Good anarchy and bad

Bad anarchy is like life in the state of nature described by 17th-century philosopher, Thomas Hobbes: “nasty, brutish, and short.”

Good anarchy is the Age of Aquarius vision of the flower children, who were fed up with the convention-bound thinking that had brought us the world of war, machines, and straightjacket moralities. “Rules and regulations, who needs them?” sang hippie icon, Graham Nash, in 1970, with bandmates David Crosby, Stephen Stills, and Neil Young.

The risk, presaged by The Beatles (“Revolution,” 1968) and The Who (“We Don’t Get Fooled Again,” 1971), is that you might expect one kind of anarchy but you can’t be sure you won’t get the other.

(For my academic friends, thus Bakunin’s charge against Marx redoubles back upon Bakunin.)

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27 thoughts on “Good anarchy and bad

    • You’re not a political philosopher or an academic, but like any good Saxon mother’s son, you’re a Miltonist. “Paradise Lost” is if nothing else a cosmic expression of the paradoxical relationship between freedom and obedience.

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  1. Isn’t the “good anarchy” you tantalize us with (without really describing) merely trading one set of conventions (more capitalist, less socialist) for another (more socialist, less capitalist)? Without any conventions, bad anarchy is allowed to boil out of the pot and eventually burn the kitchen to the ground (until some strong man or group of strong men can impose other conventions).

    Just a guess, but isn’t Graham Nash a multi-millionaire now?

    Conventions, some better, some worse, are what make human civilization possible. Are you wishing for an end to civilization?

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    • I suppose, to both you, Chris, and Steve, I’d say that pure anarchy is of the Hobbesian variety. But short of that there is quite a gradient as far as how much your life is controlled by rules/regulations/conventions. For example, as laid out in my fine blog entry called “Letter from a Fashion Anarchist,” the people who have worked under me in my department were much less limited by conventions of what to wear to work than many of their peers in comparable positions. They could wear suits, T-shirts, costume apparel, I couldn’t care less…. Now apply that on a larger scale. I think Steve, despite the tone of his comment above, would agree, given previous test results that placed him rather toward the libertarian than the authoritarian end of the gradient when it comes to political structures. In other words, Chris, not all sets of conventions are equal … and not all are equally binding, depending on how much freedom communal norms tolerate. In my Republic of Fashion Anarchy, enforcement of our own conventions will be cavalier to non-existent.

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      • I will wear flip-flops to the office on Monday in your honor.

        I would also submit that the fashion of dress is freer in America than it is among the highland tribes of New Guinea… and in just about any other place on Earth.

        I’m not worried about passive tyranny; smart people learn with time, they wake up eventually. What scares me is active tyranny large (Vlad Putin, et al) and small (the rapist or the murderer). Such types will always seek to use their fellows for sport or advantage. Such types make the rule of law (a convention) vital to any proposed -archy.

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    • An excellent point (and blog post), Malcolm.

      Though, might we also attach the long lens and note that human evolution, in its entirety, is a running experiment in anarchy or, as you refer to it, spontaneous order, no matter how established (cooperation or coercion)? And would this experiment also include rulers, singular or collective, and rules, decreed or democratically legislated, however instituted?

      Is anarchy, then, synonymous with trial-and-error, inclusive of all possibilities?

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      • Chris, an excellent question which gets to the nub of the issue. Evolution is not the same as anarchy. Top down order is as much a product of evolution as markets. To say otherwise would be to ignore the concept of power. If Tibetan culture is wiped out it would not be because it suffered from some type of evolutionary disadvantage but because it was destroyed by Chinese state power. Presumably this is an example of evolution as I suppose, everything is. Anarchy is rather the concept that if you leave people alone to get on with their lives, solutions to problems will emerge from the voluntary and spontaneous interactions of numerous individuals, which are more efficient and more effective than if they were imposed from above. I hope that helps.

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        • Enjoying all points of view. I definitely accept your point, Malcolm, about how anarchy supports spontaneous bottom-up solutions, but I’m not sure that this is the whole picture or that this is inconsistent with Chris’s position (as I see it), which is that if you leave people alone to get on with their lives, they will not only solve problems but will also form conglomerates to gain leverage, then conglomerates will get into arms races with other conglomerates … so the whole thing is anarchy playing itself out.

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          • When people live together in society, disputes inevitably arise. There are only two ways to resolve these disputes; violently or peacefully. Because violence has high costs and produces unpredictable results, human beings naturally seek peaceful alternatives.

            Business is contracted around the world among parties from all countries. Although there is neither a world government nor a world court, businesses don’t go to war with each other over contract disputes. The reason they don’t is that parties to international transactions usually select in advance, the dispute settlement mechanism they prefer from among the many options available to them. Few choose trial by combat. It is too expensive and unpredictable. Many elect to submit their disputes to the London Commercial Court, a British court known for the commercial expertise of its judges and its speedy resolution of cases that non-British parties may use for a fee. Others subscribe to companies such as the American Arbitration Association that provide mediation and arbitration services. Most do whatever they can to avoid becoming enmeshed in the coils of the courts provided by the federal and state governments of the US which move at a glacial pace and provide relatively unpredictable results. The evidence suggests that international commercial law not only functions quite well without government courts, it functions better because of their absence.

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            • I appreciate the details, Malcolm, especially because they’re outside the scope of my expertise. I find your argument convincing here (although I’m not in a position to independently verify). My only questions would be regarding the idea that I, like most “layman,” suspect there’s a lot of predatory, less-than-savory activity (along with the more wholesome activity) among businesses wheeling and dealing on the international markets. That this activity is in part checked by the commercial courts seems believable, but those courts seem to be functioning as the same kind of “exoskeleton” whereof we spoke. Sure, it’s technically not an official government, but it performs a very similar role of external enforcement on interested parties. So it seems (again, to us “laymen”) that it functions as a check against unfettered anarchy much like governments (which may indeed have arisen to address the same exact structural needs) do.

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    • Thanks, Malcolm, for adding a little scholarly gravitas (and humor to boot) to my off-the-cuff musing on anarchy. You have your finger on the wiggly point of the dialectic: How much ordering of our social life should be left to spontaneity? I think you’re right that most of it is spontaneous (or “bottom-up” conventions I might prefer to say, since these conventions may take shape over a long period, involving much comical trial and error at whatever Starbucks precursors held sway in the Stone Age, but the point is that they’re not imposed by an external power structure). But then some parts of that spontaneous order get codified into an exoskeleton. I suppose your orderly anarchist would allow some such exoskeleton to maintain law and order, but would keep it to a minimum. My instinct tracks more toward Greenhill than Hobbes, but I’m guessing Hobbes would say that if you remove the exoskeleton entirely, the spontaneous orders won’t last long but will deteriorate back to a less orderly state of nature.

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      • “if you remove the exoskeleton entirely, the spontaneous orders won’t last long but will deteriorate back to a less orderly state of nature.”

        I certainly agree that the struggle between civilization and barbarism will always be with us. However, in general people are willing to pay more in terms of time, money and resources, to defend their own way of life than they are to impose their way of life on others. This provides some hope, if not much. Freedom is fragile.

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  2. “The risk is that You might expect one type of anarchy… And can’t be sure that You would get other, instead’…
    So true… And well said. I Was thinking of what Marxism and Marxists expected and what they got … 😏
    Al my best wishes. Aquileana ☀️

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    • Hola Aquileana! Yes, same with Marxism. In many cases it failed exactly as Marx’s sometime comrade Bakunin had predicted it would, with terrible human consequences. In other cases, Marx’s (or at least broadly socialist) thought was incorporated more beneficially, as in Western Europe, whose democracies are more socialized than ours in the U.S. Indeed — and here I will probably rub my friend Malcolm the wrong way — I think the socialist elements in those governments, and to a lesser extent here in the U.S., help protect the middle and working classes (and the environment) from being exploited by very powerful private formations of capital. Sorry Malcolm 🙂

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  3. Interesting exchanges. But if you really want to achieve Bakunin’s “No Gods, No Masters” (or is it the other way around?—my memory fades) you are once again talking about needing radically different human beings to do so. Perhaps a world of philosophers as Voltaire said. People would need to be able to think for themselves, find meaning in their own lives as opposed to religion, nationalism etc. and be able to care for each other without a governmental structure. True anarchism is not libertarianism. Bakunin’s point, as I understood it many years ago, was as much a psychological one as a political one. This is the nub of much of Gary’s thought—the Aquarius man/woman. And while admirable, as the pessimist, I tend to think it is not possible. I don’t see humanity’s evolutionary arc headed in that beneficent direction but rather, as all evolution tends to do in my mind, to extinction. On the other hand what may be possible is that anarchist thought can have a beneficial effect on other forms of government/social interaction. If I can use the analogy, it may be like the effect absorbing Buddhist tenets could have on a Christian—it changes Christianity for the better (See Thomas Merton). Or as I told a class of law students yesterday—“If you have long hair, an earing, tattoos, dress oddly, wear a hat, and you are a very good lawyer, these things will be called idiosyncrasies. If you have those same things and are a bad lawyer, these things will just confirm that you are a bad lawyer.”

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    • I actually waver between your pessimism and my own optimism, Mike. There is one rationale for optimism that might have traction for you. If we had to rely on my hippie ideology to turn the ship, your pessimism seems warranted. But if the raw instinct to survive is driving the shift, that might be more credible for you. I.e., in an age of nuclear proliferation, the drive to survive may push away from the age-old paradigm of tribal war toward something more collaborative; in an age where we are increasingly capable of tearing through the world’s remaining resources, the drive to survive may push away from the sense of human nature/fulfillment based on who can stockpile the most consumer goods toward something more sustainable. Of course, you’re right, we could just go extinct, but at least there may be some cold evolutionary processes incentivizing a shift toward something like the collectivist anarchy of my Aquarian waifs. (Bakunin’s version of revolution is too violent and his vision, like Marx’s, too deeply entrenched in the age of homo economicus for my taste. Indeed – and here I think you and I agree – when Bakunin scoffed that Marx’s plan would just result in a another statist elite, I think the charge applies to Bakunin as well, so long as the “will to power” is a key feature of human identity.)

      In any event, let the good stuff leak in, as you say of Buddhist tenets (although Marx and Bakunin – and my own apocalyptic sense of those ecological imperatives – balk at the incrementalism). Put another way, may my “Hippies” novel be required reading in the very near future!

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  4. I wish I could go there with you old friend as it would be a better place, but I just don’t see the seeds of that enlightened psychological turn around. We have evolved to survive but the altruistic psychological component does not seem as developed as need be for your vision to survive. It certainly does not exist in our generation, which it seems to me was easily co-opted by the lure of materialism/consumerism. And with technology now being an integral part of human evolution I fear that Rousseau’s old critique of the effect of technology will be more warranted than ever. We are becoming more like the universe, expanding away from each other instead of embracing a ‘singularity’—our shared origins. But keep pushing. One never knows when the world changes until after the fact.

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    • Maybe we’re both part right. The survival instinct will indeed start reshaping human nature to match new conditions on the ground, but it will be too little too late. So you win. But you’ll have to do your victory dance from the other side of extinction.

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  5. For Good Anarchy to work we don’t need rules and regulations as much as Purpose with a capital P, or in other words, a purpose that is authentically human. I think Lev Tolstoy and Albert Einstein would have agreed with me on this point – if nobody else. If we (humanity) can imagine John Lennon’s Imagine, and then apply that imagined thing to a purposeful aim, then we can progress in an anarchic and happy way toward that aim. But first, we might have to teach the Beatles in all primary schools.

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    • A commendable premise, but oh so difficult to capitalize the P when over seven billion minds, most hopelessly polluted by millennia of superstitious culture and religion, have to somehow agree upon a definition (or have a definition pressed upon them).

      “There exists no greater or more painful anxiety for a man who has freed himself from all religious bias, than how he shall soonest find a new object or idea to worship.”
      – Dostoevsky

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      • Aye, there’s the rub. The larger your anarchist collective gets, the harder to maintain any unity of purpose. And if your unity of purpose is “anything goes,” do you revert back to the Hobbesian state of nature? I think Malcolm (perhaps the true anarchist in our group) would say no unity of purpose needed other than “live and let live,” and spontaneous order will logically emerge as problems arise. Chris might say that the whole history of civilization is Malcolm’s test tube case, with some anarchistic prehistory leading to people organizing into groups to protect their interest, leading to competing… and up to us. But if we can follow Paul’s Beatles curriculum directive, maybe it will be different next time. Evolution repeats itself, but at a higher level of consciousness (i.e., “intentional”) 🙂

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    • Yes to P, Paul. That’s why all those old hippie co-ops and communes have come to put themselves under the umbrella term of “intentional communities.” The ones that survived were the ones that remained conscious of their unity of purpose.

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