The Conscience of an Anarchist: A Review

If I had to describe “The Conscience of an Anarchist” in one word, it would be beautiful. Gary Chartier’s 100 page anarchist manifesto concisely and elegantly explains the way anarchists analyze public policy discussions, such as foreign policy, the drug war, regulation, subsidies, education, the two party system, infrastructure, the criminal justice system, police violence, and more. The book truly accomplishes its tag line and explains “Why it’s time to say good bye to the state and build a free society.”

Chartier brilliantly and compellingly dismantles arguments against anarchy. He shows why the social contract is nonsense. Why the state isn’t needed for law and order. Why the state doesn’t help the poor, but actually helps the wealthy and politically entrenched elite. Why the state creates more murder and theft than it stops. And, most importantly, why mutually advantageous, voluntary arrangements solve the ills of society better than any state could dream of doing.

On the state’s legal monopoly on force, Gary reminds us, “A state by definition exercises monopoly power. And monopolies are notoriously inefficient. When a firm can legally prevent anyone else from engaging in the same work it performs, it will charge exorbitantly high prices and provide poor service.” The state, by nature, is bad at stuff. Why do we want it to protect us from us those who want to hurt us?

Chartier argues there are more efficient alternatives to the state when it comes to defense. “Individual groups of neighbors and workers will have similar reasons to avoid engaging in violence….it will be easier for communities to maintain anti-aggressive norms and for neighbors who disapprove of others’ aggressive behavior to sanction them for their unreasonable actions.” Simply put, there is no reason to think the state is capable of protecting us. It lacks the motive provided by competition and the knowledge provided by local institutions. People, coming together voluntarily, through for profit firms, mutual aid assistance, or just socially created norms, can do the state’s job much better.

But what about the poor? Ah, the question that haunts the anti-statist’s nightmares. However, it’s not because we have no good answer. It’s because the answer is so freaking obvious that we question society’s sanity for thinking the state helps poor people. It’s impossible for a book like this to go through the detailed economic arguments that explain the effects of state policies, but Chartier shows what the policies end up doing, and you’ll notice a trend.

How do states harm poor people? Oh let me count the ways…patent and copyright laws, which impede competition, immigration restrictions, which lock people out of opportunities, licenses, which prevent people from entering the market, regulation that is often originated in rent seeking, the money monopoly, which helps large banks and currency manipulators, credit laws, which crush small banks through capitalization requirements, tariffs, which protect large companies from foreign competition, transportation, which helps big box corporations through highway subsidies, urban sprawl policies, which enrich construction companies, research subsidies, which hook the public on risky investments, limited liability laws that protect large corporations from lawsuits, labor laws that restrict the ability of unions to defend their workers, bailouts that directly redistribute wealth from the poor to the rich, eminent domain, which rewards land to political donors, a tax code that can be gamed by the wealthy, the military industrial complex that enriches weapons manufacturers, and more.

What Chartier shows is that the state is a tool the wealthy use to extract, suppress, and impoverish. The politically connected game the system to leverage economic forces in their favor. Governments reward economic privilege to some, leaving others behind. This is why anarchy is the power elite’s worst nightmare. Without a state to restrict competition and enforce large inequalities of power and wealth, today’s dominant figures would be on a level playing field. Contrary to the popular belief that anarchy would create a power vacuum waiting to be filled by the elite, Gary shows us this has already happened and that more and more power is being sucked up by the wealthy and connected.

Unfortunately states don’t just stop at impoverishing. They also kill and conquer. About war and moral equality, Chartier writes, “The most basic anarchist moral conviction, I think, is that no one gets a free pass where morality is concerned. If it’s unjust for you to do something in a given set of circumstances, then it’s unjust for me to the do the same thing in relevantly similar circumstances.” But this is not at all how the state operates. Most of all when it comes to their desire for empire. “By contrast, the state seems to operate on the premise that, once in possession, of the right sort of mandate, people can morally do all sorts of things they couldn’t do otherwise.”

This is fundamentally the premise of all war. That some, the state, can pillage and kill, where we, the citizens, can’t. The foundational inequality of moral authority embraced in war making is what perpetuates the constant violence carried out by the state. Anarchists recognize this contradiction, which is why “anarchists say such a decisive no to war.” While “states kill and main and destroy,” people coming together under voluntary arrangements (aka anarchy) to trade, aid, and create. Chartier is right when he says, “Anarchy doesn’t offer utopia. But it does offer more peace and safety than the state.”

The state inherently infringes on our personal freedom. It coerces us into increasingly abandoning our own personal convictions and adopt ones that the state deems acceptable. Every single act of the state encroaches on our personal freedom, replacing it with submission to people in the power. Gary explains, “The state’s assaults on personal freedom never end. It’s insatiable.” The evils of prohibition, of puritanical laws enforcing the state’s code of ethics (no matter how fucked up) on innocent people, of victimless crime laws, of the state inserting itself into your personal relationships and bedroom. It never ends.

In the section on personal freedom, Chartier also discusses the evils of the criminal justice system. “The criminal law is the most crucial agency by which the state exercises arbitrary power over people, because of the disconnect between accrual harm to real people, on the one hand, and, on the other, the criminal law’s definitions of offense and the sanctions it imposes.” In yet another instance of institutional biases, the state’s criminal justice system focuses on the state, rather than the victim. This is why Gary advocates a tort-based system, which compensates victims for the crime and removes the power of the state.

While “Conscience of An Anarchist” is filled with numerous, fantastic consequential reasons for anarchism, Chartier points out other reasons to be an anarchist. There is an important ethical belief that drives his anarchism. He beautifully writes, “I am anarchist because I believe there’s no natural right to rule. I believe people are equal in essential dignity and worth, which means, in turn, that they have equal moral standing.” If I had to sum up the core of the anarchist conviction, it would be this.

I believe the most important part of the book comes at the end, where Chartier discusses how to get to anarchy. “Attempts to reform and reorient the state don’t hold much promise…The good news, though, is that ordinary people can craft and maintain effective ways of living together and solving human problems in the state’s absence….I suspect that the most effective ways to move beyond the state may involve practical experiments in doing without it right now.”

He provides a list of various strategies to achieve anarchy, each with positive and negatives:

  1. Start freeing your mind
  2. Build liberating friendships
  3. Change small-scale institutions
  4. Help others get out of the state’s grasp
  5. Engage in litigation
  6. Pursue electoral strategies
  7. Lobby
  8. Build coalitions
  9. Support secession movements
  10. Create alternative institutions
  11. Participate in the counter-economy
  12. Engage in non-violent protest
  13. Put alternative options on display

Chartier puts forth a vision of nothing but freedom. There is no top-down model. No imposed design. No central planning. “I don’t have a plan, and if I did, I wouldn’t want to impose it on everyone else. The good news, perhaps, the best news, about anarchy is that there are more ways than you or I or anyone else can imagine to organize communities and solve problems.” There is nothing but freedom and what you and I choose to do with it.

What I find to be the most appealing aspect of anarchism is the opportunity to exercise the truly human traits of creativity and self-direction. Chartier says, “Anarchy will give people the freedom to experiment, to figure out what works, to test ideas and ideologies and figure out what happens when they’re actually put in practice.” What can be more inspirational and motivating than that?

Not only does “Conscience of an Anarchist” tell us why “it’s time to say goodbye to the state and build a free society,” it tells us why we need to say goodbye to the state and what a free society has in store for us. “Working together, we can help to create a world in which free people can live together in free, vibrant, creative communities….see you there.”

Support C4SS with Gary Chartier’s “The Conscience of an Anarchist”

Anarchy and Democracy
Fighting Fascism
Markets Not Capitalism
The Anatomy of Escape
Organization Theory