Thoughts, Ideas, Observations

Taking Anarchism Seriously

John Bedell

Turn on the news these days and you are likely to see black-clad, gas-mask-wearing youths battling the police somewhere near the latest gathering of world political or economic leaders.  If you can get any statement of goals from one of these protesters--for demonstrators, they are remarkably short on words--he or she is likely to say, "I just want a world where the rich don't exploit the poor."

A worthy goal, you may think; but what, exactly, do wearing a gas mask and chaining yourself in the path of some finance minister's motorcade have to do with achieving it?  And the answer to that question seems to be, although I've never heard a protester put it very clearly, that the existing democratic states are so completely controlled by the rich that they no longer serve the interests of the poor and ordinary at all, but function only to legitimize the dominance of the world by the capitalist elite.  We need a radical alternative, a change from the capitalist, patriarchal, techno-globalist, racist order to a new system based on people power.  We need, in a word, anarchism.

What, exactly, is anarchism, and does it really have anything to offer the modern world?  To find answers to this question one has to turn from the nearly aphasic protesters to sympathetic intellectuals.  Anarchists, alas, have trouble agreeing even with each other, so it is not easy to offer a coherent picture of what anarchists believe.  I think the core of their principles can be expressed in two simple goals:  to reduce the inequalities of wealth and power that characterize existing states, and to reduce the giving of orders in human life-- as Robert Dahl put it, to "minimize coercion and maximize consent."  Obviously these words cover a wide range of possibilities; most left-wing democrats or democratic socialists could easily subscribe to them in fairly weak forms. Their strong forms, on the other hand, are monstrously incompatible: our historical experience has been that to dramatically redistribute the wealth of a society requires, not the minimizing of coercion, but the application of coercion at a Bolshevik level.  In between the vaguely leftish and the apocalyptic there is still a wide range of anarchist thought to consider.  What do these somewhat saner anarchists think ought to be done?

It is important to begin by distinguishing anarchists from libertarians. Libertarians, like anarchists, say they want to minimize the power of the state and maximize freedom, but it strikes me that anarchists understand one very important thing that libertarians do not:  states are not the only entities in our world with great power. Large corporations have enormous power to, for example, reshape the landscape, invade privacy, create and destroy communities, ruin lives, and poison the earth.  If we took the libertarian approach and drastically reduced the power of government without doing anything about the power of corporations, we would, it seems to me, only acquire a new set of masters over whom we had much less control than we do over the politicians we elect.  Anarchists take the more honest line of saying that to be truly free we must break the power of both the state and the corporations.

Instead of the capitalist system and the "democratic" state, anarchists imagine a society made up of "voluntary producers' associations" and local popular assemblies.

Anarchists want a society based in direct democracy through popular assemblies—at the workplace, in the community, and in many voluntary associations. The more decisions are made locally, then the fewer are made centrally.
Many anarchists assume that the end of capitalism will require a complete abandonment of our modern, industrial economy (can you imagine several thousand Intel employees assembling to debate the design of their next chip?) and a return to more traditional forms:
decentralisation of large-scale industries, reskilling of workers, and a return to more artisan-like modes of production; the use of environment-friendly technologies, energy sources, and products; the use of recycled raw materials and renewable resources; and worker-controlled enterprises responsive to the wishes of local community assemblies and labour councils in which decisions are made by direct democracy.
On the other hand, some anarchists seem to think we could maintain a fully modern economy based on workshops like the ones where Steve Job assembled the first Apple and Bill Gates wrote the first version of DOS--forgetting, it seems to me, that those achievements rest on a vast industrial base where things like ultra-pure silicon wafers and microlasers are made in gigantic factories.  But who knows what we may be capable of in a few decades?  Maybe we will be able to build computers from scratch in our garages, and maybe a team of a few dozen will be able to assemble an airplane.

There is clearly an element of fantasy in all of this.  Some anarchists, most famously Noam Chomsky, say that we have no idea what sort of institutions will develop once we have rid the world of hierarchy and domination, so we would be better not to speculate.  I think this is a dishonest dodge; who is going to embark on a revolution without having some sort of goal to work toward?--but at least Chomsky avoids the embarrassment of trying to describe the post-revolutionary world in an appealing way.  These visions of direct democracy and worker control are, I guess, supposed to sound pleasant, but they make me think of life as an endless committee meeting.  Have any of these anarchists actually sat around a table with dozen or so people trying to reach a consensus?  For me the experience has always been horrible.  But, according to the authors of the Anarchist FAQ web site, this is just because I am acculturated to life in a hierarchical society:

the daily experience of participatory decision-making, non-authoritarian modes of organisation, and personalistic human relationships in small work groups would foster creativity, spontaneity, responsibility, independence, and respect for individuality -- the qualities needed for a directly democratic political system to function effectively.
Here we are back in fantasyland again--just because, say the anarchists, cooperative decision making is painful for the drones of capitalism doesn't mean it will be for the enlightened citizens of anarchism.  This appeal to the great changes that will be wrought by the end of our societies based on dominance runs all through anarchist thought, rendering much of it completely unconvincing.  Another anarchist web site (anarchists love the internet) offers this analysis of overpopulation:
Population growth, far from being the cause of poverty, is in fact a result of it....  If a traditional culture, its values, and its sense of identity are destroyed, population growth rates increase dramatically. As in 17th- and 18th-century Britain, peasants in the Third World are kicked off their land by the local ruling elite, who then use the land to produce cash crops for export while their fellow country people starve.
This is, first of all, factually false.  Population growth in 17th- and 18th-century Britain was caused entirely by falling death rates, not rising birth rates.  Birth rates were falling in 18th-century Britain, as they are falling in the Third World today, but populations still grew because death rates were falling faster.  The values of almost all "traditional cultures" encourage high birth rates--it is modern capitalist society that has given us a widespread desire for small families.  Unless you think low death rates are a bad thing, it is hard to blame population growth on capitalism.  Second, how, exactly, is the end of hierarchical power structures supposed to lead to low birth rates?  A transition to artisanal modes of production would surely leave the world poorer, not richer, although redistribution might leave many of the world's poorest citizens better off.  Do the anarchists have any notion of what degree of wealth leads to what birth rate?  They do not.  They are simply dreaming that in a better world there will be more of all the things they like, from freedom to wilderness.  They make virtually identical arguments about sexism, racism, crime, and, as in this example, the health of our environment:
effective protection of the planet's ecosystems requires that ordinary citizens be able to take part at the grassroots level in decision-making that affects their environment, since they are more likely to favour stringent environmental safeguards than the large, polluting special interests that now dominate the "representative" system of government.
Another guess, if you ask me.  In my experience ordinary people are eager to espouse environmentalist as long as they think all polluting is done by distant, evil corporations, but extremely unwilling to give up any of their own environmentally destructive habits, from grilling over charcoal to driving SUVs.  But maybe that's just because they are unenlightened capitalist drones.

Many anarchists have a fascination, bordering on obsession, with certain short-lived revolutionary experiments that they see as glimpses of the anarchist future.  The most prominent are the Paris Commune of 1871 and the Spanish Civil War, but the early days of the French and Russian Revolutions sometimes figure as well.

From the largely medieval peasant wars of the sixteenth century Reformation to the modern uprisings of industrial workers and peasants, oppressed people have created their own popular forms of community replace the oppressive states....  [T]hese associations took the institutional form of local assemblies...or representative councils of mandated recallable deputies....  These examples cannot “prove” the validity of a radically democratic society, but they provide ample evidence of its possibility.
In a simple sense, this is true--in revolutionary situations Europeans, at least, have a habit of forming themselves into community associations governed by committees that try to reach consensus.  The historical details, alas, are not so encouraging.  All of these examples took place during wars, when most people are more willing to sacrifice for the good of the community than during peacetime.  The fascists understood this, and some of them advocated perpetual warfare to mold the people into better citizens, but anarchists can't take this approach.  All of these examples were also short-lived, and it has always been easier to get people pulling together in the short term, to overcome some crisis, than to keep them doing it for decades.  Over time, the first blush of revolutionary enthusiasm fades and laziness reasserts itself.  Troksky imagined defeating human inertia through "perpetual revolution", but Mao's attempts to realize this ambition are hardly encouraging examples for anarchists opposed to coercion in all its forms.  All of the committees formed in these Revolutionary situations also excluded large parts of the communities where they were set up, because half the population had gone over to the other side.  No conservative aristocrats joined the Jacobin club or signed the manifestoes of the German peasants, and no nuns or priests sat on the workers' committees that ran Barcelona in 1933.  It is much easier to get agreement when everyone shares the same basic political goals.

Again, anarchists meet this objection by pointing out that after the Revolution there will be no aristocrats or mill owners, and since everybody will be of the same class, the oppositions that characterize our society will no longer exist. ("Where wealth is evenly distributed and no oppression exists, society is no longer pulled in different directions by competing and hostile forces.")  To which I say, taking away their mills won't change the owners' political ideas, so you'll either have to shoot them or live with them.  Shooting them would seem to be contrary to the anarchists' most basic principles, so there will be plenty of ex-capitalists around to keep meetings from ever reaching consensus.  Not only that, but the most divisive issues in America and Europe today are not economic but moral, and I don't see why the end of capitalism will help us agree about abortion, pornography, school prayer, and the like.

Even among the part of society that was actually represented among our historical workers' communes and political clubs there was a strong tendency for a minority to take control.  When organizations meet nearly every night--as they must during times of Revolutionary crisis--only those who have the time and make the effort can participate effectively.  These have historically tended to be the angriest and most radical, with the result that the assemblies tend toward ever more extreme measures as their attendance falls.  The most famous case is the way the militants took over the Jacobin club in Paris, launching the Terror first against the enemies of the new order and then against their slightly more moderate former colleagues.  In a world governed by popular assemblies, power flows to those who most enjoy arguing in meetings all night--and there is no reason to think they are a more benevolent group than the rich or the aristocracy.

Whenever I read about western capitalists colluding with evil regimes to extract copper from Irian Jaya or oil from Nigeria and deny any of the proceeds to those who live near the resulting ugliness, I feel a surge of sympathy for the protesters.  I, too, feel that "democracy is the cry of the oppressed for justice," and I, too, wish for a world where the people can control their own destinies.  Nor am I such a fool as to imagine that in capitalist democracies ordinary people are completely in charge of their fates.  But have any of our black-dress protesters asked themselves why all the hippies eventually left their communes and went back to the capitalist world?  In practice, anarchism is a dreary bore--a world without oppression or great disparities of wealth, but also a world without grandeur or greatness, where endless bickering takes the place of politics and meetings crowd out productive activities.  I would sooner live in a monarchy than in a world where I would have to spend my evenings arguing with my neighbors about the school budget and the sewer plan.

I have my own ideas about what would happen after an anarchist revolution.  Far from enjoying "the daily experience of non-authoritarian modes of organization", most people will be sick of their local assembly within a few months.  As more and more people stay home on meeting nights, a few fanatics will take control and pass ever more outlandish laws, which everybody else will ignore.  The fanatics in the assemblies will create increasingly authoritarian police organizations to compel people to listen to them.  Then either the majority will return to the assemblies and vote a return to the old way of doing things, or the assembly leaders will block them and find themselves swept away by force, crying all the while that such conflicts were not supposed to be possible in a world where wealth is evenly distributed and no oppression exists.


The Anarchist FAQ page.

From the 
Commonplace Book

Madness is rare in individuals, but in groups, parties, nations, and ages it is the rule.



Commonplace Book
On the Dead
Bulletin Board
About us


Faith, Error, and the Death Penalty



Torture and the Truth

At Each Other's Throats

Not just the Execution



The Principle of Violence

Iraqi Democracy

Clash of Civilizations

A Sniper Nation

War and Alienation

Revisiting the War

September 11

Taking Anarchism Seriously

The PLO and the NRA

Shay's Rebellion and
Bankruptcy "Reform"


What is Justice For?


Education Reform