I want to take some time to talk a little about the practicality of anarchist thought.
First, from an historic perspective, evolutions in human organization have often been met with critical resistance. The tendency that I have seen (and this is a cursory, non academic summary) could be typified by a desire to maintain status quo, or a fear of chaos and breakdown, or a lack of imagination. But despite resistant thought, we have steadily pushed forward in attempting to create more and more personal liberty. In fact, after living in Europe for 6 years, I have come to deeply appreciate the personal liberty that I have in America as apposed to in Austria. We are, I believe, incredibly free in comparison to most of the world. And indeed, our form of democracy has been a step in that direction.
From the luxury and privilege that I enjoy, being born into the dominant class of America, I have the time and the facility to imagine something different. My feeling is that the very propaganda of our system has helped to create the values that I attempt to express through my conversations on anarchy. I was taught that we (the US) are a country of tolerance and freedom, that our highest values are goodwill towards all. That we believe in liberty. And when I went out into the world and began my own observations of how this freedom and liberty express themselves, what I found was a serious lack of each. And I have reached conclusions similar to others; that this is part of human nature. The ugly pieces of what it means to be a human on planet Earth have given rise to serious and disgusting injustices. Indeed, this should be the highest and most important function of human organization in whatever form; the maintaining of justice.
Let me be clear on something. I was not presented with “Anarchy” as concept until I had progressed far from the status quo in my own pursuit of life. I came in contact with many groups that were working in ways that I found very attractive, due to an inherent LACK of authority. My exploration led me, eventually, to people who talked about this thing called anarchy. And it took much time to understand what that meant. I am still trying to understand what it means. But what it gave me was a basis. A model. A definition for organization that does NOT rely upon authority in order to be “productive.”
Back to the topic….
The problem of injustice in the world is readily apparent after even a very brief perusal of life styles across the globe. There exist haves and have-nots. A deeper exploration of the haves and have-nots reveals the interconnectedness of each. The haves are not able, by themselves, to create so many surpluses for themselves. Rather, a contract is developed between the haves and the have-nots, whereby the labor of the have-nots is used to increase the surplus of the haves. Each side of this simplistic view of resource distribution plays a role in maintaining the status quo.
We have a third group as well. Commonly known as the middle class. The middle class is a subject all for itself. For now, I am putting the middle class in league with the have-nots. The reason for this is because of the huge gap that exists between the upper and middle classes. Looking at just the US (which is not at all a full picture, but it is easier to see), the gap between the lower class and the middle class is relatively small in comparison to the gap between middle and upper. Going from a yearly income of $15K to $70K is not a very big leap, and can be achieved without directly “taking” resources from others. But the leap from $150K to incomes in excess of $2M is a more difficult threshold to cross. And by its nature, it requires some form of contribution from lower class citizens to the wealth of the upper class. So for now, I consider the middle class to inhabit the ranks of the have-nots.
(Please note that by other, global, measures the American middle class is placed securely in the ranks of the haves. I place the middle class in the have-nots for this essay because in America, a middle class individual can earn their income without any form of investment. Granted, the very economy of America is sucking resources from many places on the planet.)
When I have examined the nature of this inequality in resource distribution, what I have seen is that the mechanism of the State CREATES tools for taking the labor of the have-nots and translating it into surplus for the haves. Historically and currently, there are over and over examples of these types of systems. One can spend time looking at how these mechanisms work, but for now, I am simply putting it forward as a given (one example of such a mechanism is rent. A member of the haves, rents property to a have-not. This translates the have-not’s labor into a surplus for the have). Be it in the form of Monarchy, or Oligarchy, or Parliamentary, or Democracy, the rules and regulations are in SUPPORT of creating these inequities. The result of these different forms of organization, which in themselves may be regarded as a stepping path from total slavery toward freedom, has been, and continues to be, a method of centralizing power and resources into the control of small groups at the expense of larger groups.
One of the arguments brought forth is that people have created these systems in order to protect themselves from others who would take their resources from them. That is, the people have elevated certain individuals or minorities to places of power, in order to have the peace of mind that they will be protected, and so be able to go about their daily lives with a little more measure of security.
I say no. From my own readings and understandings this is not what has happened. Indeed, Oppenheimer, in his book “The State”, unravels this myth in the first chapter. The story that people naturally organized governance for their own protection is a good story. It continues to be the story that most people tend to subscribe to. However, there is a lack of proof. While there may be evidence that in prehistoric peoples, some were better nourished than others, this is not proof that people voluntarily gave up freedoms and resources in order to be protected from outside dangers. At best it can suggest that within a society, some members had less access to resources and some had more. This could be through a voluntary contract, but perhaps it is not.
What we do have proof of is how historic governance has worked. The methods of resource distribution are easy to trace, because one function of governance has been record keeping. The earliest writings of the Sumerians are accountings of surplus grains. It is not a big mystery that taxes and tribute have been paid to kings and emperors, parliaments and presidents, for as long as we have known history. And from these understandings, we also have an understanding of how the have-nots have suffered under these systems.
The whole debate comes down to one very key point. It is very difficult for people to understand this. The reason it is difficult has to do with years and years of being exposed to media, which tells us that the purpose of our great democracy is justice and freedom. We learn over and over that the ills of society are the natural pitfalls of the human condition, but our system is designed to mitigate those pitfalls. One such myth is that Lincoln freed the slaves. Lincoln did not free the slaves. But the spin and the myth are so extensive that most believe he did. The same is true of systems of governance. The myth is that they protect us from injustice.
These systems ARE the injustice.
Systems of authority based governance, historically till now, are legal justification for a minority to exploit a majority. They were not born of a desire for the people to have protection from outside harm. They are the RESULT of that outside harm. One group of marauders comes across a small tribe of farmers, or perhaps of hunter gatherers, kills many, takes resources, then establishes a set of rules to ensure that in the future, there is less resistance to the taking of their resources. Someone, perhaps from within the tribe itself, is designated to enforce the rules. This is the nature of the State.
The people have stood up and shouted for more and more rights from the governance. This is how we have gotten as far as a democracy, be it ever so flawed. It still is a vast improvement over the Egyptian models of slave populations used to build huge monuments to dead leaders. And while it is an improvement, the underlying structure of it STILL places resources from the many at the disposal of the few. We now also have capitalism (which is partner to democracy) in order to expedite the transfer of resources, and to keep large tracts of the population base satiated with “choice”. Capitalism also contributes to the myth that people can rise up from the under class to join the elite. And indeed, they can. But in order to do that, the individual must design methods of taking resources from others. The most common of these methods is called “rent.”
How practical is the change from what we have to what could be? It is not practical. Not in the sense of convenience or of “putting into place.” Anarchy cannot be “put into place.” From a language perspective, the phrase “put into place,” requires someone who does the “putting.” Anarchy grows. It is an organic form of organization. This exists everywhere in everyday life and we can create more complex versions of this as the need arises. We can decide when we need a leader for a particular task. We can decide when we do not. We can choose to have a structured leadership for some role. And then we can choose to remove that leadership when it no longer suits us.
It is very, very hard to imagine how the state, the country and the world could look with consensus based models, rather than authoritarian models. The whole point of trying is to attempt to grow. To become aware of our environment and ourselves. Maybe it will happen in my lifetime. Maybe it will happen tomorrow. Maybe my grand children will see it. Maybe it will never happen.
What I do know is that I refuse to be fed a lie. And I refuse to feed that lie to others. My involvement in the system is a choice I have made. A choice. And at some point I may choose otherwise. My choice has been challenged at many times. In fact I am not very comfortable with my choice. I am trying to understand another way of living with the conditions of my life. Some of those conditions I have created and some are “given” by the fact of my being born into this culture at this time in history. They are the conditions I have.
Here is the point: the systems of authority and control in our current culture are in fact the biggest, most pervasive, sources of injustice in the world. These systems are NOT a solution to injustice. They are NOT mitigating harm. They are NOT protecting the little people. Rather, they are taking resources from the majority in order to create surplus for the minority. The propaganda of these systems teaches us that all this in necessary to prevent “bad people” from making the world a horrible place. They teach that without these systems, injustice would reign. We learn that the institutions are designed to provide the most balanced and fair environment possible. It is simply not true.
The anarchist communities that have existed have been dominated by “legal” states. Taken over by force. This is simply the law of “might equals right.” It may be true that human nature will lead some to try to take from others. The problem is that our institutions are DESIGNED TO THIS END. They do not protect us from this problem… THEY ARE THE PROBLEM.
From this perspective, imagining a world without coercive (because this is really the core of the problem) institutions of control requires first an understanding of how we as individuals perceive the world around us. This is, in and of itself, a huge undertaking. We tend to see movement toward “sustainability,” “organic,” “consultation,” and “community driven,” as signs of “progress.” This is understandable from the lens we are conditioned to. The challenge is to imagine a world where these things are not “progress,” but rather “given.”
This is how I have arrived at the value of anarchy, organic leadership, and consensus as being answers to what is happening in the world. It is a person-by-person process. It starts inside of oneself. It can only grow as people come together to practice. It cannot, by its very nature, be “put into place,” because the mechanism for “putting” is the problem to begin with. The challenge that I see is not in finding ways to use these tools in today’s complex world, but in imagining what complexities could be ELIMINATED with the use of these tools.
One example is with food. Actually, it is a fundamental example. How much infrastructure (both organizational and built) is required to move food from one part of the globe to another? If we were organizing on a local level, and including the value of local food production (which makes sense, because in an anarchist framework, there is reticence to giving control of basic needs into the hands of remote people or groups), then the systems that enable pineapples to be eaten in Santa Fe in January, would no longer be needed. Population would spread out differently than it is now. Urban centers would become less dense, or lose in population, while rural areas would increase in population.
The entire complex world that we know would reshape in ways that we can hardly imagine. Nor do we need to.
This is why my answer to the question of the practicality of anarchy is so elusive. Imagining anarchy requires first an assessment of one’s own coercive behavior. This may be simple “what’s for dinner” questions, or perhaps larger forms of authoritarian exercise (let it be noted that SOME forms of authoritarian structure are needed and good, such as parents with children. But they ALWAYS need to be critically assessed and constantly reassessed). The second step is understanding when we allow ourselves to BE coerced. The third step is to work hard to bring the elements of consensual agreement into our daily lives. The fourth is to actually organize small local groups within the community. And ever outwards…
One cannot jump ahead to what it looks like on a national level. First things first. Assess and implement consensual process where one can. Then move outward a step. Only when it becomes necessary, need one grapple with ideas of organization that are beyond our personal experience.