Gerry Canavan

the smartest kid on earth

What I Did Instead Of What I Was Supposed To Do Today

with 13 comments

Caught up on some of David Graeber’s writings on anarchism, via this AskMe. Does anyone know the answer to this question? I just can’t get past my sense that ecological rationality requires a global superstate, not autonomous, self-organizing collectives.

Written by gerrycanavan

December 7, 2010 at 11:48 pm

13 Responses

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  1. if the issue is simply one of continuity and the need for institutions, i could imagine the establishment of non-coercive regulatory bodies that would be compatible with anarchist principles – doing things like making relevant information both available and comprehensible to everyone, and when needed making recommendations that people follow based on informed trust instead of coercion. localism doesn’t mean there can’t be any large-scale coordinated activity, just that the coordinators don’t have the authority to make decisions for anyone except themselves.

    if the issue is fear that coercion is necessary because of the scale of climate change, then you’re already not an anarchist, and you can probably think of other, non climate related situations that would also call for coercion.

    wikileaks can be interpreted as an anarchist form of ‘soft’ coercion – once everyone knows you did something wrong, a responsible populace would autonomously censure and exclude you.


    December 8, 2010 at 12:15 am

  2. It’s more scale than continuity, though as is usual for anti-anarchism the arguments tend to quickly boomerang on you. If you don’t believe self-organized groups of people could be relied upon to think about non-local environmental issues in a sustainable and just way, why would you ever believe states, or a super-state, could do it?


    December 8, 2010 at 1:39 am

  3. I said this to Traxus last time he was here, but if you look at almost any constitutional debate out there post-French Revolution, there was this moment of an anarchist imaginary. Representation would start at a council level and work its way up. That’s more or less how the early American representational system was conceived (excluding women, slaves, and, to a large extent, non-property holders). Libertarians believe in the same principal. It strikes me as something that’s more at the level of political experiment than something that would actually be likely to create a better form of governance, i.e., it’s one political experiment among many. Arguing about it from principals – reciprocity, justice, direct democracy – makes no sense whatsoever because, in reality, we have no idea how it’s going to play out. Additionally, arguing about it based on purely hypothetical models of how it would play out falls victim to the same critique. We have little pockets of anarchist collectives in world history. Sometimes they do well, sometimes they don’t. If it comes to war, they seem to always lose. This isn’t to say, “Don’t do it.” It is to say, “Don’t pretend that you already know anarchism is a better form of governance than other forms that have been thoroughly tested.” Who do I, personally, think would benefit most from a very localist, anarchist form of governance? Those who already have the social and practical skills to organize a self-sustaining social unit.

    This kind of thing seems to have a lot of potential for good – there have been amazing moments of collective democracy (Argentina, for example). There have also been catastrophic failures (John Africa and his collective – which was a failure not only because of a repressive state but also because of internal dynamics, although the repressive state turned it into a tragedy).

    One thing that is almost completely foreclosed by the anarchist model of organization is the ability to make long-term predictions that are more than pure speculation (climate change, annual weather patterns, geological shifts). These things take cemented institutions and a large amount of resources (I still subscribe to a loose labor theory of value where the amount of time it takes to create something from its inception to its use has a large bearing on what it costs, whether that cost is measured in money or not and whether there is actual trade or some other kind of distributory mechanism). It seems hard for me to imagine that “the people” would have the foresight to say that we need this kind of thing. “The wisdom of the people” tends to be whatever principles are most comfortable and, as Gramsci points out regularly, “common sense” tends to be little more than a collection of knowledge that is sometimes intelligent sometimes stupid but always treated as if it has authority that’s more “basic” or “grounded” than “scientific” knowledge (and, conversely, scientific knowledge treats itself as more accurate and careful than common sense; I tend to think it is, although it has its own ideologies and has a very slow response time).

    Arguing for a system on the grounds of principals and untested hypotheticals is not a very convincing approach. That said, for an anarchist system of governance to be tested, it would need to be adopted first.


    December 8, 2010 at 10:47 am

  4. With regard to the AskMeFi question, “What would happen if society, especially American society, were to lapse into anarchy?”, I don’t think you can just “lapse into” the kind of anarchy that David Graeber conceives. You can lapse into a power vacuum. What happens next tends not to be pretty. Perhaps the end result of that could be a direct democracy form of organization.


    December 8, 2010 at 10:52 am

  5. “why would you ever believe states, or a super-state, could do it?”

    concentration of resources, knowledge, and skill. as is probably clear from my first comment i think the better question for anarchism (over ‘global vs. local’ and ‘top-down vs. bottom-up’) is whether the beneficial and necessary functions of a state – one could argue about what they are, but long-term, large-scale planning seems to be the big one – are possible without coercion and violence.

    to alex, i would say that arguing from principles alone would be necessary if we really did have absolutely zero idea of how it would play out — but as you point out, it has been tried at a small scale before, and if you buy graeber, anarchist-like relations predate and underlie all modern forms of governance. so we have both principles and some history. you can’t expect anything else — this would be just as true if you were proposing world dictatorship or world democracy.

    how is any form of politics not “one experiment among many?”

    on the point about anarchism’s inability to plan long-term, see above — i really think the deciding factor for anarchists is institutionalized coercive violence, not specific organizational models, of which there are indeed endless theories and experiments, some more ‘localist’ than others. at any rate, “the people” as a generic mass of human nature doesn’t exist in anarchist theory – it’s contrary to the assumption that everyone is capable of self-organization.


    December 8, 2010 at 12:26 pm

    • concentration of resources, knowledge, and skill. as is probably clear from my first comment i think the better question for anarchism (over ‘global vs. local’ and ‘top-down vs. bottom-up’) is whether the beneficial and necessary functions of a state – one could argue about what they are, but long-term, large-scale planning seems to be the big one – are possible without coercion and violence.

      Based on what I was reading from him yesterday, I think Graeber would probably ask why we should think these things are possible/desirable *with* coercion and violence. That is to say, I think he successfully casts doubt on the extent to which “the beneficial and necessary functions of a state” are real things that are actually in evidence.


      December 8, 2010 at 12:36 pm

      • right, i was just trying to dissociate long-term planning – what the state is theoretically supposed to do – from institutionalized violence. i think a convincing argument can be made either way. as i mused on twitter yesterday though, it might be that the modern nation state is just as ‘unsustainable’ as the fossil fuels it relies on, and our question should be how do we negotiate its ongoing collapse (rather than how do we completely overthrow it right this second).


        December 8, 2010 at 2:22 pm

      • it also helps that there’s no way in hell we can “completely overthrow it right this second.”


        December 8, 2010 at 2:25 pm

  6. how is any form of politics not “one experiment among many”?

    The opposition was not one experiment among many/not one experiment among many, but rather, one relatively untested experiment among many/widely tested experiments among many that have been tweaked throughout time. That certainly doesn’t make one better than the other (the failure of neoliberal capitalism is pretty evident). The point was simply to highlight that siding with anarchism because you think it’s going to make the world a better place seems very tenuous. That doesn’t mean it’s not true; just that it doesn’t have a lot going for it in the way of verification.


    December 8, 2010 at 12:35 pm

  7. My basic dispute is not about anarchism/not-anarchism, but around the question of governmental form. The idea that the problems of governance are reducible to the form of government – or that our primary discussion should be about form of government – strikes me as deluded.


    December 8, 2010 at 1:32 pm

  8. abushri/Alex –

    on verification, again, graeber argues that ‘anarchism’ – or what graeber is willing to accept as anarchism – is the historically dominant mode of human society. what has not been tested is the dissolution of modern nation states in combination with the technical complexity and scale of modern society. but at any rate, i think your own arguments suggest demands for verification aren’t a very useful way of proceeding – forms of government may think they repeat/replicate their theories, but in practice they do not. anarchism suffers from this delusion less than most…

    …partly because it is self-consciously NOT simply a governmental form – just like neoliberal capitalism, it encompasses economic, social, cultural, etc. arguments. it also happens to be antagonistic to governmentality.

    our primary discussion should be about how we want our shared lives to be organized.


    December 8, 2010 at 2:18 pm

  9. Just to be clear on something, being antagonistic to governmentality is not the same thing as being antagonistic to governance, no? I could, in theory at least, support being opposed to a government-centric system ruled by a chain of hierarchies while not being opposed to regimes of control and distribution.

    what has not been tested is the dissolution of modern nation states in combination with the technical complexity and scale of modern society.

    I wrote something about the theory/praxis divide and then erased it. I’ll let it be.


    December 8, 2010 at 3:11 pm

  10. I’m not sure if this is relevant to the discussion above, but I thought I’d try to give my own answer to the question.

    My interest in a global superstate peaked with Peter Singer, and passed with Wendell Berry and Rebecca Solnit. People who live in their habitats on a day to day basis are those who best know what it needs; those who don’t have to deal with immediate ramifications are not going to treat the ecosystem with the same respect. And unfortunately, the more powerful the bureaucracy, the more isolated decision makers can become from the consequences.

    I was raised with visions of Star Trek, so it was hard for me to realize that maybe a perpetual exploring mentality is part of what’s burning up the planet. It would be wonderful if technology could let us have our cake and eat it. Still, I suspect as long as the cake is big enough, some people will try to take it all. Maybe one day there will be a very weak coalition to which thousands of small communities on the planet could send members if they so wish. Contrary to what I believed for years, I really do think it would have to be severely limited. My mind still says, though, that if any institutions unanswerable to the people of the planet were to arise (corporations, religious institutions), it would be really useful to have a stronger body to deal with it. But then again, there’d be the risk of it being taken over by the institutions, kind of like what’s happening now.

    So I guess, inadequate and plain as it sounds, people will have to decide for themselves what to do. Forms of anarchy (sounds like such an oxymoron to me) might be ideal in quite a number of places. Many peoples have managed to take care of their landbases for millenia. Despite the wastefulness of certain groups on the planet, I still think we can learn and do better… especially when the planet forces us to do so.


    December 9, 2010 at 12:34 am

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