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.

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