Between Chaos and the Man, by Alan Jacobs

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December 2022 Issue [Reviews]

Between Chaos and the Man

How not to become an anarchist

Illustration by Brett Ryder

[Reviews]

Between Chaos and the Man

How not to become an anarchist
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Discussed in this essay:

The Dispossessed, by Ursula K. Le Guin. Harper Perennial. 400 pages. $16.99.

The Dawn of Everything, by David Graeber and David Wengrow. Farrar, Straus and Giroux. 704 pages. $35.

I first heard of anarchism around forty-five years ago, as a teenage member of the Science Fiction Book Club. One day the U.S. Postal Service delivered a novel by Ursula K. Le Guin called The Dispossessed, which I read as soon as it arrived and immediately declared my favorite book—even better than Arthur C. Clarke’s Childhood’s End or Loren Eiseley’s The Immense Journey, which had until that moment shared the honor. Then I dug out a moldy volume of our old World Book Encyclopedia and read about the history of anarchism.

My enthusiasm soon—I almost said faded, but that’s not quite right: lacking a point of focus, it diffracted. I retained my enthusiasm but didn’t know where to direct it. I hold Le Guin partly responsible, because she was too intelligent and honest a writer to portray her anarchist society as anything but “an ambiguous utopia,” as a cover blurb of a later edition put it, in a formulation that would eventually become the effective subtitle of the book. Even an anarchist society is made up of human beings, and we all know the warping that inevitably happens when that crooked timber is one’s primary building material. Le Guin made anarchism beautiful but also human—and therefore questionable.

I also came to feel increasingly strongly that I lived in a country dominated by two parties, two parties that could not be dislodged, and that could not be persuaded to take anarchist ideas seriously. Again and again I watched third-party candidates who deviated only slightly from political orthodoxy spring up and then wither away, along with the movements in which they were rooted; what chance, then, did something as bizarre as anarchism have? Anarchism was, I decided, fascinating in science fiction but irrelevant to the world in which I actually lived.

That was the story I told myself, anyway. Looking back, I see that there were other forces at work: a disinclination to marginalize myself; a reluctance to follow paths of thought that might lead to discomfort, or to unpleasant choices; and perhaps most important, an inchoate sense that I didn’t hold anarchism’s view of human nature. But none of this caused me to forget anarchism’s appeal.

Since that encounter with The Dispossessed I have read a great deal in the history of this subject. Pierre-Joseph Proudhon was pedantic; Peter Kropotkin was sometimes stimulating but often dreary; Murray Bookchin was my best guide through the thickets of intra-anarchist divisions and hostilities, but he couldn’t help me cut them down to a reasonable density. Sometimes I felt that the most useful readings came not from self-declared anarchists but from anarchism-adjacent scholars such as Marshall Sahlins, whose Stone Age Economics makes a charming and largely convincing defense of the leisurely lives of hunter-gatherers—though it didn’t help me understand how I could adopt, even in a distant way, their approach to the basic problem of staying fed and clothed with the least possible expenditure of energy.

Sahlins’s argument is more than half a century old now, so I looked forward to reading a “new history of humanity,” The Dawn of Everything, by David Graeber and David Wengrow (a book completed just before Graeber’s sudden death in September 2020, at the age of fifty-nine). Their dismantling of the established sequence of social development that progresses from hunter-gatherer bands to agricultural tribes to urban kingdoms to our very own modern nation-states convinced me; they make clear through innumerable examples that the sequence is simply a myth. But I didn’t know where to take their ideas. Graeber and Wengrow are like Sixties gurus telling me to free my mind. Okay, so my mind feels freer now—what do I do with my freedom? Why am I even still drawn to this stuff? Trying to understand my own curious addiction, I decided to reread The Dispossessed.

The novel begins in a place called Anarres—the moon of the planet Urras—where we meet Le Guin’s protagonist, a physicist named Shevek. One of the most profound ambiguities of The Dispossessed involves the poverty of Anarres: its people live at scarcely better than a subsistence level, in dramatic contrast to the wealth and luxury experienced by many on Urras. But cause and effect are uncertain here. The Anarresti are the descendants of a revolutionary anarchist movement that arose on Urras two centuries earlier—they are called Odonians, after a political philosopher and revolutionary leader named Odo. The result of the Odonians’ revolution was not the rule of their own world, but rather the granting of exclusive residence on the arid and barely habitable Anarres. Their collective life is a kind of gift, and a kind of exile.

It is easy and partly correct to say that the resource-poor environment of Anarres ensured that its residents would live simply; but it is equally true to say that simplicity was what the Odonians preferred. They stood a better chance of adhering to that preference, and of remaining anarchist, on a world that never tempted them with a lush life and (therefore) a more differentiated social order. Ample natural resources and hierarchical political structures—such as existed on Urras, especially in the nation called A-Io—lead to innovation and productivity; but they also lead to inequality, injustice, and the exploitation of the world and its creatures, including its human creatures.

Every social order comes with trade-offs. The Odonians of Anarres know they have given up comforts that those on Urras would deem necessities. Most of them warmly accept those sacrifices, and indeed don’t think of them as sacrifices, because they believe themselves to be amply compensated by their freedom and egalitarian social solidarity. When Shevek visits A-Io, and meets some of its residents, he thinks, “They knew no relation but possession. They were possessed.” By contrast, the Anarresti have been dispossessed by Urras—and by themselves.

Dispossession initiates a particular kind of order. Proudhon, in the middle of the nineteenth century, asserted that liberty is “not the daughter but the mother of order,” and that “society seeks order in anarchy.” Anarchists do not reject order or rule or governance but insist that in a healthy society these things cannot be imposed from above—from some arche, some authoritative source. Rather they emerge from negotiations between social equals. When complex phenomena arise from simple rules distributed throughout a large population—as can be seen best in social insects and slime molds—modern humans tend to be puzzled. For a long time scientists thought that there had to be intelligent queens in bee colonies giving directions to the other bees, because how else could the behavior within colonies be explained? The idea that the complexity simply emerges from the rigorous application of a handful of simple behavioral rules is hard for us to grasp. Bees and ants demonstrate how anarchy is order. It’s a shame that Proudhon did not know this.

On Anarres, “negotiations between social equals” happen within the ambit of a particular task or project or profession. Shevek, for example, is part of a self-organizing and self-maintaining syndic of scientists, in which responsibilities are typically assumed by volunteers. Shevek wants to work on highly technical problems of theoretical physics, which makes him grateful that others are willing to take on the inevitable administrative tasks. One of these others is a man named Sabul, who serves as the conduit through whom scientific papers move from Anarres to Urras, Urras to Anarres. For the student of anarchism, Sabul may be the novel’s most significant character.

It is often said—not least by central figures in the history of anarchist thought—that anarchism as a political philosophy depends on a belief in the essential goodness of human beings. In an essay titled “Are You An Anarchist? The Answer May Surprise You!,” Graeber poses the following question: “Do you believe that human beings are fundamentally corrupt and evil . . . ?” He continues, “If you answered ‘yes,’ then, well, it looks like you aren’t an anarchist after all.” But much hinges here on what is meant by “fundamentally corrupt and evil.” I don’t believe that everyone is wicked altogether; I don’t believe that without the restraint of law we would have what Thomas Hobbes called the “War of every man against every man.” But I do believe that everything we human beings do is to some extent infected by selfishness, by pride, by the often unconscious desire to make ourselves superior to others in some way—perhaps in wealth, perhaps in power, perhaps in virtue. Does this mean that I can’t be an anarchist after all?

Anarchism depends, Kropotkin claims in his seminal book Mutual Aid, on the belief that cooperation and reciprocity come more naturally to humans than competition and a desire for dominance do. When I first read Kropotkin’s argument, decades after encountering The Dispossessed, I found it unconvincing—because I remembered Sabul.

I remembered Sabul because, however strongly and sincerely he may affirm Odonian principles, he is not at all cooperative. He is, rather, intensely protective of his little field of authority. Jealous of Shevek’s more powerful mind, he gums up the works, preventing, as best he can, any real communication between Shevek and physicists on Urras. Indeed, the crucial events of the book are set in motion by Shevek’s decision to travel to Urras, and he makes that decision only because of Sabul’s petty obstructionism.

For those who associate anarchism with a belief in the cooperativeness of human beings, the key word in that sentence will probably be “obstructionism.” Does not Sabul’s jealousy of Shevek, and his determination to achieve and maintain control, suggest that a society built on the assumption of voluntary, emergent mutual aid is a pipe dream?

For me, though—a person with an exceptionally low anthropology, a skepticism about human motives that borders on the cynical—the key word is “petty.” The decentralized character of Anarresti society means that, however tyrannical Sabul may be in temperament, he does not and cannot exercise tyranny. In a more structured and hierarchical society he would be far more dangerous. As I reflected on these matters, it seemed to me that—whatever Graeber and Kropotkin may have thought to the contrary—anarchism may well be the ideal political philosophy for those of us who believe in original sin.

In every sector of society we are afflicted by a hierarchical centralization, a concentration of power in the hands of a few, typically a few who are directly accountable to no one—least of all to us, the people. Standards and canons of efficiency have come to rule all: the era in which “mechanization takes command”—the title of a 1948 book by Sigfried Giedion—has given way to the era of what Nikil Saval has called “self-Taylorizing,” the psychological internalization of the impulse toward efficiency and productivity. And only anarchic order, as far as I can tell, offers any real hope of rescue.

An accurate assessment of the character of the moment is needed here. Those of us drawn to any scheme of decentralization, either anarchism or the Distributism of G. K. Chesterton and Hilaire Belloc, are often treated to a litany of the gifts of modern civilization that would be absent in an anarchist society. One could argue about the quality of those gifts—the meaning of the German word Gift comes to mind: poison—but I think it more expedient to waive the point. I am not at all certain that any of us are better off with iPhones than we were without them but, sure, let’s posit that iPhones are wonderful, gifts in the English sense rather than the German. Without contesting that point let’s simply say: enough is enough.

As I noted earlier, I was fascinated but also somewhat confused by The Dawn of Everything. It was meant—before Graeber’s untimely death—to be the first of several volumes. Maybe Wengrow will write the successors, and maybe they will clarify the path forward, but in the interim, I found myself knowing very well what it means to be interested in anarchism but not at all what it means to become an anarchist. I found myself wondering whether “How do I become an anarchist?” is even the right question. Maybe (I thought) becoming an anarchist is a very un-anarchistic thing to do.

Around the time The Dispossessed came out, Le Guin published a kind of pendant to it, a short story called “The Day Before the Revolution,” in which Odo spends the eve of the revolution that will lead to the colonization of Anarres not dreaming of the future but lost in her past. Living with her disciples, most of them much younger, she realizes that they dress in a way that would have been considered immodest in her youth. By contrast, she continues to dress in accordance with the conventions of her own upbringing. “They had grown up in the principle of freedom of dress and sex and all the rest, and she hadn’t. All she had done was invent it. It’s not the same.” When she speaks of her late “husband” Asieo, her followers grow uncomfortable. “The word she should use as a good Odonian, of course, was ‘partner.’ ” But, Odo reflects, “Why the hell did she have to be a good Odonian?” The leader of an anarchist movement has become uncomfortable as anarchy has settled into habit, into structure, into expectation. There is something livelier and more human about being Odo than there is about being an Odonian. Which may be another way of saying: something more anarchic.

One of the ways the Anarresti are dispossessed is through their language, called Pravic, which doesn’t dispense with possessive pronouns altogether but is idiomatically resistant to them. “To say ‘this one is mine and that’s yours’ in Pravic, one said, ‘I use this one and you use that.’ ” A child is encouraged to say not “my mother” but “the mother.” It is significant, though, that we are told all this about Pravic because a friend of Shevek’s, who learns that he plans to work with Sabul, warns him: “You will be his man.” The use of the possessive startles Shevek, but eventually he learns the ways in which that uncommon usage was appropriate. These tensions between Pravic and its speakers indicate what language can’t do; what politics can’t do; and what order, even the order that is anarchy, can’t do.

“State is the name for the coldest of all cold monsters,” Nietzsche writes in Thus Spoke Zarathustra. In the same passage he elaborates:

Every people speaks its own tongue of good and evil: this the neighbor does not understand. It has invented its own language of customs and rights. But the state lies in all the tongues of good and evil.

Is not Pravic, subtly yet necessarily, the tongue of a kind of state?

In “The Day Before the Revolution” Odo—an elderly woman, suffering the effects of a stroke—walks slowly through the city she lives in, and thinks, “There would not be slums like this, if the Revolution prevailed.” She continues:

But there would be misery. There would always be misery, waste, cruelty. She had never pretended to be changing the human condition, to be Mama taking tragedy away from the children so they won’t hurt themselves. Anything but. So long as people were free to choose, if they chose to drink flybane and live in sewers, it was their business. Just so long as it wasn’t the business of Business, the source of profit and the means of power for other people.

At another point in the story Odo quotes herself: “What is an anarchist? One who, choosing, accepts the responsibility of choice.” Is this statement profound—or fatuous? I think it’s fatuous in our current social order, in which choice is always already governed by the logic and power of consumption: that we choose is an illusion that it’s the business of Business to maintain. But if you ask yourself in what circumstances might this sentence be necessary wisdom, maybe it will look different. If the whole formulation strikes you as individualistic, perhaps you might reflect that one cannot truly have individualism until one has individuals. And if the question of what might serve to form genuine individuals is one that anarchism cannot answer—well, perhaps anarchy can.

Some years ago, Walter Mosley published a novella called Archibald Lawless, Anarchist at Large—in which, let me be quick to say, the titular character acknowledges the peculiarity of his last name, though he never explains it. Lawless does, however, freely and frequently state his convictions to his new scribe, Felix Orlean. He says, for instance, “I walk the line between chaos and the man.” He says, even more portentously,

I am, everyone is, a potential sovereignty, a nation upon my own. I am responsible for every action taken in my name and for every step that I take—or that I don’t take. When you get to the place that you can see yourself as a completely autonomous, self-governing entity then everything will come to you; everything that you will need.

I was in a pro-anarchist frame of mind when I first read this story, and so I tried to make the best of it, but no—this is the common caricature of anarchism: radically self-indulgent and “lawless,” without any order at all. Nevertheless, there’s something intriguing about that notion of walking the line “between chaos and the man,” between the absence of order and a rigid simulacrum of order imposed from above. Isn’t that, after all, what anarchy in practice is: a tightrope strung across a double abyss?

Trying to think these matters through, I found myself returning to Graeber’s voluminous writings, many of which appear on obscure websites. I was not wholly deterred by his suggestion that my cynicism debars me from being an anarchist; my obsession was not so easily dispelled. So I kept reading, and in a long essay titled “Fragments of an Anarchist Anthropology” I came across this:

Anarchistic societies are no more unaware of human capacities for greed or vainglory than modern Americans are unaware of human capacities for envy, gluttony, or sloth; they would just find them equally unappealing as the basis for their civilization. In fact, they see these phenomena as moral dangers so dire they end up organizing much of their social life around containing them.

I like this; I think of it as Graeber opening his heart to reveal the secular Calvinist hidden within. And such clear-eyed awareness of our darker proclivities is surely a better ground for anarchist action than any celebration of the human propensity for cooperative action. The best reason to pursue anarchism, to walk that line between chaos and the man, is that none of us is free from greed or vainglory. Insofar as anarchism arises from that sober and constant awareness of the “moral dangers” our own libido dominandi present to social order, I am all for it.

Graeber also helps me to understand how to pursue it. One of his core concepts is “prefigurative politics”: action that practically instantiates what you hope for and therefore “prefigures” it. “Revolutionary action is not a form of self-sacrifice,” he writes, “a grim dedication to doing whatever it takes to achieve a future world of freedom. It is the defiant insistence on acting as if one is already free.” But, I would say, that prefigured freedom should primarily be freedom not from the man out there but the man that I always, by nature, want to be.

There are many schools of anarchism, most only partly reconcilable with the others: anarcho-syndicalism, anarcho-communism, primitivism, cooperativism, and so on. The most interesting thing they have in common, Graeber notes, is that they aren’t named for a person (Marxism) or an economic system (capitalism) but rather for modes of practice—ways of acting in the world. Somewhere down the line perhaps one becomes an anarchist of one description or another; but however that may be, to act in accordance with the better world imaginatively prefigured is an option for me, for each of us, right now.

So this is what I have come around to, this is how I have made sense of my obsession with anarchism: the first target of anarchistic practice ought to be whatever it is in me that resists anarchy—what resists negotiation, the turning toward the Other as neighbor and potential collaborator. I return to Odo’s line, “What is an anarchist? One who, choosing, accepts the responsibility of choice,” but I add this: The responsibility of choice arises when I acknowledge my own participation, in a thousand different ways, in the imposition of order on others. This is where anarchism begins; where the turning aside from the coldest of all cold monsters begins; where I begin. The possibility of anarchic action arises when I acknowledge my own will to power. Self-dispossession begins when I say to myself: Je suis Sabul.