Getting to know the anarchists

Back in the day (which was before people used the expression “back in the day”), I was reasonably satisfied with the society I lived in.

I thought there were four possible ways to organize society—free-market democracy, socialist democracy, Communism and fascism.   The dividing line between the first two and second two was democracy vs. dictatorship; the dividing line between the first and last and the middle two was capitalism vs. socialism.

For me, the key dividing line was between democracy and dictatorship.  I was satisfied with free-market democracy, but open-minded about social democracy.   I recognized the existence of poverty, racism and other social ills, but I thought the United States and other democratic countries were steadily overcoming these wrongs.

Nowadays Communism has vanished from the map of history, and state socialism is fading.  But the forward progress of our free-market democracy has ceased.  Instead we are stuck in a state of perpetual war, perpetual martial law and perpetual economic decline, with impunity from the law for the financial and governmental elite and a police state for everyone else.   There is no longer a bright dividing line between our present system and fascism.

I was wrong in my assumptions about how things were, and I need to rethink my philosophy.  I want to learn more about anarchism, a philosophy based on individual liberty and voluntary cooperation, outside my four-box matrix..

rocrrbWith this in mind, I joined a reading group sponsored by Rochester Red and Black, a local anarchist organization.  It was the first time in many years I have been the most conservative person in a room.  We finished reading Peter Kropotkin’s 1892 anarchist classic, The Conquest of Bread  last Sunday.  I wrote about my impressions of the book in my previous post.   I took forward to rejoining the group for their next book and expect to write a post about it on this web log.

My spirit was refreshed by the high level of civility, intellectual seriousness and moral clarity in the group.   The majority of my friends are Obama Democrats, who believe that what we now have is the best we can expect, and that it is necessary to accept a more repressive and less humane society for fear of something worse.   I don’t accept this.  As the anarchists say, “A better world is possible.”

Anarchists have a bad name because, in the 19th and early 20th centuries, they were associated with revolutionary violence.  An anarchist assassinated President William McKinley.  Anarchists murdered the Czar of Russia, the President of France and the King of Italy.   I don’t advocate or justify this type of anarchism, although I’d guess that the number of people killed by anarchists in 200 years is fewer than the number of people killed as a result of the actions of the Bush and Obama administrations, let alone the mass killings of Stalin or Mao.

I think anarchism fits well with the strategy of non-violent defiance developed by Gene Sharp.   The problem with the so-called revolutionary liberation movements of the 20th century was not that they used violence against their enemies, but that they used violent repression to keep their followers in line.   Leaders who renounce violence (at least as their main method) renounce compulsion.  Their movements require the understanding and voluntary support of their followers, which is anarchism in action.

For the past few years I have been reading works by a German philosopher named Jurgen Habermas.   He says that in modern times, human activity is divided between what he calls the Life World and the System World.   The Life World consists of individual human beings, their feelings, thoughts and desires and their responses to each other.  The System World consists of the impersonal requirements of governmental and capitalistic systems, to which people are forced to conform because they see no alternative.   In our times the System World is pushing down hard on the Life World.   One of the ways to push back is through what Habermas calls “communicative action”—individual human beings turning off the TV set and letting the world know what they think of it.

Anarchists are among the defenders of the Life World.  I think of Occupy Wall Street educating us about the 1 percent and the 99 percent, Take Back the Land movement protesting against eviction, Food Not Bombs providing food as a right.   As Bertrand Russell wrote in another context, “Remember your humanity and forget the rest.”

Click on Rochester Red and Black for that group’s home page.

Click on The realism of nonviolent action for my post on Gene Sharp’s The Politics of Nonviolent Action.

Click on Gene Sharp’s revolution handbook for my post on Gene Sharp’s From Dictatorship to Democracy.

Click on A little bit more anarchism would do us good for my post on James C. Scott’s Two Cheers for Anarchism.

Click on Taking anarchism seriously for my post on Peter Kropotkin’s The Conquest of Bread.

I hope I do not need to point out that I do not speak for Rochester Red and Black, an organization of which I am not even a member let alone a spokesman.


3 Responses to “Getting to know the anarchists”

  1. Alex Says:

    Thanks Phil! We were glad to have you at the discussion!


  2. Sarah Mae Says:

    Thank you, Phil! It was great to have you at the reading group!


  3. Peter Kropotkin | The Art of Polemics Says:

    […] Getting to know the anarchists ( […]


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