In Praise of Anarchy, Part II
[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 is 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.
What do you think? Leave a comment below.
Sign up for regular Resilience bulletins direct to your email.