Does our contemporary society need a government or can it do without one? The question may seem delusional to some but not to Philosophy Magazine, which organized a debate between Catherine Malabou and Jean-Claude Monod on this subject.
Anarchy is making a comeback! Two forms are distinguished, the libertarianism of big capital, and the popular anarchism of self-managers. Libertarianism is represented by Trump and the ultra-rich. They want complete freedom of action from the governments. Popular anarchism is that of the french “yellow vests“. Everyone wants to organize their own life, resists any external control, even if the government has been legitimized by the majority.
These two anarchisms are difficult to associate, at least morally. On the one hand, less than 0.1% of the population, on the other, more than half. The 0.1% has twice as much wealth as the 50%. At the frontispiece, freedom seems very angry with equality. Anarchism is full of other contradictions, which is why it should not be made a political system but rather an expression of human nature. And more precisely only one half of this nature: individualism. The other half is collectivism, a real anchor of the possibility of social life. It is our collectivist spirit that alone has the right to judge political organization.
A collective without a government?
Thus, even before starting this debate, logic says that it has no place to be. If we live in society, by definition everyone recognizes the existence of an entity superior to oneself: the collective. It also presupposes something that represents it: a government. Change the name if you don’t like it, but it’s something that applies to all individuals. It is impossible to hide it or else the collective ceases to exist. Society disappears.
It is impossible to hide it and yet this is what our contemporary popular anarchists do. Not voluntarily actually. This is what fundamentally differentiates them from libertarians. The ultra-rich hide nothing; they perfectly identified the collective as the target to be shot. The collective is too powerful. It prevents the establishment of the system dreamed of by the ultra-rich, which is not really anarchism but a planetary feudalism, of which they would be the archdukes.
The critical error
On the contrary, the popular anarchist does not want to degrade the collective. Nor in general renounce to respect its constraints. She targets rules that she considers unfair, government faces that she doesn’t like. The popular anarchist has little interest in philosophical debate; she wants to expand her space of individual freedom, to see the benefits on a daily basis. Is she really aware of the effective presence of the collective? No, because she never experience its absence. For her this entity is part of the scenery. Immovable backdrop. It cannot exist without a part of her making it exist. But she is not aware of it, because it is the individualist who is in charge.
For the anarchist, society is a mother whose clothes —the rulers— can be changed without harming her health for a single second. Mom is eternal. Its victuals, its roads, its hospitals, its energy, all this is part of the walls. It is not by removing old wallpaper with outdated patterns that we threaten their solidity. This is a fundamental mistake. Society has no physical existence; its support is purely mental. It is not made of concrete but of concepts. If concepts are not wrapped in a stable social representation, they disperse to all winds.
Collectivist vs. anarchist
For those who are aware of this critical error, the question in title makes no sense. The collective does not exist without its own imperatives, to which we commonly give the name of government. We can discuss at leisure the many forms it can take, but not its necessity.
This is the opinion of Jean-Claude Monod, who participates in the debate by feigning to believe that the government may not exist, but it is undoubtedly his kindness that is expressed. Catherine Malabou, for her part, promotes anarchism without hesitation, after having engaged with her eyes closed in the critical error. Her consciousness of the collective is so weak that she even makes the government a prejudice, in the footsteps of Proudhon. The idea that human cannot live without establishing a relationship where some command and others obey, is “governmental prejudice.”
Here is Aristotle creator of human nature!
Malabou traces this prejudice back to Aristotle, who transformed the Greek meaning of archè (in hierarchy) from “that which comes first” to “that which is superior to”. And here is Aristotle accused of all the failings of contemporary politics. “Starting with Aristotle, all political treatises will declare that the first question is: what is good government?” Malabou thus claims to correct things with an ontological vision. She thinks it is necessary to repeal governance to “produce new forms of self-organization at all levels.”
The ontological basis is an excellent starting point for explaining things, if we have understood what the human animal is, and when we start from scratch, the first attempts to organize large groups. It is possible to start self-organization again and again from this base. But this implies… the destruction of the existing organization. This is a fundamental principle of self-organization. Do you want to produce new intelligence from algorithms? Don’t ask a human to tell them what result they should achieve.
The problem, dear Catherine, is that you are taking the ontological train on the way. And where it starts, you place the convictions that suit you. These show a profound ignorance of human nature. Aristotle did not invent hierarchy. He put a name to social relations dating back to the dawn of anthropological times. These are instincts that self-organize. Aristotle’s writings arrive much later in the scale of complexity. Aristotle works with the human reality before his eyes. He does not invent it in his books. Today our sophisticated consciousness is still a process that organizes instincts, not an anarchist ideal.
Malabou makes the common mistake of placing her personal theory at the root of human complexity and unfolding its ontological evolution. But if the algorithm is wrong it is not reality that unfolds, only that hoped for by Malabou, who told the algorithm what it had to find. Unfortunately, reality has never behaved like this. No mass anarchism has produced a stable society. That of the Greek cities was local and associated with rigid social classes —twice as many slaves as citizens in the cities, and women had no power.
Beware of pseudo-ontologies
In reality, Malabou’s vision is not ontological but teleological. The rest makes it obvious: “Anarchy in the philosophical sense […] is the ability to obey where there is no order given. Being able to do what I need to do without anyone asking me, acting out of conviction and not obedience.” A magnificent… ideal. How do I spontaneously know “what to do” in a world steeped in inequality in all aspects of life? If I were naturally equipped with such discernment, how is it that the history of my species is nothing but a litany of deadly conflicts? Moreover, is not the contemporary rise of anarchism accompanied by the prospect of a new planetary conflict?
How does the individual know all this without the collective, Mrs. Malabou? Don’t you trust too much the backdrop, too, and an education that would come naturally to the new generations? The collective seems solid to you because you have the material means to participate; but do you think this is the case for everyone? We always project our mental universe too much onto others. If the approximation holds up more or less, it is because there is already an old collective to bring them together. Its safeguarding is vital. Any experimentation on how we make it change requires extreme caution.
Any real hope?
In the end, Malabou’s anarchism is not an attempt to replace the power from the top with the power from the bottom. It is an alternative power from the top, an ideal, a false ontology. This should not prevent us from carrying out social experiments. It is perfectly possible to set up small self-governing structures and see what they will create together. Let us not deceive ourselves: it will be a government. No whole without government. Nor without hierarchy. The collective is necessarily superior to individuals.
The real hope of changing existing structures is to integrate hierarchy into individual minds. Integrate the cops. But is this possible with the promotion of individualism that anarchists are currently doing? No, they get the opposite effect. Candidates for mayor are increasingly rare in France. The very principle of representation collapses. How to set up small self-governing structures in these conditions? Anarchism actually creates the conditions for the return of a powerful, tyrannical collectivism, leaving no choice to individuals. Libertarians, if they are not themselves the dictators of tomorrow, open the door to them.