Keys to the Kingdom for Crooks

There was a moment in the comprehensive exams I took for my Master’s degree when my prospects seemed pretty bleak, a moment that I gather is part of the ritual in which the professors on the committee seek to make a candidate feel inadequate. They do it well, and I am unconvinced that it is necessarily a bad thing for someone about to receive an advanced degree to experience a bit of humility.

The professors on my committee all knew I was an anarchist. And one of the questions that accompanies anarchism is a question of what an anarchist society would look like. It is one thing to observe that our present social order assumes that a certain class of people are uniquely competent to direct the rest of us. It is quite another to suggest how an egalitarian society might coordinate its activities. One of the professors and I had had previous discussions of this, so on this occasion, I was ready.

“The correct answer to that question,” I said, “is ‘I don’t know, but let’s work on it together.'” This response (based on Uri Gordon, Anarchy Alive![1]) assumes that humans can cooperate to develop a society on a non-hierarchical basis.

There’s actually good reason to believe this is the case. Indigenous societies, whose members often live better lives than we do, are principally non-hierarchical and view wilderness not as hostile but as providing amply for their needs.[2] I can’t find the reference now, but in an Anthropology class I took at CSU East Bay, I learned that even the “chief,” the much-vaunted authority in tribes, had little if any coercive authority, but instead led by example. If an area needed sweeping for example, he would pick up a broom himself. Other members of the tribe would see him, and feel that they should join in. I understood this at the time as a power of shaming.

This sense that people should cooperate with each other was apparently very powerful. In the late 19th and early 20th Centuries, Peter Kropotkin documented how the aristocracy labored for hundreds of years to suppress it and how they only prevailed because townspeople failed to extend their cooperation to surrounding farmers.[3] Riane Eisler describes peaceful, somewhat less hierarchical societies that prevailed until about 5,000-8,000 years ago, in which male and female gender roles were more fair,[4] and she has made a career of arguing for a partnership society which values caregivers.[5]

Indeed, the notion of humans as innately greedy and evil seems to be a uniquely Christian—not even Jewish or Muslim—idea.[6] But that we can be induced to evil is indisputable, perhaps most insidiously when Spanish soldiers accompanying the Missions in California raped Indian women to stigmatize them and thus to introduce hierarchy into Indian society and thus to prepare Indians to acquiesce to European authority.[7] Such evil is reinforced socially through the power of the situation, as Philip Zimbardo demonstrated in the horrific Stanford Prison Experiment,[8] which apparently reflects a near-universal experience of prisons.[9]

For as long as we accept the notion of humans as naturally brutal to humans, there is need for a police force, for punishment, and for laws for the police to enforce. And thus we must have an elite to pass those laws which apply to everyone else.

Missing in this argument, of course, is that if humans are naturally brutal to humans, then the elite, presumably composed of humans, will be brutal to everyone else. We should then perhaps accept as inevitable white collar crime, which whether measured in dollars, injuries, or deaths, costs society far more than so-called “common” crime. Sanctions against such crime are lightly and rarely enforced, even where they exist.[10] And thus we know that even if Christians are right about human nature, that in privileging select humans with near-impunity, hierarchy is an inadequate solution to the problem.

I’ve filled in many pieces of this argument since that day of my comprehensive exam. At the time, the professors on my committee enacted their ritual behavior, in low, authoritarian voices, expressing extreme doubt. “I don’t know,” they declared in unison, and I have to say that when I was on the spot, it didn’t feel like a mere ritual. I felt like I was in trouble. But I replied, looking directly at the evangelical Protestant Libertarian on my committee, that if the Christians are right, we’re all doomed anyway. He assented, and that seemed to settle the matter.

And yes, I had an evangelical Protestant Libertarian on my committee. Bill Alnor, now deceased from prostate cancer that had migrated to his spine, worked on issues of plagiarism and of televangelist fraud. Another member of my committee, Agha Saeed, is founder and chairman of the American Muslim Alliance. Even so, the chair of my committee, Bob Terrell, seemed a little surprised—and, I think, that I was so conversant on the topic—that so much of the exam had been about religion as we walked over to the student union for a congratulatory tea, and the final bit of ritual, in which they announced that I had passed.

But humans are not naturally brutal. Barbara Ehrenreich is compelling when she writes,

In fact, throughout history, individual men have gone to near-suicidal lengths to avoid participating in wars—a fact that proponents of a warlike instinct tend to slight. Men have fled their homelands, served lengthy prison terms, hacked off limbs, shot off feet or index fingers, feigned illness or insanity, or if they could afford to, paid surrogates to fight in their stead. “Some draw their teeth, some blind themselves, and others maim themselves, on their way to us,” the governor of Egypt complained of his peasant recruits in the early nineteenth century. So unreliable was the rank and file of the eighteenth-century Prussian army that military manuals forbade camping near a woods or forest: The troops would simply melt away into the trees.

Proponents of a warlike instinct must also reckon with the fact that even when men have been assembled, willingly or unwillingly, for the purpose of war, fighting is not something that seems to come “naturally” to them. In fact, surprisingly, even in the thick of battle, few men can bring themselves to shoot directly at individual enemies. The difference between an ordinary man or boy and a reliable killer, as any drill sergeant could attest, is profound. A transformation is required: The man or boy leaves his former self behind and becomes something entirely different, perhaps even taking a new name. . . .[11]

Ehrenreich points similarly to the sacralization of the hunt in indigenous society as a human recognition that while necessary, the taking of an animal’s life, is regrettable. She argues that the apparently common practices of human and animal sacrifice conflate animals and humans as prey and predator, exchanging roles, and that the practice of sacrifice was compelling for the horror it inspired, that it served ruling classes, casting them as predators, and by this means keeping the masses in their place. Where I think she goes wrong in her assessment of how humans come to be violent, how war comes to be commonplace, is in her reliance on the hunt or even meat as a substantial part of indigenous diets.[12] It is dangerous to generalize across a variety of human societies in a variety of environments, but in fact, in all the ecological systems that indigenous humans occupied and exploited, cultivation of crops seems to have been absent only in tundra, northern coniferous forest regions (like Siberia), and in the seas. Hunting was an unreliable source of food and the vast majority of most indigenous diets was probably plant-based.[13] (I’ll have more on Ehrenreich’s work in a forthcoming post.)

Given all this, the elite appear as usurpers, inducing humans to act against humans. And the inequality which they create has to be a factor in the violence that we have come to expect from our fellow humans, that rationalizes the system of criminal injustice.[14] Not only have we erred in licensing criminals to loot our society in the guise of white collar crime, but in so doing, we foster the conditions that justify their position; we have not only created a kingdom, but given the keys to that kingdom to crooks. Their privileged position is undeserved and unwarranted.

  1. [1]Uri Gordon, Anarchy Alive! Anti-Authoritarian Politics from Practice to Theory (London: Pluto, 2008).
  2. [2]Max Oelschlaeger, The Idea of Wilderness (New Haven, CT: Yale University, 1991); Scott Sernau, Worlds Apart: Social Inequalities in a Global Economy, 2nd ed. (Thousand Oaks, CA: Pine Forge, 2006).
  3. [3]Peter Kropotkin, The State: Its Historic Role (London: Freedom Press, 1997); Peter Kropotkin, Mutual Aid: A Factor of Evolution (Mineola, NY: Dover, 2006).
  4. [4]Riane Eisler, The Chalice and the Blade: Our History, Our Future (New York: HarperSanFrancisco, 1995).
  5. [5]Riane Eisler, The Power of Partnership (Novato, CA: New World Library, 2002); Riane Eisler, The Real Wealth of Nations: Creating a Caring Economics (San Francisco: Berrett-Koehler, 2007)
  6. [6]Hans Küng, Islam: Past, Present and Future, John Bowden, trans. (Oxford: One World, 2007).
  7. [7]Antonia I. Castañeda, “Sexual Violence and the Politics of Conquest in Alta California,” in Major Problems in Mexican American History, Zaragosa Vargas, ed. (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1999), 54-61.
  8. [8]Philip Zimbardo, The Lucifer Effect: Understanding How Good People Turn Evil (New York: Random House, 2008).
  9. [9]Fielding Dawson, No Man’s Land (Sebastopol, CA: Times Change, 2000); Peter Kropotkin, “Prisons and Their Moral Influence on Prisoners,” in The Essential Kropotkin, Emile Capouya and Keitha Tompkins, eds. (New York: Liveright, 1975); Peter Kropotkin, Memoirs of a Revolutionist (Montreal: Black Rose, 1989).
  10. [10]Steven E. Barkan, Criminology: A Sociological Understanding, 3rd ed. (Upper Saddle River, NJ: Pearson Prentic-Hall, 2006); Jeffrey Reiman, The Rich Get Richer and The Poor Get Prison: Ideology, Class, and Criminal Justice, 7th ed. (Boston: Allyn and Bacon, 2004).
  11. [11]Barbara Ehrenreich, Blood Rites: Origins and History of the Passions of War (New York: Metropolitan, 1997), 10.
  12. [12]Ehrenreich, Blood Rites.
  13. [13]Roy Ellen, Environment, Subsistence and System (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University, 1982); Sernau, Worlds Apart.
  14. [14]Reiman, The Rich Get Richer and The Poor Get Prison.

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