Is Public Opinion oppressive?

Public Opinion
Image by Son of Groucho via Flickr

The Barefoot Bum posts a passage from George Orwell criticizing Anarchism for its apparent tendency for transparent totalitarianism. For Orwell and TBB, people acting as per the social norms is the worst kind of dictatorship, while having actual dictators who tell you what you cannot do is “obviously” far superior, because among the things you can do, you have more freedom.

First, lets take a step back and see how our current society works. Is it true that people in the current society only live according to what they cannot do? Do they abide by the few restrictions and then go wildly in all directions on everything else? Even a casual observation of society shows the falsity of such a view.

Truth is, people do currently abide by social norms and public opinion to a large degree. Do you see people running naked around? Do you see people making physical contact with strangers (at least in western society)? There’s a lot of things people do not do, even though the freedom is there. Is this totalitarianism? Of course some people still do “eccentric” acts even when it goes against the public opinion, but it is a baseless assertion to claim that the same would not happen in Anarchism. Why not?

In fact, there is nothing that would stop this. A social rules and laws are not black and white. It’s not that we have some definite laws and then freedom. It’s that we have a gradual scale of rules which move in the intensity of social disapproval. We start from simple etiquette, progress through unwritten rules and eventually reach the definite “laws” that one is not allowed to break. All the rules in this scale are decided via public opinion. Yes. including Laws. Laws do not spring up from nothingness, nor are they inherent rules of the universe that some “bright minds” have discovered.

The distinguishing thing is that the power to decide the unbreakable rules in an authoritarian system (such as any statist system, from Representative Democracy to a Marxist-Leninist dictatorship) is granted only to a privileged few. The original and basic laws that will be passed (such as respect for human life etc) will be based on pre-existing social rules of the same type and thus will seem natural, but many of the rest of the laws will be decided arbitrarily by the ruling elite and may even come in opposition to the public opinion. The rest of the social norms, such as etiquette or unwritten rules will remain in the enforcement of the public, as has always been the case.

Now the fallacy that Orwell is commiting is to assert that if the ruling elite is taken away, if the power to decide the laws is taken away from the few, then all social rules will become laws. That is, people will start treating rules of etiquette with the same contempt and opposition as murder. This is the only way that one can be forced out of eccentricity and conform with every rule the public opinion decides.

But this is absurd. There is nothing to make us believe that if the power to decide and enforce the strictest rules (laws) in a society is decentralized, there will be no gradual scale and no freedom anymore. This is a mental jump that just makes no sense to take.

In Anarchism then, the only difference from an authoritarian system is who hold the power to decide and enforce the laws. The statist will tell you that it’s better for the enlightened few to make those decisions but I don’t think I need to point out the utopianism of theĀ  “enlightened few” concept. The Anarchist will tell you that since laws are in any case taken from what the public opinion already does, it makes no sense to take this power away from the people.

To do so is to simply invite abuse and stagnation into our society. Abuse from those who would pass arbitrary laws only to benefit themselves and stagnation from making it difficult to modify the laws when public opinion does not agree with them in the same intensity anymore (for example a law becoming an unwritten rule, such as in the case of nudity.)

To allow the public to decide its rules is not to have absolute conformity with the public opinion as this is impossible for the non-major things. For public opinion includes every one of us and all of us. The less important the act, the more diverse and therefore weak this “public opinion” becomes.

Reblog this post [with Zemanta]