The Happy Anarchist

The Happy Anarchist

Reprinted from Liberty Magazine (October 2009)

Over the years the people I’ve met who self-identify as “anarchists” tend to be among the dumbest and the smartest people I’ve had the pleasure or displeasure of knowing. Very few reasonable people attach that label to themselves. In an attempt to avoid being lumped with the dumbest, I thought I’d distill my reasons for doing so, from the least to the most important.

1. Anarchism as the conscience of law. Given democratic notions of legitimacy, the fewer people who believe in “the rule of law” (i.e., the more who believe it is just a veiled imposition of power), the more transparent the veil, and the more the law has to obey its own rules in order to maintain legitimacy. When rule-of-law marketing and propaganda are insufficient to create legitimacy, the powerful have to limit the arbitrary use of their power and shrink the number of cases they can treat as extraordinary. Anarchists weaken the faith element within law, and by doing so force it to obey its own rules.

2. Anarchy as a vector. Through very gradual change, we’ve created societies in which nearly every aspect of our day-to-day life is controlled. I tried to go to a sunny outdoor bar at a lake with my three-year-old son the other day. I was told that (a) I had to wear a shirt; (b) my son couldn’t be in the bar even without drinking; and (c) I couldn’t get the beers to go. These were all rules created by my neighbors, though none of the three had any impact on them. I don’t necessarily want to live in full-blown anarchy, except perhaps in a small anarchic community where all the individuals are highly educated and empathetic. But I do think we need to go in the direction of less order.

The argument is always “safety,” of course. It trumps all in our society. Never mind if it’s accurate–my roommate in law school spent the first twelve years of her life in an Irish pub (owned by her family) and now teaches at Harvard, won a Pulitzer, and garnered a dozen other similar accomplishments–we’d rather our kids sit in front of the TV, preferably with a helmet on. As Tacitus wrote, “The desire for security stands against every great and noble enterprise.”

When you put a frog in water and turn the heat up suddenly, it will jump out. When you turn the heat up gradually, it will stay in and cook. Human beings work the same way, and we have overcooked ourselves with rules to the point where (shifting culinary metaphors for a moment from frogs to pasta) our modern societies have become a porridge in which you can no longer tell whether you started off with fettuccine or with fusilli or, for that matter, with frogs. If full anarchy is raw pasta, then yes, perhaps it’s hard to chew, but when you’re starting with a tasteless overcooked mess, raw sounds pretty good.

At any rate, I don’t believe in utopias. There are no stable end points, only movement and vectors. Given where the world is today, I’m an anarchist.

3.  Anarchism as ontologically authentic. Groups, being soulless, don’t exist except in the abstract. The individual human—who is born, lives, and dies—is the only relevant metric by which any non-abstract phenomenon in this universe can be measured. Kafka said, “The meaning of life is that it ends,” and Heidegger spelled out in magnificent nuance the importance of being-towards-death as the only possible structuring mechanism for life, authenticity, and meaning. Institutions, organizations, corporations, unions, countries, societies, religions, legal systems—soulless collectives of all sorts—don’t live towards death. An immortal abstract entity without subjectivity or a soul can never understand the concept of authenticity, let alone sort through the ever-present ambiguity between what is authentic and what is not. And any individual who abdicates his personal sovereignty to the value system of a group gives up his own chance at authenticity and meaning. These require responsibility, or the ability to respond to specific situations on a subjective level.

Each individual can find meaning and authenticity only by personally rolling in the mud. By climbing a tree (considered “disorderly behavior” in many US cities; see e.g., NYC Parks and Recreation section 1-04(l)(2)). By facing death. By stealing fire from the gods and slugging it out with the angels. By exercising personal responsibility and care. The only political system I know of that doesn’t clash with these criteria is anarchism.

4. It’s fun to break the rules.

2 comments to The Happy Anarchist

  • hotrod reader

    I remember this line — a Manifesto, a Declaration, a Letter of Intent? All those philo-guys you cite, however, shipwrecked in politics, so why squeeze them into a political idiom that is as passe’ as an-arkhe? What do you want — resurrect politics? what is this obsession with politics? obsession with getting frustrated with the arkhe of the group — and wrestle with it, claim its other side — its an-form? cant you see that you are setting up your own deconstruction in the most classic terms? — where is the beyond, darling, think, think, think, and find a dimension that escapes this auto-deconstructing loop of the political arkhe, the group as audience or as the Demos, or their an-sides? have you been there? get off the x,y-co-ordinates? then where will you be — I bet not at squeezing the poor dead buggers into a coke bottle…

  • When I lived in Indonesia and a cop tried to pull me over, I never stopped unless he physically jumped in front of my motorbike or car. Only rarely did they chase me, but the wonderful thing was that when they chase, if they caught me, there was no additional penalty for trying to run away. It was all done with good sportsmanship, and if a cop caught me he felt good that he’d caught me, his personal standing as a man went up, but the fine was still the same $2 as it would be if I were doing absolutely nothing wrong (or 50 cents for a local, or $10 for a tourist). The conversation was always human, one human talking to another, and it was always respectful in both directions. No machine, no system, no computers, no power imbalance, no iron arm of the law.

    While living there I never found myself frustrated with politics. I also never found myself citing Heidegger, et al. Sure, I had other complaints, but they were about my neighbour burning plastic every night that he collected from 12 hotels, or someone in the village calling Samson a white monkey, or my landlord refusing to put new grass in the roof, or whatever, all personal insults. I thought about coconuts, not philosophers. But you come back to the West, and suddenly you don’t have arguments with people, you have a system that is forcing people to tell you they can’t serve you beer if you’re with your son, or if you asked for it in a wrong size, or if you don’t have your shirt on, or that you can’t climb a tree, or whatever. Suddenly, you can’t argue with the people anymore, because they don’t have the power to change anything either. And that’s when I start thinking about those philo-guys again.

    There is no beyond. Oh, sure, maybe there is in moments, but for “the every-day” as you used to call it, “beyond” becomes just another argument. Nobody lives in the beyond. Or, to paraphrase another philo-guy, Leonard Cohen, “There’s a war on, between those who know there’s a war and those who don’t.” Talking about the beyond, as though politics could be an ugliness that is simply sidestepped, is just a way of shifting sides in the war: a fifth column, a treason, I’m not sure which.

    A more honest criticism would be the much simpler: you have no power, you can’t change anything, politically you’re nothing better than a peeping Tom, so why do you give a shit, why engage something that is absolutely unresponsive? Why not just move to Bali, vote in the only way that makes any difference, at least for a few more years: with your feet?

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