Centralizing vs Networking Politics I: Primitive Men, Research Time, 08/09/2014

Following on from Friday’s post about my reading through Colin Ward, there are more subtle differences as well in the anarchist thinking of the 1870s and 1910s, with the anarchist thinking of the 1970s. There was a trend in 19th century radical politics of understanding primitive societies as a more authentic form of human existence. 

These communities were understood to have had a more anarchist bent. Early anthropologists (we couldn’t even really call these initial explorers by this name) saw these communities living in peace without strong police forces or powerful leaders. The problem is that, some sparse exceptions aside, most of these accounts of ancient tribal societies basically used proto-anthropological techniques to dress up Noble Savage myths. Essentially, they took a racist view, and remained racist, even while valorizing these societies as possessing what the West had forgotten.* They still ignored the complexity of tribal life.

* I’ve mentioned before that I’ve come across this kind of worshipful racism in environmental philosophy before, where ignorant Western academics talk about indigenous groups as if they had some magical epistemic connection to the life-force of the land itself. I could never take this as more than Magical Red Man bull.

Ward’s essays in Anarchy in Action describe how many of our social neuroses are the result of our modern urban institutions and living arrangements. Here’s one example. The populations that have the most unrealistically outsized fear of violence, particularly from such amorphously ambiguous evils as drug dealers and street gangs,** are suburbs. 

** In addition, it’s usually pretty clear what skin colour these nefarious groups are.

These are communities that are built around the isolation of individual families. Instead of living as close neighbours and sharing amenities and workplaces in walkable distances, families isolate themselves in their homes and isolate themselves in their cars to drive to their workplaces in entirely different municipalities. These communities are already incredibly homogeneous, though Ward uses the delicious word, “purified,” to describe their makeup.

A Western anthropologist with his subjects. Who do you think
is the most primitive?
In real life, ancient tribal communities have diverse models of self-governance, some with authorities and some without such centralization. But what’s really interesting about the tribal communities that matter for Ward’s analysis is precisely that authority isn’t necessary. We’re used to living in our isolated neighbourhoods that barely deserve the name, and which couldn’t be regulated and peaceful without the punitive powers of police-enforced laws. 

The suburban hysteric believes that conflict in communities will inevitably become violent unless the police are there, with their monopoly on arms and violence, to enforce legal and civil settlement. This is the type of person who believes that the citizens, particularly the blacks, are responsible for the violence in Ferguson, and that we should all naturally obey the law and trust the police. Our police, at best, have to earn our trust. But a person who is afraid of anyone who is different or unknown will believe that authorities are there to protect them, and will shy away from the uncomfortable thought that a militarized police force will not have the best interests of the citizens at heart.

Ward has found anthropology which describes societies that we should model ourselves after. The distinction isn’t between primitive and modern, although modern societies often exhibit this problematic structure. The distinction that matters is between networked and centralized societies. 

Centralized societies have authorities that regulate citizens’ movements, and invest authority in leaders who control the citizens with police who have various leeway to enact violence. Most Western societies are of this type, or at least they predominate among social structures. Networked societies operate through constant communication between autonomous units, which can be individuals or groups. They coordinate their activities through this communication in dynamic tension. 

Ward makes the case, using analytical techniques developed in business studies at his time, that these network societies are actually the most efficient. They are the only societies where all the component individuals and groups can develop the skills and epistemic powers to carry out their business on their own. Centralized societies are always prone to micromanagement from authorities, which is usually ignorant of the detailed situations on the ground precisely because we are human and we can’t physically understand absolutely everything. 

Central authorities confuse and alienate their citizens this way, while networked actors without any authorities critique and question each other as equals and let us all get on with our lives, working separately on our own concerns, and joining together to work on common problems. What kind of society do you think is the most “primitive”?

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