Monday, September 07, 2009

Jenny's question

In a comment on this post from the other day, commenter Jenny wrote:
And uh, while we're blah blahing (I mean so affectionately), what do you think of the anarchist ideology expressed on American Leftist? I don't think anything that Richard desires would technically be able to come to fruition successfully, not in our modern world at least.
I began to write a response but as has happened a couple of times before, it became rather long for a comment and I decided it merited being moved up to a post. So here it it:

Jenny -

I haven't read Richard much of late; it's one of a number of blogs that seem to drift up and down my mental list of daily reads.

I don't know if Richard thinks of himself as an anarchist. I don't recall him ever specifically describing himself as one, but then again, by my own admission I'm an intermittent reader so I may well have missed it. I do know I never thought of him that way; he always struck me more as a rather doctrinaire Marxist, which is one of the reasons I tended to drift away. I suppose in fairness both to him and to accuracy it would be more proper to call him an "anti-capitalist" rather than a "Marxist" (and yes, there is a difference) but there is more to anarchism (and, indeed, to Marxism) than anti-capitalism or even anti-classism, so the question remains, at least for me.

As for what I think of anarchism, I'll start by saying I hope that something that is clear from the "About me" bit in the right-hand column is that I don't think of myself as an "ist" of any sort. I suppose the "ist" to which I come closest is "pacifist" in that for reasons of conscience I refuse to participate in or endorse lethal violence. Even there, the adjective "lethal" is a significant qualifier in that it means I would not forswear any and all violence of any sort.

I'm tempted to explain that in rather considerable detail, but it's not the subject here, so I'll let it go. But something that is more relevant is that I have in the past described myself as an "anarchist-socialist-communalist-capitalist eclecticist iconoclast," a description that generally drove the more doctrinaire leftist types nuts as they started ranting about the "Contradictions!"

Still, there was a meaning to it: "I am a capitalist in that I believe in the 'Ma and Pa' store, the community-level enterprise. I'm a communalist in that I believe that cooperative ventures are better than competitive ones. I'm a socialist in that I believe that beyond a certain size, profit-seeking enterprises cannot be trusted to be responsible to the communities in which they operate and at that point the community as a whole has the right and the responsibility to step in to exercise control and make decisions. I'm an anarchist in that I believe in doing that with as little government as necessary and in individual freedom and civil liberties being at the maximum possible consistent with social justice. I'm an eclecticist in that I believe you can put this together into a reasonably coherent social philosophy. And I'm an iconoclast in that I believe 'the only ultimate answer is that there is no other ultimate answer' and if we ever did build a society along the lines I envision the first thing I'd do is to try to figure out what was wrong with it and how it could be improved."

With that background and getting back to anarchism specifically, my main criticism of it is not the typical one of equating it with chaos but rather one of scale. Anarchism works fine at a small scale - in fact, we, without realizing it, tend to spend a good portion of our lives living anarchistically: Despite what the dark lords of the right (and sometimes the left) would have us believe, the real reason most of us do not, for example, steal from our neighbors is not because we're afraid of going to jail but because, well, we just don't. It's just not right and generally doesn't even cross our minds unless something - perhaps economic desperation - brings it up. The point is that anarchism as a practice works best at a level where people do, or at least based on proximity could be reasonably expected to, know each other.

But that also means that beyond a certain admittedly nebulous point, as numbers increase, distances get longer, and the ability to directly interact shrinks, that tends to break down into the "us" who are here and the "them" who are over there. The fact that making such sometimes geographical but equally often psychological divisions seems to be universal and has persisted across human history indicates to me that it is something in us, in humans, rather than in the standards of the society or the economic system in which we are educated. If you will, "the fault lies not in our economies but in ourselves" that we think "good fences make good neighbors."

However, even though I don't think anarchism can function above a community level, still I want to see it pushed. I was to see the communes, the intentional communities, the worker-owned businesses, all of it and more - because I want to see how far in that direction we can go. If some well-into-the-future government was limited to (because there was no need for it to be involved in more than) resolving disputes among various intentional communities, great. Terrific. That statement would likely surprise a number of folks who assume that because I call myself a "democratic socialist" (another term I'm tempted to explain in detail but which again is not the subject) that I am automatically an advocate of "big government" who thinks, as I have been accused here more than once, that "government is always the answer." (What I think, rather, is that government is a tool which at its best is a vehicle through with a people acts on its ideals and in the world in which we presently live, in matters such as - to choose an obvious example - securing universal access to adequate health care, government is the only existing social institution big enough to do the job.)

So let a thousand worker-owned businesses bloom! Let a thousand communes and co-ops bloom! Just, um, with a different outcome than the original.

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