I took a risk by posting this article on anarchy. Few people, hardly any in fact, have any idea what capitalism is, much less anarchism. But as Dylan Thomas wrote, “Do not go gentle into that good night.” I never have. So, for anyone who's interested, here are a few words about anarchism. I'll save capitalism for another post.
First, what anarchism is not. It is not what transpires when some hoodlum throws bricks through a Starbucks window or spray paints a symbol on an office building. Anarchism is not synonymous with chaos and disorder. And anarchism certainly doesn't have anything to do with anarcho-syndicalism, that failed political philosophy that became famous during the Spanish Civil War.
People can co-opt a word and frequently do, but that doesn't change its meaning. Plenty of Christians have killed, claiming it was part of their god's plan, or even that their god told them to. That doesn't change the meaning of Christianity one wit. The Strategic Air Command says “Peace is Our Mission.” Just because they use the words doesn't make it true. Words are only metaphors for ideas, for tiny electrical impulses in human brains, and they are very inaccurate metaphors at that. This is one reason people can argue so heatedly and finally, at some point, find that what they were arguing about was not at all what they thought they were – it was all just a misunderstanding.
Anarchy comes from the Greek anarkhos and simply means “without a ruler.” Rulers force people to do what they do not want to do, and prohibit them from doing what they would like to do by threat or actual use of violence and force. We anarchists believe it is wrong to aggress upon others, that it is wrong to initiate violence upon another. That doesn't mean that we have any disagreement with having some means to govern the manner in which people act toward one another or to defend oneself or others, but that we do not believe it to be a morally tenable position to support a State or any governing body that holds a monopoly on the use of force within a given territory. Because the very nature of the state, at its most basic, is to threaten and use violence to enforce its dictates, one who holds that there is no moral justification to initiate violence and aggression against others cannot be anything other than an anarchist.
To disagree with that last statement one must either say that the state does not rely on the threat and use of violence to enforce its dictates, or one must say that, at times, the use of force and violence against others, to aggress upon them, is justified and morally correct.
Arguing against the first tenet is a non-starter. In the twentieth century alone states around the globe used the ultimate violence – killing their own citizens – on over 200,000,000 individuals. And no, this does not include those killed in wars. This is state violence against its own citizens to enforce state-sanctioned policies. For a matter as small as a parking ticket, should the “offender” continue to refuse the fines and the court appearances the state will demand, the end game will certainly include violence at the hands of a person in a state-issue uniform. The basic, foundational nature of the state is force and violence, pure and simple.
Then there are those who will say that using force and violence is acceptable under certain circumstances. Criminals would surely agree.
A person needs money. Not having it, he takes it from someone who does. Because the person who has the money may not want to give it to the other, some use of force, of violence, will have to be employed to separate the owner from his property.
On the other side of the same coin, other criminals, those of the public sort who work for the State, first pass a law giving themselves the right to take the property of another. Most, the Dick Cheneys of the world not included, would agree that it is wrong to take from someone what is rightfully his (or hers). That has been understood for thousands of years and has enabled societies to grow through millennia. (See a previous blog post for more on this.) Anarchists do not believe that the principle of the right of private property, the strictures against theft and killing, are negated by majority vote, by the divine right of kings, or any other political rationalization. Principles are principles. Wrong is wrong.
But, even though some might agree that the principle of non-violence is good, they say it's impractical; it will never work. We anarchists are even called “Utopian,” as if that's a bad thing. But what has practicality got to do with one's beliefs and moral principles? We will never rid the world of the evil that men do, but does that stop one from being against evil? Should we not do everything in our power to avoid it and rid the world of it? Just as there will always be private criminals, there will always be public criminals: men who desire political power over others to use it to their advantage. Being an anarchist simply means I believe that to be wrong and that I will not support his efforts, even if what that person would do in power is to my benefit.
We might also reconsider the axiom that anarchy will never work. Do we not have anarchy within government and even at the very top – among governments themselves? There is no central authority to settle disputes within the United States national government. Congress disagrees with the Executive; the Executive disagrees with the Judicial, and they all disagree internally within their own jurisdictions, Yet there is no authority that stands above them to enforce one decision or another. In the United States we have accepted that the Supreme Court is the referee in disagreements in the interpretation of laws and regulations, but this has developed by standard practice and is a perfect example of how disputes are resolved within anarchy.
States (meaning countries) answer to no one. There is a deliberative body, but in the end, there is no super-legal means to force one state to do what other states would like. This is anarchy. I would posit that those who are against anarchy, to be perfectly consistent, must favor an over-arching one-world government.
And, as an aside, for those who say anarchy could never and has never worked in human society, I would respond that we had anarchy in the western territories of the United States before states and governments were formed. Contrary to popular belief, created by mythology and movies, the west was not that wild. For the most part people were civil and settled disputes amicably. In Law for the Elephant: Property and Social Behavior on the Overland Trail (John Phillip Reid, 1996) Mr. Reid documents how, for the greatest part, settlers respected contracts and property rights and settled disputes in a civilized and amicable manner absent any form of government or state-imposed law enforcement. Even between the settlers and Native Americans, deaths numbered in the low hundreds on each side during the entire settlement period, even though the people moving across the country during those decades numbered in the millions. (That's not to say that literally millions of Native Americans weren't killed, but that was at the hand of government (State) forces, not the settlers. For the most part, the extermination of Native Americans was a policy pursued by the government in support of the railroads and other businesses and industries with political connections to government.)
And bank robberies? The mythology says the untamed, ungoverned west was rife with robberies at every turn. Except it wasn't. Researchers can find only eight (8) bank robberies in the 40 years we count as the great move westward. There are plenty of examples of societies that existed for centuries without central governmental authorities. For more interesting reading, check out this article by Daniel Hawkins.
Do I believe that anarchy can ever, will ever be achieved? No. Evil will always exist, but we resist it nonetheless. The same with the State. But even if the moral argument – the use of force and violence is wrong in all cases except defense – did not exist, there is another. Mark Corske in Engines of Domination: Political Power and the Human Emergency makes the point that government is simply unsustainable. He says that human beings are, by nature, domesticators. By that he means that we make tools and we harness external sources of energy – mostly by domesticating plants and animals. Political power was a later innovation, based on domestication, when groups of men learned how to domesticate small groups of people. Like domesticated animals, those people eventually came to believe that they could not live any other way.
But, says Corske, to harness any source of energy you have to have some kind of engine – a method to convert human energy of the community into authority and privilege for the rulers at the expense of the community and its habitat. As with any manipulation of a natural system, there are unintended consequences. In the case of subjugating people with political power, those unintended consequences include war and the race to find greater means of destruction. Power has to expand because it exhausts the riches of the region it occupies and has to move on to others. It inevitably damages and eventually destroys the habitat. We are on a course to an unsustainable world at the hands of governments that are working hand-in-hand with world financial powers to squeeze the life out of those who sustain them.
If the institution of The State isn't ended for moral reasons, it will bring itself to an end, and the rest of us with it.