Wednesday, May 29, 2013

An Invitation to Anarchy

It is a common saying that "politicians are the lowest form of humanity." It seems they are all either crooks or liars, or perhaps in some cases mere fools, and that there is nothing more to be said. Politicians -- even such as Hitler, Stalin, or Mao -- must appeal to the masses, and the masses just want somebody to tell them what to do. It's a closed circle of masters and slaves. (In Darkness at Noon, Koestler says this extreme passion for dominance and submission seems evidence of an inherent insanity in all humans. Maybe.). In other words, politicians seem to furnish proof of the validity of Dunbar's Number, 150, the maximum practical size for a human group. Democracy is impossible in any group that is too large for people to know one another personally. Industrialism and large numbers go together, unfortunately, no matter how much it may be claimed that only a few adjustments are needed to set a large-scale political system back on the right track.

Hence the interest in theories of anarchism, ranging from the gentle syndicalism of Kropotkin to the less patient proposals of Bakunin. Almost any religious group that refuses military conscription and refrains from taking public office, e.g. the various conservative sects known as Anabaptists, is anarchist in all but name. Yet it is Bakunin’s image that has prevailed -- partly, no doubt, because politicians have wanted it that way, in order to maintain a bad image, but perhaps also because most people fear that a world without government would be fraught with danger. "Anarchism" and "anarchy," however, have complex and obscure differences in connotation.

The word "anarchist" is unfortunate, because it is used to describe so many different theories and practices. Thoreau is often called an anarchist, and probably many people nowadays would put themselves roughly in his category. In other words, it may be regarded as rather hopeless to wait for a politician to do anything useful, and one must be independent and self-sufficient. But the term is more generally thought of as exemplified either by Kropotkin or Bakunin, although probably many "anarchists" have never bothered reading the works of either of those gentlemen -- or of Thoreau. In any case, it is a word that needs more-precise definitions if it is be used at all.

One characteristic of anarchism is that it "doesn’t work." It would be impossible to run General Motors along anarchist guidelines. Nor could the President of the United States send an army to invade another country if that army were composed of anarchists. Perhaps partly for that reason, anarchism is often based on the assumption that one is removed from the larger society; most anarchist religious groups, for example, have tended to emigrate to the less-populated areas of the globe. A decentralized political structure precludes the extreme division of labor found in industrial societies: General Motors requires a great many separate roles, and such extreme division of labor is not possible for a small number of people. In any practical sense, an anarchist movement intending to operate on a larger scale either advocates the dissolution of large political and corporate groups, or assumes that such dissolution will happen as some sort of historical necessity -- or both.

Anarchism of the sort found in Spain in the 1930s, however, is fundamentally flawed. To talk about an entire country being run or organized under anarchism becomes a self-contradiction. Any situation of non-government -- an-archos -- has to entail separation from the mass of society, if that mass has a population in the thousands or millions. It is mainly pre-industrial societies that tend to be anarchic, or at least rather loose in their manner of decision making, and a situation of that sort is fine if "society" is only a few dozen people sitting around a campfire. Even then, the most primitive tribe still has various patterns of status and obligation. But on a larger scale a fairly egalitarian, non-authoritative social system even of that not-so-primitive type would be unworkable. For the modern day, when everyone is shoulder-to-shoulder with everyone else, and with dark clouds all around the horizon, what is needed is a transition to a more "tribal" life, a communitas that is both more isolated and more independent.



Peter Goodchild

Author of Tumbling Tide: Population, Petroleum, and Systemic Collapse (London, Ontario: Insomniac Press, 2014)


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