Two Cheers for Anarchism: Six Easy Pieces on Autonomy, Dignity and Meaningful Work and Play

James C. Scott

Book cover

Scott’s “Seeing Like a State” has been on my to-read list for a while, but this leapfrogged it since I was given it as a gift. I found the book interesting, but not exactly what I expected. Scott admits from the outset that he is not talking about “anarchism” in the sense of “abolish the state” (which some would argue is the only valid definition of anarchism). Rather, he is advocating what he calls “an anarchist squint.” This ultimately means something like distrust of institutions and advocacy for less hierarchical forms of organization, appreciation of local and particular knowledge, etc. There’s some affinity between this and David Graeber’s notion of small-c communism, which refers to any interaction not governed by hierarchy or the market, e.g., handing someone a screwdriver because they asked you to. Anyway, that’s all fine with me, as I’m not a state-abolisher myself.

One thing that bothered me a bit was Scott’s use of the term “antipolitics” near the end of the book. He uses the term to refer to the increasing power of technocratic organizations over domains that are (he says) more suited to popular determination, resulting in a sort of false objectivity that smuggles in political views favorable to the status quo. In this usage, “antipolitics” is a pejorative term. However, the term “antipolitics” was already coined with a much different connotation by the anticommunist (or perhaps I should say antiCommunist) Hungarian dissident Gyorgy Konrad in the ‘80s, in an essay of the same name. In Konrad’s usage, “antipolitics” has a positive meaning: it refers to rejecting the idea that every aspect of life should be determined by a political ideology. In fact, Konrad’s ultimate prescription is something that Scott would approve of, namely, “destatification”–more local and bottom-up organization, which is more likely to be free of totalizing political ideologies. That’s not to say that two people can’t use a term differently, but given the similarities between Scott’s and Konrad’s perspectives, it is kind of bizarre for Scott to use the same term with almost an opposite meaning, or not to at least mention Konrad. (I’m almost sure that Scott would be aware of Konrad’s work, given his own research interests.)

I’ll close with a quote from Konrad that I think Scott would wholeheartedly endorse: “Let government stay on top; we will live our own lives underneath it.”

My Goodreads rating: 4 stars