tue 23 dec 2008 22:37:57 witte de withstraat
taking back anarchy, again again
i was just thinking about what a friend said to me last night:
"i have only two rules. do what you want. and don't hurt anyone."
to me that sounds perfectly rational and normal. the fact that she feels that way is completely unsurprising, in light of the fact that she has friends. and although this friend doesn't call herself an anarchist, her attitude basically comes down to the same thing.
which has kinda been my point all along. many people who don't call themselves anarchists usually act as if they are — even while many who profess to be anarchists act like they are not. anarchism isn't some extraordinary kind of behavior. it's usually just normal grownup behavior.
the root of anarchism is simple pacifism. if your strategy says "don't hurt anyone" then you will probably also avoid threatening people — cuz if you're not gonna hurt anyone, your threats are empty. so: once you've chosen not to hurt and not to threaten your fellows, then you are functionally an anarchist, whether you call yourself one or not.
(forgive me if you're tuning in late here: yes, most people think anarchism is some theory of how a society should operate, or whether or not there should be government per se. my assertion is that anarchy itself is strictly personal. anarchy becomes relevant in society, but society can't be an anarchist.)
i think the reason why a lot of ordinary people don't call themselves anarchists is because so many professed anarchists do resort to coercion, violence and general incivility. we don't wanna be like those people who have somehow been persuaded that anarchy means "no rules".
that's nonsense of the most tragic order. in reality it is the slaves who live by "no rules" because they are always being told what to do. anarchy doesn't mean no rules, it means no force. real anarchists by definition must live by rules: it is their rules that made them anarchists in the first place. and yet sometimes those rules are so simple as to be invisible to the naked eye. do what you want. try not to hurt anybody. or better yet: want what is good, and then do what you want.
usually the discussion with skeptics comes down to the question "but then how do we prevent those other brutes from taking advantage of us?" as if we ever could, as if they're not already doing it, and as if our trusted authorities aren't among them.
so then you're arguing against people's blind faith that authority actually protects us from oppression by our fellows. maybe it does, but i've seen no real proof of it. my own faith — also unproven — leans the other way: i believe that people only learn to do the right thing when you raise them to make up their own minds. if a chimpanzee accidentally types the text of king lear that still doesn't make him shakespeare. again: you're not really doing the right thing until you know it's right.
about government: my argument is that to the extent we all increase our level of self-government, the need for external government decreases. that doesn't mean it will go away, since government is usually really there for its own purposes. but we can make it less necessary. and i think that is a good goal for our "adulthood" as humanity. what we wanna be when we grow up.
what i have seen in my lifetime is that too much external government does weaken the people's moral muscles until they atrophy. then when their governments break down, as they inevitably do, those people don't know how to behave themselves. they may descend into moral disorder, chaos and aggression — which is then ironically described as "anarchy", even though it's the exact opposite.
most people's image of anarchy is from TV news: the unruly crowd who smash shop windows and pick fights with riot police, those people call themselves anarchists, right? and being much louder and more visible than the real anarchist sitting calmly beside you on the bus, they get the headlines. and they get to hijack our definition of anarchism.
it's hard for the people around me to understand why that misapprehension upsets me so much. the only comparison i can think of would be, like, if you got on CNN and told your audience "jesus is really the devil". your christian viewers would be kinda pissed. that's how i feel when i'm shown a gang of rock throwing nasty people, and some reporter tells me that's anarchy.
i do think it's kinda funny though, that whenever you tell somebody you're an anarchist, they usually want an explanation. "really? why?"
we don't usually approach people of other devout persuasions that way. we don't say "really? you're a catholic? you're a muslim? really? why?"
but who knows, maybe we should! when people openly question your belief system, that's an opportunity to clarify it, both for them and for yourself. that's probably better than if they silently nurture a set of false assumptions.
the best episode was when one of my sisters found out i was an anarchist, and reacted as if i'd just whacked her in the head with a summer squash. of course by then i'd already been a convinced anarchist for 20 years — she just never noticed. why not? cuz anarchy is nothing special. it's just ordinary grownup civil behavior.