Whither anarchy: the fantasy of natural law

Do outdated fantasies of anarchism simply play into the agendas of the rich and privileged? Nuit debout in Paris, 2016. Nicolas Vigier/flickr

This article is part of the Democracy Futures series, a joint global initiative with the Sydney Democracy Network. The project aims to stimulate fresh thinking about the many challenges facing democracies in the 21st century. This article is the last of four perspectives on the political relevance of anarchy and the prospects for liberty in the world today.


What is the relevance of anarchism today? Should we see a reinvigoration of anarchist tropes and themes or movements – such as Occupy, the Spanish Indignados and most recently Nuit debout in France – as a sign that anarchism is about to enjoy a resurgence?

Notwithstanding the slow but undeniable decline of political ideologies and sources of inspiration for political action, my feeling is that anarchism has fallen into a certain redundancy when confronted with the issues that animate activists today.

The anarchist focus on the state as the locus for its critique of how power and domination operate has a vaguely antique air to it. It’s an analysis that belongs to the early modern era and particularly to the period of high colonialism that inspired the classic works of anarchism in the early and mid-19th century.

What we see in this period is state power being used to eviscerate indigenous ownership over land. This happened both as an internal process of what Marx called “primitive accumulation” and as an external process of forced conquest and enslavement of subject peoples.

From this point of view, the anarchists’ argument that the key antagonism lies between a statist metropolitan core and various forms of collective communal existences beyond or outside of the state is compelling. Resistance to the state was thus a logical strategy for those who wish to preserve and consecrate forms of social life beyond or outside the state.

For anarchists such as Proudhon and Kropotkin, society worked best when it ran in accordance with “natural law”, which they, by contrast with the likes of Hobbes, regarded as essentially benign and sociable.

It was the state that disrupted the possibility of social peace and harmony, not “us”. The state was an imposition, an artifice whose origins are rooted in the protection and promotion of inequality and enslavement.

In the mid-19th century, it was perhaps still plausible to cling to the idea of the reinvigoration of “society” as potentially having a distinct life apart from the institutions and processes of the state.

Battlelines have shifted

Let’s fast-forward to today’s “anarchistic” movements. What provided the spark for Nuit debout? In origin it was Loi de travail. And what is that about? A threat to undermine hard-won gains by generations of trade unionists who have sought to use state power to protect workers’ rights from the encroachments of the market and neoliberals.

Is the problem ‘too much state’ or not enough? Georges P/flickr

This movement and the protests going on in France as I write are inspired not by the prospect of the state encroaching on society and “natural law”, but by the threat of the state withdrawing from the economic sphere, leaving workers exposed to the law of the market. The problem is not “too much state”, but not enough – or not enough to protect those who stand to lose from the winding back of state protection in the name of economic competitiveness.

The antagonisms that give rise to political mobilisation today have quite a different character to those of 19th century. Once this antagonism was between the state and society. Now the key conflict is between the state and the market.

“Rolling back the state” is a phrase we rightly associate with an aggressive assault on decades of collective agreements, understandings, practices and institutions. Together, these have provided the basis for commodious living under market or capitalist conditions. This includes state-provided health services, education, welfare payments, social housing and the like.

Rolling back the state is no longer suggestive of restoring or preserving the rights of indigenous, tribal or other kinds of “natural” association. There remains a kind of doctrinaire anarchist who is deeply hostile to seeing these facets of collective life as anything other than a sop to capitalism. They are wary of creating “happy slaves” far removed from the image of the fully autonomous individual they believe would be the result of removing the state.

The Occupy protesters, the Indignados, Nuit debout and all the rest know better than that. The absence of a program, ideology or manifesto from these political phenomena can be read as a nod in the direction of an “anarchistic” practice, as can the deliberative assemblies, the “pre-figurative” gestures of soup kitchens etc.

Forget about soup kitchens, what about anarchist community television? Nicolas Vigier/flickr

But the absence of demands is better read as a desire to maintain an inclusive “anger” about the direction in which our world and our politics is heading – away from social democratic, state-centric collective life towards a warts-and-all “natural existence” where the dominant ethos is “survival of the fittest”.

It’s a world that Stirner and individualistic anarchists might be comfortable in – but not collectivists or anyone concerned about the least well-off.

State or society is a false choice

My hunch is that it is Donald Trump, Wall Street and Big Finance that will gain from “anarchy”, not the poor, the marginal and those whose plight animated the emergence of an anarchist theory and practice in the first place.

Anarchism lost its “natural” constituency in the more or less violent process of the unfolding of modernity, whether of the state capitalist, communist or free market varieties.

What we are left with is not a choice between “state” and “society”, but between a state that serves the needs and interests of its citizens and a state that prioritises the needs and interests of the 1%.

Many anarchists know this, which is why some of them are standing for election in places like Spain, Iceland and Italy – and winning. They understand that the contemporary task is not the abolition of the state, as per the classical anarchist formula, but its transformation into a vehicle that better expresses the needs and wishes of ordinary citizens.

It is not to rid us of political authority in the name of “natural law”, but to create the conditions for a more authentic and more involving form of democracy that protects many of the “wins” from decades of struggles by trade unionists, social movements and progressive political parties.

Today’s anarchists should give up the fantasy of “abolishing the state”. That simply plays into the agenda of the rich and privileged. Instead, they should join in the movement to make the state more democratic, more accountable and better able to reflect the views, needs and interests of all of its citizens.


You can read the other articles in the series here.