Perhaps one of the more striking attacks against libertarian thought is the claim that it, like all other political insights, is just another variation of authority. This argument is exemplified by Engels’ “On Authority” in which he argues that revolution and organization in the anarcho-syndicalist/communist tradition is authoritarian. Revolt is construed into just another assertion of authority rather than a genuine expression of liberty. The challenge takes many forms, but its most basic premise is that all politics are authoritarian.
The claim boils down to the following proposition: casting off the chains of slavery and resisting further attempts to enslave oneself is authoritarian in the same manner that the act of enslavement itself is. In order to succeed in resisting enslavement, the argument goes, one must impose their will of resistance upon the would-be enslaver. In a “gotcha” moment, this unintuitive perspective becomes clear.
However, things are not so simple. In this argument, imposition is defined as any mere exertion of one’s will upon another, regardless of its context, intent, or consequences. The critique extends so far as to claim that defense against authority is equivalent to authority itself, rendering all social relationships authoritative by definition. It has even been argued that dispute settlement and conflict resolution are authoritarian acts, proving that liberty is impossible.
This approach loses much of its power with the introduction of some nuance, however. This account of social relations fails to differentiate between reciprocal and authoritative, absolutist actions, rendering all within the realm of authority. 1 It substitutes complexity for universality under the pretense that the former does not exist. This methodology has little sociological use for understanding power differentials and social stratification, serving merely to narrow the scope of possibility for a world of radically different composition.
To explore the nuance this perspective misses, let us classify interactions upon a gradient contrasted by the degrees of reciprocity and degrees of authority present within any given relationship. The distinction between the two poles can be summed up by the degree of bidirectionality in the control exerted by each participating party. Authority will have total unilateral subordination, while reciprocity will exhibit equivalent bilateral mutuality. A social action can be classified as authoritarian or reciprocal depending on which type of relationship that it would, if successful, establish or contribute to. To justify this divide, we can look towards a market exchange of (assumed) equivalent values.
Within the pretext that all politics are authoritarian, if I demand an apple in exchange for my orange, I am imposing my will upon the other party and subordinating them to my will. But in order for this exchange to take place without coercion, the other party must also demand an orange in exchange for their apple, subordinating me to their own will. In exchange, each is doing the same to the other as is done to themself. The outcome of these impositions is to negate each other, for they are done bilaterally. Functionally, no imposition has occured at all. While each isolated agent may be “imposing” themselves upon the other, the realized outcome is one of mutuality rather than subordination. 2 An isolated event of market exchange thus falls within the sphere of a relationship predominantly characterized by reciprocity, and is thus reciprocal.
To classify the act of exchange as an authoritarian one, one must abstract it away from the context it takes place under. “Exchange” as a concept cannot be understood as a one-party act, it demands a minimum of two participants and is necessarily a social action. Thus, it is the properties of the actions when aggregated which are significant, not their isolated instances. The act of seeking a market exchange results in reciprocity regardless of personal intentions. Consequently, the exchange of equivalent values is the establishment (even if momentarily) or perpetuation of a reciprocal relationship, rather than an authoritative one.
We can apply similar logic to authoritarian acts. In order to be classified as such, an authoritarian act must contribute to or establish a relationship of authority; in other words, it must be congruent with relationships based upon unilateral subordination. Unlike a market exchange of equivalent values where influence is mutual, an authoritarian act will predominantly exhibit characteristics of unilateral subordination. The aggregate of these actions (order and obedience) is not to nullify each other, but to stratify the involved parties. It will involve the creation and/or perpetuation of social hierarchy if successful. Once again, to classify both these and reciprocal acts as authoritarian based on the presence of “imposition” alone is to abstract away from the necessarily relational component that both are contingent upon.
Returning to Engels’ characterization of revolution as “certainly the most authoritarian thing there is; it is the act whereby one part of the population imposes its will upon the other part by means of rifles, bayonets and cannon — authoritarian means, if such there be at all”, we can apply our newfound tools.3 To be meaningfully authoritarian, a revolt must, if successful, establish or contribute to a broader sphere of authoritative relationships — or relationships based upon one being above, and another being below — unilateral subordination.
Does revolution, or any other act of revolt, when they succeed, necessarily contribute to the sphere of authority? In order to actually impose itself or subordinate another party, the revolution must not only rise up to, but exceed the degree of control exerted by the previously authoritative party. A state, by suppressing a revolution, is clearly participating in an authoritarian act — if successful, it perpetuates the existing unilaterality of control, subordinating dissidents to its will. However, a revolt (no matter the scale) which meets violence with violence, proportionally, is engaging in reciprocity: were it to succeed, it would not establish a condition of authority, but meet subordination with “subordination,” rendering it bilateral and null.4 The properties of these actions in the aggregate neutralize each other through reciprocity. The former case is authoritarian, the latter liberatory.
As is now evident, authority and its corollary, liberty, cannot be understood absent the social context which composes them. As a result, acts of resistance, defense, revolt or reciprocity are not in themselves authoritarian – they negate a relationship of authority rather than perpetuate it. Further application reveals that dispute settlement and conflict resolution are potential means to engage in reciprocal relationships. This attempt to paint all relations as authoritarian is simply a means to undermine the radicalism of anti-authoritarian thought, and it should be resisted at all turns. As the antithesis of domination, reciprocity will be the building block upon which we may revolt against and replace the current order of subservience.
- It also misses the much broader and inherently relative nature of “subordination” and “imposition,” but I would like to take the distinction beyond semantics.
- I’d like to have a small aside on the use of “imposition” and “subordination” in quotes. I disagree with their usage here at all, for they imply that “nullification” is equal to “subordination.” This distinction can be thought of in the way that an acid with pH of 4 will neutralize, not subordinate, a base with a pH of 10 and equivalent volume. A party can be said to be responding to subordination with subordination when its success actually engenders a condition of absolutism upon the unsuccessful party.
- On Authority, Frederick Engels (https://www.marxists.org/archive/marx/works/1872/10/authority.htm)
- “Reciprocity” or “resistance” is a more adequate word than “subordination” to describe this retaliatory response.