[Cross-posted to In Medias Res]
I’ve developed some relatively new intellectual interests over the past year. The most important–at least in terms of its likely long-term impact on the research work I’m doing–is an increased engagement with urban communities, and how questions about governance play out differently depending on the scale of the community in question, with particular relevance to urban entities that seem to fall in between our usually unexamined models of what constitutes a “big city”and a “small town.” The other major development at first appears to have only a tangential relationship to the first one–but as I’ve dived into the literature and tried to give the subject more thought, I wonder if the connection between the two might not actually be quite important. The literature I’m talking about is anarchism, which has become increasingly fascinating to me.
My fascination isn’t, as I said, entirely new; I’ve been thinking about how anarchist ideas can be an important contributor to left-leaning politics at least ever since I was exposed to the arguments for “interstitialism” in the work of Erik Olin Wright, and obviously the Occupy Movement from two years ago was a big part of my interest as well. But my realization–through both broad political events and things my students are teaching me close to home–that I need to wrestle more productively with the libertarian position (which, popularly anyway, overlaps with the anarchist in so many ways) was part of it as well. In any case, while I’ve been working on and off on anarchist ideas for a while now, it’s been this year that I really dove into the scholarship and literature…and am learning, slowly, how it is that anarchist insights will have to be, I think a major element in any construction of alternative forms of governance.
Anarchism and governance? Yes, they can go together–because what an-archy calls for is an absence of, or a rejection of, an imposed and uniform ruling order, not, or at least not necessarily (or so I would insist, anyway), a mutually realized organic and adaptable one. Those who find it easy and reasonable to appropriate anarchist insights for libertarian ends–that is, ends which revolve around the fundamental premise that the individual, thanks to her rights, should stand independent from any non-chosen order–might find this insistence of mine a matter of sneaking some kind of socialist or communitarian concern through the mutualist backdoor, and therefore not really “anarchist” at all. From that perspective it would be, at best, a utopian claim for “government without government”, at worst just another re-introduction of the possibility of tyranny. But what I’m working towards is the argument–not an original one, to be sure, but still, one that needs to be made and re-made regularly–that the “governance” of individuals (which I continue to believe is a social, civic, and egalitarian necessity) does not have to, or doesn’t necessarily always have to, involve “government” insofar as social contractarian, constitutional, or state-based models are concerned. And if I want to understand what theoretical and practical options are available for thinking about living arrangements which do not really fit either our well-worn big-city bureaucratic or small-town democratic tropes, getting away from “government,” and thinking differently about how community order arises may well be a big asset.
I read three anarchist works this year which really stood out. Only one of them–Scott’s–approached anarchism in a manner which could be easily related to the issues I’ve just mentioned. Graeber’s looked at anarchism entirely as a revolutionary method, a praxis which only required occasional theoretical consideration, and Adams’s–a truly great book–wasn’t formally about anarchism at all, but rather told his own life story in an elliptical way that reveals, almost as an afterthought, a kind of anarchic sensibility as the key to understanding his own (and, perhaps, everyone else’s as well) “education.” Still, I learned something from all of them, so let me say something about each, in reverse alphabetical order.
I meant to read James C. Scott’s Two Cheers for Anarchism soon after it came out—but the paper I was working on at the time ended up making much more use of Scott’s earlier anthropological and sociological studies, Seeing Like a State and The Art of Not Being Governed. Those are detailed, exactly books, working out the basic foundations for the position that Scott takes in this text more broadly: specifically, a “process-oriented view” which celebrates cooperation against “hierarchy and state rule,” and “involves a defense of politics, conflict, and debate, and the perpetual uncertainty and learning they entail” (pp. xii-xiii). That might sound like a robust defense of particular non-hierarchical democratic arrangements, but in fact the six somewhat disconnected essays which Scott included in this book range over a host of personal as well as political matters, and take a distinctly academic and agrarian tone. He makes it clear early on that his anarchism is non-doctrinaire: he is not opposed to the state, just realistic–on the basis of his study of early human history, he concludes that “of the roughly five-thousand-year history of states, only in the past two centuries of so has even the possibility arisen that states might occasionally enlarge the realm of human freedom” (p. xiv). With that conviction to guide him, he develops an argument for “vernacular” rather than statist approaches to social problems, characterized by searching and insubordinate strategies where the proper response to collective difficulties is more a matter of happenstance and “charisma” than some principled (and thus available for hierarchical and homogenizing implementation) solution. Roving over a variety of disparate contexts, he highlights the importance of adaptability, and how the greatest pathology of institutionalized systems of measurement, scholarship, or just living is the systematic way in which it undermines such mutual–and, he thinks, ultimately egalitarian–adaptation.
What kind of economic or social context is necessary to keep alive adaptivity? Interestingly, Scott argues it is, most likely, “petty bourgeois” one:
[S]ince the Industrial Revolution and headlong urbanization, a vastly increasing share of the population has become propertyless and dependent on large, hierarchical organizations for their livelihood. The household economy of the small farmer-peasant or shopkeeper may have been just as poverty-stricken and insecure as that of the proletarian. it was, however, decidedly less subject to the quotidian, direct discipline of managers, bosses, and foremen. Even the tenant farmer, subject to the caprice of his landlord, or the small-holder, deeply in debt to the bank or moneylenders, was in control of his working day: when to plant, how to cultivate, when to harvest and sell, and so forth. Compare this to the factory worker tied to the clock from 8am to 5pm, tied to the rhythm of the machine, and closely monitored personally or electronically. Even in the service industries the pace, regulation, and monitoring of work are far beyon what the independent shopkeeper experienced in terms of minute supervision….
Why take of the cudgels for a class that remains relatively anonymous and is surely not, in the Marxist parlance, a class für sich? There are several reasons. I believe that the petite bourgeoisie and small property in general represent a precious zone of autonomy and freedom in state systems increasingly dominated by large public and private bureaucracies. Autonomy and freedom are, along with mutuality, at the center of an anarchist sensibility. Second, I am convinced that the petite bourgeoisie performs vital social and economic services under any political system….It is surely the case that “big box” stores can, owing again to their clout as buyers, deliver a host of manufactured goods to consumers at a cheaper price than the petty bourgeoisie. What is not so clear, however, is whether, once one has factored in all the public goods (the positive externalities) the petty bourgeoisie provides–informal social work, public safety, the aesthetic pleasure so of an animated and interesting streetscape, a large variety of social experiences and personalized services, acquaintance networks, informal neighborhood news and gossip, a building block of social solidarity and public action, and (in the case of the smallholding peasantry) good stewardship of the land–the petty bourgeoisie might not be, in a full accounting, a far better bargain, in the long run, than the large impersonal capitalist firm. And, although they might not quite measure up to the Jeffersonian democratic ideal of the self-confident, independent, land-owning yeoman farmer, they approach it far more closely than the clerk at Wal-Mart or Home Depot (pp. 77, 85, 99-100).
There is much to think about in these claims–most particularly, perhaps the idea that the best way to make possible anarchic mutualism and adaptability in terms of providing order to communities is to encourage everyone to become stakeholders in the community, in the sense of being a home-owner, a business-owner, a land-owner. Certainly that is an easier and less utopian future to imagine than returning everyone back to that level of existence available in the Jeffersonian agrarian world of the 18th-century. But wouldn’t that depend very much on the sort of private and public bureaucracies that Scott is wary of–the providing of loans, the building of infrastructure, the distributing of land, and much more? Very possibly! Scott is, I think, pushing us to think about the very thing that every serious student of localism and agrarianism must consider: what, if anything, of the habitus of the non-governed peoples who historically (and, in a few very limited cases, up until this very day) constructed communities outside the stifling standardization of state-scale organizations–via migratory labor practices, swidden agriculture, and more–be adopted today, given the complexity and interconnectedness of our already existing industrial and post-industrial market societies? There are no obvious answers to that question, but Scott warns against simply throwing up our hands and claiming that systemization is unavoidable in the technological world we have today, especially since our knowledge of “the world we have today” is itself a frame which gets us looking for top-down responses, ignoring the plurality, spontaneity, and particularity of actual mutualist moments. By refusing to suggest any kind of anarchist system, but instead preferring an anarchist “squint,” Scott here throws out a host of philosophical and sociological ideas to chew over.
While David Graeber would likely deny it, his The Democracy Project, a partly theoretical and partly practical documentary reflection on the Occupy Movement of 2011, which he was major figure in, does very much what Scott’s book does not: propose a profoundly political and revolutionary method of anarchic governance. To be fair, his “method” does not involve any particularly imposing ideological structure, consisting as it does primarily of multiple interconnected reflections on the history, development, and potential of various participatory meeting and consensus-building strategies: calling for votes, speaking publicly, expressing dissent, and so forth. But for Graeber, reflecting upon such procedures is the heart of anarchism. He defines anarchism as “a political movement that aims to bring about a genuinely free society,” which he in turn defines as “one where humans only enter those kinds of relations with one another hat would not have to be enforced by the constant threat of violence”–which means, in his view, that anarchist-inspired movements like Occupy Wall Street, with all those meetings in Zuccotti Park, was nothing less than “taking…core democratic principles to their logical conclusion” (pp. 187, 154). Thus, for him, democracy properly understood is anarchsim, because putting the power to rule in the hands of all the people–not, he emphasizes, merely property-owners, or the “rational,” or other more restricted definitions of the people–points us in the direction of “the kind of reasoning that goes on…between equals” (p. 199). Graeber is highly critical of much political theory, particularly that of the Hobbseian or Humeian or Rawlsian variety, because he sees those arguments as all essentially treating citizens like self-interested children, incapable of reasonableness or collective problem-solving. He thinks that the democratic procedures which make for a real anarchic methodology–or, as he calls it, the “Anarchist Process” (p. 195)–owes more to various spiritual (particularly Native American and Quaker) traditions and feminism: in short, “the intellectual tradition of those who have, historically, tended not to be vested with the power of command” (p. 202). By eschewing the usual range of political theoretical concerns, Graeber’s arguments can come off–as they often did to me, coming at these issues as I do with a training in political philosophy–as often oblivious and naive. But his conviction that, given the opportunity–that is, the assuming the absence of restrictions and regimes (including market ones) which create an artificial inequality amongst all mentally capable persons–general human reasonableness is a real possibility gives his revolutionary fervor a deeply humane sensibility:
If you propose the idea of anarchism to a roomful of ordinary people, someone will almost inevitably object: but of course we can’t eliminate the state, prisons, and police. If we do, people will start killing one another….The odd thing about this prediction is that it can be empirically tested….And it turns out to be false….When I was living in the town of Arivonimamo [in Madagascar] in 1990, and wandering about the surrounding countryside, even I had no idea at first that I was living in an area where state control had effectively disappeared (I think part of the reason for my impression was that everyone talked and acted as if state institutions were still functioning, hoping no one would notice). When I returned in 2010, the police had returned, taxes were once again being collected, but everyone also felt that violent crime had increased dramatically.
So the real question we have to ask becomes: what is it about the experience of living under a state, that is, in a society where rules are enforced by the threat of prisons and police, and all the forms in inequality and alienation that makes possible, that makes it seem obvious to us that people, under such conditions, would behave in a way that it turns out they don’t actually behave? The anarchist answer is simple. If you treat people like children, they will tend to act like children. The only successful method anyone has ever devised to encourage others to act like adults is to treat them as if they already are….[T]he historical experience of what actually does happen in crisis situations demonstrates that even those who have not grown up in a culture of participatory democracy, if you take away their guns or ability to call their lawyers, can suddenly become extremely reasonable. This is all that anarchists are really proposing to do (pp. 206-207).
I found Graeber’s voice throughout this book often annoyingly smug (I’ve heard the same about his celebrated book Debt: The First 5000 Years, which I’ve yet to read), and regularly found myself frustrated with the blithe way in which he seemed to assume the emergence of crises capable of overcoming or eliminating structural realities like “guns or [the] ability to call [one’s] lawyers,” without much by way of supporting socio-economic argument (while he lays out in persuasive detail the legitimacy of the economic grievances which motivated OWS at the beginning, he doesn’t spend much time considering what kind of economic arrangements would enable the people to democratically do anything about those grievances). He at one point claims that he is “less interested in working out what the detailed architecture of what a free society would be like than in creating the conditions that would enable us to find out” (p. 193), but in actuality this books is focused on the tools of that finding, not the conditions of enabling. I value Graeber’s extensive experience with and often sharp assessments of those tools themselves (this is a man who definitely was not frightened off by Oscar Wilde’s warning that the real obstacle posed by socialism is that it would require “too many meetings”), but I wish he’d be able to see that his methodological claims could be both strengthened and qualified with a greater familiarity with many other non-anarchists and non-democrats those who have thought about governance in nonetheless similarly non-state ways (his dismissal of the term “subsidiarity,” even while he strongly defends the very idea it describes is just one example of his borderline contemptuous of other ways of framing the same concerns which motivate him). Still, it’s a take on anarchism worth considering.
In contrast to Scott’s academic and agrarian anarchist reflections, and to Graber’s highly political and revolutionary methodological ones, Henry Adam’s classic semi-autobiography, The Education of Henry Adams (he wrote of himself in the third-person throughout, and after meticulously and introspectively detailing his first thirty-three years of life, he skips the next twenty, without explanation to the reader, taking up the story again when he was in his early 50s in the 1890s) isn’t any kind of primer on anarchism at all. Yet it is, I think, a rather revealing enacting of a certain kind of anarchist sentiment: a highly aristocratic, deeply apolitical one. Repeatedly through the book, Adams presents himself as a man born profoundly out of his own time, a person with longings and sensibilities which more properly belong to the 18th century (or earlier!) who, thanks to his family connections and wealth and the general sweep of history, finds himself reluctantly obliged to attempt to make sense of 19th century–which was, in his view, the moment where truly global systems, where patterns of exchange and governance and information become, through their size and reach, genuinely controlling, first emerged. Adams’s tone is a mournful one, but a rueful one too: every stage of his life, in his telling, is the story of an attempt at mastery–by himself, by political parties, by banks, by corporations, by armies, by whole countries–over some issue or idea or project or public good, and always finding in the end that either 1) the effort was a failure, or 2) the matter took care of itself anyway, or 3) both.
This repetitiveness can actually make the book a difficult one to read, and there were times when I found it a slog…but eventually I found the very obdurance of Adams’s tone somewhat appealing. It is the perspective of a Bostonian aristocrat–the grandson and great-grandson of Presidents of the United States, the son of a diplomat and vice-presidential candidate, a Harvard-educated scholar of history, a journalist and writer who, over the years, traveled around the word and met with hundreds of its movers and shakers–whose education convinces him, through constant trial and error, that there is no political effort that can possibly interfere with the grand historical forces that will always reach their end….thus suggesting that it is far better to simply, always, leave things alone. For example, at the age of 30, while everyone around him seems convulsed with arguments over Charles Darwin, he “turned resolutely to business, and attacked the burning question of specie payments.” After wading through thousands of documents, he concludes, to his surprise, that currency restrictions–the commonly accepted logical approach to being able to continue redeeming paper money with gold–was a “fatal mistake, and that the best treatment of a debased currency was to let it alone….Time and patience were the remedies” (p. 233). This detached, observational, mildly bemused attitude is proved, in Adams’s writings, to be the only healthy one, again and again and again.
You’d be forgiven, I think, for reading the above–or any number of other passages from Adams’s Education–and thinking that he sounds more like Stoic fatalist than an anarchist; in what way does his lack of faith in any orchestrated human political or economic system necessarily mean that he opposes such? I think that has to be discerned through his own association with men like George Cabot Lodge, who took upon themselves the label “conservative Christian anarchist,” a label which Adams seemed to find thoughtful and worth being aligned with–if only because it suggested, in line with Adams’s understanding of Hegel and Schopenhauer, that there is a spirit in history, which makes itself manifest through natural processes. The modern, 19th-century world–the world “ruled by one great emperor: Coal” (p. 415)–looked in vain for some unity or synthesis with that natural spirit, but could not find it, because its own dynamism was directly opposed to it….though that opposition itself was an antithesis which would, eventually, be resolved. In the meantime the unities of medieval Christendom–which Adams envied, though he had no religious faith whatsoever, a fact which bothered him mildly–haunted the modern world, and reminded those both blessed and doomed to endure their ever-imposing, expanding, industrial moment that there were other orders, ones which are revealed through the inertia of nature. Anarchy thus becomes a conservative posture, protecting simple and local pleasures, an apolitical position which, in its resistance to the enlisting ideologies of modernity, holds onto a proper aristocratic distance from those who would try, in Adams’s view, to use the state to change the economic and natural laws of the world. And this, by the way, would include the more revolutionary styles of anarchism itself:
By rights, he should have been also a Marxist, but some narrow trait of the New England nature seemed to blight socialism, and he tried in vain to make himself a convert….He too had played with anarchy; thought not with socialism, which, to young men who nourished artistic emotions under the dome of the Pantheon, seemed hopelessly bourgeois, and lowest middle-class….To the conservative Christian anarchist, the amicable doctrines of Kropotkin were sentimental ideas of Russian mental inertia covered with the names of anarchy merely to disguise their innocence; and the outpourings of Élisée Reclus were ideals of the French ouvrier, diluted with absinthe, resulting in a bourgeois dream of order and inertia. Neither made a pretence of anarchy except as a momentary stage towards order and unity….With them, as with the socialist, communist, or collectivist, the mind that followed nature had no relation; if anarchists needed order, they must go back to the twelfth century where their thought had enjoyed its thousand years of reign. The conservative Christian anarchist could have no associate, no object, no faith except the nature of nature itself; and his “larger synthesis” had only the fault of being so supremely true that even the highest obligation of duty could scarcely oblige Bay Lodge [playing the “antithesis” role] to deny it in order to prove it. Only the self-evident truth that no philosophy of order–except the Church–had ever satisfied the philosopher reconciled the conservative Christian anarchist to prove his own….He admitted that, for the moment, the darkness was dense. He could affirm with confidence, even to himself, that his “largest synthesis” would certainly turn out to be chaos….The play of thought for thought’s sake had mostly ceased. The throb of fifty or a hundred million horse-power, doubling every ten years, and already more despotic than all the horses that ever lived, and all the riders they ever carried, drowned rhyme and reason. No one was to blame, for all were equally servants of the power, and worked merely to increase it; but the conservative Christian anarchist saw light (pp. 225, 405, 407-408).
There are many reasons why Education was one of the best books I read this year: among them, Adams’s unceremonial–yet therefore all the more marvelous–invocation of the distant world of early American elites, his insightful (and trenchant) reflections on technology and academia, and his grasp of a world which, in his lifetime, truly began to be globalized. But also, I include his take here along with Scott’s and Graeber’s because Adams’s anarchism, while only very distantly relevant to the intellectual projects I mentioned at the beginning of this post, is a distinct and important one. It presents us with anarchism–as opposed to libertarianism, as traditionally understood; Adams seemed to have little interest in the matter of individual liberty, viewing “anti-slavery politics” as mainly a component of his own Puritan inheritance and an opportunity for youthful mischief rather than intellectually important in itself–as a conservative, laissez-faire force. Since the spirit of the world is ineluctable, why attempt to master it? Leave it alone instead.
The very nature of the overwhelmingly majority human communities throughout history, whether large or small, is, I think, inherently incompatible with that call. It may be the case that some human associations will form solely for the purpose of sharing information or solace, but I strongly suspect there is no enduring example of any such which doesn’t, sooner or later, in ways large or small (or both), attempt to organize, distribute, cultivate, and provide some good which was simply unavailable to those living alone. In other words, the problem of seeking to master something–a plot of land, a religious question, an enemy tribe, a health care demand, a moral fear–cannot be simply walked away from. For that reason, if anarchism is to help us (particularly those of us on the left), I think it has to point us towards various agrarian or democratic or other possibilities; it has to give us, in other words, some insight into governance. Adams’s conservative Christian anarchism doesn’t do that–but perhaps it is also helpful to know where anarchism cannot help us, by always reminding us of those who, given their druthers, would rather take no part whatsoever in the whole game of who imposes upon whom, whether done democratically or tyrannically. So this year, though these three books as well as others, I’ve developed a sense of both anarchic contributions, and of anarchic limits. Not a bad result, or so I hope.