Tuesday, September 21, 2010

The riddle of the anarchist watermelon

The anarchist movement is, by its own definition, an extremely composite and heterogeneous entity. Still, one can trace certain broad currents as they developed and differentiated along its roughly two century old history. Some political analysis and historians of the workers movement then like to talk of "Anarcho-communism", "Anarcho-syndacalism", "Anarcho-primitivism", "Anarcho-feminism", and the like. A coarser, and possibly more fundamental, distinction can be made between "green" and "red" anarchism, which essentially separated between those anarchist movements that put their emphasis, in many different ways, around ecologism and environmentalism, and those who view their roots and their ideology as more closely tied with the history of the socialist and (some versions of) communist ideology. Separating these two tendencies out does not do justice to the complexity of the anarchist archipelago, naturally, where often these components coexist and combine in intricate patterns. However, a distinction clearly exists and it is so deeply rooted as to have brought about the existence of a separate anarchist flag, with the same black diagonal half, but with the red one replaced, naturally, by a green area.

An old saying in my country of birth has it that the environmentalist movement is like a watermelon: green on the outside, red on the inside, and everywhere spotted with the black seeds of anarchy.

My sympathy naturally goes primarily to the "Red Anarchy" variant, that which is more closely tied up in its history to the workers movement, the socialist and communist tradition, and the industrial society. Abandoning industrial society not only does not seem in any way feasible but also not in the least attractive. We do live in an advanced technological world and our way of confronting society and our dreams of transforming it must be measured against the fact that technology is going to play an increasingly prominent role in the lives of people all over the globe. What we can and we must try to influence is how the interaction of human beings and technology does and will take place, not if. But at heart I am a communist and communism is a creature born of technological society and forever entangled with its destiny.

I am also a scientist, and as such I am especially concerned about the attitude towards science that the various forms of anarchist thought have taken.

If we take a step back to the early history of the anarchist movement and ideology, we find a very interesting text, written in 1903 by "the Anarchist Prince" Pyotr Alexeyevich Kropotkin, called "Modern science and Anarchism". It was written at the turn of the century, when in fact science had just started on the way of the great revolutions of quantum theory and relativity, which, however had not yet percolated down to the general public. So the "modern science" talked about in the text is eminently the mid to late 19th century science of thermodynamics and electromagnetism, the science that seemed to promise a nearly complete and entirely deterministic vision of the world. Imminent change of paradigm notwithstanding, the main point of Kropotkin is to reiterate the pledge of alliance to science of the anarchist thought. Kropotkin identifies the scientific method of inquiry used in the physical sciences as superior to the "dialectic materialism" approach favored by the orthodox marxists, which he sees as marred in preconceived ideas derived from idealistic philosophy and never realistically tested for effectiveness. Science works, science gives us a reliable way of looking at the world, of making predictions and testing them against data and facts. Kropotkin advocates an anarcho-communist thought based upon the results and the methods of the hard sciences, and subject to adjusting its ideology to the results of scientific inquiry, modifying what is proved wrong and confirming what stands the test of scientific inquiry. He admits, naturally, that when it comes to the realm of the social sciences it is difficult to apply the same level of rigor of the deductive scientific method as one can maintain in the hard physical sciences, but in his mind the goal is to model the social sciences on the hard sciences, and in that way eliminate the element of prejudice based on the tacit unquestioned assumption of a class based society that marred the general viewpoint on issues involving economics, social studies and similar disciplines. Within a few years of his writing, it became clear to everyone that even the hard sciences themselves where much more intrinsically complex in their view of the world than the late 19th century triumphs of physics appeared to imply and the new wonderful triumphs of 20th century physics opened the door to a fascinating view of modern science, but one less prone to adapt to dreams of reductionism. Nonetheless, the main point of Kropotkin certainly stands the test of time: that progressive political ideology stands hand in hand with scientific progress and scientific thought. This would seem to be an unshakable pillar of our philosophical history. And so it was, for quite a long stretch of time across the 20th century.

Enter postmodernism. Much of the theoretical foundations of left wing ideology was swept away by the postmodernist wave of the eighties: a flood of "soft thought" and aggressive relativism that started to look at science as an enemy instead of an ally. One can understand historically how some of the hostility against science grew out of well grounded concerns over its role in the service of the military-industrial complex, in decades of Cold War, and an equally justified concern over the looming specter of an environmental catastrophe, caused by an accelerated industrial development that seemed to care little for sustainability and preservation of the natural resources. In addition to these valid concerns there was another perfectly well justified reason for criticizing the sociological makeup of the scientific community, which appeared to be excluding from its ranks certain groups of population like women and ethnic minorities. However, the response to all these reasonable concerns was completely unreasonable and it had the overall effect of severely damaging leftist ideology and completely undermining many of its major achievement, gained as a result of long and painful struggles across the history of the 19th and 20th century.

Let's be more specific: the postmodernist "left" accuses science of being intrinsically a patriarchal construct of male domination, a discourse with no intrinsic validity other than the task of perpetuating its prejudices and suppressing other forms of thought, which are equally valid but more intrinsically feminine and based on essentially unverifiable systems of primitivistic beliefs. This type of claim essentially destroys completely two centuries of had won achievements of the feminist and women liberation movement, which struggled precisely against this type of idiotic prejudice according to which there is a male thought and a female thought and that rational thinking is the exclusive property of the first and the latter is relegated to the domain of wishy-whasy nonsense. Try as you may to flip the coin around and pretend that rational thought is bad and wishy-washy nonsense is all we should be aiming for (which is a completely moronic point of view, contrary to anything we, as progressive left-wing people had always believed in), you will still be left with the same discriminatory association of one type of thought to men and one to women. How on earth did anyone manage to brainwash people into believing that a point of view of this sort could be called progressive?

One of the basic tenants of socialist (and with it anarchist and communist) ideology was always defending reason against superstition. We traditionally opposed organized religions because they used supernatural beliefs to subjugate people, in the service of the ruling class. We opposed them because they prevent people from thinking rationally about causes and effects, we opposed them because they opposed science. Yet, the postmodernist "left" has no hesitation in supporting all types of nonsensical superstitions, from New Age baloney to astrological crap, to a revival of witchcraft and magical thinking. Who is calling this "the left"? Why? How did anyone manage to propagate the idea that promoting superstition against rationality is anything we would accept to call progressive?

I am sorry neo-primitivist, nature seeking, horoscope reading green anarchists, my dear comrades, I stand by our red flag of progress and reason!

I submit that one of our greatest struggles today is to regain science, to claim it back as our own! We live in a technological world where all the more those who control science control the world. If we choose to turn our back to science, we will be simply accomplishing a self fulfilling prophecy, leaving behind us a scientific community that will become all the more conservative, male dominated, in the service of the capitalist system of exploitation and tied up to the military apparatus. It need not be so, however, for if we claim science as our own, as it always was in the history of our ideology, we can turn the tide towards a scientific community that is inclusive, conscious of the needs of the environment (and with the knowledge needed to actually do something about it), that helps

Already, fortunately, despite the twisted portrait that the postmodernist "left" (which has never actually seen a real scientist in close quarters) tries to depict, the scientific community is already generally very left-wing and progressive, and if we (the left) don't screw that up, it will continue to be so in times to come. The underrepresentation of certain groups is still real and worrisome, but not due to an intrinsic nature of science itself, but to the residual existence of an order of things in our society at large (not in the scientific community itself) that creates impediments to its enlargement and broader inclusiveness. It is the traditional society we must fight, with the help of science, not the other way around. One should also point out that the postmodernist attitude of the "left" itself contributed to making the scientific community even more unbalanced in terms of its composition, thus perpetuating the exact same prejudices it should supposedly be fighting against.

Anarchists, communists, socialists, let's reclaim science as our own mode of thought as Kropotkin advocated. Let's return to that progressive rational view of humankind our long struggle for a society of equality and justice was always based upon.