Can Anarchic Societies Keep Order?

Taylor’s discussion procceds roughly like this: here are the human societies that we know of that have been anarchic for long periods, here are the ways that they have maintained order, and here is why these methods won’t work in the absence of a strong sense of community.

Of course, one easy way to respond to this is to say that these past societies aren’t a good model, and that entirely different methods of keeping order are available. But this has the cost of removing anarchist politics even further from real-life experience, when it’s already pretty far away.

I don’t think that’s necessary, though, because I think the methods that Taylor discusses can be adjusted quite easily to deal with larger, more mobile societies, without losing their anarchic character. But first I should fill in the details of his argument.

Taylor defines ‘social order’ as “security of persons and their property (however much or little property there is)”. To maintain social order means both to ensure that everyone can expect not to be the target of violence, and to ensure that important rules formulated by the community (such as those about use of resources) are sufficiently adhered to.

Taylor defines ‘anarchy’ as a situation with dispersed, not concentrated, control of the means of coercion and force, and I’ll follow him in that definition for now. In this sense, as a society where each individual has (roughly) as much political power and right to use it as each other, there have been roughly three categories of anarchy in history:

  • ‘primitive anarchies’, the dominant or even only sort of society throughout human pre-history,
  • ‘peasant communes’, which for much of history have been externally subordinated to a state, but internally run in a (roughly) anarchic way, and
  • ‘intentional communities’, which actively set up independnet mini-societies during the 19th and 20th centuries, again run anarchically while also part of an external, state-governed, society.

It can be observed already that these examples are not automatically good models for the aspirations of anarchists; they’re either very dependent on an external society that they are situated within, or else they are pre-scientific, with all the differences that brings in worldview, culture, etc. (which I think are quite large). But anyway. Taylor says that these three have all used some combination of four methods to maintain social order:

  1. The threat of ‘self-help’ retaliation;
  2. The threat of withdrawing reciprocity and mutual aid;
  3. Social approval and disapproval;
  4. the threat of, or accusations of, witchcraft.

Unsurprisingly, Taylor doesn’t pay much attention to 4, and neither will I – it depends on superstition, and anarchism aims, in Emma Goldman’s words, at the “economic, social, political, and spiritual” emancipation of humanity. I’m also going to set aside 1, since it involves quite different issues to 2 and 3. So why does Taylor think that 2 and 3 are specific to small, stable, communities?

He says:

“The practice of reciprocity is unlikely to flourish (and therefore the threat of its withdrawl cannot be an effective social control) where people do not have stable relations with known individuals – individuals who are expected to remain in the group and who are able therefore to reciprocate aid…

gossip…ridiculing and shaming devices…operate more effectively on an individual if he is known to all or most of the community, if his delicts or his defaulting on reciprocal giving become known to almost everyone in his world, if he cannot escape into anonymity and must continue to live for the rest of his life with the same small set of people…

the effectiveness of gossip, ridicule, and shaming in maintaining social order depends not only on smallness and stability but on…shared beliefs and values and direct many-sided relations; for a person who does not deal directly with those around him or has only one-sided and specialised relations with some of them, and has few values and beliefs in common with them, is unlikely to be very sensitive to their criticism.”

It seems to me that these points can be summed up by saying that in conditions of community, each individual is much more ‘dependent’ on others – their opinions and actions have a very great effect on the individual’s life.

By contrast, in a large, diverse, mobile society like modern Canada, individuals become more ‘independent’ of each other – if person X lives next door to me, and hates me, I don’t have to care. As a result, in such a society the threat of withdrawing reciprocal aid or of social disapproval is much weaker, and (Taylor implies) probably too weak to effectively control anti-social behaviour.

But this is only half the picture. Perhaps modern individuals are much less dependent on aid and respect from any single others – but I’m also enormously dependent on others in general.

Whereas in, say, a hunter-gatherer community, I might be able with a bit of luck to find my own food and make any tool I need, here in Toronto I depend on other people to make and transport to me more or less everything I use, as well as to transport me around, to maintain and repair the technology I use, to keep my home supplied with water, electricity, etc., to keep me healthy, etc. And because I’m in close proximity to millions of people everyday I’m in some ways more vulnerable to their opinions and expressions of those opinions.

This means that large, mobile, modern society has just as much ‘power’, in the sense of providing benefits which could be withdrawn, as a small stable community does, although it may have it in different forms. Of course, it needs to be able to wield this, and Taylor suggests that without ‘stable relationships with known individuals’, people won’t be able to keep track of who’s behaving well and who’s behaving badly.

But modern societies don’t need to rely on any individual’s memory: they have the vast information-processing resources of electronic technology at their disposal. Indeed, we already have a form of social control that corresponds roughly to the ‘withdrawl of reciprocity’, namely fines. To impose a fine is simply to alter some symbols, which will then convey to any of the thousands of people the victim may deal with, that this individual should not be rendered aid.

This is possible, indeed easy, because we have the money-system to play the role of highly-mediated, large-scale ‘reciprocity’. Of course many anarchists would want to see large changes to this system itself – but it still illustrates that ‘withdrawl of mutual aid’ can be managed and implemented as a form of social control as effectively in large modern societies as in small stable communities.

Indeed, the amount of control that modern technology places in the hands of society to wield against individuals is probably sufficient that the ‘problem of social order’ that Taylor worries about is no more difficult or pressing than the opposite problem, of enabling individual autonomy in the face of social pressure to conform. But that’s another topic.

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2 Responses to Can Anarchic Societies Keep Order?

  1. I’ve also read this book (maybe I’m one of the few other people in the world that has! ;-)). I felt similarly to you that he failed to adequately explore alternative options for decentralised forms of maintaining order. Some thoughts that occurred to me, although I haven’t thought them through in a detailed way: (1) anarchist communities would presumably, in any case, have to have a mechanism for restraining people who are violent, murderous, etc. beyond just reputational ones – the point is that this form of power should be exercised not by a centralised state but in a decentralised, democratic manner, (2) rather than fines, one could imagine a modern economy that was integrated with a high tech communication system like the internet, in which individuals have a form of economic ‘reputation’ or something like that. This could be used for non-violent crimes, perhaps of an economic nature. Having a bad rep would increase the cost of economic activity, and so it would discourage people from economic crimes (costs higher than benefit).

    Potential problems with these are: for (1), the exercise of power over others, even if done democratically and locally, can be problematic without a clear sense of what the limits of that exercise of power should be. For example, one wants to avoid oppression of minorities. However, I think this is a general problem for anarchism and not specific to this case. My feeling is that the only resolution to it is that a change of consciousness, towards individual liberalism, is a necessary prerequisite for anarchism both to come into existence, and to be stable. If this condition holds, the local, democratic exercise of power shouldn’t be problematic. For (2), there is a potential problem with the intrusiveness of an economy in which all individuals are tracked on a database (which could be centralised or decentralised). Unfortunately, for a modern economy I suspect this is pretty much inevitable in any case (anarchism or not).

    So, like you I don’t think that Taylor’s criticisms are show stoppers for anarchism. But they do focus attention on some tricky issues.

    • lukeroelofs says:

      On 1, I agree, and will hopefully have more to say about that topic – it’s roughly Taylor’s number 1, self-help retaliation. I think the point that “the exercise of power over others…can be problematic without a clear sense of what the limits of that exercise of power should be” is a really good one, and that’s one of the reasons I’m inclined to want some role for formal institutions rather than just community – formal rules give space for, say, minority rights to be held up as an abstract principle, rather than applied only when it feels right to people intuitively. But at the same time, formal rules don’t do much without a culture or mindset to support them, so this can only be a very partial point.

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