Anarchism Is Not What You Think It Is

… And There’s a Whole Lot We Can Learn from It – Published on ZNet, by David Morris, February 18, 2012.

On February 8, 1921 twenty thousand people, braving temperatures so low that musical instruments froze, marched in a funeral procession in the town of Dimitrov, a suburb of Moscow. They came to pay their respects to a man, Petr Kropotkin, and his philosophy, anarchism.  Some 90 years later few know of Kropotkin. And the word anarchism has been so stripped of substance that it has come to be equated with chaos and nihilism. This is regrettable, for both the man and the philosophy that he did so much to develop have much to teach us in 2012. 

I am astonished Hollywood has yet to discover Kropotkin. For his life is the stuff of great movies. Born to privilege he spent his life fighting poverty and injustice. A lifelong revolutionary, he was also a world-renowned geographer and zoologist. Indeed, the intersection of politics and science characterized much of his life … //

… In the 12th to 14th centuries, hundreds of cities emerged around newly formed marketplaces. These marketplaces were so important that laws embraced by kings, bishops and towns protected their providers and customers. As the markets grew, the cities gained autonomy, and organized themselves into political, economic and social structures that to Kropotkin made them an instructive working model of anarchism.

The medieval city was not a centralized state. It was a confederation, divided into four quarters or five to seven sections radiating from a center. In some respects it was structured as a double federation. One consisted of all householders united into small territorial units: the street, the parish the section. The other was of individuals united by oath into guilds according to their professions.

The guilds established the economic rules. But the guild itself consisted of many interests. “The fact is, that the medieval guild…was a union of all men connected with a given trade: jurate buyers of raw produce, sellers of manufactured goods, and artisans – masters, ‘compaynes,’ and apprentices.” It was sovereign in its own sphere, but could not develop rules that interfered with the workings of other guilds.

Four hundred years before Adam Smith, medieval cities had developed rules that allowed the pursuit of self-interest to support the public interest. Unlike Adam Smith’s proposal, their tool was a very visible hand indeed.

This mini world of cooperation resulted in remarkable achievements. From cities of 20,000-90,000 people emerged technological as well as artistic developments that still astonish us.

Life in these cities was not nearly as primitive as the Dark Ages to which our history books assign them. Laborers in these medieval cities earned a living wage. Many cities had an 8-hour workday.

Florence in 1336 had 90,000 inhabitants. Some 8-10,000 boys and girls (yes girls) attended primary schools and there were 600 students in four universities. The city boasted 30 hospitals with over 1000 beds.

Indeed, Kropotkin writes, “the more we learn about the medieval city, the more we are convinced that at no time has labor enjoyed such conditions of prosperity and such respect as when city life stood at its highest.”

Mutual Aid is rarely read today. No one remembers Petr Kropotkin. But his message and his empirical evidence, that cooperation, not competition, is the driving force behind natural selection, that decentralization is superior to centralization in both governance and economies and that mutual aid and social cohesion should be encouraged over massive social inequity and the exaltation of the individual over society is as relevant to the central debates of our time as it was to the debates of his time.

On the anniversary of Kropotkin’s death it would be salutary for the world to rediscover his remarkable writings, all of which are freely available online, and revisit his philosophy. (full text).

(David Morris is co-founder and vice president of the Institute for Local Self Reliance in Minneapolis, Minn., and director of its New Rules project).

Links:

Peter Kropotkin on en.wikipedia and its External Links;

Peter Kropotkin on Reference Archive;

Anarchism: from The Encyclopaedia Britannica, 1910, Written by Peter Kropotkin;

Pjotr Alexejewitsch Kropotkin auf de.wikipedia, seine Werke, Literatur und Weblinks;

… and for the soul: Paul Speer’s Homepage (you’ll get automatically his music), and the Stone Garden interview with Paul Speer, August 11, 2011.

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