Saturday, August 7, 2010

Petr Kropotkin: biologist, anarchist

Petr Kropotkin takes on Darwin, Huxley, Spencer, Victorian anthropology, and the state, in his humanist tour de force- "Mutual Aid".

As the long night of Boshevism set in, one of the last free acts of the Russian people was the mass public funeral of Petr Kropotkin, beloved anarchist and biologist, in 1921. In 1920 he had sent a prophetic letter to Lenin:
"I have read in today's Pravda an official communique from the Council of the People's Commissars, according to which it has been decided to keep as hostages several officers of Wrangel's army. I cannot believe there is no single man about you to tell you that such decisions recall the darkest Middle Ages, the period of the Crusades. Vladimir Ilyich, your concrete actions are completely unworthy of the ideas you pretend to hold. ... If you admit such methods, one can foresee that one day you will use torture as was done in the Middle Ages."
And this was only one small incident, out of the many (including setting up the Cheka) by which Lenin betrayed the idealism of anarchists and others across the political spectrum to create the system that flowered so fully under Stalin. Kropotkin himself had worked towards liberal democracy in Russia, and had been offered a government position by socialist revolutionary Alexander Kerensky during the ill-fated 1917 interregenum.

When one thinks of anarchism, one usually thinks of obscure bomb-wielding cells and loners bent on nothing but destruction. Something like Ted Kaczynski, perhaps. A bizarre utopianism blind to the need for common refuge in law and state. Advocates of chaos rather than order. One wonders, then, how they could have been so influential at the turn of the last century- why anarchists were one of the prime parties in the Russian revolution and in the Spanish revolution and the fight against Franco, actually governing some regions, such as Barcelona, as narrated by George Orwell.

Part of a collection of posters from the Spanish civil war.  The text announces that the poster was produced by the anarcho-syndicalist trade union Confederación Nacional del Trabajo (CNT) in conjunction with the international anarchist organization Asociación Internacional de los Trabajadores (AIT).
The activating impulse of anarchism was of course far more subtle and interesting, and it is laid out in fascinating detail in "Mutual Aid". Petr Kropotkin, raised in a loving home at the highest levels of the Russian nobility, was a biologist and geologist first, and later took up anarchism. His many field trips through Siberia taught him about both the animal and human landscape, convincing him that in the battle for survival, banding together was one of most important resources for any species.

Kropotkin (engaging in what he calls an "embryology of human institutions") insistently points out the degree to which animals including humans are naturally communal and sympathetic, ranging from societies of ants to self-organized guilds of medieval craftsman and even to the nagging consciences of the super-rich who are moved to feats of philanthropy. He is careful to not dispute Darwin directly, respecting the fundamental principles and observations put forth in Darwin's works (which is itself remarkable, since Darwinism was subject to a great deal of scientific and popular derision in his era and the ensuing several decades). But he emphasizes non-antagonistic aspects of biology, and excoriates Darwin's followers, especially Thomas Huxley and Herbert Spencer, who, using mantras like "nature, red in tooth and claw", carried water for the political and racial elites of their day.

The Victorian era, both in Europe and in the US, saw a frenzy of self-justifying theories of white superiority, and a glorification, nay a need, to defeat "inferior" races and nations supposedly in fulfillment of Darwin's theories. Needless to say, Darwin himself would have taken a dim view of all this, since, horrifying as natural selection was on the grand scale, it was never conceived as a normative project for human morals, but as a description of biological reality. Humanity's job, the more enlightened Victorians thought, would be to get as far away from these "natural" morals as we possibly could, with the aid of stern moral training and plenty of psychological repression.

Kropotkin's project is to show that even this view is off the mark. Humans have formed societies spontaneously from time immemorial, and help each other the more heroically the more dire their circumstances. The natural setting of humans is the tribe or clan of 50 to 150 individuals, not the nuclear family of today, and certainly not the war of all against all. His point is that evolution has fitted all advanced social species with powerful pro-social inclinations (and concomitant high intelligence) by which they naturally engage in mutual aid, whether it is birds anxiously alerting each other to danger, chimpanzees tenderly taking care of each other's grooming, or humans taking in orphans after another family's catastrophe. "In the great struggle for life .. natural selection continually seeks our the ways precisely for avoiding competition as much as possible."

The importance of this message becomes clear when one hears anthropologists routinely describe people living in what we regard as primitive tribal societies as the happiest people on earth. I have previously blogged about the Amazonian Pirahã who exemplify this state. Their life seems to take us (well, them, really) back to the garden of eden- a time of deep contentment when the tribe was everyone's focus, sharing was the theme of adult and child life, and the serpent of greed was kept at bay. No state or bureaucracy is required to maintain this society- it is spontaneous and eternal, though capable of being poisoned by modern encroachment, as well as subject its own endogenous, though rare, wars.

Kropotkin makes it clear that this ideal is what he as an anarchist has in mind- the spontaneous organization of tribes, villages, neighborhoods, guilds, clubs .. all the most fulfilling parts of the human condition are his goal, while the state (more or less totalitarian in his European experience) is the enemy, with its overbearing destruction of competing social organizations, its promotion of social atomization. This atomization, where we typically find ourselves living in nuclear families (or even alone) in the modern world, is just as much a target of anarchists as the state. They are two sides of the same coin, expressing the same alienation from our true social and psychological inheritance.
"Unbridled individualism is a modern growth, but it is not characteristic of primitive mankind."
The greatest example of biological mutualism was only fully understood after Kropotkin's time. That is the banding together of individual cells to form animals. From extremely modest beginnings, this form of mutual aid society, extending eventually to the routine suicide of individual cells during organismal development and self-defense and whole bodies slaughed off after reproduction, now rules the world, having opened vistas of ecological possibility unimaginable to our witless single-celled forebears.

And that is the real secret of mutual aid- that helping each other not only helps each individual weather difficult times and thus gain fitness, but also opens new niches and ecological possibilities unavailable to individuals. It clearly supports the concept of group selection, which is a very large topic in itself. Mutual defense is particularly powerful against threats from outside the group, whether from other groups in the same species, from other species, or from the elements at large. Conversely, a war of all against all leads quickly to one of those Shakespearean plays where everyone ends up dead on stage. Not a very successful outcome, if maybe an effective piece of moral instruction, so vital in our greedy age.
"In short, neither the crushing powers of the centralized State, nor the teachings of mutual hatred and pitiless struggle which came, adorned with the attributes of science, from obliging philosophers and sociologists, could weed out the feeling of human solidarity, deeply lodged in men's understanding and heart, because it has been nurtured by all our preceding evolution."
In biology, Kropotkin was a visionary, as altruistic aspects of our social nature and that of other organisms are still regarded as pathbreaking areas of research (as I have blogged about previously). Only now is the evolutionary community coming to a better realization that altruism is not foisted on us by god or indoctrination, but is built deeply into our software, and has been forever. While Kropotkin focuses entirely on the positive, in order to reply to the Victorian triumphial tide of "Social Darwinism", it is important to allow that our situation is conflicted, as reflected in the recently coined term "frenemy", which signifies that we have both competitive and mutualistic impulses, perpetually intertwined.
"As to the intellectual faculty, while every Darwinist will agree with Darwin that it is the most powerful arm in the struggle for life, and the most powerful factor of further evolution, he also will admit that intelligence is an eminently social faculty. Language, imitation, and accumulated experience are so many elements of growing intelligence of which the unsocial animal is deprived. Therefore we find, at the top of each class of animals, the ants, the parrots, and the monkeys, all combining the greatest sociability with the highest development of intelligence."
Taking all this up to the current era, Kropotkin devotes several chapters to the wonders of the medieval guild system, the free merchant city, and their relentless destruction by centralized states, royals, and religious empires. From a military perspective, royal and non-royal states were not defensive-minded social clubs like the guild-based civic militas, but were predatory and eager to make war on others, usually destroying the many benefits piled up in peaceful times by the mutual aid societies of day-to-day life.
An Amsterdam civic militia, by Frans Hals.

Kropotkin was incidentally visionary in his view of history as well, remarking that while historians concentrate on the dramatic bloodbaths of past conflicts, they would do well to pay closer attention to the intervening times of peace which are more reflective of core human values as well as creating the wealth that those headlining battles tussle over.
Speaking of the loving craft that medieval guilds devoted to their cities, Kropotkin quotes: "'No works must be begun by the commune but such as are conceived in response to the grand heart of the commune, composed of the hearts of all citizens, united in one common will' - such were the words of the Council of Florence;" 
He then transitions to the labor struggles of his time and the debasement of human values in capitalism. While a great deal of amelioration has since taken place in the developed world, with milder democratic states becoming the rule, his point still holds. It is well-illustrated by BP executives paying each other millions of pounds while patronizing the "small people" on the US Gulf. Modern capitalism relies completely on the natural inclination of its workers to be "team players" while at the same time systematically underpaying them and callously discarding them when convenient in our system of "at will" employment. Managments and boards routinely betray their fiduciary, not to mention ethical, responsibilities by essentially embezzling the riches that they were hired to tend.

This situation is frankly feudal, and it is time to reconsider whether we can make more of human potential by taking a page from the book of human nature. That is, by organizing companies as true "teams" where all members share and share alike, starting with being paid the same, having open books, and having democratic governance.

Lest this be considered starry-eyed liberalism, the anarchic impulse cuts across today's political spectrum. While Democrats labor to make of the state a more supportive, equitable, and sharing institution, Republicans aim to shrink the central government, in hopes of reinvigorating community-level institutions. Thus their mantra of state's rights, local charity, and private initiative. We can argue about which approach is more fair and effective, not to mention beset by ulterior and lesser motives, but it seems as though each party has an implicit vision of improved mutual aid, (i.e. the common good), that drives its ideology. Ironically, the mantra all politicians agree on- that the families are the bedrock of America- is one that is somewhat suspect from Kropotkin's perspective, however, since it really does take a village, not just a family.

Lastly, to bring this discussion full circle, these concepts have some application to Afghanistan, whose clan-based social structure is closer to our evolutionary origins than it is to modernity. Modernity is sure to extinguish the Afghan's age-old freedoms, traditions, and insularity, justifying their deep fears. Freedom to oppress women, freedom to engage in blood feuds and impromptu wars, freedom to run their valleys and villages as theocracies, freedom to terrorize the entire world if they so desire. Well- perhaps there are limits to my & Kropotkin's valorization of the primitive tribal state. Or perhaps Islam promotes an ugly trough of medievalism situated between the high points of true edenic tribalism and modern democracy.

At any rate, traditional social systems have many virtues, and we should not aim simply to blow them up. Better to adapt our aims, while creating a better form of modernity that might be more naturally attractive. To be specific, Afghan provinces and localities need more autonomy, so that they can, for instance, elect their own governors. Strong central government is neither operationally practical, nor theoretically desirable in this setting, beyond the red lines of preventing civil war and Talibanization. Governance, as always, should come from the bottom up.
"New economical and social institutions, in so far as they were a creation of the masses, new ethical systems, and new religions, all have originated from the same source, and the ethical progress of our race, viewed in its broad lines, appears as a gradual extension of the mutual-aid principles from the tribe to always larger and larger agglomerations, so as to finally embrace one day the whole of mankind, without respect to its divers creeds, languages, and races."

"One of the major agendas of the neo-liberal era has been to disabuse us of this care for others ....
In effect, the austerity push is based on ideology – on the view that private markets will self-correct and if charity is required it will come from private citizens. The anathema to the austerians is public welfare and fiscal support for the disadvantaged ....
There is a long lineage to these ideas. Greenspan’s blind faith in the market was inspired by his mentor Ayn Rand. Would Greenspan care about the unemployment now? I doubt it.
[quoting Ayn Rand:]
'As to altruism — it has never been alive. It is the poison of death in the blood of Western civilization, and men survived it only to the extent to which they neither believed nor practiced it. But it has caught up with them — and that is the killer which they now have to face and to defeat. That is the basic choice they have to make. If any civilization is to survive, it is the morality of altruism that men have to reject …
Make no mistake about it — and tell it to your Republican friends: capitalism and altruism cannot coexist in the same man or in the same society.
Tell it to anyone who attempts to justify capitalism on the ground of the “public good” or the “general welfare” or “service to society” or the benefit it brings to the poor. All these things are true, but they are the by-products, the secondary consequences of capitalism — not its goal, purpose or moral justification. The moral justification of capitalism is man’s right to exist for his own sake, neither sacrificing himself to others nor sacrificing others to himself; it is the recognition that man — every man — is an end in himself, not a means to the ends of others, not a sacrificial animal serving anyone’s need.' "
And, as if to prove the point, Greenspan has just come out with an austerian rationale for canceling the Bush tax cuts. One doesn't know whether to laugh or cry.

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