Sunday, March 07, 2010

Why are anarchists against authority and hierarchy? part 1

It's a bit subtle, and not trivial to pull out in a coherent way, but it appears that this section of the Anarchist FAQ, Why are anarchists against authority and hierarchy? entails that coercive power should never be concentrated "abstractly" or generally by social construction.

It's clear that the FAQ opposes any "artificially" concentrated power. The FAQ quotes Bakunin, "[W]e wish... to abolish artificial, privileged, legal, and official influences... [N]o one should be entrusted with power, inasmuch as anyone invested with authority must... became an oppressor and exploiter of society. [emphasis added]" Martha A. Ackelsberg adds, "[T]the exercise of power in any institutionalised form — whether economic, political or sexual — brutalises both the wielder of power and the one over whom it is exercised. [emphasis added]"

Instead, any concentration of coercive power should be by the specific, immediate intention of the people involved. Again, Bakunin states, "[W]e hardly wish to abolish the effect of any individual's or any group of individual's natural influence upon the masses. [emphasis added]" People should be "taking part in a decision and listening to alternative viewpoints and experts ("natural influence") before making [their minds] up."

We have an immediate problem, though. What can Bakunin mean by the contrast of "artificial" and "natural"? In ordinary English, this contrast denotes human-made and non-human-made. But of course all social constructions are human made, and therefore artificial. Clearly, he must mean something different: we must interpret "artificial" as concentrated generally by social construction (i.e. "believing in" laws, police, prisons, etc.) rather than concentrated by the direct, immediate will of the people involved.

In a trivial sense (a sense I of course do not believe is specifically intended by the authors) this definition is vacuous as a political philosophy. Every person is ineluctably in possession of coercive power, by virtue of his fists and feet and at least the potential of using weapons. We have laws, police, prisons, officials, etc. because people individually choose to "believe in" and comply with these institutions, rather than individually choose to concentrate their own coercive power and resist these institutions by force of arms. Indeed, the coercive power of these institutions is maintained by at least some individuals naturally deciding to concentrate their power by joining the police and the military.

Of course, the FAQ argues that because our individual opinions are shaped by societal institutions, institutions that have "wrongly" concentrated coercive power, the decision to comply with or join these institutions is ipso facto artificial.
[T]he way people behave is more a product of the institutions in which we are raised than of any inherent nature. In other words, social relationships shape the individuals involved. This means that the various groups individuals create have traits, behaviours and outcomes that cannot be understood by reducing them to the individuals within them. That is, groups consist not only of individuals, but also relationships between individuals and these relationships will affect those subject to them.
But the FAQ understates the case. The way people specifically behave is completely a product of social institutions and constructions; all we get "naturally" are certain emotional propensities. In a social sense, we are nothing but the social constructions we learn and imitate from those around us. We don't even have language naturally; all we have naturally is a propensity to learn whatever language or languages predominate our childhood social environment.

The division into "natural" and "artificial" is not just metaphorical, it is actively misleading. It leads us to think about social constructions as being differentiable by those coming from "outside" and those already "inside". But (barring actual conquest, which is not at issue in this context) outside what? It cannot be outside our intrinsic individual nature, because nothing is intrinsic except a propensity to absorb extrinsic social constructions. It cannot be outside humanity, because everything is inside humanity. The FAQ makes the actual distinction between power concentrated by general social construction, rather than by the specific, immediate intention of the people involved. But this distinction is a good/bad distinction, not an inside/outside distinction.

Indeed, the misleading "inside/outside" distinction pervades this chapter of the FAQ. Bakunin says,
[A]uthority... [is the] eminently theological, metaphysical and political idea that the masses, always incapable of governing themselves, must submit at all times to the benevolent yoke of a wisdom and a justice, which in one way or another, is imposed from above. [emphasis original]
I share Bakunin's objections to a kind of authority, the kind of authority to which the masses must submit at all times, unconditionally. But the thesis of this chapter is that this sort of authority is bad because it is "artificial", because it comes from outside or "is imposed from above". But in reality this kind of authority becomes artificial and "outside" because those authorities insist on unconditional submission.

This inversion of causation is at the heart of many of the inconsistencies, ambiguities, paradoxes and vagueness of anarchism as a political philosophy.


  1. There also seems to be a problem with how to bootstrap the society into a free association of mutually recognized "natural" authority, not only among those individuals who are not capable of perceiving "natural" justified authority, but children as well! Try explaining this to a teenager. To learn, it seems some kind of authority must be imposed from above, at least in youth, and I'm not sure where the juncture would be. Perhaps the theory is that at comming of age, individuals will be welcomed into the anarchist society. Don't know. Will continue reading.

  2. Realistically tho, I think we know where this would lead. In the room full of anarchists there'd be that one alpha dog, a couple Goebbels and a bunch of Good Germans. The rest is, literally, history. The sad thing is that this would probably not violate the principle of natural authority.


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