sat 27 may 2000 12:00:00 allston, ma
i guess anarchy really does mean different things to diffferent people. and i guess what i'm charged to write about is the call to personal anarchy — as distinct from the external kind.
one anarchist i read thinks anarchy is mainly about organizing political or economic direct action, to improve the circumstances of oppressed workers in the world. noble endeavors i'll grant. but for him, anarchy seems no more than an outward struggle — say, between labor and the proprietor class. he believes anarchy is about organizing, and organizing harder, and harder and harder. obviously he thinks we're all not trying hard enough, presumably because the goal of his vision seems so far from being attained.
of course it's true the worker would be better off in anarchy. but that's hardly the whole point of anarchy. to me, anarchy is a way of behavior: i think it is the simplest and highest form of behavior to which human beings can attain. thus anarchy would improve a lot of things — including the condition of the world's laborers, and my relationship with my girlfriend.
but so much anarchist writing seems outwardly directed, in the end it's no wonder the world at large thinks the anarchist "movement" is a failure.
anarchists broadly speak about how government is evil, private property is evil, and how life would be better if we got rid of those things and lived in voluntary cooperation. and of course that's all true. but to me, those are the results of anarchy. not the thing itself.
the majority of professed anarchists seem to think anarchy lies wholly in the attainment of its most outward manifestations. as if the success of anarchy could only be measured in so far as it makes inroads in the world, forcing back all those evils — evils which in truth are irrelevant to anarchy.
it's as if they imagine anarchy to be something presently alien to the world, a new force, which must be injected into it at the expense of great energy. naturally they feel frustrated. sometimes in desperation they resort to calling each other "not anarchists." there seems to be no end of anarchist theoreticians to expound on how much the anarchist next to him isn't one.
well, not to hop on that boat, i should say okay, that person is an anarchist: because humanity is about intention. but at the same time i feel compelled to say that anarchy is really a lot closer than most anarchists admit. we only make it seem far away, by pretending anarchy is only in its fruits.
let me say this: anarchy is not the absence of government. as a conscious practice, anarchy requires rather vigilant government, of ourselves, by ourselves. anarchy does not mean no rules, it means no enforcement. anarchy is mainly about liberty — about maintaining it and nurturing it, and most of all, about not depriving each other of it.
ancient eastern thinkers developed lots of ideas about society and civilization, but didn't so much address themselves to issues of liberty, especially individual liberty as something morally necessary. (at least, we don't hear much some about great chinese libertarian philosopher from 3000 years ago.) the concept of liberty seems rather to have been left for western european thinkers to conjure, as they emerged from the "dark" ages. and it seems vital that they did conjure it. experiments with the possibility of social liberty have been going on for a few centuries now, and they have been important experiments.
one might argue that gandhi himself might not have become such an ardent liberator if he'd not first digested the libertarian intellect of the west. but once having done so, he gave it a needed twist, to turn its focus inward — to the source of behavior. gandhi was not a professed anarchist, which makes some sense given some of the practices of the professed anarchists of his time. yet his techniques often give firm ground for real anarchism.
i think gandhi provides a good lesson precisely because he did believe in action, and defied external authority directly, while still trying to keep a connection with his internal moral center. this is not to say he always succeeded. but he did start with the assumption, "instead of thinking of improving the world, let us concentrate on self-improvement … if the world is on fire, we cannot extinguish it by our impatience … we can only insist on what is possible." (fischer, 1962)
typical anarchist thought frets much about whether there's a state out there, whether a king or a conjurer will oppress us — forgetting that real liberty can only radiate from the heart of the free. you can't have a chorus if each of us does not sing.
when the external approach abandons its moral center, it leaves its practitioner spinning madly, as likely to become a bomb-maker as a helper of humanity.
now please don't get me wrong. i'm not advocating an anarchism of monastic renunciation, of contemplating the navel and neglecting to watch over our fruits. humanity is about intention, but life itself is about action. the very reason we have nerve-endings in our fingertips, is so the brain can discover how well the hands have done.
how pointless is it, to say to ourselves "i could be this way, if only society were that way." the kind of society we can have depends on what kind of people we each decide to be.
each of us has to take the responsibility, and yes the risk, of being a person. we can't delegate personhood, or postpone it until society is right. we can't whine about the way the world is, and insist on changing it first, before we tackle the task of being human. anarchy isn't just the lack of someone else's coercion. it's the absence of mine too.
if i take all government away, without taking away the urge to prevail upon one another, have i then achieved anarchy? what is that but a temporary blackout, such that when the lights come on again somebody new is holding the switch? how is that to be considered anarchy?
i would go so far as to say that the external focus of anarchist thought does not keep faith with the ideal. we make anarchy alien, who insist on the fruits before the growth. those of us who believe that anarchy lies ever at the end of a rainbow — in some remote, final dissolution of government perhaps — are refusing to see the preponderance of natural anarchy right in front of our faces. by ever believing that anarchy is somewhere else, we only confirm our opponents' delusion that anarchy is unnatural.
in the world, there sure is a lot of aggression and oppression by those greedy for power — call them government, gangster, administrator, whatever.
but there is at the same time a lot of just plain ordinary, everyday life. simple pedestrians, rather than stop and stare each other down on the sidewalk, very easily glide around each other, hold doors open for each other, and in general try to cooperate, if only by staying out of each other's way. do we hesitate to call that anarchy just because it exists in the here and now, not in some utopia whose very remoteness renders its dreamer a special man? anarchy is not special! it is in the basic nature of human beings to accord each other simple liberty — the moreso when we feel no threat to ourselves in so doing. yes, there will always be people who try to bully others, who define their identities through aggression. and we take note of these aberrations because they seem wrong — as when one commits a violent crime against another, or when a government supposedly erected for our common welfare becomes our enslaver. but when we devote our whole attention to those aberrations, and strive to repair the world by beating them back one by one, then we are ignoring that common anarchy so broadly practiced by people all around us — people who are neither anarchist theoreticians, nor true believers, nor even perfect souls.
and i think when we act that way, we are really breaking faith with the very idea that anarchy is the natural order of things. by attaching anarchy to some external state of affairs such as the permanent and universal absence of government aggression, we make absurdly remote that which is as common as air.
the aggressors among us (ie, governors and terrorists) are not something abstract. they are merely obnoxious people, motivated notably by fear. most often they are those who despair of their power, do not truly believe in their power, and must constantly prove it to themselves by trophy. if in the future liberty prevails, then perhaps such behavior will no longer be celebrated, and people will more generally desist from trying it. but even under the freest conditions, it's very likely that aggressive people will always be emerging among us. i think any realistic anarchist philosophy would take account of that fact. who would be an anarchist not just for life but for the centuries, must plan a moral strategy for dealing with human aggresion on an ongoing basis.
one of my arguers — a right wing conservative as i recall — told me that what i was describing wasn't anarchy, it was common courtesy. i was very happy to hear it put that way, because the man was right. common courtesy and anarchy are very nearly the same thing. it is considered discourteous to injure, to coerce or extort one's neighbor. when we refrain from those behaviors, we exhibit common courtesy, leaving each other in liberty. how is that different from personal anarchy? common courtesy becomes the more common as we begin to trust one another, and the more rare as we lose faith. but if we profess (or better yet, find) our faith in humanity, and believe that people are just as well inclined to accord each other liberty as to try and steal it away, then we make the outward attainment of anarchy that much more accessible, because its inward attainment is in progress.
how ironic it is, that most people think anarchy is unworkable, when so many of their daily moments are spent in perfect anarchy. how ironic, that even true believers should make anarchy seem the more inaccessible, by nailing it to some external condition.
while we quarrel over which of us is the purer anarchist, the greatest share of anarchy is practiced by people who don't even know what it is.