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.