Reviewed by Randy Rosenthal
There is nothing like election time to reveal the ignorance of educated Americans. This is especially the case in the current election, when many misguided people under the conservative persuasion mistakenly understand the ideological battle between Obama and Romney as one of socialism versus democracy. Yet when asked to define socialism, it’s doubtful that anyone on the right or the left could give you a correct answer. Similar to communism, socialism simply means that the state owns wealth and the means of production. Things like universal health-care and higher tax rates aren’t socialist, they are just standard features of any developed democratic nation. As President Obama does not have a political agenda that includes a government take-over of the means of production, the word socialism is clearly a widely misunderstood and incorrectly used term.
Yet anarchism is even more misunderstood than socialism. For most people that consider themselves educated, the word anarchy has connotations of destruction and chaos. (And indeed, while mayhem has nothing to do with the actual anarchist ideology, we just might get to experience such a crude form of anarchy if Romney is elected and allowed to systematically deconstruct America’s social system. But Romney’s proposed attack on government isn’t really anarchism either.) Thankfully, Yale professor James C. Scott and Princeton Press have recently published Two Cheers for Anarchism, an easy to read book that will help illuminate the concept of anarchism for anyone under misconceptions about the sophisticated ideology of anarchy.
Rather than attempt to convince readers to join their local anarchist party, Scott’s goal in writing Two Cheers for Anarchism is to make “a case for a sort of anarchist squint” by relating anecdotes that demonstrate the fundamental ideas of anarchism. In fact, the founders and figures of classic anarchist ideology are mostly absent, which would be like writing a book about communism without talking about Marx, Lenin, or Mao. Scott completely neglects contemporary anarchists like Noam Chomsky and influential anarchists like Emma Goldman. He references Mikhail Bakunin, the father of anarchism, only in the prologue, quoting the apt insight that “freedom without socialism is privilege and injustice; socialism without freedom is slavery and brutality.” Similarly, it’s only in the prologue that Scott mentions Proudhoun, who defines anarchism as “cooperation with hierarchy or state rule.” Instead of writing like an academic, Scott ingeniously employs the use of what he calls “fragments”—vignettes that illustrate the “anarchist tolerance for confusion and improvisation that accompanies social learning, and confidence in spontaneous cooperation and reciprocity.” To further stress his unorthodox approach, Scott introduces many chapters with quotes from Lao Tzu’s Tao te Ching, a work from the 6th century B.C. considered to contain the earliest anarchist themes.
One of the most interesting ideas in Two Cheers for Anarchism is that of “anarchist calisthenics,” which is exercising individual freedom through small, seemingly insignificant acts of disobedience. For example, while working in East Germany back in the 80s, Scott was fascinated while watching dozens of German pedestrians wait several minutes at intersections for a green light, rather than jaywalk, even when it was clear that no car was approaching. Scott links this example of blind obedience to the law with the difficulty Germans had in not disobeying the immoral and unjust laws of the fascist government that occupied their country in the 30s and 40s. Scott argues that if people practice breaking a trivial law when it is logical to do so, then people would have a much easier time breaking serious laws when they know it is wrong to obey those laws. In order to not sound too much like an anarchist, Scott clarifies that the “willingness to break the law is not to sow chaos, but to instate a more just legal order.”
Much of Two Cheers for Anarchism supports the notion that all great political reform has been achieved through massive civil disobedience, not through organized institutional changes; Scott’s main premise is that government policy is actually influenced by thousands of small, insignificant and anonymous acts of insubordination. Rather than open confrontation through political or physical means, these anonymous acts of defiance include desertion rather than mutiny, foot-dragging rather than striking, and, in cases where there is severe inequality, poaching, sabotage, and arson. These acts naturally encourage a “complicity of silence” on both sides; they escape notice in the media or in political discussions, but because politicians see such acts as precursors to an all-out rebellion, these small acts have big influence. In other words, “one need not have an actual conspiracy to achieve the practical effects of a conspiracy.”
Scott quickly moves on from encouraging insubordination to show that anarchism is actually about an unstructured, localized, spontaneous approach to public policy. Order from central planning is deceptive; it works on paper, but not in reality. The standardized practices of big agriculture have proven destructive, with un-rotated crops sucking nutrients from the soil and being vulnerable to disease. Agribusiness is furthermore “diabolical” in how it has transformed free, independent chicken farmers into closely monitored assembly-line workers who have no freedom over their own operations due to the amount of debt they’ve acquired in following the directions of large chicken corporations. Planned cities with sharply defined residential, commercial, and industrial zoning laws are undesirable for their sterility. Schools that focus on standardized tests produce unintelligent students, as well as corrupt teachers who must focus on meeting required test scores in order to stay employed. There are less traffic accidents in intersections without traffic lights. Universities that grant tenure and hire faculty based on the amount of books published or number of articles cited have replaced the quality of education with a quantitative measurement. The rise of the assembly line in factories effectively eliminated artisanal-craft knowledge. In case after case, Scott shows that “it is erroneous to equate visual order with working order.” Governments and institutions only have standardization because it is easy to measure and compare, even though what is measurable is often valueless; for example, you can’t measure the things that actually matter to people, like happiness, kindness, maturity, or love. In Einstein’s words, “Not everything that counts can be counted and not everything that can be counted, counts.”
The underlying fact that policy makers unfortunately ignore is that a lack of structure facilitates spontaneous adaptation and growth, while standardized static policies are destructive for a creative and progressive society. The overall point of Two Cheers for Anarchism seems to be that our policy makers are misguided; in the interest of production we create social structures that are not only inefficient but detrimental to a successful and sustainable society. Scott also reminds us that the reliance on standardization and quantification fosters the manipulation of data, resulting in such things as the 2008 financial collapse, the deterioration of our education system, and the destruction of our environment. The solution to the world’s problems, and perhaps humanity’s salvation, lies not in adjusting our political process, but in adjusting our way of thinking by putting on “anarchist glasses.”
It would be too ironic to say that Two Cheers for Anarchism is weakened by its lack of structure, and that it would have benefited from further elaboration and cohesion, but that’s the truth. Nevertheless, we should be grateful that this book was published during election time. Anyone who desires to see a more democratic, just, and equal world should consider Scott’s conclusion that “great emancipatory gains for human freedom have not been the result of orderly, institution procedures but of disorderly, unpredictable, spontaneous action cracking open the social order from below.”
This means that anyone who has Hope and believes in Change shouldn’t support ineffectual institutions like the Democratic Party, but should rather support true engines of social progress such as the anarchistic Occupy movement.
Princeton University Press, October 2012