Contr’un Revisited: What is anarchy good for? I will admit that I have been prone at times to think of anarchy as good for all purposes, at least as an antidote to the pervasive influence of authority. And there is undoubtedly something in that. But as I’ve delved deeper into the work on anarchist synthesis and into Max Nettlau’s critiques of generalizing anarchism, I’ve gained an increasing appreciation for the limits of anarchy as well. This is not exactly a new consideration for me, as you can see here, but if I was writing this post now, I expect that the discussion of why anarchy is often not the right tool for the job—or at least cannot be the only tool for the job—would be considerably more developed and prominent.
Fundamental to everything I’ve been saying about anarchy and anarchism over the last couple of years is a sense that anarchy works as a useful guiding principle only when we take it very, very seriously. I’m not interested in an argument about language or ideas, so much as one about the conditions under which we attempt to produce alternatives to existing authoritarian systems. All the references to assembling a toolkit aren’t accidental or rhetorical, and all of the sometimes fussy play with very specific aspects of our analytical and rhetorical tools is at least aimed at very practical ends.
You can’t properly choose a saw until you know the kind of cutting you need to do. You can’t properly sharpen it until you understand how the teeth are arranged. A woodworker who refused to concern themselves with this sort of thing might be expected to run into problems. I think it is safe to expect the same sort of difficulties for would-be anarchists who won’t wrestle with the details where anarchy, authority, and the like are concerned. I’ll go so far as to suggest that much of the ineffectiveness of the anarchist movement has arisen from a failure to make certain that we’re using the right tools for the job–or, slightly more perversely, from the failure, having presumably chosen our tools, to make certain that we’re doing the right job for the tools.
This has led me to pursue what I think of as a “hard line” with regard to the centrality of anarchy to any meaningful anarchism, but in the sense that the stands we take and the lines we draw in defense of anarchy have to be properly anarchic stands and lines. The anarchist tradition began not just as a revolt against existing governments, but as a revolt against every governmental alternative that might be proposed. If we are to maintain that aspect of the tradition, it is vital that anarchism not solidify into any sort of fixed system–but it is at least as important that our thinking about anarchy does not coalesce into any sort of hard and fast rule.
There are tasks for which we almost certainly do not believe that anarchy–or any of the anarchisms or anarchist practices derived from it–is the right tool. We don’t try to build bridges or bind books with anarchy, nor do we pretend that it is this or that anarchic practice that lets us write clean code or tie tight knots. In the real-world practice of any number of skills, there are moments when our core concerns as anarchists may be raised, but those moments almost always involve social organization–or they involve the pervasive influence of the dominant ideas about social organization, as they have been applied, correctly or incorrectly, in other domains. In the latter case, part of being very, very careful with our tools is knowing when we have allowed our thoughts to slide from one domain to another.
Of course, we can’t always avoid certain kinds of conceptual slides. Indeed, anarchist critique has often made powerful use of unacknowledged distinctions and opportunistic conflations in the dominant discourses. Proudhon’s claim that “property is theft” depends on this sort of play with already existing uncertainties. And Bakunin’s “God and the State” is full of examples, some more successful than others, of attempts to use the language of authority to illustrate anti-authoritarian ideas. For example, he connects human freedom to the notion of a “slavery” to natural laws, which ultimately isn’t slavery at all, as an alternative to authoritarian notions that freedom arises from obedience to the law.
It’s probably safe to say that not all of Bakunin’s rhetorical maneuvers are as elegant as “property is theft,” but they are certainly not indecipherable. We just have to find some relatively fixed reference points that we can use to guide ourselves through the maze. So, for example, when we’re going to try to make sense of the section of “God and the State” dealing with authority, we need to recall that it starts as a continuation of a discussion of the absolute opposition between the idea of God and human liberty. The idealists can talk about the two in the same breath because of the way they think about human liberty:
Perhaps, too, while speaking of liberty as something very respectable and very dear, they understood the term quite differently than we do, as materialists and revolutionary socialists. Indeed, they never speak of it without immediately adding another word, authority—a word and a thing which we detest with all our heart.
Bakunin sort of buries the lead here, but the point seems to be that authority is the missing link that allows the idealists to link human liberty and the idea of God, which Bakunin has been treating as necessarily implying human slavery. Then he simply moves, with no transition, to a discussion of the one instance in which authority and human liberty might be fundamentally in harmony with one another, and with a certain kind of “obedience to the law”—even a certain kind of “slavery”—eventually concluding that if liberty and authority were brought into this kind of hierarchy, they would prove the assertions of the anarchists:
The most stubborn authoritarians must admit that then there will be no more need of political organization, direction or legislation, three things which, whether they emanate from the will of the sovereign or from the vote of a parliament elected by universal suffrage, and even should they conform to the system of natural laws—which has never been the case and could never be the case—are always equally deadly and hostile to the liberty of the masses, because they impose upon them a system of external and therefore despotic laws.
Then he turns to showing how this sort of natural authority and political government are fundamentally incompatible, since making science (the always ongoing process of understanding that natural authority) the basis for political authority would be deadly to both human liberty and science itself.
This section of “God and the State” is both fascinating and maddening, precisely because, while Bakunin makes a bunch of fascinating observations and draws a series of useful conclusions about “authority,” he seems to have stitched them together without much indication of which conclusions should be drawn from which observations. But, in the interests of making some simple observations of our own, we can pretty safely say that there are at least two different notions of authority in play:
- a purely internal authority, representing the inescapable power of the laws of nature; and
- a range of external authorities, of which God and the State can be considered prime examples.
We would be tempted, given this division, to make the simple distinction that Bakunin himself makes in the essay and say that only internal authority could be considered “legitimate”—except that we already know that this particular variety of authority is indeed inescapable, and it seems silly to involve ourselves in a debate about the legitimacy of the inevitable.
How we proceed depends on what we want to take for a fixed point. If “authority” refers only to the inevitable consequences of natural laws, then “legitimate authority” seems to be a useless notion. On the other hand, if “authority” refers to externally sanctioned, a priori legitimacy, then “legitimate authority” is essentially redundant. The difficulty is that there seems to be something that still has to be addressed in “the authority of the bootmaker” and all the other specialists we encounter. It does not at first appear to be the sort of internal authority that is “vested” (to the extent that this remains a useful term) within us, but does not grant us a right to command others. Nor does it appear to be the sort of external authority that is vested in others and gives them a right to command us. And yet, Bakunin says, he is compelled to “bow.” And, whatever this authority is, it is not uncommon, as this newly retranslated passage makes clear:
I bow before the authority of exceptional men because it is imposed upon me by my own reason. I am conscious of my ability to grasp, in all its details and positive developments, only a very small portion of human science. The greatest intelligence would not be sufficient to grasp the entirety. From this results, for science as well as for industry, the necessity of the division and association of labor. I receive and I give—such is human life. Each is a directing authority and each is directed in his turn. So there is no fixed and constant authority, but a continual exchange of mutual, temporary, and, above all, voluntary authority and subordination.
We are dealing with a really ubiquitous sort of authority, which, in the best case, is both voluntary and beneficial. It is imposed on us, inescapably, by the laws of our nature, but it manifests itself in others in the form of some power (however limited) to command. Is this then “legitimate authority”? It that was the case, I think it would put us an an awkward position with regard to principles. The reason that we might willingly bow to the expert is thoroughly social, in the sense that it requires the encounter between the capacities of the expert and our relative incapacity in the same areas to create the appearance of an external authority validated by internal necessity. But it isn’t clear how this hybrid authority would work: the very limited “legitimacy” created by inevitability, when used as a rationale for a real power to command could only resemble a principle like “might makes right,” which hardly seems like the sort of principle to which anarchists should voluntarily bow, with the expectation of mutually beneficial outcomes.
Honestly, I just don’t see how an authority imposed by our own reason doesn’t simply remove “legitimacy” as an interesting question. And, when it comes right down to it, most of the evidence that we are dealing with authority, or obedience, or any of the concepts that we associate with archic society, seems to arise from the slightly perverse metaphors that anarchists have used to compare authoritarian and anti-authoritarian relations. When Bakunin describes what “obeying natural laws” actually means, it is hardly passive. Even when he talks about the practice of “bowing” to experts, it involves a lot of verification and testing. The simplest answer to the problem of “legitimate authority” seems be to to say that if there is an “authority” that fits within anarchist theory, there is nothing to say about its “legitimacy.” It’s simply not a question that makes any sense.
But there is still something—something real, if not legitimate—that is at least reflected in the expert. We know that this question of authority-as-reflection was something that Bakunin and his contemporaries were familiar with. The critique of God as merely a reflection of human excellence, along with the subsidiary critiques of Man, Humanity, etc. as mere displacements of this sort of projection, were commonplace. We find Bakunin rejecting God as the illusion of a universal authority, but also any real instance of universal expertise:
This same reason prohibits me, then, from recognizing a fixed, constant, and universal authority-figure, because there is no universal man, no man capable of grasping in that wealth of detail, without which the application of science to life is impossible, all the sciences, all the branches of social life. And if such a universality was ever realized in a single man, and if he wished to take advantage of it in order to impose his authority upon us, it would be necessary to drive that man out of society, because his authority would inevitably reduce all the others to slavery and imbecility.
If there is room, in between the universal man and the divine symbol of that universality, for something real and potentially positive, I’m not sure we’re going to get a clear look at it through the lens of authority. But that’s not the only lens available to us. To think of the cobbler as “the person who can make the shoes that I can’t make” is not necessarily to raise them up in any sort of hierarchy. After all, the cobbler may be looking back at “the person with language and research skills I don’t have,” rather than, say, “the person who needs my shoes.” But perhaps they’re just looking at a person with a particular set of skills, drawn from the vast number of skills distributed among human beings.
It just seems to be the continued dominance of the principle of authority, and our old habit of recognizing it, that keeps us focused on the expert as a “special man,” when the specialness of the embodied expertise is almost always going to be dependent on circumstances external to the natures of all the human actors involved. Face it: the times when we’re actually going to want to bow to the cobbler are likely to be limited to when we really, really need shoes, but at those times we may be happy to bow most reverently, if the alternative is to go unshod. The cobbler and our relation to them in the realm of expertise remain unchanged, while other factors introduce a new urgency to the proceedings.
Still, I’m no believer in post-scarcity, so it seems likely to me that all sorts of urgency will continue to press at least the appearance of authority upon us, for at least the foreseeable future. So if we’re going to have to continue to deal with the messy details of when we bow to cobblers and when we find other people bowing to us, and if we can sometimes at least partially transform the situation by consciously rejecting authoritarian interpretations, there are almost certainly also going to be plenty of instances where the stakes are too high to pretend that we can simply think ourselves out of our predicament.
So what do we do when faced with instances of authority that seem inescapable?
It seems to me that there are two basic responses, both of which should be available to anarchists. The first is fairly obvious: we can remind ourselves that “legitimate authority” is a weird, hybrid notion at best—and probably too muddled to take very seriously. The second takes us way back to our discussion of tools and their uses, and perhaps isn’t so obvious, but try it on for size:
Faced with real-but-not-“legitimate” authority, the kind that arises from the intersection of differing individual capacities and material exigencies of various sorts, and having reminded ourselves that the principle of authority seems to be built on no firm basis, and further having done our best to reconsider our position in accordance with some more consistently anarchistic lens and surveyed the possible consequences of our future actions is terms of their impact on the degree and quality of the freedom we can expect to enjoy in the various available cases, perhaps the work of anarchy is done for the moment—and we have to pick up other tools.
A lot of the problems that emerge in our debates seem like non-problems. There are people in the world who know not to touch the stove when it’s hot and not to run into traffic, while others do not, just as some people know how to make boots or do open-heart surgery, while others do not. We hardly think about how “authority” plays in all of this until other circumstances raise the stakes to the point where someone can exercise a right to command, even if it’s just the “right” to command an exorbitant wage in the capitalistic market. If we manage to eliminate more and more of the ways in which exploitation plays a key role in our societies, the necessity of addressing these attempts at command will certainly decrease. Given the artificial, systemic sources of many of the exigencies we face, we’ll be eliminating opportunities for command in large blocks, should we ever make any headway toward anarchy.
But until we’ve destroyed the foundations of those systems of authority and exploitation, we’re going to keep running into reminders of how little anarchy we really have, in contexts where there isn’t a heck of lot we can do about it. In those instances, there isn’t going to be any way to choose “correctly” among options all tainted to some degree with the kinds of relationships we oppose and abhor. We’re going to have to recognize when and where anarchist theory isn’t the tool we need—or at least isn’t a tool we can use—and concentrate of getting boots made, or building bridges, or whatever practical task is facing us. Anarchy is a goal and anarchist theory is at least a decent alternative to the hegemony of the principle of authority, but sometimes we just need to get stuff done, because we simply don’t live by liberty alone.
I think that this is the approach we should take to the question of the relationship between anarchy and democracy. If we affirm anarchy as a goal and oppose the principle of authority, it’s hard to see how we can have much good to say about democracy as a principle, beyond perhaps considering it a better sort of governmentalism than others, but, at the same time, sometimes we have to make decisions when real consensus is impossible. Under those circumstances, sometimes the least worst imposition on the interests and desires of dissenting minorities will be some kind of vote—and we’ll just have to hold our noses, recognizing that this is not one of those instances when anarchy is a tool we can use, and deal with the circumstances imposed on us.
But let’s be clear about what is imposed on us—and what most definitely is not. We may have to make use of this or that imperfect tool for decision-making, but that that doesn’t make those tools a part of our specifically anarchist toolkit. That toolkit has real limitations. Sometimes we will approach the goal of anarchy indirectly, by balancing clearly un-anarchistic practices, as Proudhon suggested in much of his mature work. Understanding the existence of real limitations on our options, recognizing that while authority can probably never be “legitimate,” it may still exert some real influence on our practices, we need to remain clear about the nature of our goals, the qualities of the available means and the specific limitations presented by our material and social contexts.
My sense is that this demanding mix of requirements imposes that “hard line” on us, according to which notions like anarchy have to be maintained with whatever clarity and purity we can manage intact, so that they provide useful guidance when we’re neck-deep in the complexities of a world still very much dominated by the principle of authority.