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Is Anarchism A Political Philosophy Whose Time Has Come?

By Katherine M Acosta

12 October, 2012

It seems that everywhere, these days, people are talking about anarchism.  Now Dmitry Orlov joins the discussion with a 3-part series, “In Praise of Anarchy.”  Utilizing primarily the work of the 19th century Russian anarchist, Peter Kropotkin, Orlov argues that anarchy, rather than hierarchy, is the dominant pattern in nature, that hierarchical organizations ultimately end in collapse, and that the impending collapse of the capitalist industrial system presents an opportunity for the emergence of anarchism.

Orlov, (aka kollapsnik at Club Orlov), is probably best-known for his book, Reinventing Collapse, in which he compares the collapse of the Soviet Union with the imminent collapse of the United States.  Russian-born Orlov is in a unique position to make such comparisons. He immigrated to the USA when he was twelve years old, and, as an adult, made numerous trips back to the former USSR in the years immediately following the collapse of its political and economic system.

With a wry Russian wit I find immensely attractive, Orlov describes in Reinventing Collapse how people in the USSR were better positioned than are Americans for economic collapse. For example, most Soviet citizens did not own their homes; instead they lived in state-owned dwellings.  When the USSR collapsed, they simply remained where they were and nobody evicted them.  Compare that with the United States, where people were seduced into signing questionable mortgage agreements for outrageously priced homes, and where, since the economic crisis of 2008, 3 million have been foreclosed upon.

Similarly, few Soviet citizens owned cars, but they could take advantage of a highly developed public transportation system.  Most Americans, on the other hand, are car dependent, burdened with the expense car ownership and operation entails.  In the USSR, citizens used to inefficient, centrally-planned agricultural policies were already in the habit of growing some of their own food.  In recent years, some Americans have wised up to this necessity, but not nearly enough.  I’m constantly amazed by the number of people I meet who can’t identify common garden vegetables by their leaves.

When, exactly, the economic and political collapse of the United States that Orlov has been predicting for five years, (convincingly, in my view), will occur, Orlov cannot say.  But he believes it is not far in the future.  (His specific arguments for collapse are collected in his most recent book of essays, Absolutely Positive.)   Orlov uses the analogy of a deteriorating bridge to explain how predicting when something will happen is separate from predicting that it will happen:

Suppose you have an old bridge: the concrete is cracked, chunks of it are missing with rusty rebar showing through. An inspector declares it “structurally deficient.” This bridge is definitely going to collapse at some point, but on what date? That is something that nobody can tell you.

I’ve been reading Orlov for years and never really understood where he was coming from politically.  Sometimes I thought I detected a note of libertarianism, but mostly I perceived him as apolitical, or sometimes even fatalistic.  Certainly, he is one of the most original thinkers among the “peak oil” intelligentsia, and definitely the most entertaining.  Unlike some prominent writers on the Oil Drum, he seems to have no interest in either defending oil companies and their rapacious profits or influencing government officials to take some action or other to mitigate the effects of oil depletion.  Probably that should have clued me in, but my anarchist antennae were not well-developed until recently.

In any case, it’s exciting to see Orlov become more overtly political.  In Part I of his series, Orlov introduces the Russian anarchist theorist Peter Kropotkin.  Born a prince in 1842, Kropotkin renounced that status and devoted his life to improving the lot of the common man through his writings and activism.  Perhaps his most outstanding contribution to anarchist thought is his 1902 book Mutual Aid: A Factor of Evolution.  (The entire book, written in very accessible prose, is available free online here.)  Kropotkin, a scientist, zoologist, and geographer, argued that mutual aid, rather than competition, is the most common feature of animal behavior and is essential for the survival and evolution of a species:

[E]ven in those few spots [in Eastern Siberia and Northern Manchuria] where animal life teemed in abundance, I failed to find — although I was eagerly looking for it — that bitter struggle for the means of existence, among animals belonging to the same species, which was considered by most Darwinists (though not always by Darwin himself) as the dominant characteristic of struggle for life, and the main factor of evolution…

[W]herever I saw animal life in abundance, as, for instance, on the lakes where scores of species and millions of individuals came together to rear their progeny; in the colonies of rodents; in the migrations of birds which took place at that time on a truly American scale along the Usuri; and especially in a migration of fallow-deer which I witnessed on the Amur, and during which scores of thousands of these intelligent animals came together from an immense territory, flying before the coming deep snow, in order to cross the Amur where it is narrowest — in all these scenes of animal life which passed before my eyes, I saw Mutual Aid and Mutual Support carried on to an extent which made me suspect in it a feature of the greatest importance for the maintenance of life, the preservation of each species, and its further evolution.  

In Part II of his series, Orlov notes that Kropotkin

pointed out that the term “survival of the fittest” has been misinterpreted to mean that animals compete against other animals of their own species, whereas that just happens to be the shortest path to extinction…

Kropotkin provides numerous examples of what allows animal societies to survive and thrive, and it is almost always cooperation with their own species, and sometimes with other species as well, but there is almost never any overt competition.

Orlov writes that “when most people say ‘Darwinian’ it turns out that they actually mean to say ‘Hobbesian.’”  It is probably more accurate to say that the commonly-held notion of social Darwinism is “Spencerian” rather than “Hobbesian,” after the 19th century English social theorist Herbert Spencer, who is credited with coining the phrase “survival of the fittest.”  Spencer was a contemporary of Kropotkin and highly influential in his time.  Spencer borrowed heavily from evolutionary biology to develop his social theories; for example, his notion that if government intervened in the economy to provide aid for the poor, public education, and so on, it would undermine the ability of individuals to develop adaptive traits, and thus would be a disservice to such individuals and their offspring.  Kropotkin’s work on mutual aid was likely a response to these kinds of ideas.

Orlov describes Kropotkin’s further observations about the nature of animal social organization:

[A]nimal societies can be quite highly and intricately organized, but their organization is anarchic, lacking any deep hierarchy: there are no privates, corporals, sergeants, lieutenants, captains, majors or generals among any of the species that evolved on planet Earth with the exception of the gun-toting jackbooted baboon (whenever you see an animal wearing jackboots and carrying a rifle—run!)…

Some groups of animals do explicitly sort themselves out into an order, such as a pecking order among chickens or an eating order in a pride of lions, but these are sorting orders that do not create entire privileged classes or ranks or a chain of command.

Consequently, animal societies are egalitarian. Even the queen bee or the termite queen does not hold a position of command: she is simply the reproductive organ of the colony and neither gives orders nor follows anyone else’s.

If anarchism is the natural pattern for life on earth, as Orlov asserts, why are most contemporary human societies organized otherwise?  According to Orlov:

Glimmers of anarchism could be discerned going as far back as the Reformation, in movements seeking autonomy, decentralization, and independence from central governments. But eventually virtually all of them were drowned out by socialist and communist revolutionary movements, which strove to renegotiate the social contract so as to distribute the fruits of industrial production more equitably among the working class. In all the developed countries, the working class was eventually able to secure gains such as the right to unionize, strike and bargain collectively, public education, a regulated work-week, government-guaranteed pensions and disability compensation schemes, government-provided health care and so on—all in exchange for submitting to the hierarchical control system of a centralized industrial state. Anarchist thought could gain no purchase within such a political climate, where the rewards of submitting to an official hierarchy were so compelling. But now the industrial experiment is nearing its end…

Setting aside for a moment the facts that examples of anarchist societies go back further than the Reformation, and that more recent examples (such as among indigenous people in the Americas) were damaged or destroyed by colonial and imperial powers, Orlov’s thesis is intriguing.  If people are more or less willing to submit to hierarchical authority when it distributes resources a little more equitably than laissez faire capitalism, what happens when the hierarchy no longer throws a few bones our way?
Frances Fox Piven and Richard Cloward demonstrate in their classic text Poor People’s Movements that opportunities for popular insurgencies to emerge are relatively rare and usually coincide with “profound changes in the larger society” (p7).  The decline of industrial society and impending collapse of global capitalism is, and will continue to, produce social dislocation and misery, but this rupture with the past also creates the space to build something new; perhaps something more equitable? More freeing? More caring?  After all, industrial society produced its own forms of misery: boredom, conformity, stifling of creativity, and alienation to name a few.

“We can only hope,” Orlov writes, “that, with the waning of the industrial age, anarchism is poised for a rebirth, gaining relevance and acceptance among those wishing to opt out of the industrial scheme ahead of time instead of finding themselves pinned down under its wreckage.”  I can’t wait to read what he has to say in Part III next week.

Katherine M Acosta is freelance writer currently based in Madison, Wisconsin. Contact her at kacosta at undisciplinedphd dot com. She blogs at UndisciplinedPhD.com

Read Orlov's two parts of the series here

In Praise Of Anarchy, Part I
By Dmitry Orlov

Peter Alexeyevich Kropotkin is our prince's name, and he eventually became a renowned scientist who advanced the understanding of the history of glaciers, an historian of revolutionary movements, foremost theoretician of anarchism, and, because of his lifelong burning desire to do something to help the plight of the common man, something of a revolutionary himself

In Praise of Anarchy, Part II
By Dmitry Orlov

When confronted with an increasingly despotic régime, the good people of almost any nation will cower in their homes and, once they are flushed out, will allow themselves to be herded like domesticated animals. They will gladly take orders from whoever gives them, because their worst fear is not despotism—it is anarchy. Anarchy! Are you afraid of anarchy? Or are you more afraid of hierarchy? Color me strange, but I am much more afraid of being subjected to a chain of command than of anarchy (which is a lack of hierarchy)



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