and analytical insights to be had from a project like this too. In political theory and international relations (IR), anarchy is the foil for constitutionalism, it’s other, because it is seen as the antithesis of law and a Hobbesian natural condition. Republican constitutions, for example, are understood to divide and balance powers, and provide a grounding for legal rights and duties, all based on a negative principle of ‘freedom as non-domination’. Writers in this tradition also believe freedom as non-domination provides a stronger normative foundation and constitutional principle for thinking about freedom between political groups, or demoi, in international politics.

Like neo-republican theorists, anarchists also deploy the language of non-domination, a language that provides a normative framework for responding to multiple concerns, from exploitation, colonialism, technocracy, sexism, elitism and media and corporate branding to planetary destruction. However, unlike neo-republicans anarchists do not take for granted the virtues of the institutions at the heart of the constitutional crisis, openly considering alternatives to the state and private property.

In IR theory, globalisation has forced an important debate about the tension between national constitutionalism and post-sovereignty and has increasingly crowded out debate about anarchy. Realists have called for a reassertion of the anarchy of sovereign states as a check to liberal universalism. Yet the extension of anarchy to the domestic realm, to protect the autonomy of all groups, is seen as counter-intuitive. Recent studies of stateless societies by IR scholars raise serious questions about the standard Hobbesian account of life in the absence of states, with the result that the concept of anarchy (as well as the state) has itself been re-examined. There have also been attempts to rethink constitutionalism in a post-sovereign world order. These insights chime with attempts to re-think anarchy in public policy, where literature attests to the organisational benefits of networked anarchies over hierarchies and likewise in organisational studies, where the advantages of self-organising systems is a topic of extensive debate. Our claim is that an explicitly anarchist constitutional theory can transform debate in this area by defending a politics without sovereignty that puts freedom at its heart.

Social movement research has examined anarchist activism and group organisation, showing how these groups reject representation, and support consensual, participatory democratic processes. While this research is extensive on anarchist practices, it sheds little light on the principles that underpin them, specifically anarchy. We know little about the way this concept (and/or cognates) operate in the formal and informal deliberations of these groups. How does a commitment to anarchy shape their practices and organisational frameworks? How does a commitment to anarchy help resolve differences between and within groups? Although anarchists are resistant to the discourse of constitutionalism, we seek to show that these principles are constitutionalising.

There is very little reflection within anarchist groups, or the wider literature, about the ways in which conflicts within groups and between them are managed and how a principle of anarchy helps, if at all. There is some discussion of the anarchist commitment to federalism in the literature, but only Alex Prichard (one of the researchers on the Constitutionalising Anarchy project) has sought to link this account of federalism to conceptual analysis of anarchy in international politics. No work has been done to examine how anarchist groups, that consciously seek to enact anarchy in their practices, understand the scope and limits of anarchy as a normative principle, and whether these practices can be generalised. The Constitutionalising Anarchy project will open up a transformative vein of research in contemporary radical political and international theory which will reverberate in cognate disciplines where anarchism is attracting sustained critical attention. In sum: our contribution will transform academic debate by linking political theory and IR theory through the empirical analysis of a concept central to the latter and antithetical to the former, and explore its meaning by co-producing knowledge with groups routinely overlooked in constitutional debates.

Image: J.P. Armstrong / flickr / Creative Commons