James C. Scott, author of the excellent Seeing Like a State, and The Art of Not Being Governed: An Anarchist History of Upland Southeast Asia, has a new book just out: Two Cheers for Anarchism: Six Easy Pieces on Autonomy, Dignity, and Meaningful Work and Play.

I’ve just started reading it, but bits of it are so good that I just can’t hold off blogging about them. In the first chapter, for instance, Scott tells a story about time he spent in Neubrandenburg, Germany. He visited this small town once every week while working on a failing collective farm at nearby Pletz, traveling there and back by railway. And every week, while waiting for his train back to Pletz, he would spend some time watching people at the nearby intersection.

During the day there was a fairly brisk traffic of pedestrians, cars, and trucks, and a set of traffic lights to regulate it. Later in the evening, however, the vehicle traffic virtually ceased while the pedestrian traffic, if anything, swelled to take advantage of the cooler evening breeze. Regularly between 9:00 and 10:00 p.m. there would be fifty or sixty pedestrians, not a few of them tipsy, who would cross the intersection. The lights were timed, I suppose, for vehicle traffic at midday and not adjusted for the heavy evening foot traffic. Again and again, fifty or sixty people waited patiently at the corner for the light to change in their favor: four minutes, five minutes, perhaps longer. It seemed an eternity.

To Scott, this seemed stupid and irrational. There were hardly any cars on the road. And the flat landscape meant you could see those that were out from miles away. But still, no one crossed. Or, at any rate, almost no one.

Twice, perhaps, in the course of roughly 5 hours of my observing this scene did a pedestrian cross against the light, and then always to a chorus of scolding tongues and fingers wagging in disapproval.

So powerful was this social disapproval that even Scott himself was reluctant to incur it by crossing while the light forbad it. And so, with the crowd, he waited. But while he waited, he had a good long time to think about what he ought to say to these Germans, if he only had the courage and the fluency to do so.

You know, you and especially your grandparents could have used more of a spirit of lawbreaking. One day you will be called upon to break a big law in the name of justice and rationality. Everything will depend on it. You have to be ready. How are you going to prepare for that day when it really matters? You have to stay ‘in shape’ so that when the big day comes you will be ready. What you need is ‘anarchist calisthenics.’ Every day or so break some trivial law that makes no sense, even if it’s only jaywalking. Use your own head to judge whether a law is just or reasonable. That way, you’ll keep trim; and when the big day comes, you’ll be ready.

I think I’m going to print that on a poster and put it in my kids’ rooms.

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  • Krinein_ev

    Good idea! Teach your children that obeying traffic laws is a slippery slope to the Third Reich.
    Although perhaps you should double-check with your wife first?

    • http://twitter.com/dL_1337 dL

      no doubt, traffic laws are the price we pay for “moral community”

    • shemsky

      I think what he means is that if most people just blindly follow the law, without ever questioning whether the law is just or reasonable, then there is a much greater chance for tyranny. The traffic law was just an example.

    • JayLib

      If you can’t think for yourself enough to disregard a poorly timed traffic signal, how would you resist full-on fascism?

  • http://twitter.com/dL_1337 dL

    well, everyone, intentionally or not, is breaking at least 5 laws per day.

  • JW Ogden

    Interestingly the Italian ignore the traffic laws and Mussolini was far less effective at getting his people to kill.

  • http://independent.academia.edu/DannyFrederick Danny Frederick

    My brother and I had this problem when we were in America, Los Angeles. Walking along the street, we came to a set of lights, and people were waiting to cross the road. But no cars were coming so we just walked across. A police car appeared from somewhere, the lady cop shouted something incomprehensible at us (my brother said it concerned ‘traffic violation’) and waved us over to the kerb. We were then given some aggressive spiel about disobeying a red light (or something like that). It took us both by surprise. As we explained to them, in England, if there are no cars coming, you cross the road, no matter what the light says (this applies to pedestrians, not cars). The lady cop did not believe us but, after some words from her more sympathetic colleague, she let us off, us being tourists and all. Afterwards we had to laugh whenever we saw the Americans obediently waiting because the lights told them to, when they could safely have crossed the road. Perhaps they were all terrified of that lady cop?

    • good_in_theory

      This varies by place in the states. Jaywalking is common in SF, but not in LA, for example

    • Sean II

      Wait, you saw pedestrians…in Los Angeles? As in, more than one?

      Have you considered the possibility that they were actually German tourists?

  • SA23

    Hell yes.

    “How can you advocate breaking some laws and obeying others?” The answer lies in the fact that there are two types of laws: just and unjust. I would be the first to advocate obeying just laws. One has not only a legal, but a moral responsibility to obey just laws. Conversely, one has a moral responsibility to disobey unjust laws. I would agree with St. Augustine that “an unjust law is no law at all.” – MLK, Jr.

    • http://www.facebook.com/dan.kirkeby Dan Kirkeby

      True enough. But, by deciding which laws are just and which are unjust, do you not break your consensual relationship with republican democracy–that you will be ruled by the majorities laws, even when you disagree with them. You suggest that, instead, each person be the King of their own land, and obey the laws of that land only. At the ethical level that’s true, of course, but I’m not sure you really want the consequences at the political level. In an extreme circumstance, such as the civil rights struggles of the 60′s or before, this may be justified. Is is justified, too, when people are subsequently punished for breaking the “unjust” laws?

  • TracyW

    These things might be very location-specific. I remember having moved from Wellington, NZ, to Christchurch, NZ, standing on a corner in the central city one day trying to figure out where I was, having lowered the map I observed to my amazement that people were waiting patiently even though there were no cars in sight.

    One of my friends, whose parents had moved away from Wellington during her childhood, said that on her first day back (attending uni) she jaywalked Willis St at rush hour and felt she was back home.

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  • Corey Robin

    This post reminds me of something I’ve been wondering about for some time. Traffic — as metaphor — seems to play a very big role in both libertarian (Hayek/Schmidtz, etc) and anarchist (this example from Jim Scott is just the latest) thought. I’m having trouble coming up with similar examples in non-lib or non-anarchist thought. (Someone just reminded me of its appearance in some of Schelling’s work — Thomas, that is, not Friedrich.) Am I right? Curious for examples and counter-examples.

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  • http://www.facebook.com/dan.kirkeby Dan Kirkeby

    To criticize the Germans for that behavior is proper, of course, since that spirit of rule-following became capable of the greatest of horrors when the system went awry. But, it’s also the reason that the Germans are such a productive people today, and likely played a large part in their tremendous contributions to science, mathematics, music, poetry, and philosophy. The southern Europeans do not follow the rules so blindly, and they will never have so efficient an economy. So, criticize their behavior, but recognize the benefits that come along with it, and the problems that arise when a society behaves otherwise.

  • JayLib

    Exactly! Traffic-related rules often serve as “training” for automatic, unthinking obedience in other laws and regulatiins. It’s that kind of small-scale, “enervating” oppression Tocqueville warned about. Every one should practice safely breaking traffic laws. (ie use your own fricking eyes, ears, and judgment). I am bewildered by the people I see in downtown Chicago who will not cross an empty one-way street until the “Walk” light comes on. What else are they mindlessly conforming to? Probably everything they’re told.

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