May 13, 2013 columns

Anarchism at The New Yorker

The New Yorker has an article on the revival of anarchism, and it’s pretty good. While focusing mostly on the ideology of the Occupy Wall Street movement, author Kelefa Sanneh does manage to work in some nice references to more libertarian forms of anarchism, such as the anarcho-capitalism of Murray Rothbard.

While the essay contains some history–including the debate between Karl Marx on one side and Pierre-Joseph Proudhon and Mikhail Bakunin on the other–most of it focuses on the work of David Graeber, an anthropologist, prominent Occupy member, and author of Debt: The First 5,000 Years. Graeber represents the most visible form of anarchism today, and one that’s decidedly non-libertarian. That is too bad, because so much of the anger Graeber-style anarchists have for the current system fits nicely within critiques of statism and corporatism made by both anarchist and mainstream libertarians.

Like many in the Occupy movement, Graeber does not seem to think much about “how things will work if we get our way.” The state’s bad, these anarchists say. So are markets. Coercion is terrible, as well as money and debt. And even voluntary leadership roles aren’t any good. All we’re left with are prohibitions: “no parties, no leaders, no demands,” as Sanneh puts it.

And that’s the problem with the sort of anti-market anarchism Graeber represents. While much, if not most, of his criticism of the state and big business hits the mark, this sort of anarchism offers us no meaningful, practical alternative. Society, if it is to operate at any scale, demands organization and coordination. One way to do this is via some entity that “upholds the claim to the monopoly of the legitimate use of physical force in the enforcement of its order,” as Max Weber put it. We call that the state.

Or it can be done–and these two need not be mutually exclusive–via emergent orders. People naturally fall into groups, naturally develop decision-making processes, and naturally settle on systems of exchange. We call this the market, and it’s what you get when you let folks interact freely and respect their innate sense of “mine” and “thine.” (An innate sense Graeber seems to lack, Sanneh tells us: “Like many anarchists, Graeber doesn’t think property damage is violence.”)

Graeber would have us banish both the state and markets. In part, these Occupy anarchists believe that, without the state to prop it up, the market would naturally fade away as people no longer felt compelled to participate. They say that the natural state of man is socialism, and it is only statism that makes capitalism possible.

But these anarchists also want to speed the market–and, in fact, civil society–on to an early death. Graeber “proposed a grand debt cancellation, to remind the world that debt is merely a promise–that is, a plan, and one that can be changed.” Here we see the Occupy-style anarchists eager to throw the moral baby out with the capitalist bathwater. Debt is a promise, and “keep your promises” is one of our most baseline moral rules. What’s more, we keep promises not just because doing so is right or virtuous, but because if we don’t, then people will come to assume we won’t. And if this happens throughout a society–if debts are routinely cancelled, for instance–then parties won’t be willing to risk future agreements. A society lacking the expectation that we’ll keep our promises is a society destined for failure.

Toward the end, Sanneh brings up the other kind of anarchism, the libertarian kind, represented by Murray Rothbard.

Rothbard was an anarchist, but also a capitalist. “True anarchism will be capitalism, and true capitalism will be anarchism,” he once said, and he sometimes referred to himself by means of a seven-syllable honorific: “anarcho-capitalist.” Graeber thinks that governments treat their citizens “like children,” and that, when governments disappear, people will behave differently. Anarcho-capitalists, on the contrary, believe that, without government, people will behave more or less the same: we will be just as creative or greedy or competent as we are now, only freer. Instead of imagining a world without drastic inequality, anarcho-capitalists imagine a world where people and their property are secured by private defense agencies, which are paid to keep the peace. Graeber doesn’t consider anarcho-capitalists to be true anarchists; no doubt the feeling is mutual.

It’s of course worth pointing out here that many pro-market anarchists believe that, in the absence of state involvement in the economy, and without business being able to turn to government to protect them from competition, income inequality would dramatically decline under anarchism. It wouldn’t go away entirely, because liberty upsets patterns, but it also likely wouldn’t be “drastic,” especially if we consider the enormous benefits markets bring to the world’s poorest residents.

The difference between Graeber and Rothbardian anarcho-capitalists is that the latter have baked into their philosophy a respect for lifestyle pluralism. Rothbard certainly assumes that, in the absence of a state, we’d still have markets–even global ones. He’s probably right. But Rothbardian anarchism would allow for the legitimacy of alternative choices–provided, of course, they are choices and the not violently enforced preferences of “leaders.” Rothbard says we all have rights and as long as we respect those, anything goes.

The philosopher Robert Nozick called this a framework for utopia, and it’s a powerfully moving vision. All of us can choose the sorts of lives we want to lead, and live them without the threat of coercion, provided we afford the same right to everyone else. Many of us will choose market capitalism–perhaps because it so clearly works better at enriching us than other systems–but we don’t have to. Graeber’s utopia–“a kind of decentralized socialism, with decisions made by a patchwork of local assemblies and cooperatives”–can exist peacefully alongside Rothbard’s capitalism. That’s what anarcho-capitalism tells us it offers. Not a utopia, but a utopia of utopias.

Graeber, on the other hand, wants his vision for all. Any choice we might make to live differently is simply illegitimate. How Graeber would enforce his vision? Would he ban “capitalist acts between consenting adults,” to use Nozick’s phrase? It is unclear. But if he’s serious about it, he’ll eventually have to resort to violence–and likely a monopoly on violence. And then we’re right back to Weber’s “monopoly of the legitimate use of physical force in the enforcement of its order.” In other words, we’re right back to the state. In this sense, the anarcho-capitalists are right: the Occupy anarchists aren’t really anarchists at all.

But, then, neither are most libertarians. Anarchism is certainly one kind of libertarianism, but then Nozick wasn’t an anarchist, nor was Hayek, nor Friedman, nor Locke, nor Rand. Still, even for the many libertarians–and non-libertarians–who reject anarchism as a political goal worth aiming for, the philosophy of anarchism has value. An anarchist stance (a true anarchist stance) takes no aspect of the state for granted. Every last bit must be justified.

This flips the typical approach to thinking about the state and puts us back in the shoes of enlightenment thinkers like Hobbes who thought any state had to be justified. Now, most people take the existence of the state–usually a rather big state–as the default position. It’s then up to anyone who wants to shrink it–even if they don’t want to shrink it to nothing–to argue for each reduction. Anarchism says that freedom, the absence of coercion, is the default, and that anyone wanting to introduce state coercion must present arguments for why it’s better than the alternative. And they must do this at every step of the way.

What separates anarchist libertarians from non-anarchist libertarians is that the latter believe there are some steps the state can successfully clear. What unites both groups is the belief that the current state has taken far more steps than it legitimately should have.