The Science of Anarchism

Columbia University professor of journalism Todd Gitlin writes (“The Left Declares Its Independence,” New York Times, October 8th) “the core of the [Occupy] movement … consists of what right-wing critics call anarchists.” Rather than taking the same snide, dismissive approach to anarchism typical of the news media and academia, he goes on to observe that “[t]he culture of anarchy is right,” that the interests of “[t]he corporate rich” largely control both major American political parties.

Gitlin describes contemporary anarchism accurately (if generally) as “a theory of self-organization,” one opposed to a plutocracy of elites who have “artfully arranged a mutual back-scratching society to enrich themselves.” For my life, I can’t think of a better way to describe the way that the state and capital work together against the common man and genuine free markets.

Gitlin is surprisingly genial toward anarchism, or at least toward his own image of it, but anarchists are still widely regarded as agents of chaos. The question: Why?

I’ve always been of the general opinion that the project of science itself is inherently subversive, dangerous to established ways and their guardians. Science, the quest for truth with its empirical and rational methods, explodes our preconceptions and offers us glimpses at the workings of a reality that still seems little understood and out of reach.

If the subatomic particle did not spring into being when human beings discovered it, but was always there, then we must wonder what kinds of marvels — today only the subjects of science fiction — will soon be revealed as truths. Of today’s ideas, we must wonder too which of them that are now the in realm of the eccentric or kook are in fact that wave of the future.

Through the history of the idea, and even before there was a name to designate it, anarchism’s adherents found it through a range of paths. Nineteenth century American anarchist Benjamin Tucker labeled his ideas “scientific anarchism,” the natural and inevitable result of consistently recognizing the “Sovereignty of the Individual.”

Albert R. Parsons, another American anarchist, similarly called anarchism “the usher of science,” setting it in opposition to schools of thought that “considered [some ideas] too sacred to be disturbed by a close investigation.” I offer these examples not to show that all anarchists share the same view of their doctrine’s relationship with the scientific method, but rather to gainsay what I suppose is an assumption held in common by many who read this.

None of the standard caricatures prevailing today about anarchists are any more accurate in characterizing them than are similarly uninformed reader’s digest versions of other philosophical persuasions. There are, to be sure, anomalous and unrepresentative nutcases and genuine criminals circulating among the ranks of all the various “-isms,” yet special derision is reserved for anarchists.

But again, why? Market anarchists believe simply that relationships between people ought to be consensual and based upon the foundation of mutual respect, that a true free market means that no person or group has special privileges fashioned by coercion and violence. Details vary among anarchists — and are as fiercely and thoughtfully debated as in other circles — but all harbor a conscientious objection (if I may borrow the phrase) to the state’s actual, physical domination and displacement of voluntary society.

The state is merely an idea, one way of thinking about given social questions, and one that would appear as true and as unavoidable today as, for instance, the geocentric model in astronomy. And while history has vindicated the likes of Copernicus and Galileo with respect to their judgments of that model, we nevertheless think it impossible that anarchists could be correct in their criticisms of the current system.

The anarchists I know, quite contrary to the conventional wisdom, do not oppose the state out of some erratic, unformed reflex reaction against authority. Indeed, the natural instinct in favor of freedom that I believe humans have has been very meticulously trained out of us from the time we enter the total state’s K-12 propaganda mills.

Instead, anarchism is for its advocates — in the words of Edward Abbey — “not a romantic fable but [a] hard-headed realization,” an embrace of empirical reality rather than an avoidance of it. The protesters of the Occupy movement are yearning for an alternative; anarchism is the scientific one, the substantive argument against politics and economies based on violence and oppression. The death of the state is no more scary or dangerous than the death of the idea that the earth is flat.

Anarchy and Democracy
Fighting Fascism
Markets Not Capitalism
The Anatomy of Escape
Organization Theory