jml's notebook

Notes: Two Cheers for Anarchism

This is a book by James Scott, author of Seeing Like a State, which you might have heard about from the ribbonfarm post on legibility.

Two Cheers for Anarchism is a deliberately more approachable book that provides some reflections on how anarchist thinking can be applied to our world today.

Two highlights for me:

First, it's good to have conversations about what it is that we really value. It's normal and healthy for groups to disagree about this, but to still have to work together. The process of reconciling these differences is politics, in its best possible sense. When we try to sweep this under the rug by introducing superficially objective measures (e.g. SAT scores as an objective measure of university qualification), we avoid these crucial conversations, and often don't even know which values we're signing up for.

This has echoes of some of Graeber's comments in Debt. He argues that a debt is an obligation that has become quantified, and therefore fungible and transferrable. If I save your life, you owe me an obligation. If I say that obligation is worth $1,000,000 to me and you agree, then I can sell that debt on to others.

It also echoes some of Michael Sandel's main argument in What Money Can't Buy: putting a price on something can change what it is.

I don't think we always realise what we're doing when we put a number on something.

Second is the claim that all of the major extensions in freedom within democracies have come from lawbreaking. We like to think the pattern is that writing to your MP or joining organized marches is the way to bring about change, but historically, most changes have come after the establishment has been genuinely afraid of the system falling apart. Scott doesn't make this argument rigorously (it's not that sort of book), and I don't really want to believe it, but I think he's right.

A potential application of this is that maybe it's a good idea to practice breaking small, irrelevant laws or norms so that you've got practice for when it comes time to break the unjust ones. This is appealing, but I'm not so sure about it.