Tuesday, October 09, 2012

In Praise of Anarchy, Part II

Pawel Kuczyński
[Part I]

When confronted with an increasingly despotic régime, the good people of almost any nation will cower in their homes and, once they are flushed out, will allow themselves to be herded like domesticated animals. They will gladly take orders from whoever gives them, because their worst fear is not despotism—it is anarchy. Anarchy! Are you afraid of anarchy? Or are you more afraid of hierarchy? Color me strange, but I am much more afraid of being subjected to a chain of command than of anarchy (which is a lack of hierarchy).

Mind you, this is not an irrational fear, but comes from a lifetime of studying nature, human as well as the regular kind, and of working within hierarchically organized organizations as well as some anarchically organized ones. The anarchically organized ones work better. I have worked in a number of start-up companies, which were quite anarchic, in a good way, and were therefore able to invent and to innovate. I have also worked in a number of big, established companies, with many hierarchies of management, and a laborious approval process for any new proposal. These companies couldn't invent or innovate worth a damn, and only continue to exist because the system favors big companies. When faced with the need to do something new, they always tried to buy a smaller, innovative company. This is because in a hierarchical organization people who know more are inevitably forced to take orders from people who know less, and often know nothing at all beyond knowing how to get promoted. The result is that in hierarchical organizations—and I have seen this over and over again—the smart people sit around and do nothing (or as little as possible) because following stupid orders is a waste of time, while the stupid people run around like chickens trying to get themselves promoted. This is not a matter of scale, but of organization: I have worked in just one (but it was quite educational) start-up that was organized as a rigid hierarchy and had a laborious approval process for any new proposal. This abnormal, dysfunctional situation came about because one of the founders was cognitively impaired, and the company did not get very far at all.

Thus, I may be persuaded to accede to the specific and temporary authority of a superior (superior at a given task) but I find it problematic to blindly accept the authority of my superior's superior. It does happen that a competent person gets kicked upstairs into management. This has happened to the best of us, and has even happened to me. But to keep climbing up the hierarchy after that is to prove that the promotion wasn't an error, and that the person in question really is management material, i.e., a bit dumb, not particularly scrupulous, but very obedient. I am definitely not management material: I seem to be missing a gene that allows middle-management types to automatically look up to their superiors and look down on their inferiors. I could never get past the thought that this hierarchy thing is all a big mistake. If anarchy works so well for the birds, the bees, the dolphins and the wildebeest—why can't it work for us? There are many things that deserve be feared in the world, but a pleasantly, congenially, efficiently organized lack of hierarchy is definitely not one of them.

But before we go any further, we need to address this irrational fear of anarchy that has been whipped up in the general public by the propaganda arms of various hierarchical organizations (governments, churches, universities and so forth). The term “anarchy” is commonly used as a slur against things that are thought to be disorganized because it is incorrectly thought to imply a lack of organization. Anarchists are also confused with communist revolutionaries, and the typical anarchist is imagined to be an antisocial and violent terrorist who wishes for the violent overthrow of the established order. Anarchy is also incorrectly conceived to represent the embodiment of a coherent ideology of Anarchism, making the argument against anarchy a straw man argument based on a false choice between an implied yet manifestly nonexistent system and a very real oppressively huge hierarchically organized régime. The only grain of truth visible in all of this is that Anarchism as a political ideology or a political movement is, and has been for centuries now, rather beside the point.

Glimmers of anarchism could be discerned going as far back as the Reformation, in movements seeking autonomy, decentralization, and independence from central governments. But eventually virtually all of them were drowned out by socialist and communist revolutionary movements, which strove to renegotiate the social contract so as to distribute the fruits of industrial production more equitably among the working class. In all the developed countries, the working class was eventually able to secure gains such as the right to unionize, strike and bargain collectively, public education, a regulated work-week, government-guaranteed pensions and disability compensation schemes, government-provided health care and so on—all in exchange for submitting to the hierarchical control system of a centralized industrial state. Anarchist thought could gain no purchase within such a political climate, where the rewards of submitting to an official hierarchy were so compelling. But now the industrial experiment is nearing its end: trade union participation is falling; companies routinely practice labor arbitrage, exporting work to lowest-wage countries; retirement schemes are failing everywhere; public education fails to educate and even a college degree is no longer any sort of guarantee of gainful employment; health care costs are out of control (in the US especially).

We can only hope that, with the waning of the industrial age, anarchism is poised for a rebirth, gaining relevance and acceptance among those wishing to opt out of the industrial scheme ahead of time instead of finding themselves pinned down under its wreckage. From the point of view of a young person seeking to join the labor force but facing a decrepit and dysfunctional system of industrial employment that holds scant promise of a prosperous future, opting out of the industrialized scheme and embracing the anarchic approach seems like a rational choice. Why toil at some specific, circumscribed set of repetitive tasks within a job if that job, and the entire career path it is part of, could disappear out from under you at any moment? Why not enter into informal associations with friends and neighbors and divide your time between growing food, making and mending things and helping others within the immediate community, with the balance of free time spent on art, music, reading and other cultural and intellectual pursuits? Why bend to the will of self-interested strangers who have so little to offer when you can do better by freely cooperating with your equals? Why submit to an arbitrary external authority when a sufficiently cohesive and egalitarian community can be self-governing? All of these questions demand accurate and reasoned answers. If we find ourselves unable to provide these answers, but nevertheless demand that our young people participate in the failing program of industrial employment, then we won't have them as friends for very long.

The best angle from which to approach the subject of anarchy is from the vantage point of a student of nature. Observe that, in nature, anarchy is the prevalent form of cooperation among animals, whereas hierarchical organization is relatively rare and limited in scope and duration. Kropotkin wrote convincingly on this subject. He was a scientist, and having a scientist's eye for hard data allowed him to make a series of key observations. First, he observed the vast majority of animal species, and virtually all of the more successful animals, are social. There are animals that lead solitary lives, but they are the exception rather than the rule, which is to live as cooperating groups. It is the degree and the success of cooperation that is the most important determinant of the success of any given species; the gregarious, cooperative animals thrive while the selfish loners are left behind. The striking success of the human species has everything to do with our superior abilities to communicate, cooperate, organize spontaneously and act creatively in concert, while the equally glaring, horrific, monstrous failures of our species have everything to do with our unwelcome ability to submit to authority, to tolerate class distinctions and to blindly follow orders and rigid systems of rules.

Which leads us to Kropotkin's second observation, which is that animal societies can be quite highly and intricately organized, but their organization is anarchic, lacking any deep hierarchy: there are no privates, corporals, sergeants, lieutenants, captains, majors or generals among any of the species that evolved on planet Earth with the exception of the gun-toting jackbooted baboon (whenever you see an animal wearing jackboots and carrying a rifle—run!). When animals organize, they organize for a purpose: birds form up to fly north or south, and spontaneously come together in colonies to rear their chicks; grazing animals gather together to ford rivers; prairie dogs post sentries that whistle their alarms for the entire town whenever any one of them spots a predator; even birds of different species cooperate to repel and harass predators, with the biggest birds taking the lead while the smaller ones assist. Some groups of animals do explicitly sort themselves out into an order, such as a pecking order among chickens or an eating order in a pride of lions, but these are sorting orders that do not create entire privileged classes or ranks or a chain of command.

Consequently, animal societies are egalitarian. Even the queen bee or the termite queen does not hold a position of command: she is simply the reproductive organ of the colony and neither gives orders nor follows anyone else's. Because animal societies are egalitarian, they do not require any explicit code of justice or process of adjudication to maintain peace, since among equals the simple golden rule—do unto others as you want others to do unto you—corresponding to the innate, instinctual sense of fairness, provides sufficient guidance in most situations. A second instict, of putting the interests of the group before one's own, assures group cohesion and provides a source of immense power. We humans have this instinct in abundance, perhaps to a fault: other animals follow it as a matter of course and do not decorate those who follow it with medals or cast them in bronze and put them on pedestals.

This clear understanding of cooperation, peace and justice springing forth through instinct in egalitarian, anarchic societies that are found throughout nature casts an unflattering light on written law. Kropotkin observes that systems of written law always start out as gratuitous, self-important exercises in writing down the unwritten rules that everyone follows anyway, but then sneak in a new element or two for the benefit of the emerging ruling class that is doing the writing. He singles out the Tenth Commandment of Moses. The commandment states: “Thou shalt not covet thy neighbor's house, wife, manservant, maidservant, ox, ass, nor any thing that is thy neighbor's.” Now, pre-literate societies, with their systems of unwritten, oral law, may vary, but all of them recognize that a wife is not at all like an ox, and all of them would recognize someone who tries to treat them as being the same before the law as a subversive or an imbecile.

Recognizing that a wife and an ox are different, some societies may choose to let oxen wander about the community grazing where they may, so that they can be pressed into service as need by anyone who wishes to do so, while stealing someone's wife may be a life-ending event for both the thief and the wife, causing the rest of the society to look away in shame. Other societies may regard borrowing an ox without permission as grand larceny, and borrowing someone's wife as legitimate love sport as long as the wife consents, but the jealous husband who then kills the two is charged with two counts of second-degree murder. The Tenth Commandment erases such distinctions and treats both the wife and the ox as individual property. Furthermore, it makes it a sin to regard the property of another with anything other than indifference, enshrining the right to own abstract individual property without limitation as a key moral principle. This, in turn, makes it antithetical to maintaining an egalitarian society of a sort that can remain anarchic and self-governing, making it necessary to introduce police, the courts and jails in order to keep the peace in a society characterized by inequality and class conflict. Moses smashed the tablets once when he saw the Israelites worshiping the golden calf; he should have smashed them a second time when he saw them worshiping the idol of private property.

Kropotkin's third, and perhaps most significant observation addresses a common misunderstanding of Darwinian evolution. You see, when most people say “Darwinian” it turns out that they actually mean to say “Hobbesian.” Kropotkin pointed out that the term “survival of the fittest” has been misinterpreted to mean that animals compete against other animals of their own species, whereas that just happens to be the shortest path to extinction. This misinterpretation of facts directly observable from nature has led to the faulty Hobbsian justification of the economic appetite as something natural and evolved, and therefore inevitable, giving rise to the conjectured laws of the marketplace, which in turn favor nonempathic, exclusionary, brutal, possessive individualists. The result has been to enshrine mental illness—primitive, pathological, degenerate narcissism—as the ultimate evolutionary adaptation and the basis of the laws of economics. Thus, an entire edifice of economic theory has been erected atop a foundation of delusion borne of a misunderstanding of the patterns present in nature.

Kropotkin provides numerous examples of what allows animal societies to survive and thrive, and it is almost always cooperation with their own species, and sometimes with other species as well, but there is almost never any overt competition. He mentions that wild Siberian horses, which usually graze in small herds, overcome their natural aloofness to gather in large numbers and crowd together into gulleys to share bodily warmth when facing a blizzard; those who do not do so often freeze to death. Animals do fight for survival, but their fight is against forces of nature: inclement weather and climactic fluctuations that cause floods, droughts, cold spells and heat waves, and diseases and predators that reduce their numbers. They do not compete against members of their own species except in one respect: those who win the genetic lottery by generating or inheriting a lucky genetic mutation are more likely to survive and to reproduce. Thus, it is possible to say that genomes compete, but this use of the term “competition” is purely metaphorical, while the dominant pattern, and the greatest determinant of success of a species as a whole, is its ability to communicate and to cooperate.

Thus, all living, biological systems are anarchically organized. They are highly scalable—from a single-celled amoeba to the blue whale—but the organizational principle remains the same: an anarchically organized cooperating group of cells. Biological systems exhibit a fractal-like property: you can zoom in on a detail and observe that its organization is similar to what you saw when looking at the whole. They are sustainable, each organism exhibiting bounded growth up to an optimum size. (Yes, yeast can't handle vats of concentrated sugar-water without a population explosion followed by collapse, but then vats of concentrated sugar-water are not their natual habitat—or anyone else's!) Biological systems exhibit all sorts of complex behaviors, sometimes leading us to believe that they possess intelligence and free will. But there is no command structure to intelligence or free will. Even consciousness has no specific command structure; the complex behaviors that make us think that there are such things as consciousness and free will are emergent behaviors of cooperating brain cells; nobody is actually in charge. As I sit here concentrating on this, my right hand picks up a cup of tea and raises it to my lips without the rest of me having to pay any attention; another part of me thinks that I should take a break and visit the shops before it starts raining. If I do, then the decision will have been reached cooperatively because there is nobody to give the order and nobody to give the order to.

If all life on Earth follows this pattern, then what about our current socioeconomic systems? What about huge nation-states and giant megacities? What about the global economy? The short answer is that they are all hierarchically organized systems, and that this makes them scale badly: the increase in their metabolic cost always outpaces their growth rate, plus their growth is unbounded, so they always collapse. Next week we will take a brief look at contemporary complexity theory, which will take us beyond what Prof. Geoffrey West of the Santa Fe Institute, an authority on complexity theory, likes to call “qualitative bullshit.” There is some fairly simple math that characterizes both biological and socioeconomic systems, makes stunningly accurate predictions, and explains why it is that biological systems go on and on while socioeconomic systems go pop. Thanks to the work of Prof. West and his associates, we have an actual theorem that predicts collapse, taking the study of collapse beyond a hand-waving exercise and into the realm of hard science.


Wiglaf said...

Now, pre-literate societies, with their systems of unwritten, oral law, may vary, but all of them recognize that a wife is not at all like an ox ...

Not sure about this. Ask anarchist anthropologist David Graeber ... who I seem to recall objecting to this sort of argument for anarchism, because the fact is plenty of primitive societies treated individuals as chattel. One need not be a primitivist to be an anarchist.

Unknown said...

In nature, one often sees that male animals will engage in fights to the death (or near death) when a reproductive female is present. Nature is not all sweet cooperation. One group of ants will wage all out war on another group of ants and kill and conquer them.

I would prefer anarchy to the current political system but I have my eyes wide open and don't paint fantasy pictures of sweetness and light. Nor do I think that all hierarchies are destructive to innovation.

Luciddreams said...

I'm still not completely convinced. Man is hierarchical...that much is obvious. It's one thing to say that nature isn't, I can follow that, but to then say that man isn't, or doesn't have to be seems unrealistic in reality. You can point to small tribes that aren't, but what about civilizations? How could a civilization like we have now be anything but hierarchical? There are simply too many mofo's right now.

I suppose that when this edifice of hierarchically generated techno/industrial corporatocracy nonsense fails under it's own weight, the survivors may be able to live in an anarchic system. But barring that, it seems to me, that this is all wishful thinking.

I don't disagree with your intentions and desires. I just have a hard time understanding what you're trying to illuminate. I've dropped out of the system as much as possible. I quit my corporate job, and I'm trying to homestead. I couldn't deal with the corporate generated bull shit, the idiots in charge as you so perfectly described. I worked as an EMT in an EMS service for the last eight years. I was the guy who did as little as possible outside of what was good for the patients because anything more was indeed a waste of time. I agree with just about everything I have read of your writing.

I'm just not convinced that our species can be anything but hierarchical. We have clearly deviated from natural processes. I can't see there ever being a civilization where the strong don't take advantage of the weak and set up mechanisms of control to profit from their labor.

Justin said...

How could a civilization like we have now be anything but hierarchical?
is a much different statement than
I'm just not convinced that our species can be anything but hierarchical.

The first statement is one I agree with, the entire order of our civilization is built on hierarchical command and control design, absent that design pattern, the civilization would look much different.

The second statement is easily disproved by a single counter example of people existing without hierarchy where 'the strong take advantage of the weak... to profit from their labor.'

Here is a single counter-example:
1. !Kung

There are plenty of others in the scholarship of archaeological history, I'll give one more
2. Zomia

flipjack said...

“sneak in a new element or two for the benefit of the emerging ruling class”

I think the real point is that commandments 8 and 10 try to keep the servant class from stealing from the “emerging ruling class.” These commandments and the 4th commandment seem to imply that the listener is a person of means, and has full time help.

Indeed the surrounding chapters and books go into greater detail than this regarding the restrictions god places on what one does with personal property (“oxes that gore and are gored”, “an eye for an eye”, rules about how one can punish servants, etc.), with a built-in assumption that the listener possesses such property. Does the god of the Old Testament only pay attention to nobility? This at a time when class distinctions were greater than they are today. Is this simply a feature of the Bronze age portion of the Bible? Or does the New Testament perpetuate the instruction that the have-nots should leave the haves alone? Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the Earth.

Beyond this portion of the text, the entire Bible is framed in a worldview that clearly predates anarchism or any other modern ideology that values personal autonomy. From the viewpoint of the authors, the ideal situation for humanity is a form of divine absolute monarchy, of which the subjects are fortunate that they at least have the opportunity to get on the sovereign’s good side and be rewarded for their devoted servitude. Last week you pointed out Anarchy is the lack of a ruler, but there can be no anarchy as long as there is a ruler on high.

P.S.: If you are in favor of anarchy, should my neighbor be allowed to buy a barrel of asbestos and pour it in the lake by my house?

Unknown said...

@Logan: I don't think kollapsnik is arguing for primitivism as much as he's pointing out the difference between a societies that enshrines "private property rights" and those that don't. Note that Dmitry goes on to discuss the varying social arrangements that might exist in the former sort of societies. Pretty sure David Graeber would agree with the main point he is making here.

@Kollapsnik: Very well written and persuasively argued, although it seems many of your readers are still stuck on our society's assumptions about nature - both nature generally and "human nature". Our hierarchical civilization has projected its own ruthlessness onto the rest of the natural world since the 17th century at least (if not earlier). It seems old habits are hard to break, but if anything is going to break them, it will be collapse.

Looking forward to part III.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for a very lucid series on anarchy - looking forward to the final piece.
I spend a lot of time amongst semi-detribalised Australian Indigenous people and see many of the signs of anarchy you discuss. This is a highly evolved and highly complex society (except on the material level), dealing with the effects of dispossession by a very different, hierarchical society and often seeing the answers to its problems in the norms of that society.
Europeans spend a lot of time working and have largely orderly lives and houses and abundant material possessions, whereas my Indigenous friends' lives are often chaotic, beset by ill-health, poverty (even when there are lots of mining royalties available), chronic unemployment and, for a significant minority, violence. They and their society are labelled dysfunctional by 'mainstream' (i.e. white) society.
Even their 'supporters' often bemoan the fact that they don't have 'leaders' and governments complain about how they can't get community 'consent' for their plans.
Civilisation - from the Latin 'civitas' city/city-state - / require hierarchy. Who would willingly do all the menial, unsatisfying and meaningless work of creating and maintaining cities and empires without a system of hierarchy? The colloquial understanding of civilisation - an advanced form of human cultural achievement - however, is just as likely to be found amongst tribal people as among city-state people. The popular city discourse (very much in evidence in the comments here!) that tribal people are 'primitive' and just 'live in harmony with nature' is very mistaken - the tribal people I know have extremely rich and complex systems of social organisation, philosophy and religion - but no theories or history of organised warfare, theft or land-grabbing; these things certainly happened, but on a small-group, semi-spontaneous scale and advanced arbitration systems sorted them out once things went too far.
That said, like other Indigenous people in first-world countries, they have some of the worst poverty, health and violence rates in the world, despite the sickening abundance around them.
One thing the history of anarchism shows is that hierarchy-free systems are very vulnerable to hierarchy-based systems, which, among other things, compel people to act in ways they wouldn't if they were taking responsibility for their actions.
Dimitry, I'd be very interested in your thoughts on the inherent structural weaknesses of anarchic societies when faced with hierarchical societies.

Dmitry Orlov said...

wu ming - you are entirely correct

bobthebauer - My favorite example of an acephalous, anarchic society that has repelled every aggressor (the Brits, the Soviets, and now US/NATO) are the Pashtuns of Pakistan and Afghanistan. There is a case study of them in my next book. They are the biggest (one of the biggest ethnic groups on Earth), but they are not the only example of durable anarchy. It requires very specific cultural adaptations, but durable, perpetual anarchy is achievable.

Various other people who claim that "man is hierarchical" or that "nature is anarchic, but we have gone beyond nature": yes, but that is a temporary condition that will resolve itself through collapse. And if you don't like the sound of collapse, then there is always anarchy. Take your pick: rejoin nature or go extinct.

Black said...

Are there different grades of humans? Egalitarian is a choice made by self aware humans. Dmitry is an optimist, as am I, but when faced with die hard idiots we know what they look and sound like, so they're not exactly going to sneak up on us.

The anarchist view is adaptable and inclusive to those who understand and want to participate in it. Hierarchy doesn't allow a choice for those who do or don't want to participate.

I'm reading these articles as post-collapse application of anarchy, rather than a transition to it voluntarily, which is unlikely, but of course not impossible.

Once collapse of the illusions of civilization and their digital credits (debt as money) and forced hierarchy commences, there will be legitimate choices to be made in every local community about how to structure things.

I for one would move to a location which adopted these measures of anarchy very quickly rather than be pressed under the thumb of another control freak regime or police state.

Unknown said...

Superb essay, Dmitry! Getting better with each instalment.

Just wanted to suggest that -- if you don't already know about it -- you should find it greatly profitable to take an in-depth look at physicist Tom Campbell's recently-published Big TOE.

Perhaps the quickest way in is to view the sequence of lectures he gave at Calgary U, or the similar presentation he gave in Spain (in English), both available complete on YouTube. (Caution: either sequence needs about 18 hours of viewing time, plus a whole lot of additional digestion time). Tom's website is here:


-- though the Calgary and Spain presentations are best found by doing a YouTube search.

I've begun to think, after months of studying Tom's innovative work, that the celestial sequence:

Copernicus-Galileo-Descartes-Newton-Darwin-TheQuantumMechanics-Einstein/David Bohm will shortly gain a new name on this end: Tom Campbell.

Building on the work of a whole current list of theorising physicists out on the outer limits of just-acceptable orthodoxy, Tom's Big TOE is, I now suspect, the dam-breaker which will lead our total scientific world-view into its next big paradigm shift.

What would you say to a theory which has just two -- count 'em! -- basic axioms; resolves the hitherto-intractable conundrum of the double-slit experiment; resolves the hitherto-intractable contradictions between quantum mechanics and relativity theory; brings the (by now indisputable) demonstrations of repeatable paranormal phenomena in such high-credibility places as Princeton's PEAR-lab into harmonious resolution; as also the placebo effect, homoeopathy, acupuncture, etc.; and takes in and harmonises metaphysics and theology also -- all in one elegant, occamistic, deeply-satisfying, sharply rigorous new theory-of-everything?

Worth a look?

Meanwhile, keep sluggin' Dmitry! Wonderful stuff. All of your writings are sharply relevant to what's happening, but this latest output of yours is likely to be a key text for pioneers groping their way from the dying hitech-industrial civilisation, now beginning its ending, towards the anarchistic, cooperative, permacultural, Gaian, ecotechnic future which John Michael Greer is unfolding right now also, in his current essay-series.

Incidentally, the alternative lifestyle which you recommend to young people in this instalment -- food-growing, making, mending, giving and taking help face-to-face with walkable-distance neighbours -- is how I, and a whole loose freebootery of other happily-marginalised people are living here in Britain, quietly pioneering the new, doable way to get by and live modest but good and highly satisfying lives, even as the old era collapses around us. It works; and it continues to innovate and develop the new post-industrial era, below the moribund mainstream's radar.

Anonymous said...

Most people confuse the term anarchy with nihilism. This is not accidenta. The mainstream media constantly use it to describe descent into violent chaos.

All anarchy requires is sufficent self-control as to not be controlled by others. A blame society constantly moans it happened becasue there was nobody there to stop it. Nobody told us what to do.

philharmonic said...

A really good read Dmitry. Looking forward to the next episode.The black with yellow bordered advertisement at the end of the comments contains the coat of arms of the Australian Government and the title of the Department of Customs, Border Protection. Are they sponsors??!!

OutRider said...

Kelly Baez:

You said, "Nature is not all sweet cooperation."

But given how cooperation in nature is ignored (maybe not by children's stories, but by dominant ideology), there's nothing wrong with pointing out that a big part of nature IS cooperation.

Pointing out that animals fight, however, won't come as a surprise to anyone who's ever seen yet another lion chasing yet another zebra on a wildlife documentary. Even then, I'd point out that those 30 seconds of a lion chasing a zebra were probably interspersed with an entire day of the lion laying lazily four feet away from its prey. When you think about it, violence in nature is a real "event". It takes time, patience and luck to witness. If you go outside and take a walk through somewhere unspoilt, you're much more likely to get an overall impression of calm, quiet and harmony.

When I do come across the remains of an animal, it's usually flattened on the road.

KC said...

Excellent essay. A note about chicken pecking order. While it has become an accepted idea that in a chicken flock the pecking order is linear, in fact it can be quite circular, and not fixed. We grow our chickens in a semi free range situation - about 100 chickens on an acre. A roo and 1 or more sub roos have fairly stable flocks in different areas of the acre. However we have noted, and have read in older texts on chickens, that A may pick on B who picks on C who picks on A and numerous variations on the theme. This is more true of hens than roosters but we have observed it in roosters as well Further the order seems to be as much about chutzpah as it is about actual strength. I think once the meme of chicken pecking order was established no one ever looked again to see if it always held true. Also we have crossed so many breeds in our flock that our birds are almost all easily identifiable on sight. Thus we can clearly see when something doesn't fit the linear pecking order meme. If all your chickens are the same breed you may think you are seeing linear pecking order because the birds are hard to tell apart.

As far as primitive tribes, many such tribes were on the way to civilization due to having found new sources of food and other energy. The Northwest Indians kept slaves but they had immigrated to a new land that had wealth that was easy to access with their nets and other tools. Thus they became more sedentary than other tribes. A tribe that has to be constantly on the move to access food cannot keep slaves.

I recommend reading "Don't Sleep there are Snakes" by Daniel Everett " (per wiki) Daniel Everett states that one of the strongest Pirahã values is no coercion; you simply don't tell other people what to do.[5] There appears to be no social hierarchy; the Pirahã have no formal leaders. Their social system can thus be labeled as primitive communism, in common with many other hunter-gatherer bands in the world, although rare in the Amazon because of a history of agriculture before Western contact (see history of the Amazon)."

Guy McPherson said...

I practice and promote anarchy. It works locally, even in the United States. I wrote in defense of agrarian anarchy more than a year ago, and that essay is here.

R. A. Davies said...

The Spanish anarchists are another example of a modern functioning group. If not for the fascists, I have no doubt they would still be around.

Anotherplayaguy said...

Outrider: "When you think about it, violence in nature is a real "event". It takes time, patience and luck to witness. If you go outside and take a walk through somewhere unspoilt, you're much more likely to get an overall impression of calm, quiet and harmony."

You may get the "impression" by looking at the surface, but the fact is violence is ongoing all the time. It's cute when my son watches a spider trap a wasp -- unless you're the wasp. For all the cooperation, animals still eat other animals or plants. Darwin gave up theism when he watched a wasp lay its eggs in a living caterpillar and watched the larvae eat the caterpillar while it was still alive. You don't see that on a quiet stroll in the woods.

Stacy said...

I find my backyard hens extremely illuminating in so many different ways. The lowest hen in the pecking order has also been ill, and I thought for sure I'd have to cull her. I still may, but the other hens have been letting her eat straight from their own beaks. This looks like altruistic behavior to me. At the same time, if any other hen besides my top layer goes into the coop at night first, she is savagely attacked. As has been previously observed by many others, chickens are very much like mini-T Rex's. All societies have rules. The extent of the personal exploitation in that society varies from culture to culture and throughout history and as was so helpfully pointed out, is subject to change.

Unknown said...

I'd also argue that one can have limited hierarchies within anarchic environments (and vice versa). The primary purpose of a hierarchy is to provide coordination and management of activities, and sometimes it is necessary for one person to take a "higher" view in order to insure that activities involved are neither redundant nor incomplete. Where things tend to get sticky is that such a privileged view also typically means that such a person has the advantage of seeing the potential for material gain that others may not, and typically such work is also physically less demanding.

Leaving aside the physical desirability of leadership roles, though, I'd argue that modern anarchy is really only possible when the ability exists to effectively communicate the state of a system or project to all participants.

Agile development is a pretty good example of this, and I don't believe that agile has become the de facto software development methodology for small start-ups. You don't completely eliminate the hierarchy, but you flatten much of the management structure that exists in theory to facilitate communication but in fact usually serves only to strengthen authority.

Michael J. Petro said...

Some of your best writing here yet (not to demean any of your other posts!)

I too agree with the sentiment that those who are struggling with the idea of anarchy are either misunderstanding it (due to the propaganda of the hierarchical culture), or are simply and understandably trapped in a habit of thought. We cognitives are horribly mesmerizable.

Anyway, your thoughts are a tonic. Thanks for taking the time to put them out there.

Stanislav Datskovskiy said...

Kollapsnik, what about the hierarchy of the wolf pack? Or are hierarchies OK if they are only one or two levels deep? And what of the competition for mates found in many species?

Unknown said...

@kollapsnik: I'm with you in principle but saying that intraspecies competition doesn't happen in nature seems obviously wrong.

* Bees routinely invade other hives to steal honey when their own honey supplies get dangerously low.

* Male animals will often fight, sometimes to the death, for reproduction rights.

* Seagulls compete with each other all day for food. You often see injured gulls starving on the outskirts of the group if food is limited.

I'm not sure what a more correct way of explaining it would be though?

PLK said...

It appears to me that many seem to have missed the point.

The tendency to oversimplify is appealing to many, but I don't think anyone intended to suggest that individual intraspecial violence is nonexistent or some other equivalent nonsense.

We are all members of a species which has demonstrated, quite definitively, that such is not the case.

But there is a distinction to be made between individual or small scale violence and a distinctly human phenomenon such as genocide.

It seems obtuse to attempt to draw a comparison between the two and the difference is relevant because we're talking about the manner is which animals relate to one another on a broad scale.

For example, manslaughter is not the same as genocide.

One man murdering another, however atrocious, is not comparable to the systematic obliteration of an entire population of people.

I could be mistaken, but I am not aware of any anarchical society responsible for anything resembling the atrocities committed by hierarchically structured societies.

I think Christopher Columbus' diary entry about the innate generosity of the Arawak natives and his immediate remark about the ability to conquer them with 50 armed men is a testament to the overall point.

This isn't about fantasy land utopias. It's about the manner in which animals (we are merely mammals) relate to one another. It isn't unreasonable or outrageous to suggest that there is an inherent wisdom in adhering to the natural order.

The Great Chain of Being can go to hell. Apes are our cousins. And I don't know of any other group of apes which committed to the decimation of all other apes, much less tried to justify its insanity behind some ridiculous ideology.

In our absence, all the other species seem to do just fine without the perilous, exhausting social constructs we hold so dear.

The sum of which suggests to me that man is shaping up to be an evolutionary dead end. Time will, undoubtedly, tell.

Next week, Dmitry.

Dr. Doom said...

Perhaps a bit off topic, but in Hawaii we do not celebrate the federal holiday of Discoverer's Day, formerly called Columbus Day, and choose instead to celebrate Martin Luther King Day in January.

One was a greedy exploiter and enslaver of his discoveries who was ruthless in his tactics and led the way for others of his ilk like Cortez and Pizarro. The other chose to realize the dream that all men (and women) are created as equals, which of course, they are, and died a martyr for his efforts.

It seems like such an obvious choice of which day is worthy of a holiday in celebration. So I'm proud that Hawaii chose the way it did and have nothing but shame and disgust for those that continue to choose to celebrate "Discoverer's Day" the old, ignorant and unthinking way.

Unknown said...

Being part of two condominium home owner associations has made me a skeptic when it comes to how small groups of people can self govern themselves. Same with small town city councils.

M said...

I'm enjoying this essay series. I do have a question. How do you resolve sentiments like the following with some of your recent pronouncements such as anyone who is aware of impending collapse is by nature not someone likely to survive it?

"Why not enter into informal associations with friends and neighbors and divide your time between growing food, making and mending things and helping others within the immediate community, with the balance of free time spent on art, music, reading and other cultural and intellectual pursuits?"

This implies a conscious effort to deal with decline and collapse, while elsewhere you have suggested just the fact that someone has time to read about collapse seals their doom. Also, if we are busy eating insects and developing a cuisine based on bark, how do we pursue the arts?

I ask these questions with genuine interest, as on the one hand, of course I like to think I can change my mindset/habits/consumption etc. to help prepare myself and family, but on the other, I realize that the reality will perhaps overwhelm any preparations. I suppose it's hard to prejudge (ie, many rich people will kill themselves) when in fact, people of all stripes have shown courage and fortitude during past human tragedies.

To Unknown at 6:31--having served (and serving) on committees of the type you mention, remember, those are hierarchal, not anarchic. And size is not the defining characteristic.

Unknown said...

Why bend to the will of self-interested strangers who have so little to offer when you can do better by freely cooperating with your equals?

First, all we have to do is study a little primate anthropology to realize that human society borrows a lot from the way primate societies are set up, with an alpha male etc. The human acorn has not fallen far from the primate tree.

Second, while everything Mr. Orlov says is accurate in the abstract, I have to live in the real world and pay a mortgage. Anarcho-syndicate farming communes sound a lot better than working in a cubicle, but I love my house.

I dont need a daddy figure to make me feel secure, but most of society seems to, so I'm stuck in the system like most other anarchists (who love their homes).

nickonov said...

To claim that smaller-brained animals don't compete across "tribes" in a way not that dissimilar from how Columbus behaved is specious and treachous. A mixture of greed and self-preservation drives all species, whether it's a wolf pack expanding its territory or an ant colony overwhelming others in their path.

Mankind's superiority is due in large part to our ability to organize. Of course, that's also likely true of "population overshoot" and much of what ails the planet -- but bemoaning it all is disingenious. I suspect that many of the comments here are made by folks, who've benefitted substantially from hierarchy... and that includes the head ape.

Dmitry Orlov said...

M -

What I tried to say in that interview is that people who spend their time studying collapse without actually changing who they are don't stand a chance. On the other hand, those who are already living a downscaled, self-reliant, down-to-earth life may or may not be aware of collapse, but it doesn't matter.

Cosmos King -

Alpha males and females are typical of many mammalian species. Which are all anarchic. You can tame a few dozen of species, you can domesticate a handful of them, but in the wild they not submit to an authority higher than their own alpha.

nickonov -

It is true that there are many instances of predation and parasitism in nature. Mankind's inferiority lies in our inability to reject hierarchical systems, which all collapse. We are not nature-plus, we are nature-minus, half-animal half-robot. The robot half needs to go away if we are to survive.

Dan L. said...


"Man is hierarchical...that much is obvious."

No, it isn't obvious and it isn't true. Anatomically modern human beings have been around for 200,000 years at least and egalitarian communities still exist in some parts of the world. If humans were naturally hierarchical why aren't the most primitive societies rigidly hierarchical?

As far as non-hierarchical civilizations, ancient Athens came pretty close to an egalitarian city-state. They had slaves so it wasn't strictly egalitarian, but it's still an example of a few tens of thousands of autonomous human beings cooperating in running a city. Lessons from their democratic failures are interesting too -- Athenian democracy really hit the skids when they started engaging in the same sort of economic imperialism that the US practices today. They also had a problem with electing charismatic sociopaths to lead the city.

Regarding wolf packs and "alpha males" -- wolf packs are not hierarchies, they are family units. The "alpha male" is just the breeding male. There is only one breeding male because all the wolves in a pack besides the "alpha male" and "alpha female" are very closely related and close inbreeding is a quick route to extinction.

But wolf pack dynamics are not coercive. How do you think packs form in the first place? "Lone wolves" leave their home packs; male lone wolves find female lone wolves and they form new packs. Wolves who want to stay with the pack can, wolves who don't can go form their own damn pack.

Finally -- yes, animals are in competition in some ways. Dmitry is not arguing that animals never complete. That is the fallacy of the excluded middle. Dmitry is (I think) trying to draw attention to that excluded middle -- many animal behaviors are better understood as cooperation than competition; the full range of animal behavior isn't going to be accessible to anyone who assumes it is all competition or all cooperation. He's also right to point out that it's really the genes that are competing, not the organisms -- males kill each other over females because such strategies did a better job of propagating genes. Also, many species that engage in that sort of competition end up with adaptations like antlers that greatly decrease the rate at which the males kill each other.

Richard D. Bartlett said...

Excellent article, thanks Dmitry. Some thoughts on terminology:

I'm a participant in several non-hierarchical groups, and have put considerable effort into developing a tool that empowers non-hierarchical organisations to 'out-cooperate' hierarchical counterparts.

That said, I'm not convinced that 'the absence of hierarchy' is the most useful definition of anarchy. I haven't found it particularly useful to treat hierarchy as being inherently bad, or non-hierarchy as being inherently good.

Rather, it seems more productive to focus on the problematic characteristics so often manifested in hierarchies e.g. coercion and alienation. I'm familiar with plenty of non-hierarchical organisations that suffer from these same problematic characteristics.

I'm convinced we can develop structures that systematically avoid coercion, alienation, and exploitation and promote inclusion, cooperation and innovation, but I've found that 'non-hierarchical' is seldom the best label for such structures.

Likewise, while I concur with much of the philosophy of anarchism, I seldom use that label to identify myself. The cultural baggage associated with the terminology is a distraction away from the important principles the label embodies. I've had much better luck with words like autonomy, self-organisation, mutual aid, voluntary association, collaboration, participation, engagement, protagonism, inclusion, affectivity etc.

On the topic of terminology, I heartily recommend Marina Sitrin's book Horizontalism, the preface of which you can read here.

Thanks again,

Dmitry Orlov said...

This just in from Peter:

Regarding animal behavior, perhaps it is also worth considering how deliberate, immediate and "personal" are the methods by which animals compete and/or fight with each other, compared to the impersonal weapons-based methods usually employed by humans.
In order to fight, animals are obliged to make actual physical contact with each other, to bodily engage, creature-on-creature. Then, they use nothing but their own teeth, claws and muscle to scare off, injure or kill their opponent.
Humans can enlist the services of others (police, soldiers, lawyers, thugs), usually for a fee, to conduct their battles, with an arsenal of weapons capable of inflicting injury or death, even from a long distance away. Nowadays this can even be accomplished by remote control.
How far we have evolved! Imagine how differently we would view the concepts of war, conquest and exploitation if we had to be as up close and personal as the animals: required to chase, tackle and embrace our enemies before sinking our incisors into their jugular?

Joe said...

The adoption of a particular ethical principle should coincide with, and may actually aid in the smooth transition to, a generally leaderlessness society: desire to fight only against non-people things harmful to (y)our existence.

Let's all not compete or fight against other people but rather all cooperate to fight against harmful things in our universe like disease, natural disasters, hunger, and unknowing. Fight the unknowing instead of people. Be angry at situations instead of people.

Another way to put it that contrasts competition with and competition against: compete with all people against harmful things like disease, natural disasters, hunger, and unknowing.

These thoughts summarize earlier comments that I've written elsewhere. Kollapsnik, it's cool that you've been thinking similarly in many ways.

RanDomino said...

Luciddreams said...
"How could a civilization like we have now be anything but hierarchical?"

The Anarcho-Syndicalists, when they were numerous enough to have more credibility than the Communists, believed that Syndicalism was the natural form of organization for a technologically-advanced industrial society. Of course we should form cooperating federations of worker-self-managed production facilities; how could it be otherwise in a world in which each person is an equal master?

flipjack said...
"P.S.: If you are in favor of anarchy, should my neighbor be allowed to buy a barrel of asbestos and pour it in the lake by my house?"

That lake is used by the community, so using or damaging it without their consent would be a violation of Anarchist principles, and they would probably either demand that person either rectify the damage or leave the area; if they leave, others should be warned about this dangerous and untrustworthy person, both through actively going out and telling others and through people investigating this stranger who suddenly arrives (they could then trace them back, and then decide whether to give them a chance or tell them to keep moving; the fate of the exiled may be death from exposure or bandits or starvation, or maybe they'll be lucky enough to find scrap of meager land on which to eke out an existence- either way, a fitting punishment).

bryanhemming said...
"Most people confuse the term anarchy with nihilism."

Anarchism is fundamentally nihilist. It's no coincidence that the precursors to the Anarchists in Russia were the Nihilists. The key is that nihilism rejects all false worldviews, and by extension rejects the systems which rested upon them. Anarchism follows this up by proposing a system for society sans tyrants and lies.

"All anarchy requires is sufficent self-control as to not be controlled by others. A blame society constantly moans it happened becasue there was nobody there to stop it. Nobody told us what to do."

Quite so. I think this is why so many people keep on voting. They don't actually believe that it works- they just don't want to take responsibility. "Most people want not freedom but only fair masters."

RanDomino said...

R. A. Davies said...
"The Spanish anarchists are another example of a modern functioning group. If not for the fascists, I have no doubt they would still be around."

They are still around, and may have the most numerically-strong Anarchist movement in the world (not that tens of thousands is terribly significant in a population of millions, granted). But I have to disagree with your prognosis about their fate in the Civil War. The Fascists (, Nationalists, Catholics, etc- it was really a coalition) only dealt the final blow. The Anarchists were defeated by the Republicans (by joining the government, thus giving it credibility), the Communists (in 1937, both in May and afterward, when they were rounded up and the collectives smashed by Stalinist goons), and the CNT leadership (which prevented autogestion, promoted turning the militias into regular army units, and even persuaded the workers to back down from the barricades in May 1937).

But, really, the blame lies with the Anarchists themselves. I'm not going to pretend that it was handled perfectly but there were 'circumstances' like the Trotskyists say about Russia. No, there were clearly things that should have been done differently, and we take those lessons to heart. For example, it was foolish to rely on the CNT. For many, yes, it was an anarchist institution- but for the overwhelming majority of workers it was just another union; one which happened to have the most radical rhetoric and a highly democratic structure, but just a union at the end of the day. There should have been an explicitly Anarchist organization organized and operating prefiguratively- before the war, but it also could have been formed of the militias. Second, and this is probably contingent on the first- They failed to complete the social/economic revolution and failed to ensure that the economic strength was under undeniable Anarchist control- they may have assumed it was by way of the CNT, but you know what I think about that organization. Subsequently, they could have carried out the unorthodox strategies that could have actually won- for example securing Zaragoza and linking Catalunya and Asturica, promising freedom to Morocco (which would have decimated the Nationalist army), or nixing regularization and instead carrying out a "People's War"- essentially large-scale guerrilla warfare, using the Peninsular War as an example.

Essentially the Anarchists were defeated because they put their trust in non-Anarchist organizations.

Kurt Cagle said...
"modern anarchy is really only possible when the ability exists to effectively communicate the state of a system or project to all participants."

That's the reason for forming federations. With a good organizational scheme, any information can be transmitted in just a few steps.

cmaukonen said...

Excellent. I am looking forward to part 3.

OT I agree with all your points on collapse. But what I cannot see is our current government just throwing in the towel when it happens. On the contrary I can see it becoming even more oppressive to maintain what is left at any cost.

Jeff Snyder said...

Off topic, but I want to thank Dimitry for bringing Miles Olson's new book, "Unlearn, Rewild" to our attention (July 17, 2012). The book is now out and I am nearly all the way through it. It is a very good,thought-provoking book and identifies the roots of our problems with agriculture itself. It helps, when trying to think about the future, to have a really long view about where we need to end up if we want to continue to live, as a species. I also appreciated his discussion of apocalypse and collapse. He points out that what most of us mean by collapse is actually regressing to third world conditions, which exist for most people RIGHT NOW. It always helps to have perspective. Thanks, Dimitry.

Terrace said...

Sedentary tribes in the northeast of North America didn't keep slaves formally, but instead "adopted" their captives (particularly women and girls) who then naturally were given work to do, although they were supposedly now members of the tribe (as opposed to slaves).

As for hierarchy vs anarchy, I prefer to think of it as "People of the Project" vs people who don't want to have anything to do with the Project -- and importantly, all the gradations in between. I highly recommend James Scott's "The Art of Not Being Governed" for more about this spectrum.

RanDomino said...

Terrace said...
"As for hierarchy vs anarchy, I prefer to think of it as "People of the Project" vs people who don't want to have anything to do with the Project"

I've also been using the word "project" to describe civilization; particularly as thought of by fascists, who seem to think of civilization as a project which is more important than humans, who are merely the bricks and mortar.

Unknown said...

Re: biblical point of view:

"Beyond this portion of the text, the entire Bible is framed in a worldview that clearly predates anarchism or any other modern ideology that values personal autonomy."

Guess the commenter never read Samuel's point of view express at length in I Samuel 8:

Samuel told all the words of the Lord to the people who were asking him for a king. 11 He said, “This is what the king who will reign over you will claim as his rights: He will take your sons and make them serve with his chariots and horses, and they will run in front of his chariots. 12 Some he will assign to be commanders of thousands and commanders of fifties, and others to plow his ground and reap his harvest, and still others to make weapons of war and equipment for his chariots. 13 He will take your daughters to be perfumers and cooks and bakers. 14 He will take the best of your fields and vineyards and olive groves and give them to his attendants. 15 He will take a tenth of your grain and of your vintage and give it to his officials and attendants. 16 Your male and female servants and the best of your cattle[c] and donkeys he will take for his own use. 17 He will take a tenth of your flocks, and you yourselves will become his slaves. 18 When that day comes, you will cry out for relief from the king you have chosen, but the Lord will not answer you in that day.”

19 But the people refused to listen to Samuel. “No!” they said. “We want a king over us. 20 Then we will be like all the other nations, with a king to lead us and to go out before us and fight our battles.”

Butch said...

Dmitri is refering to "multilevel selection theory" when he talks about how animals evolved "selfish" genes which lead them to co-operate. Very well established in scientific literature.

People are status-sensitive. In hunter-gatherer societies, where there is basically no private property, status = your social conenctions, plus your generosity. Who you know, and what you give away,r ather than what you have, gives you respect. note that this is not a zero-sum game: everybody theoretically could (and often is) equal, since everybody can, in principle, give away as much food as, or know as many people, as anyone else. The "fierce egalitatianism" of hunter-gatherer societies is a mutual insurance scheme.

When we have a system where property = status, we status-sensitive animals will quite naturally play along and try to get as much as we can, or at least as much as our neighbours.

Our genes make us egalitarian; the world we live in makes us aquisitive.