Against Mass Society

Chris Wilson

Anarchy is a state of existence free of coercive authority. Within this state, one is at liberty to shape one's own life as one chooses, in the image of one's own individual needs, values, and desires. One may not however allow one's sphere of control to encompass the lives of others without their choosing. A non-authoritarian world hence entails freedom of association, not monarchy, oligarchy or democracy. Many who call themselves "anarchists", while claiming not to deny the importance of free association, strive for a more democratic society where corporate and state entities will be replaced with community controlled municipalities, worker-controlled industrial federations, and so forth. Those who wish to live freely on their own accord have reason to feel threatened by all large-scale organizations, for they are both imperialistic and hierarchical, even if intended to be or described as "democratic" (as if the subordination of the individual to the majority were desirable in the first place).

Humans are naturally sociable - few wish to live alone as hermits (although the freedom to live as such should not be denied). Yet humans are also selectively sociable - they do not get along with everybody, and it is an oppression to expect them to. Naturally, people form relationships with others they identify with for companionship and mutual support. Such has been the case throughout human history. Only in recent history have people entered into mass organizations composed of members that don't necessarily know or like each other. Such organizations have not formed because of their necessity for survival. For over 99% of human history, people enjoyed face-to-face associations within extended family arrangements, and some cultures continue to do so. Those unable relate well to their band or tribe are free to seek company elsewhere or to live alone. This manner of association works well - the members of small-scale self-sufficient societies typically spend 2-4 hours a day engaged in subsistence activities. Although they occasionally go hungry, they typically eat in abundance, and enjoy far more extensive leisure time than those who live in mass society. The indigenous cultures that are still intact today prefer their traditional way of life, and many are currently engaging in impressive political resistance against corporations and governments who wish to force them into mass society so that their land and labor may be exploited. People rarely enter mass organizations without being coerced, as they rob people of their autonomy and independence.

The rise of civilization was based upon compulsory mass production. When certain societies began to value agricultural productivity above all else, they forcibly subjected all forms of life within reach of their cities to that purpose. Communities of people who wished to hunt, fish, forage, garden, or herd on the land for subsistence purposes would be mercilessly slaughtered or enslaved, and the ecosystems they inhabited would be converted to farmland to feed the cities. Only those engaged in the full-time facilitation of crop and animal production would be allowed in the nearby countryside. Those living within the cities were prisoners, merchants, or public officials engaged administrative and social control duties. Societal organization has become more complex, technologically advanced, and broader in its scope throughout the centuries since civilization's inception in the "Fertile Crescent" of the near East. However, non-human life is still sacrificed and eliminated for the sake of human purposes (and at a faster rate than ever), and humans are still forced to live as the servants of their culture and its dominant institutions as a prerequisite of continued existence. Survival through direct means is prohibited - to occupy land, one must continuously pay rent or a mortgage, which requires the devotion of oneself to an income-earning position in society, leaving insufficient time left over for hunting or gardening (much less leisure to accompany it). Public education ensures that few people will ever even learn how to survive independently of the economy.

Capitalism is civilization's current dominant manifestation. The economy under capitalism is largely governed by state-chartered organizations called corporations, which enjoy the same legal status as individuals, hence shielding and limiting the liability of its participants. Corporations exist for the purpose of profiting shareholders - those employed by corporations are legally required to pursue profit above all other possible concerns (e.g., ecological sustainability, worker safety, community health, etc.), and can be fired, sued, or prosecuted if they do otherwise. Capitalism leaves very little space for non-human life to flourish in a non-servile fashion (that is, in wild ecosystems, rather than stock yards, battery cages or lumber mills), and almost no place for humans who do not wish to waste their lives toiling for the needless and endless production of commodities. Most people spend the majority of each conscious day engaged in meaningless, monotonous, regimented, and often physically and mentally injurious labor to pay their bills, either because of absolute financial necessity or because of a lack of awareness that there could be any other way. Because of the dullness, alienation, and disempowerment so many experience throughout the course of their daily lives, our culture exhibits high rates of depression, mental illness, suicide, drug addiction, and dysfunctional and abusive relationships, along with numerous vicarious modes of existence (e.g., television, movies, pornography, video games, etc).

Civilization was the genesis of systemic authoritarianism, compulsory servitude and social isolation, not capitalism per se. Within the context of this perspective, the various socialists, communists, and assorted anarcho-leftists (i.e., syndicalists, social ecologists, etc) who aim to abolish capitalism without attacking civilization as a whole are simply reformists. The societal complexity that is civilization is made possible by institutionalized coercion. The aforementioned political groups do not wish to end coercion, but to democratize it - that is, to extend popular participation to its implementation.

Aside from the sheer repulsiveness of encouraging people to aid in oppressive acts, it should be noted that direct democracy is a fiction within the context of mass society. In an association that expands to a scale beyond that at which a face-to-face relationship between its participants is possible, the delegation of responsibilities to representatives and specialists becomes necessary if the association's purpose is to be carried out. Even if consensus or majority vote determines who is elected to partake in decision-making or administrative responsibilities, the elected are never entirely within the control of the electorate when acting to fulfill their duties. A strict mandate on the decisions or behavior of delegates or specialists assumes constant supervision by the entire body of the group, which would defeat the purpose of a division of labor. The success of instant recall measures also relies upon the possibility of such monitoring. Additionally, elected delegates receive more time and resources to prepare and present their views and arguments than the average person, hence providing them with a greater advantage of being able to get their way by means of propagandistic manipulation and deception. Even if the group at large determines all policies and procedures (which is itself impossible when specialized knowledge is required), and delegates are only assigned the duties of enforcing them, they will still act on their own accord when they disagree with the rules and are confident that they can escape punishment for ignoring them. Democracy is necessarily representative, not direct, when practiced on a large scale - and representative democracy is precisely the mode of political governance practiced currently. The abolition of hierarchy demands the permanent dethroning of rulers and bosses, elected or otherwise, and hence also demands that mass society be rejected.

Because mass organizations value production more than they do personal or community autonomy, they are necessarily imperialistic in their scope, destroying or enslaving all life that lies in their path. However, production is not an incidental or optional value that mass society can dispense with while continuing to exist. If cities aren't self-sufficient in their own food production, they will seize the surrounding area for agricultural use, rendering it inhospitable to both non-human ecosystems and self-sufficient human communities. This area will expand in relation to any increase in population or specialization of labor that the city experiences. One could argue that industrial production could be maintained, while simultaneously being scaled down considerably, hence leaving ecosystems and non-industrial peoples some room to co-exist. Firstly, this proposal invites the question of why industrial civilization should be prioritized over other forms or life, allowing it and those who run it to dictate to non-participants exactly how much room they are entitled to. It is also questionable whether it is even possible for a society to strike a "balance" between high-tech opulence and ecological sustainability without disenfranchising large sections of the working population or employing an elaborately authoritarian social engineering scheme.

The structural complexity and hierarchy of civilization must be refused, along with the political and ecological imperialism that it propagates across the globe. It is not possible for all six billion of the planet's current inhabitants to survive as hunter-gatherers, but it is possible for those who can't to grow their own food in significantly smaller spaces (compared to the size of the depleted and poisoned fields of the agro-businesses of today), as has been demonstrated by permaculture, organic gardening, and indigenous horticulture techniques. Managerial apparatuses and institutions of social control are required to administer the production and exchange of commodities within an economy based upon a division of labor, but are not necessary when individuals and small communities seize control of their own livelihoods. The role of hierarchy and regimentation will only disappear when people once again begin taking care of their needs directly through an immediate relationship with the land. The living landscape will only be preserved and restored to its vibrant natural state once the tools of mass production are inoperable. Anarchy and autonomy will only thrive once people relearn how to survive independently of the cancer that is industrial civilization, and ultimately destroy it.