There is a popular idea that a functional society requires a government to hold it together – a body of people who govern the rest. But what does it mean to be governed?
The first person known to adopt the label “anarchist” gives us some idea:
“It is, under the pretext of public utility, and in the name of the general interest, to be … exploited, monopolized, extorted, squeezed, mystified, robbed; then, at the slightest resistance, the first word of complaint, to be repressed, fined, despised, harassed, tracked, abused … disarmed … imprisoned, judged, condemned, shot, deported, sacrificed, sold, betrayed; and, to crown all, mocked, ridiculed, outraged, dishonored. That is government; that is its justice; that is its morality.”
Pierre-Joseph Proudhon gave us more verbs to go with that, but we’ll start here.
Government is not just a friendly association that keeps us safe, builds our bridges, cleans the streets – or contracts with private companies, often in backroom deals, to do these things.
Government is the body by which some people govern others – an instrument of rule by some over others. This is an inherently unequal relationship that allows people with the most access to power – typically those with something to offer other power players – to exert unfair advantages over other people. It sets up a hierarchy where some are expected to yield and some are given the privilege of initiating force due to the title of their office or the type of work clothes they wear. Being allowed to vote and protest does not mean that you are not expected to yield to the people in charge.
This is what I see as the foundation of the anarchist case against government.
Anarchy means without rulers. To the anarchist, no imposition of authority is considered legitimate.
Anarchy, put this way, is not an unachievable perfect utopia, nor something that we can have immediately, nor something that we have to wait generations for as we bide our time. But then again, it is kind of all these things.
The word anarchy can describe an ideal world where there is no authority, no subjugation, no rule of one individual over another – an ideal that societies move toward but can never fully reach. But anarchy can also describe a society where norms of anarchism are widely adopted – where impositions of authority are viewed as unjust and are met with efforts to resist or alleviate them.
In one sense we can we have this immediately – in everyday life, in social circles where individual autonomy and individuality are respected and suppressing them is not, and leadership in particular areas is gained through respect, not by pulling rank.
But to achieve this society-wide, it is necessary to create incentives that encourage others to behave and think this way in more social contexts, expanding communities of freedom.
Henry David Thoreau, who didn’t identify as an anarchist but was animated by the same libertarian spirit that drives anarchism, began his famous Civil Disobedience essay with a guiding principle.
“I heartily accept the motto, “That government is best which governs least”; and I should like to see it acted up to more rapidly and systematically. Carried out, it finally amounts to this, which also I believe, — “That government is best which governs not at all”; and when men are prepared for it, that will be the kind of government which they will have.”
How do people prepare for no government? The attempt to answer this question is one way to look at the anarchist project.
Some folks who agree with Thoreau here might say, “Right! We need to prepare people to govern themselves – by reducing the size of government and encouraging self-reliance.”
Others who read Thoreau might say, “Right! We need to use government to protect people from concentrated wealth while they prepare for self-governance.”
Still, others might say, “Right! Once we’re ready to make the revolution, the government will no longer be in the way of our efforts to make a free society!”
There is something to all of these views, but they don’t really connect to the track that anarchism is in – though people who identify as anarchists have expressed similar views.
Here we come to a real paradox of anarchism – it is a movement that cannot really be led in a traditional sense as you can’t force people to be free and coercing people to prepare for self-government would make you a ruler.
Yes, telling people why anarchy would be preferable to authority is important – but teaching requires more than preaching.
Education is one key to the anarchist project. It is not just about what is being taught but in how it is being taught. People participating in the pursuit of truth, often with the guidance of people with experience in the field, or collaborating with other learners, is not the same process as one group of people drilling dogma into the heads of others. Anarchists have recognized this. Their leading role in the Modern School Movement, which featured a student-directed approach aimed at developing children and adults, without regard to gender or class, into more complete individuals, is one example.
Concrete incentives are important to getting people to move in an anarchist direction. This is not separate from education, as the access to a quality education that respects freedom and won’t put you in debt is a valuable product. But it goes beyond education. To put it simply, if a movement is seen as providing concrete benefits to an individual and the people he or she cares most about, that individual is more likely to support that movement. This doesn’t mean pandering or selling out – it means applying principles in ways that help people.
Don’t think that government is feeding the needy? Then establish ways for the needy to feed themselves. This principle goes for creating new organizations and turning existing organizations toward liberty.
Don’t tell me – show me! Even better, make the show a production I want to participate in.
Culture underlies all of this. It is important to establish culture that respects liberty and wants to make individual sovereignty mean something by helping individuals get what they need to become sovereign over their own lives – to have a good ability to choose who, if anyone, to depend on.
Where did anarchism come from?
Anarchism as an idea and a movement emerged in the mid-nineteenth century in Europe and the United States. It opposed both the monarchies of European reactionaries and the emergent capitalist order that many saw as exploitative. It came from the ideas of utopian experimenters, labor reformers, and classical liberal intellectuals – which were overlapping categories at the time.
They recognized that liberty, equality, fraternity, and individual sovereignty were threatened by the existence of the state and by the concentrations of economic power wrought by coercion. They understood that any state – even one run by workers – was a dangerous instrument of oppression.
A number of schools of anarchism have sprung up since Proudhon proclaimed himself an anarchist in 1840.
Those who most closely followed Proudhon’s economic system adopted the label mutualist. Typically mutualists support individual possession backed by mutual banking systems, emphasize associations between free laborers, and reject property titles not based on occupancy and use, such as the landed estates that rule over laborers based on historic access to state administrators. Like most anarchists, mutualists hold that resources will become more widely available as the restrictions and privileges upheld by the state are removed.
Individualist anarchism also took root in the 1840s. Josiah Warren’s experience with American utopian colonies had convinced him that upholding the sovereignty of the individual and ensuring that every person received the full value of his labor were crucial ingredients for a successful equitable society. His writings had a profound influence on other libertarians in America. In Germany, Max Stirner came out with his 1845 book The Ego and His Own, which rejected morality and absolutes. Stirner’s egoism later became an influence on anarchists, and many, including Benjamin Tucker, incorporated Stirner’s ideas into their thought.
Collectivist anarchism, which was advocated by international man of revolution Mikhail Bakunin, emphasizes the collective association of workers instead of individual ownership like the mutualists and individualists. Labor was seen as a social endeavor and individuals could access the products of society so far as they contributed to it with their own labor.
Anarchist communism, advocated by Peter Kropotkin, goes farther by holding that individuals should work in common and receive resources based upon their needs, rather than upon their deeds.
Anarchist syndicalism takes the federated labor union as the basis for organizing revolutionary action as well as the basis for economic organization in an anarchist society. Workers’ federations would run factories, farms, and other workplaces.
Anarcho-capitalism was first expressed in the mid-twentieth century by Murray Rothbard and David Friedman, but was largely anticipated by Gustave de Molinari in his 1849 essay, “The Production of Security.” Anarcho-capitalists draw heavily on studies in economics, often in the Austrian school, to advocate a society where services typically provided by government are instead provided by market actors. Anarcho-capitalists generally see exchanges in a free market as choices made among equals and are therefore less concerned about credit, interest, rent, and labor issues than other anarchists.
Note that some anarchists would exclude other categories from anarchism. To me if the anarcho comes first and the economic preferences second then an advocate of any of these schools can rightfully be categorized as anarchist.
A number of other labels have been adopted by anarchists to show a particular emphasis in their goals and methods, and adopting one label by no means excludes the ideas of another. Anarcho-pacifism, related to Christian anarchism and the writings of Tolstoy, opposes any use of force or violence as inherently authoritarian. Green anarchism, of which primitivism is one subset, has a particular focus on ecology. Anarcha-feminism analyzes and combats patriarchy with anarchist principles. Anarcho-transhumanism explores the relationship between anarchist thought and major scientific advancements in human longevity and capability. Agorism sees opportunities for liberation in markets that aren’t sanctioned by the state.
All anarchists seek the greatest freedom for each individual, unrestrained by political, social, or economic authority.
The state is nothing mystical, but is an institution made of people. It is a social organization that incentives certain behavior, generally worse behavior than that encouraged by free association on principles of cooperation and solidarity. The state relies for its existence on force and deference to people of higher rank. It enforces its own monopoly. To get to the top, political leaders must please powerful interests and usually continue working with certain interests in order to stay in power.
Reforms that pass down through the government structure are filtered through layers of bureaucrats and administrators who will do what they can to improve their position and pass on the weight of governance to others. Government agencies are oriented to please politicians, not the public, and government enforcers owe allegiance to internal culture and rules, not to the outside community.
Social authority is the power exercised by prevailing custom, privileging some customs and lifestyles over others. When social harmony is based on respect for individuality and people are free to develop according to their wishes rather than fit into roles that others have given them, it creates a favorable environment for individual freedom and social progress.
Authority in the economic realm exists because the ability to achieve economic security and advancement is restricted by state regulations and economic elites, putting some in a disadvantageous or even desperate position.
Free association on anarchist principles will make society more productive and decrease inequality. Any inequality that does arise from different choices will be much less threat to liberty and autonomy because there will be greater alternatives in place and greater opportunity to create alternatives.
Anarchists who favor market mechanisms as an important component of a free society could be called market anarchists.
Do the words market and capitalism mean the same thing? This brings up a worthwhile semantics discussion.
The word capitalism, by its etymology, suggests an ideology of capital, favoring one factor in production over another. What is commonly called capitalism is often characterized by separation of ownership and labor, and a hierarchical employer-employee relationship (not to mention banksters and annoying over-commercialization).
A market could have these things – but a market itself is just a space of buying and selling. With a dispersal of economic power, more people have the power to buy and sell.
Some anarchists disagree. They think that the existence of a market means people will use their accumulated capital to take advantage of others.
The amount of wealth people have will never be equal and no attempt at perfect economic equality should be made, but when people are economically secure and value freedom highly they will protect their freedom, not sell it, so there would be nobody for the rich to take advantage of.
Economic security is one cornerstone of autonomy, and market anarchism shows its egalitarian nature as it aims for more generalized prosperity.
But action always proceeds from values and a free society must have the values of solidarity and mutual aid – part of a complete package of upholding individual autonomy. The sovereignty of the individual requires individuals to have power over their own lives.
The value of mutual aid – helping people when they need it and expecting they will do the same for you – has been demonstrated in the wake of Hurricane Sandy. Many first-hand reports underscore the lack of help from government agencies or the Red Cross. But a massive community response through personal connections and local organizations has arisen. A big one is the Occupy movement, which declared its intention to Occupy Sandy and launched massive efforts to provide relief. The benefit of motivated individuals drawing on local knowledge and networks to help each other has proved to be of immense value.
Anarchism envisions an active civil life of voluntary organizations operating on libertarian principles – social action that fills the gaps now held open by authority and its impact on personal life. Growing the libertarian social sphere makes the anarchist society more viable.
Getting to the world where no authority is recognized as legitimate will not be easy. The state and authoritarian structures are deeply rooted. But by dealing honestly and effectively with today’s problems, libertarians can invite participation in exciting and innovative paths toward liberty. In doing so, we prepare people for government which governs not at all – by motivating them to prepare themselves.