Alice Turtle’s Guide to Anarchy: The Anarchist Constitution

Alice Turtle hopes to fill a gap in Aristotle’s Politics by extending it to cover the anarchist polis. Today she explains what this “anarchist constitution” amounts to.

Alice Turtle

Anarchy has of course the popular meaning of disorder and chaos, and of course that isn’t what we mean by it in the realm of politics. Etymologically, it means without-rule, which makes it a sort of void, which alternatives like demo-cracy, aristo-cracy, etc. fill. For our purposes this won’t do either.

Even some anarchists tend to describe anarchism mostly in terms of absences or lacks. No ruler, no states, no classes, no hierarchy… things of that sort. But this is rarely helpful and sometimes misleading. It would be better to start by defining anarchy positively, by what it is.

To begin with, anarchy is a description of a variety of political constitution with a collective purpose. In this, it is like most of the other forms of government that Aristotle discussed (kingship, aristocracy, oligarchy, polity, and democracy), and so it is amenable to being analyzed in a similar way.

It might be objected right away that anarchy either does not have a collective purpose (that it is merely haphazard, or that it is at most a collection of individuals with individual purposes) or that it is not a variety of political constitution. I think these objections are mistaken, and I hope you will see why as I explain how a healthy and stable anarchy requires both things.

Anarchy as a Variety of Constitution

When Aristotle described his varieties of constitution, he said that for each, there is a good form and a bad form. In the good form, the rulers rule for the benefit of everybody and for the good of the polis; in the bad form, the rulers rule for themselves only. I think the same can be said for anarchy, though in an anarchy the rulers are everybody (not just many, few, or one). So let’s update his table:

Who Rules?Good FormBad Form
everyoneanarchya free-for-all

So “anarchy” in this sense is the variety of constitution in which everyone rules on an equal basis, and these rulers rule for the benefit of the polis, something which also redounds to the general benefit of those in it.

But this talk of “rule” and “constitution” does not at first sound very anarchic, so let me clarify: By “constitution” I just mean “how things are constituted.” It’s a shorthand way of referring to the forms, customs, understandings, and practices that govern (there’s another dirty word we should get used to reclaiming) how people behave in the political environment (the environment of the polis — the community). A constitution can be codified more or less formally but doesn’t have to be, and a formal written constitution isn’t necessarily a very reliable guide anyway: it typically fails to capture more than a tiny slice of the whole constitution, and even what it does capture is rarely accurately represented.

And by how such people “rule” I mean to a great extent how they “govern themselves,” as it’s the usual principle of anarchy that everyone is expected to govern themselves rather than be governed by others. If people under anarchy govern themselves in a manner that is short-sightedly selfish and damaging to the polis, they will not long govern themselves at all. If they govern themselves in a way that contributes to a thriving anarchy, they may be able to keep at it.

Enlightened Self-Interest

This is more a matter of enlightened self interest than of noble sacrifice for the collective. Once you realize the importance of the health of the community to your own thriving, you will leave vulgar individualism behind and see that your place as a pillar of such a community is better for you individually than some sort of lone wolf thing would be. A human being thrives best in community, community is an inherently political thing, and so the political life is not something forced upon us from outside, but is a natural outgrowth of the sort of beings we are: the polis is our natural habitat that we evolved in. You should distrust political philosophies that treat people as though we were a gas of rarely-colliding particles. We’re more of a liquid: we tug and pull and jostle one another and collectively create emergent behavior similar to how water can have waves and streams and convection in ways that lone molecules of H2O cannot.

This also means, as we will see later in more detail, that the “night watchman state” of the minarchists — in which the state concerns itself only with defense and basic criminal law enforcement — is a pitifully impoverished one. A real and healthy constitution will have a much broader set of concerns than this, and it is one of the challenges of anarchy to coordinate this in the absence of the short cuts of a ruling class and coercive state.

It’s too much to ask that everybody in the anarchist community have this understanding of enlightened self interest. Fools and sociopaths will likely always be with us. And that certainly is one vulnerability of anarchy that we can identify right away, but not one that’s unique to anarchy. In a monarchy, there’s a chance you have a noble-minded ruler, and a chance you have a base ruler. In an oligarchy, some oligarchs will have an aristocratic bent, while others will just be out for #1. In a democracy, sometimes the people will be restrained, other times the majority will flex its muscles destructively. With anarchy as with these other cases, deviations from the ideal are inevitable. But also, the more that the rulers (in an anarchy, most everyone) rule wisely, the healthier the constitution will be; the more the rulers deviate from healthy rule, the more vulnerable to decay the constitution becomes and the more danger the community is in. Don’t demand or expect perfection, but don’t stop aiming for it.

Freedom from Drudgery?

Aristotle thought that another reason people come together into a political community is in order to be free from drudgery. What he meant by this seems to have been that you come together to find someone else to do the drudgery for you. In his time that meant slaves, women, migrant workers, and the lower classes. Under the sort of anarchy we’re considering, options like these are unlikely to be open to you. But someone will still need to do the drudgery, and it might just be you.

Is this perhaps a drawback? Is it too much to ask for someone under an anarchic system to be devoted to the health of that system and the flourishing of those in it, and also to take out the trash? Or is this perhaps an advantage? Aristotle had to consider how to get buy-in to his systems from the people who did have to do the drudgery, who were supposed to serve the state but whom the state was not set up to serve. What did they get out of the deal? How were they expected to tolerate seeing the citizens of the ruling class living on easy street? Questions like these are less of a worry under an anarchic constitution that does not automatically privilege a distinct ruling class.

Some have suggested a “post-scarcity anarchy” is a possible path our technological future might take, which could free everyone from (most) drudgery. Would such a thing improve the drive to form healthy anarchies, or reduce the eagerness to swindle people into other forms of government, or would it imply such changes to human society as to make previous political philosophy obsolete? I will not hazard a guess.


A third reason Aristotle gives for forming a political community is that this is the only way to really allow for the virtue of justice to shine forth. In the absence of a political community, when two people come into conflict, the stronger or more ruthless (or the one with more allies, or whose allies are stronger or more ruthless) comes out on top. It takes coordination, collective action, subordination to group-held norms and processes, etc. — the constitution of a community, in short — to replace this with some approach to justice. How closely it approaches justice, or on the other hand how much it just becomes a more cumbersome form of might-makes-right, depends on the virtues of the community and on the health of its constitution.

(I’ll take a more in-depth look at justice in a future episode.)

In Aristotle’s models of monarchy, oligarchy, and democracy, the definition of a citizen was someone who took an active role in the government, typically a policy-making one, but perhaps also administrative or judicial. The citizenry were those who took part in ruling the polis.

Under anarchy, everyone rules themselves, but everyone is also responsible (or ought to be) for guiding, defending, and promoting the flourishing of the anarchic community as a whole. This is what it means to be a citizen of an anarchy, and while it’s open to all, it’s also opt-in. You are a citizen if you participate in promoting the health of the community; if not, you’re just another schmoe. So there is a ruling class, of sorts. Anarchy is ruled by those who show up and pitch in.

Aristotle might argue that this is a sort of spon­ta­ne­ous ar­is­toc­ra­cy of those who give a damn, and he might be right. I can even imagine cases in which a spon­ta­ne­ous mon­ar­chy emerges of that one person who knows what they’re doing for a specific project, or a spon­ta­ne­ous de­mo­cra­cy of people who are just con­tent to go along with the ma­jor­i­ty opin­ion on some sub­ject be­cause that seems about as good as any other option. What dis­tin­guishes an­ar­chy is that none of these things becomes in­sti­tu­tion­al­ized and per­ma­nent. No­body gets in­stalled in the ruling class or ban­ished from it, but in­stead it is as it does.

The trick is making sure it stays that way. Power corrupts, and a temporary aristocracy, or monarchy, or majority, may forget that it is temporary and begin to become accustomed to its privileges. But more about that later. Next I want to consider more about how to be a citizen of an anarchy.

To be continued…

Index to Aristotle’s Politics