books lifestyle politics

Book review: Practical Anarchism, by Scott Branson

Anarchism is arguably a useless word. Because it has been so commonly defined as chaos, it’s almost impossible to have a conversation about anarchism without being misunderstood. Scott Branson acknowledges that using the term might be a losing battle, but use it they do, proudly reclaiming and reimagining anarchism as a down to earth way of life.

“Anarchism has to be a continual practice, not a static ideology,” says Branson. It has no end goal. It’s not out to stir up a revolution or deliver a prescribed solution. Instead, the book seeks to “focus on anarchism as a daily practice of care, in relationships with our loved ones, ourselves, our comrades in struggle, our neighbours, strangers, and unpredictable solidarities to come.”

This is a useful idea. At the moment the loudest critiques of state power come from more libertarian voices. They tend to prize individual autonomy and individual rights, and at its more extreme edges this can become deeply anti-social. Anarchism sees freedom within relationships and community, which is more true to how everyday life unfolds. Most of us are not cabin-dwelling frontiersmen, forging our solitary way against the world. We live embedded in families, communities, societies, networks of relationships that make life possible. “We have our survival bound up with each other,” writes Branson.

Another reason to look again at anarchist thinking is to counter the dis-empowerment that comes from depending on the state. “People will more willingly call the police than ask their neighbours to turn the music down,” Branson observes. “We defer to an external authority rather than confront a problem ourselves.” This works against community, but it’s also a fragile dependency – especially at a time of austerity and government failure. If our first reaction to a problem is to look to the authorities to solve it, we can find ourselves helpless and frustrated when it turns out that the authorities are busy with other things.

Anarchism is a challenge to power. It questions attempts to dominate and control, and refuses to acknowledge hierarchies that say some people are more important than others. Rather than waiting for someone ‘in charge’ to come and tell us what to do, it gets on with finding solutions, building community support and mutual aid. As the book describes, this isn’t a matter of ideology and idealism. It’s about everyday life. It’s straightforward and practical – like the anarchists in Oregon who went out and fixed the potholes in the street.

Practical Anarchism looks at ways of living out anarchism in various spheres of life, across a series of chapters that cover the marketplace, education, or art. One on families looks at the importance of setting boundaries, issues of consent, seeking consensus rather than imposing authority. A chapter on work challenges the idea that we should find our self-worth in capitalist productivity, and asks how we can make a living without giving up autonomy. No easy task, which is why the book constantly returns to the theme that anarchism is about finding freedom in the margins, in little seized moments, rather than in an idealised future that’s always just out of reach.

It’s unlikely that you’re going to want to take every suggestion in what is a fairly provocative book, but you may well be living out some anarchist principles already. You might never start using the word ‘anarchism’ to describe what you’re up to, but there’s plenty here to inspire greater freedom from consumerism, patriarchy and claims to power – all in the context of community and care.

“Anarchism is not simply a critique that promises a new world at some unknown point,” says Branson, “but a way that we build the world.”

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