Tuesday, October 16, 2012

In Praise of Anarchy, Part III

Laurent Chehere
[Part I] [Part II]

Kropotkin worked within the framework of 19th century natural science, but his results are just as relevant today as they were then. Moreover, the accuracy of his insights is vindicated by the latest research into complexity theory. Geoffrey West, who was a practicing particle physicist for forty years and is now distinguished professor at the Santa Fe Institute, has achieved some stunning breakthroughs in complexity theory and the mathematical characterization of scaling of biological systems. Looking at animals big and small, from the tiny shrew to the gigantic blue whale, he and his collaborators were able to determine that all these animals obey a certain power law: their metabolic cost scales with their mass, and the scaling factor is less than one, meaning that the larger the animal, the more effective its resource use and, in essence, the more effective the animal—up to a certain optimum size for each animal. The growth of every animal is characterized by a bounded, sigmoidal curve: growth accelerates at first, then slows down, reaching a steady state as the animal matures.

What Prof. West was able to discover is a small set of general laws—formulated as algebraic equations about as simple and general as the laws of Newtonian mechanics—that have been validated using data on trees, animals, colonies of bacteria—all manner of living things, and that provide amazingly precise predictions. As the size of the organism increases, its metabolic cost, heart rate and so on scales as m-1/4 while its lifetime scales as m1/4 (where m is the animal's mass). The ¼-power comes from the three dimensions plus a third fractal dimension. This is because all living systems are fractal-like, and all networks, from the nervous system to the circulatory system, to the system of tunnels in a termite colony, exhibit fractal-like properties where a similarly organized subsystem can be found by zooming in to a smaller scale. That is, within any fractal network there are four degrees of freedom: up/down, left/right, forward/back and zoom in/zoom out.

Prof. West then turned his attention to cities, and discovered that they can be characterized by similar power laws by which they too accrue greater benefits from increased size, through increased economies of scale, up to a point, but with two very important caveats. First, whereas with living systems an increase in size causes the internal clock to slow down—the larger the size the slower the metabolism, the slower the heart rate and the longer the lifespan—with cities the effect of greater size is the opposite: the larger the city, the larger is the metabolic cost and the energy expenditure per unit size, and the more hectic is the pace of life. To keep pace with the metabolic requirements of a growing socioeconomic system, socioeconomic time must continuously accelerate.

Second, whereas all living systems exhibit bounded growth up to an optimum size, socioeconomic systems such as cities exhibit unbounded, superexponential growth. These two differences added together imply that cities must reach a point where they must move infinitely fast in order to maintain their homeostatic equilibrium: a singularity. But it is inevitable that they reach natural limits well before they reach the singularity, and collapse. In short, large-scale socioeconomic systems are not sustainable. There is a crisp difference between natural, biological, anarchic systems that exhibit bounded growth up to a steady state and artificial, hierarchical, socioeconomic systems that show superexponential growth almost up to a singularity and then collapse. Prof. West was able to formalize this difference using a single parameter, β. In biology, β is less than 1, resulting in bounded growth; in socioeconomics, β is greater than 1, resulting in explosive growth almost up to a singularity, followed by collapse.

The key difference between a living organism and a city is that while a living organism is organized anarchically, a city is organized hierarchically. A living organism is a sustainable, egalitarian community of cooperating cells, which leverages the economies of scale of a larger size to let it move more slowly and to live longer. A socioeconomic system is organized into various classes, some more privileged than others, and is controlled through formal systems of governance based on written law and explicit chains of command. The larger it becomes, the greater becomes the relative burden of police, the courts, regulation and bureaucracy, and other systems of overt monitoring, surveillance and control. Faced with these ever increasing internal maintenance requirements, it can only achieve economies of scale by moving faster and faster, and eventually it has to collapse.

There are many conclusions that can be drawn from all this, but perhaps the most important is that collapse is not an accident; collapse is an engineered product. It is being engineered by those who think that a higher level of authority, coordination, harmonization and unity is always a net benefit at any scale. The engineers of collapse include political scientists, who seek universal peace, through ever-greater military expenditure and dominance, in place of many small-scale, limited wars, but drive the world toward world wars and a global conflagration. It includes economists who pursue stability and growth at all costs instead of allowing for natural fluctuations, including a natural leveling-off of growth at an optimum level, first creating a global economy, then driving it into a black hole of debt. It includes financiers, who seek uniformity and transparency of global finance and universal mobility of capital instead of allowing pyramid schemes to collapse as they always do and allowing productive capital to settle where it should—in communities and in human relationships based on personal trust. Last but not least, collapse is being engineered by theologians who have fixed and absolute notions of morality based on long-obsolete written texts which ignore known facts about human nature. All of these people are hopeless utopians attempting to base society on idealistic principles. Such utopian societies inevitably fail, while those that are cognizant of human weakness and are able to compensate for it can go on for ages. The greatest weakness we have in our nature is our propensity for forming hierarchies, for following formal systems of rules and laws that attempt to defy natural laws, and for listening to utopians.


RanDomino said...

1: Mind if I collect this into a 'zine format for easy printing/distribution?

2: Ahh the City. Maybe the most difficult thing to consider about 'willful' Anarchy (as opposed to the popularly-conceived 'anarchy' of warlords and generalized banditry). What is a city? A bunch of buildings. No one can say where one city ends and the next begins, because it's based on no natural law. However, the Legalist governments must have clear jurisdictions; hence arbitrary lines (and the same goes for borders between States). But without these clear lines (and the tax rates and regulatory regimes they determine), is a city even really a city, or just an area of higher population density? And who can say where it begins or ends? Rather, the edges will be and should be fuzzy, just as there is a gradient from core to suburbs. People will still attach names to it, but although neighbors on the fringes may argue whether they're included that will be the most serious conflict over the matter of the identity of the city.

Unknown said...


What wonderful clarity! This articulation does so much more than our common metaphor of cancerous growth. The end, with its twist back to this weakness for falling into hierarchy as the greatest weakness we need to be able to handle puts things into a balanced perspective.

There is always great value in finding clarity even when it shows how narrow an opening there may actually be to make it through whatever difficulties are closing in on us. The alternative is to be lost with little chance that one's flailing might lead us past futility!

The Newtonian model has powered so much of this ride towards an impossible to achieve singularity. There is much to be gained from insights to be found in post Newtonian physics that has not yet percolated down into our various world-views. I would add David Bohm's work with the implicate order to this list, as well as his collaboration with Krishnamurti into the paradox surrounding our misunderstandings regarding thought.

John P. Deever said...

Great stuff -- that made me go back to Tainter's book.

"...99.8 percent of human history has been dominated by small, autonomus communities ... acting independently, and largely self-sufficient." (23) It is we who are the anomaly.

"Hierarchy and complexity ... are rare in human history, and where present require constant reinforcement. No societal leader is ever far from the need to validate position and policy, and no hierarchical society can be organized without explicit provision for this need." (27)

I'll be thinking about your 3 posts tonight as I watch the debate, and our leader and his rival attempt to bolster their legitimacy, even as more and more formerly unwitting members of our political system fail to extend that legitimacy to it. No matter who wins, for a little while yet, we're going to get more and more "coercion," which, as Tainter puts it, "is a costly, ineffective strategy which can never be completely or permanently successful."

Michael J. Petro said...

@Antonio Dias:

Apropos to nothing, except an interesting factoid: K. eventually drove Bohm nuts. While a bright line might not be drawn between the two as regards his depression, watching their later interactions is very compelling.

(This is not a disparagement against Krishnamurti - nor Bohm, for that matter - who I hold as my the single most influential "mentor." He does not drive *me* nuts.)


(Agree on the excellence of this post, including Parts I & II.)

Terrace said...

Civilizations collapse, but the phenomenon of Project-organizing (and hierarchy-building) keeps happening. And hierarchization happens on tiny, apolitical scales as well, seemingly planned by no one. The phenomenon scales. I can't be the only person who has noticed that small, robust, anarchic, cooperation-based groups seem to always eventually slide towards less anarchic forms. No one ever plans it that way; it just seems to "happen." Leave an anarchic group in the forest, and come back next year and someone is king already.

In James Scott's "Art of Not Being Governed" he talks about things that anarchic groups do to remain out of the reach of hierarchy, and some of them are surprising, down to the types of crops they grow (root crops preferred over wheat and rice, which can be easily stolen and stored by the hierarchy as "tribute"), to people using multiple personal names throughout life, to people even rejecting literacy they once possessed, to avoid being "countable."

In a world where hierarchy is a phenomenon that keeps happening no matter what, "pure" anarchy will always be hiding out in the mountains. At best, people will move back and forth across the line separating the two lifestyles.

staticwarp said...

thanks for this series of essays, they've been very refreshing. most of all, thanks for introducing me to the work of kropotkin. i'm reading an english translation of mutual aid right now, and it's been a long time since i've picked up such a well written, interesting tome.

Dmitry Orlov said...

Terrence -

You make a good point. Anarchic communities often degenerate into a hierarchy. The solution, according to Kropotkin, is to keep moving. He specifically warned against forming singular, isolated intentional communities, and recommended that communities form confederations as soon as possible, and have a constant shifting of people back and forth. He points out that after a few years together some people always want to leave, and it is advantageous if there is another community for them to move to. He also said that young people have to have a way to participate in the wider world, to travel and to prove themselves. I've looked into traditional hunter-gatherer societies, and they keep the peace by remaining on the move, by breaking up and coming back together in new configurations, which thwarts the development of hierarchical authority. Settled people are something of an aberration. We are animals, and yet so many of us insist on behaving like vegetables, putting down roots when we are meant to roam free.

Catholic Agrarian said...

What do you make of monasteries, some of which exist for centuries in the same geographical location, and are rigidly hierarchical?

cmaukonen said...

Dimitri, very good.

I think the answer to the question of anarchist societies who are settled degenerating into hierarchy has something to do with entropy.

Believe I will be doing a blog/diary on this.

Robin Datta said...

I came to anarchy through Stefan Molyneux and it was clear to me from the outset that hierarchies depend on the threat of initiation of force to coerce compliance. Their interactions are mostly transactions, are vertical, and they permit, prescribe, proscribe, monitor and control horizontal interactions and transactions. Vertical interactions bind society together, while community coheres through horizontal interactions. Once one sees this gun, one cannot unsee it. And there can be no more than a charade of a dialog as long as any gun is a party to the conversation.

Acknowledgement of ownership of responsibility for one's actions extends to the beneficial and detrimental consequences of such actions in the physical world, and hence to property. Property is the improvements (or otherwise) effected on the physical world through one's actions.

A commons can be maintained socially (through hierarchy) or communally (through horizontal transactions and interactions), or a combination of both. When the hierarchy faded away in the Soviet collapse, the community survived. (I read all parts of Post-Soviet Lessons for a Post-Industrial America at From the Wilderness when they first came out). A commons without a society or community, such as the atmosphere or the hydrosphere, will be degraded apace. Attempts by sovereign hierarchies to organise like a community are difficult. And the formation of an über-hierarchy in the face of the forces of deglobalisation is moot.

RanDomino said...

The thing is, which I wish Mr. Orlov had said, is that Anarchy doesn't just happen. The odds are that no matter where you live there is an Anarchist organization nearby, such as a cooperative or collective. Most large cities have an Infoshop or similar radical space.

These ideas aren't wishful thinking. There are tens of thousands of in the US alone and hundreds of thousands world-wide actively working to bring about this reality.

Terrace said...

"The thing is, which I wish Mr. Orlov had said, is that Anarchy doesn't just happen."

So, this sort of illustrates my question about the relationship between anarchy and hierarchy. Not that I think organization is "bad" or "impure" - as long as it's temporary. But I often get the impression that professional anarchists are just trying to start a new hierarchy. All those manifestos... (As opposed to the informative overview that kollapsnik has laid out here on his blog.)

Anarchy has existed as long as hierarchy has (because really, without each other, the two have no definition). The distance between them is a spectrum we all occupy. I kind of tend to think it DOES "just happen."

Anonymous said...

There was an interesting post by Eric Jaffe on Atlantic/Cities a few months ago on the pace of life (and on walking speeds) in cities around the world. It quotes from several research projects on the subject.

Here's a part that you might find interesting:

As one possible explanation for the relationship between city size and foot speed, the researchers suggested that economic factors might play a key role. When a city grows larger, they wrote, wage rate and cost of living increase, and with that the value of a resident's time. As a result, "economizing on time becomes more urgent and life becomes more hurried and harried," Walmsley and Lewis suggest.

cmaukonen said...

Indeed RanDomino. Think of 12 step groups and theatre companies. A number of which I have been involved with and all run in a non-hierarchical manner.

Unknown said...

The first hierarchies have to do with slavery and patriarchy which are based upon the capacity to accumulate and centralize food stacks and stocks. One way for semi-automous groupings to avoid this outcome has been to remain in what we would consider poverty or even intentional elemental simplicity. Another way was the ingenious method of undermining centralization via the sharing of wealth known as the potlatch.

Brian said...

This notion of "utopianism" (usually applied derogatively to anarchists) finally being correctly applied to far-right ideologues is really starting to gain ground. Witness this article: http://www.alternet.org/election-2012/how-propagandists-1-are-manipulating-christian-teachings-rob-middle-class

The most inspiring thing for me about the Occupy movement, besides its simply happening at all, is watching actual anarchic organization in practice. Perfect? Of course not. But there it was/is, and I felt, for once, hopeful about my species. (That feeling has, of course, shriveled since.)

VyseLegendaire said...

I agree with your final conclusions – collapse is an engineered process. However I disagree with your use of the term 'utopian' for the various ideologies that have led us down this path. Utopianism is at its heart something which, I believe, might be the final goal of anarchism – rather than a clouded worldview like those of priests and politicians it is an expression of the ironic folly of ideologies – since by its nature it is all-inclusive.

Paulcito said...

Thanks Dmitri very much for posting this outstanding and clearly presented 3 parter.

I would say though that I doubt that us engineers of collapse, at least for a long time, have for the most part been aware of what we have been engineering or working for. I really did not myself early in my career, even though as a spiritually oriented and artistic person, the writing on the wall was always right in front of me. Now though more and more cogs and specialists surely must be aware of what is happening and what they really are working for since it is so obvious now, that this accelerated dysfunction and decay is simply not yielding to any additional new sorts of engineered solutions on top they dedicate their working lives to. When one knows this and experiences this feeling of being "trapped", it creates a physiology of stress, fatigue and exhasution that tends to promote cowardice. At some point, it becomes extremely difficult to find the courage to make necessary changes and start to get real, to have some sort of chance, as the old paradigm crumbles..especially as one gets older. An excrutiating dark night of the soul of realization can be a salvation for an individual. The problem is the sick psych medicine instititions that handle such misfits trying to find their way to what is real through temporary insanity still run on at this time, and they can easily nab you and kill you for daring to actually fall apart and drop out under the stress.

In general, even as I am 48 yo myself, I see that the new paradigm is a time for wise, flexible, and dynamic youth to emerge, and the old and static of us to pass along, unless individually some of us relative oldsters are able to make the effort and commitment in all areas of who we really are, to really focus and get back to the young essence of who we really are and want to be in this life. It is going to surely be beyond the capacity of most. I feel good about myself, who I am and what I am doing right now, but also have doubts at times knowing how different things must be, and ultimately fully and truly discarding the "square self" that my professional adult life has by and large been about.

Greenwood said...

"...Not that I think organization is "bad" or "impure" - as long as it's temporary..."

Corporations were originally set up as limited entities for limited time frames to build large projects... (i.e. bridges and such)

They have completely morphed into perverted rigidly hierarchical 'individuals'. What sad pathetic a joke.

I just saw a bumper sticker that said:

"I'll believe Corporations are 'people' when the State of Texas executes one of them."

Beautiful Food Gardens said...

Band boosters are an anarchy. Sure there's a leader, but the parents and others join in or leave as they want to. If the leader gets too strict or harsh the parents don't show up. It's all about coming together to help their own kids, and when the kids graduate or leave the band then the parents move on too. But band boosters do some amazing things!

Daniel Voronoff said...

Further evidence for cooperative behaviour as the secret or our evolutionary success is captured in Edward O Wilson's latest book: The Social Conquest of Earth. It discusses lines of evidence showing that the site of natural selection is not at the individual level, but at the group level, where the most cooperatively organised groups are the best adapted for survival. Groups of people best able to empathise, read the intentions of others, to plan and cooperate as a whole, passed on their genetic endowment to future generations.

Jed Barahal said...

Dimitri, did you ever hear of Emile Capouya? He edited a collection of Kropotkin's back in the 70's. I took a class on the modern novel with him at Juilliard. A lot of fun. 

Terrace said...

Nir said-

"Band boosters are an anarchy. Sure there's a leader, but the parents and others join in or leave as they want to. If the leader gets too strict or harsh the parents don't show up."

This is how many native American societies operated before they were corralled on reservations. The Iroquois ran into problems when they became the frontline of European colonial expansion, because their looser governance meant that some young warriors would go off and do their own thing, with or without official sanctioning from the chiefs - and that had had plenty of precedent in their past. The problem is that when the French and British were gaming for control of the Northeast, this worked well for the Iroquois because they could play the sides off each other because they controlled strategic fur areas, paths and rivers. When the conflict became a British civil war (ie the Revolution), the theater shifted and the Iroquois were at a distinct disadvantage, and their loose-cannon raiding parties of young warriors became a pretext for the Americans to invade their homeland (the Sullivan-Clinton campaign, which was a land grab disguised as a pre-emptive military action).

As for the band booster parents, they can afford to be anarchic without consequence because they have/are resources that the band needs (money, volunteer help, etc). They can leave when they want, and come back again and be gratefully welcomed. But when anarchic groups no longer control vital resources, or no longer have something to offer the hierarchy they are facing (as happened with the Iroquois - as all the Americans wanted was their farmland, not their strategic position or the now-gone fur trade), things get dicey.

The British, at least, valued Iroquois loyalty somewhat. Americans only valued their territory. In the real world, anarchic groups must have something to bargain with when it comes to dealing with existing hierarchies. For the Iroquois it used to be fur and warriors; for modern anarchic groups I can only really see things like drugs and rare earth metals, or perhaps advanced skills like hacking.

Dave said...

I have been coming to Club Orlov for a couple of months now and have enjoyed the readings and comments. I came across a video of one Jacques Ellul. I'm betting Dmitry and other Club Orlov regulars already know about him, but I thought I'd share the video anyway because some of what Jacques covers in it goes right along with what Dmitry has written in the past few posts.

Film is in French w/English subtitles.

Sorry again if this has been duplicated. I am not familiar with blogger and don't know if my comment was sent before I was prompted to create a profile.

RanDomino said...

Terrace said...
"In the real world, anarchic groups must have something to bargain with when it comes to dealing with existing hierarchies. For the Iroquois it used to be fur and warriors; for modern anarchic groups I can only really see things like drugs and rare earth metals, or perhaps advanced skills like hacking."

The historically most-successful Anarchist movements/organizations have been labor unions. This makes sense for a lot of reasons and is a good strategy, since it puts the focus directly on capitalism in people's daily lives, and since the oligarchs can't get rid of the working class (but we can get rid of the ruling class!). Furthermore, "by organizing industrially we are forming the structure of the new society within the shell of the old."

However, just to be clear, we have no interest in "bargaining with" labor as unions do today, but rather using it as unassailable economic power. You seem to imply that Anarchist groups could coexist with empires. Impossible. They would never rest until we were conquered. We are not interested in "bargaining" with tyrants, but destroying them.

philsharris said...

Dimitri & all
I have long valued Kropotkin – perhaps because of my wandering childhood with a small band of friends, and our sitting round a fire as the stars came out, discussing the universe and other intriguing matters. It was not always so idyllic, but once seen, never forgotten.

I think the anthropological literature is valuable. I would like to see an update of Morris Berman's book "Wandering God" because he opened up several interesting and in my opinion, fruitful lines of enquiry. He takes very much your view that what he calls group "fission-and-fusion" is a basic human strategy for our ancestral hunter gatherer social groups. He discusses evidence for "levelling mechanisms”.

My opinion is that we do to a degree preserve some options for primate 'pecking order' mechanisms, and elements of primate breeding strategies, but strikingly differ in very important respects from the generic 'primate group' structures. We live even longer for a start and also have longer periods of individual survival beyond the reproductive phase. We have lost a lot of sexual-dimorphism, and we operate a breeding strategy rare in mammals, let alone primates, that is more similar to "colonial monogamy", more often seen in examples of bird colonies. Our "fission-and-fusion" allows for out breeding as well as kinship support, and creates opportunities to mend gaps in the continuity of knowledge and skill base. We also practice reciprocal feeding, for example as seen in mother-child relations that go well beyond just suckling (personal observation). And so on ...
Hard work though being and retaining our human nature in the face of regression to group stability based on a degree of in-fighting, as in the baboon troupe. We lack the baboons' natural limitations and it does tend to get out of hand.

Very best and thanks


100th Monkey said...

New to ClubOrlov and just wanted to say I am astonished by the quality of the writing and discussion. How the hell did we end up with the muppets on mainstream TV commenting on the morons in government when there is such a depth of analysis and compassion right here? You should all run for President next time round ;-)))))
I am now going to buy some books on anthropology, history, sociology, political science, economics, evolutionary biology, theology, psychology, complexity theory and law just so I can contribute something sensible..... but just for now..... ANARCHY RULES!

Terrace said...

RanDomino said-
"We are not interested in "bargaining" with tyrants, but destroying them."

Sounds like quite a Project. :-)

Mark said...

Beginning with the 3 part discussion of Kropotkin and Anarchism, through many comments and links, this has been like a symposium on thinking, the mind, and the post-modern world. I had to start a new folder for bookmarks, labeled, "new ideas". I've had such a folder in my head for the past 40 years; the list is a list of books. Seems like I'm not the only one with curiosity!

May I suggest a few books from my list tangential as may be? Colin Turnble (?) wrote "The Forest People" and "the Mountain People" about people in Congo. Gregory Bateson wrote, "Mind and Nature (A Necessary Unity)" about well, questions and answers. Jacob Bronowski wrote, "The Origins of Knowledge and Imagination" about why the later is more important than the former (hi-hi). Also, published 40 yrs ago, "Limits To Growth" which is about what is now happening in the 21st Century, and ends with the question, what gives our life meaning?

Unknown said...

Great article. It seems to parallel in more ways than one what I just recently read in David Holmgren's Permaculture--Principles and Pathways Beyond Sustainability:

"The progressive elimination of materials inventories because of the "just-in-time" manufacturing strategy shows the extreme pursuit of high efficiency at the cost to self-reliance and flexibility.
In systems theory, the adage that "loose systems last longer and work better" suggests that flexibility can be more important than efficiency. Systems ecology recognises that stable conditions give advantage to highly specialised species, but that changing conditions favour species known as generalists that can adapt to different food, habitat or other factors. Specialisation comes at a cost to flexibility; generalisation comes at a cost to efficiency. In the example of the builders, the owner-builder is the generalist; the professional is the specialist.
Many permaculture strategies and techniques are generalist in nature, allowing a high degree of flexibility with less emphasis on efficiency."

Walter Broner said...

It's rare to find an intelligent discussion on important issues. Much praise to Dimitri for his article and to the folks commenting. My personal research has been very much along similar lines, so it was gratifying to see others traverse the same territory.