Anarchist calisthenics

Can we live without rules? Easy enough if everyone is good. But what about the bad ones in our midst? Can the good continue to live by their own understanding of right—or survive at all—when the bad ones are also doing what is right in their own eyes?

I don’t have a society-level answer for the question, only a personal one: that’s how I choose to live. Maybe it’s only the luxury of rules I didn’t make, that are enforced by others, which makes that possible. Or maybe those rules are the enemy of goodness, encouraging us to live less than good lives by relieving us of the responsibility for being good.

Here’s a nice story from James C. Scott, which opens his book Two Cheers for Anarchism. Neubrandenberg is a small city which had been part of East Germany until the Berlin Wall had fallen a year earlier.

Outside the station was a major, for Neubrandenburg at any rate, intersection. During the day there was a fairly brisk traffic of pedestrians, cars, and trucks, and a set of traffic lights to regulate it. Later in the evening, however, the vehicle traffic virtually ceased while the pedestrian traffic, if anything, swelled to take advantage of the cooler evening breeze. Regularly between 9:00 and 10:00 p.m. there would be fifty or sixty pedestrians, not a few of them tipsy, who would cross the intersection. The lights were timed, I suppose, for vehicle traffic at midday and not adjusted for the heavy evening foot traffic. Again and again, fifty or sixty people waited patiently at the corner for the light to change in their favor: four minutes, five minutes, perhaps longer. It seemed an eternity. The landscape of Neubrandenburg, on the Mecklenburg Plain, is flat as a pancake. Peering in each direction from the intersection, then, one could see a mile of so of roadway, with, typically, no traffic at all. Very occasionally a single, small Trabant made its slow, smoky way to the intersection.

Twice, perhaps, in the course of roughly five hours of my observing this scene did a pedestrian cross against the light, and then always to a chorus of scolding tongues and fingers wagging in disapproval. I too became part of the scene. If I had mangled my last exchange in German, sapping my confidence, I stood there with the rest for as long as it took for the light to change, afraid to brave the glares that awaited me if I crossed. If, more rarely, my last exchange in German had gone well and my confidence was high, I would cross against the light, thinking, to buck up my courage, that it was stupid to obey a minor law that, in this case, was so contrary to reason.

It surprised me how much I had to screw up my courage merely to cross a street against general disapproval. How little my rational convictions seemed to weigh against the pressure of their scolding. Striding out boldly into the intersection with apparent conviction made a more striking impression, perhaps, but it required more courage than I could normally muster.

As a way of justifying my conduct to myself, I began to rehearse a little discourse that I imagined delivering in perfect German. It went something like this. “You know, you and especially your grandparents could have used more of a spirit of lawbreaking. One day you will be called on to break a big law in the name of justice and rationality. Everything will depend on it. You have to be ready. How are you going to prepare for that day when it really matters? You have to stay ‘in shape’ so that when the big day comes you will be ready. What you need is ‘anarchist calisthenics.’ Every day or so break some trivial law that makes no sense, even if it’s only jaywalking. Use your own head to judge whether a law is just or reasonable. That way, you’ll keep trim; and when the big day comes, you’ll be ready.”

I thought about that Sunday morning as I sat at a stoplight, waiting to make a right turn, looking at a sign that said “No Right Turn On Red”. There was no cross traffic at all. I continued to sit there because I was in no hurry to get to my next destination. Then a car pulled up behind me, his right-turn blinker blinking. I thought for a second, then proceeded to turn right onto the cross street so as to get out of the other fellow’s way. It seemed like the polite thing to do.

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One thought on “Anarchist calisthenics

  1. I haven’t read the book, but I lived in Germany for many years and observed this phenomenon regularly. It’s true that German pedestrians are extremely reluctant to break the traffic rules, to an extreme that astounds Americans, and also that if you cross against the light while Germans are watching, you need to be ready for what seems to us like disproportionate verbal abuse.. However, the reason isn’t only or perhaps even primarily that they appear to be slavishly law abiding. It’s that civil and criminal law has very few protections for those who break the rules. If you’re crossing the road legally (say, standing in a zebra stripe) and struck by a car, the entire book gets thrown at the driver. If you’re not crossing the road legally and you’re struck, not only do you get no sympathy, you can be charged in law depending on the circumstances and potentially also have to pay the driver damages.

    I also don’t know what the situation was in Neubrandenberg specifically, but running afoul of the authorities in the GDR was a non-trivial matter. People tended to comply externally with the law because they didn’t want either the state or their nosy neighbors looking too closely at all the ways that their private lives and opinions didn’t conform. In short: I agree that from the US perspective Germans are unusually rule bound. I am ambivalent about the claim that the fact that Germans tend towards extreme compliance with traffic signals bears a direct relationship to political resistance in the modern era. There was a worker’s revolt in 1953 in Neubrandenburg just as there were in many East German towns. And there is certainly a neo-Nazi presence there now, which is also not really law-compliant.

    One thing to note about moving violations in Germany: if the German authorities are concerned about a violation that a lot of people make, it’s customary that a traffic camera will be placed in a location where the problem can be observed and violators will be photographed and penalized. German law does not require that a police officer stop and confront you in a situation like that; the photograph is considered sufficient evidence. This also has the typical consequences (points on your license, possible insurance cost penalties).

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