Alice Turtle’s Guide to Anarchy: Education and Culture

Alice Turtle hopes to fill a gap in Aristotle’s Politics by extending it to cover the anarchist polis. Today she considers the crucial role of education and custom in anarchy.

Alice Turtle

Anarchic Citizens

A constitution grows out of the character of the citizenry, at least to a great extent. Parts of it may be imposed on the citizenry initially, but unless the citizens grow into the proper characters to take their places within it, such a constitution is liable to fall.

Monarchist or oligarchical or democratic people will see anarchy as a void that they are called upon to fill with a ruling class, and a ruling class will certainly take the opportunity to fill that void. A community of anarchic citizens, on the other hand, will set about establishing a healthy anarchy.

In the previous installation of this series of articles, I discussed the roles of a good anarchist citizen. Today I will consider how such citizens might be nurtured.

There are certain skills that anarchist citizens need to have, and these skills need to be widespread. In anarchy there is no royal family, aristocratic class, or small set of fully-fledged citizens who are entrusted with the responsibility of maintaining the health of the polis. Instead, that responsibility is spread over the whole population.

In addition to skills, there are also certain understandings that will be need to be made explicit so they can be shared and passed on. For example, though political philosophers are fond of discovering intricate justifications for what does and doesn’t count as “property”, as though their definitions were a natural law of the universe, in the real world what counts as property is decided by the consensus of the ruling class. In anarchy, where the ruling class is everybody, that means there needs to be a widespread, shared understanding of the basic contours of how property rights are established, how inheritance works, and so forth. In any system there will be edge cases and unanticipated complications that will provoke conflict, but if people diverge on even the basics, conflict is inevitable.

How do we deal with people who violate social norms: thieves, cheats, murderers, and the like? How do we operate with people who do not share our norms and understandings: foreigners, immigrants, or people on the borders of our community? How do we defend our community against outside aggression? What are the temptations to monarchy, oligarchy, or democracy, and how can these be resisted? These are all things that need to be part of the conversation before they become a problem, not just at the moment they arise.

Implicit and Explicit Learning

All of this is taught in both implicit and explicit ways. Implicitly, people learn by observing the behavior of those around them and discovering patterns that become heuristics they can apply to their own choices. Explicitly, people are taught as children and through the stories and admonitions they hear.

A bridge between the implicit and explicit is the child’s “why?” (“why do we do things that way?”). Proverbs are one way of crossing that bridge: quick, pithy heuristic summaries of the wisdom of a particular line of action, or of how it fits into the rest of the constitutional structure. I’ll consider the role of proverbs and proverb-makers in a moment.

In any human society, customs, norms, shared understandings, myths, ritual practices, and other such things — “folklore,” in short — are going to be important. In anarchy they also bear much of the weight that is borne by coercive institutions and governing hierarchies under other constitutions. Those other constitutions are a recent development in our evolutionary history. If we put them aside and listen to the wisdom natural selection has implanted in us, we can learn a lot. Human beings are political animals, and we have evolved a variety of methods for regulating our social habitats. Our domestication by coercive political institutions has atrophied these skills, but there is every reason to expect them to blossom again if we escape the zoo.

As a student of Aristotelian political science, you are in training to be a physician for bodies of citizens who have associated in various ways. One way you can help an anarchy is to identify those aspects of the shared culture that contribute to a healthy and harmonious constitution, and which tend to cause friction and decay.

It can be instructive to study the time-worn methods that have developed in other cultures in other places and times. But you can no more expect to successfully graft a bunch of other cultures’ practices on to your own than you could expect to combine the powers of all the animals by splicing them together Frankenstein’s monster style. Careful, humble experimentation with elements of the best practices of other cultures — not slapdash, wholesale disruption of existing processes — ought to characterize your technique.

Many norms will develop implicitly over time in well-functioning groups of all sorts. Some might as well be in the “things I learned in kindergarten” category of getting-along-with-people. One possible line of work for the anarchist political scientist might be to explicitly articulate these norms and to show how they remain useful and sufficient in complex political scenarios.

Proverbs and Stories

As I mentioned before, some norms and guidelines will take the form of proverbs. For example, it may be a useful norm in an anarchy that those who take the most responsibility for the maintenance of some aspect of the commons ought to have more policy-making authority over that aspect. Such a norm might be passed down from generation to generation as “don’t cry about how thick the onions are sliced unless you cried while they were being cut.”

Proverbs have been one of the best cultural technologies for collecting and passing on best practices information for the community. For example, these passages from the biblical book of Proverbs are all about recommended behavior for maintaining the health of the community:

The Lord detests dishonest scales, but accurate weights find favor with him.

When the righteous prosper, the city rejoices; when the wicked perish, there are shouts of joy.

Through the blessing of the upright a city is exalted, but by the mouth of the wicked it is destroyed.

Whoever derides their neighbor has no sense, but the one who has understanding holds their tongue.

A gossip betrays a confidence, but a trustworthy person keeps a secret.

For lack of guidance a nation falls, but victory is won through many advisers.

Whoever puts up security for a stranger will surely suffer, but whoever refuses to shake hands in pledge is safe.

A kindhearted woman gains honor, but ruthless men gain only wealth.

A generous person will prosper; whoever refreshes others will be refreshed.

People curse the one who hoards grain, but they pray God’s blessing on the one who is willing to sell.

Whoever seeks good finds favor, but evil comes to one who searches for it.

There’s a lot of redundancy in that and subsequent chapters of Proverbs, suggesting that this was probably a compilation of the parallel efforts of a multitude of cultures and generations to come up with ways of quickly teaching heuristics for maintaining a harmonious community, ensuring personal prosperity, dealing with outsiders, and keeping a good reputation.

The poet who is able to encapsulate good lessons like these in pithy phrases is a boon to the community. Ben Franklin saw himself in this role when he used his “Poor Richard” persona to issue advice like:

  • Whate’er’s begun in anger ends in shame.
  • A quarrelsome Man has no good Neighbors.
  • Better is a little with content than much with contention.
  • Search others for their virtues, thy self for thy vices.

We do the same sort of thing today, for instance when we deploy proverbs like “if it sounds too good to be true, it probably is” to warn people away from get rich quick scams. This is a protective incantation that covers cases the law cannot or is not interested in covering.

Music can be a powerful way of transmitting proverbs. Lyrics stick in the memory more than mere phrases, and the form of the melody and rhythm can impart additional meaning or nuance. A wise songwriter may be able to shape a constitution more effectively than a legislator.

It is important for anarchist citizens to be on guard against the temptations of other forms of constitution. Some advice I remember hearing a counselor give to addicts dealing with temptation was “play the tape forward.” What was meant by this was that the addict should not stop at thinking about what will happen when the cravings are satisfied by giving into the drug, but should then think about what will happen next, and then after that, and all the way through to the end. Make sure all the consequences of the decision are explicitly considered as part of the package — “I am satisfying my craving and easing into my comforting high (and violating probation, and spending money I need for other things, and risking my job and my relationship with my children, and harming my health, and…)”

Stories are a great way to do this. Tell the story of the person who becomes king promising to solve all the problems, but ends up being the tyrant causing more problems than they solved. There’s a great example of this in the Bible too (1 Samuel 8):

Samuel told all the words of the Lord to the people who were asking him for a king. He said, “This is what the king who will reign over you will claim as his rights: He will take your sons and make them serve with his chariots and horses, and they will run in front of his chariots. Some he will assign to be commanders of thousands and commanders of fifties, and others to plow his ground and reap his harvest, and still others to make weapons of war and equipment for his chariots. He will take your daughters to be perfumers and cooks and bakers. He will take the best of your fields and vineyards and olive groves and give them to his attendants. He will take a tenth of your grain and of your vintage and give it to his officials and attendants. Your male and female servants and the best of your cattle and donkeys he will take for his own use. He will take a tenth of your flocks, and you yourselves will become his slaves. When that day comes, you will cry out for relief from the king you have chosen, but the Lord will not answer you in that day.”

But the people refused to listen to Samuel. “No!” they said. “We want a king over us. Then we will be like all the other nations, with a king to lead us and to go out before us and fight our battles.”

When Samuel heard all that the people said, he repeated it before the Lord. The Lord answered, “Listen to them and give them a king.”

When a cautionary story like this is part of the common folklore, it’s easier to point out someone with royalist pretensions and say “I remember you from that story about Samuel. Get out of here with your king-talk! I know what that stuff leads to.”

Which stories you tell and ask to be told, which lyrics you sing and which songs you play, which proverbs you repeat — all of these are political acts, under any constitution. In anarchy, the political acts of ordinary people are of more importance; there are no offsetting rites of a ruling class to counterbalance them. So a good anarchist citizen will choose wisely.

Currently many of the new stories and lyrics that are dominant in our culture are produced with a primarily commercial motive (we even look to explicitly commercial advertisements to carry the weight of the health of our culture). They are designed to be sold (or to capture “eyeballs” that can then be sold), and so they unfortunately often pander to and amplify choices and behaviors that are harmful to community. Such things make anarchy more difficult to establish and maintain because they discourage responsible decision-making and thereby increase the temptation to establish a responsible institutional authority over people instead.

Anarchists and libertarians have an honorable history of standing for freedom of expression and against government censorship. Because of this, we have typically been arrayed against people who have argued that certain sorts of expression are harmful to individuals, degrading of public morality, and encouraging of bad behavior. If the response “even if that is so, government censorship is a cure worse than the disease” did not seem adequately persuasive, we often tried to argue that there’s no evidence that exposure to expression (e.g. birth control information, pornography, blasphemy, violent video games, etc.) has any such harmful effects. I think, though, that this argument is not (in general) a good one. We need to acknowledge that culture is powerful, and some of it tends to make people better and some to make people worse, and that as good anarchist citizens we need to make good choices about what to amplify and what to turn up our noses at. (Nuance is of course necessary here. Different expressions will have different effects depending on the audience and the context.)

Depending on the health of your anarchy, the messages you want to create or amplify may be different. Do you have a problem of wealth inequality that threatens to pull things apart at the seams? Stories that encourage generosity among the wealthy and denigrate misers and scrooges, or proverbs that promote thrift and hard work among the poor might be what you’re after. Threatened by a burgeoning oligarchy? Stories about what happens to people who get too big for their britches and start ordering others around ought to be ready in the quiver.


The goal of the education of children in a healthy anarchy diverges from that in other constitutions.

When children are educated, they are being instructed by, and, at least initially, governed by grown-ups. The goal of anarchist education is to usher them through this period of apprenticeship into adulthood. The goal of archist education is to do this only for the emerging ruling class; the rest of the children are meant to retain their subordinate child-status into adulthood. Education trains those children to continue to behave as children even when they are grown-up: to stunt their growth, to adopt the neoteny of domesticated animals. To this end, these children continue to be governed largely by adults as they continue through their schooling, rather than being trained to gradually replace their adult governors and to govern themselves.

In preparation for lives as adult children, such students are drilled constantly in the skills they need to be interns, grad students, employees, inmates, soldiers, and subjects. In Aristotle’s framework, such people are typically considered non-citizens at best, slaves at worst.

Anarchist education, on the other hand, has the goal of transitioning children into adulthood with the skills and understandings they need to join the community of adults as responsible equals. Children begin in a position of childish subordination, but transition over the course of their education into ever-greater responsibility over their lives, their learning, their day, and into ever-tighter integration into adult activities.

Children will learn to lead and to follow, to understand how conflicts arise and to learn techniques for resolving them (without running to an authority figure to do it for them), to make decisions for themselves and to cooperate to carry out projects.

The weird transition in which a person is “a student” until they abruptly leave school and assume a place in the adult world is no way to raise anarchic citizens. Inevitably such students cast about for some child-like role that resembles the one they have been trained for (isn’t there some job where I can sit at a desk and do what someone tells me to do?), so they can earn pocket money to spend on comic books, now available as blockbuster movies suitable for all ages.


Opportunities for the community to come together in person may be important in order to maintain common understandings and folklore. Communal meals in the Spartan style (I think it sounds nicer, and no less accurate, to just call them potlucks) are one excellent way of doing this. There’s something about sharing a meal at the same table that does wonders to bond a community.

In the absence of an official “in charge” of things like registering titles, marriages, and the like, public declarations at gatherings like these may regain some of the importance they once had. A wedding ceremony today is often mostly a kind of expensive party, but it once had the purpose of letting everyone know that something important had changed that they should know about. A marriage had important social implications — families might reorganize, property change hands, lines of inheritance change. People with prior or competing claims were given their last chance to put them forward (“If any have reason why these two should not be joined together in holy matrimony, speak now or forever hold your peace.”).

But most things will not need the close attention of the larger community, and people who feel the need to bring every gripe up “in general assembly” or something like that ought to be encouraged to work on their working-things-out skills or to seek out a respected arbitrator. If people have to come together and make collective decisions every time there is a conflict, they’ll get sick of it and may demand professionals to do the job for them (and soon your anarchy is swallowed up by a judiciary).

Written Laws

Do codified, written laws have a place in the anarchist constitution? As I have discussed, an anarchist constitution isn’t one without laws but one without a ruling class. Instead of law being orders-from-above, law is collective-understanding: more like the laws of grammar than the Penal Code.

But just as it can be helpful for understanding and study to have the laws of grammar written out and made explicit, perhaps it is also useful for someone to collect and write out the laws in effect in an anarchy from time to time.

Grammarians can be said to come in two flavors: prescriptive and descriptive. The prescriptive grammarians come up with sensible, logical rules that proper speakers ought to follow. The descriptive grammarians look at the messy and sometimes contradictory ways people actually use language and try to understand its contours.

The archic “lawgiver” is like a prescriptive grammarian of law. The anarchic law-recorder is the descriptive counterpart of this. For example, Elinor Ostrom is a notable descriptive law-recorder of anarchic law.

Such a record of laws can be useful for education, for keeping people “on the same page” about community standards, and for enforcing a conservatism that can be useful for an anarchy to resist legal innovations that can destabilize it. It can also be a good way of making explicit the flaws in the existing legal order that might be candidates for reform. However there is also a danger that a written law book can morph over time from descriptive to prescriptive if it comes to be revered or over-relied-on, and also that it can attract a tribe of judges and law-interpreters who come to covet oligarchical political power.

To be continued…

Index to Aristotle’s Politics