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Is Anarchism an Idea Whose Time Has Come?

Anarchist thinking appears to be gaining relevance and acceptance among a larger audience.


It seems that everywhere, these days, people are talking about anarchism. Now  Dmitry Orlov joins the discussion with a 3-part series, “In Praise of Anarchy.” Utilizing primarily the work of the 19th century Russian anarchist, Peter Kropotkin, Orlov argues that anarchy, rather than hierarchy, is the dominant pattern in nature, that hierarchical organizations ultimately end in collapse, and that the impending collapse of the capitalist industrial system presents an opportunity for the emergence of anarchism.

Orlov,(aka kollapsnik at Club Orlov), is probably best-known for his book,  Reinventing Collapse, in which he compares the collapse of the Soviet Union with the imminent collapse of the United States. Russian-born Orlov is in a unique position to make such comparisons. He immigrated to the USA when he was twelve years old, and, as an adult, made numerous trips back to the former USSR in the years immediately following the collapse of its political and economic system.

With a wry Russian wit I find immensely attractive, Orlov describes in Reinventing Collapse how people in the USSR were better positioned than are Americans for economic collapse. For example, most Soviet citizens did not own their homes; instead they lived in state-owned dwellings. When the USSR collapsed, they simply remained where they were and nobody evicted them. Compare that with the United States, where people were seduced into signing questionable mortgage agreements for outrageously priced homes, and where, since the economic crisis of 2008, 3 million have been foreclosed upon.

Similarly, few Soviet citizens owned cars, but they could take advantage of a highly developed public transportation system. Most Americans, on the other hand, are car dependent, burdened with the expense car ownership and operation entails. In the USSR, citizens used to inefficient, centrally-planned agricultural policies were already in the habit of growing some of their own food. In recent years, some Americans have wised up to this necessity, but not nearly enough. I’m constantly amazed by the number of people I meet who can’t identify common garden vegetables by their leaves.

When, exactly, the economic and political collapse of the United States that Orlov has been predicting for five years, (convincingly, in my view), will occur, Orlov cannot say. But he believes it is not far in the future. (His specific arguments for collapse are collected in his most recent book of essays,  Absolutely Positive.) Orlov uses the  analogy of a deteriorating bridge to explain how predictingwhen, something will happen is separate from predicting that it will happen:

Suppose you have an old bridge: the concrete is cracked, chunks of it are missing with rusty rebar showing through. An inspector declares it “structurally deficient.” This bridge is definitely going to collapse at some point, but on what date? That is something that nobody can tell you.

I’ve been reading Orlov for years and never really understood where he was coming from politically. Sometimes I thought I detected a note of libertarianism, but mostly I perceived him as apolitical, or sometimes even fatalistic. Certainly, he is one of the most original thinkers among the “peak oil” intelligentsia, and definitely the most entertaining. Unlike some prominent writers on the  Oil Drum, he seems to have no interest in either  defending oil companies and their rapacious profits or influencing government officials to take some action or other to mitigate the effects of oil depletion. Probably that should have clued me in, but my anarchist antennae were not well-developed until recently.

In any case, it’s exciting to see Orlov become more overtly political. In  Part I of his series, Orlov introduces the Russian anarchist theorist Peter Kropotkin. Born a prince in 1842, Kropotkin renounced that status and devoted his life to improving the lot of the common man through his writings and activism. Perhaps his most outstanding contribution to anarchist thought is his 1902 book Mutual Aid: A Factor of Evolution. (The entire book, written in very accessible prose, is available free online  here.) Kropotkin, a scientist, zoologist, and geographer, argued that mutual aid, rather than competition, is the most common feature of animal behavior and is essential for the survival and evolution of a species:

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