4 Jul 2013

Two Cheers for Anarchism -- the review

I took this on Flores, Indonesia
I bought Two Cheers for Anarchism: Six Easy Pieces on Autonomy, Dignity, and Meaningful Work and Play the second I heard about it, as I have REALLY enjoyed James C. Scott's previous books (Seeing Like a State and Weapons of the Weak).*

The title sets out Scott's view: some anarchistic ideas are useful (hence two instead of three cheers), and we can benefit from more decentralized thinking and action.

I took many notes and had many !! while reading the book, and I'll set down my reactions in the order they appeared, to give you an idea of the insights of the book:
  1. Most revolutions have led to more, not less control of the population
  2. "Freedom without socialism is privilege and injustice; socialism without freedom is slavery and brutality" -- Mikhail Bakunin
  3. Anarchism is not about blowing things up; it's about cooperation without hierarchy and a tolerance for the confusion that accompanies social learning, cooperation and reciprocity
  4. All Utopian ideals fail; we must be pragmatic
  5. "There is no authentic freedom where huge differences make voluntary agreements or exchanges nothing more than legalized plunder." This view explains the crisis of 2008 and why democracy has failed. It's been sold to the highest bidders (=bankers)
  6. Opposition institutions can be part of the problem, since they exist within a system they want to control
  7. Decentralized opposition may be missed by those who prefer simple models and messages (=the media)
  8. Most of our interactions are decentralized, peer-to-peer (e.g., moving through a crowd, buying bread, talking to strangers, etc.). We have the skills to survive and care for each other (mutuality) without being told what to do, but those in charge prefer to take over those interactions
  9. Anarchist calisthenics: Break a trivial, nonsensical law every day, so that you're ready to challenge big nonsensical laws. (This is how I ride my bike -- always in training by running stop signs. I got a ticket for that when I was 15 years old. The only nearby car was a parked police car. That ticket taught me the value of useless laws.)
  10. Anonymous resistance (e.g., picking up or throwing down garbage, depending on whose property is being defaced or defended) can an effective example for everyone
  11. Titled property favors those who control the process of titling (always the rich; sometimes the poor)
  12. It's easier to break laws that defy morality, and we should. That's why I tell people I spoke marijuana. It may be illegal, but it's not immoral (same as drinking beer and definitely safer than beer)
  13. The richest 20 percent rule (in liberal democracies) by convincing the middle 40 percent that they are also better off under those rules, since they are superior to the bottom 40 percent
  14. The key condition to charisma is listening very carefully and responding (rulers do neither)
  15. "The larger and more authoritarian an organization [or state], the better the chance that its top decision-makers will be operating in purely imaginative worlds." -- Kenneth Boulding
  16. "Vernacular orders" (for managing land, water, labor, etc.) are suited to local conditions; they are effective, but difficult to understand. That's why national rulers replace them with less effective, but "logical" systems that serve their needs -- not local needs
  17. Planners see algorithms, not people (Scott cites Jacobs)
  18. Models make the world clear, at the cost of showing a world that does not exist (e.g., a theme park or economic model) -- as I discuss in this paper
  19. We can see complexity -- and our ability to manage it -- when we actually follow formal rules and witness the chaos that results from rules to for changing conditions
  20. Scott gives an example of a "chaotic garden" that was actually very productive; the farmer didn't need logic; he needed output. The USDA loves "logical" farm programs, but they have caused great harm in their chemical-laden, engineered monotony
  21. "Standardized X" does not always suit individuals, conditions or society -- whether X be education, housing, diet, language or whatever...
  22. How about replacing GDP with a measure of "greater choice" for humans and "satisfaction" for workers? Adam Smith loved the efficiency of the pin factory, but "what can be expected of a man who spent 20 years of his life making heads for pins" (de Tocqueville). What you do matters as much (or more) than how much $ you make
  23. Yes, some people "win" at the system (I'm a US citizen, with a PhD), but what of the losers? Should I be happy to have beaten them (by luck mostly), should I worry that they may be upset, or should I mourn the fact that I live among so many people who are unable to reach their potential and happiness? What would I lose in their gain? Who prefers mastery within misery to membership in joy?
  24. It is hard to be independent when we depend on so many institutions (insurance, police, food producers). Thus it is hard to defend or care for ourselves when the institutions do not 'respect" us (watch this TEDx). It's even hard to care about why we should
  25. The "petite bourgeoisie" are the enemy of the State because they control their lives. Hitler was defeated by a "nation of shopkeepers," and everyone is subversive (as well as happy) to the extent that they control their productivity and consumption -- because they are neither beholden to the boss or the advertisers. They are definitely not going to die or pay taxes for bad ideas
  26. The State does not like mobile people (gypsies, dual-passports, hunter-gatherers, eBay sellers) because they cannot be understood or controlled as easily as large businesses (farms, companies, banks, monopolies) controlled by a few people willing to deliver "order" in exchange for privileges
  27. Thomas Jefferson's vision of yeoman farmers as the bearers of democracy rests on their freedom of thought and action, independent of the State
  28.  "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"
  29. Scott notes that "citation indices" have been useful as a means of quashing academic integrity and curiosity (same with SAT, IQ tests, etc). Combined with funding directed at "strategic issues," this system has turned professional thinkers into useless report writers. I have seen this problem -- and its the useless results -- for years, which is why I am quitting the academic world for the real world
  30. Lenin and other progressives liked the efficiency of "objective scientific knowledge" because they wanted to engineer people into their proper place and trajectory (Hayek et al. opposed them)
  31. Scott is right to say that the overuse of cost-benefit, indices and measurements has turned complex issues into oversimplified caricatures and removed decisions from those who matter to technocrats who control.** We've replaced human judgement and autonomy with one-dimensional black and white
  32. Life -- and history -- are complex, and we should embrace their complexity and uncertainty. A Whig history is not only unfair to those who lived it; it misleads us into thinking that life is simple. It isn't, and we need to engage it with energy, not laziness
Bottom Line: I give this book FIVE STARS. Every citizen should read this book -- preferably while in their teen years. It's never too early to find your own path, and never too late to step out of that place reserved for you as a brick in the wall.

* It took me ages to sit down for this review (I finished the book in January) because I wanted to do justice to the book, but July 4th seems appropriate.

** I wrote this to the New Yorker in April (it was not printed):
James Surowiecki criticizes Stockman for suggesting that markets need to unwind without government intervention, stating that events were much worse before the government intervention (i.e., the creation of the Federal Reserve system in 1913): "Between 1873 and 1913, the U.S. economy was in recession for fully half the time, and the Great Depression was a far more destructive downturn than anything since. Suppose all these recessions really did purge the economy of error; they still caused an enormous amount of pain that could have been mitigated by government intervention."

Yet Surowiecki's sentence silently elides over the fact that the Fed *was* around at the start of the Great Depression and the ongoing debate over government's role in worsening the Great Depression -- a debate within which many economists side with Stockman. Indeed, Ben Bernanke apologized to Milton Friedman in 2002 for the Fed's inappropriate intervention:
Let me end my talk by abusing slightly my status as an official representative of the Federal Reserve. I would like to say to Milton and Anna: Regarding the Great Depression. You're right, we did it. We're very sorry. But thanks to you, we won't do it again.
Are we so sure about that?

Addendum (20 Aug 2016): A nice review of Seeing Like A State