Sunday, August 21, 2011

After disillusion, revitalization, episode from late 2002 regarding anarchism in its conventional form

This is another step in my saga of political evolution, notable not because it's mine so much as that the issues, IMHO, are interesting. In 2002 I was able for the first time, to go to a significant protest against globalization, that took place in the Midwest in early November. Although real, compared to other anti-globalization protests it was quite small. It happened to have been primarily organized by anarchists. Although the protest itself was very good, on a personal level the interactions that I had with the organizers and their friends shot down the hopes I had that this would be a case of me meeting a valiant, virtuous, anti-globalization movement. In my opinion it wasn't the anti-globalization content but the anarchists that were the problem. The folks that I encountered were less than spectacular and less than virtuous, instead proving themselves to be possessed with the same petty possessiveness, egotism, cliqueishness, and self seeking, that is present in mainstream society, with folks concerned with getting laid and getting fame. You would think that folks opposing mainstream society would try to do better than that.

As a consequence, and in particular because of a serious argument back and forth between me and a friend having to do with some of the behavior, that lead me to lose that that friend, I began to question just what it was that I had become involved with. I couldn't reconcile my hopes of being part of this great movement with the reality that I had encountered. At the time, I couldn't distinguish between this one small group of organizers, mostly young, and the anti-globalization movement as a whole, and was afraid that the whole thing may have been based on shoddy underpinnings. So it became a kind of existential crisis.

Searching through my memories and experiences, trying to explain to myself what had happened, I came back to David Hume's writings on politics. Hume, best known for his philosophical skepticism, was also a virtual anarchist in the political realm, but in a much different sense than usually attaches itself to the word. Hume believed that human beings, and the perceptions that human beings have about the world, are so inherently flawed that concentrating power in governmental or social institutions is a sure way to invite abuse of it. Therefore, he believed that governmental and social institutions should be radically decentralized so that accountability between the representatives of society and the people could be established. He also believed in a strict class system and that the people on the top of this decentralized world should be local feudal lords.

Thinking about my experience, it looked to me like one of the things that anarchist thought had not done at all, but that Hume did very well was to include the possibility of human fallibility in the scheme for social revolution and improvement,. This, I thought, was one of the factors that lead to the behavior that I had seen. People were so concerned with liberation, with liberating this, with liberating that, that they never looked at their own actions as liberated It's all well and good to be against oppression, but the act of simply not acting oppressively isn't the same as acting in an ethically way. In fact, if you only focus on not being oppressive while ignoring basic ethics, problems are sure to arise.

Fresh from these considerations, what I began to turn to were sources that, for lack of a better description, painted a picture of what pre-capitalist society was, and presumably how a post-capitalist society could be, that included positive statements about what values and ethics a communal and egalitarian society should have, as opposed to only ideas about how people should avoid acting. It was quite a convoluted process, but the general idea was that there were societies that existed before capitalism, not just in far off places but in both the U.S., the Americas and in Europe, that had solid egalitarian values about both helping other people out and being a good person, that combined a sensibility of mutual regard and mutual aid with individual accountability and right action. Sort of like small communities where everyone has a role to fill, everyone knows that the prosperity of the whole is dependent on both the individual contributing and on all the people in the community working together for common goals. Communal decision making was of course included. Roles, in this case, were modified by the absence of a dominating force like that of a feudal lord or of modern capitalists.

This more agrarian notion of society, similar to that annunciated by Wendell Barry and to a degree by Edward Abbey, seemed much better and healthier than what present day society looked like both politically and socially. As part of the content ,there was an understanding that in an agrarian situation people are connected more fully to a natural economy in a way that introduces the basic principles of life into work and society, something absent from the present world. If you mess up in a situation like that, people suffer, and the consequences of your actions are apparent. This provides a big stimulus to act in a positive way. By contrast, both people and institutions can mess up big time in our society, and the consequences are either warped and deflected or delayed down the line to the point where there's no real check or balance, especially if the institutions and individuals in question are linked to the power of capital. Call it naive, but there's a belief that if a person is acquainted with the real economy, instead of with just the imaginary economy of the white collar world or the pseudo-real economy of the service industry, that they'll be less likely to support policies and institutions that have the capability of doing serious harm to both the environment and to society as a whole. That said, the sensibility that I had identified was different than that of small communities that are socially conservative and view anything outside of their puritanical traditions as being bad and evil, and where the people involved rail against the corruption of easterners, always thought to have money behind them, and the shit that they supposedly get away with. It wasn't the mentality of a small town, but of liberated individuals acting in harmony with natural processes and learning ethics and behavior through that interaction.

The experience of working things out in a basic community, so the thinking goes, can lead to a reality principle being introduced to society, something in common with the phrase "natural law" if the Aristotelian social conservatism of it is taken out, and that this can stymie unsustainable plans. None of this suggested that the general notion of anarchism as a doctrine promoting individual and collective freedom was wrong, only that in practice it may take more than a liberalistic denunciation of all hierarchies and all forms of social and individual oppression to actually make something that can work.

Ed note: I have to emphasize again that although the idea outlined involves going back to premodern pre-capitalist ways of life in certain respects, that what is advocated is not an endorsement of the stultifying, ultra-conservative, rural environment that produces ideologies like the ones currently on show with the Republican Party. Some aspects of the past are better left in the past, and certainly "Young Earth Creationism", for example, saying that the world is really just six thousand years old, is a concept that the present world can do without. In this sense, it wasn't truly "pre-modern" but only selectively so, although I didn't realize it at the time, and was in effect a compromise between modern liberal ideology and pre-modern ways of being.

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