Around Christmas, when the reconnecting-with-friends-you-keep-forgetting-to-hang-out-with phase was in full swing, I found, a little weirdly, that anarchism came up several times. Maybe it’s because 2016 is an election year (and the two-and-a-half year run-up to elections have now become a remorseless aspect of our lives, as if media and politics weren’t independently intrusive and wretched enough), or maybe it was happenstance, but I thought I’d revisit the subject, which I haven’t written about substantively in a year and a half.
First, we have to be clear what we mean by anarchy. Normally the word is just used as a synonym for chaos, and most people assume that anarchists disdain or oppose order and law of every kind. There are anarchists who take that view, certainly. But they aren’t actually that representative of anarchists in general, any more than PETA are representative of vegetarians in general. The defining trait of anarchism is opposition to the state—whether on the grounds that it is unnecessary or that it is unjust. And the state is not simply synonymous with authority, nor even with law as such; otherwise, we could mean nothing by terms like ‘unjust war,’ ‘right to privacy,’ or ‘tyrant.’
Hey, how'd this get here?
What then do anarchists mean by the state? A gross oversimplification would be that the state is a governing body, enjoying legal authority over a society—the alternative being that society governing itself. An American would likely reply that our society does govern itself; to which an anarchist might say something like:
Oh really? You call the shots about tax rates, about military intervention in foreign countries, about anti-trust law, about speed limits, about the legality of using this or that substance? You know your representatives personally—at the local level, at the state level, at the national level? You know all the laws that apply to your life, and you know them because you made them, in conjunction with the other people they apply to—or at any rate, you all went through the preëxisting laws and ratified them? When somebody says the government, your immediate thought is of the people it governs, because the two are synonymous? In what way, exactly, do you govern yourself, if none of the political details of your life are really in your control?
A statist (in the loose sense) might well reply that such a truly direct democracy would be impossible in a country on the American scale, which the anarchist might agree with; the statist and the anarchist would then proceed, most likely, to disagree about whether that’s a mark against anarchism, or a mark against America. However, the case for and against anarchy is one I’ll deal with later. For now, we are just exploring what anarchism basically is.
In brief, then, the state is a governing body distinct from the people it governs, who—irrespective of whether officers of the state assume their powers through elections, heredity, or any other means—may be called the subjects of the state.
And it must be pointed out that this state necessarily rests on the threat of violence in order to go on existing. This doesn’t mean that all states are cruel and capricious; some are fairly just, and, for all its incredible multitude of faults, the American state is one of the better ones available. (That isn’t saying a great deal in my opinion, but it’s still something to be grateful for.) But the state, unless it can infallibly persuade all of its subjects to do what it says—which, spoiler, it can’t—must rely on the ability to resort to force in order to go on existing. Otherwise, it will simply dissolve, as one citizen and another disagrees with one or another of its decisions and simply stops obeying it. More briefly, there’s no good in having laws if you cannot enforce them.
An anarchist will admit that there’s no good having laws if you cannot enforce them; you can then go in two directions with this. One is to denounce law as such. The other is to make consent the sole basis of law—not denying that there may be a profounder philosophical grounding for law, but in terms of what laws are civilly recognized. And if you’re going to have a society small enough to make consent the basis of its existence, you will, pretty much by default, have a society small enough to be authentically self-governing, without the supposed mediation of a state. Again, there are difficulties with this idea, and I will deal with them in a later post.
There are a few major streams in anarchist thought. A few examples (out of many):
· Social Anarchism, a family of schools which makes up the majority of anarchists past and present. Anarcho-Communism is one of the more prominent flavors; it arose in the ferment after the French Revolution, and was formulated in more detail by Peter Kropotkin (who refused a post in the infant Soviet regime, and whose funeral in 1921 was among the last expressions of popular opposition to the Bolsheviks). Social Anarchism in general favors direct democracy, public ownership of the means of production (e.g. natural resources, tools, and factories), and the abolition of private property—not to be confused with personal property.*
· Anarcho-Capitalism, which developed from certain forms of libertarianism. It advocates substituting all other institutions (including the justice system) with individual sovereignty and completely free markets. The Austrian School of economics is closely related, with such exponents as Ludwig von Mises and Murray Rothbard; minarchism, which advocates a state whose only functions are protecting individuals from certain forms of violence and fraud, is a related philosophy in the statist sphere.
· Anarcho-Syndicalism, which we’re all at least a little familiar with from that one scene in Monty Python and the Holy Grail. It is founded on principles such as class solidarity, direct action—i.e., pursuing a specifiable goal, viewing things like appointing mediators and advocates an unproductive distraction—and the abolition of the wage system (in favor of workers being self-managing). The Industrial Workers of the World, somewhat confusingly nicknamed the Wobblies, are an example,** with their famous slogan An injury to one is an injury to all.
· Anarcho-Pacifism, which frequently takes a religious tone (unlike much other anarchism). Pacifists who consider all use of force wrong will more or less inevitably become anarchists as well, since the state can only exist if it is backed up by force. Henry David Thoreau, Leo Tolstoy, Dorothy Day, Peter Maurin, and Mahatma Gandhi were all anarcho-pacifists (with varying levels of Christianity—Gandhi of course was a Hindu, but his political philosophy explicitly drew on the teaching of Jesus).
A lot of people have grilled me about how I can be an anarchist, of whatever flavor, when I’m also a practicing Catholic. It’s understandable, especially given that a lot of anarchists have been irreligious or anti-religious—like Emma Goldman, one of the most famous anarchists in history and a convinced atheist who viewed religion as an instrument, conscious or unconscious, of political oppression; or Louis Auguste Blanqui, who coined the slogan No gods, no masters, since a favorite among anarchists of nearly every stripe.
Nonetheless, I think it’s founded on a misunderstanding. A lot of people (Catholics not excepted) vaguely assume that supporting the Church involves a general support for authority of all kinds; as if belief in the Catholic faith came, not from examining it and finding it convincing, but from a general mood of liking things to be hierarchical. Now, I’m as susceptible as the next man to the æsthetic appeal of hierarchy, but, if I do say so, I’m also canny enough to recognize the difference between finding something appealing and thinking that it’s true. And believing that the Catholic Church has authority in one realm doesn’t really involve you in the idea that this or that government has authority in some other realm—especially given that the Church quite specifically disclaims infallibility about anything that isn’t a matter of Christian teaching and practice. Besides this, the advancement of Dorothy Day’s cause for sainthood encourages me that anarchy and Catholicism are compatible.
And all that’s saying nothing of the Church’s long history as a firm, though by no means uncritical, sympathizer with radical politics. A long list of encyclicals, beginning with Rerum Novarum in 1891 and running throughout the twentieth and twenty-first centuries, down to Pope Benedict’s Spe Salvi and Pope Francis’ Laudato Si’, have called again and again for the humanization of politics and economics, in contrast not only to the destructive collectivism of dictatorships, but to the amoral capitalism of democracies.
Moreover, it’s arguable that the only lasting and functional anarchist society the world has yet seen was brought into being under the special patronage of the Catholic Church. The reducciónes of the Spanish Empire in South America, or at least those run by Jesuit missionaries, were frequently and for all intents and purposes a network of genuinely self-governing communities, which (a refreshing change in both colonialism and evangelism) did involve converting the indigenous peoples but did not involve Europeanizing them. Even Rousseau, no friend to Christianity, admired the reducciónes. Nor, when they were finally destroyed after a century and a half, did they collapse from internal conflicts—their demise was accomplished by the expulsion of the Jesuits from Portuguese and Spanish territories on political grounds, and active conquest on the part of the colonial powers (memorialized in the beautiful and tragic historical-fiction film, The Mission).
Don’t you hate it when they say To be continued, bitchiz …
*The distinction between private and personal property is one on which every form of socialism hangs, and is therefore, of course, more or less completely unknown to most capitalists. A quick-and-dirty summary of the distinction is: shit you can move is personal property; shit you can’t move is real property (as in the phrase real estate), and the way you think real property can or should be owned more or less shows what sort of economic theory you believe in. Communists and socialists believe that real property should always be public, while capitalists believe that it can be private (and thus almost equivalent to personal property, though not quite). Other systems, like distributism, take still other views.
**The IWW began in 1905, and its history since that time has been remarkable. Even just its founders were a fascinating bunch. They included: a Catholic priest, Fr Thomas Hagerty, sadly though understandably deprived of clerical faculties in 1902 due to his increasingly radical and dogmatic politics; Mary Harris ‘Mother’ Jones (for whom the magazine Mother Jones is named), who became an activist after she tragically lost her husband and four young children, and who memorably said of the Suffragette movement, ‘You don’t need the vote to raise hell!’, insisting that men deserved a wage that would allow their wives to care for the children and that the absence of mothers from the home was a major cause of juvenile delinquency; Lucy Parsons, the widow of Confederate veteran Albert Parsons, one of the Haymarket Martyrs—the pair had originally left Texas for Illinois due to intolerance of their interracial marriage; and Eugene V. Debs, one of the only prominent Socialist candidates for President (taking in nearly 6% of the vote in the 1912 election, and well over 3% in 1920 while he was in jail), who organized the historic Pullman Strike. Dorothy Day was also involved with the Wobblies, if informally, from about 1916 to 1926 or so.