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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