Saturday 1 May 2010

Philosophical Anarchism (2010)

From The Philosopher, Volume LXXXXVIII No. 1 Spring 2010

A Critical Philosophical Presentation
By Magda Egoumenides

In all the important aspects of our lives, we want to decide by ourselves. We care a lot about living our own way. About being able to make our own decisions concerning who to be, how to live and what to value and achieve. We do not want others to make these decisions for us. Except that is, it seems in the all-important public sphere of life. Yet why should the public sphere be different? What is so appealing about the state when our natural and basic tendency is not to be ruled? This is one concern that gave birth to anarchism. It is also a central problem of political philosophy, theory and practice. And yet it seems so strange to us when the idea of rule is challenged. Perhaps the reason is that, being used to protection by the law, we have forgotten the basic concern anarchism expresses. So here I present the main forms of anarchism in order to arrive at a position which, in my opinion, makes the anarchist insight clearer and shows us a way to remember what otherwise we too easily may forget.

In the history of the anarchist tradition and ideology there are two main sides of anarchism: political and philosophical. The first of these, Political Anarchism is primarily devoted to the task of demolishing the state. It sees this task as an immediate implication of rejecting political authority. But Political Anarchism also views the state as a very bad form of social organisation, and there is a reason for opposition which is, for this form of anarchism, additional to its belief that the state's existence and authority remain unjustified. Correspondingly, its critique of the state is premised on a vision of social life without political institutions.

I distinguish Political Anarchism from Philosophical Anarchism, on the other hand, which concentrates on the critique of political authority and does not necessarily require the abolition of the state. This latter characteristic is reflected in the fact that negative philosophical anarchism is compatible with many alternative political outlooks. A subspecies of Political Anarchism might be identified as the idea that individuals have each an inviolable sphere of action under their total control. This form of anarchism views social relationships as contractual interactions between independent beings, beings seen as able to lead their lives abstracted from their social environment and its impacts.

Opposed to this is kind of individualism is what we might call Political Communal Anarchism, a view which has roots in socialism but nonetheless differs from other socialist ideologies, especially in the latter's devotion to politically centralised forms of organisation and control (if not always as ends, at least as means towards an ideal society). As John Horton puts it in his book Political Obligation (1992), communal anarchism points out 'the social character of human life' and the accompanying values of community, equality, free co-operation and reciprocity. Proponents of Political Communal Anarchism, like Peter Kropotkin and Michael Bakunin, have devoted themselves to developing visions of society which involve a series of co-operative enterprises in every aspect of social life (economic, cultural, educational, etc.) and which are offered as alternatives to views of society which essentially involve the state. These visions are based on reasonably optimistic views of human nature and are accompanied by the characteristic (anarchist) rejection of coercive schemes.

I should like to focus however here on the philosophical side of anarchism and outline its contribution to the debate on political authority. For this, I will need to concentrate on what I call 'critical philosophical anarchism'. This I define as the view which examines the best candidates for moral theories of political obligation and derives from their failure the result:
* there is no general political obligation, and that in this respect,
* political institutions remain without justification.
Incorporated in this approach is a prior standard of theoretical criticism merged with some idea of what an ideal legitimate society should be like. Philosophical Anarchism considers all existing states to be illegitimate insofar as they fail to meet this ideal. 
This anarchist position, as it figures within the debate on political obligation, offers something valuable to the perspective we have towards political institutions and our relation to them. I think that it is important to stress both its critical perspective and its ideal of legitimacy. I see these aspects as defining features of the approach and furthermore as incorporating crucial elements of the arguments of Philosophical Anarchism against political obligation. These are also compatible with certain features of Communal Anarchism.

Anarchists enter the debate on political obligation with a concern about freedom. They concentrate on the importance for individuals to be self-governed, to be able to have a say on and determine the main aspects of their own lives. But how can this be compatible with external constraints? The respect for self-government and the rejection of constraints are characteristic anarchist arguments, each of which might take, and at times has taken, priority over the other within the anarchist tradition. Yet, an anarchist can insist on the priority of freedom and criticise political institutions without rejecting constraints in general. Anarchists are sensitive to the fact that political constraints create problems for self-determination and it is with this in mind that they criticise the way traditional defences of political institutions work. Critical Philosophical Anarchism points out that, if these defences start from a different perspective on political institutions, one which involves the task to show a positive relation between them and freedom, they will deal all the more successfully with the difficulties which they face in their effort to justify the political reality. The debate can then develop in a different light and can provide more fruitful ways of addressing our relationship to the state. It is exactly these features which are significant in the critical philosophical anarchist position.

To conclude, the distinctive perspective of Critical Philosophical Anarchism is that it revives the question of whether we should have political institutions by questioning our obligation to them. It is a question which has been overlooked for too long in discussions of political authority. Rather than promoting a duty to justify constraints, anarchism makes compelling a duty not to accept illegitimate constraints: it focuses on what constraints take away and thus on the need to account for the point of their very existence. Critical Philosophical Anarchism makes us think about what freedom and its loss imply for the way we defend political institutions, and it helps us to re-establish our methods of justification.

Critical Philosophical Anarchism offers an indispensable outlook: it re-assesses the very approach to political authority that has incorrectly been used as a starting point for the debate on political institutions and this offers a clear view of the character, possibilities and problems of political constraints which point out and correct this. At the same time, Critical Philosophical Anarchism preserves its authenticity. It is not about putting limits on political institutions out of a concern to preserve them. It does not emphasise the legitimacy of the state. The anarchist is rather motivated by the problem of subjugation, the way in which improper relations between people undermine them. The defect of political institutions detected through the anarchist criticism of political obligation is that political constraints, by their very nature, tend to accept, cultivate and establish subjugation. In the end, anarchism is about how difficult it is to substantiate political legitimacy

A selection of Anarchist quotations
William Bailie
'Modern primarily a tendency - moral, social, and intellectual. As a tendency it questions the supremacy of the State, the infallibility of statute laws, and the divine right of all authority, spiritual or temporal. It is, in truth, a product of Authority, the progeny of the State, a direct consequences of the inadequacy of law and government to fulfill their assumed functions. In short, the Anarchist tendency is a necessity of progress, a protest against usurpation, privilege, and injustice.' (The Anarchist Spirit, 1906)

Alex Comfort
'Anarchism is that political philosophy which advocates the maximization of individual responsibility and the reduction of concentrated power -- regal, dictatorial, parliamentary: the institutions which go loosely by the name of 'government' -- to a vanishing minimum.' (Authority and Delinquency in the Modern State: A Criminological Approach to the Problem of Power (1950)

Noam Chomsky 
'...anarchism can be conceived as a kind of voluntary socialism, that is, as libertarian socialist or anarcho-syndicalist or communist anarchist, in the tradition of, say, Bakunin and Peter Kropotkin and others. They had in mind a highly organized form of society, but a society that was organized on the basis of organic units, organic communities. And generally, they meant by that the workplace and the neighborhood, and from those two basic units there could derive through federal arrangements a highly integrated kind of social organization which might be national or even international in scope. And these decisions could be made over a substantial range, but by delegates who are always part of the organic community from which they come, to which they return, and in which, in fact, they live.' ('The Relevance of Anarcho-syndicalism', an interview with Peter Jay, July 25, 1976)
Bill Christopher, Jack Robinson, Philip Sansom and Peter Turner: 
'Anarchism is a philosophy of freedom. It is a body of revolutionary ideas which reconciles, as no other revolutionary concept does, the necessity for individual freedom with the demands of society. It is a commune-ist philosophy which starts from the individual and works upwards, instead of starting from the State and working downwards. Social structure in an anarchist society would be carefully and consciously kept to a minimum and would be strictly functional; where organisation is necessary, it would be maintained, but there would be no organisation for its own sake. This would help to prevent the hardening of organisations into institutions - the hard core of government.' 
(The State Is Your Enemy: Selections From Freedom (a London Anarchist newspaper)  1965-86)
Pierre-Joseph Proudhon
'The notion of anarchy...means that once industrial functions have taken over from political functions, then business transactions and exchange alone produce the social order.' (The Federal Principle, 1863) 
'Anarchy is... a form of government or constitution in which public and private consciousness, formed through the development of science and law, is alone sufficient to maintain order and guarantee all liberties...' (Correspondence, 1864)
Leslie Green
'Is there a general obligation to obey the law, at least in a reasonably just state? Increasingly, political theorists deny that proposition. Of course, anarchists, marxists and many theologians have denied it all along ­ their allegiance is to things higher than, or at any rate different from, the state. Now, however, a number of writers within the liberal tradition are denying it too. To call this an emerging consensus would be more performative than descriptive; but it is, shall we say, a significant coalescence of opinion.' ('Who Believes in Political Obligation?' in For  and  Against  the  State:  New  Philosophical  Readings, 1996)

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