The Two Sides of the Skepticist's Coin

Anarchy: A Hard Sell

In one of my earlier posts, I commented on the barriers to the wider popular acceptance of anarchy. Most people doubt it's achievability or pragmatism. To a certain extent, I sympathize: it's difficult to model a world free of privilege and rulers in our minds. I can't disagree with their suspicion that such an experience would hardly be recognizable devoid of such overbearing features as police, taxes, corporations, nation states, etc. As manipulative and constricting as these institutions are, they at least provide a structure on which to rely. And most people just want to live their fucking lives.

As an alternative to the never-ending snake oil sales of mainstream statist politics, there's little anarchy can provide to fill that gap save theories and predictions. We want humanity to self-manage, organize in an unencumbered manner, and come up with solutions in a decentralized fashion. That necessarily precludes having "one plan" to rule them all. Accordingly, anarchy is often criticized as having no standard to which it can be held and fairly compared with other statist systems.

When people want answers to questions about how anarchy would look, we can't assume the disingenuous confidence of statists. We feel dirty rambling on wide-eyed about grand plans, complex schemes, and utopian goals - as if somehow this time our leaders will finally get it right somehow. Anarchy rejects top down management as a less efficient way of running things by definition, and people are so used to being sold this magic bullet that they've come to rely on it.

Instead, anarchists prefer honesty: we can guess and extrapolate on available history and sociological evidence, but we don't have a single prescriptive standard to which we would hold the world. We just don't know for certain. Part of the appeal of anarchy is seeing what people would do once given the freedom. But there are no guarantees, and this rubs most people the wrong way. Having become accustomed to believing the promises of the state to provide justice, security, material well-being, etc. they see no alternative that inspires the same stability, however illusory these promises actually are.

There is also the history of anarchy to consider as well, not to mention a host of bad connotations. Anarchists have been dismissed or villified for precious little violence (think Haymarket and Seattle), Often people simply fill in the blanks we purposely leave empty, interpreting the philosphy to refer to "lawlessness" and "disorder". I don't consider such arguments from ignorance as necessarily bad faith, because anarchists should accept the quite minimal burden of declaring that for which we positively stand, rather than defining ourselves on purely negative terms.

Toward a Common Skepticism

That said, a need also exists to reframe the debate in such a way so that statism and anarchy are compared on fair and common principles. One part of our cultural struggle consists of convincing people to accept a new way of evaluating human organization. This places the value of the anarchist approach on its insights into the way humans behave socially in general, rather than comparing and contrasting only governments.

But anarchists have a lot of educating to do above beyond mere rhetorical precision. There's no substitute for achieving the essential requirement of an open mind, responsive and considerate towards our proposals, assertions, and evidence, but we must have convincing proposals, assertions, and evidence. In a fairly constituted debate where the real questions are not buried under assumptions and prejudice, anarchists welcome the skeptical approach towards their theories.

A rational skepticism promotes the healthiest possible debate. Those who are skeptical towards anarchy do society a bigger favor than they realize: even if they're not in favor of it, they're engaging the question of what humans are like in the absence of management. This is the conversation that needs to be had, regardless of the terms or biases. How do humans innately organize? Is coercion in society avoidable.

I welcome skeptical approaches to politics. All parties concerned should be rigorous in bringing factual information to light and in being as explicit about their theoretical frameworks as possible. Skepticism and an evenhanded weighing of the evidence can be one common currency in exchanges between supporters and opponents of the state. Anarchists understand skepticism - it motivates our rejection of the state. We are skeptical of the state's fundamental legitimacy as well as it's pragmatic expediency.

Anarchists are skeptical towards the legitimacy of the state as an institution. Far from being opposed to law and order, anarchists simply seek a condition where states are held to the same moral and legal standards as individuals. While establishmentarians balk at the imagined violence and depravity of a world without government, anarchists point to the many wars states wage between themselves. If it is crime statists are worried about, anarchists point to the trillions of dollars the state siezes in taxes. I've heard anarchy decried as a "system" where the strong prey on the weak, but I hardly think you could institutionalize a better mechanism for that than our foreign policy.

Reaching a point of commonality on matters of principle is no easy task. Statists must contradict themselves often to maintain faith in government as a force for good, and so their principles will tend to be less unitary than the anarchists'. All this requires is a debate to be waged on an issue-by-issue basis, where an agreed upon social goal is identified and trends for and against state intervention are brought to bear.

Once a minimum set of commonly accepted axiomatic principles becomes clear, anarchists and statist can argue on purely pragmatic grounds, invoking evidence and appealing to inductive arguments. The key here is to properly isolate the criteria for accepting or rejecting a proposal. This requires charm. Reaching a point where good faith can be established in the conversation is crucial; supporters of goverment tend to self-identify with their nation-state, while opponents have a propensity for marginalization almost by definition.

Promoting Anarchy on Accessible Terms

So what's the first step in initiating a fair and total discussion of the state? I believe in order to talk about abolishing politics, we need to find a metapolitics - some sort of organizational theory. This is similar to the guiding principles I talked about above, but it's more fundamental to demonstrating the problem of the state.

Anarchism really does address these issues from a much more neutral stance, and we have something unique here to offer the typical government supporter. What is the natural condition of humans? Can they abolish coercion as a means for organizing socially? What parts of society work because of human nature, and what parts are created out of the threat of force.

Some sort of system articulating the range of human behavior and the dynamic forces within society is necessary. This will draw on history, psychology, and especially sociology. We must first establish that the human animal we are discussing is rational and has the capability for self rule. Then we can start to bring in evidence of successful anarchies. This evidence is not as plentiful as the evidence against (or for) states, but it can be used at the very least to cancel out typical defenses of government privlege and excess.

For instance, in a recent conversation in which my anarchic views were questioned, the conditions in Somalis were alleged to be evidence of the barbarism of anarchy. Instinctively I played defense against this assertion, pointing out how the violence we have heard of in the 90s was caused by the interference of outside states. However, once I actually looked into the conditions in Somalia, I was surprised to find evidence for my position:

Somalia is often cited as an example of a stateless society where chaos is the "rule" and warlords are aplenty.The BBC's country profile of Somalia sums up this view as widely publicized by the mainstream media: "Somalia has been without an effective central government since President Siad Barre was overthrown in 1991. Fighting between rival warlords and an inability to deal with famine and disease led to the deaths of up to one million people..

The first sentence is indeed true: when the president was driven out by opposing clans in 1991, the government disintegrated. The second sentence, however, depicts Somalia as a lawless country in disorder. As for disorder, Van Notten quotes authorities to the effect that Somalia's telecommunications are the best in Africa, its herding economy is stronger than that of either of its neighbors, Kenya or Ethiopia, and that since the demise of the central government, the Somali shilling has become far more stable in world currency markets, while exports have quintupled.

The lesson here is to question statist framing of issues, and isolate the deeper questions at hand, such as "why do we assume Somalia is some sort of chaotic hellhole?" A similar issue is at play in Kevin Carson's recent treatment of likely security conditions in an anarchy, where cooperative security is shown to be significantly more expensive than corporate protectorate hegemony when consumers are not held captive to the state. And a friend recently pointed to a study that people have a very difficult time making long term financial decisions about retirement, suggesting they are not sophisticated enough to organize themselves. However, if the public is not able to do this, what on earth makes anybody believe our governmental leaders can? And if you trust them, how the hell do you explain Social Security's looming insolvency.

These issues on their typical statist terms involve important questions. They need to be addressed, but they've been composed to make certain assumptions about humans and reality. Our task is to decompose these questions so that the rightful skepticism of the rational thinker can be equally applied to both the way things are and the way things could be. Simply promoting thinking on a deeper level involves a creative, analytical process that informs our skepticism after all. Anarchists draw upon the best in humans - those qualities that justify self rule, even - when we attack statism on the deeper terms that are common to us all.

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Written on Saturday, July 22, 2006