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Ralph Shaw, "Anarchism Demystified"

Anarchism DemystifiedRalph Shaw

Although the anarchists are unanimous in their detestation of state-sponsored capitalism, they have divergent views on capitalism if state sponsorship is removed. To the individualists, the evil is not capitalism itself, rather it is the collusion between the state and those who own capital.

Contrary to popular belief, anarchism as a set of ideas does not mean chaos, nihilism, or social breakdown per se, but chaos and temporary breakdown of social order can occur in pursuance of anarchist aims. The same as a nihilist, an anarchist refuses to bow to authority, but unlike a nihilist, he does not believe in destruction for the sake of destruction — a position that results from the nihilist’s belief in the nothingness of existence and valuelessness of all morality. Anarchists would argue that their aims are noble and constructive rather than destructive, that they want to bring about a society that is free from chaos, war, violence and poverty and, most anarchists would, in fact, eschew violence.

So what is anarchism? The fact is that anarchism, the same as socialism, comes in so many flavours and variations that often contradict each other that it is not easy to give it a straightforward definition. It has been argued from such diametrically opposite positions as individualism and communism — one advocating individual sovereignty and the other social solidarity — that it does not seem like a consistent theory. As David Miller puts it in his book, Anarchism (1983), more than an ideology, anarchism looks like a jumble of beliefs without rhyme or reason. However, Miller has done an excellent job demystifying anarchism and some of his elucidations are summarised here.

Miller argues that there is a common thread running through variations of anarchism by which the anarchists can be grouped together. Belief in a stateless society is common to all types of anarchists. That the state should be replaced by a new form of social organisation is a universal creed held by anarchists of all shades. They see the state as a punitive, coercive, exploitative, and destructive body that should be replaced by functionally specific institutions and believe that the institutions should be voluntary and not compulsory. Their main emphasis is on privatisation of state institutions along functional lines. According to the anarchists, each institution should have a clearly defined role such as guiding production, consumption, and social order, but none should be sovereign over the others. The anarchist institutions should also be voluntary in the sense that all those who are to be governed by a specific institution should voluntarily choose to do so. To give people such choice, some theorists have suggested establishing collective agencies that compete for people’s allegiances. To the anarchist, collective institutions are preferable to state bureaucracies, because such institutions would either be run by direct democracy or through rotation of office.

Anarchists detest organised religion and economic systems such as capitalism and socialism as much as they detest the state and have spewed as much venom against organised religion and existing economic systems as against the state. Same as their common hostility to the state, their common dread of the church stems from their critique of the principle of authority that entails that no person or institution can ever have the right to issue orders others have to obey. The authority of the priest over the believer is seen as the origin of all authority, i.e. once a person has submitted to the authority of another in spiritual matters, it becomes easier to induce him into subservience to political leaders. The priest can use his authority to issue doctrines of obedience to the political authorities, thus legitimising the state. Even though most anarchists have been atheists, claiming that belief in God is a response to social deprivations, their enemy is not religion as such but organised religion, i.e. “churches that disseminate official creeds whose content is hierarchically controlled”.

Although the anarchists are unanimous in their detestation of state-sponsored capitalism, the prevalent mode of capitalism, they have divergent views on capitalism if state sponsorship is removed. To the individualists, the evil is not capitalism itself, rather it is the collusion between the state and those who own capital. They believe if this link is broken, the oppressive effects such as monopolies and concentration of wealth would vanish. Consequently, wealth would be more equally distributed. To the communist anarchists, however, private ownership of property means inevitable concentration of wealth and resources in a few hands. Hence capitalism of any shade is unacceptable to them. The anarchists are equally opposed to state socialism. From the anarchist point of view, a socialist state is a state nonetheless in which a ruling class controls the rest of society. Even though the capitalists and priests have been replaced by socialists and so-called social scientists, coercion and exploitation continue. There is lack of consensus on the kind of economic system the anarchists propose. The alternatives they advance range from free market systems to systems of communal ownership in which goods are produced by independent communes and distributed on the basis of need. Even though the proposed alternatives lack clarity on what exactly they should be, there is no confusion in the anarchist’s thinking on what they ought not to be. The anarchist economic systems cannot be centrally controlled. A decentralised form composed of voluntary associations would be in keeping with anarchist thinking and acceptable to them.

Even though most anarchists do not advocate violence, historically, a small proportion has used terrorist methods to achieve their ends. They have even tried to justify such acts, though unconvincingly, as either acts of revenge and retribution, or on the grounds that the state cannot be dissolved but through violence. Anarchist terrorism took place mostly in the 1890s and the 1970s and only a tiny minority was involved, but it was instrumental in affixing the image of an anarchist as a heinous monster in the popular imagination.

The writer is a freelance columnist. He can be reached at ralphshaw11@gmail.com