Anarchies Do Exist—You Live In One

June 9, 2009

[First published April 28, 2005] There are a variety of anarchists, such as anarcho-communists, anarcho-libertarianists, and plain old anarchists. All oppose government, that is an institution that monopolizes force. What distinguishes them is their view of other institutions of society. For example, anarcho libertarians are for a free market—people should be free, which also means free to do business. Anarcho-communists oppose this, and believe that unfettered capitalism is as oppressive as government.

What is fascinating to me is that all these anarchists seem ignorant of the fact that they all live in an anarchy. And I’m not writing about some little clan, village, or town, but the largest society of all. In think about anarchy, there is a mental bug here that reminds me of what I used to do with my students in the beginning of my introductory class. I would ask them: “Do you think that we will ever be able to create an invisible solid?”

Some answered, “No,” some, a hesitant, “Yes.” Well, I soon pointed out that, “In this room there is an invisible solid.”

After they all looked at me as though I were crazy, I pointed to the classroom window on the other side of which we could see students passing by. “Isn’t that glass invisible? Can’t you see through it to the students walking by on the other side of that solid?”

The conceptual problem is simple and well explored in psychology. People are educated to see certain things and not to see others. Throughout their lives, through formal education, movies, television, books, speeches, parents, and their own chatter people develop a mind set. Even when some things are seen daily, they may not be really seen . And one such mindset is over the impossibility of invisibility, like making ourselves truly invisible as in the movie about the invisible man. And similarly with other solids. Thus, the invisibility of clear and clean glass is missed. No one has pointed it out.

And so it is with anarchy. Anarchy is not the absence of government, but of that type of government that monopolizes force and is able to back up its laws and decrees with coercive and deadly force. Try not paying taxes, or refuse to appear in court for a speeding ticket, or sell drugs on a street corner, and government agents with badges and in uniforms will come for you If you resist and fight them. You will be hauled off to jail at the point of their guns.

The arguments against anarchy are usually that it couldn’t last long, that we would have no security against thugs, and some kind of government would eventually have to come about, most probably a dictatorship, since people would be willing to give up their freedom for security. This is all wrong

We all have lived under an anarchy for centuries, since 1648 to be precise. Then, after the bloody and disastrous Thirty Years War, European monarchies signed the Treaty of Westphalia, which allowed each prince or king to govern their kingdom as they saw fit, especially regarding its religion. This treaty established the modern state system, with sovereignty and independence the governing laws. Gradually, this system of sovereign states spread throughout the world, and now is such a norm of international behavior that the thugs that rule some states, such as North Korea, are protected from interference from the outside so long as they only murder their own citizens.

Thus, there is no government that rules nations and monopolizes force, not even the United Nations. International relations, the system of nation-states, is an anarchy.

Don’t misunderstand. This does not mean that there are no norms or laws that nations obey. But obedience to the norms and rules is voluntary. That international relations, our largest and most extensive society, is an anarchy is well known and written about by students of international relations, and some professional books even have that in their title (e.g., Hedley Bull, The Anarchical Society), even the fact that as Hobbes would point out, it is thus a state of war (e.g., Stanley Hoffmann, The State of War).

Moreover, those who favor an anarchy, and I do among nations, would learn much about anarchies by studying international relations. For example, anarchies can be stable—this one is over 550 years old. Although thugdoms do exist, they control only a minority of countries, not the world, while a majority (119) of democracies also exist. Moreover, in spite of the lack of a government, nations collaborate, cooperate, solve joint problems, and establish norms and customs that govern this anarchy, as norms and customs govern any group of people.

What is most important to observe is that there is much less violence in this anarchy than there is within states that have a true government. For example, not even counting the human cost of their civil wars, rebellions, and such violence within states, governments murdered in the last century over four times those killed in combat in international wars and violence. Just one state, the Soviet Union, has been far more violence internally in number of killed than anarchic international relations over the same period.

Link of Note

”Thomas Hobbes (1588-1679) Moral and Political Philosophy” The Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy

It says of Hobbes:

His vision of the world is strikingly original and still relevant to contemporary politics. His main concern is the problem of social and political order: how human beings can live together in peace and avoid the danger and fear of civil conflict. He poses stark alternatives: we should give our obedience to an unaccountable sovereign (a person or group empowered to decide every social and political issue). Otherwise, what awaits us is a ‘state of nature’ that closely resembles civil war – a situation of universal insecurity, where all have reason to fear violent death and where rewarding human cooperation is all but impossible.

Could ever a philosopher by more manifestly wrong, and yet believed so “relevant to contemporary politics.” As I said to my students about invisibility, ‘Look out the window.” As I say to our contemporary Hobbesians, look at international relations, the governance of free peoples in democracies, and what thugs (leviathaners in practice) do to the people they rule.

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