Notes toward an understanding of anarchism

Update: Is there an anarchist revolution going on in Egypt?

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According to the political philosopher Raymond Geuss, there are two kinds of anarchism. Philosophical anarchism involves rejecting the moral authority of the state while believing that the state is a “necessary evil.” Political anarchism goes further, arguing from the premise that the state’s existence cannot be justified to the conclusion that it should be challenged (a moderate, more recent view) or dismantled (an older, more radical view).

1. Targets

As already noted, anarchists are anti-statists regardless of the size (minimal to welfare) or nature (monarchical, democratic, etc.) of the state. The state, then, is their first target. Their second target is capitalism no matter its nature (Keynesian, neoliberal, etc.).

2. Problems

For the anarchist, the essence of the state is coercion. It does this directly through military and police force, indirectly through surveillance mechanisms, and symbolically through the rule of law. Similarly, the essence of capitalism is alienation. The worker’s human capacities remain unactualized, and his authorship is taken from him. The anarchist slogan could thus be: no state without oppression, no capitalism without repression.

3. Starting Points

The individual is sovereign. He seeks to realizes his potentialities by putting his stamp on the world. He is free just to the extent that his actions manifest themselves in forms of his own devising.

This brings me to the second starting point: free association. Genuine community is not bound by tradition or arbitrary customs; rather, it is one the anarchist must endorse voluntarily–or it ceases being community and reverts to coercion.

For the anarchist, the ideal case, then, would be a cooperative where the individual is free in the positive sense and where she participates directly and voluntarily in the community to which she belongs.

The corollary is that anarchists reject all forms of elitism, all hierarchical structures.

4. Strategies

Let’s say that there are two main anarchist strategies: criticism and organic resistance. In the realm of theoretical discourse, the anarchist criticizes all doxa, i.e., all political opinions, doctrines, or theories that reek of “self-evidence” or of falsehood.

In the realm of practice, the anarchist believes in non-hierarchical, “free form” political struggle. Many cite the 1999 WHO Seattle protests as a paradigmatic case of successful anarchistic political action.

5. Questions

-Is there truly room in the anarchist worldview for “spheres” of communal life? After all, the local cooperative is “parasitic” on the support of larger entities. (One thinks, e.g., of infrastructure.)

-Does the anarchist conception of positive freedom on the one hand and voluntary associations on the other amount to a clean slate fantasy? (What would Edmund Burke have to say about the ineradicability of tradition?)

-Suppose every encroachment on John’s freedom is impermissible. Then what about the wastrel problem. That is, what do we make of the fact that John may be wasting his life?

-Don’t political movements, in order to maintain momentum, require hierarchical organizations? There seems to be a dilemma here. If there’s no such thing as an intellectual, an elite, or a party, then the energy of the masses dissipates (see the Iranian protest against vote rigging in the past election). However, if there is an intellectual but that intellectual is only a “midwife,” then he may lack the “executive power” to make decisions. In which case, it’s hard to see how there can be orchestrated action.

6. Further Reading

Daniel Guerin, Anarchism: From Theory to Practice

Alain Badiou, Ethics and Metapolitics (companion volumes)

Andrew Taggart, “Badiou Abridged,” symploke