Tuesday, October 02, 2012

In Praise of Anarchy, Part I

Once upon a time there lived a prince. Not a fairytale prince, but a real one, his bloodline extending back to the founder of Russia's first dynasty. It was his bad luck that his mother died when he was young and his father, a military officer who paid little attention to his children, remarried a woman who also took no interest in him or his brother. And so our prince was brought up by the peasants attached to his father's estate (he was born 20 years before Russia abolished serfdom). The peasants were the only ones who took an interest in him or showed him affection, and so he bonded with them as with his family. And so our prince became a traitor to his own class.

Peter Alexeyevich Kropotkin is our prince's name, and he eventually became a renowned scientist who advanced the understanding of the history of glaciers, an historian of revolutionary movements, foremost theoretician of anarchism, and, because of his lifelong burning desire to do something to help the plight of the common man, something of a revolutionary himself. His memory has not fared well over the 90 years that have passed since his death. On the one hand, he suffered from being associated with the Bolsheviks, although he never spoke out in favor of state communism or dictatorship of the proletariat. On the other hand, a major effort has been made by Western capitalist régimes to denigrate anarchism and equate it with terrorism.

I would like to rehabilitate both Kropotkin and anarchy. People who bother to read Kropotkin's lucid and unpretentious writings quickly realize that he is first of all a natural scientist, who approached the study of both nature and human nature using the same scientific method. He was also a great humanist, and chose the path of anarchy because, as a scientist, he saw it as the best way to improve society based on successful patterns of cooperation he observed in nature. He had no use at all for the vague metaphysics of Hegel, Kant or Marx. He also had no use at all for the imperial state, be it communist or capitalist.

Kropotkin was an advocate of communism at the level of the commune, and based his advocacy on its demonstrated superior effectiveness in organizing both production and consumption. His examples of communist production were the numerous communist communities that were all the rage in the United States at the time, where the numbers showed that they produced far better results with less effort and in less time than individuals or family farms. His examples of communist consumption included various clubs, all-inclusive resorts and hotels and various other formal and informal associations where a single admission or membership fee gave you full access to whatever was on offer to everyone. Again, the numbers showed that such communist patterns of consumption produced far better results at a much lower overall expense than various capitalist pay-as-you-go schemes.

Kropotkin, in his usual data-driven way, was definitely in favor of grass roots communism, but I could not find any statements that he had made in favor of communist governance. He spoke of the revolutionary change—change that required a break with the past—as necessary in order to improve society, but he wished that it would be a spontaneous process that unleashed the creative energies of the people at the local level, not a process that could be controlled from the top. He wrote: “The rebuilding [perestroïka] of society requires the collective wisdom of multitudes of people working on specific things: a cultivated field, an inhabited house, a running factory, a railroad, a ship, and so on.” Another of his more memorable quotes is: “The future cannot be legislated. All that can be done is to anticipate its most important movements and to clear the path for them. That is exactly what we try to do.” (Here and elsewhere the translations from Kropotkin's quaint pre-revolutionary Russian are my own.)

Kropotkin's approach to the approaching revolution was also as a scientist, similar to that of a seismologist predicting an earthquake based on tremors: “Hundreds of revolts preceded each revolution... There are limits to all patience.” Participating in the many revolutionary movements in Western Europe during his long exile, he monitored the increasing incidence of such tremors. (He spent a long time living in Switzerland, before the Swiss government asked him to leave, during which time he radicalized a large number of Swiss watchmakers, turning them into anarchists who, we must assume, practiced their anarchy with great precision.) Based on his observations, he came to see revolution as rather likely. Again, he wished for it to be an anarchic phenomenon: “We... understand revolution as a popular movement which will become widespread, and during which in each town and in each village within a rebellious region multitudes of people will themselves take up the task of rebuilding [perestroïka again] society.” But he put absolutely no faith in revolutionary governance: “As far as the government, whether it seized power by force or through elections... we pin absolutely no hopes on it. We say that it will be unable to do anything, not because these are our sympathies, but because our entire history tells us that never have the people whom a revolutionary wave pushed into government turned out to be up to the task.”

Based on this, I feel it safe to conclude that Kropotkin was not exactly a revolutionary but more of a scientific observer and predictor of revolutions who saw them as increasingly likely (and in this he was not wrong) and kept hoping for the best as long as he could. It also bears noting that he declined to accept every leadership role that was ever offered to him, and that his participation in the Bolshevik revolution in Russia was nil: he returned to Russia from exile as soon as he could, after the revolution of February 1917, but quickly removed himself to his home town of Dmitrov, north of Moscow, where he died in 1921. He wasn't exactly popular with the Bolshevik leadership, but they could not touch him because he was so popular with the common people.

Leaving aside the notion that Kropotkin was a Communist with a captal ‘C’ it remains for us to show that he was not an Anarchist with a capital ‘A’ either. My own personal working definition of anarchy, which has served me well, is “absence of hierarchy.” The etymology of the word is ἀν (not, without) + ἀρχός (ruler). Kropotkin's own definition is as follows: “Anarchy represents an attempt to apply results achieved using the scientific method within the natural sciences to the evaluation of human institutions.” You see, there are no Commie subversives here, no bomb-throwing Anarchists with a capital ‘A’—just some scientists doing some science and then attempting to apply their very interesting results to the scientific study of human social institutions.

Next week I will attempt to elucidate the principles of anarchy that Kropotkin observed operating throughout nature, which allowed him to make the dramatic leap forward and apply them to the analysis of human institutions. And the week after, in Part III of this series, I will attempt to show how Kropotkin's conclusions are fully vindicated in light of recent research into complexity theory. And, since stress is such a killer nowadays, and since anticipation has been demonstrated to raise stress levels in laboratory humans, here is what I will conclude, based on the work of Kropotkin in light of the latest stunning results from research into complexity theory. I will conclude that we have two choices moving forward: I. collapse, or II. anarchy. Pick either one, they are both very nice. Stay tuned.


Ventriloquist said...

No need to chose one or the other.

Collapse happens first.

Anarchy follows.

Anonymous said...

At last. It is long past the time for a reconsideration of Kropotkin.

Black said...

Were it not for Chomsky, anarchism would be entirely unknown. Thanks to his scientific rigor and the internet, his reasoned and powerful support of anarchism will be impressed upon millions of present and future Americans via youtube.

Randomness will decide whether its adopters organize into anything attractive to the masses.

Reason's Whore said...

Anarchy may sound "very nice" and indeed be very nice in theory, but it's incompatible with human nature. I know of no historical example of a human society without some kind of leadership, even at the tribal level. Neither do ape societies lack leaders. This is wired into the biology, IMO. And anything more complex than a small tribe probably requires leadership for efficiency.

I rather doubt collapse will be at all nice in any way, for anyone in the foreseeable future either. Undoubtedly the planet as a whole will benefit, which may make possible the continued existence of some humans.

Dmitry Orlov said...

Reason's Whore is misinformed. There are lots of examples of acephalous societies. My current favorite example are the Pashtuns, one of the most numerous ethnic groups on the planet, who are in the process of kicking NATO ass out of Afghanistan.

Anonymous said...

Reason's Whore - I don't think "anarchy" necessarily proposes to do away with leadership altogether. That's an absolute, an extreme. Mainly I take it to mean an absence of the big annoying stupid kind of leadership -- large-scale government.

The absence of a formal state doesn't preclude establishment of small, informal hierarchies on an as-needed basis if a particular group wants to. Structures can quickly arise, dissolve, reappear and adapt to changing conditions. The state is actually one of the things preventing people from establishing those more natural and efficient ways of getting things done. The state forcibly substitutes its far-flung, large-scale, inefficient leadership for real leadership.

This idea that we need to be led... maybe it's true, maybe it's not, but certainly it's a big part of the state's fear-mongering sales pitch for itself. "You need us."

Stanislav Datskovskiy said...

"The Art of Not Being Governed" is required reading for anyone who is interested in the question of what conditions are required for "acephalous societies" to avoid growing heads.

Even under fairly low tech levels, conquerors show up and start riding around the countryside, imposing taxes and conscription (or simply raping and pillaging.) You don't even necessarily need agriculture in the mix for this: the conqueror can get the necessary food surplus to hone his military edge and do his dirty deeds through simple plunder (as the Mongols did.)

Orwell's You and the Atomic Bomb suggests that the type of society one can have is ultimately determined by the kind of weapons that exist at any given time: the state-of-the-art weapons being expensive leads to giant slave empires, while cheap ones lead to less-centralized power structures.

But even at the Bronze Age tech level, the Golden Horde still rides. Independent, Kropotkin-style communities exist only for so long as physical distance and unfriendly geography (e.g. Afghanistan) keep them inaccessible to would-be conquerors.

It also bears mentioning that NATO (and, prior to that, the Soviet and British empires) were hobbled in their conquest of Afghanistan by their reluctance to physically-exterminate those locals who wouldn't play ball. The Romans (or for that matter, a hypothetical post-collapse empire with no scruples, and to whom "life is cheap") would not have the same problem.

Glenn said...

Cool, I only knew of Prince Kropotkin as a synonym for anarchy. I look forward to the remaining two essays. I may even go so far as to read Kropotkin's works. Thanks.

dimitry said...

The very same moment position of the leader becoming attractive for any reason ( better ration , better dwelling, higher social status) ,opportunistic scoundrels won't sleep nights to get there. That is the difference between "normal" people and socio-phsycopatic individuals- they spend their lives to get on top.

RanDomino said...

Welcome to the dark side!

miltonics said...

Perhaps it would be better to say "absence of external hierarchy"? Hierarchy exists even in our thoughts. It's when an order that does not reflect the true nature of the system is imposed on that system that we have problems.

Breedlove said...

Thank you for always sharing my thoughts, Dmitry. A small circle of us talked about this at the Age of Limits hootenanny. Anarchy with a little "a" is our best post-collapse opportunity to rediscover the beauty of human relationships and a social system built around ecological balance and true liberty. Collapse removes the systems of exploitation only if we have an alternative to fill the vacuum. Bioregional confederations composed of thousands of smaller overlapping confederated communities, to me, are that alternative.

vera said...

Absence of bossism! Sure there is leadership.

Can't wait to see the installments!

Milton Silva said...

Reason's Whore - It appears you are not familiar with human nature and human behavior. If you would like to obtain the knowledge that was arrived at trough the scientific method read "Science and human behavior" - Skinner. A free pdf can be obtained here - http://www.bfskinner.org/BFSkinner/Society_files/Science_and_Human_Behavior.pdf

The scientific method is the only method of obtaining knowledge that I know of, throwing around crap like "IMO". Opinions are the plague of humanity, by that I mean: we are unable to obtain knowledge and solve our problems because everyone is busy with their preconceptions.

Larry Gambone said...

There are leaders within anarchism. they are the most knowledgeable, articulate and respected figures. But they have no power. That is the difference between anarchism and authoritarianism.

onething said...

It would seem that human nature is democratic and consensus building. A certain amount of natural leadership arises, but no one is coerced. This is the way of the tribes.

Hierarchy raises with civilization. Was the apple a seed, a grain of wheat? First you begin to farm, soon you enslave and exploit animals, then you have surplus grain which must be guarded, and the surplus leads to stratification of labor, and thus hierarchy. Skirmishes over manhood and boundaries becomes war. War on someone else's behalf and for someone else's aggrandizement.

One notes that the aboriginals don't seem to envy the civilized. During the early days of America, there was a steady trickle of whites into the Native tribes, not the other way around.

Somehow, the change from aboriginal life to civilized life involves trauma, and trauma causes regression. Chimps do indeed have alpha male leaders who throw their weight around. Humans had outgrown that...until civilization and then they regressed, as toddlers will when stressed.

I was shocked when I read Jane Goodall's tome on the chimps. Subordinate males will show their rump to the alpha male. Subordinate males will kiss the hand of the alpha male. Oh my!

Well, well, think of those kings who demand that all subjects bow down and look at the ground as they pass by. Think of the kissing of the pope's and bishops' hands. Think of all the genuflecting before kings and popes. Think of all those butts in the air!

Can you imagine the noble savage doing that? Did our Native Americans kiss their chief's hands? Did they stick their asses in the air?

Joe said...

Many of us equate anarchy to mayhem. Please call it anarchism.

Nicholas Colloff said...

There are many examples of societies/groupings where leadership is emergent, diffused and within a wider consensual control. The latter can be either culturally assumed or formalised in rules or a combination. The Society of Friends (Quakers) would be a good example or the Isle of Eigg in Scotland (who have owned their own island community in trust for the past 10 plus years).

The enabling environment for this includes scale (the importance of limits), time scale (no frenetic decision making allowed) and 'conservatism' (no change for change sake). But may throw up quite radical actions - in the case of Quakers - free slaves, campaign to abolish slavery etc

Niffiwan said...

While we're talking about fundamentally changing human society, it might be worth mentioning that by far the easiest way to change society is with technology. The type of society we have is very much dictated by the technology that is available to us.

A few interesting links on that front:
here's a very interesting article by Larry Niven about the sorts of societies that widespread teleporation might create: http://www.goldrush.com/~herd/tel/
(futuristic, but I found it to be a fascinating thought experiment)

And second, closer to home, here's some news about the social upheaval that may follow the soon-to-come widespread adoption of 3D printing:

I think that we are seeing seems to be a winding back of the entire last few centuries. Just like one of the logical conclusions of file-sharing is an end to mass-produced copies of their art being the money-maker for artists (so you see musicians getting most of their money from live performances once again, reversing a process that began with mass-produced sheet music in the Romantic era), so may 3D-printing mean a reversal of many of the social changes created by the industrial revolution.

Clifford Dean Scholz said...

“The rebuilding [perestroïka] of society requires the collective wisdom of multitudes of people working on specific things: a cultivated field, an inhabited house, a running factory, a railroad, a ship, and so on.”

Yes, exactly. Which is why I see so much hope in Fairy Houses:


Michael A. Lewis said...

Of course, if we were to achieve anarchy, perhaps collapse would morph into revolution!

Thanks for the stress relief!

I agree that it is time to birng Kropotkin back out into the open. Let's start reading him on buses and trains, in waiting rooms and on line. Find a copy of one of his books with his picture on the cover. That will generate questions!

Unknown said...

No Dmitry, there is another option going forward, and it is nicer still: III. Galactic Empire.

The main problem with anarchy is that it lacks POWER. How would anarchists ever defeat an organized, unified, aggressive collective? Hollywood fantasies aside, when have Ewoks ever defeated Empires? If you’re going to look to nature for guidance, don’t you see that nature doesn’t favor anarchy, it favors the formation of higher levels of power? Even lowly microbes and ants understand this! “Individual freedom” is a modern human construct which has no universal validity. Federation propaganda notwithstanding, there is nothing in the laws of physics to prevent a Borg-like collective from conquering the universe. In fact it is probably our destiny.

Of course you can still choose to be an anarchist, but it will simply mean that you have little power to influence anything, except as a minor irritant to whatever empire is currently in power. This is just a cosmic fact about our Luciferian world – you can philosophize about it all day long or whine about the injustice, but nothing will change until you realize that POWER and HIERARCHY are fundamental, ineradicable aspects of human societies, compared to which everything else is conversation, and begin to act accordingly.

So I say fuck anarchy! Fuck collapse! Fuck returning to the Stone Age! We exist at the apex of a three billion year-long struggle for one thing above all: MORE POWER! To honor this struggle, do we dominant primates not have a *cosmic obligation* to do what only we can: seek still MORE POWER, by expanding ever outward into the dark universe, building a GALACTIC EMPIRE and ensuring that the spark of life is spread throughout the Cosmos? I think the answer should be obvious to all sentient beings who call themselves human.

So speaks Darth Imperius…

Jerry McManus said...

There is an interesting discussion of a similar topic, complete with real world example of a tribe coercing a greedy and recalcitrant member into being "altruistic" or face banishment, at these links:

Groups, Gossip, Selfishness and Civilization

Ayn Rand vs. the Pygmies
Did human evolution favor individualists or altruists?

The question that leapt to my mind was the role of population density in the transition from hunter-gatherer to land lords. My suspicion is that truly egalitarian societies really only work across very small numbers of people. This snippet from the Acephalous wikipedia article seems to confirm this: "Typically these societies are small-scale".

I am also informed by my readings of the late ecologist H. T. Odum who observed that complex systems at all scales, both living and non-living, self organize into hierarchies to maximize available energy and resources. Indeed, that energy itself is a universal hierarchy with large amounts of diffuse low quality energy being transformed into progressively smaller amounts of higher quality energy and resources at many different scales.

This is not entirely incompatible with the concept of small acephalous tribes that are by necessity operating at a relatively low level of complexity. How that can be successfully scaled up to a world of seven-billion-going-on-nine-billion people is a mental acrobatic that is unfortunately far beyond my capabilities.

Or perhaps the idea is that all but a handful of those billions of people are redundant and soon to be surplused out of existence?

piano4tay said...

A fascinating, thought-provoking article and subsequent comments and I look forward to the next instalments. These I hope will address the need for an explanation as to how the sudden and dramatic - in the scale of human evolutionary development - shift from non-hierarchical to hierarchical social systems arose, since, at some level, these must have been adaptive and useful. Understanding that seems to be the key to effecting, or at least sustaining, a shift back, if that's the answer. Perhaps, as Jerry McManus suggested, population mass is the key - maybe maintaining, for instance, 'Dunbar's number' per community might be a solution (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dunbar's_number)

RanDomino said...

"The main problem with anarchy is that it lacks POWER."

Anarchism is inherently a power theory, on the level of individuals. In fact it's probably not far off to replace "anarchy" with "individual empowerment" and nothing else really changes.

"How would anarchists ever defeat an organized, unified, aggressive collective?"

By out-organizing, out-producing, and undermining it, a whirlwind from the outside and termites from the inside. Chaos trumps order because it's a more efficient organizational structure.

"Hollywood fantasies aside, when have Ewoks ever defeated Empires?"

Two examples off the top of my head are the Germans beating the Romans and the Zaporozhian Cossacks giving the Turks the finger. In the Russian Civil War, the Black Army beat everyone but the Reds, who had to betray them to win. In the Spanish Civil War, mobs and militias motivated by Anarchism put down the military coup in most of the country, and the important industrial centers; the lessons of their ultimate failure have been absorbed by modern Anarchists, who will not make the same mistakes, namely trusting pre-rupture leaders too much and failing to complete the establishment of an Anarchist society as swiftly as possible (as the Marxists put it, "take power").

RanDomino said...

Jerry McManus
"This is not entirely incompatible with the concept of small acephalous tribes that are by necessity operating at a relatively low level of complexity. How that can be successfully scaled up to a world of seven-billion-going-on-nine-billion people is a mental acrobatic that is unfortunately far beyond my capabilities."

The idea these days is to have the basic unit of organization be the collective, a small group of individuals which exists for a specific purpose; people are each part of multiple collectives, and collectives federate for more large-scale organization (using a delegation and Consensus structure). The result is an extremely complex society and economy of many layered, interlocking networks. It tends toward localism but takes advantage of the "Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon" effect.

Richard Larson said...

Anarchy. Maybe one can also call it the free market without large pools of capital, or "Austrian Economics", as in either case government is held in disdain.

Possibly large pools of capital would not accumulate without government protecting business models.

Anonymous said...

to Milton Silva --

Milton, you (and other Skinnerites) might find some interesting perspectives on BF Skinner's behaviorism if you read Erich Fromm's The Anatomy of Human Destructiveness. Fromm gives Skinner even-handed critical treatment and observes the problems with behaviorism -- in sum, Skinner turns a blind eye toward man's negative impulses, and is too optimistic about technology solving all of humanity's problems. Fromm provides much more detail, though.

murph & freeacre said...

Out here on the northern west coast there is some amount of anarchist groups that I have been following for a bunch of years now. Here is a small publication that they put out about 4 years ago;


It's true. If your idea of healthy human relations is a dinner with friends, where everyone enjoys everyone else's company, responsibilities are divided up voluntarily and informally, and no one gives orders or sells anything,
then you are an anarchist, plain and simple. The only question that remains is how you can arrange for more of your interactions to resemble this model.

Whenever you act without waiting for instructions or official permission, you are an anarchist. Any time you bypass a ridiculous regulation when no one's
looking, you are an anarchist. If you don't trust the government, the school system, Hollywood, or the management to know better than you when it comes to things that affect your life, that's anarchism too. And you are especially an
anarchist when you come up with your own ideas and initiatives and solutions.

As you can see, it's anarchism that keeps things working and life interesting. If we waited for authorities and specialists and technicians to take care of everything, we would not only be in a world of trouble, but dreadfully
bored -- and boring -- to boot. Today we live in that world of (dreadfully boring!) trouble precisely to the extent that we abdicate responsibility and control.

Anarchism is naturally present in every healthy human being. It isn't necessarily about throwing bombs or wearing black masks, though you may have seen that on television (Do you believe everything you see on television? That's
not anarchist!). The root of anarchism is the simple impulse to do it yourself:
everything else follows from this...

One of the modern tenets of anarchism in today's thoughts, as I understand it, is that group decision have to be unanimous or it isn't done. How to get a group to agree unanimously with much of anything boggles my mind, much less 8 billion folks or even 320 million.

Interesting SF novel written back in 1980 "The Probability Broach" by L. Neil Smith presents a picture of his idea of how a large complex society would operate under Anarchy.

I have been spending time wading through Kropotkin and Michael Bakunin. I find their thesis to be fascinating.

Notice how the social organizational concept of anarchism has been changed to chaos.

Santeri Satama said...

freeacre, CrimethInc has been producing best anarchist propaganda of late. :)


Starry*Gordon said...

'The main problem with anarchy is that it lacks POWER. How would anarchists ever defeat an organized, unified, aggressive collective?'

Sabotage, subversion, indirection, seduction.

NewMatrix said...

The careful observer will note that there are NO political hierarchies in nature; this is why anarchism is the only sustainable model for human social organization over the long haul. History also clearly proves that statism has been nothing but a chain of consecutive failures over the course of its existence. Why would we want to repeat such a grossly failed model?

As for self-defense against the feared roaming hordes and warlords: these are called militias.

Stefan Molyneux of FreeDomainRadio.com has some excellent free ebooks, podcasts and videos on how anarchism can be applied in a modern-day context for anyone wishing to learn more. Highly recommended!

Ричард said...

It seems to me that anarchy requires perfect knowledge: all members of the group must have equal access to all important information about the group.

Near-perfect knowledge is likely to exist in small groups where everyone knows each other. Such groups can develop the wisdom to live sustainably in conditions of limited resources (see Jared Diamond's "Collapse").

I would assume, perhaps naively, that examples of near-anarchic societies of many thousands of people resided in hostile environments that forbad large concentrations of population. One such society was Svaneti (present-day Georgia, where I write from). Population density and ease of mobility never reached critical mass, and thus concentration and leveraging of exclusive knowledge never occurred.

Basically, what I'm leading to is that for a large society far beyond key density thresholds, a universally accessible, editable, and identical-for-all communications network (i.e. Internet) is the only thing that can change the game to favor anarchy over hierarchy. I really think the Internet is the only thing that can save us, as naive as that sounds.

Perfect knowledge is the antipode to concentration of power.

Peter said...

Reason's Whore conflates anarchism ("no-state", or the absence of a single archy, or in many instances, an autarchy), with alternative models where rules, mores and other leadership-lively patterns of formal and informal organization exist. It's a common error. As one whose political philosophy has long been anarchistic, I run across this all the time, on those occasions when I dare to speak up in an increasingly authoritarian society. People nearly always criticize the choice to speak in favor of anarchy as speaking up in favor of unruly chaos, usually violent. It takes a lot of explaining to show them that even many who claim the name "anarchist" are really advocates for nihilism--are nihilists.

So it ever goes.