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Politics Within Limits

1. My social ideas are temperamentally mine—I have not really changed them in forty years—but they do not derive logically from my biases, as a doctrine. I would abhor a politics, pedagogy, or town-planning that was deduced from metaphysics or epistemology, or even scientifically deduced, rather than being pragmatic and not immoral. One must not manipulate real people because of an idea or a confirmed hypothesis. Indeed, I say “not immoral” rather than “moral” because positive morality, when used as a principle for action, can be more abstract and imperial than anything. There are far too many missionaries among my friends.

But instead of being abstract or moral, my corresponding defect is that I am an artist and fundamentally unpolitical. I don’t (timidly) bestir myself to oppose anything or try to change it unless I first have imagined a simpler and more artistic way to do it, neater, making use of available and cheap materials, less senseless, less wasteful. If a bad situation is not amenable to my flash of inventiveness, I find it hard to identify with it as mine; I feel there’s nothing that I can contribute. Meantime people are suffering. But a political person ploughs into the situation and makes a difference in it just by his action. Sometimes a good idea then turns up.

Artistic visions have their virtues. (Let me speak no evil of the creator spirit.) They are better than carping criticism. They give people a ray of possibility instead of the gloom of metaphysical necessity. Activism and ideology both do more harm than good. But art has the unpolitical self-sufficiency of art. I am not zealous to make my models real. And they have the timidity of being personal; I draw no strength from my fellows; I cannot lead and find it hard to follow.

One cannot rely on artists for a political message. Tolstoy makes war seem sublime and attractive. Homer makes it senseless and horrible.

  1. But I mustn’t overstate my diffidence. I, like anybody else, see outrages that take me by the throat, and no question of not identifying with them as mine. Cruelty and insults to the beauty of the world that keep me indignant. Lies, triviality, and vulgarity that suddenly make me sick. The powers-that-be do not know what it is to be magnanimous; often they are simply officious and spiteful. As Malatesta used to say, you try to do your thing and they intervene, and then you are to blame for the fight that happens. Worst of all, it is clear from their earth-destroying actions that these people are demented, sacrilegious, and will bring down doom on themselves and those associated with them; so sometimes I am superstitiously afraid to belong to the same tribe and walk the same ground as our political leaders.

Yet people have a right to be crazy, stupid, or arrogant. It is our speciality as human beings. Our mistake is to arm anybody with collective power. Anarchy is the only safe polity.

It is a moral disaster to suppress indignation, nausea, and scorn; it is a political (and soon moral) disaster to make them into a program.

It is a common misconception that anarchists hold that “human nature is good” and therefore men can rule themselves. But we tend rather to be pessimistic. We are phlegmatic because we do not have ideas. And men in power are especially likely to be stupid because they are out of touch with concrete finite experience and instead keep interfering with other people’s initiative, so they make them stupid too. Imagine being deified like Mao Tse-tung or Kim Il Sung, what that must do to a man’s character. Or habitually thinking the unthinkable, like our Pentagon.

  1. I must also mention the odd abstraction “Society,” since it has exercised such a superstitious compulsion on political scientists since the time of Bentham, Comte, Hegel, and Marx; instead of the loose matrix of face-to-face communities, private fantasies, and shifting subsocieties in which most people mostly live their lives. It is understandable that fatherly czars or divine-right monarchs would have the delusion that all the sparrows are constantly under their tutelage as one Society; and that Manchester economists would sternly rule out of existence all family, local, and non-cash transactions that cannot be summed up on the stock exchange. The usual strategy of Enlightenment philosophers, however, was to cut such big fictions down to size and to have simple, concrete abuses to reform. But it was as if, to substitute for the slogan L’Ancien Régime, it was necessary to have a concept equally grand, Society.

Comte and Bentham wanted to manufacture the big fiction of Society into a reality—Comte knew that it started as a fiction—in order to use it to tidy up “everything” or at least “the greatest good for the greatest number.” For metaphysical reasons, Hegel was satisfied that the more socialized a man, and the more selfconscious of it, the more real he was. But the pathetic case is Marx, who concentrated on Society and indeed wanted to empower Society, precisely to get rid of it and go back to simpler personal and community existence.

Certainly there are occasions when my existence as a mere member of Society is overwhelmingly important and not at all an abstraction, for example when they herd me into a big air liner, with its back-up of thousands of anonymous operatives and their schedules and instruments, not to mention hijackers. But even so, after the initial shock, I soon recover and become restive for a more attractive seat mate, or look for a couple of empties so I can stretch out and go to sleep, or I press my nose to the window and watch the clouds and the receding earth.

Usually my need for Society is satisfied by a very loose criterion: “Lucky is the man who can band together with enough of those like-minded with himself—it needs only a couple of hundred—to reassure him that he is sane, even though eight million others are quite batty.” (Empire City, lv, 19, i.)

One reason I haven’t learned anything in forty years is that the political truth is so simple that a boy can see it: Society with a big S can do very little for people, except to be tolerable so we can go on about the more important business of life.

  1. Most anarchist philosophers start from a lust for freedom. Sometimes this is a metaphysico-moral imperative, with missionary zeal attached, but mostly it is a deep animal cry or religious yearning, like the hymn of the prisoners in Fidelio. They have seen or suffered too much restraint—serfdom, factory slavery, deprived of liberties, colonized by an imperialist, befuddled by the church.

My own experience, however, has by and large been roomy enough. “They” have not managed to constrict it too much, though I have suffered a few of the usual baits, many of the punishments, and very many of the threats. I do not need to shake off restraint in order to be myself. My usual gripe has been not that I am imprisoned, but that I am in exile or was born on the wrong planet. My real trouble is that the world is impractical for me; by impatience and cowardice I make it even less practical than it could be.

For me, the chief principle of anarchism is not freedom but autonomy, the ability to initiate a task and do it one’s own way. Without having to take orders from authorities who do not know the actual problem and the available means. External direction may sometimes be inevitable, as in emergencies, but it is at a cost to vitality. Behavior is more graceful, forceful, and discriminating without the intervention of the state, wardens, bureaucrats, corporation executives, central planners, and university presidents. These tend to create chronic emergencies that make themselves necessary. In most cases, the use of power to do a job is inefficient in the fairly short run. Extrinsic power inhibits intrinsic function. “Soul is selfmoving,” says Aristotle.

The weakness of “my” anarchism is that the lust for freedom is a powerful motive for political change, whereas autonomy is not. Autonomous people protect themselves stubbornly but by less strenuous means, including plenty of passive resistance. They do their thing anyway.

The pathos of oppressed people, however, is that, if they break free, they don’t know what to do. Not having been autonomous, they don’t know what it’s like, and before they learn, they have new managers who are not in a hurry to abdicate. And the oppressed hope for too much from New Society, instead of being vigilant to live their lives. They had to rely on one another in the battle, but their solidarity becomes an abstraction and to deviate is called counterrevolutionary.

The possibility of my weaker position is that autonomous people might see that the present situation is disastrous for them, and that their autonomy is whittled away. They cannot help but see it. There is not enough useful work and it is hard to do it honestly or to practice a profession nobly. Arts and sciences are corrupted. Modest enterprise must be blown out of all proportion to survive. The young cannot find their vocations. Talent is stifled by credentials. Formal civil liberties are lost to bugs and Interpol. Taxes are squandered on war, school-teachers, and overhead. Etc., etc. The remedies for all this might be piecemeal and undramatic, but they must be fundamental, for many of the institutions cannot be recast and the system as a whole is impossible. A good deal could be made tolerable by wiping a good deal off the slate.

The aim of politics is to increase autonomy, to get Society out of the way and open up new space. I like the Marxist formula “the withering away of the State,” but it is the method, not the result.

  1. The central organization of administration, production, and distribution is sometimes unavoidable, but it mathematically guarantees stupidity. Information reported from the field must be abstracted, and it loses content at every level; by the time it reaches headquarters it may say nothing relevant. Or it may say what (it is guessed) headquarters wants to hear. To have something to report, the facts of the field are molded into standard form and are no longer plastic. Those in headquarters cannot use their wits because they are not in touch. Those in the field lose their wits because they have to speak a foreign tongue, and can’t initiate anything anyway. On the basis of the misinformation it receives, headquarters decides, and a directive is sent down that may fit nobody in particular. At each level it is enforced on those below in order to satisfy those above, rather than to do the work. When it is applied in the field, it may be quite irrelevant, or it may destroy the village in order to save it.

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