Friday, February 15, 2013

Anarchism?


Is there anything still of interest in the political ideas of anarchism? Can anarchist thinking help contribute to solutions for the conundrums we face in light of some of the failures of electoral democracy we can see; some of the rampant abuses of corporate power that we experience; and the continuing exercise of authoritarian rule in various governments around the world?

First, what is anarchism? If there is a defining thought within the anarchist tradition, it is the idea of social change effected freely by self-organizing groups of people without either states or hierarchical parties defining the agenda. Anarchism is opposed to hierarchy and organized coercion; it is in favor of free self-determination at every level.

So again -- can groups of free individuals self-organize on a genuinely voluntary basis? And can they accomplish anything significant?

One piece of the answer is easy. Anyone who observed some of the language, demands, and actions of the Occupy Movement was also provided a bit of support for Anarchism 101. A variety of groups often came together without formal political structure and worked to enable the energies of large numbers of ordinary activists to accomplish significant things. This experience provides a small bit of empirical support for the idea that it is indeed possible to organize and mobilize large numbers of people around a common end without a "vanguard party." (David Graeber's Direct Action: An Ethnography is worth reading in this context; link.)

James Scott picks up some of these issues in his most recent book, Two Cheers for Anarchism: Six Easy Pieces on Autonomy, Dignity, and Meaningful Work and Play. The book is described as a series of fragments; and indeed, much of the argument of the book is carried forward in the form of small but telling examples of social behavior that emphasizes peer-to-peer social coordination rather than institutions and regulations. For example, he goes through the example of the "Red Light Removal" movement that started in Drachten, the Netherlands, to explore the consequences of placing the burden of coordination at intersections on the drivers rather than the stoplight (80). He argues that these experiments indicate that fewer stoplights can lead to more cautious driving and lower accident rates.

Picking up themes he began in Seeing Like a State: How Certain Schemes to Improve the Human Condition Have Failed, Scott spends a lot of time on the social systems of classification and measurement through which modern societies regiment the activities of their citizens.
The order, rationality, abstractness, and synoptic legibility of certain kinds of schemes of naming, landscape, architecture, and work processes lend themselves to hierarchical power. I think of them as "landscapes of control and appropriation." (34)
Scott provides dissection of the SAT as a way of codifying prospective students (115), the Hamlet Evaluation program in Vietnam as a way of codifying success in war (117), and the erasure of particularity that results from social-scientific quantification of history (135). He essentially sees these and other state-created systems of classification as being ways of regimenting and controlling society. The connection to anarchism is this -- regimentation is the opposite of freedom and particularity. (Scott also provides a detailed analysis of the reasons for the failure of "Fordlandia," Henry Ford's disastrous experiment in Brazil; 37.)

Scott's central target throughout the book is the idea of individuals "subordinated" to larger social structures and hierarchies, with the idea that "insubordination" is a valuable thing once in a while. But the argument isn't really all that persuasive. His most telling examples are instances of absurd, irrational regulation, and we are to draw the conclusion that decent, free people would decide to subvert these regulations. Yes, of course. But what about regulations of health and safety in the production of food and drugs? What about regulations on financial speculation by bankers with depositors' savings? What about regulations on the possession of army surplus anti-tank weapons? Don't we want these regulations to be observed, and don't we want an enforcement system in place that protects all of us from the spontaneous and often self-serving actions of others, no matter how free and creative they are?

So Scott's picture here doesn't seem to add up to a coherent political philosophy. (Though perhaps that is as we should expect from an anarchist viewpoint. "Politics" has to do with the imposition of a coercive legal order; and the kinds of spontaneity and free expression that Scott seems to favor are antithetical to politics in this sense.)  Nonetheless, it is hard to see a viable version of a large, complex society lacking laws and systems of regulation, and deriving instead from the spontaneous and free activities of individuals and small groups. How will we be confident that horse meat isn't being mixed into our burgers? How will we control unlimited dumping of toxic substances into lakes and streams? How will we remain confident that the surgeon who operates on us has actually completed medical training?

What Scott's book really seems to support is something different from anarchism writ large. It is anarchism writ small -- finding ways within a liberal and regulated society to expand the scope of free citizens coordinating their activities together for common purposes. Scott's cheers seem to be more in favor of a playfulness on the part of citizens within the gentle confines of a liberal democratic state. I don't find anything in the book that suggests, for example, that the Spanish Anarchists could have governed Spain (contradiction!) had they miraculously defeated Franco and the Communists. But we have many bits of evidence that suggest that self-organizing systems are feasible for solving some of the mid-level problems faced by local people -- control of water and forest resources, for example. (These are the sorts of examples described in Elinor Ostrom's work on common property resource regimes; Governing the Commons: The Evolution of Institutions for Collective Action.)

So the book really represents two cheers for something different from anarchism -- more freedom, more initiative, and more self-organizing cooperation within the broader framework of a liberal democratic society. Individuality, particularity, and a bit of harmless rule-flouting should be possible within a decent liberal democratic society. And really, this is a message that we could equally find comfortably expressed in John Stuart Mill's writings.

11 comments:

tuli said...

Although I consider myself an anarchist, I think you got a point. If you look at contemporary anarchist theory there a lots of interesting aspects and insights, but there is not the big idea for the future.

Many of the theories are still very "Kropotkinist", emphasizing mutual aid on a municipal level. If we look at Kropotkins theory his model was based on the free cities of the middle ages. Now there are some interesting things to say about them, but they are from another time, one the most of us don't want to go back to.

The syndicalists in the spanish revolution kind of had an idea of what to do, the makhnovists in ukraine at least headed in a clear direction (which doesn't mean that I'm completely satisfied with either one of these projects). However the times changed and the problemes changed as well, we need new concepts and new ideas.

On the other hand I want to claim, that the more accepted political theories don't have a solution for the really big picture either. Just look at the financial crisis, climate change and the changes in global politics (the rise of china, the islamist thread and the question of biopolitics in the age of biotechnology). It's not just us anarchists, who don't know what to do with the big mess we are in.

I guess Zygmunt Bauman makes a similar point in this lecture: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=uAx_IA9W35c
(even if I wholeheartedly disagree with his social democratic romanticization of the nation state)

For this reason I think we should go for an anarchism writ large, although it hasn't been written yet.

Anonymous said...

you're really missing the point if you think that anarchism can be reduced to liberalism, general leftism, etc.

Anonymous said...

there are all kinds of anarchist theories that are not kropotkinist - and a lot of it is far more creative than you're giving credit. so what if it doesn't produce in the mode of "big ideas" that everyone seems to want

http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/anti.2012.44.issue-5/issuetoc
http://www.acme-journal.org/volume11-3.html
http://littleblackcart.com/

etc.

P said...

Anarchists who are getting irritated by this review are missing the point. This is about James Scott's book, not the entire field of anarchist thought, and I think DL has it exactly right - at least, I had a very similar reaction to reading it. The standard of support is very low. You could give "two cheers" for almost any political philosophy by gathering supportive anecdotes. Scott even gives the game away in the introduction when he says that for anarchist relations to work you need relative equality, and the major way we have to get that in today's world is the state. The book is not really imagining itself as a sequel to Kropotkin; it's a series of complaints about bad traffic engineering. Scott is still one of our great anthropologists, of course.
-Patrick Iber

Anonymous said...

it's framed as a book review, sure - but these ridiculous questions are a basic kind of state apologism that are addressed to all anarchism:

"But what about regulations of health and safety in the production of food and drugs? What about regulations on financial speculation by bankers with depositors' savings? What about regulations on the possession of army surplus anti-tank weapons? Don't we want these regulations to be observed, and don't we want an enforcement system in place that protects all of us from the spontaneous and often self-serving actions of others, no matter how free and creative they are?...Nonetheless, it is hard to see a viable version of a large, complex society lacking laws and systems of regulation, and deriving instead from the spontaneous and free activities of individuals and small groups. How will we be confident that horse meat isn't being mixed into our burgers? How will we control unlimited dumping of toxic substances into lakes and streams? How will we remain confident that the surgeon who operates on us has actually completed medical training?"

(read: "you don't have ready-made, big idea "answers" or "solutions" for how to fix X??? well, that must mean state regulation is the best way out! gosh darn anarchist idealists just don't live in the real world")

nevermind anarchist cybernetics, insurrectionary/affective anarchism, new situationists, etc etc etc

Damien Sullivan said...

Challenged to provide solutions, the anarchist provides buzzwords...

Damien Sullivan said...

"Just look at the financial crisis, climate change and the changes in global politics (the rise of china, the islamist threat and the question of biopolitics in the age of biotechnology). It's not just us anarchists, who don't know what to do with the big mess we are in."

A lot of the problems of international governance boil down to the world being an anarchy of nations. If we had a democratic world state then climate change would be potentially as easy to solve as Germany committing to wind and solar power. But it's hard to organize 200 self-interested actors, let alone 7 billion.

As for feasibility... I opined once that it was hard to tell the difference between ideal anarchist conditions, as best as I could tell, and a highly democratic state, and an anarchist and a Marxist both agreed that they might like the same conditions while arguing about whether it was a state or not.

Relatedly, you don't need a hierarchical State to regulate a commons; you *do* need some way to coerce people into falling in line. Social norms of sufficient power, or simple mob rule, can do the trick; they may not be States, but their moral superiority over a democratic state is kind of non-obvious to me.

tuli said...

A few things:
First I think the phrase "anarchy of nations" is adding more to the confusion than clarifying. In what sense do you use anarchy here? A chaos, without any perceivable order? Well that wouldn't quite fit, there are transational instiutions and although I grant that they are very limited, they exist in some sense. I don't think you use anarchy here in the more "anarchist" sense of "no domination", since – I guess – we can all agree that some nation states are more dominant than others in the international context.
I think what you mean would be something like a quasi-state-of-nature. A state in which there is no clear center of power.

And here I think the real problems start. You seem to adhere to some sort of the rational-choice-model of the social (because you are talking about self-interested actors and commons). I don't, and I think because of that difference of perspective we see different problems in the world and can only agree that there are some problems, not which.

For me it's not about just "people falling in line" to the one reasonable solution. That would be such a nice thing if the problems I talked of could be solved liked that... I claim that many of problems we face simply don't have any reasonable solution, just different ways to get through them, some of which we like better than others, but there is not the one reasonable path.

Now to your example: The probability of the self-extinction of humanity by climate change might get less, if we had this superstate you are talking about. But I'm not sure if I really want a humanity to survive, which can only do so by submitting to the one big state and falling in line (democratic or not).

Anyway that still wouldn't solve any of the other problems I mentioned. Your model of the world as consisting of 7 billion self-interested actors is *not complex enough* to render visible the problems I talked about: financial crisis for example. I claim that that one regulatory center wouldn't solve that at all. Now if we had the superstate, the nation of nations, what would it do? Regulate the market in the hitherto unkwnow way by which crisis disappears and all people get enough resources allocated to survive (these are rather low standards)? Abolish Capitalism? But replace it with what? I don't think anyone of us has a clear answer to that. Certainly not me at the time being. If you have please enlighten us.

It's not just tragedies of the commons we are facing, but even bigger questions...

To conculde: Your claim that the biggest problem is the "anarchy of nations" seems to me completely misguided and based on a wrong model of the social.

Damien Sullivan said...

What temperature should the Earth be?
Humans are a geological force now. We can adjust the temperature of the Earth, deliberately or by accident. We can let it float at random, agree on a temp and enforce it somehow, or let deliberate actors like countries and billionaires duke it out.
If your reaction to that choice is "let humanity die out" then we've got a fundamental difference, yeah.

As for financial crises, no one has a solution for all asset bubbles. OTOH, countries with good bank regulation rode out the crisis in much better shape than those without. For the wreckage, Keynesian fiscal stimulus lurks around, persistently ignored. I'd say we largely do know what to do, what we've been unable to do is get the system to do it, or to keep it doing it (the US weakened its financial regulations and abandoned a Keynesian consensus Nixon took for granted.)

Note part of the problem with individual countries implementing good regulation is the mobility of capital and races to the bottom in terms of tax rates or banking laws. Things which are being fought now, by some countries agreeing on standards and putting pressures on others to conform. "Social norms of sufficient power, or mob rule."

I don't want to abolish capitalism, I'm pretty happy with social democracy, and it seems to do a good job of delivering resources where applied. "Make the world more like Sweden/Scotland/Switzerland/etc." seems to me like a great program for helping people.

tuli said...

"If your reaction to that choice is "let humanity die out" then we've got a fundamental difference, yeah."
You seem to want to misunderstand me. My point was that if our only solution for solving problems is a central state and falling in line, I'm not fond enough of this humanity to care for it. However, I don't think that's the case.

Anyway, this "discussion" reminded how utterly pointless most of the "political discussions" in the comment sections of blogs are. Our starting points are so completely different, that we would need a long time to find a common ground on which to debate. I don't think this is the time or place for it.

Peter T said...

Okay. But Scott is noticing that we are trapped in a spiral, where stronger institutions create larger, more complex societies, whose problems then lead to stronger institutions....And openly preferring smaller, less complex societies. And if there are empirical limits to the sustainability of a global complex society (as there seem to be, as there have often been limits to previous complex societies on the regional scales), then the ONLY exit is to revert to smaller, less complex forms. The solutions you ask his kind of anarchism to solve are solutions it is designed to avoid the need for.