As a self identified anarchist I typically receive a great deal of skepticism when I tell people about my political inclinations. Conservatives and liberals are shocked and assume my politics is reducible to wanting a bloody free-for-all, while other leftists tend to challenge me more coherently in terms of leftist theory. I want to break down some of the basic misconceptions about anarchism that are pervasive among non-leftists and explain why I came to my conclusions regarding some disputes within the left.
What Is Anarchism?
Anarchist thought has a long and remarkably diverse history. Since it is first and foremost a leftist ideology concerned with how to best carry out class struggle, I do not consider anarcho-capitalists to have a historically legitimate claim to the title. Furthermore, a very strong case can be made that capitalism and the state as we know it are inextricably linked, which makes anarcho-capitalism an oxymoron.
But then what do anarchists believe? The one thing most people know about anarchists is that they oppose the state. Where the debate immediately becomes more complicated is when one tries to define precisely what it means to be or have a state. Is a state merely a collection of people who collectively organize resources? If so, then most anarchist thought, excluding radical individualism, would actually endorse some form of a state. In fact, for most anarchists community and the collective are essential concepts.
Unlike a voluntary commune, the state is a collective entity which uses violent coercion to control people, the use of space, and resources. It is the violently coercive nature of the state, and the inevitable injustices that produces, that anarchists object to. Chief among those injustices is the production of class, race, gender, and other hierarchical identities. From this perspective, the police are not the protectors of the community as such but rather the enforcers of numerous hierarchies. They exist to protect the interests of the rich, of white people, and of men, and are deployed against those who seek to undermine the system of domination that structures our society.
Similarly, the military serves this same function but externally: it is deployed to preserve global hierarchy between countries. Imperialism and domestic policing are two sides of the same coin of state function. Of course, these are not the only two functions of any state. However, they are both essential to the modern nation state as we know it, and as the funding allocation within states has demonstrated, economic stress can easily lead to the cutting of welfare programs but rarely leads to contractions of military and police spending.
What Happens After The State Is Abolished?
It is not uncommon for people to accept this critique of state power but then turn around and ask what is proposed to be done without the state. A key question that is often raised against anarchists is what to do about crime without a state and without prisons. The answer to this question is complicated and depends a great deal on who you ask. More radical individualists put their stock in self defense, but I do not find this terribly compelling (although I am not a radical individualist to begin with). On the other hand most community oriented anarchists suggest that the abolition of these hierarchies and the redistribution of resources on more democratic terms would eliminate categorically much of what we consider to be crime: drug crimes would cease to exist and theft would be radically de-incentivized. Those crimes which still occurred could then be handled by local communities through restorative justice.
This is a contentious issue within anarchist thought with some people, for example, suggesting that banishment from a community is a reasonable punishment for certain particularly heinous crimes while others contend that banishment is in fact approaching a death sentence in severity. If you are genuinely interested in exploring this topic, then there is a great deal of debate between anarchists that you can read on this topic. More broadly the answer to what happens after we abolish the state is equally contentious. Some anarchists suggest the creation of democratic bodies, others place their faith in the community as a decision making unit, and still others advocate for the abolition of all formal organization.
Personally, I find the question inherently flawed. Politics is the process of collective making, and as such to start from this point in that process and proscribe an end goal is not only foolish but immoral. But then, you might ask, then what is the point of believing any of this? Simply put, I approach anarchist theory not as a utopian philosophy but rather as a realist critique of politics which suggests not specifically what the ultimate end of politics should be but rather how we ought to go about politics. It is my view that the state serves as violently coercive mediator of political conflict between groups and that through dismantling state power we can carry out political dispute with less violence.
This leads to the seemingly age old question of what to do about the violent anarchy of statelessness. In fact, this question is not age old and can be traced back to specific thinkers. Thomas Hobbes popularized the notion of the stateless society as one which is engaged constantly in a war of “all against all.” However, Hobbes derived this conclusion not from the observation of stateless but from his experience living through the English Civil War. The English Civil War consisted of a rapidly escalating constitutional dispute between King and parliament that eventually lead a violent conflict over how state authority should be structured. This is in fact the opposite of what anarchists suggest we should do: a civil war of this nature is the result not of the abolition of state power but of its multiplication.
Hobbes notes in Leviathan that we can learn about how individuals treat one another by examining how states interact in the international sphere. States are always fighting one another for power and resources and remain in a sort of semi-war even while at peace. But there is little reason to assume that this applies equally to the individual in part because (most anarchists) do not claim the individual as the only significant theoretical unit. Rather, they understand the individual as necessarily entangled within a community: perhaps an unwilling but inevitable member of a collective.
On a basic level, the requirement of human children to undergo a long period of adolescence where they are incapable of providing for themselves eliminates the possibility of even thinking the individual by itself. Altruism and sacrificing oneself or one’s interests for the collective good are behaviors we see even in a capitalist world that conditions us all to be capitalist subjects: individuals out for our own interests. In fact, the anarchist would point out that we understand as human nature is rather the product of how capitalism informs our behavior. A change in political economy, therefore, requires and necessitates a change in humanity. In other words, we cannot predict what human nature will be understood as in a hypothetical future society without capitalism or the state.
Finally, as a non-utopian anarchist, I would contend that anarchist critique is still valuable even if we accept a priori that states as we know them will never be abolished altogether. Prison abolition, anti-imperialism, and other efforts to liberate people and communities from state violence remain worthy enterprises even if the state remains. As far as I am concerned, I will even support the expansion of state in such programs as national healthcare because they limit suffering and make it easier for people to resist the state insofar as it tries to control them.
Why Not Communism?
Communists and many anarchists share in common a belief that the abolition of capitalism and class structures are essential to any political program. Furthermore, they share in the conviction that the state ultimately must be abolished to achieve this aim. Where they differ is on how the state is related to class hierarchy and therefore how exactly it should be abolished. Both agree that the state as is in liberal capitalist countries supports class hierarchy.
However, communists maintain that the state can be captured by another class, the proletariat, and weaponized against the current dominant class. Following this destruction of the bourgeoisie, the state will set about addressing other forms of hierarchy and injustice until it inevitably withers away.
Anarchists are skeptical of this for both historical and theoretical reasons. In the case of the USSR, the local democratic councils which were supposed to eventually take the place of the centralized state were in fact subverted and made clearly subservient to central authority. Theoretically, anarchists would contend that the very existence of a state is predicated on, at the very least, a division between those with active positions within it and those without. A class of bureaucrats can turn out to be just as oppressive as a class of property owners if those bureaucrats have enough power.
Personally, I find this approach to class much more compelling because it posits class as a dynamic phenomena that can shift and reshape according to the specific power dynamics of a given time and place. One’s relationship to the means of production is but one aspect of class. And of course, class is not the only important hierarchy that the state maintains (although to be fair to communists, they also recognize this).
I want to end by pointing out, once again, that anarchist thought is extremely diverse and that I am certain there are anarchists who vehemently disagree with aspects of what I have written here. I am not an anarchist in the abstract but one with specific commitments and positions I reject. I am not a radical individualist and so my views are very different from those of someone who does ascribe to that strain of thought. This piece is highly theoretical and doesn’t treat in detail any of the many arguments it touches on.