Friday, October 2, 2015

In Defense of Anarchy

by Ed Gehrman

January, 1998

In Defense of Anarchy
For ten million years during the Pliocene our ancestors scampered after crabs and small shrimps or climbed seaside cliffs in search of birds eggs. We hunted immature sea mammals, foraged for shellfish, and repelled leopards with pebbles while standing chest-deep in water. Over these eons we lost most of our body hair, inherited a nose job, elongated and repositioned our genital organs, developed a subcutaneous layer of fat, and discovered how to make simple tools and throw a mean fast stone.
When the weather changed during the Pleistocene, we retreated to the woodlands and forests with our upright stance, hairless bodies, and stone tool kits. Life was intense; being alive in the morning to stretch and scratch and alive at night curled up with brothers, sisters, fathers, mothers in familial embrace was a major accomplishment. Organized into small bands of between 25 to 30 members, cooperation and reciprocity were our only social safety nets. Anarchy reigned; it was organization without coercion. There were no chiefs, leaders, priests. We all knew what had to be done to stay alive, and if we were skilled and lucky, we might make it to 50. Status came from attaining old age and having functional skills that contributed to the success of the small community. Change came slowly; thousands of generations passed with only minor alteration, a continuum incomprehensible today. We were all brothers and sisters then.
These are our roots: egalitarian, functional, and self-regulated. They served us well for millions of years. We populated the earth, walking together, heads up, eyes alert, a song in our hearts.
About ten thousand years ago, this scene slowly began to change. With the introduction of agriculture and with the domestication of animals, Eden was left behind; we can never return. The new knowledge demanded by this new technology began to alienate us from hunter-gathering and our egalitarian roots. Except for a few small and scattered exceptions, we have now evolved into civilized tool-makers extraordinary, but still singing. If the songs we sing are any indication of our true feelings, we are also creatures of love, frustrated love, unable to get much satisfaction.
Two behaviors have separated humans from other primates and have led to our dominance: our ability to share and cooperate and our escape from the hierarchical arrangements that molded other primate societies. We substituted symbolic status and reciprocity for hierarchical chain-of-command and physical dominance. These new behaviors gave us a competitive edge over other primate rivals.
Reciprocity is the key to cooperation. It relies on balance, on a mutuality of goals: you make me happy and secure and I'll do the same for you, brother; you treat me as I treat you, sister. Since the advent of the "state", in Mesopotamia (3500 B.C.), the concept of reciprocity has been devalued as a functional skill. Its slow disappearance from our repertoire of behaviors has disrupted our ability to relate to one another in ways we find mutually satisfying. Those who can ignore these emotional and reciprocal needs and keep their nose to the grindstone attain success, while those that are unable to repress these ancient yearnings find life's path difficult to negotiate. Possessiveness and competition have replaced the shared regard we once valued.
Mystical religions, psychosomatic illnesses, and holocausts are symptoms of the general frustration resulting from this exchange. We can never return to stone age hunter-gathering, but our evolutionary roots will not be ignored. Doing so has resulted in sexual repression, fascism and inequality. We all still long for the lost reciprocal love forged by millions of years of selection and learned behavior. These longings are subconscious. Consciously, the "normal" person remains in a state of denial.
There is a popular tendency to attribute aggressiveness and bellicose behavior to the intrinsic psychology of humans and our primate forbearers. We believe that we are inherently cantankerous and could never concur on anything without some "authority" laying down the law. There is no clear evidence for these assumptions, but promoting these attitudes helps justify the dog-eat-dog, social Darwinism that dominates our current belief systems and our present social organization, "the state".
Originally the hierarchical "state" was an attempt by humans to expand and stabilize the subsistence base, necessitated by the environmental catastrophe of too many people and not enough food. It is a recent development, established for no more than 6,000 years. The "state" evolved from "ranked" society, itself the direct descendant of egalitarian bands. The "state" can be seen as a distortion of egalitarian and "rank" societies which are fundamental modes of social organization. The success of egalitarian societies is their ability to allow equal access to both the basic necessities of life and individual status. The "state" systems limit not only access to positions of prestige but to the basic resources needed to sustain life as well. This results in the stratification we see all around us in our "civilized" world.
The political dilemma that has confronted humans since " state civilization" is as follows: Can a society be designed that allows equal access to all basic resources and to all positions of status? Can egalitarian reciprocity, sharing, and cooperation be reintroduced as the basis for social organization? This is the stuff of revolutions. Utopian dreamers, romantic poets, hippies, early Christians, Marxists and Social Democrats all shared essentially this same perplexity.
The nature of "rank" society provides some insight into this thought-provoking quandary. "Ranking" evolved in situations of abundance and modified egalitarianism when an agricultural base and domestication practices were adopted. There remained no limit on the access a person had to the basic resources on which life depended. The main difference between the two systems is that in "rank society" the positions of prestige are partially limited.
"Rank" was earned through some form of personal endeavor or through contributions made to the over-all well being of the community. Individuals did not attain high rank without being deserving of the honor. There seems to be a natural tendency for some humans to contribute more than others. Those who do so are usually rewarded in some fashion by those who benefit. The vestiges of this behavior are still evident today.
In "rank" societies, increased individual status did not mean an increase in personal power. The symbols of rank had no economic value nor could they be traded for commodities. They were only indications of, and rewards for, individual accomplishments. Rank bestowed no rights of coercion. Highly ranked individuals were listened to because, in most cases, these were wise folks, and listening to them was generally beneficial.
Rank societies can be complex. The oldest known farming village is Catal Huyuk on the banks of the Carsamba river in modern Turkey. Established 9000 years ago, it was prosperous, sophisticated and well-organized, with impressive craftsmanship and an extensive trade network. While rank played a part in this culture, communal burials indicate that the basic egalitarian nature of society was intact.
As slash and burn agriculture and "rank" societies expanded, world populations soon increased dramatically; though for several thousand years humans were able to make do. Eventually, soil depletion, overpopulation and other environmental factors led to shortages in basic necessities. Once there were more people than food, the ensuing competition disrupted previous reciprocal arrangements. Stratification, slavery and the "state" soon became the new paradigm and has been so ever since.
The contemporary expression of egalitarianism is anarchy. Anarchism postulates that humans are essentially benign creatures, but are corrupted by authority and coercion. We are social animals, fulfilled through voluntarily helping one another and our community. Organized religion, education, politics, and economic life distort our natural egalitarian tendencies. The prevailing institutions of private property and the "state" advance our exploitation.
Anarchy means merely the absence of any form of political authority, but in a modern context, anarchy always implies confusion, political disorder, lack of control, and terrorism. The mere mention of anarchy sends chills down the spines of property owners and other law-abiding citizens. The common belief is that the anarchist life, based on egalitarian principles, is a fantasy, and that humans are basically a violent and disorganized bunch of rascals, who could never survive without "some" centralized control.
Anarchists disagree with this image. They believe in the basic goodness of humankind. They insist that social change must be spontaneous and human based, expressing functional, human attributes. While there's nothing precluding organization or even leaders in this arrangement, leadership carries no authority in our modern sense of this word. Expertise is the only criterion, and when this expertise is no longer needed, the role of leadership is turned over to others with other types of needed expertise. Coercion is counterproductive to these goals. All humans are rooted in this wisdom. We see it clearly operating in smooth functioning volunteer organizations.
The hunter-gathering way of life and its concomitant egalitarian philosophy evolved through a time of relative abundance. Equal access to life's necessities allowed for mellow interactions and serene dispositions. Recreating this environment is the subconscious drive underlying most social revolution. We are bound to rediscover that reciprocal agreements create an atmosphere of equality and social cohesion. It's under these circumstances that individuals contribute their best skills to the common good. Perfecting this behavior will eventually lead to general abundance and egalitarian living, and our antisocial, competitive, warlike culture, a symptom of frustrated possibility, will become a historical curiosity from a sorrowful era.