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Anarchism and Society

The following are the words of anarchist, Emma Goldman. They are a description of America and the American government, and the society resulting from it. Though published in 1934, the description would require little change to make it an up-to-date description of America today.

"I have often been asked why I maintained such a non-compromising antagonism to government and in what way I have found myself oppressed by it. In my opinion every individual is hampered by it. It exacts taxes from production. It creates tariffs, which prevent free exchange. It stands ever for the status quo and traditional conduct and belief. It comes into private lives and into most intimate personal relations, enabling the superstitious, puritanical, and distorted ones to impose their ignorant prejudice and moral servitudes upon the sensitive, the imaginative, and the free spirits. Government does this by its divorce laws, its moral censorships, and by a thousand petty persecutions of those who are too honest to wear the moral mask of respectability. In addition, government protects the strong at the expense of the weak, provides courts and laws which the rich may scorn and the poor must obey. It enables the predatory rich to make wars to provide foreign markets for the favored ones, with prosperity for the rulers and wholesale death for the ruled. However, it is not only government in the sense of the state which is destructive of every individual value and quality. It is the whole complex of authority and institutional domination which strangles life. It is the superstition, myth, pretense, evasions, and subservience which support authority and institutional domination. It is the reverence for these institutions instilled in the school, the church and the home in order that man may believe and obey without protest. Such a process of devitalizing and distorting personalities of the individual and of whole communities may have been a part of historical evolution; but it should be strenuously combated by every honest and independent mind in an age which has any pretense to enlightenment.

"It has often been suggested to me that the Constitution of the United States is a sufficient safeguard for the freedom of its citizens. It is obvious that even the freedom it pretends to guarantee is very limited. I have not been impressed with the adequacy of the safeguard. The nations of the world, with centuries of international law behind them, have never hesitated to engage in mass destruction when solemnly pledged to keep the peace; and the legal documents in America have not prevented the United States from doing the same. Those in authority have and always will abuse their power. And the instances when they do not do so are as rare as roses growing on icebergs. Far from the Constitution playing any liberating part in the lives of the American people, it has robbed them of the capacity to rely on their own resources or do their own thinking. Americans are so easily hoodwinked by the sanctity of law and authority. In fact, the pattern of life has become standardized, routinized, and mechanized like canned food and Sunday sermons. The hundred-percenter easily swallows syndicated information and factory-made ideas and beliefs. He thrives on the wisdom given him over the radio and cheap magazines by corporations whose philanthropic aim is selling America out. He accepts the standards of conduct and art in the same breath with the advertising of chewing gum, toothpaste, and shoe polish. Even songs are turned out like buttons or automobile tires--all cast from the same mold." ["Was My Life Worth Living?," originally in Harper's Monthly Magazine, Vol. CLXX, December 1934.]

[NOTE: For more information on Emma Goldman see, "The Emma Goldman Papers," Berkeley University of California.]

I do not agree with every word of Emma Goldman, but entirely with the spirit, especially these words: "Far from the Constitution playing any liberating part in the lives of the American people, it has robbed them of the capacity to rely on their own resources or do their own thinking."

Why There Are Governments?

I am not an anarchist, I am an individualist, an "independent individualist," because there is no other kind. Because I am an individualist, I have no use for government. No government has anything of value to offer me, and all government is a threat to my life and personal freedom.

I have been asked on a few occasions, "what if everyone were like you, what kind of a society would we have?" The implication, I suppose, is if everybody had my views, there would be no government and most people automatically assume without government there would be rampant crime and chaos. But, if everyone were like me, there would be no need for a government.

"People like me," that is, independent individualists, do not want anything in this life they have not earned. In a society filled with individualists there would be no theft, no fraud, and no extortion. There would be no murder, rape, or beatings, either. individualists only want to be free to produce whatever they can by their own effort and to be free to trade with others what they have produced. In a society filled with individualists there would be no one looking for a hand-out or welfare, because, like me, everyone would be earning their own support and the support of their families.

Individualists take responsibility for their every choice and act, because that is what living fully as a human being is. In a society filled with individualists, everyone would enjoy fully their successes, but bear the consequences of their own failures. They would never ask someone else to clean up after them.

Individualists do not need, or want, anyone else to provide them anything. If they want a road someplace, they will work out how to pay for it and build one. In fact there is nothing they might want that they wouldn't either work out how to provide, working with as many others as necessary, or, do without.

Individualists have no interest in interfering in the lives of others. How anyone else lives their life is their business. In a society filled with individualists, people would live the way they did in the city where I grew up in the 40s and 50s. No one locked doors, everyone minded their own business, some were religious, others were not, and most people were happy. That's what it would be like if everyone were like me.

The truth is, most people are not like me, not independent, and not individualists. Most people are terrified they might have to be totally responsible for their own lives. Most people have little or no confidence in themselves to succeed and be happy, or even to live, entirely by their own effort.

No, most people are not individualists, and that is why there are governments. Societies composed entirely of honest, decent, self-sufficient, competent men and women of integrity have no use for a government. It is because societies are composed largely of dishonest, indecent, mooching, incompetent men and women of the lowest character that governments are supposedly needed.

There would be no supposed need for a government if a society consisted entirely of individuals who were no threat to anyone else's life, liberty or pursuit of happiness. It is because everyone believes others in their society are a threat to their life, liberty, or pursuit of happiness that they clamor for a government to protect them.

All Governments Evil

The protection of individual freedom is not the only reason governments are formed. That idea is a strictly modern Western one. Governments formed for other purposes are always evil, but even one formed with the good intention of protecting "individual rights" is evil as well.

Government is an agency with the exclusive power to initiate force in a geographical area. That power is legitimized by the word "law." Whatever the ostensible purpose for which a government is formed, once it is formed, its central purpose becomes the sustaining of itself and accruing more power and wealth to itself. The reason this is true is because, however those who will govern are chosen, they must be selected from the same society that is the reason for government in the first place, that is, the herd of largely dishonest, indecent, mooching, incompetent men and women of the lowest character, the very individuals the government is supposed to protect its citizens from.

Though all governments are evil, some are much less evil, and some are totally evil. It is not the kind of government, republic vs. democracy vs. oligarchy, for example, that determines how evil a government is, but the size and power of a government. In the early years, after the formation of America's constitutional republican government, most people enjoyed the highest level of freedom, perhaps ever in the history of the world, though the excesses began within the first year with the outrageous whiskey tax. That early freedom was due entirely because the government was very small and was largely unable to oppress the people very much. There is little individual liberty in the United States today, though it is still the same kind of government, but it is large enough today to control almost every aspect of every citizen's life, and it does.

Why I Am Not An Anarchist

I am philosophically opposed to government because it is a wrong solution to social problems. Even when the solution to the problem is meant to be the protection of individuals from harm by others, no government ever actually does that, and in the end, all governments become the biggest threat to individual liberty, and the hardest to defend against.

But I am not an anarchist for three reasons:

1. There will always be government. The only people one can truly convince that a free society is possible without a government are independent individualists. Whether there will ever be a society of mostly independent individualists is very unlikely. Most societies will consist of the kind of people that dominate most societies today, and they will always clamor for a government, and will always get their way.

2. While I know that governments do not preserve individual liberty, the only kind of society that could succeed without a government would be one comprised mostly of honest, decent, self-sufficient, competent men and women of integrity, that is, independent individualists. So long as societies are comprised mostly of individuals terrified of true liberty and personal responsibility, desiring security and guarantees above freedom, little liberty is possible. All such societies are bound to become corrupt and have a powerful and corrupt government as well.

3. Anarchism, is itself, in all its forms, a political movement meant to produce a free society. While that version of anarchism that styles itself communist- or left-anarchism is a self-contradiction, the other variety that attempts to differentiate itself from the leftist version by calling itself capitalist-anarchism or anarcho-capitalism is still a movement meant to impose (negatively, I suppose) a political system to produce a certain kind of society, which is supposed to be the one providing true human liberty and justice. But "capitalism" is not a social system, it is a economic system which must be chosen by individuals free to make such a choice.

No true independent individualist can be an anarchist, except in the philosophical sense I described above. An individualist will not be part of a movement, because a movement is not an individualist action, it is a collective one. But even if an individualist chose to cooperate with others in promoting an idea, like the elimination of government, he could not advocate the elimination of government.

In the past when governments have been overthrown, what replaced them was almost always worse. As evil as government is, there is one advantage to it. So long as societies are comprised of the material almost all are, the most dangerous members of a rotten society will naturally gravitate to the seats of power, seeking to be part of the system as politicians, bureaucrats, members of law enforcement and military or members of the legal profession, or other non-government institutions in bed with government. This is handy for the independent individualist because all the most dangerous people in society identify themselves as such, and it becomes much easier to watch them and defend yourself against them.

What Is The Solution?

If by "solution" is meant, how can the kind of society proper for rational and civilized people be devised and implemented, there is no such solution, and all attempts to implement such solutions have always and will always produce the worst of horrors. [The twentieth century is the demonstration.]

When and if the only kind of society in which freedom is possible ever comes to exist, that is, a society comprised mostly of honest, decent, self-sufficient, competent men and women of integrity, who will never be a threat to anyone else's life and liberty, there will be a free society without government, not because government has been eliminated, but because such people do not need or want one and would never form one.

I do not know what the solution would be for other kinds of people, but for the independent individualist the solution is simple: be completely aware of the world you live in, particularly the political atmosphere of the country you are in, and discover all you can about it so you can use that system to provide yourself as much personal liberty as possible. To a very great extent that will involve making yourself as invisible as possible to the governments (all of them at every level) of that country. The only life and only freedom you have a right to is the freedom you have earned by your own effort. Anything else is meddling, which the independent individualist does not do.

About Anarchists

Much of what anarchists have written about the necessity of individual liberty and the evils of states and governments is true and well articulated. In fact, it can be very alluring, especially to a freedom loving individualist. But it is ultimately a mistake, and part of this article is meant as a warning to other individualists not to get caught up in that movement.

The history and culture of anarchism are very complex. It is worth knowing something about that history, and the wide variety of anarchist movements that have existed and still exist to this day. Bryan Caplan has an excellent, almost exhaustive online work on anarchism, with many other resources as well. There is also the Anarchy Archives Online, a research center on the history and theory of anarchism, with some excellent resources and pictures.

The entire movement, in all its forms, is both confusing and confused, including everything from radical egoism to total collectivism, and the boundaries between conflicting concepts are never quite clear. If you read the article by Emma Goldman from which the long quote at the beginning of this article comes, you will have the impression that she is just a radical for individualism and liberty. You might notice there is also a scent of anti-capitalism as well, but otherwise, you might find yourself thinking her views and principles reflect your own.

If you do a little more research, however, you find that Emma Goldman, while living in the United States, before being deported, was in favor of the Bolshevik revolution (an opinion she revised after being sent back to Russia), and was the life-long companion of Alexander Berkman, who spent fourteen years in prison for the attempted assassination of industrialist Henry Clay Frick in 1892. Though not accused, Emma was complicit in that assassination attempt, which was supposed to foment a workers uprising and revolution. It didn't.

It might seem strange that a movement radically in favor of individual liberty is marked throughout it's history with actual or attempted acts of violence and "terrorism." It is ironic, but not a contradiction. Movements are always attempts to force something on people who have not already chosen it for themselves. Not even freedom can be forced on people who do not already want it.

This is the essential flaw of anarchism. Governments are evil and the world would be better off without them, but governments exist because that is what most people want. So long as most of the people of the world prefer security, guarantees, and an "easy unthreatened life" to the risky and dangerous life of freedom and personal responsibility, there will always be governments, promising the security and guarantees people desire, even though they can never deliver them.

So long as societies are dominated by those that have no real interest in individual liberty, any movement to produce such a society is doomed, and is actually immoral. I might see the virtue in such a society, but how can someone who believes they have no right to impose their views of what is right on others be part of any movement which proposes to do just that. Not only are the anarchists wrong on this, but the libertarians, and even that bastard semi-freedom view called conservatism, is wrong on it, as well.

No one has a right to force on others their view of what a proper society would be, even if they are right. To force others to live under conditions they are unwilling to live under, even if it would be, "for their own good," is evil. No independent individualist could possibly support the use of force to make people happy against their will.

This is perhaps the ultimate mistake of the anarchists. They, like all other idealists, who believe their views must prevail, are willing to sacrifice some or all other principles to their ideal.

If the anarchist ideal is individual liberty, I share that ideal. If their methods allow, at any point, an attempt to force their ideal on others, who do not choose it, we have nothing in common.

Some advocate what they call, "civil disobedience" or "nonviolent action to achieve social change." The thing about individual liberty is, it doesn't have to be forced on anyone. If people really want to be free, they can be; but they do not want to be. If tomorrow everyone in this country simply ignored the government, refusing to obey any of its oppressive laws, that would be the end of the government.

So-called, "civil disobedience," as a protest or demonstration is nothing but trouble making. No one has any moral reason to obey any law of any government, and the independent individualist does not obey any oppressive laws he can possibly evade, which he must do morally, but it is not a protest. It is not meant to influence anyone else, and it certainly isn't going to change the government.

What is wrong with anarchist activism is their aim, "to bring about social change." There are no "social solutions," only personal individual ones. It is not anyone's society to change. Attempting to make a society one you think you would be happy in is a collectivist view, not an individualist one.

—(04/01/05)