A practical scheme, says Oscar Wilde, is either one already in existence, or a scheme that could be carried out under the existing conditions; but it is exactly the existing conditions that one objects to, and any scheme that could accept these conditions is wrong and foolish. The true criterion of the practical, therefore, is not whether the latter can keep intact the wrong or foolish; rather is it whether the scheme has vitality enough to leave the stagnant waters of the old, and build, as well as sustain, new life. In the light of this conception, Anarchism is indeed practical. (1)
Is anarchy really possible? A general response to common objections
Some valid points have been brought to my attention regarding potential problems with the viability of the anarchist vision, and these concerns deserve consideration.
I think there are a few relevant points to be made. First, in order for anarchy to work, it must a) be small (there would no “United States of Anarchy” or “Anarchist Russia” or the like, but perhaps a “federation” of many small anarchist communities); and b) everyone involved must be an anarchist. And this has happened before (I am thinking specifically of the Spanish Civil War–Murrary Bookchin has an informative little book on this called To Remember Spain: The Anarchist and Syndicalist Revolution of 1936–but there are other examples as well, and it seems that most have been crushed by external rather than internal forces). Thus, it seems reasonable to assume that the first common objection of the “free rider” problem wouldn’t exactly be a the greatest threat if everyone involved is invested in the community. And those who did not want to be involved would be under no obligation. As it is, a defining factor of states is that they must force everyone to “participate” whether they want to or not–and the state has the monopoly of force to do so. (2) Anarchists would seek to eliminate such coercion.
Furthermore, if it really became a problem, there is no reason why the community could not through consensus agree to exclude the free rider. How exactly would this look? It would probably vary. But I think that Emma Goldman was right to argue in Anarchism: What It Really Stands For that we should not devote all of our time to thinking through every imaginable hypothetical situation. (3) Obviously, when people are involved, there will be variables that we just can’t plan for. However, anarchists are not the first to advocate such an “experiment”: capitalism is an experiment, and so is democracy. In Debt: The First 5,000 Years, for example, David Graeber argues that thinkers like Hobbes, Locke, Bentham, and Smith were “idealists” whose “utopian” vision has yet to actually be realized (partly because, it appears, many of their ideas were based on fabricated economic history). (4)
And this leads to another point: economic anthropology (and again, I’m thinking specifically of Graeber’s work) tells us that all kinds of different economies have existed in human history, including the kinds of gift and mutual aid economies that so many anarchists advocate. Graeber goes on to argue that capitalism has essentially trained us to think that there is no alternative to capitalism (5). But the very fact that (state) capitalism exists betrays the fact that we are historical actors and can achieve seemingly impossible goals. (6) And, as far as alternative economies go, it must be remembered that most anarchist economic visions (gift economy, mutual aid, communism, participatory economics) would eliminate money and therefore ideas such as “revenue”, “wealth”, and the like must be, at the very least, radically rethought.
I have run into a lot of folks who essentially seem to think that “socialism” means a capitalist state in which money is stolen from the wealthier members of society and given to the poorer. But this is a misunderstanding. In a libertarian socialist (i.e., anarchist) society wherein all of its members were anarchist, there wouldn’t be “wealthy” or “poor” in the economic sense. Everyone’s basic needs would be met, operating under the assumption that no particular line of work (or even lack thereof) makes one more or less deserving of a home, food, healthcare, education, or any of the other basic necessities. I hope that doesn’t sound like a cynical caricature of capitalism (I hate the “bomb-throwing anarchist” caricature, so I try to not level the same against those with whom I disagree), but it seems to me that these are the implications of capitalist thought. If the only goal of capitalism is the maximization of profits for shareholders, as Milton Friedman suggests, then any moral beliefs beyond that are not specifically capitalist and it’s easy to see what moral beliefs would be incompatible with this goal. Similarly, speaking on the development of classical economics, Noam Chomsky explains that
[D]uring the early stages of the industrial revolution, as England was coming out of a feudal-type society and into what’s basically a state-capitalist system, the rising bourgeoisie there had a problem. In a traditional society like the feudal system, people had a certain place, and they had certain rights–in fact, they had what was called at the time a “right to live.” I mean, under feudalism it may have been a lousy right, but nevertheless people were assumed to have some natural entitlement to survival. But with the rise of what we call capitalism, that right had to be destroyed: people had to have it knocked out of their heads that they had any automatic “right to live” beyond what they could win for themselves on the labor market. And that was the main point of classical economics. (7)
It’s easy to see how this goes hand-in-hand with the principle of profit maximization.
And of course, part of the above analysis is based on the assumption that the competition and division that capitalism seems to engender is not necessary for human society (again, the anthropology seems to suggest that many–though of course not all–early human societies were based on egalitarian principles), and can be replaced by solidarity and mutual aid. At the end of the day, however, what’s most important for me about anarchism is the pursuit rather than [the hashing out of every last specific detail of] the end–the pursuit of justice and equality and freedom from domination, coercion, oppression, violence, etc. and opposing such structures wherever they arise. And, in my opinion, the state and capitalism are among the worst (but certainly not the only!) perpetuators of such structures. That’s why I’m an anarchist. (8)
1. Emma Goldman, Anarchism and Other Essays. Public Domain Books. Kindle Edition, 36.
2. The CEO of Nestle, for example, finds the idea of viewing water as a human right to be an “extreme solution“. If those like him who seek the privatization of water were to succeed, common citizens would be met with the choice of state capitalism or death. Somehow that seems more “extreme” to me. And I take this to be quite a contradiction in the more radical laissez-faire capitalist thinking, whose primary exponents say they want “maximum freedom” for everyone on the one hand, but apparently want to force everyone to submit to capitalism on the other. Fortunately, it seems that such ideas are a minority in capitalist circles.
3. Goldman writes, “The methods of Anarchism therefore do not comprise an iron-clad program to be carried out under all circumstances. Methods must grow out of the economic needs of each place and clime, and of the intellectual and temperamental requirements of the individual.” (Ibid., 44-45.)
4. Graeber writes, “Men like Smith and Bentham were idealists, even utopians. To understand the history of capitalism, however, we have to begin by realizing that the picture we have in our heads–of workers who dutifully punch the clock at 8:00 a.m. and receive regular remuneration every Friday on the basis of a temporary contract that either party is free to break off at any time–began as a utopian vision, was only gradually put into effect even in England and North America, and has never, at any point, been the main way of organizing production for the market, ever, anywhere.” David Graeber, Debt: The First 5,000 Years (Brooklyn: Melville House Publishing, 2011), 353.
5. “[I]t could well be said that the last thirty years have seen the construction of a vast bureaucratic apparatus for the creation and maintenance of hopelessness, a giant machine designed, first and foremost, to destroy any sense of possible alternative futures.” (Ibid., 382)
6. As Graeber notes, “To begin to free ourselves, the first thing we need to do is to see ourselves again as historical actors, as people who can make a difference in the course of world events. This is exactly what the militarization of history is trying to take away.” (Ibid., 383)
7. Noam Chomsky, Understanding Power: The Indispensable Chomsky. (New York: The New Press, 2002), 252.
8. And, consequently, from a Christian perspective, such a pursuit seems to me to be about as consistent with the biblical narrative as anything.