Thursday, December 6, 2007

Skinner’s Walden II: Self-control and Anarchism

One of the central themes visited in B.F. Skinner’s book Walden II is that of self-control and the role it plays for an individual within and therefore contributing to the society as a whole. The utopia that Frazier presents as his own brainchild is built around the premise that the individuals who take part in the society contribute to both its strength and prolongation through self-control, managing their own feelings and actions, presumably through will power as applied to the various situations that may require it. It can be argued that this idea as presented in Walden II for its own purposes and rationale, is very similar to the core principles of Anarchism. Both the advocates and denouncers of anarchism may find similar arguments concerning the treatment of self-control in Walden II. To what extent is Skinner’s treatment of self-control and its role in society reflective of an anarchist perspective of the same topic?

In the utopia that Skinner presents, the power or control that one has over oneself derives from one’s environment. In Walden II, “certain behavioral processes” are put into effect from the time new citizens are young children “which will lead [them] to design [their] own ‘good’ conduct when then time comes.” (p.96) These include a “tolerance for frustration” (p.88) which includes developing a capacity to accept a delay of gratification and the “design[ing of] a series of adversities” (p.105) in which child­ren learn frustration tolerance gradually. An example of this process is the use of lollipops hanging from the children’s necks and the “forbidden soup.”The concept of self-control is engineered further in the social disapproval of competitive activities and thinking. “Triumph over nature and over oneself, yes. But over others, never.” (p.103) As far as its role in the community, self-control allows for there to be no police or prisons and very little punishment in the controlling of its citizens.

There are a couple aspects of Walden II which seem to exemplify certain core principles of anarchism. Anarchy has a varying array of connotations that we have been culturally engineered to know. When placing negative connotations aside, it is the social paradise to strive for, considering such ideals attributed with it such as social equality, total freedom for self-determination, and social organization without claims to power which often turn oppressive. These almost utopian ideals are also at the core of the Walden II community. The concept of self-control as found within anarchistic ideology revolves around the negation of all forms of control except for self-control (although some anarchist thought incorporates control mechanisms for social organization.) The success of anarchist society is in the members’ ability to rely on mutual trust and love, on social accountability, an organizing principle which many would view as a utopian ideal. Although the entire system of Walden II is organized and is, in essence, an elaborate organization, it can be argued that, in the anarchist perspective, one can only perform an action or make a decision on a personal basis, such as taking part in activities which an observer may identify as organization. According to Lucy Parsons in her speech on the Principles of Anarchism, “Anarchists know that a long period of education must precede fundamental change in society, hence they believe…in the development of self-thinking individuals.” Walden II is also anarchistic in its dismissal of police and brute forces to control the people. Skinner’s utopia presents guidelines such as those found in the Platform document which say to seek non-political solutions for the problem of human living, once again showing the importance of self-regulation of actions to counter the need for a police state. Again Parsons mentions that one must “remove…brute force and let man feel the reviving influences of self responsibility and self control…[so that he may] respond to better influences.”

However, it is important to remember that the society in Walden II is not anarchism in a pure form. Anarchism is about freedom to the utmost extent. Walden II is based and formed out of a type of controlled experiment; therefore it can never be considered a fully anarchistic society. It would have to provide the freedom to discover any truth, freedom to develop, to live naturally and fully. But one must ask if it is even possible to ever have full anarchy without the behavioral controls that exist in Walden II. Is it not true that we are already subjugated to thought controls culturally and in the media and that we grow up to think a particular way. Frazier recognizes this natural factor when he says “society attacks early, when the individual is helpless. It enslaves him before he has tasted freedom.” (p.95) To this extent, it is very respectable and wise to consider creating a society which uses knowledge of behavioral psychology to promote peaceful coexistence. If anything, Walden II simply acknowledges the fact that we will never be fully free of the forces which manipulate our mode of thinking and attempt to use this knowledge for the betterment of society by funneling the members’ mode of thinking in a controlled and rational environment so as to be beneficial to all those involved.

The manner in which self-control is promoted and engineered within the Walden II community is a very good example of the scientist applying knowledge to better the lives of a greater whole and is a very good idea that should be given respectful attention. By focusing on self-control as the driving force behind keeping the community stable, life in Walden II is one in which competition and social conflict has no place and destructive nonsense such as war is opposed “by creating a lifestyle that doesn't need it.” The behavioral science conditioning and “control” that exist to create and perpetuate the utopia actually enable the individuals to live in a state of anarchy, it enables them a certain freedom to have self control while being socially accountable. What is the benefit of such behavioral engineering? “They get happiness, freedom and strength…escape from the petty emotions…they get new horizons, for they are spared the emotions characteristic of frustration and failure.” (p.102) This kind of conditioning is then not oppressively controlling but instead quite progressively liberating.

Despite support for the use of cultural engineering to promote self-control for the good of the community as presented in Walden II with anarchistic ideals in mind, there are some reservations. It would not be a system which could be trusted to work when forced on an already established nation or society. The individuals involved would have to come together on a small scale and share a common goal and understanding. They must be constantly working towards this shared ideal in order to have secure reasoning behind their actions of self-control. The establishment of this common and goal and understanding would have to emerge from the people body itself, as any outside effort and application of a cause under which to unite would be a form of power and control outside of the individual self. This wouldn’t be allowed in an anarchist anti-state, and it certainly wouldn’t function properly so as to perpetuate itself in a realistic attempt at Walden II.

[spring 2007]

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