Sunday, 13 January 2013

What Indian roads tell us about anarchy

 A common retort to anarchists and libertarians* is to say that if they really want to see how great life is when people get the government off their backs, they should visit Somalia, or other failed states where rule of law has effectively collapsed. Having spent the last couple of weeks in India, I might add another less extreme suggestion: if you want to see an excellent illustration of what anarchy really means, spend some time driving on the roads of Kolkata.

In what sense are Indian roads anarchic? Anarchy, as any dictionary will tell you, comes from the Greek an (without) arkhos (chief or ruler). Indian drivers live up to this ideal by bowing before nobody - unconstrained by traffic lights or regulations. It is best described as a system of minimal rules – drivers more or less do what they want, when they want. Thus overtaking, undertaking, random u-turns, driving in the opposite direction to traffic, tailgating and drifting freely between lanes are commonplace. Of course, the metaphor is imperfect – the police can and do stop drivers who are excessively reckless and of course, the very infrastructure of the roads is mostly state-provided – but even if it falls short of full anarchy, the approximation is instructive (maybe closer to a libertarian night watchman state?).

Now while the injunction to visit Somalia is clearly meant to demonstrate the unattractiveness of anarchy, I think the story here is a bit more nuanced. Indian drivers display many of the typical libertarian virtues that are often seen as being crowded out by state regulation. Driving on Indian roads every day makes demands on your skill and ingenuity that are unimaginable in Western countries. Cars are required to manoeuvre through the tightest spaces, to slalom in between other cars, and ultimately the boldest and nimblest win. On Western roads, driving is simple and formulaic, and even if you can do something inventive and dextrous, like squeezing between the cars in front, you wouldn’t be allowed.

Another line of criticism against statism is that it ‘enervates’ or ‘emasculates’ people, who become passive and dependent on state structures, weak and pathetic sissies. Insofar as libertarians or anarchists accept this view, there is plenty again to commend Indian driving, which is, in a word, very ‘male’. According to the popular stereotype of women drivers, they are too hesitant  and lack spatial awareness. Both are cardinal sins on the Indian road. As I’ve already mentioned the unruliness and lack of space requires incredible precision. Moreover, an average drive involves so many games of ‘chicken’ that no driver makes any progress without a big dollop of bravado and horn-blowing. The timid, in short, are bullied off the roads.

The biggest drawback of anarchy on the roads are obvious enough – the increased risk of accidents, which are also everyday occurrences. But more than this, the feeling of insecurity takes its toll even if you avoid accident. Driving in India must be exhausting because of the constant vigilance required, given that anything could happen at any minute, new hazards round every corner. Even if you reach your destination unscathed, every other journey involves near misses, brief moments of terror – swerving at the last minute to avoid head-on collisions, or having to break suddenly as somebody fails to stop at a junction.

Less striking, but equally revealing is the sheer selfishness of Indian drivers. Consideration for other drivers is rare – all anybody is interested in is reaching their destination as quickly as possible, with little apparent awareness that other people’s journeys might matter too. The everyday acts of patience and courtesy you see in other countries, like staying in line in traffic, or stopping for other cars at junctions, are almost non-existent. Far more common is almost self-defeating self-centredness, such as harassing smaller vehicles in front, or rushing to impose yourself as far forward as possible instead of allowing cars in front the space to manoeuvre out of difficulties.

It would be wrong to infer from this that Indians are somehow anti-social or inconsiderate. The more plausible explanation is structural – in the absence of a system they can trust to give them security and ensure their interests are looked after, people have no choice but to sharpen their elbows and fight for themselves. And that, to me, poses a challenge to libertarians and anarchists alike.

* I fully appreciate that libertarianism and anarchism are different philosophies involving different belief systems. However, since this post discusses their common anti-statism, the differences between them are not all that relevant.

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