From chaos to anarchy!

What is anarchy? We all know that the word anarchy is interchangeable with words like chaos or violence and bombs. But is this a fair interpretation of political anarchism? Obviously no. Sure, anarchists have often been associated with violence but equally anarchism itself has a long history of philosophy that acts as a powerful critique of the State.

Anarchy encompasses a huge range of thought, and anarchists often resist attempts to define it because such attempts are, themselves, seen as being anti-anarchist. There are, however, some identifiable threads that range from the extreme egoistic individualism of Robert Nozick to the libertarian communism of Nestor Makhno. Often called the Platform, in the 1920s these anarchists wanted to distance themselves from the communist Bolsheviks and the extreme individualists. In her book The Government of No One Ruth Kinna writes that the Platformists ‘recognised that free individuality developed in harmony with social solidarity’.

A key moment in anarchist history came when Michael Bakunin split from Karl Marx and declared himself an anarchist. The latter agreed with much of the former’s materialistic analysis of society and in particular the impact of patterns of ownership and the driving force of class. But according to Kinna, Bakunin argued, presciently as it turned out that, Marx was ‘unable to see that as long as the State remained in tact, the revolution would be stunted’.

This feeds into the anarchist’s abhorrence of domination, which, as Kinna suggests, is ‘understood as a diffuse kind of power, embedded in hierarchy – pyramidal structure, pecking orders and chains of command – and in uneven access to economic or cultural resources’. But while the egoism of Nozick in Anarchy, State, and Utopia is certainly anti-domination, his claim that the taxation of earnings by the State is ‘on a par with forced labor’ is unlikely to result in the kind of social solidarity so beloved of the socialist anarchists. It should be noted in addition that even Nozick acknowledges that ‘past injustices might be so great as to make necessary in the short run a more extensive State in order to rectify them’.

Arguably, the more interesting kind of anarchism is what Noam Chomsky calls Libertarian Socialism. In On Anarchism he argues that, for example, the welfare state is a recognition that ‘every child has a right to have food, and to have health care and so on – and as I’ve been saying, those programs were set up in the nation-state system after a century of very hard struggle, by the labor movement, and the socialist movement’. It is also a recognition that individuals do not spring fully formed from the womb but are shaped by society or, as Marx put it: “It is not the consciousness of men that determine their existence but their social existence that determines their consciousness.”

There is another interesting strand in anarchist thought that attempts to address the perceived problem of chaos in the absence of the State and the claim by the Wiltshire-born 17th century political philosopher Thomas Hobbes that without the State life for most people is ‘solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short’. The opposition to this view is eloquently expressed by Kniaz Petr Alekseovich Kropokin in Mutual Aid: A Factor of Evolution, when he writes that ‘besides the law of Mutual Struggle there is in Nature the law of Mutual Aid, which, for the success of the struggle for life, and especially for the progressive evolution of the species, is far more important than the law of mutual contest’. Indeed, many evolutionary scientists today argue that altruism forms part of our genetic make-up even if it is always in conflict with our more self-interested tendencies.

With all this is mind, and leaning more toward Kropotkin and Chomsky than Nozick, we might find here a new impetus for the idea of a Universal Basic Income. If this was introduced then, it could be argued, that the individual is at least partly freed from the domination of the State and of the corporation while acknowledging that the State is needed to provide the UBI as well as universal services like health care, education and defence. And if it is true that we are social beings, not isolated individuals, and that our social being is partly informed by a regard for others, then it is not inevitable that the provision of a UBI would lead to chaos rather than – well – anarchy, properly understood.

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