Anarchy is Moral Order

Anarchy Is Moral Order

As I argued in my previous post, anyone who cares about morality needs a good answer to the amoralist challenge posed by someone like Stirner. As I also said there, this is especially true for those moralists who are also anarchists, since a morality without such an answer begins to look a good deal like the domination anarchism resists.

Here I will stress again that this challenge is especially pressing for anarchists, and that this is because anarchism depends upon morality. This is true both as a conceptual matter, and as a practical necessity for any stable commitment to anarchism.

That anarchism depends upon morality doesn’t establish morality’s claims. It could still be true that the amoralist challenge is unassailable. This would just give us reason to join Stirnerite Dora Marsden in rejecting anarchism in favor of a self-elevating “archism,” in which “there is no authority but yourself” and you seek to extend that authority over others when possible.

But for an anarchist discussion of amoralist egoism, I think it’s important to have the contradiction in mind.

Anarchy & Morality: The Conceptual Connection

What do we mean by “anarchy” and “anarchism?”

Anarchy is cooperation without power. 

This does not mean the absence of competition, it does not mean the absence of coordination, and it does not mean the absence of rules. It means that these things occur in a way that does not involve the subordination of one person to another person or group of persons. 

This subordination can occur through aggression, in which one person initiates force against another. It can also occur through domination, in which less-direct forms of coercion make it such that one person must consistently follow the commands of another.

A full discussion of aggression and domination would need to say much more. I won’t be doing that here. However, I will note a couple of important distinctions that are necessary if these rejections of aggression and domination are to be meaningful.

First, notice that rejecting aggression does not rule out all force. It rules out the initiation of force. But spelling out what is aggression and what is defense is a bit more complicated than it might seem.

The most obvious way this is true is in cases of property rights. To resist going off on a tangent there, let’s make the point in terms of something even communists agree you can own: a toothbrush.

Suppose I want to use my toothbrush for normal toothbrush things, but Max wants to paint with it. The two uses are inconsistent, and without some further incentive, I won’t consent to it being used that way.

Now suppose further that Max ignores this and takes my toothbrush with the intent of so-using it. I see him, grab his arm, and yank it out of his hands.

“Ah! You say you reject aggression, but here you’ve initiated force!,” Max whines. This might sound silly, but note that while Max was not touching me at any point, I did grab his arm.

The reason Max’s complaint is specious is because the toothbrush was mine, I had title to it. Thus, he aggressed by grabbing what was mine.

But what kind of title is that? It’s not just the legal title; surely no anarchist would count as aggression taking back stolen property when the state endorsed that theft. We can extend this point to say it is also not socially-recognized title, it is a kind of moral title

You can probably see where this is going. Before getting there explicitly, consider a similar distinction necessary in talking about domination.

Domination involves someone being able to command another person, and that other person being compelled to obey them. It’s important in talking about domination that what must be obeyed is the person, not a principle. What matters is that the dominant party has commanded something, not the reasons for that command.

This distinction is important. Suppose that the rules of some association prohibit Max from bullying others in it. Suppose further that those same rules are shared by most other associations, and Max can’t really find a safe place to engage in bullying others. Does this mean that Max is dominated, since the social order effectively compels him to not bully others?

No – a principle of non-domination is itself the grounds on which Max is prevented from bullying, not just that people don’t want him to be a bully. He is compelled in the name of reasons, not persons.

The point is this: to make sense of a rejection of aggression, we need a way to distinguish aggression from mere force, even when it is not directly against our bodies. To make sense of a rejection of domination, we need a way to distinguish domination from mere social compulsion. In the first case, we do this by appeal to moral title. In the second, we do so by a distinction between persons and principles.

In both cases, the necessary distinction rests on moral concepts. 

Without any morality to which we can appeal, the distinctions fade away, and rejections of aggression and domination start to become meaningless. Thus, “anarchism” becomes an incoherent position, and the yearned-for “anarchy” an impossible state of affairs.

Anarchy & Morality: The Practical Necessity

Perhaps the Stirnerite anarchist can find some way of formulating the idea of non-aggression and non-domination without appeal to moral claims. This would make anarchy a conceptual possibility without morality, and so their amoralist anarchism would become coherent.

Or perhaps they might reduce anarchism to a certain attitude towards institutions and social arrangements that rejects states and anything else moralists might regard as “aggression” and “domination,” even if the Stirnerite rejects “aggression” or “domination” as descriptors of what they oppose. If this could be spelled out clearly, it might also be a way to make anarchism coherent without morality.

I am skeptical. Instead of litigating that point further, though, I’ll stress a second one: morality is still a practical necessity for anyone’s anarchism to be a stable commitment.

I don’t mean this in the lazy way of “ah, but why would you even want to be an anarchist, instead of just trying to rule over other people?” There are countless good reasons for an amoralist egoist to prefer anarchy, especially with market anarchist economic analysis in mind.

Take morality totally out of the picture. Would you rather be a god-emperor in the ancient world, or, say, a bookseller in the Oklahoma City of 2021?

The perks of being a god-emperor are pretty obvious: you can casually decide to have giant pyramids or statues dedicated to you and your friends, you can have plays performed in your living room every day, and just generally demand anything of anyone you know and have it provided for you. All you need to do is make sure don’t get overthrown by your subjects or conquered by some other god-emperor.

But a little reflection will put you solidly in Oklahoma City 2021. Many diseases that might prove the god-emperor’s mortality would mean no more than a weekend’s hospital stay for the bookseller. Whatever messages the god-emperor wants to send to another god-emperor halfway around the world will take a while to get there, with little certainty that it even will. Whatever message the Oklahoma City bookseller wants to send to send to his friend in Japan will take about a second. And the plays performed for the god-emperor probably can’t hold a candle to the films of David Lynch, easily available on the bookseller’s phone. 

It’s tempting to respond “Okay, but I’d rather be the god-emperor plus have all that technology,” but this misses the point. The technological explosion that allowed for all those things was institutionally incompatible with god-emperors. It could occur only in an environment where governments eased up on their extraction and regulation enough for market processes to do what they’ve done. 

Given that governments still very much engage in practices of extraction and regulation that hold back innovation, this gives us an amoralist egoist reason to prefer being the average person in a future anarchy even to being President of a liberal-democratic state.

And a mature amoralist egoist will also recognize that true friendship requires some level of equality: many people will fawn over the god-emperor for his favor, but few will just enjoy his company. Even for those who do, the god-emperor can never be too sure. Well before morality comes into the picture, there are solid reasons to reject total power.

But the real problem comes when we see that our usual choice is not between total power and total freedom. Instead, it’s generally on the margins: a new or intensified instance of aggression or domination versus no such change or eliminating (or softening) an instance of aggression.

It’s of course true that protectionism harms people living under governments that engage in it. But that doesn’t mean that the people in protected industries don’t receive short-term benefits. If moral considerations are categorically blocked from view, plenty of rent-seeking seems perfectly rational. 

And I don’t just mean familiar things like a tariff here or an occupational license there. Writing under the pseudonym Tak Kak, Stirnerite James L. Walker defended the murder of Chinese migrant workers by white workers who feared a threat to their income. 

Obviously, the broader political and economic order was a much bigger obstacle to those workers’ livelihood than immigrants. Indeed, immigration to the United States economically benefits virtually all Americans, including those white workers. 

Professing a form of individualist anarchism, Walker probably understood all of that. But the question here wasn’t about all immigration in general, and “just overthrow the existing political and economic order!” wasn’t an immediate option. Murder was.

This is an extreme example, but many temptations to aggression and domination will be rational on the margin if moral considerations are blocked from view.  

Pledging Allegiance to the Black Flag

That said, there is also an easy fix here to maintain the amoralist egoist’s commitment to anarchism: a personal attachment to the anarchist vision. With such an attachment, acts incompatible with anarchism will taste sour, and even the amoralist egoist will accept losses that could only be avoided by aggression and domination.

But attachments come and go. When I was a child, I rooted for the Dallas Mavericks, since they were the closest NBA team to Oklahoma. Once Oklahoma City got an NBA team, my attachment to the Mavericks faded. 

For the amoralist egoist, anarchy is not a “fixed idea,” it is completely contingent on arbitrary appreciation. Once class positions or social circles change, or perhaps even just when boredom sets in, moral reasons won’t be there to stop anarchism from going the way of the Mavericks.

Here the amoralist egoist might protest: “Sure. But for the meantime, I am committed to anarchism, and I don’t see that changing any time soon.”

In response, I’ll just say that I think most amoralist egoist anarchists sell themselves short. 

I agree that most Stirnerites will probably stay anarchists, and I agree that most of them won’t even have lapses like Walker’s. Benjamin Tucker, also a Stirnerite, wrote furiously against both Marsden’s “archism” and Walker’s defense of racial terror.

In imagining themselves losing their attachment to anarchism, the Stirnerite is likely to find that prospect horrifying, or at least highly regrettable. This is the case even though their interests, amorally construed, would then be different after such a change.

I think those Stirnerites that this well-describes already have what is practically necessary for a stable commitment to anarchism. But this is because they are moralists. Instinctively, they revolt at the idea that anarchism is yet another phantasm preventing them from achieving their full potential. There is something real that makes it different from their passing attachment to a sports team.

Of course, they also have explicit beliefs to the contrary. People are complicated, and we aren’t always aware of where our real allegiances lie. It is difficult to read Benjamin Tucker without thinking this was a person morally outraged by the state and its crimes, regardless of how he officially spelled that out.

Uncovering those more implicit beliefs is a process of self-honesty: when it comes down to it, can you confidently say that it would not be worse for you to abandon anarchism for some other political passion, if your class position or social circles changed in such a way that this new positioning might better fit you? That nothing would be lost if you were to, arbitrarily, become a Maoist or an integralist or a run-of-the-mill Democrat or whatever else, since no political perspective is objectively better than any other? 

If there is a nagging feeling that yes, this would be a real error even if such a repositioning would be easier, there may be something about your commitment to anarchism that is stuck deeper than any commitment to the Dallas Mavericks. Perhaps this is because it is a fixed idea, clouding your perception and turning you against yourself. Or perhaps it is instead a fixed point in the actual nature of things, a feature of moral reality to which you are accountable.

But if my last post is correct, the difference between those two possibilities might not be so important. 

So here is where we are: without a solution to the amoralist challenge, morality is just another system of domination, and thus incompatible with anarchism. Yet an amoralist anarchism is also not an option, either conceptually or practically. Thus, answering Stirner’s challenge is necessary if “anarchy” is to make any sense and anarchism is to be anything other than a passing delusion.

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