The Paul Goodman Reader

The Paul Goodman Reader

by Paul Goodman

ISBN: 9781604860580

Publisher PM Press

Published in Calendars/Readers & Writers

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The Anarchist Principle

Anarchism is grounded in a rather definite proposition: that valuable behavior occurs only by the free and direct response of individuals or voluntary groups to the conditions presented by the historical environment. It claims that in most human affairs, whether political, economic, military, religious, moral, pedagogic, or cultural, more harm than good results from coercion, top-down direction, central authority, bureaucracy, jails, conscription, States, preordained standardization, excessive planning, etc. Anarchists want to increase intrinsic functioning and diminish extrinsic power. This is a social-psychological hypothesis with obvious political implications.

Depending on varying historical conditions that present various threats to the anarchist principle, anarchists have laid their emphasis in varying places: sometimes agrarian, sometimes free-city and guild-oriented; sometimes technological, sometimes anti-technological; sometimes communist, sometimes affirming property; sometimes individualist, sometimes collective; sometimes speaking of Liberty as almost an absolute good, sometimes relying on custom and "nature." Nevertheless, despite these differences, anarchists seldom fail to recognize one another, and they do not consider the differences to be incompatibilities. Consider a crucial modern problem, violence. Guerilla fighting has been a classical anarchist technique; yet where, especially in modern conditions, any violent means tends to reinforce centralism and authoritarianism, anarchists have tended to see the beauty of non-violence.

Now the anarchist principle is by and large true. And far from being "Utopian" or a "glorious failure," it has proved itself and won out in many spectacular historical crises. In the period of mercantilism and patents royal, free enterprise by joint stock companies was anarchist. The Jeffersonian bill of rights and independent judiciary were anarchist. Congregational churches were anarchist. Progressive education was anarchist. The free cities and corporate law in the feudal system were anarchist. At present, the civil rights movement in the United States has been almost classically decentralist and anarchist. And so forth, down to details like free access in public libraries. Of course, to later historians, these things do not seem to be anarchist, but in their own time they were all regarded as such and often literally called such, with the usual dire threats of chaos. But this relativity of the anarchist principle to the actual situation is of the essence of anarchism. There cannot be a history of anarchism in the sense of establishing a permanent state of things called "anarchist." It is always a continual coping with the next situation, and a vigilance to make sure that past freedoms are not lost and do not turn into the opposite, as free enterprise turned into wage-slavery and monopoly capitalism, or the independent judiciary turned into a monopoly of courts, cops, and lawyers, or free education turned into School Systems.

Freedom and Autonomy

Many anarchist philosophers start from a lust for freedom. Where freedom is a metaphysical concept or a moral imperative, it leaves me cold — I cannot think in abstractions. But most often the freedom of anarchists is a deep animal cry or a religious plea like the hymn of the prisoners in Fidelio. They feel themselves imprisoned, existentially by the nature of things or by God; or because they have seen or suffered too much economic slavery; or they have been deprived of their liberties; or internally colonized by imperialists. To become human they must shake off restraint.

Since, by and large, my experience is roomy enough for me, I do not lust for freedom, any more than I want to "expand consciousness." I might feel differently, however, if I were subjected to literary censorship, like Solzhenitzen. My usual gripe has been not that I am imprisoned but that I am in exile or was born on the wrong planet; recently that I am bedridden. My real trouble is that the world is impractical for me, and I understand that my stupidity and cowardice make it even less practical than it could be.

To be sure, there are outrages that take me by the throat, like anybody else, and I lust to be free of them. Insults to humanity and the beauty of the world that keep me indignant. An atmosphere of lies, triviality, and vulgarity that suddenly makes me sick. The powers-that-be do not know the meaning of magnanimity, and often they are simply officious and spiteful; as Malatesta used to say, you just try to do your thing and they prevent you, and then you are to blame for the fight that ensues. Worst of all, the earth-destroying actions of power are demented; and as in ancient tragedies and histories we read how arrogant men committed sacrilege and brought down doom on themselves and those associated with them, so I sometimes am superstitiously afraid to belong to the same tribe and walk the same ground as our statesmen.

But no. Men have a right to be crazy, stupid, and arrogant. It's our special thing. Our mistake is to arm anybody with collective power. Anarchy is the only safe polity. It is a common misconception that anarchists believe that "human nature is good" and so men can be trusted to rule themselves. In fact we tend to take the pessimistic view; people are not be trusted, so prevent the concentration of power. Men in authority are especially likely to be stupid because they are out of touch with concrete finite experience and instead keep interfering with other people's initiative and making them stupid and anxious. And imagine being deified like Mao Tse-tung or Kim Il Sung, what that must do to a man's character. Or habitually thinking about the unthinkable, like the masters of the Pentagon.

To me, the chief principle of anarchism is not freedom but autonomy. Since to initiate, and do it my way, and be an artist with concrete matter, is the kind of experience I like, I am restive about being given orders by external authorities, who don't concretely know the problem or the available means. Mostly, behavior is more graceful, forceful, and discriminating without the intervention of top-down authorities, whether State, collective, democracy, corporate bureaucracy, prison wardens, deans, pre-arranged curricula, or central planning. These may be necessary in certain emergencies, but it is at a cost to vitality. This is an empirical proposition in social psychology and I think the evidence is heavily in its favor. By and large, the use of power to do a job is inefficient in the fairly short run. Extrinsic power inhibits intrinsic function. As Aristotle said, "Soul is self-moving."

In his recent book Beyond Freedom and Dignity, B.F. Skinner holds that these are defensive prejudices that interfere with the operant conditioning of people toward their desired goals of happiness and harmony. (It is odd these days to read a cracker-barrel restatement of Bentham's utilitarianism.) He misses the point.

What is objectionable about operant conditioning is not that it violates freedom but that the consequent behavior is graceless and low-grade as well as labile — it is not assimilated as second nature. He is so impressed by the fact that an animal's behavior can be shaped at all to perform according to the trainer's goal, that he does not compare the performance with the inventive, flexible and maturing behavior of the animal initiating and responding in its natural field. And incidentally, dignity is not a specifically human prejudice, as he thinks, but the ordinary bearing of any animal, angrily defended when organic integrity or own space is insulted.

To lust for freedom is certainly a motive of political change stronger than autonomy. (I doubt that it is as stubborn, however. People who do their job their own way can usually find other means than revolt to keep doing it, including plenty of passive resistance to interference.) To make an anarchist revolution, Bakunin wanted, in his early period, to rely precisely on the outcast, delinquents, prostitutes, convicts, displaced peasants, lumpen proletarians, those who had nothing to lose, not even their chains, but who felt oppressed. There were enough troops of this kind in the grim heyday of industrialism and urbanization. But naturally, people who have nothing are hard to organize and consolidate for a long effort, and they are easily seduced by a fascist who can offer guns, revenge, and a moment's flush of power.

The pathos of oppressed people lusting for freedom is that, if they break free, they don't know what to do. Not having been autonomous, they do not know how to go about it, and before they learn it is usually too late. New managers have taken over, who may or may not be benevolent and imbued with the revolution, but who have never been in a hurry to abdicate.

The oppressed hope for too much from the New Society, instead of being stubbornly vigilant to do their own things. The only achieved liberation movement that I can think of was the American revolution, made largely by artisans, farmers, merchants, and professionals who had going concerns to begin with, wanted to get rid of interference, and afterwards enjoyed a prosperous quasianarchy for nearly thirty years — nobody cared much about the new government. They were protected by three thousand miles of ocean. The Catalonian revolution during the Spanish Civil War could have gone well, for the same reasons, but the fascists and communists did them in.

Anarchy requires competence and self-confidence, the sentiment that the world is for one. It does not thrive among the exploited, oppressed, and colonized. Thus, unfortunately, it lacks a powerful drive toward revolutionary change. Yet in the affluent liberal societies of Europe and America there is a hopeful possibility of the following kind: Fairly autonomous people, among the middle class, the young, craftsmen, and professionals, cannot help but see that they cannot continue so in the present institutions. They cannot do honest and useful work or practice a profession nobly; arts and sciences are corrupted; modest enterprise must be blown out of all proportion to survive; the young cannot find vocations; it is hard to raise children; talent is strangled by credentials; the natural environment is being destroyed; health is imperiled; community life is inane; neighborhoods are ugly and unsafe; public services do not work; taxes are squandered on war, schoolteachers, and politicians.

Then they may make changes, to extend the areas of freedom from encroachment. Such changes might be piecemeal and not dramatic, but they must be fundamental; for many of the present institutions cannot be recast and the tendency of the system as a whole is disastrous. I like the Marxist term "withering away of the State," but it must begin now, not afterwards; and the goal is not a New Society, but a tolerable society in which life can go on.

Reflections on Drawing the Line


A free society cannot be the substitution of a "new order" for the old order; it is the extension of spheres of free action until they make up most of the social life. (That such liberation is step by step does not mean that it can occur without revolutionary disruption, for in many spheres — e.g., war, economics, sexual education — any genuine liberation whatsoever involves a total change.)

In any present society, though much and even an increasing amount is coercive, nevertheless, much is also free. If it were not so, it would be impossible for a conscientious libertarian to cooperate or live there at all; but in fact we are constantly drawing the line beyond which we refuse to cooperate. In creative work, in passion and sentiment, in spontaneous recreation, there are healthy spheres of nature and freedom: it is the spirit of these that we most often extrapolate to all acts of utopian free society, to making a living, to civil life and law. But indeed, even the most corrupt and coercive functions of the present society draw on good natural power — the pity of it — otherwise the society could not survive for one moment; for free natural power is the only source of existence. Thus, people are fed, though the means, the cost, and the productive relations are coercive, and the total war would be the end of us all were it not for the bravery and endurance of mankind.

Free action is to live in present society as though it were a natural society. This maxim has three consequences, three moments:

(1) In the spheres which are in fact free and natural, we exercise personal excellence and give mutual aid.

(2) In many spheres which seem to be uncoerced, we have nevertheless been trapped into unnatural ways by the coercion that has formed us; for example, we have become habituated to the American timetable and the standard of living, though these are unnatural and coercive through and through. Here the maxim demands that we first correct ourselves.

(3) Finally, there are those natural acts or abstentions which clash openly with the coercive laws: these are the "crimes" which are beholden on a freeman to commit, as his reasonable desire demands and as the occasion arises. (See below, "A Touchstone ...")

The free spirit is rather millenarian than utopian. A man does not look forward to a future state of things which he tries to bring about by suspect means; he draws now, so far as he can, on the natural force in him that is no different in kind from what it will be in a free society, except that there it will have more scope and be persistently reinforced by mutual aid and fraternal conflict. Merely by continuing to exist and act in nature and freedom, a free man wins the victory, establishes the society; it is not necessary for him to be the victor over any one. When he creates, he wins; when he corrects his prejudices and habits he wins; when he resists and suffers, he wins. I say it this way in order to tell honest persons not to despond when it seems that their earnest and honest work is without "influence." The free man does not seek to influence groups, but to act in the natural groups essential to him — for most human action is the action of groups. Consider if a million persons, quite apart from any "political" intention, did only natural work and did the best they could. The system of exploitation would disperse like fog in a hot wind. But of what use is the action, born of resentment, that is bent on correcting abuses yet never does a stroke of nature?

The action drawing on the most natural force will in fact establish itself. Might is right: but do not let the violent and the cowed imagine for a moment that their brutality is "might." What great things have they accomplished, in practice, art, or theory? Their violence is fear hidden from themselves by conceit, and nothing comes from it.


Now I have been liberally using the terms "nature," "natural," and their contraries to attribute value and disvalue, as "natural and unnatural institutions." Do not these terms in this use lead to self-contradiction? For obviously the bad institutions as well as the good have come to be by natural process. A bad convention exists by natural causes; how are we to call it unnatural?

Let us consider the example of a language like English, and I want to distinguish three notions: physical and social nature, natural convention, and unnatural convention. It is physically and socially natural for people to speak: they have speech organs; they communicate with these; children express their feelings with determinate cries and imitate their parents' speech behavior. But any speech is some language or other. Speech organs, need to communicate, the expression of feelings, the desire to imitate and identify: these give the potentiality of speaking some language or other; historical circumstances make the language, in fact, English. It is usual to call the historical language conventional, but it is a "natural convention," in that the convention of English is a means of making the power of speech into a living act. Here we have the clue to how we can speak of an "unnatural convention": an unnatural convention is one that prevents a human power from becoming a living act. Thus, English is becoming unnatural because of its use in advertising. The technique of advertising is to establish an automatic reflex response, an immediate connection between certain words and the behavior of paying out money: thus it debauches the words so that they no longer express felt need, nor communicate a likeness of affection between persons, continuous with the imitation of parents and peers, nor correspond to the desire for objects really experienced. These functions of honest speech are shunted over by a successful advertisement. But these functions are the strongest and the creative power in speech. Therefore we can say that the abuse of English prevents the power of speech from becoming a living act; it is unnatural.

Excerpted from "The Paul Goodman Reader" by Paul Goodman. Copyright © 2011 by Paul Goodman. Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher. Excerpts are provided solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
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