Sunday, December 10, 2006

Anarchist Morality

Anarchism, like Christianity, is based on the notion that men should “do to others what you would have them do to you in the same circumstances.” However, the anarchist, unlike the Christian, believes that golden rule behavior is genetically ingrained in us, and that even without a system of laws and retribution, people would naturally adhere to this doctrine because of their innate ability to sympathize with one another and their inherent desire to propagate the species as a whole.

Kropotkin, in Anarchist Morality, unknowingly reveals the underlying problem with the golden rule, a phenomenon I dub the “I would never” factor. As he says, “You see a man beat a child. You know that the beaten child suffers. Your imagination causes you yourself to suffer the pain inflicted upon the child; or perhaps its tears, its little suffering face tell you. And if you are not a coward, you rush at the brute who is beating it and rescue it from him.” – just as you would hope to be treated were you the suffering child.

But what about the abusive father? In what way can your sympathy reach out to him? Kropotkin urges complete pacifism and influence through education. As he says, “we have only a right to give advice.” The argument, however, breaks down when he advocates violence toward tyrannical rulers, using the convenient “I would never” loophole. Such violence is justified because “we ourselves should ask to be killed like venomous beasts if we went to invade Burmese or Zulus who have done us no harm.” In reference to the assassination of Alexander II, Kropotkin claims that “all mankind” recognized Sophia Perovskaya’s right to kill the Russian Czar because “it was felt that not for all the gold in the world would Perovskaya and her comrades have consented to become tyrants themselves.” This dangerous loophole invites one to ride down a slippery slope of justifying various acts of brutality toward people who have committed crimes that “I would never” commit.

The loophole also seems problematic when compared with another key element of Kropotkin’s tract: all men, whether selfish or altruistic, act out of a “quest of pleasure.” As he eloquently puts it, if you talk to “a martyr, to the woman who is about to be hanged, even just as she nears the gallows, she would tell you that she would not exchange either her life or her death for the life of the petty scoundrel who lives on the money stolen from his work-people. In her life, in the struggle against monstrous might, she finds her highest joys.” Just as Socrates reasoned that he should not escape his execution because it wouldn’t make him happy, the strive for moral behavior is just another pleasure-quest.

And so we must admit that the tyrant and the assassin bent on killing the tyrant are guided by the same innate drive. As is the abusive father. As is the petty scoundrel who lives on the money stolen from his work-people. We merely find people driven by different goals, using the same tactic to create meaning in their lives: measuring the success of one’s existence by one’s ability to achieve a certain goal.

Kropotkin’s concluding advice reveals an acute awareness of this phenomenon: “Struggle! To struggle is to live, and the fiercer the struggle the intenser the life. Then you will have lived; and a few hours of such life are worth years spent vegetating.” At first glance an inspiring conclusion, though upon further reflection, a sad statement about the completely arbitrary nature of the manner in which we artificially create meaning in our lives.


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