"If the misery of the poor be caused not by the laws of nature, but by our institutions, great is our sin."
- Charles Darwin

Apr 1, 2008

A Natural History of Anarchy - Part I

Evolution, Cooperation and Social Change

“If the misery of our poor be caused not by the laws of nature,
but by our institutions, great is our sin.”

- Charles Darwin

All political and economic philosophies are based on fundamental assumptions about human nature. Early assumptions were based on the premise that a supernatural entity fashioned man in His image but that this creation was flawed. As a result, while we may strive for perfection, the harmony we seek is unattainable without embracing the Supreme Being and His law. Throughout recorded history, all-too-human tyrants have used such views to their political advantage.

Even in the Republican systems that emerged out of the Enlightenment, the premise that there must be a class of rulers and a class to be ruled is the established norm (the modification being that the ruler is approved first by the populace rather than chosen through nepotism). Totalitarian regimes are predicated on the assumption that humans are innately selfish and easily swayed by rival factions thus requiring a unitary executive that, through his singular and enlightened moral vision, will fashion social life in the public’s best interests. [1] State communism (as implemented by Joseph Stalin, Mao Zedong or Pol Pot) followed many of these totalitarian illusions and further assumed that human beings were infinitely malleable and thus able to be forged anew through “reeducation camps” that would benefit society by molding human will around the interests of the state. [2]

Only the political philosophy of anarchism assumes that human nature is basically rational and compassionate, leading to a just society through the free association and participation of all citizens. [3] Anarchy, while assumed by most people to be synonymous with chaos, is actually from the Greek root arkhos, or rulers, and is therefore defined simply as “no rulers.” Modern political classifications place anarchy as Libertarian Socialism, libertarian in the sense of limited or no government influence and socialist in the economic view of equitable distribution of resources and the direct confrontation of oppression.

This makes anarchy a fusion of conservative and liberal ideals; a combination of Ronald Reagan or Ron Paul’s vision that government should be drowned in its own bathwater with the revolutionary action inherent in social justice movements from Thomas Paine and Daniel Shays to Malcolm X and Cesar Chavez. Anarchism has many forms, but advocates generally agree that an anarchist society should consist of nonhierarchical free association, self-government, workers councils (rather than bosses), participatory economics and environmental sustainability. But is such a seemingly utopian ideal consistent with a modern understanding of human nature?

According to Noam Chomsky, international bestselling author of Hegemony or Survival, "In this possibly terminal phase of human existence, democracy and freedom are more than just ideals to be valued - they may be essential to survival." The human experiment is at a crucial turning point where we have within our power the ability to choose whether we continue towards inevitable self-destruction or reconsider our actions and move towards a vision of human freedom and sustainability. As we move towards this vision it is important that we inform ourselves of our evolutionary history, of previous experiments that species have engaged in during our collective legacy.

If we are to avoid the fate of 99.99% of life on this planet (as most species that have ever existed in our 4.6 billion year history are now extinct) we must use our creativity and our wisdom to re-imagine what it means to be human and what it means to interact with our environment. We are the first species to ever be conscious of our own potential extinction. This is a source of optimism rather than despair, for while our creativity and innovation are the roots of our own destruction they are also the wellspring of a new world that merely awaits our ability to imagine.

[1] McCormick, J.P. (1994). Fear, Technology, and the State: Carl Schmitt, Leo Strauss, and the Revival of Hobbes in Weimar and National Socialist Germany. Political Theory 22(4):619-652.
[2] Tucker, R.C. (1956). Stalin and the Uses of Psychology. World Politics 8(4): 455-483; Bracey, D.H. (1985). The System of Justice and the Concept of Human Nature in the People’s Republic of China. Justice Quarterly 2(1):139-144; Clayton, T. (1998). Building the New Cambodia: Educational Destruction and Construction Under the Khmer Rouge, 1975-1979. History of Education Quarterly 38(1):1-16.
[3] Gould, C. (1989). Rethinking Democracy: Freedom and Social Cooperation in Politics, Economy and Society. Cambridge University Press; Turner, S. (1998). Global Civil Society, Anarchy and Governance: Assessing an Emerging Paradigm. Journal of Peace Research 35(1):25-42.

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db0 said...

Well said.

In my understanding it seems that Anarchy and Communism as Marx envisioned it, are pretty much the same thing. Both will result in a pretty utopic result, and both need a very good education on the part of the population which will trigger a paradigm shift in values.

Just one correction
Anarchy comes from the greek Αν-αρχία which translates to "No-Rules" rather than "No-Rulers".

Eric Michael Johnson said...

According to the Oxford American Dictionary:

ORIGIN mid 16th cent.: via medieval Latin from Greek anarkhia, from anarkhos, from an- ‘without’ + arkhos ‘chief, ruler.’

db0 said...

Well, as a Greek I can safely tell you that Αναρχία comes from An (Without) and Αρχή, meaning start. Αρχή makes Αρχές which can means Rules/Values and from which Άρχων (Arkhos) or Άρχοντας comes from which means The One with the Rules or The One from which the Rules come from.

The word by itself much older than the 16th century as it is a perfectly valid word for Ancient Greek.

etbnc said...

Well, I don't know from Greek.

I'm just pleased to see you back with some new material.

Whit said...

So happy to see Primate Diaries up and running, bringing us intellectual nourishment and, if I'm not mistaken, even a message of hope! … there is the possibility of hope…hurrah!

I like your Chomsky quote, Eric. Interestingly enough, tonight I asked my Social Studies Methods students to analyze primary source excerpts from Jefferson, Washington, Hamilton and Abigail Adams, Ben Benecker and George Mason (among others) in the context of a similar question – what is the purpose of government? I pushed them to investigate (from the perspective of these docs) whether or not human nature was inherently "good" or "evil" -- we also discussed the purpose of government, resistance and the nature of patriotism. The discussion centered on the emotions of the documents, most written around 1787 by these founding parents shortly after Shay's Rebellion (whom you mention in your blog). The farmers who rebelled against the newborn elitest government (where only a small percentage of rich, land-holding white men had access to political power) argued largely for a stronger federal govt (and constitution) to replace the weak Articles of Confederation. Why? The elites were nervous after Shay's rebellion. They feared the power of the common people who were demanding social justice and equity. Many founding parents feared monarchy and tyranny but they feared the mobs and (as Abby called them) the desperadoes, even more! Our nation was built with a large government to keep the CHAOS and the REVOLUTIONARIES in control... not to champion the cause of the oppressed. By fearing anarchy itself (in the truest definition of the word), our revolutionary fore-parents embraced a code and a constitution that embraced the tyranny of the elite (a new elite not unlike the old British tea-slurping aristocracy). How sad that Americans think our nation was built on revolutionary ideals... when indeed our nation sold out, quite early, terrified by the potential democratic power of those unwashed and ‘dangerous’ masses... What if those founding-parents had embraced a truly participatory, populist, collective and sustainable model of government – what would America look like today? One wonders…

Good work, Eric! Keep the blog alive!

PS – I’m going to hear CHOMSKY speak April 18th… very excited indeed!!! First time for me! yippeeeeeeeee!

Whit said...

P.S. -- of course after re-reading my post I see an error. I meant that the early documents (the voices of the fore parents) were arguing for a stronger central government (in repsonse to Shays). The farmers, themselves the oppressed revolutionares protesting unfair taxation and attacking the weak newborn US govt. -- were NOT advocating stronger state. Just wanted to clarify that cuz it was fuzzy in my post...

the point being: the real revolutionaries (the poor) got squashed by the ones we called the American Revolutionaries today (Adams, Washington, etc.) who were the ELITE... our concept of revolution has been skewed and we still teach this stuff in history class!

Jonathan Blake said...

Trust me, I really want to believe in Anarchy.

Only the political philosophy of anarchism assumes that human nature is basically rational and compassionate, leading to a just society through the free association and participation of all citizens.

Human nature is only partially compassionate and rational. It has an obvious darker side that hampers all efforts to do away with states.

For example, behavioral economists have shown that the ideal of the rational consumer is an illusion. Human beings are driven by cognitive mechanisms that don't make rational sense in the context of a free market. Also, the famous Stanford Prison Experiment conducted by Zimbardo provides an example that basically compassionate people can behave cruelly given the right situation. Relying on human compassion and rationality while ignoring our darker natures is a recipe for disaster.

Anarchists seem to assume that anarchy can be a stable state. It seems far more likely that we naturally form hierarchical power structures. That's just how we socialize: tigers are solitary, bees form hives, and humans form hierarchies. If the world were converted to a fully educated, fully committed anarchy tomorrow, I'm willing to bet that we would see the rise proto-feudalism within a generation.

etbnc said...

Hmmmm... Well, I like the approach in that tigers, bees, humans statement. I've been known to take a similar approach, too. I like to start with bears and bees because of the B sound alliteration. :)

I sometimes say something like, "Bees know how to live like bees. Bears know how to live like bears. Isn't it strange that one species seems to have such difficulty figuring out how to live?"

As I dig into anthroprology and some other -ologies, the end of the tiger statement no longer rings entirely true for me.

"That's just how we socialize: tigers are solitary, bees form hives, and humans form hierarchies."

Except: For at least 95% of human history, most humans did no such thing.

I'm pretty sure there are some previous posts here that relate to that.


Jonathan Blake said...

Is there some evidence that humans didn't form small troops with a social hierarchy?

moneduloides said...

Interesting; another evolutionary anthropologist interested in the political philosophy of anarchism. I'll definitely pay attention to this blog in the future.