I’m back from travel, this time for the near-foreseeable future. Over the last 1.5 years I’ve spent over 20 weeks overseas. I’ve been blogging about some of these experiences/countries and will continue to intersperse these posts with regular posts. However, I was still thinking about some over-arching ideas that I’ve learned. And this one topped the list.
I’m not an anarchist. I haven’t discussed anarchism on the blog but basically I don’t agree with it. I don’t (currently) have a reason to think it will lead to better outcomes, at least given humanity’s current state of social development.
But, travelling to countries with much less functional states, I have been impressed with the extent to which the state can act as a hinderance in all aspects of life. Of course this is obvious for repressive states — but it can be just as true for other types of disfunction. Anarchism becomes a lot more viable in countries that people commonly classify as ‘third world’.
It’s particularly galling at how blatant the police are at not hiding the fact that they are largely there to benefit themselves. In countries like Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan, Cambodia and Vietnam especially, you almost never see a policeman (and it is a man) on the street without them being in the process of pulling someone over in order to extract a fine. Which they will pocket. In many of those places, people involved in a road accident will work it out privately because involving the police will cost the same to both parties plus the obligatory bribe.
But it goes a lot deeper than that. There are plenty of times in Australia where getting police involved will make for a worse outcome. (Again, ignoring ideological arguments against police and the state in principle.) But in some of those countries it’s pretty much in all cases — they literally seem to exist only for their own benefit, as well as to perpetuate the political, social and economic inequalities of the country. Perhaps the only exception is my position — as a tourist I was much more likely to benefit from police in terms of safety than I was to be hindered with violence and/or shakedowns. But that’s precisely because in such cases travellers are NOT treated like locals.
An interesting example comes from Georgia. In 2004, after a particularly loud outcry about police harassing people on the roads, Saakashvili launched an initiative to fire corrupt traffic cops. Very soon after the initiative, all 30,000 police were fired for taking bribes. Georgian roads were police-free for 3 months. And road conditions actually improved, as it became obvious that the police were causing much more chaos than they were preventing.
Of course there are plenty of counterexamples. In The Blank Slate, Pinker vividly describes how his illusions about the benevolence of human nature were shattered:
As a young teenager in proudly peaceable Canada during the romantic 1960s, I was a true believer in Bakunin’s anarchism. I laughed off my parents’ argument that if the government ever laid down its arms all hell would break loose. Our competing predictions were put to the test at 8:00 A.M. on October 17, 1969, when the Montreal police went on strike. By 11:20 A.M. the first bank was robbed. By noon most downtown stores had closed because of looting. Within a few more hours, taxi drivers burned down the garage of a limousine service that competed with them for airport customers, a rooftop sniper killed a provincial police officer, rioters broke into several hotels and restaurants, and a doctor slew a burglar in his suburban home. By the end of the day, six banks had been robbed, a hundred shops had been looted, twelve fires had been set, forty carloads of storefront glass had been broken, and three million dollars in property damage had been inflicted, before city authorities had to call in the army and, of course, the Mounties to restore order.
Of course both ends of the opinion continuum (that hell would always vs never break loose) are caricatures. The specific context matters. For example, I doubt the effect on Montreal would be as bad in 2012 as it was in 1969 because of particular social circumstances. But that’s the point — based on the circumstances in some of the places I visited, it seems just that much easier to see the anarchist viewpoint. It really is all about weapons-backed dick-waving.
A common attitude I’ve seen other travellers show when facing stories of corruption, incompetence and so on is the trope of “it’s all the same”. Yep. Because we have police corruption in (say) Australia, what’s the big deal? It’s all inevitable, right? What an offensive, snide, comfortable way to erase whole orders of magnitude. Do you really think a country whose criminal system rests on confessions as the primary form of evidence (cough Uzbekistan cough) is “like” a country where it doesn’t? Is a 2% chance of dying in a police interrogation room really “like” a 0.001% chance?
So no, I don’t really get the feeling of anarchism back at home (of course my lifestyle is pretty privileged). I probably would in the US. I definitely got it in Uzbekistan.