Native soil


Volunteers at an Occupy Sandy distribution site in Brooklyn. Photo courtesy Piotr Redlinski of The New York Times

In Anarchism and Other Essays Emma Goldman addresses the common counterargument made to proponents of anarchism that anarchism is an unrealistic political goal because our flawed human nature cannot accommodate it:

But what about human nature? Can it be changed? And if not, will it endure under Anarchism?

…[H]ow can any one speak of it today, with every soul in a prison, with every heart fettered, wounded, and maimed?

John Burroughs has stated that experimental study of animals in captivity is absolutely useless. Their character, their habits, their appetites undergo a complete transformation when torn from their soil in field and forest. With human nature caged in a narrow space, whipped daily into submission, how can we speak of its potentialities?

For Goldman, the deforming cages we are trapped in are those of religion, the state, and private property. Only once we have abolished these fetters can we see “the real dominant factors of human nature and all its wonderful possibilities”.

This is a compelling argument for optimism about human nature and a belief in progress. It is supported by observation of the substantial changes — in self-possession, confidence, compassion, and eloquence  —  that something as simple as education can spur in one’s consciousness and, therefore, one’s life.  More broadly, most people have experienced personally or know someone who has experienced a dramatic change in character due to the right conditions for growth coalescing around them: the experience of being nurtured by a mentor, being productively challenged by difficult circumstances, or achieving economic security. It’s certainly debatable whether and to what degree organized religion, the modern state, and capitalism bar people’s access to or in fact facilitate the propagation of these conditions. I have mixed feelings about this. But it’s difficult to deny that, for whatever reason, many, if not most, of the world’s inhabitants lack the necessary conditions that would enable the full development of their potential. This being the case, it seems that the political question is what are these conditions and how can we create them for as many people as possible?

Goldman’s reference to the naturalist John Burroughs is interesting in this regard because it implies that, like for the animals held in captivity, there is some kind of natural human habitat, a native “soil in field and forest,” that we have been torn from, or perhaps have not yet lived in. But what does this habitat look like? When I pose this question a number of things come to mind. Among them are Alasdair MacIntyre’s defense of the forms of life found in small, local communities that share a conception of the good life. I think of Marx’s assertion, describing an as-yet-unrealized communism, that “only in community [with others has each] individual the means of cultivating his gifts in all directions; only in the community, therefore, is personal freedom possible”. I also think of the forms of life that many indigenous communities have sustained, where a rootedness in local geography and ecology has been achieved that stands in stark relief to the ceaseless dislocations of modernity.

Macintyre closes his  After Virtue, a ferocious critique of the moral philosophies associated with modernity, with this haunting passage that gestures towards his ideal of the small community as the proper habitat for the flourishing human being:

It is always dangerous to draw too precise parallels between one historical period and another; and among the most misleading of such parallels are those which have been drawn between our own age in Europe and North America and the epoch in which the Roman empire declined into the Dark Ages. Nonetheless certain parallels there are. A crucial turning point in that earlier history occurred when men and women of good will turned aside from the task of shoring up the Roman imperium and ceased to identify the continuation of civility and moral community with the maintenance of that imperium. What they set themselves to achieve instead-often not recognizing fully what they were doing- was the construction of new forms of community within which the moral life could be sustained so that both morality and civility might survive the coming ages of barbarism and darkness. If my account of our moral condition is correct, we ought also to conclude that for some time now we too have reached that turning point. What matters at this stage is the construction of local forms of community within which civility and the intellectual and moral life can be sustained through the new dark ages which are already upon us. And if the tradition of the virtues was able to survive the horrors of the last dark ages, we are not entirely without grounds for hope. This time however the barbarians are not waiting beyond the frontiers; they have already been governing us for quite some time. And it is our lack of consciousness of this that constitutes part of our predicament. We are waiting not for a Godot, but for another-doubtless very different-St. Benedict.

MacIntyre wrote this in 1981, and the passage begs the question: where do these “neo-Benedictine” communities exist? Where is the flourishing human life still achievable, if not under the socio-political conditions under which most of the Western world currently lives? MacIntyre writes earlier in After Virtue that he considers these kinds of moral enclaves to include the everyday features of small, functioning communities: the practices “of making and sustaining families and households, schools, clinics, and local forms of political community”. I would add to this list the experiments in non-hierarchical, face-to-face living conducted by participants in the Occupy movement during its initial bloom in 2011 and 2012, as well as in its offshoot Occupy Sandy. These anarchistic Occupy projects evince the hunger that many activists (particularly young activists) on the radical left have for the kind of communal life advocated for by MacIntyre, but in an idiom more at home with the anarchism of of Goldman. What both approaches share, however, is a deep distrust in the ability of both the modern state and the market economy to foster the conditions necessary for human flourishing and social justice.

About Ben

I'm a young person living in Portland, Maine with abiding interests in philosophy, community, and how to lead a good life in the modern world.
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