I noticed an ever-growing number of alternate-history novels at the Strand recently — a reminder that this branch of literature, more than scientific speculations, looks increasingly likely to become sci-fi’s most substantial contribution to academia and serious thought. And that in turn reminds me of the alternate history of Bastille Day that occasionally crosses my mind: one in which the Marquis de Sade was liberated by the Revolution on that day. Apparently, this didn’t happen in real life, though he’d been held there at some earlier point. The irony and symbolism would have been so perfect if he’d literally been set free by the Revolution, though, since his (ostensible) underlying philosophical message was that if you remove all traditional and moral restraints, you don’t end up with sunshine and rationality but with something far darker, so de Sade was a conservative, in his way.
But I said I was going to talk about radicalism, not conservatism.
Of course, like some of my acquaintances, I try to be conservative about the things that actually work, moderate about the many things that are ambiguous, liberal (if that means, broadly speaking, something like “willing to negotiate through political dialogue”) about things that are debatable (or even just “things I think are widely misunderstood but not worth a nasty fight over”), and radical about the things that are just plain wrong and need to go…like big government, belief in the supernatural, and drawing sweeping conclusions from scanty evidence, with this third thing, I’m increasingly convinced, being the habit that is the source of our other philosophical problems (like belief in big government and the supernatural). People extrapolate such sweeping, world-altering conclusions from so few data points, whether out of laziness or misdirected passion or a bit of both.
But how to get more data, especially regarding sweeping claims about how civilizations should be structured? Diversity helps, of course: federalism, decentralization, multiple experiments, school choice, etc. But given the tendency of our interconnected, modern world to spread ideas (good or bad) in a homogenizing way across the globe (even incredibly risky ideas like a single universal currency), is there some philosophy that would encourage decentralized experimentation without, as if by stealth, simply mandating libertarianism and individual freedom as the proper default from the get-go?
There may be an obscure nineteenth-century term that holds the answer: panarchy.
This term — from the momentous year 1848, indirectly — gets us a long way toward the unfamiliar place I increasingly think we need to be philosophically (farther than the post-structuralism-connoting “post-anarchism”), especially given its overlapping connotations: self-organizing systems generally, but also a specific (and not terribly popular) creed from a century and a half ago asserting that each person should have the right to sign up for whatever law code he chose from numerous non-spatial, non-geographic ones in use around the globe. Of course, you’d want some sort of external signal to warn you what laws bound the people you happened across, as they might differ radically from your own.
I think I’m in some sense a panarcho-capitalist, technically. (Will this make me lonely?) That is, I’m not going to unlearn economics to keep the left-anarchists happy, so I’m still a capitalist and respecter of property rights.
Furthermore, I recognize more than some anarchists the possible benefits, at least for many people, of opting permanently into (or simply remaining in) very structured, even traditionalistic communities rather than maintaining, like jugglers, the sometimes exhausting stance of the individualist.
So I think I’m either a panarcho-capitalist or…a tradical, if you will. Can I patent those two terms? (Can I at least be linked every time someone uses them?) And can I be the first anti-mayor of Anarchopolis while we’re at it? Perhaps this can be achieved via seasteading, now that I think about it. I’m as prone as the next guy to chuckle at the idea of trying to start countries from scratch in the sea, but two things about that movement that I find interesting are: 1. Milton Friedman’s grandson Patri Friedman, who’s the intellectual guru of the seasteaders, also calls himself a paleoconservative, even though the last person you’d expect to be a respecter of tradition is someone who thinks you can start a new country in the middle of the ocean, and 2. it’s rooted in the same idea as panarchy — that you can’t really know what works best for people unless they have options. Absent real choices (and consequences), their reform ideas will always be rooted more in their own odd intuitions than in reality-based compare-and-contrast.
The mid-nineteenth also provides us with a philosophy based on the opposite intuition from the panarchic one: Stephen Pearl Andrews’ dream of “Pantarchy.” This similar-sounding but quite opposite philosophy was an Americanization of Comte, with science and liberalism becoming an all-encompassing world-government/faith — the sort of thing later dreamed of by some New Age hippies who envisioned the U.N. replacing national governments and a centrally-administered brotherhood of man replacing all traditional religions (without anyone even complaining, and presumably a sort of contented half-smile on everyone’s face, like when Capt. Kirk encounters a planet where everyone’s been sedated).
More recently, Avery Knapp informs me, Wired has written of the rising collectivist cybersphere — eschewing the individualist description of the Net so many of us fell in love with in the 90s in favor of a picture of a fluid voluntarist collectivism, which might just make nineteenth-century left-anarchists start looking relevant again (organic self-organizing communities becoming all the rage instead of either communal rigidity or loner-individualism). Certainly if our economy is as doomed as the winning debater at this month’s Debate at Lolita Bar made it sound, some Burning Man-like capacity for fluid social reorganization would be a welcome thing. Clinging to brittle institutions like the bailed-out investment banks may one day be looked back upon as the final folly of the civilization that preceded a newer Twitter-based society.
(Then again, one of my co-workers informs me that now “Twitter is for old people” — that was quick — so who knows what comes next. I also feel old just reading this Julian Sanchez post on how to mediate yourself for other people, as though we automatically want that — but he is admirably wary of phony mediation in another recent post, hilariously denouncing the recent “Generation M” pseudo-manifesto, which reminds me more than a little of the business-advice guru Seth Godin I briefly worked for in my youth, who advises you to do things like become a “purple cow,” not just good — but extraordinary. Things like the Generation M manifesto are why I’m an empiricist and nominalist and borderline anti-academic at heart: say something clear about reality, dammit, not the Nowness of the Happening amidst the Becoming-Good, or whatever Hegel/mystics/the Pope/Gen M guru guy/Continental philosophy is ostensibly talking about.)
But maybe I’m just blathering about half-baked radical nonsense and it would be more constructive to think cautiously along more familiar channels. Then again, as this comedic video by Ted Balaker reminds us, that way may just lead to these two guys controlling our lives and our minds. There has to be a better way. Discuss it with me tomorrow (Wednesday) at the monthly Manhattan Project social gathering for political folk (Merchants NY East from 6:30 on), why don’t you? No law saying we always have to talk like boring Republicans there. No law at all.
Ah, I see it’s nearly midnight — which reminds me, I’m seeing the 2:30pm Saturday show of Watchmen: The Director’s Cut at the Landmark Sunshine Theatre (one week only), so perhaps some of us can continue the subversion there.