Paul Goodman

selected passages from
Little Prayers and Finite Experience




Paul Goodman has anticipated many themes and offered many valuable insights that have been debated and accepted by later thinkers. In these passages it is worth paying attention to his short presentation of anarchy as autonomy, because it is one of the best characterizations of what anarchy really is (or should be).



On the concept of Society

There is an odd abstraction "Society," that has exercised a superstitious compulsion on political scientists since the time of Bentham, Comte, Hegel, and Marx; instead of the loose matrix of face-to-face communities, private fantasies, and shifting subsocieties in which most people mostly live their lives.
It is understandable that fatherly czars or divine-right monarchs would have the delusion that all the sparrows are constantly under their tutelage as Society; and that Manchester economists would sternly rule out of existence all family, local, and non-cash transactions that cannot be summed up on the Stock Exchange.
The usual strategy of Enlightenment philosophers, however, was to cut such big fictions down to size and to have simple real abuses to reform. But after the French Revolution, it was as if, to substitute for the slogan L'Ancien Régime, it was necessary to have a concept equally grand, Society.

Anarchy as Autonomy

I, like anybody else, see outrages that take me by the throat, and no question of not identifying with them as mine. Insults to the beauty of the world that keep me indignant. Lies, triviality, and vulgarity that suddenly make me sick. The powers-that-be do not know what it is to be magnanimous; often they are simply officious and spiteful. As Malatesta used to say, you try to live better and they intervene, and then you are to blame for the fight that happens. Worst of all, it is c1ear from their earth-destroying actions that these people are demented, sacrilegious, and will bring down doom on themselves and those associated with them; so sometimes I am superstitiously afraid to belong to the same tribe and walk the same ground as they.
Yet men have a right to be crazy, stupid, or arrogant. It is our specialty. Our mistake is to arm anybody with collective power. Anarchy is the only safe polity. It is a moral disaster to suppress indignation, nausea, and scorn; it is a political (and soon moral) disaster to make them into a program. Their right political use is negative, to band together, to stop something. It is a common misconception that anarchists hold that “human nature is good" and therefore men can rule themselves. But we tend rather to be pessimistic. We are phlegmatic because we do not have ideas. And men in power are especially liable to be stupid because they are out of touch with concrete finite experience and instead keep interfering with other people's initiative, so they make them stupid too. Imagine being deified like Mao-tse-tung or Kim II Sung, what that must do to a man's character. Or habitually thinking the unthinkable, like our Pentagon.

Most anarchist philosophers start from a lust for freedom. Sometimes this is a metaphysico-moral imperative, with missionary zeal attached, but mostly it is a deep animal cry or religious yearning, like the hymn of the prisoners in Fidelio. They have seen or suffered too much restraint - serfdom, factory slavery, deprived of liberties, colonized by an imperialist, befuddled by the church. My experience, however, has by and large been roomy enough. "They" have not managed to constrict it too much, though I have suffered a few of the usual baits, many of the punishments, and very many of the threats. I do not need to shake off restraint in order to be myself. My usual gripe has been not that I am imprisoned, but that I am in exile or was born on the wrong planet. My real trouble is that the world is impractical for me; by impatience and cowardice I make it even less practical than it could be.
For me, the chief principle of anarchism is not freedom but autonomy, the ability to initiate a task and do it one's own way. Without orders from authorities who do not know the actual problem and the available means. External direction may sometimes be inevitable, as in emergencies, but it is at a cost to vitality. Behavior is more graceful, forceful, and discriminating without the intervention of the state, wardens, corporation executives, central planners, and university presidents. These tend to create a chronic emergency that makes them necessary. In most cases, the use of power to do a job is inefficient in the fairly short run. Extrinsic power inhibits intrinsic function. "Soul is self-moving," says Aristotle.

The weakness of "my" anarchism is that the lust for freedom is a powerful motive for political change, whereas autonomy is not. Autonomous people protect themselves stubbornly but by less strenuous means, including plenty of passive resistance. The pathos of oppressed people, however, is that, if they break free, they don't know what to do. Not having been autonomous, they don't know what it's like, and before they learn, they have new managers who are not in a hurry to abdicate. The oppressed hope for too much from New Society, instead of being vigilant to live their lives. They had to rely on one another in the battle, but their solidarity becomes an abstraction and to deviate is called counterrevolutionary.
The possibility of my weaker position is that autonomous people might see that the present situation is disastrous for them, and that their autonomy is whittled away. They cannot help but see it. There is not enough useful work and it is hard to do it honestly or to practice a profession nobly. Arts and sciences are corrupted. Modest enterprise must be blown out of all proportion to survive. The young cannot find their vocations. Talent is stifled by credentials. Taxes are squandered on war, schoolteachers and overhead. Etc., etc. The remedies for all this might be piecemeal and undramatic, but they must be fundamental, for many of the institutions cannot be recast and the system itself is impossible. A good deal could be made tolerable by wiping a good deal off the slate.

The stupidity of gigantism

The central organization of administration, production and distribution is sometimes unavoidable, but it mathematically guarantees stupidity. Information reported from the field must be abstracted, and it loses content at every level; by the time it reaches headquarters it may say nothing relevant. Or it may say what (it is guessed) headquarters wants to hear.
To have something to report, the facts of the field are molded into standard form and are no longer plastic. Those in headquarters cannot use their wits because they are not in touch. Those in the field lose their wits because they have to speak a foreign tongue, and can't initiate anything anyway. On the basis of the misinformation it receives, headquarters decides and a directive is sent down that may fit nobody in particular. At each level it is enforced on those below in order lo satisfy those above, rather than to do the work. When it is applied in the field, it may be quite irrelevant, or it may destroy the village in order to save it.
The criteria for the success of such operations are abstractions like Gross National Product, Standard of Living, body count, passenger-miles, Ph.D.'s awarded. These at best have no relation to the common wealth, satisfaction of life, peace, experience of travel, or knowing anything. But at worst they impede the common wealth, peace, experience of travel, etc.

Crime and punishment

I suppose the most sickening aspect of modern highly organized societies is the prisons and insane asylums, vast enclaves of the indigestible, that the rest live vaguely aware of, with low-grade anxiety.
We have been getting rid of the stupid but at least human notions of punishment, revenge, "paying the debt," and so forth. But instead, there persists and grows the Godlike assumption of "correcting" and "rehabilitating" the deviant. There is no evidence that we know how; and in both prisons and asylums it comes to the same thing, trying to beat people into shape, treating the inmates like inferior animals, and finally just keeping the whole mess out of sight. The only rational motive for confining any one is to protect ourselves from injury that is likely to be repeated. In insane asylums, more than 90 percent are harmless and need not be confined. And in prisons, what is the point of confining those - I don't know what percent, but it must be fairly large - who have committed one-time crimes, e.g. most manslaughters and passional or family crimes, while they pay up or atone? People ought indeed to atone for the harm they have done, to get over their guilt and be "rehabilitated," but this is much more likely to occur by trying to accept them back into the community, rather than isolating and making them desperate. Certainly the old confession of the public square was a better idea.

It is doubtful that punishing some deters others. Varying the penalties has no statistical effect on occurrence, but only measures the degree of abstract social disapproval. And it is obvious that the great majority who do not steal, bribe, forge, etc. do not do so because of their life-style, more subtile influences than gross legal risks; other cultures, and some of our own subcultures, have other styles and other habits – for example, the youth counterculture has much increased shoplifting and forging of official documents.
The chief reason that so-called “moral legislation” has no influence in deterring vices is that temptation to the vices does not occur in the same psychological context as rational calculation of legal risks – unlike business fraud or risking a parking ticket. Ad it is likely that much authentic criminal behavior is compulsive in the same way.

There are inveterate lawbreakers and “psychopathic personalities” who cannot be trusted not to commit the same or worse crimes. (I think they will exist with any social institutions whatever). It is unrealistic to expect other people not to panic because of them, and so we feel we have to confine them, instead of lynching them. But our present theory of “correction” in fact leads to 70 per cent recidivism, usually for more serious felonies; to a state of war and terrorism between prisoners and guards; and to increasing prison riots. Why not say honestly, “We’re locking you up simply because we are afraid of you. It is not necessarily a reflection on you and we are sorry for it. Therefore, in your terms how can we make your confinement as painless and profitable to you as we can? We will give you as many creatures satisfactions as you wish and we can afford, not lock you in cells, let you live in your own style, find and pursue your own work – so long as we are safe from you. A persisting, and perhaps insoluble, problem is how you will protect yourselves from one another.”
It may be objected, of course, that many sober and hard-working citizens who aren’t criminals are never given this much consideration by society. No, they aren’t and that is a pity.


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