Posts Tagged ‘Two Cheers for Anarchism’

James Scott and the Art of Not Being Governed

February 25, 2014

Some time ago I read and admired James C. Scott’s Two Cheers for Anarchism, in which he pointed out how nowadays most Europeans and Americans are overly ready to obey authority.

I also read Scott’s Seeing Like a State, which is about how the modern world has been shaped by the desire of rulers to make their subjects legible, so that they can be more easily taxed, conscripted and controlled, and the disasters that have followed from rulers’ illusion that information is the same as understanding.

I haven’t yet got around to reading his other great book, The Art of Not Being Governed, which is about 100 million people in the uplands of southeast Asia who have successfully escaped the control of governments in the region.  This video is a good preview.

As Scott pointed out, the ungoverned people he studied were not primitives who had failed to catch up with civilization.  Rather they were the descendents of people who centuries before had escaped the control of governments of China, Vietnam, Thailand and other countries.

He noted that only during the last few centuries has it been possible to even argue that there is a  net benefit to being under the jurisdiction of a government.  Prior to that you were better off being a free hunter-gatherer.  All government did was tax you, conscript you, enslave you and possibly provide some protection for other governments.

[Added later]  I did eventually finish reading The Art of Not Being Governed.  Click on the link for my review.

Why I like Scott’s Two Cheers for Anarchism

July 30, 2013

I’ve been interested for a long time in thinkers—seemingly with little in common—who understand that the knowledge of policy-makers is inherently uncertain and incomplete, that knowledge is widely distributed in society, and that a well-ordered must be able to draw on that knowledge.

My list includes W. Edwards Deming, John Dewey, Jurgen Habermas, Friederich Hayek, Jane Jacobs, Karl Popper and the organizers of the Occupy Wall Street movement.   I have long been interested in libertarianism and anarchism because, even though I am neither a libertarian nor an anarchist, I believe they understand this central truth better than conservatives, liberals and socialists do.

twocheersThe newest addition to my list is James C. Scott.  In a previous post, I reviewed his book SEEING LIKE A STATE, which I like a lot.  But for people with limited time, which includes most people these days, I recommend TWO CHEERS FOR ANARCHISM in which Scott presented his ideas in a more readable form, as a series of vignettes and anecdotes.  I read it a few months ago, but I thought it so profound and wise that I re-read it.

He touched on many topics, ranging from everyday life to the nature of political and social change.  He celebrated common sense, local self-government and the creativity of ordinary people, and warned about how we modern Americans have been accustomed to obeying orders and submitting to hierarchies.

He gave two cheers for anarchism rather than three because he does not think that government and hierarchy are always wrong.  But he affirmed the anarchist values of individual freedom, voluntary co-operation and mutual aid and pointed out that even  justifiable restrictions on freedom come at a price.


A critical look at Two Cheers for Anarchism

July 30, 2013

Two Cheers for Anarchism: Six East Pieces on Autonomy, Dignity, and Meaningful Work and Play by James C. Scott;
Princeton University Press, Princeton, 2012. 169pp.
ISBN 9780691155296

Reviewed by Peter Stone

In Two Cheers for Anarchism, political scientist/anthropologist James Scott makes the case for the ‘anarchist squint,’ which is less a theory and more a way of looking at the world. ‘What I aim to show is that if you put on anarchist glasses and look at the history of popular movements, revolutions, ordinary politics, and the state from that angle, certain insights will appear that are obscured from almost any other angle’ (xii). I make no claims to being a master anarchist squinter, but I cannot deny that since I first picked up Scott’s book, everyday life has provided me with many examples illustrating the strengths—and weaknesses—of Scott’s book.

twocheersA few months ago, for example, I encountered a news story about a Dublin grandfather who gave his grandson a voucher from the entertainment store HMV as a Christmas gift.  When grandfather and grandson went to redeem the voucher, the company (which was in the midst of financial collapse) refused to honor it.  The outraged grandfather took three computer games off the store’s shelf—roughly equivalent in value to the voucher—and walked out of the store with them.  Store security followed him, but no arrest was made (arresting the grandfather would hardly have improved the company’s already-tarnished public image), and HMV subsequently decided to honor such vouchers again  (‘Irish Grandfather Defies HMV Voucher Policy,’

This incident seems to bear out well a disturbing and yet undeniable point made by Scott.  Liberal political institutions were supposed to generate channels for correcting injustices and enabling positive social change.  Those institutions were meant to ensure that if ordinary people had grievances, they could find a way ‘within the rules’ to get them addressed.  But things haven’t quite turned out that way, even in more-or-less well-functioning democracies.

It is a cruel irony that this great promise of democracy is rarely realized in practice.  Most of the great political reforms of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries have been accompanied by massive episodes of civil disobedience, riot, lawbreaking, the disruption of public order, and, at the limit, civil war.  Such tumult not only accompanied dramatic political changes but was often absolutely instrumental in bringing them about (16-17).

‘We are obliged,’ Scott concludes, ‘to confront the paradox of the contribution of lawbreaking and disruption to democratic political change’ (Scott’s emphasis; 17). Sometimes, this involves social movements or large-scale rioting, but quite often it requires ‘what was once called “Irish democracy,” the silent, dogged resistance, withdrawal, and truculence of millions of ordinary people’ (14).  Without the Irish granddads of the world, and the brand of ‘democracy’ they practice, liberal democracies would not function nearly as well as they do.


A little bit more anarchism would do us good

April 23, 2013

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.