Seeing like an anarchist

What I aim to show is that if you put on anarchist glasses and look at the history of popular movements, revolutions, ordinary politics, and the state from that angle, certain insights will appear that are obscured from almost any other angle.

…One thing that heaves into view, I believe, is what Jean-Pierre Proudhon had in mind when he first used the term “anarchism,” namely, mutuality, or cooperation without hierarchy or state rule. Another is the anarchist tolerance for confusion and improvisation that accompanies social learning, and confidence in spontaneous cooperation and reciprocity.


…To what extent has the hegemony of the state and of formal, hierarchical organizations undermined the capacity for and the practice of mutuality and cooperation that have historically created order without the state?

That is Jim Scott in his new book, Two Cheers for Anarchism. Loved it. But I can’t decide if it’s a perfect introduction to his work or a perfect capstone, unpersuasive unless you had time to mull over his earlier tomes: Seeing Like a State and The Art of not Being Governed. Read all, seriously.

Probably the biggest problem in international development is that it is not anarchist enough. The impulse of virtually every UN, World Bank, and NGO project or manager I’ve seen is to plan and order. But growing wealth and freedom is inherently messy, and the small NGOs and the bureaucrats that recognize this are the more successful (or, at least, the least disenchanted).

For the most part, the RCT movement suffers from the same failings. It sees like a state, not an anarchist.

This is where my libertarian instincts on my far right meet my anarchist instincts on the far left. Yet somehow my opinions tend to be centrist. I think it’s fair to say I don’t understand myself.

Sympathetic readers, I am curious: What would be on your anarchist development reading list?

79 thoughts on “Seeing like an anarchist

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  4. “What would be on your anarchist development reading list?”

    My good sir, have I got a reading list for you.

    Boettke, Peter. Anarchism as a Progressive Research Program in Political Economy

    Boettke, Peter. Anarchism and Austrian Economics

    Boettke, Peter. An Anarchist’s Reflection on the Political Economy of Everyday Life

    Boettke, Peter and Pete Leeson. Two-Tiered Entrepreneurship and Economic Development

    Leeson, Peter and Claudia Williamson. Anarchy and Development – An Application of the Theory of Second Best

    Leeson, Peter. Better Off Stateless – Somalia Before and After Government Collapse

    Rajan, Raghuram. Assume Anarchy?: Why an orthodox economic model may not be the best guide for policy

    Williamson, Claudia and Carrie Kerekes. Securing Private Property – Formal versus Informal Institutions

    Williamson, Claudia. Informal Institutions Rule – Institutional Arrangments and Economic Performance


    Stringham, Edward (ed.). Anarchy, State, and Public Choice.
    Stringham, Edward (ed.). Anarchy and the Law
    Benson, Bruce. The Enterprise of Law: Justice without the State
    Beito, David, Peter Gordon, and Alexander Tabarrok (ed.). The Voluntary City

    Complementary Readings:

    Boettke, Peter. Institutional Stickiness and the New Development Economics

    Easterly, Williams. White Man’s Burden: Why the West’s Efforts to Aid the Rest Have Done So Much Ill and So Little Good

    Ostrom, Elinor. Governing the Commons
    Ostrom, Elinor. Understanding Institutional Diversity
    Ostrom, Elinor (et al). Working Together: Collective Action, the Commons, and Multiple Methods in Practice

    (I skimmed through the other comments, so I apologize for any repeats).

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  6. I think we’re seeing a change right now toward some of these more anarchist principles, if we take it at face value that anarchy truly means “mutuality, or cooperation without hierarchy or state rule.” NGOs and universities like UC Berkeley (where I am a grad student) are increasingly focused on developing a trusting relationship and long-term commitment before examining problems or proposing any solutions. A professor concerned with planning a new cooperative effort in Asia recently asked her counterparts what sort of expertise they would like her faculty to have; their reaction was to step back and talk about the long-term nature of the relationship first. The message was, “Whichever faculty members work with us will be wonderful, but what is much more important is that you are invested in us in the long run.”

    Another program at Berkeley is a five-year commitment to a particular area of slums in Nairobi. The focus of the project shifts from year to year, but what matters is that Berkeley is partnered with the University of Nairobi and NGOs for a long-term commitment, allowing it to cooperate with the community rather than impose solutions.

  7. You should read Murray N. Rothbard’s foundational essays, “Justice and Property Rights,” “The Anatomy of the State,” and War, Peace, a
    and the State.” The latter two are reprinted in his collection Egalitarianism as a Revolt Against Nature and Other Essays.
    Also read his books For a New Liberty: The Libertarian Manifesto, and Power and Market: Government and the Economy.
    I’d also recommend David Friedman’s book The Machinery of Freedom.

  8. Dear Mr Blattman,
    I am afraid you, or Scott, got the name wrong : the famous french anarchist is Pierre-Joseph Proudhon.

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  10. I’ve actually thought about how I’d teach an “Art of Not Being Governed” class, once, you know, I get a job after I hypothetically finish dissertating. Key texts I’m confident I’d use:

    1. Marcel Mauss – The Gift. Most later works I’d call anarchist build off this. Fun fact: Mauss was Durkheim’s nephew. For more on Mauss, Marcel Fournier (a well known Quebecois sociologist) wrote an excellent biography of him and Graeber’s “Give It Away” is also fun for students.

    2. Peter Kroptkin – the entry on “Anarchism” in the 1910 Encyclopedia Britannica. Wikipedia wants NPOV. This is from when encyclopedias had a POV and were proud of it. Google will turn this up. This is probably enough that we wouldn’t need to read selections from his book on mutual aid, but that’s also an option. As is maybe a little E. O. Wilson’s Sociolobiology.

    3. Pierre Clastres – Societies Against the State. He seems to be the best known “anarchist” academic temporally between Mauss and Scott. Was supposed to be Levi-Strauss’s heir in French anthropology but died young (age 43).

    4. James C. Scott — anything and almost everything, but especially Seeing Like a State and the Art of Not Being Governed. Maybe parts of Weapons of the Weak or that article on comparative Agrarian tax resistance.

    5. Marshall Sahlins — his 1966 article “the Original Affluent Society” (yes, the title’s a play on Galbraith, but about hunter-gatherers). A supplement to this, very much in the same vein, is Jared Diamond’s “The Worst Mistake in the History of the Human Race “. Google will turn up both articles. Great for sheltered undergrads, “But you mean we don’t live in a world of Protestant Progress where things always get better and better? I can’t believe it!”

    6. David Graeber — his Fragments of an Anarchist Anthropology (pdf available free) made me want to be a social scientist instead of a historian. We kept a copy in our bathroom in college (oh, UChicago…). Probably selections from Debt would also make it into any syllabus I taught. Direct Action might too, but I find it less interesting. His essay on Mauss, “Give It Away”, is what introduced me to Mauss in the first place.

    7. James Ferguson’s Anti-Politics Machine. I know you know and love this book.

    8. Something by wunderkind Kieran Healy on the exchange of blood and organs; it’s relevant but a little different (state obviously has a big role in this). I might use the book or just one of the articles depending how the course was and how much attention I wanted to give to this. He also has a working paper on open source software that would probably make the cut. He’s a big deal in sociology right now.

    9. Hakim Bey’s Temporary Autonomous Zone. Hakim Bey (Peter Lamborn Wilson) has supported NAMBLA. I feel like I need to acknowledge that every time I mention his name. But at the same time, it’s one of the more worthwhile “anarchist political theory” books, and the only one that I’d be inclined to use on a syllabus. Possibly less relevant to development.

    People have told me Polyani belongs on here, too.

    It’s pretty interesting that many of these guys, Clastres and Scott most clearly, are not interested so much in how to smash capitalism and governments and hierarchy and all of that, but in how to escape from it and avoid it and function without it.

    I’m in sociology, but you can see this reading list is heavily weighted towards anthropology, without enough sociology or political science (never mind economics). I would think of adding articles on informal economy, maybe something from Sudhir Venkatesh (probably selections from Off the Books, definitely not Gang Leader for a Day). There’s a chance I might use some of (economist) Peter Leeson’s stuff, either his work on Somalia or on historical pirates. Possibly some stuff on intentional communities (and what leads to their success and more often failure).

    Point is, if you ended up teaching an “anarchist development class” at Columbia, I’d definitely be sitting in the back, if not lobbying to try to cross department TA.

  11. Rothbard and Hoppe, both representing the Austrian school of economics, are one of the best for introduction to anarcho-capitalism (even though I would recommend to start with Mises’s Human Action). For development economics, I would recommend Conquest of Poverty (Hazzlit), Better off stateless: Somalia before and after government collapse (Leeson), Institutional Stickiness and the New Development Economics (Boettke et al) and Entrepreneurship and Development: Cause or Consequence? (Boettke and Coyne).

  12. “The New Liberty: The Libertarian Manifesto” by Murray N. Rothbard is a book that every Libertarian must read. Rothbard, anarcho-capitalist intellectual, talked about spontaneous order and the flawed morality of our rulers. He thought that any libertarian should be an anarchist if he or she believes in consistency.

  13. Evolutionary economics literature, especially the work by Giovanni Dosi. There is also something about Brian Arthur’s work on complexity and increasing returns that makes it particularly appealing for any firm disbeliever of organized chaos….

  14. “Probably the biggest problem in international development is that it is not anarchist enough. The impulse of virtually every UN, World Bank, and NGO project or manager I’ve seen is to plan and order.”

    Someone recently shared with me the observation that the world’s last bastion of true Soviet-style central planning is the group of big international development donors (including, ironically, the philanthropic foundations of titans of capitalism with names like Gates and Ford). Should we be surprised that “development” has failed just as catastrophically as every other similarly organized scheme? Would RCTs have saved the Soviet Union?

  15. Eric Hobsbawm’s Revolutionaries includes an excellent essay on anarchism from the view of the left. Starts with a remarkable anecdote about his first experience of Spanish anarchism, which was suitably… er… anarchic.

  16. “This is where my libertarian instincts on my far right meet my anarchist instincts on the far left. Yet somehow my opinions tend to be centrist. I think it’s fair to say I don’t understand myself.”

    That’s because you continue to insist on trying to understand yourself using the meaningless left-right dichotomy, which is essentially just a way to fool the people of western democracies to ally themselves behind the government by thinking that the government is up for grabs and that there are two parties vying for it. In reality, of course, the only two parties in these societies are not left and right, they are the state and the people. Both left and right are divisions of the state, and of the people fooled into supporting either wing of the state party.

    My anarchist reading list would be largely similar to any mainstream development economist’s reading list. The main difference is that I would make my students assess things based on what they actually are and based on their actual consequences, whereas the entirety of modern development economics is built on the diefication of good intentions and their utilization as a license to do whatever you want while ignoring the negative consequences. So, with the same reading list, I would arrive at the conclusion that the World Bank is institutionally set-up to serve the interests of the US government and its continuing theft of the planet by the dollarization of the world economy, a side effect of which is the destruction of poor countries. Mainstream development economists however will continue to view things from the perspective of the World Bank as a development institution, and all the disasters it causes can never alter the desire of the development economist to think of alternative policies that will make the world bank “fulfill its development mission”, or whatever is the latest buzzword kids are using these days.

    As an anarchist, however, I would entirely oppose the concept, relevance and severe lack of ethics that the entire RCT industry represents. RCT, essentially, is a way to generate tenure, jobs and publications for rich white people by allowing them to carry out scientific-looking experiments on poor dark human lab rats under the pretext of “development”. Humanity is too complex to be studied in these labs, and the results from RCT’s are meaningless outside their very narrow contrived lab context. If you look closely, you find that the only actual positive impact from these studies accrues to the researchers. The lab rats, on the other hand, end up wasting enormous amounts of their precious time on filling out surveys that will never improve their life in any way, and will only ever serve as fodder for yet another unreadable, irrelevant and ignored modern academic economic paper.

  17. I would add Timoth Mitchell’s “Rule of Experts.” It’s often unnecessarily dense, and I Think there’s a lot he gets wrong (both in his analysis and in the policy conclusions he draws), but he does show convincingly in some instances the destructive impacts of attempts to construct knowledge of complicated processes and on that basis regulate, manage, and control them

  18. “State in Society” by Joel Migdal:
    I like Migdal’s work because it tries to examine the empirical problems with the assumption that states generally have enough control to implement ambitious policies and programs.

    The old article “If Planning Is Everything, Maybe It’s Nothing” by Aaron Wildavsky is pretty good too – if sometimes a bit too cute. (sadly it’s behind a paywall)

  19. Hi Chris,

    Nice piece. Explicitly anarchist work on development seems like an oxymoron. What used to be called development was very state centered, a la Evans, Prebisch, Hirschman, etc. Recently, though, my sense is that together with the micro-focus (which does not address overarching development plans) there is an implicit anarchism in the anti-government stance of students of development. The NGO frame of mind is highly antipolitical and the fixation with corruption is only a reflection of it. Because of that, I loved your comment criticizing the overemphasis on corruption. By the way, this brand of anarchism is not much different from libertarianism.