Whither anarchy: freedom as non-domination

Anarchists once took constitutionalism very seriously and might well do so again to develop radical decision-making practices. Kim Davis/flickr, CC BY-NC-ND

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 second of four perspectives on the political relevance of anarchism and the prospects for liberty in the world today.


Which institutions are best suited to realising freedom? This is a question recently asked by the republican political theorist Philip Pettit.

Anarchists, by contrast to republicans, argue that the modern nation-state and the institution of private property are antithetical to freedom. According to anarchists, these are historic injustices that are structurally dominating. If you value freedom as non-domination, you must reject both as inimical to realising this freedom.

But what is freedom as non-domination? In a nutshell, by a line of thinking most vocally articulated by Pettit, I’m free to the degree that I am not arbitrarily dominated by any other. I am not free if someone can arbitrarily interfere in the execution of my choices.

If I consent to a system of rules or procedures, anyone that then invokes these rules against me cannot be said to be curtailing my freedom from domination. My scope for action might be constrained, but since I have consented to the rules that now curtail my freedom, I am not subject to arbitrary domination.

Imagine, for instance, that I have a drinking problem and I’ve asked my best friend to keep me away from the bar. If she sees me heading in that direction and prevents me from getting anywhere near the alcohol, she dominates, but not arbitrarily, so my status as a free person is not affected.

Republican theory diverges from liberal theory because the latter treats any interference in my actions as a constraint on my freedom – especially if I paid good money for the drink, making it my property.

Neither republicans nor liberals suggest that private property and the state might themselves be detrimental to freedom, quite the opposite. By liberal accounts, private property is the bedrock of individual rights. In contemporary republican theory, property ownership is legitimate as long as it is non-dominating.

Republicans further argue that a state that tracks your interests and encourages deliberative contestation and active political participation will do best by your freedom.

The special status of property and the state

But why should we assume that property or the state is central to securing freedom as non-domination? The answer seems to be force of habit. For republicans like Pettit, the state is like the laws of physics while private property is akin to gravity. In ideal republican theory, these two institutions are just background conditions we simply have to deal with, neither dominating nor undominating, just there.

While anarchists don’t disagree that property and the state exist, they seek to defend a conception of freedom as non-domination that factors in their dominating, slavish and enslaving effects. Anarchism emerged in the 19th century, when republicanism, particularly in the US, was perfectly consistent with slavery and needed the state to enforce that state of affairs.

Anarchists denounce the institutions of dominance under industrial capitalism. Quinn Dombrowski/flickr

The abolition of slavery and the emergence of industrial capitalism were predicated on the extension of the principle of private property to the propertyless, not only slaves, who were encouraged to see themselves as self-possessors who could sell their labour on the open market at the market rate.

Likewise, in Europe millions of emancipated serfs were lured into land settlements that left them permanently indebted to landlords and state functionaries. They were barely able to meet taxes and rents and frequently faced starvation.

The anarchists uniformly denounced this process as the transformation of slavery, rather than its abolition. They deployed synonyms like “wage slavery” to describe the new state of affairs. Later, they extended their conception of domination by analysing sex slavery and marriage slavery.

Proudhon’s twin dictums “property is theft” and “slavery is murder” should be understood in this context. As he noted, neither would have been possible but for the republican state enforcing and upholding the capitalist property regime.

The state became dependent on taxes, while property owners were dependent on the state to keep recalcitrant populations at bay. And, by the mid-20th century, workers were dependent on the state for welfare and social security because of the poverty-level wages paid by capitalists.

As Karl Polanyi noted, there was nothing natural about this process. The unfurling of the “free market”, the liberal euphemism for this process, had to be enforced and continues to be across the world.

Republicans might encourage us to think of the state and property like the laws of physics or gravity because this helps them argue that their conception of freedom as non-domination is not moralised – that is, their conception of freedom as non-domination does not depend on a prior ethical commitment to anything else.

But as soon as you strip away the physics, it appears that republican freedom is in fact deeply moralised – the state and private property remain central to the possibility of republican freedom in an a priori way. Republican accounts of freedom demand we ignore a prior ethical commitment to two institutions that should themselves be rejected.

Anarchists argue that private property and the state precipitate structures of domination that position people in hierarchical relations of domination, which are often if not always exacerbated by distinctions of race, gender and sexuality. These are what Uri Gordon calls the multiple “regimes of domination” that structure our lives.

Looking to constitutionalism as a radical tool

Anarchists are anarchists to the extent that they actively combat these forces. How should they do this?

Typically, the answer is through a specific form of communal empowerment (“power with” rather than “power over”). This would produce structural power egalitarianism, a situation in which no one can arbitrarily dominate another.

But is this realistic or desirable? Would a reciprocal powers politics not simply result in the very social conflicts that anarchists see structuring society already, as Pettit has argued?

Even anarchists need rules to guide group decision-making – such as these ones at Occupy Vancouver. Sally T. Buck/flickr, CC BY-NC-ND

And what about radical democracy? Perhaps anarchists could replace engagement with the state with radical practices of decision-making? The problem is that anarchists haven’t even defined the requisite constituencies or how they should relate to one another. What if my mass constituency’s democratic voice conflicts with yours?

There is one implement in the republican tool box that anarchists once took very seriously and which might be resurrected: constitutionalism. Without a state to fall back on or private property to lean on, anarchists like Proudhon devised radically anti-hierarchical and impressively imaginative constitutional forms.

Even today, when constitutionalism is almost uniformly associated with bureaucracy and domination, anarchists continue to devise constitutional systems. By looking at anarchist practices like the Occupy movement’s camp rules and declarations (We are the 99%!), we can revive anarchist constitutionalism and show how freedom as non-domination may be revised and deployed as an anti-capitalist, anti-statist emancipatory principle. You can see more about this here.


You can read other articles in the series here.

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