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

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TWO CHEERS FOR ANARCHISM: SIX EASY PIECES ON AUTONOMY, DIGNITY, AND MEANINGFUL WORK AND PLAY

By James C. Scott

Princeton Univ. Press

169 pp. $24.95

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FOR THOSE OF US WHO REMEMBER THE 1970s as a time of lifestyle liberation and economic malaise, the word "anarchy" was nothing less than a punk cry of affirmation and an existential call to action. "I am an anti-Christ/I am an anarchist," snarled Johnny Rotten of the Sex Pistols in 1976, in one of the great forced rhyme schemes of all time. Yet the band's song "Anarchy in the U.K."--and punk more generally--presaged not a collapse of British or American or even Western civilization, but a do-it-yourself revolution in cultural production and consumption that rejected top-down, centralized authority and hidebound tradition. Not coincidentally, economic decentralization took place too--President Jimmy Carter deregulated airline pricing and interstate trucking rates, British prime minister Margaret Thatcher loosened government controls on business, and even French president Francois Mitterrand, a Socialist, ultimately sold off state-owned industries. The Iron Curtain, rusted out for decades, finally collapsed by the early 1990s, literally incapable of keeping its repressive, soul-killing act together.

In Two Cheers for Anarchism, James C. Scott channels Proudhon more than punk while making a case for a kinder, gentler form of rebellion than the sort of bomb-throwing, street-fighting revolution typically associated with anarchism. Following Pierre-Joseph Proudhon, the 19th-century French theorist who asserted that "property is theft," Scott defines anarchism loosely as "mutuality, or cooperation without hierarchy or state rule' (emphasis in the original). His rejection of "a comprehensive anarchist worldview and philosophy" is mirrored in the structure of the book, which consists of what he terms "fragments" rather than traditional chapters, the better to underscore the provisionality and narrow scope of his insights.

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For Scott, anarchy is less a full-blown program than a tendency that privileges "politics, conflict, and debate" and shows a robust "tolerance for confusion and improvisation that accompanies social learning." Most of all, it's a rejection of rule by elites of any and all stripes, especially those who seek to remove themselves from scrutiny by claiming some sort of impersonal scientific basis for their rule.

Scott recognizes that total revolution often leads to something worse than what it replaces. "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," he writes. Two Cheers for Anarchism thus echoes themes from Scott's previous books, including Seeing Like a State: How Certain Schemes to Improve the Human Condition Have Failed (1998). That work analyzed how disaster routinely results from grand plans to remake society according to some leader or elite's unified field theory of how the world should be. This book explores how the little people work around the grand plan imposed on them.

Scott uses what he engagingly calls his "anarchist squint" to find all sorts of generally unacknowledged mini-revolts happening around us. These range from the puny--stepping off sidewalks in defiance of "don't walk" signs--to the profound. For instance, he describes an art project created by anarchists in West Germany shortly before it was reunified with its communist counterpart in 1990. The activists, Scott writes, hauled a papier-mache statue called Monument to the Unknown Deserters of Both World Wars around cities in East Germany, creating an unauthorized display that inevitably raised the ire of local officials. The statue "bore the legend, 'This is for the man who refused to kill his fellow man. …