Posted by: Dirk | May 8, 2013

Anarchy in the US

The New Yorker carries an interesting article on David Graeber, Occupy Wall Street and anarchy. I have read the first one hundred plus pages of “5,000 years of debt” and found them enlightening. Brad DeLong read on and found a seemingly endless list of flaws, irritating the author who apparently was struck dumbfounded on what he perceived as personal attacks. The author writes about a new book on anarchy by James Scott:

“Two Cheers for Anarchism” conducts a brief and digressive seminar in political philosophy, starting from the perspective of a disillusioned leftist. “Virtually every major successful revolution ended by creating a state more powerful than the one it overthrew,” Scott writes. Traditionally, this has been an argument against revolutions, but Scott wonders whether it might be an argument against states. He stops short of calling for the abolition of government, which explains the missing cheer. Instead, he highlights everyday acts of petty resistance: “foot-dragging, poaching, pilfering, dissimulation, sabotage, desertion, absenteeism, squatting, and flight.” Most of all, he urges citizens to be wary of their governments, which is good advice, but rather deflating—Scott can make anarchism sound like little more than a colorful word for critical thinking.

This reminds me of a short story by Portuguese poet Fernando Pessoa named “The Anarchist Banker”. In it, the story-teller asks his friend, the banker, whether he really was an anarchist:

‘I know what I’ve been meaning to ask you. Someone told me a few days ago that you used to be an anarchist.’

‘There’s no “used to” about it, I was and I am. I haven’t changed in that respect, I still am an anarchist.’

The story continues and it turns out that the banker means it:

‘What does the anarchist want? Freedom – freedom for himself and for others, for humanity as a whole. He wants to be free from the influence and pressure of social fictions; he wants to be as free as he was when he was born, which is how it should be; and he wants that freedom for himself and for everyone. We can’t all be equal before nature: some are born tall, some short; some are born strong, some weak; some are born more intelligent, others less so.But aside from that, we can all be equal; it is only the social fictions we live by that prevent our equality. It is those social fictions that we need to destroy.’

And the solution is pretty easy. When the storyteller asks whether not all of humanity should be free, the answer is:

Of course, but I’ve already said that by taking the course of action I’ve described, which is the only possible anarchist course of action, each person has to free himself. l freed myself; I did my duty not only by myself but in respect of freedom too. Why did the others, my comrades, not do the same? I didn’t stop them.

So, the banker by accumulating money has freed himself from the social fiction of money. If others would do the same the world would be a better place. Is Fernando Pessoa serious? Does he agree with this banker? Moving this story into the 21st century, is maybe deregulation increasing the amount of freedom of (some) people? If that would be so, are bankers the true anarchists as opposed to, perhaps, the majority of activists of Occupy Wall Street? Is then the “petty resistance: “foot-dragging, poaching, pilfering, dissimulation, sabotage, desertion, absenteeism, squatting, and flight.” described by James Scott the wrong way to achieve (individual) goals?


  1. just for the record: actually DeLong started with the personal attacks, only later did he settle into making lists of “errors” – almost all of them are not errors at all. He appears to be slightly insane.

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