Saturday, 29 August 2009

Link: Ellen Clarke, Darwin and Left Anarchism

Primary version of this post, with visual content, at Barry Stocker's Weblog.

‘Anarchy, Socialism and a Darwinian Left’, Ellen Clarke. An article Clarke originally published in 2006, now freely available.

Hat tip. PhilPapers (New papers)

I’ve linked to this largely because of the surprisingly large number of people who are not aware that Anarchism refers to a tradition in political theory, not a descent in chaos. The point of Anarchist theory is to show who rule governed societies can emerge without coercion on a purely voluntary basis. I’m not advocating this point of view, but I am startled by sometimes encountering people who work in political theory and appear to be unaware of this position. Clarke refers to Left Anarchism, but there are many varieties of Anarchism: capitalist and socialist; conservative and progressive, revolutionary and evolutionary; and many other gradations.

The real merit of Clarke’s paper is to discuss the possibility of Left Anarchism, through game theory, in reaction to Peter Singer who uses ideas of game theory and co-operation to arrive at a more statist kind of leftism. Clarke’s comment on Anarchist ideology and its history are less detailed. Her main examples of Anarchist thought are Bakunin and Kropotkin, but she does not notes the differences between them. Kropotkin seems the most relevant to her case, since he was a biologist concerned with evolution. His vision was of anarcho-communism, while Bakunin advocated a society where economic property is taken over by workers’ collectives, but is not completely communistic in its attitude to private property. Kropotkin seems the most relevant to what Clarke argues, since he did write on Darwinism and the role of co-operation in evolution in his political theory.

Clarke’s argument focuses on the use of the ‘prisoners’ dilemma’ in theories of social choice and politics. For a full and expert explanation of the ‘Prisoner’s Dilemma’ in philosophy, go to Steven Kuhn’s entry in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy.

Briefly, this refers to two prisoners in isolation from each other. Various formulations exist, but they have the pattern that the best outcome for each prisoner is to co-operate with the police if the other does not, since the co-operator goes free and the non-co-operator gets a long sentence. If both act the same way, the best outcome is if both refuse to co-operate which is a better outcome for both than if they both co-operate. The dilemma for the prisoners’ is whether they can trust the other prisoner not to co-operate with the police and so have a reason to not co-operate with the police as well. The prisoners have an incentive to co-operate with each other, but if one behaves co-operatively to the other and the other does not, the latter prisoner benefits. This expresses a social and political dilemma that as individuals we do best if we exploit other people’s trust, but the average benefit of all individuals in society benefits if there is trust. The kind of game theory that looks at the dilemma, suggests that over time rational actors will build up reciprocity and trust, and will co-operate after a sufficient number of repeated experiences which show that trust and co-operation beat distrust and betrayal.

Clarke is concerned with this as an evolutionary survival strategy of humans, arguing that rationality and times lead us to co-operate without a coercive agent to make us obey co-operative rules, such as the state. However, there are more people who take the position that Clarke refers to ‘Axelrodian co-operation’ in which a coercive agent is necessary for co-operation to trust to get established. I’m inclined to agree with the latter position, though in a lore mitigated fashion than the left-statism that Clarke is arguing against. The reason, I would limit the role of the state more than most social democrats and conservative is that I would argue the achievement structural order for society as a whole, is to allow voluntary co-operation to flourish through the market, and all other forms of voluntary association.

The important thing here is that anarchy is not just a name for collapse. In political theory, it refers to a rich and varied tradition according to which there can be an evolving order without the state.

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