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  • Arthur Ivan Bravo

A New Anarchism

Arthur Ivan Bravo reviews Catherine Malabou's Stop Thief! Anarchism and Philosophy


Activism and activists of all persuasions stand to benefit from a mutually dynamic dialogue between theory and practice. Such a dialogue would entail a “horizontal” exchange between theory and practicerather than a “vertical” (only one-way)horizontality, corresponding to the anarchist ethos.  Such a dialogue would, after all, apply to the stages through which and from activism ultimately manifests, from planning, to the determination of method, to finally, action. The consideration of how theory can inform and enrich the practice of an anarchist vision is taken seriously by French philosopher Catherine Malabou’s book Stop Thief! Anarchism and Philosophy, (translated into English by Francophone literature scholar, Carolyn Shread). 

Malabou is primarily known for her work around the concept of ‘plasticity,’ influenced by the study of Hegel and research into the medical sciences.  Plasticity implies, is concerned with, to use colloquial wording, the ability or energy something has within to alter, change, or transform itself.  This is rather than such consideration for or attention to the in-betweenness of things, or ‘other things,’ playing the role of effecting those alterations, changes, or transformations, as characteristic of late- and post-modern thinking.  But this is not to say that Malabou has not written on anarchy or anarchism, or that it has not appeared as a sensibility and concern throughout her work. 

In Stop Thief!, Malabou devotes the entire volume to the subject of anarchy/anarchism, in furtherance of its cause. But beyond this, her more specific intentions are to properly articulate and define anarchism and to explore how it has figured in the work of various notable philosophers. This is to reconcile a historical, traditional discrepancy between anarchism’s philosophical and political iterations, and to provide anarchism with its very own – and deserved – body and/or literature of theory.  In attempting this, perhaps anarchism can start to be taken seriously as a viable, realistic alternative. 

Malabou begins Stop Thief! by commenting on the state of anarchy or anarchism today, decrying assumptions held about it: that it is not realistically possible, and therefore, not worthy of serious attention. These assumptions abound even as distortions of anarchy/anarchism drive major forces in our world, such as those of what is called ‘anarcho-capitalism,’ the results of which range from the rise of political authoritarianism and government violence, to the “uberization of life,” to the workings of cryptocurrency transactions, and economic deregulation. Her brief survey is indeed convincing, as well as frustrating for anyone invested in anarchism.  She states that differentiating genuine anarchism, what it means, and can mean, from existing forces in motion such as the aforementioned anarcho-capitalism, is a necessary task. But how did it come to this in the first place? 

Malabou pinpoints and uncovers the germ of a notion, interpreted as a flaw, within the foundations of Western philosophy, with particular implications for political philosophy, in the writings of Aristotle that build upon the work of others before him in ancient Greece. This flaw, as such, has smothered the articulation and viability of anarchism throughout subsequent philosophical discourse. Consequently, though philosophers up to the present have on occasion found and even at least floated iterations, versions, formations of anarchism, they have shied from proceeding further, especially from proposing a political anarchism.  Whatever presence anarchism has enjoyed within philosophy, however strenuously or tolerated, it has not enjoyed within political thinking, revealing a break or gap between the domains of discourse.  The major part of what follows in Stop Thief! has therefore been divided into chapters wherein each of which explores an anarchism found, floated, but ultimately not pursued to fruition, by a respective philosopher.  Nevertheless, a history or genealogy of anarchism, taken from philosophical discourse, and its fraught relationship(s) with the political, is rendered.

Catherine Malabou, Carolyn Shread (translator). Stop Thief!: Anarchism and Philosophy. Polity, 2023. pp. 268. $24, paperback.

The majority of Stop Thief! consists of explorational analyses wherein select philosophers—Reiner Schurmann, Emmanuel Levinas, Jacques Derrida, Michel Foucault, Giorgio Agamben, and Jacques Ranciere—have reached some degree of engagement with anarchism.  All have accorded towards anarchism a “critical value,” but they ultimately “fail to truly engage in a philosophy of anarchism,” as they are “unable to rid themselves of the logic of government”.  This would be in conflict with the “absence of government” fundamental to the anarchist vision and ethos.  And so, despite arriving at and acknowledging some form of anarchism, all of the philosophers discussed in the volume nonetheless insist that “anarchy is irreducible to political anarchism.”  Mining from the root definitions available of anarchism itself in response to why this is, Malabou gathers that, whether philosophical or political, it has as its goal “the irrevocable critique of all phenomena of domination.”  Interestingly, she distinguishes between how we can understand power and domination, as the former can “have both negative and positive connotations…[and is not] inherently coercive.”  By contrast, Malabou continues, “domination is bereft of any constructive resources.  It relates unequivocally to subjection and abuse of power.”  She convincingly ties domination and its implications, to the inherent nature and makeup of the logic of government and state sovereignty, by referencing Proudhon, who stated that the “external constitution of the collective power…sovereignty, authority, government,” the ancient Greeks named “arche.”  Indeed, the critical theorist Derek C. Barnett is also referenced as stating: “the ‘archic paradigm’ refers to the structure that, right from the beginning of the Western tradition, links state sovereignty and government to one another,” as inspired by Aristotle’s writings on politics.  And yet, Malabou points, out, some germination or idea of anarchy is already at least implied within how ‘arche’ is formulated and defined, pointing to “the inability of political order to found itself”.  

Aristotle is the first philosopher Malabou investigates to set the stage for her subsequent discussions of ‘contemporary’ philosophers.  She identifies in his Politics “aporias”—presentations “of two contradictory theses without a solution,” and extracts points that may serve to question and destabilize the ‘archic paradigm’ inherited by philosophy, and by extension, political/philosophy.  Namely, Malabou emphasizes an interpretation whereby the nature and definition of what is called “oikonomia,” or “the law of the house or domestic economy,” at least questions the proposed “reversibility and circularity of ruling and obeying” characteristic of the ‘arche,’ or in this case, the ‘arche politike.’ Within the writings of German philosopher Reiner Schurmann, Malabou posits a consideration of metaphysics with the intent of questioning the claims and assumptions revolving around ‘arche’ and politics and their relationship.  This particular employment of metaphysics, Schurmann attributes to what could be understood as an ontological form of anarchism which buttresses it, and wherein and through which key features of ‘arche’ are questioned, and alternatives to centralized authority can be envisioned. 

When looking at what shape and form, at all, that anarchism takes within the work of the French philosopher Levinas, Malabou finds an instance whereby any “possibility of deposing the archic paradigm can no longer come from either the fragility of its foundations or an inner exhaustion.”  Rather, it can come from a consideration of the “other,” namely, this is referring to Levinas’s concept of “heteronomy,” or, “the law of the other,” marking a “spot where ethics and anarchy coincide – responsibility”.  Malabou finds that within French philosopher Derrida’s work, “anarchy-anarchism is ‘thematized’ through the ‘thematizing’ of ‘yes and no,’ referring to some kind of tie between his trademark theory and methodology of deconstruction, and anarchism.  Most provocatively, the French philosopher Foucault’s “anarcheology” is said to posit resistance as the original power move before and against arche.  Malabou claims Foucault’s writings on the subject have influenced post-anarchist thought, which is given to multiplicity, the anti-teleological, and the like.  The Italian philosopher Agamben’s rendering of anarchy/anarchism is drawn out by Malabou, that is, through a lens sensitive to the philosophical, political, and otherwise, contingent on/with implications of the traditional dichotomy between the sacred and the profane, tying it to the latter. 

Finally, the work of French philosopher Ranciere on the subject is likewise laid out, wherein anarchy is proposed to be “as old as politics[,] since it emerged simultaneously with the emergence of the demos for the early Greeks.”  Consequently, Ranciere is said to propose an acknowledgment of sorts between “traditional anarchism” and “democratic radicalness” or the “fundamentally anarchic structure of democracy.”  To be clear, the so-called ‘democratic’ being referred to is not that of ‘political regimes’ or ‘types of government,’ but rather on a conceptually re-defined level as naturally inhering a challenge to any conception of the “legitimacy of power.” Ranciere is not able to identify with anarchism, however, due to a consideration for his concept of “police,” that is, politics in the “usual sense,” and separate from anything necessarily democratic, or, consequently, its proposed radical equality.  He claims, according to Malabou, that since “politics is originally anarchist,” meaning “it has no given order,” then the ‘police’ version or form of politics is rendered inevitably in contrast or opposition.

Throughout Stop Thief!, Malabou rigorously interrogates how anarchism has been inherited, where in the conceptual scheme of things it has been located, and how it has been articulated and defined, critiqued, and so on, throughout philosophical discourse, from ancient roots and origins to the contemporary era.  In so doing, she has presented anarchism with, at least, its very own body of philosophical and theoretical discourses.  She explores formations versions, iterations, and interpretations, and a wide variety of aspects, assumed and proposed, of anarchism. 

The volume serves as a brief, introductory philosophical history of anarchism, which further like work can build upon.  The activist, for their part, can access a thus far compact but substantial body of theory, from which to inform and enrich their practice.  The present world and public at-large can benefit from access to a creative and rigorous compilation, critique, and articulation of an arguably often misunderstood and dismissed philosophy, ideology, perspective or point-of-view, a system of beliefs and/or ideas that has nonetheless remained with us in some form or another since ancient times.


Arthur Ivan Bravo is a writer and educator based in New York City. He holds an MA in Anthropology and an MS in Education. His writings have appeared in publications such as Vice, Interview, Dazed, and the Los Angeles Review of Books. His main subjects of interest include contemporary art theory and criticism, and aesthetic taste. He will continue his studies and the pursuit of these research interests this fall as a PhD candidate in Anthropology at SUNY Albany.


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