Saturday, 6 February 2016

Anarchism, justice and a vision for the future

This essay began as a comment on Keith Preston’s “The New Anarchist Movement is Growing,” published here[1]. Soon, though, as I explored some of the ideas of various anarchist sects, it turned into something much wider. It became an attempt to answer, from my own highly individual perspective, four questions:
  1. In what sense or senses am I an anarchist?
  2. Which anarchist groups could I comfortably work with?
  3. Is the idea of an anarchist movement a sensible one?
  4. What might the world look like, if anarchist ideas were to be put into practice?
Am I an anarchist? – Part One

Webster’s definition of an anarchist is: “1: a person who rebels against any authority, established order, or ruling power.” It’s fair to say that includes me.

For example, I regard re-distributory taxation as theft. And worse; for not only does it take resources fairly earned by honest, productive people, and transfer them to the lazy and dishonest, but it allows the politically rich to take a huge cut on the way. I regard aggressive wars, for example in Iraq or Syria, as acts of terrorism. I regard those that lobby for, make or enforce bad laws as criminals. I take the same view of those that support policies, such as smoking bans, to cramp people’s lifestyles. And I regard any violation of human rights like privacy, however small and whatever excuse may be offered for it, to be a crime.

I feel no attachment to any political nation. I hate the state with its claims of immunities and moral privileges for its functionaries. I loathe the EU and the UN. I’m angered by the babel of lies and propaganda emitted by the media. I feel repelled by today’s popular culture. And I’m sick and tired of those that want to tell me how I should live. I’ve been more than 60 years on this planet, and I know what works for me and what doesn’t, thank you very much. Thus, I feel no sense at all of political community; indeed, I’ve come to regard politics as a dirty word.

As to left and right, I’m what Keith calls “neither fish nor fowl.” As an individualist, I detest the political left for their collectivism. As a lover of freedom, I detest the political right for their claims of sovereignty and their authoritarianism. And I detest the “centre” as much as either; for they seem to combine the worst features of both. But most of all, I have contempt and loathing for the entire corrupt, dishonest political process[2] and for all those that take part in it.

And I see democracy for the failure and the sham it is. Not only does it enable majorities to victimize minorities. But it also allows the political class to play people off against each other, and rule over everyone without concern for anyone but themselves and their cronies. I regard a vote for any political party as an assault against all those who are harmed by the policies of that party. So, I haven’t voted in almost 30 years now, and won’t vote for any politician ever again.

All this said, I don’t self identify as anarchist, for reasons I’ll come to later. Nevertheless, some of my friends do so identify; and many of them are happy to consider me as one of theirs. I even use a personal logo based on the anarchist flag. Though I prefer burgundy, the colour of wine, to the more usual red, the colour of socialism, blood and the US republican party.

So, yes; on the philosophical level at least, I’m an anarchist.

An anarchist vision? – Part One

Keith says that anarchists seek to create “decentralized societies with diverse and self-managed communities.” I can certainly buy into that idea. Part of my vision for the future, indeed, is that those who so wish will live in communities of like minded people, each on its own private land. Each such community will have its own rules for its members and for visitors, and its own sense of identity binding its members. In this, I’m not far away from Hans-Hermann Hoppe’s “private law societies.”

You might, for example, have socialist, mutualist, Catholic, Muslim, libertarian and traditionalist communes near each other, without any of them interfering in the others’ business. (Though, I suspect, members of some of these groups might accept invitations to the others’ parties!) But in addition to communards of different stripes, I envisage that many people will choose to live as they do today; as singles, as couples or in Western style nuclear families.

I’d also expect there to be economic communities of different types. Capitalist businesses, workers’ co-operatives, the one or two man band and the family firm are obvious examples. Some of these would be coterminous with communes in which people live; others not.

With me so far?

Flavours of anarchism

Keith’s essay is mainly concerned with introducing and describing a number of different anarchist sects. I found the beliefs of these sects so widely spread, even mutually contradictory, that it’s hard to imagine them ever working together. Which raised the question: which of these flavours of anarchism can I be comfortable with? I’ll aim to work upwards from the worst for me to the best for me.

I’ll start with green anarchists and primitivists. It seems to me that green anarchism is an oxymoron. For the green religion – the worship of the planet Gaia – is a militant one. Its acolytes won’t be satisfied until everyone in the world has been converted and “re-wilded.” And how anyone can do that without exercising a ruling power, I don’t know.

Besides which, the greens’ views are anathema to me personally. They want to dismantle Western civilization. They hate industry and technology. And they’re led by hypocrites like Al Gore and Prince Charles, whose stock in trade is to demand “sacrifice from thee, but not from me.” No, sorry; the green and black can’t be my friends.

On to feminists. Now individuals’ gender, like their race and birthplace, isn’t under their control. And therefore, in my view, it shouldn’t count against them. Thus far, feminists have a point; for there has, in the past, been oppression of women by men. And, in the Muslim world, there still is.

The flip side of that view is that people’s gender shouldn’t count for them, either. But feminists disagree. What they’ve done is ally with the ruling class to get their own interests favoured. So, Western women today can make false accusations of sexual harassment against men, or seek inflated divorce settlements; and they usually get away with it. Because of this, as long as feminism rules the roost, no Western man can enter into a relationship with a woman without the risk of being, to use a cliché, “taken to the cleaners.”

So, I find anarcha-feminism almost as self contradictory as green anarchism. Thus, the purple and black are no friends of mine, either.

Next come collectivists and communists (with a small c). My main issues with them are:

  1. I’m an individualist. I see any society as being for the benefit of the individuals in it. But collectivists and communists take the opposite view.

  2. They reject private property. But I regard property rights justly and honestly obtained through work and trade as not only valid, but vital. For me, property is life.

  3. They reject private ownership of the means of production. But my means of production is my mind. No-one but me can own my mind. Right?

  4. They agree with Marx’s dictum, “From each according to his abilities, to each according to his needs.” But I prefer my own version: “From each according to his abilities, to each according to his deserts.”

  5. It seems to me that, in terms of wealth distribution, they’re trying to solve the wrong problem. They see inequality as the problem; whereas for me, the problem is unjust wealth distribution. And they don’t even seem to see the underlying, and far bigger, problem; that unjust distribution of wealth is caused by unequal (and unjust) distribution of political power.
That said, I do recognize that it’s possible for people of a collectivist mind set to be genuine anarchists. So these people aren’t my enemies, as long as they don’t try to force their ideas on to me; but I still can’t work with them.

A little further up the food chain, but sporting the same red and black colours, are the syndicalists and trade unionists. I have, on a few occasions, worked with people of this stripe, particularly in the civil liberties area. They can be fine and amusing people. And they’re often enemies of my enemies. But they still aren’t really my friends.

Consider that when trade unions were first formed back in the 18th century, they were a great idea. They were set up to defend the rights of working people against the ruling establishment; so it’s hardly surprising that they were illegal until 1824. I also admire the workers who organized themselves to fight against fascism, particularly in Italy and Spain, in the first half of the 20th century. But against these, I can remember Britain in the late 1960s, when the trade unions ran the country. The result was a mess. As soon as they ally with the ruling élite, the power of trade unions becomes a negative to honest working people, not a positive.

Onwards and upwards to the orange and black, the mutualists. I do have a gripe or two with them. For one, they support the labour theory of value; I don’t (see here[3] for why). For two, their views appear, at least on the surface, to preclude any possibility of an individual building up a surplus of justly earned wealth, to be used on future projects or for a rainy day. But there’s one thing they and I agree on whole heartedly. That is, the economic free market. So if, ultimately, the difference between their philosophy and mine is that they prefer workers’ co-operatives while I prefer small scale capitalism, I can live with that.

Next come gay anarchists, the lavender and black. I myself have no homosexual tendencies; the best part of a decade in single sex boarding schools knocked any such leanings out of me. But I’m sympathetic towards gay people. For example, my barber is gay. Alan Turing, the seminal computer scientist, was gay – and was hounded to death by the state for it. And I have worked, in the industry he founded, with many fine people who also happened to be gay.

Like women, gay people have been victimized for something that is outside their control. But the big difference between gay people and feminists, as I see it, is that gay people are only demanding their basic human right to live as they wish; whereas the feminists demand power. So, while I reject feminists, I see no reason why gay anarchists shouldn’t be my friends.

Next I place the anarcho-pacifists, the white and black. My one major issue with them is that, though I consider pacifism to be a great idea in a perfect world, when taken to its extreme it’s impractical against the kind of vicious, criminal, statist slime we face.

At the same level as the pacifists I put a group Keith doesn’t mention, the Christian anarchists. I was brought up in a Protestant tradition, but lost the religion at the age of 16. Nevertheless I admire those Christians, whose attitude to the statists is along the lines of: “I obey God’s laws, not yours.” Personally, I prefer to put the argument in terms of natural law – the law natural to human beings – and so avoid any need to invoke a deity. But either way, we’re close. (As an aside, where are the anarchists of other religions? Muslim anarchists? Buddhist anarchists? An interesting question.)

To the top of this particular tree, the gold and black, the “an-caps” or anarcho-capitalists. I myself am economically a one man band, a highly skilled worker more than an entrepreneur. And I suffer for it, because the politicians keep on trying to declare my livelihood to be “illegal.” But I appreciate what honest capitalism – not crony “crapitalism,” forsooth! – has done already for Western civilization, and know it can do far more in the future. So, while I’m not strictly an-cap myself, they’re my friends.

An anarchist movement?

In his essay, Keith says much about an anarchist movement. But the problem with a movement is that it must have something to move towards. So, what is the vision which anarchists share, and can agree on with a fair degree of unanimity?

I gave my best understanding of how part of such a vision might be in the section “An anarchist vision? – Part One” above. But those are just my interpretations. Where are the definitive statements of where today’s anarchist movement wants to go, written by the anarchists themselves? And how are they going to get there?

Another question in the same area is, how does the movement plan to bring people on side with their vision? How do they plan to show that the idea is practical? How will they persuade people to buy into it – enough people actually to make change happen?

Am I an anarchist? – Part Two

I said earlier that I don’t self identify as an anarchist. Why is this? I see four reasons:

  1. Anarchists still have a bad reputation, because of the violence used by some of their 19th and early 20th century comrades.

  2. The anarchist spectrum is too wide. For any individual’s political views, there will always be anarchists diametrically opposed to those views. My dislike of greens and feminists, and lukewarm view of collectivists and syndicalists, are enough to persuade me that I couldn’t join an anarchist movement as at present constituted.

  3. Anarchists don’t seem to be able to articulate a shared vision of where they want to get to. Even if they could, the strategy for getting there seems unclear.

  4. It’s all very well to get rid of the state. But what happens then? In particular, do anarchists support a justice system, or not?
It’s this last issue which is the clincher for me. Suppose we had a society of communes, like the one I described earlier. Suppose there is commune of primitivists, who (rightly or wrongly – but that’s a separate issue) believe that human emissions of carbon dioxide cause catastrophic global warming, so must be stopped. And suppose that, close by, there is a capitalist work commune, which manufactures cement for builders. Now, cement production generates a lot of carbon dioxide; that’s a fact. Would the primitivists, then, be justified in raiding the capitalists, burning down their factory, and dumping their machinery and all their cement in the lake? If not, how do you prevent them? And if so, would the capitalists in their turn be justified, during a hot dry spell, in giving Nature a helping hand by setting fire to the primitivists’ forest? Anarchism, it seems to me, fails to answer these questions adequately.

What I say next may sound like a terrible pun. But: If anarchism can’t satisfactorily answer the justice question, then anarchist societies can only descend into anarchy.

Because of this, I self identify as a “minarchist.” But unlike some who use the same label, I don’t want a minimal state or a night watchman state. I’m as much against the state as any anarchist; I don’t want rulers. However, to deal with issues like the one I raised above, I’m happy to accept a minimal set of rules. The libertarian non-aggression obligation might be one such rule. And, in order for such rules to be generally respected, there must be some form of coercive apparatus which can, at the very least, enforce compensation by breakers of the rules to the victims of their offences.

So, the question I’m going to try to answer in the final section is: How can we have rules, without having any rulers? Or otherwise put, how can we have law and justice without a state?

An anarchist vision? – Part Two

I’ve already published a fairly detailed “Blueprint” for a society which includes justice and a code of law, but has no state or other central point at which power can collect[4]. But this is very much a work in progress. So today, I’ll step back from the detail. Instead, I’ll try to give a few of the key ideas, and to justify some of them.

Before there can be any system of justice, people must first agree on what justice is. My concept of justice – objective, individual justice, or as I like to put it, common sense justice – is, at its root, the flip side of Confucius’ Golden Rule. Confucius says: Don’t do to others what you wouldn’t like done to you. (Or, closer to the point, don’t do to others what they wouldn’t like done to themselves). So, I see justice as the condition in which each individual is treated, over the long run and in the round, as they treat others. If you don’t do harm to others, you shouldn’t have to suffer harm being done to you. And conversely, if you do harm others, you can hardly complain if others get together to harm you in return.

This idea is sure to make me enemies on both the political left and right. The left will ask, what happened to social justice? To which I’ll reply: If you fancy a particular flavour of social justice, go live in a commune that implements it! As to the right, they’ll fulminate darkly about its effects on their “heroes,” like the soldiers that invaded Iraq or the bureaucrats that intercept our e-mails. To which, I’ll shrug and say, “criminals deserve punishment.”

Unlike some libertarians, by the way, I do make a distinction between civil and criminal justice. Civil justice provides restitution to victims, whereas criminal justice can impose additional punishment where there is significant intention to violate rights or to do harm, independent of how much harm is actually caused. The planting, by an incompetent terrorist, of a bomb which fails to go off, is an example of an act which causes little or no damage to specific victims, but nevertheless deserves to attract heavy criminal law punishment.

The second fundamental idea, on which I base my vision, is the concept of moral equality. The way I put this is: What is right for one to do, is right for another to do in similar circumstances, and vice versa. This concept is, quite simply, one in the eye for the state. For the idea denies any right for anyone to tax people, make laws to bind people, make wars or do any of the other heinous acts politicians and state functionaries are so fond of, unless each and every individual has a balancing right to do similar things back to the perpetrators of those acts.

Why should I think that all individuals are morally equal? Well, what’s the alternative? If individuals aren’t morally equal, then some must be, in Orwellian phrase, more equal than others. So those, who want to deny the principle of moral equality, must answer three questions. 1: Who, exactly, deserves to have moral privileges that others don’t? 2: Why should those particular individuals be so privileged? And 3: Why should those, that deny moral equality for all, not themselves be thrown down to the very bottom of the heap?

From this common sense idea of moral equality, it follows that there exists a minimal moral code of what is right and wrong. And this is independent of time, place, culture, or the social status of an individual. In the Blueprint, I call it the Code of Civilization. To show that this code exists, I use a thought experiment with two large sheets of paper, one labelled “Prohibitions” and the other “Mandates.” On each sheet, the experimenter simply lists all acts and circumstances in which the acts are, respectively, wrong to do (so should be prohibited) and wrong not to do (so should be mandated). After a long time and severe depletion of the world’s supply of quills and ink, voilà! There is our Code.

This approach tells us that such a code exists; but it doesn’t tell us anything about what it actually is. To do that, we need to use a more conventional moral approach. Like the Mandelbrot set, the Code we seek may be complicated around the edges. But I, at least, think that a goodly chunk of it can be encapsulated in a few simple rules.

Confucius’ Golden Rule is a sure starter. To that, I’ll add a few others. The libertarian non aggression obligation (though, in my view, this may be broken if specifically necessary to bring someone to objective justice). An obligation to keep to contracts you freely enter into. Respect for others’ human rights, including fundamental rights such as life, liberty, property and privacy, rights of non-impedance such as freedom of opinion, speech, movement and association, and procedural rights such as presumption of innocence until proved guilty. An obligation to be always truthful and honest in dealing with others. And ultimately, a presumption of freedom. That is, where no other rule applies, individuals may do as they please.

As to how such a justice system might be structured, I’m quite certain that there can’t be any kind of legislative. Once the Code is agreed, it can of course be adapted to new situations through case law. But the only way in which the Code itself can be changed is through the acquisition of new knowledge on what is right and wrong. Any such change ought to take, at least, generations to work through and to be agreed by all affected. No more bad laws!

As to the executive, this one’s easy too. Anyone, subject perhaps to some reasonable qualifications like full age and no criminal convictions, has the right to bring a suspect to justice. This idea is hardly rocket science. Indeed, the idea of citizen’s arrest goes all the way back to Anglo-Saxon times.

Such a system will need judges; and I see no alternative to their being specialists. How to make, and keep, the judges honest, is an interesting question. I see three parts of a possible solution. First, free market competition between courts or, as I call them, “justice providers.” Second, a sane appeals procedure. And third, a general presumption among the population that anyone with any kind of power over others, such as a judge, must meet exceptionally high standards of objectivity, honesty and integrity, and deserves public censure as soon as they fail to do so. The latter condition will also apply to the replacement, which I call “quality reporters,” for today’s politicized and dishonest media.

And there are, of course, many, many gaps still to be filled, and issues still to be addressed, in such a vision.

In conclusion

I really do hope that these ideas will interest many people unhappy with the current political system. And I look forward to constructive feedback, not only from established anarchists like Keith Preston, but also from those thinking about anarchism as a potential candidate for a way forward for the human race.



[2] For more from me on these matters, see