Anarchism And Utopia

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Yes, yes, Anarchists are big on ideas for the future, but in the here-and-now their feet never touch the ground.”  […] “Their vacuous fanaticism ensures that they have no real links to the future.”

Lenin in conversation with Nestor Makhno

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“Socialism is not a system: it is […] a protest.”

– Proudhon

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Although the above quote from Lenin is fairly representative of his opinion of armchair dreamers, the Proudhon quote could be misleading, since he was a very committed reformer, and was– unless I mis-remember here– thrown in jail by Napoleon The Third for his political agitations.

Indeed, Proudhon (the man who proclaimed “property is theft”) was a man full of big ideas, and he wrote about them in romantic, bombastic, sometimes nearly hysterical terms.  He can at times appear as the quintessential Utopian dreamer.

Asserted Proudhon… “Undeserved misery, the sort that, in the form of sickness, inadequate pay, and unemployment, traps the vast of majority of well-intentioned working-men in a hellish circle from which they strain in vain to break free– THAT misery, let us state emphatically, can be eliminated and WILL be.”

Many a figure in the history of Anarchism proposed RESULTS they wished to see… after the Revolution… but few proposed concrete methods on how such noble aspirations could actually be achieved and sustained…. And those who DID offer maps to the Utopian future… often came up with methods that would have been laughable if not for the fact that– in some places and in some times– they were actually tried, and with depressing and/or horrible results.  It is as if Utopianism is some disease which renders one amnesiatic concerning true (and practically unchanging and unchangeable) human nature.

Many Anarchist proposals fail to take into account a few bedrock qualities of human nature and society… 1) the Free Rider problem,  2) the inefficiency of top-down centralization, and  3) the tendency of power to corrupt.

One such dreamer was Anarchist James Guillaume.  I call him an “Anarchist,” and indeed, he considered himself one, but some of his proposals all but demand totalitarian measures to achieve and enforce.

For one, Guillaume wanted Housing to be free for all.  For another, he wanted “Exchange Agencies” to set the prices of goods in the marketplace.  He also thought that parents should give up all claims to their children since children belong to the community, not to their biological progenitors (although, he had a point that many parents are incompetent when it comes to raising children).  Proudhon must have had some sympathy with this last idea, for he once stated that “the family is the embryo of the State,” in the sense that it sets-up the authoritarian tone and mindset.

Guillaume did NOT want professional teachers;  instead, he envisioned community members taking turns instructing the children (perhaps this would be somewhat workable if people taught only in their areas of expertise, but Guillaume appears not to demand this).  In a similar manner, he felt that people should take turns providing security for the community (this works okay in certain situations, such as say, men taking shifts on the overnight watch at a camp or outpost, but it strikes me as rather inefficient for a town of any size).

More reasonably, Guillaume also stresses the need for physical exercise for pre-teens.  Yes, I completely agree that our current educational system undervalues the importance of physical activities and play-time for children, but we must be careful and not go too far in the other direction… The brains of children are veritable sponges for soaking up information.  I disagree with any proposal which would keep them from studying (to name just a few important pre-teen areas):  spelling or a second language or math tables during these spongy years.

Everyone’s favorite terrorist, Anarchist Emile Henry, also had his share of Utopian visions.  He was convinced that SHAME would be enough to make people work and contribute fairly in a communistic society.  And indeed, I agree with him that societal pressures are immensely powerful behavior-molders– in fact, there is probable nothing nearly as strong for convincing someone how to behave or not to behave– mere laws and punishment are quite weak and limited by comparison.  But one who believes that every member in a large group will voluntarily contribute their best even if they get the same reward for doing absolutely nothing– well, they haven’t spent enough time away from the desk.

On the other hand, I think Henry had a point when he said that, even if he was wrong about the shame thing and people did free-ride and not contribute, “it would still be cheaper to feed such a wretch, who cannot but be sick” [for Henry believed that healthy-minded people actually WANT to work], “than it is to maintain legislators, magistrates, police officers, and warders in order to curb him.”  I have a feeling, without even looking at the numbers, that he is right.  Actually, I think that’s one reason we maintain a basic welfare system– to keep non-contributors content enough so that they are less likely to riot or resort to theft.

One of the Anarchists whom I respect the most is Kropotkin.  His laudable pipe dream was that “capital, the common inheritance of humanity” would one day be accessible to all.

Bakunin, who is actually the Anarchist I respect the most because of how much he physically fought for –and suffered for– his convictions, maintained that no prosperous nation of happy individuals could exist outside of… equality, liberty, justice, dignity, and morality.  “I am a fanatical lover of liberty,” stated Bakunin, “regarding it as the only setting amid which men’s intellect, dignity, and happiness can increase and grow.”  And when Bakunin spoke of Liberty in his The Commune Of Paris treatise (1870), he spoke “not the formal liberty doled out, measured, and regulated by the State” but of “the only liberty truly deserving of the name, the liberty” [of]  “the unrestricted expansion of all material, intellectual, and moral potentialities existing in every person in latent form.”

And perhaps zaniest of all, Proudhon had the nerve to propose that workers should have a real voice in the economic management of their community and nation…  “Unless we have freedom of labor by way of a counter-balance to freedom of trade, we will witness the emergence of a financial autocracy.”  No way that would ever happen, man.

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