Anarchism says there's no need for a state, that it would be better to have a society without central government. Anarchists dislike the often heavy-handed authority that government brings.
Before we can say whether an anarchist future is possible, we should start by saying what exactly anarchism is. Emma Goldman, the great American anarchist, defined it in 1910 as “the philosophy of a new social order based on liberty unrestricted by man-made law.” Anarchists believe that all forms of government—be it a liberal democracy or a socialist state—are based on violence and coercion. To sum it up: government equals tyranny.
Many of you might agree with that basic idea that state power is necessarily coercive, yet wonder if there really is an alternative. Perhaps we must suffer some degree of tyranny at the hands of government in order to guarantee certain public goods, like education, health care, and infrastructure. And don’t we need the state to ensure law and order? Who would protect us, if we didn’t have police and a judicial system?
In light of the many stories in the news these days about police racism and brutality, and the lack of accountability for such abuses of power, some of you are probably scoffing at the thought that police are there to protect and serve. And given the astounding number of people incarcerated in US prisons, many of which are run by private companies for profit, it’s a little difficult to take seriously the idea that the criminal justice system is working for the good of (all) the people.
But we should be careful not to damn all government over the particular failures of one. There may be deep injustices in the US criminal justice system, but perhaps those are best tackled by reform, not by abolishing state power completely.
Let’s set aside criminal justice for a moment and think about civil justice. Without the coercive power of the state, how do we enforce agreements and protect people’s legitimate interests? For example, let’s say you and I make an agreement with one another, and I pay you to do a particular job, like painting my house. Let’s say I pay you the full amount, but you rip me off by not completing the job. Under an anarchist social order, how can I protect my interests when there can be no legal sanctions or deterrents? What kind of recourse would I have, if there are no laws and no state authority to enforce them? What's to stop everyone from cheating one another?
Under any social order, be it liberal democracy or anarchy, cheating customers just seems like a bad business model. You would never get repeat business and surely word would spread about your shady practices, and you’d have difficulty building your livelihood in this way. Yet, despite this, people do cheat one another all the time. Obviously, then, our current system does not prevent that from happening, so the mere existence of the state is not itself a deterrent for cheaters. Moreover, you’d have to have a very dim (and, I’d say, unrealistic) view of humanity if you think an honest, hard-working person would suddenly become a scoundrel and a thief because the state is not controlling everything anymore.
Moreover, an anarchist might argue, if people had more autonomy—if they were able to decide for themselves what kind of lives they wanted to lead, what kind of work they wanted to do, and how to spend their time—maybe then there would actually be less cheating.
Is anarchy the only way to give everyone greater autonomy in their lives? The anarchist thinks so—the mere existence of the state and its arbitrary coercive power undermines personal autonomy because we never explicitly consented to live under its authority. Sure, some of us get to vote for representatives at different levels of government from federal to state and local, but once elected, these so-called “representatives” make their own decisions that may or may not be what their constituents want or need. And so often the choice we are given is between Tweedledum or Tweedledee, with one just about as bad as the other. It’s hard to see how that is that anything but arbitrary.
While I find this line of thought persuasive, again, I think it’s important to distinguish between how things happen to go in the US, and how things must go in any liberal democracy. The two certainly come apart, which begs the question: what’s the best way to tackle these problems—reform the state or abolish it? For example, if the US had a multi-party system elected by proportional representation, like they do Denmark (which is often touted as the best example of a functioning liberal democracy), would this give us the kind of personal autonomy the anarchist wants? Or, do even the Danes need to be freed from the tyranny of the state?
In the end, it all comes down to one issue. Do we give up some of our autonomy because we get some things that only the state can provide? The anarchist might say we suffer from a lack of imagination, that we can achieve many great things working together without any hierarchical coercive structures in place.
So, what do you think? Would life be better if everyone could choose what to do, free from the tyranny of government and unburdened by man-made law? Do we need the state? Or is that just something the state has convinced us of? Is anarchy a realistic alternative?