Friday, September 19, 2014

The hole: A children's story

Suppose one day a small group of people got together and decided that digging a hole in the ground would be an interesting way to pass the time. There was no reason that they should choose digging a hole over any other activity, say, building a treehouse or carving pornographic images on rocks. Digging a hole just happened to be what seemed fitting to this particular group of people on this particular day. Suppose that after they had been digging a while, other folks came around and joined in the fun, and pretty soon there was a substantial hole in the ground, large enough for several people to be digging at once.

And the hole got deeper and deeper.

It didn’t take long before the hole was so deep that it was impossible to toss any more dirt out without it falling back in. At this point it was also getting pretty difficult to pull people back to the surface, and most of the folks stopped digging and said “Well, that’s obviously as far as we can go.” But then someone came up with a clever idea. By tying a basket to a length of rope, people on the surface could drop the basket into the hole, people in the hole could fill the basket with dirt, and the people on the surface could pull the basket up, empty it, and then send it back down for another load. Then someone else came up with the creative idea of tying two lengths of rope together at regular intervals to make a ladder that would allow people to climb easily in and out of the hole, and the people started digging once more.

And the hole got deeper and deeper.

The hole got so deep that it became hard for the people digging at the bottom to see what they were doing, and so they stopped digging, and said, “Well, that’s obviously as far as we can go.” But then, someone came up with a clever idea. By rolling beeswax around a string, they made a device that could be burned to provide light sufficient to dig by, and the people started digging once more, by candlelight.

And the hole got deeper and deeper.

After a while, the people digging at the bottom of the hole and the people pulling baskets of dirt to the surface got too tired to continue, and so they stopped digging and pulling, and said, “Well that’s obviously as far as we can go.” But then someone came up with a clever idea. By this point the excavation project had attracted a lot of attention, and there were several people just standing around watching. Some of the spectators could take the place of the diggers and pullers. And when they got tired, other spectators could take over for them. A few of the spectators were persuaded to climb into the hole and dig, and a few others were convinced to pull and empty baskets of dirt.

And the hole got deeper and deeper.

Days passed, and the excavation project became the only subject of conversation. “How deep is it today?” they asked each other. “How deep do you think it can go?” Soon everyone was involved. Everyone was expected to spend part of their day digging and part of their day pulling. Those who were too feeble to dig or pull were expected to make candles or weave rope and baskets.

And the hole got deeper and deeper.

Then, one day tragedy struck. A torrent of water from a surprise rainstorm collapsed part of the hole and buried a group of diggers, killing them all. After the bodies were retrieved, family members of the dead diggers grieved and lamented, “Well, that’s obviously as far as we can go.” But then someone came up with a clever idea. Dying as a digger was a truly praiseworthy end. Such a sacrifice simply cannot go unrewarded. Surely there is an inestimable reward in the afterlife for diggers who meet such a fate. And the people agreed. And a shrine was built in their honor.

And the hole got deeper and deeper.

More days passed, and the hole become so deep that the air at the bottom was hot and hard to breathe, and even a few hours of digging became difficult to endure. And the pullers had to pull so long to raise a basket that their hands became blistered and sore. And they stopped digging and pulling and said, “Well, that’s obviously as far as we can go.” But then someone came up with a clever idea. A person who refuses to act of their own accord, can be convinced to act if they have to in order to survive. And so the community elders made it a law that an able bodied person could not have access to food or shelter or partake in any pleasurable community activities until they spent the expected amount of time digging and pulling. Those who were not so able bodied were still required to make candles and weave rope and baskets, but now according to law they could not eat until they met their candle or basket quota.

And the hole got deeper and deeper.

Then one day, a group of pullers decided that they had had enough, dropped their ropes, and left the town for the forest where they could hunt and collect their own food and live life in peace without having to work on the stupid hole. Soon several diggers, candle makers, and weavers joined them. And a few of the community elders said, “Well, that’s obviously as far as we can go.” But then someone came up with a clever idea. Since the people who fled to the forest broke the law, they have forfeited their rights to equal consideration in the community. A posse was formed and the defectors in the forest were rounded up, fitted with shackles, and forced to work on the hole at the end of a whip.

And the hole got deeper and deeper.

But the shackles and whippings made the workers clumsy and inefficient. Work on the hole began to slow to a crawl. Some in the community became uncomfortable with the cruel treatment of the workers and others started to question why there needed to be a hole in the first place. For a brief time, it looked like the entire hole-digging enterprise would collapse. But then someone got a clever idea. Children could be taught from an early age that hole-digging is the greatest of aspirations. What they learn as children will carry forward as adults, and shackles or whips will rarely be needed because the idea of doing something other than working on the hole will be unthinkable for most people, and anyone who would turn their back on the hole would become a pariah and considered an abomination. A program of compulsory education was developed and implemented. The children grew up with internalized whips and shackles, and eagerly joined the ranks of diggers, pullers, candle makers, and weavers.

And the hole got deeper and deeper.

Tuesday, September 2, 2014

Social ecology and the techno trap

Corin Bruce penned a nice essay providing a cogent definition of green anarchism and situating green anarchism in relation to other anarchist perspectives. All forms of anarchism share a fundamental antagonism toward hierarchy. For classical anarchism, oppressive subordination to the bureaucratic state was the target. For more recent forms of “social anarchism,” the target has broadened to include all potentially oppressive hierarchical relations among people, including those based on race, class, gender, and sexual orientation. Social anarchism holds that all relations should be fundamentally egalitarian. Green anarchism takes the logical next step and applies this principle to the nonhuman world as well. Green anarchism thus represents the most developed form of anarchist thinking, according to Bruce.

Bruce then describes a variant of green anarchism that has been called social ecology, which takes all of the ideals of social anarchism and extends them to all sentient beings. Domination is wrong whether the target is a human being, a domestic pig, or an old growth forest.

So far so good. But then Bruce dismisses primitivism with a simple wave of the hand, and rows the boat right off the edge of the map.

Social ecology is not anti-technology, Bruce cautions, and should not be confused with those muddle-headed primitivist anti-civilization critiques that—although they “certainly come infused with interesting anarchist currents”—apparently don’t fit within anarchism proper. Social ecology is a perspective that happily embraces “the most desirable aspects of modern society, such as its alleged focus on reason, science, and technology.”

Wait a minute now, Corin. The problem for all anarchists is the oppressive operation of hierarchy. Social ecology extends this anti-hierarchy focus to the nonhuman world, and presumably rejects all forms of domestication. What is primitivism other than a call to adopt non-domestic lifestyles? But let’s take reason, science, and technology in order.

Reason should not be a problem for any form of anarchism. Reason is not an invention of civilization. Nor is it limited to humans. Several other species clearly operate on their environment in rational ways.

Science, too, at least in terms of core notions about the importance of systematic observation, was practiced by the very first humans. However, science as a category of civilized activity that includes the partitioning and sanctioning of authority and expertise is a paradigmatic application of hierarchy in the social world, and is plainly inconsistent with the ideals of social ecology.

But it’s the tolerance of complex technology that makes social ecology—and all other non-primitivist anarchist perspectives—incoherent. Technology is the direct application of hierarchy. Hierarchy is the single dominant feature shared by all forms of technology, from the simple hand loom to the international corporation. If green anarchy—and more specifically, social ecology—rejects the subordination of the natural world though the application of hierarchy, then all forms of technology are potentially suspect, and anything much more complex than a hand loom is rendered off limits.

In addition, and most importantly, it is simply not possible to have complex technology without the hierarchical subordination of human beings. This basic fact is what renders classical anarchism and all other forms of anarchism that limit their focus to economic considerations incoherent. An egalitarian sharing of control over the means of production turns to millimeter thin ice when it comes to questions about who gets to work in the coal mines.

I think that Bruce is on the right track in terms of placing classical, social, and green versions of anarchism in order of progressive coherence. And I really like the idea that the increasing coherence of anarchist perspectives is tied to an increasingly generalized rejection of hierarchical relationships. But the dismissal of primitivism is clearly unjustifiable. By Bruce’s own logic, primitivism represents the most highly developed form of anarchist thought because it casts the broadest anti-hierarchy net and takes the rejection of hierarchy to its logical extreme.