Colin Ward

Harmony through Complexity




This text is Chapter IV of Colin Ward Anarchy in Action, Freedom Press, London, 1988. In this essay the author refers to cybernetics, system theory, requisite variety and spontaneous order as the scientific underpinnings of anarchism considered as "a theory of organization". The thesis put forward in this piece is that anarchism is much more relevant for living in complex society than the illusory solution of central planning and hierarchical chain of command, typical of statism, that is viable, if ever, only in very simple, poor and uncultivated social contexts.



People like simple ideas and are right to like them. Unfortunately, the simplicity they seek is only to be found in elementary things; and the world, society, and man are made up of insoluble problems, contrary principles, and conflicting forces. Organism means complication, and multiplicity means contradiction, opposition, independence.
(Pierre-Joseph Proudhon, The Theory of Taxation - 1861)


One of the most frequently met reasons for dismissing anarchism as a social theory is the argument that while one can imagine it existing in a small, isolated, primitive community it cannot possibly be conceived in the context of large, complex, industrial societies. This view misunderstands both the nature of anarchism and the nature of tribal societies. Certainly the knowledge that human societies exist, or have existed, without government, without institutionalised authority, and with social and sexual codes quite different from those of our own society, is bound to interest the advocates of anarchy, if only to rebut the suggestion that their ideas run contrary to 'human nature', and you will often find quoted in the anarchist press some attractive description of a tribal anarchy, some pocket of the Golden Age (seen from the outside) among the Eskimo, innocent of property, or the sex-happy Trobrianders.

An impressive anthology could be made of such items, as the travel books and works of popular anthropology roll off the presses - from Aku-Aku to Wai-Wai. Several anarchist writers of the past did just this: Kropotkin in his chapter on Mutual Aid Among Savages, Elie Reclus in his Primitive Folk and Edward Carpenter in his essay on Non-governmental Society, but anthropology has developed its techniques and methods of analysis greatly since the days of the anecdotal approach with its accumulation of travellers’ tales. Today, when we view the 'simpler' societies we realise that they are not simple at all. When early Western travellers first came back from African journeys they wrote of the cacophonous sound of the savage jungle drums, or of the primitive mud and straw huts, in patronising or pitying tones because they were blinkered by assumptions about their own society's superiority which blinded them to the subtlety and wonder of other people's culture. Nowadays you can spend a lifetime exploring the structure of African music or the ingenuity and variety of African architecture. In the same way early observers described as sexual promiscuity or group marriage what was simply a different kind of family organisation, or labelled certain societies as anarchistic when a more searching examination might show that they had as effective methods of social control and its enforcement as any authoritarian society, or that certain patterns of behaviour are so rigidly enforced by custom as to make alternatives unthinkable.

The anarchist, in making use of anthropological data today, has to ask more sophisticated questions than his predecessors about the role of law in such societies. But what constitutes 'the law'? Raymond Firth writes:

“When we turn to the sphere of primitive law, we are confronted by difficulties of definition. There is usually no specific code of legislation, issued by a central authority, and no formal judicial body of the nature of a court. Nevertheless there are rules which are expected to be obeyed and which, in fact, are normally kept, and there are means for ensuring some degree of obedience.” [1]

On the classification of these rules and the definition of law anthropologists are divided. By the test of the jurist, who equates the law with what is decided by the courts, 'primitive people have no law, but simply a body of customs'; to the sociologists what is important is the whole body of rules of all sorts that exist in a society and the problem of their functioning. Malinowski included in primitive law “all types of binding obligation and any customary action to prevent breaches in the pattern of social conformity.” Godfrey Wilson takes as the criterion of legal action “the entry into an issue of one or more members of a social group who are not themselves personally concerned,” though others would call the kind of adjudication of a dispute by a senior kinsman or respected neighbour, which Wilson described among the Nyakysua, not law but private arbitration. Indeed Kropotkin in his essay Law and Authority singles this out as the antithesis of law:

“Many travellers have depicted the manners of absolutely independent tribes, where laws and chiefs are unknown, but where the members of the tribe have given up stabbing one another in every dispute, because the habit of living in society has ended by developing certain feelings of fraternity and oneness of interest, and they prefer appealing to a third person to settle their differences.” [2]

Wilson, however, sees 'law' as the concomitant of this habit of living in society, defining it as “that customary force which is kept in being by the inherent necessities of systematic co-operation among its members.” Finally, the school of thought represented by Radcliffe-Brown restricts the sphere of law to “social control through the systematic application of the force of politically organised society.” But what kind of political organisation? Evans-Pritchard and Meyer Fortes distinguished three types of political system in traditional African societies. Firstly, those like that of the Bushmen where the largest political units embrace people who are all related by kinship so that “political relations are co-terminous with kinship relations,” secondly, those with “specialised political authority that is institutionalised and vested in roles attached to a state administration.” and thirdly, those where political authority is uncentralised. In them “the political system is based upon a balance of power between many small groups which, with their lack of classes or specialised political offices, have been called ordered anarchies.” Several African societies which are law-less in this sense - in that there are no patterns for formal legislation nor for juridical decisions, and which have no law-enforcement officers of any kind - are described in the symposium Tribes Without Rulers. [3]

The Tiv, a society of 800,000 people who live on either side of the Benue River in Northern Nigeria were studied by Laura Bohannan. The political attitudes of the Tiv are conveyed in two expressions, to 'repair the country' and to 'spoil the country'. Dr. Bohannan explains that “any act which disturbs the smooth course of social life - war, theft, witchcraft, quarrels - spoils the country; peace, restitution, successful arbitration repairs it.” And she warns that if we try “to isolate certain attributes of the roles of elders or men of influence as political, we falsify their true social and cultural position . . . I mean this in a positive and not a negative way: a segmentary system of this sort functions not despite but through the absence of an indigenous concept of ‘the political’ . Only the intricate interrelations of interests and loyalties through the interconnection of cultural ideology, systems of social grouping, and organisation of institutions and the consequent moral enforcement of each by the other, enables the society to work.” [4]

The Dinka are a people numbering some 900,000 living on the fringe of the central Nile basin in the Southern Sudan. (A correspondent of The Sunday Times remarked of them that “touchiness, pride and reckless disobedience are their characteristic reaction towards authority.”) Godfrey Lienhardt's contribution to Tribes Without Rulers describes their intricately subdivided society and the very complicated inter-relationships resulting from the fusion and fission of segments in different combinations for different economic and functional purposes.

It is a part of Dinka political theory that when a subtribe for some reason prospers and grows large, it tends to draw apart politically from the tribe of which it was a part and behave like a distinct tribe. The sections of a large subtribe similarly are thought to grow politically more distant from each other as they grow larger, so that a large and prosperous section of a subtribe may break away from other sections ... In the Dinka view, the tendency is always for their political segments, as for their agnatic genealogical segments, to grow apart from each other in the course of time and through the increase in population which they suppose time to bring. [5]

The Dinka explain their cellular sub-division with such phrases as “It became too big, so it separated.” and “They were together long ago but now they have separated.” They value the unity of their tribes and descent groups but at the same time they value the feeling for autonomy in the component segments which lead to fragmentation, and Dr. Lienhardt observes that “these values of personal autonomy and of its several sub-segments are from time to time in conflict.”

From a totally different African setting comes Ernest Gellner's description of the system of trial by collective oath which operated until recently among the Berber tribes of the Atlas mountains:

This system originally functioned against a background of anarchy; there was no law-enforcing agency. But whilst there was nothing resembling a state, there was a society, for everyone recognised, more or less, the same code, and recognised, more or less, the universal desirability of pacific settlements of disputes. . . Suppose a man is accused of an offence by another: the man can clear himself of the charge by bringing a set of men, co-jurors so to speak, to testify in a fixed order, according to family proximity in the male line to the man on trial . .. The rule, the decision procedure, so to speak, is that if some of the co-jurors fail to turn up, or fail to testify, or make a slip while testifying, the whole oath is invalid and the case is lost. The losing party is then obliged to pay the appropriate fine, determined by custom. In some regions, the rule is even stranger: those co-jurors who failed to turn up, or failed when testifying are liable for the fine, rather than the testifying group as a whole. [6]

How strange, Mr Gellner remarks, that this system should work at all. Not only by contrast with the legal procedures we are familiar with, but in view of the possible motives of the participants. One would expect the co-jurors always to testify for their clansman, whether they thought him to be innocent or guilty. Yet the system did work, not merely because the tribesmen believed perjury a sin, punishable by supernatural forces, but because other social forces are at work. “We must remember that each of the two groups is just as anarchic internally as the two are in their external relations with each other: neither internally nor externally is there a law-and-order enforcement machinery, though there is a recognised law and a recognised obligation to respect law and order. In fact this distinction between internal and external polities does not apply.” And the system was applied in disputes at any level, between two families or between tribal confederacies numbered in tens of thousands.

Given this anarchy, this lack of enforcement within as well as without the group, one way short of violence or expulsion which a clan or family have of disciplining one of their own number is by letting him down at the collective oath. Far from never having a motive for letting down a clansman, or only a transcendental one, they may in fact frequently have such a motive: a habitual offender within their own number may be a positive danger to the group. If he repeats his offences he may well provoke surrounding groups into forming a coalition against it - if, that is, his own group habitually stands by him at the collective oath.

They may do it the first time but the second time they may, even at their own expense, decide to teach him a lesson though it imposes a legal defeat on themselves. Thus trial by collective oath can be a “genuine and sensitive decision procedure whose verdict is a function of a number of things, amongst which justice is one but not the only one.” Mr Gellner develops his account of this extraordinarily subtle system at great length. The threat of the collective oath is often enough to settle the issue out of court, and the oath itself “does indeed give any determined, cohesive clan the veto on any decision that would, in virtue of that cohesion, be unenforceable anyway; on the other hand, however, it gives groups the possibility of half throwing culprits to the wolves, of giving in gracefully, or disciplining the unruly member without actually having to expel him or kill him.” The strange system of social control he describes provides, not a series of totally unenforceable judgements, but at least a half-loaf of justice. One common misconception, he concludes, is that “the situation in anarchic contexts would be improved if only the participants could overcome their clan or bloc loyalty, if only, instead of 'my clan or bloc, right or wrong', they would think and act as individuals . . . It seems to me, on the contrary, that unless and until there is genuine enforcement, only blocs or clans can make an anarchic system work.”

Now my purpose in describing the handling of social conflict in non-governmental societies is not to suggest that we should adopt collective oaths as a means of enforcing social norms, but to emphasise that it is not anarchy but government which is a crude simplification of social organisation, and that the very complexity of these tribal societies is the condition of their successful functioning. The editors of Tribes Without Rulers summarise the implications in these terms:

In societies lacking ranked and specialised holders of political authority the relations of local groups to one another are seen as a balance of power, maintained by competition between them; Corporate groups may be arranged hierarchically in a series of levels; each group is significant in different circumstances and in connection with different social activities - economic, ritual and governmental. Relations at one level are competitive in one situation, but in another the formerly competitive groups merge in mutual alliance against an outside group. A group at any level has competitive relations with others to ensure the maintenance of its own identity and the rights that belong to it as a corporation, and it may have internal administrative relations that ensure coherence of its constituent elements. The aggregates that emerge as units in one context are merged into larger aggregates in others . . . [7]

The 'balance of power' is in fact the method by which social equilibrium is maintained in such societies. Not the balance of power as conceived in nineteenth-century international diplomacy, but in terms of the resolution of forces, exemplified by the physical sciences. Harmony results not from unity but from complexity. It appears, as Kropotkin put it:

as a temporary adjustment established among all forces acting upon a given spot - a provisory adaptation. And that adjustment will only last under one condition: that of being continually modified; of representing every moment the resultant of all conflicting actions . . . Under the name of anarchism, a new interpretation of the past and present life of society arises . . . It comprises in its midst an infinite variety of capacities, temperaments and individual energies : it excludes none. It even calls for struggles and contentions; because we know that periods of contests, so long as they were freely fought out without the weight of constituted authority being thrown on one side of the balance, were periods when human genius took its mightiest flights . . . It seeks the most complete development of individuality combined with the highest development of voluntary association in all its aspects, in all possible degrees, for all imaginable aims; ever changing, ever modified associations which carry in themselves the elements of their durability and constantly assume new forms which answer best to the multiple aspirations of all. A society to which pre-established forms, crystallised by law, are repugnant; which looks for harmony in an ever-changing and fugitive equilibrium between a multitude of varied forces and influences of every kind, following their own course . . . [8]

Anarchy is a function, not of a society's simplicity and lack of social organisation, but of its complexity and multiplicity of social organisations. Cybernetics, the science of control and communication systems, throws valuable light on the anarchist conception of complex self-organising systems. If we must identify biological and political systems, wrote the neurologist Grey Walter, our own brains would seem to illustrate the capacity and limitations of an anarcho-syndicalist community: “We find no boss in the brain, no oligarchic ganglion or glandular Big Brother. Within our heads our very lives depend on equality of opportunity, on specialisation with versatility, on free communication and just restraint, a freedom without interference. Here too, local minorities can and do control their own means of production and expression in free and equal intercourse with their neigbbours.” [9] His observations led John D. McEwan to pursue the cybernetic model further. Pointing to the relevance of the Principle of Requisite Variety (“if stability is to be attained the variety of the controlling system must be at least as great as the variety of the system to be controlled”) he cites Stafford Beer's illustration of the way in which conventional managerial ideas of organisation fail to satisfy this principle. Beer imagines a visitor from Mars who examines the activities at the lower levels of some large undertaking, the brains of the workers concerned, and the organisational chart which purports to show how the undertaking is controlled. He deduces that the creatures at the top of the hierarchy must have heads yards wide. McEwan contrasts two models of decision-making and control:

First we have the model current among management theorists in industry, with its counterpart in conventional thinking about government in society as a whole. This is the model of a rigid pyramidical hierarchy, with lines of 'communication and command' running from the top to the bottom of the pyramid. There is fixed delineation of responsibility, each element has a specified role, and the procedures to be followed at any level are determined within fairly narrow limits, and may only be changed by decisions of elements higher in the hierarchy. The role of the top group of the hierarchy is sometimes supposed to be comparable to the 'brain' of the system. The other model is from the cybernetics of evolving self-organising systems. Here we have a system of large variety, sufficient to cope with a complex, unpredictable environment. Its characteristics are changing structure, modifying itself under continual feedback from the environment, exhibiting 'redundancy of potential command', and involving complex interlocking control structures. Learning and decision-making are distributed throughout the system, denser perhaps in some areas than in others. [10]

The same cybernetic criticism of the hierarchical, centralised, governmental concept of organisation has come more recently (and in rather more opaque language) from Donald Schon in his 1970 Reith Lectures. He writes that “the centre-periphery model has been the dominant model in our society for the growth and diffusion of organisations defined at high levels of specificity. For such a system, the uniform, simple message is essential. The system's ability to handle complex situations depends upon a simple message and upon growth through uniform replication.” Like the anarchists, he sees as an alternative, networks “of elements connecting through one another rather than to each other through a centre,” characterised “by their scope, complexity, stability, homogeneity and ,flexibility” in which “nuclei of leadership emerge and shift” with “the infrastructure powerful enough for the system to hold itself together. . . without any central facilitator or supporter. . .” [11]

Alone among the reviewers of Donald Schon's lectures Mary Douglas perceived the connection with non-governmental tribal societies:

Once anthropologists thought that if a tribe has no central authority, it had no political unity. We were thoroughly dominated by centre theory and missed what was under our noses. Then in 1940 Professor Evans-Pritchard described the Nuer political system and Professor Fortes the Tallensi. They analysed something uncannily close to Schon's Movement or network system: a political structure with no centre and no head, loosely held together by the opposition of its parts. Authority was diffused through the entire population. In each case politics were conducted in an idiom of high generality, the idiom of kinship, which sat very loosely to the political facts. In different contexts, different versions of their governing principles had only a family resemblance. The system was invincible and flexible.[12]

Thus both anthropology and cybernetic theory support Kropotkin's contention that in a society without government, harmony would result from

“an ever-changing adjustment and readjustment of equilibrium between the multitudes of forces and influences” expressed in “an interwoven network, composed of an infinite variety of groups and federations of all sizes and degrees, local, regional, national and international - temporary or more or less permanent for all possible purposes: production, consumption and exchange, communications, sanitary arrangements, education, mutual protection, defence of the territory, and so on; and on the other side, for the satisfaction of an ever-increasing number of scientific, artistic, literary and sociable needs.” [13]

How crude the governmental model seems by comparison, whether in social administration, industry, education or economic planning. No wonder it is so unresponsive to actual needs. No wonder, as it attempts to solve its problems by fusion, amalgamation, rationalisation and co-ordination, they only become worse because of the clogging of the lines of communication. The anarchist alternative is that of fragmentation, fission rather than fusion, diversity rather than unity, a mass of societies rather than a mass society.



[1] Raymond Firth, Human Types, London, 1970

[2] Peter Kropotkin, Law and Authority, reprinted in Baldwin ed., Kropotkin's Revolutionary Pamphlets, New York, 1927, 1968

[3] John Middleton and David Tait eds., Tribes without Rulers: Studies in African Segmentary Systems, London. 1958

[4] ibid.

[5] ibid.

[6] Ernest Gellner, How to Live in Anarchy, The Listener, 3April 1958

[7] John Middleton and David Tait, op. cit.

[8] Peter Kropotkin, Anarchism: Its Philosophy and Ideal, reprinted in Baldwin, op. cit.

[9] W. Grey Walter, The Develpment and Significance of Cybernetics, Anarchy, 25 March 1963

[10] John D. McEwan, Anarchism and the Cybernetics of Self-organising Systems, Anarchy, 31 September 1963

[11] Donald Schon, Beyond the Stable State, London, 1971

[12] Mary Douglas in The Listener, 1971

[13] Peter Kropotkin, article on Anarchism written in 1905 for Encyclopaedia Britannica, 11th edition (Reprinted in Baldwin, op. cit).


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