Anarchy is not what you think it is

I am very dissatisfied with the current political climate of our country, and when I say “current” I don’t only mean the current administration, I mean as far back as I remember knowing anything about the political climate of our country. I was born in the 1980s, so it has been one helluva a ride, but also my life is a relatively small period of time in American politics and my only real reference point. So I will refer to it as current.

Also, I read a lot. Reading is how I learn things. With everything new I read there is a chance I am going to change my mind because new information has been introduced. This is one of the main reasons I persist in being here. Here is still interesting because there are many things that I don’t know but I know I have the opportunity to know them if I just read as much as possible. Even and especially things that I do not agree with, and not simply because I want to understand “both sides,” but because I know that “sides” are bullshit, and the more you know the more you can think deeply about everything. Thinking deeply is anathema to modern life and that is why I think we all need to be doing it [modern life could be better].

Earlier this year I read Anthropology, Ecology, and Anarchism: a Brian Morris Reader. The reasoning here is that I am already interested in anthropology and ecology, have read other articles by Brian Morris before, “anarchism” is a much-maligned term I truly knew nothing about other than what is in the ether [not good], and the book was available for download from the library at a time when I was out of eBooks to read. Normally I have in book rotation: one audiobook [usually non-fiction], one physical book [usually fiction], one eBook [to read when I have downtime but no headphones usually non-fiction], one audiobook I am listening to with my partner, and anywhere from 1-7 gardening/homesteading/crafting/DIY/cook book(s). When a slot opens up I go to the many book apps that I have and fill it [an entire post could be devoted to my reading habits and probably will be] and this one fit the bill.

I was not a great fan of the book itself because though reviews said it was accessible to the novice reader this was not true. I was able to parse all the ecology and anthropology sections [because I am not a novice on those topics] but the anarchism parts lacked a certain depth and context that left me curious but not sure exactly where to make up the gaps in my knowledge.

We don’t cover anarchism much in school except to know that when the revolution starts those guys are there [it might even be their fault] but once it is over they are the first ones against the wall. If you don’t know anything about anarchism as political philosophy, don’t google it. Here, let me google it for you:

google screenshot of definition of anarchy, noun: a state of disorder due to absence or nonrecognition of authority.

Lots of things here are sort of upsetting. Upsetting enough for me to really consider that Noam Chomsky is correct about everything that he says related to manipulations of the masses by corporate types, etc. Though, in fairness to Google, this is just the first hit, and what sort of information professional am I if I just stop at the first hit. In fact, it is the most fair to google “anarchism,” because for some reason the “-ism” gets a more nuanced treatment, which hardly seems fair because the algorithm should really know how much I have read about anarchy at this point and not give me the knee-jerk, Sesame Street version of anarchy.

As if in illustration of what I am about to talk about, Wikipedia does a better job:

Anarchism is a political philosophy and movement that rejects all involuntary, coercive forms of hierarchy. It calls for the abolition of the state which it holds to be undesirable, unnecessary and harmful. It is usually described alongside libertarian Marxism as the libertarian wing (libertarian socialism) of the socialist movement and as having a historical association with anti-capitalism and socialism.

Apparently we ought not confuse anarchy with anarchism anymore than we ought confuse Democrats with democracy [not a knock at Democrats, obviously the same goes for republic and Republicans]. Sometimes I am literal with words. It is also worth noting from the above that “libertarian” doesn’t mean what an unsuspecting American reader might think either. These aren’t the people who read too much Ayn Rand and never grew out of it, or are about to vote for Jo Jorgensen, or think that freedom means “I can shoot anyone I want but don’t take away my Social Security.” “Libertarian” here means the lefties who think that you’re free if all ownership is abolished [lest we forget not to also confuse “liberty” with “Libertarian”].

The assumption of the Google dictionary result is that any absence or nonrecognition of authority is disorder, which is the opposite of what an anarchist would argue, but exactly what anyone in a position of power requires that you think. And this is why anarchy is dudes in leather jackets and jack boots with Molotov cocktails breaking your windows “just because.” Be afraid of those guys. Call the cops on them. In fact, the social contract exists to protect us from the lawlessness of anarchy. Though – and this is true from an anthropological and ecological/evolutionary perspective – most of human history has been absent of authority in any modern sense and yet the world we lived in was not by necessity disordered. It was very ordered.

The problem with extrapolating modern political structure with a state of nature assumed to be free and idyllic is two-fold: the past should not be idolized because pre-modernity was so not awesome in so many ways [that I am not going to go into] and it doesn’t scale. It is pretty “easy” to have a barely hierarchical group of humans behaving more or less autonomously when your group doesn’t exceed Dunbar’s Number, but at the level of the city, nation-state or globe it breaks down. For so, so, so many reasons. True democracy also breaks down [even at the size of the Greek city-state], so I don’t know that this is a detraction for the concept of anarchism so much as it a recognition of its limitations on a massive scale. The point is only that the imposition of authority from some higher means [god, the monarch, parliament, the charismatic leader, etc.] is not the only way that order has ever been achieved in the history of humans.

What we have now is not inevitable or essential just because it is actual.

Anarchists aren’t stupid, they understand that in the service of scaling freedom and autonomy for modernity some creative things must be done. Modernity is a creative enterprise, after all. The basic core of anarchism is that the state is assumed to be suspect and therefore one must cede power to it very carefully because at base power belongs to individuals and is given freely which is to say non-coercively and through informed consent.

However, we are to think that humans cannot be ordered without top-down, concentrated authority, which is an idea that truly serves only the top-down authorities. Anarchists must be scary, anarchy must be lawless and disordered, so that we are scared. So that we do not consider other ways that people can be both free and orderly without coercion.

I didn’t learn these things from reading the Brian Morris reader. In fact, I pivoted for a while thinking that anarchism is a bit radical, I have enough problems, and my real interest was in considering ways of addressing the climate crisis. So maybe what I needed was Ecosocialism: A Radical Alternative to Capitalist Catastrophe. I learned some tremendous things from this book as well, though I also did not enjoy it [some things are worthwhile that are not particularly enjoyable]. Mostly the concept of “productivism,” which is the belief that measurable productivity and growth are the purpose of human organization. This is the very capitalist catastrophe in which we find ourselves at present. The author, Michael Lowy, goes to great lengths to assert that socialism can be divorced from its productivist roots, but capitalism cannot. But I was not convinced.

Sure, at base, socialism is just the idea that workers should own the means of production instead of private enterprise [when private enterprise owns it that is capitalism], but “means of production” is right there in the defining center of the philosophy. Now that I have read Ecosocialism, I am pretty convinced that if what you center in your philosophy is who owns the means of production that is will be very hard to divorce that ethos from productivism. And it was in this was that discovered I can’t really be a socialist because I understand that the climate crisis problem that we have is entirely intertwined with the economic mania of production. I already know we can’t capitalize ourselves out of it, and now I am pretty sure we can’t socialize ourselves out of it either. You can’t solve over production by producing.

Anarchism is a political philosophy that doesn’t really have an economic philosophy built in, which is in distinction to both capitalism and socialism. I think it could, with modifications, produce a useful check on the inherent productionism of both socialism and capitalism. I understand that capitalism is not the system of government that we actually have in the United States and that there are nominally socialist/communist and authoritarian governments that have capitalist economic systems. I understand also that there is no switch to flip that allows a smooth transition from what we have now to any system that doesn’t destroy our planet.

I have worked in government all my life and understand the compromise of governing. However, we’re sort of running out of time here and that makes me fear that what is coming is the only form of government that allows for swift decision making: authoritarianism. I do not want us to life in an eco-fascist state anymore than I want us to live in a productivist fascist state. Ostensibly, we are less free in an authoritarian regime than we are in this kleptocracy overrun with capitalists looting the welfare state while masquerading as weak representative democracy. Ostensibly.

In Chomsky On Anarchism, Noam Chomsky says this sort of thing better than I have:

With the development of industrial capitalism, a new and unanticipated system of injustice, it is libertarian socialism that has preserved and extended the radical humanist message of the Enlightenment and the classical liberal ideals that were perverted into an ideology to sustain the emerging social order.

Personally I am interested in averting the climate crisis and not having to give up my liberty to do it. Probably that seems naive, but I do not actually care, because there should be some perks to having this human pre-frontal cortex and I am exhausted by the lack of imagination shown by our leaders.

If the pandemic has taught me nothing, however, it is that people do not understand what “freedom” and “liberty” really mean. We’re not able to have a very good public conversation about them either, because the most simplistic definition of “freedom” is to do whatever one wants, or the toddler/adolescent definition of freedom where someone [your mother] provides for all your needs and you never understand that your freedom comes at the cost of someone else’s. Those of us with an adult’s sensibility of freedom – that my freedom to swing my fist ends where another’s nose begins [to paraphrase Oliver Wendell Holmes] – understand that ultimate toddler/adolescent freedom is a mirage [or, the logical conclusion of that ultimate freedom is the Google definition of “anarchy” quoted above]. We have already swung our fists into the noses of every future generation on this planet, into the planet herself, which is to say that we have been punching ourselves in the face and calling it freedom.

I do not think that anarchism as an idea is perfect. This is not because it has never scaled, because I can conceive of it scaling. There are plenty of political changes that happened that had never happened before [the American experiment, though possibly about to entirely fail, was such a change]. I am interested in a feminist critique of anarchism because truly I do not understand exactly how it [or libertarianism generally] works without the assumption that woman are in the background doing things that appear a bit coercive so that men can be free.

However, the basic appeal to me for anarchism is that people are required to self-govern without the institution of authority getting in the way. I fully understand that most [MOST] people out there are not the people in whose hands I wish to place my future, or the future of the planet. And this is why I want a very good transition plan from what we have now. That sounds glib, but it isn’t.

However, I recognize that I have a concision problem, where “concision” means the fewest number of words possible to convey an idea. Concision is very easy when everyone agrees on the newspeak definitions of words like “anarchy” and “freedom,” but it becomes insanely difficult in a world where people have a lot of unlearning to do about what things mean, what their motivations are, and how they have already been coerced. I understand that just because I can envision a world in the future that has solved all these problems on time and doesn’t dispense with liberty in the process, does not guarantee that outcome.

The internet suggests that thinking deeply about things is not how humans truly wish to spend their time. But we did not get to this moment by accident and we will not get to the next one that way either.

It takes many, many words to describe a world that is possible and even more to make it so. But at this writing I don’t know of many people who are trying. I am a practical utopian who is trying.

The American experiment requires a nation where people are self-governed and self-governing, and yet we seem to have done our damnedest to ensure that our people are unable to self-govern. This may be because, as I say above, putting my future in the hands of MOST other people is a terrifying prospect. Our founders wanted to believe that people could be trusted to self-govern, but they didn’t really want to create a structure that would allow it to happen. Ultimately they chose to preserve existing power structures of hierarchy and coercion because their fear was that we would collapse into ruin. And yet we still appear to be collapsing into ruin. So maybe we ought to consider another way.

I am certain that I will spend more time talking about the transition plan that I mentioned above, but likely not here. Suffice it to say that I am not interested in revolution because that clearly does not work out. That is just for teenagers in jack boots who don’t want to listen to their parents, not serious adults who understand who truly suffers when people with power reshuffle that power amongst themselves.

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