For Part I of this series, click here.
No man demands what he desires; each man demands what he fancies he can get. Soon people forget what the man really wanted first; and after a successful and vigorous political life, he forgets it himself. … One can only find the middle distance between two points if the two points will stand still. We may make an arrangement between two litigants who cannot both get what they want; but not if they will not even tell us what they want. … There is nothing that so much prevents a settlement as a tangle of small surrenders. We are bewildered on every side by politicians who are in favor of secular education, but think it hopeless to work for it; who desire total prohibition, but are certain they should not demand it; who regret compulsory education, but resignedly continue it; or who want peasant proprietorship and therefore vote for something else.
—G. K. Chesterton, What’s Wrong With the World, pp. 20-21
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So then, put simply, anarchism is the philosophy that the best way to organize society is for it to be genuinely self-governing, instead of being governed by a state whose authority is separated from and above that of the people as a whole. (Whether the state is instituted by elections, heredity, lottery, or any other means is not important for the anarchist: it is the state’s distinction from the citizenry as a whole, not its mode of coming into existence, that counts.)
But why think that? Most people haven’t, historically speaking—or, if they have, they’ve dismissed it as a pipe dream. And there’s a very practical case to be made for dismissing it as a pipe dream. However, I can’t help noticing in my studies of history that, in politics at least, practical people don’t seem to get what they want. Not reliably, anyway, and not for long.
Idealists, on the other hand, often make a remarkable impact: practical people have to take the unbending idealist into account, if only by shooting him. Stalin, speaking to a French statesman who asked him about his influence with Russian Catholics, once said, ‘The Pope! How many divisions does he have?’ It’s witty enough in its own right; but it’s even funnier for other reasons, when you consider that the Soviet Union at that time was a thing of yesterday and vanished the day after tomorrow, while the Papacy is the oldest continuous institution on earth.* Idealism is much more practical than practicality—chiefly, I think, because it’s more human. Men are not bulletproof, but ideas and passions are; the pragmatist concerns himself only with men, but in so doing he leaves out the most important parts of man, his brain and his heart.
But back to anarchy. The idea is that men should be self-governing, and that, in a state, they just aren’t—even if it’s a professedly democratic state. The Man is still the Man even if you vote for him. And state governance, self governance, and chaos are the only options (until the Greys invade, but all the same we need something to do in the meantime).
This all, then, comes back to two simple questions: one, do men have the right to govern themselves? And two, is it best for them to exercise this right, or abdicate it in someone else’s favor?
Chesterton said (in a passage that I can’t find at the moment) said that there are two sorts of business in the world: the kind we wish a man to do for himself (or others) only if he does them well, like performing surgery or discovering the North Pole; and the kind we wish a man to do for himself even if he does them badly, like writing his own love letters or blowing his own nose. The classically democratic contention is that governing society is this second kind of thing; that we should wish the citizens of a society to run their society, even if they do so badly. Such is the dignity of the image of God and of its nose.
And the case for human self-government, from a Catholic perspective, is a pretty good one: if all men are rational, they are all qualified to contribute; if all men are sinful, they should all be caught. Aquinas, in discussing the nature of law in the Summa, says much the same thing:
A law, properly speaking, regards first and foremost the aim of the common good. Now, to direct anything to the common good belongs either to the whole people, or to someone who is the deputy of the whole people. And therefore the making of a law belongs either to the whole people or to a public personage who has the care of the whole people; for in all other fields, the direction of anything to its purpose concerns the one whom the purpose belongs to.**
St Thomas Aquinas: stirring up shit since 1243.
Bob Ludlow, one of the companions of Dorothy Day and an early contributor to the Catholic Worker, wrote, with reference to this passage and to anarchism in general:
The State is government by representation (when it is a democracy) but there is no reason why a Catholic must believe that people must be governed by representatives—the Catholic is free to believe one way or the other as is evident from St Thomas’ treatment of law … Anarchists believe that the whole people composing a community should take care of what governing is to be done rather than have a distant and centralized state do it. … Our Lord taught us to pray ‘Thy kingdom come on earth as it is in heaven’—in other words the nearer earthly government approximates what things are in heaven the more Christian it is. I do believe—whether it can be realized or not—that the anarchist society approaches nearer to this ideal than do other forms of government.***
That’s a quick-and-dirty summary of my own reasons for being an anarchist: I think it’s a nigh-inevitable logical consequence of taking the democratic theory of government seriously, and moreover that the democratic theory of government is a natural corollary to the Christian and Catholic theory of man. Most anarchists have rather different reasons for being anarchists—usually descending from the philosophy and politics born of the French Revolution, especially Marxism. But I have little to do with these; their criticisms of the middle and upper classes and of capitalist economics are often right, even biting, but I don’t find their proposed alternatives satisfying, practically or intellectually.
Now, in order for this to work, you’d need to get down to the levels where a society is small enough to actually run itself; say a small city, at the very largest. This of course would mean the destruction of nation-states as we know them,**** and in my opinion, that’d be a damn good start to any improvement of human life. The massive nation-state of the modern era, which is practically an invention of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, has seen greater luxuries of destruction and human horror than any other political form known to man, most often as a result of war and nationalism (or the two together, dancing the tango of suck).
An anarchist society couldn’t abolish war, but it would tend to put the lid on nationalism; and it would make the gigantic wars of the last three centuries harder to conduct, for two reasons. First, there’s the fact that no one society could draw upon the power required to wage such a war—whether we’re speaking of soldiers or money or technology.
And second, when waging a war is taken out of the hands of the state and put into the hands of the people who actually have to wage it, the people who bear the cost of the decision are the same ones making it; and that is an encouraging thought. Commander-in-Chief of the Armed Forces or no, you didn’t see George W. Bush disarming land mines at Fallujah, or Barack Obama hunched over a computer in Yemen orchestrating drone strikes, any more than you saw Truman flying over Nagasaki. They don’t have to see what they’re authorizing; only their tools and their victims pay that price. That is wrong.
Once again to be continued …
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*With the possible exception of the Emperors of Japan.
**Summa Theologica, Second Part, I.4.xc.3. I’ve tried to clean up the customary, but (for the lay reader) borderline impenetrable, Dominican translation by reference to the Latin; anybody who wants to check my work can look at the Latin and the Dominican fathers’ English side by side here.
***Day quotes this in her partial autobiography The Long Loneliness (pp. 268-269); it seems to be from a personal letter of Ludlow’s, or perhaps an article, but she doesn’t specify. Italics, or rather un-talics, are original.
****A nation-state, in the technical sense in which I’m using it, isn’t at all the same thing as a country. For example, France and Spain are countries, and the French and the Spanish are nations; the Basque people, who live on the western side of the Pyrenees between France and Spain, are also a nation but do not legally have a country. A nation is a group of people with a common cultural heritage, and usually a common ethnicity; many states, past and present, have been multinational—the USA and the Austro-Hungarian Empire are good examples. (The British Empire, since it was a colonial power, is a little different.)