A little bit more anarchism would do us good

Anarchism is the political credo that rejects all forms of compulsory authority and believes society can be organized on the basis of individual freedom and voluntary cooperation.  Yale professor James C. Scott is not a full-blown anarchist, but in his short and highly readable book, TWO CHEERS FOR ANARCHISM: Six Easy Pieces on Autonomy, Dignity and Meaningful Work and Play, he makes the case that a bit more anarchism in American life would do us good.

We are so used to obeying authority that many of us have lost the habit of acting for ourselves, Scott wrote.  Once he shocked a friend of his, a Dutch college professor who considered himself a Maoist revolutionary, by crossing the street against the traffic light when there was no traffic on the street.  Scott advocates “anarchist calisthenics”—occasionally violating a rule or law that makes no sense just to break the habit of submission.

twocheersHow necessary are traffic lights?  Scott told how Hans Moderman, a traffic engineer in the city of Drachten, the Netherlands, noticed that traffic flow improved when electrical failures put traffic lights out of commission.  In 1999, he replaced traffic lights at the city’s busiest intersection with a traffic circle, an extended bicycle path and a pedestrian area.  The number of traffic accidents fell dramatically.  Relying on drivers to use good sense was more effective than demanding they obey signs.  In fact, the traffic signals may have been counterproductive, because they distracted drivers from the road, and they created a false sense of safety.

Many Dutch towns now advertise themselves as “free of traffic signs.”  The lesson learned from this experiment can be applied to other things besides traffic.

That is one of Scott’s examples of mild anarchism in action.  Another is a children’s playground in Denmark in 1943 which, instead of building swings, seesaws and sliding boards for the children to use, simply opened up a raw building site with lumber, shovels, nails and tools and left them to the children to do as they wished.  It was hugely popular, but soon ran into trouble.  Some children hoarded lumber and tools for their own use.  Fighting and raids broke out.  Adults were on the verge of closing the playground down when the youngsters themselves conducted a salvage drive to retrieve the hidden materials and organized a system for sharing tools and lumber.  The children learned a valuable lesson in self-government, which they would not have learned from adult supervision.

“Adventure playgrounds” have since become popular in many parts of the world.  Scott pointed out that to the casual observer, they look messy and disorderly, but in fact are not.  That is the planner’s disease—to impose external order for the sake of appearances, and disregard the hidden order that already exists.

James C. Scott

James C. Scott

Scott said the limitations of hierarchy and top-down planning are shown by the fact that one of the most effective forms of labor union action is “work to rule”—to simply carry out orders and follow procedures as given, rather than use individual judgment.   Bureaucrats and executives think they are in charge, and do not realize how much they depend on the initiative and knowledge from below.

In government, he wrote, it is better to put up with the messiness of democracy than to abdicate to supposedly neutral experts and technocrats.   Sometimes it is better to put up with the even greater messiness of direct action than to insist that people work within the system.  Most of the great reform movements in American history—abolition of slavery, women’s suffrage, the labor union movement, the civil rights movement—were achieved by people who were willing to break laws and defy authority.

Scott devoted a section of his book to praise of the “petty bourgeosie”—independent farmers, craft workers and shopkeepers, who are not subject to bosses.  This social class has a bad name among left-wing radicals, but, as he pointed out, it is during the periods of history that the petty bourgeosie have been in the majority that society has come closest to worker ownership of the means of production.

He entitled his book Two Cheers for Anarchism instead of three cheers because he does not think it really is possible to do without government.  Nor does he think authority is always wrong or the masses are always right.  When the federal government imposed school desegregation against the wishes of the majority of the people of the South (that is, the overwhelming majority of the white people), it promoted liberty.  But such examples are rare, he said.

Click on The American Conservative, The Coffin Factory, The Los Angeles Review of Books and The Wall Street Journal for other reviews of the book and The New York Times for a profile of Scott.

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One Response to “A little bit more anarchism would do us good”

  1. Atticus Says:

    “We are so used to obeying authority that many of us have lost the habit of acting for ourselves.”

    This is definitely true. I especially see it with people around my age. What’s weird is if people can show even the slightest ability to think for themselves they are rewarded (better jobs, respect, higher pay, etc.) yet more and more I see people unable to think outside the box.

    I think a lot of it is ingrained. We are taught through every grade level in public school to follow the rules. Outside the box thinking is often punished. And to obey authority is praised. I think James Scott is right – perhaps just a little peaceful anarchism would be good for us.


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