Practical Anarchy

James C. Scott's latest book makes a low-key case for a little bit of anarchism.


Two Cheers for Anarchism: Six Easy Pieces on Autonomy, Dignity, And Meaningful Work and Play, by James Scott, Princeton University Press, 141 pages, $24.95

Anarchy is already here, and it works great. Or so the Yale anthropologist and political scientist James C. Scott suggests in Two Cheers for Anarchism, a slight but engaging book that mostly relays life lessons on how choice and freedom make the world better in just about every sphere you can imagine. But before Scott gets down to describing the practical effects of a little anarchy on schools, roads, speeches, playgrounds, and politics, he has to disappoint the purists.

Scott, the author of Seeing Like a State and The Art of Not Being Governed, doesn't want to burn the mother down and raise the black flag. He likes the idea of "cooperation without hierarchy or state rule," and he writes that in the 5,000-odd years that governments have existed, "only in the last two centuries or so has even the possibility arisen that states might occasionally enlarge the realm of human freedom." But he believes the actual elimination of the state would be impossible, impractical, and perhaps even unwanted. Economic inequality and the exploitation of the powerless by the powerful make "a cruel sham" of the notion of an entirely stateless freedom, Scott writes, so "we are unfortunately stuck with Leviathan." He points to the 101st Airborne's role in integrating Little Rock schools to refute the notion that a state can never be used to protect individuals.

In most of his discussions of the modern world, though, Scott sounds like an anarchist again. He detests public schooling, for example: not just in this post–No Child Left Behind, standardized test–heavy era (and not just in Jim Crow Little Rock), but in general. Public schools, he writes, were developed to create good, hard-working citizens "whose loyalty to the nation will trump regional and local identities of language, ethnicity, and religion." Furthermore, "it starts out fundamentally on the wrong foot as a compulsory institution, with all the alienation that this duress implies, especially as children grow older." Scott isn't interested in telling that alienated student to work hard and embrace the social contract. And he certainly isn't advocating more government spending. He seems simply to object to the institution altogether.

Scott suggests a little anarchy would be good for the roads as well. He cites experiments in removing red lights, which started in the Netherlands in 1999 and have spread throughout Europe since then. Under the system we're used to, he points out, people depend on signs or traffic lights, not their own judgment, for guidance on when it is safe to turn or stop. With a spare, signless, somewhat intimidating roundabout, on the other hand, people pay more attention to what they're doing and the number of accidents comes down.

Scott's thoughts on economics are hampered by the fact that he isn't entirely clear on what libertarians believe. (He thinks the logical end of a purely free market is that a parent can sell a child because it's "a personal choice.") And yet he displays frequent libertarian sympathies, particularly in his opposition to various arrogant institutions, interlopers, and do-gooders. Jane Jacobs, a biting critic of urban planning, is mentioned with high praise, as is her seminal book The Death and Life of Great American Cities. Scott might not use the phrases "spontaneous order" or "central planning," but his book is filled with tributes to the former and critiques of the latter. Again and again he argues that in what appears to be chaos—be it an unplanned city or a garden that follows its own botanical logic—there is a vernacular order that outside forces rarely understand.

This dichotomy between the vernacular and the imposed also infuses Scott's thoughts on the meanings of monuments. Consider his comparison between the bombastic, patriotic Iwo Jima flag-raising memorial and the solemn, reflective (literally and figuratively) memorial to the Vietnam War. The former tells the story for you, and it exalts the war in question. The latter is a chronological list of the dead, one that neither praises nor denounces their sacrifice but demonstrates the vastness of the loss. Of course, Scott notes, "A truly cosmopolitan monument to the war would list all Vietnamese civilian and military war dead, together with Americans in the order in which they had fallen." Indeed, to memorialize the war dead at all, even so quietly, is to make a statement of some kind.

Unfortunately, whenever Scott discusses the actual political process, he sounds less radical. He makes excellent critiques of the lack of real choice between two nearly identical political parties. But his chapter "In Defense of Politics" portrays politics itself as another good that should be accessed by the masses, as opposed to seeing it as the trigger for a fundamentally coercive state. Scott waves away worries that a pure democracy could be oppressive, suffering from that familiar radical left hope—seen in Occupy Wall Street camps and other protest movements long before that—that simply "having a public dialogue" in "the public sphere" about, say, education will somehow resolve the myriad issues it brings up (money, politics, religion, etc.) to everyone's satisfaction.

All the same, what Scott presents in Two Cheers for Anarchism may be of far more use than any Free Stater manifesto. He may not be a soldier for pro-market libertarianism, but Scott's eye for spontaneous order in action demonstrates that anarchy is all around us: that it's no abstract philosophy but an essential part of all our lives.