Everyday Anarchy - Part 1 of 7

Everyday Anarchy

Part 1

by Stefan Molyneux

May 23, 2008


It's hard to know whether a word can ever be rehabilitated ' or whether the attempt should even be made.

Words are weapons, and can be used like any tools, for good or ill. We are all aware of the clich'd uses of such terms as 'terrorists' versus 'freedom fighters,' etc. An atheist can be called an 'unbeliever'; a theist can be called 'superstitious.' A man of conviction can be called an 'extremist'; a man of moderation 'cowardly.' A free spirit can be called a libertine or a hedonist; a cautious introvert can be labeled a stodgy prude.

Words are also weapons of judgment ' primarily moral judgment. We can say that a man can be 'freed' of sin if he accepts Jesus; we can also say that he can be 'freed' of irrationality if he does not. A patriot will say that a soldier 'serves' his country; others may take him to task for his blind obedience. Acts considered 'murderous' in peacetime are hailed as 'noble' in war, and so on.

Some words can never be rehabilitated ' and neither should they be. Nazi, evil, incest, abuse, rape, murder ' these are all words which describe the blackest impulses of the human soul, and can never be turned to a good end. Edmund may say in King Lear, 'Evil, be thou my good!' but we know that he is not speaking paradoxically; he is merely saying 'that which others call evil ' my self-interest ' is good for me.'

The word 'anarchy' may be almost beyond redemption ' any attempt to find goodness in it could well be utterly futile ' or worse; the philosophical equivalent of the clich'd scene in hospital dramas where the surgeon blindly refuses to give up on a clearly dead patient.

Perhaps I'm engaged in just such a fool's quest in this little book. Perhaps the word 'anarchy' has been so abused throughout its long history, so thrown into the pit of incontestable human iniquity that it can never be untangled from the evils that supposedly surround it.

What images spring to mind when you hear the word 'anarchy'? Surely it evokes mad riots of violence and lawlessness ' a post-apocalyptic Darwinian free-for-all where the strong and evil dominate the meek and reasonable. Or perhaps you view it as a mad political agenda, a thin ideological cover for murderous desires and cravings for assassinations, where wild-eyed, mustachioed men with thick hair and thicker accents roll cartoon bombs under the ornate carriages of slowly-waving monarchs. Or perhaps you view 'anarchy' as more of a philosophical specter; the haunted and angry mutterings of over-caffeinated and seemingly-eternal grad students; a nihilistic surrender to all that is seductive and evil in human nature, a hurling off the cliff of self-restraint, and a savage plunge into the mad magic of the moment, without rules, without plans, without a future . . . .

If your teenage son were to come home to you one sunny afternoon and tell you that he had become an anarchist, you would likely feel a strong urge to check his bag for black hair dye, fresh nose rings, clumpy mascara and dirty needles. His announcement would very likely cause a certain trapdoor to open under your heart, where you may fear that it might fall forever. The heavy syllables of words like 'intervention,' 'medication,' 'boot camp,' and 'intensive therapy' would probably accompany the thudding of your quickened pulse.

All this may well be true, of course ' I may be thumping the chest of a broken patient long since destined for the morgue, but certain . . . insights, you could say, or perhaps correlations, continue to trouble me immensely, and I cannot shake the fear that it is not anarchy that lies on the table, clinging to life ' but rather, the truth.

I will take a paragraph or two to try and communicate what troubles me so much about the possible injustice of throwing the word 'anarchy' into the pit of evil ' if I have not convinced you by the end of the next page that something very unjust may be afoot, then I will have to continue my task of resurrection with others, because I do not for a moment imagine that I would ever convince you to call something good that is in fact evil.

And neither would I want to.

Now the actual meaning of the word 'anarchy' is (from the OED):

  • 1. Absence of government; a state of lawlessness due to the absence or inefficiency of the supreme power; political disorder.
  • 2. A theoretical social state in which there is no governing person or body of persons, but each individual has absolute liberty (without implication of disorder).

Thus we can see that the word 'anarchy' represents two central meanings: an absence of both government and social order, and an absence of government with no implication of social disorder.

Without a government . . . .

What does that mean in practice?

Well, clearly there are two kinds of leaders in this world ' those who lead by incentive, and those who lead by force. Those who lead by incentive will offer you a salary to come and work for them; those who lead by force will throw you in jail if you do not pick up a gun and fight for them.

Those who lead by incentive will try to get you to voluntarily send your children to their schools by keeping their prices reasonable, their classes stimulating, and demonstrating proven and objective success.

Those who lead by force will simply tell you that if you do not pay the property taxes to fund their schools, you will be thrown in jail.

Clearly, this is the difference between voluntarism and violence.

The word 'anarchy' does not mean 'no rules.' It does not mean 'kill others for fun.' It does not mean 'no organization.'

It simply means: 'without a political leader.'

The difference, of course, between politics and every other area of life is that in politics, if you do not obey the government, you are thrown in jail. If you try to defend yourself against the people who come to throw you in jail, they will shoot you.

So ' what does the word 'anarchy' really mean?

It simply means a way of interacting with others without threatening them with violence if they do not obey.

It simply means 'without political violence.'

The difference between this word and words like 'murder' and 'rape' is that we do not mix murder and rape with the exact opposite actions in our life, and consider the results normal, moral and healthy. We do not strangle a man in the morning, then help a woman across the street in the afternoon, and call ourselves 'good.'

The true evils that we all accept ' rape, assault, murder, theft ' are never considered a core and necessary part of the life of a good person. An accused murderer does not get to walk free by pointing out that he spent all but five seconds of his life not killing someone.

With those acknowledged evils, one single transgression changes the moral character of an entire life. You would never be able to think of a friend who is convicted of rape in the same way again.

However ' this is not the case with 'anarchy' ' it does not fit into that category of 'evil' at all.

When we think of a society without political violence ' without governments ' these specters of chaos and brutality always arise for us, immediately and, it would seem, irrevocably.

However, it only takes a moment of thought to realize that we live the vast majority of our actual lives in complete and total anarchy ' and call such anarchy 'morally good.'

Everyday Anarchy

For instance, take dating, marriage and family.

In any reasonably free society, these activities do not fall in the realm of political coercion. No government agency chooses who you are to marry and have children with, and punishes you with jail for disobeying their rulings. Voluntarism, incentive, mutual advantage ' dare we say 'advertising'? ' all run the free market of love, sex and marriage.

What about your career? Did a government official call you up at the end of high school and inform you that you were to become a doctor, a lawyer, a factory worker, a waiter, an actor, a programmer ' or a philosopher? Of course not. You were left free to choose the career that best matched your interests, abilities and initiative.

What about your major financial decisions? Each month, does a government agent come to your house and tell you exactly how much you should save, how much you should spend, whether you can afford that new couch or old painting? Did you have to apply to the government to buy a new car, a new house, a plasma television or a toothbrush?

No, in all the areas mentioned above ' love, marriage, family, career, finances ' we all make our major decisions in the complete absence of direct political coercion.

Thus ' if anarchy is such an all-consuming, universal evil, why is it the default ' and virtuous ' freedom that we demand in order to achieve just liberty in our daily lives?

If the government told you tomorrow that it was going to choose for you where to live, how to earn your keep, and who to marry ' would you fall to your knees and thank the heavens that you have been saved from such terrible anarchy ' the anarchy of making your own decisions in the absence of direct political coercion?

Of course not ' quite the opposite ' you would be horrified, and would oppose such an encroaching dictatorship with all your might.

This is what I mean when I say that we consider anarchy to be an irreducible evil ' and also an irreducible good. It is both feared and despised ' and considered necessary and virtuous.

If you were told that tomorrow you would wake up and there would be no government, you would doubtless fear the specter of 'anarchy.'

If you were told tomorrow that you would have to apply for a government permit to have children, you would doubtless fear the specter of 'dictatorship,' and long for the days of 'anarchy,' when you could decide such things without the intervention of political coercion.

Thus we can see that we human beings are deeply, almost ferociously ambivalent about 'anarchy.' We desperately desire it in our personal lives, and just as desperately fear it politically.

Another way of putting this is that we love the anarchy we live, and yet fear the anarchy we imagine.

One more point, and then you can decide whether my patient is beyond hope or not.

It has been pointed out that a totalitarian dictatorship is characterized by the almost complete absence of rules. When Solzhenitsyn was arrested, he had no idea what he was really being charged with, and when he was given his 10-year sentence, there was no court of appeal, or any legal proceedings whatsoever. He had displeased someone in power, and so it was off to the gulags with him!

When we examine countries where government power is at its greatest, we see situations of extreme instability, and a marked absence of objective rules or standards. The tinpot dictatorships of third world countries are regions arbitrarily and violently ruled by gangs of sociopathic thugs.

Closer to home, for most of us, is the example of inner-city government-run schools, ringed by metal detectors, and saturated with brutality, violence, sexual harassment, and bullying. The surrounding neighborhoods are also under the tight control of the state, which runs welfare programs, public housing, the roads, the police, the buses, the hospitals, the sewers, the water, the electricity and just about everything else in sight. These sorts of neighborhoods have moved beyond democratic socialism, and actually lie closer to dictatorial communism.

Similarly, when we think of these inner cities as a whole, we can also understand that the majority of the endemic violence results from the drug trade, which directly resulted from government bans on the manufacture and sale of certain kinds of drugs. Treating drug addiction rather than arresting addicts would, it is estimated, reduce criminal activity by up to 80%.

Here, again, where there is a concentration of political power, we see violence, mayhem, shootings, stabbings, rapes and all the attendant despair and nihilism ' everything that 'anarchism' is endlessly accused of!

What about prisons, where political power is surely at its greatest? Prisons seethe with rapes, murders, stabbings and assaults ' not to mention drug addiction. Sadistic guards beat on sadistic prisoners, to the point where the only difference at times seems to be the costumes. Here we have a 'society' that seems like a parody of 'anarchy' ' a nihilistic and ugly universe usually described by the word 'anarchy' which actually results from a maximization of political power, or the exact opposite of 'anarchy.'

Now, we certainly could argue that yes, it may be true that an excess of political power breeds anarchy ' but that a deficiency of political power breeds anarchy as well! Perhaps 'order' is a sort of Aristotelian mean, which lies somewhere between the chaos of a complete absence of political coercion, and the chaos of an excess of political coercion.

However, we utterly reject that approach in the other areas mentioned above ' love, marriage, finances, career, etc. We understand that any intrusion of political coercion into these realms would be a complete disaster for our freedoms. We do not say, with regards to marriage, 'Well, we wouldn't want the government choosing everyone's spouse ' but neither do we want the government having no involvement in choosing people spouses! The correct amount of government coercion lies somewhere in the middle.'

No, we specifically and unequivocally reject the intrusion of political coercion into such personal aspects of our lives.

Thus once more we must at least recognize the basic paradox that we desperately need and desire the reality of anarchy in our personal lives ' and yet desperately hate and fear the idea of anarchy in our political environment.

We love the anarchy we live. We fear the anarchy we imagine ' the anarchy we are taught to fear.

Until we can discuss the realities of our ambivalence towards this kind of voluntarism, we shall remain fundamentally stuck as a species ' like any individual who wallpapers over his ambivalence, we shall spend our lives in distracted and oscillating avoidance, to the detriment of our own present, and our children's future.

This is why I cannot just let this patient die. I still feel a heartbeat ' and a strong one too!

Ambivalence and Bigotry

It is a truism ' and I for one think a valid one ' that the simple mind sees everything in black or white. Wisdom, on the other hand, involves being willing to suffer the doubts and complexities of ambivalence.

The dark-minded bigot says that all blacks are perfidious; the light-minded bigot says that all blacks are victims. The misogynist says that all women are corrupt; the feminist often says that all women are saints.

Exploring the complexities and contradictions of life with an open-minded fairness ' neither with the imposition of premature judgment, nor the withholding of judgment once the evidence is in ' is the mark of the scientist, the philosopher ' of a rational mind.

The fundamentalists among us ascribe all mysteries to the 'will of God' ' which answers nothing at all, since when examined, the 'will of God' turns out to be just another mystery; it is like saying that the location of my lost keys is 'the place where my keys are not lost' ' it adds nothing to the equation other than a teeth-gritting tautology. Mystery equals mystery. Anyone with more than half a brain can do little more than roll his eyes.

The immaturity of jumping to premature and useless conclusions is matched on the other hand only by the shallow and frightened fogs of modern ' or perhaps I should say post-modern ' relativism, where no conclusions are ever valid, no absolute statements are ever just ' except that one of course ' and everything is exploration, typically blindfolded, and without a compass. There is no destination, no guidepost, no sense of progress, no building to a greater goal ' it is the endless dissection of cultural cadavers without even a definition of health or purpose, which thus comes perilously close to looking like fetishistic sadism.

The simple truth is that some black men are good, and some black men are bad, and most black men are a mixture, just as we all are. Some women are treacherous; some women are saints. 'Blackness' or 'gender' is an utterly useless metric when it comes to evaluating a person morally; it is about as helpful as trying to use an iPod to determine which way is north. The phrase 'sexual penetration' does not tell us whether the act is consensual or not ' saying that sexual penetration is always evil is as useless as saying that it is always good.

In the same way, some anarchism is good (notably that which we treasure so much in our personal lives) and some anarchism is bad (notably our fears of violent chaos, bomb-throwing and large mustaches). As a word, however, 'anarchism' does nothing to help us evaluate these situations. Applying foolish black-and-white thinking to complex and ambiguous situations is just another species of bigotry.

Claiming that 'anarchism' is both rank political evil and the greatest treasure in our personal lives is a contradiction well worth examining, if we wish to gain some measure of mature wisdom about the essential questions of truth, virtue and the moral challenges of social organization . . . .

This is Part 1 of the free book 'Everyday Anarchy,' available at www.freedomainradio.com/free

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Stefan Molyneux's picture
Columns on STR: 17

Stefan Molyneux is the host of Freedomain Radio, the most popular philosophical podcast on the Internet, and a Top 10 Finalist in the 2007 Podcast Awards.  He is the author of Universally Preferable Behavior: A Rational Proof of Secular Ethics, On Truth: The Tyranny of Illusion, and the novel The God of Atheists.