The Elegance of Anarchism


"[T]he great emancipatory gains for human freedom have not been the result of orderly, institutional procedures but of disorderly, unpredictable, spontaneous action cracking open the social order from below." Thus concludes James C. Scott's brief celebration of the joy and necessity of anarchism, Two Cheers for Anarchism, (Princeton University Press: Princeton, 2012).

Of course, Scott is right. Who foresaw the collapse of the Berlin Wall, the Arab Spring, the Occupy protests, or, most recently, the groundswell of popular protest in Brazil? When, one wonders, will the damn of restraint break in the United States to shatter what is rapidly becoming an economic caste system?

Scott is an unlikely proponent of anarchism. He's a tenured professor of political science and anthropology at Yale University. There's something counterintuitive about an academic preaching chaos. Isn't he the intellectual equivalent of a trust-fund baby - living free and easy off the unearned income of his university's generous endowment?

Such thinking reflects a misunderstanding of anarchism.

Anarchism is not disorder for disorder's sake. It is a rejection of the status quo as inadequate to meet the necessities of the time. It is the outcast forever and always challenging the orthodoxies of his time. It is the outsider saying to those confidently sharing the glow of inclusion: "Not so fast. There are things your ideals do not explain. Your rhetoric doesn't match the reality of my life." Anarchism is David saying to Goliath, "Do you feel my pain? No? Then feel this rock."

The great enemies of human freedom are the ideals and ideologies that seek to blind men and women to what they see all around them. Hence, we celebrate freedom in the United States while housing more men and women in prisons than any other nation on earth. We sing songs of equality while the rich get richer, and poor, well, they're just dropped from statistical reports - did you know that unemployment numbers reflect the number of folks looking work. Those who have dropped out don't count. They are our disappeared.

Listen to Scott describe the crayons politicians and mainstream journalists use to color over the rough edges of life: "The natural impulse to create a cohesive narrative to account for our own actions and lives, even when those lives and actions defy any coherent account, casts a retrospective order on acts that may have been radically contingent." In other words, we create the order we need by choosing to see what we report. The anarchist's voice is the demand of the powerless to be heeded. The anarchists "willingness to break the law [is] not so much a desire to sow chaos as a compulsion to instate a more just legal order," Scott writes. The anarchist is a shriek in a convent, protesting that solitary devotion to the holy comes at a profane cost.

Tired of the meaningless charade of Barack O'Bush and John Boehner, two squawk boxes pissing passed one another on the nightly news? "The brutal fact of routine, institutionalized liberal democratic politics is that the interests of the poor are largely ignored until and unless a sudden and dire crisis catapults the poor into the streets." The insiders see no reason to change the rule of the game so long as it works for them. It is only when the outsiders force issues that real change occurs. Decades of "trickle down" economics has yielded only huge deficits, plutocrats and corporations too big to fail. Take a drive through the Midwest sometime and see what's left of the middle class.

Scott's been a student of the dispossessed around the world for a scholarly lifetime, studying peasant resistance in Southeast Asia. The point of this little book is that anarchism has a role not just in what we used to call the Third World. The simple art of lifelong resistance to structures that do not work - "[q}uiet, unassuming, quotidian insubordination" - is becoming a necessary way of life in this the best of all possible worlds. You can bring a colossus to its knees by acts of "silent, dogged resistance, withdrawal and [the] truculence of ordinary people." This ordinary revolt can be more effective than revolutionary violence, he writes.

Is Edward Snowden a traitor? Perhaps to the ruling class. To many others he represents something else. He understood the rules of the game the state now plays in the name of security. But security for whom, and at what costs? Snowden stepped outside the restraint of the law to demonstrate a larger truth - the contempt of big government and big corporations for ordinary people. Did you see the angry mug of the NSA's General Keith Alexander boasting how the surveillance state had saved us from so many terrorists attacks? He looked like a hungover J. Edgar Hoover grousing about all the communists who are infiltrating our schools, the government, the movies, and, well ... the very space beneath our beds.

Scott's simple little book does much to rehabilitate anarchism. Forever and always there will be conflict between the individual and group. Watch any pack of animals and you'll see order break down from time to time, the outlier either brought to heel, or driven away. The human kind is no different; we're just more creative, and destructive, in how we go about satisfying the imperatives of survival. There will always be simmering discontent: Civilization is a work in progress. Anarchism is no more than the means by which ordinary force those in power to heed the voice of even the least advantaged. God save anarchism.

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