What Is Anarchy?

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I have mixed feelings about the use of labels to describe philosophical views, whether of myself or others. It is difficult to avoid doing so because our efforts to understand and communicate about the world necessarily involve the use of words and words are, as Alfred Korzybski warned us, abstractions that never equate with what they are meant to describe. His oft-quoted statement that "the map is not the territory" offers a caveat whose implications for confusion are further compounded when addressing such abstract topics as political philosophy.

One philosophical abstraction that seems to befuddle most people is "anarchy." To those challenged by complexity — such as radio talk show hosts and cable-TV "newscasters" who are convinced that all political opinions can be confined to the categories of "liberal" and "conservative" — the word anarchy evokes an unfocused fear of uncertain forces. Images of bomb-throwing thugs who smash and burn the property of others are routinely conjured up by politicians and the media to frighten people into an extension of police authority over their lives. "Disorder" and "lawless confusion" are common dictionary definitions of this word.

That there have been some, calling themselves "anarchists," who have engaged in violence on behalf of their political ambitions, is not to be denied. Nor can we overlook the provocateuring occasionally engaged in by undercover policemen — operating under the guise of "anarchists" — to justify harsh reprisals against political protests. But to condemn a philosophic viewpoint because a few wish to corrupt its meaning for their narrow advantage is no more justifiable than condemning Christianity because a man murders his family and defends his acts on the grounds "God told me to do it!"

As long as a president continues to rationalize war against the Iraqi people as "operation freedom"; as long as the Strategic Air Command insists that "peace is our profession"; and as long as police departments advertise that they are there "to serve and protect," intelligent minds must be prepared to look behind the superficiality and imagery of words to discover their deeper meaning. Such is the case with the word "anarchy."

The late Robert LeFevre made one such effort to transcend the popular meaning of the word when he declared that "an anarchist is anyone who believes in less government than you do." But an even better understanding of the concept can be derived from the Greek origins of the word (anarkhos) which meant "without a ruler." It is this definition of the word that members of the political power structure (i.e., your "rulers") do not want you to consider. Far better that you fear the hidden monsters and hobgoblins who are just waiting to bring terror and havoc to your lives should efforts to increase police powers or budgets fail.

Are there murderers, kidnappers, rapists, and arsonists in our world? Of course there are, and there will always be, and they do not all work for the state. It is amazing that, with all the powers and money conferred upon the state to "protect" us from such threats, they continue to occur with a regularity that seems to have increased with the size of government! Even the current "mad cow disease" scare is being used, by the statists, as a reason for more government regulation, an effort that conveniently ignores the fact that the federal government has been closely regulating meat production for many decades.

Nor can we ignore the history of the state in visiting upon humanity the very death and destruction that its defenders insist upon as a rationale for political power. Those who condemn anarchy should engage in some quantitative analysis. In the twentieth century alone, governments managed to kill — through wars, genocides, and other deadly practices — some 200,000,000 men, women, and children. How many people were killed by anarchists during this period? Governments, not anarchists, have been the deadly "bomb-throwers" of human history!

Because of the disingenuous manner in which this word has been employed, I endeavor to be as precise in my use of the term as possible. I employ the word "anarchy" not as a noun, but as a verb. I envision no utopian community, no "Galt’s Gulch" to which free men and women can repair. I prefer to think of anarchy as a way in which people deal with one another in a peaceful, cooperative manner; respectful of the inviolability of each other’s lives and property interests; resorting to contract and voluntary transactions rather than coercion and expropriation as a way of functioning in society.

I am often asked if anarchy has ever existed in our world, to which I answer: almost all of your daily behavior is an anarchistic expression. How you deal with your neighbors, coworkers, fellow customers in shopping malls or grocery stores, is often determined by subtle processes of negotiation and cooperation. Social pressures, unrelated to statutory enactments, influence our behavior on crowded freeways or grocery checkout lines. If we dealt with our colleagues at work in the same coercive and threatening manner by which the state insists on dealing with us, our employment would be immediately terminated. We would soon be without friends were we to demand that they adhere to specific behavioral standards that we had mandated for their lives.

Should you come over to our home for a visit, you will not be taxed, searched, required to show a passport or driver’s license, fined, jailed, threatened, handcuffed, or prohibited from leaving. I suspect that your relationships with your friends are conducted on the same basis of mutual respect. In short, virtually all of our dealings with friends and strangers alike are grounded in practices that are peaceful, voluntary, and devoid of coercion.

A very interesting study of the orderly nature of anarchy is found in John Phillip Reid’s book, Law for the Elephant. Reid studied numerous diaries and letters written by persons crossing the overland trail in wagon trains going from St. Joseph, Missouri to Oregon and California. The institutions we have been conditioned to equate with "law and order" (e.g., police, prisons, judges, etc.) were absent along the frontier, and Reid was interested in discovering how people behaved toward one another in such circumstances. He discovered that most people respected property and contract rights, and settled whatever differences they had in a peaceful manner, all of this in spite of the fact that there were no "authorities" to call in to enforce a decision. Such traits went so far as to include respect for the property claims of Indians. The values and integrities that individuals brought with them were sufficient to keep the wagon trains as peaceful communities.

Having spent many years driving on California freeways, I have observed an informal order amongst motorists who are complete strangers to one another. There is a general — albeit not universal — courtesy exhibited when one driver wishes to make a lane change and, in spite of noncooperative drivers, a spontaneous order arises from this interplay. A major reason for the cooperative order lies in the fact that a driving mistake can result in serious injury or death, and that such consequences will be felt at once, and by the actor, unlike political decision-making that shifts the costs to others.

One may answer that freeway driving is regulated by the state, and that driving habits are not indicative of anarchistic behavior. The same response can be made concerning our behavior generally (i.e., that government laws dictate our conduct in all settings). But this misconceives the causal connections at work. The supervision of our moment-to-moment activities by the state is too remote to affect our actions. We are polite to fellow shoppers or our neighbor for reasons that have nothing to do with legal prescripts. What makes our dealings with others peaceful and respectful comes from within ourselves, not from beyond. For precisely the same reason, a society can be utterly destroyed by the corruption of such subjective influences, and no blizzard of legislative enactments or quadrupling of police forces will be able to avert the entropic outcome. Do you now understand the social meaning of the "Humpty-Dumpty" nursery rhyme?

The study of complexity, or chaos, informs us of patterns of regularity that lie hidden in our world, but which spontaneously manifest themselves to generate the order that we like to pretend authorities have created for us. There is much to discover about the interplay of unseen forces that work, without conscious direction, to make our lives more productive and peaceful than even the best-intended autocrat can accomplish. As the disruptive histories of state planning and regulation reveal, efforts to impose order by fiat often produce disorder, a phenomenon whose explanation is to be found in the dynamical nature of complexity. In the words of Terry Pratchett: "Chaos is found in greatest abundance wherever order is being sought. Chaos always defeats order because it is better organized."

"Anarchy" is an expression of social behavior that reflects the individualized nature of life. Only as living beings are free to pursue their particular interests in the unique circumstances in which they find themselves, can conditions for the well-being of all be attained. Anarchy presumes decentralized and cooperative systems that serve the mutual interests of the individuals comprising them, without the systems ever becoming their own reasons for being. It is this thinking, and the practices that result therefrom, that is alone responsible for whatever peace and order exists in society.

Political thinking, by contrast, presumes the supremacy of the systems (i.e., the state) and reduces individuals to the status of resources for the accomplishment of their ends. Such systems are grounded in the mass-minded conditioning and behavior that has produced the deadly wars, economic dislocations, genocides, and police-state oppressions that comprise the essence of political history.

Men and women need nothing so much right now as to rediscover and reenergize their own souls. They will never be able to accomplish such purposes in the dehumanizing and dispirited state systems that insist upon controlling their lives and property. In the sentiments underlying anarchistic thinking, men and women may be able to find the individualized sense of being and self-direction that they long ago abandoned in marbled halls and citadels.

Butler Shaffer [send him e-mail] teaches at the Southwestern University School of Law.

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