A Terrible Blogger is Born!

January 4, 2009

The Intellectuals and Anarchism

Filed under: Anarchy,Utopia — rmangum @ 1:12 pm


Anarchism is not a passport for reentry into Eden. It is simply the best that there is.-American Revolutionary Vanguard

I have read little by Pierre-Joseph Proudhon, what I have read about him seems far more appealing than Marx. An essay on Proudhon by Larry Gambone suggests that the decline of anarchism in the late 19th century has to do with the move away from Proudhon’s mutualist and libertarian thought to the collectivism of Marx and Bakunin. “A shift in leadership from self-educated artisans to aristocrats and bourgeois also occurred,” he writes. “In many instances this led anarchism away from the concrete and practical to the abstract and utopian. It is the nature of the upper class radicals, so distant from the realities of working class life, to look at the world through abstractions and self-created ideologies. This is also the very group which tends to glorify and romanticize violence.” The armchair romanticism of the intellectual class has to be admitted, and has perhaps reached its vertiginous apex in academic postmodernism, which is thoroughly Marxist, statist, collectivist and irrationalist.

I have to quarrel, however, with Gambone’s yoking together of “abstraction” with utopian thinking, and opposing that with practical thinking. Abstraction is the beginning of philosophy. Various reformers have tried to change the world, but what is the point if they do not understand it? The critique of abstraction has its roots in the conservative apology for the ancien regime, and is still favored today by conservatives.

On utopian thinking I am more ambivalent. Of course, Utopia means literally “nowhere”. The best attack on utopian thinking of this sort is Rothbard’s “Egalitarianism as a Revolt Against Nature”. Basically, Rothbard argues that what egalitarian intellectuals are anguished over is reality itself. However, I think this has to be balanced with Hayek’s “The Intellectuals and Socialism” where he credits the spectacular success of socialism as an ideology with its utopianism. “The very courage to indulge in utopian thought is a source of strength to the socialists which traditional liberalism sadly lacks.”  I would add that Christianity succeeded as an ideology  for precisely the same reason. He ends by recommending a “liberal utopia, a program which seems neither a mere defense of things as they are nor a diluted kind of socialism, but a truly liberal radicalism which does not spare the susceptibilities of the mighty (including the trade unions), which is not too severely practical, and which does not confine itself to what appears today as politically possible.” The irony is that Hayek never provided the path to such a utopia, but Rothbard did, in works such as For a New Liberty.

Unlike Hayek’s classical liberalism, however, Anarchism suffers a major p.r. problem in being perceived as too utopian, which is what Gambone’s article addresses. People will admit it is a noble, romantic, ideal which is however impractical an unfit for mere mortals. In reality, however, it is the ideal of a benevolent state which knows its limits and keeps to them that is the true utopian pipe-dream. But the state is what we have, and that is a huge advantage. Anarchism, in order to compete, must not just be better than statism, but address and solve every problem, from global warming to halitosis, before people will accept it. Never mind that government has no solutions either.  We must put the state on the defense, chipping away at its legitimacy bit by bit. Then there is the intellectual grunt work of theorizing and promoting an anarchy that is inspiring in Hayek’s sense without claiming it can turn the seas into lemonade. But hey, isn’t  “No Gods, No Masters” a better rallying cry than “Smaller Government, Less Taxes”?

At any rate, Hayek’s article suggests that we cannot dispense with the intellectuals as a class. But the intellectuals, insofar as they are revolutionaries, cannot do without the working class. It would be refreshing to have more working-class autodidacts like Proudhon than PhD’s, like Marx. An article on vanguardism in the anarcho-left by David Graeber discusses the enormous popularity of Marxism in academe compared with the poverty of attention paid to anarchism.

Marxism has always had an affinity with the academy that anarchism never will. It was, after all was invented by a Ph.D. ; and there’s always been something about its spirit which fits that of the academy.

Part of that spirit he finds in a cult of personality that prevails in the academy, the tendency to turn a surname into an “ism”. Marxism comes from Marx; Anarchism was not invented by anybody. If this is so, it may also be why there are so many anarchists of various stripes in the blogosphere, which is a leaderless network of self-starters, an example of spontaneous order par excellence.

But Graeber also finds the failure of (left-wing) anarchy in academe in its incompatibility with high theory. Instead of being primariliy analytic like Marxism, he calls it “an ethical discourse about revolutionary practice.” On the libertarian right, however, it is a different story. Anarcho-capitalism is all high theory, and tends to be organized in schools who follow a marquee theorist like Mises, Friedman, or (especially) Rothbard.

If anarchism rarely makes headway in academe, it tends to be the rage in bohemia. It attracts artists (who qualify as intellectuals in Hayek’s sense for being “second-hand dealers in ideas”), precisely for its utopianism, its thorough rejection of The Way Things Are. An aesthete by temperament myself, I understand this and find the appeal to artists as indispensable as the appeal to the working masses. But there is a danger here as well. Court artists, and you court genius and vision, but also clownishness, frivolity and destruction. The infiltration of “aristocrats and bourgeois” that Gambone discusses was probably primarily bohemian in nature. And there is no group which outdoes artists in romanticizing violence.

“Why, how can you ask such a question? You are a republican.”
“A republican! Yes; but that word specifies nothing. Res publica; that is, the public thing. Now, whoever is interested in public affairs – no matter under what form of government – may call himself a republican. Even kings are republicans.”
“Well! You are a democrat?”
“What! “you would have a monarchy?”
” A Constitutionalist?”
“God forbid.”
“Then you are an aristocrat?”
“Not at all!”
“You want a mixed form of government?”
“Even less.”
“Then what are you?”
“I am an anarchist.”
“Oh! I understand you; you speak satirically. This is a hit at the government.”
“By no means. I have just given you my serious and well-considered profession of faith. Although a firm friend of order, I am (in the full force of the term) an anarchist. Listen to me.”
– Proudhon



  1. In Parasite Rex, Carl Zimmer talked about how, in the early days of Evolutionary Biology, the evolutionary process was viewed as something akin to a ladder. Species progressed upward, in an endless procession towards higher levels of being. Species such as most parasites were actually considered deviant and evil, low forms of being that deserved to be culled if they could not be enlightened, never mind that their specific evolutions allowed them to survive. Eventually the model itself evolved to something more like a tree, and now is something more of an amorphous blob, with species evolving and regressing as needed to survive in their environmental niche.

    It would seem political science is still in the old world view. Government is a set progression from primitive forms of governance to enlightened forms. To most people, seriously suggesting Anarchism is akin to suggesting we give up our legs in favor of flagellum. Criticisms of our form of government fall on deaf ears because the alternative is to regress to a lower state of political being.

    Of course, this analogy goes only so far. It would be pointless to argue the moral implications of developing prehensile thumbs, morality has no place in the discussion, where morality is critical to political debate. Or at least, it should be. Sadly this is often not the case.

    Comment by JMangum — January 5, 2009 @ 7:48 pm | Reply

  2. Absolutely right. Philosophers used to take religion as their model for politics, talking about the City of God and so on, but now our paradigms come from the natural sciences, particularly evolution. The idea that things history inevitably moves onward and upward predates evolutionary theory though- it’s commonly referred to as “the Whig Theory of History”.

    Even if the evolutionary paradigm should tell us what type of political organization to have, this doesn’t necessarily indicate a preference to statism over anarchism (I’ve never read him, but I understand that Kropotkin was an amateur scientist and thought that the natural world suggested the opposite), or even larger political bodies over smaller ones. Does natural selection always favor larger organisms? I doubt it.

    And the point about morality is also important. Although I reject Graeber’s formulation of anarchism as oriented toward praxis to the exclusion of theory (calling to mind the apt images of the Judean People’s Front feuding with the People’s Front of Judea in Monty Python’s “Life of Brian”), he is right to see in it an “ethical discourse”. Consider the anarchist Rothbard’s treatise “The Ethics of Liberty”, which his follower Hoppe considers his most important work.

    Ethical discourse gives us the right perspective. Otherwise you get this situation in humanities departments, who, in the leisure of the theory class, consider it somehow more helpful to the proletariat that the literary canon be deconstructed rather than, say, the war on drugs or the prison-industrial-complex.

    Comment by rmangum2001 — January 5, 2009 @ 11:19 pm | Reply

  3. I hasten to add that when I talk about utopia in a positive light, I mean it with a small “u”, referring to an ideal or goal of achieving the good society, which is how I believe Hayek uses it, rather than an absolute state of perfected being, which is of course an eschatalogical chimera.

    Comment by rmangum2001 — January 6, 2009 @ 12:08 am | Reply

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