books book reviews

More anarchy books

reviewed by T. Nelson

Anarchy and Legal Order

by Gary Chartier
Cambridge, 2013, 416 pages
Reviewed by T Nelson

When people think of the stateless society, they usually think of Murray Rothbard's capitalist anarchy, where private corporations replace government and provide individual security.

But what in the world is socialist anarchy? Socialism is the absolute control of the people by the state. It's a short hop from there to communism, where the government owns everything. Both are strongly authoritarian and both represent the extreme polar opposite of libertarianism.

During the 20th century communist societies killed their own citizens by the tens of millions. Socialism is statist almost by definition. Combining it with anarchy sounds impossible. Why would anyone advocate it? Gary Chartier's Anarchy and Legal Order gives us a clue what this is all about.

Writing style

Firstly, though, I must say this book was very unpleasant to read. It's repetitive. It raises reasonable objections and just dismisses them without honestly examining the implications. And it's stuffed to the gills with political correctness, which I've found to be an infallible sign of muddled thinking.

Here's a typical sentence:

“Alternatives involving third-party intervention to foster desert presuppose an unlikely degree of knowledge on the part of those expected to intervene, and leave room for meddling that would be problematic on multiple fronts, undermining autonomy, connection, coordination, incentivization, and accessibility.” [p.74]

Here's another one:

“It will therefore be unreasonable for her to object, at least on the whole, to rules that increase others' access to goods and services they want.” [p.54]

If you think this ‘her’ refers to somebody who's mentioned in a previous section, you'd be wrong. This girl just keeps popping up. And so does this ‘they’. The writing style is anarchic.

Socialist Anarchy?

Later the writing starts to make more sense, though it continues with enough PC to raise my lunch just a bit. And the ideas stay bad.

The general idea is that a society must follow the Nonaggression Maxim and three fundamental principles: the Principle of Recognition, the Principle of Fairness, and the Principle of Respect, which are self-explanatory. But unlike Rothbard's capitalist anarchy the people just do everything voluntarily:

“The strong presumption against nonconsensual rule and noninterference with people's justly acquired possessions cannot be overcome by the claim that the state is needed to safeguard cooperation.” [p.167]

In plain language this means people will cooperate peacefully with each other because doing so has immediate positive consequences, refusing to do so has negative ones, and people will be concerned about their reputations and therefore cooperate to avoid social ostracism.

But what if they don't? What if somebody who's not a peaceful tie-dyed hippie comes in and starts tossing people into a wood chipper? Or in Chartier's writing style: what if she would not care about her negative consequences to her or her possessions because she is not accepting the validity of their social pressure against her, as it applies to she and her and her and her stuff?

On page 175 he finally gives an answer: non-state legal regimes would indeed have to exist and they could use force to prevent, end, or remedy predatory behavior. For instance, if she (hi, I'm back!) were sexually harassing her neighbor, then she and her could appropriately ask her and her friends to use force against her attacker, provided she uses it in accordance with her nonaggression maxim. And we can trust these non-state legal regimes, whatever they are:

“The kinds of restraints that encourage cooperation generally would tend to dispose the officials of non-state regimes to behave peaceably.“ [p.176]

Uhhhh huh. Without a formal state apparatus, who decides what constitutes cooperation? Who selects these non-state officials? And what does this utopian society do when faced with an official who decides otherwise? Who decides what is a fair response? Suppose a community decides there must be eighteen different colors of recycling bins, but some running-dog reactionaries decide there should only be seventeen. To whom do they appeal?

Chartier then argues that public goods do not require the protection of a state. Why is this? This is where the socialism comes in. He doesn't say it exactly this way, but the idea is: from each according to their means. A rich person would be willing to donate a bunch of money to pay for an anti-ballistic missile system, for example, because the rich person has more to lose by not having one.

Bong smoke started to waft up from the pages at this point.

The legal system, he says, would be polycentric, which means no universally agreed-upon laws, just people in various small communities deciding cooperatively because they voluntarily adhere to social norms.

Cough. Oh no, now I can't see the book.

Then in Chapter 6 (“Liberating Society”) the other shoe, which we might call Social Justice, drops. Upholding just legal rules would lead to the redistribution of wealth from the privileged to the victims. This, he says, will occur spontaneously and voluntarily. Also, much land has been stolen and will have to be redistributed as well. Redistribution will create an explosion of wealth. Land will be redistributed by homesteading. [pp. 334–336]

So there you have it. Socialist anarchy is everybody just cooperating and being nice. Except we take all the ill-gotten wealth accumulated by the capitalists and the state. Because there's no state and no big business, the people are filled with generosity and they sing like birds as they work in the fields and, since there are no big corporations, presumably make steel in their backyard steel mills like they did during the Great Leap Forward.

This scheme doesn't provide answers to basic problems that stateless societies must address: with no supervening authority, how do you investigate crimes? How do you provide a recourse against unfair laws? How do you prevent mob rule? How do you defend against invasion?

For socialist anarchy, there are additional problems. How do we get there from here? How can a small community compete against more efficient big industry? And, dare I ask, what will happen to all the capitalists and landowners who resist having their property taken away? People have tried something much like this already in a small country in the Far East and it didn't work out. What makes this scheme different?

These are questions that need to be answered. I'm generally sympathetic to the idea of a stateless society. Chartier has some interesting ideas here, but the more you look beneath the surface the more it sounds like what he's really proposing is a People's Commune.

apr 24, 2016; updated jun 30, 2016

 Demanding the Impossible:
 A History of Anarchism

by Peter Marshall
P.M. Press, 2010 / 1992, 818 pages
Reviewed by T Nelson

Anarchists see libertarians as brothers in arms. The main difference is that the libertarians see a need for a so-called night watchman state. Indeed, the US government, with its myriad spy agencies, has adopted the role of watchman with great enthusiasm.

But in many ways they are opposites. Unlike libertarianism, which has benefited from a generally consistent worldview, anarchism has been tarnished by its association with Communism, terrorism, and bomb-throwing.

Nowadays, bomb-throwing seems to be pretty much passé. Anarchism has become a fashionable euphemism for ‘hippie communes.’

This book contains brief biographies of the important non-bomb-throwing anarchists, including William Godwin, Max Stirner, P.J. Proudhon, Michael Bakunin, Peter Kropotkin, Elisée Reclus, Errico Malatesta, and Leo Tolstoy. It also compares their ideas to libertarianism, but it's heavily biased in favor of ultra-left-wing anarchists; Murray Rothbard is barely mentioned.

Marshall calls Proudhon and Godwin the founders of modern anarchism. He writes:

Godwin could therefore see no justice in the situation where one man works, and another man is idle and lives off the fruits of his labor. It would be fairer if all able-bodied people worked. Since a small amount of labour is sufficient to provide the means of subsistence, this would inevitably increase the amount of leisure and allow everyone to cultivate his or her understanding and to experience new sources of enjoyment. [p.211]

The key word here is subsistence. I get the distinct impression neither Marshall nor Godwin has worked on a farm. It is backbreaking dawn to dusk work even if your only goal is bare subsistence.

Demanding the Impossible is basically an 800 page sales brochure for the author's preferred vision of anarchism. It's a good representation of how self-professed anarchists would like to see themselves, offering pleasing generalities about freedom, peace, and equality, but like Anarchy and Legal Order (reviewed at left) it doesn't present an effective rebuttal to the skeptics. Marshall is hostile to individualistic anarchism like that of Stirner, but the objections to Stirner apply just as well to the rest of them.

Some early anarchists, like Proudhon, were interesting characters. Proudhon, for example, once calculated that woman's inferiority to man was a ratio of 27:8. As he got older, he turned against anarchy and adopted conservatism, even advocating – gasp – private property. But most stayed true to their vision of agrarian communism, differing mainly in the question of whether throwing Molotov cocktails and shooting people is a good way to achieve it.

If they'd suceeded, they'd have been an agrarian commune with no high-tech industry and no economy of scale. At best they'd be an isolated group like the Shakers, who depend on the larger state for protection. At worst they'd end up like the poor bastards who helped Lenin rise to power and then discovered, quite suddenly, that they were utterly expendable.

As soon as you have different groups performing different tasks, they compete for the pool of funds. Something resembling an HOA would form automatically: a dictatorship of corrupt do-gooders, probably armed, as bad as any government. If you don't do what they want, they toss you out—or worse, if there's no outside authority to protect you.

Well, maybe it's pointless to rehash the arguments of why communism won't work. No freedom, no possessions, and digging for potatoes all day sounds like serfdom to me, but lots of people might enjoy it. And there's an advantage for the rest of us: as John Lennon might say, imagine all the hippies moving away and starting a commune. Maybe we ought to stop criticizing anarchy and work together to make it happen.

But as a model for a whole society it would be a disaster. Socialist anarchy is based on two fantasies about human nature. First is the idea that crime is caused by poverty, and therefore eliminating private property would eliminate crime. Even if that were true, it's a baby/bathwater solution. One might as well say crime is caused by people, so we should eliminate people.

Second is the idea that people would work solely on the basis of social pressure. Only in an academic's fantasy world would someone clean out a communal toilet or shovel manure if they didn't have to. Those self-governing agrarian communes that sprung up from time to time, like those inspired by Charles Fourier, have always been populated by self-selected believers who might be inclined to shovel manure for the cause. In the real world, the vast majority of people will only work if they get paid or if you point a gun at them.

Self-government is a wonderful goal, but self-government without freedom is just communism with a smiley face. And we've seen how well that works.

apr 10, 2017; last edited apr 24, 2017