Anarchy is Progress!

Posted: June 26, 2005 at 10:01 pm in people, politics

A friend of mine pointed me at this email, where a reader of Gizmodo criticizes them for having the temerity to insult the Queen of England. In particular, he says:

Some institutions in the world, like the church, must stay intact or it causes a breakdown in civilization. There must be a counterbalance that allows some sort of order; if not you get chaos and anarchy. With this comes another “dark ages”.

This got me thinking. Why is it that so many people treat the concept of anarchy as an undeniable evil? As if there could be no discussion that anarchy is an unmitigated bad. Perhaps it is because such people can not conceive of a society where they are not told what to do, operating at level four of Kohlberg’s moral order. They can only conceive of a society where morality operates via laws, as opposed to the higher Kohlberg levels where universal moral principles supercede laws. So they equate anarchy with evil because no laws means no morals.

My friend pointed out another interesting correlation, that the emailer in question linked anarchy and chaos to the dark ages. Ironically, the dark ages were close to the exact opposite of anarchy and chaos. Not that my friend and I are medieval history experts or anything, but based on our understanding, the dark ages were characterized by a total domination of thought and ideas by the church, and by the rigidly strict social order of feudalism. If anything, the dark ages were characterized by total order and structure, not anarchy and chaos. It was only when mercantilism broke the back of feudalism and the entire social order was overthrown that we came out of stasis and started advancing again.

I think I could make a decent case that the Dark Ages were dark precisely because they were too ordered. There was no place for creativity to thrive, because creativity is always about changing the current order. Creativity thrives in the interstices, in the borders between different systems. A diverse environment, where no one influence dominates, may appear to be chaotic and anarchic, but it’s also where different influences can combine with each other and evolve via some form of natural selection.

So, in some sense, a state of anarchy, a free-for-all where everything is up for grabs, is essential to progress. Order is the enemy of creativity. Order promotes stagnation, anarchy promotes progress. Not that order is an unmitigated evil either. Both order and anarchy have their place. To use Pirsig’s vocabulary, Dynamic Quality (aka anarchy) is how we advance, and Static Quality (aka order) is what ratchets things into place to keep us from backsliding. Once a new influence has been hatched in the nursery of anarchy, and demonstrated its superiority to other ideas, it can be absorbed into the collective order.

Okay, I think I’ve mixed enough metaphors for the evening. Time to call it a night.

P.S. To be fair, I’m biased in that I’ve had a longtime interest in anarchy, and treat it as a state to which to aspire, rather than a situation to be feared; hence my strong reaction to the comment I linked to.

P.P.S. I heard recently that they’re turning V for Vendetta, a graphic novel that is one of my favorite depictions of anarchy, into a movie. I was initially horrified because I didn’t see how they could do it justice, but after checking out IMDB, and finding out that the Wachowski brothers (the Matrix dudes) are producing, and Natalie Portman and Hugo Weaving are starring, I’m actually kind of excited. It could be really interesting.

5 Responses to “Anarchy is Progress!”

  1. The Rantings of Eric Nehrlich || Enlightened Selfishness || June || 2005 Says:

    [...]
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    Enlightened Selfishness Anarchy is Progress! Ultimate photo Cubicle Zen Sile [...]

  2. The Rantings of Eric Nehrlich || At Home in the Universe, by Stuart Kauffman || July || 2005 Says:

    [...] visible Cities, by Italo Calvino Recipe for a good conversation Enlightened Selfishness Anarchy is Progress! Ultimate photo Cubicle Zen Sile [...]

  3. The Rantings of Eric Nehrlich || Designing for the Collective Says:

    [...] So after mulling it over today, I think that this is my current Theory of Everything: taking the idea of ever-growing collectives seriously as the basis for our cooperatively-constructed, sometimes-overlapping realities. I think that it could be used to come up with design principles that are fundamentally different than what we have now. There is no one “right” way to design something, because different collectives have different needs and different values. Figuring out ways to allow different people access to other collectives’ values in a way that respects privacy is going to be interesting. But I’m attracted to the concept of these little small-scale collectives agglomerating together in support of various things (probably my romantic anarchic tendencies showing). [...]

  4. The Rantings of Eric Nehrlich || Responsibility Says:

    [...] In general, I tend to believe in individual freedom and individual responsibility. Heck, I’m a borderline anarchist. “An ye harm none, do as thou wilt”, and all that. But this is one of those weeks (as many of you know) where I’m questioning that. Because even if I think I am only risking myself, I’m not. I am embedded in communities, of family, of friends, of work, of sports, etc. If I were to injure myself, it doesn’t just affect me; it has a rippling effect outwards on all the people I interact with, all the members of my communities. For some of them, it would have barely any effect at all (my informal ultimate frisbee league wouldn’t miss a beat, nor would the chorus), but for others, it would be devastating. So where does the balance lie? When am I taking on too much risk? [...]

  5. Eric Nehrlich, Unrepentant Generalist || Intelligent Organizations for the Rest of Us || July || 2008 Says:

    [...] away from the self-organizing aspect of the organization I described yesterday (as usual, I hold anarchy as a romantic ideal) and towards an organization where the job of managers is to frame the company vision so as to make [...]

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