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"Anarchism: wild-eyed radicalism or just plain common sense?"

by [name withheld by request]


To quote Chomsky: an expression of the idea that the burden of proof is always on those who argue that authority and domination are necessary. They have to demonstrate, with powerful argument, that that conclusion is correct. If they cannot, then the institutions they defend should be considered illegitimate. How one should react to illegitimate authority depends on circumstances and conditions: there are no formulas.”[1] “If it is correct, as I believe it is, that a fundamental element of human nature is the need for creative work, for creative inquiry, for free creation without the arbitrary limiting effect of coercive institutions, will follow that a decent society should maximize the possibilities for this fundamental human characteristic to be realized. That means trying to overcome the elements of repression and oppression and destruction and coercion that exist in any existing society, ours for example, as a historical residue.

Now any form of coercion or repression, any form of autocratic control of some domain of existence, let's say, private ownership of capital or state control of some aspects of human life, any such autocratic restriction on some area of human endeavor, can be justified, if at all, only in terms of the need for subsistence, or the need for survival, or the need for defense against some horrible fate or something of that sort. It cannot be justified intrinsically. Rather it must be overcome and eliminated. [A] federated, decentralized system of free associations, incorporating economic as well as other social institutions, would be what I refer to as anarcho-syndicalism; and it seems to me that this is the appropriate form of social organization for an advanced technological society, in which human beings do not have to be forced into the position of tools, of cogs in the machine.”[2]

Generally speaking, I think that the fact that there have been many agrarian and hunter-gatherer societies that were Anarchist or quasi-Anarchist and lasted for many of years, shows that a decentralized society is not incompatible with human nature. Of course, one can point at the extremely hierarchical nature of our modern institutions (corporations, states) and the apparent facility with which the few control the many.

One may then conclude that anarchism is incompatible with the complexities of modern life.

There are some things one can say to counter that perception.

There have been industrial societies that were able to follow anarchist principles of self-management and democratic non-hierarchical control of the workplace and social life. For example, in 1918, Anarchists in Ukraine revolted against their capitalist masters & set up a successful Anarchist society, which lasted for several years before the Marxist regime in Russia used its superior resources to conquer Ukraine. In the 1930s, millions of anarchists in Spain did the same thing, establishing the largest anarchist revolution since the beginning of the industrial revolution, which also created the first feminist movement in modern history. The Spanish revolution not only increased solidarity, but also efficiency, as one can see from looking at how they restructured the economy.[3]

These were largely spontaneous phenomena, which seems to reveal that we have an instinct for freedom.

A lot of progress in human affairs has to do with struggles for freedom and against illegitimate authority. These struggles (although not often on the front pages) go on all the time. Our "instinct for freedom" seems to be a significant component of human nature.

It is true that human beings also have a tendency to subordinate themselves to authority, but since they need freedom to gain a taste for more freedom, there's the potential that it will expand. It's interesting to note that just like anarchism, representative government was said not to work because of “human nature.”

Zimbardo, the psychologist who conducted a famous experiment where good kids became cruel prison guards, was interviewed on 'Democracynow' and said that:

"Most of the evil of the world comes about not out of evil motives, but somebody saying get with the program, be a team player...When a person feels, I am not personally responsible, I am not accountable, it's the role I’m playing or these are the orders I’ve gotten, then you allow yourself to do things you would never do under ordinary circumstances. [My book] The Lucifer Effect is...really a celebration of the human mind['s] infinite capacity to be kind, or cruel, caring or selfish, creative or destructive. To make some of us be villains and some of us heroes. And it all depends on the situation. When we have total freedom, we choose situations that we know we can control. But when we're in situations where other people are in charge, in the military, in prisons, in some schools, in some families, we are - we can be transformed."[4]

Maybe Zimbardo is exaggerating when he talks about the mind's "infinite capacity to be kind" but I think that by relinquishing their role as subservient, unthinking & insentient cogs in a machine, people would feel more independent, responsible and aware of their actions; they wouldn't be indoctrinated by centers of power, & would become appalled by behavior that now is condoned within the hierarchical institutional structures. As Marx says "the ideas of the ruling class are the ruling ideas", and it is difficult to fight against billions of dollars of educational, consumerist and news propaganda, yet I think that countering those ideas would encourage the kind of checks & balances & self-examination that are now lacking--bringing the more positive values of human nature to the fore.

Institutions do not reflect normal human behavior. Most people don't go around punching and killing people, and the average Joe wouldn't steal food from a child just because there are no police around and he happened to be hungry. If he did we'd find such behavior pathological, not normal (as you'd expect if we were really so greedy). Yet states have killed millions through war, and corporations will literally take away water from children for profit (e.g. Bechtel in Cochabamba, Bolivia) and kill millions of workers through horrible working conditions and negligence. They seem to be magnified projections of our worst tendencies.

I can't help but to think of Hanna Arendt, who had gone to the Eichmann trial to confront the epitome of evil in her mind and expected to encounter something monstrous, and what she encountered instead was this nondescript little man, a bureaucrat, a technocrat, a guy who arranged train schedules, who, as it turned out, ultimately didn't even agree with the policy that he was implementing, but performed the technical functions that made the Holocaust possible in the efficient manner that it occurred, in a totally amoral and soulless way, purely on the basis of excelling at the function and getting ahead within the system that he found himself.

He was a good family man, in his way. He was loved by his children, participated in civic activities, was in essence the good German. And she, Arendt, said, therein lies the evil. Anyone in a mindless, faceless, bureaucratic environment could be "the Nazi".

Eichmann symbolized the people that worked under him; the train conductors, the technicians who were making the gas, all of these people who didn't directly kill anybody, but performed functions that made the Holocaust possible.

Generally speaking, there is a big difference between a radicalized militant minority who encourages & inspires others (many ideas usually start small and grow) & a vanguard that gains institutional power, becoming the new elite to which people are subordinated. If people want to be told by a leader “this is what I’m going to do for you” they are starting off on the wrong foot. They have to be the ones who decide what they want, in which case they don’t need a leader to decide for them (just delegates with no power above others). A good leader is better than a monster, but under authority people tend to become instruments of someone else, instead of free agents directing their own destiny, discovering and gaining a taste for more freedom. History seems to show that elites do not work to serve the people, but the opposite: people work to serve elites.

Take, say, our system for the past couple hundred years; even a saint who gains power becomes an important cog in a repressive power structure. CEOs and slave owners could be very nice people, yet in their institutional role they are oppressive.

It's true that Bush is a particularly extreme leader, but which particular person happens to be the figurehead of the oligarchy is less important than the particular things that oligarchy does. If a party wins the elections but implements policies that go against the interests of big business then profits will go down and businesses & investors will withdraw their investments. This capital flight will cause the economy to crash. If the ruling party does not change its policies to appease big business then they'll lose the next elections due to the bad economy. In practice most parties change their policies to appease the corporate elite in order to avoid losing power. Corporations will stop giving money to any party which isn't serviceable to their interests, and the corporate media will demonize anyone who is too critical of corporations.

For example, Bill Clinton won election on a mildly liberal reformist platform. Once in office he was forced to abandon his campaign promises because if he continued them the bond market wouldn't react well and the economy would go down the tubes. Clinton’s famous statement to his advisers upon realizing this was, "You mean to tell me that the success of my program and my reelection hinges on the Federal Reserve and a bunch of fucking bond traders?"[5] He was thus forced to abandon his program before it even started, instead implementing one virtually identical to Republican proposals. He complained to his aides:

“I hope you're all aware we're all Eisenhower Republicans. We're Eisenhower Republicans here, and we are fighting the Reagan Republicans. We stand for lower deficits and free trade and the bond market. Isn't that great?”

In theory the government might be able to combat this by nationalizing industry but neither the Democrats nor Republicans (or most prominent third parties) are willing to do this. Even if they were, the Supreme Court would strike it down. If some way were found to get around this then the CIA and/or Pentagon would overthrow the government in a coup (or through less dramatic means). The CIA has overthrown many governments for nationalizing industry, or even just implementing policies not sufficiently favorable to US corporations, including Chile, Iran, Guatemala, Brazil, Greece, the Congo and many others.

Once elected representatives are isolated from the general public but surrounded by bureaucrats and other politicians. They therefore have a tendency to see things from the perspective of politicians and bureaucrats, rather than from the perspective of the general public from which they are isolated, and are much more susceptible to pressure from government bureaucracies--which is one of the reasons it’s easy for the powerful (elected or unelected) to believe what’s convenient (even Hitler, Stalin etc. believed they were good).

Elected representatives’ dependency on the state bureaucracy for information makes them very susceptible to manipulation by the bureaucracies they are officially in charge of. For example, in the late ‘50s the CIA secured approval to launch an uprising in Indonesia by feeding a series of increasingly alarmist reports to their superiors in the National Security Council, who otherwise might have shot the proposed uprising down. This shows how government agencies (especially secretive ones) can pressure politicians and influence policy in preferred directions. This is enhanced by the fact that individual politicians come and go but the bureaucrats are permanent, which makes it easier for bureaucrats to manipulate information and ensures that politicians have less experience with such manipulation.

Bush the second said he wouldn’t engage in “nation-building” (euphemism for taking other countries over) during the 2000 election campaign but has done it several times. He also claimed to support a balanced budget, but obviously abandoned that. Clinton advocated universal health care during the 1992 election campaign but there were more people without health insurance when he left office than when he took office. Bush the first said, “read my lips - no new taxes!” while running for office but raised taxes anyway. Reagan promised to shrink government but he drastically expanded the military-industrial complex and ran up huge deficits. Rather than shrinking government, he reoriented it to make it more favorable to the rich.

Carter promised to make human rights the “soul of our foreign policy” but funded genocide in East Timor and backed brutal dictators in Argentina, South Korea, Chile, Brazil, Indonesia and elsewhere. During the 1964 elections leftists were encouraged by Democrats to vote for Johnson because Goldwater, his Republican opponent, was a fanatical warmonger who would escalate US involvement in Vietnam. Johnson won, and immediately proceeded to escalate US involvement in Vietnam. FDR promised to maintain a balanced budget and restrain government spending but did the exact opposite. Wilson won reelection in 1916 on the slogan “he kept us out of war” but then lied us into World War One. Hoover pledged to abolish poverty in 1928 but instead saw it skyrocket.

One can go on and on.

According to the official version when leftists get elected to office we should always (or almost always) get leftist policies and vice versa when rightists get elected to office but this is not the case. The German Green party was originally pacifist and was founded on an anti-nuclear power position. They gained power in a coalition government in the late 1990s but abandoned their program, effectively delaying the end of nuclear power in Germany until the nuclear industry wants to end it and supporting military intervention during the Kosovo war. Lula, the current president of Brazil, originally ran on an anti-corporate and anti-IMF platform but is now cooperating with the IMF (although his rhetoric, but not his policies, are sometimes critical of it) and he’s just as favorable towards corporate power as his predecessor.

The socialist/social democratic/labor parties in Europe were originally revolutionary Marxist parties aiming to establish a communist society. As they won elections and gained power they increasingly abandoned this goal and became ordinary capitalist parties. At first they continued to mouth Marxist rhetoric while pushing reformist policies, but eventually even Marxist rhetoric was abandoned. Prior to world war one they declared their opposition to any kind of inter-imperialist world war on the grounds that workers should not kill each other in order to benefit their capitalist masters. When world war one broke out all but two parties (the Bolsheviks and US Socialist party - neither of whom had gained much power through elections) abandoned this stance and supported their own government in a wave of patriotic fervor. Today they're pushing through Reagan/Clinton-style deregulation and “free market reforms,” dismantling the very welfare states they formerly advocated.

"Good” men in power are responsible for much more death & suffering than “evil” men without power, (that's why unlike capitalist and Marxists, anarchists have never imposed dictatorship and mass murder on anyone).

One may argue that “good leaders” also do a lot of good, which is the argument given to defend people with extreme power. I, however, feel that the power to do good is more likely to come from decentralized structures, and that people have the potential to be free, not to be ruled by “benevolent” masters.


[1] Noam Chomsky on Anarchism Tom Lane December 23, 1996
[2] Human Nature: Justice versus Power Noam Chomsky debates with Michel Foucault 1971
[5] ‘The Agenda’ - Bob Woodward - 1994]

 Copyright 2007

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