In a discussion on Facebook having to do with my choosing not to vote for Barack Obama, my friend Jeff raised some points. As I owed him a longer reply than FB would accommodate, I’m doing it as a blog post.
Before continuing, I encourage Jeff and anyone unfamiliar with anarchism to read the following brief post:
There are many misconceptions about anarchism, and that should make clear what it is we actually favor.
What’s an example of a successful society in history that you think America should emulate? When have your ideas ever worked?
The short answer is that there is no single example in history that combines all the elements I’d favor in an anarchist society. However, for most statists, there is no single perfect statist society either. There are always imperfections as any society is, well, messy.
As for the long answer, I think there are three different things to look at in order to answer this question:
1. Stateless societies and societies where at least some of the services we associate with the State were provided communally or privately. The following examples are drawn from both market and social anarchist accounts, and so might be disputed by one kind of anarchist or another. This is by no means an exhaustive list:
An example of voluntary law is the Law Merchant, a system of commercial law that emerged in the late Middle Ages in response to the need for a common set of standards to govern international trade. The merchants, fed up with the excessive rigidity of governmental laws regulating commerce, and frustrated by the lack of uniformity among the commercial codes of different nations, simply formed their own Europe-wide system of courts and legal codes. For enforcement, the Law Merchant relied not on state-imposed penalties but on credit reports; those who refused to abide by the system’s rules and decisions would have a hard time finding other merchants willing to deal with them. (The case of the Law Merchant shows that systems of private law need not depend on kinship or other local ties for their success.)
With these, I’m highlighting stateless mechanisms of order, not necessarily anarchist content–many of these societies wouldn’t pass muster in terms of enlightened liberalism, but they are examples of functioning societies where services we think of as state services were provided in a non-state fashion. That’s why I distinguish between statelessness and anarchism proper.
(An aside for anarchists: most of the above links are to market anarchist sources simply because libertarian legal theory is a bit more developed than social anarchist legal theory. I lean strongly toward social anarchism, but I draw upon libertarian legal theory.)
2. More or less intentionally anarchistic societies. There is some overlap here with the first category, but I’m separating them because their ideological content is more explicitly anarchist. Here I’d list:
Many of the revolutions and uprisings of the 20th century had anarchistic features, especially in the recurrent organizational form of worker and neighborhood councils. The Russian, Bavarian, Hungarian, and Iranian revolutions and uprisings all had anarchistic features, as did the events in France of May 1968, and the occupied factories movement in Argentina.
I recommend Kenneth Rexroth’s Communalism for more intentional communities related to anarchism. Not all would count as anarchistic, but some would. My favorite examples from this book are Josiah Warren’s experiments and of course the Diggers.
3. Everyday anarchism, which is presented so well in Colin Ward’s Anarchy in Action. In this view, anarchism is the cement that joins the bricks of society. Kevin Carson’s Organization Theory discusses the various ways employees get around hierarchy and bureaucratic rules in order to make a business functional as part of a broader practical argument against hierarchy. As this post is already long, rather than enumerating them, I recommend just reading Ward’s book.
This piece by Ward on local music gives some idea of how anarchists treat ordinary problems:
See also Order Without Law: How Neighbors Settle Disputes by Robert Ellickson.
My friend Tomas reminded me to include Elinor Ostrom’s work here. Here are a few articles that summarize her work. First:
and in less dense form:
The latter is by a market economist, but should be easily digested by social anarchists. See also this piece by Kevin Carson:
let me just make one final plea for hard-headed pragmatism over idealism. the arc of American society is toward greater rights. if we were liberals in the 1920s, we’d be stunned by how far America has come. it moves slowly, not overnight, and I believe that America is slowly moving in the right direction with Obama. imperfectly, perhaps, but still.
1. Under Obama, there has actually been some shrinkage of rights rather than expansion–for example, Obama claims the authority to assassinate an American citizen abroad without any judicial oversight. Here are a couple ACLU reports on his civil liberties record:
2. Interesting point about people not being able to see how far things have come. Two things about that:
a. I think it’s questionable that that was the result of pragmatic politics. Throughout the period from the 1920s to today, there was a ton of struggle and self-activity by the oppressed. They were not handed their rights; they fought for them.
In connection with this, I’d like to quote my friend Kevin:
I’ve said it before, but the pragmatic/idealistic narrative always strikes me as pretty off-key. From where I’m sitting, using the electoral process doesn’t strike me as a particularly pragmatic way to increase income parity, decrease the American empire, or properly redistribute goods and resources to make a more equitable society. Major advances are usually made in spite of government, not because of it, and minor advancements are typically offset by major negative policies. The health care bill, for example, may have had some good elements in it – but it seems more than offset by the extremely insurance industry-favorable elements which leave American citizens victims of the caprices of industry policies. To me, it seems strikingly idealistic and naive to think you can vote your way out of the massive structural problems which favor an elite oligarchy over the rest of us.
b. People in the middle ages probably couldn’t conceive of today’s representative democracy with its mass enfranchisement and its large populations. It’s amusing to me that you would invoke imagination here as it’s an equally valid argument for anarchism—just because we don’t have anarchism now does not preclude the possibility of anarchism. You have to object to it on different grounds—something that shows it to be either undesirable or plain unworkable.
And if you don’t mind slow progress, hell, why not join the long struggle?
Jeff once more:
do what your conscience dictates. if you think America can afford another republican presidency, don’t vote for obama. if you think poor folks can survive another republican presidency, don’t vote for obama. if you think America will be better off with a 6-3 conservative majority on the Supreme Court, don’t vote for Obama. if you think America will be better with presidents who push for anti-gay marriage amendments, don’t vote for obama. if you think America is better when the wealthiest 1% get the tax cuts, don’t vote for Obama. if you think America will be better with no health care plan, don’t vote for Obama. it’s really easy
1. As an anarchist, I know countless examples of mutual aid throughout history—where the poor, when forced into a corner, have carved out a niche for themselves. That’s not to diminish the real suffering that occurs as the result of cuts to welfare. Several relatives of mine are dependent on federal and state aid. As a result of government intervention, a host of mutual aid skill sets and organizations no longer exist, and that leaves them vulnerable, at least in the short term. That’s one reason I’ve argued against libertarians who seek to gut the social safety net without having a substitute already in place to pick up the slack. Plenty of anarchists, especially in Europe, actually struggle quite militantly against austerity cuts to welfare and social programs.
However, the anarchist puts welfare in the context of broader State policies that create and support poverty—that enrich elites at the expense of the poor. The State breaks your legs and gives you crutches. The goal is to end the leg-breaking, not beg for crutches. Why should we honor the bargain if the other side refuses to?
2. I object to liberal paternalism because it rejects the self-activity of the working class. I think the poor are ultimately better off claiming property than relying on the largesse of the ruling class. And this is a perfect example of why: if they’re dependent on the state, then they are subject to its whims. If you go for property, then you address the underlying structural causes of poverty.
3. If you can privilege certain domestic positions over Obama’s war, civil liberties, and foreign policy record, and conclude that he’s worth voting for, then I think it’s fair for me to focus on those rather than your favored issues and conclude that he isn’t. Both of us are weighing Obama’s record with differing selective emphases.
4. Given his centrist position, I see little reason to believe that Obama would not capitulate and compromise on these points among others. As you admitted, Obama extended the Bush tax cuts. I’d point to his recent praise of Lincoln for being willing to compromise on slavery in order to save the union as evidence of his only unwavering principle: maintaining the power of the state.
5. I should note, of course, that my opposition to the State rests first on moral and philosophical grounds, which I can elucidate for you if you’d like, and then on practical grounds. I think I would be forced, by consistency, to be a philosophical anarchist even if I thought anarchism weren’t feasible. At base, my objection to people pleading with me to vote for Obama is that, as a pacifist and an anarchist, it’s rather like asking a Muslim to go to a Southern Baptist church. It just isn’t compatible. What it reveals to me, though, is that people care less about my beliefs than they do about my vote. So they’re treating me as means rather than an end, which is my whole damn problem with the system to begin with.
EDIT: I was so fatigued by technical issues that my reply ended up far less detailed than I originally intended. Feel free to raise things in the comments—I’ll be sure to answer them. My apologies for how rough this post ended up.
EDIT 2: I wrote this in the comments, but I want it up here as well.
When I cite Medieval Iceland, Anglo-Saxon England etc., it’s not to endorse the particular fashion in which those services were provided, but merely to illustrate that it is possible to provide them outside the State. I think there are likely better ways to provide voluntary law and order, and that we can improve on those examples. Hell, I think we can even improve on Anarchist Catalonia.