Wednesday, November 19, 2008

Is Anarchy Near?

Whatever Barack Obama's transition team may have planned by way of expectation management, it has been interesting to observe just how much grousing there has been about what his Presidency is likely to be even before he has been inaugurated. Without taking one side or the other on this growing movement of dissent, I think it would be useful to consider what the consequences of thwarted expectations may be. On the more innocuous side, we might see a tendency towards a chronic desire to "throw the rascals out," no matter who the rascals in office happen to be. Thus, the electorate may continue to vote, perhaps even in numbers as impressive as they were at the beginning of this month; but they will be motivated primarily to vote against office-holders, regardless of party affiliation or perhaps even past achievements. On the other hand a darker consequence could be the total rejection of the entire system of governance, beginning with the Constitution and going down from there to every last nut and bolt. The technical term for this consequence is "anarchy;" and, in spite of the fact that this word has no sexual overtones, it carries a connotation of obscenity so strong that a pap peddler like David Brooks managed to avoid it entirely in his November 17 New York Times column on the "cultural consequences of recessions." Brooks probably does not realize that there is a whole area of scholarship, perhaps best represented by Hans Magnus Enzensberger, which appreciates the need to study anarchy without necessarily embracing it. Instead, Brooks seems to prefer excuses for scholarship, such as the writings of David Frum, whom I believe I recently saw on the Book TV coverage of an Ayn Rand Society gathering celebrating plans to produce a film based on Atlas Shrugged and its humanization of fascism through objectivism.

If we wish to understand our fate through literature of epic proportions, my own preference still resides with David Simon, whose five seasons of The Wire could well stand as the War and Peace of the second half of the twentieth century in the United States. I was reminded of Simon's project after reading a comment by Great Seduction reader "Jason," submitted in response to Andrew Keen's musings over Brooks' "cultural consequences" column. In his comment Jason offered the following Studs Turkel quotation from a man who had lived through the Great Depression:

When I was sixteen I was not afraid to die. Sixteen year old's today are not afraid to kill.

That second sentence provides a lens through which we need to address "cultural" issues of governance, explicitly recognizing that the sentence invokes that urban drug culture where sixteen year olds "are not afraid to kill." Throughout most of The Wire, Simon presents governance within that culture in terms of a latter-day tribalism, where domination reigns supreme over legitimation and signification; but he also examines the emerging need for inter-tribal "councils." At the same time he gives a nod to Isaiah Berlin's "Political Judgement" essay through a character who tries to apply lessons from a university classroom and experiences a short-term rise in his fortunes followed by a fatal descent.

I suspect that Simon also intended us to view addiction as both literal and metaphorical. The metaphorical reading emerges through what Brooks calls the "formerly middle class" in the title of his column, which is still fundamentally a culture of addiction. If that is the case, then, like latter-day Eloi, they will probably be too doped out (whether on drugs or a lingering Sehnsucht for consumerist practices) to exhibit any political response to alienation that Brooks anticipates; and they are even less likely to become the crazed bomb-throwing acolytes of anarchy examined by Enzensberger in "Dreamers of the Absolute!"


Anonymous said...

Is there any universal, exact definition for "anarchy"? Because sometimes I have the feeling that people and media use it without any firm rule. I have doubts about this word too - is "anarchy"in let's say some African, civil war disrupted country the same as "anarchy" as seen lets say by Rothbard or some other anarchocapitalists the same?


(btw.have you seen "Obama vs. McCain" South Park? I think there were some funny thoughts about postobama anarchy :))

Stephen Smoliar said...

Julie, if you knew the number of times I cited Wittgenstein, you would know what I think of "universal, exact definitions!" Notwithstanding my own Mad Ludwig, however, I do believe in etymology. In this case the word origin is Greek. Archos is Greek for "ruler;" and the an prefix denotes "without." This would imply a social group that lacks a dominating (i.e. ruling) figure. Also, if we compare it with "oligarchy," we should probably include the connotation that the group lacks a single dominating figure. Anything beyond that is a matter of the language games people choose to play with the word!