Originally published at The Benfell Blog. Please leave any comments there.
I recently had to write a paper that I’m not making public in full partly because it would appear without its larger, intense, and somewhat hostile context. It is enough here to say that I think that a professor is legitimately introducing a new paradigm, but failing to redefine the values he claims to uphold and the terms he continues to use whose definitions are rooted in an old paradigm, which means he is failing to make a clean break from that paradigm and that in my view this failure means his scholarship is incomplete. He did not appreciate—and in fact resented—this suggestion.
But a portion of that paper will be useful to my readers. And I am adapting it for presentation here:
I understand nearly, if not all human problems as traceable to hierarchy. The problems of environmental hierarchy stem from a vision of the earth as resources to be exploited rather than as an ecosystem in which we participate. Problems of poverty can be traced to property, which as Proudhon (1994/2007) explained in What is Property? (Cambridge University Press), privileges those who arrive first at the expense of those who come later, when given a right to life each of us has a more or less equal need of and therefore a right to resources to live. Wars represent the attempt to impose by force that which is not agreed to. That which we call crime can often be understood in much the same way as war and as problems of poverty. Problems of racism, sexism, and other forms of prejudice are inherently hierarchical. Health, clean water, and food availability problems in under-served populations, whether around the world or in developed countries are often related to economic systems of exchange, which privilege parties most able to decline deals and thus widen gaps between rich and poor. That much should be obvious to anyone who bothers to consider the fundamental assumptions of society. More generally, as Noam Chomsky (1970/2005) writes in an essay entitled “Language and Freedom” (in B. Pateman, Ed., Chomsky on Anarchism, Edinburgh: AK Press.),
[Predatory capitalism] is not a fit system for the mid-twentieth century. It is incapable of meeting human needs that can be expressed only in collective terms, and its concept of competitive man who seeks only to maximize wealth and power, who subjects himself to market relationships, to exploitation and external authority, is antihuman and intolerable in the deepest sense. (p. 114)
And while T. S. Eliot (1948/1962), in Notes Towards the Definition of Culture (London: Faber & Faber), justified a social stratification based on cultural achievement that people of a particular class were needed to sponsor but which all could appreciate, Chomsky (1969/2005), in his essay entitled “Objectivity and liberal scholarship” (in B. Pateman, Ed., Chomsky on Anarchism, Edinburgh: AK Press), asks “what grounds are there for supposing that those whose claim to power is based on knowledge and technique will be more benign in their exercise of power than those whose claim is based on wealth or aristocratic origin” (p. 13)? Chomsky places the burden of proof for justifying hierarchy on those in authority in an interview entitled “Anarchism, Marxism and Hope for the Future,” (in B. Pateman, Ed., Chomsky on anarchism, Edinburgh: AK Press) with Kevin Doyle (1995/2005):
I think it only makes sense to seek out and identify structures of authority, hierarchy, and domination in every aspect of life, and to challenge them; unless a justification for them can be given, they are illegitimate, and should be dismantled, to increase the scope of human freedom. . . .
That is what I have always understood to be the essence of anarchism: the conviction that the burden of proof has to be placed on authority, and that it should be dismantled if that burden cannot be met. Sometimes the burden can be met. If I’m taking a walk with my grandchildren and they dart out into a busy street, I will use not only authority but also physical coercion to stop them. The act should be challenged, but I think it can readily meet the challenge. (p. 178)
What’s notable here is a vigorous standard of challenge, a challenge Cornel West (2009) clearly appreciates, writing in Brother West: Living and loving out loud (Carlsbad, CA: Smileybooks),
The rabbinical tradition of challenging text is a noble one. A vigorous back-and-forth on a high and respectful level is often illuminating. Socratic questioning—and challenging—is at the very heart of my being. (p. 189)
In many situations, an authority to coordinate or to represent could be granted by consensus, but the person in whom such authority is vested serves expressly at the will of those who consent and only for as long as they consent (Doyle, 1995/2005). But Uri Gordon (2008), in Anarchy alive! Anti-authoritarian politics from practice to theory (London: Pluto) recommends against a grand conception of what an anarchist society should look like; it should evolve according to a consensus among participants.
On entering the Transformative Studies program at California Institute of Integral Studies in 2009, I was seeking an understanding of how people might come to agree to form a society on egalitarian principles. The problem is urgent. Climate change threatens freshwater availability and increased food insecurity for billions of people (Barnett, Adam & Lettenmaier, 2005, “Potential impacts of a warming climate on water availability in snow-dominated regions,” Nature, vol. 438, pp. 303-309; Cribb, April 2007, “The coming famine,” Cosmos). The resulting mass migrations could lead to extremely dangerous conflicts, particularly if extremist evangelical Christian elements who have risen to positions of prominence in the U.S. military interpret such conflicts potentially involving mass migrations of vast numbers of people as Armageddon and are able to circumvent controls on the use of nuclear weapons (Bellovin, September 2, 2009, “Permissive Action Links”; Harwood, July 11, 2010, “Share No Dominion: The Lonely, Dangerous Fight Against Christian Supremacists Inside the Armed Forces,” Truthout; Ludwig, September 30, 2010, “‘Underground’ Group of Cadets Say Air Force Academy Controlled by Evangelicals,” Truthout; Smith, 2007, “Climate change, mass migration and the military response,” Orbis, vol. 51(4), pp. 617-633). If scientists who say humanity faces extinction within 100 years due to climate change are correct (Jones, June 16, 2010, “Frank Fenner sees no hope for humans” Australian), it seems reasonable to expect these conflicts to arise within decades. And if Riane Eisler (2007), in The real wealth of nations (San Francisco: Berrett-Koehler), correctly describes how the formerly “lush green” Sahara was transformed into a desert in a cycle of deforestation and receding grasslands that led herders to war for surrounding territories, we can understand that resource depletion and scarcity supports rather than undermines hierarchy. In short, I now believe any mass acceptance of the need for an egalitarian society would arise too late to save our species. And so I am frankly seeing this area of inquiry as a dead end.