Anarchism: The Last Non-Utopian Political Philosophy

Being as it’s and all, I thought might be a good time for a visit from The Anarchy Boogeyman.

I’ll be taking the bold and ridiculous step of defining anarchism as properly understood and thereby infuriating generations of anarchists, almost none of whom, as far as I know, would agree with me.

That said… while everybody knows that anarchism is a bit of an extreme, “out there” political philosophy, I think that most people actually underestimate just how out there it is, and make the mistake of seeing it as a merely quantitatively different edge-case that more-or-less plays the same game on the same playing field as other political philosophies. Then they judge it according to that standard. This leads to misunderstandings.

I’ll try to explain. Just about every other political philosophy can be best defined by reference to an ideal, utopian state, and by a process for approximating it in the real world. These philosophies can then be judged by the desirability of this ideal state, the likelihood that we might be able to get close to that state, and what the cost of doing so would be.

So, for instance, a proponent of monarchism might define it as a system that features one single authority figure where the buck stops, who has more-or-less absolute authority (perhaps bounded by tradition or common decency), a well-defined line of succession that keeps trouble at bay, and what have you. Real-world monarchies, then, can be judged against this standard: does the monarch have ultimate authority, or is this authority diluted or countered by other institutions? is there a well-defined line of succession or are there various pretenders to the throne with their own teams of intriguers? and so on.

Democracy, constitutional republicanism, communism, democratic socialism, fascism… whatever you can think of — they can all be evaluated in this way. But anarchism — as properly understood mind you — cannot. And because its opponents, and frequently its proponents, do not understand this, they tend to misunderstand anarchism and distort it and make it ridiculous.

Anarchism is not a utopian end state and a method for getting there. It is not something of the sort that is appropriately judged by searching for existing or possible quasi-anarchies and comparing them to an ideal “anarchy.”

It would be as if in the debate over atheism the atheists kept being asked why we should worship their non-existent god rather than Allah or Jehovah. Or if in the debate over abolitionism, the abolitionists kept being asked to show how we would be able to tell the masters from the slaves once slavery was abolished. I imagine also the frustration felt by mathematicians who come up against students who have somehow gotten it stuck in their heads that ∞ is just the name of one really big integer and can be treated like one for all intents and purposes. It’s the same kind of missing the point. There’s something qualitatively different between anarchism and the host of non-anarchist (utopianist) political philosophies that you have to come to grips with before you can compare them competently.

Several years back, on a mailing list, I was venting some hostility towards abusive cops who enforced vice laws. Someone took umbrage and responded, “What have you really got a problem with, the cops or the laws? Because, last I checked, cops don’t make laws.” I responded:

I think cops are responsible for their own behavior, and can’t blame a bunch of politicians for “making” them do evil things (cf. Nuremburg trials). They have no excuse for not knowing that their business involves terrorizing people who are innocent of anything that could properly be called a crime. And they have no excuse for going along with it.

A spirited back-and-forth ensued that really demonstrates the point I’m trying to make today. I tried desperately to engage my debater but he was completely unable to hear what I was saying because he kept wanting to force me into a utopianist political philosophy paradigm, and had tight blinders on that wouldn’t allow him consider any arguments outside of that paradigm that did not conform to it.

He took government for granted, as so many people do, but could not even begin to wrap his mind around the idea of not doing so. In response, he wrote:

I love how you keep mixing up police abuse with enforcing a law passed by congress. You try to convey the impression, somehow, that I’m in favor of police abuse. Rather odd. I’m just saying the police are supposed to uphold anything that gets passed as a law. It’s unreasonable to expect them not to.

I shot back:

You try to convey the impression, somehow, that I’m in favor of police abuse

But you are — as long as that police abuse is legally authorized. And even when it isn’t, you seem far too eager to look the other way or make excuses. Why not just say “it’s wrong to break into somebody’s home, drag them away in chains, and lock them in a dungeon just because they were in possession of some illegal drug. If you do that, you’re doing something rotten. If you help people do that, you’re helping people do something rotten.” No. You’ve got to get all lawyery and say, “well, maybe it’s wrong, but it’s the law, and we have to make exceptions for the law, and besides it’d be wrong if you or I did it, but it’s a police officer, and they have the authority and besides it’s only their job and they don’t make the rules.” Bullshit. There’s nothing you can’t justify that way, and there were 175,000,000 tombstones engraved with that feeble argument in the last hundred years.

Well, this went on for quite a bit in the classic internet flame-war style. Then my debate partner said, “you’ve got one thing left to do before I can respect your point of view… give me a coherent suggestion for a solution.”

And this is how things got so weirdly frustrating. Because what he meant by “a solution” was a quasi-utopian political ideal end-point of the type I was describing earlier. So what he really was saying, whether he knew it or not, was that in order for him to respect my point of view I was going to have to abandon my point of view, because a quasi-utopian political ideal end-point was exactly not what I was arguing for.

But I tried to come up with something that would fit the bill:

Well, it’s a rough draft, but it goes a little like this:

I want you, M— H—, to realize that it’s a cop-out to loan out your conscience to your employer, your neighbor, the majority, the Constitution, or the editorial page of Newsweek — and to understand that you’re faced with the awesome responsibility of testing and developing your conscience against the demands of real life, and then living according to the standards that you reveal. I want you to know that you are your own best and most qualified judge. If you ignore your own conscience you’re committing a particularly dangerous form of suicide — killing off your soul, and leaving behind the sort of dangerous robot who swerves from cradle to grave building gulags and genetically engineering more evil forms of smallpox.

(partially stolen from Gina Lunori’s Direct Action which itself is a liberally paraphrased update of a similarly titled essay by Voltairine deCleyre or some such, but you didn’t ask)

Part two goes like this:

Now I want you to expect the same from your friends, your co-workers, and even the police. Don’t let anyone who is doing something you know to be wrong get away with thinking that they don’t have to take responsibility for their actions. That means no “I’m only following what the law says,” no “I’m going to cede to the will of the majority,” no “I wouldn’t do it, except it’s my job,” no “if I didn’t do it, someone else would,” none of that bullshit.

To the extent that I had a “suggestion for a solution” to debate with M— H—, this was it. Not a “solution” in terms of a utopian endpoint for society at large, but just a reasonable code of conduct to apply to both of us — an egalitarian ethics (that is, an ethics that applies to everyone equally, without dividing people into castes or classes with varying qualities of ethical expectations and responsibilities).

That was the closest thing I had to “a solution” but to M— H— it was as good as nothing at all. “I’m not going to read this right now,” he wrote, “because it starts with ‘I want you, M— H—’ which means you’ve missed the point.” He concluded that my solution was really “just a big fat personal attack” and told me more explicitly what he was looking for:

Assume that whatever vector you need (protests, bills, laws, whatever) to get the end state you desire works. What end state do you desire? What system of laws, etc., do you think is the appropriate way to address narcotics, drugs, etc.?

I tried to disabuse him of his misunderstanding:

I think I got your point but you missed mine. I don’t want an end system of laws, etc. to address narcotics, drugs, etc. What I do want is for people to take responsibility for themselves and their actions and to demand the same of others, and to that end, I’m starting with you — trying to convince you to take on that challenge. The “end result” I have in mind isn’t a system that I’ll design and that other people will adhere to, but a society in which everyone realizes that to the extent they have will, they must assume responsibility for how they exercise it.

As for how this intersects with the particular case of narcotics, it means that people must take personal responsibility for their drug use and that people who intervene in the lives of drug users (cops, for instance) must take personal responsibility for the way in which they do so. Drug users can’t say “but dude, I was high” to pretend that they don’t own the consequences of their actions, and cops can’t say “I’m only following the law” when they cage a pothead. I’ve just got to convince them of that, which should only take another hundred billion emails… at this rate, only several weeks.

…I see it’s basically just a big fat personal attack.…

No, no! Read it again! It’s not meant as an attack at all. It’s a challenge, the same challenge I give to myself and test myself against and sometimes fall short at. You asked me what my solution is, and my solution is to try to hold myself to this standard, and to try to convince other people to do likewise.

But he kept pushing for me to pull back the curtain and reveal my unworkable utopia in which I play dictator and cackle over my hoard and concubines — there must be one back there somewhere. “In your society,” he asked, already implying a lot with that second-person possessive, “what happens if someone doesn’t accept responsibility? Who gets to decide if they’ve accepted enough responsibility? Who is responsible for dealing with those who no longer exercise sufficient responsibility?”

All fair questions, if taken naïvely literally, though really there’s an unspoken scaffolding of assumptions behind them: most offensively the assumption that in “my” society there must be some well-defined caste of people with authority and responsibility and some other caste without and some caste who gets to divide people up.

He followed this by prematurely attacking the utopian paradise he hoped I was going to try to construct: “I, too, would love to flip a switch and have everyone suddenly realize their duty to their fellow man, the amount of space their fellow men need, the need for personal responsibility and ethics, and, for that matter, their own personal potential. I would also like a million dollars in my primary checking account and a large harem… Systems that are designed around reasonable expectations instead of unrealistic ideals can roll with the punches a whole lot better. You can’t get rid of greed…”

All the while, ironically, he’s the one who can’t imagine a society that isn’t set up in pursuit of a utopian ideal.

At first I took the bait, though trying to avoid the hook, and talked about how we ought to deal with other people not taking responsibility for their actions, and how we go about judging when other people step over lines and we have to intervene. But I had a hard time accepting the framework of his question without it subtly forcing my answer into one that described a “system” of some sort, which really wasn’t what I had in mind at all. Finally, I wrote:

How each of us decides to act based on the decision that we make, though, is our own individual responsibility — not the dictate of a pre-written law or the output from a political establishment.

In my vision, there’s no set of authority-emblazoned citizens who have the ability to carry out justice on everyone’s behalf, and there’s no algorithm or game used to determine a result — I, you, and everyone else must decide what to do and must accept the consequences of our decisions.

What if we don’t? Well, it turns out we have no choice. We are responsible for our own actions, even if we pretend to loan out our responsibility to an institution or person. But in a practical sense, the only penalties are that A) we’re lying to ourselves, and B) we’re relinquishing control over our lives to some external force, thereby restricting our freedom, thereby inflicting our own punishment.

All systems have an error rate. What are your detection, correction, and prevention methods?

What system? The error rate is just human imperfection. This imperfection is only magnified when someone tries to codify human laws, or create human institutions to do our reasoning for us.

If your reasoning is out-of-whack and it’s causing you to do something rotten while thinking you’re doing something good, I can try to convince you otherwise. I can even try to put you in a cage if you’re not listening to reason and I think that what you’re doing is rotten enough that I want to spend my time that way, but not out of some abstract law or because I’ve been appointed CageMaster, but simply because I, taking responsibility for my own actions, am caging you.

Is this perfect? Hell no. If you’re stronger than me, maybe it’ll be me who ends up in the cage. And there’s no guarantee that the strongest one of us is the most sensible.

Fatal flaw? Not really. I never claimed that I was creating a perfect utopia, only showing a better way.

As our society is now, the stronger imprison the weaker, but are able to do so in vast numbers and without any person taking responsibility for being an imprisoner.

I, too, would love to flip a switch…

You asked for my program. It starts with you. It works one person at a time. The nice part is that it doesn’t require universal participation, majority participation, or even a critical mass. Each person who takes responsibility for themselves benefits themselves and those around them. Each incremental step is a step forward.

He thought I “totally dodged the question” of what happens in my as properly understood anarchism when somebody doesn’t accept responsibility. Which I did, I guess, but mostly because the question masked an assertion that I didn’t want to implicitly accept.

So I tried to meet the question, and the assumptions behind it, more directly:

In your society, what happens if someone doesn’t accept responsibility?

I guess it’s just too broad a question. Doesn’t accept responsibility for what? What do you mean by “what happens”? Do you mean, “what am I going to do about it?” or “what are you going to do about it?” or “what bad tidings must thereby befall the irresponsible person?”

It sounds like you’re asking me to come up with a commandment like “In Utopia, if you fail to accept responsibility for your actions, you will be set adrift on a raft and exiled from civilized society” or an admission like “In Utopia, there are no police, so if someone does something rotten because they refuse to take responsibility for their actions or because they’ve got a distorted idea of what their responsibility demands of them, there’s nothing anyone can do about it.”

But neither of those statements, nor anything like them, describe what I’m envisioning. I could go into more detail if someone doesn’t shove a sock in my keyboard soon, but a shortcut is that I’m not trying to envision a utopia in which everybody behaves harmoniously like in some seventh day adventist pamphlet illustration. I just have in mind a way for people to regain freedom and dignity and to extinguish the greedy and deadly inferno of the state. Not utopia, but not a bad consolation prize.

Alas, none of this made any headway. He still insisted that because I had never specified some final state that he could judge as good or bad, practical or impractical, there was nothing else in my argument that he could grapple with. He concluded that I just hadn’t developed my ideas to the state where they were worth arguing with, and suggested that maybe I assist my poor imagination by trying to write some science fiction about “my society” in order to better flesh out the details.

It really did seem to have all the talking-past-each-other quality of a “but this one goes to eleven” argument.

Ask an anarchist (as properly understood) to describe what an anarchist society looks like, and the utopianist expects to hear a description of some wholly-other, alien society, nothing like our own, that can be dismissed as an unlikely fantasy. But the anarchist instead responds with something much like “you’re soaking in it” — that is, anarchy is not some future utopia that the anarchist is striving for, but it is the way of interpreting and understanding the society the anarchist already lives in.

Oh, there is no Great Thunder God Oog, and his name isn’t some holy word that mustn’t be pronounced by man on pain of damnation, but just another syllable. Oh, there is no Santa Claus, it must be someone else’s generosity I have to be thankful for and I don’t have to worry about how the reindeer keep warm the rest of the year. Oh, there is no State, and that guy over there in the suit and tie ordering people around in its name is just a prick with lots of sycophants, not anyone I owe any respect to.

That’s all there is to it. Anarchy is what you see when you take off the blinders. It’s not utopian. In fact, it’s the only non-utopian political philosophy. And being that historically, proponents of anarchism have often been promoting utopian programs only quantitatively different from those of their socialist or liberal counterparts, and seeing as the word “anarchism” itself has such unfortunate and undeserved connotations, I think that those people (or is it “that person”) who adhere to anarchism as properly understood might well adopt the name “topianists” to make this distinction more clear.