How Not to Criticize Spontaneous Order

The first thing I saw on Twitter this morning, when I sat down with my coffee, was Allison Kilkenny (@allisonkilkenny) linking to a David Edwards piece at RawStory with the remarkably asinine comment “‘Spontaneous order’ is not a thing, libertarians.” The article (“Fox host: FEMA is unnecessary because Walmart will ‘spontaneously’ save us all in a disaster,” Feb. 8) contained some equally asinine comments by John Stossel holding up corporations like Walmart as an example of spontaneous order outperforming government disaster response efforts. This, Edwards implied, is what spontaneous order is: a right-wing ideology with the transparent purpose of transferring state functions to corporations like Walmart.

But Stossel’s ideas on spontaneous order are just as distorted and dumbed-down as Edwards’s. There are much better examples of spontaneous order in disaster relief than Walmart. And the best examples of all are usually those of the ordinary people on the ground.

Willow Brugh, in a draft paper based on her experiences in Occupy Sandy (“Knowledge Transfer in Networks“), argues that the most important direction is that from below — telling outside organizations where supported is needed and “keeping [them] out of the way when not wanted.” And the most effective logistical coordination, by far, is that done at the neighborhood level in distribution centers organized by the residents themselves and aid workers on the ground working in direct contact with residents. It’s such self-organized efforts that do the overwhelming bulk of heavy lifting in disasters, regardless of what party’s in power. And sadly, most of the material that’s distributed at the neighborhood level in this way comes from the neighborhood itself, as people scour the area for underutilized resources and donate goods they have a surplus of to the distribution centers.

In New Orleans, as recounted by anarchist aid worker Scott Crow in Black Flags and Windmills: Hope, Anarchy and the Common Ground Collective, state and local “authorities” for the most part treated such self-organized neighborhood institutions as the enemy — as potential terrorists, in fact. A neighborhood relief center on the second and third floors of a school, which provided a clinic, food pantry, emergency housing, and school and activities for children, got the full SWAT treatment (complete with “Down on the floor, motherfucker!”) from cops and National Guard troops storming it. “Authorities” treated the local population, heroically keeping itself alive almost entirely by its own efforts, as an occupied enemy.

If government efforts in Sandy were more effective and less adversarial, it wasn’t because of superior large-scale planning. It was because they listened. They listened, and followed the lead of those below, who informed them — as Brugh said above — of which distribution centers needed what materials, and when the “authorities” needed to get out of the way.

Edwards’s article also quoted an earlier liberal attack on spontaneous order by Damon Linker (“Libertarianism’s terrible, horrible, no good, very bad idea,” The Week, Sept. 26, 2014 — I raked Linker over the coals here), arguing that the aftermath of US intervention in Iraq and Libya proved spontaneous order to be a bunch of hokum. The point was reiterated by Eric Whitney (@EricExtempore) in the same Twitter thread with Kilkenny I referred to at the beginning: “Iraq and Libya were military adventures entered upon with no plan for afterwards. Both were disasters.

Let me see if I’ve got this straight. A centralized authoritarian state launches a war of aggression. Its national security bureaucracy, after the fashion of all centralized authoritarian hierarchies, plans based on an overly simplified model of a complex reality, assumes that everything will turn out as planned, and systematically filters out any feedback from naysayers trying to tell it what it doesn’t want to hear. The result is a complete clusterfuck. And the fact that an authoritarian hierarchy did a horrible job anticipating the future and systematically suppressed all information contrary to its rosy assumptions… is evidence (wait for it) that more planning and hierarchy is needed.

The Soviets got their butts kicked in Afghanistan because they were wild-eyed anarchists who believed in spontaneous order and self-organization, I suppose. And Dilbert should listen to the Pointy-Haired Boss and spend more time reading the Mission Statement.

Utter garbage, of course. Guerrilla forces and networked resistance movements like Al Qaeda Iraq kick the crap out of centralized, capital-intensive superpower military machines for the same reason the file-sharing movement kicked the crap out of the record industry: Hierarchy makes people stupid.

That’s why the smart people in the military colleges came up with Fourth Generation Warfare military doctrine, attempting to duplicate the agility of networked groups like Al Qaeda. Unfortunately for the world’s Sole Remaining Superpower, the military bureaucracy utterly sabotaged this doctrine in the process of adopting it. The Army’s 4GW doctrine envisioned taking advantage of the new possibilities offered by network communications technology to empower tactical commanders on the ground to act on their own initiative, based on their independent access to intelligence, without waiting for approval from higher-ups. But bureaucrats need to be needed; the Army bureaucracy wound up instead taking advantage of the potential of network communications by increasing the number of sign-offs and dotted-line approval tactical commanders were required to get from field-grade commanders before acting. And this approval required the submission of plans ahead of time — plans (I kid you not) that had to be submitted in PowerPoint with very detailed formatting guidelines. So long as managerial hierarchies can interfere with the judgement of those in direct contact with a situation, they will.

More broadly, I’m stunned by the absolute ignorance of their own historical tradition on the part of people who call themselves “Leftists.”

Although these people consider themselves “leftists” (Whitney’s Twitter profile, hilariously, describes him as a “Typical Far Lefty”), they’re basically center-left managerialists and liberal googoos. They’re too ignorant of the history of the actual Left, outside their own little #UniteBlue/Coffee Party echo chamber, to mount a competent ideological assault on the Right. They don’t even know enough about their own tradition to recognize the distinguishing features that set the Right apart from the Left.

Spontaneous order, regardless of what David Edwards may think, is a lot older than Hayek (apparently neither Edwards, nor Kilkenny and Whitney, ever heard of Pyotr Kropotkin). Although Hayek’s discussion of distributed knowledge in “The Uses of Knowledge in Society” contributed useful insights to the theory of spontaneous order, he didn’t invent the theory. And Hayek’s insights are just as applicable to the information problems of the corporation’s internal planned economy as they are to the bureaucratic state. James Scott, in Seeing Like a State, criticized Taylorist scientific management and corporate managerial hierarchy starting from ideas quite similar to Hayek’s (let’s face it — a clueless suit behind a desk giving orders to people is a clueless suit behind a desk giving orders to people, whether it’s in a government agency or a C-suite). And there’s a major segment of the Left whose model of the future society is based on self-managed workplaces and commons-based peer production as an alternative to the hierarchies of capital and state.

If you want examples of spontaneous order, don’t look to Walmart and other Fox News bullhocky. Look to the self-organized working class institutions described by Kropotkin in Mutual Aid, by E.P. Thompson in The Making of the English Working Class, and in Colin Ward‘s whole body of work on self-built housing and the squatters movement. Look to the spontaneous activity of the Argentinian people in 2002, like recuperated factories, alternative currencies and neighborhood assemblies. Look to Syntagma in Greece, M15 in Spain and Occupy in the United States, all built on the horizontalist model celebrated in so much of David Graeber‘s work.

One reason for this abysmal ignorance of history may be that so much of what passes for the “Left” is actually just liberal. And their historical roots go back to something very anti-Leftist: the so-called “Progressive” movement, centering around Herbert Croly, the Civic League and The New Republic, at the turn of the 20th century. As I wrote a while back:

The Progressives came largely from the white collar managerial-professional classes that controlled the large bureaucratic organizations — giant corporations, government agencies, universities, foundations and think tanks — that dominated American society after the Civil War. Many Progressives in the corporate world came from industrial engineering backgrounds. The kinds of people who made up the demographic base of Progressivism saw American society as an extension of the large, hierarchical institutions they managed, and thought society could be managed the same way an engineer managed industrial processes.

I have a great fondness for the Left, and consider myself part of it. For liberalism I have nothing but contempt. To illustrate the distinction, Woodrow Wilson — a good liberal — virtually liquidated the genuine American Left during and after WWI.

In recent years some 20th century-style liberals have renamed themselves “Progressive” and tried to mix some greenwashing, hippie aesthetic sensibilities and other New Left trappings into the old managerial-centrist recipe. But it’s like mixing oil and water. You can’t take the ideology of Schumpeter, Galbraith and Chandler and change its essence by slapping a coat of Carl Oglesby on it.

Given their origins, these people are innately suspicious of anything self-organized or decentralist. And given their historical ignorance of the actual socialist and anarchist movements, and the unfortunate likelihood that they hear about ideas like spontaneous order, decentralism and self-organization these days only from right-wingers who have coopted them, they just assume they’re right-wing ideas. They live in an ideological universe where the alternatives are limited to vanilla-flavored mainstream liberalism and Fox News conservatism. To quote myself again, these are the kinds of people who

would dismiss Ivan Illich and Paul Goodman as “right-wingers” for hatin’ on “public education.” They’d put Huey Newton and Robert Williams in the same category as Wayne LaPierre for viewing private firearms as a weapon against oppression.

That’s why someone like Stossel can so easily pull a number on them. He can take an idea that reflects two hundred years of libertarian-leftist theory and praxis and put a right-wing corporate spin on it, and these pseudo-“Leftists” take his right-wing claim on the idea at face value. In the process, they wind up giving away the most useful and innovative conceptual tools of the Left to the enemy without ever realizing they’ve done so.

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The Anatomy of Escape
Organization Theory