Of course, people do not say that we should not live in a free society because the roads might be imperfect. The endless argument against anarchism is the “Argument from Apocalypse.” (AFA) The AFA is not an argument at all, of course, but rather relies on rampant fear mongering, and an argument from intimidation.
Basically, the argument goes something like this:
“We’re all gonna DIEEEEEEE!”
It would actually be nice if it were slightly more sophisticated than that, but the reality is that it is not.
The basic argument is that if we accept proposition “X,” civilized society will collapse, children will die in the streets, the old will end up eating each other, and the world will dissolve into an endless and apocalyptic war of all against all.
This is not an argument at all, since it relies on fear and intimidation. Darwin faced exactly the same “objections” when he first published his theory of evolution. “If we accept that we are descended from apes, everybody will abandon morality, society will collapse, war of all against all etc etc etc.”
Abolitionists faced the same argument when suggesting that slavery should be abolished; atheists face the same silly objections when disproving the existence of God; philosophers have been put to death for suggesting that ethics should be based on something other than superstition; scientists are accused of the same evils whenever some new development threatens people’s existing prejudices – it is all the most rampant nonsense, which survives only because of its endless effectiveness.
The AFA remains effective because of a basic logical fallacy which has doubtless been around since the dawn of speech: “Belief ‘X’ would result in immorality or destruction, and so only a fool or an evil man would advocate ‘X’.”
Since very few people wish to appear either foolish or evil, they tend to back down in the face of this argument, or take the imprudent path – which I have trod many a time – of attempting to disprove the AFA.
“Anarchism results in evil!” cometh the cry – and anarchists around the world endlessly respond with: “No it won’t!” – thus losing the argument before it even begins.
The only thing that is relevant in any intellectual argument is whether it is true or not. Refusing to examine the validity and consistency of a mathematical argument because you fear that accepting its conclusions will result in endless evil is simply surrendering to superstitious fear-mongering, and abandoning your rationality. Propositions cannot be evil – mathematics cannot be evil – statism cannot be evil – error cannot be evil – and the truth is not virtuous!
A proposition cannot strangle a baby; an argument cannot rape a nun, and a theory of anarchism cannot turn people into shrunken-headed zombies in hot pursuit of Will Smith.
A theory of anarchism can only be true or false, valid or invalid, logical or illogical.
If someone deploys the AFA, it proves nothing except that he has no good arguments, and that the proposition in front of him is emotionally unsettling in some way. In other words, all that the AFA proves is intellectual idiocy and emotional immaturity. It is the philosophical equivalent of arguing against the proposition that “ice cream contains milk,” by saying, “I once had a dream that an ice cream monster was trying to eat me!” It is the kind of non sequitur we would expect from a very young child, which would only indicate an utter incomprehension of the proposed statement.
People who are threatened by ideas should at least have the honesty to say, “I am threatened by this idea,” rather than pretend that the idea is somehow objectively threatening to the human race as a whole. If I am afraid of short men, I should be honest about my fears and say, “I am afraid of short men,” rather than vehemently argue that short men will somehow destroy the world!
However, prejudice against anarchists – much like prejudice against atheists – is one of the last remaining acceptable bigotries in the world. We cannot judge any group negatively – except a group that relies on reason, evidence and nonviolence.
Thus, it will not do us any good to run screaming from the idea of a stateless society, imagining all kinds of demonic horrors. If we allow fear-mongering to not only inform, but rather define and direct our thinking, then we are left without the ability to think at all, but instead must sit clutching the skirts of those who tell us tall and terrifying tales.
We cannot judge the truth of an idea by our fears of its effect.
Arguments for or against the existence of gods are not validated by our fears of – or desires for – a godless universe. We cannot oppose a theory of gravity by saying that it is unpleasant to fall down stairs; neither can we oppose a new theory by demanding prior historical examples. The entire point of a new theory is that it is unprecedented; the first man to invent a jet aircraft could scarcely submit examples of jet aircraft flying in the past.
Another common objection to anarchic theories is that they are not embraced or validated by professional intellectuals, philosophers and academics.
This is very true, and, as I explained in great detail in my book, “Everyday Anarchy,” I think we can view this as a positive, rather than a negative.
Still, is it reasonable for me to ask you to reject the near-universal consensus of highly intelligent people – professors, pundits, columnists, academics and so on – simply because they happen to disagree with or ignore the propositions that I am putting forward here? Surely we have all heard of a number of scam artists – particularly on the Internet – who sell snake oil solutions to genuine ailments, preying upon the weak, the desperate and the gullible. Is it reasonable to ask everyone to completely abandon respect for scholarship and professionalism, to turf experts for the sake of their own preferred opinions? Is this not our fear of what the Internet will do to social consensus?
Can we not find on the Wild West of the Web articles claiming that smoking is good for you, that space aliens were responsible for 9/11, that exercise is dangerous, fluoride will kill you and eating fat will make you lose weight?
How can we be sure that a theory of anarchism is not just another one of these crackpot ideas that rails against the universal consensus of experts in the field, attempting to dislodge sober scholarship with wild-eyed speculation? Perhaps this book is just a form of elaborate trickery, a playing out of some wretched and buried psychological trauma, designed to separate you from your friends and family by infecting you with strange and illicit ideas – and taking your money to boot, since Freedomain Radio relies on voluntary donations!
Of course, these are all excellent questions to ask, and I for one would be highly unlikely to pit my own judgment against that of, say, my doctor or my accountant. One of the main reasons that we need specialists is because enormous swaths of human knowledge remain buried under entirely counterintuitive paradigms. Who would have thought that making your gums bleed – at least at first – with floss would lead to oral health? Exercise often feels bad, and eating pie always feels very good, and so we need experts to remind us of the long-term effects of such activities, compared to the short-term incentives and disincentives. We prefer to spend money in the moment rather than save it for a rainy day; a surgeon might make us feel very unwell in order to prevent or cure an illness that we may not have even felt yet; a friend might strive to impress upon us the emotional problems of a highly attractive sexual partner; and the dark satisfactions of discharging anger towards a spouse in the present might create for us a very unpleasant future indeed.
In all these areas, we rely on the objectivity and expertise of those around us, who possess the training and knowledge to steer us against our immediate desires, or who are not subject to our own immediate desires – as in the case of our friends – and so can often see things more clearly.
What about the famous idea that deep study tends to lead to moderation? A little learning is a dangerous thing, it is often said – and with good reason. If we are ignorant of the effects of early childhood experiences and the long-term effects on the psychology of the personality, it is far easier to look at criminals as simply “bad guys.” If we are ignorant of the basic truth that history is almost always a tale told by those in power in order to justify and support their own “virtue,” then we shall inevitably be genuinely shocked when we come across the long-lost truths of the vanquished, or the foreign – or the dead.
Thus, should we not look for moderation in our responses to complex questions? The problem of health is complex, requiring a wide variety of inputs from nutritionists, physical trainers, doctors, psychologists and so on – most of whom will counsel a form of Aristotelian moderation. Too little exercise leads to brittle bones and flab; too much exercise leads to injury. Too little food leads to a lack of energy; too much food leads to excess weight. An over-focus on the desires and needs of others leads to codependency; too little focus leads to selfish narcissism. Parents must often attempt to strike a balance between discipline and indulgence; the needs of the many must be balanced with the needs of the few, even in just the business arena; the sacrifice of our own short-term happiness for the sake of the longer-term happiness of another we love is all part and parcel of having a wise, flourishing and positive set of personal and professional relationships.
Given all this complexity, does the answer of “just get rid of the government!” not strike us as overly simplistic? My mother used to talk about three spheres within society – business, government and labor – and the need to find a balance between them. “The endless challenge in society is finding a way to stimulate business growth – but not at the expense of labor – so that there is enough tax revenue for government to provide effective social services.”
This kind of juggling act strikes us as eminently mature in many ways, and recognizes that, just as there is good and bad in every individual, so there is good and bad in every group. You can find bad and corrupt people in the realm of politics, labor and business, if you want – but stretching this basic reality into an outright condemnation of any group seems explicitly prejudicial. A man who has been robbed by a Chinese acrobat would scarcely be justified in demanding that the world be utterly rid of Chinese acrobats. One swallow does not a summer make; nor do bad politicians invalidate the value of government as a whole.
Furthermore, isn’t it rather childish to suggest that we rid ourselves of an institution that is so open and responsive to our feedback? We live in a democracy, for heaven’s sake – why throw the baby out with the bathwater, when we can get involved and change the system? If we do not like a particular company’s business practices, we do not have to throw out “capitalism” as a whole – we can inform others about their odious practices, organize boycotts and so on. Surely the communicative power of the Internet has removed significant barriers to freedom of self-expression and the exchange of information, to the point where we no longer need to sit back when an institution fails to serve us, but rather we can very quickly and effectively work to bring about change in our political system.
It also seems very alarming for us to take the enormous risk of getting rid of a government. Such a radical step has never been taken before as part of a conscious philosophical program.
Governments have collapsed, of course – and we can only look at the example of Somalia to see the infighting and warlords that can arise from such a situation – and governments have been taken over, either internally or externally – but there is no example in history of consciously dismantling a State without any goal of replacing it. Does it seem sensible to go directly against the entire collective history of our species, and throw out an essential human institution that has been around as long as we have? Other radical “reorganizations” of human society have resulted in endless slaughter, chaos, war, and the staggering disorientation of children raised without families, of rampant polygamy, communal “ownership” and so on. It does seem to be a particular curse of our species that every generation or two, some new idea comes along which aims to overthrow the entire history of human interaction, and replace the controlled hurly-burly of a State-managed free market with something like fascism, socialism or communism. Then, some other wild-eyed rebel comes along and decries that, “family is dictatorship,” and attempts to undermine and destroy that most essential component of social life, the nuclear family. Then someone else comes along and says, “Property is theft!” and the cycle just seems to start all over again.
The basics of human society – of human life itself – seem to be that families are good, that private property is important, that the greed of the free market cannot provide all possible goods and services, that some form of centralized regulation and law-making seems to be essential, that there is good and bad in everyone, but there are some very good people, and some very bad people, and that the good people need a government to protect them from the bad people.
I confess that it must be quite exasperating for people to hear some of the basics that are so commonly accepted as truths opened up once more for a new examination. Perhaps it feels somewhat akin to a biologist being lectured to by a creationist during a long intercontinental flight, or a math teacher being cornered by a hyper-intense student strung out on caffeine who insists that numbers are just an illusion, man!
Scientists do not consistently reopen the basic methodology of the scientific method; economists are not continually overturning the essentials of their own profession – that human desires are limitless, but all resources are limited – and doctors do not continually debate the value of the Hippocratic Oath.
Surely, we can say, some basic aspects of human life can be accepted as given, so that we can have a firm foundation to build our edifices of thought upon. There are certain kinds of philosophers who will continually re-open the question of metaphysics and epistemology, and demand to know how we know that we are not living in the dream of an existential demon, and that everything is a managed illusion, and that we may in fact be a brain in a tank in a form of Matrix! These sorts of “thinkers” do bring up intellectually stimulating questions, to be sure, but there are very few of us who do not inevitably shrug our shoulders after failing to penetrate this veil of ignorance, and shake off the burden of these unanswerable questions, certain that we still have a life to live in the real world, and that to sit and forever ponder these unanswerable questions would be to sink into a form of hyper-intellectual coma.
Finally, let us suppose that it would be a good thing to get rid of the government – well, it might also be nice if we could fly, breathe underwater and sneeze gold! An essential component of rational prioritization is to recognize and separate the possible from the impossible. It may indeed be the case that we live in the dream of a demon, but so what? What possible difference could it make to our daily life if this were, or were not, the case? If it is utterly impossible to get rid of the government – at least in our own lifetime – then isn’t it just a kind of narcissistic self-indulgence to continue to play around with the idea as if it ever could be implemented? We could also theorize that spending a solid week in zero gravity could be an excellent cure for lung cancer, but that would scarcely help the people suffering in our own lifetime. Surely, those of us with the intellectual abilities to traverse such endless abstractions should use our abilities for a more tangible and immediate good, rather than perform the intellectual equivalent of inventing the inner workings of Klingon biology.
We certainly do have the right to be skeptical about those who take their intellectual powers and run off in hot pursuit of the impossible – what could possibly be their motivation? Why would anyone want to get involved in a series of ideas that can never be achieved, that are alienating and frustrating to discuss, that eject these thinkers from anywhere close to the mainstream of social thought – and which create endless awkward silences at dinner parties, sweaty-palmed avoidances in one’s early dating life, endless impossibilities in educational environments, teeth-grinding frustration when reading the newspaper or watching a movie, a reputation for eccentric and strangely intense thinking patterns, habitual eye-rolling from friends, a suspicious intellectual monomania that people kind of have to steer around if they wish to avoid “setting you off” – and, last but not least, some fairly endless challenges when it comes to raising your children, and filling them full of ideas that will doubtless set them approximately one solar system’s league away from their peers.
It seems like an entirely generous estimate to imagine that more than one in 100 people will ever be interested in learning more about anarchism – and perhaps one out of a thousand will avidly pursue the course of thought and become full-fledged anarchists. What are the odds that these incredibly rare creatures will just happen to be scattered around the budding anarchist’s social, familial and educational spheres?
Statistically, anarchism is a surefire recipe for social and familial isolation. After the virus of anarchism infects you, the possibility of infecting others remains very low – thus, you must either retreat to some sort of mental cave, or live a psychologically-perilous form of double life, biting your tongue and averting your eyes whenever the topic of politics, economics or the State comes up.
Given all these dire social consequences – combined with the fact that anarchism will never be implemented in our lifetime – how can we possibly understand the pursuit and acceptance of these wild ideas as anything other than a kind of intellectual shell around a hyper-tender personality, designed to alienate, frustrate and drive people away, perhaps as a result of a tortuous history of parental rejection?
Other than a strange and perverse kind of emotional masochism, what could conceivably motivate someone to take such a mad, vain, futile and unachievable intellectual course?
Surely, even if anarchism is sane, anarchists are not.
It is certainly true that there are many strange people in this world who believe many strange things – and that some of those strange people believe in anarchism. Stalin was both an evil sociopath and an atheist; Hitler was a murderous racist who also knew how to tie his shoes – this does not tell us anything about atheists or people who know how to tie their shoes as a whole.