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Many people today are highly critical of the government, big business and media, basically of "the system", and wonder how things could be made better. Some have said revolution is the answer, that it is important to put dissent into action; otherwise peaceniks and freethinkers risk becoming impotent. There is certainly some truth there, but at the same time one cannot help but be skeptical about the effectiveness of that sort of strategy. What happens when the revolution is over, when the establishment is brought down? What goes up in its place? This detail is all too often missing from the call to revolution.

An interesting passage from Robert Pirsig (Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance) hits the nail on the head. He is talking about rational systems and using motorcycle maintenance as a microcosmic example of the larger idea (e.g. a mechanic does not just see a collection of metal parts welded together; he sees an abstract conceptual system). He goes on to say this:

To speak of certain government and establishment institutions as "the system" is to speak correctly, since these organizations are founded upon the same structural conceptual relationships as a motorcycle. They are sustained by structural relationships even when they have lost all other meaning and purpose. People arrive at a factory and perform a totally meaningless task from eight to five without question because the structure demands that it be that way. There's no villain, no "mean guy" who wants them to live meaningless lives, it's just that the structure, the system demands it and on one is willing to take on the formidable task of changing the structure because it is meaningless.

But to tear down a factory or revolt against a government or avoid repair of a motorcycle because it is a system is to attack effects rather than causes; and as long as the attack is upon effects only, no change is possible. The true system, the real system, is our present construction of systematic thought itself, rationality itself, and if a factory is torn down but the rationality which produced it is left standing, then that rationality will simply produce another factory. If a revolution destroys a systematic government, but the systematic pattern of thought that produced that government are left intact, then those patterns will repeat themselves in the succeeding government. There's so much talk about the system. And so little understanding.

While anarchy seems to be a crucial tool for keeping the system in check by counter balance, it is hard to imagine a way that an anarchic revolution could ever fully overcome humanity's habitualized impulses toward authority and hierarchy. It is hard to see how a working anarchic world could ever be built on the ashes of a tumbled old regime: destruction of the system would at best be a temporary solution, but it would not be long before the old system crept back in because we humans are still stuck in the mindset of the old system. We are still stuck in the old game-theory trap where a group of beings acting in their rational individual best interest end up settling for a crappy state of affairs because no one is willing to take a chance, to give up that alleged rationality for just a split second and have some faith in the potential of working together (which would produce a better outcome for all). Even if a small group of people are in fact willing to give it a shot, the vast majority are not. Most people are too deeply committed to the game they have been playing all their life. To suggest a change in rules, or a dissolution of the rules themselves, is blasphemy. So life goes on as always, and revolution seems doomed to failure. We may take down an oppressive regime here and a police state there, but it will not be long before the old structure propagates itself into power again.

If anarchy is to be more than just a check on the encroachment of the colossus that is "the system", it will have to come not from a physical political overthrow, but from overthrowing the old ways of thinking. It will have to be a change of the mind, of the lifestyle, of individual human beings, not a change in political system. What humanity needs is a revolution of the mind.

Originally Written: 02-12-03
Last Updated: 11-14-03