This is just a short reflection for the weekend, a few brief paragraphs about the reasons why I reacted so positively to my first explorations of Peter Kropotkin’s work in nearly a decade. So often in academic philosophy, we classify the theorists who are pivotal in our history. Analytic and Continental are, of course, the two major classifications most people in the discipline are familiar with. Honestly, I feel almost tired discussing these categories, not only because they grossly oversimplify a genuinely complex exchange of ideas, but because they’ve become such stereotypes.
I went back to Kropotkin for the Utopias project, because the foundation of modern anarchism, whose most fertile period was the 19th century, will be very important to its denouement. My Utopias is ultimately a critique of faith in the directed action of large-scale state power to change our world for the better.
I have some libertarian friends on the internet who tell me that the only true opposition to state power is libertarian society, but that philosophy focusses too much on the dogma of competition in an absolutely free market as a solution. I simply don’t believe that markets can arrive at optimal solutions for social ills without a lot of stumbling, cheating, ancillary destruction, and above all, wasted time.
Some form of community action — I don’t want to say communism, because that term is so difficult to rescue for any purpose beyond polemics anymore — makes necessary social change as quickly as possible. I’m engaging anarchist political philosophy because of my intuition that its set of concepts offers the best framework for a creative solution to our problem of social change.
The recent anarchist theory I’ve read, such as Robert Paul Wolff, focusses mostly on negative arguments: arguing for anarchism because of the flaws of capitalism, communism, or representative models of democratic government more generally. That fertile period of the late 19th and early 20th centuries — the time of Kropotkin, Mikhail Bakunin, and Emma Goldman — seems to offer a positive, constructive, creative vision of what an anarchist world would be.
|There are very few creatures in the world capable of|
surviving and thriving in a dangerous, cold world alone.
Kropotkin is usually included in the typical list of anarchist political theorists. As I said before, I first read his work in an undergraduate political theory course. But when you read his masterwork Mutual Aid, you see a book of naturalism and prototypical ecology transitioning into a work of political theory. It uses an analysis of activities that are optimally adaptive to the harsh environment of the Siberian wilderness to draw conclusions about how humans can best live. From a particular point of view, this makes Kropotkin an early forerunner not only of anarchist theory, but of the environmentalist political philosophers that arose in the late 20th century.
The atmosphere of the late 19th century was so polemical that Kropotkin was considered a radical scientist for even suggesting an alternative to the paradigm of natural selection as shaped by brutal struggle among individuals. In that context, even suggesting the importance of sociality and maintenance of communal peace for evolutionary fitness — hell, even suggesting that many species of animal were primarily social — was an insane suggestion in some circles.
Kropotkin’s move from an analysis of evolutionary adaptation and optimality in natural selection to moral and political prescriptions for the best human practice in organizing our communities is dangerous in some major philosophical sub-disciplines today. It would amount to the naturalistic fallacy, that one cannot derive the rightness of some particular moral principle from empirical facts about the world; that one cannot derive an ought from an is. At most, one can derive hypothetical practical prescriptions: that one could say what is prudent, given our nature and our situation, but not what is right.
My own Ecophilosophy project includes a similar move, developing a moral injunction, or at least an ethical attitude, in response to the question of how best to deal with the current global ecological crisis. Insofar as we are currently drowning in our own multifaceted industrial shit, what are the best political and ethical habits to rescue ourselves, and what are the best concepts by which we should understand ourselves to encourage these habits? It is a political and moral question, but it is ultimately one of prudence.*
* I also discuss how the stance of prudent action to survive can stand up to the broader existential question of whether humanity deserves to survive at all, but that’s for another time.
The separation of questions of moral rightness from questions of prudent actions to achieve specific goals in the world has always struck me as problematic, even though it is widely accepted as a dogma. It seems, as far as I’m concerned at least, to presume that the grounds of what is morally right are somehow separate from the world. Such a presumption inserts an unhealthily personalized transcendence into thought, and I think thought works best when it’s rooted entirely in the material world.
Maybe that’s why Kropotkin strikes me as a fellow traveller. He looked around him, and the world he saw gave him a notion of how the world could be better.