Anarchism, Prescription, and Prediction

Recently I've been challenged in political conversations to stop bitching about the problems in other people's ideologies and propose something better (here and here). This puts me in an interesting quandry as an anarchist, since one of the problems I have with politics - especially statism - is the need to achieve certain outcomes deemed desirable. Once you've landed on the model you insist society must fit, it's no big leap to go from wishing for your ideal to advocating conformity to that ideal, by force if necessary.

As an anarchist, I believe that distributed systems of decision making like the market are the best ways for processing information and organizing society. Central planning doesn't work, and my ideology seeks to better understand the way humans relate rather than making them turn into something they're not. Therefore, since I don't wish to impose a plan on anybody, I really have none to offer - just ideas, reflections, and some theories. This often cripples me rhetorically, though - people don't seem to understand why I can't just "give them a plan" for how anarchism would work. It just goes to show you how deeply ingrained politics and central, top-down managerialism really is in our society.

Robert Anton Wilson laid out some concise definitions that highlight the political spectrum in ways that speak succinctly to this issue of why statists and anarchists have a hard time finding common ground:

  • FREE MARKET: That condition of society in which all economic transactions result from voluntary choice without coercion.
  • THE STATE: That institution which interferes with the Free Market through the direct exercise of coercion or the granting of privileges (backed by coercion).
  • POLITICAL CAPITALISM: That organization of society, incorporating elements of tax, usury, landlordism, and tariff, which thus denies the Free Market while pretending to exemplify it.
  • CONSERVATISM: That school of capitalist philosophy which claims allegiance to the Free Market while actually supporting usury, landlordism, tariff, and sometimes taxation.
  • LIBERALISM: That school of capitalist philosophy which attempts to correct the injustices of capitalism by adding new laws to existing laws. Each time conservatives pass a law creating privilege, liberals pass another law modifying privilege, leading conservatives to pass a more subtle law recreating privilege, etc., until "everything not forbidden is compulsory" and "everything not compulsory is forbidden."
  • SOCIALISM: The attempted abolition of all privilege by restoring power entirely to the coercive agent behind privilege, the State, thereby converting capitalist oligarchy into Statist monopoly. Whitewashing a wall by painting it black.
  • ANARCHISM: That organization of society in which the Free Market operates freely, without taxes, usury, landlordism, tariffs, or other forms of coercion or privilege.
    • RIGHT ANARCHISTS predict that in the Free Market people would voluntarily choose to compete more often than to cooperate.
    • LEFT ANARCHISTS predict that in the Free Market people would voluntarily choose to cooperate more often than to compete.

See the difference? Statists - whether minarchist or totalitarian - define their politics in terms of what people should be. Anarchists define their ideology by how we think people actually are in their natural, uncoerced state.

Statists are prescriptive, setting forth the exact way they think things have to work in order for the natural world to be acceptable. Something needs to be done to make the world, better, and so the whole task for them entails the philosophical arrival at some desirable societal result they think is necessary - above all others - to achieve in order for "things to work". Once this essential ingredient is identified - the key cause to which all of society's problems can be reduced - the statist articulates the now justified political (coercive legal or managerial) means by which we arrive at that end. Whether or not their prescriptive plans ever really work - or could work - is not nearly as important to them as justifying the rightness of their plan. Even base pragmatism in politics is only useful in the context of some end state to achieve - and all too often that goal is simply keeping things the way they are: a rear guard defense against any progress whatsoever.

I find it interesting that many statists of different stripes tend to find fault among each other, not because of the goals they pursue (though this does sometimes occur), but because of the means they propose to reach the goal. This matter of "the plan" is the crucial issue they use to critique one another, and it's no surprise that my refusal to engage in prescriptive politics stymies their ability to advance, defend or even modify their plans in response to my criticisms. One wonders whether statists ever really wrap their heads around the idea that not only do they not have all the answers, but that trying to manage a complex adaptive system like a market society without having omniscience is an exercise in futility. Indeed, there are some schools of thought that see the unintended negative consequences of their necessarily shallow informational picture as necessary - look at social darwinism or royal absolutism for schools of thought that see certain types of human suffering as desirable. When your goal is to remake the world the way you want it, can you afford to really sweat the little stuff? At least these outwardly conservative types are up front that the utopia they seek is not for everybody.

The difference between the politics of prescription and anarchism could not be more pronounced. Anarchists take the world - lumps and all - as a given and seek to let the actual world we live in work on its own natural terms. Plans are not what we are after; we seek an uncoerced, unforced, purely voluntary society for its own sake. While this may seem like another example of an ideology fixating on one "social outcome" and promoting it to the exclusion of other desirable goals, this analysis fails to appreciate our view of society as the answer to social problems, not the cause. We view the market and the community as holistic systems that simply work - if allowed to. No plan, no grand managerial strategy necessary - simply let the system work things out.

In our debates among ourselves, anarchists are predictive: we differ in what exactly we think that natural system will look like once it achieves a stateless condition. However - and this is key - we would not reject a stateless society simply because it doesn't conform to "the way we think it ought to be". As long as the society is free from institutionalized coercion, people will be able to work their problems out - whether by competiting market players or cooperative enterprises. Sure, we sometimes have different analyses of the exact nature of the state, and our conception of human nature determines the scope of what we think society would be. But the number one thing to keep in mind is that freedom is an end in itself - we just happen to believe that things work better that way as well.

This is why the anarchist package is so hard to sell to statists: they're used to being sold a cure-all, not a value, let alone thinking deeply about the need for a cure-all. Politics has spun itself into such a complex array of prescriptive planning and systemic analysis that it often has no ability to appreciate simple truths like freedom, liberty, and individualism - even if some schools claim to advance those causes. Anarchists see overplanning from a paucity of information as the whole problem, so we're simply not going to participate in any wrestling for mastery of an irreducable spontaneous order. We're simply going to ask that these statists have some faith in humanity and let humans run the show for once. Let's see where it takes us! Surely we can't do worse than the last century for sheer violence, and the fact that we're still around despite the perfidity of state warfare and domination says something about how resillient civil society is.

Written on Tuesday, July 04, 2006