Readings — From the December 2012 issue

Anarchist Calisthenics

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From Two Cheers for Anarchism, published last month by Princeton University Press. Scott is Sterling Professor of Political Science at Yale University.

In the summer of 1990, in an effort to improve my barely extant German-language skills before spending a year in Berlin as a guest of the Wissenschaftskolleg, I hit on the idea of finding work on a farm rather than attending daily classes with pimply teenagers at a Goethe-Institut center. Since the Wall had come down only a year earlier, I wondered whether I might be able to find a six-week summer job on a collective farm (Landwirtschaftliche Produktionsgenossenschaft, or LPG), recently restyled “cooperative,” in eastern Germany. A friend at the Wissenschaftskolleg, it turned out, had a close relative whose brother-in-law was the head of a collective farm in the tiny village of Pletz. Though wary, the brother-in-law was willing to provide room and board in return for work and a handsome weekly rent.

As a plan for improving my German, it was perfect; as a plan for a pleasant and edifying farm visit, it was a nightmare. The villagers and, above all, my host were suspicious of my aims. Was I hoping to pore over the accounts of the collective farm and uncover “irregularities”? Was I an advance party for Dutch farmers, who were scouting the area for land to rent in the aftermath of the socialist bloc’s collapse?

The collective farm in Pletz was a spectacular example of that collapse. It specialized in growing “starch potatoes.” They were no good for pommes frites, though pigs might eat them in a pinch; their intended use, after refinement, was to provide the starch base for Eastern European cosmetics. Never had a market flatlined as quickly as the market for socialist-bloc cosmetics the day after the Wall was breached. Mountain after mountain of starch potatoes lay rotting beside the rail sidings in the summer sun.

Besides wondering whether utter penury lay ahead and what role I might have in it, my hosts also worried about my frail comprehension of German and the danger it posed to their small farm. Would I let the pigs out the wrong gate and into a neighbor’s field? Would I give the geese the feed intended for the bulls? Would I remember always to lock the door when I was working in the barn, in case the Gypsies came? I had, it is true, given them more than ample cause for alarm in the first week, and they had taken to shouting at me in the vain hope we all seem to share that yelling will somehow overcome any language barrier. They managed to maintain a veneer of politeness, but the glances they exchanged at supper told me their patience was thin. The aura of suspicion under which I labored, not to mention my manifest incompetence and incomprehension, was in turn getting on my nerves.

I decided, for my sanity as well as for theirs, to spend one day a week in the nearby town of Neubrandenburg. Getting there was not simple. The train didn’t stop at Pletz unless you put up a flag along the tracks to indicate that a passenger was waiting and, on the way back, told the conductor that you wanted to get off at Pletz, in which case he would stop specially in the middle of the fields to let you out. Once in the town I wandered the streets, visited cafés and bars, pretended to read German newspapers (surreptitiously consulting my little dictionary), and tried not to stick out.

The once-a-day train back from Neubrandenburg to Pletz left at around ten at night. Lest I miss it and have to spend the night as a vagrant in this strange city, I always made sure I was at the station at least half an hour early. Every week for six or seven weeks the same intriguing scene was played out in front of the railroad station, giving me ample opportunity to ponder it both as observer and as participant.

Outside the station was a major—for Neubrandenburg, at any rate—intersection. During the day there was a fairly brisk traffic of pedestrians, cars, and trucks, and a set of traffic lights to regulate it. Later in the evening, however, the vehicle traffic virtually ceased, while the pedestrian traffic, if anything, swelled to take advantage of the cooler evening breeze. Regularly between nine and ten o’clock there would be fifty or sixty pedestrians, not a few of them tipsy, who would cross the intersection. The lights were timed, I suppose, for vehicle traffic at midday and were not adjusted for the heavy evening foot traffic. Again and again, fifty or sixty people would wait patiently at the corner for the light to change: four minutes, five minutes, perhaps longer. It seemed an eternity across the flat landscape of Neubrandenburg, on the Mecklenburg plain. Peering in each direction from the intersection, one could see a mile or so of roadway with, typically, no traffic at all. Very occasionally a single small Trabant made its slow, smoky way to the intersection.

Twice, perhaps, in the course of roughly five hours of my observing this scene, did a pedestrian cross against the light, and then always to a chorus of scolding tongues and fingers wagging in disapproval. I, too, became part of the scene. If I had mangled my last exchange in German, sapping my confidence, I stood there with the rest for as long as it took for the light to change, afraid to brave the glares that awaited me if I crossed. If, more rarely, my last exchange in German had gone well and my confidence was high, I would cross against the light, thinking, to buck up my courage, that it was stupid to obey a minor law that, in this case, was so contrary to reason.

It surprised me how much I had to screw up my courage merely to cross a street against general disapproval. How little my rational convictions seemed to weigh beside their scolding. Striding out boldly into the intersection made a more striking impression, perhaps, but it required more courage than I could normally muster.

As a way of justifying my conduct to myself, I began to rehearse a little discourse that I imagined delivering in perfect German. It went something like this: “You know, you and especially your grandparents could have used more of a spirit of lawbreaking. One day you will be called on to break a big law in the name of justice and rationality. Everything will depend on it. You have to be ready. How are you going to prepare for that day when it really matters? You have to stay ‘in shape’ so that when the big day comes you will be ready. What you need is anarchist calisthenics. Every day or so break some trivial law that makes no sense, even if it’s only jaywalking. Use your own head to judge whether a law is just or reasonable. That way, you’ll keep trim—and when the big day comes, you’ll be ready.”

Judging when it makes sense to break a law requires careful thought, even in the relatively innocuous case of jaywalking. I was reminded of this when I visited a retired Dutch scholar whose work I had long admired. When I went to see him, he was an avowed Maoist and defender of the Cultural Revolution, and something of an incendiary in Dutch academic politics. He invited me to lunch at a Chinese restaurant near his apartment in the small town of Wageningen. We came to an intersection, and the light was against us. Now, Wageningen, like Neubrandenburg, is perfectly flat, and one can see for miles in all directions. There was absolutely nothing coming. Without thinking, I stepped into the street, and as I did so, Dr. Wertheim said, “James, you must wait.” I protested weakly while regaining the curb. “But Dr. Wertheim, nothing is coming.” “James,” he replied, “it would be a bad example for the children.” I was both chastened and instructed. Here was a Maoist incendiary with a fine-tuned, dare I say Dutch, sense of civic responsibility, while I was the Yankee cowboy heedless of the effects of my action on my fellow citizens. Now when I jaywalk I look around to see that there are no children who might be endangered by my bad example.

The regulation of daily life is so ubiquitous and so embedded in our routines and expectations as to pass virtually unnoticed. Introduced in the United States after World War I, the traffic light substituted the judgment of the traffic engineer for the give-and-take that had prevailed historically between pedestrians, carts, motor vehicles, and bicycles. Its purpose was to prevent accidents by imposing a coordination scheme. More than occasionally, the result has been the scene in Neubrandenburg: scores of people waiting patiently for the light to change when it is perfectly apparent there is no traffic whatsoever, suspending their independent judgment out of habit or perhaps out of a civic fear of the ultimate consequences of exercising it against an electronic legal order.

What would happen if there were no electronic order at the intersection, and motorists and pedestrians had to exercise their independent judgment? Since 1999, this question has been put to the test with stunning results, leading to a wave of “red-light removal” plans across Europe and in the United States. Both the reasoning behind this small policy initiative and its results are, I believe, relevant to other, more far-reaching efforts to craft institutions that enlarge the scope for independent judgment.

Hans Monderman, the traffic engineer who suggested the counterintuitive removal in 2003 of a red light in Drachten, the Netherlands, went on to promote the concept of “shared space,” which quickly took hold in Europe. He began with the observation that, when an electrical failure incapacitated traffic lights, the result was improved flow rather than congestion. As an experiment, he replaced the busiest traffic-light intersection in Drachten, handling 22,000 cars a day, with a traffic circle, an extended bicycle path, and a pedestrian area. In the two years following the removal of the traffic light, the number of accidents plummeted to only two, compared with thirty-six crashes in the four years prior to the redesign. Traffic moves more briskly through the rotary, since all drivers know they must be alert and use their common sense, while backups and the road rage associated with them have virtually disappeared. Monderman likened it to skaters on a crowded ice rink, who manage successfully to tailor their movements to those of the other skaters. He also believed that an excess of signage led drivers to take their eyes off the road and actually contributed to making junctions less safe.

Red-light removal can, I believe, be seen as a modest training exercise in responsible driving and civic courtesy. Monderman was not against traffic lights in principle; he simply did not find any in Drachten that were truly useful in terms of safety, improving traffic flow, and lessening pollution. The traffic circle seems dangerous—and that is the point. He argued that when drivers are made more wary, they behave more carefully, and the statistics on “post–traffic light” accidents bear him out. Having no imperative coordination imposed by traffic lights virtually requires alertness—an alertness abetted by the law, which, in the case of an accident where blame is hard to determine, presumptively blames the “strongest” (i.e., the driver rather than the bicyclist, the bicyclist rather than the pedestrian).

The shared-space concept of traffic management relies on the intelligence, good sense, and attentive observation of drivers, bicyclists, and pedestrians. At the same time, it may actually expand, in its small way, the capacity of drivers, cyclists, and pedestrians to negotiate traffic without being treated like automata by thickets of signs (Germany alone has a repertoire of 648 distinct traffic symbols, which accumulate as one approaches a town) and signals. The more numerous the prescriptions, the more drivers have been impelled to seek the maximum advantage within the rules: speeding up between signals, beating the light, avoiding all unprescribed courtesies. Drivers had learned to run the maze to their maximum advantage. The effect of Monderman’s paradigm shift in traffic management was euphoria. One small town in the Netherlands put up a sign boasting that it was free of traffic signs (Verkeersbordvrij), and a conference discussing the new philosophy proclaimed: “Unsafe is safe.”

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