Wednesday, November 17, 2010

An anarchist sensibility

Justin Smith has recently written a very interesting series of posts on anarchism as a certain kind of political and moral sensibility (rather than as a political programme). From the latest:
The anarchist prefers to think about the human species as having got by for the vastly greater part of its existence without states and armies (and airports, etc.), and insists on asking, based on the perspective of the longue durée, whether so many things that are taken as inevitable in our age are in fact so. I grew up assuming cars were inevitable; now they strike me as relics from a swiftly waning era. I don't see why at least some of us should not be trying to imagine how we might go about securing a similar fate for armies, police, and prisons. It bears pointing out that whether you believe these institutions are inevitable or not, it is undeniable that they are capable of radical transformation. So if you tell me that it is impossible to imagine a world without prisons, it seems to me a reasonable challenge to your claim to note that the very denotation of the term you are using has shifted drastically, not just over the centuries, but even over the past few decades. The fact that this has been a shift for the worse, from the perspective of any lover of peace and freedom, does not diminish the strength of the challenge.


Anarchism, then, as I see it, is a certain perspective on the affairs of men. It is realistic and naturalistic, in that it takes human beings as first and foremost a kind of primate, which only in certain circumstances comes to saddle itself with police and armies and so on. It asks whether and how human beings might thrive in the absence of these, and perhaps also hopes that they might someday (again) thrive without them, even if much of what we now value would have to be relinquished, and even as we soberly acknowledge that human pre-history was no idyll either.
I find this a very congenial perspective, not least perhaps because I am not naturally a highly political person and tend to the abstract and theoretical rather than the practical and concrete, despite having ended up teaching political science; my interests when I started university lay in pure mathematics, but turned to political theory by way of Heidegger. (Talk about corrupting the young. Heidegger books should come with a philosophical health warning, like cigarettes). The programmatic aspects of politics (the "what is to be done?" of everyday political life), while obviously important and worth thinking about seriously, just do not hold my interest that much. And some of my recent reading - James C. Scott and Christopher Boehm first and foremost, but also things like Adam Przeworski's wonderful book on the limits of self-government, about which I keep meaning to blog - has tended to reinforce my sense that our thinking about politics is too tied to a particular vision of a world of (well-ordered) states that seems, in its way, as utopian as the anarchist vision of a world without states. And on alternate days I think that if I am to be an idle utopian (which I am, with the emphasis on idle), I kind of prefer the vision without states.

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