Saturday, May 22, 2010

All about anarchism

Wall Street Journal:

Greece's anarchists are the modern incarnation of a rebel tradition, dating back to mountain brigands who fought the Ottoman Empire and World War II, when Greece had one of the biggest guerrilla movements in Nazi-occupied Europe.

Anarchists believe a free society requires abolishing the state, and they rebel against all authority and ruling power. In Greece, the leaderless network includes classical anarchists who read Russian radical thinkers such as Bakunin and Kropotkin, libertarians influenced by American counterculture, anti-authoritarians, squatters, autonomists, situationists, insurrectionists, and more. Few are pacifists. But in the past, violence was "not blind," says Panagiotis, with actions targeted at state and corporate buildings rather than innocent workers.

Anarchism is a technique that deserves to be in everybody's "skill set," because it is a great way of evaluating the relationships we observe or enter into during our sojourn here on planet Earth.

Though anarchism often comes bundled with numerous cultural preconceptions, anarchism doesn't require any particular way of dress, or propensity for "violence," or strict adherence to whatever it is other "anarchists" are preoccupied with at any given moment. Stripped of its arbitrary associations, anarchism just means skepticism toward authority.

In the same way that science may be called skepticism in the absence of evidence, anarchism is skepticism (as toward authority) in the absence of justification. In any relationship where one party claims authority over the affairs of another, anarchism merely requires that there be some justification for the claim. If there is no justification, or the justification is insufficient (in the eyes of those affected), anarchism regards the claim as illegitimate, and actively rejects it.

The motivating premise behind a skepticism toward authority is that the less people assume some position of telling other people what to do, the more people will make choices for themselves. This is important because people assume authority over each other all the time, in all kinds of ways, and in every kind of relationship. So anarchism is always concerned with the legitimacy of these relations, and it opposes them when they fail to meet whatever burden of proof establishes that they are necessary.

Every political philosophy amounts to a subset of what anarchism implies. When I write about Marxism, I am concerning myself with the authority that a system of capital accumulation imposes on everybody else; when I write about feminism I am interested in whatever forms of authority seek to impose themselves on women. I can specialize in these areas because, as a white man, I am subordinated to the authority of capital directly, while at the same time I am enjoined to participate in the kinds of authority that impose themselves on women; but I have an intimacy with women in my daily life that is immediate, whereas my reflections on other issues (like race or sexual orientation) are drawn more indirectly, and subsequently what I can "see" on these questions is more generic, and less personal. So, as a function of my own positional awareness of the world, I write with greater frequency about what I experience most, and defer to others on those things that they experience more.

Anarchism is the element which binds the urgency of divergent experiences in their confrontation with authority. When conservative relatives complain to me about the awful government, I am happy to talk to them about the awful government. There is plenty that is awful about the government, and it is a very good thing to have people concerned about it! But if what is awful about the government usually comes back to questions of industrial and financial policy, then conservatives should be invited to broaden their focus to areas that are ultimately more relevant to their concerns. Anarchism, unconstrained by arbitrary assumptions, is able to do this in a way that even US-style "libertarianism" cannot, because there is no relationship that it is afraid to question.

You will take your skepticism toward authority and apply it to those relationships that are most relevant in your life, and you will come up with your own insights and strategies on how best to pursue your own interests. Within the anarchist tradition, you will find a community of people who have always struggled to do the same, and you will find that they are not such bad company to keep after all.


almostinfamous said...

political theory: ur doin it rite!

Ray said...

tip o' the hat!

Jad said...

"In the same way that science may be called skepticism in the absence of evidence, anarchism is skepticism (as toward authority) in the absence of justification."

I really like this way of looking at it--hadn't considered it before.

It doesn't distinguish levels of "justification." If I take the claim of a social contract as justification enough for party A to have authority of party B, (or the will of god, or the greater good, or whatever), I've still been skeptical.

In science, one person may say that X is evidence and another may disagree. There's a standard by which their claims are judged.

Does that exist with regard to anarchism as authority skeptic? Or am I taking the analogy too far? Thanks! I'm digging your blog.

JRB said...


If you take the claim of a social contract as justification enough for party A to have authority of party B, this is irrelevant unless you are included in party B. If you aren't, you should defer to their preferences.

Whoever is principally affected by authority establishes its legitimacy, as in sense of "consent of the governed."

Situations which depart from this formula require an even greater burden of proof to show why it is inappropriate (as in the case, sometimes, with children). We can think of many situations in which this judgment defaults to affected members of the community, in lieu of the primary subjects themselves.

I should say that this is just a restatement of a Chomskian approach that I first found here, which I find more serviceable than "positive" definitions like "no hierarchy."