Alice Turtle’s Guide to Anarchy: Anarchist Government

Alice Turtle hopes to fill a gap in Aristotle’s Politics by extending it to cover the anarchist polis. Today she wraps things up with some thoughts about the structure of the anarchist “government”.


Alice Turtle

Anarchist Government

Is “anarchist government” an oxymoron? To say that an anarchy is “self-governing” or that it is governed by “spontaneous order” is nice, and perhaps even true, but it is not very revealing. Self-governing how? What kind of spontaneous order?

Do some things need to be decided by an assembly in which everyone in the polis is notified so that they may be present? How is this accomplished? Who does the work of making sure the assembly runs smoothly and stays on-topic, and how is that person compensated for their work?

How are the commons maintained? Who adjudicates disputes and how are they compensated? Who keeps records of contracts, dispute resolutions, treaties, and so forth, and how are they motivated to maintain the integrity of these records? Who represents the polis in diplomatic negotiations with foreign institutions, with how much authority, and how are they compensated for their work? How is the militia or nonviolent defense force structured, how does it train, and how is it coordinated? How do we help those who cannot help themselves? How are we to be protected from people who cannot control their vicious behavior?

These are among the hard questions that people under any form of constitution must solve. In states with a ruling class that runs a standing, institutionalized government, the solutions usually take the form of adding a new wing onto that governmental structure: add a department, appoint an official, fit them into the hierarchy, write some regulations, and there you have it: some patched-together attempt at a solution.

Anarchies have to be more creative, which is sometimes harder and more frustrating, but can lead to much better solutions than boilerplate bureaucracy building. A disadvantage is that states leave lots of written records, which other states can use as templates for their own systems. Anarchies have fewer precedents they can rely on. There are many theoretical systems, and some promising anthropological studies of self-organized governance systems, and there are some things we can learn from the “Occupy” assemblies and from experiences we have in temporary autonomous zones in which we can experiment with new forms of organization outside of the control of the governments we are subjected to, but this remains a relatively-understudied and untried area.

In many cases, however, the solutions are hidden in plain sight. The government has absorbed things that had previously been happily provided in non-coercive ways, and all we have to do is relearn the ways we used to accomplish this. Take libraries, for instance. Public libraries, supported by taxes, are ubiquitous today, but privately-funded, subscription libraries have also been common and would likely fill the gap if public libraries were to vanish.

Miscellaneous Thoughts

In the case of defense against predatory people, a subscription-based defense organization seems like the sort of solution that might naturally develop. But Robert Nozick has outlined a plausible path by which such an organization becomes a sort of de facto standing state, with those who direct it (the subscribers, at least initially, but eventually possibly the organization’s officers themselves) becoming the de facto ruling class.

The Aristotelean political scientist/doctor may want to keep an eye out for such symptoms in order to suggest possible remedies before things get out of hand and the constitution becomes destabilized.

Aristotle discussed the “wisdom of crowds” phenomenon, in which the judgements of many people are averaged together and (at least in some circumstances) these judgements seem reliably better than the judgements of any particular person in the crowd would be likely to be. Aristotle saw juries and assemblies and other groups as good approximations of this phenomenon, but it strikes me that with today’s technology it should be easier to apply this principle even more widely and less approximately. It seems to me that there are some decisions that an anarchist polis might be able to make through a kind of averaging of this nature, without the drawbacks of majoritarian, winner-takes-all voting.

Aristotle’s definition of slavery and his conception of employees as temporary-slaves or as being slavish-for-the-duration are interesting from the perspective of modern criticisms of “wage slavery”. According to Aristotle, you are a slave to the extent that you are someone else’s tool. But Aristotle thought that some people were naturally tools, and that the master/slave relationship can be of mutual benefit in such cases — he did not see slavery as necessarily exploitative.

Aristotle also anticipated a sort of technological emancipation in which mechanical tools would do the jobs then done by slaves, but this was a sort of throwaway comment and he didn’t enlarge on what the political ramifications of this might be.

How the culture of your anarchy envisions slavery, employment, and human dignity will have important implications for how its economy is structured.

In Conclusion

This has been an interesting exercise. I have been trying to see the issues of the anarchist polis as Aristotle might have seen them, and to use his techniques and assumptions (as much as possible) to examine them.

It has been exhilarating to exercise my imagination in this way. But it’s also been humbling to confront the size of the subject and to see how superficially and incompletely I have had to deal with most of it.

Index to Aristotle’s Politics