Sunday, December 13, 2009

On anarchism

Anarchism is a curious topic. Its linguistic roots mean literally "no rule". But by these roots no self-described anarchist can impose a definition of anarchism; anarchism means as many different things as there are self-described anarchists.

We can discard one sense of anarchism as vacuous: everyone always, by definition, actually does what she thinks is in her own best individual self-interest, all things considered, including considering how other people will probably act (perhaps coercively) in their own interests.

Taken to the logical extreme of its roots in a non-vacuous sense, anarchism would entail absolutely no coercion whatsoever. The only acceptable means of influencing another person's behavior would be to threaten to or actually withhold active cooperation. Killing or injuring someone in self-defense is obviously coercion. Locking your front door or physically hanging onto your wallet is coercive: you are using physical force to prevent a person from doing what he wants to do.

We could achieve the logical extreme of anarchism if it were physically impossible to coerce another person. Extreme anarchism is also possible if no one ever wants to coerce another person.

It's instructive to read the science fiction of Greg Egan*. In many of his novels and short stories, he envisions a future where coercion is literally impossible. In these stories everyone exists as programs running on very fast, very large computers; it's impossible for one person (program) to coercively influence another. But it's instructive that he has to go "outside" the system, to the operating system of these giant computers, to make coercion impossible. But someone has to write and maintain these operating systems, and there's nothing to prevent one person from creating a new computer with an operating system that does allow him to coerce its inhabitants. Fundamentally, he assumes that no one will want to coerce others.

*I don't mean at all to put Mr. Egan down. He's a brilliant, imaginative writer, one of the best writing today (or ever), and his work has been a source of tremendous inspiration for my own ideas.

But how do we make sure that no one wants to coerce others? Wanting to coerce others, the subjective desire to coerce others, is not materially self-selecting, in the same sense that not wanting to eat food is self-selecting for modern humans. To eliminate the subjective desire to coerce others, you have to either impose artificial selection, or completely eliminate uncorrelated heritable variation in subjective desire. The latter seems sterile — there's no growth without uncorrelated variation — the former is obviously coercive.

So the logical extreme of anarchism seems physically or logically impossible.

Can we adjust the definition of anarchism away from the logical extreme? How far can we adjust the definition before the label itself becomes ridiculous or intellectually dishonest?

We could simply say that anarchism is the absence of punishment. Whatever coercion we apply to each other, we never apply coercion that's intentionally designed to cause subjective harm to a person. We put people in prison to hurt them; we maintain threat of prison to (at best) discourage people from hurting each other; but we're still actively hurting some people. (The notion of prisons as "correctional" facilities goes beyond a polite fiction to an obvious lie.)

I myself would definitely approve of a system without punishment, and such a system seems plausibly realistic. The problem with this definition is that you could still have a ruled/ruling class political-economic system without punishment. Even if the ruling class doesn't punish the ruled class, the presence of a ruling class would seem to make this definition too weak to be called specifically anarchism.

Anarchism might be defined as simply the absence of a ruling class. Again, perhaps desirable and feasible, but the absence of a ruling class doesn't sufficiently distinguish anarchism from democracy (by its roots "rule of the people"); this definition still seems too weak.

We might further restrict the definition of anarchism to a democracy without any violent coercion; we could still lock our doors and hold onto our wallets. This definition seems like the most we can adjust the definition without losing the intellectual validity of the label of anarchism. But, however, this definition begins to pose severe practical difficulties.

Again, we can turn to science fiction for an example of an anarchist democracy in Eric Frank Russell's novella, And Then There Were None. It's notable that Russell has to posit several conditions to make this society seem superficially plausible. The society is isolated: it's enormously expensive (according to the story) to send just a few hundred soldiers to the Gands' world; a full-scale invasion is impossible. The society is homogeneous, and each individual is inculcated to be fanatically resistant to even the hint of coercion, as well as fanatically idiosyncratic. The society is small, and there appears to be no long-range transportation: someone who egregiously abuses the lack of violent coercion (except in immediate self-defense) will be coercively frozen out and starved. The world is underpopulated, and there is no competition for physical resources. Most importantly, the world has inherited technology from Earth. There is no need to create large-scale productive enterprises; all technological production appears to be at a small enough scale for easy voluntary cooperation.

Russell gives us a nice package, but he ignores the fundamental power of dialectical materialism and evolution. There will be variation in individual attitudes, caused by genetics and the variability of childhood indoctrination. People who egregiously abuse the system are selected against, but that's about it; there is scope for variation that's not selected against.

People can subtly abuse the system, continually pushing the limits of how much the system can "push back". A person might, for example, always give back "low value" obs for higher value obs. A person who successfully does so without getting frozen out will have at least a small material advantage over his neighbors, and this propensity can be transmitted to others.

People can also become more conformist. In a system where the good will of one's neighbors is of paramount importance, someone who's not quite so idiosyncratic as his neighbors can have an advantage, and it's hard to disapprove of someone who's not being idiosyncratic enough. One can easily imagine a group of rebellious children all dressing in uniforms just to piss off their idiosyncratic parents! Childish, to be sure, but sometimes childish attitudes become adult beliefs.

It's also possible for people to become submissive. It's hard to retain fanaticism without actual oppression. The founders of the society might be fanatically resistant to coercion, but this very fanaticism will ensure that people don't generally try to coerce others. At first, then, a person a little more submissive won't even be coerced; he can get a "free ride" on his neighbors' resistance to coercion. It's also plausible that even a slightly dominant-submissive relationship might have a local, immediate economic advantage over equalitarian relationships. Even when the communists were fighting the fascists in Spain, communist soldiers were still shot if they didn't follow their officers' orders.

It's impossible to say how Russell's society would evolve even if it could exist, but it's clear that it would evolve away from his democratic anarchism into something very different.

There's also the severe problem of protection for unpopular minorities under any form of democratic anarchism. Either the democratic mechanisms used to influence others actually work, or they do not work. If they don't work, it's hard to see how you can have any form of mutual cooperation where individual betrayal confers an immediate advantage. If they do work, then sooner or later, the majority will get a bug up their ass about some otherwise inoffensive minority: blacks, Jews, women, religious dissenters, redheads, left-handers, people whose favorite color is blue, whatever. It takes a minority with disproportionate power to protect another minority, but a minority with disproportionate power is the very definition of a ruling class.

I have no doubt that we do not today live in the best kind of society that's practically feasible. There is enormous scope for improvement, improvement that's possible with the level of intelligence, philosophy and ethical enlightenment we've already achieved. But we have to achieve this improvement by using rational thought, not Utopian magical thinking*.

*Nor by slandering as a fascist anyone who refuses to adopt one's magical thinking and historical revisionism.


  1. There is an indirectly related and extremely vague question I have, which is something like, "What do you think about Noam Chomsky on libertarian socialism?" or "Does Chomsky have anything to say about this that you find compelling?" or whatever. Basically I would like to read you pontificate about the man, just for me to better frame my thoughts about his thoughts and yours.

    If that seems too open ended, then take it any way you want.

  2. In addition to trivial coercion as you mention (locks on doors, etc.), there's also unintentional coercion which occurs just as a byproduct of life.

    Suppose that you wander off into an uninhabited area and do nothing but sleep and eat a bare minimum of naturally-occurring plants. You are still preventing others from eating those same plants, or from occupying the same physical space which you do. (Of course, perhaps nobody wants to do so -- but then, perhaps nobody wants to enter your house, either. That doesn't mean the locks on the doors aren't coercion.) Whatever you do, you are preventing someone else from doing the exact same thing in the same place at the exact same time using the exact same materials, should they so desire. There's no way to avoid this, except to commit suicide, and then you have used physical force to prevent people from ever meeting you, which they might want to do. There's no escape.

    Or, to sum up, your point is even stronger than you said: not only is perfect freedom too difficult to contemplate, it is immediately and directly impossible.

  3. "No rule" means just that—there is no ruler or rulers. Your definition of "extreme anarchism" is completely irrelevant, as this is a slippery slope argument (fallacy) that can be used absolutely anywhere.

    In other words, I know of absolutely no anarchists who believe in your "extreme anarchism," so how can we promote an "extreme anarchist" society when nobody promotes it? How is it a relevant philosophy if nobody promotes it?

  4. Reuben: What do you think about Noam Chomsky...?

    Chomsky has written a lot, and I've read only a fraction of his work. Can you be more specific?

    The Vicar: ...not only is perfect freedom too difficult to contemplate, it is immediately and directly impossible.


    Sitakali: I know of absolutely no anarchists who believe in your "extreme anarchism...

    Hence I spend the majority of the essay discussing other forms of anarchism.

    "No rule" means just that—there is no ruler or rulers.

    This definition seems somewhat vague: what specifically is a "rule" or "ruler"?

    If, for example, a majority of my neighbors coerce me, do they become my rulers? If someone coercively prevented my neighbors from coercing me, is that someone their ruler?

    If my neighbors don't want to coerce me, what happens in the next generation when one of my neighbor's children does want to coerce my child?

  5. No rule means non-hierarchical. Nobody is above anybody else. This has little if anything to do with locking doors.

    Once again, your argument about "coercion" is moot. I could easily argue that since socialism is about equality (which it is), then it must be about 100% equality, meaning that nobody can have or do anything that anyone else can't have or do. If someone is in a wheelchair, then all people in a socialist society must be in wheelchairs. If someone is blind, we must all cover our eyes. All males must make themselves bleed for five days a month, etc.

    Once again, it is a slippery slope argument that has no practical or philosophical value.

  6.'s hard to see how you can have any form of mutual cooperation where individual betrayal confers an immediate advantage. It doesn't confer an advantage. Look at the millions of debunkings of the "tragedy of the commons" theory.

    If you're interested in a scifi author who not only understands the political philosophy of anarchism, but also understands human interaction, sociology, and anthropology (and whose parents were famous anthropologists), read The Dispossessed by Ursula K. Le Guin. Her anarchist world is very resource poor, though it too is isolated. The people aren't the same and it goes into the psychology of the children who grow up there.

    If you're interested in the practical, non-"utopian" application of anarchism, read about the millions who participated in libertarian socialism in Spain.

    If you want to understand anarchism as a real political movement, instead of simply as an abstract philosophy that continues to get more abstract, please read ALL of the FAQs about anarchism here:

    I understand you and db0 aren't getting along nowadays, but he truly is an expert on libsoc, and has very resource-rich material.

  7. No rule means non-hierarchical. Nobody is above anybody else.

    Again, this is very vague. What precisely does it mean for one person (or group of people) to be "above" another? One might argue that in a direct democracy, the majority is "above" the minority.

    Look at the millions of debunkings of the "tragedy of the commons" theory.

    I'm well aware of these debunkings. The tragedy of the commons still is a tension between individual and mutual advantage: the debunkings prove that we can and do develop systems that align and harmonize individual and mutual advantage; they do not prove that the tension is absent.

  8. I've also at least sampled the Anarchist FAQ. Very high-minded, full of noble phrases, but vague and abstract, without much plausible connection to real-world solutions to real-world problems.

    I'm just as impatient with anarchists who tell me to read the whole FAQ as I am with Christians who tell me to read all of Christian theology.

    There's a very simple question, which should have a relatively direct answer: How does anarchism resolve the tension between mutual and individual benefit?

    The answer for communism is equally simple: the government forces people to act in their mutual interest. The interests of the working class dominates and controls a communist government — the working class is a communist government. In theory, at least, the individual interests of the working class — and the "global" interests that emerge from those individual interests — are more closely aligned with mutual benefit than with exploitative individual benefit.

    Where tensions between individual and mutual interest still exist, those tensions are, by and large, resolved democratically, by the power of an informed and engaged majority. Not all tensions will be resolved optimally, but the mistakes of a true majority are preferable to the mistakes of a powerful and self-interested minority.

    Two paragraphs, and I didn't tell you to real all of Marx, Engels, Lenin, and Mao.

  9. I find your comparison between the Anarchist FAQ and the Bible insulting beyond belief. The Bible has no basis in human psychology or anthropology, and most Christians don't care. As long as it's written, it's true. Anarchism is a system based on the observation of humans, and is backed up by science.

    You seem to think that humans are incapable of working within their interests unless they are forced to, yet you consider anarchists to be impractical? How long can a system exist that is based solely on coercion?

    Are you aware of the first 99% of human history during which mutual cooperation was the norm? How about the oldest cultures on earth, which still practice nonviolence, cooperation, egalitarianism, and anarchism? The psychological studies that show humans to be inherently altruistic and cooperative? How about the ones that show that humans only become aggressive and cruel if they are given environmental stressors?

    Human psychology, physiology, and even genetics are all influenced by their environments. Sociology, psychology and anthropology support anarchism more than any other political philosophy on earth.

    I have to say I am a bit shocked by your view of the Anarchist FAQ. "vague and abstract, without much plausible connection to real-world solutions to real-world problems"? Seriously? Are we reading the same Anarchist FAQ? (That wasn't meant literally; you linked to the same one.)

    The Anarchist FAQ talks about several different historical examples of practical anarchism, alternative solutions to various problems including our ecological crisis, and it even goes a bit into the psychological basis for anarchism and authoritarianism's negative effect on human psychology. I think you saw the Anarchist FAQ, thought, "oh anarchism, what a bunch of utopian hooey," and skimmed one section. That does not qualify you for an educated critique (or any critique) of it.

    Your philosophy, like that of many, stems from a cynical view of human "nature," based on observing humans within the past couple decades, and even then only selected humans. Cynicism is not the opposite of starry-eyed optimism; reality is.

  10. I find your comparison between the Anarchist FAQ and the Bible insulting beyond belief.

    So what? If you find my work objectionable, you are under no obligation or compulsion to read it.

    Are you aware of the first 99% of human history during which mutual cooperation was the norm?

    First, I'm suspicious of the evidentiary basis of this claim. We simply have no way of knowing much about the social structures of prehistoric societies.

    But, more importantly, there's no dispute at all over whether people can act in their mutual interest, even when mutual interests conflict with their individual interests. The question is how we do so, and whether we can do so without some form of coercion.

    I'll repeat what I said to db0 (and if his insipid arguments and aversion to evidence constitute "expertise", you guys are in very bad shape): If you have actual evidence or argument for your position, you are invited to present it. I enjoy debate and discussion.

    But so far you have merely expressed your opinion, and poorly at that, making irrelevant and unsubstantiated points and ignoring the basis of my own position. My blog is not a platform for other people's opinions: it's here for my own opinions.

    You've had your say. Argue it if you please, but if you just want to disagree with me and express your own opinion without evidence or argument — and without actually engaging the foundation of my position — you should do so elsewhere.

    And if you want to call me a fascist for not publishing each and every moronic opinion that some fucktard sees fit to introduce to my comments, feel free. I care as little about your good opinion as I do a Christian fundamentalist's.

  11. I am sensitive with regard to comments on my blog too, in fact I have been told by many that I have "thin skin." But this is extreme.

    You're calling me a fucktard? I don't recall insulting you, especially in such an aggressive way. Adiós, it's too bad we couldn't have a mature discussion between two leftists.

    I will happily join db0 and the millions of others who slightly disagree with you.

  12. I'm not particularly "sensitive" about comments; I merely have little patience for stupidity and bad faith. Life is short. The comment in question is general, not specific: I feel, in essence, entitled without apology or guilt to approve or reject comments based on my subjective evaluation of their content, not on how fervently or sincerely the author holds his opinions. If anyone believes I have an obligation to publish any comment regardless of my evaluation of its content, they are simply wrong.

    I do not in fact publish the moronic opinions of fucktards. I have published your comments, therefore it is obvious that I do not consider your opinions moronic or you to be a fucktard. Like any good scientist, my evaluation is subject to revision based on additional evidence.

    I've asked you several straightforward questions, and asked politely for clarification of concepts I consider vague or poorly-defined. If you believe I'm misrepresenting the anarchist position, you are free to actually describe the position actually held. You are free to copy and paste (with attribution) selected information from the FAQ; if I find it interesting or provocative, I might well post it.

    When I believe that good will is present, I have almost endless patience for asking for clarification and additional description. I have no patience, however, for people who do not display intellectual good faith, and who appear to get angry or insulted that I would presume to disagree with them.

    Personally, I'm no more angry or insulted with you than I was with db0 (until he lied and slandered me, and even then my anger was transitory).

    Like I said, you (and anyone else) is not only free to make substantive contributions here, but explicitly and actively invited to do so. I am not, however, at all interested in people who just want to cop an attitude.


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