I’ve lost myself in the rhizome-rooted brambles of anarchist thought a number of times through the years. I often set out with one goal in mind and end up lured down tangled, twisting thoughts to find myself somewhere quite different than my imagined goal. But oddly and synergistically I find I’ve connected in some way that I find fascinating to contemplate in one of those “how did I get here” moments.
Like, I set off down this searched list of peter kropotkin influenced and dropped into a Mises Institute nest circa 2011 where I read The Anarchism of Peter Kropotkin. In it I found oddly striking suggestive correlations to the title of Craig Chalquist’s slide show mentioned in a previous post (outliving our ruling institutions). These are really core anarchistic thoughts that connect so many of those who like to identify as anarchists (and amusingly, in an ever contrarian way, contradict the image of anarchism as an instrument of chaos that propaganda has embedded in our social unconscious) even while they may differ in many specifics.
To read the following, it helps to have in mind where Thomas Hobbes fits into modern thought, and how Hobbes 17th century formulations of the human condition, in what we now think of as an Age of Reason tradition, fits into the creation of the modern state that’s evolved with the rise of industrial civilization:
Like all good students of that era (and later eras as well), Kropotkin knew his Thomas Hobbes. Hobbes had written, 200 years before, in the middle of the 17th century, about the conditions that had existed when human beings lived in what he called the “state of nature,” before coercive governments were established. Hobbes described the principal feature of this period as a “war of all against all” and the life of the average human during this time as “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.”
This conception of things seemed to be echoed in the language of Charles Darwin’s On the Origin of Species, published in 1859, when Kropotkin was 16 years old, with its talk of how (as George Woodcock summarizes it)
in nature there is never enough for all, and … it is not desirable that it should be, since the most potent force in the evolution of the animal world and of human societies is the struggle for existence within the species which procures the survival of the fittest and thus ensures the progress of the race.
The problem Kropotkin confronted with respect to all this, not long after his appointment to a post in Siberia, is described simply and succinctly in the opening pages of his most famous work, Mutual Aid: A Factor of Evolution, first published in 1902, when he was nearly 60 years old. “I failed to find,” he wrote, “although I was eagerly looking for it — that bitter struggle for the means of existence, among animals belonging to the same species, which was considered by most Darwinists (though not always by Darwin himself) as the dominant characteristic of struggle for life and the main factor of evolution.” What he saw instead was “Mutual Aid and Mutual Support carried on to an extent which made me suspect in it a feature of the greatest importance for the maintenance of life, the preservation of each species, and its further evolution.”
He concluded that
life in societies enables the feeblest animals, the feeblest birds, and the feeblest mammals to resist, or to protect themselves from the most terrible birds and beasts of prey; it permits longevity; it enables the species to rear its progeny with the least waste of energy and to maintain its numbers albeit a very slow birth-rate; it enables the gregarious animals to migrate in search of new abodes. Therefore, while fully admitting that force, swiftness, protective colors, cunningness, and endurance to hunger and cold, which are mentioned by Darwin and Wallace, are so many qualities making the individual or the species the fittest under certain circumstances, we maintain that under any circumstances sociability is the greatest advantage in the struggle for life. Those species which willingly abandon it are doomed to decay; while those animals which know best how to combine have the greatest chance of survival and of further evolution, although they may be inferior to others in each of the faculties enumerated by Darwin and Wallace, except the intellectual faculty.
As George Woodcock notes, this argument is potentially important to anyone who wants to allege that human society, with all its manifest advantages, can be carried on without the “protection” offered by the state. The argument was designed, Woodcock writes, “to show that anarchist proposals could work because they were based on the constants of social relations among beings of all kinds, human and animal.” It was also designed, of course, to put the quits to Thomas Hobbes’s assertion that life in the state of nature was a war of all against all. Perhaps, if life in the state of nature included mutual aid, then there could indeed be a free society, one in which force and the threat of force played no part.
And then the article tangents off in a not altogether surprisingly confused way into some Ayn Rand free market related cult thinking that justifies embedded versions of survival of the fittest with statements like:
In the 1960s, Barbara Branden famously responded, when asked what would happen to the poor and disabled in a libertarian society, that, “if you want to help [those people], no one will stop you.” Kropotkin envisioned a human society in which more than a few would want to help those who were poor and disabled.
Somehow, I suppose, in a tangled array of thought I care not negotiate ever again, that explains the humanistic outcomes of The Virtue of Selfishness. One of which I am convinced is the modern, privately held, for-the-virtue-of-selfish-profit, transnational corporation.
Should anyone want a break from the constant inundation of media images and a chance to retreat into a contemplative word environment, download your favorite free ebook version of Kropotkin’s most famous work: Mutual Aid: A Factor of Evolution here, at the Project Gutenberg site.