The Problem of Scale in Anarchism

The Problem of Scale in Anarchism and the Case for Cybernetic Communism

by Aurora Apolito

This is a lead essay in the C4SS Mutual Exchange Symposium: "Decentralization and Economic Coordination". The related readings and list of all other articles can be found in the introduction here.

Note: In order to properly display some of the mathematics in this piece, it’s hosted here as a .pdf. Or, click the image below the introduction.

The problem of scale is perhaps the most fundamental problem of anarchism.

We all know by direct experience that anarchism works well on a local scale. Most people who have been active in the anarchist movement have also participated in at least some initiatives such as Food-Not-Bombs, infoshops, small publishing houses, anarchist bookfairs, mutual aid initiatives, Antifa, worker-owned cooperatives, street medics, hacker and maker spaces, etc. The anarchist movement has a huge accumulated historical experience on how to run such local community initiatives. There is little doubt that anarchism works on what I will refer to as “the small scale”.

Historically, one of the main forms of criticism levelled against anarchism has been that it does not provide a convincing theory of how a decentralized, non-hierarchical form of organization can be scaled up to work efficiently on “the large scale”. This objection has often been voiced by socialist and communist militants who advocate forms of planning centered around a party structure and/or a state organization. Famously, Leon Trotsky in his autobiography commented on how his early enthusiasm for anarchism cooled when his anarchist comrades were unable to provide a good plan for how to run the railway system. Trotsky’s writing was disingenuous, but the question is legitimate. How does anarchism handle large scale structures? Is there a good scaling strategy that interpolates from the small to the large? Although one can certainly envision several good answers to the specific railway problem, the more general problem of scale is highly nontrivial: it is well known that many physical systems are not scale-free and break down outside of a typical scale of applicability. Is anarchism such a system, destined to only work in the scale of small local communities?

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There is a certain poverty of the imagination present in writings like this. To look at the world as it is, with its railways and its grand monuments, and to keep everything exactly the same but make it "anarchy". This discounts how situated all of these "large scale" projects and technologies are and how they exist in the service of domination. If you switch out rulers for cybernetics but keep everything else the same, how is that any better?

Hi, I’ll review each section!
Let’s suffer!

tl;dr: whole paper kinda goes:

1. conceives of system, labels it “anarchism”

2. uses shitty logic to conclude the obvious: that it falls apart at a large enough scale

3. “oh well, i guess anarchy doesn’t work at a big scale” says the full-time math nerd, part time hobbyist model builder looking at their little scale model labeled “anarchism”, which was broken by anarchy, their bully

* * *

“The problem of scale is perhaps the most fundamental problem of anarchism.“

I though it was defying, evading, resisting, opposing, refusing and destroying oppression? Also known as liberation, or living freely?

“The problem of scale is perhaps the most fundamental problem of anarchism.
We all know by direct experience that anarchism works well on a local scale. Most people who have been active in the anarchist movement have also participated in at least some initiatives such as Food-Not-Bombs, infoshops, small publishing houses, anarchist bookfairs, mutual aid initiatives, Antifa, worker-owned cooperatives, street medics, hacker and maker spaces, etc. The anarchist movement has a huge accumu- lated historical experience on how to run such local community initiatives. There is little doubt that anarchism works on what I will refer to as “the small scale”.”

Anarchism, aka the management of liberal activist projects, apparently.

“ Historically, one of the main forms of criticism levelled against anarchism has been that it does not provide a convincing theory of how a decentralized, non-hierarchical form of organization can be scaled up to work efficiently on “the large scale”. ”

It’s almost as if not having bosses, nor impose rules across the board is a very ineffective way to boss people around and impose rules across the board, so to speak. It’s almost as if not working barely gets any work done. Hmm...

“This objection has often been voiced by socialist and communist militants who advocate forms of planning centered around a party structure and/or a state organization.”

Ah, I see...did it go anything like this by any chance?

Anarchist: “I’m against central planning, I will not do it.”

Communist: “Ha, not with that attitude you won’t! Try being a communist, comrade. It’s far better at central planning!”

“ Fa- mously, Leon Trotsky in his autobiography commented on how his early enthusiasm for anarchism cooled when his anarchist comrades were unable to provide a good plan for how to run the railway system. Trotsky’s writing was disingenuous, but the question is legitimate.”

Ah, the legitimacy of disingenuous questions...like the Jewish question, and the Anarchist questions. The answer is to these questions is concentration camp/gulag. These facts are underhanded, but legitimate. Assertions!

“How does anarchism handle large scale structures?”

By aiming at its smaller parts and attacking them with the aim of destroying it. By evading being crushed and humiliated under its weight, living with dignity by defiantly opposing them.

“Is there a good scaling strategy that interpolates from the small to the large? Although one can certainly envision several good answers to the specific railway problem, the more general problem of scale is highly nontrivial: it is well known that many physical systems are not scale-free and break down outside of a typical scale of applicability.”

How did a question of ethics (fighting oppression, refusing to oppress) become an engineering problem (a specific railway problem)? This sleight of hand is very shitty and I’m not amused. Maybe the promised math will provide flashier tricks. Maybe I should charitably maintain a “suspension of disbelief” and forgive the laughal premise, to focus on the upcoming “action”.

“Is anarchism such a system, destined to only work in the scale of small local communities?”

Anarchism can be thought of as many things: movements, lifeways, traditions, body of writing, ideas, ethics, aesthetics, dispositions, stories of conflicts, political ideology, a critique upon critique of it...etc, but...anarchism is not a system.

What may be of fate, we do not know, but whatever each and everyone’ may be “destined” to, they may choose to embrace anarchy, and live their fate freely, whether they live in a “small local community” or not.

“ There is a part of the anarchist movement that has retreated on such “local” positions and advocated abandoning the scale problem entirely, focusing only on action and organization at the level of small communities. I maintain that this position is incompatible with the broad ideals of anarchism, whose ultimate goal is the liberation of all humanity (and all sentient entities, biological or mechanical) from oppression and hierarchial power structures. To achieve such goals modern anarchism has to engage with a world of high complexity and multiple layers of large scale structures”

The unfeasibility and absurdity of your proposition is a feature of its critique and not a flaw of its opposition. Meaning “World Domination Anarchism” is impossible nonsense, an oxymoron, not anarchy nor anarchism.

“Retreating inside the comfort zone of small homogeneous local communities runs contrary to anarchism’s entire history of grand aspiration and visionary revolutionary ideas.”

Shows how little you know of history and anarchism. Citation needed? No u.

“ There are other, very different, tendencies within the anarchist movement, such as “Left Market Anarchism”, that do not shy away from facing the problem of scale, but in essence advocate solving it by borrowing the market mechanism from capitalism, and somehow “liberating” it to serve more just socio-economic goals and a more equal society. I find this approach also unappealing. I don’t believe that markets can be “liberated” from capitalism, nor that they can do anything good anyway, regardless of their liberated status. In essence, this is because I view the market mechanism as running on a steepest descent towards a cost/energy minimum, in an attempt to maximize profit, which inevitably singles out the least valuable options, while wiping out anything that is of any value (but is not profit-making) along the process. Call it my communist prejudice.”

Did C4SS just go “uh, well this person doesn’t like markets, not even free ones, but uh they’re into nerdy economist math, and that’s what counts, so I guess they’re cool”?

“For the purpose of this brief essay, I only want to discuss some aspects of the scale problem under some simplifying assumptions that I feel confident about when I try to envision the structure of an anarchist society (or at least one I would feel comfortable living in). So I am going to start by assuming that what happens at the “small scales” is established in the form of a network of communes, cooperatives, and collectives, which are run on anarcho-communist forms of organization, and I will consider the question of how to introduce large scale structures over this network.”

Allow me to translate: As a communist, I’m only comfortable envisioning anarchism as a shittier version of communism, so I‘ll use this assumption as base to demonstrate how it doesn’t scale up, unlike real communism.

Ok, so next paragraph is really long but the only thing it says is: Wow, civilization is very big and complex, imagine if I had to micro-manage it! Hmm, capitalism is kinda not that good for reasons...and states kinda suck too...hmm decentralization seems kinda neat, I wonder if that’ll fix it! Let’s see!

TO BE CONTINUED

Paragraphs 1-2 of this section simply states the failures or main traits of Soviet economic planning; namely centralization, bad management and authoritarianism. Foreshadowing the solution; decentralization, good management, and not-authoritarianism?

Paragraphs 3-5 say: Optimization is good! Profit motive is bad since it’s a simplistic maximization, hence markets/capitalism is bad! We need a complex informational system that optimizes the right set of criteria, maximizing and minimizing to perfection! Foreshadowing: computers will save us!

Paragraphs 6-9 says: Soviet communists had computers too (and the math to make it do what do)! And computers can do ~the decentralize~ In Soviet Cybernetic Communism, autonomous non-hierarchical computers decentralize you.

Paragraph 10 says: This shit expensive af to do, so it got scrapped yo.

Paragraph 11 says: Then global politics and capitalism happened and it was dead for good.

Paragraph 12-13 says: Allende was trying it out (it was p scary sounding), but Pinochet happened (very scary times ensued).

Paragraph 14 says: Anarcho-communism requires computers (and the math to make it do).

Paragraph 15 says: Summarizes bs political science study where his-story is turned into a scatterplot, and this is somehow profound, because it reflects the assumptions taken and the ideological categories used. No, I will not write a detailed review of that study. You may take a shit on its methodology all by yourself if you please.

Paragraph 16 says: Socialism and Communism cannot be primitivist, FALC or bust, cuz u need computers to do complexity. The computers do the non-hierarchical for you, so you can scale up. Fascism is when you don’t have computers to do the complexify, so you try to simplify things with brute force (kinda like what the cited study does) and you scale up thru imperialism.

Paragraph 17-18 says: The lack of sufficiently advanced computing applied to communism has so far made it unfeasible, and the presence of coercion has so far made it illegitimate.

Paragraph 19 says: Communism > Markets, because communism’s math is better (this is literally what it says).

Paragraph 20 says: Some communists have said that Capitalism is bad because of its mathy-ness. No, it’s bad beCAuSe it’s not mathy enough!

I swear this is what it says. But then it says: “ Communism is techno-optimist in its very essence: this is something that certain primitivist anti-civ brands of anarchism may find dif- ficult to stomach, but it is inherent in the nature of both socialism and communism that seizing the means of production requires the existence of sufficiently sophisti- cated means of production worth seizing. Seeking to approach crucial problems such as the distribution of resources and services in a communist economy via a careful scientific and mathematical analysis is the natural approach in a communist setting. Again, if it weren’t for the fact that the current communist (and anarcho-communist) scene has become so weirdly skewed in its views of science and technology, there would be absolutely no need to make such self-evident clarifications”

Please, I’m here for you, dear reader. You can stop reading now, I love you.
Time for self-care.

Ok, for those masochists that remain, let’s keep going, you fuckers...

Paragraph 21 says: Profit is bad cuz math, hence markets bad. (Note: at this point in the essay, the math is yet to be seen. Assertions!)

Paragraph 22 -23 says: The development if a completely new mathematical theory is needed for communism, just as it was needed for quantum physics. (The immortal science!)

TO BE CONTINUED

In the next episode...

“3. Self-organization in networks and the anarchist scale problem“

The enemy has threatened to use math! We will not cower at the face of threats of torture! Stay tuned!

Paragraph 1 of this section says: This is not the solution, but a technical review of the math that may help solve how to scale up “anarchism“ (read as: math nerd computer communism).

Paragraph 2 says: The math that might be useful is that used to describe self-organization in networks, currently applied in telcom systems (internet) and neuroscience (u’ve prolly heard of “neural networks”).

Paragraph 3-5 says: Mises says socialism is a technocratic challenge. Math and computers were not up to par in the past, but they might be now!
Time for “Economic Science Fictions” of cybernetic communist infrastructure of computation to replace markets (verbatim)!

Scary how markets, whatever their worth, were a sphere of human activity. Then it became all of it. Now the author proposes to replace this totality with computers. And this is called “anarchism”.

Paragraph 6-21 says: “The main notion of complexity in mathematics is Kolmogorov complexity, which classifies the complexity of something as the length of the shortest process (algorithm) that realizes it.”

This equation can be modified to account for relative complexity, structured complexity, organized complexity, effective complexity, potential complexity...and therefore is useful to compute communism...along with...

Paragraph 22 says: Math from neuroscience can help solve the individualism vs collectivism dilemma that is a point of conflict between some commies and anarchists....until next section 3.3, p.15 which says:

“ The dynamics of profit in markets is not a law of nature: it is implemented artificially via a machinery consisting of several instruments such as currencies, systems of credit and debt, etc. In a similar way, if we want to implement a dynamics of integrated informational complexity optimiza- tion, we need to devise the appropriate instruments that will implement it. ”

These instruments being:

(1) Instruments of connectedness: aka anarchist choo choo train! (basically telcom tech, internet!).

(2) Instruments of complexity: ~Culture~ (meaning poetry, cuz it complexify, but does not maximize profit...)

The paragraph that follows it is a long one with confused leaps of logic regarding art. It seems to say...art is complex, has been analyzed using these equations...proving soviet minimalist art has formal simplicity but high conceptual complexity therefore...communist art good, anarcho-communist avant garde art validated?!!!?!?!!?! and art is instrumentalized AS A GEAR IN SOCIAL ENGINEERING?!?!?!??

This broke me.
Then it goes on a few paragraphs on how communities = networks, and the math used to describe types of networks.

Then the forced conclusion which was just the assumption from the beginning

Markets are proposed as solutions in anarchist circles, but communism is better because it has better math to solve all your problems.

WHAT DID WE LEARN?!

That sprinkling math and references (the equivalent of name-dropping, mere mentioning as examples) is not a substitute for good argumentation and sound logic.

That communists will lower you to their level and beat you over the head with word-count and haunt you with the specter of science (its living body not present, just the gore and the spooks) UNTIL YOU BECOME INSANE.

I lost sleep, life was drained from me, yet I laugh merrily at this worthless arrogant foolishness!

Death to the technocrats!
Or at least a good time that will keep them off their work indefinitely!

tfw communist utopia is having all of the resources on Earth (meaning life, including the time you waste slaving for it, “manhours”) is spent on fueling the computer that decides everything for you.

it deprives you of freedom twofold, taking up your present time with activity that will fuel that machine that will take away your future time

wasn’t that something camatte said?
fuck cammatte, i ain’t read him

and this doesn’t sound much different than what we have now, cuz capitalism = civ = communism = civ

Why do anarchists care about proving anything to communists or socialists? Their world domination politics are just as bad as anything else. Can anarchists not see the problem in scaling up our society? Why can’t we live in smaller communities where we already thrive?

"scale", the typically "anarcho"-leftist concern... "Scale" and "organization". Sure baby, how could we keep the benefits of industrialised commodity production? And we want to keep it right? But self-managed, right?....

No bosses yet, well... still being bossed and tossed around. Now with improved groupthink technology! How can anyone resist THAT!?

Let's face it: your life is a factory, now. Society's the marketplace. Good luck self-managing that!

bolo'bolo among other things raises the issue of scale in a way that works for this anarchist. the idea that there are numbers of people beyond which it is impossible to have a reasonable/appropriate/workable/non-terrible relationship to strangers is pretty fucking interesting.
also, if anti-civ have anything to teach anymore, i would argue it's in this realm, right?

Scale is part of Western society's aesthetic, bigger, shinier, winner, higher, faster, skinnier, stronger, It has to stop, cos its actually boring and destructive.

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