By Alexander Reid Ross
AAG Review of Books
October 16th, 2017
Edited by Raymond Craib and Barry Maxwell, No Gods, No Masters, No Peripheries: Global Anarchisms challenges aspects fundamental to the discipline of geography while remaining, at its core, an important work of human geography. According to Craib’s introduction, the text came as a result of a gathering at Cornell University based on a negation of geographical and political centers and peripheries. Recognizing the indigenous peoples forcibly removed from the land many years ago, Craib sparks burning questions about memory, place, and control that reemerge throughout the text. By positioning the core–periphery thesis of world systems analysis as a point of departure, the text moves through geographical field studies and theoretical rendezvous with revolution that intertwine with sometimes surprising results.
No Gods, No Masters, No Peripheries: Global Anarchisms comes out of a radical, left-wing tradition identified with Andrej Grubačić’s articulation of anarchist world systems focused on “spaces of exit” from the realms dominated by the logic of the state, as examined by anthropologists such as James C. Scott and Pierre Clastres. To identify the development of these realms and escape from them, the book’s primary undercurrent lies in the analysis of the accumulation of capital promoted by the Midnight Notes Collective (George Caffentzis, Sylvia Federici, Peter Linebaugh, and others), which draws from the theory of primary accumulation first developed by Adam Smith and expounded on by Karl Marx’s discourses on the enclosures of the commons. In this regard, the text draws from the rich reservoir of scholarly endeavors that emerged in France with the Annales school of historical investigations into the functions of everyday life and produced world systems analysis as an attempt to understand the geographic and spatial expansion of capital today through the lens of the past. In opposition to that expansion, the authors of No Gods, No Masters, No Peripheries: Global Anarchisms tend to view abstract ideals as flexible and relative to historical experience and those narratives that both construct and are constructed by it. Thus, No Gods offers us a kind of array of alternative modernities available to those who can imagine alternative conditions and reinvent those aspects of everyday life that prove unsatisfactory.
The authors have much to struggle against in terms of modern geography, which tends to be seen as a more conservative milieu within the university, often in spite of the ideas of some of its seminal figures. When Sauer declared that “the major end of geography is to find the realization or failure of symbiosis of man and nature” in 1936 (cf. Stoddard 1997 Stoddard, D. R. 1997. Carl Sauer: Geomorphologist. In Process and form in geomorphology, ed. D. R. Stoddard, 340–79. London, UK, and New York, NY: Routledge. [Google Scholar], 379), he expressed the profoundly human desire of aligning politics and culture with natural processes—the same desire expressed in the articles of No Gods. Their basic principle is that anarchism manifests a kind of natural political practice springing from precolonial and anticolonial movements placed in the unhappy discursive realm of the “periphery.” Although it might appear that the authors would assume nature holds a more or less positive place for humanity, the text seems to almost follow a Nietzschean curve that identifies human freedom as the truest articulation of that symbiotic relationship. Perforce, in his chapter on Raoul Vaneigem, “Masters Without Slaves,” Gavin Arnall grapples with precisely this question, favoring the “détournement” (rerouting) of Nietzsche that transforms the quest for “absolute power” into a social principle of equality. At the core, however, the text falls back on the Rousseauian: “the struggle against natural alienation (e.g., death, disease, suffering) drives humankind to construct hierarchical communities founded on pacts, contracts, and exchange, in order to increase the probability of survival.” Thus goes the effort “to historicize hierarchal social forms so as to envision their eventual twilight” (p. 294). The practice of mobilizing different forms of social organization in everyday life for Arnall and other authors in No Gods is manifested in this act of détournement, itself, which can be used to transvalue the signs and aesthetic meaning of everyday life, thus producing different areal situations in which urban and rural spaces are experienced.
One contradiction that the reader runs into here is that the Rousseauian notion of the social contract is initially deployed as a universality and not a baseline of historic development. For the writers, such a truth is self-evident in the nonhierarchical structures of indigenous groups studied throughout the text. In the section, “Learning from Indigenous Experience: Anarchism and Indigeneity,” Silvia Rivera Cusicanqui’s leading essay, “The Ch’ixi Identity of a Mestizo: Regarding an Anarchist Manifesto of 1929,” locates anarchism within the root of indigenous resistance to colonialism in Bolivia. Carefully teasing out linguistic traces of indigenous and communal identities within a single, specific text, La Voz Campesina, Cusicanqui identifies regional and genealogical ties as embedded in the affirmation of quipnayra, “an indigenous way of perceiving time and expressing it in writing” (p. 19). Hence, anarchism becomes “the most fitting expression of universality” as opposed to colonialism and the state, itself (p. 21). Here we turn from the historicization of hierarchical development to the anthropological conceptualization of the state famously described by Clastres (1987) Clastres, P. 1987. Society against the state. Brooklyn, NY: Zone Books. [Google Scholar]: “the history of peoples without history is the history of their struggle against the State” (218).
The authors must delink historical determinism from the notion of the hierarchical social contract to understand the development of colonialism as unjust, locating radical universality within political currents that resemble anarchism instead. The authors’ approach might even be seen as a détournement of Strauss’s (1989 Strauss, L. 1989. Relativism. In The rebirth of classical political rationalism: An introduction to the thought of Leo Strauss, ed. T. L. Pangle, 13–26. Chicago: University of Chicago Press. [Google Scholar], p. 25) view that European history “becomes a spectacle” by placing it alongside other, equally important and understandably mythical histories in a discursive mapping of the world that fits in a complicated system of networks and flows rather than a geopolitical jigsaw puzzle identified with borders. It was Agamben (1998) Agamben, G. 1998. Homo Sacer: Sovereign power and bare life. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press. [Google Scholar] who wrote in his noteworthy text, Homo Sacer, it is “not the act of tracing boundaries, but their cancellation or negation is the constitutive act of the city” (85). Because the exercise of the production of a core, a city, and the ultimate act of sovereignty is contingent on canceling borders, such anarchist transgressions manifest a kind of rebellious sovereignty. Such a strategy is exhibited in an excellent study of the vampire myth by noted scholar Peter Linebaugh, who shows how myth travels and transforms places with the movement of workers’ struggles against the state. Here, No Gods is perhaps most deeply of all a book of the time-honored quest for the “sovereignty of the people.”
The tensions within the anarchist framework emerge explicitly in an essay about the Zapatistas’ “blending indigenous traditions with revolutionary praxis” by Hillary Klein (p. 22). On a tour of the Lacandon Jungle in which the Zapatista territory sits, Klein introduces the reader to projects of health care, education, and participatory democracy, but pointedly remarks, “I have also known anarchists who grew disenchanted by the authoritarian elements within the Zapatista movement” (p. 42). Hence, No Gods further establishes anarchist practice not as dogmatic but complex and adaptive to specific conditions and different communities. If it is anything, No Gods is searching for reasons to act, to understand, and to reveal. One might recall the geographer Cressey’s (1957) Cressey, G. 1957. Water in the desert. Annals of the Association of American Geographers 47 (2): 105–24[Taylor & Francis Online], [Web of Science ®], , [Google Scholar] words in his Presidential Address to the Association of American Geographers: “It is high time that geographers do something about the world rather than merely describing what anyone can see” (105).
It is that tension, to use Klein’s term, between anarchy and authority, the seen and unseen, that motivates deeper comparative investigation into the political experiments in radical politics around the world. Maia Ramnath’s “No Gods, No Masters, No Brahmins” provides perhaps the most persuasive essay in this vein, showing how British ethnographers led the way in sedentarizing traditional tribal livelihoods based on “mobile shared land uses such as hunting, shifting cultivation, or harvesting of various forest plants and flowers” (p. 61). Reflecting on the opposition between Dalit politics and ultranationalist Hindutva ideology, Ramnath declares that an “indigenist concept of sovereignty then would recognize a region of interdependent, non-anthropocentric cohabitation, as opposed to a nationalist sovereignty defined as ownership, control, and exclusive claim to development of the extractable wealth of a mapped territory” (p. 62). Hence, to return to the theme of “society against the state,” what we find in No Gods are repeated attempts to locate flexible historiographies within a transformative dialectic of freedom and equality that delinks anthropology from anthropocentrism, thus unlocking a radical “symbiosis” between humans and nature.
This understanding of a geographical inquiry into the sovereignty of the people makes No Gods appear novel within contemporary studies, as it struggles against a field that has not even begun to explore the philosophical implications of the works of early innovators like Kant, Humboldt, and Hettner with regard to modern geographic information systems. Such a struggle rebels against a key conception of geography, forwarded by none other than Hartshorne, for instance, that geography can be studied empirically outside of different concepts of the subject. In this way, perhaps No Gods might mark a turning point that forces us to reflect on major geographic innovations in this century that remain undertheorized.
Turning to theoretical elaborations of surrealists and situationists, No Gods suggests that the subject of geography is as much the imagination as it is the physical world. In her text, “Surrealism and Situationism,” longtime surrealist Penelope Rosemont outlines transnational connections that spread the ideals of revolt against everyday life, promoting an alternative form of sovereignty. With Arnall’s piece on Nietzsche, Rosemont’s inquiry into the field of “psychogeography” and poesis helps theoretically describe the ways through which countercultures emerged in the 1960s to alter society’s approach to the physical environment. Bahia Shebab’s “intervention” on stenciling “No” in the streets of Cairo as an act of opposition against the repression of the Arab Spring further reveals the perilous practice of transforming the phenomena of areal interrelation between the state and the “people.” Similarly, Mohammed A. Bamyeh provides a fascinating case study of the transformation of city space during the Arab Spring, in which “immobilizing realities in the world disappear from view” (p. 321).
In its more straightforward articles, No Gods contains fascinating analyses of anarchist history in Chile, Argentina, and Peru, which point to the important roles anarchism has played internationally vis-à-vis workers’ movements and the politics of the subaltern. At the same time, Silvia Federici and Bruno Bosteels present renewed and invigorating inquiries into modern manifestations of international anarchism and their intersections with other left-wing social movements. In this way, No Gods provides a contemporary study of anarchism as articulated through social practice as manifestations of anticolonial movements that carry traditions inherited from indigenous livelihoods.
If No Gods, No Masters, No Peripheries rattles the cages of some conservative geographers, adherents to Harvey’s Marxian geographical studies, and advocates of core–periphery theorizations of world systems, it is only in keeping with fundamental elements within the discipline of geography itself. The approach to world systems that dismantles the term periphery does not deny the reality of colonialism, but seeks to replace it with something that would produce alternative lifeworlds. Perhaps there is no word for that horizon. Although this approach might reflect a degree of idealism, the imaginative challenges to the philosophical assumptions of modern geography make No Gods a valuable contribution to the field. With a focus on the phenomena of places, their intersections and relations to the environment, and the practical implications of geographical theory, this text certainly provides a much appreciated intervention in anarchist theory, which has much to offer geographers who seek to do rather than merely observe.
• Agamben, G. 1998. Homo Sacer: Sovereign power and bare life. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press. [Google Scholar]
• Clastres, P. 1987. Society against the state. Brooklyn, NY: Zone Books. [Google Scholar]
• Cressey, G. 1957. Water in the desert. Annals of the Association of American Geographers 47 (2): 105–24[Taylor & Francis Online], [Web of Science ®], , [Google Scholar]
• Stoddard, D. R. 1997. Carl Sauer: Geomorphologist. In Process and form in geomorphology, ed. D. R. Stoddard, 340–79. London, UK, and New York, NY: Routledge. [Google Scholar]
• Strauss, L. 1989. Relativism. In The rebirth of classical political rationalism: An introduction to the thought of Leo Strauss, ed. T. L. Pangle, 13–26. Chicago: University of Chicago Press. [Google Scholar]