Saturday, June 7, 2008

Is anarchy a workable philosophy? The answer from science fiction....

Two of my favorite SF authors--for completely different reasons--are the later A E Van Vogt and Larry Niven.

Niven is the acknowledged dean of hard SF, while van Vogt was famous for the often dream-like quality of his stories.

Both writers have dealt with the interesting question of whether society could survive in a state of anarchy: Van Vogt with his 1977 novel The Anachronistic Colossus and Niven with the short story "Cloak of Anarchy" (which you can read in its entirety here).

Curiously, both arrived at the same conclusion: for anarchy to work, there has to exist an impartial authority with the power to prevent or punish transgressions.

Both use ubiquitous monitoring systems that are in virtually every public space, with the power to zap the perpetrators of force or fraud before--or immediately after--they commit an act of aggression.

Both systems are designed to run normally without human intervention.

Both systems are designed to allow you to do pretty much whatever you want, unless you set out to hurt somebody else.

Niven explores what happens when the system breaks down and people are free to transgress without possibility of witness or retribution; van Vogt deals in how an anarchistic society might actually be able to defend itself from an alien invasion.

There are two particular points of interest here: one is the idea that a non-violent anarchistic society could not exist until the decentralized technology to enforce that non-violence (detached from a government through automation) has evolved. I don't know that I like this conclusion: I'm still pretty damn unhappy about automated cameras at stoplights with the ability to send me a ticket, as well as facial recognition software employed in the so-called War on Terror.

The second significant point is that nothing in the technologies proposed by van Vogt or Niven is more than a few years down the pike. That's genuinely scary, because that leap I cannot make with them is the leap to a disinterested, incorruptible system for enforcing bans on aggression. What I see instead are State and Corporations given the perfect Gestapo-like tools of control and using them.


Brian said...

Short answer- NO. Anarachy always historically leads to a dictatorship. Anarchy is the worst possible system. It is an interregium of uncontrolled human ambition. Unless people have self-government, then government is constituted as a "necessary evil"- according to our founding documents.

For people to be self governed there must be some level of respect for the ancestors, filial piety, social stability and financial equality.

The systems of government that work the best are two: 1. Constitutional Republicanism as defined by William Penn and 2. Confucian Mututal Benefit as defined in the Analects.

The first is relatively new and is a development of the enlightenment and Quakerism and Freemasonry, the second dates from what? Circa 550-600BC but is pre-dated to about 3779 BC by the development of a system of filial piety and respect for the ancestors.

Those are the systems of government that work.

Anarchy is a deplorable dark age, becuase as our founder fathers warned us, "men are not angels" and until we practice being good as well as being efficent, no self-regulated system will come into existence, and without mutual benefit where each individual benefits the other and works for the fulfillment of their potential as well as our own, it is impossible to speak about the idea of not living under government.

To me anarchy means that the strong do what they can, the weak suffer what they must and moral order and civilization are disordered toward power, and not ordered toward virtue. One can not call that civilization at all. Rather it is what it has always been barbarianism.

tom said...

SF authors F Paul Wilson and L Neil Smith both make pretty reasonable attempts at constructing working anarchist societies with no such magical authority.

Economist David Friedman has written pretty extensively on the subject of anarchies in The Machinery of Freedom and many of his other books.