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.