Stagger onward rejoicing

Tag: anarchism (page 1 of 1)


Bryan Garsten

Liberal societies, I want to suggest, are those that offer refuge from the very people they empower. The reach of this formulation will become evident when we allow ourselves to use “refuge” in both a literal and a metaphorical sense, so that institutions and practices can offer refuge from a powerful person as much as a fortress can. […] 

Because liberal societies offer within them different sorts of refuge, they should not produce many refugees fleeing elsewhere. The United States does not generally produce large refugee flows, but those it has at times produced — as when enslaved Americans fled to Canada before the American Civil War — have offered good indices of weaknesses in its liberal credentials. Liberal societies themselves should by their nature appreciate the plight of foreign refugees and err on the side of welcoming them, but the facts do not allow us to say that liberal societies are always more welcoming than nonliberal societies. The crucial indicator of liberalism is whether a society produces refugees. A society becomes more liberal when it reduces the reasons that people have to flee — not by converting all people to one outlook or identity, but by offering them the chance to find refuge internally. Liberal societies aim to generate no exodus. 

It is in this sense that many of the recent developments I have regularly decried on this blog — surveillance capitalism, panoptic governance, coercive administrative practices (especially in academia) — are straightforwardly anti-liberal, sometimes consciously, sometimes blindly. I like the framing of refuge. From Florida’s “Stop WOKE” law to the anti-bias “teams” and “task forces” that populate American campuses, the common theme is: You have no refuge from us. Resistance is futile.

Garsten’s essay is trying to do a lot of things, and I think he gets tangled up at times, in interesting ways. For instance, on page 143 he moves seamlessly from celebrating the founding of cities to celebrating the spread of markets, in a way that suggests that he thinks that the reason we have cities is to spread markets. There are other views on that point. But the major themes involve certain claims about healthy societies. Such societies 

  • do not generate many refugees 
  • are hospitable to refugees from elsewhere 
  • provide means of exit from their internal systems and structures 
  • provide means of exit from the society altogether 

Thus the conclusion: 

Some critics worry that if we are given the choice to flee evils in the many ways a liberalism of refuge protects, our mobility will turn us into “rootless” beings. This concern has been given too much weight since Heidegger and Arendt. We are not trees who flourish when deeply rooted in the soil. We are human beings with legs, meant to explore. What we need to flourish is not roots so much as refuges from which we can venture forth and to which we can retreat. Often, we end up returning to where we started with new insight or appreciation, like Odysseus gratefully coming home. Sometimes we do not, or cannot, return home, and so we begin again and find, in those beginnings, a distinctively liberal adventure — the noble work of building a new society that refugees know so well. 

I have reservations. For one thing, whether “building a new society” is “noble work” depends on the kind of society you’re building. (See: the Taliban.) More important: Is “exploring” the main thing that legs are for? Again, it depends on why you’re exploring. If Garsten had said that legs are for exploring to find food for your family and community, and to bring that food back to those who hunger, I’d have been happier. And in general, I think it’s more important for our minds to explore than our legs, even if when doesn’t create new markets. 

In general, Garsten’s vision is a libertarian one, whereas I prefer anarchist models. In my view the primarily difference between libertarianism and anarchism is that the former wants to expand the scope of individual freedom while the latter wants to expand the scope of collaboration and cooperation. What if we were to re-frame “refuge” and “exit” in anarchist, or at least communitarian, terms? 

An interesting book in this regard is Lewis’s That Hideous Strength, and especially the character of McPhee. McPhee is basically Lewis’s old tutor, William Kirkpatrick, AKA Kirk or the Great Knock, and I have always found it touching that Lewis sought to find some way to offer that dour atheist the blessings of Christian community, but without as it were forcing him into a false conversion. 

The community of St. Anne’s — an attempt by Lewis to embody the themes of his great essay “Membership” — is not quite anarchic, and I say that not because it has a Director but rather because no one else but Mr. Fisher-King could be the Director. Still, it is a collaborative and cooperative endeavor, and no one is coerced into participation, nor is anyone who wishes to belong excluded — though they may not choose their own roles: the community strives to make charitable but honest assessments of what its members are capable of, and especially what risks they can be expected to take. 

No community is perfect, of course. When the people of St. Anne’s become aware of the gifts of Jane Studdock, one of them goes to far as to say “You have to join us” — but that is immediately recognized not only as counterproductive (Jane flees at the first hint of coercion) but also contrary to the character of the community. One must enter freely or not at all, and the damage done by that moment of impulsiveness is almost irreversible. 

St. Anne’s is of course an intentionally Christian community or “body” through and through, which leads to the question: Why is McPhee there? He is no Christian, and for all his respect for the Director, he believes the man prone to nonsensical words and thoughts. 

The answer is that McPhee is there because he wants to be. Eccentric though he is, the community gives him refuge — indeed, it would violate its character as much by exclusion as by coercion. He is given tasks appropriate to his abilities, though he cannot participate directly in the spiritual warfare which, in this story, comes to be the chief business of St. Anne’s. As one who does not believe and therefore does not pray, he lacks the protection he needs against supernatural Powers. He cannot — as the Apostle, or John Bunyan, might say — “put on the armor of God.” If McPhee resents this, he doesn’t say much about it; after all, he has found a place where he is respected and loved, and where his service is welcomed with gratitude. And what better refuge can any of us hope for? 

adult children

I think there’s a strong causal relationship between (a) the overly structured lives of children today and (b) the silly political stunts of protestors and “activists.”

As has often been noted, American children today rarely play: they engage in planned, supervised activities completely dictated by adults. Those of us who were raised in less fearful times spent a lot of time, especially during school vacations, figuring out what to do: what games to play, what sorts of things to build, etc. To do all this, we had to learn strategies of negotiation and persuasion and give-and-take. I might agree to play the game Jerry wants to play today on the condition that we play the game I want to play tomorrow. You could of course refuse to negotiate, but then people would just stop playing with you. Over time, therefore, kids sorted these matters out: maybe one became the regular leader, maybe they took turns, maybe some kids opted out and spent more time by themselves. Some were happy about how things worked out, some less happy; there were occasionally hurt feelings and fights; some kids became the butt of jokes.

I was one of those last because I was always younger and smaller than the others. (Story of my childhood in one sentence.) That’s why I often decided to stay home and read or play with Lego. But eventually I would come back, and when I did I was, more or less, welcomed. We worked it out. It wasn’t painless, but it wasn’t The Lord of the Flies either. We came to an understanding; we negotiated our way to a functional little society of neighborhood children.

But in today’s anti-ludic world of “planned activities,” kids don’t learn those skills. In their tightly managed environments, they basically have two options: acquiescence and “acting out.” And thus when they become politically aware young adults and find themselves in situations they can’t in conscience acquiesce to, acting out is basically the only tool in their toolbox. So they bring a microphone and speaker to a dinner at someone’s house and demand that everyone listen to their speech on their pet issue. Or they blockade a bridge, thereby annoying people who probably agree with their political news and giving decision-makers good reason to condemn them. Or they dress up in American flags and storm the U. S. Capitol building. And they act out because they can’t think of anything else to do when political decisions don’t go their way. After all, they’ve been doing it all their lives.

When kids do this kind of thing, we’re not surprised; we say, hey, kids will be kids. When adults do it, we call them assholes. We raise our children in such a way – this is my thesis – that we almost guarantee that they’ll grow up to be assholes. Congratulations to us! We’ve created a world in which, pretty soon, the Politics of Assholery will be the only kind of politics there is.

P.S. This is why I’m interested in anarchism! As I have said several times, the difference between libertarianism and anarchism is simply this: the goal of libertarianism is to expand the realm of individual freedom, while the goal of anarchism is to expand the realm of collaboration and cooperation. We need more anarchic childhoods today to have a more mature and constructive politics tomorrow.

Class notes: Anarchy, Law, Pain

I’m thinking that this term, when I’m teaching a number of things I haven’t taught before, or haven’t taught in a long time, I might use this blog to lay out some of the things I’m thinking about — not in a systematic or final way, but in what I hope will be a generative way (for myself, my students, and maybe even my readers). This will be the first such installment. 

I would very much like to say that the anarchists in Chesterton’s The Man Who Was Thursday aren’t really anarchists. I am, after all, at least anarchism-adjacent myself, and value the movement because of its peaceful and patient resistance to centralizing and domineering powers, especially, in our moment, the Power that’s sometimes called Technopoly. But, as Maya Jasanoff has pointed out, in 1881 the International Anarchist Congress officially adopted a strategy of “propaganda by deed” — i.e., terrorism. 

Still, there is a distinction to make, and a learned constable, early in Thursday, makes it. When Gabriel Syme asks him “What is this anarchy?” He replies: 

“Do not confuse it,” replied the constable, “with those chance dynamite outbreaks from Russia or from Ireland, which are really the outbreaks of oppressed, if mistaken, men. This is a vast philosophic movement, consisting of an outer and an inner ring. You might even call the outer ring the laity and the inner ring the priesthood. I prefer to call the outer ring the innocent section, the inner ring the supremely guilty section. The outer ring — the main mass of their supporters — are merely anarchists; that is, men who believe that rules and formulas have destroyed human happiness. They believe that all the evil results of human crime are the results of the system that has called it crime. They do not believe that the crime creates the punishment. They believe that the punishment has created the crime. They believe that if a man seduced seven women he would naturally walk away as blameless as the flowers of spring. They believe that if a man picked a pocket he would naturally feel exquisitely good. These I call the innocent section.”

“Oh!” said Syme.

“Naturally, therefore, these people talk about ‘a happy time coming’; ‘the paradise of the future’; ‘mankind freed from the bondage of vice and the bondage of virtue,’ and so on. And so also the men of the inner circle speak — the sacred priesthood. They also speak to applauding crowds of the happiness of the future, and of mankind freed at last. But in their mouths” — and the policeman lowered his voice — “in their mouths these happy phrases have a horrible meaning. They are under no illusions; they are too intellectual to think that man upon this earth can ever be quite free of original sin and the struggle. And they mean death. When they say that mankind shall be free at last, they mean that mankind shall commit suicide. When they talk of a paradise without right or wrong, they mean the grave.

“They have but two objects, to destroy first humanity and then themselves. That is why they throw bombs instead of firing pistols. The innocent rank and file are disappointed because the bomb has not killed the king; but the high-priesthood are happy because it has killed somebody.” 

I think the constable is making an essential distinction, though I do not believe that either of his groups is actually anarchistic. Rather than two “rings” of anarchism, what the constable has described is the difference between libertines and nihilists

That’s my view, anyway. What GKC wants to show in Thursday is that while people fear the “anarchists” who assassinate, even the assassins share with ordinary folks the belief that the world is in many ways bad and ought to be better — it is in that sense that they are “innocent.” We should be more concerned about those who randomly kill, randomly throw bombs, because at heart they reject the whole of Creation — they think that the world itself is not worth the candle, every law (natural law, moral law, whatever) is inevitably an insupportable tyranny, that nothingness itself is less bad than a world governed by law. Under law people suffer; and to end them, and ultimately end the world, is at least to end suffering.

Thus at the end of Thursday the “real anarchist” cries out, 

I know what you are all of you, from first to last — you are the people in power! You are the police — the great fat, smiling men in blue and buttons! You are the Law, and you have never been broken. But is there a free soul alive that does not long to break you, only because you have never been broken? We in revolt talk all kind of nonsense doubtless about this crime or that crime of the Government. It is all folly! The only crime of the Government is that it governs. The unpardonable sin of the supreme power is that it is supreme. 

Therefore, he says, “I am a destroyer. I would destroy the world if I could.” 

Now, GKC rejects all of this. For one thing, as he says in Orthodoxy — the book he wrote immediately after writing Thursday — people wrongly think of Law as a cold dead hand imposing itself on Life: 

All the towering materialism which dominates the modern mind rests ultimately upon one assumption; a false assumption. It is supposed that if a thing goes on repeating itself it is probably dead; a piece of clockwork. People feel that if the universe was personal it would vary; if the sun were alive it would dance. This is a fallacy even in relation to known fact. For the variation in human affairs is generally brought into them, not by life, but by death; by the dying down or breaking off of their strength or desire. A man varies his movements because of some slight element of failure or fatigue. He gets into an omnibus because he is tired of walking; or he walks because he is tired of sitting still. But if his life and joy were so gigantic that he never tired of going to Islington, he might go to Islington as regularly as the Thames goes to Sheerness. The very speed and ecstacy of his life would have the stillness of death. The sun rises every morning. I do not rise every morning; but the variation is due not to my activity, but to my inaction. Now, to put the matter in a popular phrase, it might be true that the sun rises regularly because he never gets tired of rising. His routine might be due, not to a lifelessness, but to a rush of life. The thing I mean can be seen, for instance, in children, when they find some game or joke that they specially enjoy. A child kicks his legs rhythmically through excess, not absence, of life. Because children have abounding vitality, because they are in spirit fierce and free, therefore they want things repeated and unchanged. They always say, “Do it again”; and the grown-up person does it again until he is nearly dead. For grown-up people are not strong enough to exult in monotony. But perhaps God is strong enough to exult in monotony. It is possible that God says every morning, “Do it again” to the sun; and every evening, “Do it again” to the moon. It may not be automatic necessity that makes all daisies alike; it may be that God makes every daisy separately, but has never got tired of making them. It may be that He has the eternal appetite of infancy; for we have sinned and grown old, and our Father is younger than we. 

That’s one of my favorite passages in Chesterton, a vital re-conceiving of the meaning of repetition. But it’s not the point he chooses to emphasize in Thursday. What turns out to be the whole point of that novel is the re-conceiving of the relationship between law and suffering. The policemen, i.e. the upholders of the Law, are said by the Accuser to be safe, to be free from fear and pain. But precisely the opposite is true. As Syme says to that Accuser, “We have been broken on the wheel.” It is a hard calling to become strong enough to exult in monotony — and, while doing so, to restrain the destructive impulses of those who believe that repetition is an infringement on their freedom, an imposed pain. 

a path forward

  1. It’s certainly true that power corrupts, but it’s more true that the corrupt are drawn to power, so ultimately it doesn’t matter whether power is concentrated in government or in the market. (Assuming that “government” and “market” can be distinguished, which I doubt.) Wherever power is, the corrupt will be drawn to it by an irresistible magnetic force. So the only answer is to reduce the scope of power everywhere. That’s why I’m drawn to anarchism.
  2. Anarchism is the only possible means by which metaphysical capitalism might be resisted. By promoting emergent order it promotes cooperation and negotiation, which are forms of actual relationship that involve us in The Great Economy. Libertarianism, by contrast, leaves us related to one another only in the market economy, which means not truly related at all — just oppositionally positioned in a zero-sum game.

Greg Afinogenov:

Kropotkin’s understanding and appreciation of societies then regarded as primitive, from Africa to the Arctic, forms a striking contrast both to Social Darwinist racism and the historical developmentalism of traditional Marxism. It shares the Romantic impulse that drove his old populist comrades to lionise Russian peasant communities, but instead of fixating on the national particularity of rural Russia it takes in the whole human and natural world.

The last century of human history has dampened the appeal of Kropotkin’s optimism. The anarchist trade unions and co-operative movements that inspired him in his own time have lost much of their significance, and it would be hard for an outside observer to dispute Eric Hobsbawm’s claim that ‘the history of anarchism, almost alone among modern social movements, is one of unrelieved failure.’ 

Perhaps so; but its failures are different and less shameful than the failures of Marxism. There are many ways for a social movement to fail, and I prefer those that don’t result in the murder of tens of millions of human beings. 


Peter Gray:

In the late 19th and early 20th century, many people became concerned about the ill effects of child labor on children’s development and wellbeing, and laws were passed to ban it. But now we have school, expanded to such a degree that is it equivalent to a full-time job—a psychologically stressful, sedentary full-time job, for which the child is not paid and does not gain the sense of independence and pride that can come from a real job.

Elsewhere … I have presented evidence that children, especially teenagers, are less happy in school than in any other setting where they regularly find themselves and that increased schooling, coupled with decreased freedom outside of school, correlates, over decades, with sharply increased rates of psychiatric disorders in young people, including major depression and anxiety disorders. 

I came across this 2014 piece via Ed West, and it really does make me think — as it has made others think — that Covidtide has given us a great opportunity to rethink what school is for and who should be in it. But the entrenched assumptions are so strong that I don’t think we’re taking that opportunity. 

Doesn’t it seem to be true — and obviously true — that this kind of inertia is a function of a massively bureaucratic and administrative social order? An anarchist, or at least relatively-more-anarchistic, society would be more agile, more adaptive. I’m becoming more of an anarchist by the day

illusions and their removal

In The Point of View of My Work as an Author Kierkegaard explains why he writes sometimes under his own name and sometimes under pseudonyms. One of his primary goals — or, as he rather curiously puts it, one of the primary goals of “the authorship” — is to attack the illusions under which his fellow Danes are living, the chief among them being that they are living in a Christian society (which means that they believe themselves to have received Christianity as a kind of natural inheritance). The problem, Kierkegaard says, is that such illusions are hard to remove by direct attack — and indeed, the deeper the illusion is the more resistant it is to any direct confrontation.

No, an illusion can never be destroyed directly, and only by indirect means can it be radically removed. If it is an illusion that all are Christians — and if there is anything to be done about it, it must be done indirectly, not by one who vociferously proclaims himself an extraordinary Christian, but by one who, better instructed, is ready to declare that he is not a Christian at all….

There is nothing that requires such gentle handling as an illusion, if one wishes to dispel it. If anyone prompts the prospective captive to set his will in opposition, all is lost. And this is what a direct attack achieves, and it implies moreover the presumption of requiring a man to make to another person, or in his presence, an admission which he can make most profitably to himself privately. This is what is achieved by the indirect method, which, loving and serving the truth, arranges everything dialectically for the prospective captive, and then shyly withdraws (for love is always shy), so as not to witness the admission which he makes to himself alone before God—that he has lived hitherto in an illusion.

I especially adore this: “for love is always shy.” See also the magnificent tale of the king and the lowly maiden in the Philosophical Fragments.

There is much more that could be said about this, and how it relates to, for instance, Leo Strauss’s case for the value of esoteric writing in philosophy (something I have often mused on when engaged in my own writing). But for now I simply want to ask this question: What can I do to remove my own illusions?

I think it was A. J. Ayer — one of those 20th century Oxford philosophers anyway — whose highest praise of any other philosopher was “Yes, he’s very well defended.” I think almost all of us are well-defended against the dispelling of our illusions. This is why Kierkegaard said that the person whose life is governed by some powerful illusion must be as it were approached from behind. But how could I approach myself from behind? After all, as I recently wrote, the most dangerous lies are the ones we tell ourselves. Shouldn’t I take seriously my own position?

Well, for the past couple of years I’ve been trying to do just that. I’m not any less interested in theological reflection (or in being a Christian!) that I used to be, but I’ve been reading theology for so long that it’s hard for me to be surprised by it — hard for me not to assimilate whatever I’m reading to my existing categories. So I’ve been trying to read more stuff that evades those categories, that forces me into a less predictable and (ideally) more creative response.

That’s why I’ve been trying to learn from Russian socialists and Daoists and anarchists — they’re all people who are trying to address the same social and ethical issues that concern me, but who do so from different perspectives and with the use of different intellectual tools. But I’m now thinking that, having been fortified by my encounters with those traditions of thought, it may be time to return to my specifically theological concerns and see what they look like in light of what I’ve learned. For instance: 

  • What does Christian peaceableness look like in light of Alexander Herzen’s melioristic approach to social change? 
  • Is there really, as I have suspected, a kind of familial resemblance between Daoism and Franciscan spirituality? 
  • Can the “emergent order” of anarchism be a key to the building of what Martin Luther King Jr. called “the beloved community”? 

In short: Can I, through these oddball explorations, remove the illusions that prevent me from seeing what I should see about myself and the world? Can I learn through these exercises to think more wisely and act more justly? I dunno. I hope so. 


Dale Ahlquist:

While the Distributist movement gained a much larger following than most historians have acknowledged, and is even experiencing something of a revival these days, it has suffered from being dismissed. Conservatives (and capitalists) accuse Distributism of being too socialist, an enemy of free trade. Liberals (and socialists) accuse it of being too capitalist, an enemy of regulation and the public interest. But more often it is dismissed without a fair hearing – not only by established economists and academics but by most everyone else as well – simply because of its unfortunate name: Distributism. No one knows what it means, and usually people think it means something else. It is understandably conflated with redistribution, which means taking money from a wealthier segment of the citizenry and redistributing it to a less wealthy segment. Sort of like Robin Hood. Or taxation. Yet while the early Distributists recognized that some redistribution of land, wealth, and power would obviously be necessary to achieve their ends, redistribution was never their end goal nor what made their vision compelling to so many.

It is for this reason that the Society of Gilbert Keith Chesterton recently renamed Distributism. Now, I wish to make it clear that we don’t have any special control over the word “Distributism.” People can keep using the old word if they want. But we introduced a new word because the old word was … well, it was no good!

The new word we came up with is “Localism.” 

I see why they did this, but (a) “localism” is already a term used in other contexts and (b) at least “Distributism” captured the fact that the movement is not just cultural but also a project of political economy. 

Distributism/Localism, like anarcho-syndicalism and several other kinds of anarchism — which I am very much interested in — all think that our social and cultural problems cannot be fixed unless we can wrest economic control from Bosses and put it in the hands of local people. They are all subsidiarist movements, and these are all to some degree rooted in Catholic social teaching, so you would think that people who call themselves conservatives would at least be interested. Not so much, not any more. 

capability and collaboration

In her book Creating Capabilities Martha Nussbaum writes,

What are capabilities? They are the answers to the question, “What is this person able to do and to be?” In other words, they are what [Amartya] Sen calls “substantial freedoms,” a set of (usually interrelated) opportunities to choose and to act. In one standard formulation by Sen, “a person’s ‘capability’ refers to the alternative combinations of functionings that are feasible for her to achieve. Capability is thus a kind of freedom: the substantive freedom to achieve alternative functioning combinations.” In other words, they are not just abilities residing inside a person but also the freedoms or opportunities created by a combination of personal abilities and the political, social, and economic environment.

When elaborating the capabilities approach, Nussbaum — I think this is fair to say — generally writes as though individual autonomy is the proper moral ideal. But in light of recent posts, I wonder if we might ask what capabilities emerge only in the context of a bet on mutuality. Capabilities, mine and yours alike, that only become available when we formulate and test prototypes together. See this chart from Sara Hendren.


Prototyping is iterative, but not all iterative activities are prototypes. Blogging, as I conceive of it, is iterative, in that it returns repeatedly to certain themes, trying to explore them more adequately. But previous iterations are never discarded; they remain part of the project. A blog is more like a palimpsest than a prototype.

As I hinted earlier, these thoughts run against my grain. I’ve team-taught a number of times over the years, but the norm for me is designing and running my own class; the norm for me is imagining and writing my own essays and books. There are always collaborative elements in this work — I look at what other faculty teaching the same classes do, I learn from my students what works and what doesn’t (every instantiation of a course is a prototype), I receive and respond to feedback from editors. But I don’t think about those collaborative elements often enough, I don’t keep them in the front of my mind, and so I am insufficiently attentive to the possibilities of collaboration. 

A big part of my interest in anarchism — see the tag at the foot of this post — stems from my sense that certain distinctive human goods emerge only when we allow order to emerge from voluntary collaboration. 

You’re never too old to learn … I hope. 

Ellul and anarchism

This will be my last post this week — I’m off soon to Laity Lodge!    


I’ve said before that I think Anarchy and Christianity is Jacques Ellul’s worst book but I don’t think I’ve ever said why I believe that. So here goes.

I’ll start with a key passage from pp. 32–33:

Now it is true that for centuries theology has insisted that God is the absolute Master, the Lord of lords, the Almighty, before whom we are nothing. Hence it is right enough that those who reject masters will reject God too. We must also take note of the fact that even in the twentieth century Christians still call God the King of creation and still call Jesus Lord even though there are few kings and lords left in the modern world. But I for my part dispute this concept of God.

Throughout the book Ellul portrays himself as a careful reader of the Bible, which is why he begins this section by saying that theology has insisted that God is Lord of lords – he presents his argument as a refutation of theologians, not of the Bible. But this is evasive: Ellul knows perfectly well that in the Old Testament God is repeatedly described as King and Lord — e.g. “The Lord has established his throne in the heavens, and his kingdom rules over all” (Psalm 103:19) — and that in the New Testament Jesus Christ is called “the blessed and only Sovereign, the King of kings and Lord of lords” (1 Timothy 6:15, the concluding phrase appearing again in Revelation 19:16). It is a mere delaying tactic. So ultimately he admits it:

I realize that [this concept of God] corresponds to the existing mentality. I realize that we have here a religious image of God. I realize, finally, that many biblical passages call God king or Lord. But this admitted, I contend that the Bible in reality gives us a very different image of God.

A rather subtle distinction, isn’t it? That the Bible can repeatedly – it would be fair to say obsessively – call God King and Lord and yet all of that is somehow not the “image of God” given in the Bible. Ellul is simply denying the relevance of everything in Scripture, no matter how prominent, that clashes with what he believes to be the genuine biblical picture of who God is. As though he can wave a rhetorical wand and make all countervailing evidence just disappear.

Why does Ellul do this? In large part because he knows that Lords and Kings give commands, and he intends to deny that God would infringe on our anarchic freedom by giving commands. Alas, the Bible continues to fight against him – he eventually is forced to admit that in the Bible we do see “divine orders. How are we to understand this?” He claims that “God’s commandments are always addressed to individuals. God chooses this or that person to do something specific. It is not a matter of a general law. We have no right to generalize the order” (p. 40). He gives the example of the “rich young ruler” whom Jesus commands to sell all that he has and give to the poor, and claims that that order is given only to that man and not to anyone else – not an eccentric reading of that particular pericope, but the denial that there are any “generalized orders” in the Bible is very eccentric indeed. Who is the “individual” whom “You shall not kill” is addressed to? Or “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your might”?  

So, again, why does he do this? Because he believes that universal commands would make us “robots for God who have to execute the decisions of him who made us” (41). But if commands turn us into robots, then that would make the rich young ruler into a robot. Does he really mean to say that God turns some people into robots but not most? If so, if he confines his absolute kingly commands to only a few, would that make him any less of a tyrant, any less of an infringer upon freedom?

The whole argument is just … nuts. And also, I think, based on a confusion of categories. Ellul seems to have taken the concept of anarchism – which is a political concept pertaining to the way that human beings order their common life – and seen it instead as a metaphysical principle, as a foundational truth about the entire cosmos. But why would he do that?

I think it’s because he knows the long history of politics, in which actual or would-be kings present themselves as regents of God, as having a divine right to authority over us that is rooted in God’s authority over us. But when someone says “Because God is King over all I am king over you” I don’t think the most reasonable critique of that claim is to say, “God really isn’t a King and therefore you are not either.” A more appropriate response would be that God alone is king and all human beings are servants of the same master. Ellul seems to take the hardest possible road to his desired destination, which is to undermine the tyrant’s claims to authority. And his determination to undermine that claim leads him into bizarre theology and indefensible exegesis. 

I also think he wants to claim — in this case quite properly! — that the Christian God does not insist on his sovereignty, but rather casts it away, and does so most dramatically in the sending of his Son Jesus Christ, “who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, by taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross” (Philippians 2). This is of course vital. But a King who humbles himself before his people, who sacrifices himself for their salvation, need not be and indeed is not a non-King, an anarch. (And even that great kenosis passage concludes thus: “Therefore God has highly exalted him and bestowed on him the name that is above every name, so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.”) 

There is, I think, a serious Christian defense of anarchism, even if Ellul hasn’t found it. It’s similar to the proper Christian argument for democracy. As C. S. Lewis once wrote, “There are two opposite reasons for being a democrat. You may think all men so good that they deserve a share in the government of the commonwealth, and so wise that the commonwealth needs their advice. That is, in my opinion, the false, romantic doctrine of democracy. On the other hand, you may believe fallen men to be so wicked that not one of them can be trusted with any irresponsible power over his fellows. That I believe to be the true ground of democracy.” A Christian argument for anarchism would begin there – though not end; there is still a lot of work to do. I’ve tried to do some of it in an essay that I think is forthcoming – though with regard to that also there is still a lot of work to do. But eventually, one way or another, you’ll hear from me on these matters.

against the state

Justin E. H. Smith:

Who among these groups is “Indigenous”? We might in this case feel this is the wrong question to ask, but this feeling may in turn help to prime us for the further realization that the encounter zone of the Slavic, Turkic, Tungusic, and Paleo-Siberian peoples is in fact fairly representative of every corner of the inhabited globe, even those we take to be the most hermetic and (therefore?) the most pristinely representative of humanity in its original state. In their half-posthumous new book, the anthropologist David Graeber (1961-2020) and the archeologist David Wengrow (1972-) suggest that “even” the pre-contact Amazonian groups we generally take to conform most closely to the definition of “tribe” or “band” were likely aware of the Andean empires to their west, and may also have had, at an earlier time, relatively complex state structures that they consciously abandoned because they were lucid enough to come to see these as inimical to human thriving. The groups Europeans first encountered in the rainforest, in other words, may also have been splinters that broke away from tyrannies, just like the Sakha fleeing the Mongols, and to some extent also like the Mountain Time Zone libertarians grumbling about the tax agents from the mythical city of Washington.

It may be that more or less all societies that appear to us as “pre-state” would be more accurately described as “post-state” — even if the people who constitute them are not in fact fleeing from the center to the margins of a real tyranny, they are nonetheless living out their statelessness as a conscious implementation of an ideal of the human good. […] 

This is the sense of Pierre Clastres’s “society against the state”: societies that lack state structures are not in the “pre-” stage of anything, but are in fact actively working to keep such structures from rising up and taking permanent hold.

I’ll be starting Graeber and Wengrow’s book soon, but I suspect that — like much I have been reading in the last couple of years — it will further incline me to the suspicion that there is no remedy for technocracy that does not rely heavily and consistently on the best practices of the anarchist tradition. It’s time for a renewal of Christian anarchism — one that begins by accepting the clear fact that Anarchy and Christianity is Jacques Ellul’s worst book, by miles. 

the Mondragon moment

In 1990, for a then-new magazine called First Things, the historian Christopher Lasch wrote about the incompatibility of conservatism and free-market capitalism, at least as capitalism is currently constituted. For instance, he argues that

If conservatism is understood to imply a respect for limits, it is clearly incompatible with modern capitalism or with the liberal ideology of unlimited economic growth. Historically, economic liberalism rested on the belief that man’s insatiable appetites, formerly condemned as a source of social instability and personal unhappiness, could drive the economic machine — just as man’s insatiable curiosity drove the scientific project — and thus ensure a never-ending expansion of productive forces. For the eighteenth-century founders of political economy, the self-generating character of rising expectations, newly acquired needs and tastes, and new standards of personal comfort gave rise to a form of society capable of indefinite expansion. Their break with older ways of thinking lay in the assertion that human needs should be regarded not as natural but as historical, hence insatiable. As the supply of material comforts increased, standards of comfort increased as well, and the category of necessities came to include goods formerly regarded as luxuries. Envy, pride, and ambition made human beings want more than they needed, but these “private vices” became “public virtues” by stimulating industry and invention. Thrift and self-denial, on the other hand, meant economic stagnation. “We shall find innocence and honesty no more general,” wrote Bernard Mandeville, “than among the most illiterate, the poor silly country people.” The “pleasures of luxury and the profit of commerce,” according to David Hume, “roused men from their indolence” and led to “further improvements in every branch of domestic as well as foreign trade.”

Early apostles of the pursuit of “the pleasures of luxury and the profit of commerce,” like Hume and Adam Smith, freely acknowledged the damage that such pursuit would likely do to traditional institutions and values, but a century later, “Nineteenth-century philanthropists, humanitarians, and social reformers argued with one voice that the revolution of rising expectations meant a higher standard of domestic life, not an orgy of self-indulgence activated by fantasies of inordinate personal wealth, of riches painlessly acquired through speculation or fraud, of an abundance of wine and women.”

This was of course nonsense, either a manipulative sales pitch or wishful thinking. Lasch:

In the long run, of course, this attempt to build up the family as a counterweight to the acquisitive spirit was a lost cause. The more closely capitalism came to be identified with immediate gratification and planned obsolescence, the more relentlessly it wore away the moral foundations of family life. The rising divorce rate, already a source of anxious concern in the last quarter of the nineteenth century, seemed to reflect a growing impatience with the constraints imposed by long-term responsibilities and commitments. The passion to get ahead had begun to imply the right to make a fresh start whenever earlier commitments became unduly burdensome.

Conservatives were slow to acknowledge these (in retrospect obvious) facts because they did not want to give aid and comfort to a leftist politics that was even less tolerant, though in different ways and for different reasons, of families and other traditional institutions. What these celebrants of capitalism could not see at all — and what is rarely seen even today — is the essential truth that “Marxists … shared the liberal view of nature [including human nature] as so much raw material to be turned to the purpose of human enjoyment.” So when faced with runaway acquisitiveness they merely exhorted people to work harder and save more.

To which Lasch:

That most conservatives have contented themselves with such exhortations provides a measure of the intellectual bankruptcy of twentieth-century conservatism. The bankruptcy of the left, on the other hand, reveals itself in the left’s refusal to concede the validity of conservative objections to the welfare state. The only consistent criticism of the “servile state,” as it was called by Hilaire Belloc, came from those who demanded either the restoration of proprietorship (together with the drastic measures required to prevent the accumulation of wealth and property in the hands of the few) or the equivalent of proprietorship in the form of some kind of cooperative production. The first solution describes the position of populists like Belloc and G. K. Chesterton; the second, that of syndicalists and guild socialists, who briefly challenged social democrats for leadership of the labor movement in the period immediately preceding World War I. According to Georges Sorel, the superiority of syndicalism to socialism lay in its appreciation of proprietorship, dismissed by socialists as the source of “petit-bourgeois” provincialism and cultural backwardness. Unimpressed by Marxian diatribes against the idiocy of rural life, syndicalists, Sorel thought, valued the “feelings of attachment inspired in every truly qualified worker by the productive forces entrusted to him.” They respected the “peasant’s love of his field, his vineyard, his barn, his cattle, and his bees.”

“Proprietorship” is a key concept for Lasch, and he think it ought to be central to what he wants to see emerge, which is a kind of conservative populism — a genuine populism, not what goes by that name in 2021 and often did in 1990, a mélange of petty social and cultural resentments.

The cultural populism of the right is a populism largely divested of its economic and political content, and it therefore does not address the issue that ought to engage the imagination of conservatives: how to preserve the moral advantages of proprietorship in a world of large-scale production and giant organizations.

That those giant organizations have now added to their arsenal the resources of what Shoshana Zuboff calls “surveillance capitalism” makes the addressing of this issue even more urgent. Lasch: “The ideal of universal proprietorship embodies a humbler set of expectations than the ideal of universal consumption, universal access to a proliferating supply of goods. At the same time, it embodies a more strenuous and morally demanding definition of the good life.” But it will be very difficult for anyone successfully to promote universal proprietorship because “a more equitable distribution of wealth, it is now clear, requires at the same time a drastic reduction in the standard of living enjoyed by the rich nations and the privileged classes.”

Still, the issue must be confronted, the question must be raised. “Our grandchildren will find it hard to understand, let alone to forgive, our unwillingness to raise it.”

Lasch’s whole essay points towards two solutions — that of the Distributists, whom he calls “populists,” and that of the guild syndicalists. But after he introduces both, he speaks thereafter only of populism. He doesn’t say why, but I suspect — indeed I am sure — that he sees such populism as compatible with American history and the American character in ways that syndicalism simply is not. A William Jennings Bryan is imaginable in America but not in the Basque country; a Mondragon collective is imaginable in the Basque country but not in America, the Amana Colonies notwithstanding.

I have some questions about this. First of all, I am not sure that it makes sense to call Distributism populist, though perhaps all Lasch means to indicate there is an appeal to a deeply ingrained American preference for rugged individualism, for freedom conceived in purely personal terms, as opposed to the collective, communal character of guild syndicalism. But along the lines of that distinction: Is it possible, though, that recent changes in the American psyche, the American character — many of us are, after all, pretty thoroughly disconnected from our own history, though mere ignorance and through a set of habits newly enforced by our technologies — could make at least some of us more receptive to a model of social organization that acknowledges the limits of individualism while simultaneously declining to take the path of state socialism? Could, after all, a Mondragon moment happen here?

There’s a lot to unpack here. I am especially interested in asking whether anarcho-syndicalism might be more conducive to healthy families than either state socialism or surveillance capitalism are. (My fear about populism, at least as we have it now, is that it is prone to generate the former as a reaction or be absorbed into the latter.) But I want to keep thinking along these lines.

UPDATE: Russell Arben Fox wrote to share an excellent recent post of his on these matters — I had somehow missed it. I’m going to reflect on that too and report back later. Russell is right to note that movements along the lines I suggest are already happening, but on a small scale and not really in the public eye. And maybe that’s the way these endeavors, by their very nature, have to happen. But I’d like to see a larger public conversation about political and social options beyond the ones we have to hear about every single day.

I’ll never say anything authoritative about any of these matters, but I do want to think better about them.

Proudhon to Marx

Lyon, 17 May 1846:

Let us seek together, if you wish, the laws of society, the manner in which these laws are realized, the process by which we shall succeed in discovering them; but, for God’s sake, after having demolished all the a priori dogmatisms, do not let us in our turn dream of indoctrinating the people; do not let us fall into the contradiction of your compatriot Martin Luther, who, having overthrown Catholic theology, at once set about, with excommunication and anathema, the foundation of a Protestant theology. For the last three centuries Germany has been mainly occupied in undoing Luther’s shoddy work; do not let us leave humanity with a similar mess to clear up as a result of our efforts. I applaud with all my heart your thought of bringing all opinions to light; let us carry on a good and loyal polemic; let us give the world an example of learned and far-sighted tolerance, but let us not, merely because we are at the head of a movement, make ourselves the leaders of a new intolerance, let us not pose as the apostles of a new religion, even if it be the religion of logic, the religion of reason. Let us gather together and encourage all protests, let us brand all exclusiveness, all mysticism; let us never regard a question as exhausted, and when we have used our last argument, let us begin again, if need be, with eloquence and irony. On that condition, I will gladly enter your association. Otherwise — no!

Emphases mine. Edmund Wilson: “The result of this incident was that Marx was to set upon Proudhon’s new book with a ferocity entirely inconsonant with the opinion of the value of Proudhon’s earlier work which he had expressed and which he was to reiterate later” (To the Finland Station, p. 154).

limiting power

As I noted in my previous post, there is no political system, no ordered social life, in which one can wholly escape being subject to power. As Burke says in his Reflections, “Men cannot enjoy the rights of an uncivil and of a civil state together. That he may obtain justice, he gives up his right of determining what it is in points the most essential to him. That he may secure some liberty, he makes a surrender in trust of the whole of it.” Rousseau tried to evade this stark choice by inventing the idea of the “general will,” to which we all supposedly give free assent even when we are being brought to the guillotine. But of course the “general will” is a pious fiction for autocrats, and Burke’s contrast, in all its starkness, is certainly true.

Anarchism, as I understand its best exponents, does not deny Burke’s contrast but rather openly acknowledges the truth of it and yet attempts to blunt its force. This can never be done completely. A spontaneously self-organized environment, an emergent order, such as anarchism favors, is still an order and in any order some people at some times have power over others. And when they have such power they will sometimes use it wrongly.

The best fictional depiction of anarchism in practice is Ursula K. Le Guin’s The Dispossesed, and I find it fascinating that the pivotal conflict of this novel — which largely celebrates the austere beauty of an anarchist world — centers on a power struggle among anarchists. Insofar as Shevek, the book’s protagonist, has an antagonist it is his fellow physicist Sabul, whose role in the Physics syndic on Anarres allows him control over the publication and distribution of scientific papers — especially papers that come from the nearby capitalist world of Urras. (Anarres is the moon of Urras, largely uninhabited until a group of anarchists were allowed to settle there two centuries before the time in which the novel is set.)

It occurred to [Shevek] once that Sabul wanted to keep the new Urrasti physics private — to own it, as a property, a source of power over his colleagues on Anarres. But this idea was so counter to Shevek’s habits of thinking that it had great difficulty getting itself clear in his mind, and when it did he suppressed it at once, with contempt, as a genuinely disgusting thought.

But disgusting or not, the thought is true, and Shevek has to find a way to work with Sabul, to deal with Sabul, so he can get his own highly speculative work into the hands of Urrasti physicists — because there is no one on Anarres who understands what he is trying to do. “He wanted to publish what he wrote and to send it to the men who could understand it, the Urrasti physicists; he needed their ideas, their criticism, their collaboration.” And in order to make that happen, “He needed Sabul.”

So they had bargained, he and Sabul, bargained like profiteers. It had not been a battle, but a sale. You give me this and I’ll give you that. Refuse me and I’ll refuse you. Sold? Sold! Shevek’s career, like the existence of his society, depended on the continuance of a fundamental, unadmitted profit contract. Not a relationship of mutual aid and solidarity, but an exploitative relationship; not organic, but mechanical. Can true function arise from basic dysfunction?

But all I want to do is get the job done, Shevek pleaded in his mind, as he walked across the mall towards the domicile quadrangle in the grey, windy afternoon. It’s my duty, it’s my joy, it’s the purpose of my whole life. The man I have to work with is competitive, a dominance-seeker, a profiteer, but I can’t change that; if I want to work, I have to work with him.

Ursula Le Guin was profoundly attracted to anarchism. As she wrote in a description of her novel’s genesis,

The Dispossessed started as a very bad short story, which I didn’t try to finish but couldn’t quite let go. There was a book in it, and I knew it, but the book had to wait for me to learn what I was writing about and how to write about it. I needed to understand my own passionate opposition to the war that we were, endlessly it seemed, waging in Vietnam, and endlessly protesting at home. If I had known then that my country would continue making aggressive wars for the rest of my life, I might have had less energy for protesting that one. But, knowing only that I didn’t want to study war no more, I studied peace. I started by reading a whole mess of utopias and learning something about pacifism and Gandhi and nonviolent resistance. This led me to the nonviolent anarchist writers such as Peter Kropotkin and Paul Goodman. With them I felt a great, immediate affinity. They made sense to me in the way Lao Tzu did. They enabled me to think about war, peace, politics, how we govern one another and ourselves, the value of failure, and the strength of what is weak.

So, when I realised that nobody had yet written an anarchist utopia, I finally began to see what my book might be.

Le Guin says she set out to write “an anarchist utopia,” but the subtitle which has been attached to the book since a copywriter for an early edition came up with the phrase calls it “an ambiguous utopia.” Le Guin as political thinker wanted construct an ideal, but Le Guin as novelist — as a close and shrewd observer of “the crooked timber of humanity” — couldn’t do that. She had to acknowledge the flaws that creep into every social order because every social order is comprised of people.

This chastened view of anarchism strikes me as the proper one. The founders of the anarchist colony on Anarres certainly wanted to make it impossible for anyone to become Sabul — thus especially their constructed language, Pravic, which tries to remove from lanugage and therefore from thought the idea of possession or ownership — but Sabuls there will always be. The feasible goal of anarchist order is to reduce the number of Sabuls and, when they arise, limit their power over others.

an alternative

A couple of years ago Corey Robin wrote,

Under capitalism, we’re forced to enter the market just to live. The libertarian sees the market as synonymous with freedom. But socialists hear “the market” and think of the anxious parent, desperate not to offend the insurance representative on the phone, lest he decree that the policy she paid for doesn’t cover her child’s appendectomy. Under capitalism, we’re forced to submit to the boss…. The socialist argument against capitalism isn’t that it makes us poor. It’s that it makes us unfree.

But consider this slight modification of Robin’s argument:

Under socialism, we’re forced to defer to the government just to live. The socialist sees government control of the means of production as synonymous with freedom. But capitalists hear “the government” and think of the anxious parent, desperate not to offend the bureaucrat on the phone, lest he decree that the national health service will not authorize her child’s appendectomy. Under socialism, we’re forced to submit to the government…. The capitalist argument against socialism isn’t that it makes us poor. It’s that it makes us unfree.

Is one of these passages more rational than the other? I don’t think so. The fears in both cases are, I believe, perfectly rational.

If you don’t want to be in the situation that Robin describes — which is to say, if you don’t want to be vulnerable to arbitrary power — then the alternative isn’t socialism. To replace capitalism with socialism is to meet the new boss, same as the old boss. There is no complete and perfect alternative to the power disparities Robin deplores, but the closest approximation to it is anarchism. And for that reason, if for no other, anarchism should be taken seriously as a vision of our common life.