I’m finally reading An Anarchism FAQ.
I’ve written before about not quite being convinced by the claims of anarchists, and about the things which the state might be good for. Some of my worries have been partially addressed so far, and I’ve got plenty more reading to do. I think it’s worth attempting at least to understand the ideas.
So I don’t have anything to add about the political philosophy itself yet. But I will talk about the rhetoric that anarchistic apologetics tend to employ.
Very briefly, anarchism is a political philosophy which is against the idea of society being run by a government imposing its authority from the top down. Anarchists claim that a state with such authority is not necessary for society to flourish and provide all the amenities we enjoy, and indeed that any such state is an actively negative force in oppressing people and limiting their freedoms.
This is not an idea wholly without merit. Anyone who’s ever been pissed off at their government starting a war without asking them first will be able to understand some of the motivation behind this anti-statism. But some anarchist essays, and some sections of the FAQ, make me want to stand up in defence of hierarchical authority.
I mean, c’mon, it’s not that bad.
I’m not saying we should settle for it. I don’t mean to imply that we should settle for a certain degree of authoritarianism because it’s only a minor evil. You should absolutely fight for liberty and decry tyranny to the full extent it seems justified.
But working for a living within a capitalist society is really not the same thing as slavery. That’s worth remembering. Whereas some anarchist writings would have you believe that, once you’ve formed a relationship with another person or group in which you agree to submit, no matter the degree, then you’ve agreed to be oppressed. And oppression is a totally black-and-white binary state. Either you’re free, or you’re a slave.
Even if you’re deeply opposed to capitalism, I think that’s an unproductively hyperbolic line to take.
I’m currently a minor cog in the state’s machine of centralised authority. I work for an hourly wage, and my total income is some way below this country’s median. I’m certainly not one of the fat cats at the top of the chain; I’m well within the oppressed masses.
And yet, somehow, I’m basically doing okay. I’m not plodding through a colourless life of serfdom and drudgery. I kinda enjoy my job, and I have a fair amount of free time to indulge my passions and express myself creatively. I’m not saying I couldn’t be doing better, or that I wouldn’t be thriving significantly more under an anarchist system. But likening my role to slavery is going to make me think you’re out of touch, and/or demented.
A lot of people actually find substantial happiness and fulfilment within the current system, and it’s not an empty fulfilment which they fall for because they don’t know any better. There is art, and beauty, and friendship, and love, making many people’s lives worthwhile, even under capitalism.
You can acknowledge this and still oppose the system for its shortcomings. You can credit an authoritarian system with the capacity to sometimes – albeit not often enough – give people the chance to flourish.
Or, rather, you can credit the people in the system for that. They’re not all either making a cynical power-grab or being blindly corralled into subservience.
Also, establishing an anarchist system sounds like it’s hard. There’s complexity and nuance within the proposed ideas of how an anarchist society should be run, which take some thoughtfulness and imagination to come up with. The FAQ acknowledges that there are “preconditions”, which don’t exist in instances where governmental authority simply collapses into chaos. If it’s unplanned and structureless, then all we get is the media’s misguided concept of “anarchy”. An actual anarchist society isn’t just a matter of smashing the system and calling it a day.
And yet sometimes it seems like anarchists resent that any government has ever imposed authority over anyone. Beyond a certain point, this turns into a bloody-minded refusal to consider the ways in which a hierarchical society might, historically, have been useful in organising society and providing services. Every nation I’m aware of that’s got anywhere in the last couple of millennia has had a centralised state. Maybe, at the time, it was a useful way to progress.
Again, it should be possible to acknowledge this, and moderate some of the invective hurled against all forms of authority anywhere ever, without compromising on your principles going forward.
It’s worth taking seriously the anarchist argument that structures in which humans hold power and authority over other humans are restrictive, and that all society would be better served by an arrangement that fostered genuine equality. But it’s not necessary to insist that everyone within a system of authority is either insufferably privileged or labouring in unconscionable bondage.