I’ve been confronted over the past month or so by a number of evangelists for various brands of anarchy. I’m not sure whether this is just my random bad luck or if this means that the movement is actually growing. It’s sort of like trying to determine whether there’s something to the theory of human caused global warming based on how many good beach days you have from summer to summer –– my personal experiences don’t really say how “important” this idea is. But regardless of that uncertainty, as the issue seems to be getting some traction with otherwise intelligent young people, I thought it would be worth addressing properly.
Anarchy, at least in the forms I have seen it lately, seems to form some loose alliance with libertarianism and “Objectivism”. All of these are movements which believe that government attempts to protect the disadvantaged and improve the lives of the poor are counterproductive, and our priority in the attempting to improve our societies should be to eliminated such programs let those with resources at their disposal do as they please with them. From there, they believe, enlightened self-interest and “the invisible hand” of market forces will steer our societies in the healthiest, happiest and most efficient direction possible.
The key to the anarchist argument is the assumption that unbridled natural empathy can be trusted more than democratic institutions; since if there is no empathy in action in the majority of the population, democratic institutions won’t work either, and if there is a strong sense of empathy in the population, we don’t need any form of government to reinforce it. In some ways this makes them strange bedfellows with the libertarians and Objectivisits, who come closer to the classic Nietzschean line of saying that the priority is to free the excellence of gifted and superior individuals from slavery to the will of the dumb and inferior masses. Rather than caring what the “sheep” want, they feel that they should be free to fly like eagles; and if the sheep don’t like it when they kill the occasional rabbit, who cares?
But for the anarchists, libertarians pose a far smaller threat to their ideals of happiness than “statists” do. This term is used to describe supporters of all forms of government which have powers of “violent coercion” at their disposal. Any government which has its own weapons is inherently a bad thing, they say. The greatest number of deaths and the greatest destruction of property that we have witnessed over the past few generations, if not over the entire course of human history, have been at the hands of governments. The only close competitor really, they claim, would be organized religion acting in a governmental capacity. The implication here is taken to be, if we rid the world of governments, we rid the world of the vast majority of horrendous violence.
Another point of contact between these movements seems to be a bitter resentment among their leaders and evangelists regarding their traumatic experiences in public schools, in the US in particular. There is a strong echo of Paul Simon’s classic lyric, “When I think back on all the crap I learned in high school, it’s a wonder I can think at all.” The fact that US public schools are in trouble –– progressively failing even –– is no great secret. With the rich and the strongly religious pulling their kids out of such institutions, and with those on the radical right seeing them as “socialist breeding grounds” and thus doing everything possible to cripple them, and with many schools facing the additional burden of being the primary social service contact point for some seriously marginalized families without any additional funding to cover their actions in that capacity, it would be truly miraculous if these schools were not failing. So it is not at all surprising to see some disgruntled former students of these institutions wanting to see them scrapped entirely. Having the convenient label of “statist indoctrination centers” to place on the sites of their most traumatic childhood experiences makes them all the easier to hate and reject.
So after putting care for all types of disadvantaged people placed on an entirely voluntary footing, the next practical issue anarchist theorists attempt to approach is that of “public goods”: necessary services which are currently provided by the government, for which users can’t reasonably be billed on a pay-for-usage basis. It is self-evident that an anarchist system would eliminate public parks, national highways, public broadcasting, public fire and police services and especially public schools. Whether people would be ready to live without these things, they claim, is an irrelevant question. The evil statists have conditioned people to be dependent on the government by offering these perks in exchange for some of their liberty and their compliance with the principle of violently reinforced tax collection. Without these evil statists running things on an involuntary basis, anarchists believe that voluntary, competitively structured, privately funded, either charitable or for-service-fee-paying-customers-only services could replace all of these –– theoretically providing better services at less of a cost.
National defense, they admit, is a bit more problematic as a service to be privatized. Can you have a defense against potentially invading empires with nuclear capacities based entirely on voluntary association? Well, they say, if everyone else also sees the benefits of purely voluntary association and the wastefulness of continuous wars, why not?
Then as part of the question arises as to whether expanded “rentacop” services could adequately replace government-based police services and courts in practice. The orthodox anarchist answer to this is that a stronger system of private negotiation services and settlement agencies would arise. Wars between private security companies would be expensive, and therefore it would make economic sense for them to have contractual understandings with each other to settle things by way of hired arbitrators. These arbitrators in turn would be hired on the basis of providing the kind of fairness and justice their clients most want. If clients want to see offenders against their property tortured and killed, they can hire a security company that in turn contracts with an arbitration company that leans towards judgments allowing for the torturing and killing of thieves. If you only want to see those who steal your property imprisoned and/or enslaved until they make full restitution to you and your security provider, you can turn to companies that provide those sorts of services. If you want to be charitable to thieves who only steal from you out of dire necessity, you can hire an arbitrator which provides those sorts of services. In any case the moral character of the customers will ultimately decide what sort of policing systems turn out to be the most economically viable as businesses.
This, to my mind, is where the rational problems with their ideology become most obvious. Everything else seems to be theoretical speculation about how people might relate to each other in some hypothetical utopian system operating according to these people’s anti-authoritarian taste. Like all other forms of utopian idealism, they make certain assumptions about how people’s behavior would change if they were not subjected to the current abuses, but they can’t really be systematically proven right or wrong. But when it comes to the matter of extensive security operations being run for profit without government oversight there are plenty of historical precedents to turn to.
Anarchist theorists themselves like to cite some idealized picture of medieval Iceland as the best precedent, but a far more feasible example would be post-Renaissance and pre-modern Italy. Why not take a look at both?
Iceland was first settled by Vikings who wanted to get away from the particular warlords that were running Norway and Denmark back in the ninth century. So a bunch of hearty souls hopped into their long ships and headed west. Some landed in what we know today as Greenland; others, in what is now Iceland. Those in Greenland ended up dying out for a number of reasons outlined rather well by Jared Diamond. Those who landed in Iceland weren’t more intelligent or culturally different from their brothers to the southwest, but they managed to stick things out with their experiment in independence for considerably longer, for a couple of reasons: 1) There was no outside competition for control of that particular chunk of volcanic rock out in the middle of the north Atlantic. 2) The natural geothermal hot springs in Iceland provided means to prevent these people from freezing to death when they accidentally used up all of their timber resources. In both settlements, though, you had a group of chieftains who formed a sort of aristocratic counsel together. Within their own territories these chieftains extracted protection payments from the local farmers and in turn provided a sort of rough and ready security service. There were essentially three differences between this ancient Icelandic government ant the feudal system which was operating in central Europe at the time:
– The subsistence farmers were not considered to be the property of the barons.
– There was relative freedom of religion, including both Christianity and the worship of Norse gods within the society.
– Life was too difficult for any given chieftain to amass enough power to seriously threaten the other chieftains for more than two centuries.
It was not an easy or utopian existence, but they had their own island of immense rugged beauty with no one to bother them for a good long stretch. When times were tough they ate their dogs and then whatever sea birds and half-rotten fish they could find. Sometimes people froze and starved to death, though not so badly as in Greenland. When times were good the chieftains worked on amassing resources which they could use to gain greater power and influence around the island. Eventually things were good enough for them for a long enough period where they could afford a real rip-snorting series of battles for control of the island. That went on for close to half a century before they finally decided that they would be safest from each other if they let the King of Norway decide which of them would be in charge.
In some ways the Icelandic commonwealth, while it lasted, was a very forward-looking political arrangement, but more by accident than design. They were isolated from other human enemies, and the elements made it necessary for them to band together and help each other if any of them were to survive. It wasn’t as though there was no government; the government was just surprisingly cooperative considering the historical era in which they lived. Many of the best features of this commonwealth have long since been incorporated into the democracies of the Nordic countries. Most of those countries still have kings and queens these days, but those figureheads aren’t even allowed to voice an opinion about their nations’ school systems, never mind rule the economy by decree. Overall though this part of the world has long since gotten over its warlike Viking ways, and these nations now set the standard for the rest of the world in terms of democratic governance conducted in a spirit of national solidarity, with particularly solid systems for education, health care and prevention of marginalization. Now don’t take this to mean that these countries are any paradise on earth, but if there are positive lessons to be gleaned from Iceland’s commonwealth period, modern Iceland, Norway, Denmark, Finland and Sweden are the places to see them in action.
But if traditional governments in the modern world were to break down entirely it wouldn’t really start to look like medieval Iceland. Italy would be a far more realistic model.
It was at about the same time when Iceland was resubmitting itself to the Norwegian crown that Italy began to be reshaped by the aftermath of the Crusades. Traditional barons and princes who had been legitimized by the church since the time of Charlemagne had bankrupted themselves by financing armies to go down into the Middle East to kill Jews and Muslims. Meanwhile some of the veteran mercenaries of this period came back with the ingenious idea of bringing international commerce to their little peninsula. They had discovered that the Muslims had a thing or two that Europeans would probably pay good money for, and so they started sending ships down to buy and/or steal goods from Asia and Africa that they could sell at home. It didn’t take too long before these merchants were in better shape than the members of the hereditary royalty to hire their own private artisans, educators and armies.
No one was clearly in charge of the peninsula, and power kept shifting between alliances of local rich men who were more or less continuously in a state of low key civil war with each other. Sometimes they would turn to the Catholic Church for diplomatic assistance, and sometimes they would turn to royal families in other parts of Europe to help them settle their disputes without excessive bloodshed, but more often they just went ahead and shed the blood.
This infighting kept the Italians from being able to develop the sort of international empires that their neighbors in Spain, France, Portugal and England did. So about the time when the papal states were squashed down to what we now know as Vatican City, the rest of Italy finally tried to come together under a more systematic and united form of government, so as to be able to better participate as equals in European culture. But this new government took a while in establishing viable police forces and courts, so the previously established system of freelance policing and arbitration of disputes effectively remained in business, continuing to operate so as to maximize their profits under the new, more restrictive political and economic circumstances. The private security companies from Sicily in particular became famous for not only continuing to operate at a considerable profit in their home country, but also for expanding and diversifying their operations into the United States. These companies are collectively known as the Mafia. Used with a small m, this word can be applied to any business which borrows their same models and methods.
So in the mafia we have a historically verified model of what applied anarchy actually looks like. Now it must be admitted that when turf wars between various mafia organizations have been taken care of, these “protectors” really can provide better security and mediation services than many governments. In the Baltic States, for instance, after the collapse of the Soviet Union and before functional state enforcement of law and order was up and running in Latvia and Estonia, businesses operated at the mercy of various “security companies.” In practice gave these “service providers” gave their “customers” little choice in the matter (a mechanic friend of mine tells the colorful story of what happened to a particular car dealer in Tallinn which attempted to opt out of their “security service” contract in those days), but many businesses still considered these mafiosos easier to work with than the kleptocratic Soviet authorities who had preceded them.
In places where organized crime has progressed to the level of powerful cartels operating without much official government interference they also take care good care of their own in terms of providing better education services and health care than the government would. So to say that functional anarchy amounts to a mafia-run style of social organization isn’t necessarily the worst thing that can be said for it. It is just terribly naïve to believe that anarchy will ever result in a more humanitarian form of social organization than what mafia controlled regions have historically had to offer.
If you travel through Estonia and Latvia today, you might still see signs of mafia activity –– some conspicuously wealthy and powerful people that seem to operate as a law unto themselves –– but there is no longer that “wild west” air of people looking over their shoulder all the time and trying to carefully cultivate relationships with mafia-based security companies. Rule of law has functionally returned to these countries now, and on that basis they are rapidly approaching something like a Nordic standard of living. Few if any there, other than the mafiosos themselves, are nostalgic for those exciting times of functional anarchy in the early 90s, or longing for its return.
So with all this evidence against the only aspect of anarchist theory that has been historically tested, why is it so popular these days? As I said to begin with, maybe it isn’t. Maybe it’s just one of those marginal Internet phenomena that only has a handful of actual supporters, but which homes in on those of us it considers to be potential converts with everything it’s got. On the other hand, it’s entirely believable that it could be a growing trend in the world today, and I’m willing to offer a few speculations as to why that might be.
To start with, every generation has to have its young idealists who believe that they can radically reshape society by getting rid of abusive old power structures. If nothing else it’s their way of proving to themselves that they are more than carbon copies of their parents. Likewise every older generation since the time of Plato has been worried about the crazy ideas and the lack of “traditional discipline” seen among their young people. Some such young radicals succeed in introducing a few revolutionary new ideas into their societies –– e.g. within just the past couple centuries formerly radical ideas such as the abolition of slavery, women’s suffrage, freedom of religion and children’s right to an education are so well established as to be largely taken for granted in the “civilized world”. Other radical social theories and experiments are tried out from time to time only to suffer the agony of defeat –– Marxism, especially in its Stalinist and Maoist forms, would be the most obvious example there. But win or lose, there seems to be an existential need for each new generation to have some radical new idea to toss back at their elders, and at this point in history anarchist idealism seems to be the most radical thing available for such a purpose.
Beyond that, while Marx’s crystal ball obviously had some cracks in it when it came to showing him a functional way out of the mess, in terms of seeing where laissez-faire capitalism could ultimately lead, his analyses are starting to look eerily accurate. So besides all of the collapsing dictatorships and imploding revolutionary councils we find all over the world these days, within the best established capitalist countries it seems as though governments are being taken over entirely by what Eisenhower first called “the military-industrial complex”. These sociopaths have in turn formed alliances with a banking sector that has abused the trust of working people for far too long. Consequently we are witnessing an ever-growing “Occupy” movement spreading across the US and the world. So with that as the best government has to offer, it is hardly surprising that young idealists are drawn to the idea of no government at all.
And beyond that still, to again use Nietzsche’s famous analogy, even the fuzziest of little sheep are prone to imagine that someday they will grow up to be eagles –– only eagles that are nicer to the poor little bunnies. There is an illusion deeply ingrained in the American psyche in particular which tells everyone that they don’t have to worry about programs to protect losers, because they are all destined to be winners if they work hard enough at it. Perhaps Steinbeck said it best: “Socialism never took root in America because the poor there see themselves not as an exploited proletariat but as temporarily embarrassed millionaires.” So as millionaires in their own minds, Americans –– especially those with the optimism of youth –– don’t believe that they need a government to help them with anything. “I don’t need government handouts!
Those are only for those who can’t stand up for themselves. So why should I have to pay into such things?” Nor, for that matter, is such a mentality limited to just young Americans.
Then to top it all off, the Internet has made it possible for true believers in this anarchist gospel (and cynical promoters who see a bit of a future for themselves in the business) to reach out to a new audience, taking full advantage of the sort of clichés that cults have been using for years: “This teaching isn’t something to follow if you want to be popular. The masses are still too trapped in their old ways of thinking to ever get it. Beyond that there is a conspiracy out there to keep their minds enslaved. But you don’t have to be taken in by the lies that are taken for ‘conventional wisdom’ any more. If you truly get this you are part of a very select band of much deeper thinkers. You now have access to the truth! And once you have realized the beauty of this truth you just have to share it with others, regardless of how unpopular it makes you!”
To those who have swallowed this sort of indoctrination pitch anything that I might say against their faith will just be taken as proof that I am one of the statist conspirators, or one of their patsies. But to those who are open to what reasoning I have to offer on the matter I say this:
Just because we don’t like the way politicians abuse power doesn’t mean that we can somehow wish away the exercise of power entirely. If there is no organized and established system of power in society then there will always be greedy psychopaths stepping in to fill the void. So even if the majority of people in a society are “good” that doesn’t mean that this generalized goodness will be able to keep forces of violent selfishness from seizing control of that society if the good people don’t democratically organize themselves.
Nor is it enough to exercise influence in just economic terms. If you choose to follow that route exclusively, each person’s influence will be directly proportionate to the amount of disposable income they have at their disposal. From there it is a relatively simple matter for those who already control the vast majority of the resources in the economy to entirely eliminate the population majority’s possibilities to choose anything.
For all its imperfections, especially in its current American incarnation, a representative democracy theoretically enables every man and woman to have the same amount of say and the same level of influence in how the society will be organized. Rich people don’t get to cast any more ballots than poor people do. So the best hope we have of organizing things in the best interest of “good people” is by struggling to get our democracies to function the way they are theoretically supposed to. Of course there are manipulative powerful and greedy people who will try to abuse any system, but that doesn’t mean we should just trash any system that struggles in trying to limit their power.
I believe our greatest hope for improving things is first of all to expose those cases where elections are not being conducted freely and fairly, and to rally the world together to insist that such pretenses at democracy be rectified. Then from there we need to establish education systems, perhaps closer to the Nordic model, which equip voters to make intelligent and informed decisions. The greatest abuses in the American system at present take the form of “super-PACs” which are able to spend billions of dollars on brainwashing the gullible to get the sort of election results they want. But if the American education system was working properly, enabling people to think critically about the information which is being fed to them, this attempt to buy election results by way of super-PACs wouldn’t work anymore.
I’ve been given literally hundreds of pages worth of anarchist propaganda, and this essay far really only scratches the surface of the my differences of opinion with those documents. If anyone feels that there is some particular aspect of anarchist thinking that I should consider more carefully then, please write a reply to me here about the matter, and I will do my best to address it in the weeks to come.
Here’s hoping, my dear anarchist friends, that for you as well the important matter is trying to fix what we can of the things in our world that clearly aren’t working as they should, so that in some significant way we can leave a better world to our children. If working towards such an end is genuinely more important to you than defending your pet dogma, then regardless of our differences of opinion, we still have things to talk about here.