- 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.
- 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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).
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.
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.
Why, you read Prince Kropotkin’s article on Anarchism from the 11th edition of the Encyclopædia Britannica, of course. What else would you do?