Personal reflections on anarchism

Anarchism (anti-authoritarianism, love of freedom) is an essential thing, an essential guide for our thinking and action, but I have to admit I'm sometimes struck by what I see as the lack of acuity of a lot of anarchist thinkers. I've been reading the massive book Demanding the Impossible: A History of Anarchism, by Peter Marshall (second edition published in 2008)—a very good book—and came across this paragraph in the Epilogue:

Post-modernist thinkers tend to be libertarians [not in the right-wing American sense] rather than anarchists. Michel Foucault for one maintains that power in the sense of "a mode of action upon the action of others" is everywhere and cannot be escaped, whether in the arena of society or in the realm of knowledge. While the relations of domination can be changed, the relations of power will always remain. Where anarchists seek to dissolve the structures of power, for Foucault it is senseless to try to create a world outside power: "there are no margins for those who break with the system to gambol in." Indeed, in his view power does not emanate from the State but the State from power: the State is thus a congealed assemblage of power relations.

Ugh. This is why Chomsky insists the social sciences have little intellectual content. These claims are merely truisms, and yet they're seen as controversial and even original. (Actually, the very idea of "originality" is yet another simplistic and artificial scholarly convention. No one is really original, and everyone is. All "thinkers" get ideas from a vast array of sources, and even profound writers like Kant or Marx or Chomsky are less original than we're inclined to think. Thinkers can be more or less insightful. That's a more meaningful designation than "original.")

As I've written elsewhere, it's sadly obvious that we can't achieve the anarchist goal of doing away with power. Even in the most egalitarian tribal societies, there have always been subtle relations of power and status based on force of personality, physical strength, intelligence, age (a child has less power than an adult, a younger adult often has less power than an older adult), and other non-institutional factors. That's part of the human condition. Women, for example, have always lived to some degree at the mercy of men, since men are typically much stronger and larger than they. That's a power relation. —Sorry if that's an "un-woke" thing to say, but it's true. (Postmodern gender theory is mostly pretentious and unnecessary, since the psychology of gender emerges rather unproblematically from obvious facts like this. Also see this book, a far more sensible contribution than most of what you'll see from so-called gender theorists.)

As for complex modern societies, no matter how decentralized or democratic or communistic we try to make them, there will always have to be institutions of some sort. And whenever you get an institution of some size, you're going to get roles that aren't all perfectly equal in status or power. Moreover, it's hard to imagine that in a complex, highly technological world civilization, even a future "democratic" or "socialist" one, there won't be institutional hierarchies anywhere. Surely, they'll be all over the place. Direct democracy, being sometimes impracticable, won't be able to govern everything; there will still have to be representatives in various contexts—political (or "administrative" if you prefer), economic, and so on. The principle of delegation. And you can't do away with an elaborate division of labor except in the simplest of societies. Large worker cooperatives will have to have elected directors of some sort, elected managers, "hierarchies" (albeit democratically grounded) of some form or other.

Various types of power, authority, domination, and the like permeate every set of complex social circumstances. Why Foucault is respected and controversial for insisting on this trivial point, I have no idea.

But, characteristically, he had to fuse his "insight" with wrongheadedness: I see no reason to rule out the possibility that we can make society more libertarian (free), or that small groups of people can escape "the system" and live in more egalitarian circumstances than prevail all around us. We aren't all "prisoners" to the same degree. There are different systems of power in our civilization, some of them more egalitarian and libertarian than others. Foucault's pessimism, or at least his particular brand of pessimism, is unwarranted. History offers countless examples of people freeing themselves from systems of oppression—even if it's true we can't free ourselves from power altogether.

Despite my skepticism that genuine anarchy on a large scale can ever be achieved, I'm a thorough and instinctual anarchist in my personality. Actually, I'm interested in probing this fact, so if I might indulge (self-indulgently) in some self-description for a moment.... I'm pretty much a lover of solitude, a hyper-individualist, largely set apart from society and all groups and organizations. To my frequent cost (though it's also a source of pride), I don't seem to really fit in anywhere. As a young leftist in the 1990s I had no interest in the usual cultural tastes of young leftists, such as punk rock (awful!) or other "subversive" brands of popular music, or postmodern theory, etc. I was enamored of classical music, from, say, Bach to Tchaikovsky. (I had no use for twentieth-century classical music.)[1] I was, and am, an arch-traditionalist, generally more appreciative of and interested in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries than anything that came later. I adored Marx, having discovered his writings in my dad's office. I'd wager that no one in my town shared my adoration, and that at my high school graduation quite a few people in the audience were nonplussed or worse when I referenced Marx several times in a speech I gave. I was really a naïve boy who lived in his head.

I have a reflexive aversion to all things institutional. This aversion isn't entirely reasonable, but I've always felt vaguely suffocated in the academic environment, where freedom of thought is so frowned upon. Academic events and writings are frequently celebrations of pretentiousness, groupthink, and intellectual perversity. (Leftists are as guilty of these things as everyone else, because most academic leftists have internalized the "proper" norms.) I'm usually quite polite and pleasant to authority figures, especially in academia, but something about the authority principle instinctively grates on me. Which is one reason I try to avoid all bureaucracies and bureaucrats like the plague.

But I also avoid aggregations of people, even, usually, small social groups, like at parties. I dislike the dynamics of domination that emerge in such situations, where you have to compete for attention lest you be ignored. Individuality isn't very respected in those circumstances; you become a group-creature who has to adhere to the (usually vulgar) interests and tastes of the group. People become remarkably stupid, insensitive, and cruel in groups. Power, domination, charisma, loudness—loutishness—and the like are too respected. I'm interested in people as individuals, not as members of a group.

Intellectually, I've never been able to respect disciplinary boundaries. I'm not a specialist by nature, and I find it terribly boring and limiting not to range widely over history, philosophy, psychology, and the natural sciences. (Unfortunately, in order to get anything done, it's necessary to specialize somewhat.) This is one reason I like Chomsky, whose polymathy totally flouts academic norms. I'm no genius, but you can see from this website that I enjoy writing/speculating about everything from the history of capitalism to the philosophy of mind to the nature of gender relations and human psychology. And I don't think you need special credentials to write perceptively—more perceptively than most of those with credentials—on these matters.

So I'd say in most respects I'm by nature a nearly perfect anarchist. That is, a democrat, a "humanist" (as opposed, e.g., to an institutionalist), and a communist who would like to see the withering away of private property, to the extent possible. We should all be anarchists in the sense of "the anti-authoritarian personality." We should value creativity, freedom, individuality, self-expression, authentic community, non-hierarchy, democracy, free and honest communication, and rational inquiry and persuasion. As a set of values, anarchism is pure common sense! I'll even admit that, theoretically, it would be wonderful if we could do away with government or "the state." Governments are pretty monstrous, as history teaches us.

But I part ways with most anarchists not only in my belief that power/domination/authority, in various forms, has always been with us and will always be with us but also in my doubt that government, even centralized government, can be abolished (unless civilization collapses). It's just too hard to imagine systematic decentralization and "localization" of all administrative structures in an advanced technological global society. Nor does it seem possible to do away with laws, as Kropotkin, William Godwin, and others have dreamed of, relying instead on public opinion and custom to regulate social behavior. Look at how complex the world is! Can such an infinitely complex world operate purely through the force of public opinion and the fear of public censure, with no need of coercive or hierarchical institutions to enforce compliance? Can we do away with jails and prisons in even their most humane forms? Of course prison systems could be massively downsized compared to their extent now, but it's hard to believe that even a "classless" society of billions of people wouldn't require some law enforcement.

The state is in many of its functions a horrifyingly destructive entity, but it also comprises constructive functions. You can consult Mariana Mazzucato's The Entrepreneurial State for an analysis of some of these functions. All the advanced technologies we enjoy today, such as plastics, electronics, the internet, nanotechnology, biotechnology, pharmaceuticals, and green technologies, have relied overwhelmingly on state funding and state "direction" of research at most stages of their development. Without large and well-resourced governments, these technologies wouldn't have come into being. (The same is true of mass production, electric power, aviation and space technologies, and nuclear energy. See Vernon Ruttan's Is War Necessary for Economic Growth?: Military Procurement and Technology Development. The doctrines of free-market enthusiasts are mostly fantasies: government planning and funding are primarily what have ensured economic growth and relative societal well-being.)

Moreover, insofar as the state is a destructive entity, that is mostly because of the private sector's influence over it. Sociopathically structured corporations, voracious for profit, are the engine behind our civilization's self-immolation. If we could "socialize" the private sector or make it worker-run, thus making government more democratic and egalitarian, the state would become far less harmful than it is today. It still wouldn't be ideally democratic—it would still consist mostly of bureaucratic hierarchies—but its worst, most murderous and militaristic abuses would be significantly curtailed. It's true that the state has its own authoritarian interests, but it is also used as an instrument by outside forces. The more beneficent the outside forces are, the more beneficent the state will be.

There is something attractive about the "purity" and idealism of anarchist goals and sketches of a future society, but there is something naïve about them too. Leftists in general are often guilty of naïveté. The fact is that to be alive is to be in a "fallen" condition, which is to say a condition of suffering and struggle. It has always been this way, for every animal in the history of life. Nature is not an ethical or a just place, and there is little reason to think we can achieve a truly ethical or just society (on a large, least of all a global, scale). For instance, there is no precedent for a large-scale, populous society that lacks a "government." Even in the urban Italian communes, or city-states, of the Middle Ages there were smallish bureaucracies and power-structures and every non-anarchist phenomenon you can imagine. Of course, there were classes too. Maybe a classless society wouldn't require a government? Well, as I've said, even if someday we manage to achieve "classlessness"—that is, abolition of differential ownership and control of the means of production, workers and communities democratically deciding how to plan economic activity and allocate resources—complex administrative structures analogous to "governments" will surely be necessary.

Anyway, I'm repeating myself, coming dangerously close to academics' characteristic sin of long-windedness. Let me just say I can't help having deep doubts about the future of a species capable of, say, Nazism, nor being deeply skeptical, therefore, of all idealism. I'm reading a book called "The Good Old Days": The Holocaust as Seen by Its Perpetrators and Bystanders, and once again it's been brought home to me how profoundly objectionable homo sapiens is, from a moral and intellectual point of view. What is one to think of such a species as ours, which finds it so easy to plumb the abyss of depravity? Sometimes I wonder if those people who are endowed with a high degree of empathy and outrage at injustice—among whom are many leftists—simply misjudge the moral character, the moral potential, of their fellow humans. I at least am continually appalled by what I see of humanity—not only by institutions, which are blatantly amoral, but by individuals themselves. The cruelty and lack of intelligence of individuals, billions of individuals.

Nevertheless, the optimism of anarchism will always be refreshing and inspiring. I see no end to the struggle to realize its ideals—I think the struggle will go on until the last members of our species have perished and the nightmare of history comes at last to a close. But at least the anarchist ideal of freedom and dignity gives us something to struggle for in the first place.

[1] Speaking of music, here's a rather recent article of mine on Beethoven, my musical idol.

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