The Beginning of the End: Anarchy

The Beginning of the End

originally published at Suvudu—April 30, 2010

Last week, on The Day After Earth Day, I introduced a series of posts exploring how to experience an artistic apocalypse. That was Episode 0—this is Episode 1: Anarchy. Feel free to brush up . . .

“Anarchy” is a good way to begin exploring the apocalypse because writers, game designers, film makers, and illustrators often fall back on it when trying to establish a recognizably apocalyptic (or pre- or post-) environment. However, even though it’s often associated with tales of the collapse of civilization, “anarchy,” as a term, is regularly misused—or, at least, misunderstood. Most take the term to mean chaos, violence, wanton barbarity—what many think of as the obvious consequence of the collapse of central government. And, rightly so—most of us have seen real-world news coverage of enough disaster-stricken or war-torn areas wherein the rule of law has popped and the citizenry business themselves with looting and rioting.

But that’s really not the same thing as anarchy. That is the immediate consequence of a sudden power vacuum, and the disorder is tied, in a way, to the property-insurance view of society. By way of example, let’s get boring for a minute. In the nineteenth century, Henry David Thoreau, a famous American anarchist, argued that societies, taxation, and culture are tied to ownership. Taxation was a big issue for Thoreau (he famously went to prison for an evening for refusing to pay a “poll tax”) because he didn’t recognize the validity of a “social contract” that he’d had no say about—like most of us, he was simply born into a system that demanded taxes on penalty of imprisonment. Thoreau believed that no person, officer, or agency had the inherent right, or authority, to force him to do anything. And, you know, he’s right—there’s no law of nature, like gravity, that exerts any force in this way. It’s one thing for a kid who’s bigger and stronger than you to demand your lunch money “or else,” but tax collectors are not superior, stronger co-players in the game of life (scientists like to call them “conspecifics,” but whatever).

So, knowing that we may need help keeping trespassers off of our land, thieves away from our PS3s and Xboxes, and assailants at arm’s-length, we decide, quite unnaturally, to imbue a group of people with the power to make some rules and then enforce them. To do this, we give them tax money (yeah, the idea is that it’s a gift), and then if anyone infringes on our rights (which, unfortunately, are just as unnatural as law itself), we can expect our claim to be acted upon—just like paying into and claiming insurance.

The more you own, the more you have that needs protecting, the more tied into the system you are. This is one reason why the lower classes, those who own less and therefore have less use for social insurance, have historically experienced mistreatment, brutality, profiling, and economic repression. See, in a manner of speaking, in this model, they’re less committed to the social contract they were forced into (that is, less committed than the wealthy, who need legal help keeping the mobs from their manicured lawns), which makes them (the lower classes) a liability from the perspective that all people are inherently immoral, which is a common view—do you lock your doors at night? These people have “less to lose”—they’re wild cards, threatening in that Tyler Durden way: “The things you own end up owning you.”

The more this contract takes hold, the more our cultures, works of art, leisure activities, political and moral inclinations, and even our faiths come to reinforce the model. None of this is natural—the only real definition of ownership is the ability to keep others from acquiring what you don’t wish them to acquire. Using an army, the police, or the repo man is, in a sense, cheating.

Thoreau (and others like him) said, instead, that each person should be responsible for his or her own morality because it’s unnatural to be forced by someone with an army or a police force to accept ideas about “right vs. wrong” that you may not agree with. This is anarchy at its most hopeful—the idea that no one rules. So, in the apocalypse, the chaos you see is not anarchy; the freedom is. The collapse of governments or communities in an apocalyptic story is liberating—there is no longer any validity to the property-insurance system. No one can legally force you against your will to follow any set of rules. You have, in a sense, finally inherited your true, human birthright. Debt becomes meaningless; your past becomes meaningless. You are free. It’s a re-birth—a creation story.
That is, if you survive the day of reckoning—the chaos and the violence and the depravity. And if you do, you’ll need to find a way to protect yourself, which usually means a new, artificial society. The whole process starts over again.

Which is part of the reason why these stories have been around so long. They reflect the desire of the repressed to tear it all down and start over—to do it better this time. Sometimes, it works—but only for a while. The creation of a society contains, from the moment of inception, the seeds of its destruction.

Next up, in Episode 2: “Conflict—The Real Humanity”

Recommended media:

• Henry David Thoreau: “Civil Disobedience,” Walden
• Cory Doctorow: “When Sysadmins Ruled the Earth” in Wastelands: Stories of the Apocalypse, John Joseph Adams, ed.
• Alan DeNiro: Total Oblivion, More or Less
• Cormac McCarthy: The Road
Fight Club
Fallout 3