Two Cheers for Anarchism: Six Easy Pieces on Autonomy, Dignity and Meaningful Work and Play


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It dawned on me, as it should have earlier, that virtually every major successful revolution ended by creating a state more powerful than the one it overthrew, a state that in turn was able to extract more resources from and exercise more control over the very populations it was designed to serve.

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Mikhail Bakunin: “Freedom without socialism is privilege and injustice; socialism without freedom is slavery and brutality.”

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Pierre-Joseph Proudhon had in mind when he first used the term “anarchism,” namely, mutuality, or cooperation without hierarchy or state rule.

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“process-oriented” anarchist view, or what might be termed anarchism

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I reject the major stream of utopian scientism that dominated much of anarchist thought around the turn of the twentieth century.

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Unlike many anarchist thinkers, I do not believe that the state is everywhere and always the enemy of freedom.

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There is no authentic freedom where huge differences make voluntary agreements or exchanges nothing more than legalized plunder.

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This, of course, is the great dilemma for an anarchist. If relative equality is a necessary condition of mutuality and freedom, how can it be guaranteed except through the state? Facing this conundrum, I believe that both theoretically and practically, the abolition of the state is not an option. We are stuck, alas, with Leviathan, though not at all for the reasons Hobbes had supposed, and the challenge is to tame it. That challenge may well be beyond our reach.

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By infrapolitics I have in mind such acts as foot-dragging, poaching, pilfering, dissimulation, sabotage, desertion, absenteeism, squatting, and flight.

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“We pretend to work and they pretend to pay us”)

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As Proudhon, anticipating Foucault, famously put it, To be ruled is to be kept an eye on, inspected, spied on, regulated, indoctrinated, sermonized, listed and checked off, estimated, appraised, censured, ordered about by creatures without knowledge and without virtues. To be ruled is at every operation, transaction, movement, to be noted, registered, counted, priced, admonished, prevented, reformed, redressed, corrected.

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John Dunn: If we wish to understand other people and propose to claim that we have in fact done so, it is both imprudent and rude not to attend to what they say…. What we cannot properly do is to claim to know that we understand him [an agent] or his action better than he does himself without access

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to the best descriptions which he is able to offer.6

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writing habits, he put me on to the techniques of essayist Lafcadio Hearn and a more intuitive, free form of composition that begins like a conversation, starting with the most arresting or gripping kernel of an argument and then elaborating, more or less organically, on that kernel.

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You have to stay ‘in shape’ so that when the big day comes you will be ready. What you need is ‘anarchist calisthenics.’ Every day or so break some trivial law that makes no sense, even if it’s only jaywalking. Use your own head to judge whether a law is just or reasonable. That way, you’ll keep trim; and when the big day comes, you’ll be ready.”

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While the citizens of the First Republic and of Napoleon’s empire may have warmly embraced the promise of universal citizenship, they were less enamored of its logical twin, universal conscription.

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“Irish democracy,” the silent, dogged resistance, withdrawal, and truculence of millions of ordinary people, than by revolutionary vanguards or rioting mobs.

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speed limit for cars is 55 miles per hour. Chances are that the traffic police will not be much inclined to prosecute drivers going 56, 57, 58 … even 60 mph, even though it is technically a violation. This “ceded space of disobedience” is, as it were, seized and becomes occupied territory, and soon much of the traffic is moving along at roughly 60 mph.

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I’ve noticed a similar pattern in the way that what begin as “shortcuts” in walking paths often end up becoming paved walkways.

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the principle attributed to Chuang Tzu, “We make the path by walking.”

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An astute colleague of mine once observed that liberal democracies in the West were generally run for the benefit of the top, say, 20 percent of the wealth and income distribution. The trick, he added, to keeping this scheme running smoothly has been to convince, especially at election time, the next 30 to 35 percent of the income distribution to fear the poorest half more than they envy the richest 20 percent. The relative success of this scheme can be judged by the persistence of income inequality—and its recent sharpening—over more than a half century. The times when this scheme comes undone are in crisis situations when popular anger overflows its normal channels and threatens the very parameters within which routine politics operates.

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Or, as Kenneth Boulding put it, “the larger and more authoritarian an organization [or state], the better the chance that its top decision-makers will be operating in purely imaginative worlds.”5

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The utopian management dream of perfect mechanical control was, however, unrealizable not just because trade unions intervened but also because each machine had its own particularities, and a worker who had a vernacular, local knowledge of this particular milling or stamping machine was valuable for that reason. Even on the line, vernacular knowledge was essential to successful production.

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is no exaggeration, I think, to view the past three centuries as the triumph of standardized, official landscapes of control and appropriation over vernacular order. That this triumph has come in tandem with the rise of large-scale hierarchical organizations, of which the state itself is only the most striking example, is entirely logical.

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The logic of scientific extension agriculture in the Andes is analogous to Henry Ford’s Amazonian plantations. It begins with the idea of an “ideal” potato, defined largely but not entirely in terms of yield. Plant scientists then set about breeding a genotype that will most closely approximate the desired characteristics. That genotype is grown in experimental plots to determine the conditions that best allow it to flourish. The main purpose of extension work, then, to retrofit the entire environment of the farmer’s field so as to realize the potential of the new genotype.

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It is said that the postmodern era began at precisely 3 p.m. on March 16, 1972, when the award-winning Pruitt-Igoe high-rise public housing project in St. Louis was finally and officially dynamited to a heap of rubble.

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The effect of this retreat is to create small, relatively self-contained utopian spaces where the desired perfection might be more nearly realized. Model villages, model cities, military colonies, show projects, and demonstration farms offer politicians, administrators, and specialists a chance to create a sharply defined experimental terrain where the number of rogue variables and unknowns is minimized.

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many “designer” national capitals (e.g., Washington, D.C., St. Petersburg, Dodoma, Brasilia, Islamabad, New Delhi, Abuja), they become stand-alone architectural and political statements at odds, and often purposely so, with their larger environment.

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The more highly planned, regulated, and formal a social or economic order is, the more likely it is to be parasitic on informal processes that the formal scheme does not recognize and without which it could not continue to exist, informal processes that the formal order cannot alone create and maintain.

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Here language acquisition is an instructive metaphor. Children do not begin by learning the rules of grammar and then using these rules to construct a successful sentence. They learn to speak the way they learn to walk: by imitation, trial, error, and endless practice. The rules of grammar are the regularities that can be observed in successful speaking, they are not the cause of successful speech.

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Like the city official peering down at the architect’s proposed model of a new development site, we are all prone to the error of equating visual order with working order and visual complexity with disorder. It is a natural and, I believe, grave mistake, and one strongly associated with modernism.

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The Western vegetable garden has some, not all, of the same features. Though it contains many cultivars they are typically planted in straight rows, one cultivar to a row, and look rather like a military regiment drawn up for inspection at a parade. The geometric order is often a matter of pride. Again, there is a striking emphasis on visual regularity from above and outside.

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His idea was to design a raw building site with clean sand, gravel, lumber, shovels, nails, and tools, and then leave it to the kids. It was hugely popular.

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The runaway success of the “adventure playground” at Emdrup led to efforts to emulate it elsewhere: in “Freetown” in Stockholm, “The Yard” in Minneapolis, other “building playgrounds” in Denmark itself, and “Robinson Crusoe” playgrounds in Switzerland, where children were given the tools to make their own sculptures and gardens

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The adventure playground, Colin Ward, writes, is a kind of parable of anarchy, a free society in miniature, with the same tensions and ever-changing harmonies, the same diversity and spontaneity, the same unforced growth of co-operation and release of individual qualities and communal sense, which lie dormant.1

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Play, along with two other major apparently purposeless human activities, sleeping and dreaming, turns out to be foundational, both socially and physically.

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The modern primary and secondary school system has been much altered by changing theories of pedagogy and, most especially, by affluence and the “youth culture” itself. But there is no mistaking its origins in the factory, if not the prison. Compulsory universal education, however democratizing in one sense, has also meant that, with few exceptions, the students have to be there. The fact that attendance is not a choice, not an autonomous act, means that it starts out fundamentally on the wrong foot as a compulsory institution, with all the alienation that this duress implies, especially as children grow older.

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The great tragedy of the public school system, however, is that it is, by and large, a one-product factory.

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Those of us who “won” this race are the lifetime beneficiaries of opportunities and privileges that would not likely otherwise have come our

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Those who do poorly on tests of analytical intelligence may be incredibly talented at one or more of the many forms of intelligence that are neither taught nor valued by the school system.

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And, more broadly, do the cumulative effects of life within the patriarchal family, the state, and other hierarchical institutions produce a more passive subject who lacks the spontaneous capacity for mutuality so praised by both anarchist and liberal democratic theorists. If it does,

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One final fact is worth noting. A society dominated by smallholders and shopkeepers comes closer to equality and to popular ownership of the means of production than any economic system yet devised.

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total of their competitors for graduate or professional school? Have they studied with the best and

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of privilege and position it claimed to replace. It was a great success, not least because it was heavily

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“when a measure becomes a target it ceases to be a good measure.”2 And Matthew Light clarifies: “An authority sets some quantitative standard to measure a particular achievement; those responsible for meeting that standard, do so, but not in the way which was intended.”

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Quantitative technologies work best,” Porter reminds us, “if the world they aim to describe can be remade in their own image.”

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These scientific modernists aspired to minimize the distortions of subjectivity and partisan politics to achieve what Lorraine Daston has called “a-perspectival objectivity,” a view from nowhere.4 The political order most compatible with this view was the disinterested, impersonal rule of a technically educated elite using its scientific knowledge to regulate human affairs. This aspiration was seen as a new “civilizing project.”

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The idea of a meritocracy is the natural traveling companion of democracy and scientific modernism.

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In this respect, the anarchist belief in mutuality without hierarchy and the capacity of ordinary citizens to learn through participation would deplore this short-circuiting of democratic debate.

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audits and quantification.

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in the name of equality and democracy, they function as a vast “antipolitics machine,” sweeping vast realms of legitimate public debate out of the public sphere and into the arms of technical, administrative committees.

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the means by which technical and administrative elites attempt to convince a skeptical public—while excluding that public from the debate—

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They are, today, the hallmark of a neoliberal political order in which the techniques of neoclassical economics have, in the name of scientific calculation and objectivity, come to replace other forms of reasoning.

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He can’t make up his mind, but the day, like an on-rushing train, arrives, and he must do one thing or the other, though he still hasn’t decided. Let’s say he stays with his sick mother. The next day, Sartre writes, he will be able to tell himself and others why he is the kind of man who would chose to stay with his sick mother. He must, having acted, find a narrative that accounts for what he did. This does not, however, explain why he did what he did; rather, it retrospectively makes sense of—creates a satisfying narrative for—an act that cannot be explained in any other way.

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the 1871 Commune of Paris, the U.S. civil rights movement, Paris in 1968, Solidarnosc in Poland, and any number of other complex events are subject to the same qualifications. Their radical contingency tends to be erased, the participants’ consciousness is flattened and too often inoculated with a preternatural knowledge of how things turned out, and the tumult of different understandings and motives is stilled.

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The pageantry of symbolic order is evident not only in public ceremonies such as coronations and May Day parades but in the very architecture of public spaces: squares, statuary, arches, and broad avenues