Against Hope

It is, of course, fundamentally naive to believe that any amount of effort and goodwill can cause change in our political system. When the changes inevitably come they will be the result of the titanic submerged forces of economics and demographics and so on, and they will in all likelihood not be for the better. Even people who know this occasionally slip into the fallacy of hope by attributing positive results to some single important event: global warming, say, or the advent of an AI-powered singularity. Unfortunately, these hopes are ill-founded. The political system, no matter what happens, will continue to favour the powerful over the powerless, to encourage mean-spiritedness and petty cruelty among its cheerleaders and enforces, and maintain a huge class of subjected poor who produce wealth they never see. That is what a political system is.

We can see this depressing truth play itself out by looking back on the industrial revolution and the practice of mechanization. Oscar Wilde imagined a future where nobody had to work, relying instead on uncomplaining mechanical slaves, and (besides some occasional maintenance) everybody was free to live lives of leisure. He was wrong, though: all mechanization did was increase the profits of those who owned the machines and made the labor pool smaller and hungrier.

Arthur Koestler imagined a theory of political-technological development that took as its model a ship being raised through a series of locked basins. The ship represents the happiness and stability of society; the basins represent the level of technology. When the ship enters a new basin, it sits (relative to the basin) very low in the water: the society is cruel and chaotic. Over time, it balances itself – just in time to enter a new basin and its attendant evils. Even on Koestler’s optimistic view, technology advances but nothing ever changes.

Anarchism does not offer a solution to this depressing picture of the political world. In the realm of political philosophy, it functions very much like the Greek skeptics do in the realm of epistemology. The skeptical arguments outline the boundary of certainty: this far we can philosophize, they say, but no further, and the limits they outline have stood for thousands of years. Anarchist arguments ought to do the same for political philosophy, providing a realist correction to theories of the State.

Just as the skeptics free us – we don’t need to achieve certainty, since it’s impossible – in the area of knowledge, the anarchists free us in the area of politics. Don’t give the bastards more of your time than you absolutely have to. Don’t feel guilty about not engaging more, about not doing more to change things – the system is unchangeable, and to engage with it will only poison you. Spend your time doing something more useful, like making art or blogging. Hope is a gift, of course, but in a genuinely hopeless situation hope all too often keeps people imprisoned, thinking that if they just believed harder or tried more, they can fix the unfixable. I contend the world would a better place if more people despaired about politics.


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