I have called this book What Is Wrong With the World? and the upshot of the title can be easily and clearly stated. What is wrong is that we do not ask what is right. … Idealism is only considering everything in its practical essence. Idealism only means that we should consider a poker in reference to poking before we discuss its suitability for wife-beating; that we should ask if an egg is good enough for practical poultry-rearing before we decide that the egg is bad enough for practical politics. … As every normal man desires a woman, and children born of a woman, every normal man desires a house of his own to put them into. He does not merely want a roof above him and a chair below him; he wants an objective and visible kingdom; a fire at which he can cook what food he likes, a door he can open to what friends he chooses. This is the normal appetite of men; I do not say there are not exceptions. There may be saints above the need and philanthropists below it.
— G. K. Chesterton
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Anarchism is typically, but not always, a left-wing philosophy; i.e. (grossly oversimplifying), a philosophy that defines society in primarily economic terms and finds injustice and conflict primarily in terms of the wealthy oppressing the proletariat. There are also strands of anarchism that are right-wing, i.e. finding the woes of society primarily in the oppression of individuals by the state.1 My quarrel with both begins at their first premise.
In order to understand what human society is, we first have to understand what a human being is. And human beings do not exist in a vacuum. We exist, and come to be, in an environment, both material and personal; i.e., we are born into the world by our parents. From the start, this puts us in relationship to other human beings and to the world in general, whether we like it or not. Since nobody has yet succeeded in entering the world except by being born, and since nobody can live without food, drink, and shelter, there is no escaping from the web of coinherence: even suicide, which is (as a symbol) the most drastic refusal of the coinherence, cannot erase the past. And one of the tenets of Christian belief is that the coinherence persists, not only as a historical fact but as a present reality, between the living and the dead.
This seems to me of itself to render both ‘right’ and ‘left’ versions of anarchy more or less unacceptable to the orthodox Christian, especially the Catholic. Economics is not an adequate model for explaining humanity as a whole2; I don’t think people can be reduced to studies of how they behave—not even for practical purposes. How people behave is important: but it’s never the whole story; and since, as fellow human beings, we have inside information on what makes human beings tick, we can and should be willing to use it. Studying man with scientific rigor might be appropriate for an alien or an angel, but there’s something a little distasteful and a little silly about doing so as a man oneself. And similarly, trying to understand the state or society strictly in terms of class conflict or political conflict is an essential mistake. Those things are important; but, before human beings are rich or poor, before they are free or servile, before they are orderly or chaotic—first, they are human.
For a Catholic Christian, that which is specifically human is the image of God. Man shares bodily life with the animals and intelligence with the angelic orders, but the image of God, whatever exactly it is, is a peculiarly human quality. Genesis 1, where we first encounter the doctrine that mankind is made in God’s image, has the following to say:
In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth. … And God said, Let us make man in our image, after our likeness: and let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the fowl of the air, and over the cattle, and over all the earth, and over every creeping thing that creepeth upon the earth. So God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them. And God blessed them, and God said unto them, Be fruitful, and multiply, and replenish the earth, and subdue it: and have dominion … And God saw everything that he had made, and, behold, it was very good.
So some characteristics of the divine image emerge here. First, man is creative. The only thing we are told about God, before being told that we are made like Him, is that He is a maker. This is given an additional and special form, the creativity of procreation, in the dictum Be fruitful and multiply, which leads to the formation of the family, and thus into the second aspect of the image of God.
This is that people are communal, or, more poetically, that man is coinherent with his kind. As Genesis 2 recounts in a different form, men naturally need one another and by nature exist together. That God, who in Scripture normally says ‘I’ when acting, should here be represented as using ‘We,’ is pretty striking: it links the multiplicity of humanity into the image of the God that has just formed us. The family, from which we first receive our being, is the primordial community, and all mankind coinheres as a single family, being of one blood—as not only Biblical myth but modern biology attest.
Third, we may note that the text places mankind in dominion over the rest of creation.3 This dominion, judging from God’s behavior—He gratuitously gives being to what had not existed, with no further aim than to enjoy its beauty—is not a mere right to use, still less to abuse, created things. Taken together with Genesis 24, which recounts humanity being put in the Garden of Eden to dress it and to keep it, we can see it like the role of a gardener: tending creation so that it flourishes, as only someone who loves its beauty can do, learning to bring out its inner qualities, as opposed to forcing alien patterns (however beautiful) upon it.5 Note, too, that this is dominion over the earth—not dominion over one another.
The individualist theory of classical Liberalism, and the class-conflict theory of orthodox Marxism, are both inconsistent with this picture of man. The individualist theory treats the coinherence as though it were accidental, when it is how we come to be and is one of the strongest desires of the human heart; the classist theory, while rightly objecting to the domination of one man over another, fails to do justice to the human need for creativity and not merely for sustenance (‘Work, not wages,’ as the Wobblies’ slogan goes); and both have contributed to the decay of the family—that is, the cradle of the coinherence—by their attempt to limit human nature to human behavior. Relationship, which is what the coinherence is, is a different thing from activity.
Any society that is going to flourish has to be specially oriented toward the family. For better or worse, who we are as people takes shape in that context, and every society, statist or anarchist, is made up of people. No amount of economic liberty or economic equality is a substitute for a society in which husbands are loyal to their wives, wives to their husbands, and both to their children.6
Hence, I can’t really call myself a left-wing or a right-wing anarchist, because I don’t regard either individual liberty or the well-being of the proletariat as the paramount good of politics or economics. That economic system is best which encourages the family to flourish. And that is, inevitably perhaps, going to vary from place to place and from generation to generation. However, I do think that it demands some things that are odious to the right and the left, both in their rigorously philosophic and popular American forms: first, that the family be independent and self-governing, not overruled by the collective (still less the state); and second, that the family be propertied—not merely legally allowed to own property, but actually in possession of a homestead such as makes for a self-ruling home.
Can these two things be combined? I think they can, if we are willing to go down to the anarchist microscale, the society that is really small enough to be self-governing. I will write more about this in my next.
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1The terms right-wing and left-wing descend originally from the French Revolution, and referred quite literally to the arrangement of the Legislative Assembly formed in 1791: the conservative Feuillants, who supported the preservation of a reformed and constitutional monarchy, sat on the right-hand side of the house, while their radical opponents the Jacobins sat opposite. The application of these terms to American politics, which formed and developed in such markedly different ways from those of France, is both silly and customary, and the second quality takes precedence for the sake of efficient communication.
2Unpopular though this may make me among some of my politically-minded friends, I think this holds true whether we use economics in the vernacular sense of ‘the science of human commerce,’ or in the broader sense of ‘the science of human activity.’ (The Austrian school of economics—a classically Liberal movement, so named because it first formed in Vienna and has been largely dominated by Austrians such as Ludwig von Mises and Friedrich Hayek—uses the word economics in this sense, and sometimes uses praxeology as a synonym.)
3I.e., not necessarily all created material things, but the earth.
4The contrast between the creation accounts of Genesis 1.1-2.3 and Genesis 2.4-25 is a fascinating subject in its own right. It’d be quite a rabbit trail to go into it here, but the opening addresses of St John Paul II’s Theology of the Body examine them at some length.
5No one, perhaps, understood the right manner of tending creation as clearly as J. R. R. Tolkien. Describing his crafting of Middle-earth in a letter to a friend, he wrote:
All this stuff is mainly concerned with Fall, Mortality, and the Machine. With Fall inevitably, and that motive occurs in several modes. With Mortality, especially as it affects art and the creative (or as I should say, sub-creative) desire which seems to have no biological function … This desire is at once wedded to a passionate love of the real primary world, and hence filled with a sense of mortality, and yet unsatisfied by it. It has various opportunities of ‘Fall.’ … Both of these [examples] … will lead to the desire for Power, for making the will more quickly effective,—and so to the Machine (or Magic). By the last I intend all use of external plans or devices (apparatus) instead of developments of the inherent inner powers or talents—or even the use of these talents with the corrupted motive of dominating: bulldozing the real world, or coercing other wills. … The Elves are there (in my tales) to demonstrate the difference. Their ‘magic’ is Art, delivered from many of its human limitations: more effortless, more quick, more complete (product and vision in unflawed correspondence). And its objection is Art not Power, sub-creation not domination and tyrannous re-forming of Creation.
6This does not, of itself, preclude the possibility of things like gay marriage. A family-centered society would definitely value fertile couples highly, even uniquely, but this hardly means refusing to admit that other kinds of bond exist. It’s partly for this reason that, although I don’t support gay marriage as such, I do support civil unions (and not only for LGBT people).