Anarchist Geography

By Simon Springer

The long-standing association between anarchism and geography can be traced across the historical landscape from the towering peaks of heightened association to the low valleys of disconnection and ambivalence. Yet if Earth writing is to be understood as “a means of dissipating…prejudices and of creating other feelings more worthy of humanity” (Kropotkin 1978/1885, 7), then it seems obvious that anarchism has much to contribute to the discipline of geography. Geographical writings from influential anarchist philosophers such as Peter Kropotkin and Élisée Reclus blossomed during the late nineteenth century when their work contributed much to the intellectual climate of the time. Following their deaths in the early twentieth century, engagement with their work started to fade, yet the lasting impact of these visionary thinkers continues to be felt within the contemporary geographical theory, influencing the ways geographers think about diverse topics from ethnicity and “race” to social organization and capital accumulation, to urban and regional planning, to environmentalism and, perhaps surprisingly, even anticipating some of the key precepts of the recent “more-than-human” turn. As realpolitik and the quantitative revolution took hold of geography during the war years of the early twentieth century, the anti-authoritarian vision of Reclus and Kropotkin seemed to be pushed beyond the bounds of what were considered to be geographical concerns. Yet, as geographers rediscovered their bearings for social justice in the early 1970s, anarchism came back into the disciplinary view and was afforded serious consideration by academics advocating for what has since become known as “radical geography.” The publication of Antipode announced a new ethic for human geography, one that refused the stochastic models, inferential statistics, and econometrics that dominated geographical proceedings at the time, subverting this trajectory with qualitative approaches that placed the lived experiences of research participants at the center of its methodological focus. Anarchism played a key role in formulating this epistemological critique, where early engagements took inspiration from Kropotkin in arguing that radical geography should adopt his anarcho-communism as its point of departure.

The publication of a special issue of  Antipode on anarchism in 1978 demonstrated the ongoinginfluence of anarchist thought and practice on geography, as well as geography’s influence on anarchism. It was not just Kropotkin’s sociospatial contributions to human liberation that were celebrated in the issue, as Reclus also received accolades for the importance of his geographical vision for freedom. A reprinting of Kropotkin’s (1978/1885) essay “What Geography OughtTo Be” was meant to further demonstrate the enduring relevance of his work, while Murray Bookchin’s (1978/1965) “Ecology and Revolutionary Thought” was also reprinted, showing how the anarchism of supposed non-geographers had a significant bearing on the radical geographical thought that was beginning to make itself known. Around the same time, the newsletter of the Union of Socialist Geographers published a themed section on anarchist geographies, arising from a discussion group that took place at the University of Minnesota in 1976. These developments were indicative of a sense of optimism for anarchist ideas to reinvigorate a collective geographical practice that was increasingly turning its attention toward social justice. Yet, as the neoliberalism of the1980s and 1990s began to take hold of the world’s political-economic compass, anarchist engagements by geographers dwindled and were largely overshadowed by Marxist, feminist, and incipient poststructuralist critiques. Nonetheless, the decade of Reaganomics and Thatcherism did see the publication of Bookchin’s (2005/1982)The Ecology of Freedom, wherein he advanced an anarchist critique of nature’s domination by social hierarchy. The beginnings of some introspective reflection on geography’s colonial past and its enduring state-centricity also emerged at that time, where the foundational works of Halford Mackinder, Ellen Churchill Semple, Ellsworth Huntington, Isaiah Bowman, and Thomas Holdich were taken to task by anarchist geographers who drew on Kropotkin and Reclus in calling for the abandonment of our inherited disciplinary prejudices. The 1990sfared slightly better, where a special issue on anarchism was organized for the short-lived journal Contemporary Issues in Geography and Education, while Antipode continued to publish the work of geographers who developed new,anarchist-inspired theories related to counter-hegemonic struggle and resistance to capitalism. More recently a new generation of geographers has begun actively transgressing the frontiers of geography by situating anarchism at the center of their practices, theories, pedagogies, and methodologies, (re)mapping the possibilities of what anarchist perspectives might yet contribute to the discipline (Springer 2013). This anarchist(re)turn comes as capitalism’s house of cards begins to collapse under its own weight, where intensifying neo-liberalization, deepening financial crisis, and the ensuing revolt push anarchist praxis back into widespread currency both inside and outside of the academy.

From the vantage point of the present, it is important to recognize that the reduction in direct engagements with anarchism among academic geographers since the time of Reclus and Kropotkin in no way signals the decline of anarchism as a relevant political idea, something that is now actively being rediscovered by the new batch of anarchist geographers. Instead, it speaks to one of the core tenets of anarchist praxis, centered as it is on the politics of pre-figuration, where anarchism lives through the organization and creation of social relationships that strive to reflect the future society being sought. Prefigurative politics is the recognition that to plan without practice is akin to theory without empirics, history without voices, and geography without context. In other words, pre-figuration actively creates a new society in the shell of the old. So, while academic geography became obsessed with the trappings of positivism, and later the class-centric economism of Marxism, the geography of anarchism simply left the academy for the greener pastures of practice: on the streets as direct action, civil disobedience, and black bloc tactics; in the communes and intentional communities of the cooperative movement; amid activists and a range of small-scale mutual aid groups, networks, and initiatives; as tenant associations, trade unions, and credit unions; online through peer-to-peer filesharing, open-source software, and wikis; among neighbourhoods as autonomous migrant support networks and radical social centers; and, more generally, within the here and now of everyday life. In some ways what we are witnessing today, an even deeper appreciation for anarchism than we’ve ever actually seen within the academy, is the result of a century of struggle. Reclus and Kropotkin were not able to combine their anarchism with their geographical scholarship as they might do today, but not necessarily for lack of trying. Kropotkin was offered an endowed chair at Cambridge University, but turned it down because it came with the stipulation that he give up his political commitments. Nonetheless, the closer we move toward the present moment, the more the literature demonstrates an appreciation for praxis, where the result has been a burgeoning consideration of both sides of the theory/practice divide.

Although anarchism is frequently portrayed as a symptom of mental illness and a synonym for violence and chaos, rather than as a valid political philosophy, such sensationalism is a ploy by its detractors. While violence has informed some historical and contemporary anarchist movements, and it is difficult to deny this constituent, anarchism has no monopoly of violence; compared to other political creeds (e.g., nationalism or monarchism), anarchism is decidedly peaceful. The word “anarchy” comes from the Greek anarkhia meaning “without rule,” or against all forms of “archy” or systems of rule (i.e., patriarchy, oligarchy, monarchy, hierarchy, etc.). Violence can be seen as antithetical to anarchy precisely because all violence involves a form of domination, authority, or rule over other individuals. Violence is thus a particular form of “archy,” and not anarchy at all. Similarly, anarchism refuses chaos by creating new forms of organization that break with hierarchy and embrace egalitarianism. In fact, the symbol for anarchism ‘A’ is meant to suggest that anarchy is the mother of order, an idea advanced by Pierre-Joseph Proudhon, the first person to identify as an anarchist. Anarchism accordingly represents an unwavering political commitment that seeks to break from hierarchical structures and unfasten the bonds that facilitate and reproduce violence. It is the notion that our shared morality should not be premised on the prejudices of life as it is currently lived through a politics of consensus that is antagonistic toward difference, but rather on a version of empathy that embraces our ultimate integrality to each other and to all that is. Such a process entails the rejection of all the interlocking systems of domination, including capitalism, imperialism, colonialism, neoliberalism, militarism, classism, racism, nationalism, ethnocentrism, sexism, Orientalism, ableism, genderism, ageism, speciesism, homophobia, transphobia, organized religion, and, of course, the state. Simon Springer (2012, 1607) has accordingly defined anarchist geographies as “kaleidoscopic spatialities that allow for multiple, non-hierarchical, and protean connections between autonomous entities, wherein solidarities, bonds, and affinities are voluntarily assembled in opposition to and free from the presence of sovereign violence, predetermined norms, and assigned categories of belonging.” Such a holistic interpretation of anarchist geographies was first laid down by Reclus (1876–1894), whose primary contribution to the discipline was the emancipatory vision detailed in The Earth and Its Inhabitants: The Universal Geography, wherein he conceptualized a coalescence between humanity and the Earth itself. Reclus sought to eliminate all forms of domination, which were to be replaced with love and active compassion between all animals, both human and nonhuman, as a process of humanity discovering deeper emotional meaning through acknowledging itself as but one historical being in the flowering of a greater planetary consciousness. Kropotkin (2008/1902) did much to contribute to such a vision as well with his monumental Mutual Aid: A Factor of Evolution, wherein partial reply to the social Darwinism of his time, he observed mutual aid as cooperation among plants, animals, and humans, including mutual forms of assistance between species, thereby shedding light on a grander sense of agency, foreshadowing recent theorizing within the domain of more-than-human geographies. Anarchist ideas were from the outset explicitly geographical, differing greatly from the industrial imagination of Marxists, as emphasis was placed on decentralized organization, rural life, agriculture, and local production, which allowed for self-sufficiency and removed the ostensible need for central government. Anarchists were also rooted in a view of history that has been confirmed by the anthropological record, where, prior to recorded history, human societies established themselves without formal authority in ways that rejected coercive political institutions. Although early views of anarchism have been critiqued on the basis of their natural-ist assumptions, we would also do well to pause and reflect on the implicit naturalizing of hierarchical structures that suggest that hierarchies necessarily arise as societies grow, rather than analyzing the patterns through which authority is actually constructed and thinking through the innumerable anarchist alternatives that could be and are being developed.

In understanding anarchist geographies, we should begin by noting that anarchism is not about drafting sociopolitical blueprints for the future, nor does it trace a line or provide a model. Prefiguration should not be confused as predetermination, as anarchists are more concerned with identifying social tendencies, where the focus is on the possibilities that can be realized in the here and now. Anarchism accordingly points to a strategy of breaking the chains of coercion and exploitation by encompassing everyday acts of resistance and cooperation, where examples of viable anarchist alternatives are nearly infinite. The only limit to anarchist organizing is our imagination, and the sole existing criterion is that anarchism proceeds nonhierarchically. Such horizontal organization may come in the form of child-care collectives, street parties, gardening clinics, learning networks, flashmobs, community kitchens, free skools, rooftop occupations, freecycling, radical samba, sewing workshops, coordinated monkeywrenching, spontaneous disaster relief, infoshops, volunteer fire brigades, micro radio, building coalitions, collective hacking, wildcat strikes, neighbourhood tool sharing, tenant associations, workplace organizing, knitting collectives, and squatting, which are all anarchism in action, each with decidedly spatial implications. So what forms of action does anarchism take? “All forms,” Kropotkin once answered: “Indeed, the most varied forms, dictated by circumstances, temperament, and the means at disposal. Sometimes tragic, sometimes humorous, but always daring; sometimes collective, some-times purely individual, this policy of action will neglect none of the means at hand, no event of public life, in order to … awaken courage and fan the spirit of revolt.” (2005/1880, 39) Anarchist organization doesn’t seek to replace top-down state mechanisms by standing in for them; rather, it replaces them with people building what they need for themselves, free from coercion or the imposition of authority. Rather than proceeding from a centralized polity, social organization is conceived through local voluntary groupings that maintain autonomy as a decentralized system of self-governed communes of all sizes and degrees that coordinates activities and networks for all possible purposes through free federation. The coercive pyramid of the state structure is replaced with webs of free association, in which individual localities freely pursue their own political-economic and socio-cultural arrangements.

Anarchist geographies are actually not novel, in the sense that people have organized themselves collectively and practised mutual aid to satisfy their own needs throughout human history. Organization under anarchism is simply a continuation of this impulse, despite its attempted disruption by the state. As Colin Ward argued: “given a common need, a collection of people will, by trial and error, by improvisation and experiment, evolve order out of the situation – this order being more durable and more closely related to their needs than any kind of order external authority could provide. “(1982/1973, 28) There is consequently no transgeohistorical narrative to anarchism as, although it has been continuously present in human societies, mutual aid is nonetheless differentiated across space and time, taking on unique and even subtle forms according to context, needs, desires, and constraints placed on reciprocity by opposing systems such as capitalism. At certain times and in particular places mutual aid has been central to social life, while at other times the geographies of mutual aid have remained largely hidden from view, overshadowed by domination, competition, and violence. Yet, irrespective of adversarial conditions, mutual aid remains prevalent, and “the moment we stop insisting on viewing all forms of action only by their function in reproducing larger, total, forms of inequality of power, we will also be able to see that anarchist social relations and non-alienated forms of action are all around us.” (Graeber 2004, 76)

It is in the spirit of seeking new forms of organization that anarchist geographies have been “reanimated” as of late (Springer et al . 2012), emphasizing a do-it-yourself (DIY) ethos of autonomy, direct action, radical democracy, andnoncommodification. Arguments in favour of the radical potential of DIY culture have emphasized anarchist perspectives toward the everyday trans-formation of our lives, a sentiment that factors heavily in a great number of social movements, where geographers have begun thinking through how impermanent spaces may arise in response to sociopolitical action that eludes the formal structures of hierarchical control. Pickerill and Chatteron (2006) have adopted such an “autonomous geographies” approach in attempting to think through how spectacular protest and everyday life may be productively combined to enable alternatives to capitalism. Routledge’s (2003) notion of “convergence space” has similarly proven influential to anarchists insofar as it appreciates how grassroots networks and activists come together through multiscalar political action to produce a relational ethics of struggle, offering a reconvened sense of nonhierarchical organization.

The application of an explicitly anarcho-geographical perspective would benefit a range of contemporary issues, each with decidedly spatial implications, from the overt uprisings of the Arab Spring and the Occupy movement, to the spectacle of street theatre and Critical Mass rides, to the subversive resistance of trespassing and culture jamming, to lifestyle choices of dumpster diving and unschooling, to the mutual aid activities of community gardens and housing co-ops, to the organizing capabilities of bookfairs and Indymedia. Similarly, anarchism has much to contribute to enhancing geographical theory, where it is easy to envision how new research insights and agendas might productively arise from taking an anarchist approach to themes such as sovereignty and the state; homelessness and housing; environmental justice and sustainability; industrial restructuring and labour geographies; capital accumulation and property relations; policing and critical legal geographies; informal economies and livelihoods; urban design and aesthetics; agrarian transformation and landlessness; nonrepresentational theory and more-than-human geographies; activism and social justice; geographies of debt and economic crisis; belonging and place-based politics; participation and community planning; biopolitics and governmentality; postcolonial and post-development geographies; situated knowledges and alternative epistemologies; and anti-oppressive education and critical pedagogy. Kropotkin viewed teaching geography as an exercise in intellectual emancipation insofar as it afforded a means not only to awaken people to the harmonies of nature, but also to dissipate their nationalist and racist prejudices, a promise that geography still holds, and one that may be more fully realized should anarchist geographies be given the attention and care that is required for them to blossom. Retaining Reclus’s and Kropotkin’s skepticism for and challenges to the dominant ideologies of the day has much to offer contemporary geographical scholarship and its largely unreflexive acceptance of the civilizational, legal, and capitalist discourses that converge around the state. The perpetuation of the idea that human organization necessitates the formation of states is writ large in a discipline that has derided the “territorial trap,” yet has been generally hesitant to take the critique of state-centricity in the direction of anarchism. However, unlike the limited class-centricity of Marxian geography, the promise of anarchist geographies resides in their integrality, which refuses to assign priority to any one of the multiple dominating apparatuses, because all are seen as irreducible to one another. This means that no single struggle can wait on any other, and the a priori privilege of the workers, the vanguards, or any other category over any other should be rejected on the basis of its incipient hierarchy. Anarchism is quite simply the struggle against all forms of oppression and exploitation, a protean and multivariate process that is decidedly geographical. Anarchism is happening all about us.


Bookchin, M. 1978. “Ecology and RevolutionaryThought.” Antipode, 10: 21. (Original work published in 1965.)

Bookchin, M. 2005. The Ecology of Freedom: The Emergence and Dissolution of Hierarchy. Oakland, CA: AKPress. (Original work published in 1982.)

Graeber, D. 2004. Fragments of an Anarchist Anthropology. Chicago: Prickly Paradigm Press.

Kropotkin, P. 1978. “What Geography Ought ToBe.” Antipode, 10: 6–15.  (Original work published in 1885.)

Kropotkin, P. 2005. “The Spirit of Revolt.” In Kropotkin’s Revolutionary Pamphlets, edited by R.Baldwin, 34–44. Whitefish, MT: Kessinger. (Original work published in 1880.)

Kropotkin, P. 2008. Mutual Aid: A Factor of Evolution. Charleston, SC: Forgotten Books. (Original work published in 2002.)

Pickerill, J., and P. Chatterton. 2006. “Notes towards Autonomous Geographies: Creation Resistance and Self-Management as Survival Tactics.” Progress in Human Geography, 30: 730–746.

Reclus, E. 1876–1894. The Earth and Its Inhabitants: The Universal Geography. London: J.S. Virtue.

Routledge, P. 2003. “Convergence Space: ProcessGeographies of Grassroots Globalization Net-works.” Transactions of the Institute of British Geographers, 28: 333–349.

Springer, S. 2012. “Anarchism! What Geography StillOught To Be.” Antipode, 44: 1605–1624.

Springer, S. 2013. “Anarchism and Geography: A Brief Genealogy of Anarchist Geographies” 

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