Anarchist Studies Reviews Guerrillas of Desire

June 23, 2020 4:01 pm

by Robin Jervis

Republished with permission from Anarchist Studies 27, 2 (Autumn-Winter 2019).

Guerrillas of Desire is as a significant work which develops an understanding of how the concept of resistance should be located in Marxist and anarchist traditions. The analysis serves the important purpose of constructing common frameworks of understanding between autonomist Marxism, chiefly through the work of Harry Cleaver, and social movement activism. The book is split into three parts. The first explains the concept of ‘everyday resistance’ and builds a theoretical framework which is later applied to historical forms of oppression; the second is an impressive historical account which locates a similarity in forms of resistance under different historical forms of exploitation. A wide conception of the ‘working class’ is crucial for the narrative of the book, which demonstrates the similarity of forms of ‘revolt against work’ to various forms of capitalist domination in slavery, peasantry, industrial proletarianism and social reproduction. The third section focuses on the implications of this approach for contemporary organisation with a critique of the traditional union form and one of its apparent successors, the non-profit, and ends with a reflection on the need for new forms of organisation which focus on the self-activity of the broadly defined working class.

The first section of the work engages theoretically with aspects of power, differentiating between potestas – the power enacted directly upon others, generally by the state (the exposure of which being its own form of resistance); and potentia – the power to affect change through resistance, in part as systems of domination are forced to adapt to insurgency. It is this latter concept of potentia which is largely drawn on in the later historical sections of the work, highlighting the power inherent in the collective, disruptive action of resistant subaltern groups.

The impressive second section discusses the forms and strategies of everyday resistance present under conditions of slavery, peasantry, and waged and domestic labour. Of particular interest are discussions of how groups constructed ethical positions to justify elements of radical or illegal resistance, especially through the subversion of (intended) forms of control (such as the church); and the gradual co-option of other groups sharing common interests (such as the illegal trade that emerged between slaves and poor whites in the antebellum South, itself a form of ‘everyday resistance’). This analysis is extended in a discussion of peasant politics which, as well as offering an impressive review of the literature, seeks to demonstrate the way in which capitalist regimes of enclosure and scientific agriculture develop in response to peasant resistance.

The final historical chapter explores the development of the labour movement in the US through the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, and, drawing on autonomist Marxist analysis of the collapse of the Keynesian welfare state, highlights the role played by forms of resistance in terms of class, gender and race. In this exploration, the chapter highlights the forms of ‘organization’ – solidarity, communication and mutual aid – which are explored in previous historical contexts earlier in the book, and contrasts these with formal labour unions of the era, offering a powerful critique of unions as being co-opted and complicit in the exploitation inherent in Fordist production. This critique of formal organisations continues into the next section, which starts to discuss the contemporary era of neoliberalism and forms of exploitation, raising concerns around affective work and precariarity. In this third section, a compelling alternative account of organization is developed along three lines. First, in response to Alinsky, Van Meter argues that a structural understanding of exploitation and oppression must inform resistance movements. Second, the book provides a critique of the co-option of non-profit welfare providers by the neoliberal state, labelling the non-profits as ‘administrators of poverty’ (p142). Third, Van Meter argues that the concept of prefiguration should be replaced by one of emancipation. In so doing, the field is opened for a discussion of organisation which is spontaneous, autonomous and solidaristic, constantly agitating through acts of everyday resistance.

Guerrillas of Desire begins with a self-confessed provocation: the left misunderstands resistance. The implications of this claim, which forms the central thesis of the work, have huge significance for those with an interest in both Marxist or anarchist approaches to resistance, and the book goes a long way towards building bridges between these two approaches, highlighting the contribution made to the understanding of class conflict by autonomist Marxists. The book could be best understood as an awakening – both to the nature and capabilities of those who the left seeks to mobilise and organise, and to the historical record and future possibilities of the revolt against work.

Review by Robin Jervis who is a senior lecturer in Politics at the University of Brighton, UK, where he teaches British Politics, research methods, and political economy. His 2016 doctorate examined worker co-operatives, and he continues to have research interests in anarchism, worker ownership and economic democracy.

Republished from Anarchist Studies 27, 2 (Autumn-Winter 2019) with permission. (https://www.lwbooks.co.uk/anarchist-studies)

Guerrillas of Desire is available from AK Press here: https://www.akpress.org/guerrillas-of-desire.html

Kevin Van Meter, Guerrillas of Desire: Notes on Everyday Resistance and Organizing to make a Revolution Possible. Oakland and Edinburgh: IAS/AK Press, 2017; 196pp; ISBN 9781849352727