Alice Turtle’s Guide to Anarchy: Anarchist Citizenship

Alice Turtle hopes to fill a gap in Aristotle’s Politics by extending it to cover the anarchist polis. Today she considers the question of how to be a good citizen in an anarchy.


Alice Turtle

In Aristotle’s framework, only a minority of residents of a polis were considered citizens, where a citizen is defined as someone who participates in the governing of the polis in policy-making and administrative roles.

Under anarchy, on the other hand, participation in the governing of the polis is open to everyone, and everyone governs herself or himself, and so everyone is a citizen or citizen-like in that way. There is no exclusive ruling class. Instead there is an inclusive ruling class, one that is opt-in rather than voted-in or born-into or last-one-standing-atop-of.

By opt-in, I mean that it is an option for everyone in the community. As a practical matter, it is only really open to those who are more or less in harmony with shared community values. You can’t just wander into a community, not bother to learn the prevailing rules of the road (who owns what, which things are part of the commons and which are not, and so forth), and start throwing your weight around and expect anyone to respect what you’re up to.

It remains an option for any resident of an anarchy to try to remain aloof from politics. They might remain a hermit, or just shyly avoid expressing their opinion or helping to make community decisions. They might distrust their own judgment and cede to someone else’s.

As a result, there is a ruling class, of sorts: it’s the class of people who show up and take part. Aristotle calls a member of the ruling class a “citizen” and says that ideally this title ought to belong to those who contribute to the association of people living together for the sake of noble action. Such people are entitled to more policy-making authority and are the natural leaders of a society.

Something of this nature remains the case in anarchy. Those who contribute the most are entitled to more policy-making authority, but it’s not a quid-pro-quo. They de facto exercise such authority by virtue of the contributions they make. Who decides how wide to make the sidewalk? The people who pay for it and design it and build it do.

This makes the citizen/non-citizen difference something of a continuum. Do you understand the prevailing community understandings enough to participate in their adjudication? do you participate in community events and tasks? The more you can say “yes” the more citizenish you are. The least citizen-like members of the anarchy are nourished by its constitution but do little to help preserve, defend, and improve it. The most citizen-like members of the anarchy do the most to keep it healthy and strong.

I used to have a view of anarchist citizenship that might have been summed up as “mind your own business, and let everybody else mind theirs.” Now I think of that as not anarchy at all, but some sort of suspicious isolationism. You can care about others without being an interfering busybody, and you can take a healthy interest in the well-being and character of your neighbors without doing so at either end of a gun.

Aristotle noted that a political constitution works best when the citizenry have a common desire for its continued success (when there are few who feel they would be better off under a different system). This remains the case for anarchy, and so a good anarchist citizen who is concerned with the health of the anarchist constitution will be concerned as well with the satisfaction of all of those in it.

A good anarchist citizen is willing to defend the anarchy against internal and external threats to the constitution from those who would establish a ruling class, and from the sort of decay that makes the constitution more vulnerable to such threats. Anarchy, like other good political constitutions, is fragile; a good constitution is a precious thing, important for human thriving, and so it is foolish to try to pretend aloofness from political concerns. The health of the polis is the proper concern of every individual.

This perhaps implies a certain level of prosperity in the anarchy. If people spend all of their time and energy scraping to get by, they will not have anything left over to devote to the health of the community, and anarchy may fall victim to rule by the few who are wealthy enough to spare time to take the reins. For this reason also, an ethos of simplicity may be useful to cultivate in an anarchy. If people have a sensible understanding of what the necessities of living really are, they will be better able to prioritize those things that are above and beyond the necessities. Whereas if they have a keeping-up-with-the-Joneses sense of what is necessary, they may never feel secure enough in their material possessions to begin to devote their time and resources to good citizenship.

A good anarchist citizen participates in the collective decision-making and responsibilities of the polis. Who decides where to dig the well? The citizens do — that is, the people who show up when a decision has to be made and who devote time and effort to understanding and deliberating. Who digs the well? The citizens do — that is, the people who put on the gloves and grab the shovels. If you examine it closely, anarchy becomes a sort of fluid aristocracy of those people who are willing and able to take responsibility and get their hands dirty.

But a good anarchist citizen neither cares to do all of this citizenship alone, nor aspires to assume a permanent and overarching leadership role. For the health of the polis, and for her or his own peace of mind, such a citizen will want the virtues appropriate to leadership and civic participation to be found widely in the community, and so will encourage others in exercising them.

In the best state, Aristotle says, the virtues of a good person and of a good citizen are the same. This is true of anarchy more than it is of any other form of constitution. This means that a good anarchist citizen will also take an interest in the characters of those around her or him. In Aristotle’s system, it was important that members of the ruling class develop the complete virtues. Under anarchy, this extends to everybody. We all need to carefully tend our characters, and if people around us need help in this process started, we need to extend that help willingly, knowing that this is both generous and in enlightened self-interest.

A good anarchist citizen models good behavior, and also rewards good behavior and calls out bad behavior in others. She or he will take a keen interest in the education of the youth of the community, and will take care to encourage community-enhancing customs and traditions like generosity. (I will go into more detail about both of those points in the next episode.)

To be continued…

Index to Aristotle’s Politics