top of page

Notes on anarchism


[Old notes from my journal. See also this post.]

Reading parts of a collection of essays published in 1978 called Anarchism, edited by J. Roland Pennock and John W. Chapman. Pretty good philosophical essays, but I have to say that what I’ve read of the literature on anarchism leaves much to be desired. Actually, the whole universe of anarchism, with all its different strains and movements and doctrines, is messy and full of confusions and oversimplifications. Basic concepts like domination, power, hierarchy, authority, freedom, and coercion are often left unclarified and essentially unanalyzed.

We don’t need Foucault to tell us that life is ineluctably infused with domination and authority, that constitutive of every situation, of the psyche itself, are elements of power and imperceptible forms of coercion. That's just obvious. The self is formed through contact with authority, parental authority and peer pressure and hierarchies of power and status, and these remain embedded in the self throughout its existence. The social world itself becomes a dominant Other that confronts the self, and in relation to which the self is always defining itself. Its internalization is an authority that’s part of the self, such that a relation of power and subordination is written into the very structure of the self.

In every situation there are dynamics of power operating on the psyche and influencing, partly coercing (pressuring and determining), one’s behavior, whether in the context of a romantic relationship or a social gathering or a meeting between anarchist activists. Even in tribal societies or the most egalitarian commune, inequalities of status entail inequalities of power, “unjust” forms of domination and restrictions on individual freedom. People are constantly competing, even unconsciously, for higher status and more power. Social structures of unequal power and freedom, hierarchies of subordination, define even worker cooperatives and relatively egalitarian municipal governments. There is both “top-down” and “bottom-up” authority in certain modern democratic institutions, and it seems inconceivable that this could ever change in any organization that consists of more than a few people. Someone with greater expertise will tend to have more power; elected representatives, even in a dramatically different political and economic environment than the present, will tend to have more influence and status, and thus more powers of domination and coercion (at least emotional coercion or rhetorical coercion or the coercion of “charisma” or whatever), than someone who is more unknown—or considered less intelligent or knowledgeable, etc.

Even if society were organized according to decentralized workers’ federations, dispersed democratic units of local economic and governmental power, the necessity of complex institutions to coordinate and distribute resources would inevitably breed elements of top-down power and domination, probably including implied threats—and in some cases the reality—of physical coercion if orders were not followed.

In intimate relationships, particularly in families and between lovers, not only are unequal power relations inevitable (although which side is favored by the inequality may vary between situations, from day to day, and between periods of life); they are, in some respects, good. As I’ve said, the greater authority and power of parents is integral to the formation of a child’s healthy sense of self. But also, there are clear tendencies for women, especially younger women, to prefer (at least unconsciously) that the man they’re in a relationship with have greater power and dominance (physical strength and size, height, emotional strength (in a sense), financial wealth, etc.) than they themselves, because this is what attracts them to a man.

And of course it’s easy to imagine many situations in which even physical coercion is necessary and good, justified by appeal to some higher value.

In short, life is messy. “Autonomy” (or freedom from domination) has a sort of intuitive meaning and validity as a moral ideal, but none of these abstract concepts that anarchism defends or attacks has a precisely definable denotation, since we all exist in an incredibly thick mesh of relations and relationships characterized by indefinitely many degrees of coercion, power, autonomy, hierarchy, status, etc.—emotional, physical, intellectual, political, economic. And many of these inequalities are inseparable from what it means to be a self, and are good and necessary. Nature, which is to say the human condition, cares little for the moral absolutes and oversimplified conceptions of classical liberalism (i.e., in its core, anarchism, or rather the values whose completest expression is anarchism).

Nevertheless, as a general guide toward action and values, the basic intuitions of anarchism are essential. For they’re little else but manifestations or corollaries of the basic intuitions of morality. We should always be skeptical of inequalities of power and status; and if they can’t be justified, we should always do what we can to dismantle them, to the extent possible. We should always strive to respect the dignity and freedom of others, and to heed the twin authorities of reason and morality more than any other authority. To the degree that makes rational and moral sense, treat everyone, including children, as an equal.


Recent Posts

See All

Thanks for submitting!

bottom of page