Wednesday, May 04, 2011

As an idea, anarchism is the conviction that people can and should cooperate peacefully and voluntarily. As a political program, it's the project of doing without the state. Because governments are rooted in the use of force, anarchists maintain that no actual government is legitimate and that, in any case, we would be better off without the state. Anarchists reject any kind of authority acquired or maintained through aggressive violence or fraud.

People can and should organize their interactions on their own terms. We can defend ourselves against aggression; we don't need the state to force us not to kill each other. And we don't need the state's help to coordinate our interactions. Working together, we can craft meaningful lives and livable communities.

Sometimes, people wear the anarchist label, or hoist anarchist black flags, when their primary goal is just to spread a little chaos. Even people who know better may sometimes act as if "anarchy" were just another word for disorder. But anarchism as I understand it is about the best kind of order imaginable: the kind that emerges voluntarily, spontaneously, as people work creatively together to shape their lives and plan their futures. Anarchy is what happens when social order flows, not from the state's gun barrels, but from the free choices of fearless people.

States persist because of the self-interest of the powerful people who manage or manipulate them and because ordinary people haven't realized their own power to imagine and implement alternatives... people who make and implement state decisions are pursuing their own agendas, often in conflict with our own... and we have no reason to treat them with reverence, to view them as anything other than ordinary people with rights just like ours.

I'm an anarchist for several reasons.

I'm an anarchist because I believe there's no natural right to rule. I believe that people are equal in dignity and worth, which means, in turn, that they have equal moral standing.

I'm an an anarchist because I believe the state lacks legitimacy. Some people argue that rulers deserve to have more rights than those they rule because their subjects have consented and continue to consent to their authority. But I believe they haven't.

I'm an anarchist because I believe the state is unnecessary. Statists often maintain that having a state is the only way to have a peaceful society. I disagree, on both theoretical and empirical grounds. I believe non-state institutions can provide the services the state provides- but more efficiently and flexibly; and there's good evidence that they're capable of doing so. In addition, I am convinced that if the state has the power to do good things, even very good, very useful, very important things, it will almost unavoidably use that power in authoritarian ways; it will use the power it has to regulate people's lives-- and acquire more power.

I'm an anarchist because the state tips the scales in favour of privileged elites and against ordinary people. The state tends to promote inefficiencies through subsidies, monopolies, patents, tariffs, and other mechanisms that allow elites to avoid paying the actual costs of what they do. It forces ordinary people to bear the costs of elite decisions and to adjust their preferences and behaviours to suit conformist majorities. I believe a stateless society would be more likely than ours to foster efficiency and productivity and to avoid varieties of hierarchy and exclusion states tend to promote and protect.

I'm an anarchist because the state tends to be destructive. It engages in war and plunder, and seems persistently to be involved in ratcheting up the level of violence and injustice across borders... I believe a stateless society would feature much less large-scale violence than ours.

I'm an anarchist because the state restricts personal freedom- as a way of maintaining order, benefiting the privileged, preserving its own power, or subsidizing some people's moralizing preferences.

I'm an anarchist because I want a society marked by diversity, exploration, and experimentation, because I believe states impose conformity and resist creativity, and because I believe a stateless society would provide opportunities for people to explore diverse ways of living fulfilled, flourishing lives and to put the results of their explorations on display.


Pre-National Labor Relations Act unions, not legislators, won the first big battles in the struggle for the eight-hour day, for instance. The current labor law framework has had the practical effect of limiting workers' options and opportunities.

In the Jim Crow South and in apartheid-era South Africa, the state played a key role in preventing white people from paying for work by and providing services to black people on the same basis as white people.

The state limits access to work. It limits access to housing. It tries to force people into a middle-class cookie-cutter mold... It gets in the way of people's ability to protect themselves by organizing. By doing so, it creates and exacerbates poverty.

The state can't effectively provide macro-level management of the economy. And when it gets involved in the operation of industries and firms and the economic behaviour of people and families it predictably shores up the wealth and power of the already wealthy and powerful... As long as there is a state, it will be vulnerable to lobbying and manipulation, and the wealthy will be the best equipped to lobby and manipulate... The problem, I emphasize, is not, per se, with particular people. The problem is with the vast power the state exercises, its power to cartelize and regulate and subsidize and demand tribute and compel compliance through fear.

Because the state has so much power, even well-intentioned errors can have awful consequences. And mischief coordinated among the elites who direct the course of the state-- mischief like war-- can be devastating for entire societies. The state is dangerous.

Anarchists often spend a lot of time imagining what life might be like without the state. I confess that I don't know. I don't have a plan, and, if I did, I wouldn't want to impose it on everyone else... That's why I favour what is sometimes called "panarchy" or "anarchy without adjectives."... Decent voluntary communities and networks will help people resolve disputes, protect people-- especially vulnerable people-- and animals against violence and injustice, insure people against risk, and help to safeguard them from the effects of economic insecurity... Indeed, that's one reason I find anarchism appealing. Without a little cognitive humility, it's easy to assume that I've got a model, a plan, that's just right for everyone, that all I need is the right sort of benevolent philosopher-queen to implement it. But of course it's that kind of naive idealism about the capacities of states and the motivations of state actors that's gotten us into the mess we're in now, the mess in which the state tyrannizes us-- supposedly for our own good.

That doesn't mean that all options are equally OK, or that the notion that we can make sound judgements about what's right and wrong, good and bad, just goes out the window. Being an anarchist doesn't commit you to being a relativist or a nihilist. But there are all sorts of ways of being flourishingly human.

It's tough to free other people when you're not free yourself. It's too easy to get caught up in unloading your own emotional baggage or to become a humourless, self-righteous crusader-- the mirror image of the statist authority figure you'd like to leave in the dust... Anarchism is about living a good life, and friendship is a marvellous aspect of human welfare; it's a good thing whether your friends agree with you about anything at all, and you pervert it if you turn it into an opportunity for proselytizing... The most important way to get people excited about the possibility of liberation is to connect with them personally... Ultimately, people are more loyal to their friends than they are to movements or ideas.

Authoritarianism begins at home... Parents who treat their children in demeaning ways or who use physical force against them when they'd never do so against adults send the message that people in authority answer to different rules than others do and that aggressive or punitive violence is an acceptable way to solve problems.

The Conscience of an Anarchist, Gary Chartier, 2011,