They Who Must Sell Are Not Free
March 25, 2020 10:21 AM   Subscribe

“ Anarchists, far from ignoring “human nature,” have the only political theory that gives this concept deep thought and reflection. Too often, “human nature” is flung up as the last line of defence in an argument against anarchism, because it is thought to be beyond reply. This is not the case, however. First of all, human nature is a complex thing. If, by human nature, it is meant “what humans do,” it is obvious that human nature is contradictory — love and hate, compassion and heartlessness, peace and violence, and so on, have all been expressed by people and so are all products of “human nature.” An Anarchist FAQ
posted by The Whelk (75 comments total) 54 users marked this as a favorite
 
The Tyranny of Structurelessness (which was written about feminist communes built on anarchist principles) continues to be the rebuttal. Organization is the force multiplier, and failing to acknowledge that is denying reality.
posted by NoxAeternum at 10:50 AM on March 25 [26 favorites]


How can a state of no-authority persist if there is no authority to enforce its persistence? What if I want to create a hierarchy, who will stop me? I feel like this suffers from "everyone has to agree at once permanently"
posted by sandking at 10:52 AM on March 25 [11 favorites]


MORE SKIN ON "LOVE BOAT!"
posted by grumpybear69 at 11:12 AM on March 25 [5 favorites]


I mean, there are lots of anarchists who believe in structurelessness, but anarchy means the absence of rulers, not the absence of rules. The equation of rulerlessness with chaos is the greatest trick the boss class ever played.

There are always situations in which an individual will have to exercise some specific authority on behalf of the group, but there are plenty of ways of distributing that authority (sortition, sociocracy, etc.) that don't involve any one person getting to accumulate a meaningful amount of it under their personal control.

I'm a bad anarchist by the FAQ's standards, but I'm increasingly drawn to the belief that the rule of law is a fundamentally anarchistic concept: it means that nobody gets to play by special rules. All forms of accumulated power (including wealth and status) are ultimately ways of being able to bend the rules everyone else has to play by. Hence the rule of law in bossed societies such as ours is always substantially a farce, subject to being turned on its head the moment it poses a threat to the powerful.
posted by Not A Thing at 11:18 AM on March 25 [38 favorites]


"...the rule of law in bossed societies such as ours is always substantially a farce"

Well, kinda. It used to be worse. It doesn't have to be the way it is and I believe people who say "human nature" have a particular idea of what that nature is. And you're probably not going to convince them otherwise.

I've thought ideas like this had a much better chance off in communities of people who wanted to work it out (if it could be). And no, these don't have to be *communes*.

I've heard of (somewhat) rare groups who made something like that work. But they tended to die off when original people (who had the urge) died/left/whatever.

Maybe like the way niche-crazy is getting hooked up across the internet now, groups like this could coalesce. Would be nice to get *some* benefit from the basic scaling of communication (global) that amplifies the niche-crazy.
posted by aleph at 11:34 AM on March 25


As a socialist who lately is strongly leaning towards the idea that, yes, having hierarchy by default puts certain humans in a position where they will become different, become less empathetic, and make less socially beneficial decisions purely because they have more control over society, this rings true.

I've been toying with the notion of Dunbar's Number and it's relation to Milton Friedman's four ways of spending money for a long time. I think that last way of spending money isn't something just governments do, I think it's a thing that happens to any sufficiently large group of humans trying to work together. Once the group is large enough for each individual to simply be unable to know every other individual in the group, at some point, somebody in this group is spending someone else's money on something that doesn't affect them, which Friedman is at the very least correct is very often money badly spent (not always). The example I often point to is BP when the gulf oil spill happened. They had over 10,000 employees worldwide. Some middle manager was making decisions about what safety measures to cut to squeeze a few more dollars out of the project for their CEO, so he's spending money that was not his. This middle manager didn't know any of the workers who died on that oil rig, and so his choices affected others and not himself directly. This is Friedman's fourth way of spending money happening in private enterprise. I hope he's rolling in his grave, the fucker.

I think we are nearly at a place technologically where a kind of loose, decentralized control of small areas of about 500-1000 people is potentially feasible (at least more feasible than colonizing Mars for fucks sake). Localized self-governing with a larger framework to include the whole planet, without any real structural governance behind it.

So yes, not the absence of rules, but the absence of rulers.
posted by deadaluspark at 11:38 AM on March 25 [16 favorites]


Yeah, nine times out of ten anybody appealing to "human nature" is talking out of their nether regions. We have no way of knowing what our nature would be without the influences that shape us. Heck, even feral children grow up in *some* kind of environment, however dismal.
posted by The Underpants Monster at 11:39 AM on March 25 [8 favorites]


Also, I'm reminded of that Barbara Ehrenreich interview yesterday:

This may sound trivial, but it’s not to me. We had a meeting—this was the New American Movement, one of the predecessors of the Democratic Socialists of America—that was hosted by this blue-collar couple, Pat and Ed, who set out a really nice spread of cookies and little sandwiches at their house. And our two self-important P.M.C. members walked in and completely ignored the offering of food and just launched into a tirade against me, because I’d brought these blue-collar people into the group and they were “diluting the politics.” I was just like, “Fuck you. One of them is a practicing nurse and the other one is a locksmith. Because you guys are professors, you think you can do this?” Exposure to P.M.C. contempt for working-class people really is what did it. I began to think, “What’s going on here?”

Sometimes I feel like this is a major attitude in the way of any sort of decentralized control of society. That we have the smart, educated professional managerial class who literally think that working class people are completely incapable of knowing anything about anything or taking care of themselves and that bringing them in to self govern is "diluting the politics."
posted by deadaluspark at 11:48 AM on March 25 [13 favorites]


I would appreciate someone telling me an actual example(s) of a functioning anarchy that lasted more than 4 generations and involved more than 100 people of which at least 1/2 were not biologically related to the other 1/2. Either I do not understand the fundamentals of anarchy (which is possible--I did not read the article as it was too long, too many words and I fear I would keep saying"yes but") or I just can't visualize how it operates. Though not in any way an anthropologist I would give myself a B on watching documentaries on BBC, ITV More 4, Curiosity Stream plus an undergraduate degree in sociology. Not looking for an argument just some understanding.
posted by rmhsinc at 11:56 AM on March 25 [15 favorites]


I think there *is* no "human nature" by itself. I believe the best analogy I've heard is like a modern dynamic web site where it is re-built constantly as a interactive "dance" of its content (nature/nurture?) and serving that up/interacting with it's environment (nurture/nature?).

Of course most of the time we don't change that much moment to moment (except for trauma) so most (including us) don't notice the changes. (Besides being a *really* simple analogy)

We have a lot of "hardware support" (mostly brain) that we're barely getting an idea of (nature). Wouldn't surprise me to see basic routines for fascist (and other) kind of patterns there. Or at least things that can be hooked into with.

And then we're barely figuring out the society/economic/etc patterns we live in as groups. We didn't create them, they kind of grew over centuries (and longer). How to go forward with them is a puzzle.

A lot of things to work out. If we survive. :(
posted by aleph at 11:59 AM on March 25 [2 favorites]


"...that bringing them in to self govern is "diluting the politics." "

Because they (mostly) live in their own reality where that it true.
posted by aleph at 12:05 PM on March 25


We have empirical evidence that humans organize themselves in states, as bees organize themselves in hives. It is their nature.
posted by No Robots at 12:20 PM on March 25 [1 favorite]


I feel like this suffers from "everyone has to agree at once permanently"

Isn't this the case for almost any society?

We all somehow agreed in some way, and permanently at some point that most people would follow the Rule of Law and that power is concentrated in governments, and that it's not okay to just form a giant gang and become a warlord and pillage surrounding towns or there will be consequences...at least in many countries. But this was clearly not always the case.

And there are various levels of this. For instance, in some countries, people are so rule bound they won't even cross the street until the walk sign comes on...even if nobody's coming. In others, people cross when it's clear. Likewise, in some places you can get a fair shake if you need a service from the government, in others, "everybody knows" you have to pay off the clerk if you want your application to go through. When did these societies "agree at once and permanently" that one state of affairs was OK and the other wasn't? What was the path that lead to that?

That said, this just means that "how does everybody agree and stick with it" isn't much of an argument because we clearly did this multiple times before for other systems. Although, it's also not an argument that any system is possible. That's a separate issue.
posted by delicious-luncheon at 12:28 PM on March 25 [4 favorites]


"...it's also not an argument that any system is possible."

Nope. We have builtin templates/patterns that have to be supported (in diff degrees) with whatever we build as a system.

And we differ (violently) what those patterns are. :(

(Because so many are "choices" not builtins. And some people will *never* accept that.)
posted by aleph at 12:43 PM on March 25 [1 favorite]


We have empirical evidence that humans organize themselves in states.

Hunter-gatherers have existed for about 200 000 years longer than states. States are literally the exception.
posted by Pyrogenesis at 12:47 PM on March 25 [23 favorites]


Also, the statement "it's just human nature" has never ever been used for anything else than the defense of the status quo.
posted by Pyrogenesis at 12:49 PM on March 25 [17 favorites]


Oh god. Not this again. Haven't we had enough of this political LARPing with the libertarians already?

We all somehow agreed in some way, and permanently at some point that most people would follow the Rule of Law and that power is concentrated in governments, and that it's not okay to just form a giant gang and become a warlord and pillage surrounding towns or there will be consequences...at least in many countries. But this was clearly not always the case.

No. We all didn't just "agree." First, there are still warlords all over the planet. Second, where there isn't it's because somebody with the physical power and organization convicted or drafted just enough people to force that upon warlords and MADE them agree. And they did that with a hierarchy.

And we have to keep doing it all the time. Because when people just decide that they don't need governments a given percentage of them become warlords.
posted by Everyone Expects The Spanish Influenza at 12:53 PM on March 25 [12 favorites]


I would appreciate someone telling me an actual example(s) of a functioning anarchy that lasted more than 4 generations and involved more than 100 people of which at least 1/2 were not biologically related to the other 1/2. Either I do not understand the fundamentals of anarchy (which is possible--I did not read the article as it was too long, too many words and I fear I would keep saying"yes but") or I just can't visualize how it operates. Though not in any way an anthropologist I would give myself a B on watching documentaries on BBC, ITV More 4, Curiosity Stream plus an undergraduate degree in sociology. Not looking for an argument just some understanding.

I am not well versed in anthropology, though I am told there are many examples of this in human societies. It may be useful to you, in terms of being able to envision possibilities, to read up on emergent systems. I've only just started it, but the book Emergence by Steven Johnson may be a good resource for this?

I am not convinced that examples of societies organized on anarchist principles that worked except just weren't able to repel invasion by the combined might of multiple colonialist powers and thus got exterminated before they had a chance to last 4 generations shouldn't count as valid examples. That would perhaps be somewhat like saying that dinosaurs were not well-adapted to their environment, because they got wiped out by an asteroid hitting the Earth.
posted by eviemath at 12:55 PM on March 25 [10 favorites]


Hunter-gatherers have existed for about 200 000 years longer than states. States are literally the exception.

This is not the convincing argument you think it is.
posted by Everyone Expects The Spanish Influenza at 12:55 PM on March 25 [11 favorites]


This is not the convincing argument you think it is.

Probably a timing of posting issue, and I am not the poster you were responding to, but I suspect my comment about fitness of dinosaurs vis a vis asteroid attack may be relevant here.
posted by eviemath at 12:57 PM on March 25


That would perhaps be somewhat like saying that dinosaurs were not well-adapted to their environment, because they got wiped out by an asteroid hitting the Earth.

This is not really a fair equivalence. Dinosaurs had nothing to prepare them for an asteroid hitting the earth. Humans, meanwhile, have ample evidence of how humans function in groups.

"This scheme of human organization was successful as long as you ignore the bad actors who showed up and ruined it" is about as coherent an argument as "this scheme of human flight was successful as long as you ignore when gravity showed up and ruined it".
posted by tocts at 1:07 PM on March 25 [11 favorites]


I'm a bad anarchist by the FAQ's standards, but I'm increasingly drawn to the belief that the rule of law is a fundamentally anarchistic concept: it means that nobody gets to play by special rules.

This is absolutely wrong - the rule of law routinely carves out special rules for groups, often times for legitimate reasons. For example, we require by law that the disabled be accommodated for in numerous ways, many of which require others to make outlays.
posted by NoxAeternum at 1:16 PM on March 25 [3 favorites]


For a shorter, slightly friendlier read on the topic of introduction to anarchism, I recommend Anarchism and its Aspirations by Cindy Milstein.
posted by eviemath at 1:17 PM on March 25 [4 favorites]


This is not the convincing argument you think it is.

And be sure to not say in any way why you think that. Because that is surely the best argument.
posted by Pyrogenesis at 1:20 PM on March 25 [9 favorites]


No. We all didn't just "agree." First, there are still warlords all over the planet.

"There are warlords!" has pretty much nothing to do with what I was talking about.
posted by delicious-luncheon at 1:27 PM on March 25 [1 favorite]


And be sure to not say in any way why you think that. Because that is surely the best argument.

Because it relies on speculation as to what day to day hunter gatherer life was like ten thousand years ago . It assumes that hunter gatherer tribes were not subjugated by brutal oppressive strongmen who killed anyone who looked sideways at them and enforced ridged concepts of hierarchy both class and gender.

And it ignores the fact we progressed beyond those modes of organizations as populations grew for very important reasons that should be god damned obvious.
posted by Everyone Expects The Spanish Influenza at 1:29 PM on March 25 [7 favorites]


This is absolutely wrong - the rule of law routinely carves out special rules for groups, often times for legitimate reasons.

Sure, but such exceptions are also rules. Rules with nuance are rules -- often better rules. The issue isn't rules having nuance, the issue is powerful people being able to bend rules to their specific desire. (To the question of whether there has been an unbossed society that lasted more than N1 generations and contained more than N2 people of whom no more than N3% were related, I would query whether there has ever been a bossed society where bosses did not get special privileges.)

One of the reasons I am a bad anarchist is that I think anarchism is compatible only with gradualism. Anarchy is a gradient not a destination. We can move from greater to lower levels of bossedness, but even the most anarchic societies have to work steadily to stay that way. Because of that, I personally find the Pure Anarchy vs. Everything Else discussions into which this thread is devolving to be singularly unedifying, and will be removing this thread from activity. Y'all have fun.
posted by Not A Thing at 1:31 PM on March 25 [8 favorites]


"There are warlords!" has pretty much nothing to do with what I was talking about.

Why? Just because you don't want it to?

They exist. They have always existed. And they largely explode in number in the vacuum of organized functional governments or where nation states collapse. That should tell you something.
posted by Everyone Expects The Spanish Influenza at 1:32 PM on March 25 [3 favorites]


There’s a lot of speculation because the previously existing tribes didn’t have the written word, but if you look at modern hunter gatherer tribes like the !Kung and the Yanomami in the Amazon there’s no reason to assume “it was great.”
posted by Selena777 at 1:34 PM on March 25 [4 favorites]


Any assessment of various forms of human organization which ignores that we are staring down the barrel of a climate apocalypse that will kill billions because the most powerful people in society are either fossil fuel concerns or share material interests with fossil fuel concerns, and that their ability to murder the majority of the human race is based on their powerful position in society, is hollow and useless.

Human brains aren't built to function in power structures. When we're in them, we chafe against them unless we can be persuaded to identify with the leadership. When we're atop them, we lose our empathy and perspective and become monsters.


This is absolutely wrong - the rule of law routinely carves out special rules for groups, often times for legitimate reasons. For example, we require by law that the disabled be accommodated for in numerous ways, many of which require others to make outlays.

The Rule of Law is a term that very specifically means nobody in society being exempt from the law, that being in a position of power does not exempt you from oversight and accountability to society as a whole. Saying that the rule of law means that nobody gets to play by special rules is simply a paraphrasing of that principle, not rejecting the idea that people with needs unique to their groups and identities should have those needs met.
posted by Pope Guilty at 1:42 PM on March 25 [11 favorites]


there’s no reason to assume “it was great.”

Exactly. Romanticizing the largely unknown ancient past as some concrete golden age example of anything is not a very rational or scientific argument.

Human society is a work in progress. It's also not static. Different things work in different contexts.

But here and now we have a few examples of which organizing principles work pretty well and what doesn't work at all. And then there are a whole bunch of unknowns which we haven't tried. We tried anarchy and it evolved into something else and for better or worse human populations flourished as a result.

That tells me organized governments work better than not having organized governments. We'll find better and better ways to make them work. Or maybe we'll disband them all together in another context. But that's not happening anytime soon. And there has been no argument or example set forth that has convinced enough of us otherwise.
posted by Everyone Expects The Spanish Influenza at 1:48 PM on March 25 [3 favorites]


Human brains aren't built to function in power structures.

Again, you base this upon what?
posted by Everyone Expects The Spanish Influenza at 1:49 PM on March 25 [6 favorites]


Why? Just because you don't want it to?

My original point was that societies come to some common sets of understandings to form systems that currently exist or existed previously. So it's ridiculous to say "But how would we all decide to do THIS instead of THAT?" because we've done it already multiple times just to get to the societies we live in now. HOW that happens and whether it CAN happen for different systems is a bigger question. So my point was really quite general. But it seems like you've latched onto certain key words in what I was saying and my point got lost.

I suppose I should have front-loaded "at least in some countries" on my "We all somehow agreed in some way..." example since you seem to have skipped over that and concluded that I was having some kind of argument about how people the world over agree on rule of law or something, when I merely wanted to say "For places where this is the case, 'we' all agreed somehow..."

If you don't like that particular example, choose another thing in your favorite existing society that people somehow implicitly agree on if it helps to clarify.
posted by delicious-luncheon at 1:58 PM on March 25


Again, you base this upon what?

I'm inclined to say "history" but hell, here's an article about how power causes literal physical brain damage. It's like radiation in a science fiction movie- it makes people monsters.
posted by Pope Guilty at 2:03 PM on March 25 [7 favorites]


So it's ridiculous to say "But how would we all decide to do THIS instead of THAT?" because we've done it already multiple times just to get to the societies we live in now.

Anarchy explicitly rules out the means by which this was done in the examples you are raising. You cannot divorce contemporary social structures from their origins when talking about how one gets from the status quo to the desired end state. Modern societies achieve conformity by the threat of violence legitimated by the surrounding society. Anarchy rules out violence legitimated by the surrounding society. It is a valid question how an anarchic society is to achieve sufficient agreement on what self serving behaviors are taboo as to avoid accumulation of power and status that creates a hierarchy.

Remember that Altemeyer found that there are people who want to be authoritarian followers, too. Some people in the current state like hierarchy qua hierarchy, so it's not as simple as some kind of magical anti coercion field: hierarchies can form voluntarily and then become involuntary. I can be persuaded there are self stable anarchic forms. I can't be persuaded you can get from here to there without bloodshed.
posted by PMdixon at 2:22 PM on March 25 [6 favorites]


I don't know which is more ironic:

1. Debating the "rules" of Anarchy.
2. Having a debate about Anarchy on a discussion forum with very active moderation.
posted by Anoplura at 3:08 PM on March 25 [3 favorites]


Apologetics bore me.

with the rise of “sociobiology,” some claim (with very little real evidence) that capitalism is a product of our “nature,” which is determined by our genes

I do not claim this, so I don't need to have it refuted.

I would love to see a discussion of anarchism that focuses on what it is, rather than how it's so much better than the flaming shitshow that exists in the world now. And especially not focused on how it's so much better than the flaming shitshow that existed 10 or 20 or 150 years ago.

A great many of us are in agreement that capitalistic populism is a terrific recipe for oppression, greed, corruption, and callousness to the point of cruelty. That is not in any way support for the claim that "anarchism is better," much less, "anarchism can fix the problems that capitalistic populism creates and exacerbates."

anarchy means the absence of rulers, not the absence of rules

1) Who creates the rules?
2) Who enforces the rules?
3) Who selects the enforcers?
4) What makes those people not functionally equivalent to "rulers?"
posted by ErisLordFreedom at 3:19 PM on March 25 [6 favorites]


This is a weird discussion.

Our narratives are often artificially given the force of nature and inevitability. The supremacy of colonialist/capitalist civilization over all others is something that we now consider inevitable, but in fact it's relatively recent. Many other kinds of society have existed for long durations throughout history, and there's no reason to believe that the status we currently find ourselves in will last forever.
posted by splitpeasoup at 3:24 PM on March 25 [7 favorites]


This notion of "abstract individualism" strikes me as an odd part of the argument. I'll say it specifically in my line of work. If you're developing a new drug, you need hundreds of people, each with unique skillsets that take a literal lifetime to master. Some of those skillsets include management of the order of operations that go into the mechanics of researching, quality checking, safety and efficacy evaluation, and there is no way the process could ever be self-organizing. It's an inherently chaotic mixture of competing priorities and rates of progress that, for lack of a better way of putting it, dissolves into anarchy without a structure that puts ultimate decision making duties in successively-managed layers of people.
posted by late afternoon dreaming hotel at 3:27 PM on March 25 [4 favorites]


And it ignores the fact we progressed beyond those modes of organizations as populations grew for very important reasons that should be god damned obvious.

The reasons being that a few aggressively violent groups violently subjugated some other groups quite aggressively?

Those are some odd definitions of "progress" and "obvious" that you're working with, friend.
posted by eviemath at 4:43 PM on March 25 [2 favorites]


Again, you base this upon what?

I'm inclined to say "history" but hell, here's an article about how power causes literal physical brain damage. It's like radiation in a science fiction movie- it makes people monsters.


Why hierarchy creates a destructive force within the human psyche (by dr. Robert Sapolsky)

posted by Lyme Drop at 4:45 PM on March 25 [1 favorite]


1) Who creates the rules?
2) Who enforces the rules?
3) Who selects the enforcers?
4) What makes those people not functionally equivalent to "rulers?"


1) All of us
2) All of us, by more intelligently drawing up more "self-policing" social agreements, or by other agreed-upon means
3) All of us
4) "Rulers" are, definitionally, a small-ish subset of people given authority over others, aka not all of us
posted by eviemath at 4:45 PM on March 25 [3 favorites]


I don't know which is more ironic:

1. Debating the "rules" of Anarchy.
2. Having a debate about Anarchy on a discussion forum with very active moderation.


Clearly you haven't met many anarchists. Some of the biggest process nerds I've ever met. The idea is simply that organization can happen without centralized authority.

Evelyn Fox Keller's seminal article The Force of the Pacemaker Concept in Theories of Aggregation in Cellular Slime Mold may provide a helpful framework for understanding this distinction, despite it's being a paper in philosophy of science rather than politics. Anarchism postulates that human societies also don't need the political equivalent of pacemaker cells in order to have effective structure.
posted by eviemath at 4:57 PM on March 25 [5 favorites]


"All of us make and enforce the rules" sounds lovely. What happens to the people who disagree with the rules? Obviously, they are not part of the "all" who will be enforcing them.

Who enforces a quarantine? Who decides when a quarantine is necessary, and what steps are required for people's safety?

Because I absolutely guarantee that an answer of "everyone at risk" will get results that mean "unchecked global pandemic." We're seeing this in action right now: in the US, there is no "quarantine police." Nobody is tasked with specifically enforcing all the emergency declarations and stay-at-home orders. And the result is 1800+ people in Louisiana getting together for a "laying on of hands" prayer meeting.

How would anarchism avoid this? Or, how would anarchism allow other communities protect themselves from the ones that think they're immune to disease?
posted by ErisLordFreedom at 5:04 PM on March 25 [8 favorites]


Power is a puppet show, but it's still a show.
posted by Reasonably Everything Happens at 5:59 PM on March 25


I hate to break it to you, Not A Thing, but what you're describing is classical liberalism.
posted by LarsC at 6:08 PM on March 25


The Anarchist Library has the following page called "An Anarchist Response to Ebola" that may be of interest.

"Anarchism" is a pretty broad ideology with countless different possible variations on it. Anarchism doesn't have to be "every single group of people is a flat hierarchy and all decisions made by consensus." Anarchism doesn't have to be "everyone just does whatever they want" (I don't actually know any self-described anarchist in real life who agree with this?). For example, the link above is based on the idea of worker-run cooperatives as the primary means of people organizing.

As a rule, anarchists tend to think that people are more capable of organizing themselves than is usually thought, and that centralized coercive violence is not necessary to run society. Anarchists also think that the desire to help other members of your society is a strong motivating factor for people, stronger than what they call the "profit motive" (or alternatively, the fear of punishment).

For example, the people donating home-made fabric masks to hospitals in need of PPE would be an example of organizing that anarchists would like. Hospitals said "hey, we need masks of any kind," some people said "we can make those," and they are making fabric masks out of pocket, with no expectation of monetary reward nor state punishment.

Similarly, when the New York health department asked retired doctors to return, thousands did so because they felt it was the right thing to do, not because they were coerced to.

That people tend to want to help others in their community is a big principle for anarchists. Anarchists also hold that people who aren't part of a highly-educated managerial caste can and must contribute to the running of their society (in contrast to technocratic solutions that are basically "only the most educated have anything to offer"). This leads to the notion that people should be able to ask for things themselves instead of going through a representative and the representative's (unelected) staff.

I don't know if I would go all in on anarchism for a number of reasons (would such a society be able to sustain itself over time? would such a society be vulnerable to attacks by outside groups? how can we protect minority groups in such a heavily democratized society? how quickly can an anarchist society respond to threats?). But these questions are questions every political system must ask of itself. An authoritarian country could have a great pandemic response by using invasive surveillance to track everyone's movements. Liberal democracies (and anarchism) rely heavily on citizen participation and are vulnerable to apathy.

In particular, any democratic system based on majority rule is not going to be fair to minorities. Liberal democracy doesn't have a special solution to this that anarchy does not. (I'm no expert on political systems, but I would hazard a guess that how to protect minorities is a challenge in any political system that cares about protecting minorities.)

Meanwhile, anarchist thought has definitely exposed flawed assumptions I held (the best solutions are government solutions; a lack of faith in the ability of the average person to run their own life). I don't know if a society based entirely on anarchist ideals is possible. (There is a lot of arguing about which societies one could count as anarchist, and as you can imagine it's a very loaded discussion.) But I do think many of these ideals are valuable and should inform other discussions of "how should we run society."
posted by phonemefox at 6:26 PM on March 25 [6 favorites]


Honestly, my least favourite MetaFilter thing is when we ignore, like, over 150 years of prior work in a field and pretend that our brilliant objection or objection to the objection is somehow novel and interesting.
posted by tobascodagama at 6:42 PM on March 25 [13 favorites]


No one has mentioned Le Guin's The Dispossessed?

Also, the notion of whether a society "works" or not depends an awful lot on one's perspective.
posted by allthinky at 6:47 PM on March 25 [8 favorites]


Seriously. This is a topic that belongs on the list of things MetaFilter doesn't do well.

I'm supposed to be resting and recovering from Covid and am absolutely not getting involved, but for anyone interested I'd like to recommend the episode of In Our Time on the topic of anarchism which I think offers an excellent summary.
posted by Acey at 6:50 PM on March 25 [4 favorites]


No one has mentioned Le Guin's The Dispossessed?

The Dispossessed works via indoctrination from infancy and acceptance that you just have to put up with some frustrations, like not living with your spouse for a few years at a time. It also works via total isolation: the anarchistic-socialistic-communistic society doesn't have direct interaction with anything else.

I don't doubt that such an arrangement could work, and work even better in a setting with more resources. I doubt it could be implemented anywhere on Earth, because we don't have the option of "we'll go over here and build a society from scratch, just for us."

I like the idea of "no ruling class; just us." But I don't see how any society that tries to centralize that concept can avoid localized tyrants and widespread discrimination against minority categories, especially against socially awkward people and those with disabilities that affect communications.

As far as I can sort out, the business system in the US comes close to being anarchistic - there's a framework of rules and laws, but there's no specific rulers, just individuals who have convinced others to work for them under terms found (theoretically) mutually acceptable. This has not worked out well.

I like a lot of anarchistic rhetoric. But when I start looking at the practicalities, I can't tell it apart from libertarianism. I can't figure out how the evils in our current society/ies are supposed to be prevented in an anarchist society.
posted by ErisLordFreedom at 7:54 PM on March 25 [5 favorites]


Anarchism is an interesting intellectual exercise to explore but under any real scrutiny it's just a frustrating mess. I feel like libertarianism it's a phase most people grow out of as you see the world more and more. At least I did. It's all libertarian fantasy with a much nicer face on it. But down deep it's just another kind of adolescent selfishness.

Nothing here is going to be convincing many people to give it go. Not in a world that elected Darth Marmalade.

And if you can't convince people like me you're sure not getting "everyone" to participate in the rules you want to make.
posted by Everyone Expects The Spanish Influenza at 8:14 PM on March 25 [4 favorites]


Sorry for the thoughtless derisory comment earlier.
posted by LarsC at 8:51 PM on March 25


I highly recommend Frans de Waal's classic Chimpanzee Politics for anyone interested in how some of our close relatives organize.
posted by The Underpants Monster at 8:57 PM on March 25 [1 favorite]


ErisLordFreedom, I think you may have missed some of the points of The Dispossessed? That one planet isn't supposed to be an anarchist utopia. (And, in fact, I'd disagree that it's super relevant or helpful to bring up in the present discussion.)
posted by eviemath at 10:03 PM on March 25


Because it relies on speculation as to what day to day hunter gatherer life was like ten thousand years ago . It assumes that hunter gatherer tribes were not subjugated by brutal oppressive strongmen who killed anyone who looked sideways at them and enforced ridged concepts of hierarchy both class and gender.

This absolutely nothing to do with anything I said. I think you got confused about who replied to what and/or why. I was replying to the poster who claimed that state formation is human nature. It is a plain empirical fact that it is not. For the overwhelming time of human existence we were hunter-gatherers. And are - there are hunter-gatherers in existence today. State formation requires a sedentary lifestyle - the abandonment of the nomadic lifestyle (although not all hunter-gatherers are nomadic, but most are). "A hunter-gatherer state" is literally a contradiction in terms.
posted by Pyrogenesis at 10:05 PM on March 25 [3 favorites]


Everyone Expects The Spanish Influenza, I mean, yeah, just reading brief comments on a web site without actually delving into any of the links some of us have been posting, or better yet participating in any experiential learning on the topic, isn't going to convince anyone of anything that they're already suspicious of. That's not particular to anarchism as a political philosophy.
posted by eviemath at 10:07 PM on March 25 [1 favorite]


To be clear, "no ruling class, just us" is a very, very basic and incomplete description of the almost 200-year body of political philosophy that is anarchism. As phonemefox alluded to, there is quite a range of ideas for how that could be practically instantiated. Some of those ideas come from outside anarchism, too. For example, a useful primer on self-enforcing agreements can be found in Breaking Robert's Rules, whose authors don't seem super conservative but also definitely aren't anarchists - but have based their work on actual research and evidence, too.


I've certainly been involved in a lot of groups that, whether intentionally or not, operated in some sort of anarchist fashion, and operated well. I've been in other such groups that didn't operate well. Lots of people have written lots of words on what works and what doesn't, and how that varies eg. by cultural context or presence of underlying structural inequities in the group of people being organized, etc. It's not simple, and it's not necessarily intuitive, because emergent systems display complex behavior and aren't necessarily a natural way of thinking about structure or cause and effect for many people. And no organizational structure is going to be a one size fits all utopian ideal, I think.
posted by eviemath at 10:43 PM on March 25 [5 favorites]


I like a lot of anarchistic rhetoric. But when I start looking at the practicalities, I can't tell it apart from libertarianism.

I have kind of the opposite feeling, like a lot of anarchists just end up being regular socialists in practice while being committed to a higher ideal in principle, or while trying to live in a communitarian way on a very personal scale? But rarely are they hard to distinguish from right-libertarians.
posted by atoxyl at 10:56 PM on March 25 [9 favorites]


rmhsinc: I would appreciate someone telling me an actual example(s) of a functioning anarchy that lasted more than 4 generations and involved more than 100 people of which at least 1/2 were not biologically related to the other 1/2. 

Aboriginal Australia. At least 2000 generations, up to 1 million people at any one time.

Aboriginal culture prior to colonisation had rules, not rulers; elders not statesmen; obligations not rights; Country (territory) but not property. Once you do away with the concept of private ownership of anything that you didn't make yourself and live collectively for the (ecological / ancestral) benefit of Country, then it's a form of anarchism by default not intention.

Re: the concept of 'hunter/gatherer'. That's a limited and limiting western perspective. Aboriginal Australia was not primitive. It had complex cultivation, aquaculture, agriculture and harvesting regimes. It just didn't have bosses, or workers, or class, or money.
posted by Thella at 11:09 PM on March 25 [8 favorites]


Re: the concept of 'hunter/gatherer'. That's a limited and limiting western perspective.

This is very true, especially if it carries the connotation of being primitive. Lumping all these various people into a single category simply because they get most of their food from foraging and hunting does a huge disservice to the sheer diversity and complexity of these very many different cultures.

Let's also be clear that there never has been a clear-cut, sharp distinction between things like sedentary/nomadic or foraging/cultivating. Many hunter-gatherers cultivate plants along the ways they traverse often. There are numerous "tribes" (I hate the word, but it's still being used) who are sedentary, cultivate gardens, but still get most of their food through foraging and hunting. Being sedentary is a necessary but not a sufficient condition for state formation, i.e. you can be sedentary without becoming a state, but you can't become a state without first being sedentary.

Also a pet peeve: it should really be called gatherer-hunters. Gathering, usually done by women, brings in around I think it was 70-80% of the caloric intake (this of course varies with where the people live). Frankly - and I say this without even a slightest hint of being balanced - hunting in most cases seems to be a bunch of ritualistic posturing resulting in some supplements.

(I can't tell if this is a derail or not.)
posted by Pyrogenesis at 1:00 AM on March 26 [7 favorites]


I had a long reply and decided it's probably not a good idea to post it. (Too argumentative; possibly derail-y.)

I'll fall back on an aphorism I picked up from cynical former hippie activists: Any societal change that has 'the enlightenment of the masses' as a prerequisite, is doomed.

The anarchist rhetoric I've seen is very emphatic that human societies and cultures do not require governments as we know them in western society, does not require an elite ruling class, does not require a system of taxes and property rights. And I am willing to posit all those might be true.

But I can't figure out what's being proposed as a change, or set of changes.
posted by ErisLordFreedom at 1:28 AM on March 26 [1 favorite]


Fun fact: There are literally hundreds of governments, with no "head government".

So you might say that governments are anarchic. Or something.
posted by swr at 2:51 AM on March 26 [1 favorite]


So you might say that governments are anarchic. Or something.

Yes, and I am not interested in interacting with other humans the way states interact with each other.
posted by PMdixon at 6:08 AM on March 26 [2 favorites]


But I can't figure out what's being proposed as a change, or set of changes.

And I can't figure out what you've actually read, to recommend more stuff beyond the links myself and others have already included in the comments, which I can't figure out if you've followed up on at all. Life is full of mysteries I guess
posted by eviemath at 6:23 AM on March 26 [1 favorite]


Here’s the problem; How is an anarchist collective supposed to defend itself against a well-organized, hierarchical society (with a military organized similarly) that wants to take their stuff and break their things?

So far, well organized hierarchical militaries seem to be batting 1000 against team demand-the-impossible.
posted by Pirate-Bartender-Zombie-Monkey at 6:40 AM on March 26 [3 favorites]


See Hobbes' Leviathan for the argument that the family is a small state.
posted by No Robots at 7:02 AM on March 26


We have empirical evidence that humans organize themselves in states, as bees organize themselves in hives. It is their nature.
posted by No Robots at 12:20 PM on March


Except many/most species of bees don t form hives?

Since this is an anarchism post, shouldn t we be anthropomorphising Ants instead? It s tradition.
posted by eustatic at 7:19 AM on March 26 [2 favorites]


Except many/most species of bees don t form hives?

Those that do, must do so.
posted by No Robots at 7:32 AM on March 26


In my mind, there are two fundamental questions. First, is it practically or morally desirable that we should accept a collective or reciprocating responsibility to protect and take care of one other, even if it means limiting individual freedom? Second, who is "we"?

I think history has shown that humans are social creatures, with a natural tendency to answer the first question in the affirmative, if only because the nasty & brutish state of nature requires us to cooperate for survival.

However, as we've moved away from a state of nature, the need to cooperate for survival has become less self-evident / axiomatic. I don't think it's an accident that the development of liberalism and libertarianism (and individualism as such) coincided with the development of industrialization and the attendant increase in production capacity, thus reducing (for some) the pressures of sheer survival. A (seeming) abundance of resources makes unadulterated self-interest a more viable / rational strategy, because the argument that we "must" cooperate to survive becomes more abstract, less self-evident.

Of course this individualized point of view is to a large extent an illusion. Global value chains have bound disparate people closer together than ever before and unchecked self-interest rapidly depletes even seemingly limitless resources. The question then becomes how to justify solidarity, when solidarity is not a self-evident requirement for immediate survival.

Anarchist thinking addresses this by saying that self-interest, properly understood, implies or requires solidarity: "Solidarity, therefore, is the means to protect individuality and liberty and so is an expression of self-interest."

Where I think this argument fails is that, yes, solidarity can be an expression of self-interest, but not all self-interest is (or has to be) expressed through solidarity. In other words, people can be self-interested without feeling any solidarity whatsoever. At a fundamental level, I feel that anarchism fails to conceive just how rich and powerful some (even large groups of) people are or want to become. It will take a lot more than bromides about "solidarity" to curb their self-interest. The question then becomes: who will enforce that, and how, and in what sense is that still "anarchism"?
posted by dmh at 7:47 AM on March 26 [6 favorites]


Since this is an anarchism post, shouldn t we be anthropomorphising Ants instead? It s tradition.

Anarchist tradition? :P

I'm team anthropomorphic slime mold!
posted by eviemath at 8:00 AM on March 26


eustatic: “[S]houldn t we be anthropomorphising Ants instead?”
“One Of Us: Mark W. Moffett On The Social Behavior Of Humans And Other Animals,” Mark Leviton, The Sun, April 2020
posted by ob1quixote at 8:57 AM on March 26 [1 favorite]


Humans are capable of both crouton-petting and othering. Universal human rights rely on others recognizing everyone as human. And that... doesn’t really happen. Not voluntarily, anyway.
posted by notoriety public at 9:08 AM on March 26 [4 favorites]


Yes, and I am not interested in interacting with other humans the way states interact with each other.

This sounds like a right-libertarian/an-cap conception of the world, much more than a left-anarchist one.
posted by atoxyl at 9:58 AM on March 26


Really disappointing to see so many people popping in with their anarchism hot takes instead of actually engaging with the piece. I, for one, found that it clearly expressed a lot of thoughts I’ve been wrestling to put into words, and I learned lots of new things, as well. Thank you for the link!
posted by WCWedin at 2:44 PM on March 26 [6 favorites]


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