Saturday, August 11, 2007

Anarchism and me

I am an anarchist.

I didn't feel comfortable saying that for a long time, and I'm really not sure for how long the description has applied. What I do know is that it's true, and that my hesitation to use the word was entirely the result of my own misconceptions about what it means, and what it doesn't.

I thought that anarchists were opposed to government. In fact, this is simply not the case. What anarchists oppose is hierarchy — when talking government, they oppose that particular variety of government called the State. Weber defined the State as an organization with "a monopoly on the legitimate use of physical force within a given territory," and this is the sort of government that anarchists oppose. They also oppose capitalism, but that is another post entirely.

To be sure, you will often hear some anarchists talk of overthrowing the government, and this is true: they want to overthrow the present government. You might also hear some anarchists refusing to describe the sort of government they would be comfortable with as a government at all. In a sense, this is also true, as it would scarcely resemble any government that has existed before.

The majority of anarchists, however, actually do want to see a government in place, one in many ways more robust than the representative democracy we have today. Anarchists want a decentralized government, with local decisions made through Athenian-style direct democracy. Decisions that affect more than one locality would be made by sending delegates from local assemblies to nested confederations covering larger geographical areas.

There are two things that make this government utterly unlike the government we are familiar with, the State. First, decisions are always made from the bottom up. The members of the confederation of assemblies are not representatives elected by hundreds of thousands of constituents, they are recallable delegates who remain members of the lower assemblies as well. To confuse this sort of confederation with representative government is to confuse administration with authority — the role of representatives is to make decisions for people, while the role of delegates is to coordinate decisions among them.

Second, the confederation does not have a monopoly on physical force. In the United States at present, one has no choice but to participate in certain elements of society. You must register with social security and for selective service. You must pay taxes. You must participate in jury duty. If you don't, you may be arrested in a display of the State's physical force, and you will be further charged if you resist because the State has a monopoly on the legitimate use of it. In an anarchist confederation, none of this would happen, nor would it be necessary. If you do not want to participate in the confederation, simply don't — but expect to also not benefit from it. Since an anarchist society is by definition a socialist society, this also means you will be opting out of the economy entirely. But you will be unmolested, and you may freely choose to do so. The confederation doesn't "own" the land, nobody will evict you or arrest you.

I think the confusion over what anarchism is comes from two unrelated uses of the terminology. In general, people have come to see anarchy as a word meaning "chaos," when it actually means nothing more than "no rulers." But the more troubling use is the appropriation of anarchist language by what in the United States are called libertarians (and what in any sensible country would be called "fucking nutjobs"). Anarchists are socialists even before they are anarchists — anarchism is simply the most fundamental political expression of the same ideologies that drive socialism. Anarchism is a centuries-old political tradition drawn from the work of many philosophers and political scientists. But libertarians water down the language to generically mean "no government." So-called "anarcho"-capitalists, the absurd extreme fringe of the libertarian movement, do genuinely oppose all government, not only the State. But they are capitalists, believers in a system that relies upon competitive hierarchy as the fundamental force of the economy. "Anarcho"-capitalists are not anarchists, they are just plain capitalists, and want to smash the State not for human liberation but to remove roadblocks to capitalist exploitation and expansion. They usurped the word anarchy in exactly the same manner that libertarians usurped the word liberty; until the twentieth century, libertarian and anarchist were synonyms.

So I am an anarchist after all. I see the State — as distinguished from the organizational act of governance — as an unnecessary and exploitative hierarchy, just as I see capitalism. I support local direct democracy and delegated confederal democracy, and I oppose the present form of representative government. I'm a socialist. I'm everything your momma warned you about.


  1. Hi,

    I'm an anarchist too, of the libertarian communist persuasion. Is there much of an anarchist presence down in Texas? I believe there at least used to be an anarchist group called the Heatwave Revolutionary Collective or something. You know anything about that?

    Visit me at my blog, American anarchism (particularly of the socialist type) is stretched pretty thin.

    Best wishes,

    - Ned Swing

  2. I'm afraid I haven't even begun to look into it here. I've seen anarchist groups at demonstrations, but they generally seem to be of the angsty teenager variety.

  3. Yeah, I'd agree with that. Thats one of the problems really, isn't it - its hard to drum up any enthusiasm about actually MEETING anarchists in real life. Or politicos in general.

    Best wishes,

    - Ned Swing