Category Archives: authority

Anarchy and its Uses

Fundamental to everything I’ve been saying about anarchy and anarchism over the last couple of years is a sense that anarchy works as a useful guiding principle only when we take it very, very seriously. I’m not interested in an argument about language or ideas, so much as one about the conditions under which we attempt to produce alternatives to existing authoritarian systems. All the references to assembling a toolkit aren’t accidental or rhetorical, and all of the sometimes fussy play with very specific aspects of our analytical and rhetorical tools is at least aimed at very practical ends.

You can’t properly choose a saw until you know the kind of cutting you need to do. You can’t properly sharpen it until you understand how the teeth are arranged. A woodworker who refused to concern themselves with this sort of thing might be expected to run into problems. I think it is safe to expect the same sort of difficulties for would-be anarchists who won’t wrestle with the details where anarchy, authority, and the like are concerned. I’ll go so far as to suggest that much of the ineffectiveness of the anarchist movement has arisen from a failure to make certain that we’re using the right tools for the job–or, slightly more perversely, from the failure, having presumably chosen our tools, to make certain that we’re doing the right job for the tools.

This has led me to pursue what I think of as a “hard line” with regard to the centrality of anarchy to any meaningful anarchism, but in the sense that the stands we take and the lines we draw in defense of anarchy have to be properly anarchic stands and lines. The anarchist tradition began not just as a revolt against existing governments, but as a revolt against every governmental alternative that might be proposed. If we are to maintain that aspect of the tradition, it is vital that anarchism not solidify into any sort of fixed system–but it is at least as important that our thinking about anarchy does not coalesce into any sort of hard and fast rule.

There are tasks for which we almost certainly do not believe that anarchy–or any of the anarchisms or anarchist practices derived from it–is the right tool. We don’t try to build bridges or bind books with anarchy, nor do we pretend that it is this or that anarchic practice that lets us write clean code or tie tight knots. In the real-world practice of any number of skills, there are moments when our core concerns as anarchists may be raised, but those moments almost always involve social organization–or they involve the pervasive influence of the dominant ideas about social organization, as they have been applied, correctly or incorrectly, in other domains. In the latter case, part of being very, very careful with our tools is knowing when we have allowed our thoughts to slide from one domain to another.

Of course, we can’t always avoid certain kinds of conceptual slides. Indeed, anarchist critique has often made powerful use of unacknowledged distinctions and opportunistic conflations in the dominant discourses. Proudhon’s claim that “property is theft” depends on this sort of play with already existing uncertainties. And Bakunin’s “God and the State” is full of examples, some more successful than others, of attempts to use the language of authority to illustrate anti-authoritarian ideas. For example, he connects human freedom to the notion of a “slavery” to natural laws, which ultimately isn’t slavery at all, as an alternative to authoritarian notions that freedom arises from obedience to the law.

It’s probably safe to say that not all of Bakunin’s rhetorical maneuvers are as elegant as “property is theft,” but they are certainly not indecipherable. We just have to find some relatively fixed reference points that we can use to guide ourselves through the maze. So, for example, when we’re going to try to make sense of the section of “God and the State” dealing with authority, we need to recall that it starts as a continuation of a discussion of the absolute opposition between the idea of God and human liberty. The idealists can talk about the two in the same breath because of the way they think about human liberty:

Perhaps, too, while speaking of liberty as something very respectable and very dear, they understood the term quite differently than we do, as materialists and revolutionary socialists. Indeed, they never speak of it without immediately adding another word, authority—a word and a thing which we detest with all our heart.

Bakunin sort of buries the lead here, but the point seems to be that authority is the missing link that allows the idealists to link human liberty and the idea of God, which Bakunin has been treating as necessarily implying human slavery. Then he simply moves, with no transition, to a discussion of the one instance in which authority and human liberty might be fundamentally in harmony with one another, and with a certain kind of “obedience to the law”—even a certain kind of “slavery”—eventually concluding that if liberty and authority were brought into this kind of hierarchy, they would prove the assertions of the anarchists:

The most stubborn authoritarians must admit that then there will be no more need of political organization, direction or legislation, three things which, whether they emanate from the will of the sovereign or from the vote of a parliament elected by universal suffrage, and even should they conform to the system of natural laws—which has never been the case and could never be the case—are always equally deadly and hostile to the liberty of the masses, because they impose upon them a system of external and therefore despotic laws.

Then he turns to showing how this sort of natural authority and political government are fundamentally incompatible, since making science (the always ongoing process of understanding that natural authority) the basis for political authority would be deadly to both human liberty and science itself.

This section of “God and the State” is both fascinating and maddening, precisely because, while Bakunin makes a bunch of fascinating observations and draws a series of useful conclusions about “authority,” he seems to have stitched them together without much indication of which conclusions should be drawn from which observations. But, in the interests of making some simple observations of our own, we can pretty safely say that there are at least two different notions of authority in play:

  • a purely internal authority, representing the inescapable power of the laws of nature; and
  • a range of external authorities, of which God and the State can be considered prime examples.

We would be tempted, given this division, to make the simple distinction that Bakunin himself makes in the essay and say that only internal authority could be considered “legitimate”—except that we already know that this particular variety of authority is indeed inescapable, and it seems silly to involve ourselves in a debate about the legitimacy of the inevitable.

How we proceed depends on what we want to take for a fixed point. If “authority” refers only to the inevitable consequences of natural laws, then “legitimate authority” seems to be a useless notion. On the other hand, if “authority” refers to externally sanctioned, a priori legitimacy, then “legitimate authority” is essentially redundant. The difficulty is that there seems to be something that still has to be addressed in “the authority of the bootmaker” and all the other specialists we encounter. It does not at first appear to be the sort of internal authority that is “vested” (to the extent that this remains a useful term) within us, but does not grant us a right to command others. Nor does it appear to be the sort of external authority that is vested in others and gives them a right to command us. And yet, Bakunin says, he is compelled to “bow.” And, whatever this authority is, it is not uncommon, as this newly retranslated passage makes clear:

I bow before the authority of exceptional men because it is imposed upon me by my own reason. I am conscious of my ability to grasp, in all its details and positive developments, only a very small portion of human science. The greatest intelligence would not be sufficient to grasp the entirety. From this results, for science as well as for industry, the necessity of the division and association of labor. I receive and I give—such is human life. Each is a directing authority and each is directed in his turn. So there is no fixed and constant authority, but a continual exchange of mutual, temporary, and, above all, voluntary authority and subordination.

We are dealing with a really ubiquitous sort of authority, which, in the best case, is both voluntary and beneficial. It is imposed on us, inescapably, by the laws of our nature, but it manifests itself in others in the form of some power (however limited) to command. Is this then “legitimate authority”? It that was the case, I think it would put us an an awkward position with regard to principles. The reason that we might willingly bow to the expert is thoroughly social, in the sense that it requires the encounter between the capacities of the expert and our relative incapacity in the same areas to create the appearance of an external authority validated by internal necessity. But it isn’t clear how this hybrid authority would work: the very limited “legitimacy” created by inevitability, when used as a rationale for a real power to command could only resemble a principle like “might makes right,” which hardly seems like the sort of principle to which anarchists should voluntarily bow, with the expectation of mutually beneficial outcomes.

Honestly, I just don’t see how an authority imposed by our own reason doesn’t simply remove “legitimacy” as an interesting question. And, when it comes right down to it, most of the evidence that we are dealing with authority, or obedience, or any of the concepts that we associate with archic society, seems to arise from the slightly perverse metaphors that anarchists have used to compare authoritarian and anti-authoritarian relations. When Bakunin describes what “obeying natural laws” actually means, it is hardly passive. Even when he talks about the practice of “bowing” to experts, it involves a lot of verification and testing. The simplest answer to the problem of “legitimate authority” seems be to to say that if there is an “authority” that fits within anarchist theory, there is nothing to say about its “legitimacy.” It’s simply not a question that makes any sense.

But there is still something—something real, if not legitimate—that is at least reflected in the expert. We know that this question of authority-as-reflection was something that Bakunin and his contemporaries were familiar with. The critique of God as merely a reflection of human excellence, along with the subsidiary critiques of Man, Humanity, etc. as mere displacements of this sort of projection,  were commonplace. We find Bakunin rejecting God as the illusion of a universal authority, but also any real instance of universal expertise:

This same reason prohibits me, then, from recognizing a fixed, constant, and universal authority-figure, because there is no universal man, no man capable of grasping in that wealth of detail, without which the application of science to life is impossible, all the sciences, all the branches of social life. And if such a universality was ever realized in a single man, and if he wished to take advantage of it in order to impose his authority upon us, it would be necessary to drive that man out of society, because his authority would inevitably reduce all the others to slavery and imbecility.

If there is room, in between the universal man and the divine symbol of that universality, for something real and potentially positive, I’m not sure we’re going to get a clear look at it through the lens of authority. But that’s not the only lens available to us. To think of the cobbler as “the person who can make the shoes that I can’t make” is not necessarily to raise them up in any sort of hierarchy. After all, the cobbler may be looking back at “the person with language and research skills I don’t have,” rather than, say, “the person who needs my shoes.” But perhaps they’re just looking at a person with a particular set of skills, drawn from the vast number of skills distributed among human beings.

It just seems to be the continued dominance of the principle of authority, and our old habit of recognizing it, that keeps us focused on the expert as a “special man,” when the specialness of the embodied expertise is almost always going to be dependent on circumstances external to the natures of all the human actors involved. Face it: the times when we’re actually going to want to bow to the cobbler are likely to be limited to when we really, really need shoes, but at those times we may be happy to bow most reverently, if the alternative is to go unshod. The cobbler and our relation to them in the realm of expertise remain unchanged, while other factors introduce a new urgency to the proceedings.

Still, I’m no believer in post-scarcity, so it seems likely to me that all sorts of urgency will continue to press at least the appearance of authority upon us, for at least the foreseeable future. So if we’re going to have to continue to deal with the messy details of when we bow to cobblers and when we find other people bowing to us, and if we can sometimes at least partially transform the situation by consciously rejecting authoritarian interpretations, there are almost certainly also going to be plenty of instances where the stakes are too high to pretend that we can simply think ourselves out of our predicament.

So what do we do when faced with instances of authority that seem inescapable?

It seems to me that there are two basic responses, both of which should be available to anarchists. The first is fairly obvious: we can remind ourselves that “legitimate authority” is a weird, hybrid notion at bestand probably too muddled to take very seriously. The second takes us way back to our discussion of tools and their uses, and perhaps isn’t so obvious, but try it on for size:

Faced with real-but-not-“legitimate” authority, the kind that arises from the intersection of differing individual capacities and material exigencies of various sorts, and having reminded ourselves that the principle of authority seems to be built on no firm basis, and further having done our best to reconsider our position in accordance with some more consistently anarchistic lens and surveyed the possible consequences of our future actions is terms of their impact on the degree and quality of the freedom we can expect to enjoy in the various available cases, perhaps the work of anarchy is done for the momentand we have to pick up other tools.

A lot of the problems that emerge in our debates seem like non-problems. There are people in the world who know not to touch the stove when it’s hot and not to run into traffic, while others do not, just as some people know how to make boots or do open-heart surgery, while others do not. We hardly think about how “authority” plays in all of this until other circumstances raise the stakes to the point where someone can exercise a right to command, even if it’s just the “right” to command an exorbitant wage in the capitalistic market. If we manage to eliminate more and more of the ways in which exploitation plays a key role in our societies, the necessity of addressing these attempts at command will certainly decrease. Given the artificial, systemic sources of many of the exigencies we face, we’ll be eliminating opportunities for command in large blocks, should we ever make any headway toward anarchy.

But until we’ve destroyed the foundations of those systems of authority and exploitation, we’re going to keep running into reminders of how little anarchy we really have, in contexts where there isn’t a heck of lot we can do about it. In those instances, there isn’t going to be any way to choose “correctly” among options all tainted to some degree with the kinds of relationships we oppose and abhor. We’re going to have to recognize when and where anarchist theory isn’t the tool we need—or at least isn’t a tool we can use—and concentrate of getting boots made, or building bridges, or whatever practical task is facing us. Anarchy is a goal and anarchist theory is at least a decent alternative to the hegemony of the principle of authority, but sometimes we just need to get stuff done, because we simply don’t live by liberty alone.

I think that this is the approach we should take to the question of the relationship between anarchy and democracy. If we affirm anarchy as a goal and oppose the principle of authority, it’s hard to see how we can have much good to say about democracy as a principle, beyond perhaps considering it a better sort of governmentalism than others, but, at the same time, sometimes we have to make decisions when real consensus is impossible. Under those circumstances, sometimes the least worst imposition on the interests and desires of dissenting minorities will be some kind of voteand we’ll just have to hold our noses, recognizing that this is not one of those instances when anarchy is a tool we can use, and deal with the circumstances imposed on us.

But let’s be clear about what is imposed on usand what most definitely is not. We may have to make use of this or that imperfect tool for decision-making, but that that doesn’t make those tools a part of our specifically anarchist toolkit. That toolkit has real limitations. Sometimes we will approach the goal of anarchy indirectly, by balancing clearly un-anarchistic practices, as Proudhon suggested in much of his mature work. Understanding the existence of real limitations on our options, recognizing that while authority can probably never be “legitimate,” it may still exert some real influence on our practices, we need to remain clear about the nature of our goals, the qualities of the available means and the specific limitations presented by our material and social contexts.

My sense is that this demanding mix of requirements imposes that “hard line” on us, according to which notions like anarchy have to be maintained with whatever clarity and purity we can manage intact, so that they provide useful guidance when we’re neck-deep in the complexities of a world still very much dominated by the principle of authority.

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But what about the children? (A note on tutelage)

It’s a question again of “legitimate authority” and “justified hierarchy,” and specifically of the favorite example used by those who want to leave a space within anarchist theory for those things: the care of very young children. The argument I have encountered repeatedly is that parenting is, at least in the case of those very young children, a necessarily authoritarian relation: children must be ordered about in order to protect them from hazards; parents have a duty and presumably also a right to dictate to their children; and children have an obligation to obey.

It’s one of those debates that all too often comes down to: “WHY WON’T SOMEONE PLEASE THINK OF THE CHILDREN!!!” And we know all too well all the dodgy uses to which that appeal has been put. But it should also be clear that the underlying questions, regarding our relations with those individuals with substantially different capacities for self-determination, are important on their own and probably have some connection to how we organize our relations with non-human nature. So we have to try to get to the bottom of what’s really at stake, despite the difficulties. Unfortunately, the terms that seem most useful to make the kinds of distinctions we would need are the very terms that seem to have been extended to encompass all sorts of potentially conflicting ideas, so we have to be try to find other vocabularies.

The general distinction that critics of all authority arguably need to make is between the capacity to act and various sorts of social permission or sanction for action that include some right to command others. It’s a distinction that we make regularly: the capacity to kill another individual does not generally carry with it any right to do so, nor does the capacity to understand complex social relations itself grant any right to arrange them for others. The expert has to possess something more than mere expertise in order for there to be authority (in the strong sense) vested in them. That something more is social in character, and indeed structures the sort of society that can exist between individuals.

The question becomes where, in relations presumably guided by anarchist principles, that extra, social something could come from. The case of the parental relation is at least useful as a place to examine the possibilities. In order to be particularly careful, it may be useful to first address it in terms of the question of “legitimate authority” and then again in terms of “justifiable hierarchy.”

There are some possible source of authority, such as ownership of the child by the parents, that we can probably set aside without much comment. Similarly, there seems to be little sympathy for the notion that the parental relation might be one in which might makes right. In general, even those who consider the parental relation necessarily authoritarian seem inclined to also treat it as a relation of care. Indeed, they often characterize parental guardianship as a duty, although it is often unclear to whom the duty is, or could be, owed. We’ll return to the dynamic of duty and obligation. First, we should see if perhaps parental authority could just be a matter of superior capacity and expertise, and perhaps one that could make us think differently about “the authority of the bootmaker.”

Certainly, one of the elements of the parent-child relation is that adults have a significantly greater experience of the world and the business of making our way through it relatively unscathed. They have capacities that are more developed in a variety of ways. If we were to assent to the notion that the difference between knowing how to make boots and not having those skills could be a source of authority, then certainly the difference between the skills and capacities of parent and child could be a similar source. The question becomes how a difference in capacities is transformed into a right to command on the part of the more capable and a duty to obey on the part of the less capable.

Let’s imagine a society of talented generalists, where skills and capacities are widely distributed and each individual is relatively self-sufficient. It is hard to imagine the rationale by which we would say that interference by certain individuals in the lives of others could be considered justified or legitimate. Perhaps the case of plucking someone out of harm’s way would be the sort of exception we might note, but, in the case of individuals of equal capacities, it seems hard to characterize the act as one of authority. Under these circumstances, the intervention has to be considered one that we make on our own responsibility and if we find it was unwelcome, it isn’t clear that we could justify our interference in any way that the recipient/victim should feel obliged to accept. Certainly, in a society of competent bootmakers, no particular bootmaker could be said to have much in the way of authority.

Let’s consider then what happens if, in this society of competent bootmakers, one individual becomes expert. It still isn’t clear that the additional capacity translates into any sort of authority. There are certainly likely to be economic effects as we begin to see specialization in a society, but there’s no obvious way in which any power or right to command emerges from the scenario.

But let’s consider the other end of a certain spectrum, in a society where we have a great deal of specialization—so much, in fact, that individuals are constantly confronted with the need to consult others to complete the most basic of tasks. The dynamics of the society will obviously be more complex, but it isn’t clear that this extreme divvying-up of expertise provides much greater footholds for the establishment of authority, at least in the realm of principle. Here, every individual is, in theory, a potential authority when it comes to their particular specialization and a dependent in most other contexts, but in fact the complex interdependence means that all of that authority remains largely potential, since the social leverage available to each narrow specialization is minuscule in comparison to the combined importance of all the other forms of specialized expertise.

Now, in a more complex society there are more opportunities for equal interdependence to break down. That means that some of our specialists might find themselves gaining relative advantages as circumstances gave their skills particular importance. The various weapon-producers or food-producers might collude, under favorable circumstances, to transform their expertise into the power to command, but we would be hard put, I think, to find an anarchist principle to justify their actions. And I think we would have to say that the source of that possibility was more in the general incapacity of the population with regard to specific skills and the specific environmental circumstances than it was in the expertise of the individuals able to capitalize on the situation.

Obviously, we live in societies where the distribution of expertise lies between these extremes and where the existing conditions already structure which sorts of expertise have access to the power to command, whether it is a matter of commanding wealth in the market or obedience in a wide range of authoritarian institutions. But it isn’t clear how our own societies differ from these extreme examples, where the question of “legitimate authority” arising from expertise is concerned. The power to command seems to emerge from just about every element in society except individual expertise: already existing political authority, economic monopoly, the comparative incapacity of others, accidents and “acts of God,” etc. We can’t seem to make the leap from “I can…” to “I may and others must…,” but that is precisely the leap we have to make in order to establish some principle by which expertise itself really establishes some authority vested in the expert.

Add to these considerations Bakunin’s comments on the corrosive effects of authority on expertise, and perhaps we can acknowledge we have to look elsewhere. The ultimate sanction of expertise is presumably truth, but practical truth in a developing context is not the sort of thing that stands still, so that sanction has to be renewed and tested by new study and experiment. So even if we could establish the present legitimacy of an authority based on the most rigorous sort of scientific truth, in some way that the non-expert could verify (and this is not at all clear), we have no guarantee that the legitimacy would remain as circumstances changed, while the exercise of the authority as such is itself at least potentially a break from the exercise of the practices of the field of expertise on which it is presumably based. Once crowned an expert, it is easy to stop renewing one’s expertise.

When we apply these considerations to the parental relation, it doesn’t seem any easier to explain why the greater capacities of the parent would alone establish a power to command or an obligation to obey in this instance than it is in the relations between adults. At the same time, there seem to be other explanations for why we might act in their defense that don’t depend on either authority or even on the relative differences in capacity between adults and children. We might, after all, act to save another adult, without any attempt to establish authority or permission. We might do so out of specific relations of care or simply on the basis of our experience of what constitutes intentional and accidental behavior in our own societies. The major difference with children is that we can be fairly certain that nobody, except the child, is likely to make much fuss if our exercise of real or imagined authority seems to be “for the good of the child.” And the reasons for that may have more to do with our tendency to think of children and their actions as existing within a “justifiable hierarchy” beneath adults and the ordinary workings of adult society.

The parent-child hierarchy is often cited as one of a class of educational or tutelary hierarchies. Tutelage is guardianship and in tutelary relations the assumption is that the subordinate (child, pupil, apprentice, etc.) is at least temporarily incapable of protecting themselves and their interests, so the right to exercise the power of command is based on the assumption that it is exercised for the subordinate—or at least “for their own good.” Bakunin left open the possibility of exercising authority over very young children, because he understood human development as in part characterized by a progressive increase in humanity, at the very beginning of which children are effectively not yet human and need to be given the tools to take on their own development before they can start that progressive development on their own terms.

Even this may not be entirely defensible as a matter of principle. The familiar example of pulling a child back from traffic already assumes a particular sort of “adult world” in which the spaces for free exploration are dramatically limited by the business as usual of the institutions we have created. It isn’t clear what could justify the busy street, in principled terms, so it is at least a little bit hard to know how that busy street contributes to the principled legitimization of the parental act.

But if we assume that, specifics aside, there will always be some set of coping skills that need to be acquired before children can assume responsibility for their own safety and development, we still have to work out just what form the tutelary hierarchy really takes—and then whether it amounts to evidence in favor of retaining some space for “legitimate authority” and “justified hierarchy” within anarchist thought.

Early in our examination, it was suggested that parental care might be a duty. Now, if this was the case, the parent would presumably be superior to the child because they were inferior to some other power that imposed the duty. We might certainly think of familiar circumstances, under which the care of children is indeed dictated by law and by specific social norms, but I suspect we can also think of reasons why most of those factors which presume to dictate to the individual might not be consistent with anarchist principles or present in an anarchist society. We could also think of the duty as a duty to the child, but that puts us in the strange position of imagining a hierarchy in which the superior interest is that of a being elevated to that status by their incapacity. If there is a hierarchy here, it is an odd one, disconnected from our usual understanding of authority, since the child who cannot manage their own interests is hardly in a position to exercise a right to command.

Instead of a hierarchy, we seem to be left with one of those complicated relationships, like the guest-host relation of hospitality, where the roles are fluid and the usual rules are suspended. In this case, we have some of the forms of command and rule, but without any of the usual authoritarian or hierarchical rationales. Rather than being an exception to anarchist principles, perhaps we should understand the parental relation as a most accessible example of how anarchists principles ought to be applied in our struggle towards a more genuinely free society, characterized by more thoroughly anti-authoritarian and non-hierarchical relations.

After all, the parental relation, with all of its negotiations between the rights and needs of children and those of parents, is not the sort of thing that we intend to maintain forever, assuming that we value our children as developing human beings. Confronted with the limited capacities of the child, our action is directed toward increasing those capacities. We teach and, in those instances where our teaching has not caught up with the needs of the day, we intervene more directly. But the hope, assuming that desire to see children grow up to be independent, is that the tutelage is a very temporary thing. And child-rearing is, like every other kind of expertise, itself a matter of practice and developing expertise. The specific difficulties of negotiating rights and interests mean that it is necessarily a work of trial-and-error. There’s nothing easy or comfortable about the relation, particularly for those who concern themselves with the principled critique of authority, so there’s even some strong incentives to move things along and reduce the quasi-hierarchical elements of the relation.

That doesn’t sound like a set of reasons to make space in anarchist theory for any more extensive acceptance of hierarchy—and perhaps quite the contrary. It would seem to me that each time we are confronted with an imbalance of expertise and the opening to authoritarian relations, the logical anarchist response would be to work, on our own responsibility, to cultivate greater, more widespread knowledge and skill, rather than accommodating ourselves to the imbalance. There will, of course, be times when we have to move forward with the limitations imposed on us by hard necessity. That was, after all, the one law that anarchists like Proudhon and Bakunin would acknowledge. But the point of necessity-as-law was not to grant authority to any particular response to the inevitable, but to emphasize that we must respond. How we respond will seldom be entirely dictated by our circumstances, which is precisely the reason that our principles need to be clear, so that we can advance most effectively, given our real limitations, toward the beautiful ideal of anarchy.

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