I read a lot of books in preparation for C-Realm podcast interviews, and I often read to Olga as she works in the kitchen. I could get the reading done more quickly if I read to myself, but by reading aloud to her, I have someone to discuss ideas with in advance of getting together with the author on Skype.
Normally “working in the kitchen” involves food, but recently Olga has been plastering the walls, and while she worked, I read aloud to her from Dmitry Orlov's most recent book, The Five Stages of Collapse: Survivors’ Toolkit. I interviewed Dmitry earlier today for C-Realm Podcast episode 365: Communities that Abide.
The other morning I was reading to Olga from a section of Dmitry’s book called "Anarchism's Charms." By “anarchy” Dmitry simply means “without hierarchy." It is important to note that he does not use the word “anarchy” to mean “the embodiment of a coherent ideology of Anarchism.” I learned from David Graeber's new book that anarchy and democracy used to be used interchangeably to describe rule by the people, a situation that our "Founding Fathers" were keen to avoid. They championed a version of liberty in which only a select few people directed the actions of government. The nightmare scenario which they resolved to avoid was a universal political franchise in which everyone had an equal voice. James Madison argued that such societies “have ever been spectacles of turbulence and contention; have ever been found incompatible with personal security or the rights of property; and have in general been as short in their lives as they have been violent in their deaths.”
John Adams, who would become the second president of the United States, warned that instituting democracy in the United States would result in the majority immediately voting to cancel debts and re-distribute real estate, thus dismantling the complexity of a socio-economic state heroically held far from the equilibrium of a Hobbesian “state of nature,” which amounted to “a war of all against all.” The world of one man/one vote would eventually degenerate into one that is devoid of any significant form of human cooperation. It would contain no art or grand architecture, no refined culture or complex social arrangements and, worst of all, no productive surplus to be accumulated into vast personal fortunes. Adams argued:
Suppose a nation, rich and poor, high and low, ten millions in number, all assembled together; not more than one or two millions will have lands, houses, or any personal property; (...)if all were to be decided by a vote of the majority, the eight or nine millions who have no property, would not [they] think of usurping over the rights of the one or two millions who have? Property is surely a right of mankind as really[sic] as liberty. Perhaps, at first, prejudice, habit, shame or fear, principle or religion, would restrain the poor from attacking the rich, and the idle from usurping on the industrious; but the time would not be long before courage and enterprise would come, and pretexts be invented by degrees, to countenance the majority in dividing all the property among them, or at least, in sharing it equally with its present possessors. Debts would be abolished first; taxes laid heavy on the rich, and not at all on the others; and at last a downright equal division of every thing be demanded, and voted.
Democracy got a huge boost when Andrew Jackson ran a populist campaign for president in 1828 and described himself, provocatively for the time, as a democrat, by which he meant to emphasize his camaraderie with common people and his antagonism to bankers and bureaucrats. By mid century, democracy had metamorphosed from a term of abuse into an accepted label for a republic in which representatives are elected by the people. Today, democracy is riding so high that the US Federal Government, a system explicitly designed to prevent rule by the many, is trumpeted as the archetypal example of democracy, something so noble and morally salutary that we justify invading other countries by claiming that we do it not for our own advantage but with the altruistic aim of "spreading democracy."
The word "anarchy" has not fared so well. Its etymology describes a social arrangement that is "without rulers." No surprise then that our rulers would prefer that we equate such a situation with mob violence, burning cities, and landscapes pillaged by nightmare monsters from the id. In a linguistic environment shaped by the needs of capital, the word “anarchist” fits nicely into the phrase "bomb-throwing anarchist." While some anarchists surely have thrown bombs, "bomb-dropping capitalist" has many more concrete referents than does "bomb-throwing anarchist." And yet, "bomb-dropping capitalist" reeks of grumpy leftist ideology, whereas "bomb-throwing anarchist" just seems like a reference to an uncontroversial archetype.
Thomas Hobbes and those “Founding Fathers” who agreed with his views claimed to believe that everything good about human civilization was only possible when the rabble subordinated their individual autonomy to a ruler and accepted direction from above. Given that they were arguing to preserve their own privileged status, this was a convenient belief for the founders to hold. Whether or not they actually believed it I can’t say, but a less ideologically constrained look at the few remaining pre-literate cultures left to serve as windows into our own pre-historic past shows that cooperation and coordination of effort, without any compulsion or direction from on high, is the basic human modus operandi. It's just what we do. As Dmitry put it:
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. In turn, the equally glaring, horrific, monstrous failures of our species have everything to do with our unwelcome ability to submit to authority, tolerate class distinctions and blindly follow orders and rigid systems of rules.
When I paused in my reading, Olga pointed out that, in English language conversation, at least in the United States, the word "anarchy" is very likely to occur as a part of the phrase "descent into anarchy." The unspoken assumption being that up is good and down is bad. We build up. We strive to climb higher, to continue the work of the great men who came before us and raise the edifice of our civilization ever skyward. A movement in the opposite direction represents a loss of hard-won human achievement, a slide in the direction of the Hobbesian hell of our brutish origins. A descent is a fall; perhaps even a re-enactment of The Fall.
A fall is something to be avoided, but if increased social and technological complexity is synonymous with moving up, then we may be obliged to make some kind of downward movement in the near future. Nobody wants to fall, but when you are standing on a rickety, teetering scaffold that you built by bolting one kludge onto another onto another, until you are precariously perched atop a teetering structure of Rube Goldberg complexity, swaying in the wind, a move in the direction of the steady ground of anarchy might be just the thing. When the ossified and hyper-complex structure of class division, codified inequality and technological dependence starts to shake and list, and collapse seems likely, a deliberate descent sooner beats an obligatory fall later. How much later? Hard to tell, but why risk it by lingering? For the commanding view? Is it really better than anarchy?
And lest you imagine that I invoked the concept of collapse as a scare tactic, I am using the word as Joseph Tainter does in his classic, The Collapse of Complex Societies. According to Tainter's conception of collapse, a civilization that responds to challenges by increasing the complexity of its civic arrangements simultaneously increases the fragility and vulnerability of the system. Consider this excerpt from Occupy World Street: A Global Roadmap for Radical Economic and Political Reform by Ross Jackson:
While most people automatically think of collapse as a catastrophe, Tainter's theory is not that simple. Collapse should rather be seen as an "economizing process" that occurs when it becomes necessary to restore a positive marginal return on organizational investment. Collapse is simply a better economic alternative than continuing the old ways. Indeed, it is the most rational, most appropriate response to the crisis. For the population involved, it may well be experienced as a positive change to a simpler existence with both economic and administrative gains.
Or as Joseph Tainter himself put it, "Collapse is not a fall to some primordial chaos, but a return to the normal human condition of lower complexity." In other words, bossman says that we shouldn’t complain about toiling to make him rich because we wouldn’t have it anywhere near as good as we do now if we were working for ourselves and for each other rather than working for him. Freedom from his hierarchy would be the freedom to starve and die at hands of our fellow brutes.
Don’t you believe it.