Home > Anarchism and Voluntaryism, Law, Security and Violence > Authority is not inevitable

Authority is not inevitable

“That is what I have always understood to be the essence of anarchism: the conviction that the burden of proof has to be placed on authority, and that it should be dismantled if that burden cannot be met.” – Noam Chomsky

Anarchists are informed every day that authority, hierarchy and law are inevitable, universal and necessary. Without them, society would collapse into chaos. These critics do not realize their point of view comes from their immediate culture and the beliefs that inform it. There is more to the story.

First, let us think about what authority is. There are two basic meanings in common usage. The first is of superior knowledge. I accept the authority of the plumber because they understand where the water in my home comes and goes from better than I do. I listen to them, pay them and let them work unimpeded because of their superior knowledge. However, I do not let them force me to accept their services or their prices. I have the final decision.

Not so with the second use of the word “authority”. Authority is also used to mean the people in power, usually government and its agents (the police). In this case, I have no choice but to submit to their will or be attacked. Their superiority lies not in some greater knowledge, some claim to moral authority or even, as is the case with (some) parents, a plausible claim to care about my welfare. It lies only in their greater capacity for violence. As such, if I do not submit to the authority of the state, I am liable to be fined (my money forcibly taken), incarcerated (kidnapped and thrown into a cage), beaten until I submit, or killed. It is clearly wrong to conflate these two definitions of “authority”.

Has authority, by the second definition, always existed? The answer is no. History has countless examples of societies free of authority. Indeed, such authority, in any form that could be recognizable today, did not come into existence until about 5000 years ago–a blip on the monitor of humankind’s history. And when it appeared, authority, which led eventually to the state, consisted only of slavers and warlords.

Society existed long before the state. As the latest research indicates, proto-states came into existence when a few people decided to steal the surplus of other people’s labor on the land. Appropriating the surplus of the labor of the majority is the constant of all states, the one defining trait that all states, regardless of time or place, have in common. They must have had a society whose labor they exploited in order to establish their states, one which grew and gathered more food than it needed, so that the few could live parasitically off the many. And those societies must have had governance.

It is often assumed by those arguing against anarchism that government has always existed. This thinking confuses government with governance. Governance is simply making and enforcing rules. Government is a monopoly on making and enforcing rules, thus creating a class that rules over the majority. When people say we need some form of law and law enforcement, they are probably correct. Few anarchists would disagree. Their mistake is in believing authority to make and enforce laws needs to be in the hands of the few. Most societies throughout history let everyone, or all adults, or perhaps some group of “elders”, come up with and enforce laws. (As an example, you can read how John Hasnas explains how laws were enforced in Britain before law was monopolized by the state, or how laws are enforced in kin groups in Somalia.) None of these groups were thought to be unchallengeable authorities.

In his book The Art of Not Being Governed, James C. Scott explains a number of ways people have avoided both the states that threatened them and the hierarchy that leads to illegitimate authority. There is no reason the rest of us could not also avoid being ruled by other people. We could band together to prevent others from forcing us into their regimes and laws. People have at many times in many places. We do not have to submit.

Moreover, why would want to impose authority on yourself and others? Do you need to be ruled by others? Would you run around killing if there were no police? Or is that only everyone else? Many people want to be free of rule by authority they consider illegitimate. Why would you not support them?

I have elsewhere pointed out the dangers of hierarchy and inequality. Here I have shown why history tells us they are not inevitable. They will continue as long as people continue to make excuses for them. But even if things like hierarchy and authority were constants throughout human history, it would still beg the question to assume that meant we needed states. Today’s states are vastly more powerful than anything history has ever seen. Anarchists are called extremists, but what would you call concentrating trillions of dollars in the hands of a few hundred people while billions go hungry? What would you call waging war on the other side of the world? What would you call locking millions of people away in jail for stealing food, smoking a plant or moving to a new part of the world? If anything, the status quo is extreme and anarchists merely want to restore some balance.

In conclusion, those who assume we need modern institutions to have any semblance of society need to prove their point far beyond merely asserting they have always existed, because they have not.

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