Unwillingness to understand the Anarchist "opposition to authority"

Ah, another day, another horribly misguided anti-anarchist post from the Barefoot Bum who seemingly simply refuses to even listen to  what anarchists propose before criticizing Anarchism. It’s kind of sad really, especially seeing that it’s someone who wishes to pass himself as a radical intellectual and yet is too stubborn to know his enemy and rather prefers to imagine what their position is and counter that. It’s starts to feel as if he purposefully avoids knowledge just so that he cannot be accused of willful strawmanning. But one cannot avoid pointing out that this kind of behaviour goes far beyond simple misunderstanding, and rather points out a stubborn unwillingness to understand the other position. This is unfortunately only exaggerated when one is closed to all dialogue and would rather close his ears while shouting at the wind1.

Still, it does seem that when sufficiently demolished, TBB just might realize how egregiously wrong he is and jump to another strawman. At best, one can expect him to eventually run out of strawmen. At worst, this might serve to prevent someone who does not know better from being taken in by this kind of nonsense. So, without further ado, lets take a look at the arguments put forward in this article.

First of all anarchism is criticized for not having a sufficiently succinct definition like “Communism” which he mistakenly defines as governmental control of capital. One can provide quite a lot of descriptions of Anarchism but you cannot understand the sociopolitical system from just a description. That requires either reading, or a discussion with actual Anarchists and you cannot do the latter by acting like a twat. Nevertheless, one can describe Anarchism as egalitarianism via prevention of concentration of political or economical power. The replacement of hierarchical control with individual voluntarism and the replacement of competition as the driving force of progress with cooperation. As TBB said, the devil is in the details but fundamentally anarchism is predicated on the idea that distributed capital is order more effective than concentrated capital2 and that self-determination and mutual aid allows humans to achieve personal happiness that is orders higher than authoritarian top-down management can ever achieve.

TBB then moves to wonder what anarchists mean when they say that they “oppose authority” which is something that indeed needs clarification. But if one actually read what Anarchists had to say about this, they shouldn’t really have any confusion on this issue. This is really not a subject that is easy to explain, nor does it spring up from the definition of anarchism or from sound-bites one heard in a forum discussion and unfortunately that is precisely what TBB is doing and then wondering why it makes no sense. Anarchists recognise very well the distinctions of “authority” and are very clear on what exactly they oppose. In the words of Colin Ward:

“You can be in authority, or you can be an authority, or you can have authority. The first derives from your rank in some chain of command, the second derives special knowledge, and the third from special wisdom. But knowledge and wisdom are not distributed in order of rank, and they are no one person’s monopoly in any undertaking. The fantastic inefficiency of any hierarchical organisation — any factory, office, university, warehouse or hospital — is the outcome of two almost invariable characteristics. One is that the knowledge and wisdom of the people at the bottom of the pyramid finds no place in the decision-making leadership hierarchy of the institution. Frequently it is devoted to making the institution work in spite of the formal leadership structure, or alternatively to sabotaging the ostensible function of the institution, because it is none of their choosing. The other is that they would rather not be there anyway: they are there through economic necessity rather than through identification with a common task which throws up its own shifting and functional leadership.”Perhaps the greatest crime of the industrial system is the way it systematically thwarts the investing genius of the majority of its workers.”

It is blatantly obvious, when one retains intellectual honesty and does even a light attempt at discovering what anarchists oppose, that it is hierarchical authority. We oppose the authority which comes from people being in control only in lieu of them having more power than others. In very short, we oppose coerced authority. Either passively or actively coerced, that is either authority enforced by force of arms, or authority imposed by taking away all other choices. TBB proceeds to doubt wether coercion can be imposed as it’s always “within society” but that is blatantly false as any society which has been invaded by another should make abundantly clear.

He also argued:

The anarchist opposition to “hierarchy” does seems really nonsensical; a small group that exercised coercive power should be objectionable even if it were organized other than hierarchically. For example, the capitalist ruling class employs hierarchical structures, but is not itself organized hierarchically.

This is irrelevant, since the capitalist coercive power can only be maintained by hierarchical control. Taking away hierarchical control would necessarily require the abolition of capitalism and therefore the capitalist class. In short, it is not possible to have a “ruling elite” without hierarchical authority, ie someone to rule over.

Anarchists of course do not aim to abolish all coercion, as that is simply impossible. At the most basic level, we still need to use coercion to prevent the imposition of coercion. Eg, we need to physically prevent someone beating up people who will not become his slaves. It is the use of coercion that matters and how it is applied and anarchists argue that using coercion to form coercive hierarchies is bad, because hierarchical coercion is bad for humans. The reasons why this is so, is a lengthy subject for another day.

Furthermore, his argument that distributed coercion is worse than hierarchical coercion is of course pure nonsense.

Finally, he also posits the following “paradox”

Another important consideration is that there are intrinsic variations in individuals and in the organization of more-or-less “voluntary” associations. These variations can combine naturally to afford some groups more power to effect their desires than other groups. And, of course, one natural desire is for more power. Not only does power naturally concentrate, but the concentration of power forms a positive feedback loop. In order to keep power distributed, some group would have to have the authority — the coercive power — to block or reverse natural concentrations of power. Concentration of power is necessary to stop concentration of power, a nifty paradox.

If there’s one thing that an anarchist who has had to debate quite a lot has learned to look out for, it’s the common fallacy from human nature. There’s key words and phrases which should automatically ring alarm bells to the heads of everyone reading such arguments as they attempt to call out to previous assumptions of the reader about “facts of human nature” and work from there. Such is the argument TBB is doing by saying “And, of course, one natural desire is for more power” where he doesn’t attempt to base his arguments on anything other than a very shaky assumptions of what is a “natural desire” for humans. Once you challenge this, the whole “paradox” topples down like a house of cards.

There is in fact no reason for humans to form coercive authority in order to prevent coercive authority. We can firstly prevent hierarchies from forming by not enabling them (which is where the abolition of private property comes in) and by distributedly coercing those who would impose them. But it is not tyranny to oppose tyranny. TBB would like us to believe that humans naturally would try to accumulate power and that groups of people will somehow manage to do this within themselves before extending over others. This of course will not work as within the group, those who are in the lower rungs of the hierarchy will soon rebel and demand equality. This “natural movement or humans within a positive loop” that TBB asserts is nothing more than an unrealistic idea based on assuming a human who acts however you’d like and on the pre-existence of a system which would  naturally select for such a behaviour (such as any propertarian system).

While I was writing this, TBB also wrote an article against voluntary co-operation, unfortunately filled with the same kind of misunderstandings of what Anarchism stands for. This is a perfect example of why it makes no sense to argue against a theory, any theory, without first bothering to at least understand what that theory suggests in the first place. It is unfortunate to say this but TBB is only following in the proud tradition of Marxist-Leninists (I’m certain he’ll reject this classification too and call it slanderous) who  go out and make strawman after strawman as they attempt to make people pre-emptively dismiss Anarchism.

Update: Also see joeldavis’ great point-by-point refutation in reddit.

  1. It’s not even worth pointing out how astonishingly hypocritical he is to claim that he faces “hostility and contempt”, when he is practically the one making people hostile by treating them like shit, banning them from his site when they disagree with him and then talking shit about others where he cannot be countered. When he is criticized elsewhere, he faces “hostility and contempt”. Hah. []
  2. And this is something sufficiently shown by looking at reality historically and empirically rather than pulling facts out of one’s own arse. []

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