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Jun 28, 21

Polyvalent Power: A Review of the “Power” Issue of “Perspectives on Anarchist Theory”

Image: “A Love Supreme,” by Erin Bree of Gallery of the Streets, from issue 32 of Perspectives on Anarchist Theory.

During the height of the movement against neoliberal globalization in the U.S., numerous chants and sayings emerged or were resuscitated, such as, “This is what democracy looks like” or “The whole world is watching.” Fortunately, along with the phenomenon of summit-hopping itself, these utterances have largely fallen into disuse. A particularly nonsensical saying from that moment was “Speaking truth to power.” First coined by Bayard Rustin for a pamphlet he co-wrote in 1955, called Speaking Truth to Power: A Quaker Search for an Alternative to Violence, the notion has been rightfully critiqued by the likes of Noam Chomsky, who stated, “power knows the truth already, and is busy concealing it.”[1] Yet even this does not go far enough, as it maintains the presumption latent in the slogan that there exists a binary between those with power and those without it, or that power as such is a thing one can speak to.

Theorists from Spinoza to Gramsci to Foucault have attempted to wrestle with the question of what power is, arriving at no agreement aside from the fact that power is no one thing. In this sense, power can be understood as being “overdetermined,” a Freudian concept appropriated by Marxist theorists which, as explained by Stuart Hall, allows that “an idea, a symptom, or a dream symbol can itself be the condensation of a set of different chains of meaning, which are not manifest in the way in which the symbol is given.…One has to conceive of it as overdetermined; that is, the same symbol can be determined at different levels, by different kinds of discourses.”[2] The exploration of this discursive malleability of power, as well as the capacity of power to reify certain discourses, is at the heart of the most recent edition of Perspectives on Anarchist Theory, volume number 32, published in May of this year by the Institute for Anarchist Studies and oriented around the theme of “Power.”

Originally intended to be published last year, its release was pushed back by the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic and the summer of rebellions against anti-Black police murders. The result is a collection of 19 essays of varying lengths, amounting to 208 pages – the longest edition of the journal yet – interspersed by powerful, full-color artwork from the queer Black feminist-oriented Gallery of the Streets. Flipping through the journal is an inspiring experience in and of itself, with gripping graphics, photos, artwork, and even a comic, accompanied by a crisp and aesthetically pleasing design and format.

Given the number of essays and the variety of subjects they address, it is not possible to comment on each one in this review. However, each, whether implicitly or explicitly, addresses various aspects of power, often in terms of metaphor, analogy, or discussing the power of a certain object or process. While there is little engagement with the concept of power as an object-of-knowledge itself, together the essays provide constructive insights into the overdetermined nature of power and its multivalent qualities, as well as, either intentionally or not, raising further questions and lines of inquiry regarding varying manifestations of power that fruitfully create spaces for consideration and application beyond the pages of the journal itself.

The trickiness of grappling with power, as well as the general orientation of the contents of the journal, are described in Theresa Warburton’s brief introduction to the issue, in which power is reflected upon metaphorically. In thinking about power as electricity, the introduction asks the reader to consider what emerges when the power goes out; how does one act, see, and be differently; what infrastructures, relationships, and actions occur when a certain type of power fails or creates openings and we organize in its absence? The metaphorical means of conceptualizing power also shows its limit in such an example, yet simultaneously can encourage different modes of reflection. For example, in Spanish, the metaphor would not hold, as power as electricity is referred to as luz (light) or energía (energy). Yet at the same time, the word for power – poder – when used as a verb means “can” or “to be able to,” allowing for power to be understood as action or the capacity to take action.

This notion of power as potential harkens back to Baruch Spinoza’s dialectical division of power into potestas, or “the power of authority,” and potentia, or “the actual force and strength of the multitude.”[3] Such a distinction and its interplay are present in several of the journal’s pieces, including Shane Burley’s essay on Rojava, “Living Your Life in a State of War.” At the same time as speaking about the power of an idea made manifest into a material reality on the ground, he also reflects on the precarity of what’s been created due to threats from the power of authority in the form of interventionist nation-states. Doing so leads him to ask if Rojava will be a “revolutionary moment” to be both celebrated and lamented by anarchists after the fact, such as the Spanish Revolution, or a “revolutionary society” able to maintain its achievements (23). For the latter to prevail, he calls on not only the power of international solidarity but for anarchists outside of Rojava to see it as part of a broader international anarchist project, requiring us to “liv[e] our lives in a state of war,” just as is occurring Rojava and to organize at home as such (23).

While raising important points, a discussion about power and Rojava also opens terrain that many anarchists do not tread on. And here I’m not speaking of U.S. involvement but rather Abdullah Öcalan and the notion of the creation of anarchic society being mandated from above and from afar. If Rojava is to be viewed in a desirable light and its achievements seen as ones to replicate, its origins also require interrogation. What is the significance of a leader ordering the creation of a certain type of society, even if it is libertarian leaning? Is such a means to such an end acceptable? A further question revolves around the power of nationalism and the presentation of Rojava as a homogeneous Kurdish project in a heterogeneous territory. Such a framing has left unaddressed (or willfully unseen) aspects of the “revolution” such as the de-Arabization of villages in Rojava, acts referred to as “population transfers,” the exact rhetoric used by Israel when speaking of the ethnic cleansing of Palestinians.[4] When engaging with the power of an idea made manifest, it’s incumbent upon us, its advocates, to examine all the implications enacted by that power.

The contrasting of power is present in another strong essay from the journal, “The Power of Solidarity and Mutual Aid: Decolonizing Puerto Rico,” by Pedro Anglada Cordero. In it, Anglada reflects on the hegemonic power of colonialism and the ways in which it reproduces itself, calling to mind Louis Althusser’s discussion of repressive and ideological state apparatuses. Anglada notes that not only does the state and its armed forces maintain colonialism, but that it is also further entrenched via the discursive power of the media, schools, and economic systems. The power of ideology in the maintenance of hegemony, and in the case of Puerto Rico, colonialism, is crucial to an overall understanding of power.

As Althusser puts it, “Ideology represents the imaginary relationship of individuals to their real conditions of existence” and “no class can hold State power over a long period without at the same time exercising its hegemony over and in the State Ideological Apparatuses.”[5] While as anarchists, we are not interested in holding state power like Althusser was, it is important to understand the role of ideology in order to make counterhegemonic moves against the state. Drawing on Gramsci, if colonialism is the hegemonic reality, we must be able to understand the “relations of force” at play in order for new ideologies and good sense – as opposed to common sense – to emerge during moments of conjuncture.[6] Anglada points to this with his discussion of natural and human-made disasters that have struck Puerto Rico, opening up points for decolonial social forces to assert themselves and mobilize their power through mutual aid. Counter to the previous example of Rojava, Anglada makes clear that these mutual aid formations “emerged organically without following specific political ideologies or theories. Still, their functioning based on collective solidarity while refusing hierarchical power schemes makes these organizations a model for how to decolonize from the root” (41). The task that lays before all mutual aid projects, whether in Puerto Rico or around the world, especially the upsurge seen during the pandemic, is to ensure their ongoing development so as to not disappear once the conjuncture has passed, but to build community-based formations that continue a “philosophy of praxis” so as to further the power of their collective solidarity and diminish dependence on the hegemonic historical bloc in order to build material and social relations outside of its power.

Lara Messersmith-Glavin’s contribution offers an impressive sustained analogy between strength training and organizing for political change in “Time Under Tension: Lessons in Organizing From a Kettlebell Gym.” Nimbly moving between a discussion of working with kettlebells to how similar understandings can apply to creating community strength, Messersmith-Glavin touches on the importance of understanding where one’s power/strength lies, in both training and organizing, then moves on to address more complex aspects of both, such as inclusion, politicization, mutual aid, political education, adaptiveness and more. As she writes, “I believe that all sites of connection hold the potential for change…Bodies, needs, experiences, and even goals may be different, but a shared purpose can lead to tremendous capacity for change” (60).

Locating strength and power within the individual and collective resonates with classical anarchist conceptions of power, strength, and force. Anarchists such as Proudhon, Bakunin, Kropotkin, and Malatesta all identified force or power as an ontological facet of human existence that both brought people together in collectivity and allowed them to take action to create change. Proudhon wrote, “By its power, the first and most substantial of all its attributes, the social being thus testifies to its reality and life; it is posited, it is created, on the same basis and under the same conditions of existence as other beings.”[7] With that power inherent in every social being, Bakunin adds that, “Hence it follows that man [sic] realizes his individual freedom only by rounding out his personality with the aid of other individuals belonging to the same social environment; he can achieve that only by dint of labor and the collective power of society.”[8] Messersmith-Glavin’s piece helpfully walks through what building that individual and collective power referred to by classical anarchists can look like and importantly reaffirms that power is not something only outside of us, but that which we can build on our own and together by putting in the work.

While this review has touched on three particular essays in the volume, it by no means encompasses the discussion of power contained within. Additional contributions examine a variety of topics related to power, helping to demonstrate its overdetermined nature, such as creating power online, the power of money, and a tribute to David Graeber and a look at his understanding of bureaucratic power and how it quelches the power of the imagination. There are further reflections on the power of rising up and claiming autonomous space in Minneapolis following the police murder of George Floyd, proposals for building power through pandemic communalism, and empowering information to help folks navigate trauma and exposure to less-lethal munitions.

Taken as a whole, the journal helps point to what Michel Foucault attempted to pin down about power, in that it “must be understood in the first instance as the multiplicity of force relations immanent in the sphere in which they operate and which constitute their own organization…power is not an institution, and not a structure; neither is it a certain strength we are endowed with; it is the name that one attributes to a complex strategical situation in a particular society.”[9]

Especially relevant to these readings is Foucault’s observation that power is present in every relationship and power always comes with resistance, which is not external to power but a manifestation of power itself. Therefore, through protests, rebellions, community organizing, mutual aid, and taking care of ourselves and one another, we are not speaking truth to power, but manifesting, building, and growing a counterpower of our own. Those interested in an exploration of the different avenues that process can take or look like are encouraged to pick up and read through this volume of Perspectives on Anarchist Theory.


[1] Eagleton, Terry. “The truth speakers.” New Statesmen, 3 Apr. 2006, Accessed 25 Jun 2021.

[2] Hall, Stuart. Cultural Studies 1983: A Theoretical History. Duke UP, 2016, pp. 107.

[3] Large, W. “Spinoza for our time: Politics and modernity.” Contemporary Political Theory, vol. 16, 2017, pp. 161–164.

[4] Amnesty International. “Syria: ‘We had nowhere to go’ – Forced displacement and demolitions in Northern Syria.” Amnesty International, 13 Oct.2015,

[5] Althusser, Louis. “Ideology and Ideological State Apparatuses.”,

[6] Gramsci, Antonio. The Antonio Gramsci Reader: Selected Writings 1916-1935. NYU Press, 2000, pp. 205.

[7] Proudhon, Pierre-Joseph. Property is Theft! A Pierre-Joseph Proudhon Reader. Ed. Iain McKay, AK Press, 2011.

[8] Bakunin, Mikhail. The Political Philosophy of Bakunin: Scientific Anarchism. Ed. G.P. Maximoff, ChristieBooks, 2015, pp. 165.

[9] Foucault, Michel. The History of Sexuality, Vol. 1: An Introduction. Vintage, 1990, pp. 92-97.

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Scott Campbell is the author of the "Insumisión," which was a featured column on It's Going Down and currently writes news and analysis on social movements and struggles, with an eye towards Mexico.

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