defeating political bias to redefine societal structures

i’ve been working on my recording gear, i think slowly the quality is getting better. well, minus the talent, but i can’t buy gear to make that any better.

part of my recent reassessment of priorities was to redefine my social circles. until now, i mostly relied on my pre-existing connections or hobbies to help me meet people and increase my local circles. in practice, this let to very little improvement over all. somehow i still think regardless of the circles we’re in, we’re bound to empathize with a small subset of the whole group, no matter what the group is about. there are, however, differences in the size of this subset that relate directly to what the actual activity is about, i.e., self-selection of people attending.

one thing i tried was to increase the likelihood that i’d meet people equally interested in philosophical questions. meetup.com happens to work very well in sydney, and i ended up finding, and attending, a few of these meetups offered by different philosophy groups.

this brings me to this post. yesterday i attended a lecture on anarchism organized by an excellent group of people. needless to say, this is a topic that is very dear to me, for obvious-past-experience-reasons. while most of what was discussed was highly theoretical, one question was thrown at the room for the discussion: “is an entirely anarchistic society possible at all?”

i cringed. i had lived in working examples of anarchic systems (or at least, communal systems). one could argue that what i lived through wasn’t a real example because we were never really “outside” society, so never really demonstrated anything. i concede, there’s a lot of truth to that and what i lived through isn’t a proper controlled example. however, what i’d like to discuss is a completely different matter: that of political structures and their post-rationalizations, frequently oblivious to their implicit dogmas about human nature.

as the discussion progressed, the idea of anarchism was overwhelmingly ruled out, mostly based on the Hobbesian idea that humans are naturally brutes and need some kind of hierarchy to keep them under control. the modern version of this is a basic fallacy of appealing to that being a “fact of human nature”, as in, human nature is brutish therefore humans cannot be entirely autonomous, always requiring some form of “higher intellect” to prevent them from falling back into destructive behaviours. this is the old idea of the Leviathan, recycled by pop psychology and bad neuroscience magazines, using arguments such as that humans were naturally selected by living in hunter gatherer societies to cheat and to steal. while we may have been naturally selected without a doubt, i do wonder how that makes any difference to whether we cheat or not in practice.

when we discuss political models more often than not we’ll hear things like “democracy sucks but it’s the best we’ve got” or “power has always naturally organized itself the same way over and over, so anarchy isn’t possible because those patterns are part of human nature and they would repeat themselves”. i see these arguments as simple appeals to fallacious ideas of “human nature” or “tradition”. these fallacies stem from an unquestioned definition of human beings as limited, tending to be violent and power hungry, and entirely conditioned (and conditionable) by their surroundings. if we accept these premises, then obviously anarchy (or communism, or socialism for that matter) become logically impossible. but more importantly, these definitions of human beings are they themselves biased by the very political and social system in place. if we use an evolutionary argument for politics, we might end up concluding that patriarchy is good because it was “naturally selected”. i’m sure feminists would agree this is empirically verified nonsense, so i would like to steer this discussion in another direction, hopefully without (much) personal political bias. i will also not try to bridge the is/ought divide. i accept that words like “good” and “right” are problematic but they functional enough for my argument.

as a disclaimer, i am historically a leftist, but that only informs my anti-authoritarian criticism of society. my dedication to critical thinking overrides any theoretical leftist principle that contradicts peer-reviewed evidence. in that sense, i’m exploring how anarchism is possible and how it isn’t in the light of basic ideas of information and inference.

while i don’t think we are born brutish, i do think we are born with a limited capacity for knowledge and information. this means that to be entirely autonomous (i.e., make all the right decisions about our reality — no matter our definition of “right”), we either need to deal with a simplified world, as to not have too much information to deal with, or we must deal with a complex world collectively and intersubjectively. this seems to me a simple matter of evidence from history, and this is not a new idea at all (democracy and delegation have a long philosophical history of discussing this).

considering this, anarchism, defined as each individual being autonomous and deciding to the best of their knowledge what is the best outcome, is possible if a) the world is simplified and therefore computable or b) the world is complex but can be analysed in sub-problems collectively that provide a perfect global collective solution. to me, both of these are impossible, so under that light, and at the present social and political situation, anarchism is impossible in that sense. now, what makes it impossible is the present state of our capacities to approach these problems, and not our potential capacity to solve them. what constrains us is our belief in these bogus ideas of human nature, which feed back into our own self-identification with that hypothetical brutish human being.

i’ll use an analogy that hopefully will make it clearer. we as human beings cannot fly. it is our nature not to be able to fly, we are ground animals that occasionally can climb trees. if we were to say flying is impossible because human nature does not allow for it, then how come we have built planes? the mysteries of flight are virtually impossible to decipher to an individual with no prior scientific knowledge, and the engineering challenges of building a plane, drilling for fuel, regulating air traffic and so on are impossibly complex without a massive collective effort. however, it would be silly to deny that we do, in fact, “fly” around the planet. therefore, our human nature as beings that can’t fly does not inform our capacity to create conditions under which we will be able to (in this case, by jumping inside a plane).

this example shows how political bias tends to be stuck on the “we can’t fly” part of the debate, and tends to ignore the fact that societies are built collectively and based on things we ought to be and things we ought to do, and not things we are. i.e., societies express our desires to “fly”, to transcend our individual constraints, by engaging reality collectively, with our values subject to a seemingly impossible goal.

anarchism is simply another one of those goals, but it seems to us to be impossible because we have never seen it done, and we argue that it is so because “we have no wings”, or in anarchist terms, we cheat, lie and are power hungry. but what if we collectively engage this with the same mix of pragmatism and idealism as the quest for human flight? what is the difference between these two that makes one more feasible than the other?

my opinion is that we forgot that they are the same process, because politics and how society is organized are far too built into the fabric of our every day lives. we forgot that societies are no more than people agreeing on something collectively, that money is people agreeing that it exists collectively, that a lot of what we consider problems are actually a product of our own creations.

so how do i envision a possible anarchist society? (disclaimer, i wouldn’t like to live in one). i envision it in many different ways, depending on how far we can stretch contexts. i’d like to offer these ideas as open questions.

  • does the population have absolute control over their own subsistence? if not, they will need power to prioritize who subsists and who doesn’t.
  • does each individual in that population have the knowledge to decide the intersubjectively best outcome for the community? if not, then decisions will cause conflicts for the simple fact that they have insufficient information.
  • does the collective allow for dissent? if not, then diversity will be stifled, and with it, autonomy, as autonomy is undermined by the impossibility of thinking differently.
  • does the collective allow for self-correction of its own decisions, collectively and individually? if not, there is the possibility that an accidental bias in the collective will eventually undermine autonomy.
  • above all, does this group of human beings have a capacity to look at its own group critically and recognize patterns such as the ones discussed by political theory and sociology? if not, then they will not be autonomous simply because they will exert authority via cheating, bullying, violence, coercion and so on.

these examples are things that need to be present in order for any of this to work properly, and i’d argue it is impossible in our current state of affairs to have anything like it. consider national borders, and how corporations exist beyond them. consider the commons and how they are privatised and at the whim of the few. consider now that you’d wish to start a commune somewhere? what guarantees would you have that you wouldn’t be raided and your resources plundered?

but given enough isolation and control over natural resources and means of subsistence, there is nothing preventing a group of critical and educated individuals from starting anything anarchist organisationally speaking. what elevates us from the brutish conditions of our subsistence is our capacity to engage reality critically, coherently, and according to abstract visions of seemingly impossible realities. like the flying steel bird, they are pure mythology for anyone unfamiliar with the scientific method and the basic principles of engineering. but for a 21st century human being, emancipated by thousands of years of reflection, flying, or anarchism, are merely ends for which we have the means in ourselves. we recognize that we have no wings, politically speaking, but we also recognize that we know how to create the conditions that allow us to fly. we created our political institutions to serve us, if they don’t, then it is only logical to abandon them and replace them with something different.

maybe this is naive idealism, or maybe it’s simple pragmatic social engineering. i do think there is a deeply rooted anti-human narrative that comes from a hangover from 20th century horrors, but that narrative is as flawed as any other naturalistic fallacy. we create our own social and political realities, so we can also question them, undermine them, and create entirely new ones along the way. anarchism is just another one of these possible ideas. lease out a plot of land and keep the gates open. you will be surprised by what happens if people squat it.

no matter the mindset, like Icarus, we will always build wings not from an embarrassment of not having been born with them, but from an irrational urge to fly closer to the light — an endlessly curious quest for the illuminating beauty of reality and our capacity to engage it and expand it.