Folks are sometimes surprised to see a black anarchist’s flag hanging in the corner of my law office. “Aren’t you a lawyer?,” they ask. “Don’t you believe in the rule of law?” Shouldn’t I be wearing a small American flag in the lapel of my suit, as is the fashion of some lawyers? The answers are yes, kind of, and no.
Anarchism gets a bad rap in the popular press. An anarchist doesn’t bathe, has no regard for the property or dignity of others, and is a threat to the social order. That’s a silly stereotype, but, truth be told, we can’t live without stereotypes and generalizations. There’s simply too much data in the world for most of us to process: We need simply to survive. Stereotypes are survivalist tools.
I suspect most of us are anarchists in the manner in which we conduct our lives. It’s only when matters of larger consequence arise that we pretend to be otherwise. An anarchist is, after all, a person who believes the value of a custom, a rule, a manner of living is to be measured or gauged in terms of how well it serves human interests. Anarchists are suspicious of governments and of hierarchical institutions in general.
Almost all anarchists believe that the state is evil, that in an ideal world, states and institutions of dominance and control can be eliminated. I’m not optimistic about that. I see too much of the herd animal in human behavior; we have much that is good within us, but we also have a tremendous instinct to be vicious and territorial toward one another. We need states to keep us from destroying one another in fits of idiosyncratic rage.
I am a methodological anarchist. I know that government is necessary, but I refuse to accept the necessity of its current form. Frankly, I think chaos defines as a species. We’re not born and bred to order; forever and always the engine of history, the imperatives of survival, the entropy of existence — call the forces that move us what you will — drive us. We arrive at a moment’s peace only to confront the next crisis, the next turning point, whether as individuals or societies. We’re at our adaptive best when confronted with the need for change.
The rule of law is a commitment to settled rules, procedures and manners of dealing with recurring and expected problems. We convey property by way of titles and deeds not because this was decreed to be just at the beginning of the world, but because the practice promotes regularity and predictability. Similarly, we use paper money as a medium of exchange, a comparatively recent practice, because it makes life together easier.
Most of us accept these and countless other practices as the norm without thought. Lawyers are expert at understanding the rules governing the ordinary tasks of daily living; they are trained to counsel others on what is expected, and what to do when generally accepted expectations fail. There are legal remedies for breaches of the law.
I swore an oath to uphold the law when I began to practice law. But I did not thereby commit to believe that the law is morally just, never to be challenged or sacrosanct. As a lawyer, I study the law and use it to advance and protect the interests of the individuals I represent; that is my role. As a citizen, I often regard the law with horror, as a blind man treading over broken glass. I reconcile the conflict between my role as lawyer and citizen by taking cases that challenged the law’s applicability and justness in the ordinary grit and terror of the lives of unpopular people.
As a methodological anarchist, I believe that human destiny is best reflected in the hopes and desires of ordinary people trying to live decent lives. Hence, my sympathies extend to those seeking to enter this country: we call them illegal immigrants because the new wine they seek bursts the old skins of what we call the law. I prefer to represent those accused of breaking the law because more often than not my sense is that their real crime is not fitting into to a mold – the law’s – that no longer serves the reality of the social world in which people actually live. The war on drugs, for example, criminalizes the means by which many American’s cope with a world that has no place for them.
Nearly a century ago, Joseph Schumpeter, an Austrian economist, wrote a book called Capitalism, Socialism and Democracy. He made famous the concept of “creative destruction,” the top-down transformation of human society by the application of changes in how we manufacture and produce things. My sense is that creative destruction can work from the bottom-up as well. When the social world doesn’t work, there’s really no reason why those unserved by the status quo shouldn’t act up. Why, for example, in a nation of great wealth should the disappearing middle class sit silently back while the wealthy enjoy the spoils?
Methodological anarchism is a plea, really, a call for those with visions of a better world to act on their convictions, to challenge the status quo, to act as if the state were not just unnecessary, but also a hindrance, to making at a better world. Those who sit in the seats of power, judges, prosecutors, politicians, even lawyers, all have a discernable interest in things as they are. Forgotten Americans do not.
I suspect most people are far more sympathetic with anarchism than they care to admit. We all push back at institutions, lines and limits we regard as arbitrary.
So forgive me if I declare a broader allegiance to change than the status quo. You won’t see the stars and stripes in my office; there’s a black flag emblazoned with red circle surrounding the letter A. Yes, I uphold the law and operate within the rule of law. But I do so because it is the material at hand, not because it is morally just, superior or right.