[Contribution to the Reimagining Society Project hosted by ZCommunications]
Over the years, I have intimated to many of my anarchist friends that even though I consider myself an anarchist, I don’t have a high degree of confidence in the possibility of any society ever achieving a reliable order without some form of "government." At the very least, I am certain – despite my hostility toward nearly all forms of authority – that no revolution carried out in a society like the
I still believe in the anarchist ideal as an ultimate objective, if humans can demonstrate the capacity to self-organize free of any forms of authority. All else being equal, if we can achieve peace and order without ever resorting to authoritarian means or institutions, all the better. I certainly believe in striving to eliminate all unnecessary forms of authority wherever and whenever possible.
But if I could snap my fingers today and make government disappear entirely by tomorrow, I would not do so. And not just because that would deprive society of the necessary practical experience of self-organizing in preparation as an integral aspect of revolutionary change. Right now, government provides a key protection to huge numbers of vulnerable people from the worst exploits of capitalists, patriarchs, white supremacists, and adults. It doesn’t fully protect the working poor, women and the LGBTQ community, people of color, children or the disabled from all or most oppression, or else we might just consider it a solution! And in each of these cases, government is often an indispensable tool of deprivation, invalidation, indoctrination, abuse, or coercion.
That said, other forces have aspirations toward still-worse forms of oppression, and in the absence of real social movements and institutions with the strength to protect society from these other violators, the government serves this purpose to at least an extent.
But what if you could erode the state’s functions over time by building alternative institutions that can take over or render obsolete whatever positive roles government entities now play? For instance, you could argue, a participatory socialist economy would not need significant outside regulation, worker and consumer protections, and so forth; those would be built into the economic system itself. And as economically motivated crime ebbs, so will our need for laws, police or courts or a national military or even a nation. In a revolutionary society, all of our institutions – feminist, youth-empowering families; participatory democratic municipal forums; workers and consumers councils, and so forth – would deal with social conflict such that authoritarian measures will not be needed.
That is, in fact, a clearer vision than most contemporary anarchists are able to present when pressed for an actual vision of how their stateless society will work. And yet it is indeed that vision that I am saying is so unrealistic as to be inconceivable in an immediate post-insurrectionary phase. While a society consisting of such institutions sounds terrific, it won’t be able to avert or solve all serious social problems. We cannot make believe that in the chaotic mess after an insurrection, the tendency won’t be for people to turn to some form of authority, as they often do during crises.
If anarchists do not come up with proposals for the post-insurrectionary government – as strange as that proposition may seem – we leave the task open to authoritarians. It’s really that simple. The alternative is relying on a collective leap of faith that is unfathomable. That is, just to prevent the establishment of a government with authoritarian powers after the overthrow of an existing government, a huge portion of all citizens will have to actively oppose it. They won’t just have to be theoretical anarchists who believe in a stateless ideal, but they’ll have to have faith that all of society is ready to live without any laws, police, courts or prisons, and they’ll have to thwart the creation of any such institutions.
So unless we expect that a majority of the people will at an early revolutionary stage seek to extinguish any and all attempts at establishing new governing bodies, then anti-authoritarians must take part in the uncomfortable process of establishing sensible governing bodies.
We can certainly count on authoritarians of all stripes to be more than ready to coordinate revolutionary social change from the top down, and to establish a post-insurrectionary order that depends on strongly centralized, hierarchical institutions of control. Without a competing vision of social order – including political institutions with real authority and real power – only a pipe dreamer should expect a mass movement to get behind the stateless ideal in the immediate wake of a crumbling national government. If an existing Western government succumbs to leftist insurrection, it will be replaced by a new government, not a benign vacuum or a bunch of communities with no authoritarian institutions in sight. The only question for anarchists is whether we want to influence – maybe even define – the form that government takes, or leave it up to those who find the process much more palatable than we.
But this still sounds like a contradiction, right? Anarchists know as well as anybody that governments tend to self-perpetuate; they tend to accumulate and consolidate power. Even if we set up a largely libertarian, participatory government, it will be highly imperfect, and it will cause alternative political institutions to atrophy; people will "naturally" grow complacent; the institutions will grow more abusive and intrusive. And eventually the people will have to throw off this new government just like the last. So why bother?
Marxists and other authoritarians have sometimes insisted that an interim government is needed, and once we are done with it, we can shrug it off or it will dissolve. But anyone with a serious critique of authoritarian institutions knows better. Power, once consolidated, has a tendency to resist such shrugs, never mind the notion of it just "withering away," as Marxists and even Leninists like to offer.
But what if they’re partly right? (Yeah, I know – but I said it anyway.) I’ve never heard a Marxist (or anyone else) propose the creation of a government that is structurally designed to "wither away," but I see no reason we cannot develop a set of social institutions the existence of which relies on constant, active consent of the governed, lest it lose legitimacy and automatically dissolve.
That is, we could build social capacities for legislation, law enforcement, definitive adjudication of disputes, protection from hostile offenders (criminals and invaders alike) – with all these functions carried out by institutions that bear a strong burden of consent without which the institution automatically loses authority. This, of course, would be in addition to such institutions being designed as directly democratic and minimally hierarchical or completely horizontal.
For instance, laws would be approved by directly democratic or delegated legislatures. But this body would depend on a high quorum of participation, and a supermajority of participants would have to approve any law in order for it to make it onto the books. This would ensure that only the worst offenses would become official crimes. And any law on the books would need to be repeatedly reapproved, on a schedule set by the size of the supermajority that passed the law. So maybe a piece of legislation that passes with a 99% majority (say, the set of laws defining and prohibiting homicide) stays on the books for 15 years, then comes up for reapproval. A law that gets only 75% approval, on the other hand, is revisited in 5 years. If next time it only earns 65% support, depending on the rules set forth in a new charter, maybe it fails. This way, society is only holding people legally responsible for behavior deemed unacceptable by a vast majority of the citizenry. This would encourage advocates of laws to limit strictness and penalties in order to achieve passage while retaining for society the ability to clearly and enforcibly ban certain egregious behaviors.
When it comes to the organizations that carry out various functions in society that depend on a degree of political authority, we can add even more safeguards, such as recall mechanisms, civilian oversight panels with real teeth, and so forth. But these are in addition to the default mechanism of consent dependency. Any such institution would have to obtain the active consent of the population ostensibly subject to its authority.
For example, laws would be enforced by some institution with a policing function. Of course, I envision this function, the institution which fulfills it, and the roles of those carrying it out to be drastically different in a revolutionary society than their current forms. But let’s be honest: no matter how libertarian the society, people fulfilling the role of "police" will by definition maintain a disproportionate degree of power and authority. So the powers of the police department will be established by legislation that needs to be continually renewed. If the department fails in its mission, or if a preferable alternative forms at the grassroots, then the electorate could either trigger the dismantlement of the institution through petition and a dissolution vote, or simply discontinue its authorization by failing to vote confidence in the institution.
This consent-based government also depends on a quorum; probably 50% of qualified electorate has to participate in a vote for any proposed item to even be considered, and a supermajority of that quorum will have to authorize each item. This will theoretically foster a high level of participation, since a series of quorum failures would essentially trigger a true state of de facto anarchy – no insurrection required. Put differently: if people don’t show up to vote, the governmental institutions reflexively lose their mandate.
A government that truly depends on the active consent of the governed cannot stray from operating in the public interest simply by encouraging apathy as governments do today. In fact, apathy would translate into a vote of no confidence and terminate the government’s claim to legitimacy.
A keen critic will note that such dissolution-by-apathy, as it were, would not preclude some simple majority of those willing to participate in government from reestablishing a new, nonconsensual government and ruling over the apathetic. Which is to say, they would likely form a political dynamic like the civics-class ideal of any Western government, where an engaged electorate make decisions in the absence of those who choose not to or cannot vote, theoretically empowering a plurality to rule over the majority.
I personally suspect that even as a consent-bound government of the nature I propose might inspire truly systemic, healthy suspicion of authoritarian policies and institutions of all kinds, some institutions that require various authoritarian capacities – such as police, courts and even some kind of prisons – would remain supported for generations to come. This is simply because the citizenry will decide the social costs of being powerless or dependent on mob-rule in the face of, say, accused pathological criminals, would be higher than the costs born by society of having an extremely limited police organization functioning in its midst. This would mean having specially trained individuals to investigate crimes, others to detain suspects, others to try suspects, and in cases of conviction, institutions that see the consequences through, be they some form of reparations or restriction activity like house arrest, rehabilitation, or imprisonment.
I am equally certain that the default sunsetting of laws that do not get renewed would eventually whittle away at the list of official crimes in a society that has nonauthoritarian institutions that seek alternative ways to deal with social problems. Imagine a law like "disturbing the peace," or a similarly ambiguous statute, which might carry with it troubling applications and give police murky authority to manage gatherings of people or even individual speech that a community would just not be comfortable with. A community might just deem such a problem best dealt with outside the use of police at all. A system of governance like I am proposing incentivizes the implementation of alternatives that in turn lessen the need for authoritarian methods of maintaining social order.
To some, elements of my proposal may sound simply naïve. Can we truly expect power-possessing institutions to self-dissolve just because their technical authority is taken away? We can put on paper that an institution such as a police force is directly accountable to those subject to its authority, but what’s to ensure the populace that if it ceases to support the police force at some point, the police force will willingly comply? After all, authority is not the same thing as power. Once the police have the technical, logistical, and physical capability to do their jobs, even when stripped of the authority to patrol the streets, they still have the power to do so. Sure, a police force of the future would be limited in size and strength in the first place, and thus it would be relatively easy to depose any kind of coup-like maneuver by a recalcitrant department or rogue element, but this possibility does challenge the idea of self-dissolving institutions of authority.
Indeed, if such a conflict were to come to pass, the active involvement of the citizenry might be required to ensure dismantlement of a rogue institution, when merely turning their collective backs on the offenders might not do the trick. The secret weapon of the community, in this example, is popular control of economic institutions that are kept independent from policing institutions. That is, even if the people cannot quash a recalcitrant police force through political means, the people directly control the department’s access to material support. But, goes the argument, it would take some serious effort in such a case to actually depose the violators.
Still, I must ask, is this really the kind of potential problem with authority we’re not willing to accept? Consider, for a moment, the forms of authoritarian institutions others would implement. Wouldn’t you prefer the off chance that some communities would need to physically disarm a few rogue cops over the scene we’d face if Marxists or others get their way in the wake of a successful dismantlement of the old order? What are the chances authoritarian revolutionaries would even provide a way for communities to manage the size and power of their own police forces or remotely installed cadres loyal to the authorities in some remote capitol.?
The problem I have is that I am not sure I would side with anarchist fundamentalists, if it came down to it, the government had fallen, and the choice was between "anarchy" and some form of hierarchical government. And if I’m not sure, what are the chances that the majority of people wouldn’t side with those advocating some form of authority? The basic functions of political institutions are so worthwhile to most people, that I suspect we would support them in one form or another. My primary goal is to not get saddled with the choice between no government and a government established by non-anarchists. Paradoxical as it may sound, I want the anarchist government.
If the fundamentalist anarchists are right, and there’s really no place for institutions with political authority over public jurisdictions, then a consent-bound government renders that decision society’s as a whole. And citizens’ first layer of defense against a government growing out of control would be that government’s reliance on consultation with the people, as well as its dependence on an economic system that is essentially autonomous from the polity and is itself democratically controlled by the people. Never offer a government the capacity to grow beyond the reach of its base polity, and you eliminate 90 percent of the reason to fear that government.
When considering preparations for the immediate post-insurrectionary period, even the most fundamentalist antiauthoritarian need not assume that the question of government is an all-or-nothing proposition. This should be a relief to anarchists; it means we don’t have to pretend that the people will come to the collective conclusion that no government is better than a new government during what will certainly be highly tumultuous, uncertain times.
The tendency to turn to authority during crises need not automatically mean afflicting society with a new political cancer. The question really isn’t whether the people will – in the absence of an orderly, deliberative forum that provides space for calm reflection and reasoned debate – decide between no authority and authority. Reasonable people will choose authority. So let’s start discussing what kind of government provides the best, most peaceful path to the anarchist ideals without forcing the no-government philosophy down the throats of those feeling anxious and vulnerable in the face of great changes in all other spheres of social life.