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Anarchy Alive! – A book review

Anarchy Alive by Uri Gordon is an overview of the modern Anarchist movement. Dr. Gordon is an active member of the Anarchy scene and he wrote this book from his perspective as an activist. The book attempts to explain the characteristics of the modern Anarchist movement and the issues Dr. Gordon thinks it needs to address.

What is modern anarchism?

Dr. Gordon explains that the modern anarchist movement is incredibly rich in diversity. So trying to come up with a single dogma to describe it isn't useful. Instead he identifies the anarchist movement as having three defining characteristics.

The first and foremost is resistance to domination. The idea is that no one should be forced to submit to domination of any kind, societal, work based, sex based, race based, financial, etc. So one of the key goals of the anarchist movement is to create a world free of involuntary domination. The term 'involuntary' is key because if someone wants to be dominated (insert obvious jokes here) then they should have that choice. Freedom from domination is extended to animals and the earth as part of the anarchist animal rights and ecologist movements.

The second characteristic that Dr. Gordon identifies is what he calls prefigurative politics. The idea is that for anarchist ideas to become real then anarchists must live those ideas. This can range from anarchist collectives like IndyMedia to the organization of various direct action groups such as those that protest at G8 summits. The idea is to create organizations free of domination where groups are formed on an ad-hoc basis based on the consent of the members and where action is taken in rough but not absolute concert. In other words there are in fact many small affinity groups, each with own agenda, who will work together on an ad-hoc basis to engage in 'actions' such as summit protests. The key idea here is to organize the Anarchist movement itself along Anarchist principals.

The third characteristic is open endedness. This is the explicit idea that there is no 'end point' for the revolution. That anarchism is a constantly growing and changing entity. This intentionally means that the movement doesn't try to answer questions like 'what does the world look like under anarchism?' Because the answer would be 'we won't know till we get there and not even then since it will constantly change.' This is also about trying to create a very big tent. Almost anything that seems to have some component of resistance to domination can find a space in the movement. It also means that no one is allowed to tell anyone else what is and is not anarchism (which itself is almost an inevitable conclusion given the axiom of resistance to domination).

The rest of the book

The rest of the book honestly wasn't that interesting to me because I didn't feel like there were really informative points being made. A long discussion was held on the nature of power and the kinds of power within the movement which I think can be summarizes as 'influence is good, domination is not'. Another section discussed violence and its role in the movement which I think can be summarized as 'violence to resist domination is legitimate but given the overwhelming violence that modern society has at its call there is no way the revolution can win by violence.' There is then a really painful discussion of technology that mostly shows that Dr. Gordon couldn't be bothered to do much research (for example, no the Internet was not invented to be resistant to nuclear attack and no there is no inherent reason to believe that smaller scale technology should be any less advanced than large scale technology) but whose summary seems to be 'an anarchist society would have to be a more technologically backwards society'. The book then ends with a discussion of the Anarchist movement in Israel/Palestine and the question of - can anarchists support a two party state if they don't believe in states? Dr. Gordon's answer is that yes, they can, tactical alliances are fine on the road to the true anarchist paradise.

Questions

Like all political systems there are always conflict between rights. If two people want the same object or space then somehow this conflict has to be resolved. It doesn't matter if there is property or not, there will still be conflict. It's unclear to me how anarchists propose to resolve these conflicts in a non-trivial manner. So I will have to look elsewhere to see if anyone has any reasonable suggestions on the topic in the context of anarchism or if anarchism is just another silly ism.

10 Responses to Anarchy Alive! – A book review

  1. Julien Couvreur says:

    Hey Yaron
    I’m interested in anarchism as well. In terms of conflict resolution, I’d recommend reading Robert Murphy’s essay, Chaos Theory. He also has talks on YouTube and mises.org.
    Another one is Murray Rothbard.

    Personally, I’m leaning that way (anarcho-capitalism) as a result of learning more about economics again and understanding the justifications and actual effects of government. If you understand that value (or utility) is subjective and not measurable, then non-coerced action is the only provable improvement. Rothbard has a great essay entitled Towards a reconstruction of welfare economics, on this topic.

    • Administrator says:

      The idea of voluntary association as the basis for law is seductive. But I think history has proven beyond a reasonable doubt that it doesn’t work. The reason is that capitalism is fundamentally about imbalance. It causes to exist a small group of owners and a very large group of employees. And the conflict between the two is asymmetric. If an employer doesn’t get a particular employee that is unfortunate. If an employee can’t get an employer then they become destitute. The result is not a free market. If it was you wouldn’t have had death trap sweat shops (last week was the 100th anniversary of the triangle shirt waste fire) and death trap mines and so on. In each and every case, each and every employee voluntarily took a job with the employers who would later torture and kill their employees. They did so full in the knowledge that torture and death was the likely outcome. But they did so because the alternative, certain destitution and starvation, were worse.

      That’s the flaw, in my mind, in anarco-capitalism. It assumes free agency. It assumes the ability of the consumer to make a free and unbiased choice. No such thing exists. In practice employees are at such an extraordinary disadvantage compared to employers that free agency doesn’t exist.

      That’s what makes unions so important and why its so awful that the union movement was destroyed in America. Employees (go to your local Walmart or talk to the person cleaning your house to get a taste) are little more than chattel at this point. They would literally starve if it weren’t for welfare programs and they do literally drop dead from lack of medical care because Walmart et al. can’t be bothered.

      So no, I don’t believe anarco-capitalism is, even in theory, workable. Unless your idea of workable is the rich picking over the poor. Of course that world already exists in America today. I just wonder how much longer the tone deaf rich will continue hammering on the poor before another 1910-1930s style insurrection forces another massive change in the law.

  2. All the concerns your raise are valid, but unfortunately also apply to “arch-isms”. There are differences in economic “power”, but political power is worse.

    I disagree that employers and employees are asymmetric. In a society without minimum wage and other restrictions, the labor market should be close to balanced. Also, co-ops and mutual aid societies are voluntary solutions to this kind of problem. Coercive solutions, again, are worse as they end up co-opted by the powerful. There were more charitable and voluntary support organizations before the welfare programs (essentially started around 1930). There were public libraries, food banks, etc. We have lost track of those as we grew accustomed to the government-run “charities”, which aim to expand the support, but result in the opposite.

    In general, government is the only true monopoly. So it generates conflict. On the other hand, private property tends to mitigate conflicts and invite cooperation. It’s a visibly recurring pattern. The political realm is conflictual by definition, as it involves coercion on your peers. If you let other people be, conflict is usually lesser. I shouldn’t have any say on whether people at the other end of the country can or cannot consume raw milk.

    I’m not exactly such what free agency means. Employees do have information problems, but these are opportunities for solutions. The problems don’t go away when coercion becomes fair game.

    Healthcare is important, but it was on a better trajectory before government got heavily involved. The situation we have now is not a free-market. I wouldn’t pick on Wal-Mart, but it does benefit from minimum wage (it’s even trying to raise it, to exclude competitors) which creates an imbalanced labor market. Also, Wal-Mart gets special favors in some municipalities.
    I don’t think inequality (assuming you’re talking of income or wealth) is such a major problem, in general. But there is artificially more inequality in our current system as a result of privileges. The inequality and other problems are symptoms, not the root causes. People are poorer today as the result of monetary policy, which systematically redistributes real and nominal wealth towards the frontline (rich and government connected, such as bankers and military-industrial complex).

    I’d recommend Hans-Herman Hoppe for good reads on the topic.

    • Administrator says:

      I agree that our current policies result in a redistribution of wealth to the wealthy and away from everyone else. But the world you describe above is simply the other side of the same coin. Without government protections we have seen in all cases, with literally no meaningful exceptions, that the same accretion of power occurs without any countervailing benefit of at least preventing starvation and ill health. The world of industrial age England comes very close to what you describe and if you read the histories of the time from the pervasive pollution, disease, wage slavery, etc. It was hell on earth. I’d rather have our current screwed up system.

      A system such as you describe can only work with perfect information and zero friction. Neither are even theoretically possible and that’s why all systems, in all cases that didn’t provide minimum government derived protections for the people have failed. You can easily prove me wrong, just give one non-trivial example where it ‘worked’. And define what you mean by ‘worked’? For me it means that you don’t have pervasive hunger, homelessness, illness and essentially wage slavery where people are forced into jobs they hate just to survive.

  3. Can you clarify your point about an “accretion of power”? Doesn’t it assume that the rich automatically get richer? How is it so?
    The rich can only stay rich by being successful and productive, which means by improving society (in a voluntary society, that is). Microsoft/Google/Apple illustrate how even the successful cannot rest on their laurels, and they will pay for bad decisions. Conversely, opportunities for the poor to become more productive and rise have expanded. To name only one example, people can find information and communicate more easily than ever before.
    Also, what power does Bill Gates have over people exactly? If anything, he is at the mercy of the choice of consumers (consumer sovereignty). One caveat are the illegitimate IP laws which do give him some coercive power over others’ use of their private property.

    I like this quote: “Let me suggest an experiment. […] [In one year] don’t buy or use any of Microsoft’s products. […] At the same time, send the government no money. That is, don’t pay your taxes. Then wait. Watch who comes after you for your money and how and with what weapons.” — Richard M. Salsman

    Regarding England, the comparison between England a century ago and the present US or England is invalid. The question is, would different government intervention have improved the situation at that time?

    Considering pollution, for example, there is good historical record showing that the pollution that was allowed was a failure of courts to enforce property rights. During the industrial revolution, government favored a progressive “greater good”, that is industrial development over previous rule of law.
    Here’s a reference: http://www.perc.org/articles/article653.php
    There are also many examples of using private property to environmental conservation.

    I definitely do not assume perfect information or zero friction. The so-called Austrian school of economics differs from the mainstream neoclassical school in that regard. Limited information is a central observation which actually makes the case stronger. As Mises and Hayek each observed, much knowledge in society is not formally documented, local to time or location, or not quantitative (individual values and preferences). The result is that central planners are at a disadvantage over the market when it comes to aggregating information (which itself is costly).

    Mises’s point in “Economic Calculation in the Socialist Commonwealth” ( http://mises.org/econcalc.asp ) shows that market prices are a signal which coordinates society, which the political realm lacks. I like to think of an analogy: pheromones help colonies emerge from simple ants. In politics, it is impossible to decide whether some effort is “worth it”. Political projects can destroy value without even knowing it, even if the people in charge had the best intentions and the governed had the best motivations.

    Hayek makes a similar point in “The use of knowledge in society” ( http://www.econlib.org/library/Essays/hykKnw1.html ). Most of the knowledge for driving action is local or in the mind of the actors. Government bureaucrats (and large firms) simply suffer from information problems. My experience so far in Microsoft supports this understanding ;-) This limits the size of successful firms (no, Wal-Mart will not take over the world, as depicted in the movie “Wall-E”).

    To answer your challenge, I cannot offer a perfect example of stateless society. But I cannot give an example of crimeless society either. That’s not to say that crime should be acceptable and we should not strive against it.
    That said, there is plenty of partial evidence that statelessness can work: http://austrianaddiction.rationalmind.net/archives/2007/06/case_studies_in.html
    It is easier to find evidence on each part, than on a whole packaged solution. For example, many countries don’t have government-funded post offices, or railroads. Also, the example of the “Wild” West illustrates how people solve the problems of the definition of law and its enforcement, absent police.
    Some more difficult issues are national defense. The same demonstrated mechanics still apply though.

    David Friedman enumerates thru various objections in “The machinery of freedom” ( http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Machinery_of_Freedom ). His approach is utilitarian rather than principled, which will probably make it more convincing to you ;-)
    He has a chapter on “The rich get richer and the poor get richer” with some pointers on the industrial revolution in England (including the issue of health and standards of living you raised).

    Sorry for deferring many details to external pointers. This is such a broad topic, and it’s sometimes difficult to know where to start. A solid understanding of economic analysis is vital. I’d recommend some Mises University courses for your commute ( http://mises.org/media/category/236/Mises-University-2010 ). Let me know if there is a specific topic that you’re curious about, I can recommend a good entry point.

    • Administrator says:

      You have got to be kidding. Bill Gates? You mean the convicted monopolist? The rich get richer by adding value? Are you really serious? Did you miss the massive fraud that lined the pockets of folks like Goldman Sachs while destroy the lives of millions of people in this country? And that’s without even getting into how ‘free markets’ have literally killed millions in Africa and South America. You talk about some utopian world where everyone is a meaningfully independent actor. That world doesn’t exist. So long as people live paycheck to paycheck having to live in fear of losing the food on their table and the roof over their heads then freedom is impossible. And to fix that we have to allocate resources to people. Well the folks who have the resources (and that’s a tiny group in this country) aren’t going to give it up willingly so Government is going to take it from them. Or at least they did before we decided that the poor should pay more of their wealth in taxes than the rich.

  4. Hehe, heated discussion ;-)

    I’m serious about Bill Gates. Antitrust laws are a joke. The notion of monopoly that they use is arbitrary and based on erroneous economic theory of monopoly. I have some thoughts and useful reference on the history of antitrust regulation here: http://dumky.posterous.com/monopolies

    I’m not saying that a dominant player is not “powerful” in some sense. But that power is qualitatively and quantitatively different than that provided by force (DeBoers monopoly on diamonds, Ma Bell monopoly on telecoms earlier this century,… also patent laws fall in this category). But Microsoft (except for patent aspect), Dean Foods (produces dairies) and Whole Foods which were sued under antitrust are rightly successful and do not deserve to be hammered down.

    Let me ask another way: do you think the measures taken against Microsoft had anything to do with Google, Apple or Facebook becoming major threats to Microsoft? And before those, what about AOL, Yahoo, Netscape, RIM, Linux, Oracle, SUN, etc. which all were quite competitive? There is nothing regulators can do to encourage competition, except not prevent it. Competition and social activism are the best checks on market power.

    Goldman Sachs is a different story. Bankers have a symbiotic relationship with government (revolving door, campaign finance, etc.) and are on the front line to benefit from the Fed induced inflation. Increasing the money supply does not produce a uniform or “neutral” effect, but rather it creates ripples through the economy. The people who get it first (i.e. bankers in a fractional banking system) gain disproportionately, which contributed to rising inequality in last 40 years (closing of gold window). On top of that, tax-funded insurance and Fed bailouts create huge moral hazard which induce said bankers to take unreasonable risks without consequences, with downside born by taxpayers.

    Good luck with government trying to “justly” allocate resources. It will unavoidably become corrupt and ultimately help the rich and well-connected over the poor that you’re trying to help. The poor are better helped by services becoming cheaper. Food is more plentiful and cheaper (relative to hours of labor) than a century ago, to take one example. This is not a result of government, yet it has been one of the best ways to help the poor and raise their standards of living.

    • Administrator says:

      Actually I don’t think that Google, Apple or Facebook could have existed had it not been for the application for anti-trust laws to Microsoft. Microsoft had so much money and such a willingness to use that money to destroy their competitors that only thanks to the Justice department did Apple have a chance to make a come back, did Google have a chance to grow or did Facebook have a chance to exist. An unregulated market inevitably allows some small group of players with a momentary advantage to turn that advantage into destruction for everyone else. Anti-Trust laws, when properly applied, prevent players from using that advantage to obliterate all competition. The idea of a free and open market has never existed and never will exist unless there are regulators to keep that market open and prevent players from abusing it to the determent of all.

      All that having been said I have no love for government any more than for business. But I believe that only a well regulated market has any hope of working and providing any meaningful benefit to anyone but a tiny handful. And since business has proven beyond all shadow of a doubt that they cannot regulate themselves we must have an outside party to do that regulating. We call that party the courts or government, it doesn’t matter, they are the same thing. A countervailing power.

      But as we both know that power is only countervailing for so long. Eventually business takes over government (or the opposite). But it takes time. That’s why we need revolutions on a regular basis. But of course business doesn’t like that, neither do those in power in the government. So the corruption festers. Personally I have read nothing credible that offers any meaningful alternative. Not the Austrian school, not Kinsey, not anyone. So we muddle on.

  5. Interesting. How do you think antitrust made it possible for Apple or Google to become more vibrant competitors of Microsoft?
    I’m curious to hear about a “proper application” of anti-trust.

    In particular, the advantages that Microsoft relied on (huge Windows marketshare) didn’t make much different to the rise of the ipod, iphone or online services and search engines. In other words, Apple and Google side-stepped Microsoft’s strength.
    There are two ways I can imagine Microsoft could have stopped them aside from serving customers better: buying them outright (in which case they made a profit, which signals others should engage in similar innovation, and Microsoft looses cash) and using the arsenal of patents as threats (result of illegitimate IP laws).

    I agree with you that markets need regulation and individual businesses will misbehave, but I think it’s a mistake that it needs to be external to the market and needs to resort to force. To take an example, Facebook is regulated without special legislation by social pressure, PR and competition. Similarly, the main reason food at the grocery store doesn’t generally kill you or make you sick is such decentralized “regulation”. You cannot mistreat your customers and be successful in the long-term.

    Thanks for your patience :-)

    • Administrator says:

      If Microsoft had been allowed to continue its previous behavior neither Facebook nor Apple would have been able to get any capital with which to grow their companies since banks, VCs, etc. were all too afraid of Microsoft. I lived through this personally. When I did my start ups the word on the street was simple – if you were going to do anything that competed with Microsoft then you were on your own. Nobody would touch you. It was only after the anti-trust cases had finally forced Microsoft to behave itself that VCs and others were willing to put serious money behind companies that wanted to take on Microsoft. A funny side effect of this was the rise of Linux. Since OS’s that wanted to take Microsoft on directly couldn’t generally get any funding the only hope was to come from the side in a way that didn’t require direct capital.

      Actually it turns out you can mistreat your customers for decades and still be successful, just as long as there is nobody to protect you. A classic example was Intel. When competitors like AMD would show up Intel would tell its customers (folks like Dell, very few people buy processors directly) that if they carried AMD (or any other competitor’s products) then Intel would stop giving the customers ‘discounts’ and thus make the Intel chips more expensive. Of course the discounts were much like ‘sales’ in department stores, they were fake but their removal increased customer prices for real. The end result was that for years AMD couldn’t get a foot hold in the market even though they had arguably a better product at a better price. It was only once the anti-trust charges were landed and Intel had to stop its behavior that AMD stood a chance.

      Something similar happened in the airline market. Once airline deregulation began in the 80s lots and lots of small airlines popped up. The reason was competition. The ‘majors’ had been gouging smaller markets for years by charging huge prices to fly to minor destinations. There was even a gentleman’s agreement (more or less observed) that different ‘majors’ wouldn’t nose into other ‘majors’ smaller markets because they didn’t want any of that nasty competition stuff. The end result was that anyone flying anywhere that wasn’t a major destination was paying through the nose. Plenty of businessmen did the math and realized they could run a profitable airline to the less popular destinations at prices much lower than the majors and still make a nice profit. The majors realized this too and came up with a simple solution – lose money. When a new small airline would show up the majors would just crash their prices to the markets the new airline served. They would set the prices so low that nobody (not the small airline nor the major) could profit. In the short term this was very expensive for the majors of course. But this is where the realities of the market come in. Starting a business, especially an airline business, is insanely expensive. So it doesn’t take very long, if running at a loss, before the business fails. So the trick for the airlines was that they only had to run the minor routes at a loss for long enough to run the competition out of business and then they could safely jack prices back up again. So in the long run they profited.

      Now, in theory, in a perfect market, businessmen would understand that if they could hold out long enough then eventually the majors would have to capitulate since they couldn’t run their routes at a loss forever. In fact, in a perfect world a whole group of businessmen would get together and simultaneously attack the majors on multiple minor routes in order to force the majors to capitulate early. But we don’t live in anything even vaguely like a perfect world. In the real world the general sources of capital don’t want to take this big a risk so getting enough capital together to blow the majors out of the water just didn’t work. The end result is that minor markets who could profitably run airlines that could significantly reduce prices largely didn’t happen because the market wasn’t close to perfect.

      Then there are just straight out collusion. For example the famous vitamin price fixing scandal where it turn out that the major vitamin companies had agreed on floor prices in order to keep vitamin prices high. This only ended when the government discovered the collusion and ended it. In theory a new vitamin competitor could have been formed to break the cartel but in reality producing vitamins, establishing distribution, etc. is incredibly expensive. So in practice the collusion worked just fine. This is one of the key examples of why anti-trust is so critically important. In the real world building a business is risky and expensive so no one is going to do it if they can’t get at least a fair shot at the market.

      As for food, you’re kidding right? Literally millions of people get sick from food borne illnesses each year and much of it is caused because there is literally no surveillance system worth the name for large parts of our food chain. In fact it was big news when Costco insisted that its meet suppliers actually allow it to test its meat at all. Normally they don’t allow this because they don’t want to be found guilty of anything. Since all meat processing in the U.S. is done by a small group of processors who effectively own the market the vast majority of consumers have no choice but to eat what’s put in front of them. Sure, incredibly wealthy people like yourself can choose many different super markets and meat from many different suppliers. But for the vast majority of Americans such choices aren’t really available. So they eat what they get and often get sick as a result. The CDC estimates that 1 out of 6 Americans get food poisoning every year. Although interestingly enough the CDC doesn’t try to separate what part of that was caused by tainted food and what part was caused by bad preparation.

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