Anarchism, Christianity, and the Prophetic Imagination 8

Written by Jason Barr : November 28, 2007

Having looked at the basic principle of anarchism, that of decentralization of power structures and shared authority, we will now flesh out some implications. The first implication we will discuss is the idea of direct action.

The idea of decentralized leadership leads to the concept of direct action. Direct action occurs when people participate directly in decision-making processes or personally get involved in affecting political and social change. So instead of voting for representatives to make decisions on your behalf as we (theoretically) do in elections, people would have a direct say on the issues that affected them, by participating in discussions, getting involved in a form of protest or making different choices. It means taking a hands-on approach to life – rather than letting others decide on or dictate it for you - in ways that even “representative democracy” cannot allow.

David Wieck gives an example of direct action in a practical circumstance. Say a butcher (if you’re vegetarian say an organic grocer) is cheating customers at his store. There are three basic types of action one can take to resolve the situation. “Mere talk” is to simply complain about the butcher’s cheating and to not do anything about it. “Indirect action” would be to report the butcher to the Department of Weights and Measurements – and have them deal with the problem (you hope). But “direct action” means dealing with the butcher personally, whether that means taking your business elsewhere, bringing your own scale to measure the meat or starting your own shop that doesn’t cheat the customers. It should be noted that dealing with the butcher violently is not recommended - remember, anarchism seeks to REDUCE the violence in society.

Direct action is also used to enact larger social changes. So although it wasn’t anarchist, the Civil Rights Movement featured several direct action tactics to protest segregation, including boycotts against bus companies and businesses, lunch counter sit-ins, freedom rides, demonstrations and other forms of civil disobedience. Other forms of direct action include sabotage, work stoppages or slowdowns, and strikes.

A corollary of direct action is mutual aid, where people support each other in solidarity to help meet each others’ needs. Mutual aid involves cooperation to ensure that everyone in the community has their needs met, instead of competing in the name of self-interest. Mutual aid could also function as a kind of living critique of modern individual isolation. The early church in Acts 2 and 4 is a quintessential picture of a society based on mutual aid.

Next time we will look at anarchism and leadership.

for further reading . . .

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8 Responses to “Anarchism, Christianity, and the Prophetic Imagination 8”

  1. keith johnson on November 29th, 2007 6:46 pm

    Hi Jason:

    I am actually interested in commenting on something you wrote in installment 6. You said that anarchy proposes that decisions that affect the group would be decided by consensus. But what if you cannot reach consensus? What if, say 40% of the people do NOT want to take an action, while 60% DO want to. Absent consensus, presumably no action would be taken, but this would mean the 40% were imposing *their* preference on the 60%. How is that better than if majority ruled a la democracy? I k now you criticized actually existing democracy as not REALLY allowing the peoples’ preference to be realized, but it seems a little unfair to compare actually existing democracy with the idealized anarchy.

    your friend

  2. Jason Barr on November 30th, 2007 4:29 am

    Consensus does have a tendency to get bogged down in a tyranny of the minority, yes. This is a well-documented problem.

    I’ve oversimplified things there a bit, actually. Not all anarchists use consensus, some anarchists are much more individualist than I’ve implied there - I just don’t think that sort of anarchism relates well to Biblical Christianity, which is my intent with this series.

    There are different ways to move in the face of an absence of consensus, none of which are totally satisfactory - but it’s important to understand that groups based on consensus begin with the idea that they’re probably going to take a long time and a lot of discussion to get things done - so for matters involving only a few people the whole group wouldn’t necessarily need to meet to decide. The people involved would take care of it within themselves, presumably seeking a mediator if they were to disagree. There are various methods for mediation, and even in a worst case scenario presumably some kind of compromise would be possible. This is actually one of the places where the fallenness of people and the sense of lack that is present within ANY political system comes into play.

    I also need to point out that anarchy and democracy are not antithetical (which is an impression I may have given in the series) - in fact, a number of anarchist theories depend on democracy and democratic methodologies. The thinking is that anarchist democratic practices would be truly democratic in a way that state-based democracy is not and cannot be.

    I would also question the notion that democracy actually exists in the world today. Do you REALLY think the United States is a democracy? At the very least you need to consider the Ellulian idea that the technique of bureaucracy functions in such a way as to make what people actually hold what offices at least to a large extent irrelevant. This comment on my blog actually illustrates that pretty well.

    I think if one looks long and hard at the history of our country the responsible conclusion to reach is that our “democracy” is at best idealized and at worse a fiction that allows the average person to be largely, systematically removed from the decision-making process. Voting, ironically, can be seen as contributing to that fact, rather than empowering people. Matters such as propaganda, lobbying, a limited-party system, and other things contribute to that fact… but the blame can largely be laid right at the source - the Constitution.

    And no, I’m not a Marxist by a long shot, but I think Marxist analysis is very good for some things - particularly the type of argument that article makes.

    The argument I was actually trying to make, way back in the beginning of the discussion on anarchism, was that decentralized structures generally allow people to have more control over their lives. I never said it gave them absolute control, nor that absolute control would be a good thing. The point is that anarchic structures supposedly would give people more freedom in a way that theoretically leads to a more just society. It’s not a political vending machine where you insert these three coins (ideology), pull the lever (put into practice) and get the candy bar (a happy, just society). There is a very real way that smaller-scale structures can in fact be tyrannical, an idea Corey Robin explores in his excellent book Fear: The History of a Political Idea.

    Or, as I said in my blog today:

    I view anarchism substantially the same way as I do most any other political ideology, whether it be Democratic, Republican, Socialist, Green, and so on (probably excluding ideas like fascism and monarchism, though I don’t think too many people seriously entertain such ideas today, not counting the Republican fascisti, who by no means represent all Republicans). That is to say, I seek to understand the foundations for the ideology, its expressions and nuances, and its implications alongside a view of the world that seeks to see things in relation to the Bible, shaped by the history of interpretation within the church and the traditions of the church. It’s the same way I try to view culture, economics, philosophy, history, and every other aspect of my life.

  3. Jason Barr on November 30th, 2007 4:32 am

    Dear Lord what did I do to the markup in that comment? *LOL* Mark, any way you could tidy that up for me? I think I forgot to close a couple of tags.

  4. Mark Van Steenwyk on November 30th, 2007 8:49 am

    Good as new!

  5. Jason Barr on November 30th, 2007 8:52 am

    Thank you so much. :-)

  6. forrest on November 30th, 2007 1:28 pm

    I suppose that as a Quaker, I may have to do as the resident expert in the “consensus” idea. Although “consensus” as such is not what our decision-making method is supposed to be about, rather “discerning the will of God.”

    Generally, if there’s any hold-out present at a Quaker business meeting, the likely assumption is that the issue has not been properly “seasoned,” and needs to wait for further light. Which will not necessarily lead either to a victory for one side or to a compromise; another outcome is that God reveals an unexpected way forward.

    Less desirable possible outcomes… Everyone in the meeting sees that a particular decision, while not ideal, is the best that everyone is going to be willing to accept, and settles for that. It seems, to me, a less than divinely-led process when that happens, but it is, after all, a process that needs to operate with the particular human beings we happen to be.

    The danger… Frequently, to my mind, we err on the side of timidity and narrowness.

    One benefit, even in the non-ideal outcomes, is that normally there ate no human beings trampled in the process. (In extreme cases, a clerk is allowed to decide that “the sense of the meeting” is clear, so that if there’s a hold-out unwilling to be recorded as “standing aside,” his opposition may be over-ridden. This is extremely rare, & may well be a mistake even when it seems necessary.)

    Further benefits: Once we do decide a particular course is what we’re called to follow, we tend to do so wholeheartedly. And ironically, we tend to settle some of the harder questions long before the more “practical” processes of normal society. We renounced slavery (AND the American Revolution!) around the time of the American Revolution. The practical men killed thousands of people, trying to do the same thing 90 years later–and the first thing they did, once they had finally made slavery illegal, was to subvert the change via the use of vagrancy laws and chain gangs!

  7. Mark Van Steenwyk on November 30th, 2007 1:36 pm

    I recommend the chapter on communal discernment in Gordon Smith’s The Voice of Jesus. Holding too much to consensus as THE way of communal discernment isn’t wise, it seems to me. I think the Holy Spirit can move in a variety of ways…sometimes even though the decision making of a particular leader. The truth is, even if we just focus on the New Testament, there are a variety of methods of decision making shown.

  8. keith johnson on December 3rd, 2007 3:38 pm

    Hi Jason and all:

    Thanks for the responses. I have a couple of comments about some of it. It might go without saying, but in the interest of full disclosure I must say I am not an anarchist (I am a pacifist in that I oppose all military action; I am not sure about the use of force by the police).

    1. Jason, you ask me if I think the US is a democracy. No I don’t. I believe that capitalist inequality prevents the system from reflecting the rule of the people. When I advocate democracy I am advocating an IDEAL where the majority rules while respecting the interests and rights of the minority. In this discussion it seems appropriate to me to compare the IDEALIZED democracy with the IDEALIZED anarchy. Of course the discussion requires that we examine how reality can be expected to diverge from the ideal, but that applies to anarchy too.

    2. If anarchy is vulnerable to tyranny of the minority then wouldn’t that give most people LESS control over their lives (when the minority imposed its preferences on the majority, there would be more people who were twarted than not).

    3. Democracy on the other hand seems vulnerable to tyranny of the majority.

    4. To me it seems like the “solution” is for us Christians to follow jesus’ standard of loving God, loving our neighbors, and even loving our enemies. Inasmuch as WE follow that WE will not be tyrannizing anyone. If the world were filled with ideal Christians it wouldn’t really matter what formal poltical system there was. And since the world isn’t filled with such ideal people (I am surely not one of the ideal) then even a “perfect” system would fail to display the will of God.

    your friend

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