Billions of poor people. Wars without end. Torture, disease, genocide, starving children. There are some major problems in the world. The question is, how do we do something about them? We have options. Some people say we need to take control of governments and force the changes rapidly. After all, people are dying now. This post will argue against hasty action.
We have become accustomed in the modern world to doing things fast. We want things now. This trend is reflected as much in activism as with everything else. How will we change everything? Revolution! Slow down. What kind of revolution? A revolution is a major event involving many people. It is impossible to predict the outcome of a revolution, and it is rarely (perhaps never) as the original revolutionaries envisaged. And the kind of revolution that takes place in the street inevitably means violence. Is an uprising, violent or non-violent, the best way to change the world? Let us continue with our options before deciding.
Another effect of wanting immediate results is a focus on elections. We need to field new candidates, ones that will do the right thing. Are there people like that? Look at the hopes of the Tea Party. After the Tea Party got some of its members elected on a small-government ticket, the newly elected voted for all the same big-government legislation as the other Congresspeople, and have even ended up with all the same campaign contributors. It turns out that a few new people could not make radical changes. One does not simply walk into Mordor.
How about putting pressure on existing politicians? That can work. As little hope as I see in the political process, enough letters or enough protesters can force the hands of the elected. But what is the political solution? Remember, government is based on force. Every law passed is an order. If one does not follow the law, one risks arrest and all the violence that it results in. What we want to force on others may not be the best thing for them.
When we consider working through the system of force, we want to use the existing tools to do so. The state system has two basic tools at its disposal: taxation, which could be used to redistribute wealth, and law, which could be used to force people to act right. I am opposed to the idea of using the state on moral grounds. And as I will demonstrate, morality is not only an end; it is a means.
As I write in greater detail elsewhere, a simple but powerful moral rule is the non-aggression principle (NAP). The NAP states that the initiation of force or violence, including the credible threat of violence, against unwilling adults who have not initiated force themselves is immoral. Laws force entire populations. If we could opt out of laws, we would be free, but we cannot. Laws based on the NAP are not immoral but laws regarding what we wear, eat, drink and smoke, for example, are not, because those things do not harm others. Taxation means forcing populations to pay for whatever the government decides on. But not everyone in the population has aggressed against another, or is being taxed commensurately to his or her aggression.
Many anarchists believe in the NAP on philosophical grounds. They argue that, whatever is done with the money raised by taxation, whatever someone’s idea of virtue that informs the wording of a law, it is wrong to force peaceful people. More importantly, however, force is a terrible tool for solving problems, and tends to cause far greater ones.
Do taxation and regulation lead to a redistribution of wealth? Yes: from the lower classes to the rich. The basic reason for that is that the lower classes, including the middle classes, have no power over the state. The state has power over them; and in every society, it becomes a vehicle for transferring wealth from the people who are outside it to the powerful people who control it. We have had social welfare policies for decades and poverty still exists. But why are they still poor? Welfare policies actually entrench poverty by making people dependent on the state.
The best cure for poverty is, in fact, a free market. The free market just means free people trading with each other out of mutual benefit, without force. Tearing down the endless regulations and taxes that are designed to benefit the wealthy would give opportunities to everyone else to work as they like. How we could do that by using the state I do not know, because, again, laws benefit the powerful and the powerful control the state. It is impractical to use the state to solve society’s problems.
Could we use laws to force virtue? It depends what is virtuous. I agree with Penn Jillette on this one.
It’s amazing to me how many people think that voting to have the government give poor people money is compassion. Helping poor and suffering people is compassion. Voting for our government to use guns to give money to help poor and suffering people is immoral, self-righteous, bullying laziness.
People need to be fed, medicated, educated, clothed, and sheltered, and if we’re compassionate we’ll help them, but you get no moral credit for forcing other people to do what you think is right. There is great joy in helping people, but no joy in doing it at gunpoint.
The other question is, can the state actually be reconfigured to work for the greater good? Can it be sustainable if done by force and not spread throughout the population as common values? I am inclined to say no. If people can be led to believe in taking care of each other and taking care of the poor, they will do so voluntarily, as of course many do already. If they cannot, forcing them to do so could lead to a backlash. Look, for example, at the plight of some of the people in the democratic world who are most vulnerable: immigrants. Immigrants are people like everyone else, so surely they should all be permitted the same rights and freedoms. Letting immigrants into the US, Europe and the rest of the rich world meant giving them a chance to help themselves and their sending countries. But anti-immigrant forces first controlled the discourse and then the relevant areas of the state, and 400,000 people were deported from the US in 2011 alone. People escaping horrible conditions in Africa are left to drown in the Mediterranean. I take the sum of these and similar actions and indifference toward them to mean the people are not ready to be forced to take care of everyone else.
The state may be a lost cause, but we are not out of options yet. The problem is that the more viable solutions are long term. They require patience, not quick fixes. I think there are two basic things we could do. The first is to educate people—particularly ourselves—on the issues and how to solve them. We can keep the real issues foremost in the minds of people, so that we are the media and the teachers. That doesn’t just mean Facebook, of course. It could mean street protest and symbolic action to raise awareness. This process is neverending, so it is incumbent on concerned people to educate to the extent that others become the media and the teachers as well. The main downside to this option is that not everyone will be interested. But that just means they have better things to do, and I do not blame them for that.
But not everyone has to join us. The second thing is to organise with like-minded people. That means being leaders, working together, helping each other and doing things ourselves. The revolution does not have to be violent. Look at what Occupy did. They were entirely voluntary, working on consensus, anticapitalism, mutual aid, equality and solving their own problems. They showed everyone that we can have a voluntary society, that we can build a new society, based on compassion and helping each other, out of the shell of the old. It is called prefigurative politics. These values also inform the philosophy of the sovereign community, meaning new communities outside the reach of the state. Voluntary institutions show not only the morality of the NAP, but also that we can solve the world’s problems without force.
I am often asked if anarchy has ever existed in our world, to which I answer: almost all of your daily behavior is an anarchistic expression. How you deal with your neighbors, coworkers, fellow customers in shopping malls or grocery stores, is often determined by subtle processes of negotiation and cooperation. Social pressures, unrelated to statutory enactments, influence our behavior on crowded freeways or grocery checkout lines. If we dealt with our colleagues at work in the same coercive and threatening manner by which the state insists on dealing with us, our employment would be immediately terminated. We would soon be without friends were we to demand that they adhere to specific behavioral standards that we had mandated for their lives.
Should you come over to our home for a visit, you will not be taxed, searched, required to show a passport or driver’s license, fined, jailed, threatened, handcuffed, or prohibited from leaving. I suspect that your relationships with your friends are conducted on the same basis of mutual respect. In short, virtually all of our dealings with friends and strangers alike are grounded in practices that are peaceful, voluntary, and devoid of coercion. - Butler Shaffer
Anarchists endlessly get asked if anarchy has ever existed. It could be argued that anarchy is wherever people do things without being forced to. I believe this answer is why we should believe anarchy could work: it works every day as we interact with the people around us. But it does not get to the heart of the question: can a society exist without a state?
If you are looking for an example of a modern nation state that has gone anarchist, you will not find one. The very idea that a nation state could somehow eliminate its government and retain its territorial integrity is silly. It would almost inevitably become a number of self-governing communities. A large country can only be held together by force. As I write elsewhere, Somalia is not particularly anarchic; however, to the extent that it is, it is doing pretty well. Other societies throughout history, however, have done far better.
Anthropologist David Graeber says anarchy has existed in thousands of places before. Anarchy means no initiation of force; or at least, no rulers with the ability to initiate force over an entire populaton. Anarchy is an ideal condition of humanity. It is not something that will be accomplished in six months of reading books. But in one way or another, at different times, there are opportunities to throw off the state and work and cooperate freely. As such, there have been a number of relatively or completely anarchic societies throughout history. They may have been small communities defending themselves from encroaching empires, confederations with basic local governments, or other voluntary, self-governing collectives. Anarchy has existed. It is simply democracy without the state.
It was the norm for a long time. Yale professor James C. Scott explains. “Until shortly before the common era, the very last 1 percent of human history, the social landscape consisted of elementary self-governing kinship units that might, occasionally, cooperate in hunting, feasting, skirmishing, trading, and peacemaking. It did not contain anything one could call a state. In other words, living in the absence of state structures has been the standard human condition.” The era of statelessness was the longest era of human governance, and the first states that arose were trivial compared to those of today. “To an eye not yet hypnotized by archaeological remains and state-centric histories, the landscape would have seemed virtually all periphery and no centers. Nearly all the population and territory were outside their ambit.” Living outside the state was a realistic option until only a few hundred years ago.
Scott’s book is called the Art of Not Being Governed. In it, he explains the history of the ethnic groups in the highlands of Southeast Asia, who descended from groups that left the lowland state. It is not certain whether they fled purely in order to avoid state aggression, but they did spend close to a thousand years outside it. (See here.) The people of the whole region reorganised their lives and social structures to be inaccessible to the state. The social structure presented no hierarchy that encroaching states could have used as agents of control. Until the recent rapid increase in the power of the state, they lived in an autonomous association of free people.
Ireland was effectively anarchic until conquered by England. It functioned as a number of confederations (called tuatha) composed of independent political units that came together annually to vote on common policies. People were free to, and did, secede from their confederation and join another. Association was voluntary.
Laws were not changed at the whim of rulers, because Ireland was not ruled, but when people voted in an assembly to change them. Laws were not created by a clique, as in our time; nor was justice dispensed not from a single, monopoly provider. Parties to disputes selected from a number of professional jurists chosen for their wisdom, integrity and knowledge of customary law. Several schools of jurisprudence existed and competed for the business of dispensing justice. Other people, in effect insurance companies, were independent from the jurists and joined with the party that won the case to exact punishment on the loser. If the loser did not pay, the entire community considered him an outlaw and would no longer engage in contracts with him.
Ireland suffered small-scale conflicts, but without a central state that taxes and conscripts, these were negligible compared to the bloodbaths of the rest of Europe. Ireland may not have been the ideal anarchy, but in the absence of Enlightenment ideas of freedom, justice and equality, it did pretty well.
Opportunities to escape the state arise during revolutions and wars. During Egypt’s recent revolutionary uprising, nearly every neighbourhood in Cairo formed—within 48 hours—lagaan shaabiyya, or popular committees. When the police suddenly left the streets, the government opened up the jails, letting out thugs it used to terrorise the people into begging the police to come back. Instead, despite thousands of years of dictatorship, the people organised and substituted for the police, protecting the people in their communities and even cleaning the streets. They made decisions as communities and demonstrated amply that they could replace the state if necessary.
During the Spanish Civil War, the state was in crisis and lost its ability to govern large parts of the country. Workers controlled factories, peasants collectivised farms, people used barter instead of money, started libraries, schools and cultural centres, and even organised militias to fight in the civil war. Spain’s brief experiment with anarchy was by no means utopian, as war imposes a variety of constraints on people. But it could be replicated and improved on.
In Ukraine in the wake of the Russian Revolution of 1917, a free state emerged comprising millions of people. Throughout the Russian Empire, as imperial authority collapsed, workers, soldiers and peasants began to reject any outside authority and establish self-governing cooperatives. They began by arresting state officials, occupying government buildings and disarming police. They were eventually ruthlessly crushed by the central government, much as the communities in Spain were. But they demonstrated, as the did the Southeast Asians, the Irish, the Spanish, the Egyptians and, as we shall see next, the French, that anarchy is desirable and practical—if it can be maintained in the face of state aggression.
In the wake of the Franco-Prussian War in 1871, the Paris Commune was established. The Commune was independent of the French state and self-regulating. The armed workers defended Paris against German soldiers and for some time French government aggression, but were eventually overwhelmed and murdered in droves. Like some of the other examples, the Commune was not the ideal picture of anarchy, and was perhaps more along the communist ideal, but it nonetheless comprised free people in community warding off oppression. They did well in the time they had. As Mikhail Bakunin said at the time,
Contrary to the belief of authoritarian communists – which I deem completely wrong – that a social revolution must be decreed and organized either by a dictatorship or by a constituent assembly emerging from a political revolution, our friends, the Paris socialists, believed that revolution could neither be made nor brought to its full development except by the spontaneous and continued action of the masses, the groups and the associations of the people. Our Paris friends were right a thousand times over.
Future posts will give a variety of other examples, including the modern free communities of Yubia, Keene, Grafton and Concord, and how they can be emulated. For now, rest assured that the answer is yes, anarchy has been tried and has worked in many places at many times.
But it does not really matter if it has been done before. New ideas work if they make sense and enough people agree to put them into practice. When John F. Kennedy said the US would put a man on the moon by the end of the decade, nobody asked if it had been done before. When slavery was abolished, it was not important to ask if there had been historical precedents. The abolition of slavery was an idea whose time had come. But a lot of people thought that it was impossible to get rid of slavery—after all, that would be extremism—and that slaves were better off in captivity than free. Turns out, they were wrong. Anti-abolitionists used to ask “but how will the cotton get picked?” But if the cause is moral, it does not matter how the cotton will get picked or the roads will get built. People who need a historical precedent for anything before they consider it have not attempted to use their imaginations. Whether it has existed or not is irrelevant when considering if it could work in the future.
For my master’s programme at the American University in Cairo, I have just completed two essays on Occupy Wall Street. The first describes America’s ruling class using elitist theories of political science.
The second describes the crisis many Americans face and how it gave rise to the movement.