I went to a talk at London Vegans yesterday with a title that was something like “Beyond Veganism: Social Ecology and the Triumph of Hope”. It was given by a vegan anarchist, and social ecology is apparently a flavour of anarchism.
Now I'm not a anarchist, though no fan of capitalism nor the unitary nation-state either, but I was still interested in the talk as I'm very interested in how human societies could be organised. If nothing else, I always feel the urge to write SF novels about them. But this talk left me feeling that questions had been unanswered, and I'm wondering now if this was entirely a problem with the talk, or possibly a limitation of the answer. (Obviously, I'm defining this in terms of what I would consider a valid answer).
There's a popular and oft-stated principle that a good talk can be broken down into three stages:
1) Tell 'em what you're going to say.
2) Say it.
3) Tell 'em what you just said.
But this talk felt like it ended at the end of stage one. He explained what the word “anarchy” actually means (a system where there are no rulers) and that it didn't mean chaos and disorder as often mistakenly thought. He then explained a little about the originators of social ecology, and what social ecology was designed to achieve: a system in which people work together in mutual respect, sharing and support, which he felt would naturally imply veganism (because he believes that it is today's heirarchical society that puts animals at the bottom of the heap as objects to be exploited).
Then he finished and asked for questions, just at the point where I was expecting him to explain just how a society organised according to the principles of social ecology would achieve this. At this point I literally had no idea how such a society might be structured or work. If you'd asked me to write an SF short story in a world organised as he would like it I wouldn't have been able to, because I had no idea what that world would be like, other than it would be quite nice and no-one would be getting shafted.
So I asked a question that I thought was a good one: relevant to veganism (this was supposed to be a talk involving veganism after all), and boiling down a large question to a small specific one.
“Imagine we have a society organised exactly as you personally would like it. Your perfect society. Say I've got a pet pig, but one day someone kidnaps my pig, kills it, chops it up, puts it on a barbecue, eats it, and then gloats to me about what they've done. What could I do about that? What should I do about that?”
This seems to me to go to the heart of most people's issues with anarchism. To what extent could we set boundaries around our lives, loved ones and property? And where we felt people were infringing on those boundaries, to what extent could we stop them, and by what means could we stop them? It's all very well saying "Your right to swing your fist ends at the tip of my nose" but if someone's just walked up to me and punched me in the face I'd like to live in a society where there was something else I could do other than simply punch him back.
His reply was something like: “Well you're asking me for a blueprint now.”
I replied with something like: “Well not a complete blueprint. I'm trying to just narrow it down to just one answerable segment.”
To which he replied: “Well there are many flavours of anarchism. They'd all come up with different answers.
I think I then replied that I was interested in how he personally would like to see it done in his flavour of anarchism, and he then went into a long and frequently hesitating answer that I think basically said:
1) Anarchism is a political philosophy, and like all other political philosophies doesn't give specific answers to specific problems.
2) He would envisage a very democratic society, organised at a very low level etc. etc.
Now my issue with point one is that I don't think it is true. Political philosophies do give specific answers to specific problems – they call them manifestos. Imagine it's 1945, and a socialist is loudly condemning the fact that healthcare has to be paid for and that people can therefore suffer ill-health and even death through lack of money. (If you're in the USA, just change that to: “Imagine it's 2008”).
If I asked him what he personally would do about it, I'd expect him to say: “We would tax the rich and use that money to pay doctors and nurses to work for a state health service that would provide healthcare free to all citizens.”
I wouldn't expect him to squirm, evade the question, and say that socialism is a philosophy and not a blueprint. After all, identifying problems is generally a lot easier than coming up with solutions. We live in a society where we're destroying the planet and half of humanity is starving. It doesn't take a brain surgeon to work out that we're not doing very well.
Now my issue with point two is more complicated. I can see that if anarchy means a totally decentralised system with no rulers, that then implies no single solution. But that doesn't mean you can't put forward an example of how one set of people might live their lives. And reading between the lines of his reply, because it didn't give an actual answer, I think it's something along the lines of:
“You might live in a community that governs itself according to direct democracy “town meeting” principles. You might be able to call everyone together, complain about what happened to your pig, and they might decide to do something about it.”
Which comes down to an important question. Anarchy might mean a system of no rulers, but does that mean no rules, and if so, does no rules mean no rights? After all, if I have a right not to be punched in the face by you, there must then exist a rule saying you aren't allowed to punch me in the face. If we say that this society would have a concept of right and wrong and that if you did something wrong (such as murdering someone) you might as a result be collectively punished, you face the question of who makes these rules?
What would worry me about a society such as this is that there might not be any formal written rules. Conceivably any behaviour deemed unacceptable could be collectively judged by the community after the event. And this takes away what I think to be an important right: the right to do as you will providing you're not affecting anyone else's rights.
We have rules so that you know in advance what you are and aren't allowed to do. If you break those rules you did so knowingly. This is why retrospective laws are generally deemed wrong.
But in this case, it might be horribly like being back at school, where a bully decides you've broken some rule he either just made up or never bothered to tell you about, the mob - seeing which way the wind's blowing - all jump in, and suddenly you're being "righteously punished" for an action whose consequences you couldn't have foreseen. Rules are what protect the individual from the mob. It doesn't matter if there are a hundred of them and one of you, if you didn't break a rule then they have no right to complain.
If anyone has any examples of how an anarchic society might work, then I'd be interested in reading them.
But for now, count me out.