What is anarchism?
When people hear the term “anarchy” it conjures up pictures of 1970s London punks with spiky hair and drug addictions or, perhaps, people think of the anarchists of the Spanish Civil War. To many the term is synonymous with violence, chaos, instability and destruction. Since anarchism is a broad field of study, I’m not going to deny that these elements exist within the breadth of ideas that could be called “anarchist.” However, the anarchism that I’m advocating does not match these commonly held perceptions.
Anarchism literally means “without a ruler,” but anarchist thought is very diverse. The version I espouse is anarcho-pacifism, which opposes all systems of power on the basis that they are inherently violent. Anarcho-pacifism is heavily influenced by the writings of Henry David Thoreau, Leo Tolstoy and Mahamta Ghandi. My view is that this position most closely aligns with the teachings of Jesus Christ, but I’ll say more about that later. Under our current authoritarian systems, violence or the threat of violence (sometimes very indirect and subtle) is the primary method of control. Since I oppose violence, I therefore must oppose government.
But it doesn’t stop there. My view is that government is not the only, nor even the primary, violent entity. In the current system, corporations wield tremendous power and commit abhorrent acts of coercion and physical violence. It is insufficient to oppose violence by focusing solely on government when it is no longer the main source of it.
An anarcho-pacifist society is not one without any sense of structure, but one in which violence (of any form) is not used as a method of resolving disputes. This would require a radical decentralization of social structures, such that communities could make decisions based on consensus. Anarchists do not advocate chaos or the absence of rules, but simply oppose any over-arching authority or government. The familiar image of anarchistic chaos is one that is presented by statist propagandists who wish to discredit the ideology, but is not one that is advocated by its proponents nor even modelled by its practitioners. I’d argue that anarchism is what democracy should be in an ideal (admittedly utopian) state.
That’s the idea in a nutshell. Sounds far-fetched. Radical. Impractical. I know. I get it. I’m fully aware that this is an ideology or philosophical stance, rather than a practical system that could be implemented in the near future.
How I came to this position.
My route to anarchism may be different than what you might expect. I actually came to an anarchist position from a far right position and also from a conservative Christian background. This might seem counterintuitive as anarchism is generally positioned on the far left. As a young man I campaigned for the Reform Party, a populist right-wing party in Canada during the 1990s. I was attracted to their ideas about electoral reform and, in particular, the libertarian bent of some of their policies. For a while after the Reform Party disbanded I even classified myself as libertarian, as do many conservatives today (for example Ron Paul.) The image of the modern day American libertarian (gun-loving, anti-tax redneck) is a little misleading. If that gun-nut was a true libertarian, he’d also advocate (as Ron Paul does) for massive reduction in military spending and for gay rights. (On the position of gay marriage, for example, Paul advocates for abolition of state-sanctioned marriage of any sort, a position I agree with.) While libertarianism does contain some attractive elements, I eventually abandoned it as insufficient.
The difference between right-libertarians and left-libertarians.
Both groups believe in personal liberty on moral issues and want to reduce the authority of the state. The difference lies in the degree to which they want to reduce the power of the state, and also the basic goal of the ideology. Here are some key differences.
- Right-libertarians (usually just called “Libertarians”)
- want to limit the power of the state
- believe in free market capitalism
- defend the right of private property
- believe the state should be reduced to a small entity used to defend the country, defend private property, and mediate disputes
- “government is best, which governs least”
- Left-libertarians (usually called “Anarchists”)
- are opposed to all forms of power and violence
- may or may not believe in some form of free market (see mutualism)
- often advocate for voluntary regional collectivism as opposed to capitalism
- believe the state should be abolished completely
- believe in small scale consensus decision-making
- “government is best, which governs not at all”
The problems with right-wing libertarianism.
My fundamental disagreement with libertarianism is that it seems to only oppose government, rather than power (and violence) in general. To have true liberty, we must be free from all forms of authoritarian power. I would argue that in the current system, it is not even the state that is the primary violator of liberty. Instead, over time, the corporation has come to be the primary threat to liberty. I’d even argue that libertarianism, with its fixation on opposing “big government” is being led down a rabbit trail, away from the real problem – not the state, but the corporation.
By maintaing the existence of the state, but by limiting its ability to curb the excesses of the corporations, libertarianism would lead to some kind of monstrous corporate Leviathan (to misappropriate Hobbes’ term), which, I believe, is the direction we are headed.
Still, many libertarians defend the right of corporations to exist. My argument is that corporations depend heavily on the state for their very existence. In an anarchist society, they would not exist. In fact, proponents (like libertarians) of true free market laissez-faire capitalism should be opposed to corporations because they depend on and use state power for their very existence. (I’ll explain more about this later.)
Anarchists differ on whether the free market would/should exist under anarchism and I am undecided on that at the moment. I acknowledge that there is some room for the free market to exist….in theory. What I do oppose (and what I think libertarians should oppose) is neo-liberal (now commonly called “conservative”) economic policies that advocate for a free market, but require the government to set up mechanisms for the free markets to thrive.
How about Marxism?
Laissez-faire capitalism is more-or-less a “survival of the fittest” view of economics, which posits that the rich get rich because of their own merit and the poor get poor because of their lack of risk, intelligence, or whatever. Some, therefore, suggest that anything the state does to help the free market is fair because anyone, in theory, could take advantage of these mechanisms.
However, proponents of state-defended laissez-faire capitalism conveniently ignore the history that has placed people in the position they are in. Individual merit is hardly the only factor in a person’s economic success. To truly be fair, one would have to begin with communism, and then, after a true communist state was established in which everyone started at the same level, only then could you implement a state-encouraged free market where people rise or fall based on individual merit. But who is promoting that idea? The communists don’t want to ever have a free market, and the capitalists don’t want to have to start with a level playing field. The communists use state violence to create equality, while the capitalists use state violence to maintain their wealth. Neither is ideal.
My argument is that if you’re going to have the free market–fine–but don’t expect the state to do anything at all to defend that market. Yet, in our current system, as I said, corporations depend heavily on the state. They are not anti-government; they are pro-government, especially since through lobbyism they now control it. Our political options are limited and governments, in many so-called democratic countries including the United States and Canada, are merely a branch of the corporate world.
How corporations are reliant on the state.
Corporations rely on the trust of shareholders to invest in a company. Investors want to be assured that their investment is safe from misrepresentation, misappropriation and so on, and therefore governments use their legal power through the court system to defend these interests. Corporations also want copyright and patent protection. They want central banks, subsidies, bail-outs, and free trade agreements that are negotiated on their behalf by governments. (Can an agreement between a powerful heavily-militarized nation, and a weaker one, every be said to be truly fair, or simply a veiled threat? This is coercion, something that libertarians should oppose.)
Incorporation also gives individuals and groups limited liability, which means the ability to make mistakes without being held personally responsible. This encourages tremendously risky, and often unethical, behaviour when people are no longer held to the natural social norms of society and instead operate on their own unaccountable system. If an individual dumps gallons of toxic waste into a river, they are held accountable. Even in an anarchist society, social pressure and accountability would discourage this behaviour. However in our system, if a corporation does it, no individual is held to account, or perhaps someone is scapegoated. Any fines that are levied are simply factored into operating costs and used as a tax write-off. Spill millions of gallons of oil in the Gulf of Mexico and even the guilty oil company benefits because the price of oil goes up. Because the corporation is permitted to behave in a way that an individual person could not, unethical behaviour actually increases. In other words, corporations rely on the state because it protects them from the accountability that would exist in a natural anarchist society. It allows them to behave badly without being punished.
Likewise any positive altruistic behaviours that individuals might exhibit are curbed within a corporation because they are required (if not by law, then certainly by corporate culture) to make decisions solely on the basis of profit. An individual can be charitable, and many people are. A corporation cannot be, unless it’s seen as way of giving the company a good image and helping their bottom line. Thus the state shields the corporation from accountability and simultaneously discourages charitable and ethical behaviour.
Competition is not enough…
The neo-liberal answer to this is that competition will keep corporations in line, and keep them from ripping off customers, etc. This point appears valid, but isn’t. A libertarian government, for example, has no way of ensuring competition. The very nature of corporations is to limit, not encourage, competition. Their goal is to consolidate and get bigger, not smaller. While a libertarian might frown on monopolies, their ideology doesn’t permit them to do anything to stop it. (Some libertarians do, in fact, applaud government intervention to stop monopolies, but I don’t see how this can possibly be consistent with their small-government ideology.)
I know that libertarians will argue that corporations would form even without government help. Libertarians also argue that the abuses I’ve described would not exist in a truly free market system. While I’m glad to see that libertarians oppose these corporate abuses, I don’t see how they have any ability to avoid them, nor do I believe that competition alone would prevent them. I agree that big bad abusive corporations exist because the state defends them. And I agree that some kind of benevolent corporation might hypothetically arise without the state to back it up. However, because the libertarian permits the existence of a limited state, it is only natural that as capital pools in the hands of a small group of individuals, that they will use these financial resources to influence the state to get bigger. In other words, sure, I agree, if a limited state could be guaranteed, it would not create the abusive corporate world we have today. However, as soon as you allow any of kind of state authority to exist, it will inevitably grow, especially since the most powerful forces in society want it to. Even if you had constitutional restrictions on the ability of the state to grow and protect the interests of corporations, there still would be tremendous pressure to change the laws and change the constitution. A limited libertarian state is, thus, unsustainable. It will grow, and it will grow in the interests of those with money (i.e. corporations).
The only philosophically consistent free market that I could potentially support would be a sort of anarchistic free market. Small scale, individual to individual trading. This kind of trade would exist in a community where people held each other accountable, where people knew each other personally, and where any attempt at incorporating would be limited. Private property, however, is indefensible.
Private property is unnatural. I can’t see any way to philosophically defend the idea. Libertarians attempt to defend it on the basis of a contract. One person sells a piece of private property to another. However, who establishes the legitimacy of the seller’s claim to a piece of land in the first place? I know there are libertarian answers to this, and in theory alone, they work. However, their theory assumes a chain of legitimate contracts that stretches back to eternity. For a contract to be legitimate it must have been passed on from a previous legitimate contract, and the contract before that must also have been legitimate and on and on. If at any point in history this chain of contracts was compromised by the use of illegitimate methods (coercion, theft, war, violence, breach of treaties, etc.) it negates the legitimacy of the current contract. So, sure, in theory, a piece of land somewhere in the world may have been sold legitimately from person to person through the ages. However, I find this highly unlikely. Given the history of Indigenous-settler relations, there certainly isn’t a single person in North America who can legitimately make this claim, and I doubt you’d find anyone anywhere else in the world, either.
Unwillingness and inability of a libertarian government to address the power of corporations, and the indefensibility of private property are some of the reasons that lead me away from libertarianism to the anarchist position. On the surface libertarianism seems to promote liberty (and it’s certainly preferable to conservativism or liberalism), but in reality this plays right into the hands of the corporations, who are enemies to any liberty other than their own. Anarchism does not advocate for less liberty than libertarianism, but more, since we are also liberated from the power and violence of corporations, not just governments.
But what kind of anarchy? Although I grew up in a Mennonite town, it was a Mennonite town in which most of the people had long ago abandoned their Mennonite beliefs or defined themselves as Mennonite in culture rather than faith or theology. I was a cultural Mennonite myself until well into my twenties. When I could no longer reconcile the use of violence with my Christian faith, I began to accept the Mennonite position of non-violence. To me this is consistent with Christ’s ethic. Therefore, any kind of anarchism I embraced would have to be pacifist. Hence, anarcho-pacifism. Anarchism, in general, though, does not, as critics suggest, result in more violence, but less.
Think about it. The critics of anarchism suggest that without government, your neighbour will steal your possessions or commit violent acts against you. (Small government libertarians, too, see policing as one of the few legitimate roles of government). Whenever I examine a statement like this I first like to ask where I’ve received this information; what is the source of this perception? As I’ve written about before, one good question in uncovering the source of a belief is, “Who might benefit from me thinking this way?” Who wants me to think this?
In this case, the answer is clear: powerful corporations. Since, as I’ve already argued, corporations depend on a large authoritarian state, it is in their interest to convince people that they, too, need the state and so the myth is spread that anarchism results in chaos. The reason there is widespread belief that anarchism doesn’t work is because there are powerful forces who have a vested interest in spreading this myth. Since corporations control the media we consume, they more or less dictate the public opinion on issues like this.
So, let me address this issue briefly. Is an anarchist society more violent than a statist society? I would argue that in an anarchist society, just as in our society, it is not law, but social cohesion, that prevents crime. Law punishes crime but does little to prevent it. This explains why we have high levels of recidivism and why even the strictest of laws and harshest of punishments do not create a crime-free society.
Instead, a community-based anarchist society on a small decentralized scale would have less crime and be less violent because community members would know each other, be connected to each other, and would keep each other accountable. Take the argument that many people use in favour of legalizing drugs: when drugs are legal, drug addictions and related crimes actually go down, not up. Why? Well, one of the reasons is that people do not have to hide their addictions and thus are more connected to the community rather than alienated from it. Take this principle about drug legalization and apply it to everything else. The result would be that with no state and no government, communities would be closer and crime would diminish.
Even if you don’t buy this argument, and even if there was a slight increase in neighbour-to-neighbour crime (especially against pacifists who refused to defend themselves), I would argue that this would not come anywhere near to matching the level of violence currently committed by governments and corporations. The World Wars, for example (heavily promoted by corporate interests) required a conscripted army that forced people to kill others they normally would not have. In other words, just as the corporate structure promotes bad behaviour, governments turn otherwise peaceful people into killers and gives them weapons that do much more damage than all the neighbour-to-neighbour violence added together.
In Matthew 6, Jesus presents a perfect description of an anarchist society. Note that he equates this description with his own kingdom.
- Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat or drink; or about your body, what you will wear. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothes? 26 Look at the birds of the air; they do not sow or reap or store away in barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not much more valuable than they? 27 Can any one of you by worrying add a single hour to your life[e]?28 “And why do you worry about clothes? See how the flowers of the field grow. They do not labor or spin. 29 Yet I tell you that not even Solomon in all his splendor was dressed like one of these. 30 If that is how God clothes the grass of the field, which is here today and tomorrow is thrown into the fire, will he not much more clothe you—you of little faith? 31 So do not worry, saying, ‘What shall we eat?’ or ‘What shall we drink?’ or ‘What shall we wear?’ 32 For the pagans run after all these things, and your heavenly Father knows that you need them. 33 But seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well. 34 Therefore do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will worry about itself. Each day has enough trouble of its own.
Some Christians interpret this as merely being an admonition not to worry. However, Jesus directly contrasts this worrying with his own view of kingdom. And even if it was merely an admonition to faith and against worrying, then we certainly could not advocate the current political systems, as, if nothing else, they promote fear, worrying, and distress and politicians seek votes on this basis.
You’ve probably noticed that I haven’t spent any time defending a pacifist position, as it would take an entire blog post just to do that and this one’s more than long enough as it is. I might write directly on that topic someday, but that’s not my intention here.
I believe that a purely philosophical defence of anarcho-pacifism has its limits, and I acknowledge that theological influences have solidified my beliefs in this area. I am not an anarchist despite the fact I am a Christian, but precisely because I am a Christian. While there is disagreement in Christian circles on the meaning of Old Testament violence, it’s quite clear that Jesus himself, who Christians claim to follow, advocated non-violence. If, as a Christian, I believe in non-violence, I must oppose all forms it. Christians should be anarchists because, after all, our only authority is God. Jesus said, as Tolstoy points out, that his kingdom is spiritual and thus, as Christians, our goal is not to use the secular state to impose Christian values. Nor should we, he argues, even participate in the state. The kingdom of God is not one that is grown through physical force. Jacques Ellul makes an interesting observation that commandments to obey government in the New Testament are in the same context as not resisting an evil doer. We turn the other cheek, so to speak, when government strikes it. Again, I won’t spend time arguing in favour of pacifism. I am, for the purpose of brevity (ha ha, I know), assuming this position.
For a more extensive exploration of Christian anarchism you may want to consider reading Ellul’s Anarchy and Christianity or Leo Tolstoy’s The Kingdom of God is Within You.
Anarchy requires social cohesion and critical thinking
What keeps society functioning in an anarchist system (if you can even call it a “system”)? One element is social cohesion. While modern corporate capitalism breaks down social cohesion, anarchism encourages it as a means of survival. Think about how alienated and separated we are from our neighbours, and how individualistic our society has become. This is the direct result of corporate capitalism which convinces us we all need our own homes, our own cars, our own lawn (and lawnmower), etc. This inefficient consumerism leads to large profits, so it’s no wonder they encourage it. This individualism is combined with sheer dependency when it comes to decision-making.
Critical thinking is heavily discouraged in our society. We need government only because we’ve been trained to rely on them, and corporations, as I’ve argued, need government, too, so it’s in their interest to discourage critical thought. Anarchism requires social cohesion, but it also requires a population of people capable of critical thinking.
William Golding’s Lord of the Flies is an allegory meant to encourage reliance on authority because without it, Golding suggests, we descend into chaos. However, I would argue that a socially cohesive group of critically thinking people would not, in fact, descend into the brutishness his famous book suggests. It’s precisely because these boys were never taught to think for themselves that their decision-making power was diminished and the island became a cruel mess. Corporations, remember, are not anti-state, they’re pro-state, because it solidifies their control. Therefore it’s in their interest to keep us reliant on authority by breaking down small-scale social cohesion and discouraging critical thought. Over time we’ve lost the ability to fend for ourselves, and our desire to help out our neighbours. People feel inferior, dependent, insufficient, uncaring and unconnected to others. But, this, I argue, is simply how we’ve been trained. It says nothing about human nature or our capacities. This sense of subservience and inferiority is simply what they want us to feel.
That being said, I am not naive. I realize that efforts to encourage critical thought and community are being squelched by forces working against them. I also believe that only in the circumstances I describe is anarchism workable or even possible.
Let’s be practical.
Because of the issues I already addressed, anarchist society is not happening any time soon…nor should it. It’s a goal; it’s a philosophical stance; but it’s not an election platform. We simply aren’t ready for it. (Even Thoreau acknowledges this). In the meantime, I’m a pragmatist. I’ll work toward encouraging the values that would make anarchism possible, while supporting political parties that do the same, even if they’re not anarchist.
This might mean supporting libertarian policies when it comes to personal moral decisions, while supporting seemingly socialist policies to curb the power and abuses of corporations. None of this is ideal. Ideally both corporations and authoritarian governments wouldn’t exist.
But given that they do, the best we can do is strike some kind of balance. So I can’t blindly advocate, as libertarians do, for smaller government. The only areas that the state seems to shrink, after all, are areas that give corporations more control than they already have. We have to maintain a government’s ability to restrict and regulate the behaviour of corporations because the very existence of the state means we’ve already removed the ability of society to curb these behaviours through natural anarchistic methods.
So, my advocacy for a balanced state is not an ideological stance, but a pragmatic one. It’s a compromise, a deal with the Devil. Given that we don’t have anarchism, the best we can hope for is a state that allows for personal liberty, limits violence, and restricts power and wealth from accumulating in the hands of the few. Based on those principals, I can find some common ground even in the current political parties.
Anarchist views can appear utopian and impractical. I agree that they are, although there are many examples of people successfully creating anarchist communities around the world. However, for the most part, I agree that anarchism is an idealist or utopian ideology. However, I don’t see that as a problem. Utopian views allow us to articulate ideals. If we focus only on practical ideologies, we never have any sense of what goals we are working towards as a society. Therefore, even if anarchism is impractical, a vision of an anarchist society gives us an idea to strive for. In other words, yes, we have to be practical, but what are the values that anarchism represents and how can we implement those values in our current reality?
What are the anarcho-pacifist values that can be applied to the current political situation?
1) A preference for non-violent means of decision-making 2) True small-scale participatory democracy 3) Limiting (through passive means rather than meeting violence with violence) the power of any individual or group above others 4) Personal liberty 5) Community connectedness, rather than authoritarian law, as a means of curbing unwanted behaviour.
I’m sure there are others. The point is that having a philosophical foundation for one’s pragmatic considerations is essential, and I believe that these values can be used to, say, determine what political party to vote for…if you believe in doing that sort of thing.
(photo credit: Hitori Sushi/CC)