I often choose to describe myself as a conservative anarchist. This is because I want to live in a world without illegitimate authority, but recognize that the only way to bring about such a world is through peaceful and practical action. In this short essay I will explore some aspects of anarchist thinking and make a case for anarchism as a genuine and respectable political philosophy. In the next part, I will do the same for conservatism.
For many people, the concept of “anarchy” is an anathema, but peeling back all the cultural, social and historical meanings that the term has acquired, the term comes from the Greek term anarchos, which literally translates as “one without hierarchs”. It is from this view that the typical anarchist slogan – No Gods, No Masters – emanates. It is true that anarchists believe in a stateless society, but further than that we are, in principle, against all illegitimate forms of authority and expressions of power.
Partly due to the way anarchist movements have been presented and described since the 1917 October revolution and before, there is a great deal of confusion about what anarchists actually think and people often mistake anarchy for anomie, which comes from the Greek for “without order or law.” It is not that anarchists are against the law; it is that we are, in principle, against the violent enforcement of a code of laws. We believe it is possible to have a developed civilized society based on self-organisation, mutual co-operation and creativity. This might seem like a fantasy, but there are already many cases in which people organise themselves in this way. Take the British institution of queuing, for example. We need neither signs, nor kings, nor police to enforce the practice of queuing – it is a self-organizing principle that leads to a better and more equitable outcome for all. So the point is made – an individual or set of law makers and enforcers is not strictly necessary for us to have a lawful and orderly society. But not only are anarchist communities and societies possible, they have already had limited expression in different places and times, such as in indigenous cultures, in farming communities during the Spanish civil war, in the short lived free territory of Ukraine and the anarchist rebellion at Konstradt, where an anarchist band of sailors, soldiers and civilians, led by Stepan Petrichenko, attempted to wrest power from the autocratic Bolsheviks and were defeated.
Why, then, are anarchists against hierarchical institutions, like the state? It is a common thing to say that absolute power corrupts absolutely and it is certainly the case that none of us are particularly well adapted to suit the leadership of more than a couple of hundred tribespeople at most. With the advent of civilization, the heights of power to which one could rise increased dramatically – and just as some people find it difficult to behave in a world where there is a plethora of sugar and salt, perhaps some find it difficult to avoid seeking to dominate and extract value through lordship in a world of advanced technology and civilization. It is a cliché to say that power corrupts, because it is so evidently true that some people find it very difficult to avoid the temptations that come along with power.
To avoid this outcome, I think it is necessary to move to a society in which there are not automatic or illegitimate forms of authority. The democratization of the state is theme in the 20th century which shows we are moving precisely in that direction. This is not to say that authority is inherently bad, instead authority has to be questioned and tested and not merely assumed. As Bakunin explained, we give authority to the shoemaker over the question of how to make suitable shoes, but that is an authority that is earned through the demonstration of a skill and the value it provides – it is not power passed down through inheritance or from illegitimate gain – it is a power that others recognize and give up to the shoemaker because of his great skill.
Let us take another central tenet of Anarchism – Proudhon’s view that property is theft in the same way that slavery is murder. This seems a very difficult thing to persuade people of in our society, perhaps because the institution of property is one that goes back centuries. I believe that most people would agree that there is something wrong with taking more than you can justify. The principle of property allows people to do just that – all authority over the property legally belongs to the proprietor – that is what it means to own something in the legal sense. However, simply because I legally own something doesn’t mean I am free to do as I please with it, even in our society. There are restrictions on the way property can be used – one cannot drive a car without a license for example and so in a sense we already have codified against the basic principle of property, because we are aware of the way property can be used to harm others (as well as the property of others). However, in my view the principle of property was an attempt to devolve power from the monarchies and lords of Europe. In doing so, the individuals in these societies sought to make it possible for all of us to have a share in the power of ownership that was largely gained through illegitimate means such as war and bloodshed. Hence the notion that an English man’s home is his castle. Indeed, the law of freehold which is a peculiar aspect of the British constitution due to the fact that we still have a monarch, is an attempt to give the owner of landed property in the UK analogues powers to that which the monarch had and whilst it is true that there are restrictions on the use of property, that just proves the point that property, in principle, is an illegitimate authority that needs to be curbed by the state in the present era.
In my view there is a deeper argument for the notion that property is theft, but in order to get to that we need to understand another rationale for the institution of property – namely that one produces one’s property by the means of one’s individual labour. This is the justification that individuals such as John Locke gave in the 17th century. However, is it the individual, or is it the group, that produces social value? The answer, I believe, is that both are required.
The things we possess are not merely the work of our own hands, but often the work of others that we have come to acquire. I might buy a house with the money I have earned through my work – but it is wrong to say I produced the house, because I wouldn’t have the first clue of how to build a house, that requires the skill and expertise of builders. Many would say that although I did not produce the house, I exchanged the fruits of my labour for it and so I have a right to it. Against this facile argument there two points to be made. First of all, that builders could not have built the house without the skill of lumberjacks, quarries, carpenters, electricians, surveyors, city planners, smiths and so on and so on. Every good in our society is the production of a complex network of individual and communities, living and dead, without which none of all this that we surround ourselves with would be possible. We live in an age of massive and disproportionate wealth, where the people who developed our various social and political institutions, who researched our technology, who produced the first tenants of the various traditions of artistry and craft, who built our infrastructure and so on and so on are long dead and buried in the ground and so what they produced was bequeathed to us, their descendants – but not in a fair or equitable way. Why is it that no-one owns a roman road, but some of the greatest works of art are kept in private galleries closed to the public? It is because along with the institution of property comes the perhaps far more insidious institution of inheritance, whereby one owns things not because of one’s own skills, but because of, in the very best case, the skills of one’s parents. So long as property exists and people are able to bequeath their belongings as they see fit, we will never have a fully meritocratic society. Indeed, the wealth that they have acquired they can destroy, to the detriment of those that could come to make use of that wealth legally in the future. Is it right that a rich man can, in principle, keep a building empty whilst people that need our help sleep rough on the streets? If anything makes this destructive arrangement possible, it is the institution of property.
Perhaps one reason people are so reluctant to give up on the principle of property is because of the principle of personal belongings. How can I justify using this laptop to write this essay if I did not come to possess it by my own skills and values? I do not claim to be the proprietor of my things, but the user of them. I hold onto the things that I use because of what I can do with them in my possession. Indeed, how could the farmer, the builder, the scientist, produce the values they do, without having some say over the things that they need to produce such values? There could be no polis, unless the working population are able to maintain and develop their craft with a reliable access to the tools they need. We ought not to deprive the workers of their tools just as we ought not to deprive the needy of what they need. This is what the genuine legitimacy of possession wrests in and it is a position which allows the fruitful use of technology and technique without the problems of inheritance endemic in societies with property rights.
What is Authority? – Mikhail Bakunin (http://www.marxists.org/reference/archive/bakunin/works/various/authrty.htm)
What is Property? – Pierre-Joseph Proudhon (https://www.marxists.org/reference/subject/economics/proudhon/property/index.htm)
Chapter 5. Of Property, an Essay Concerning The True Original, Extent, and End of Civil Government, John Locke (http://www.let.rug.nl/usa/documents/1651-1700/john-locke-essay-on-government/chapter-5-of-property.php)
The Dispossessed, Ursula le Guin (A science fiction novel which examines the possibility of a functioning anarchist society)