Monday, 27 February 2012

Anarchy As Personal Relationship

Let's start with a few unpalatable truths. Anarchy - understood as a society that rejects power, where all associations are voluntary - is never going to happen.  Neither, for that matter, will communism, or unrestricted free-market capitalism.  The human race as we know it is probably not going to survive for much longer, either: there are too many outside forces that can kill us and ways that we have devised to kill ourselves.  Even if somehow, in the limited time we have left, we were able to isolate all the anarchists on the planet and let them form a society, we would still not arrive at anarchy.  For one, our cultural biases (mostly statist, patriarchal, power-loving, violent) are too strong to let us arrive at a peaceful arrangement.  Secondly, very few anarchists today are in agreement.  In the absence of a realistic political goal to move towards - or even the possibility of such - we've taken refuge in theory, becoming 'hyphenated anarchists'.  So what's the point of being an anarchist?

You might say that anarchism is right inasmuch as any political philosophy is right. It diagnoses the problem with society as concentrations of power, primarily state power, and you might think this is more accurate than the communist view that the problem is with the way money works. You might even think they amount to much the same thing! But all this thinking and thinking is sterile: it provides no course of action other than revolution, which is both bloody and futile. Can anarchism guide our actions in a more useful way?

I think it can. As a Stoic, I dismiss out of hand any wish to involve myself in the realm of large-scale politics - voting, for instance, joining a revolution (to some extent, even protesting) - because large-scale politics is totally out of my control.  I dismiss out of hand any wish to prevent further concentrations of state power or exercises of state violence - sabotage or raising public awareness, for instance - because to prevent this is totally out of my control. What's left, after these two wishes are dismissed? Only anarchy as it pertains to daily life.

When IOZ and Jack Crow claim that anarchism entails radical feminism, they're arguing for the practicality of anarchism.  Being aware of and repudiating rape culture, trying to avoid situations where women justifiably feel threatened, listening to what women have to say - these are useful things that all anarchists should do, since they minimize the amount of coercion one exerts on others. Joining rallies and vandalizing government buildings are secondary, since they have far less positive effect.  So practicing feminism is one useful way to practice day-to-day anarchism.

There are other things we can do as well. We can treat those with less power than us in ways that don't rely upon the difference in power. We can think hard about using insults that are insignificant for us but significant for other people, insults that usually highlight their lack of power. Does this sound familiar? It should: it's pretty much the idea that we should be aware of our own privilege, or the myriad of power structures that we're embedded in at birth. Health, ethnicity, wealth, gender, sexual orientation, nationality - all these things let us coerce others in socially acceptable ways that are invisible not just to those around us but to ourselves. If we anarchists are committed to rejecting coercion - rather than just rejecting state coercion - then we need to regularly check our privilege.

This is something like Charles Dickens' idea of revolution: not a revolution put in place by force, but a revolution inside the heart of every individual. In short, anarchists might not be able to create a decent world, but - if our politics is valuable in any way - we should be able to make ourselves into decent human beings.


Thanks to Prof Crispy for his definition of anarchy as a society where all human interactions are entirely voluntary.  Thanks to Jack Crow for, somewhere in the comments chez IOZ, saying that 'his anarchism was not hyphenated'.  I've used both of these in my post.

This, if anything, is the anarchism I believe in - this is the core of my political philosophy. In other words, my personal anarchism entails my political anarchism, not the other way around.


  1. Although I've said it before, I feel I must preface my comments with a disclaimer: I'm not an anarchist. Rather, I consider myself to be, at least for the sake of putting myself into a category, an agnostic Onanist.

    Having said that, I'd simply like to state my belief that adherence to any extrinsic principle perpetuates the ill that one decries in the first place, albeit in the opposite direction.

    Thus, to use our recent example, to combat sexism I should adhere to principles of feminism. Although for most of us that's a no-brainer, it becomes significantly more difficult when confronted by one of feminism's sworn enemies - a situation which leaves us with few pacific choices other than heated arguments while casting aspersions on our opponents - which, of course, casts us into the category of projecting our social norms onto others, which, by definition, is putting ourselves into a position of moral superiority.

    So while I don't mind saying that I agree with feminism as a practical matter, there's no way in hell I'm going to become a committed feminist.

    Likewise there's no way I'm going to become a communist, an anarchist, an adherent of the Enlightenment, a scientist, or even a cartoonist for that matter.

    I suppose I don't mind categorizing myself as an agnostic Onanist, because there aren't many who are willing to jump onto that bandwagon - at least in public!

  2. Pied Cow, I think agnostic Onanism is an excellent philosophy for taking hold of the problems I raised in this post. You've grasped firmly what I've been trying to say, and your analysis is both gentle and thorough. It's clear you've spent a lot of time turning over and playing around with your own philosophy - any attempt to spill the seeds of my own ideas on you would be unforgivably rude.

    That said: projecting your moral norms onto others certainly does put yourself into a position of moral superiority, but why on earth is that a bad thing? I claim a position of moral superiority over many abhorrent philosophies, and I would be highly suspicious of agnostic Onanist who doesn't. In the immortal words of Good Will Hunting, y'all are suspect.

  3. Hi Philboyd, I hope I didn't create a misconception. I'll openly proclaim that I cast myself into positions of moral superiority all the time, and I have lots of fun doing it!

    I was simply addressing the point I inferred - perhaps incorrectly - from your post that it's morally superior (or at least less contradictory) to be an anarchist from an interior perspective than it is from a more socially-engaged perspective, i.e., by voting, protesting, etc.

    Not that interior or exterior engagement is problematic; rather the problem as I see it is that of anarchism; and not only of anarchism, but of adopting as true any systematic philosophy that functions to inform correct and incorrect action or, for that matter, inaction.

    Whether we like it or not, anarchism is a set of principles originally articulated by the likes of Bakunin and Prudhon that categorize certain events in the physical world into a metaphysics that can be called upon to provide an ethical context to all other events.

    The same is true of Catholicism, Platonism, Buddhism, etc., etc., etc.

    The problem is that these systems function as points of differentiation that leave us with little real meaning in life because each of us is free to interpret what the guiding principles means to each of us.

    So I can rightly say "I'm an anarchist, and because of that truth I am going to goon the poor slob standing next to me with this lead pipe."

    And my neighbor, also an anarchist, says, "That's all very well and good because principles of anarchism have informed him that bludgeoning that poor bastard was an ethically proper thing to do."

    So we are left with no meaning. In the alternative, we are left with a choice: either adopt a rigid ethical code of behavior (as the fundamentalists seem to have done) or say "Screw the whole lot of it" and adopt, perhaps, Irrelevance as our guiding non-principle.

    I find this to be far superior as a guidepost for correct action. "Philosophical beliefs? Fuck 'em!"

  4. I certainly don't want to come off like I'm ridiculing you - simply having a bit of fun with the name of your way of life - and I appreciate you explaining your position to me. It's very hard for me to understand! Are you saying that there's no such thing as philosophical consistency, or that interpretation is so broad that no philosophy has any meaning-in-itself at all - making 'anarchist' and 'nazi' synonyms in practice?

  5. I guess it's this: for myself, I'm not going to adopt principles to inform my behavior, particularly if they've been concocted by somebody else.

    The most important reason is that it's important to me not to fall prey to the same fate that every other poor bastard falls into when he or she adopts someone else's principles and gets burned by them. Screw that. If I'm going to mess things up I'd rather mess them up according to the way I best saw them - that is, not through a lens that some other person provided to me.

    Not adopting the ideas of others as guiding principles has a decided practical advantage: when someone leader tells me to take up my weapons and join the fight against the terrorist hordes I can reply without giving the matter hardly a thought, "Yeah, right pal, you first!" (or perhaps better yet, just to shoot the son of a bitch who told me that I have to fight a supposed enemy whom I haven't even met. Now that'll fix him!)

    The second reason is that of interpretation. We all know that anarchists, for example, can quibble until the (pied) cows come home about this or that fine point. We certainly know the same about quibbling between persons with more dramatically opposed points of view, as in your example, anarchists and nazis.

    In the final analysis, however, each of these partisans is saying precisely the same thing: "I'm right and you're wrong!" (And so they take out their lead pipes and bludgeon each other.)

    Insofar as these people are concerned, then, there is no right or wrong because those notions have cancelled themselves out.

    So speaking practically, what does it matter then? Or better yet, what does it mean? I suggest that, practically speaking, it means nothing at all.

    Is that a tragic conclusion? Perhaps, if looked upon that way. But if looked upon another way it's a very happy conclusion, particularly since the person experiencing the conclusion has the sole choice over whether it's happy or tragic - since other opinions are for all practical purposes irrelevant.

    By the way, I didn't feel ridiculed at all. Let it rip!

  6. Ah, I think I get it. You're - and forgive me for trying to shove you into categories which you probably reject - something like an ideological nihilist. I'd make two points, then:

    Is your position self-refuting? You're adopting the principle that you ought not to adopt principles, which on a superficial level sounds like a contradiction. (I suspect you've already got reasons for why it's not, I'd just like to know them.)

    This - the person experiencing the conclusion has the sole choice over whether it's happy or tragic - since other opinions are for all practical purposes irrelevant - sounds an awful lot like Stoicism! You probably haven't arrived there for Stoic reasons, but you're still at a position where you get to choose how happy your own life is.

    Also (okay, three points, I lied,) you're sounding very existential. What does it mean? Nothing, ergo anarchism means nothing as well. I think that might very well be an unassailable position.

  7. I think someone forgot to tell you two poseurs that philosophy isn't just two fabricated e-personae talking bluster and pap on the internet.

    You're discussing philosophy in the same way Pol Pot was implementing democratically humanizing social reform efforts.

  8. Haha, oh man: "fabricated e-personae talking bluster and pap on the internet". Sure, Karl, whatever you say.