In the context of rising authoritarianism, not all of us can pretend to be innocent and play the victim. While most twentieth century dictators came to power by force, the Trumps and Dutertes of the present era are being installed through free and popular elections. The question that Baruch Spinoza asked a few hundred years ago remains sadly relevant today: "Why is it that the masses stubbornly fight for their servitude as though it were their liberation?"
This isn't exactly a blog-post about anarchism, but let me just say that anarchism is perhaps the one political philosophy that can offer the most comprehensive antidote to authoritarianism. Forget the crude stereotypes - what anarchism is really about is autonomy, self-determination and self-realisation at both the individual and community levels. Anarchists seek liberation from the state, from capitalism, and indeed from all hierarchical relations, including those of man over woman, straight over gay, white over black and brown, and coloniser over colonised.
Crucially, some anarchists  contend that personal freedom is also contingent on overcoming our own "internal cop", or alternatively, the "little state within". If we don't want society to be lorded over by dictators and authoritarians, then we would do well not to unwittingly replicate hierarchical attitudes and behaviours in our own lives. Anyone raised in modern society carries an inculcated tendency towards authoritarianism within them - it's just a question of how well we mitigate or work to decolonise ourselves of it. Following some recent personal realisations, what I'd like to argue here is that we should seek to build kinder, more horizontal relationships, not just with others, but also with ourselves.
Personal and social change
If each of us is a "society" of sorts, do we actually need a "head of state" to preside over our being, commanding ourselves to do this, or forbidding ourselves to do that? Just as many people believe that social change needs to happen from the top down, so too do many believe this to be the case with personal change. This is precisely the thinking embedded in the concepts of "discipline" and "willpower". While changes can certainly be achieved through these means, it's a question of "At what cost?" Are we willing to sacrifice or deprioritise social or inner peace to ram through change? How long can such forced change even last?
As long as we are exerting discipline or willpower over our impulses or desires, we are pretty much in an antagonistic, adversarial relationship with ourselves. People often talk about their "internal battles" or being "at war with themselves", but could it be possible that the thinking around this is all wrong? Is it not ultimately unhealthy and unproductive to pit self against self? "If you decide you're going to fight cravings, fight thoughts, fight emotions", said one researcher, Kelly McGonigal, you'll only "tend to become more stuck and more overwhelmed".
How might one seek to resist impulses, maintain control over one's actions, and achieve a personal goal without recourse to one's internal dictator or warmonger? How might we form a more cooperative relationship with ourselves, with all the parts of us working together, rather than some working against others?
Firstly, a story: During my PhD years, I developed a pathological binge-eating habit, and could barely control myself around food. Or more accurately, I'd put in great effort to eat right and maintain control, usually beginning on a Monday morning or the first day of the month. I'd be feeling really good about myself and thinking "this is it, this time it's for real". However, sooner or later I'd succumb and the floodgates would open. The worst part was when the self-hate would kick in. It was like the snakes were rigged against me in an endless game of snakes-and-ladders that I could never win.
Reflecting on my binge-eating past (a past that still comes back to haunt me from time to time, but thankfully not quite as pathologically), the conditions leading to a binge episode were often the same. Firstly, I'd be in the midst of some kind of emotional turmoil (stress, distress, despair, anxiousness, etc.), meaning I couldn't get to sleep. Secondly, I'd be flopped late at night in front of the TV, both to occupy me in lieu of sleep as well as to distract myself from what was going on internally. It's not really possible to "veg out" with a book, since reading requires a degree of mental engagement, but not so with the idiot box. Switching the TV on, we switch off a part of ourselves. Only when my mind was half-off could the mindless gorging begin - the very opposite of the mindful eating and general mindfulness promoted by wellness practitioners.
There were times when, in the absence of anything to binge on at home, I would drive myself to the nearest 24-hour fast food joint and load up. One time I even glided to a stop on the side of the freeway at 4am because I was so focussed on getting my fix that I failed to notice there wasn't any fuel in the tank. This only exacerbated my self-loathing, which is a feeling I've come to strongly associate with fast food. The fact that I almost never eat it these days is therefore an indicator that I'm now in a much better place, mentally and emotionally.
Hierarchy and heterarchy
I've learnt some important lessons about myself, but probably via the most excruciating possible routes. I tried being a dictator towards myself, being "strong" and doing my best to override my impulses and temptations. Sooner or later, other parts of me would rebel, my internal head of state would be toppled, and chaos would be unleashed. I'd end up something of a failed state like Somalia, with the warring factions inside of me reducing my sense of self to rubble.
Not that the absence of a state translates into chaos in all cases - far from it. Orderly and harmonious relationships that have nothing to do with hierarchy are abundantly evident in everyday life, as well as throughout human history. You could bring down a state and get chaos, or you could carve out autonomy from the state and achieve a different, more beautiful kind of order - one premised on heterarchy rather than hierarchy, and cooperation rather than competition, as with La Zad, the Zapatistas, and revolutionary Catalonia before the fascist takeover. But what would the equivalent of these movements look like at the personal level?
From the rubble of my past, I've been trying to build something different - not altogether successfully yet, but I would hope I'm well on the way. An important discovery has been that to overcome impulses, change bad habits into good, and achieve lasting personal change, a much more useful concept than "discipline" or "willpower" is "composure".
Composure and composition
Here's some ways that "composure" is defined in the dictionary:
1) A calm or tranquil state of mind;
3) Serene, self-controlled manner;
4) Steadiness of mind under stress.
There's the concept of composure, and then there's the practice of composing. What does a composer do? A composer articulates connections, harmonies, resonances, affinities and intensities between diverse elements, bringing them together into a complex, dynamic whole. Think of a score for a symphony orchestra. In light of this, the etymology of "compose" makes perfect sense: the "com-" part means "together" and the "-pose" part means "to place". To compose is to form something new by placing parts together.
Given that "composure" shares the same etymology, I have come to imagine that achieving a state of composure is contingent on one's learned abilities as a composer of one's inner and outer worlds. Perhaps this is what people mean when they talk about "getting their shit together". Getting our shit together internally helps to bring things together in the right way externally, and vice versa.
Composure, then, operates heterarchically, with diverse elements working together horizontally, sans an overarching sovereign. This stands in contrast to the hierarchical way in which willpower operates, with the freedom-loving parts of ourself kept in thrall to the overlord within.
Willpower doesn't exist
It was my intuitions that had led me to the fanciful understanding that, in our efforts to achieve personal change, we'd be better off being composers rather than dictators. I remained fuzzy, though, on how exactly to put such an idea into practice - until I came across an article by Oliver Burkeman highlighting a crisis in psychology resulting from once taken-for-granted notions around willpower being discredited. Where it was once thought that willpower was like a muscle that had to be kept in shape, researchers are now questioning whether it exists at all. Explains Burkeman:
Willpower... is a word ascribed to people who manage to do what they said they were going to do: it’s a judgment about their behaviour. But it doesn’t follow that willpower is a thing in itself, a substance or resource you either possess or you don’t, like money or muscle strength. Rather than 'How can I build my willpower?', it may be better to ask: 'How can I make it more likely that I’ll do what I plan to do?'
It's a seemingly subtle shift from the first to the second question, but one with far-reaching implications. Rather than relying on "strength of character" alone, we can cultivate the conditions for a desired change to happen through small, mindful actions. In my case, for instance, choosing to read a book instead of flopping in front of the TV late at night would've almost certainly decreased the likelihood of a binge-eating episode. I now no longer even own a TV, nor a smartphone. For a few years now, I've also been developing a much healthier relationship to food by learning to grow it. Whatever the situation, there are any number of little tricks we could play on ourselves. Changing our habits, says Burkeman, then
becomes a far more straightforward matter of assembling a toolbox of tricks that, in combination, should steer you well... Best of all, you'll no longer be engaged in a battle with your own psyche: You can stop trying to 'find the willpower' to live a healthier/kinder/less stressful/more high achieving life - and just focus on living it instead.
We are called upon to become the composers of our lives.
How flowers happen
Here's a final analogy: If we want flowers (or for that matter, food) to grow, we don't "push the little daisies and make 'em come up", as in the lyrics to that annoying Nineties anthem by Ween. Instead, we focus on cultivating the right conditions in which the plant can thrive and blossom of its own accord. This means ensuring good soil with the right balance of nutrients and plenty of beneficial microbes; the optimal amount of sunshine and water; protection from wind and pests; and so forth. In short, if we want the flower to bloom, we focus our energies, not on the flower itself, but on its context.
The other point to be made here is about "working with nature, not against it", which is one of the key ideas in permaculture. By extension, it is imperative that we learn to work with, and not against, ourselves. Just such an idea was expressed by Bruce Lee in his now-published private notes: "In order to control myself, I must first accept myself by going with and not against my nature".
My internal dictator never got me anywhere, nor did self-loathing. I'm at the point now where I'm endeavouring to attend with loving care to the gardens both within and around me. If we can continually work at cultivating the optimal conditions for personal growth through small, strategic interventions - a bit of mulch here, a bit of manure there (a variation on "getting one's shit together") - willpower becomes ultimately superfluous.
 For instance, David Graeber in Fragments of an anarchist anthropology.
 I'm reminded here of when I complained to a physiotherapist of chronic pain at the back of my left knee. I was baffled at first as to why he examined everything except the actual site of the pain, but it soon made perfect sense: the knee is a complex assemblage of parts, and no single component can be understood without reference to all the others.
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