To Manuel Arriaga
John Burnside

From: John Burnside, Berlin

To: Manuel Arriaga, New York

7 April 2015

Dear Manuel,

When Carne Ross posted his letter in this series to me, I was just re-reading your marvellous, thoughtful, inspiring book, Rebooting Democracy: A Citizen’s Guide to Reinventing Politics. For some time now, Carne and I have been discussing the question of how we might move from so-called ‘representative democracy’ (which, in our time, is highly unrepresentative and far from democratic) towards, not so much a fairer model, but the only possible political model that could be considered just. For my entire adult life, I have used the terms ‘anarchy’ and ‘anarchism’ when referring to that model, and I have considered myself an ‘anarchist’, but for mainly historical reasons, Carne and I (and many others) have debated whether or not this is still a useful appellation when it is used in dialogue with a broad community for whom the word anarchist has been tarred and very thoroughly feathered with a whole series of deliberately misleading associations with everything from bombs to bad hygiene. I will come back to this semantic problem later, but first I’d like to say a little in response to Carne’s letter.

“We are bidden to consider the future,” he says – though how immediate, and what manner of future this might be has varied across the letters in this series. Carne thought it worthwhile to fantasise about an ideal in his letter, a world in which all people would be well fed, well housed, healthy, free to die as they chose, but until that time would live in peace, free of hatred and resentment. Then, given these basics, we would all be able to pursue the expression and enactment of art, love, pleasure – in short, a rich and diverse culture. He continues by saying that he feels sad and a little desperate, at times, when he sees how far our own, ostensibly rich society stands from that ideal, though he finds grounds for hope in the ways that some groups and individuals have tried to build real democracy and economic models that would not only reward and enrich all those involved in production, but also produce better quality goods and services.

If I was asked to propose an ideal world, I suspect I would not depart very much from the vision Carne outlines. What I want to do in this letter, though, is to propose an outline model of governance that might bring us closer to that ideal and, to do so, I have to take issue with my friend’s note: “I have long doubted the idea of living in harmony with heartless, brutal nature”, not because I think ‘nature’ is kindly, or human oriented, (as James P. Carse says, in Finite and Infinite Games, “Nature offers no home”) but because I believe that careful observation of natural actions and patterns is the basis of true anarchism.

It appears that there are – in the broadest terms – three ways in which human societies are governed: one, by force, that is, by sheer weight of money, physical prowess or numbers, ‘traditional’ privileges and superstition; two, by an ideology of some kind (this includes religions, of course, and even where it does not, it is always enforced by a priestly elite of some kind; I would include ‘community’, so called, i.e. in its usual forms in capitalist societies, as an ideology here, as communities all too rapidly become hierarchical in such a society); three, by representative democracy. What anarchism proposes is, first, a critique of all the above and, second, a means by which the ideal model of self-governance can be brought about. In this model, the group, guided by certain principles, (drawn from nature), spontaneously arrives at decisions and acts to promote the greatest possible good, not just for that group, or for humankind, but for the land, the waters, the skies, the other creatures with whom we live and the creatures of all species yet unborn. The word ‘spontaneously’ is important here: anarchism is closely allied to emergence as a natural, organic model of order and, in its most achieved form, an anarchic society (or individual) does not think, then do, it simply is, responding to circumstances spontaneously, and only where necessary. (I’d note in passing, however, that it takes years of practice and discipline to become spontaneous.)

No doubt this really will sound like an ideal, perhaps an impossible one. But does it need to be possible? As it works on the individual level, then so might it work for the group and it is clear that when, as individuals, we pursue the discipline of spontaneity, responsiveness to natural order and avoidance of action for its own sake (Taoists calls this wu-wei) certain principles emerge. By principles, I mean something different from the bases of ideology in that an ideology is a set of beliefs, whereas a principle is founded in observation of how things work in the world around us. Observations about the basic ground of being: place, time, matter, the elements, other creatures and – by your leave for now, and not seeking at all to get mystical – whatever we think of as ‘the angels’. There are two kinds of principles: universal and temporal; the universal are based on universal conditions such as the conservation of energy, the understanding that any action causes an equal and opposite (or complementary) action, that is central not just to Newton, but also to the Dialectic and Chinese wuji philosophy, (yin and yang in constant play as the whole tends towards an ever shifting, greater or lesser equilibrium). As I say, I don’t wish to be mystical here – and in fact, Taoist thought eschews mysticism by saying that we cannot know, or even name the ‘way’ that governs things; we can, however, see it in action, constantly, by carefully observing the world around us. For centuries now, human observers – supposedly ‘objective’ ones included – have imposed our own, often fantasised values and patterns on the world – that bee colonies are hierarchical, governed by a ‘queen’ for example – instead of paying attention to things as they are. Tao Te Ching and other Chinese classics show us that, if we can only observe with detachment, we will see that the natural world is spontaneous, emergent and self ordering. When we apply force to get what we want, that force is eventually cancelled out and we lose what we gained and more. When we cling to passing ideas, possessions or conditions, we lose everything. This is important, politically: when we observe the real world, we begin to see that what we have been persuaded to think of as necessary power structures are neither natural nor necessary at all, and in fact, because they are susceptible to attachment, excess and imbalance, are the most susceptible to corruption.

These principles are shared by an-archism which acknowledges the need for order but refuses to accept an imposed order. Instead, anarchists, like Taoists and true students of the Dialectic, suggest that, if we would only wake up and pay attention, we would see that order is steadily and spontaneously emergent, and we can shape human activities, including self-governance, to that order. Then, by observing nature, we see how emergent order happens and so let go of the temptations that plague us: to force the issue, to push our theses with no regard for their antitheses, to assume power. As I said, the word anarchism has been besmirched, as we know, by the powers that be. Time to abandon it? Paul Feyerabend seemed to think so, calling himself a ‘Dadaist’ instead, and he is only one of many who feel that, by using the term anarchism, we risk being dragged off into pointless side arguments that add nothing to the central debate about self-governance. As it happens, I think Dadaist carries its own baggage but, semantics aside, I fear we may be in danger of throwing the baby out with the bathwater.

I have gone on long enough, but I do want to throw in some random final thoughts for your consideration. Why I do so is this: having admired Rebooting Democracy, and while I feel it has much to offer the debate, I wonder if we can really reach a state of real, just self-governance (which would have to be universal to be truly just; it would also have to hold to the central principle of respect for organic order above all things) by working with the present system? You are right, I think, to trust to the intelligence and goodwill of informed citizens and community groups – but I think we are far from having an informed citizenry, other than in pockets here and there (something Carne also seemed to be pointing to in his letter). Can we tinker with this vile system and so fix it? Or do we need to find principles that will help guide capitalist-consumer society out of its attachments to comfort and relative power?

I hope my saying this will not lead you to see me as one of those you so rightly criticise in Rebooting Democracy for thinking that “the people” are too dumb, or too selfish, to govern themselves. I certainly agree that this is not so, and I also would vehemently support the notion that nobody else should govern us. However, having seen, even in my own lifetime, a history of massive environmental degradation, I feel that many of us will need time to recover from the assumptions, lifestyle and comforts of a Big Capitalist-Big Consumer society. Some of us will need time to overcome our desire for unnecessary goods, services and ‘developments’; others, though, will need time to shift away from an ideology that, having started out to look for alternatives to the Big CCs, have all too often compromised, or even strayed into the enemy’s ranks. Not long ago, for instance, I asked the opinion of a fairly well known nature writer about the proposed erection of wind turbines on an estuary famed for its birdlife; the response was “sacrifices have to be made.” I have had similar responses from people who should know better, when protesting wind turbine developments on Shetland (103 turbines on precious peatland) and in Scotland’s flow country. Fossil fuels bad, any renewable anywhere good, is the slogan, Animal Farm style. But all common sense and fidelity to natural principles cries out that it is a ridiculous and tragic policy to destroy peatland (which sequesters carbon, amongst other things) and raise massive structures within shouting distance of rare bird colonies. If you want them, put them elsewhere – and if you are as green as you claim to be, defend the birds, the land and the future from all inappropriate developments and not just some.

I am reminded, often, of the conclusion to David Owen’s book, The Conundrum. He says:

It’s easy for wealthy people to look busy on energy, climate, and the environment: all we have to do is drive a hybrid, eat local food (while granting ourselves exemptions for anything we like to eat that doesn’t grow where we live), remember to unplug our cell-phone chargers, and divide our trash into two piles. What’s proven impossible, at least so far, is to commit to taking steps that would actually make a large, permanent difference on a global scale. Do we honestly care? That’s the conundrum.

I feel the same could be said about other things, including justice, prosperity and self-governance – if I have these things, do I really care if others have them? The paradox is that if others are not free, then neither am I. What freedom I think I have is short term, and mostly illusory.

By observing natural principles – and by, most importantly, placing deep ecology principles at the heart of all our governance – we may make it to a genuinely self-governing world. First, though, we have to learn how the world really works. We have the key texts, images and narratives to help us do so, from the Tao Te Ching to the work of Félix Guattari, André Gorz, Aldo Leopold and many others – I hope I have not suggested at any time that anything I am saying here is original – what we must do is formulate, abide by and, where necessary, uphold those principles. The central one, for the moment, must be that, where sacrifices must be made, we in Big CC land must be the ones making them. As we do, we will begin to recover from our sickness, and at the same time, exert less pressure on other societies and the natural world. But the principles are key to that shift. I’ll close with some advice from Ruskin, who may have been talking about art, but was also talking about how to live well:

go to nature in all singleness of heart, and walk with her laboriously and trustingly, having no other thoughts but how best to penetrate her meaning, and remembering her instruction; rejecting nothing, selecting nothing, and scorning nothing.

Over to you, my friend,


John Burnside is a novelist, short story writer and poet. His poetry collection, Black Cat Bone, won both the Forward and the T.S. Eliot Prizes in 2011, a year in which he also received the Petrarch Prize for Poetry. He has twice won the Saltire Scottish Book of the Year award, (in 2006 and 2013). His memoir A Lie About My Father won the Madeleine Zepter Prize (France) and a CORINE Belletristikpreis des ZEIT Verlags Prize (Germany); his story collection, Something Like Happy, received the 2014 Edge Hill Prize. His work has been translated into French, German, Spanish, Italian, Turkish and Chinese. He writes a monthly nature column for The New Statesman and is a regular contributor to The London Review of Books.

Manuel Arriaga is a visiting research professor at New York University and a fellow at the University of Cambridge. In 2014, he published Rebooting Democracy: A Citizen’s Guide to Reinventing Politics, which, by the end of the same year, had become the #1 best-selling book on democracy on Amazon UK. He is currently working on a film project on democratic innovations. More information about his work can be found at


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