Thursday, March 04, 2010

Understanding anarchism

I frankly admit that I do not understand anarchism, either left (libertarian socialism) or right (big-ell Libertarianism). I've concluded that my failure to understand anarchism is because the philosophy is fundamentally incoherent: there is no "there" there. My attempts to understand anarchism philosophically have been met not with correction but with hostility and blatant intellectual dishonesty and bad faith, in a manner very similar to Christian responses to understanding Christianity. I draw the conclusion that vocal advocates of anarchism do not have any sort of deep understanding of their own philosophy. (A plausible alternative conclusion is that they do not care whether or not I understand anarchism. Because I'm not an adherent I am therefore an enemy. People of course do in fact freely choose their enemies. I have a lot of enemies; a few more anarchists doesn't bother me.)

Of course, I might be wrong — as I might be wrong about each and every belief I have — and my understanding of anarchism is always subject to revision based on new evidence and argument.

I do not understand what anarchists mean by "hierarchical authority" (or the related concept of Libertarian and right-anarchism of "initiation of coercion"). The best explanations I've read of these concepts boil down to the presence or exercise of authority or coercion the anarchist does not herself like. There's nothing at all wrong about disliking and condemning some particular exercise of authority or coercion. What I do not understand are the broad conclusions and anarchists seem to draw from the presence of objectionable authority and coercion and the principles they endorse in response to those conclusions. Purported explanations seem to rely on metaphor: anarchists, for example, don't want anyone to be "above" anyone else: in this case "above" is a metaphor; anarchists do not of course object to one person being taller than another.

I do not understand how is anarchism is different from capitalist democracy on the right and democratic communism (as opposed to Soviet or Chinese oligarchical communism) on the left. In their ideal forms, I don't understand the difference between left- and right-anarchism (libertarian socialism and Libertarianism/anarcho-capitalism) other than beliefs about people would actually behave under ideal circumstances; circumstances that differ so radically from present-day circumstances that I'm unable to grasp any evidentiary or scientific basis for their beliefs.

The closest I've come to a detailed and coherent account of anarchism is Systemantics, John Gall's witty and insightful examinations of how systems work and, more importantly, how they fail. The author concludes that systems are, by and large, not merely useless but counterproductive; we should simply do without systems wherever possible. Many of his principles conform to my own experience of building small- and large-scale systems; the principles that
A complex system that works is invariably found to have evolved from a simple system that works. A complex system designed from scratch never works and cannot be patched up to make it work. You have to start over, beginning with a working simple system.
seem without exception, at least for certain definitions of "simple" and "complex".

On the other hand, the author presents very little evidence for his conclusions, and the evidence he does deign to present is cherry-picked, presented without context or detail, and his interpretation blatantly biased. For example, the author notes that the modern produce distribution system fails to deliver fresh, tree-ripened apples to the ordinary grocery store consumer, and concludes that the produce distribution system is therefore a failure.

More importantly, while the author describes at length the ridiculous pathologies of systems, he offers little in the way of explaining why systems pervade human society. His only explanation is there are some people, "systems-people", who are mean and bad and fat and dumb and have magically risen to positions of authority.

I'm obviously interpreting, but I see pervading all forms of anarchism the sense that those wielding the objectionable sorts of authority have magically gained this authority, almost as if they have landed in spaceships and enslaved humanity with superior technology. (Alternatively anarchists seem to reify authority from an abstract relationship between human beings to a concrete entity that can by itself be fought or eliminated.)

I do think that many of the systems actually in place — notably capitalism — are pathological and profoundly and deeply broken. And in conditions of massive oppression, exploitation and outright failure, I cannot condemn simply standing up and saying, "I'm mad as hell, and I'm not going to take it anymore," without offering a coherent alternative. I also understand and appreciate the value of people who are willing to oppose The System simply because it is The System, regardless of its particular characteristics. While I do not agree with Gall that systems are generally bad, with good systems rare and entirely accidental, I do think that any system that cannot tolerate and even encourage with good humor a certain amount "sand in the gears", i.e. opposition and resistance, is not a system suitable for human beings.

In other words, I'm not sure it's even important for me to understand anarchism. If anarchism labels an affinity group of people who simply want to oppose The System without worrying overmuch about the specifics, then good for them. Although it's not my personal affinity, anarchists in this sense must exist and to a certain extent thrive in any good system, especially a system of governance.

On the other hand, if anarchism really were, as many of its proponents suggest, a coherent, rational and practical political philosophy, then I do want to know about it and be rationally convinced.


  1. I second your confusion. Recalling the connection to dynamical systems that db0 celebrated, anarchism makes the profound assumption that the system will equilibrate at an attractor that we find beneficent. But this is completely a faith position, since the attractor could as easily be horrific.

  2. It's even worse, Hunt. Human societies are already dynamical systems that seek equilibrium around an attractor. To say that human societies are something else is to say that something outside humanity is controlling or strongly influencing our social structures.

    By db0's implicit vacuous definition in that post, either all human societies are "anarchist", or the Psychlos have really been fucking things up for millennia.


Please pick a handle or moniker for your comment. It's much easier to address someone by a name or pseudonym than simply "hey you". I have the option of requiring a "hard" identity, but I don't want to turn that on... yet.

With few exceptions, I will not respond or reply to anonymous comments, and I may delete them. I keep a copy of all comments; if you want the text of your comment to repost with something vaguely resembling an identity, email me.

No spam, pr0n, commercial advertising, insanity, lies, repetition or off-topic comments. Creationists, Global Warming deniers, anti-vaxers, Randians, and Libertarians are automatically presumed to be idiots; Christians and Muslims might get the benefit of the doubt, if I'm in a good mood.

See the Debate Flowchart for some basic rules.

Sourced factual corrections are always published and acknowledged.

I will respond or not respond to comments as the mood takes me. See my latest comment policy for details. I am not a pseudonomous-American: my real name is Larry.

Comments may be moderated from time to time. When I do moderate comments, anonymous comments are far more likely to be rejected.

I've already answered some typical comments.

I have jqMath enabled for the blog. If you have a dollar sign (\$) in your comment, put a \\ in front of it: \\\$, unless you want to include a formula in your comment.