Saturday, August 14, 2010

Barriers to plotting an anarchist course

[Note: from a paper to be published in Contemporary Justice Review, entitled "Why revolution ain't easy: Violating norms, re-socializing society"]

Most efforts to change one's prior socialization occur within hierarchically organized settings, called “total institutions”. For example, someone who has failed to properly adhere to established laws, as a consequence of a mental disability, may be sentenced to a mental hospital or asylum. Within this total institution, an inmate's daily life is systematically structured by staff in an effort to modify their behavior and obedience to norms (Goffman 1962). The fact that these “resocialization” efforts commonly take place in hierarchical institutions and that inmates are usually poor and disadvantaged persons who have not “properly” followed society's hierarchically-designed norms, indicates the extent to which society will go in order to maintain order.

Socialization helps to train and instruct people to follow hierarchical norms and re-socialization aims to adjust those for whom earlier socialization efforts seemingly failed. But, anarchists seek the re-socialization of people to “better” norms that will help them live their lives in anarchist fashions. Unlike the bountiful resources at the disposal of society's many total institutions, there are formidable and pronounced impediments to anarchist re-socialization efforts. Even though norms do change in revolutionary situations, re-socialization efforts tend not to last. Consider the widespread changes in norms that took place in Barcelona, Spain in 1936 during the Spanish Revolution, as described by Orwell (1980):

Waiters and shop-walkers looked you in the face and treated you as an equal. Servile and even ceremonial forms of speech had temporarily disappeared. Nobody said 'Señor' or 'Don' or even 'Usted'; everyone called everyone else 'Comrade' or 'Thou', and said 'Salud!' instead of 'Buenos días'. Tipping had been forbidden by law since the time of Primo de Rivera; almost my first experience was receiving a lecture from a hotel manager for trying to tip a lift-boy. (p. 5)

But, the revolution did not last, in part because re-socialization did not take place or did not embed itself long enough in Spanish society for the population to permanently change norms. External forces, including Communists and fascists, ended the opportunities for additional re-socialization efforts. In the present, many other barriers exist, far less time sensitive in nature. It is worth considering these barriers and pondering how they could be overcome.

First, there is much confusion about alternatives. People are rarely aware that alternative norms exist. Even when people understand problems and would like change, there is a familiar response: “But what choice do we have?” or “What else can we do?” Media and formal schooling tends to ignore non-hierarchical organizations and practices, such as cooperatives, collectives, popular assemblies, and syndicalist unions. Of course, most media is itself hierarchical and media-makers are not socialized to consider alternatives. Open discussion of alternatives would also ultimately be detrimental to the corporate and state interests that back most media. Consequently, most people have to seek out information on alternatives. The Internet helps, but one must know what to look for in order to find other models. Information may be in inaccessible formats or shrouded in weird jargon making adoption a bewildering prospect. Familiarity is one problem, but is accompanied by an equally problematic lack of alternative examples to emulate. Very few alternatives exist in most societies. For example, worker cooperatives are now numerically small in most places and have shrunk since the slow death of the 1970s cooperative movement. Re-invigorating the cooperative movement seems like a lot of work, especially without the driving passions of the 1960s. Alternatives also tend to be emphasized for economic value, not their “dual power” capacity to create egalitarian institutions in place of hierarchical ones. Consequently, alternatives do not seem like “alternatives”, but rather just “another option” and thus are not as attractive as they could be. Credit unions are seen as “cheaper than banks”, rather than as revolutionary anti-capitalist organizations. Labor unions are seen to distribute benefits, rather than for their ability to grow working class power and create self-management. And community gardens are viewed as cheaper ways to get food, rather than a means to replace corporate agribusiness and supermarkets, and to gain local food independence.

Second, there is a strong tendency to confuse legitimate concerns with liberal-ish “solutions” that do not address underlying problems of hierarchy. Lots of people are “concerned”, but how to solve problems that people face? Without widespread acceptance of radical norms, there is an inappropriate pairing of means with ends. Thus, concern with poverty is treated by charity. Concern with environmental devastation is treated by “green consumerism”. Concern over political corruption is treated by periodic voting (“If only we could elect principled, moral politicians!”). Concern with “social inactivity” and apathy is treated by volunteering at a large, mainstream non-profit organization. And concern with crime is treated by supporting get-tough-on-crime and extra policing approaches. These ready-made, yet illusory responses to people’s sincere concerns with problems deflect substantive remedies. It is important to appreciate that applying Band-Aids to gunshot wounds will not work in the long term. But, the system seeks to channel people into controllable, reformist directions, in the hopes that this approach will maintain the system's stability over time. Liberal-ish solutions will not change the fundamental arrangements of power, nor will they provide people with empowerment, self-efficacy, or liberation. Witness how the welfare state absorbs strain through rhetoric and bureaucracies. For example, Piven & Cloward (1993) argued that formal, liberal-ish organizations are often established to quell larger disruption. People get directed into the mainstream or get “cared for” instead of radicalized or encouraged to self-manage their lives. With various aspects of their lives being (briefly) cared for, people never fully understand their problems and appropriate potential solutions. The state tends to withdraw liberal benefits once societal tension dissipates. Thus, welfare state policies merely serve as capitalism's shock-troops and public-relations agent.

Third, a casual evaluation of prized norms may lead to superficial, weak, or even contradictory adherence to anarchist practice. For example, norms based upon values (like a “freedom norm”) are often Rorschach inkblots that may mean nearly anything to different people. “Freedom” does not have one, solitary meaning, but many divergent even conflicting meanings. To George W. Bush, “freedom” means the freedom to acquire unfettered access to foreign reserves of oil, to enforce regime change upon other countries, or the freedom to invest in the stock market without concern for “unintended consequences”. To an anarchist, “freedom” has a different meaning: freedom from unwarranted authority, freedom to choose how to live one’s life, freedom to seek a better future with others, and so forth. Anarchist freedom implies a rejection of domination and unilateralism that is the very basis of Bush’s freedom. To many, Western countries are already bastions of freedom, equality, justice, etc. Consequently, many people may accept anarchist norms on the basis of face value or non-agreed upon meaning, yet not have any sympathies for practiced anarchist norms. The subjective interpretation of norms is different than the off-hand, abstract reference to norms; these terms must be defined and differentiated in order to be meaningful.

Fourth, for the few “deviant” examples that do exist and are practiced openly, positive reinforcement is not given. Few people transmit positive feedback to those who practice alternatives, consequently re-socialization is apt to be unsuccessful. Instead, rebels are shunned, criticized, and scorned for their differences with mainstream society and their contempt for its norms. Media are not likely to compliment those who walk a different path, since media must play to popular opinions as well as vested interests—thus, the anti-mainstream will always lose. Politicians are also not likely to work with (let alone cede power to) those who want to disrupt their power. Given these restrictions and anarchism’s deviant image, who will want to find alternative ways of living, without approval or support from others?

Fifth, structural restraints prevent anarchist practices even for those who appreciate anarchist norms. An anarchist professor, for example, may like egalitarianism and anti-authoritarianism, but is still required to submit letter grades for student performances at the end of a semester. The positive appreciation of norms does not necessarily mean that one is able to follow that norm given constraints placed upon them in hierarchically organized institutions. A government worker may honestly wish for a society filled with mutual aid, but is likely unable to empower citizens with collective decision-making means since power is monopolized by the state and its policy-makers, and because rules stand in the way of allowing citizens to create binding rules in their communities. Kropotkin famously pointed to this problem, noting the ways in which the state—although we could extend his logic to all hierarchical institutions—gets in the way of “natural” human tendencies for mutual aid and social solidarity, and stunts people’s skills and desire to help each other (Kropotkin 2006).

Sixth, the status quo is simply comfortable and easy. The roles, privileges, and positions we are socialized into seem more attractive than the costs associated with shedding such things (see Laurer 1991). Consider how it is easier to be macho, than to be a pro-feminist male (or pro-feminist female for that matter!). It is easier to pay taxes, than go to jail for tax evasion. Workers find it much easier to be obedient than to form a labor union. Many people find it easier to be quiet about the plight of disadvantaged persons, than experience ostracization, shame, and attack from others who share one's privilege for speaking up in support for the disadvantaged. With these rewards for status quo behavior, it is very challenging to attempt counter-normative behavior that is likely to entail strong societal sanctioning.

Lastly, there is regularly roll-back after the occasional revolt. When rebellions and insurrections occur, new norms do not easily establish strong roots. Even if new norms are egalitarian, there are powerful centripetal forces pulling people back to latent, hierarchical norms. For example, Orwell (1980) noted (not long after his above quotation) that Barcelona ceased to be run by the working classes, that open displays of opulence returned to the city streets, and people expressed being “tired” of the revolution and war. Re-socialization efforts face the prospects of eternal vigilance. Thus, there is always a risk that all the prior years of socialization and sanctioning in obedience to hierarchical norms will be too imprinted in popular consciousness to easily discard after revolutionary fervor subsides. Below, Figure 2 [not shown] presents the problems associated with roll-back on re-socialization efforts. While re-socialization prior to revolts and revolutions may help to hasten such episodes, they may only create alternative spaces in society, easily crushed by the weight of long-standing convention and training. If more egalitarian norms are not strongly rooted, the old hierarchical order can re-establish itself after anti-establishment sentiment settles down.

No comments:

Post a Comment