Let’s first dispel some myths: Anarchy is not chaos. It is not the Purge or the Joker or whatever other construct that has been fed by the media. So what then is anarchism? Taken literally, anarchism is “an” meaning no or not and “archos” meaning leader, ruler, or taken more generally, authority. It essentially proposes the abolition of hierarchical, centralized leadership in favor of self-governance. In fact, the best way it has been described to me is internalizing government and taking personal responsibility for your own governance.
The way I tend to view it is that we need to begin with the end in mind when constructing a society or civilization. So, what is the ideal, utopian fantasy? Well, for me the ideal government would be one in which there is no need to govern because everyone is in compliance with basic laws and treats each other with mutual respect. Effectively, there is no need to marshal resources for functions like police, courts, etc because the central issues that drive those institutions no longer exist. This also points to the fundamental difference between government and business – government exists to put itself out of business, so to speak. This view also casts the role of government as a statement of a collective’s view of human nature. The more the need for external government, the less there trust there is for the individual to uphold the law and vice versa. This implies that the individual does not uphold the law because he cannot uphold the law, a fairly cynical reading of human nature.
I should note here that I do not fully ascribe to anarchism, I simply hold sympathies with it and acknowledge its virtues where they are. I, for one, do not think it is feasible or practical. I also see no mechanism in anarchism to prevent the rise of despots or demagogues beyond the belief that the common man is good enough to prevent such a rise. I think we can safely cast that as unreasonable in 2017. There is also the tricky question of how an anarchist “state” interacts with governmental actors and what an anarchist foreign policy would look like to maintain its anarchism. I also disagree with reactionaries and revolutionaries within the movement who want a sudden turn towards anarchism. On the more conservative end, this is the impulse that fuels massive, deep and sudden cuts to existing institutions that long-term do more harm than good. I am more in favor of a soft landing; deconstructing our institutions to minarchist roles is a worthy goal, but must be done gradually with minimal loss to the livelihoods of their constituents. The final reason to be wary of anarchism is that it makes no concessions for altered states of mind – while we may believe the sober and sane individual is willing to uphold themselves to a standard or law, the inebriated or insane individual may have a harder time doing so without externally imposed constraints.
Nevertheless, as implied above, the unavailability of a utopia should not prevent inquiry of the utopia because such an inquiry may reveal goals or benchmarks to establish in the pursuit of, to borrow the American phrase, a “more perfect union”. If you accept my statement on government as a comment on human nature, then it would make sense to view the role of our government as fluid rather than static and one that should over the long-term move towards less government (and therefore greater faith in the populace to uphold their own laws). In this ideal situation, it should be plain to see that anytime you are not in a panopticon and you refuse to impose your will onto others, you essentially are living in anarchy and (mostly likely) it’s not so bad >80% of the time. Even if you refuse to believe people are good at heart (you are wise), you must accept that we should be good at heart and undertake movements towards that as an end goal. This probably means educating each generation to be better than the last, but that’s a whole other can of worms.
There’s a second, more practical reason to be opposed to centrally planned institutions can be grouped under the phrase “Don’t put all your eggs in one basket”. I was listening to the You Are Not So Smart Podcast episode on “Progress”, in which historian Ada Palmer discussed the development of the idea of progress in human civilization. In her Italian Renaissance class she would run these simulations of the 1492 Papal elections while changing one or two variables to test whether the outcomes would be the same. At some point she mentioned how one year there was ”a great Henry the VIII” who orchestrated an involved treaty that seemed to subvert the incoming war. Palmer mentions how the general outcome is almost always the same, but specifics change (a strange attractor or chaotic understanding of history). But I immediately thought of Otto von Bismarck, and how his grand labyrinthine peace treaties ultimately failed to prevent World War 1. What this signals to me is that these complex social structures and agreements are either a) ultimately meaningless in the face of a chaoticly determinant system or b) the cause of collapse.
I’ve mentioned Joseph Tainter before, but he essentially believes in the second point. His thesis views social complexity as the natural result of human problem solving and the bureaucracies and divisions of labor/differentiation as an initial method to overcome civilization issues like food shortages. This works for a period of time, but is ultimately unsustainable because of a) the first law of thermodynamics and b) the law of diminishing returns. Essentially, these increasingly specialized social structures require energy and eventually incur an energy debt. Since energy cannot be created or destroyed, it must be ‘borrowed’ from future stores. In the meantime, the natural impulse is to use the borrowed time to find a more sustainable path, which does lead to true innovation, but because of the law of diminishing returns naturally cannot ‘repay’ the incurred energy debt. Thus, societies collapse (in an abstract sense at least).
Centrally planned social structures, like government, are especially prone, in my view, because centrally planned systems a) have the most incentive to continue or maintain themselves in spite of the above arguments and b) are the source and prime originators of social complexity. Diversity is not merely the spice of life, it is the main source. Because according to evolutionary theory diverse, decentralized, highly differentiated structures increase the resilience of the human species on the whole. If there are ten independent tribes of humans that face calamity, some will die but some will survive and thus be naturally selected to pass on their genes to the next generation. But if the there is one tribe with ten interconnected functions and this tribe faces calamity, there is a greater chance this tribe will have less members to survive and reproduce. Don’t put all your eggs in one basket.
That’s probably why you see anarchist activity in anti-globalization or global justice movements. Globalization is just another example of a Bismarckian peace treaty. An increase in social complexity. Why go through the whole exercise of collapsing civilization over and over again? Why not just accept it and have some control on the way down for a soft landing? This is where I tend to see a division in anarchists. On one hand, there are insurrectionist anarchists who want total system shut down because there is such a faith in the goodwill of man seen on a day-to-day basis. On the other hand, there are anarchists like my personal favorite, David Graeber, who may engage in those semantics but ultimately don’t care how we get there as long as we get there. They tend to acknowledge on some level that it will not be an immediate turnover, which, as I stated earlier is my personal belief.
As I’ve said before, my own political theory doesn’t tend to fall too neatly into any category, but the anarchist view offers several insights that must be accounted for in any political theory. Namely, asking the question “Is this really necessary?” is important and pretty much one of the central insights I’ve gained from anarchist readings and chiefly what this post has been about. The second question that anarchy asks is “What is actually, mechanistically happening?” which is what I will address shortly in the future.