Alice Turtle’s Guide to Anarchy: Constitutional Stability

Alice Turtle hopes to fill a gap in Aristotle’s Politics by extending it to cover the anarchist polis. Today she considers some of the sources of instability that threaten anarchy and how to prevent or ameliorate them.


Alice Turtle

First, Remember What Aristotle Taught

Aristotle identified several sources of instability that threaten the constitutions of democracies, oligarchies, and monarchies. Without repeating them here (see ♇ 1 January 2019 for some of Aristotle’s list), I will instead say that most of them have their counterparts in the anarchist constitution.

You might think that anarchy would at least be free from destabilization by people who pursue profit and honor through the devices of government. Without any government to bestow profit and honor, a healthy anarchy does indeed keep this at bay. But if there is any deviation from anarchy — for example “temporary,” “just this once,” “during the crisis” forms of government — this tendency will seep into the cracks and widen them.

So it would be wise for the anarchist Aristotelean political scientist — the physician of the body politic — to consult Aristotle’s list of suggestions for how to preserve and stabilize a constitution.

Not all of these will be relevant to a constitution without a fixed and distinct ruling class or governing officials. But, for example, the advice that to try to strip citizens away from their old loyalties and attach their loyalties to the polis remains sound. It has a kind of dreadful ring to it when it is put starkly that way, but benign examples of this would include efforts to reduce ethnic or religious divisions in society, to create truces between rival gangs, and so forth.

The Corrupting Power of Wealth

Commerce and money-acquiring is potentially corrupting, causing people to get caught up in accumulation at the expense of providing for their needs and developing the virtues.

A society with much wealth can also be an encouragement for hostile neighbors to invade, so there's a security aspect to keep in mind as well.

That said, economic growth helps the success of the polis and prosperity allows people the leisure time they need to pursue the complete set of virtues, so there’s a tension here.

In economics as in other things, be cautious about innovation, and conservative about reform. Consider the likelihood of unintended consequences of large-scale societal changes. Be skeptical of utopian ideas like sharing all property in common, or dissolving family ties into one big communal family. Such things are unlikely to succeed in reality as well as they do on paper. A good polis is a harmonious mixture of diversity, not a blending into homogeneity. Diversity is less brittle than uniformity.

That said, some amount of property held-in-common is a good idea. And an ethos of voluntary generosity that evens out wealth inequality ought to be encouraged. Involuntary redistribution of wealth is unlikely to turn out well, and probably implies that your anarchy has been undermined by some other constitution.

More important than reducing inequality or reducing poverty is inculcating the virtues so that people have a healthier attitude towards money and possessions and justice. Do this, and the rest will follow. Redistribute wealth without instilling the virtues and you’ll end up just causing more problems than you solve.

What to Do with the Oligarchs

As I’ve mentioned previously, anarchy allows for a sort of fluid aristocracy-of-the-willing, and so it can be very satisfactory to particularly virtuous aristocrats, who fit right in. Ordinary oligarchs, however, coasting on their wealth or their family name, are likely to feel short-changed, as they do not get the respect or authority they feel they are owed. This too can be a source of instability.

You might want to give such people some token ceremonial roles of pomp and dignity that they can occupy without causing much trouble but that will keep them satisfied. But keep an eye on them.

What to Do with the Democrats

Temptations to majoritarian democracy will crop up periodically. If there is an issue that requires group buy-in but on which there is a strong difference of opinion — an issue that by its nature must be decided one way or the other with no compromise or middle ground — genuine consensus may be out of reach. It will be impossible to make everybody happy.

In such a case, the party that can marshal the majority opinion will be eager to come up with good-sounding reasons why that should be enough to decide the question. If those self-serving reasons are repeated often enough and earnestly enough, they may start sounding like wisdom to the unwise.

You might be better off tossing a coin than making an exception to use a vote. While majoritarian decision-making ensures that the people with the hard feelings are always in the minority, it can also mean that the same minority gets screwed again and again. This will be a source of instability in your constitution, and may indicate that you have already lost your anarchy to the temptations of democracy.

An Ounce of Prevention

How do you prevent the majority, or the rich, or the strong, from trying to muscle their views into enactment once they realize their strength? Perhaps one way is to seek out ways to give them some sort of extraordinary advisory roles or something so they feel adequately respected without permitting them to be actually coercive.

There’s always the temptation, once a faction realizes its strength, that it will try to force its way. “Who’s going to stop us?” This is of course not just a problem of anarchies; other systems claim to prevent this, but they really just enshrine it, at best.

The Aristotelean political scientist will anticipate these attempts and head them off one way or another. It is easier to discourage such a faction before it has had a taste of success than after.

To be continued…

Index to Aristotle’s Politics