Sunday, February 07, 2010

The critique of anarchism

I'm not particularly interested in a specifically political critique of anarchism. I'm not trying to criticize the programme and Line of the Anarchist Central Committee*. I'm not interested in saying, "Don't follow db0! He's leading you to disaster!" I'm undertaking rather a philosophical critique of anarchism. I want to answer the philosophical question: why do we need any particular privileged social constructions at all? Why do we have to have a communist society? Why can't we just have a society of free individuals? Why can't we just let people do what they want, and trust the wisdom of the masses to do the right thing?

*A joke. The first rule of the Anarchist Central Committee is that you don't talk about the Anarchist Central Committee.**
**Another joke: this is not the Anarchist Central Committee you're looking for.

The answer is definitely not that the masses are stupid and must submit their will to the intelligence, character or wisdom of some self-described elite. The answer is not even that some people were born to submit, and some people were born to lead, and the leaders — who presently prove their value by accumulating capital — "naturally" emerge at the top. Unfortunately, both of these principles are deeply ingrained into our social consciousness, so deeply that anyone who talks about particular, specific social constructions — at least the "wrong" sort of social constructions — is seen immediately by many on the as precisely the sort of dictatorial elitist that has actually been exploiting people for millennia.

But the real answer is more subtle. First of all, our modern global society already is the result of people doing what they want. The Psychlos have not landed in their spaceships and taken over, there is no God to ordain the character of our society, and I don't think that cows and crickets are yet sufficiently well-organized to intentionally affect our politics and social organization for their own benefit. The social and political world we have today is the result of the actions of human beings, no one and nothing else. For better or for worse, this is our world. And no human beings have special magical powers; every ruling class is composed of people fundamentally just like those in the ruled class.

In a deeper sense, it appears at least scientifically plausible that human beings are nothing but sets of privileged social constructions. Asking why we need privileged social constructions is like asking why a species needs a gene pool made of DNA. Why can't organisms just grow as they please? Why should they be constrained by their genes?

It appears that we are not fundamentally "rational" beings in the sense that we know what we want, we know how the physical world works, and we "think through" the consequences of all the plausible choices and actually perform the choice that will have the most desired outcome. We are, rather, principle management and use beings: we have a set of interacting principles*, "When you see A, B, and C, do X" and meta-principles, "When principles X, Y and Z are activated, do A". Our perceptions get thrown into into the "pinball machine" of interacting principles and some preferred action emerges.

*The actual principles operative in the human mind would of course have to be considerably more complicated.

There's both a causal explanation and a good pseudo-teleological reason for having brains that work this way. Organisms and societies can build up principle management brains and specific principles by biological and social evolution, i.e. heritable variation and natural selection. Building a world-understanding and alternative-comparison machine from scratch does not appear to be evolutionarily plausible. It appears too that operating even in the very restricted "reality" of chess, whatever it is that our brains do, we do it seven or eight orders of magnitude more efficiently than a brute force search through the space of alternative possibilities. Indeed it appears that we actually perform "rational", computational thought by iteratively using a specific and relatively small set of principles that model the deep structure of reality.

Our brains seem fairly complicated, and probably encompass an enormous number of principles (millions? billions? may trillions?), built up through 500,000,000 years of biological evolution and hundreds of thousands of years of social evolution. But principles are probably combinations of elements; an individual is a combination of principles, and a society is a combination of individuals. And when we're talking about combinatorial maths, even merely astronomical* numbers are almost vanishingly small**.

*There are, for example, ~1080 subatomic particles in the observable universe.
**There are, for example, 52! ways to order just a single standard deck of cards; 52! ~= 1067, roughly comparable to the number of hydrogen atoms in a typical galaxy.

Therefore, the combinatorial space of possible human beings is enormously larger — larger than can be expressed using puny exponential notation — than the space of all human beings that could plausibly exist for the entire lifetime of the universe. Therefore, it is physically impossible for human beings to be whatever they want to be. We must, instead, just be who we are, who we happen to be by virtue of accidents of variation and natural and artificial selection. We can, to some extent change who we are, but we can't "hoist" ourselves from the physical necessity of being particular individuals with particular sets of principles.

Our choice, therefore, is not whether to individually and socially privilege some specific, finite set of principles, but rather which set of principles to privilege. Worse yet, there's no way of algorithmically or computationally determining which set of principles we "should" privilege; we can never even in theory know what is "best". And even worse, we can evaluate "better" and "worse" only according to the principles we happen to already have at any given time: Marx is more deeply correct than he supposed that what is to come is dependent on what has come before.

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