Review: Two Cheers for Anarchism and How to Run a Country

‘Freedom without socialism is privilege and injustice,’ declared Mikhail Bakunin in 1867, ‘[but] socialism without freedom is slavery and brutality.’ This ideological double-bind is no less relevant to party politics as it is practised in contemporary Canberra as it was to what Eric Hobsbawm termed, in his book of the same name, ‘the age of extremes’. For notwithstanding the occasional fanatic, everyone now knows, or is supposed to know, that while gross inequality makes a mockery of freedom, attempts to limit inequality have the effect of increasing the power of the state. Thus politicians of both left and right gravitate towards the ‘non-ideological’ centre, where timidity goes under the name of pragmatism and where a Clinton or a Blair or a Hawke/Keating can get credit for nicking the enemy’s clothes and describing the resulting ensemble as ‘The Third Way’.

The problem with this appetite for centrism is that it tends to leave the big questions unanswered and, more often than not, unasked. Is capitalism, as it is currently pursued, fair or even sustainable? How is it possible to have constant growth without precipitating ecological chaos? What does the rise of China augur for the relationship between capitalism and democracy? Fascinating questions all. But don’t bother putting them to Wayne Swan or Joe Hockey. They’re too busy bickering about the deficit.

In Two Cheers for Anarchism, James C. Scott, a professor of political science at Yale, takes a fresh and often bracing look at the philosophy espoused by Bakunin himself and asks whether it might afford some clues as to how to proceed in the twenty-first century. Not that Scott’s approach to the subject is anything like as rigorous as the Russian’s; wary of overarching schemes and dismissive of the kind of utopian scientism that dominated anarchism in its early stages, he argues rather for an ‘anarchist squint’ – an attitude or general outlook in which the ideals of mutuality, non-hierarchical cooperation and freedom to learn from one’s own mistakes combine to provide a wide-ranging critique of our current socio-political consensus. Consequently, his book is short on what Kevin Rudd might call ‘detailed programmatic specificity’ but long on the kind of original thinking required of anyone who still prefers the tattered mantle of ‘radical’ to the understated garments favoured at court.

For mine, the book is most impressive in the challenge it poses to conventional history, which serves to engender a view of the world as not only run by organised power (which it clearly is) but as changed by it too. For while even radical revisionist history tends to focus on organisations such as unions and pressure groups, Scott invites us to consider the role of the pilferer, the squatter and (especially) the poacher in undermining the status quo. Indeed, he goes so far as to describe the actions of these marginal types as ‘a special subspecies of collective action’: ‘Quiet, anonymous, and often complicitous, lawbreaking and disobedience may well be the historically preferred mode of political action for peasant and subaltern classes …’ Of course, it is not in the poacher’s interests to furnish the historian with an account of his motives; but that doesn’t mean his actions are without meaning. On the contrary, argues Scott, they are replete with it: ‘[I]mmanent in [his] willingness to break the law was not so much a desire to sow chaos as a compulsion to instate a more just legal order.’

This is important because Scott’s core thesis is that anarchism is less a political system than a mode of life with which we are, if we could only see it, already familiar. Mutuality, spontaneity, self-organisation – these qualities are always and everywhere in evidence, but the modern state and economic system have combined to make them increasingly irrelevant. Describing the conflict as one between ‘official’ and ‘vernacular’ order, Scott suggests that a preference for the former is not only alienating but also inefficient. For example, a company that trains its workers in just one, undemanding task is unlikely to have an ‘adaptive’ workforce, with the result that it, too, will be unadaptable. Moreover, three centuries of ‘standardisation’ may be creating human beings who are less independent and creative than their forbears. As Scott puts it, alluding to Hobbes, ‘Leviathan may have given birth to its own justification.’

Turning to the dilemma identified by Bakunin – the eternal tension between freedom and justice – Scott urges radicals to take a fresh approach to the oft-maligned petit bourgeoisie. In a passage that owes as much to Thomas Jefferson as it does to the founder of collective anarchism, he writes that a society dominated by small businessmen ‘comes closer to equality and to popular ownership … than any economic system yet devised’. Of course, this leaves unanswered the question of how to bring such a society about. But as a progressive endorsement of the ‘bourgeois’ qualities of economic independence and self-respect it comes as something of a tonic nonetheless. Certainly I think Scott is right to claim that ‘The substance of the petit bourgeois dream … is not some abstract calculation of income security but rather the deep desire for full cultural citizenship in their small community.’

Whether Jefferson was an anarchist at heart is a matter of historical conjecture. But that he and his fellow Founding Fathers were influenced by Marcus Tullius Cicero (106–43 BC) is a matter of historical record. And little wonder, when you consider that Cicero lived at a time when dictatorship and democracy (or what passed for it in Republican Rome) came into such spectacular conflict – a conflict in which he played his part as both politician and philosopher. Cognisant of the dangers of both despotism and chaos, Cicero was a peerless student of power at the individual and organisational level; but such conclusions as he reached about the role of government and the nature of political leadership were born of often bitter experience.

Edited by Philip Freeman, How to Run a Country is a brief introduction to Cicero’s political philosophy. More a sampler than an anthology (it can easily be read in a single sitting), it contains – in English and in Latin – fragments from Cicero’s books and speeches, as well as letters to friends and colleagues. Topics covered include natural law, friends and enemies, corruption and tyranny. Many of his conclusions cast lengthy shadows. For example, there is a clear connection between Cicero’s belief that human affairs are governed by universal laws and the idea of ‘unalienable rights’ enshrined in the Declaration of Independence. Similarly, his views on war and immigration will strike many readers as both modern and sane.

He even manages to anticipate Bakunin. Distressed by massive inequality, he nevertheless urges leaders and governments not to arrogate too much power to themselves in pursuit of social justice. As far as running a country goes, I doubt the Roman would have agreed with the Russian. But it is interesting to reflect that on points of principle (and notwithstanding the language barrier) they would have understood each other perfectly.

James C. Scott, Two Cheers for Anarchism
PUP; U$24.95; 169pp

Marcus Tullius Cicero and Philip Freeman (ed.), How to Run a Country: An Ancient Guide for Modern Leaders
PUP; U$12.95; 130pp


First published in The Australian.