Why are we already living in anarchy?
It’s generally thought that anarchy is a bad thing. It’s linked to chaos, which for some reason is defined by disorder. The kaos of Greek myth was not disorder. It was the starting fabric or blankness of existence, from which the apparent first beings would emerge. That chaos was a vague thing, ready to be formed into more definite entities. Much as the vastness of space is vague and difficult to appreciate for those who have not studied it, but will eventually form definite entities such as planets and, by extension, living creatures. If anarchy is chaos, it is merely the fabric of existence. The vague vastness which we call disorderly because we cannot immediately see it and observe its particulars. Because it seems either blank and empty, or aswarm with innumerable specks like a thousand hives. In truth, it is the only order. Not because of its ideological, scientific or any other sort of superiority, but simply because it is natural. It is the way things are (or, to be precise, the way things seem to be).
If we look at any human society closely, it is not a democracy or dictatorship. It is not British, Russian, Indonesian. It is not Arabic, African-American, Celtic. It is not a nation state, a confederation or a race. It is a collection of individuals, interacting in whatever way seems best to them. In order for the society to be fully understood, it must be seen as all of its individuals, and through all of their eyes. This is why societies – particularly larger ones – are rarely, if ever, fully understood. Investigators give up when the see the complexity of it. They desperately want to generalise because of other demands on their lives and on their time. Because they worry about time, and so become temporarily impatient. It is not as difficult a task as it seems. It just requires a willingness to view people as they are, and a certain empathy. In a world where we often inherit knowledge from figures of control, who implant views in our minds through the subtle application of fear, a willingness to view people as slightly more various and flexible is hard to achieve. We are taught to believe in solids where there are collections of moving atoms. In permanence where there is constant change. We should think again.
You see the world through your own eyes. And in the end, the only one who decides what is right and what is wrong, what should be done and what should be avoided, is you. No-one else can enter your head and do something for you. The final decision, the final interpretation, is always your own. This is simply how we seem to function. And as far as you can tell, other people – or most of them – seem to work in pretty much the same way as you. And so you should then assume all the world is composed of individuals who see everything through their own eyes. Who create their own codes, give their own interpretations, who are masters – willingly or not – of their own lives. Masses and masses of individual, independent units. When you first see them like this you may wonder how they can form a society. With so much opportunity for divergence and disagreement, with so many different interpretations…how can any of them work together?
Because they all seek the same goal: the best outcome. And because though they may have many slight and significant differences, they are all broadly the same.
Anarchy in its purest form is the ultimate desire for most political thinkers: direct democracy. The only reason why people seem to stray away from the notion of direct democracy is that they think it can’t work. Though they will usually grant that “in theory” it would be the best form of government. If it worked. Which, they remind you, it doesn’t. How can they know if they’ve never really tried to imagine it? A people without a nation, without a state. We hear about very few, if any people who have tried to establish how society would function under such circumstances. And those few we do hear from often seem to have inherited a sort of pessimistic Darwinian perspective, screwed around by Hobbes’ rhetorical and logical magnificence. Namely, they think we would all immediately try to steal, enslave, rape and kill eachother.
Why? Where does this come from? It’s the answer to the question “what if we disbanded the state today, removed all laws and law-enforcement, legalised all crime, right now…what then?” Not the question “what would anarchy be like?”. This should tell us much more about our laws and our mindsets than warn us about the potential dangers of direct democracy. It’s very probably true that if the last official announcement made on the news today was that the whole state and all its machinery was being disbanded, abandoned forever, there would be that sort of frantic ‘every man for himself’ response. I’d be running for the nearest supply of axes, guns and knifes and soon as I could. Putting on a balaclava and a duster to try and look mean. But I think this informs us about the problems with our laws rather than ourselves.
The basis upon which all law rests is the threat of punishment. Without this, law could not exist, because without threats to compel people to act in certain ways, they would be free to choose how to act – more obviously than ever – and so would not subscribe to a single, set system of behaviours in a fast-changing world. So the ultimate principle behind law itself – not behind society – is that might is right. That the strongest party will always dominate, naturally, through its ability to force things into being. This may sound regrettably but obviously correct to you. But it is not. Thinking that it is is simply the result of living under its bulging fist for so long.
The only reason why anyone does anything is because they believe it is the best course of action for them. As we have mentioned, we can assume that everyone is an individual and that society is made up of individuals. You may decide to accept an idea or a plan with which you disagree because of the threat of force should you not. If a mugger points a gun in your face and orders you to surrender your phone, you will probably give him the phone. Especially if its an old one and you’re quite well insured. But giving in under those circumstances is not the same as actually agreeing. When you’re handing over your phone, you don’t thereby agree that the mugger deserves your phone, or that pointing guns at people is a useful solution to all of your economic difficulties. You don’t agree that muggers should be allowed to take peoples’ phones.
In the same way, might does not make right. It forces people to obey, yes. Well, a little. But it does not make them believe in what they are forced to do. It does not make them believe that it would be the best thing to do in any normal situation, when a gun is not pointing at their head. And as soon as the pressure of whatever force applied is relaxed, the victim is free to reject whatever they had been forced to accept. They are free to rebel. And they are often so excited by this that they do it with explosive violence. They can become so angry at their freedom being torn away from them that their response is to apply maximum brutality in regaining it, as well as any collateral that looks justified in their tempestual rage.
This angered response is what law often excites when people rarely get a chance to disobey it. Or, to first disagree with and then disobey it.
Because law is just a gun pointed at your head. The person holding the gun might be telling you not to go into a disastrous financial deal, or demanding that you save Hitler’s life just because you’re a doctor and that’s what you do, but the gun is still pointing at your head. It’s not a likeable thing. It would be better if they just talked to you about it.
But that probably seems like the weakest point in my argument. Me, who has already written that if the laws went today, I’d arm up and be ready to kill on sight…I say you should just talk things through…
So this is where we need to delve into certain details which might not have been apparent earlier. Firstly, about the use of force. Force is not just punching someone in the face, or pointing a gun at them. Force is anything that pushes a purely reasoned solution out of the window.
Take an example. You’ve just broken up with your lover. You refuse to talk to them. They send you messages and you ignore them. Whether this is understandable or not (I think it is, though I’ve only ever been on the receiving end) it is a use of force. It refuses to engage in a process of mutual reasoning to reach a solution for both parties. And the fact of any sort of relationship is that it does involve two parties. One suddenly saying that they’ve “left” does not change that. It’s not like an online chatroom where it says “partner A has left the room”. Bam, gone. Nope. The relationship only ends when both people accept it. Now, that doesn’t mean they need to talk and reason it out. If partner A ignores partner B for long enough, B will probably reach a similar conclusion to A eventually. Namely, that A is a bit of a twat and that B probably should’ve left them much earlier. But then B is being forced to view an imaginary version of A for so long, that B forgets who A is. The use of force (forcing a separation) makes B accustomed to the conclusion desired by A: that the relationship should end. It will not however change B’s conclusion that true lovers will never leave eachother. Probably.
Does that help at all?
Another example. You go out onto the street wearing clothes in the middle of summer. Why? It’s pretty hot out there. And the clothes are only bits of cloth. It’s not like they’re especially protective. Really, in this weather, you don’t need them. But you still wear them. Why? Well, maybe it’s your sense of aesthetics, in which case, fair enough. But usually its because you’re afraid of what people will say. And yes, maybe somewhere in your mind you think you could be arrested. But let’s stick with what people say. There’s a feeling that going out entirely naked will make you socially vilified by your neighbours and by general onlookers. Will make you the latest joke on the news. It’s not so much the fear of being attacked or beaten (okay, let’s imagine you live on the Spanish coast) but rather the fear of what other people will say. That is still a use of force. And that is a much more subtle, insidious and powerful force than any physical pain another can inflict. Because it comes much closer to influencing how you reason through situations and work out what it makes sense to do.
This is how ideas like the divine right of Kings became so powerful. Not because they make reasoned sense, but because of what it would mean if you stopped believing them, or if they weren’t true. The change it would mean to your world. How you understand things and how people understand or look at you. Yes, it could result in threats to your physical safety, but physical safety is not the ultimate concern. The ultimate concern is something like mental integrity. Like a sense of personal stability and comfort. Which is what ensures that – at the same time as you avoid taking a trip down the shops naked – you will also berate or at least stare shocked at other people who do go out naked. Or do something similarly socially reprehensible.
Force is not just the punching, shooting, bludgeoning smash we normally think of it as. It is coercion. It is someone else compelling you to change your behaviours despite what you reason out and believe.
You might say that using reason to convince someone to change their view is then also a use of force. A straight, friendly use of reason is not. Talking to someone about what you think they should do, advising them, is not the same as battering them with your carefully considered opinion until they relent. Reason should understand that the only way for someone to change their mind is for them to change it themselves. And that therefore all you can do is present them with the best arguments, most accessible to them, and hope that they do the right thing. Whatever that is. If you have been more careful and methodical with you reasoning, the chances of it winning out are much higher. Same if you try to use the other person’s understanding of the world to explain your views to them. This, incidentally, is the problem with written communication. It will only ever appeal to a select audience. Certain artworks might be more accessible. But maybe not. Not until we remove most or all of the definitions which tell us one thing can be ‘art’ and another can never be. But this is an aside, and maybe one you won’t like.
In the same way that force can operate on a mental or cultural level, as well as the physical, some people will initially understand things best if you communicate it to them physically. With a kiss, a punch, a smile or a tear. And so in a sense this is what I mean when I say that you should always talk things through. There will be certain situations under which force will need to be present in order to start talking to someone. Like needing to have a gun pointed at someone trying to kill you, so that you can survive long enough to convince them to stop trying to kill you. But this does not condone torture per se. It permits a bare minimum of defensive force to open up the option of conversation, or generally less threatening communication. Torture, however, is not defensive. It is offensive.
So force, force is identified by an aggressive intention. It’s thinking “I want X to believe A” rather than thinking “if I mention A to X, then X might believe it, or at least appreciate it.” Force is deeply set in the way we engage with eachother, partly because it’s so deeply entrenched in legal mechanisms and management hierarchies. But it’s a much lazier and less efficient way of engagement and communication than the alternative: empathy; reason.
Earlier I mentioned “a few details” rather than just the one more detailed examination of force. The second detail is, once more, that people are all individuals. This is key to understanding law and understanding why we are already in an anarchy.
It can be very difficult to adapt to empathy. Not just to think of the little ways in which people behave like you, but to actually view them as thinking beings who are essentially no different from you. Their bodies are different, yes. But so is your body different from when you were a child. Very different. Their thoughts are different, their personalities. But they still think, and they still have the same overall concern. They want the best for themselves. This does not mean that they are selfish. It just means that they want the best for themselves. If you have a good few years of experience and a decent number of relationships behind you, it’s probably not too difficult for you to imagine what it’s like to be anyone you meet on the street. For a moment, you can imagine being in their heads, in their bodies. Your mental picture of them won’t be entirely accurate, but neither will it be entirely inaccurate. There’s a lot that we can access and know about eachother. A lot that we can learn too. This is the strange thing about the world being full of individuals. That even though we are all separate units, we can all share or at least feel like we share much of the same experience. And we can do this in a way that benefits our lives, and that allows us to communicate better with eachother. Achieve our goals with greater ease.
But focus on the individuals. They all make their own choices about everything (forget determinism for a moment, we’re not talking about that) just like you do. There is no law that compels you other than yourself. Even if you believe in God and His Eternal Law, there is still the option to tell the ol’ beardy fella to go fuck himself. The thinking is that this may lead to an eternity of suffering, but the option is still there. People forget that. They tend to spend so much time being terrified of their ability to choose disobedience that they forget disobedience is allowed. Actually. The cultural bias is generally so strong in a lot of places that illegal is often taken to mean “not allowed”. No, it just means “if you do this, we will hurt you. Or at least try our best to hurt you.” There is no physical barrier that actively prevents your body from doing something illegal. No failsafe that blacks you out before you manage to steal that car.
The only thing that stops you doing something illegal is the same thing that makes you do or not do anything: your reason. Your appraisal of the situation. Your analysis of what suits your interests.
If you think about it like this, it seems more accurate to say there is no law. Because suddenly the law is just what suits certain people’s interests at the time. In other words, it isn’t the law. It’s just a set of individual preferences. Preferences with varying degrees of popularity.
This is how societies function. They grow themselves organically by people interacting with eachother. By people deciding that sometimes they are wrong and that others are right, and going forward together pursuing whatever it is they want in their lives, whatever they think is the best. This is where all laws come from, all societies. The concept of nations. Individuals who gather and decide as individuals that they ought to behave in a certain way, and then tell this way to others who start to believe that this way is more or less right. Societies did not come about because people came together and said “let’s behave exactly like this and call ourselves these things because this is how everything functions”. It’s much more vague than that. People do come together and talk about how to behave, but not always everyone at the same time. And they don’t all decide on the same perpetual rules. They don’t all get in a room and shout until everyone’s shouting the same thing.
People do decide together, but it’s more by a method of trial-and-improvement, with ideas filtering through groups at varying speeds, convincing some members of those groups more or less, until most of them hold very similar opinions on certain matters. That is what it means to say a community “gets together and decides something”. By extension everyone is always in contact with everyone else, because there is always some sharing of ideas and concepts and relationships which link us. But this does not have to be the whole society in the big town hall. And it does not have to be a small council hearing what everyone has to say and then repeating it back to them. It can be just as it is: everyone linked in the details, culturally, through their humanity, their being alive and conscious.
Circumstances dictate that different ways of existence will seem better at different moments. This is why we have differences between communities. Under Henry VIII, monarchy probably seemed like the best system of government to most people. Quite honestly. If you told them about democracy, they’d tell you it would fail. If you tried to impose it on them, they would probably vote Henry back into power, or just ignore you entirely. How do you get illiterate peasants to understand campaign promises and vote in national elections anyway? And just like that, people came to think of Hitler as the best option in Nazi Germany. For some, he was best of a bad lot. For some, he was saviour incarnate. For others, he was too powerful to deny. But whichever way, their democracy at the time – THEIR democracy – had failed them. Change made sense, and telling them to do much different would’ve been tough. The other major powers who could’ve intervened were generally hated or distrusted and, in turn, generally hated or distrusted Germany. That or they were apathetic in that way people tend to be when they don’t care about something. And the leaders in Germany were tired. The ones seen as respectable were approaching the point where they had had enough. The new ones were slowly joining or sympathising with the Nazis.
A friendlier example would be the American War for Independence. A set of colonies stalked by challenge and conflict eventually decides that its overlords are demanding too much for too little in return. Britain is far away across the sea. Not an appropriate centre of control for the settlers. Too slow to respond to danger. And the colonists are a cross section of the weirdest and nuttiest groups from across Europe. It makes a great deal of sense that they would eventually declare: “you overlords don’t run things for us. You’re no longer our benefactors. If you won’t do this better, and you’ve shown that you won’t, we’ll do it for ourselves. Like we came here to do in the beginning.” So they started a lengthy process of making a more convivial constitution for themselves. Something which made greater effort to provide for the people as a whole. A government that provided for its citizens much more effectively.
People respond to circumstances. Some solutions will work better across more circumstances, will seem more true, will be generally more likely to achieve a better outcome. And these will start to win out. Others will be tried and fail.
That is anarchy.
A natural selection of ideas, operated by conscious beings seeking the best. A best which is not explained away by the need to reproduce, to survive or to be happy. A best which involves all those things but is not dominated by any of them. A best at once as obscure and obvious as consciousness itself.
This is why we are all already part of an anarchic, organic system.
The next step is to work out where it’s taking us. For that, I want to show you how we can have an expression of value under anarchy.