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Study notes

Anarchism and Rejection of the State

  • Levels: A Level
  • Exam boards: AQA, Edexcel, IB

Anarchism’s defining principle or idea is the rejection of the state.

Anarchists maintain that the state has to be abolished because it is unnecessary and/or evil and corrupting. Indeed, in their view, all forms of authority based on hierarchy, such as organised religion and capitalism, have to be removed.

Anarchist Objections to the State - The State is Immoral

The first important anarchist objection is that the state is immoral because it rules by physical coercion and deceit. It exerts complete authority over, and restricts the liberty of, all individuals and groups within its boundaries. The state is therefore oppressive and denies that people are rational sovereign individuals. It is also unnecessary since humans, as rational beings, can make their own decisions. Power cannot be exercised by one person over another because individuals can only exercise power over themselves. Thus the power wielded by the state or other institutions has to be resisted.

Anarchists also argue that ‘democratic’ government is based on deceit, reinforced by the threat of violence. No social contract exists between the people and the government, enabling the state to curtail freedoms. In reality, anarchists maintain, people hand over their power at elections because the vote is a smokescreen that conceals the state’s massive power resting on the police, the army and the financial institutions. Thus, political participation in a parliamentary or representative democracy is a fraud designed to deceive people into thinking they are the decision-makers and encourage conformism and obedience to preserve the political dominance of the ruling elite.

Anarchist Objections to the State - The State is Economically Exploitative

The second important anarchist objection is that the state plays an economically exploitative role and is unjust in its defence of economic inequality. Most anarchists oppose capitalism and regard the modern state as the agent, and creation, of modern capitalism. Anarcho-collectivists argue that the state, by supporting the capitalist system, protects private property, defends the privileged position of the wealthy and oppresses the workers. At a global level, the state protects the elites of the industrially developed countries through pro-capitalist institutions such as the G20, the World Bank and the IMF. For anarcho-individualists, the state robs people of their property by imposing taxes that are enforced by law and carry punishments for late or non-payment. Only anarcho-capitalists reject the link between the state and capitalism, and call for a stateless free market capitalist system.

Anarchist Objections to the State - The State's Impact on Human Nature

Finally, anarchism rejects the state because of its impact on human nature. Anarchists argue that all hierarchical forms of authority command, control and corrupt human nature, and therefore they should be abolished. The state can coerce a person by commanding them to act against their will (e.g. to fight in a war), forcing the individual to suspend their reason and removing their autonomy. Furthermore, anarchists contend that being subject to state authority or control crushes a person's initiative and creativity and smothers individual self-realisation. In addition, those in positions of authority within the state apparatus are corrupted by their wealth, power and status and lose contact with the 'true' cooperative and selfless aspects of human nature. Anarchists also maintain that the state acts corruptly by abusing those under its authority, relying on force to impose its will and defending inequality.

Anarchist methods to remove the state

Although all anarchists argue that the state must go, they do not agree on the means of achieving this:

Withdrawing from society

The 19th century American anarcho-individualist thinker Henry Thoreau (1817-1862) advocates that a person can become an autonomous individual by withdrawing from society so that the state becomes irrelevant for, and exerts no hold over, the person concerned. Thoreau practised what he preached and withdrew from society for two years in the 1840s by living in a forest cabin next to Walden Pond in Massachusetts.

Creating a moral society

The early anarchist philosopher William Godwin (1756-1836) maintains that the spread of education, science and philosophy will encourage the development of a moral society containing rational, autonomous and benevolent people who are capable of exercising their judgement well without the involvement of the state. Over time, this transformation in human consciousness will make the state irrelevant and it will wither away, leading to a stateless society.

Peaceful abolition of the state

According to the French mutualist Pierre-Joseph Proudhon (1809-1865), ongoing mutualist economic reorganisation will gradually and peacefully make the political structure of the state redundant. Workers will ignore traditional forms of state and government authority and develop mutualist associations. Deprived of the support of the productive sections of society, the state will eventually collapse, leaving only the workers’ voluntary organisations.

Direct action against the state

The collectivist anarchist Mikhail Bakunin (1814-76) endorses direct action (such as targeted violence, mass strikes, refusal to pay taxes and rejection of conscription) to trigger the revolutionary will of the people and ignite a popular revolt against the state. The ensuing social revolution from below will galvanise the people into action, expose statist oppression and lead to the violent destruction of the state.

Insurrection

The egoist Max Stirner (1806-56) calls for insurrection - a process whereby self-interested individuals elevate themselves above capitalist society and the state, leaving both to wither and die. In this way, individuals ‘rise or exalt’ themselves through personal acts of self-assertion and rebellion to reject the state and all other forms of external authority.

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