Anti-authoritarianism in a time of pandemic

James C. Scott, in his wise and witty book, Two Cheers for Anarchism: Six Easy Pieces on Autonomy, Dignity and Meaningful Work and Play, reviews ways we the people would be better off if we were less submissive to authority than we are.

He isn’t a full-fledged anarchist.  He understands the need for government.  That’s why he gives two cheers for anarchism instead of a full three cheers.

But he says the anarchists have a point.  Governments, corporations and other big institutions are more repressive than they need to be, and we the people have given up too much of our self-reliance and self-determination.

I read and liked Two Cheers when it first came out, and later read and liked two of Scott’s weightier books, Seeing Like a State: How Certain Schemes to Improve the Human Condition Have Failed and The Art of Not Being Governed: an Anarchist History of Upland Southeast Asia.

I recently read it again, one chapter a month, as part of a philosophy reading group hosted by my friend Paul Mitacek.  We stopped meeting before we finished the book because of the coronavirus pandemic and social distancing requirements.

The pandemic makes the issues Scott raised all the more important.  In times of pestilence, famine and war, we the people submit to authority as we never would normally, and concede rights that we might or might not get back after the emergency is over.

Alternatively, we have a rational fear of anarchy in the bad sense—a war of all against all for the scarce means of survival.

Here are Scott’s six arguments.

Chapter One: The Uses of Disorder and Charisma

Scott wrote about how anonymous individual defiance of law sets limits to government authority and sometimes is a prelude to revolution.  His examples include desertions from the Confederate army, English poachers violating the nobility’s game laws, armed farmers in the U.S. Midwest stopping foreclosures during the Great Depression, wildcat strikes in the same era and spontaneous civil disobedience of U.S. segregation laws in the 1960s.

He also pointed out how “charismatic” leaders, such as Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and Franklin D. Roosevelt, acquire their popularity by noting carefully how their audiences respond, and adapting their message to their audience.

Scott recommended the practice of “anarchist calisthenics”—harmless disobedience of pointless laws and regulations.  He says this will mentally prepare you to resist actual tyranny if tyranny comes.

Chapter Two: Vernacular Order, Official Order

Scott wrote about how people in authority impose what they think is order on people under their control, but fail to recognize the more subtle order they destroy.  The prime example is 19th century German “scientific forestry, which involved clearing out the underbrush and planting trees scientifically chosen to grow fast and have desired qualities.  But most of the trees died, because what the foresters perceived as chaos was a subtle order not understood.

The same thinking affects attempts to impose a false order in people—the architectural design of planned cities, “scientific management” in industry, Soviet economic planning and the attempt to replace traditional agricultural methods in Africa and central America.  It was no accident that all these things turned out badly, Scott wrote.

Chapter Three: The Production of Human Beings

Scott wrote institutions that diminish human competence, self-reliance and joy by imposing routines and diminishing responsibility, in order to make people interchangeable and easier to manage.

He showed how this works in schools, factories and nursing homes.  But he also gave counter-examples of how people flourish when responsibility is pushed downward.  The most striking example was “adventure playgrounds,” in which children were given building materials and left to their own devices.  They learned more and had more fun than they would have if they were always under adult supervision.

Chapter Four: The Petty Bourgeoisie

This is the best and most significant chapter in the book.  It is a celebration of craftsmen, shopkeepers and farmers—all the people who earn their livings by the sweat of their brow without being anybody’s employee.

Many of them are poor.  For many, Scott wrote, it is worth hard labor and small income in order to be your own boss.  Sometimes this is an illusion.  Many franchisees are equivalent to sharecroppers.  The remarkable thing is how many people long for independence, even a nominal independence, and how much they were sacrifice to attain it.

The so-called petty bourgeoise cannot put astronauts on the moon, mass-produce automobiles or find a cure for the coronavirus, but the large organizations that take on these projects contract with vast numbers of small- and medium-sized businesses in order to function.

Small owner-operated businesses come closest to meeting Adam Smith’s ideal of the entrepreneurs who respond immediately to any emerging need in the market economy.  Independent craftsmen such as carpenters, electricians and plumbers come closest to meeting Karl Marx’s ideal of a worker who owns the means of production.

More importantly, Scott wrote, the so-called petty bourgeoisie have personal relationships with their customers and neighbors in a way that branch managers and franchisees cannot.  They knit the fabric of their communities, and it unravels when they are gone.

Chapter Five: For Politics

Scott criticizes the use of supposedly objective criteria to remove the human factor from decision-making.  Examples are the use of the Scholastic Aptitude Test to determine college admissions, the Social Science Citation Index to determine promotion of college professors, stock price movements to determine executive compensation, the “body count” to measure military success in Vietnam and cost-benefit analysis to decide almost everything.

None of these measurements measure everything that is relevant.  All have inherent biases.  All can be manipulated for the benefit of some particular individual or group.

It is not possible to remove politics from decisions that affect somebody’s wealth or power, Scott writes.  Better to bring politics, including office politics, out into the open and admit what is at stake.

Chapter Six: Particularity and Flux

This chapter is mainly an attack on what some people call the “planning fallacy”—the idea that if you make a careful plan and take care to foresee everything that could go wrong, you can achieve your goal.  The fact is that nobody can do that, least of all great historical figures such as Napoleon or Lenin.

The individual case is as important as the general rule, and the unpredictable is as important as the foreseeable.

How does Scott’s book hold up in the face of the coronavirus pandemic?

I for one am glad there are authority figures such as Gov. Andrew Cuomo who are giving orders.  Never mind that he is partly responsible for New York state being poorly prepared in the first place.  Never mind the question of whether he has the lawful authority to order schools and businesses closed.  I’m glad to comply with his orders.

I don’t think much of the “anarchist calisthenics” of young college students who went to Florida during spring break and partied in defiance of the rules of physical distance.

I don’t think local custom is always wiser than top-down commands.  The contaminated live-animal meat markets in China, which are believed to be the origin of the pandemic, are evidently such a well-established local custom that even Xi Jinping is reluctant to interfere.

On the other hand, when leadership at the top is inadequate, as is the case with President Trump, it’s great that individuals, community groups, hospitals, businesses and local and state governments can act without waiting for orders from above.

My own city of Rochester, N.Y., is full of volunteers who are making face masks, checking up on infirm elderly people and doing other necessary things on their own initiative.  Distilleries are making hand sanitizer, a company that makes auto parts has switched to making face shields for hospitals and so on.

I suspect that if I confronted Scott, he might agree with me on these specific points.  His aim was not to lay down a formula that fits all situations.  That would have been self-contradictory.  It was rather to provoke readers into questioning things they take for granted.

Real anarchists must hate this book.  Scott’s mild suggestions do not represent their thinking. They want a complete reorganization of society from top to bottom, replacing coercion with voluntary cooperation.

Two Cheers for Anarchism is thought-provoking, understandable, enjoyable and short.  I recommend it.

Postscript [4/17/2020]  My friend Tim Madigan forwarded a copy of this post to Prof. Scott himself.  Here is his reply.

On command in a crisis, I agree, and point to native American tribes who had the tradition of a “war chief” who was elected and obeyed totally during the conflict; after it was over there was often a ritual of humiliation to emphasize that he was now no better than anyone else.

You and your group can live a long and happy life without reading another word of mine, but in the midst of the pandemic, you might enjoy Ch 3 “Zoonoses” in my recent Against the Grain that shows how all our infectious diseases began ONLY when we became sedentary agriculturalists crowded together with domesticated animals—and that was around 8,000 years ago.   Best, Jim

As I recall, the ancient Roman Republic had an institution similar to war chief.  It was called “dictator.”


No, Autocracies Aren’t Better for Public Health by Yasheng Huang for Boston Review. [Added 4/16/2020]  Hat tip to Peter Stone.

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3 Responses to “Anti-authoritarianism in a time of pandemic”

  1. Fred (Au Natural) Says:

    When I was young and silly and thinking about fine art photography for my future, one of the precepts was that great artists break rules. They also understood the rules and had mastery of them before they broke them.

    The idea is that every rule has a reason. If you understand the reason and you understand your own circumstances then it is morally OK to break the rule. You should not, however, be terribly upset if you’re punished for it should you get caught. Think before you leap.

    I am reminded of 4th of July fireworks. They are illegal here because stupid people might start a fire. OTOH, they are a national symbol of the very rule-breaking that formed the country to start with. So as long as you don’t do anything stupid, set off all the fireworks you want. I will not lecture you on rule-breaking and might even contribute a few of my own. Just don’t complain if you get a ticket.

    There are ways to do it safely. Start a fire and I’ll show you no mercy.

    But then, stupid people rarely realize they are stupid…

    A deeper case is that of illegitimate and/or unconstitutional laws. If nobody ever smoked pot because it was illegal to do so, there would be no impetus to legalize it. If no black person ever sat in the back of the bus, how much longer would it have taken to end legal racial discrimination? If gays simply ceased to have gay sexual relationships… Etc.

    An unconstitutional law based on powerful emotional motivations or economic institutions will never be changed simply out of pure reason. People have to break it – and be broken by it – or it will stay that way forever.


  2. Alex Page Says:

    ‘Scott criticizes the use of supposedly objective criteria to remove the human factor from decision-making. Examples are […] stock price movements to determine executive compensation’

    Also, the goal shifts from increasing the qualities which the score is supposed to measure to gaming the score itself. Instead of long-term investment, stock buy-backs.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. N-loc Says:

    Great review. Interesting that you received a reply from Scott. I would like to say, the difference between the native American war chief and Roman dictator–which I think Scott was emphasizing–is the episodic nature of the chief whereas the dictator retains and expands power go long after an individual crisis is over. Here is a link to a short piece by a more blatant anarchist essayist on anarchism and pandemics that may be of your interest.


    Liked by 1 person

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