Sunday, July 20, 2014

James C. Scott's "Two Cheers for Anarchism": Book Review

As some comprehensive reviews [at Amazon US, where this appeared 6-13-14] summing up and citing key passages have preceded my entry, may I add a few comments? As a Yale professor of politics with a Marxist background, James C. Scott's decision to adapt the anarchist "squint" to view the world a bit differently is commendable. He eschews his previous books, meticulously plotted on sixteen-foot rolls of paper as he puts it, and he integrates fragments which offer digressions and tangents for him to elaborate. This technique reminds me of an engaging lecturer, and shows what his anthropology students at Yale must be lucky enough to witness. He likes to wander off, and then mosey back.

Of course, the fact that an Ivy League, tenured faculty member is discussing what has a suspect reputation by the name alone, and which in E.F. Forster's "Two Cheers for Democracy" tradition recalls less than wholehearted praise, remains crucial. One, this as Scott tells early on is not a narrative of the big thinkers or various theories. It tries to take the aspects of the spontaneous, the unrecorded, the uncredited, the subversive and to argue how these drive key changes in social progress more than the top-down, state-imposed, mass-directed programs. Yet, as with civil rights and desegregation, Scott reminds us how state pressure and policy force might need a State to force moral progress and establish human rights: a provocative insight for anarchists to consider. And, apart from the "official story" often passed on, past and present, many agitate for change, clog up the system as it grinds them down, poach, hide, goldbrick, and evade the time-management and efficiency-expert regimentation. How people organize even without a leader to thwart this repeats.

Two, why there's no mention in a 2012 book of Occupy or the protests in Egypt made me wonder. Maybe the manuscript was in press already, but the timing of this I aver is meant to capitalize on the protests which for some of us forced viewers to take sides, to get involved, to challenge the Tweedledee-Tweedledum bipartisan oligarchy. I cannot figure out why either this book was not delayed so as to address Occupy and similar anti-globalization actions recently, or why Scott left out such relevant case studies. The impact and success or not of these uprisings certainly fits his thesis.

However, his engaging account of Germany and "anarchist calisthenics" so as to break small laws which do not make any sense adhering to so as to be ready to break bigger ones when needed, his red light analogy, his distinction of how we locate ourselves locally by "vernacular order" as a non-official one (will this naming of paths and landmarks by native quirks and lore survive Google Maps and GPS?), and his poignant look at a nursing home's terrified patients who cannot resist the system illustrate well his insistence that autonomy, independence, and decision-making need to be left in the hands and heads and hearts of the individuals and the communities. Teachers, as he demonstrates, suffer particularly in standardized curricula and test-taking compliance. Students atrophy, and the impact carries into the dismissal among leftists of the petty bourgeoisie who after all stand up in history now and then for small-scale innovation, ways of making a living apart from regimens, and self-control of their means of production. The persistence of this dream of a farm, restaurant, or small business among many of us if we broke free of the corporate or institutional demands, Scott observes, proves the endurance of this will to do it ourselves, apart from state or boss.

I would welcome much more on the practical aspects as we see them in the workplace and in our lives as the work-play leisure-duty boundaries dissolve and as this dissolution, we are told by many millennials, is the ideal for our future. How anarchism and games and the lack of structure effect this, how small start-ups innovate but then sell out to giant firms, how the students, teachers and parents find their efforts quantified as learning turns into endless metrics, and how this pressure exerts itself on workers told they have no secure occupation and must always be on call, always reinvent: Scott might at least have provided suggestions for us who are burdened rather than liberated. If he walks among us as a guide, even in an anarchist book, he needs to offer some encouraging, clear directions.

No comments: