So You Say You Are An Anarchist?

heroes - [anarchy in palermo IV]

Saying you are an anarchist is an instant way to grab some credibility. It gives one a certain cachet to opine that anarchy is the way to go. Government and the police? Fuck that, right? Yet many people who give credence to the thought of anarchy really don’t get what the whole scene is all about.

Could you roll with being an anarchist? Disinfo spoke to Gerard Casey, a Professor in the School of Philosophy at University College Dublin, Ireland, and is also an Adjunct Scholar at the Ludwig von Mises Institute. He has published a monograph on the libertarian economist, Murray Rothbard, and his most recent book is Libertarian Anarchy: Against the State.

Do we need governments for peace and security?

No. Human beings lived together for most of their history without a state and while their existence was far from idyllic, they could not have survived unless peace and security made the order of the day.

Not only do we not need governments for peace and security but governments are, in fact, the biggest threat to peace and security! Given that the core function of states and their governments is said to be the preservation of law and order and the protection of life and property, it is perhaps not irrelevant to note that recent history shows that most killing has been done by one state or another, or by some armed group seeking to be the government of a state and to control its coercive apparatus. The number of people killed in the twentieth century in state-sponsored conflicts or state-related victimization is, at a conservative estimate, between 175,000,000 and 180,000,000. In contrast, although it is impossible to say for definite, the number of people killed in the twentieth century by what we might call normal (that is, non-state) criminal homicide is nowhere near that number. The figure derived from the same source as that for state-originated deaths gives us roughly 8,000,000 non-state murders worldwide in the twentieth century, which is less than 5% of the state related figure.

The state forbids private murder but itself organizes murder on a colossal scale. It punishes private theft but itself lays unscrupulous hands on anything it wants. Given, then, that states have been and are the major agents of death and destruction, their claim to be the necessary agents of the defence and protection of life will delight lovers of irony if being somewhat less amusing to those who have suffered injury or death.

It is not only in war that the state has been careless with the lives and property of its citizens. Millions of people have lost their lives or their livelihoods because of some of the more insane and nightmarish schemes of social engineering attempted by some states in the 20th century. One has only to recall China’s ironically entitled Great Leap Forward, the USSR’s disastrous attempts at collectivization, the romantic ‘villagizations’ of Tanzania, Mozambique and Ethiopia, and the killing fields of Cambodia. James Scott believes that these schemes are ‘among the great human tragedies of the twentieth century, in terms of lives lost and lives irretrievably disrupted.’

The word “Anarchy” seems to mean different things to different people.  Can you give me a brief definition of what anarchy truly is?

The term Anarchy derives from Greek roots—anarchos—and means no-rulers. Some people (even reputable dictionary compilers) take anarchy to imply ‘no rules’ and so, for many, people the term has come to signify chaos and disorder. But anarchists are not opposed to order and few, if any, desire chaos. There may be some anarchists whose idea of the good life is to live in a forest on their own, but most anarchists are social creatures and want to live with their fellow men and that requires order—but not order imposed arbitrarily from above, typically by the state.

At the heart of the idea of anarchy is a deep-rooted resistance to having one’s life and actions ordered by others to whom one has not explicitly or implicitly voluntarily subordinated oneself. Although anarchy is typically taken to be the rejection of the domination of people by the state, it should rather be formally defined as the rejection of any form of non-voluntary domination of one person or group of people by another. The commonest example of non-voluntary domination is, of course, the state but it may not the only one. Anarchists on the communist and collectivist end of the political spectrum appear to believe that the institution of private property necessarily gives rise to non-voluntary domination, as does the relationship of employer to employee, and so they deny that those who support the institution of private property can be anarchists. On the other hand, I (and many others) believe we are free to bind ourselves by entering into informal and contractual relations with others, even relations in which we voluntarily subordinate ourselves to others, and so we do not accept the common claim of left-wing anarchists that such relations are necessarily anti-anarchic. Here we are in agreement with Noam Chomsky who remarks that ‘No one owns the term “anarchism.” It is used for a wide range of different currents of thought and action, varying widely.’

Anarchy is not incompatible with associating voluntarily with others and creating freely-assented-to governing structures. If we are not free to bind ourselves then we are not really free, our liberty is compromised. That form of anarchy that accepts this radical notion of freedom is called libertarian anarchy.

I know some people that call themselves “anarchists” but yet pay their taxes, follow established laws, and generally do what the government tells them to do. Is it possible to be an anarchist and also follow the established rules of ones government?

Well, if a hulking guy puts a knife to your throat on a dark deserted street and demands that you hand over your wallet, you would probably do so. Is your surrender of your wallet voluntary? Yes, in one sense, in that you have chosen to part with your wallet rather than having your throat cut; however, your action is performed under a threat of force and, other things being equal, you probably wouldn’t elect to give your wallet to a stranger on the street. The government is that hulking guy with these differences, that it operates in the light of day and considers its coercive activities to be respectable and justified. Why is this?

Governments have, or claim to have, a monopoly on the legitimate use of force in our societies and, with the threat of force behind them, they demand our obedience to their laws and the right to use our resources in any way that they determine. Some laws are ones that all anarchists would assent to—laws prohibiting the initiation of violence and the abuse of other people’s property—and many other laws are matters of indifference, such as which side of the road one should drive on. But the laws of the state go well beyond the necessary and the innocuous, and infringe in a myriad of ways on our freedoms to order our own affairs.

The state’s commands and demands are usually justified on the grounds that the government represents us but a moment’s though shows that to be a ludicrously false claim. Ask yourself what it means for one person to represent another? Under normal circumstances, those who represent us do so at our bidding and cease to do so at our bidding. They act on our instructions within the boundaries of a certain remit and we are responsible for what they do as our agents. The central characteristic of representation by agency is that the agent is responsible to his principal and is bound to act in the principal’s interest. Is this the situation with my so-called political representatives? Political representatives are not (usually) legally answerable to those whom they allegedly represent. In fact, in modern democratic states, the majority of a representative’s putative principals are in fact unknown to him. Can a political representative be the agent of a multitude? This also seems unlikely. What if there are multiple principals and they have interests that diverge from each other? A political representative must then of necessity cease to represent one or more of his principals. The best that can be done in these circumstances is for the politician to serve the many and betray the few. In this very normal political scenario, it is not that it is difficult to represent a constituency—it is rather that it is practically impossible. Except in extreme and very rare cases, there is no interest common to the members of a constituency as a whole. That being the case, there is nothing that can be represented.

You say that social order can be “spontaneously generated.” Can you expand a bit on that?

The most spectacular example of anarchist order is language. Language is essentially rule-governed but no one makes the rules. Nobody sat around and elected a leader to determine what the vocabulary, syntax and semantics of any natural language should be. (How could they do so without language!) Law is another social structure that originated anarchically. Common law is, in essence, case-generated law and almost all the law that provides the grounding for the orderly operation of society was created in this way—tort law, property law, contract law, commercial law, and even criminal law. Money originated anarchically and is recreated anarchically when circumstances require, as in the use of cigarettes as currency in the prison camps of World Ware II.

Our social customs, our manners, our norms of etiquette, even our ethics, all of which are vitally important for the smooth functioning of society, are all anarchic. A glance around the world at the ethical codes of different traditions will show an astonishing convergence, astonishing, at least, if one hasn’t yet grasped that without such rules, no society can exist. Of course, the scope, extent, and precise delimitation of these rules vary from one place to another but the core rules are essentially the same for all.

The state won’t put you in jail if you are consistently rude or boorish to others (not just yet but give it time!) but if you behave in this way, you will find your friends dropping off at a rate of knots. The norms of social order can be, and are in fact, spontaneously generated as a by-product of the day-to-day interaction between and among human beings. Such spontaneously generated norms are endemic in and constitutive of human society; deviations from these norms can be and are dealt with without recourse to the coercive power of the modern state.

Is there a way for a modern day industrialized society, like today’s, to adapt to anarchism without some sort of violent revolution?

Yes—by a process of deconstruction operating on the principle of ‘as quickly as possible with as little disruption as possible. Think of the modern state as a high rise building with several stories which has been constructed over a long period of time. On the bottom floor, we have the departments of law, justice and security; then, higher up, economic regulation, employment policies; higher still, health, education and welfare, and at the top, the regulation of utilities—electricity, water, roads, postal services and the like.

 The immediate and uncontrolled demolition of this building [revolution] would lead to chaos. However, a controlled, orderly (and rapid) take-down of the building, from the top [evolution] would not be chaotic. This take-down is, to a certain extent, already in operation. In many countries, states are getting out of the business of utility-provision and control; not enough countries and not all utilities and not quickly enough but still there is a movement here in the right direction. Getting the state out of health, education and welfare business will be a major task and one that is unlikely to be accomplished in the near future. It may be, however, that the demographic timebomb and the radical underfunding of social welfare provisions may provide the necessarily stimulus needed to leverage the state out of the health, education and welfare business.

The state is under the impression that it has a positive role to play in the organisation of the economy to create wealth. It hasn’t. It regulations and controls, not least its support of central banks, and its creation and maintenance of quasi-monopolies, leads to a bizarre form of crony capitalism which is good for the few but not the many.  And that brings us the ground floor of the building—the departments for peace and security.

Brian Whitney is the author of Raping the Gods.