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My thinking: Anarchists want to forbid the existence of the State.

However, in a society with no state, someone can achieve such a predominance over their peers that they can forbid anyone else from the use of violence, in effect founding a state. (This can happen for example because this person has forced everyone else under their rule with through violence).

If this is to be forbidden then there must be an organization with enough authority to enforce the lack of state. This organization would have to prevent anyone from violently forcing everyone else under their rule, so in effect, this organization would have to obtain the monopoly over the use of violence, and thus by definition it would be a state.

Anarchism, therefore, seems to me to be a self-refuting proposition, since only a state has enough authority to forbid the founding of a state.

Is anarchism a self-refuting proposition?

Possible weaknesses I can see in this:

  • By the same line of argumentation we can argue that there must be a world government instead of many independent national governments, and this proposition seems controversial;
  • What I'm saying here seems to boil down to proposing the necessity of the existence of a state from the definition of a state, and - as far as I'm aware - making propositions regarding real life from definitions of words is an error. Such an error was made, for example, in the famous Anselm's ontological argument.
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    "self-refuting" theory (not proposition) maybe is too much... But your argument supports the conclusion that Anarchism is practically unfeasible. Mar 14, 2021 at 10:27
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    @RodolfoAP By your argument each civilization is doomed to fail the moment it becomes successfull... this seems pretty pessimistic...
    – gaazkam
    Mar 14, 2021 at 11:16
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    The problem is anarchism comes in.many flavors, not all of them would fit with the definition you give. Proudhon for example would not argue for no state at all, but federation of communes (small community easily controlled by its citizens) organised in a federation. Not no government, but (very) small government, shared by all citizen equally. Bakounine, Kropotkine, etc, would have yet other views. As could be expected, no two anarchists have the same view of anarchism.
    – armand
    Mar 14, 2021 at 12:24
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    Also see plato.stanford.edu/entries/anarchism which defines anarchism primarily in terms of a rejection of "centralized, hierarchical power and authority", so that definition wouldn't seem to rule out something like a direct democratic government where everyone has equal say and power.
    – Hypnosifl
    Mar 14, 2021 at 17:46
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    There are a lot of assumptions made along the way to "self"-refutation: "someone can achieve such a predominance", "if this is to be forbidden then there must be an organization", "this organization would have to obtain the monopoly", etc. These "can", "must", "have to" come out of thin air, and anarchists are free to reject some or all of them. Self-refutation is supposed to work from the premise alone, not from the premise plus a list of assumptions one fancies to add. If that were allowed then everything would be "self-refuting".
    – Conifold
    Mar 15, 2021 at 9:58

7 Answers 7

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There is nothing self-refuting in the nature of anarchism. Take this summary of Robert Paul Wolff's position in In Defense of Anarchism (1970/76):

According to Wolff ... an autonomous person is one who reserves to himself the right to decide what is right and what is wrong, what he should do and what he should not do. He issues his own commands and obeys only himself. To have authority, though, is to have the right to issue binding commands. Thus, the autonomy of the individual and the authority of the state are mutually exclusive. There can be no such thing as a legitimate state. An autonomous person may comply with a command of the state, but he will do this because he independently judges the action commanded to be the right thing to do, and not merely because it was commanded. (Thomas A. Shipka, 'A Critique of Anarchism', Studies in Soviet Thought , Apr., 1984, Vol. 27, No. 3 (Apr., 1984), pp. 247-261:247.)

It is logically possible for a group or a society to recognise or regard themselves as autonomous persons as Wolff describes and for them to function in a co-operative and co-ordinated way without the command of authority. Your self-refutation of anarchism relies on your ascribing contingent characteristics to these persons, specifically that at least one of them 'can [and will: GT] achieve such a predominance over their peers that they can forbid anyone else from the use of violence, in effect founding a state'. But a group or a society need not contain any person who has the capacity or the inclination to act in this manner. You need more than contingent characteristics to make anarchism logically self-refuting.

How anarchism would work in practice is another question but it is not logically - conceptually - self-refuting as your question suggests.

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Anarchism is not opposed to voluntary cooperation (see for instance Anarcho-syndicalism in Spanish Civil War-era Catalonia), but rather is against the coercive 'leviathan' of Hobbes.

Anthropologist Davud Graeber, uses the record of human arrival on Madagascar, and of the encounter between meso-American war-like imperialists and Native American tribes of the Mississipi region, to make the exact opposite case: his reckoning of the evidence is that in the absence of power & resource inequality the impoverished and exploited with their descendents, will create cultures strongly opposed to coercion and slavery, and based around free association and pursuasion. That the outcome of that dynamic has many times been romanticised as 'the state of nature' when it is actually an outcome of long eras of contention, where technological change hasn't driven inequality to persist.

Your post only makes an argument by your lack of imagination, bolstered by your not having done even a bare minimum to research the history of anarchism. You take the approach of people who say nihilism or postmodernism are 'self defeating' because they are just new metanarratives of not having metanarratives.

Consider how mutual-defence of trade networks by participants in them, is the driving force of the modern global order. That is, not (almost anyway) by coercion between major powers, but exclusion and sidelining of those who violate community norms from the benefits of participation, with mechanisms for dispute resolution by third parties.

Anarchism is fundamentally about the decentralisation and diffusion of power, the polar opposite to fascism in it's approach to governance - not, having no governance.

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I.e. what Conifold (and also Mauro) are saying is that you're bringing arguments that a certain form of anarchism is utopian, i.e. contrary to some "common sense" empirical evidence, which isn't exactly the same as it being self-refuting.

You're also ignoring the temporal aspect of the matter: if (admitting) it is ultimately infeasible, it could still be a useful descriptor for how some societies happen to (not) organize themselves for stretches of time, e.g. Somalia during their civil war and what not.

Also, regarding your last point's first bullet: inability to coalesce in a single state says something about the limits of common polity, but it doesn't mean the same group of people would not organize in e.g. several states/fiefdoms, which possibly achieve some (warring) stalemate for long stretches of time, and possibly even more permanent peaceful co-existing, without any individual not belonging to some larger state. I.e. you're making state an world-or-nothing proposition, which is obviously a false dichotomy from what we know of history thus far.

Also, according to the SEP page, in one of the senses:

Anarchism in political philosophy maintains that there is no legitimate political or governmental authority.

(Emphasis mine.) Which isn't incompatible with there being a state of fact (existence of states) contrary to this, as legitimacy is "in the eye of the beholder" to use an overworked phrase. As for the implications of that view...

Simmons explains that philosophical anarchists “do not take the illegitimacy of states to entail a strong moral imperative to oppose or eliminate states” (Simmons 2001: 104). Some anarchists remain obedient to ruling authorities; others revolt or resist in various ways. The question of action depends upon a theory of what sort of political obligation follows from our philosophical, moral, political, religious, and aesthetic commitments.

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In addition to the above, I think people forget that anarchism is about opposition to a government with a monopoly on violence. There is a concept called a night-watchman state: a form of government in political philosophy where the state's only legitimate function is the protection of individuals from assault, theft, breach of contract, and fraud, and the only legitimate governmental institutions are the military, police, and courts. Some anarchists have endorsed this form of government without the Hobbesian idea that a cohesive 'leviathan' is required to govern people. Anarcho-syndicalist Noam Chomsky endorsed such a system while stating he did prefer non-state authority in a 2007 interview & the first book to popularize the concept of a night watchman state came from anarchist philosopher Robert Nozick in his book Anarchy, State, and Utopia, a book he literally wrote to answer the book A Theory of Justice by John Rawls that also questioned how anarchy could not be contradictory and self-defeating if it truly meant having no government whatsoever.

You are for welfare state. This is unusual attitude for anarchist. Most anarchists, like George Woodcock, think that welfare state violates the freedom of individual.- Interviewer Anarchists propose other measures to deal with these problems, without recourse to state authority. ... Social democrats and anarchists always agreed, fairly generally, on so-called 'welfare state measures'. -Noam Chomsky

In fact, because of this, some real-life communities like Barbacha in Algeria, the Federation of Neighborhood Councils-El Alto in Bolivia, Freetown Christiania in Denmark, and Neozapatismo in Mexico - as described in "The Zapatistas, anarchism and 'Direct democracy". No. 27. Anarcho-Syndicalist Review by anarchist Andrew Flood - are considered to be anarchist night-watchman states. This shows that the concept of anarchists for many anti-statism thinkers is not entirely contradictory or self-defeating depending on how you look at it.

People also need to know that in spite of the name, the nightwatchman 'state' is people voluntarily coming together as Robert Nozick says in his book Anarchy, State, and Utopia. There is not a state-level of violence, but voluntary cooperation. This voluntary coming together without a monopoly on violence is described in the article "Anarchism and Minarchism. A Rapprochement". Journal des Economists et des Estudes Humaines by anarchist Tibor R Machan, so it is a very common concept among anarchists and left-wing free societies based around anarchist principles.

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  • I don't know why you deleted your answer to write basically the same answer again. Anyway with regard to your comments. No I think you got that the wrong way. Anarchism is technically as far left as you can get rejecting all social hierarchies, be it political, economic and so on. However in your introduction you cite Nozick and the the night-watchman state, which your definition tells you is a concept of minarchism and right-libertarianism. Basically in the U.S. Old Right hardcore capitalists rebranded as "Libertarian" and "Anarcho-Capitalists" which is a complete 180 from regular Anarchism.
    – haxor789
    Feb 22, 2023 at 13:17
  • en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Anarchism en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Libertarianism en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Night-watchman_state en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Anarcho-capitalism (4 links) The thing is Anarcho-Capitalism is really more of a capitalism, so it has to defend property at all cost, even at the cost of freedom of the individual to make their own laws. So because a free society would also be free to regulate property as they see fit, minarchists still need a state, a monopoly of violence that enforces property against the people.
    – haxor789
    Feb 22, 2023 at 13:40
  • Also if you read the interview then Chomsky quotes these as short term measures. That is the lack of worker safety and the ability to sustain themselves is a gross violation on the freedom of the people that get killed at work or starve. Mind you anarchists see freedom as a universal right not just as a privilege for the better offs. So he supports measures that mitigate this inequality. The difference is as to whether this should be a permanent state or the actual goal or just a short term measure to fix the most urgent shortcomings of the system and that's where they deviate.
    – haxor789
    Feb 22, 2023 at 13:48
  • @haxor789 Same Chomsky who defended the Cambodian genocide.
    – user76284
    Feb 28, 2023 at 16:55
  • @user76284 Interesting point. Though not really relevant to the question, is it? And do you have a less biased source?
    – haxor789
    Mar 1, 2023 at 7:42
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Let's start out with whether there has ever been a non-trivial, stable, and functional anarchy. The usual answer is no.

One wonders why, given that there have been countries with a truly enormous range of possible political arrangements. If anarchy can "work" (as defined in that link) then why have we not seen it doing so?

The thing is, it would have to be made up of humans. You can't get large groups of humans to be angels.

What is a government? A government is a legal monopoly on the use of coercive force. (Note: Legal as opposed to moral or ethical. Though one naively hopes laws will not be too far from morality, one is frequently exposed as a circus clown for this fantasy.)

The rules a government creates are different from those non-government creates in that the government can use brute physical force to compel people to obey. Police, armies, criminal courts, prisons, etc., are all arms of the government. This is how you recognize something as part of the government in a society.

If a place has no government, it means there is no legal monopoly on the use of force. Some persons will attempt to seize power. This is because some persons want to Get a Lot of Stuff and pointing guns at people with stuff is potentially a way to Get a Lot of Stuff. This is such that it fits Cartoon Logic.

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Or, in the words of Mel Brooks, it's good to be the king. So if there is no means to resist those persons who are prepared to use violence, then the violent will take power.

This is one message we get from Thomas Hobbes. The Leviathan is dangerous. But the Leviathan is what protects us from the many people who want to be Leviathan.

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  • 2/10 answer in that link say "no" the rest give examples or say maybe... Also you seem to confuse state and government. The government is the leadership, the state is... well depends on who you ask, but there are at least definitions that cite the monopoly of violence. Also no the absence of a monopoly of violence does not mean the strongest rules, not even Hobbes thought that. He thought it would be chaos and perpetual total war, but he also thought absolute monarchs were a good idea...
    – haxor789
    Feb 20, 2023 at 12:22
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    @haxor789 So you bring a smear on definitions and bias. OK then.
    – Boba Fit
    Feb 20, 2023 at 14:22
  • Just pointed out that the quoted link says something else than what you think it does. That you confused the terms government and state and that that's also not what Hobbes said.
    – haxor789
    Feb 22, 2023 at 7:50
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My thinking: Anarchists want to forbid the existence of the State.

This can be misleading, because Anarchism isn't so much about "the state", but about being anti-authoritarian, anti-hierarchical and against any relations that are characterized by the domination of one over another.

So as long as "the state" is characterized by one "rule making and enforcing"-agency that is independent of the people to whom the rules apply and to whom they are applied, this is a social hierarchy and a power relation that is incompatible with anarchism.

However it could at least theoretically be possible for a group to make their own rules directly. So it's not an authority that dictates but it's the free expression of the people themselves that is the foundation of these rules. And ideally because the people make the rules themselves and are in the position to question and reformulate the rules themselves (in cooperation with the rest), they are more likely to accept the rules themselves.

So at least in theory you'd have not as much need for an enforcing agency, as you would have if the creation of these rules already goes against the will of the people to whom they apply. Likewise if the people agree with these rules they are also theoretically more likely to have a vested interest in them, unlike if it is literally none of their business.

So it's the other way around, you don't really need a large dedicated organization that enforces rules if people agree with those rules, you need that if they don't agree with the rules and feel that it's more effective to break and bend them than to report problems with the rules.

So as long as it is about individual rule breaking and small groups, spontaneous organization of society could probably do the detective work of gathering evidence, reconstructing the situation and narrowing done the problem and negotiating a solution. You could have people who do that professionally and with a transparent work process but that part is rather uncontroversial.

However, in a society with no state, someone can achieve such a predominance over their peers that they can forbid anyone else from the use of violence, in effect founding a state. (This can happen for example because this person has forced everyone else under their rule with through violence).

And how exactly do you plan to do that? Like do you think you could go to town square and say "I am now your tyrannic overlord" and people will go "YEAH!!". No the most likely response is "GTFO!". And if you go there with a gun, people will probably run away and come back better organized and with much more guns... Individually you'd be outnumbered so even if you outgun them you'd still be at an extraordinary disadvantage. Even without guns all they'd need to do is surround you with shields and wait. Rather sooner than later you'll run out of supplies and have to give up.

And if you plan to go there with a group, what is it that you've got to offer to them? Like primarily you're taking away their freedom and agency and demand their loyalty and obedience to you, so you're making demands, rather than providing reasons to follow you. Like this works in situations that are already fucked up and where you're discriminated against and have the hope that you could do better than how it's currently done. Where you're hopelessness and lack of agency over your life makes violence become a viable option for change.

But if you have better options for change (those that are less likely to get you killed in the process), are able to partake in your own governance and have much safer ways of change than violence then this is a much less compelling narrative.

So your narrative would likely have to be one of domination and enslavement where you establish yourself and your peers as an upper class. However that necessitates the cooperation of the underclass who'd again outnumber and outgun you. And pretty much by default, because the upper class has to be "elite" (selected), not even necessarily in terms of skills but in the sense of small numbers. Or how do you plan for such a society to work?

Like they'd still have to span up an economy. Like people have to produce food, health care, goods and services, part of which has to go to themselves in order to keep up the economy and only a fraction of it can be extracted by you. So pretty much by definition the productive members of society would make up a much larger faction of the population who would perpetually see you as "the enemy". Sure you can keep them dumb and powerless, but your economic output will be accordingly... So you'd either end up serving them or find your head on a pike, either by the people whom you exploit or by one of your fellow exploiters who wants a bigger share of it.

So unless you can provide for yourself all by yourself while having weaponry to keep the entire world in check your concept fails due to the basic material reality. It's fundamentally unstable and temporary almost by definition and the threat of a violent death makes it not very compelling if you have options.

So what is it that you'd actually be able to offer them as a future insurgence against the system? Like even if they win, the majority of the people following an exploiter still end up being exploited. Like the average soldier and mercenary isn't usually much better off than the peasant that they steal from, maybe even worse off actually.

So I think you underestimate how hard it is to "take power". Mind you Anarchism isn't a "power vacuum" as people confusing it with chaos like to claim, but it's an equal distribution of power. So if you try to seize power, you'd take it away from other places and thus immediately make a lot of enemies.

And coming back to your question, there doesn't even had to be a direct contradiction in terms of having a monopoly of violence of the community. Like what if you'd say that the executive power comes down to the community, to judge, disarm and capture and so on. With the usual exceptions of immediate self-defense and assistance in emergency situation. So you'd have a group meeting decide how to organize and do it.

I mean the original idea of a militia is still suitable, so an ad hoc military comprised of the citizens themselves.

The crucial question isn't the existence of such an organization of people but how it's organized and how power is distributed in it. So is it an independent agency that exerts power over other people or are the people themselves exercising their power in mutual agreement with other people?

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Anarchism is self-refuting as a fundamental political polity as the state is not something, pragmatically speaking, that can be dispensed with. Ideally, it is not, and this utopian vision is an ideal to aim for as in Kant's Kingdom of Ends.

However, it can work as a polity within a larger polity when that larger polity is seen as illegitimate. It provides a sanctuary for those not disposed to the larger polity or to authority in general.

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