two cheers for anarchism - notes and quotes
Lacking a comprehensive anarchist worldview and philosophy, and in any case wary of nomothetic ways of seeing, I am making a case for a sort of anarchist squint. 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. It will also become apparent that anarchist principles are active in the aspirations and political action of people who have never heard of anarchism or anarchist philosophy.
what is anarchism? some descriptions:
cooperation without hierarchy or state rule
tolerance for confusion and improvisation that accompanies social learning, and confidence in spontaneous cooperation and reciprocity
preference, in the long run, for the honest mistakes of the working class over the wisdom of the executive decisions of a handful of vanguard party elites
freedom, and anarchism vs libertarianism
- libertarianism cares more about everyone being completely independent and free, but if everyone is totally free then you get wealth discrepancy, but wealth discrepancy is coercive and reduces freedom
- people being poor and selling their kids “by choice” is still a choice, but only chosen because of the powerless of poverty
- there's a paradox where equality seems to only be enforceable by the state, so you need some amount of state (governance) for mutuality and freedom, but people being in charge of the state results in at least some inequality between those in charge and those not in charge
democracy is a cruel hoax without relative equality
virtually every major successful revolution ended by creating a state more powerful than the one it overthrew, a state that in turn was able to extract more resources from and exercise more control over the very populations it was designed to serve
Freedom without socialism is privilege and injustice; socialism without freedom is slavery and brutality.
disruptive and disorganized
- "massive, noninstitutionalized disruption" causes structural change, because any group that gets more organized starts to have some of the problems that big institutions have (inflexible, not radical)
- [a friend during reading group said] you want to have lots of different groups working together but not with any centralized leadership -- you need to avoid having any small group of people in control because that is much easier to convince to stop the revolution
- divisibility, small numbers, and dispersion help avoid retaliation against political action
- me, while reading: I wonder how big is still small enough? How organized is unorganized enough? How do you coordinate efforts while keeping things as noninstitutionalized as possible?
- author claims that a group most effective for structural change is "most disruptive, most confrontational, least organized, and least hierarchical."
- strikers in 1968 in France: When the state promised huge wage concessions, some of the strikers stopped striking and only the students and wildcat strikers remained. With fewer people pushing for change, the strike overall died. This reminds me something I learned about forming a union where it's not advised to make a list of requests before the union forms, because if the demands are met then that can prevent the forming of a real union (leaving employees still powerless).
- we have the ability to work together and cooperate, but the more the state claims that it will help us work together well, the less we look out for each other, which gives us less individual power to be happy
Chapter 1: The Uses of Disorder and “Charisma"
Fragment 1: Scott’s Law of Anarchist Calisthenics
- concept of "anarchist calisthenics": practicing breaking small dumb laws (e.g. jaywalking) to practice for later when we’ll need to break big and more enforced dumb laws
thousands upon thousands of acts of insubordination and evasion create an economic or political barrier reef of their own
Fragment 2: On the Importance of Insubordination
Quiet, anonymous, and often complicitous, lawbreaking and disobedience may well be the historically preferred mode of political action for peasant and subaltern classes, for whom open defiance is too dangerous.
- example: evasion of war conscription by the poor who don't want to fight rich men's battles -- no one was organizing this, but individual actions came together to make meaningful change of a much smaller army
It makes no public claims, it issues no manifestos; it is exit rather than voice. And yet, once the extent of desertion becomes known, it constrains the ambitions of commanders.
- another example is poaching: people near the land eating off the land instead of leaving those animals to the landlords who live far away -- they look out for each other to keep themselves out of trouble ("gamekeepers could rarely find any villager who would serve as state’s witness")
- petty theft is another example of quiet defiance
desertion is a lower-risk alternative to mutiny, squatting a lower-risk alternative to a land invasion, poaching a lower-risk alternative to the open assertion of rights to timber, game, or fish
- it's blurry whether these things are done just to benefit the individual or to fight against the state
- [a friend during reading group said] the lower class is not necessarily political, in that they're not always thinking explicitly about politics and often just looking out for themselves, but they're acting in ways that have political impact
Fragment 3: More on Insubordination
- it's common for laws or formal organization to be created from people just doing the thing first - examples: cars going above the speed limit together (not officially coordinated), walking pathways eventually being paved, weed being legalized
- democratic political change is contributed to by lawbreaking and disruption
- author emphasizing again that when people are rioting without any clear leader or organization, they can't be bargained with, the root problem has to be addressed
The job of trade unions, parties, and even radical social movements is precisely to institutionalize unruly protest and anger
- institutions offer the government a way to appease the masses, and the masses a way to get some policy changes
- these institutions don't create the unruly action but get power from it, but then the things they do dampen the unruly action which then reduces the institutions' power
To the extent that our current rule of law is more capacious and emancipatory than its predecessors were, we owe much of that gain to lawbreakers
Fragment 4: Advertisement: “Leader looking for followers, willing to follow your lead”
charisma is a relationship; it depends absolutely on an audience and on culture
- if a leader needs the support of a group (which isn’t always the case, sometimes they already have enough power), they will pay attention to what resonates with the group and adjust their speeches, promises, and actions to align with what will give them social power
If a politician lives or dies largely by huge donations designed as much to shape public opinion as to accommodate it, he or she will pay less attention to rank-and-file supporters. A social or revolutionary movement not yet in power is likely to have better hearing than one that has come to power. The most powerful don’t have to learn how to carry a tune.
Chapter 2: Vernacular Order, Official Order
Fragrant 5: Vernacular and Official Ways of “Knowing”
- official ways of knowing: optimizing for the big picture, e.g. a road being named such that the state can differentiate it from other roads
- vernacular ways of knowing: optimizing for the understanding and comfort of people who are doing the thing, e.g. a road being named after where it goes
Vernacular measurement is only as precise as it needs to be for the purposes at hand
- vernacular ways of knowing can be more accurate and flexible than official ways of knowing, e.g. strategies to plant crops that are based off of approximate signs in the environment are more resilient to small differences in climate year-to-year than always planting/harvesting at the same time year-to-year
Fragment 6: Official Knowledge and Landscapes of Control
- official ways of knowing help the state control individuals, e.g. identification numbers, shared rules for doing things, makes the population more "legible" to the state
- the act of making something more "legible" is making it more easily understood by stripping it of some of its nuance and details, but often there are hidden nuances that are actually essential to the functioning of something and making it more legible destroys it
- an example: Mass farming where you try to create the environment to yield the most crops usually misses some information from how the crop naturally and resiliently grows. The way the crop naturally grows reduces pests and disease, and without those nuances the crops tend to eventually fail. Vernacular knowledge of farming adjusts what is planted to whatever the natural environment supports.
examples of official ways of knowing replacing vernacular ways of knowing:
National standard languages have replaced local tongues. Commoditized freehold land tenure has replaced complex local land-use practices, planned communities and neighborhoods have replaced older, unplanned communities and neighborhoods, and large factories and farms have replaced artisanal production and smallholder, mixed farming. Standard naming and identification practices have replaced innumerable local naming customs. National law has replaced local common law and tradition. Large schemes of irrigation and electricity supply have replaced locally adapted irrigation systems and fuel gathering. Landscapes relatively resistant to control and appropriation have been replaced with landscapes that facilitate hierarchical coordination.
Fragment 7: The Resilience of the Vernacular
- generally, vernacular ways of knowing are more illegible but more resilient, and official ways of knowing are legible and therefore better for state control and optimizing production but are less resilient
Fragment 8: The Attractions of the Disorderly City
- the author talks about how intermingling housing and workplaces and stores is better than separating them, even though it's easier to build suburbs with rows of the same house and easier to build commercial zones with lots of stores in one space
Fragment 9: The Chaos behind Neatness
- the more formal and regulated a social or economic order is, the more likely that it's only still functioning by some informal process that's not allowed, informal processes that the formal order cannot alone create and maintain
- work-to-rule strikes: when workers revert to following the proper rules, becoming less efficient at their jobs. one example is taxi drivers in NYC going the speed limit
We are all prone to the error of equating visual order with working order and visual complexity with disorder. It is a natural and, I believe, grave mistake, and one strongly associated with modernism. How dubious such an association is requires but a moment’s reflection. Does it follow that more learning is taking place in a classroom with uniformed students seated at desks arranged in neat rows than in a classroom with un-uniformed students sitting on the floor or around a table?
Fragment 10: The Anarchist’s Sworn Enemy
- large states want to homogenize the people there -- have people use shared traditions, language, culture, norms -- this makes it easier to govern the people
- is this why states don't step in during large genocides?
Reading group discussion on chapter 2 -- extra notes
- there is a colonial aspect to the way we approach agriculture -- we want food that isn't natural to the area we live in. it's more efficient to grow food where it's supposed to be grown.
- talking about one of our employers (codename Big_Company) -- was anti-process when it was smaller, with the idea that instead of making processes, you should make the happy path easier to the thing that you want to happen (there were no company-wide process but individual teams could have process that they came up with specifically for their own team) -- process should be personalized as much as possible to be actually useful
- a good situation to add a process is when something becomes more common, annoying to repeat in slightly different ways all the time, and the way of doing it is fairly static -- ideally these processes make things easier for everyone - both the entity providing the service and the entity who is requesting it - it’s bad if the requester gets significantly slowed down by the process
- Big_Company has more process now because it is big
- do big companies need to exist? Big_Company could be several companies at this point
- but if Big_Company split up, they'd each need an infra team? or the infra team could be a "company" that provides infra to the other companies (infra as a service is already a thing that some companies do)
- another reason companies get big: if you want your stock price to keep going up, you need to keep inventing new things (this is such a problem for companies funded by venture capital)
- another reason why companies get big is because the people at the top want to absorb the profit of providing more things for consumers
Chapter 3: The Production of Human Beings
Fragment 11: Play and Openness
- story of some play structures designed without swings/seesaws/etc, instead had tools for construction, which created many more possibilities for play
One could say that its designers were radically modest about their knowledge of what was on children’s minds, what they would invent, how they would work, and how their hopes and dreams would evolve.
- the concept of "openness" as "the degree to which the activity or institution—its form, its purposes, its rules—can be modified by the mutual desires [and purposes and talents] of the people pursuing and inhabiting it"
Fragment 12: It’s Ignorance, Stupid! Uncertainty and Adaptability
- one might think that rigid process (minimal play and openness) is most efficient and stable, but that’s not the case
- conditions change, and if workers have more skills and ability to learn skills, then they can be more adaptive to unpredictable changes, which makes the company as a whole more adaptable and resilient
- also, if efficiency is squeezed out of workers too much, they will eventually revolt, which nullifies the efficiency
a static concept of efficiency is that it ignores utterly the way in which the efficiency of any process that involves human labor depends on what those workers will tolerate
Fragment 13: The Gross Human Product (GHP)
What if we were to ask a different question of institutions and activities than the narrow neoclassical question of how efficient they are in terms of costs (e.g., resources, labor, capital) per unit of a given, specified product? What if we were to ask what kind of people a given activity or institution fostered? Any activity we can imagine, any institution, no matter what its manifest purpose, is also, willy-nilly, transforming people.
- Hicksian income: measures when factors of production are degraded in the process of producing
- degrading equipment, workforce talent and capacities, etc result in losses in Hicksian income, and improving them results in increment to the Hickisian income
- corporate solutions often evade paying this debt by making others pay for the damage e.g. cigarette companies don’t pay cancer bills, employers don’t pay for therapy, car manufacturers and drivers don’t pay carbon taxes
- was designed very similarly to factories
- also similar to a prison in that you’re forced to be there
- a small proportion of students become model output of the school “machine” and get lifetime privileges, and about 80% lose the rat race -- not only less social capital, but a lifelong sense of being less valued and dumber
Universal public education is, of course, designed to do far more than merely turn out the labor force required by industry. It is as much a political as an economic institution. It is designed to produce a patriotic citizen whose loyalty to the nation will trump regional and local identities of language, ethnicity, and religion
- hmmm this author seems to think that schools accurately measure analytical intelligence, and ignores so many reasons that someone who would actually do well at that skill would still not be able to perform well at school (racism, classism, teacher quality, class size, internet access, etc)
Fragment 14: A Caring Institution
- a story about the author visiting retirement homes and seeing what the quality of care was like by asking residents, and then realizing that in some homes the residents could not complain in front of staff because they were totally powerless to the staff (relied on them for bathing and food and other basic necessities) and the staff would be mean or withhold care when residents criticized them
Fragment 15: Pathologies of the Institutional Life
- as society becomes more industrialized and urban, more and more people have become propertyless and dependent on large, hierarchical organizations for their livelihood
- in the past, poor farmers and business owners at least owned their own land
- depending on landlords to keep your shelter is much more precarious, and leads to depending more on “the boss” to keep a steady job to e.g. pay a mortgage
- employees now are also more monitored - their hours, breaks, behaviours
The implications of a life lived largely in subservience for the quality of citizenship in a democracy are also ominous. Is it reasonable to expect someone whose waking life is almost completely lived in subservience and who has acquired the habits of survival and self-preservation in such settings to suddenly become, in a town meeting, a courageous, independent thinking, risk-taking model of individual sovereignty?”
- it’s so much harder to advocate for one’s needs in society when in a less powerful position, when relying so much on those in power (like the retirement home story)
an urgent task of public policy is to foster institutions that expand the independence, autonomy, and capacities of the citizenry. How is it possible to adjust the institutional lifeworld of citizens so that it is more in keeping with the capacity for democratic citizenship?
Fragment 16: A Modest, Counterintuitive Example: Red Light Removal
- replacing red lights with traffic circles improves traffic flow
- but it also moves responsibility for avoiding crashes more onto individuals, which leads to both cars and pedestrians being more aware and responsible instead of assuming green light means it’s totally safe to cross
Reading group discussion on chapter 3 -- extra notes
- Is there such a thing as too open? In organizations that say “you can do whatever you want towards a common goal”, problems can happen when there’s no support for people. It’s really useful and important to have community, collaboration, teachers, education, etc
- easy to get imposter syndrome when you don’t know how things work and no one is explaining it
- e.g. for people to engage with orgs where people use consensus and stuff, people need to be trained to have the skills to be able to engage with them
- re red light removal: it’s easy to forget your contribution to a situation when you’re a mindless cog following rules
- related war crime discourse - there's a common debate that asks: how guilty is someone who committed a war crime at the command of someone else?
Chapter 4: Two Cheers for the Petty Bourgeoisie
Fragment 17: Introducing a Maligned Class
- definition of bourgeoisie (quotes from in reading group discussion)
- "people who own the means of production"
- "people who make money from capital instead of from labour"
- "people who can't be fired"
- the author claims that owners of small property "represent a precious zone of autonomy and freedom, which is good in state systems increasingly dominated by large bureaucracies"
What [petite bourgeoisie] all have in common, however, and what distinguishes them from both the clerk and the factory worker is that they are largely in control of their working day and work with little or no supervision.
Fragment 18: The Etiology of Contempt
why do the bourgeoisie get hate?
- they are mostly poor like the working class, but they are poor capitalists and don't have as much alliance to the Left, might resist collectivization and sharing resources
- also not great for the state -- can easily elude the state’s control by because small property is hard to monitor, tax, or police, because there is so much variety of them and distributed -- connection to earlier, they are less "legible"
Fragment 19: Petty Bourgeois Dreams: The Lure of Property
many people are drawn to buying land
- more ability for independent action, autonomy, security -- it's clear from various rebellious behaviours of workers that they want more autonomy
- but also there is "dignity, standing, and honor associated with small property in the eyes of the state and of one’s neighbors"
- those with property also are able to better celebrate cultural events (marriages, religious celebrations)
The secure “middle peasants” with the steady wherewithal to celebrate these rituals were not only the most influential villagers but also the models to emulate and aspire to. Falling far short of this standard was to become a second-class cultural citizen.
- large firms subcontract to "independent" farmers
- subcontractors must follow the detailed specifications of the large firm
- subcontractors pay the mortgage
- subcontractors buy specific supplies, from the large firm
- subcontractors paid by closely monitored and measured performance
- contract might be renewed, but it might not be and then they lose all income
What is perverse about this system is that it preserves a simulacrum of independence and autonomy while emptying out virtually all of its substantive content. The subcontractor is an independent landowner (and mortgage owner), but his workday and movements are nearly as choreographed as those of the assembly-line worker. There is no one immediately breathing down his neck, but if the contract is not renewed, he is stuck with a mortgage as large as his shed. The agribusiness in effect transfers the risks of landownership, of capital on credit, and of managing a large workforce—a workforce that would demand benefits—while reaping most of the advantages of close supervision, standardization, and quality control that the modern factory was originally designed to achieve. And it works! The desire to hold on to the last shred of dignity as an independent property owner is so powerful that the “farmer” is willing to forfeit most of its meaning.
Fragment 20: The Not So Petty Social Functions of the Petty Bourgeoisie
- the passion of independent businesses like artisans or small peasants have led to many of them contributing to the fight for equality, because they value their independence
And while it is true that the petty bourgeoisie cannot send a man to the moon, build an airplane, [...], the capacity of huge firms to do such things rests substantially on their ability to combine thousands of smaller inventions and processes that they themselves did not and perhaps cannot create. This, too, of course, is an important innovation in its own right. Nevertheless, one key to the oligopoly position of the largest firms lies precisely in their power to eliminate or swallow potential rivals. In doing so, they undoubtedly stifle at least as much innovation as they facilitate.
Fragment 21: “Free Lunches” Courtesy of the Petty Bourgeoisie
shopkeepers are unpaid social workers, providing brief but amiable companionship to their steady clientele. “Unpaid” is, of course, not quite right, inasmuch as their prices were surely higher than at the larger outlets; the shopkeepers understood implicitly that the smiles and pleasantries they offered were one way in which they built up a steady and loyal clientele and hence their business.
- owners of small businesses know the folks of the neighbourhood, foster community, increase foot traffic, keep an eye on folks which makes neighbourhoods safer
One final fact is worth noting. A society dominated by smallholders and shopkeepers comes closer to equality and to popular ownership of the means of production than any economic system yet devised.
Reading group discussion on chapter 4 -- extra notes
- seems like his hot take is: the petite bourgeois is the sector of society that lives closest to anarchy
- labour workers want to be petite bourgeois, and petite bourgeois want to stay petite bourgeois, and more petite bourgeois results in more small business owners who have autonomy and independence -- a more equitable world, more democratic
- are tech people bourgeoisie?
- ish? not really since we're labourers
- but also so well-compensated labour, which feels almost bourgeois because it shares several of the benefits
- also many of us have equity in the companies we work for
- we have the skills/ability to be petite bourgeoisie more than most labourers
- it makes sense that things become more centralized, that you end up with a few big companies instead of a bunch of small business -- it's hard for lots of small companies to work for each other, lots of things to keep track of -- big company asking for something is easier to build for than several small companies asking for things, and likely also will bring in more revenue -- things are easier when you have more money
- farm contracts thing reminds someone of gig economy stuff -- "be your own boss" "set your own hours" but actually needing to follow Uber/Lyft's rules to make enough money
Chapter 5: For Politics
to be read
Chapter 6: Particularity and Flux
to be read
terminology I looked up while reading
- proletariat: workers or working-class people, regarded collectively (often used with reference to Marxism)
- Global South: refers broadly to the regions of Latin America, Asia, Africa, and Oceania. It is one of a family of terms, including “Third World” and “Periphery,” that denote regions outside Europe and North America, mostly (though not all) low-income and often politically or culturally marginalized.
- Free World: a propaganda term, primarily used during the Cold War from 1945 to 1992, to refer to the Western Bloc. It also more broadly refers to all non-communist countries.
- cashcropping: when farmers optimize for making the most money, instead of making what's useful for people around them -- e.g. making lots of corn for diesel
- nomothetic approach: establishing laws or generalizations that apply to all people
- oligopolies: a state of limited competition, in which a market is shared by a small number of producers or sellers
- “infrapolitics” : author’s term for politics practiced outside the visible spectrum of what usually passes for political activity
- neoclassic economics: the idea that the production, consumption, and evaluation of goods and services is driven by supply and demand of those goods and services
- intelligentsia: intellectuals or highly educated people as a group, especially when regarded as possessing culture and political influence