What’s an Anarchy? A Response to ‘Delusion’ Among Anarchists

by Derek Scarlino/Love and Rage

David Graeber, professor of anthropology at the London School of Economics, introduces himself on Twitter as such: I’m an anthropologist, sometimes I occupy things & such. I see anarchism as something you do not an identity so don’t call me the anarchist anthropologist.

The author of Debt: The First 5000 Years and On the Phenomenon of Bullshit Jobs has also seen himself attached to things like coining the term “We are the 99%”. He’s also really nailed the concept of anarchism on the head as it requires deliberate and direct action in order to produce an active state of anarchy.

If that sounds like a rule, it just might be. And that just might confuse a lot of people unfamiliar with the philosophy and praxis of anarchism which dates back to the 1840s, and certainly, with great care given to caution, precedes the 19th century in places and periods throughout human history.

In a recent article for The Hitch titled Libertarians and Anarchists: Delusion at the Political Extremes, site co-founder and senior contributor Josh Turner attempted a dissection of the respective ideologies aimed at proving his hypothesis that in spite of appearances, the horseshoe theory of political science brings these models closer together than adherents might otherwise allege. Turner certainly argues his case convincingly, but in the process sidesteps that aforementioned history dating back well over a century and instead takes easy aim at common misperceptions of anarchism.

The opening paragraph presents a critique of the irony around a group of Burning Man goers, among the crowd which Turner later labels “Libertarian”, calling the police at the onset of some kind of nuisance. Here, he states that both the far right and far left promote parallel viewpoints which would contradict a call to the authorities:

“[T]he same line that is put out by those of the far left and the far right is one of being anti-hierarchy and state. They do not want to be told what to do and they do not want to depend on any government for much of anything. For them, the state is an inherently illegitimate and corrupting influence on society.”

The conclusion, for the most part, is accurate. But that of the far-right being against hierarchy and against the state is not. If we look at examples of both far-right groups and regimes, we will not miss that they adhere to rigid hierarchal structures. From the Exalted Cyclopses and Imperial Wizards of the Ku Klux Klan, to the Blockleiters and Reichsinspekteurs of Germany’s National Socialist regime, the far right has a demonstrated, and philosophical bias toward the rank and file be it based on race, gender, tradition, nationality, wealth or mixes of each as well as other methods used to create classes.

Even the recent development of right wing movements, such as the “alt right”, the appeal to the perceived traditions of racial and gender norms are quite apparent. There is definitely an order being promoted through these models which is consistent with how developing psychological profiles of adherents to both left and right ideologies view the world through respective lenses which boils down to the aversion to or acceptance of ambiguity.

Those of the right tend to seek out structure and order. They prefer the known and place high priority on security. This translates into why we see much stronger trends of nationalism and religion on the right. These institutions help create identity, as well as the rules by which that identity submits.

There’s clearly an element to this which yearns for a big, strong state to enforce all of these rules and that stands opposed to the small-government ideology among big and little “L” libertarians. But two things that Turner overlooks are that 1) libertarians are anti-government, not anti-state and 2) they are capitalists, and thus also accepting of hierarchy.

Libertarian-types love the Constitution, they reference the Founding Fathers with aplomb, they are completely fine with the concept of a nation-state called the United States of America. It is much more accurate to say that libertarians oppose “big government”, which is a loaded term that will not be addressed here.

As far as capitalism goes, despite the Rothbardian ethos surrounding what some allege to be “anarcho-capitalism”, capitalism is contingent on classes of owners (or bosses) and the workers which immediately creates the hierarchy that anarchy opposes in both praxis and name. In work relations, the class aspect is veiled by the proposing of voluntary contracts which are somehow a thing in a world where access Maslow’s basic identified needs are privately owned and thus dependent on your working for a means of exchange to purchase said needs which amounts to a “choice” between potential starvation, or accepting a class above you. In any case, anarchist groups such as the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) oppose such worker contracts on the grounds that in doing so, you submit to someone else’s attempts to dominate you.

Being cheeky, had those Burning Man attendees called a private police force, that would have been well in-line with the Rothbardians. And somehow reconcilable with the non-aggression principle (NAP), because whoever screams “N-A-P” first wins.

So, already in the first paragraph we find not only that the far left and far right are misrepresented, but that the distinctions between them are beginning to create a perpendicular intersects where these things collide rather than run parallel. However, Turner’s paragraph-ending sentence leaves much to be desired:

People, if left to their own devices, will cooperate, live relatively peacefully, and come to important societal decisions without any kind of elected government or hierarchical authority. The problem is that there is no reason and nothing in history to even remotely assume that this would be the case.

Except that there most certainly is! There’s a fundamental misstep on the understanding of human nature with stating that there’s no “reason” to believe that humans are capable of cooperative initiatives and models of organization. In fact, anthropologists argue that humans, among other primates, are inordinately cooperative, and among several large groups, the most altruistic of those would outcompete others. The concept of groups and altruism factors heavily into anarchy and will come up again later.

As far as history outside of evolutionary tendency goes, there have been experiments in popular democracy which dot the timeline of human civilization as well. As alluded to in the opening of this piece, caution must be applied to these examples as not every instance of gender neutrality or consensus-building is evident of some precursor model of anarchism. For instance, pirates in the eighteenth century practiced popular democracy and were open to same-sex relationships. However, they also murdered people and engaged in slavery.

Indigenous cultures which dominated the North American continent and Caribbean before colonization, like the Haudenosaunee, provide strong examples. And even as we move forward, situations like the Paris Commune come to mind. The anarcho-syndicalist towns and villages of Spain which became well known during the country’s civil war.

From Kiev to Israeli kibbutzim, from Gwangju, South Korea in 1980 to the state of Chiapas in southern Mexico, revolutionary popular democracies still exist and past failures aren’t attributed to disorganization or infighting, but the direct and violent disruption of the state. Currently in Rojava, a Kurdish region which straddles the border between Turkey and Syria, the people engaging in “democratic confederalism”, are also fighting a multi-front war against the forces of Bashir al-Assad’s Syrian regime, daesh (ISIS) and Erdogan’s government in Turkey.

Continuing on, we come to another misconception, not explicitly about anarchy, but democracy:

But for most, anarchism is an ideology that simply wants to do some of the same things we do in society already but not force people if they do not wish to partake. A good example was one brought up in a political ideologies class I had taken a number of years ago. The idea is that of a direct democracy where everyone votes and the majority rules. And what of the minority? They are free to either follow the will of the majority or simply not partake or leave, free of molestation or ill will. Where exactly do those people go if they do not wish to follow? That has never really been adequately answered for me, as simply packing up and leaving a society is easier said than done. 

The answer to this conundrum of majority rule is minority rights. The caveats of majority rule form a critique of democracy so common that their ubiquity is only rivaled by the lack of reference to minority rights. In short: A democracy must provide for the opportunity of the minority to become the majority by protecting things like speech, assembly, petition and association. Otherwise, you will end up not with democracy, but majoritarianism. A glance at a Tocqueville Cliff Note, while ignoring James Madison’s arguments for the Bill of Rights or the Millian “no harm principle”:

“The only purpose for which power can be rightfully exercised over any member of a civilized community against his will is to prevent harm to others.”

To propose an example: If all whites in the United States voted to reinstitute slavery, but all Blacks voted against it – the effort to reinstitute slavery would fail because this deprives Blacks, who would be in the minority, of their agency in being able to petition or address grievances.

As for belonging to a certain group (I said this would come up again), disagreeing with it’s organization and the prospect of what options are available, it’s almost a cop-out to refer to Italian anarchist Errico Malatesta whose “little anarchies” so easily answer the question. While Malatesta himself held preferences for different types of anarchist organization, he recognized the needs and norms of one group of people would not necessarily translate to another or several others. Thus, you would have groups creating different variations based on their more acute experiences and resources. If you can’t personally reconcile with what has been decided as the way to organize a group, then you can try to influence opinion via the available and agreed upon methods, or you can leave and join or create another group. This is the fundamental nature of prefigurative politics in that there isn’t any set method to organize outside of guiding principles developed though the history, philosophy and praxis of other anarchists.

As for “picking up and leaving”, my own experiences as an expat lend me to sympathize with the difficulties of doing such a thing, but have also presented the opportunity to wonder how much of that difficulty would be mitigated through the realization of a world without borders – or perhaps only part of a world without borders. There’s also the aspect of costs associated with such an adventure. But what is the economic model one is dealing with? Or, what are the models? While the simplest method I can conceive of dealing with this type of wandering is that at most, a group might want some sort of work contribution determined by what the transient individual needs in terms of support from that group, we have to understand that there will be any number of places doing things any number of ways, whether they’re collectivists or Proudhonian mutualists, or mixes of these and or other models altogether. The example given is only my own presumption.

Turner attempts to reason this out:

Perhaps one of the best examples of this kind of thought came up on Bill Maher’s HBO show a few months ago; Tom Morello, a famous musician and activist made the case for an anarchist society, and seemed to be under the impression that if everyone were simply educated in the appropriate manner, we wouldn’t need laws because, “let’s just all promise to be cool” (3). This should not be a satisfying answer to anyone who values critical and judicious thought about political life.

No, that isn’t a satisfying answer, but that’s not a “satisfying” example, either. Tom Morello, in answering a very loaded question, offers a quip of intended humor after expressing dissatisfaction with the electoral process in the United States as well as the government itself. As far as “laws”, examples of anarchist organization have always had, and would have, rules which would govern social, political and economic interactions. While Morello does reference the consensus by invoking a “promise” to be cool, he’s not breaking the model down bit by bit in an attempt to lead neither Bill Maher nor the audience through the processes of decision-making in a revolutionary and direct-participatory fashion. He’s just telling a joke (come on, dude).

As he continues, Turner’s observations on libertarianism, provide a look at some of the things others find absurd, though there are missing elements:

When thinking of Libertarianism, the thought that often comes to mind is the works of Ayn Rand, where government is the great evil, holding hardworking, good people back via their corruption and malfeasance. People should instead rely on the charities and good works of the successful, while pulling themselves up by their bootstraps; if you are poor or if you fail, it is your own fault and you must carry the burden alone. Ask a libertarian how roads will get built, who will put fires out, and who will pick up trash and you will get a muddled response akin to ‘well someone will do it” without it being at all clear whom this someone is.

I don’t know if “muddled” is fair, because the profit motive seems to be the driving force behind the free market which would dominate a Randian society. The person who would take out the garbage is the person who figures out how to get paid for it. While my own criticisms of libertarian thought do find common ground with Turner’s, the theme which his arguments have thus been based on is that there is a need for government in society to address these sorts of problems. This now becomes where a libertarian and myself might look at Turner and find common ground in disagreeing with his assessment, although our respective methods would differ.

Turner gives his attention now to hypothesizing about the far left’s fascination with dismantling the state and what creates such “delusion”:

A simple cherry-picking of history is another answer. Im (sic) always amused when people quote Vladimir Lenin from State and Revolution, where he talks about the withering away of the state and how people will soon be able to govern themselves without the need of ‘state-power’ while seemingly ignoring the fact that Lenin had to (correctly in my estimation) go against all of this once he was actually in power. The American anarchist Emma Goldman found this out the hard way when she left the United States for the ‘Utopia’ of the Soviet Union.

Would it be too much to ask of someone who has referenced the myopia of historical reflection multiple times to be accurate in their own historical references? Specifically, in the case of Emma Goldman who was a Russian immigrant who was deported back to Russia, along with fellow Russian anarchist Alexander Berkman, in accordance with the Immigration Act of 1903, also called the Anarchist Exclusion Act, which sought to deport non-citizen anarchists back to their country of origin. There’s also a disingenuous suggestion that Goldman sought out utopia in the Soviet Union when she not only expressed misgivings about the Bolshevik government before her arrival, but would begin to see evidence for them within days of being back in Russia. Her later work, My Disillusionment in Russia, stands as an important leftist critique of what she described as an “all-powerful, centralized Government with State Capitalism as its economic expression.”

What follows is equally dismissive:

The Occupy Wall-Street movement is another interesting example of this kind of delusional thinking. I have heard it argued that Bernie Sanders owes much of his success to the occupy movement bringing attention to the problem of income and wealth inequality. This is a clever argument to make because it is not falsifiable and thus cannot be proven true or false. However, I personally find it very hard to believe that something like inequality, which has been very pronounced since at least the Reagan administration, was suddenly brought into the public consciousness by a bunch of hippies with absolutely no agenda camping out in New York City. Income and wealth inequality is an issue because people can feel it in their daily lives. They are living it. The delusions of grandeur of a fringe group wanting desperately to believe that all things happen from the bottom up and not the top down, likely have very little to do with it.

Oddly enough, or perhaps not, I myself have argued that the platform of Bernie Sanders as he ran for the Democratic Party nomination during the 2016 presidential election season, is only possible as a mainstream platform due to the efforts of the Occupy movement in bringing more attention to things like wealth disparity. Of course the “democratic socialist” Senator from Vermont has always been a proponent of Keynesian capitalism, but the fact that wealth disparity became a major political issue after the 2011 kickoff of the Occupy movement, in spite of decades of Bernie’s service in the Senate advocating for a more Scandinavian future stands to reason that while correlation is not causation on principle alone, we can be safe in saying that the Occupy movement created an opportunity for Sanders. He even adopted and used the “99%-speak” for his campaign. I, too, had professors. And with those professors also came discussion on topics like, “Do men make history, or does history make men?” Fairness would be in discussing individuals point for point, rather than retreating to general conjecture, but outside of truly radical, world-altering approaches to a given aspect of society, be it social, political or economic, history usually provides an opportunity for people to exploit. The discussion that day was about Adolf Hitler, who wasn’t a particularly revolutionary figure in most ways, but did possess an ability to communicate a specific message to sympathetic ears as nationalism, economic hardship and anti-Semitism were all very common aspects of Western society at the time.

Also, for one to argue that Occupy had no agenda is for one to admit that they did not pay attention. The message was clear: Capitalism, as-is, was skewing the social, political and economic order in favor of the wealthy. Things like bank foreclosures, student debt, Wall Street regulations, Citizens United gave its actions a distinct economic bias at times, but to suggest that it was aimless, I assume as a sneer aimed at the leaderless aspect of the movement, and to deride the participants as “hippies” expresses little interest on Turner’s part to portray it or its anarchist roots accurately or fairly.

I had a very interesting conversation with a professor once, someone I admire a great deal. They posited the idea that humans are corrupted by the very presence of the state, and that we have no way of knowing what actual human nature is because of this. This means that it is environmental factors, in this case the presence of government and a hierarchical state, that drives some people to have, what we would mistakenly refer to, as a bad or negative human nature. The problem with this argument is that we see what happens when states fail and there is a vacuum of power. Something has to fill that vacuum and it is not often positive (Somalia is perhaps the best known recent example).

States today do not fail because their people have organized to the degree that the systems they have set up have made the state obsolete. States fail because of the interference from other states. Even in the case of Somalia, altering allegiances from the Soviet Union to the United States in the 1980s led to the growth of dissident groups throughout Somalia which prompted violent repression from the regime of Siad Barre. That the conditions in Somalia have remained “failed” also lends itself to the workings of other, more powerful states. The use of Somalia as an example is interesting because it’s so often referred to as a go-to to provide a counterpoint to the arguments of libertarians, but it is not satisfying when it comes to anarchists. To reference it for the second time, the breaking down of the state does not spell automatic doom for all of its people and this can be seen among the Kurdish minority of northern Syria who have developed an organized social and economic model which seeks to transcend not only the state, but capitalism as well. We need no reminder about Syria to understand that it is, by definition, a failed state as the Assad regime has lost its monopoly on force and its ability to provide security for its people. The main difference between populations who suffer and who at least put up a fight is horizontal organization. One could make reference to the Spanish Civil War as well, as the Republican government began to crack and fail, the organized anarchists still put up a fight against fascist forces.

This tenet of organization among anarchists is often overlooked from the outside in favor of an “every person for themselves” depiction of the collapse of the state. The collapse itself is often pitted as abrupt as opposed to a more long-ball strategy of chipping away at enough pieces so as to render it useless over time. Among the spaces occupied by communists and Marxists and anarchists, there is debate as to how this process of ending the state would happen. This is not going to be addressed here, but it none of it would be possible without established and functional solidarity networks in place to handle the burdens associated with the failure of a government. Mentioned toward the beginning of the article was Gwangju, South Korea where in 1980, during an uprising against the military dictatorship, the city coordinated a brief experiment in radical, direct-democracy after the city was liberated from the ruling regime. The uprising was crushed only days later, but no situation like Somalia could be hinted at. Councils were organized to determine how to handle the tasks that the government once provided, down to simple things like trash collection. The Zapatistas in southern Mexico also live a lifestyle which resembles nothing of the sort one might expect in Somalia. Again, horizontal organization is what I see as the main difference, though it certainly isn’t the only factor which gives us functioning direct-democracy in one part of the world, and what is essentially a cutthroat feudalism in another.

The reason that I believe people continue to think that these ideas have merit, however, is that it is easy. We will never live in this utopian world. we have many centuries of human history to show this. The reason that I believe people continue to think that these ideas have merit, however, is that it is easy. We will never live in this utopian world. we have many centuries of human history to show this. And while past is not always prologue, it seems very unlikely to me that society and civilization would evolve in such a radical (and I think incredibly damaging) way. It is easy because these people know, deep down, that they will never be in a position to have to make tough decisions. Yelling from the sidelines is always easier and much more satisfying.

I have to disagree sharply with Turner here. The state makes life easy. What else could one glean from a system of deliberate, participatory politics and economics, and another where the only required amount of civic participation comes once every four years? We are not actively engaged in our political process. How else could lobbyists exert so much influence on it? How else could our experiment in the US have turned into an oligarchy which serves the interests of the people who have the most resources to commit to such consistent interaction with elected officials? We know that people’s movements have carried our society forward from abolition to civil rights, so we know that the ability to influence the system as it is, is possible, though it has most often been through movements of committed, sustained direct action that we have gained rights for minorities, women and workers as opposed to idealistic men in suits. Also, to suggest that this direct approach is “easy” while Kurds in Rojava find themselves surrounded by hostility on all sides, and the repression of labor rights in other countries by US-friendly interests remains ongoing for over a century completely misses the very real hardships endured by the peoples who have cut and are cutting these paths through the established order propped up by violence.

We also grow lazy from a detachment in the process of production which forms a pillar of our economic system. The majority of us have no role in capitalism other than consuming while decisions are made without our input, often risking lives, rights, health and the environment in the process. The rules are mostly written and litigated without our input, changed without our knowledge. We have little understanding of the process involved in filling retail stores with wares produced in poorer countries, or under what conditions the fruit in our grocery stores was procured for our later consumption, yet we drone on in a system which requires very little of us other than to act on impulse. What is complicated about this?

Compromising, working hard, and trying to make the best laws possible is a messy and grueling process. You will have to work with people you despise, you will have to force yourself to see things from their point of view, and you will have to give in on some of your most important principles.

Finally, we agree! But our conclusions are reached through vastly different means and understandings of what exactly leads to them. There’s no singular model of anarchism, but it, like communism, is rooted in radical democracy – which involves that compromise at times to which Turner alludes. How else do you reach a decision via horizontal decision-making? If nobody has authority over any other, then it seems that compromise is a forgone conclusion. There’s no prescribed way that the process be applied in every single instance, yet throughout his argument, Mr. Turner offered little to no understanding or knowledge of anarchist history, philosophy or praxis. This is why the dismissive tone applied to the argument persists beyond the words and sentences therein: anarchy is widely misrepresented and parsed only to the extent of using cagey tropes like “utopia” to debunk aspects of it which do not actually apply to its history, philosophy or praxis.

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