Private Time, Public Space: Highway Theory of Anarchy

“Time has gone when some people were above the law.
This time around nobody, not even me, will be above the law.”
President Muhammadu Buhari


The inspiration for this article came gradually—specifically, in the course of several visits to Lagos, Nigeria. In ordinary circumstances, making it through any urban jungle’s traffic unperturbed is no mean achievement. Extricating oneself from Lagos’s perpetual gridlock is a spectacular, albeit, debateable, victory—a victory of aggressiveness over docility, of intemperance over moderation, of force over reason, and of lawlessness over order. As a commuter once put it, venturing on Lagos roads any working day is like going to war, a war between you and other road users. The question is whether the disorder prevailing on Lagos highways is in anyway symptomatic of living conditions in Nigeria as a whole.

To the extent that behavior on public highways varies from one locality to another, to that would it be reckless to conclude that behavior on public highways is a replica of an entire country’s civic or political culture. In short order, therefore, the answer to the unvoiced question (whether living in Nigeria is synonymous with living in a war zone) is a categorical ‘No’. Nigeria cannot be classified as a war zone simply because of the chaos, the distress, the surly temperament and the all too frequent altercations clearly visible on Lagos highways.

Yet, the highway is as good as any laboratory in which to test hypotheses on human reactions to stressful situations, especially, anarchy. Besides, and regardless of whether it is on the highway, at home, in offices, and in practically every sphere of life, the causes or triggers of anarchy (and the attendant anguish) are basically the same. So are the consequences. As an antonym for law and order, anarchy—on highways or within complex social networks–is persistent failure to observe certain elementary principles of inter-personal relations, notably the principles of rationality, reciprocity, and certainty.

Starting with the proposition that the individual’s right to his/her time is theoretically unfettered, this article argues the proposition that, in the absence of measures aimed at reinforcing the pillars of interpersonal relations (notably, rationality, reciprocity, and certainty), the exercise of individual freedom in public space risks sparking off time-space competition wars and posing insuperable challenges to order. In other words, unless adequate safeguards are instituted, anti-social tendencies in freedom-loving members of the public would trigger a chain reaction, starting with attempted or effective space colonization, followed, not necessarily in any particular order, by gap speculation, abrupt lane switching, lane invasion/annexation, lane blocking, time hacking, unseemly haste, capricious decision-making, stampede, verbal or physical assault, and bedlam.

I. Definition of terms

The word ‘anarchy’ appears repeatedly in this article. Precisely what does it mean? The stand-alone dictionary definitions of the term are far from helpful. Words like disorder, chaos, lawlessness, and mob rule sound fine. However, they do not mean much unless and until they are placed within a broader context, notably, the context of inter-personal relations, and of the contemporary human rights narratives.

Anarchy and inter-personal relations

Anarchy’s salient attribute is its disavowal of at least three principles of inter-personal relations, notably, rationality, reciprocity, and certainty. The first principle, logic or rationality, is on the face of it, vague and probably immaterial to our understanding of anarchy. Since when did human beings become rational, anyway? Why should lack of rationality define anarchy? Is equating one with the other not plain tautology? The relationship between irrationality and anarchy cannot be established unless we place both within the context of human rights.

As generally understood, rights are synonymous with values, opportunities, or objects “owned” by one to the exclusion of all others. Unlike a privilege which can be bestowed or withdrawn at will by a benefactor, a right is a natural endowment, a software without which the human design is not deemed complete. The owner of a property has a right over the property. A person seeking to dispossess the owner of his property, or to inherit the said property, may not even have the privilege of access, talk less the right. The property owner is the one with right to dispose of it the way s/he deems fit.

With regard to human rights, an individual’s “lien” on these allegorical but precious possessions commences from the time the individual is capable of making independent decisions, that is, on reaching the age of maturity. As an adult that is presumed to know “right” from “wrong”, the individual is endowed with rights that are entirely his but which are not inconsistent with equivalent rights enjoyed by other individuals. In other words, the individual is free to dispose of matters that concerns none but him/herself—basically, to do as s/he pleases, so long as this does not obliterate other individuals’ rights or interfere with the exercise of public security and welfare rights.

Rational as this human right premise may sound, anarchy rejects it. Anarchy proceeds on the arbitrary and generally unfounded assumption that only the individual exists; others do not. As the sole occupant of the legendary Garden of Eden, he, like Adam, is the only one that his entitled to traverse it at his own pace, and to allocate his time as he pleases. Since other individuals simply do not exist, these non-existent “others” have no rights that deserve to be acknowledged or respected. The only right that deserves to be preserved is that of the solitary individual or of the group that commands his/her allegiance. Any rival claim must either be disregarded or violently suppressed, regardless of the consequences for society or any of its constituent parts.

Reciprocity is the second inter-personal relations principle that anarchy routinely violates. Having come to the determination that no other individual (or equivalent right) exists, anarchy recognizes no outside obligation. Anarchy, in any case, does not warrant renouncing obligations, since the individuals, the “others”, to whom such obligations might have been owed, do not exist.

The third principle of inter-personal relations which anarchy effectively repudiates is certainty. In a civilized society, the law is the mechanism by which a fair degree of certainty in inter-personal relations is assured. As an instrument for codifying rights and obligations, the law ensures that no individual violates his/her neighbor’s rights, or exits an obligation, without paying a price. However, anarchy considers this logic nonsensical. The anarchist is contemptuous of laws in general, and those that do not square with his/her intentions, in particular. Bearing allegiance to none but him/herself, and acknowledging no right or interest outside his own, the individual is, under anarchy’s regime, presumed to be exempt from due process of law. To an anarchist, a punishment cannot be deemed cruel or unusual, and a sacrifice is never too great, when an obstacle to the fulfilment of one’s desire needs to be removed.

Anarchy and routine, isolated transgressions

For the avoidance of doubt, not every transgression against society or the state is synonymous with anarchy. True, the modern sovereign state was conceived as an antidote to disorder. Sovereignty itself implies that the state is the final authority on matters lying within its territory as well as matters pertaining to relations with the outside world. Sovereignty is deemed legitimate when state edicts and decrees are accepted as binding by the generality of the people for whom they are enacted.

Yet, for non-anarchic reasons, state sovereignty frequently comes under attack. Sovereignty may, for instance, be challenged when the sovereign (the ruler) is perceived as an impostor, that is, as one lacking the mandate to act for and on behalf of the people. Applying constitutional means to remove such a ruler cannot on any logical grounds be described as anarchy.

Even when the sovereign is duly mandated to act in the name of the collectivity, the writs issued by him/her or by his/her proxies may be attacked if, in the judgment of the citizen, such writs are not morally grounded. Sovereignty is deemed to be morally grounded only when it is applied for the right reasons (like securing individual rights, life, property, and expanding opportunities for the pursuit of happiness, howsoever defined).

State directives not backed by law are by definition illegal, and therefore challengeable. By contrast, writs that are skewed towards a particular class or community may rightly be deemed unfair. The law-abiding will approach the courts to pronounce on the legality of decisions perceived to be unfair. The anarchist, by contrast, will welcome the opportunity presented by institutional corruption (or state-sponsored chaos) to spread bedlam and mayhem.

Other non-legal but non-violent reactions to perceived misapplication of state sovereignty include venting of grievances on newspaper pages, street protests, or sit-ins. The potential for discontent or outright disobedience cannot be ruled out where sovereignty is perceived as mortgaged to domestic or foreign interests, traded for paltry sums (as under questionable privatization programs), or sold/leased to the highest bidder (as in official concession of right of way and use of deafening sirens on public highways, to the rich and powerful).

Anarchy as systemic disorder

In a nutshell, anarchy is different from the routine but isolated instances of transgression against the state. Anarchy is by its nature a systemic disorder. It manifests as an open declaration of war on competing rights and as pervasive distrust of the state’s capacity to safeguard those rights. Anarchy’s defining attributes are:

(a) Neurotic self-obsession and profound distrust of “others”, the state included (the anarchist’s egomania usually manifests as stubborn refusal to acknowledge the humanity of others, especially, antagonists and rivals);
(b) Unilateral abrogation/obliteration of rights that conflict with one’s own, coupled with summary renunciation of individual, mutual, and conjoint obligations;
(c) Frequent and egregious contempt for due process of law;
(d) Celebration and exploitation of chaos and disorder;
(e) Triumph of personal/private urges over public spirit (as reflected in an individual’s or a group’s ranking on Public Spiritedness Index/SPI).

II. The quest for order in a freedom-loving world

Anarchy was unknown in Adam’s solitary world. It emerged only when Eve joined him in the Garden of Eden, and the two started to procreate. Population growth soon left the couple’s progenies no choice but to contest one another’s rights, including the right of access to dwindling space, power and resources. The struggle for space and for optimum allocation of time in the ensuing state of nature continued until the strong vanquished the weak. New settlers in a territory either had to make peace with the initial colonists or engage them in a fight to the finish. It was this anarchy—the one that triggered barbaric acts and inter-tribal wars—which the modern state sought to replace with order.

A tribe or group effectively dislodged from a territory of course had a choice. It could either submit to the colonizing authorities’ dictates or bid its time until it was strong enough to start and successfully stage an internal uprising. Another alternative to an insurgency is to pack stock, lock and barrel, venture into new frontiers and settle in a new territory. None of the three options assured the prevalence of order in the state of nature. Anarchy is, after all, a state in which everyone commanded but none obeyed. The cycle of domination and resistance all but ensured the persistence of anarchy. Peace continued to elude the state of nature until the settlers in a virgin territory learnt to organize themselves. Until then, only the strong survived where domination was predictably met with resistance, and society was locked in a perpetual struggle over whose word was law.

It took individuals with certain rare attributes (charisma, intellect, foresight and prevision) to see in anarchy an opportunity to impose order. Forceful personalities realized early that establishing their “ownership” of a new territory depended not only on their ability to fend off foreign invaders but also on the local potentates’ readiness and ability to quell internal uprisings and impose order. The early state builders subsequently contained anarchy by creating rudimentary systems of government, enacting and codifying a network of laws on “right” and “wrong”, and experimenting with new (legislative, judicial, executive, and law enforcement) institutions.

Anarchy’s resurgence

The emergence of the organized state never banished anarchy. The state merely kept anarchic tendencies in leash. That leash appears to be slackening in recent years. If truth be told, the breakdown of order remains the greatest threat to the contemporary world’s tranquility. Anarchy which the modern, legal-rational, state inherited from the primeval state of nature, and which for a while, appeared subdued by the superior and better organized forces of the state, is again on the march within and across nations. The power to coerce and control is no longer a monopoly of the state. Neither is the perpetration of localized and generalized violence, nor for that matter, the application of propaganda and auto-suggestion techniques to suppress unpleasant stories or hype mediocre, possibly, obnoxious, deeds.

Instances of anarchy’s rebound in today’s world are not far to seek. At the top of the list, naturally, is the spate of terrorist attacks carried out within and across national borders in the last few years. While terrorism is not a new phenomenon, it became boldly sketched in our memory on 11 September 2001 when passenger planes headed towards and eventually brought down the Twin Towers. Simultaneous attacks on the highly fortified Pentagon caused fairly serious damage. The downing of the United Airlines flight 93 in Shanksville, Pennsylvania, increased the number of 9/11 casualties. Terrorists have since then widened the scope of their operations. Among objects that have so far been targeted are foreign embassies, passenger planes and civil aviation facilities, railway terminals, shopping malls, open air markets, schools, holiday resorts and tourist destinations.

Anarchy has also reared its ugly head within national borders. Apart from the April 1995 bombing of the Federal Building in Oklahoma by Timothy McVeigh, Terry Nichols and their accomplices—an act which resulted in 168 deaths and the destruction of 324 buildings within a 16-block radius—the US has in recent years faced threats that fit anarchy’s descriptions. Instances of shootings and/or disorderly behavior have been noticed on intra- and inter-city highways, at abortion clinics, schools, places of worship, upscale shopping centers, naval bases, and even close to the White House.

The US is definitely up to any challenge that anarchy might pose to the country’s existence. At the very least, the law enforcement agencies are ever ready to apply their detective, investigative, and rapid-deployment capacities to contain any threat. This is not the case in many other countries. In Nigeria, for instance, gangs, armed to the teeth, raid banks in broad daylight while poorly armed and under-motivated police either look elsewhere, or pick on soft targets to pat down for loose change. More or less the same situation prevails in states weakened by the lack of shared values, institutional capacity deficits, and systemic corruption.

Nigeria’s case is alarming only because of the emergence of tendencies the likes of which were hitherto unknown. Newspaper and electronic media accounts reveal that unemployed youths are increasingly gravitating towards crime. Among the instant but nefarious money-making schemes involving the youths are armed robbery, kidnapping, piracy, drug trafficking, and 419/advance fee fraud. Their elders (often with the youths’ active participation) are neck-deep in wide-ranging anti-social activities, including, but not limited to, assassination of political and business rivals, membership of secret cults, ritual killing, oil bunkering, stock manipulation and inside trading, perpetration of bank fraud, money laundering, bribery of highly placed government officials, acceptance of gratifications to induce the performance of lawful duties, and sponsorship of civil strife and terrorist-related acts. Regrettably, many of the cases investigated by the law enforcement agencies are liable to get cold and subsequently forgotten.

Apart from manifesting purely as terrorism or organized crime, anarchy frequently takes the shape of animosity towards outsiders, that is as xenophobia. Most often, xenophobia is at the root of anarchic tendencies such as communal clashes, competition for scarce jobs, conflict over land, or religious and sectarian wars. The driving force in each case is almost invariably the renunciation of any truth, right, or law that conflicts with a group’s interest, or the group’s idea of what the world ought to look like. The self-centred worldview may be grounded in deeply held grudges but is more likely to be reinforced by myths, folklore, or one’s recollection of the past.

It does not matter whether a worldview is based on genuine or reconstructed history. Once prejudice is built on the worldview, both the prejudice and the worldview would feed on each other to constitute major determinants of subsequent choices. Examples of the past pre-determining the future include the Hindu’s interpretation of the Ayodhya mosque’s history, an interpretation which emboldened them to defy the law enforcement agents, destroy the mosque and viciously attack Muslims back in 1992; the bloody feud between Erin and Offa communities dating back to the pre-colonial era in Nigeria; and the Kurds’ long-running antagonism towards the Turkish state.

Anarchy may also be set off by pure racism. Hate crimes have spiked in recent years due partly to the incendiary comments made by political opportunists but in large part to the resurgence of bigotry. Anti-Muslim and anti-immigrant sentiments have been whipped up by right-wing conservatives in Europe and other parts of the world. This is over and above the repressions suffered by Muslim minorities at the hands of Burmese and Sri Lankan populations, and the Chinese State’s oppression of the Hui Muslims in the north-west. The Jews have suffered more or less the same type of persecution. Jewish places of worship, in particular, have been vandalized or defaced with graffiti by anti-Semitic elements. Also, and in clear violation of the teachings of the Qur’an and the Bible, fanatics on both sides of the religious divide have set churches and mosques ablaze.

Having identified anarchy as a threat to the survival of the organized state and to the individual, we need a model capable of explaining and predicting the gravity of the threat within and across societies. The next section provides the broad outline of such a model.

III. A highway gridlock model of anarchy: elements and relevance

There is a lot to be said for using the highway as a model for the interrogation of human behavior in general, and anarchic behavior, in particular. As a microcosm of the wider public, the highway shares several attributes with the real-life public that it represents. First, each member of the public, at least in theory, has an equal chance of making it to the highway. Second, on getting to the highway, the individual is likely to react to the situations prevailing on the highway the same way she would when faced with similar situations elsewhere. It won’t make a difference whether s/he is at home, in the office, at a political rally, under the tunnel, or on the open highway; s/he would protest when attacked, ache when hurt, be edgy when trapped, rush when pressed for time, and look for exits out of tight spots.

The similarities between the general public and the highway do not by themselves justify using one to simulate, explain, or predict anarchic behavior in the other. If the highway is used as a model for comprehending the nature, causes and consequences of anarchy in the general public, it must be the probability for replicating on the highway the anarchy prevailing elsewhere. The highway also offers wide latitude to generate verifiable hypotheses about anarchy. Notable among these hypotheses are the following:

(a) The individual’s right to allocate his time as he sees fit is basically limitless and inalienable;
(b) To the extent that a space encumbered by one individual is off-limit to another, the freedom to allocate time in public domains is dependent on the necessity to negotiate access between and among the competing/parallel/conflicting claims;
(c) The length of time needed to exercise one’s right of way (and proceed to one’s destination or achieve one’s objective) depends on the complexity of the negotiation formula and the readiness of the parties to negotiate in good faith;
(d) An independent party, the state, has a vital role to play not only in setting the negotiation parameters, but also in applying unanimously acceptable principles/methods to arbitrate competing claims;
(e) Anarchy is the result where the state wilfully, or due to unforeseen circumstances and entrenched corruption, fails to discharge its parameter setting and conflict arbitration role to the satisfaction of all parties;
(f) The tendency to “switch off” the state and turn to underground sub-cultures increases as citizen trust in the competence, integrity, and reliability of state agencies decreases;
(g) Where anarchy prevails, private urges will overpower public spirit, to the detriment of a community’s ranking on the Public Spiritedness Index.

Individual right on personal time

Let’s examine these hypotheses briefly, starting with the individual’s theoretically limitless right to his time. Aside from convicts serving time in penitentiaries, mentally impaired individuals under clinical or psychiatric observation, or members of the armed services on 24-hour alert, every adult is free to allocate his time to ends of his own choosing. S/he may decide to stay at home, visit the neighborhood mall, hang out with beer parlor buddies, go to work, or take a vacation. If s/he remains indoors, his liberty extends to the use of his private space.

Public space and private time allocation

However, as soon as our adult individual ventures outside his home, the total control he once had over his time would be diluted by the struggle for right of access to public space. The first likely encumbrance on his time is the state’s invocation of the eminent domain doctrine—the doctrine granting the state preferential right over space and property if the exigencies of public order or welfare so dictate. The road users with preferential right of access to public highways include fire trucks responding to emergencies, ambulances ferrying the critically sick to trauma centers, mobile bank vaults with police escorts, military vehicles, and police vans in hot pursuit.

It is not unknown, particularly on Lagos highways, for private citizens to ride on the state’s eminent domain. Among those likely to commandeer public space for private use are powerful politicians; members of the moneyed class ready and willing to pay designated amounts for the services of police escorts, pilots and sirens; men and, and increasingly, women, of God that are not averse to flaunting their revered clerical status; and daredevil road-users, including drunk or otherwise impaired drivers, operators of regular, three-wheeled, and ‘okada’/motor cycle taxis, that eagerly join the blatant display of impunity and the ensuing rout.

The law as an arbiter of claims

Meanwhile, our law-abiding, but late-arriving, adult is waiting to negotiate access with other road-users. If other pedestrians or motorists are already on the highway by the time s/he arrives, the imperative of order requires that s/he queue up behind them. If s/he is in a hurry, and the highway code allows overtaking at a particular spot, s/he may signal his intention to change lanes and move ahead. If he is truly law-abiding, he will, in Nigeria, at least, overtake on the left as prescribed by law. He will not overtake on the right since neither the law nor the vehicle in front expects him to emerge from that side.

Prevailing spirit of inter-dependence

The law and the presumption of mandatory compliance are of course one thing; actual conformity is completely another. Order will prevail if every road user complies with the provisions of the highway code, and/or is favorably disposed to negotiating exits from situations not anticipated by the code. Anarchy ensues when contentious issues are settled neither by the law nor by the acknowledgement of basic principles of cordial relations. Where egomaniac tendencies overpower the public spirit, our adult road-user’s time is likely to be expended on fruitless, sometimes, hostile, assertion or contestation of right of access. In the absence of clear guidance from the law, and/or, where true negotiation spirit is lacking, anarchy will manifest in different forms—notably, as lane blocking and colonization, lane invasion and snatching, hasty and capricious decision-making, abrupt lane switching, reckless overtaking, stampede, riot, collisions, mangled remains of vehicles, life-threatening injuries, and gridlock.

It does not matter whether in the course of the negotiations, access is grudgingly conceded, curtly denied, forcefully snatched, or totally blocked. Failure to adhere to the principles of rationality, certainty, and reciprocity cannot but encroach upon the individual’s time and space rights. The length of time needed to exercise one’s right of way (and proceed to one’s destination or achieve one’s objective) depends on the complexity of the negotiation formula established by law, as well as on the readiness of the parties to negotiate in good faith. The will to negotiate is itself a factor of the prevailing civic culture, roughly translated as the spirit of interdependence and cooperation. Ethnic heterogeneity and religious or sectarian differences may constitute formidable barriers to civic solidarity.

The state and parameters for order

The state is the first to realize that individuals do not readily or spontaneously cooperate with one another. The selfish gene is a major hindrance to popular acknowledgement of the need for interdependence. The all too frequent appeal to ethnic or religious sympathy is nothing but a manipulation of “others” to serve own interest.

To curb the individual’s egocentric tendencies, arbitrate competing claims and, as much as possible, inject doses of certainty, rationality and reciprocity into citizen behavior, the state enacts a network of laws and regulations. Setting the parameter for social behavior is in fact the essence of criminal and civil law, and, with regard to decision-making on public highways, the highway code. The laws and the codes are helpful only to the extent that they are supported by systems and procedures. If the highway code insists that a vehicle can only overtake from the left, or can turn right on red, then the state has an obligation to demarcate the lanes clearly, and ensure that the signs are prominently displayed.

Besides, the law by itself does not guarantee the prevalence of order on the highway or in society at large. The anarchic instinct in the individual is likely to be stirred if the state wilfully or by default, neglects to implement its own law transparently and to the satisfaction of all parties. That is why the state generally follows up the enactment of laws with the recruitment and deployment of a cadre of officials. The police and the road traffic authority that ensure public order are staffed with employees bearing various titles—commissioner, superintendent, inspector, sergeant, constable, clerk, typist, messenger, cleaner. The judiciary that actually adjudicates competing claims is itself made up of various grades of judges and court registry staff.

Declining public trust in the state is the outcome where any official fails to perform his/her designated functions promptly, or demands gratification to perform or refrain from performing his lawful duty. Corruption in any form not only threatens public order, but increases public contempt for the state and its edicts.

Needless to add that the likelihood of the citizen “switching off” the state and turning to underground sub-cultures increases where the state officials are generally perceived as incompetent, capricious, corrupt, and given to impunity.

IV. Lane blocking in state construction: a summation and a proposal

In conclusion, anarchy prevails when private urges are fed by ingrained self-obsession, lack of will to acknowledge the humanity of “others”, and monumental failure on the state’s part to discharge its civilizing mission. The question is whether the highway model helps us understand anarchy in the larger sense—that is, in the sense that anarchy is conceived in state construction narratives.

While additional empirical work needs to be undertaken to test the hypotheses earlier generated, random examples from a country like Nigeria already underscore the parallel between highway gridlock and the slow evolution of the state. By their deeds and utterances, lane-blockers have not only undermined the sovereignty of the Nigerian state, but have also made spirited efforts to abridge, if not extinguish, the average Nigerian’s citizenship rights. Specifically, the typical lane blocker has slowed down Nigeria’s integration and development by:

(a) paying greater attention to the seizure and colonization of the state apparatus, than running the institutions for the benefit of the People;
(b) exercising powers out of proportion to his/her mandate, competence, and integrity;
(c) deeming himself exempt from due process of law;
(d) at predictable intervals, whipping up ethno-religious, and partisan political sentiments for personal gain or to escape sanctions for misdeeds;
(e) if found wanting on the job, sitting tight, and if looking for public office, promoting own candidature, not by mentioning his planned accomplishments, but by setting aside constitutional provisions on eligibility and, instead, harping on rivals’ “geo-political zone”, ethnic origin, religious belief, “lack of experience” or, if that’s what is needed to kill the competition, “old age”;
(f) playing one section against the other;
(g) misrepresenting the state by abusing his/her office, thereby conveying the impression that the state is corrupt, uncaring and irrelevant.

Granted, it is difficult to see how each of the isolated choices listed above amount to anarchy. However, unless the state takes proactive measures to separate itself from those making the choices, the bits and pieces have a way of coming together to trigger gridlock in governance and open the door to anarchy. In addition to acting promptly to ensure the integrity of its institutions, the state should encourage the conduct of sustained research into the causes and consequences of, and remedies for, anarchy.

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