Philosophical aspects of anarchism


In this time of riots and general law-breaking, I thought it would be interesting to discuss precisely what it is that anarchism entails, and whether this much misunderstood political theory is, in fact, viable.  I say much misunderstood because, though it seems positively de rigeur to claim that one is an anarchist, it is very obvious after a quick flick through the writings of many self-proclaimed ‘anarchists’ that few, if any, of them actually know what anarchy means.

I thought it would be interesting to see if there is anything to anarchy other than a rallying-cry for antisocial malcontents, and, if there is, whether it could be applied in practice.  It turns out that there is: I call it philosophical anarchism, which is really a theory of leadership that embodies an extremely radical democratisation of the decision-making process.  It has even been used as a basis for running at least two states.  However, those states were short-lived and degenerated from true democracy into authoritarianism.  General analysis shows that philosophical anarchism will inevitably be unstable and collapse into authoritarianism on any but the smallest of scales.

This means that as a theory of the state, anarchism is a dead duck.  However, as a model for organisations, and in particular for relations between decision-makers and workers in businesses or bureaucracies, philosophical anarchism is a useful ideal, even if it cannot be applied in its pure form.

What anarchism is not

In the popular mind, anarchist is seen almost as an absence of order.  Indeed, we often take the word ‘anarchy’ as being synonymous with ‘disorder’.  And yet ‘anarchy’ literally means ‘without a leader’, which is not the same thing at all.  As I shall discuss below, there are several examples of large-scale leaderless states which must count as strictly anarchic, and yet in common usage they would be seen as not being anarchic precisely because they are orderly.

Moving to the political arena, examination of the pronouncements of contemporary anarchists makes it clear that for them anarchy is about removing a state that they consider to be illegitimate.  So they take ‘without a leader’ in an extremely broad sense as meaning that they desire a state of affairs where there is no authority that has the right to tell them what to do.  Such a state of affairs will, inevitably, degenerate into genuine disorder.  Indeed some anarchists seem to positively embrace disorder, apparently wishing to overturn any structures that prevent them having or doing whatever they want, up to and including property rights.

Now, it is not my purpose in this essay to expose what is wrong about this political vision.  That it is manifestly nonsensical, and that such a society could not function in a stable way on any scale larger than the village is, I would hope, obvious.  However, it is my purpose to comment on the abuse of the word ‘anarchy’.  I believe that in fact many of those who proclaim themselves anarchists are, in fact, extreme libertarians.  This is not hard to see, in that libertarians also preach the illegitimacy of the state and believe that somehow or other a society can function without any law or state apparatus to protect the weak from the strong.  Many extreme libertarians do indeed reject the state and attempt to dissociate themselves from it.  The only real difference between them and the ‘anarchists’ is that they do seem to have reasonable respect for individual property rights, and have none of the anarchists’ desire to cause harm and damage to others.

Modern anarchism is also, of course, influenced by half-understood Marxist doctrine, so mixed in with the libertarian anti-statism we get a strong admixture of class warfare and some ideas along the lines that private ownership of anything is somehow an affront against – and here we run into the major intellectual incoherence of this system of thought, in that the anarchists are attempting to overthrow the current regime in the name of something they proclaim to not believe in, that is to say a supra-personal collective entity.  In other words, modern anarchism seems to be an incoherent mishmash espoused mostly by those who feel their position in society should be other than it is, and who find destruction more appealing than constructive effort.

The only positive strand of though that I can mention is that espoused by Alan Moore in his novel V for Vendetta, where he makes precisely the point I made above: anarchy does not mean no order it means no leader.  He proposes the vision of a leaderless but orderly society but, it has to be said, rather ducks the question of what such a thing might look like.  Let us turn to considering just that.

Philosophical anarchism


I wish to propose my concept of philosophical anarchism.  This is essentially a theory of leadership and what constitutes legitimate and illegitimate leadership.  It is simple to state.  Say I want you to do something.  There are two possibilities:

  1. I assert that because I am your leader you must obey me in everything; you have no right of comeback, and if you refuse sanctions can be taken against you.
  2. I explain  why I am asking you and am prepared to answer any questions you might have about my request; you then have the right to do what I ask, to propose a modified version, or to refuse outright.

The first approach is the very aptly named fuehrerprinzip and is essentially an authoritarian approach where leaders have coercive rights over followers.  It is, in fact, not all that uncommon even in open societies.  For example, some business leaders positively boast of following it, and it is also commonplace in large bureaucracies.  The second approach is philosophical anarchism.  Why do I call this anarchism?  Essentially it is because this approach is an absolute denial of leadership.  Rather than I having coercive power over you, we are placed in an association of equals, where you are free to act as you will, I am free to persuade you, but that is all.  So neither of us is placed over or beneath the other.

How might this work?  First of all, let us make it clear, this does not mean that you have no decision-makers, and that there is no distinction between those who set the direction of an organisation and those who do the work.  The point is that in an enterprise run along philosophically anarchic lines, decision makers still make the big decisions, but they must be accountable to the workers.  That is to say, if a decision has been made and workers dislike it, the decision makers do not have the right to say ‘we have decided, your opinions count for nothing, obey us or leave’.  They do have the right to say ‘we are sorry, but for the following forty-seven reasons we have to do this, even though we acknowledge that your complaints have merit’.  In other words, decision makers can still make uncomfortable decisions, but they cannot lie to their workers about those decisions, and they must be prepared to do what they can to alleviate workers’ concerns.

As I said in the introduction, this is actually a very radical form of democracy, in fact its ultimate outcome, in that we establish that people no longer have different roles because one is better than the other, only that they have different aptitudes.  Such ‘leaders’ as there are in a society run along philosophically anarchic lines are at best provisional, and have no right to expect unquestioning obedience.  The concept creates a fundamental equality between those who make the decisions and those who implement them.

Historical examples

In fact there are a number of examples of philosophical anarchism in action.  Perhaps the purest instance is the classical Athenian democracy of the fifth century BCE.  This was a society which quite literally had no leaders.  Decisions were made by the demos, the assembly of the people.  Aristophanes, who appears to have been part of the group around Plato who were anti-democratic,  satirises the tendency of Athenians to expect to have everything explained to them before they will agree to do anything; he complains in Wasps that democracy has become so endemic that whores refuse to take up positions in which they have to take a subordinate role.  In other words, philosophical anarchism was in full play.  The seemingly trivial jibe about the whores and sex positions shows a radical democracy in which any assumption of superiority or inequality is questioned.

Now, charismatic individuals emerged and took on temporary positions of influencing decision-making. Cleon and Pericles became powerful in directing the state, but their power lasted precisely as long as they were able to convince the demos to go along with what they proposed; the moment it lost confidence in them, they were finished, in the case of Pericles with positively catastrophic results for the demos.  But by and large we see, for example in the extraordinarily convoluted mechanisms for counting jury votes in trials, and the fact that the jury was constituted of anyone who happened to turn up that day, extreme devotion to the principle that all are equal and none has the right to require another (so long as they be free, a man and not a foreigner, of course) to do anything.

The other example is the Roman Republic.  Ideally this was a society in which none had de facto special status (ignoring the peculiarity of Patricians versus Plebians which is a complication but does not change the argument) and anyone could, if they were sufficiently successful, be elected to pretty well any position of state.  There was some complexity as regards elegibility for Senatorial status, but this was mostly related to property rather than anything else.  The rich-man’s Senate was balanced by the poor-man’s Popular Assembly, at which Tribunes of the Plebs could introduce laws.  Moreover, the Tribunes could over-ride the Senate: they had the right to attend its meetings and any of them could demand that the session end immediately, thus effectively vetoing whatever legislation may have been under debate.

In addition to this finely balanced system, the main Roman relationship between individuals was that of patron and client.  Not leader and follower.  The client undertook to carry out certain actions for their patron in return for assistance of some form or other and, critically, both parties were bound by whatever agreement they came to.  So the arrangement was contractual rather than dictatorial.  And, of course, the client always had the right to say ‘no’.  This notional equality was very important to the Romans, who saw all of their society, even the army, as an association of free individuals working together, rather than as leaders and followers.


One might think that Athens was some kind of paradise.  In fact, if you were a woman in Athens you had two choices: you could become a prostitute or you could enter a life so secluded and hemmed in that it would be comparable to life as a woman under the Taliban.  On the other hand, in authoritarian, strongly centralised Sparta, women were highly valued members of society and more or less equal to men; Spartan women were, in fact, noted across Greece for their forthrightness and blunt way of speaking.

Similarly, the Roman Republic was ostensibly an extremely egalitarian society.  In practice, a few powerful families arranged things so that they achieved almost total control, and manipulated the system so that the people never had a chance to actually use their notional powers to prevent legislation that benefited the few at the expense of the many.  Indeed, whenever any Senator or Tribune tried to redress the imbalance in the system they tended to die quite quickly.  It took the dictatorship of Julius Caesar and the subsequent monarchical empire to make the system as fair as it claimed to be.

So a decentralised ‘egalitarian’ state isn’t necessarily good and an authoritarian state isn’t necessarily bad.  This is a critical point: philosophical anarchism, like any political theory can be applied for good or for bad; it is no guarantee of a fair and free society.  This fact is often overlooked by adherents of liberal politics, who appear to think that provided the ideas are liberal, the execution of those ideas must also be liberal.  This is not true.

As soon as you have an in-group and an out-group then the notional egalitarianism of philosophical anarchism is disrupted.  In the case of Athens, the in-group were the adult non-foreign free men of the demos, in the case of Rome it was Patrician Senators and their conservative hangers-on.  In general, the disruption creates an imbalance, and naturally the in-group will act to advantage itself at the expense of the out-group, and so things will go on until a notionally egalitarian system has turned into an incognito oligarchy.  We see this in the United States, where the claim that all are equal is regularly demolished, as can be seen in the absurd racial imbalance of prison inmates, or the equally absurd way that titles relating to a role or job appear to stay with the one-time holder of that role or job for life.

So the question is: is the formation of in-groups and out-groups avoidable?  Here there are no simple answers.  My belief is that it is provided that there is constant vigilance by all involved in the society to ensure that none are allowed to introduce imbalances.  However, this is incredibly unstable.  What I mean by that is that it is very easy to knock the system off balance and turn it into an unequal society.  For example, all it takes is for a majority to decide to disenfranchise a minority and we have an out-group.  Provided enough people come to agree with a proposition, no matter how vile it may be, they can make it happen if there is no restraining mechanism. However, we need to be careful: some action against minorities is justified, e.g. punishment for misdeeds.  What we need to avoid is letting these justified actions result in the creation of defined out-groups.  So, for example, criminals are punished, but they are not then (as, for example, is the case in the United States) treated as outcasts.

So what is the appropriate restraining mechanism?  It’s fairly easy to see that one needs a way that minorities can push back against majorities.  But this has to apply with all sizes of minority.  So one has to have a mechanism somehow built into the society that any one individual can, if they wish, thwart the will of all of the others.  That is a recipe for deadlock.  It is also nonsense (it means that one cannot, for example, take any sanction against criminals).  Moreover it is a reversion to the libertarian self-centred form of anarchy, where nothing can be done unless all will it.  So it seems that philosophical anarchy will inevitably collapse into popular anarchy: a condition of the absence of order.

There is one possible way out.  Instead of preventing the majority from acting against a minority by providing a way for the minority to inhibit action, what about a way of making it less likely that majorities will, in fact decide to victimise minorities?  If the society is small enough this might work simply because all individuals will know a sufficiently large sector of the total population that virtually everyone will be a friend-of-a-friend.  It is very hard to decide to demonise your friends, or your friends’ friends, and so this should act to inhibit the formation of exclusionary ideas.  So, more formally, if the average distance (in terms of number of acquaintances required to get from one to the other) between any two individuals in the population is small (I would guess less than three) then philosophical anarchism may be stable.  Indeed, it seems to be more or less stable in village / small town environments.  However, as cases such as Salem show, even these may be susceptible to instability.

So, in conclusion, philosophical anarchy is a nice idea, but it seems that unless it is propped up by some fairly strong state-like machinery it will eventually break down.  It may, however, be usable as an organisational technique for businesses where, used with discretion, it could reduce the employee disaffection that the current cult of the leader inevitably creates.


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