Tuesday, November 20, 2012

The Practice of Anarchy

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 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 pried 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—creates 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 seize 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!

23 comments:

g-minor said...

The relief activities of Occupy Sandy are just such a self-organizing activity which, thanks to internet and facebook, were able to go viral and achieve much.

Karl K said...

Higher education in the US is ripe for this to happen, and it probably already is. See Dale Stephens and Uncollege. I presented this info to some new faculty (community college -- East Coast) last week and they just stared back at me. They had finally landed that long-dreamed-up tenure track job and were pretty mad at me, I think.

jph said...

In the military, hierarchy is paramount. If hierarchy is ultimately the death knell of an entity, where does this leave the military?

Wolfgang Brinck said...

One area where anarchy is already being practiced is in the homeless community. Homeless people generally don't want to be homeless. When they do get a chance to build homes, they do so. Their homes are usually shacks or tents, but they are homes nonetheless. The hierarchical city governments don't like these homes and periodically tear them down making the homeless once again homeless. The homeless respond by finding a new place where they will be unmolested for a while. About a year or two ago, new homeless on the water communities have been springing up. These consist of various boats moored out of the waterways where they do not obstruct traffic. The police is supposed to move people on when they have moored somewhere for longer than ten days, but funding for the police has been declining and enforcement is lax as a consequence. Besides, you cannot throw someone's boat into a dumpster the way you can with a tent on an unused lot. The boats simply move on and moor in a new location. These boat communities are anarchic by necessity. There is nothing to organize there. Since they are not tied to a dock which supplies them with water and electricity, nobody has to collect rents or police the use of toilets and so on. Commuting to shore is done with surf boards, dinghies or even primitive rafts.
I am by the way writing this about California where winter temperatures are mild and living in a tent or on a boat is possible year round. Still, I imagine other such anarchic communities can be found everywhere and I suspect that they will become more common as more and more people fall through the social safety net.

forrest said...

You got me wondering: How come living systems 'scale up' better than artificial ones? -- but of course they don't; a giant amoeba can't eat enough, can't flow out of a puddle, provides at best a quick snack for somebody with dental structures. Human sized ants would run out of oxygen & couldn't walk even if you gave them lungs. Living systems merely don't try (or don't try long) to grow beyond whatever scale they can live with.

The interplay between structure & flexibility isn't fixed, not an either/or and not a "balance-between." Certain mixes are advantageous for the people involved -- and other mixes are advantageous for people wanting to ride and steer. A big tyrant provides real protection from little ones, but only so far as he keeps too busy with 'the big picture' to screw up things locally. "Freedom" for big corporations means they can devour small ones & squeeze the max out of customers & 'human resources'. Freedom from having to learn about stuff & make a boring number of democratic decisions means that somebody else will do that for you in a way that serves his own demented needs. Laws against theft and murder keep small robbers down so you only have to worry about the big ones -- and can live in stability until the system they're part of reaches instability.

Anything that works better will have to rely on the spiritual foundation of the world -- not try to control the Spirit, claim its authority, or put up a toll booth for access, but to let it rule, via each person governing itself -- then organizing where that makes sense & disorganizing where it doesn't. But that, people think, isn't "practical."

Kevin said...

Complementary currencies seem like another example (something I'm heavily involved in right now so it's top of mind). There's a big range of ways of doing them formally/informally with substantial or tiny investments of national money up front, though all take substantial time and a LOT of persistence.

vera said...

Forrest, living systems scale better because they evolve. There is no boss in evolution that plans the platypus a million years in advance. There is no hierarchy to enforce platypus building. That is why platypi will be around forever, conditions permitting, while contrived hierarchies always fail in the end.

I am not sure it's inevitable, that an anarchist structure turns into a rigid hierarchy, Dmitry. What makes you think it does? I know you list examples, but is that enough to extend it to a principle?

forrest said...

A living system doesn't "evolve" itself to be a larger one; it produces offspring and some of these will better designed to function at a larger size, etc.

Nothing requires an anarchic system to ossify, but human beings gradually change it in that direction via little improvements to satisfy their desire to keep everything controlled, secure.

dirtworship said...

Seems like old-style matrilineal societies kept their basic organization anarchic for millenia... chiefs can lead by example or exhortation, but no one has to follow if they don't want to. In the newly-revived Republic of Lakota, the people are experimenting with a consensual style of government where there are small neighborhood units, and each adult in the neighborhood must come to agree for the neighborhood to enact a collective decision. This makes it hard to do anything like forming a Sweat Lodge Regulatory Agency or granting authority to a Teepee Inspector. Our penchant for hierarchy spills out of conceiving the whole damned world as a struggle between patriarchs or Great Men. Once we've accepted the protection and rule of a patriarch, of course we want things to be well-ordered and under control within his fortress town.

Robin Datta said...

The distinguishing feature of anarchy is non-violence: the laying down of the gun of enforcement. The rise of every hierarchical structure is predicated on adopting the option to initiate coercive violence against non-violent non-compliers. This is may be done unwittingly perhaps because it is implicit in the very nature of hierarchies. Even when intentional it is usually tacit, and the exercise of that option is effective only while the hierarchy is growing. Once the hierarchy is into the phase of negative returns for growth, the initiation of coercive violence itself ceases to be cost-effective.

locke said...

I just began reading 'Two Cheers for Anarchism' by James C. Scott the other day. I think you might like it.

Justin said...

Constructing an alternative such as an anarchist society in the context of a material culture long dominated by industrial capitalism, far longer than living memory, requires a lot of literal, hands on construction. Until anarchists realize that this requires work and a lot of it to build something attractive, i.e. do things like form tight knit communities that uproot and remake a collectively owned suburb wholesale rather than burn cars then its a dead end. As Zionists settlers were to the Palestinians, so, I think, anarchists should be to industrialists.

The Hellarity House in Oakland is about as good as can be done working in the system, wear that Che shirt proud.

RanDomino said...

It can be more complex than that, to the point of actually replacing and extinguishing capitalism rather than .

The natural fundamental unit of human organization is the "affinity group," a small group of roughly 5-20 people working together on a specific task. At this level there does not need to be hierarchy because it's easy enough to make sure everyone's on the same page and is familiar with each other.

Affinity groups can be temporary, for tasks which only have to be done a few times or on an ad-hoc basis, or permanent, for tasks which have to be done regularly (for example practically anything related to food).

Affinity groups almost always are part of a larger economy; it does no good to just make superconductors if you have no suppliers and nowhere to send them. We can borrow a page from Syndicalism but splice it with Market Anarchism to organize the economy by free-form chaotic arrangements between affinity groups in the same industry. Trade journals can keep affinity groups appraised of surpluses and shortages and loose federations can be communication platforms for efficient, but non-hierarchical, resource allocation.

Such a system has to be built from the ground up. Wouldn't you say that a total collapse is a good opportunity?


I feel I need to note, since a lot of people don't seem to get the concept, that ALL economic transactions have to be done as gifts- it's actually a lot of work to force people to use money or even barter. But rather than being enforced, there simply won't be any customers for anyone trying to sell something which can be had for free from someone more generous (if it's even necessary at all)- try to sell something and you'll quickly find yourself with no friends and no community. That's all I'm going to say about gift economics, since plenty has been written about it and anyone who disputes that it is an integral part of Anarchism simply hasn't done their homework (and is probably trying to reach a compromise that lets them say they're an anarchist to sound edgy and radical but without having to actually change anything).

MoonShadow said...

I'm really surprised that Bitcoin hasn't yet come up here. It's a wonderful modern example of the 'quick & dirty hack' that just works. Also, it was deliberately designed to make the development of 'structure' difficult. Hopefully that will delay such developments beyond my own lifespan.

Ryan said...

"Sky City: China to Build World's Tallest Building, 220 Stories, in 90 Days"

What was that theory again about building obscenely tall structures and the collapse of civilization?

Stanislav Datskovskiy said...

MoonShadow,

Bitcoin has a very serious flaw (apart from the obvious one, that of being dependent on high-quality Internet access.)

Glenn said...

Moonshadow@

Having read the Wikipedia entry on Bitcoin, I am still totally in the dark. I'm sure it makes sense to software engineers. To us mere mortal supergeniuses it is completely opaque.

Glenn

Francois Tremblay said...

This entry could be made into an entire book.

Justacommenter said...

True "anarchy" (NO Government) is impossible, because all things in nature govern themselves. Thus the closest one can get to NO government is all things governing themselves; which is still a form of "government". Nature needs no government but self government, no being has any right to govern another, it is a perversion of nature. Humans are the only ones that have such need... government is for those who cannot govern themselves (like the rest of nature) only because most of them are incompetent fools... does a large need for (exterior) "government" exists.

manray said...

As always, you are ahead of the curve.
Just downloaded this new Taleb book:
Antifragile: Things That Gain from Disorder

galacticsurfer said...

just join or start any new group and immediately someone is volunteering to do all the work and become the leader. So if you have a spiritual or political movement based on ture basic insight it quickly becomes an infighting of parties and sects really related not to the argumetns offered by the various leaders but based on egos and corruption though originally it was based on anarchic individual insight. Jesus, Buddha had deep insight which was just a fginger pointing the way as everyone must necessarily find his/her own way to enlightnement but in the end it was worse than what preceeded it, just a bunch of rituals taking over large parts of humanity in the name of power. Find your own insight and keep it a secret.

wisdomchaser said...

I homeschooling my 13 year old grandson. My personal preference would be for him to unschool. Unschoolers learn by exploring the subjects that interest them and are pretty much self taught and self motivated. We are currently more eclectic because my autism spectrum child would do nothing but play video games if left to his own devices. As it is I give him as much freedom as possible while insisting that he learn the basic skills. And yes, there are adults who are successfully navigating life who were unschooled.

Terrace said...

Regarding unschooling and anarchism, I wonder if Mr Orlov has ever read any works by the late Ivan Illich (such as "Deschooling Society" or "Medical Nemesis") and if so, would he consider commenting on Illich's views in the future?

Illich's writings are available for free online; you can reach them by Googling "Ivan Illich Archives"