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(en) Is Anarchism Suitable for Complex Societies?

From Dan Clore <clore@columbia-center.org>
Date Tue, 10 Dec 2002 06:16:14 -0500 (EST)

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Is Anarchism Suitable For Complex Societies
by Brian Oliver Shepphard

December 08, 2002 

The charge has often been made that the anarchist economic
model is ill suited for complex societies. The multi-faceted
nature of advanced industrial economies; their scope of
operation and breadth of distribution; the extensive
refinement in their division of labor - all these and more
are held up as examples of the labyrinth of problems that
nothing as "simplistic" as anarchism could ever hope to
address. Anarchism, according to many modern critics, could
only hope to work in limited, small-scale economies. And
even then, only possibly. 

The primitivist sect of the American anarchist movement
actually seems to agree with this, and advocates destroying
what they call the "industrial mega-machine," thereby
returning to small, localized, autonomous villages. This is
completely at odds with what the anarchist movement has
fought for traditionally. 

American anarchist Sam Dolgoff stated that, far from being
ill suited for anarchism, "complex societies necessitate"
it. In "The Relevance of Anarchism to Modern Society," he
delved into the subject by reaffirming that "the classical
anarchists always rejected the kind of 'simplicity' which
camouflages regimentation in favor of the natural complexity
which reflects the many faceted richness and diversity of
social and individual life." 

Interestingly, in the introduction to Daniel Guerin's
Anarchism, Noam Chomsky states: "[S]kepticism is in order
when we hear that 'human nature' or 'the demands of
efficiency' or 'the complexity of modern life' require this
or that form of oppression or autocratic rule." 

Gabriel Jackson, award-winning historian and author of The
Spanish Revolution and the Civil War, posits that the
anarchists ruined Spain in 1936, allowing fascism to triumph
in that country in the late 1930's. This was because the
anarchist model could not survive in a complex economy, he

To wit: "[T]he revolutionary tide began to ebb in Catalonia
[after] accumulating food and supply problems, and the
experience of administering villages, frontier posts, and
public utilities, had rapidly shown the anarchists the
unsuspected complexity of modern society." 

Complexity comes to the fore and foils the anarchists, it
seems, allowing Franco to sweep into power. 

But Noam Chomsky, in his essay "Objectivity and Liberal
Scholarship" (one of his most anarchist writings), writes,
"In fact, 'the revolutionary tide began to ebb in Catalonia'
under the middle-class attack led by the Communist party,
not because of a recognition of the 'complexity of modern
society.'" Furthermore, "Whereas Jackson attributes the
ebbing of the revolutionary tide to the discovery of the
unsuspected complexity of modern society, Orwell's firsthand
observations [in Homage to Catalonia], like those of
Borkenau, suggest a far simpler explanation [namely,
Communist suppression]." Chomsky continues, "The
complexities of modern society that baffled and confounded
the unsuspecting anarchist workers of Barcelona" seem not to
exist; in fact, "[t]he available records do not indicate
that the problems of administering villages or public
utilities were either 'unsuspected' or too complex for the
Catalonian workers - a remarkable and unsuspected

Indeed, Augustin Souchy, who, like Orwell, was eye witness
to the collectivization process, wrote that "The
collectivisation of the textile industry shatters once and
for all the legend that the workers are incapable of
administrating a great and complex corporation." This
observation was recorded in The Anarchist Collectives,
edited by Sam Dolgoff. Note that Souchy refers to
collectivization in the textile industry, which was an
advanced manufacturing industry, and not a rural or
small-scale operation. This answers the claim that anarchist
administration can be successful only in small-scale
industry or non-industrial operations. 

In his "The Relevance of Anarchism to Modern Society,"
Dolgoff elaborates the point further by citing Kropoktin's
observation of English and Scottish workers: 

"[P]roduction and exchange represented an undertaking so
complicated that no government (without establishing a
cumbersome, inefficient, bureaucratic dictatorship) would be
able to organize production if the workers themselves,
through their unions, did not do it in each branch of
industry; for, in all production there arises daily
thousands of difficulties that...no government can hope to
foresee.... Only the efforts of thousands of intelligences
working on problems can cooperate in the developement of the
new social system and find solutions for the thousands of
local needs." 

Federalism, the coordination of voluntary bodies of
producers over vast regional or even global spaces, was a
principal aim of struggle for the Spanish workers as well as
other activists in other countries. 

A counter-question, however, is this: Is the current free
market system suitable for the complexities of modern

In fact, the market system has itself created much of the
"complexity" of modern society. For example, 30 different
types of SUVs, many with parts particular to each one, made
by differing plants, each requiring their own skilled
production and repair, adds a great deal to the complexity
of life. Do the benefits of this kind of "complexity"
outweigh the harm it causes? By contrast, complexities of
human need - health care, housing, food, education, etc. -
are not adequately addressed by the market system. In this
sense, the state-subsidized market system of our era is
extremely ill suited to the complexity of not just modern
society, but of human beings.

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