The following is drawn from a scholarly work-in-progress. Commentary is welcome.

Relevant aspects of anarchism

Anarchism is often thought of as anti-statism, and in part it is–but that is not all it is. Anarchism is, first and foremost, a rejection of domination and hierarchy. I offer the following working definitions of these terms:

Domination is the ability to exploit, marginalize, coerce, colonize, inflict violence upon, or impose one’s culture upon others.

Hierarchy is stabilized and systematic domination. It exists when the domination of some groups by others is made a matter of formal and/or informal convention.

The problem with the state is that it exhibits hierarchy. It stabilizes, legitimates, and codifies unequal power relations between rulers and ruled, elites and the subordinated. It always has the ability to inflict violence, to exploit, to coerce. Anarchists favor forms of organization that are voluntary and based on consensus because they do not, when well-functioning, exhibit hierarchy. Many social relations other than state-subject also exhibit hierarchy, and are usually opposed by anarchists for this reason. These include capitalism, patriarchy, white supremacy, ageism, heterosexism, and ableism.

While anarchists are committed to a principle of free association, with the implication that one cannot force others to concede the truth of one’s view or to participate in any actions that the view seems to compel, this principle of free association is itself based on a more fundamental commitment to an egalitarianism about interests and a universalism about moral considerability. Anarchism attempts to be as ecumenical as possible about co-existence of diverse and divergent life plans, conceptions of well-being, and understandings of value while maintaining that no one may subject others to their rule. It is libertarian in the sense that that term was used before its appropriation by those who view liberty as an ideal compatible with the most extreme forms of deprivation and exploitation.

Anarchism differs from Marxism (in part) because anarchism does not reduce all forms of oppression to economic exploitation, and does not regard class struggle in the Marxian sense to be the engine of human history. Instead, it suggests an intersectional account of social categories according to which oppressive systems are entangled and mutually reinforcing, and rejects seizure of State power by the working class as a revolutionary strategy. (The strategy of seizing State power creates an internal conflict in Marxist theory, as it amounts to a change in the base by way of a change in the superstructure–never mind that for now.)

Part and parcel of anarchism’s rejection of hierarchy is an opposition to capitalism, a mode of production that places economic power in the hands of a few who profit from the labor of the many. So-called “anarcho-capitalism” is a right-wing libertarian liberalism that is far removed from the broad anarchist tradition, which emerges from and continues, among other things, to express the libertarian socialist ideals of the anti-authoritarian labor movements of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. That tradition regards “anarcho-capitalism” as an oxymoron (since State violence is what ultimately grounds the property rights that lie at capitalism’s foundations), or at best a view that singles out State authority for criticism while leaving similarly authoritarian institutions and practices untouched. If put into practice, “anarcho-capitalism” would be quite compatible with the oppression of most humans and non-humans.

With this sketch of anarchism’s general contours in hand, we can turn to theoretical developments that give some shape, power, and elegance to anarchism’s vision of total liberation from oppression.


Anarchism, intersectionality, and animals

The term ‘intersectionality’ has come to refer to two different but related social phenomena. In its original sense, introduced by Kimberlé Crenshaw to name a concept with origins in black feminism, it referred to the uniqueness of experience—and in particular experience of oppression—at the points at which different dimensions of social identity (race, gender, class, and so on) come together in the being of a person or group of persons. More recently, ‘intersectionality’ has also come to refer to the mutual reinforcement of various oppressions through joint construction of hierarchical social categories.

Feminists such as Karen Warren, Marti Kheel, Carol Adams, Catharine MacKinnon and Lori Gruen have produced an extensive body of scholarship on the mutual reinforcement of nature and the feminine as socially constructed categories. MacKinnon, for example, writes that

[B]oth animals and women have been socially configured as property (as has been widely observed), specifically for possession and use. Less widely observed, both women and animals have been status objects to be acquired and paraded by men to raise men’s status among men, as well as used for labor and breeding and pleasure and ease. Compare beauty pageants with dog and cat shows.

Ecofeminists have pointed out that from the liberal tradition back to Locke to the historical materialism of Marx, Western thought has distinguished between the rational, civilized, and masculine on the one hand and the emotional, natural, and feminine on the other. These dichotomies are not value-neutral; rationality and civilization are elevated above emotion and nature, the former representing the fullest realization of human potential. Women are thus identified with the natural and the animal, providing the basis for men’s mastery of women as a component of man’s mastery of nature.

Mark S. Roberts documents in great detail the animalization of groups of human beings including those racialized and gendered as subordinate, a process he describes as “a course of action that grew out of a number of theories aimed first at establishing human superiority over animals and then at the domination of certain classes and groups—a process that sought to ascribe, both ‘philosophically’ and ‘scientifically,’ the presumed inferiority and brutality of various animals to these groups and classes.” What makes the process of animalization possible is the political character of “human” as a class. David Livingstone Smith has argued that ‘human’ functions as a sort of indexical term which serves to pick out beings that are “like” the speaker in belonging to a kind that purports to be mind-independent and non-arbitrarily delineated. Those beings falling outside of this in-group are non-human or not-fully-human.

These linkages between animality and the concepts of race and gender are distinctive at the intersections. While the sexuality of both black men and black women was animalized by whites during the era of race-based slavery in the United States, there were differences in the construction of each. Black women were not only regarded as breeding stock, but were hypersexualized and viewed as presenting a temptation to white men, a temptation which, if indulged, would lead to ruin. Black men were also regarded as debauched, but this nature was held to be violent and threatening. Naomi Zack links the construction of black women’s sexuality during the period of slavery to the monetization of black bodies, introducing the economic dimension to black women’s sexuality. Zack argues that the preservation of “white American male economic hegemony has always depended on the preservation of racial categories, and especially that of a pure white race.”

The economic parallels between human and animal oppression have recently begun to receive attention in academic circles (most notably among sociologists working in animal studies). Socialists and anarchists such as David Nibert, Bob Torres, Erika Cudworth, Kim Socha, and Travis Elise, for example, have shown parallels between the exploitation of animals and the exploitation of the working class under capitalism. As noted above, anarchists generally endorse a Marxian account of exploitation and alienation, according to which exploitation is the theft of labor from workers and alienation takes one or more of the following forms: alienation from the product, alienation from the production process, alienation from species-being, and alienation from others. Animals are “super-exploited” living commodities, in the words of Bob Torres; whereas workers are made a resource from which labor is extracted for less than its full value, animals generally receive nothing in return for what is taken from them, and are usually turned into the product itself.

Anarchism, like classical Marxism, originally took the category of class to be the primary vehicle of oppression, but parted with the Marxian analysis in emphasizing the key role of the State in maintaining the dominance of economic elites. What began with a focus on class quickly established itself as a political orientation opposed to all hierarchies. Early in the twentieth century, anarchist-inspired movements and organizations such as the Industrial Workers of the World took positions that explicitly rejected other social hierarchies, with the IWW organizing women and workers of color long before other labor unions took steps to make membership more inclusive. Feminist anarchists such as Emma Goldman, Voltairine de Cleyre, and Lucy Parsons brought special attention to gender as a mode of oppression, and anarchist-inspired movements of the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries, including the Zapatistas in the Chiapas state of Mexico and the Democratic Confederalists in Syria, have largely been led by women and have openly embraced feminist principles. Anarchism has grown from a rejection of the capitalist state to a rejection of all modes of domination and hierarchical social structures and institutions, and today’s anarchists see links and patterns of mutual reinforcement in oppressions that go by different names.

Erika Cudworth has, in fact, suggested that “anarchism is highly open to intersectionality, if not already characterized by it.” Using Crenshaw’s original sense of ‘intersectionality’, this is perhaps an overstatement, and anachronistic when applied to early anarchism. In its sensitivity to the grounding of all modes of oppression in hierarchy, however, anarchism has had the resources with which to begin building a theory of total liberation since the nineteenth century. These resources gain even greater potency when they take on board the concept of intersectionality as it emerged from black feminist scholarship in the past several decades.


In Part 2, I will sketch the historical connections between animal welfare/rights/liberation and anarchism, as well as the lay of the land in contemporary anarchist animal liberation theory.

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