Monday, July 21, 2014

Have You Done Your 'Anarchist Calisthenics' Today?

By Robert Wenzel

At last week's get together here in San Francisco of Circle Rothbard, I mentioned that while I did not think it wise to generally go up against government directly, I did not mind low-level disrespect for government rules and regulations. I specifically mentioned jaywalking as an example and argued that such acts created a healthy disrespect for the rules and regulations of overbearing governments and could lead to greater disrespect.

Michael Eldelstein then pointed out that the lefty-anarchist,Yale professor James C. Scott made the same point on jaywalking in his book, Two Cheers for Anarchism.  So I picked up the book and found that it not only pretty much fell in line with my thinking on jaywalking and low level ignoring of government rules and regulations, but that it also pointed out the dangers in more direct confrontations with government and the poor outcomes that generally result from revolutions. All points that I have been making here at EPJ. Here are key snippets from his book:

It dawned on me, as it should have earlier, that virtually every major successful revolution ended by creating a state more powerful than the one it overthrew, a state that in turn was able to extract more resources from and exercise more control over the very population it was designed to serve.
Organizations, contrary to the usual view, do not generally precipitate protest movements. In fact, it is more nearly correct to say that protest movements precipitate organizations, which in turn usually attempt to tame protest and turn it into institutional channels.

It surprised me how much I had to screw up my courage to cross a street against general disapproval...As a way of justifying my conduct to myself, I began to rehearse a little discourse...It went something like this, "You know, you and especially your grandparents could have used more of a spirit of lawbreaking. One day you will be called on to break a big law in the name of justice and rationality. Everything will depend on it. You have to be ready, How are you going to prepare for that day when it really matters? You have to stay 'in shape' so that when the big day comes you will be ready. What you need is 'anarchist calisthenics." Every day or so break some trivial law that makes no sense, even if it is only jaywalking, Use your own head to judge whether the law is just or reasonable. That way, you'll keep trim; and when the big day comes you'll be ready." 
Quiet, unassuming, quotidian insubordination, because it usually flies below the archival radar, waves no banners, has no officeholders, writes no manifestos and has no permanent organizations, escapes notice. And that's what the practitioners of these forms of subaltern politics have in mind: to escape notice, You could say that historically, the goal of peasants and subaltern classes has been to stay out of the archives...
More regimes have been brought piecemeal, to their knees by what was once called "Irish democracy," the silent, dogged resistance, withdrawal, and truculence of millions of ordinary people, than by revolutionary vanguards or rioting mobs...
[T]here was no one to bargain with, no one to credibly offer peace in return for policy changes. The menace was directly proportional to its lack of institutionalization.    
Acts of disobedience are of interest to us when they are exemplary, and especially when, as examples, they set off a chain reaction prompting others to emulate...Multiplied many thousandfold, such petty acts of refusal may, in the end, make an utter shambles of the plans dreamed up by generals and heads of state. Such petty acts of insubordination typically make no headlines.
By infrapolitcs I have in mind such acts as foot-dragging...desertion, absenteeism...and flight. Why risk getting shot for a failed mutiny when desertion will do just as well?..the accumulation of thousands or even millions of such petty acts can have massive effects on welfare, land rights, taxes...
To be sure, Scott is no libertarian. He is an egalitarian-anarchist, who goes out of his way to distance himself from anarchist-libertarians:
The last strand of anarchist thought I definitely wish to distance myself from is the sort of libertarianism that tolerates (or even encourages) great differences in wealth, property, and status. 
That duly noted, Scott's observations on anarchy in general and the disintegration of the state are very useful when contemplating the best ways to move toward a free world. When all is said and done the advance to liberty is a complex mind battle against state propaganda and advocates of coercion against individuals. Disrespect of petty regulations is one way to keep the mind game advancing on a theoretical thought level and a practical operational level .

Have you jaywalked today? For last weekend's project, did you hire one (or more) of the illegals that hang around Home Depots and paid them below the minimum wage? In other words,are you doing your anarchist calisthenics?

Robert Wenzel is Editor & Publisher of and author of The Fed Flunks: My Speech at the New York Federal Reserve Bank.


  1. Robert, I was interviewed back in December and I specifically mentioned jaywalking:

    I do as Albert Camus suggested and live so absolutely free that my entire existence is an act of rebellion.

    Freedom begins as a state of mind. And it doesn’t take the flinging of molotov cocktails to accomplish this rebellious life of self-governance and autonomy. In fact, I’d argue that violence is counterproductive as a means of affecting true, lasting change. So non-violent acts are the key.

    Take jaywalking, for example. It is a relatively insignificant offense; among the thousands upon thousands of pages of penal code it ranks fairly low in its impact. But it can be illustrative of a much larger idea about how small, peaceful acts of disobedience can trigger a revolution of the mind.

    Here in LA, people have extraordinary deference to the crosswalks (stemming, in my opinion, from their extraordinary deference to the state). I regularly see people standing still at corners waiting for a light to grant them permission to cross, even when there is not a car anywhere to be seen. I don’t wait. I cross wherever and whenever it is safe and convenient for me and those around me. Often, I’m sure, people will see this and roll their eyes at the dangerous law-breaker. But sometimes - sometimes! - there is that one person who will see this purportedly nefarious deed… and it will be all that is necessary to shake them from their stupor. They’ll look around and ask, why not? And they’ll cross, too. And then, sometimes, that moment will linger in their minds. They will remember how foolish they felt abiding by a rule that served no appreciable purpose. And they’ll realize that they were simply doing what they’ve always done, doing what they are told. And they might wonder what else they do mindlessly. And they might just wonder if not all laws are just or sound. And they might just tug on that string until their previous world view completely unravels, leaving them with only the bare truth.

    And all I did was walk when it was safe and convenient.

    As I’ve noted before, the greatest check against state power is peaceful disobedience.

    We often think that “furthering our cause” requires some sort of violent revolution. As I mentioned above, however, violence is counterproductive. It creates enemies and strife instead of fostering cooperation and peace. People who could have been sympathetic instead become opposers. But education is transformative. We cannot create with our hands what we first do not see in our minds. So although a revolution is indeed necessary, it must be a revolution of the mind; that is, there must be a growth of human understanding and yearning for freedom and how it is the foundation for all the safety, protection, charity, and progress that we all seek.

    The revolution is one of newfound sight, of seeing the state for the treacherous leech it is. It begins with the acceptance of the ugly truth that the state is a liar, a killer, and a marauder. It does not serve the people, it serves itself - which is to say that it serves the whims of the politicians, bureaucrats, dignitaries, and corporate cronies who both run and ultimately benefit from state power. In this revelation, to those willing to wipe the vernix caseosa from their eyes, exists the power to topple governments. When the people behold the state for what it truly is and simply decide to no longer be willing accomplices to heinous acts, the state in turn loses its grip over the people. Because the source of state power is not in gold or gunpowder, it is in obedience.

    No great acts or grand gestures are required in this intellectual revolution, only a willingness to question illegitimate authority, to refuse to become instruments of our own oppression, and, whenever necessary, to disobey.

    And this, in truth, is quite easy: simply choose to be a good spouse, a good parent, a good friend, a good neighbor to your fellow man, and not a doting subject to the state.

  2. "Irish democracy." I like that.

    The example of desertion vs mutiny is a great analogy. It gets right to the heart of what seperates libertarians (RL) from everyone else.

  3. I think the "unattended package" has great potential as an exercise in disobedience.

  4. "...libertarianism that tolerates (or even encourages) great differences in wealth, property, and status." I believe the only reason he feels this way is because he thinks it will be equal middle class living, rather than equal poverty.