Tolkien the Anarchist

It is easy to confuse anarchism with nihilism.

The nihilist cares for nothing but destruction itself.  He derives strength ironically (and illogically) from the “meaning” of no meaning at all.  Owlman makes this perfectly clear, giving perhaps the clearest nihilistic statement in modern times.

The anarchist has a different approach.  His desire to destroy comes with reasonably good motives and a limited scope.  He really seeks not to destroy and create  better way of life.  One senses this in the music of Rage Against the Machine.  They have passion and plenty of excessive, destructive anger, but they plead for something real.  G.K. Chesteron’s brilliant The Man Who was Thursday touches on this as well, with the character of Sunday (slight spoiler alert) serving as the chief destroyer and chief unifier of the characters in the tale.

So it should not scare us too badly that a professor from Yale comes out in favor of anarchism.

James C. Scott’s book Two Cheers for Anarchism has a bark worse than its bite.  He believes that the state has some function to play, though never quite describes how.  He reveals himself as a strong critic of the industrial capitalistic modern world, much like Ivan Illich.  His critiques hit on something amiss about our predicament.  I wish he said more about about solutions.  In fairness, the road out of our situation is long and narrow.

How might one sympathize with a self-described anarchist?  We must first gain historical perspective and realize that the modern world looks very different from almost every other historical era.  The ordering of our lives occasioned especially by the industrial revolution make our lives much more regimented not by nature, but by our own creations, than any other time.

To work against this Scott urges us to abandon all centralized and regimented government solutions.  A simple example illustrates his point.  The Dutch tried an experiment with a notoriously dangerous and congested intersection.  They could have spent tens of millions and took several months to make an overpass.  The more obvious solution called for breaking up the intersection with more traffic lights and more centralized control.

Instead they opted for a traffic circle, with glorious results.  Accidents sharply declined and so did congestion. Traffic circles call for drivers to pay attention and make judgments, but Scott argues this is precisely why they work.  Governments need to get in the habit of giving over more initiative to the people and divesting themselves of institutional means of control, even with something as simple as traffic lights.  Plenty of other examples illustrate the same point, including

  • The superiority of the ‘randomness’ of nature to regimented/”scientific” planting of trees and gardens
  • The failures of housing projects vs. the concept of “neighborhoods.”
  • The unseen bonuses of shopping in neighborhoods as opposed to the ‘big box’ stores,

and so on.  His basic argument comes down to the concept of “small is beautiful.”

But he goes beyond this.  The “anarchist” part of the book involves his encouragement to small-scale kinds of disobedience to perverse means of establishing control.  He cites the recent example of French cab drivers suddenly finding themselves targeted for offenses of a particular traffic law.  They smelled not safety but money-making for the state as the motive.  So they banded together and decided that they would rigidly obey all the various traffic regulations.  Of course, traffic ground to a halt throughout French cities, the point being that

  • The practice of the people truly define what the law is, such as with speed limits, and
  • The state has stuffed the people full of useless and menacing regulations.  To enforce them all is impossible, to enforce most others would be arbitrary.

Scott laments when the natural actions and interests of the common man get co-opted by organizations.  Whatever their initial intentions, the imposed structure of unions, protest organizations, and the like, can never match the organic actions of the common man.  He admits that at times that state plays a useful function in giving an imprimatur, or proper force behind collective action, such as in the Civil Rights Movement.  But in general, a step towards centralization moves one closer to lifeless banality.

I also give Scott a lot of credit for recognizing that large-scale revolutionary action will make things worse.*  Every modern revolution created a more oppressive state than what it replaced:

  • After the American Revolution, British loyalists got a far worse treatment than any revolutionary against George III ever did before 1775.
  • The French Revolution made things far worse than the worst of the old regime
  • The Bolshevik revolution made Russia far worse than under the czars
  • Mao
  • Etc., etc.

We fix things, then in the steady and simple way of rejecting top-down government centralization, and looking for small ways in everyday life to assert the independence of organic communities and organic action.

So far so good, but while I realize the book merely wants to serve as an introduction, one issue in particular bothered me.

Scott states that, essentially, no possibility of a just society even existed until the political invention of modern democracy.  Ok . . . but . . . all of the worst examples of modern totalitarianism occurred in the name of the people.  It seems like democracy can, like nuclear power, give tremendous benefits but also cause tremendous damage.  Scott admits this from a structural standpoint, i.e., universal citizenship gives way to universal conscription, but misses something on the political side.

Scott also attaches himself too strongly to democracy itself, with the English Civil War as a case in point.  One can make a reasonable case that Charles I abused his power.  I think it much harder to justify his execution, done in the name of the law, in the name of the people, after a trial of dubious legality.  I know of no historian who argues that the Protectorate under Cromwell gave people more freedoms than Charles I.  In time, England begged Charles’ son to come back and rule as Charles II, and he returned to huge acclaim.  Again, it seems that the “Restoration” era under Charles II provided more tolerance and more room for localism than Cromwell and his more democratically minded Puritans.

The vision Scott argues for reminded me of G.K. Chesterton and Hillaire Belloc with “distributism.”  Scott decisively breaks with left-leaning academics who despise the “petty bourgeoise,” and instead looks for just the sort of limited land-ownership and localism that this class provides.  But the closest parallel to this kind of organization has historically only come from

  • Frontier societies, whose time may be sweet but is inevitably limited, as it waits for the rest of society to catch up
  • Societies on geographical fringes, like the eskimos, aborigines, jungle tribes, desert nomads, etc.
  • The Middle Ages

Maybe modern democracy is the cause, not the solution to the problems Scott decries.  Marx himself, I believe, believed that capitalism served the purpose of destroying local traditions, a necessary step towards worldwide revolution.  Maybe we need not blame democracy for all of the problems of the industrialized state.  But at the very least, sometimes non-democratic governments do a better job of preserving localism and traditions.

I wish Scott had tackled this.

Scott also may need to choose.  Does he prefer organic localism, or individual rights, democracy, etc.  The two do not always mix, so which does he prefer?  As an anarchist Scott blames the system.  But with democracies people generally get to create the system they want. If a democracy goes bad, then, blame the people, and not the system.  We get what we deserve.

Scott will strike many as decidedly modern, but if you poke around writers and thinkers with a bent towards bygone eras we get some surprises.  The great J.R.R. Tolkien railed against the modern world with his life and work to no avail.   Yet in a letter to his son he wrote,

My political opinions lean more and more to Anarchy (philosophically understood, meaning the abolition of control not whiskered men with bombs)—or to ‘unconstitutional’ Monarchy. I would arrest anybody who uses the word State (in any sense other than the inanimate real of England and its inhabitants, a thing that has neither power, rights nor mind); and after a chance of recantation, execute them if they remained obstinate! If we could go back to personal names, it would do a lot of good. Government is an abstract noun meaning the art and process of governing and it should be an offence to write it with a capital G or so to refer to people . . . .

He continued on the nature of ruling that,

Not one in a million is fit for it, and least of all those who seek the opportunity. At least it is done only to a small group of men who know who their master is. The mediaevals were only too right in taking nolo episcopari as the best reason a man could give to others for making him a bishop. Grant me a king whose chief interest in life is stamps, railways, or race-horses; and who has the power to sack his Vizier (or whatever you dare call him) if he does not like the cut of his trousers. And so on down the line. But, of course, the fatal weakness of all that—after all only the fatal weakness of all good natural things in a bad corrupt unnatural world—is that it works and has only worked when all the world is messing along in the same good old inefficient human way . . . .

David Bentley Hart quotes from this letter in a recent article in First Things, and Hart himself seems to get the gist of Tolkien’s meaning when he writes,

The ideal king would be rather like the king in chess: the most useless piece on the board, which occupies its square simply to prevent any other piece from doing so, but which is somehow still the whole game. There is something positively sacramental about its strategic impotence. And there is something blessedly gallant about giving one’s wholehearted allegiance to some poor inbred ditherer whose chief passions are Dresden china and the history of fly-fishing, but who nonetheless, quite ex opere operato, is also the bearer of the dignity of the nation, the anointed embodiment of the genius gentis—a kind of totem or, better, mascot.

Scott has done a great service with his book.  If he writes again I would love for his critique of modernism to go a bit a deeper.  Lets see what he can write if he broadens his vision.


*He never gets into why this is, however, and the question is worth pondering.  Why do popular revolutions create more totalitarianism than the governments they replace?

Be Like the Fox

This post was originally written in 2017, and you will note the reference to Trump as president below . .  .


If you wanted to be an English aristocrat in the Victorian age (or perhaps most any age) one needed to hunt foxes.  For years this perplexed me.  Sure, foxes eat chickens sometimes and maybe cause a bit of mischief, but they posed no real threat to anyone.  They did not seem like noble quarry.  But then I realized that foxes were not hunted because of the damage they did to farms (like you would hunt wolves or wild hogs), or the danger they posed to the hunters (like lions or bears), but because they were so clever at avoiding traps.  To hunt a clever beast, one had to display their own cunning.

Machiavelli has always beguiled his admirers and detractors alike.  Reading him can feel like a bracing tonic, but then he leaves you cold with his “Machiavellian” calculations.  He seems both clear and contradictory.  We may wonder if we can read him as anything more than a guilty pleasure.

We need not look further than his “It is Better to be Feared rather than Loved” chapter from The Prince.  In his typically realistic/pessimistic way, he says that the love of the people will never be constant, whereas fear will keep them bound to the ruler.  This seems to fit within Machiavelli’s general framework, but we should recall that as an avid student of history, Machiavelli would surely know that fear never works beyond the short-term.  The most successful rulers throughout history may not have people “love” them in the sense in which we use the word, but they did establish relationships and a series of mutual benefits for the ruler and ruled.

Erica Benner makes the bold suggestion that not only is Machiavelli giving bad advice in this notorious chapter, he knows he is giving bad advice.  In fact, he wants his audience (the D’ Medici’s who ended Florence’s Republic) to take this advice and make themselves odious to the people.  He hopes, in fact, that the Republic he loves might be restored through the stupidity of those that read him.*

Ordinarily I would suspect some show-off chicanery with this analysis, but Be Like the Fox surprised me with its even-handed and careful approach that remains accessible to someone like me.  She begins by suggesting that we should not view Machiavelli primarily through the lens of The Prince, but rather through the body of his other work, and especially, his life as a diplomat.  The book weaves biography and analysis gracefully.  Diplomats, especially Renaissance diplomats, often had to speak elliptically and carefully.  The message lay not so much in what was said but in how it was said.  Perhaps Machiavelli’s writings evidence some of this same character.

At his best, Machiavelli bring us back to questions of purpose in political action.  Benner includes an example from Machiavelli’s own life to illustrate this.  Early in his marriage Niccolo had a brief affair with his cousin Bernardo’s female servant and got her pregnant.  She admitted to Bernardo that Niccolo was the father.  From his diaries, we know that Bernardo considered carefully what to do.

Privately he approached Niccolo and mentioned the pregnancy and, in neutral tones, the accusation. “What will happen to the Machiavelli name,” Niccolo, “when word of this gets out?”  Niccolo sympathized with the poor girl and his cousin.  He blamed himself . . . because, he said, a friend of his had seduced the poor girl while he and his wife were away from the house.  Niccolo offered to try and track him down.  Of course, after a few days he reported that the “man” was a scoundrel and would never fess up.  But . . . since he recognized that the fault in the end lay with him, he agreed to provide for a large dowry for the girl so she could get married . . . quietly.  After all, no one wanted a scandal to tarnish the Machiavelli name.

If the cousin’s goal was to bring Machiavelli to repentance, this method may have hindered that cause.  If he desired a quiet solution to the outward problem itself, this worked. Would a direct attack on Niccolo bring about a quickening of his conscience, or merely a stubborn defense that would leave him (Bernardo) holding the bag for his pregnant serving girl?  Benner tells this story early in the book to illustrate the point of much of Machiavelli’s writing.

Benner supports her analysis of The Prince especially through the life of Cesare Borgia, whom many suspect Machiavelli admires on their first reading.  As the son of Rodrigo Borgia, a.k.a., Pope Alexander VI, Cesare had enormous advantages.  “Fortune loves and impetuous youth,” Machiavelli writes.  Cesare had a string of great victories throughout Italy based in part on his charisma, luck, and a talent for acquisition via dubious means.  Yet Machiavelli consistently notes that,

  • People who use deception to great effect always assume that everyone else will be honest.
  • People who thrive on conquest often have a hard time building a stable network of alliances, and making and keeping friends.
  • People who have the smile of Fortune rarely realize that Fortune has a fickle streak.  One must do the work of real relationships to create a truly stable state.

In other words, The Prince has much more implied criticism of Cesare Borgia than praise,

Benner illustrates this with other events in Machiavelli’s life.  We assume that Machiavelli just cared about results and not about methods, but Benner argues this would make nonsense of many of his experiences and other writings.  When Pope Sixtus IV (seemingly) supported the failed assassination attempt of Lorenzo and Guillamo d’ Medici, it left Florence in a vulnerable position despite the fact that Lorenzo survived.  Lorenzo’s ruthless revenge not just against the assassins themselves, but the entire Pazzi family from whence they came (which included a few clergy) gave the Pope ammunition to take control of Florence regardless of the failed plot.

Lorenzo scrambled and tried to isolate the pope by getting Naples to break free from their alliance with the Pope.  He thought he scored a major coup for Florence and saved the city.  But then . . .

  • The Pope was still furious because of the treachery of Naples
  • Venice, as an side player in this whole affair, got angry that no one included them in the conversations and joined the Pope against Florence.
  • Meanwhile, Naples had only signed a non-aggression pact with Florence, which meant that they offered no military assistance, leaving Florence in exactly the same position as before.

Slipshod diplomacy made for now diplomacy at all.  Thus, Machiavelli concludes that, “One must things by their methods, and not merely by their results alone,” a conclusion that may surprise us.**

In his fun From Barbarians to Bureaucrats Lawerence Fairley makes the point that companies go through  many of the same life-cycles as civilizations, and uses A.J. Toynbee’s analysis to aid him.  One stage belongs to the “Barbarian.”  Fairley writes that one may be a “barbarian” leader if,

  • You love competition, and the ‘thrill of victory.’  You cannot shrug off losing.
  • You are action-oriented.  You don’t care so much for ideas or systems, but results.
  • You like being in charge and like making decisions
  • You may not have come up with the vision, but want badly to see it through and have definite plans for doing so.
  • You don’t have tons of patience for those who seem to be standing in the way of your mission.
  • You see the ‘struggle’ in absolute terms of us/them, good/evil, etc.

Certainly Cesare Borgia fits this bill, as I think, does our current president.  Fairley points out that we can have good and bad “barbarian” leadership, with each style obviously having its strengths and weaknesses.  Cesare Borgia’s problems came directly after the fighting stopped, as did Alexander the Great’s, as perhaps did Donald Trump’s?  With Cesare, Machiavelli seemed to indirectly counsel that the worst thing one could do with a barbarian was prolong the fighting, which plays directly to his strengths.  The true barbarian, however, will never handle peace well.  Let Cesare stumble over his own feet.  Let Fortune abandon him.  Perhaps Machiavelli would counsel Trump’s political opponents to lay low and let Trump defeat himself.^

In hindsight, of course, some of Machiavelli’s advice looks less and less “Machiavellian.”  In  Debriefing the President, John Nixon writes of his experiences at the CIA and especially about his time spent with Saddam Husssein.  In the midst of his criticism of Clinton, Bush the Younger, Obama, and George Tenet, he reveals changes in his opinion.  He admits that he thought the best intel the U.S. possessed pointed to a stockpile of W.M.D’s, and so initially supported the war.  But he concludes that Iraq and the Mideast would be much better off today with Saddam in power.

Well, obviously.  But Nixon makes this claim more interesting with Saddam’s own words and history, much of which he missed himself as an intelligence analyst leading up to the war.  Saddam’s greatest threat was not the U.S., he argues, but Sunni-based Islamic terror, because he relied on the Sunni’s for nearly all his power in Iraq.  Thus, Saddam would have opposed Al-Queada and especially ISIS, as mortal threats to his regime.  Perhaps the fighting would have happened regardless, but Saddam may have appeared vulnerable enough for more open fighting, which would have played right into the U.S.’s tactical and technological advantages.

Maybe so, though this is much easier to say in 2017 than it was in 2003.  Still, I surmise that Benner would concur with Nixon that the best policies come from taking a lesson from the fox, who lives not by paying attention to ideology, but by finding the best way to avoid traps.^^


*Other aspects of The Prince suggest something similar.  He discusses in one chapter that there are two kinds of kingdoms. One type is easy to conquer because they are divided, but this same type of kingdom is all the more difficult to hold precisely because of its divisions.  Was this a word of warning for his D’ Medici enemies who had taken advantage of Florence’s internal divisions?

**Machiavelli argues that Florence survived only because of the serendipity of Turkish activity right at this moment.  The Italian city-states agreed on little besides the fact that Turkey was their greatest enemy.

^This is the conventional view.  But it may be that Trump is actually doing a good job fulfilling his basic promises, as the irrepressible and always enjoyable Camille Paglia points out in her interview here.

^Here I speculate on Benner’s and Nixon’s position, and do not necessarily mean to give my own.  Machiavelli’s work forces one to answer many questions about Christianity’s relationship to politics–but I haven’t come up with an answer yet!