Anarchism is strangely alluring to certain rational minds. This sounds perverse, since the most obvious connotations of anarchy are profoundly negative --- chaos, violence, mayhem, disorder. A country falls into anarchy when its government can no longer control events: looting and rape, riot and pillage break out; criminals run free; peaceful citizens cower. What reasonable person could wish for that?

But to an idealist, anarchy implies peace, not violence. In theory, governments exist to keep the peace. They do so by claiming a monopoly on the use of force in a geographical region. In practice, anarchists observe, governments themselves are the entities overwhelmingly responsible for death and destruction throughout history. Governments attract bad, power-hungry individuals, and give them the tools to inflict huge damage. The philosophical anarchist therefore argues that complete voluntarism, with no State to organize and initiate repression, is a far safer and better (and more moral) system.

Maybe --- especially if one models society on oneself and assumes that others are similarly inclined. A person who seeks consistency will be repelled by messy real-world situations, and will prefer the clean and logical laboratory of anarchy. A person who hasn't met with physical abuse, and who doesn't live in a neighborhood where he (alas, it's usually he, not she) fears for his safety, will have difficulty imagining a culture in which the threat of interpersonal violence is commonplace. And a person from a relatively privileged class, who by default gets respect and deference in social interactions, will not have an easy time empathizing with those who are habitually scorned, denigrated, or ignored. To such a person, moving effortlessly through life, the State seems an unnecessary evil.

Life is, for most of us, more complex. When Yeats wrote (in The Second Coming) the lines:

Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.

he saw the structures of his universe falling apart after the first World War. Yeats was right to contrast the "passionate intensity" of some with the loss of certainty and conviction of others. Simple answers are seductive. In simple circumstances, simple answers are appropriate: the greatest triumphs of science come from seeing through surface distractions to the underlying simplicity of Nature. It's easy to get passionate about a simple fix; it's easy to shout slogans. It's hard to study a problem for years, develop an understanding of the feedback loops and interactions that make it difficult, and come to a realization that, at best, only slow improvement is possible.

In complicated situations, it's wrong to impose a false simplicity. Idealistic anarchism, like totalitarianism ("Trust us; we know what's best for you."), defines away the diversity of human life. It so fails.

Wednesday, October 06, 1999 at 21:08:13 (EDT) = 1999-10-06

TopicSociety - TopicLiterature - TopicPoetry

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