Critical Inquiry Critical Inquiry

Karl Baldacchino reviews Stop Thief!

Catherine Malabou. Stop Thief! Anarchism and Philosophy. Trans. Carolyn Shread. Cambridge, Mass.: Polity Press, 2023. 268 pp.

Review by Karl Baldacchino

22 February 2024

Félix Fénéon, whose portrait by Paul Signac adorns the alluring cover of Stop Thief! Anarchism and Philosophy, was a self-identified anarchist. This explicitness contrasts the attitude of contemporary continental philosophy that according to Catherine Malabou disavows anarchist thought while simultaneously concealing the fact that it borrows heavily from it. A fundamental political question that the book poses from the outset is how to understand “the absence of government” in the present conjuncture (p. 2). Notably, the idea of not being governed by a governing body has long been at the center of radical political thought. In the middle of the sixteenth century, Étienne de la Boétie gasped at what he perceived as an almost natural desire to servitude, which completely discounts the fact that power becomes powerless once the popular support it is afforded is withdrawn. This idea of radical emancipation from political power is what distinguished nineteenth-century classical anarchists such as Max Stirner, Pierre-Joseph Proudhon, Mikhail Bakunin, and Peter Kropotkin from a Marxist state-centered revolutionary approach to liberation.

In line with the general theme of Stop Thief!, however, the refusal of state power seemingly gains even more tacit traction in the latter part of the twentieth century, both in theoretical works and in practices that do not strictly appertain to anarchism. In the aftermath of May '68 in France, the influential anthropology of Pierre Clastres positioned primitive societies against centralized power structures. Meanwhile, in Italy the Autonomia movement sought to actively detach from the verticality of institutional politics in an attempt to creatively seek new emancipatory spaces and possibilities. More recent instances of activism on the global stage also bear anarchist tendencies. Malabou in fact cites the events of Seattle in 1999, the Occupy and yellow vest movements, as well as the foundation of Zone to Defend (ZAD) as instances of “dawning anarchism” (p. 3). The latter is distinguished from “de facto anarchism,” which according to Malabou refers to capitalism’s incessant and already successful drive to disintegrate the state. In this context, the coexistence of the two causes a horizontal crisis that “makes it difficult to establish a rigorous distinction between resignation and initiative” (p. 3). Convinced that it is time to further probe the “polymorphism of anarchism,” Malabou embarks on a timely exploration of the peculiar relationship between philosophy and anarchy (p. 5).  

The concept of anarchy is consequently explored in the work of six prominent contemporary philosophers including Reiner Schürmann, Emmanuel Levinas, Jacques Derrida, Michel Foucault, Giorgio Agamben, and Jacques Rancière. Even if anarchy is at the core of their respective thought, throughout the book Malabou stresses that they fail to “consider the possibility that we might live without being governed” (p. 22). Consequently, she introduces the concept of the “non-governable,” which is distinguished from the “ungovernable.” Malabou distinguishes the two by adding that the latter “can be either heard or dominated,” while the former “can only be dominated” (p. 23). The non-governable resonates with what Bernard E. Harcourt refers to as “political disobedience,” whose anarchic drive resists reforms, party affiliation, and political representation.[1] Still, Malabou is unsure how to classify recent protest movements that hover somewhere between an ungovernable disobedience and “that which is a stranger to obedience” (p. 24). Determined to address this difficulty of drawing out the non-governable, she sets herself out to show how, after all, it has been secreted all along in the aforementioned philosophers’ effort to detach anarchy from anarchism. Yet the non-governable is always denied the light of day. While certainly constructing an extensive philosophical cartography, the book manages to remain firmly grounded on the present terrain. Malabou outlines a complex anarchical terrain in which the most pressing question becomes what kind of anarchy can propel us toward new ways of thinking and acting whereby the logic of unruly market and the submissive state may be overcome.


[1] See Bernard E. Harcourt, “Political Disobedience,” Critical Inquiry 39 (Autumn 2012): 33–55.