“Two Cheers for Anarchism” reviewed

(By Shepard Fairey)

(By Shepard Fairey)

I finished James C. Scott’s Two Cheers for Anarchism (TCA). He wrote a very well-received book called Seeing Like A State that is on my to-read list. The latter book will take more of an investment of time and concentration. TCA is shorter. I read it via Kindle.

The title is likely to mislead people. The book is not about how to organize uprisings or smash the state. The word ‘anarchism’ for most people connotes intransigent politics and mindless violence. Any good history of anarchism will inform you of the common practice of police informers provoking and actually committing terrorist acts. Many times. Some anarchists made this easier through their enthusiastic participation. We can observe the same sort of thing today when the FBI recruits and organizes assorted rootless unfortunates and stoners to commit terrorist acts with fake explosives. Then the big arrest and burst of publicity. Bravo, FBI! Do you feel safer? (Thanks, Obama!)

We could agree on the impracticality of past anarchist adventures, but morally, why not? After all, the targets were the murderous autocracies of Europe. Czars, kings, barons, dukes and whatnot; there was no democracy. Don’t forget, in the 19th Century — in the birth-pangs of modern capitalism and its mixture of progress and social atrocity — it was not obvious that capitalism would prevail.

Ranting aside, the lead principle of anarchism 101 is mutual aid between freely consenting people, free of interference from oppressive hierarchies. Scott’s thesis is that an important dimension of social life and human well-being is lost when centralized, bureaucratic regimes suppress spontaneous, productive self-activity .

One of Scott’s interesting examples is the case of traffic lights in Germany. In one small town, someone got the bright idea of taking down one of the town’s traffic lights. The counter-intuitive consequence was many fewer accidents. The reason was that drivers, cyclists, and pedestrians were moved to be more attentive and cautious. They were no longer encouraged to test the limits of the rules, because they were no rules. Their innate sociability and considerateness took over. This practice has spread to other towns in Germany, whose citizens have taken to boasting about it.

Scott devotes a lot of jaundiced attention to one of my own pet peeves — performance measurement, including in elite academia. There is a very funny segment about the idiotic use of indices of journal article citations as a source for evaluating scholars. His related topic is standardized tests.

The measurement problem has been discussed in the literature on privatization and contracting out, most notably for me by people like Donald Kettl and John Donahue. I took my own stabs at it here and here and here. Basically the goals of a program are reduced to something that can be measured, while important dimensions are left out. Then numbers are brandished in pseudo-scientific display.

The other problem with such practices is that which is measured and used to determine how much somebody gets paid becomes the object of gaming. The widespread school testing scandals provide lurid examples.

The ideological delusion underlying such fiascos is that the imposition of a purported “market” arrangement will bring efficiency and creativity. Instead it’s a new playground for rapacious vendors engaging in what economists call “rent-seeking.” The sellers (contractors) end up rigging the market and bilking the taxpayer.

There are lots of stories about follies arising from central planning. One such is that a factory was incentivized based on the number of shoes it manufactured. It ended up producing a lot of shoes — but only for left feet. Contracting out with performance measurement in ultra-modern capitalism can generate similar results, not least, God help us, in the public education of children. When you attach high stakes to a narrow measurement, hijinks ensue.

For Scott, performance measurement and testing are futile efforts by a state to regiment what would otherwise be more productive, creative, unplanned work. Such practices are an over-extension of meritocracy. Meritocracy is an improvement over rewards according to the accidents of birth, much less to predatory behavior. But meritocracy can degrade itself, as society’s winners massage the rules to perpetuate their privileges for their less-deserving descendants. Such practices of course build on the inherent advantages derived from gender, race, and class that provide unequal advantages in the establishment of merit.

One of Scott’s more compelling passages is about how the ubiquity of regimentation in schooling and large organizations, both public and private, for the purported exercise of a benign meritocracy, actually generates an attitude of fear and supplication that is not conducive to democratic citizenship.

Again I’ll resort to one of my pet peeves. The corruption of the American institution of the “town meeting.” In folklore, if not in fact, the town meeting was a setting where citizens gathered as equals and engaged in democratic discussion and debate. In small towns, familiarity made it difficult for people to promote their own narrow interests above those of the community, because everybody knew everybody else’s business.

These days the town meetings one usually finds are commanded by a local elected official. He or she controls the microphone. Constituents — supplicants, really — are allowed brief questions. Ushers will escort troublesome people out, aided if necessary by the local police. The fun part of these affairs is when control breaks down and critics reach critical mass. Meeting adjourned!

Scott devotes some attention to the so-called petit-bourgeoisie, an object of contempt in the Marxist tradition, to say nothing of elite doctrines. Strictly speaking these folks are not Capital with a capital “c.” They would like to be, but they haven’t made it. What they do have is some measure of security that affords them the confidence, wherewithal, and prestige to participate in democratic debate. The worker may feel beholden to an employer and be politically neutered. From a marxian standpoint, unlike the wage laborer, the petit-bourgeoisie have control over their own working day. They can comprise a genuine town meeting. As free producers taking advantage of mutual aid, they have an honored place in anarchist doctrine.

One of Scott’s more interesting theses for those of us who are politically obsessed is that the petit-bourgeoisie are themselves better situated to fight the haute-bourgeoisie, the 1%. This fight can take reactionary form, as in today’s Tea Party, but in the past it has taken progressive, even revolutionary form. The Bolshevik slogan, after all, was “Bread, peace, and land.” The thirst for land, a piece of the rock, has motivated revolts the world over. The U.S. populist movement of the 19th Century, although worker-friendly, was led by farmers, in opposition to corrupt government and rapacious monopolies in railroads and banking.

The fundamental, unfulfilled promise of TCA for me goes back to where I started. How to organize uprisings? You can’t organize them. Nobody organizes them. They blossom from a myriad of individual roots. You can prepare to be helpful when they bust out. For instance, I predict St. Louis is going to blow up before the year is over. Are you ready to be helpful?

People do try to take revolts over, often to the detriment of the cause. An old insight from the late 60s from an SDS veteran went something like this: “We thought you could make a revolution. In fact a revolution is a rare event.”

Occupy is the big recent case in point. Like a butterfly’s wings starting a chain reaction leading to a monsoon, we could point to some isolated causes. There was the Ad-Busters role. I always thought when, on video, the NYC cops pepper-sprayed some girl they had penned in, for no remotely defensible reason, that had a big impact. Whatever the factors, it was all tinder. The firewood was the underlying growth of poverty and inequality. Then we were off and running.

The anarchists involved in the encampments had the wit to prevent the affair from being pigeon-holed into narrow categories, and to deny to the media leaders who could become targets for petty attacks. My own view is they went a bit too far in the refusal to put forward more specific demands. But they had a good run before the State came down on their heads. (Thanks, Obama!)

TCA provides no political road-maps. In the end this is why anarchism is fundamentally unsatisfying to me. It’s great when good stuff happens, and the limitations of ‘vanguardism’ should be obvious. But we are still left in a quandry. It is not clear what is to be done.


“Two Cheers for Anarchism” reviewed — 5 Comments

  1. “Basically the goals of a program are reduced to something that can be measured, while important dimensions are left out. Then numbers are brandished in pseudo-scientific display.”

    Isn’t that true of any kind of rationalization, when a multi-purpose activity is transformed into a single-purpose activity?

  2. “Basically the goals of a program are reduced to something that can be measured, while important dimensions are left out. Then numbers are brandished in pseudo-scientific display.”

    Well this is one of those freedom things. The purpose of quantification of human behaviors is to reduce individual discretion, ostensibly in the service of efficiency. However, I think it’s pretty clear that efficiency gets more or less tossed out along the way and the end result is just a sort of inefficient fascist control. Not a lot of innovative or creative solutions being generated but oh the safety. Think of the supervisors!

    I was stamped out as an engineer and kind of bought into the idealistic part of this ideology for a few decades, until, well, they came for the engineers. Now we just push buttons on a screen with a mouse.

    So, erm, to the uh, ramparts, comrades?

  3. By the way, I highly recommend Seeing Like a State. I think the Nutty Professors did a seminar on Scott a few years back.

    Even better though, is Theodore Porter’s “Trust in Numbers”. That one really changed my mind.

  4. Nice to see you again, RC. That’s Scott’s point too. Control plus inefficiency is the result of upholding narrow metrics.

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