The practice of anarchy

November 20, 2012

NOTE: Images in this archived article have been removed.

Image Removed In my previous three-part series on anarchy (available here, here and here) I argued, among other things, that anarchic (that is to say, non-hierarchical and self-organizing) systems are the norm in evolution and in nature and have also been the norm in human societies through much of their existence. They have a great deal to offer us as we attempt to navigate a landscape dominated by the failure of various centrally controlled, rigidly organized, explicitly codified hierarchical systems based on complex chains of command that have come to dominate human societies in recent centuries. I have also pointed out that, based on recent results from complexity theory, such hierarchical systems are collapse-prone. This is because they scale badly, increasing their metabolic cost per unit size as their size increases, which is just the opposite of how living organisms behave. This is also because, in order to continue to meet their internal maintenance requirements, they have to grow exponentially until they encounter physical limits.

But, as some astute readers have pointed out, what are we to do with all this excellent information? We live in a hierarchically structured society whose sometimes oppressive but always ever-present top-down authority we cannot escape. With many generations of people having become used to hearing anarchists vilified as terrorists, communist revolutionaries and having been conditioned to accept anarchy as a synonym for chaos and mayhem, any attempt at advocating anarchism as a political program is bound to go nowhere. We may be able to accept that anarchy is the way of nature, but we must also accept that it is no longer (at least for the time being) the way of human nature—or, if you like, not the way of man—or at least not the way of “the man”—the one who pays us a little something if we are helpful to him and orders us to be beat up or locked up if we are not. The advocate of anarchy is at best an amusing disembodied voice on the Internet (who must be dong something or other more practical to please the hierarchy in order to be able to afford the free time and the Internet connection). At worst, the compulsion to advocate anarchism as a program of political reform is a sign of mental illness.

Yes, the advocate of anarchist revolution is a sad sort of imbecile, but this is not to say that the theory that underpins anarchism is without any practical applications. It is just that such applications have nothing at all to do with politics. Just as anarchist thinking has at its source the scientific observation of nature, so must its applications to contemporary society start by observing the constructive role that anarchy normally plays within contemporary society, and then look for ways to extend it. Are there any examples of that? Yes, indeed there are. Whenever an existing hierarchically organized system becomes sufficiently ossified and dysfunctional to give an obvious edge to an improvised, anarchic, perhaps initially inferior alternative, there is a possibility that such an alternative will materialize out of nowhere, spread virally, become dominant, and then, in turn, become hierarchical and ossified. Let’s list some obvious examples.

The Protestant revolution is an obvious one. Once the Catholic church—a hierarchical organization par excellence, though built on top of the wreckage of anarchic early Christianity—became sufficiently corrupt and obnoxious, putting up toll booths before the gates of heaven and so forth, a variety of new self-selected religious leaders led a revolt, providing a viable, though rather primitive, alternatives, which then took over in many parts of the world, and eventually sprouted their own hierarchical structures thanks to the efforts of Luther. The Russian revolution is another one: once the general senility and obsolescence of the Czarist ancien régime became compounded by its failed effort durng World War I to a point where it could no longer quell bread riots, a variety of new self-selected political leaders stepped into the breach and provided an alternative, until it, again, sprouted a hierarchical organization of its own thanks to the efforts of Lenin. Seventy years later the stiff and morbid hierarchy into which it evolved was also tipped into the dustbin. More recently, when the first efforts at trade liberalization provided advantages of economies of scale, as well as labor and jurisdictional arbitrage, with which national enterprises could not compete, the trend became unstoppable, until there is now a single transnational business environment which is beyond any one nation’s control. If history is any guide (as it sometimes is) the inevitable result will be that a dangerously centralized global economic bureaucracy, conceived in an effort to control the forces of chaos globalization has unleashed, will briefly attempt to dominate the scene before crumbling into dust under its own weight.

Equally significant (and somewhat less fraught) examples of anarchy in action can be found in the area of computer technology. There was a time when computers made by different manufacturers came with their own different and incompatible operating systems. The manufacturers liked this state of affairs, in spite of the fact that it greatly inconvenienced the users, because it created lock-in: switching from one manufacturer to another involved expensive and time-consuming rewriting of software. Then it just happened that two minds at Bell Labs dreamt up a very simple and primitive operating system called Unix (its very name was initially a joke) which was written in a language called C that ran on a lot of different computers—and virally took over the world. Then Unix became a commercial product, instantly going from anarchical and free to hierarchical and expensive. But anarchy triumphed again when it was rewritten, through various efforts, in a way that prised it away from grubby corporate hands. A big role in all this was played by self-selected leaders. Richard Stallman’s GNU project (the acronym stands for “GNU is Not Unix”) created gcc, a free C compiler, and rewrote a great many Unix utilities to be free as well. Linux Torvalds, a graduate student in Finland, didn’t like the Windows system that his university-provided PC was running (he thought it was crap) and so he wrote the Linux operating system that leveraged GNU, creating a Unix variant that initially ran on PCs, but now runs inside a great many devices, from Android smartphones to WiFi routers to the Google search engine to virtually all of the world’s supercomputers. Eventually even Apple Computer saw the light, and its OS/X is a Unix variant. Unix is now ubiquitous, and the last non-Unix holdout is Microsoft, which is now clearly a dinosaur and sinking fast, while Linux-based Google and Unix-based Apple are eating its lunch. It started out as a joke and then went viral and took over: score one for anarchy.

There are many other such examples from many fields, but the pattern should already be clear: when a hierarchical organization—be it a church, a government or a corporation—create a structural impediment, and when a solution is found to circumvent a that structural impediment, even if it is just a quick and dirty one, a leader self-selects to create that alternative. If the effort is a success and the alternative takes root and becomes rampant, in due course it gives rise to a hierarchical organization of its own. In an effort to expand and consolidate its control over the newly created domain, that organization then sets its sights on crafting a new set of structural impediments. But in due course the deathly touch of hierarchy takes its toll, and then the cycle repeats. There doesn’t seem to be a lot that can be done to break the cycle, although there is a way to stretch it out by placing the new invention in the public domain (in software, this is done via the General Public License and a few others) or by declaring it an open, public standard. This has the effect of negating, or at least reducing, the undue influence of any one corporate entity, and this is almost always helpful because, first, corporations tend to be short-lived entities, and their influence shortens the lifetime of the invention, and second, corporations pursue profit by any means, such as by working against the interests others. But any significant invention is bound, over time, to come under the control of industry consortia, standards bodies, government regulators and other hierarchical entities, which eventually kill it. They may kill it with diligence or with neglect, but kill it they do, because in order for something to live forever and evolve freely it has to be organized anarchically, and that is a form of organization of which hierarchical organizations happen to be incapable.

I hope that this makes it clear what the practice of anarchism looks like. First of all, someone must lead; not seek a leadership position, not attempt to take charge or cease control, but simply go right ahead and start doing what needs to be done without asking anyone’s permission. The goal is to create a viable alternative of which others can avail themselves freely. But in order for this to succeed, the target must be chosen well: a significant structural impediment that can be circumvented with finite effort. Working either entirely by yourself (in secret if need be) or with a few informal helpers, to craft a quick and dirty solution that nevertheless embodies the right set of concepts to scale up and take over is quite a feat, and few people are capable of it, but it is nevertheless something that happens quite a lot.

The best targets are ones that can be circumvented through individual or small group effort, with minimal start-up costs and where the alternative can spread virally. And the worst? Well, they generally require proposing a package of reforms, organizing politically, engaging in group planning activities, lobbying government and so forth. As Peter Kropotkin put it over a century ago, “It’s about time we learned that such is the fate of all revolutionary laws: they are enacted only once they have become the established practice.” So, start practicing!

Tags: anarchy, Society