We are the world in small. A nation is a human thing, it does what we do, for our reasons.
—’King Henry II’ in The Lion in Winter, by James Goldman
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Thus far, I’ve written primarily about the theoretical basis of my own brand of anarchy. Having outlined what kind of thing anarchism is, its place in a Catholic and pacifist view of the world, and the central emphasis it places on the family as the literal cradle of personhood (since the person is both the subject and the object of politics), I’d like to move forward and discuss what an anarchist society of this kind could look like—sketch it, at least—and what sorts of things we can do, in the here and now, to promote it.
|Picture by Art Young, drawn in 1917.|
Firstly, one of the problems that I’ve come back and back to is the problem of scale. In order to have an authentically self-governing society, which is the essential premise of every form of anarchism, you must have a society that is small enough for all the members in it to have a working knowledge of one another. If you don’t have that, you inevitably wind up with factions or parties of some type—if you can’t evaluate somebody as a person, you will necessarily evaluate them as a thing, a mere instance of a category. So how big can a society practically be on such terms?
I don’t think we need to go to the Hutterite Anabaptists’ extreme, limiting ourselves to societies no bigger than Dunbar’s number.1 Quick and dirty summary: if the whole world is connected by six degrees of Kevin Bacon, the people who are only one step away from Kevin Bacon (i.e., people he knows) are Dunbar’s number, or as near to it as makes no difference.
I think we can allow one degree of ‘removal’ here: I’m optimistic enough to believe that a genuinely self-ruling community can be formed—say, a village with a mayor—if the community is small enough that any individual person either knows the mayor personally, or knows someone who knows the mayor personally. (It doesn’t have to be the mayor; really it should apply to any other randomly selected person.) So, if an anarchist society with two degrees of Mayor Kevin Bacon is allowed, we can have a society as big as about twelve thousand people.2 Though of course, it’s welcome to be smaller—twelve thousand is when it needs to start thinking about splitting into two societies.
So we have our village of anything from a hundred people to twelve thousand of them, all of whom have unanimously elected Kevin Bacon as the King of Town. (It’s a gedankenexperiment, shut up.) How does it operate?
There are two basic rules: first, the family comes first; and second, however else it damn well pleases. That’s why it’s self-governing. (Of course, no society, anarchist or not and on whatever scale, has the right to practice injustice; that is what the words injustice and right mean.) But what does it mean to put the family first?
To begin with, the family should be as self-sufficient as possible, rather than being dependent on the state (as in socialist collectivism) or upon an employer (as in capitalism, for the overwhelming majority of people). The only way that this can be practically accomplished, or at any rate the only way I know of, is by widespread ownership of property. At the very least, every family should own the means of its own support, whether that means the tools of a trade, the instruments of an art, or the resources of a farm or fishery.
Note the differences, though, between this concept and the idea of private property as spoken of by most capitalists. First of all, this kind of property is use-oriented, not profit-oriented. The point of distributed property, whether tools or real estate, is to practice some kind of creative work (one of the basic human needs) for the good of the family. This is in contrast to the idea of private property of whatever kind, where the point is to exploit the property, destructively or not, for financial gain—which can then be used for the good of a family, or not.
This distinction between creation and exploitation is one of the most fundamental in all human activity, even when the same act (at least, the same as viewed from the outside) can be animated by either spirit. A man who sleeps with a woman to express his love for her and forge a deeper bond with her is doing ‘the same thing’ as a man who sleeps with a woman to validate his self-worth and virility; yet the one is creating—even if he is not procreating, a deepened love is an act of creation—and the other, however considerate in technique he may be as a lover, is exploiting the woman. G. K. Chesterton illustrated the difference succinctly in one of his more bitingly sarcastic essays thus:
It seems that today we live in a world of witchcraft, in which the orchards wither because they prosper, and the multitude of apples on the apple-tree of itself turns them into forbidden fruit, and makes the effort to consume them in every sense fruitless. This is the modern economic paradox, which is called Over-Production, or a glut in the market … Perhaps the shortest statement of it is in the fable of the man who sold razors, and afterwards explained to an indignant customer, with simple dignity, that he had never said the razors would shave. When asked if razors were not made to shave, he replied that they were made to sell.3
The other salient difference between this distributist ideal of property and the capitalist approach to private property is that the former, unlike the latter, respects what the Church calls the universal destination of goods.4 Capitalists, even Christian ones, tend to treat private property as inalienable, which is clean contrary to the Scriptural teaching (and common moral sense of humanity, actually), reiterated with great force by the Fathers, that we are obliged, not merely out of love but in plain justice, to help the poor out of our own surplus. After all, we did not make and cannot sustain any single thing in existence; if something popped out of existence, we couldn’t make it come back, no matter what muscles we pulled trying. The point being—the world is a gift, and it is a gift given to all of us, equally: He maketh the sun to shine on the just and the unjust. We ought each to have a share in the gift that was made and meant for all of us: that is what this distributist theory of property amounts to in a nutshell.
How can such a redistribution of property be brought about? Not by robbery or revolt; both of those solutions, especially the latter, are worse than the disease. But I believe that for as long as we live in a society where the family is under the thumb of outside forces, whether those outside forces are political or economic or both, we are living in an unnatural—and therefore unsustainable—tension that will repeatedly issue in violence, until we either consent to heal a sick society or see it bleed to death; the wound can still be stanched, but rotting has long since begun; the voice of thy brother’s blood crieth unto me from the ground.
|The Death of Abel, Gustave Dore|
Some other measures, like encouraging marriage and fertility (e.g. with tax breaks), would also be involved in placing the family first politically. Abortion is another excellent example: defending the right of the unborn to live—and, accordingly, seeing to it that mothers receive all the resources they need to care for themselves and their children, particularly single mothers—is profoundly distributist, and thus in my view a prerequisite for consistent, effective anarchism. But I believe that these things, if done without pursuing a systemic change, are not much better than cosmetic improvements.
And how does that translate into practical action? Well, even with Trump to keep out of office, I’m not about to suggest voting (it only encourages them). I’m not going to urge you to go to protests stuffed with college kids who’ve read enough Salinger to consider themselves alienated and listened to enough Sanders to hate their parents. I’m not even going to suggest going to open-mics at coöp cafés, unless you like the readers and they serve good coffee there.
No. The thing to do is to take direct action. What have you got? Share it with people who have less, especially the homeless, the most vulnerable among us. What do you do? Do it damn well: take pride in your craft, become a master at it, and see if you can’t become a little more independent by doing it. The revolution is pacifist: i.e., it makes no use of violence or the threat of violence; the revolution is anarchist: i.e., it is not looking to take over political power, but to abolish it; the revolution is distributist: i.e., it comes from you and me. You are the organizer, the advocate, the backer. It’s up to you.
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1Dunbar’s number (named for Robin Dunbar, who formulated the theory) is the number of social relationships that a given person can maintain, knowing each member of the group and how they all relate to one another. He crafted his hypothesis based on a study of primate social groups, finding a correlation between the size of a primate’s neocortex (part of the brain) and the size of its social groups. Dunbar theorized that the human social number is around 150.
2This number could be argued with; it’s definitely an approximation. I got it through potent witchcraft, a.k.a. some math I looked up and fucked around with until it looked sort of right. The way it works is this:
A. According to Wikipedia, Watts and Strogatz (who I’m pretty sure are scientists and not some sort of upsetting new variety of tumor) showed that ‘the average path length between two nodes in a random network is equal to ln(N)/ln(K), where N = total nodes and K = acquaintances per node.’ So, e.g., the Kevin Bacon game is a way of mathing out:
ln(every asshole in the world)/ln(every asshole they each know) = 6 (degrees of Kevin Bacon), ish.
I didn’t know what natural logarithms were before I looked this up, but that’s what ln(x) means, and it’s the logarithm of some shit based on the number e, which is important for reasons I forget.
B. So, if we’re allowing an anarchist society with two degrees of Kevin Bacon, the equation we want is:
ln(every asshole in the anarcho-syndicalist commune)/ln(every asshole they each know) = 2.
All we need is the numerical value for every asshole they each know—Dunbar’s number!
C. But I decided not to use Dunbar’s number proper, for a couple of reasons. One is that Dunbar himself calculated 150 as the upper limit of relationships a human could normally maintain; his own work suggested that, in order to keep a functional social group going with that many people, over a third of their time would have to be spent on social grooming (not a third of their waking hours, mind: a full eight hours out of every day). The other is that I prefer to have some breathing room in these sort of calculations; people are inscrutable, and are not above doing silly things just to fuck with scientific studies, to say nothing of all their other motivations. Therefore, being struck by the number of disciples in the Church at the time of Christ’s Ascension—120, which is large enough to encompass lots of different sorts of people yet comfortably within Dunbar’s number—I used 120 instead.
D. So plug that into the equation:
ln(every asshole in the anarcho-syndicalist commune)/ln(120) = 2.
E. Math math math, look up what natural logarithms are, do some shit with exponents of e, thank God for calculators.
F. What you then actually get is:
(every asshole in the anarcho-syndicalist commune) = 14,399.95, a little stupidly.
Here again, for reasons much like those in step C, I rounded down; and once again, being struck by the imagery of the Twelve Tribes in Revelation 7 (and having a superstitious streak), I decided to make my approximation the nice, tidy number 12,000. That number should be small enough that there’s no more than two steps between any two individual members of the community.
3’Reflections on a Rotten Apple,’ The Well and the Shallows, pp. 164-165.
4The Catechism of the Catholic Church, in its discussion of the commandment Thou shalt not steal, addresses many questions connected to property in paragraphs 2401-2449. 2402-2408 and 2420-2436 are specially pertinent to this topic.