In only 18 days in early 2011, Egyptians succeeded in a major step toward revolution. (They unfortunately did not take the opportunities thus presented them but that simply makes their example more educational.) In only four days, from January 25 to 28, the people rose up in the millions, defeated the security forces in the streets and destroyed the legitimacy of the regime. You want to know how to defeat your oppressors? You want to learn from the Egyptians? Perhaps Etienne de la Boetie could explain both the causes and the effects of the uprising.
All this havoc, this misfortune, this ruin, descends upon you not from alien foes, but from the one enemy whom you yourselves render as powerful as he is, for whom you go bravely to war, for whose greatness you do not refuse to offer your own bodies unto death. He who thus domineers over you has only two eyes, only two hands, only one body, no more than is possessed by the least man among the infinite numbers dwelling in your cities; he has indeed nothing more than the power that you confer upon him to destroy you. Where has he acquired enough eyes to spy upon you, if you do not provide them yourselves? How can he have so many arms to beat you with, if he does not borrow them from you? The feet that trample down your cities, where does he get them if they are not your own? How does he have any power over you except through you? How would he dare assail you if he had no cooperation from you?
…From all these indignities, such as the very beasts of the field would not endure, you can deliver yourselves if you try, not by taking action, but merely by willing to be free. Resolve to serve no more, and you are at once freed. I do not ask that you place hands upon the tyrant to topple him over, but simply that you support him no longer; then you will behold him, like a great Colossus whose pedestal has been pulled away, fall of his own weight and break in pieces.
That is what Egyptians did. They had to fight the police, but the state is necessarily a minority; as such, when enough people join in, even just through providing onions and vinegar to survive the tear gas, the state loses. The people denied the state its authority for FOUR DAYS and only four days, and it evaporated. All we need is enough people who decide to disobey.
The reason I advocate freedom, in whatever forms seem both ideal and possible, above just about everything else is because it is the single most important thing for realising humankind’s potential. In today’s world, freedom is ebbing away. States are getting bigger and bolder. Propaganda is getting more sophisticated. More people are coming to depend on the state for more privileges and services, and the state is coming to seem more necessary than ever. People are willing to give up their freedom instead of taking responsibility for the most important things in their lives: security, health, education and where a sizeable proportion of their income goes. The following outlines the benefits of freedom and the basis for my claim that freedom is how humankind can reach its potential.
What is our potential, anyway? Psychology, anthropology and history can provide us answers, as we can see what has been done and what can be done if people decide. As individuals and societies, we have the potential to be responsible for ourselves and those around us, to take care of each other. We can have egalitarian societies. We can have peaceful societies. We can reach untold heights of technological advancement and material progress. We can wipe out diseases. We can solve ancient mysteries. We can adapt when systems break down. We can be happy, healthy, wealthy, wise and at peace. This is our potential. But how do we get there? By concentrating power? Enacting laws and regulations? My answer is to build a free society.
What advantages would a stateless, voluntary, anarchic society have in realising our potential?
Art. As many of the people reading this will be used to freedom of expression, they may not appreciate its value. Art is a way of exposing and mocking oppressors and violent people, of communicating things we all know are wrong on a deep level. In a free society, it would still have the power to expose wrongdoing and bring people together, while providing a necessary outlet for all forms of self expression. In addition, art is an expression of life and adds to our enjoyment of it.
Economy. Free and open economies, meaning ones with unhampered freedom to do the work you want, move where you want to do it and keep the full product of your labour means more prosperity more equally shared. I have gone into this elsewhere, so please follow these links. On why regulation is not protection but crony capitalism, see here. On what the free market really means, why it would reduce inequality and why it means a smoother business cycle, see here. Finally, two studies (Hamilton and Whalley 1984; Winters et al. 2003) find that fully liberalising labour markets, which means letting anyone move anywhere to work, could add forty trillion dollars to the global economy. Freedom of movement would also unleash the various benefits of diversity. Freedom facilitates exchange (whether of goods, services or labour) among those optimally positioned to make the most of it.
Health. At present, we are chained by laws that limit what we can put into our bodies, while subsidies and regulatory handouts to large agribusiness and chemical corporations (and whatever Monsanto is) distort the market for food, making processed and GMO foods competitive with fresh, local produce. State regulators often miss dangerous things, whether by negligence (since they pay no price for being wrong) or corruption (since many of the people who make dangerous things are put in charge of regulatory agencies, Monsanto again the clearest example). Regulation per se is not wrong, but it is better handled by the wisdom of the crowd. That is why we have so many websites (and before the internet, books and magazines) by and for consumers to make the best choices for their health. (Find more here.)
Education. For over a hundred years now, the state has controlled education nearly everywhere with public education whose curriculum only those in power can approve. The result is not the best education for everyone, as we were promised, but the indoctrination of every generation in the state’s values: obedience, nationalism, the glory of military service and how to get a job in the modern corporate economy. What could education be like? There are so many possibilities, only one of which involves spending most of one’s childhood at a desk in a classroom. Giving parents and children their freedom would mean far more experimentation in education.
Justice. Our system of positive law, with the state creating, interpreting and enforcing laws, as well as controlling the court system, is necessarily biased in favour of the state. Justice only comes through the state system if the result does not concern those who control the state. But a system of privately-produced, or polycentric, law could serve the average person far more effectively and efficiently.
Peace and security. With no criminalisation of victimless pursuits, there would be far fewer criminals and no violent black markets. With no taxation to force the costs of war onto the masses, a major incentive for war is gone. With no ability to wage widescale war, feuds may take place but none of the worst horrors we have seen can occur. With no indoctrination into nationalism, free people will likely unite to defend each other, given their shared interest in collective security, but will not be forced into supporting a cause they have the choice to opt out of. They will form organisations to keep the peace, anything from neighbourhood watches to militias, depending on what kind of threat they perceive; and dispute resolution will always be available because there will be no monopoly of it.
Happiness. Fewer people’s lives torn apart by the state, whether put in jail for a victimless crime or killed in a war, means more happiness. Inequalities, a source of stress, illness and violence, would be lower (non-existent in communes). The uncertainty of wild economic mood swings, the unemployment that is an inevitable part of a highly-regulated market, the continual threat of violence for something one did not even know was a crime—all would be gone. Not all sources of unhappiness would evaporate, of course; one should not expect miracles. But there is reason to believe we would be happier.
All these things are possible because free people can advance their lot through trial and error. You know so if you have lived in a society that is free in any given way. If the state pays little attention to science and technology, there has probably been enormous such progress in your lifetime. Humans are natural scientists. Progress is inevitable in any area they put their minds to—provided, of course, it is not blocked by the powerful.
How does freedom get us to where we could be?
Imagine the strictest totalitarian state, perhaps like the Soviet Union, or even along the lines of 1984. All the human potentials listed above are absent. Now, imagine if the unfettered freedom to move to new places was somehow introduced to society. Not only would people have the chance to better their material circumstances; they would have the chance to see how people in other places lived and worked. They would learn different ideas and beliefs. The same could be true if the people could consume whatever media or art they chose, or if the state played no role whatsoever in education or science. One person would realise he or she should be allowed to say and do what he wants, and most importantly to think differently, and would spread the word to others. If the idea of liberty caught on, it could bring the edifice of all forms of oppression crashing down. The idea of freedom liberates minds that are receptive to it.
Now, imagine a society six months after having eliminated all forms of oppression, including indentured servitude, feudalism, social hierarchy, debt and wage slavery, taxation, laws and central planning. If people made the conscious choice to end these things, their society would not collapse into chaos. The first six months would be a trial period for them, as they attempted various forms of ownership of production, mutual aid and reciprocal exchange. They would be taking uncertain steps, and some people would attempt to set up governments, gangs and other vehicles for concentrating power. The free people would need to act in concert to reverse such attempts.
How about after five years? After five years of maximising spontaneous order society would likely be bursting with energy. The people would have come to certain conclusions based on the past years of trial and error, and certain norms would predominate. A culture that valued freedom would put it into practice in all of its institutions. There could be voluntary institutions for everything that needs to be done collectively, such as infrastructure, education, health care and security. Some would be provided through mutual aid, while others would be available for purchase.
A currency would probably have been decided on, as free people usually come up with a currency through a process of elimination. That said, there might be competing currencies, even in the same place, which would protect against inflation because people can use the alternatives whenever one currency is debased. There would also probably be communities with various systems of moneyless exchange, such as a local exchange trading system, or LETS.
Communities would have various rule systems based on contracts. Many rules would be uniform across geographic spaces, as they are today. Norms spread but they usually do not spread everywhere except by force (think of the global spread of liberal democracy). Even five years into a revolution of spontaneous order, people would still be testing and developing their rule systems, and would be learning from best practices shared by other communities.
This society is possible. It requires not a leap in nature but merely a shift in mindset. People need to unite, organise to achieve their goals, and stay vigilant to protect their freedom and their security.
I think tearing down the state would be one of the best things humanity could do for itself. I know most people disagree, but I wonder if that is partly because they don’t know much about spontaneous order.
One of the main reasons we still have the state is humans have a bias toward needing to feel in control. We believe not only that we can control our surroundings but that we should. Control means order, right? The more control we have–over the whole world, ideally–the safer we are. The theory of spontaneous order demonstrates the shortsightedness of this argument (as does the incredible damage the state has done to the world since its inception).
Spontaneous order is one of the most powerful forces in the universe, but most people do not know it by name. Spontaneous order, or self-organisation, has been used to explain the expansion of the universe and the movement of celestial objects, the evolution of life on earth, the formation of snowflakes and crystal structure, the activities of cells, ant colonies, beehives, flocks of birds, language, culture, markets and cities. It is the order, contrary to what we tend to expect, that arises when we stop trying to control things and let them be. A single ant could not direct an ant colony; a beehive is not run by a committee of bees. Likewise, central planning fails miserably while free people build wealth for themselves.
When people are freed from whoever is constraining or oppressing them, the norm is not rioting and Hobbes’ war of all against all. It is people peacefully cooperating to do what they agree is important. Look at what happens during revolutions. Look at what happens during wars. When all law and order break down, to the extent they can, people often work together, because they need each other. Spontaneous order is the phenomenon that explains it. Never mind humans; when anything, particularly life on earth, is left alone by outside or artificial constraints, it tends to flourish.
As far as we know, the idea dates back to ancient China. Here is something Laozi said over 2000 years ago.
The more laws and restrictions there are,
The poorer people become.
The sharper men’s weapons,
The more trouble in the land.
The more ingenious and clever men are,
The more strange things happen.
The more rules and regulations,
The more thieves and robbers.
Therefore the sage says:
I take no action and people are reformed.
I enjoy peace and people become honest.
I do nothing and the people become rich.
I have no desires and people return to the good and simple life.
Statism is just one idea for organising society. The state is very good at fulfilling its purpose: concentrating power in the hands of a few people: once kings and courtiers but now politicians, top bureaucrats, heads of the security apparatus and corporate clients. But it is not good at leaving people alone to reach their potential.
When we are free, economies thrive, because individuals are far more empowered and responsible. Science and technology speed ahead. The most free and open complex societies in history are the ones that made all the most important advances in knowledge and the arts—not China in its days of oppression but in its days of openness. Not in today’s Middle East with its corrupt dictatorships but in the Middle East that advanced mathematics, astronomy and medicine and saved all the books the Europeans had thrown out as blasphemous. Not that Europe; the Europe since the beginning of the Enlightenment. But not the Europe of today, either, with its seemingly endless regulations, bureaucracy and welfare state. Europe used to consist of many small states with little power to regulate their societies. As Hans-Hermann Hoppe puts it,
Contrary to orthodoxy, then, precisely the fact that Europe possessed a highly decentralized power structure composed of countless independent political units explains the origin of capitalism—the expansion of market participation and of economic growth—in the Western world. It is not by accident that capitalism first flourished under conditions of extreme political decentralization: in the northern Italian city states, in southern Germany, and in the secessionist Low Countries (Netherlands).
People all around the world have so much wealth in their communities that, if they could own and transform however they like, could lift them out of poverty. Instead, they either do not have freedom to own and defend their property so they cannot use it, or are told not to work for themselves but to come and pick up a cheque so they can remain part of the wider economy. Their potential is still there, though. The benefits of freeing people from artificial constraints demonstrate the amazing power of spontaneous order. It is something voluntaryists and other freedom-minded people should help others understand better in order to make their case.
Have you ever read the book or seen the movie Lord of the Flies? Lord of the Flies is about a group of schoolchildren marooned on a desert island. At first, they are somewhat disorganised but they soon learn to cooperate to solve collective tasks and divide labour. They have certain simple rules they have learned in school for conducting themselves, though they might not understand the logic behind them. But the situation deteriorates. “Might makes right” prevails as most of the boys follow an alpha leader. Without grownups to keep order and feed them and take care of their every need, the boys revert to a state of what we typically imagine as savage. Within what seems a matter of weeks, they kill one of the boys. The island has become a zone of no mercy.
I believe this story is accurate. Children, or anyone, in a “state of nature” might create mayhem in a way that the state keeps in check. So why would anyone want that?
Anarchy has come to be synonymous with chaos. It is understandable. The boys on the island resorted to savages in a state of anarchy, which means the absence of rulers. Anarchy as chaos is “bad” anarchy; at least, I don’t personally know any anarchist or any other adult who wants chaos. I wonder, though, what would have become of the island society. Even young boys do not stay cruel and savage forever until there is no one left. The book Anarchy in Action describes the case of August Aichhorn, who ran a home for maladjusted children in Vienna. One especially aggressive group went around smashing all the furniture, the windows and the doors. Kids hurt each other, of course. Yet, Aichhorn and his colleagues believed that, out of anarchy arises order. As Proudhon once said, “Liberty is the mother, not the daughter, of order.” They did not waver in their beliefs and restrained themselves. Self-governing order took time to arise, but it did nonetheless. The children settled down. They developed strong attachments with others and learned how to cooperate. Aichhorn could now proceed to work with the students to get an education free of the limitations of the real world.
All this is based on spontaneous order. Anarchy based on spontaneous order, or self organisation, can be “good” anarchy.
As I have written elsewhere, spontaneous order describes how all manner of processes, from the development of the universe and the evolution of life on Earth to language, the internet, the market economy and the Egyptian revolution. Spontaneous order, leaving people alone to live their lives, among adult humans has driven the industrial and scientific revolutions and given us most of what some people call progress. Jeffrey Tucker says, “Anarchy is all around us. Without it, our world would fall apart. All progress is due to it. All order extends from it. All blessed things that rise above the state of nature are owed to it…. [W]e need ever more absence of control to make the world a more beautiful place.”
Anarchists have all kinds of different beliefs and ways they would like to live. Some want an economy free of all government intervention, vastly equalising opportunity, creating vast prosperity for most or all people, and creating new markets for security, education, health and so on. Others want to live free of both government and corporate influence, where pollution is minimal, nature abundant, and technology is for helping, not hurting, people. These things are all possible in the absence of coercion by a higher power.
They don’t mind moving away and starting communities, or living off the grid. Part of the problem is that, even when they consume no state resources, the state usually tries to reincorporate them by force. The other option is secession, whether as an individual living in towns and cities or as a community, based in any given sized territory. Anarchists would not force others to do the same, but they do want everyone to have the option.
Good, bad or whatever, anarchists want the freedom to live in the form of system—including none—they like, and would not want to take the same option away from you.