Did you hear the one about the Anarchist Manager?

The 3rd Anarchist Studies Network conference took place between the 3rd and the 5th of September, at that network’s home, Loughborough University. As with the 2nd ASN conference two years ago, we organised a stream at the conference which invited participants to consider the relationship between Anarchism and (Critical) Management Studies (CMS). Over the past two years we also organised a similar event at the Manchester Critical Management Studies conference and a double book launch, here at Leicester. These various events, taken together, are leading up to a special issue of the open-access online journal ephemera, entitled “Management, Business, Anarchism”, due to be published this November. It has been an interesting two years.

If the title for the special issue sounds provocative, that’s because it is meant to! When we began this project we were worried that this peculiar juxtaposition of management and anarchism was one which wouldn’t draw much interest. We need not have been so concerned. The forthcoming special issue boasts twenty-one separate contributions while the various events collectively brought together over sixty contributors and participants. Most of the events have taken place in rooms packed full of scholars and activists, with people crowing round the floor and the door for want of seating. This volume of interest both surprises and pleases us. Clearly there was already something bubbling under the surface and we are delighted to have played our part in bringing some of it out into the open.

What sort of research is being done? Our first stream featured studies of leadership in anarchist groups and decision-making practices in Greek workers’ cooperatives, as well as a philosophical account of anti-systems social movements. At Manchester, we heard about anarchism and systems theory, the relevance of George Sorel’s work to organisation theory, the empirical existence of anarchist workspaces within capitalism, protest camps and many other fascinating topics featuring in the special issue. The most recent event, which occurred after the special issue deadline, featured pieces on Proudhon and anarchist aesthetics, self-organisation, resistance at work, anarchist performativity, the Millennial generation and free spaces of work. Such diversity is underpinned by common themes. Firstly, the relationship between managerial and political action, whether conceptualised as performativity, prefiguration, autonomy and/or aesthetics, persists throughout. So too, a critical discussion of the nature of work, be that in terms of self-organisation, of workplace resistance or of alternative/revolutionary work spaces, is ubiquitous. Anarchism, it is clear, can be understood as a theory and practice of management. If there is to be a critical study of management then anarchism is an obvious source from which to draw future inspiration.

There are also clear pitfalls to be aware of, however and some emerged during the course of September’s roundtable discussion. This juxtaposition will amount to nothing, we insist, if it simply becomes a cynical ploy through which CMS scholars attempt to cash in on anarchism’s subversive edginess. We also need to ask whether anarchism has anything to gain from CMS, if CMS, to put it bluntly, is worthy of anarchist energy. If it is, it will need to provide a space for activism in academia and to re-imagine academia as activism. While it is a tall order, a deepening of the ‘critical’ in CMS as something essentially political and essentially activist could mark the next phase in the discipline’s evolution. Anarchist activists are always looking for the space and resources to develop their organisational repertoires and CMS could well be it.

Whatever the future might hold, the developments over the last two years have elevated the juxtaposition between anarchism and CMS beyond the something so ephemeral that, as the saying goes, to even whisper its name would make it disappear. The forthcoming special issue signals the beginning, rather than the end, of an inherently practical academic tradition.

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