Tuesday, 15 November 2016


Anarchisms are highly diverse in their visions of the society to replace both the State and other forms of social life which they judge undesirable, including among them anarcho-capitalism, mutualism, syndicalism and directly-democratic communes, not to speak of anarcho-primitivism.

Anarcho-capitalism is close to minarchist libertarianism in its focus on absolute self-ownership and property rights, yet abandons even the minimal State for a privatisation of the protection of persons and property.  Mutualism sees individual producers working with means of production held in common, and exchanging products according to the labour-time invested in them.  Syndicalism envisions workplace democracy, with wider decisions taken at the level of syndical federations by workplace delegates.  Communes and social spaces tend to be highly localised communities where all products are for public consumption within the community, and group decisions are ideally deliberative; a commune may relate capitalistically to the outside economy, or trade with other communes, or be self-contained.  Anarcho-primitivism aims at abandoning large-scale civilisation in favour of small bands living directly in the natural world, and takes inspiration from hunter-gatherer societies.

Anarchisms thus range from the highly individualistic anarcho-capitalism through to thoroughly collectivist (although ideally democratic) communes.  Their economic organisation ranges from capitalistic, through mixed and regulated political economies, to communes embodying the motto "from each according to his ability, to each according to his need."  What unites these diverse anarchisms is their commitment to organising and justifying social forms from the bottom-up by way of voluntary associations and mutual commitments, as against imposed relations of authority and interference.  Typical anarchist bywords are freedom and autonomy.  What is most notable is the reluctance of anarchists to concede some freedom or authority to the State in order that it secures the remainder for them; anarchists aim to live in total enjoyment of liberty and rights and autonomy, relating to each other by way of contract or consensus, rather than by authority or coercion.  Anarchists want for people to run their lives for themselves, as empowered citizens, not to be governed and have social functions performed for them by distant legislatures and bureaucracies.  They are not against social organisation, but seek to organise without establishing domination or concentrations of power.  Anarchist political practice is typically prefigurative, aiming to embody their ideals, as opposed to Leninist, whereby a strong, disciplined party is built for taking power and imposing social transformation under a dictatorship.

The reasons anarchists give for opposing the State are similarly varied, including those based on: individual liberty; freedom of conscience; pacifism; self-defence; egoism; property rights; lack of democratic engagement in social and economic life; desire to live co-operatively; opposition to all hierarchy, authority and domination; alienation from the State as the preserve of the wealthy or powerful, as controlled by and for the benefit of capitalist interests, or as the cause and source of the ills of society.  Anarchists often oppose not only the State and its institutions, but other social forms too, with capitalism being the most prominent one, but also sexism and racism.  For some anarchists with a strong socialist or communitarian influence, capitalism is the primary evil, and the State condemned as the enforcer or enabler of capitalism, a view which is widespread in contemporary alternative-globalisation movements.  During the Soviet Union, statist authoritarian communism was also a prominent target of anarchist propaganda.

The anarchist is opposed to the existence of States in principle because the deficiences she sees in them she believes to be inherent in States as such.  This definition sets apart the true anarchist from others who resort to anarchist methods of social organisation or action against the State only when certain States contingently offend their principles, and their words and actions may therefore be aimed at causing the State to change so that it conforms with them.

Anarchist methods, again, are varied, and range from direct attacks against State agencies and symbols, to "dropping out" of mainstream society in order to construct practical alternative social forms.  Three main classes of anarchist activity may be distinguised: propaganda, which seeks to promote anarchist critiques and alternative visions by communicating them; Direct Action, which is activity aimed deliberately at shutting down mainstream social forms, or at demonstrating or constructing alternatives whereby people conduct social functions autonomously and without authority relationships; and "propaganda of the deed" which is action aimed at inspiring or catalysing a popular anarchist rising without in itself qualifying as Direct Action.

While "propaganda of the deed," what one might call "Indirect Action," historically gave the world bombings, kidnappings and assassinations, it is not at all essential to anarchism or very prominent among anarchists today.  For example, shutting down G8 or WTO meetings is most often justified by anarchists not as propaganda of the deed (being expressive or propagandistic action with no practical value in itself) but as hampering the evils of capitalist (or neo-liberal) globalisation, while at the same time protest camps demonstrate anarchist living in practice.  Thus propaganda and Direct Action have largely displaced Indirect Action as the modus operandi of anarchist movements, although the latter often accompanies anarchist protests and is seen, for instance, in the ritualised destruction of corporate outlets.

The most prominent contemporary anarchist movements, away from the anti-capitalist protests, are those factories and communes (e.g. squatted social spaces) which drop out of the capitalist economy in order to self-organise their social and economic life on a basis of deliberative democracy, along with activist groups dedicated to specific sectors (e.g. news media) which produce an alternative to mainstream, often marketised sources.  The militia, or "patriot" movement of the United States shares some aspects with anarchism, being focussed on gun rights, opposition to taxation, and freedom from oppressive government agencies, although it tends to style itself as committed to Constitutional rights and freedoms that the State establishment habitually infringes.  Probably the historically most significant realised anarchist communities were the communes and syndicates of revolutionary Spain around the time of the Civil War.

In order to assess anarchist alternatives to the State and other social forms, we must consider whether anarchists' alternative models of society are sustainable without State-like institutions, and without introducing new deficiencies and problems just as bad as the deficiencies for which they condemn the State and the mainstream capitalist economy.  Since it is admitted that States do in practice in many times and places violate rights and fail to promote social justice, we will consider only true anarchists, those who oppose what is inherent in States, and who admit no possibility of a reformed State meeting their ideals.

The simplest conception of the State is that organisation which seeks to establish for itself a monopoly on coercion within fixed boundaries and to impose some conception of justice within its jurisdiction.  Ideally, the State protects rights, enforces justice impartially, and acts only in accordance with the law as publicly and previously declared.  The worry about anarchism is that without a State, there will be no impartial enforcement of justice and no rule of law.  Moreover, the claim that no State has or can approach this ideal to any tolerable degree is not immediately convincing.  While anarchists might accuses Statists of being insufficiently open-minded about the possibilities of non-State society, Statists might well turn the accusation around and accuse anarchists of an unwarranted scepticism about the State as an instrument of social justice, as well as a utopian attitude which fails to respond realistically to the problems of social deviance.  Should we really abandon a State which approximates impartiality and rule of law in favour of anarchism?

Let us take individualist and collectivist anarchisms separately.  Individualist anarchists who are anarcho-capitalists, like Murray Rothbard, oppose the State even in its judicial and policing functions because they view the taxation which supports them as unjustified demands, theft in effect, and assert the right of individuals to organise their own protection and settlement of disputes.  Violation of rights is therefore intrinsic to the State in even its most benign functions, and the State has been accused of implementing a "monopoly of crime."

Rothbard proposes that civil and contractual disputes be resolved by independent arbitrators who would sell their services on the market.  Lacking coercive enforcement of their decisions, this function would be carried out by means of social disapproval and commercial ostracism.  Protection of person and property could be carried out by security firms selling their services, perhaps consituted as selling insurance against crime.

It cannot scarcely be doubted that such a highly unstable society would soon degenerate into a battle between feuding warlords and clans for resources and power, in the image of Somalia.  This is the popular image of anarchy, the condition, or something like it, which most Statists believe would ensue should a State collapse.  In an anarcho-capitalist society, the weak and poor would be subject to exploitation and oppression without limit, since they would be unable to defend themselves, or pay to be defended by protection businesses (or rackets).  There would be nothing to induce so-called protection agencies from aggressing and aggrandising themselves.  Where there is no State authority in the contemporary world, as in the slums of South American megapolises, there is instead constant gang warfare, funded by the drug trade.  In less densely populated areas outside State control, like historic rural Corsica, social relations have been regulated by codes of revenge, which did not prevent a very high murder rate.  Civil peace without a monopoly on legitimate force would be as difficult to uphold between individuals as it is between States at the international level, which is another classic case of the upshot of anarchy.  Periods and zones of peace and co-operation can occur among States, but who would want to recreate this situation at the civil level just because a functioning State taxes and enforces its authority?  In the end, anarcho-capitalism is unsustainable since its operation would be so unstable as to tend to undermine the very individual rights and protections which are supposed to justify it.

Moving on to collectivist anarchism, here are six problems for an anarchist society, organised by direct democracy and subsidiarity (deciding decisions at the lowest practical level), and regulated without organised coercion:

i) what to do about "social deviance" such as crime and violence;

ii) whether there will be the rule of law, with law as a public and accountable institution;

iii) how to defend anarchist society against violent external enemies;

iv) whether intense levels of political interest and commitment could be maintained by the mass of people at the local level;

v) how to achieve efficient and democratic co-ordination of society without reintroducing authority relationships;

vi) and lastly, how to reconcile commitment to democracy and consensus with extra- democratic tactics such as Direct Action.

It is not entirely clear how anarchist society would cope with social deviance such as crime and violence, and other anti-social behaviour.  There would have to be a great deal of liberty to live as one pleased, with no organised social coercion to resort to for the regulation of social relations.  Anarchists have tended to obfuscate this problem by arguing that, in anarchist society, many inducements to crime, especially property crimes, would be missing.  But there still remain whole classes of crime and violence, for instance domestic violence and rape, bullying and blackmail, drug-dealing and addiction, and cheating the system.  In a number of ways, contemporary anarchist movements do not have to deal very much with such problems: their communities are typically small in scale (or large in scale only for short periods, such as specific protests) and the participants are committed to the goals of anarchist living.

If anarchism were to be extended from small pockets of activists to the general mode of life for a whole society, then it would have to deal with the many people who would not be devoted to anarchist ideals, and thus to deal with many of the everyday problems of any mass society.  In order for anarchist conflict resolution and policy on criminals to be fair, there would have to be a set of rules impartially administered.  But straight away, this would be to introduce an element of rigidity and authority into the community.  In a community that had no set rules, and just decided collectively how to act as problems arose, there would otherwise be no rule of law, but rather the rule of the people's whims; no independent judge; and no clear public declaration of what is and what is not permitted, and how infractions will be punished.  The benefit of a State is that it can provide a fixed set of laws impartially enforced and publicly known.  Can there be the rule of law under anarchism?

An anarchist society would also have great difficulties in organising for self-defence against a violent and organised external enemy.  The organisation of a disciplined, centrally organised military force would be directly contrary to anarchist principles, and being with it all the potential for the corrupting force of power which anarchists fear.  This was the great dilemma for the Spanish anarchists in the Civil War, as they were unable to reconcile their anarchist social philosophy with the need for military defence against Franco's armies.  They finally threw their lot in with the Republican government but were subsequently suppressed by the Communists and moderates as they had given up their independent base.  On the other hand, it might be possible for anarchist forces to operate in a decentralised, independent way, for instance like partisans behind enemy lines, but this mode of defence would not do much to preserve an anarchist society, but only keep the anarchists alive long enough to fight back and perhaps refound it.

Anarchism rejects politics as a separate sphere of social life, the preserve of a political class who make and implement the decisions, but rather seeks to bring political debate, organisation and power back to the level of people's everyday lives, although by bringing politics back to that level and relying on consensus rather than authority, the power of some over others is dissolved.  But there is a valid question mark over how interested and committed people would be in running local politics for themselves, where it is a matter of collecting garbage and so on, and in politics generally.  People would put in different amounts of time towards informing themselves and persuading others about political matters, so that consensus democracy would become a question of influence rather than a consensus of equal and independent citizens.  There would be no guarantee that fairness would be the norm rather than self-interest and deception.  There would be no institutional safeguards, no checks and balances, to guarantee the validity of the decision-making process.  Plus, there is a likelihood that, given a great diversity of desires and opinions, having to decide every issue directly at the lowest level would be a recipe for division and indecision rather than consensus and coherent policy-making.  Even if policies were made, there would be no guarantee of their faithful application.

It is not at all clear how subsidiarity would work in practice, due to contradictions among anarchist values.  For example, a society with a just distribution of work and income would most likely have to exhibit some degree of co-ordination above the local level, but this would come into conflict with local control, as would economic efficiency, for example in the provision of public goods like healthcare and distribution research funding (as well as defence, already noted above).  Much that is most efficiently organised with markets or large-scale bureaucracies would have to be organised in a piecemeal fashion, or else by delegates with an appreciation of the big picture, as opposed to mere messengers of their local community.  Selecting delegates to a supra-local committee however, would be to reintroduce the separation of politics into a sphere endowed with authority, and from which most people were alienated.  But then, who has the expertise, time and interest to concern themselves with flood defences, what drugs to buy for the health service, and tax harmonisation?  Anarchism is committed to small-scale politics, but so much that needs to be done requires a larger scale and specialist attention.  This suggests that anarchism romanticises politics somewhat, in the idea that everything that needs to be done can be done directly by all local people together.  The realities of administration would most likely lead to the development of elected specialists dedicated to administering specific problems in a joint way both win and across local communities, which is precisely what anarchism condemns.

Anarchists resort to Direct Action in the belief that established political structures are unwilling or unable to provide social justice or give people the freedom to run their lives for themselves.  But in a society with liberal democratic norms, Direct Action is most often frowned upon as a circumvention of democracy, for instance as the unwelcome impositions of people who cannot persuade anybody else with their arguments.  This is even more the case with anarchist violence and destruction.  Direct Action is a licence for people who feel they are being hemmed in by the system to bypass normal procedures, and assert themselves anyway.  This precedent would not necessarily just fade away in anarchist society, but could re-emerge whenever some people felt mistreated by collective decisions, leading to the kind of disorder that is another image of anarchy in the minds of many.

Thus anarchism faces a variety of problems which show themselves most only once anarchy moves beyond small activist groups to encompassing society at large.  The directness and flexibility which give anarchy its appeal have a flipside which is characterised by a difficulty in dealing with social conflict in an impartial and established manner, and with sustaining a high quality of political life, especially where expertise and co-ordination are required.  Anarchism is rather unrealistic in its vision of a local, participatory politics of everyday life.  Against the anarchist vision, there is a liberal or social-democratic vision of elected politicians arguing about public policies in terms of shared democratic values which allow for citizen engagement through association, consultation, voting and protest in a vibrant civic culture.  Within a wide latitude of liberty, people are free to associate and organise to support themselves and each other in ways in which the wider social system fails them: anarchism is best seen as an alternative for people to turn to when mainstream politics is not working for them.  However, in many ways it is not ideal for society as a whole.  While anarchism has its place as a positive ideology of community-building and DIY politics, it works best within limits and within a wider State framework that can accomplish the functions that suit it well.

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