Applying Political Ideas on the Individual Level

We often talk about how our political ideals and ideologies would culminate into social realities if we are ever able to succeed in our endeavors. Our theorization is premised on this very fact of conceivability. Without a comprehensive picture of social order operating under the ethos we believe to be best, we wouldn’t have much to theorize around. Most, if not all, of our attempts at socio-political theory, provide a systematic description of what such a society would look like, should look like. Yet the specifics on an individual level are hardly ever made explicit. Perhaps, it is because we believe that the ensuing social harmony will be translated to the individual arena. Or we think that the smallest locus of moral concern–the individual–is too cheap or vulgar to theorize upon. Whatever it may be, there is a reason to reflect upon what our ideals mean for the individual.

The goal here is not a better, more particular notion of the futures for which we fight. Rather, we must study the implications of our ideals for the individual in order to employ the applications of these ideals in the world we find ourselves in. The real test of our political ideals (whether socialism, nationalism, democracy, or anarchism) takes place peculiarly, though not solely, when we strip them down to their most basic formulations. By looking at these visions at a micro-level, we realize how effective they are and how worthy of serious struggle.

More so, this provides room for experimentation. Through such an application of our political ideals, we engage in “building a new world in the shell of the old.” This practice is less outrightly “political” than those most political scientists and sociologists analyze, but descriptive social sciences are not good at testing political philosophies for the plausibility of implementation. They are only effective at indicating what has happened so far and exploring how best to understand what is happening.

A Substantial Notion of Anarchy

Anarchism is a normative philosophy marked by contradictions and complexities. In its most limited sense, it is associated with anti-statism. Historically, this anti-statism went hand in hand with anti-capitalism. More fundamentally, it entails skepticism toward authority and coercion calling for an end to power structures and chastises hierarchy and domination, organized or otherwise. As a possible picture of future, anarchism espouses decentralization functioning on principles of mutual reciprocity and rendering every individual’s voice heard and valued.

Power structures operate through force and it is the very use of force (and not simply its misuse) that breeds pursuit of more power creating a vicious cycle wherein power repeatedly reproduces itself. In the anarchist vision, then, the goal is that this power as dominance is eliminated. In another sense, when anarchists call for power to the people, they only mean that power in terms of capabilities be equalized. It is here that the aspiration for the maximization of agency is laid out. What is intended by anarchism is the transgression of our current social ontology wherein structure and agency both play their parts, often antagonistically. Anarchists wish to do away with social structures that manipulate agents, especially those whose core philosophical underpinning is that of oppression and violence.

Agency flourishes in an environment where choices are not illusory, with unconditional freedom of expression and information. Every act at an individual level should consider one’s responsibility toward oneself and others. The higher the degree of freedom, the more intensely these considerations matter.

This means not only granting universal access to cutting-edge knowledge (one of the most necessary goals to attain in the near future), but also providing spaces where people we confront have the best possible information from which to make choices about us. It means that we are obliged to not manipulate or coerce others. It implies that our metaphors and euphemisms are most suited for our poetry and not interactions with others where substantial ethical choices must be made. Failure to communicate clearly leads to decisions being made in an atmosphere that doesn’t allow maximized agency. And that is not good enough.

Whether we are fighting for a market economy, a syndicalist workers’ co-operative, a direct democracy, or a commune of equals has been debated by anarchists the world over. Similarly, whether our principle are best captured by “from each according to their ability, to each according to their need” or “to each according to their contribution” can be debated in our accounts of political economy and philosophy. The attempt here is to look beyond these preoccupations of theoreticians and ask what, if anything, can make us the anarchist here and now?

How to Best Maximize Agency?

Unconditional access to information is a beginning. We need to promote this principle in our individual actions by pursuing a radical openness with regard to information about ourselves. There are, of course, certain pitfalls in this kind of politics, including the risk of being imprisoned by the coercive machinery of the state. In terms of social dynamics, when our behavior breaks the norms and conventions it takes place in, it invites punishment and reward in all sorts of ways. Some eccentric acts that challenge the status quo are highly praised, even deified as landmark historical paradigm shifts. In other cases, individuals displaying such behavior are mocked, harassed, and hunted down until the spirit that resulted in this deviation from the norm is broken.

Given all of this, those who cannot integrate the anarchist ideal into application are not culpable for their failure to do so. The pitfalls of such a politics to maximize agency based on fullest freedom of information about oneself and others can result in the invasion of one’s privacy, bullying, harassment, abuse, manipulation, blackmailing, etc. The impulse to conceal information when confronted with a fatal or near-fatal situation is a justified one.

Moreover, there is another worry. For example, recently, some cases became public in my locality about men talking about their dead pets as a way to gain sympathy from women and thereby access sexual favors. Individuals sharing information about themselves for short-term cheap gains is arguably one of the quintessential test cases for freedom of information. There is, as of now, no standard to determine how much and what kind of data allows wisdom to best be played out. Vigilance is essential.

Our ability to process such information is improved by recognizing the complexity of minds and interpreting information not simply on the basis of intentional causal explanations, but also considering historicist, phenomenological, and even Freudian attempts at understanding. All these accounts might make us less charitable in accepting the information/argument presented directly, especially given the fact that some of their application is completely wrong and inappropriate; therefore, while doing so, we must use the other explanations to know the complexity and not use them to judge the epistemic or moral status of these beliefs/behaviour (at least, in most cases). Freedom involves agency being put to fullest use. To use the Kantian phrase, the fact of freedom married to responsibility “wakes us up from our dogmatic slumbers.”

What does this mean in practice? When meeting a new individual, we ought to provide them with as much information about us as possible, especially that which would make them think twice about taking a decision that involves us. For example, if meeting a potential romantic partner, I would tell them about my desire to abolish civil marriage and my disinterest in procreating. In instances of making new friends, I would provide details about how I have cynical views about people that render it difficult for me to trust them.

These are, admittedly, not very interesting scenarios. One reason for that is they are quite crude examples. However, they are also, I would suggest, uninteresting because they do not exploit the impulse of agency to the fullest. The implications of these minute actions are substantive. The ability to make a decision based on the information that allows the best epistemic and ethical choice is the precondition of an anarchic society. A community whose members commit to the goals it was built on, despite knowing its follies, is the most organic one. This community can exist on a very small scale — among friends, lovers, peers in an educational institute, but it is also the decentralized society dreamt of by anarchists.

This picture of maximized agency on a micro-level not only shows the importance of implementing our visions but also reveals how living our personal lives according to our ideals showcases what is at stake.

A similar positive evaluation cannot be performed for democracy (which can in certain cases act as an anathema to freedom). One can wonder how many of us would like to deliberate through voting over who should get chocolates at home. This is perhaps an overly simplistic image, or a caricature made simply for the purpose of straw-manning. But I think attempts to understand democracy and other political ideals, in the same manner, will illuminate critical insights, even if my presentation of those are false.

This is especially true given that our politics is routinely thought of as utopian and radical. Such a method tells us whether the very basic notions born out of our ideals are liveable and reachable. Anarchist ideal of maximizing agency passes this test. The basic notions born out of that ideal are liveable are certainly reachable.

Why Maximize Agency?

Anarchism, as articulated through fringe terrorist acts (some true, others false) or mistakenly considered a theory of chaos or disorder motivated by nihilistic conclusions, has created a bad reputation for the movement. Proudhon’s famous quip that anarchy is order is hardly the most sensible response to make when such a criticism is mounted at an anarchist. One can instead argue for anarchism on the basis of various moral systems including, but not limited to: utilitarianism, deontology, natural rights theory, and contractualism. This would show how anarchism does not eschew moral landscapes.

I, however, want to define anarchism as the maximization of agency. Apart from the fact that I believe this to be the case, the reason is that most people implicitly value agency. There is surely reason to doubt that anarchism is the conception of society that allows this ideal of maximizing agency to come to fruition. But most criticisms of this philosophy are not levelled on this conceptual stage where definitions occur, but rather at the empirical stage where the possibility of something like a true anarchy as maximized agency is rejected.

If my desire to put anarchism and maximization of agency on the same footing is false, there is room for plenty of criticism. However, if the knee-jerk reaction is to say that anarchy transcends even the realm of possibilities, then my final submission will only be an invitation to rebel against the laws of possibility themselves.

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