In defense of anarchism

Published online 2 February 2012.

Every once in awhile I see some sort of sneering comment in the comments section here at Orange complaining about “anarchists” as a force in Occupy.  Typically I find these complaints to be unaware of what anarchism is and of its positive role in the world.  This, then, is a defense of anarchism.  The angle taken by this defense will be practical and social, if informed by social theory.  It will look carefully at objections to anarchism and offer a somewhat qualified defense of its merits as a philosophy guiding political action.

I recognize that the approach taken here would really require a book-length treatment to do well — instead, I will be putting forth a short version of each of the main arguments, in the style of an invigorating manifesto, and hopefully we can sort out the difficulties of each argument in the comments section.

First a definition.
Anarchist FAQ:

Anarchism is a political theory which aims to create anarchy, “the absence of a master, of a sovereign.” [P-J Proudhon, What is Property , p. 264] In other words, anarchism is a political theory which aims to create a society within which individuals freely co-operate together as equals. As such anarchism opposes all forms of hierarchical control – be that control by the state or a capitalist – as harmful to the individual and their individuality as well as unnecessary.

(Readers who are further interested in the elaboration upon such a perspective are further encouraged to follow the links and read the rest of the Anarchist FAQ.)

Let me start by examining the idea that an anarchist society is a bad thing to achieve.  Is inequality better than equality?  Is hierarchy better than horizontal power-sharing?   Typically, arguments for hierarchy (and the state) rest their cases on the notion that hierarchy (or the state) is necessary — that there are bad people out there, and that the world needs leaders (and the state) to deal with said bad people.  Such arguments are irrelevant to the question under consideration in this paragraph.  If there really were no “bad people out there,” would the state still be “necessary”?  I don’t see it.

I can imagine, at least in theory, the functioning of a society on largely horizontal social relations, with no state, no domination, no hierarchies.  In the Critique of the Gotha Program, Karl Marx suggested that people were fundamentally unequal — that they were different from each other in abilities and needs.  What was wrong with capitalist society for Marx, then, was that it separated out into social classes, rather than merely that it made people “unequal.”  The fact of real, physical inequality among human beings, however, does not eliminate the possibility of (and perhaps the need for) horizontal social relations.  Anarchists are most persuasive when they argue for horizontal social relations.  (Marx was also in favor of horizontal social relations, of course.)

What does that mean, “horizontal social relations”?

A society with horizontal social relations would be a society where everyone treated everyone else with a modicum of respect for the unique individualities to be found therein, and allowed each and all full rights of participation in the decision-making of society.  Not everyone would be “equal” in the exercise of these rights — but all would have an equal opportunity to have her opinion, and rights, respected.  Consensus process respects people within a framework of horizontal social relations, and a society in which political and economic decisions were made through consensus process would be a society in which all were encouraged to “be leaders,” thus a society of leaders.

We could, theoretically at least, run a society without followers.  If everyone were a leader, nobody would be required to follow, or obey.  The idea behind this concept is that once the self-appointed leadership stops trying to punish people with cops and prisons and armies and bombs and so on, and stops trying to fool people with propaganda and ideologies, everyone would get down to the business of trying to persuade everyone else and to create environments conducive to the production and reproduction of what we call “good people.”

Now, instead of the society imagined in the anarchist vision of “horizontal social relations,” what we have is a society of elites who imagine themselves the arbiters of social power, who think that their policies are the best policies, and who continue to insist upon the production of cops and prisons and armies and bombs, largely for the purpose of maintaining a monopoly upon the use of violence which keeps them in power.  They have a number of elite societies as well: the Trilateral Commission, the WEF, the G-20, and so on.  The world they and their corporate friends “run” is on a path to what John Bellamy Foster calls the “accumulation of catastrophe.”  I imagine that it’s only a matter of time before there develop critical masses of popular opinion against the corporate vision of the world spread by the political and financial elites.

Much is going to be made here at of the anarchists’ collective refusal to participate in electoral politics.  It isn’t important.  Anarchists currently exist in the margins of American (and world) political life.  If however the anarchists were successful enough at developing their vision of society in a way that mattered, then electoral politics itself would not matter.  As it stands, of course, anarchism is another set of ideas “in the mix,” because the anarchists are few in proportion to the society as a whole, and electoral politics, therefore, matters.

I’m sure it would consume a good deal of our time in meetings if we were all to develop horizontal relations in our political lives, trying to decide how to run society, directly, and slowly, through consensus process.  Consensus process allows groups to decide how to act while at the same time respecting horizontal social relations.  But indeed it would be quite empowering to be part of a society in which one was respected as a participant in the way in which the anarchists want.  For me, the primary attraction of the Occupy movement, a movement structured through consensus process in a rather anarchist fashion (although not necessarily composed of peoples of anarchist belief or action), is that it offers a political structure in which ordinary individuals will be seriously heard.  Thus Occupy provides an effective alternative to our electoral political structure, which fakes public opinion in order to gain the acquiescence of the masses in the rule of the “lesser of two evils.”

I think the idea that people would co-operate “as equals” is merely a bad framing on the part of the writers of the Anarchist FAQ.  A better formulation is given by L. Susan Brown in the same text:

Anarchists oppose the idea that power and domination are necessary for society, and instead advocate more co-operative, anti-hierarchical forms of social, political and economic organisation.”

The idea, then, is to replace relationships based on power and domination with those based on co-operation.  This, then, is the idealism upon which anarchism is based.  I don’t really see anything wrong with it as an idealism.  There are, of course, other arguments for a hierarchical society than that which posits that hierarchy is an inherent good.  So far, we have merely examined anarchism as an idealism, as a thought about how the world should be, and seen it to promise a meaningful alternative to what we have now.

An alternative path of reasoning about anarchism is to discuss anarchism as a practical philosophy, a thought about what to do in the world as it stands.  I suggested, above, that there is one line of argument which suggests that hierarchy is necessary to our world-society because there are dangerous people out there and that a hierarchical society is (and will be) necessary to restrain such people.  This is a serious practical concern about the possibility of an anarchist society, and its opponents might argue that anarchist society doesn’t have an effective way of dealing with dangerous people.

A counter-argument to this argument might be that dangerous people are made, not born.  The suggestion therein is that, once our world-society stops making dangerous people, it will no longer find it necessary to restrain them.  We might say against this that people are innately aggressive, but the question of “human nature” as such has never been resolved in the only way it could be resolved — which is to say that world-society has never attempted to create an order based on universal satisfaction, and thus universal peace.

Another strong practical argument against the creation of an anarchist society is the idea that such a society might not be possible.  The Anarchist FAQ attempts to deal with this problem with more theory: one can read, for instance, answers to the question “will it be possible to go straight from capitalism to an anarchist society?”  Mostly the material here is one of accounts of how anarchist writers have imagined the transition from capitalism to an anarchist society.  But the problem isn’t one of imagination, but rather of resources.  There are a relative few anarchists in world-society — and of those, few have the power to make the significant changes in the mass mentality that would change the current, state- and corporate-dominated track which mass-society is on.  It remains an open question, then, as to whether or not society could move in a significantly anarchist direction.

Probably the greatest force for anarchism in world-society today is the Occupy movement.  Anarchists do all sorts of things to “spread the movement,” yet human behavior remains a matter of social persuasion, and social persuasion is largely a matter of the creation of environments appropriate to any particular type of thinking.  The Occupy movement provides an environment appropriate to anarchist thinking.  People think the way they do, for the most part, because the way they think fits in with a particular mode of social being.  Thus if anarchists wish to build anarchist thought, they would do best to build anarchist societies — societies dedicated to building a larger world-society based on anarchist principles.  The Occupy movement is not such a society, though it could be.

At this point in my defense of anarchism I think it is important to distinguish between anarchist modes of self-expression and anarchist modes of society-building.  Some anarchists may protest, or smash windows, or yell slogans, or listen to the sort of music promoted in Maximum Rock ‘n’ Roll — but it is hard to say how much of these activities actually build anarchist societies.  Rather, such activities serve psychological purposes for some anarchists.

Much of what counts as “criticism” of anarchists has to do with the misidentification of anarchist modes of self-expression with the anarchists themselves – some people, typically not “in the know,” think that all anarchists are Black Bloc participants or whatever.  The Black Bloc, moreover, does not prove the anarchist tactic of direct action to be “wrong,” even though Black Bloc actions may themselves be reprehensible.  Representative notions of politics hold that the solution to social problems is to hold someone (a “representative”) responsible for their solution, and then to complain when the “representative” does not solve them.  Anarchists suggest that direct action may itself build a moral order.

Anarchists would do best, then, to look carefully at what modes of society-building are most efficacious in building what they consider to be a moral social order.  Here I can suggest that replacing social relations based on domination with those based on horizontal social relationships, building the new society within the shell of the old, is the core of the anarchists’ collective ability to do good for the world.


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