Study Notes

Individualist Anarchism

Level:
A Level
Board:
AQA, Edexcel, IB

Last updated 26 May 2019

Individualist anarchism is located on the libertarian right of the political spectrum since it takes classical liberalism to its logical and extreme anti-state end point. Its two most uncompromising strands are egoism and anarcho-capitalism.

Individualist anarchists value the individual and individual freedom above all else and regard society as simply a loose grouping of separate autonomous individuals. To protect this personal autonomy, individualist anarchists argue, the state (because it has the power to impose taxes, conscription and laws) has to be abolished. Freed from such restrictions, individuals will behave rationally, exercise personal sovereignty and work together voluntarily in the self-interested pursuit of their own specific objectives. Such an approach would establish natural order and a stable harmonious society.

The English philosopher William Godwin (1756-1836) first made the case for individualist anarchism in his influential work Enquiry Concerning Political Justice (1793). Taking an optimistic and enlightened view of human nature, Godwin maintains that the spread of education, science and philosophy will encourage the development of rational, autonomous and benevolent people who are capable of exercising their judgement without the involvement of the state. In his view, such a transformation in human consciousness will eventually lead to a stateless society where rational self-interested individuals coexist peacefully according to universal moral or natural laws. Human intellectual progress and the abolition of the state, Godwin asserts, will eventually create a society based on reason and free and equal association.

Although individualist anarchism has clearly been influenced by liberalism, there are also some important differences between the two political ideas. Similarly, individualist and collectivist anarchism diverge on a number of points too. The fundamental differences are explained below:

Individualist Anarchism: differences with liberalism and collectivist anarchism

Differences with liberalism

Both classical and modern liberals maintain that the state is necessary to protect individual liberty. Thus, the state either provides a means of personal protection and security by establishing laws or enhances positive freedom through greater social and economic intervention. In contrast, individualist anarchists argue that individuals, being rational and/or moral, can coexist harmoniously without any form of state regulation.

Liberals maintain that the individual can be protected from excessive government or state power by constitutional checks and balances and representative institutions. Individualist anarchists reject the idea of limited, constitutional or representative government, arguing that all laws and states inevitably undermine individual liberty.

Differences with collectivist anarchism

Individualist anarchists fear that collectivism will suppress individuality and personal autonomy (e.g. by forcing people to belong to a community and relinquish private property, thereby depriving them of their individual freedom). Consequently, individualist anarchism tends to endorse the possession of private property and the pursuit of free economic competition to safeguard individual autonomy.

Individualist anarchism tends to reject revolutionary violence as a means of dismantling the state because such an approach flouts personal autonomy and individuality due to the forcible seizure of property. Instead, individualist anarchists tend to call for the gradual replacement of the state through education, non-violent protest and the formation of grass-roots ‘takeover’ organisations.

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