The following is one of three introductions for the upcoming C4SS anthology TOTAL ABOLITION: Police, Prisons, Borders, Empire and is being published here as a teaser for the book.
Originally published by Center for a Stateless Society. Written by Jason Lee Byas.
A No-Government Doctrine for the 21st Century
Almost everyone today accepts at least one utopian idea: that slavery is so morally unacceptable that the practice must be stomped out wherever found, and any institution that depends upon it must immediately crumble.
It’s probably even an understatement to just say people accept that idea. It’s the very core of moral common sense; if any other idea even looks like it might under certain circumstances kind-of sort-of imply otherwise, that idea is out.
But like I said, it is a utopian idea. In the ancient world, there were some people who thought something like this – such as the Stoic Dio Chrysostom or the early Christian bishop Gregory of Nyssa – but they were few and far between. Even when we reach the mid-nineteenth century, on the eve of abolition, William Lloyd Garrison was nearly tarred and feathered in Boston for promoting it.
Garrison and others like him represented the radical fringe in denying that any person can ever own another. It is not surprising, then, that you would often hear some other utopian ideas in talking to abolitionists. As slavery’s apologists liked to remind people, Garrison also held to a “no-government doctrine.”
He was not alone among abolitionists in that doctrine. Alongside denunciations of slavery and exhortations to abolish it through insurrection, Lysander Spooner penned anarchist screeds proposing to overturn all legislatures and state courts in favor of a legal system that made no room for monopoly authority.
As we approach two hundred years past Garrison’s near tarring and feathering, the victory over chattel slavery is well-cemented but the no-government doctrine still looks as hopeless as it did then.
It is those seemingly still-hopeless battles that this book seeks to fight: Against the protected class of gangs with monopoly power, the use of ritual caging and killing as a system of accountability, an international apartheid between those born under different rulers, and cross-planet power games knocking over human pawns.
These are what we have in mind when we talk about abolition today. As Garrison and Spooner saw, this abolition still to come is an extension of the abolition already won.
The no-government doctrine poses a problem for all other political frameworks, because it takes aim at the central functions of any state – conservative, nationalist, progressive, socialist, and indeed, even classical liberal.
Even for those still holding to such frameworks, it is easy to see the thrill of finding a world turned upside down and taking it upon yourself to turn it rightside up. The sheer enormity of the task can be a source of energy, as with Garrison’s famous statement that he was “all on fire,” for he had “mountains of ice to melt.”
Does It Even Matter If Another World Is Possible?
At the same time, being all on fire can bring burn out.
Some who accept the ideas of anarchism in the abstract, that it is correct “in ideal theory,” or even that the institutions it rejects are unnecessary, still have a different problem with it.
The states of today, or at least many of them, are simply not the states of the premodern world. They are extractive institutions – but that extraction is constitutionally limited. They lord over us – but that lording often comes with concessions that benefit the real lives of real people.
Yes, constitutionally limited extraction is still extraction, and the concessions we receive are nothing compared to the world we could have without them. Sure, this objector says. But, they continue, this misses their point.
States have been restrained and retrained with non-negligible success, and we know this can work to some extent because we have seen it happen. Bands can freely use album art of the President’s severed head, the state will teach your child math and science for five days every week for thirteen years without any further charge, every four Novembers if enough people don’t want the President to be President anymore that President just stops being President – it must be admitted that all this is kind of incredible in the grand scheme of things.
If too many people are speeding through your neighborhood and it’s endangering your family, sure, you could conceivably engage in direct action and install speed bumps yourself. But you could also just go to a city council meeting.
In short, even if the no-government doctrine has adequate answers for “Is it right?” and “Can it work?,” some may still wonder “Why bother?”
The temptation for a so-what addendum to the no-government doctrine falls on seasoned anarchists both in their capacity as theorists of politics and as agents of political change. Why get into your weird views about how we could decriminalize crime and do everything through tort law – through competing arbitration agencies, no less! – when you can just talk on how obviously unjust civil asset forfeiture is? What practical purpose does that wild background belief even serve when you can just phone bank for the gubernatorial candidate who spent thirty years as a defense attorney?
It is against this temptation of thought and action that I want to spend the rest of this introduction. It is a temptation to complacency, but it is a temptation that nonetheless warrants response.
Keeping the Fire Alive
In short, there are three basic reasons to bother: staying alert, staying true, and staying ready.
In our state-structured world, it’s easy to get lost treating tangential questions as foundational.
It’s probably true that there were better and worse claimants to any given crown, or that some theories of royal succession were more consistent than others. However, all the ink spilled on these questions has largely faded from collective memory.
We don’t remember intra-monarchist debates anywhere close to as well as we do the early defenses of representative democracy. That’s not because the latter were inherently more sophisticated, it’s because the former were about contingent questions whose time has passed. By pressing basic questions of what makes a political order legitimate in the first place, it is the democratic theorists who have stayed with us.
On the assumption that liberal democracy might not be the end of history – an assumption shared by someone who agrees that anarchism is right, and can work, but only wonders why they should bother – rummaging in the questions of democratic theory today risks ending up like yesterday’s monarchists.
Fleshing out the best, most consistent principles for a liberal democratic state is certainly enough work for one lifetime. Yet that lifetime would be spent moving back and forth in an ultimately unsolvable labyrinth, searching for the properly just form of an arrangement that cannot be made truly just.
Moreover, excess familiarity with that labyrinth can lead you to forget that its walls are walls. Piecemeal tweak after piecemeal tweak to theories meant “for a basically just society like ours” may never provide the answer you’re looking for, while such an answer does exist, right beyond those walls.
Theorizing politics as theorizing governments will often mean treating the basic foundations of a government as a black box, both normatively and positively. You will miss or minimize the sources of social order coming from outside the state, and you will miss or minimize those elements of justice with which the state is incompatible.
Any no-government doctrine is going to be a non-starter for many political conversations today, premised on guiding state action. But relevance in today’s conversations is relevance within conversations that are themselves irrelevant in a more ultimate sense. The world is the wide-open field beyond the labyrinth of questions and answers internal to the liberal democratic state.
So too does a complacent position imprison practical political action. If you treat electoral channels as the true channels of change, you will keep running on that hamster wheel forever.
For instance: If you reify the free flow of ideas to what the state’s laws say about the free flow of ideas, you will focus on trying to persuade courts and legislatures to loosen intellectual property. This has not proven successful.
By contrast, if you keep firmly in mind that the actual free flow of ideas bears no necessary connection to what the state’s laws say about it, you will stay alert. Opportunities to make intellectual property unenforceable through filesharing will become visible to you, and you will be able to seize upon those opportunities. This has proven very successful.
That point generalizes: For instance, concern for self-defense and the ability to arm oneself accordingly, filtered through the state-centric frame turns to lobbying. This, in practice, means funding organizations whose mission creep has them focused more on right-wing populist cultural messaging than overturning gun restrictions. Without state-centric blinders, you can simply ensure access to guns by making them easier to build at home.
By bothering with anarchism, you stay alert to questions of lasting importance, and alert to real means of furthering the cause of freedom.
Of course, what is worst for defenders of the old order is not that their contributions have become irrelevant. It is the moral stain of the system they defended: Flagrant theft of peasant property, massacres for no more purpose than expansion, and public torture against those who challenged it.
Not only that, but many of the horrors should have been horrors on their own terms. Defenses of divine right held to a religion of turning the other cheek and blessing peacemakers yet found themselves supporting the right of principalities and powers to burn dissenters alive.
The analogy here is obvious: those who propound individual liberty and settle for the liberal democratic state also settle for institutions that dependably make criminals of peaceful people. Those who settle on that same system with social justice as their abiding conviction settle for a system that dependably redistributes wealth upwards.
Those who accept anarchism in the abstract but opt for adjusting the liberal democratic state will balk at this description, and they have clear grounds for doing so. They do not support the fact that the liberal democratic state makes criminals of peaceful people, nor that it dependably redistributes wealth upwards. In fact, their project is overwhelmingly to lessen and reverse the processes by which peaceful people are made criminals and wealth is redistributed upwards.
Here again, though, it is worth looking at the present in light of the past.
Aristotle’s defense of “natural slavery” is an uncomfortable part of his Politics. What is potentially lost in our discomfort is that Aristotle rejects the enslavement of anyone who does not fall within his stipulations of “natural slavery,” and thus we might see these passages as an attempt to reform and restrict the institution.
Regardless of Aristotle’s intentions, we do not generally remember that his defense of slavery was more limited than actual Athenian institutions, nor do we think of his discussion as a commendable effort at reform. We remember only that Aristotle defended slavery, and it rightly leaves us with great discomfort.
Perhaps some theories of criminal punishment would have the state ritually kill no one, and ritually cage far fewer people, for much shorter amounts of time, and in much better conditions. That is all well and good, and it is worth hoping that those theories beat out more brutal ones.
But defending even those theories as if they are actually correct is still to defend a process of ritual violence. If ritual violence is itself unacceptable, that defense of ritual violence is still defending the unacceptable.
If the state is what anarchism says it is, then that the state was defended as legitimate will be most salient after the state fades, not the increasing standards to which states were held.
More serious than having lent rhetorical support to horrors is participation in them. And the kind of actors you are likely to be supporting in a path of political action marked by complacency are unlikely to meet even the relaxed standards of political thought marked by complacency.
Like Aristotle, John Locke gave a limited defense of slavery that did not extend to the institution as it existed around him. In his case, the thought was that only unjust aggressors in war could be enslaved – not their children, not their families, just the unjust aggressors themselves.
Clearly, the generational, race-based slavery practiced in British America could have no Lockean defense. All the same, Locke’s place in the politics of his day found him involved in crafting the Fundamental Constitutions of Carolina, which provided for slavery without any such caveats.
Locke’s own principles were far superior to those enacted in the Fundamental Constitutions of Carolina. All the same, he bears guilt for the latter.
While not an anarchist, it is hard to think of many better defenders of individual liberty in the twentieth century than F. A. Hayek. Yet by accepting the terms of twentieth century politics, he found himself approving of Augusto Pinochet’s leadership in Chile, overlooking those extrajudicial killings that came alongside it.
While not an anarchist, it is hard to think of many better defenders of social justice in the twentieth century than W. E. B. Du Bois. Yet by accepting the terms of twentieth century politics, he found himself approving of Mao Zedong’s leadership in China, overlooking all its accompanying starvation and terror.
The United States and similar countries today are not Pinochet’s Chile, nor Mao’s China, let alone colonial Carolina. Yet when anarchist scruples are bracketed for the politics of the day, there are still unconscionable trade-offs.
Perhaps the candidate who will cut your taxes is also going to brutalize immigrants. Perhaps the candidate who will open paths to citizenship is also going to empower the surveillance state beyond what anyone before thought possible. These are times to step back from complacency and rethink the terms of political action.
To be clear, none of this is an appeal to “being on the right side of history,” understood as the idea that the best moral judgements are always those found furthest in the future. The moral judgements in question here are internal to those of the people being judged – Hayek should have known better on his own terms than to give cover for Pinochet, Du Bois should have known better on his own terms than to give cover for Mao, and Locke should have known better on his own terms than to help craft a constitution that allowed for people to be born in slavery.
Rather, the point is that by complacently accepting the political terms of their day, these figures abdicated their principles in favor of power. Following those alien principles without due reflection and readjustment left them complicit in a way that we can see clearly because we are more removed from their political circumstances.
And the further point behind that one is that complacently playing politics on those terms power offers can morally blind us just the same. What caught Hayek, Du Bois, and Locke can catch us, unless we stay alert in order to stay true.
We also must bother with anarchism because it is coming. Another world is not only possible, it is inevitable.
That other world is inevitable because there is no alternative. The organizing principles of free exchange and free association are fundamentally incompatible with the state and its organizing principle of command. Yet command’s predation always depends upon prior production from free exchange and free association, and so it is its own gravedigger.
Here I may have lost my intended audience: after thousands of years of Pharaohs, Caesars, Kaisers, Czars, Chancellors, General Secretaries, Presidents, and Prime Ministers, it might be implausible that victory has always been in the cards. We’ve had enough time to look at our hand, surely by now we’d have seen it and cashed in.
Here I see your thousands of years of kings and queens and raise you hundreds of thousands of years of stateless tribes. What looks fixed and frozen today really started last week, if we focus on the right timescale.
Just as our stateless prehistory gave way to civilization and its parasitical states, this grand transition period will give way to the open society of true self-governance. All things considered, it should be easier to see that future than it would’ve been to see the present from the past. We’re not dreaming up literacy or commerce in a world without it, we’re just abstracting those parts of our world from the bureaucrats and warzones.
So, we need to take seriously the truth of the no-government doctrine because it gives us reason to think we will one day find ourselves in a no-government world.
That no-government world comes with its own challenges: How is individual predation deterred without a dominant gang? Where is accountability found once the prisons crumble? Once all movement is by default unchallenged and unchallengeable, with what tools can we hold back any disease once it crops up somewhere on this planet? Supposing liberation doesn’t come everywhere all at once, how could those in the free world defend themselves from lingering states?
These questions demand answers. The difficulty of finding those answers may be one motivation for falling into complacency with the world as we know it. Yet the difficulty of finding those answers, combined with the fact that we will need them, is exactly the reason complacency is not an option.
Once we get where we’re going, we’ll need a map. Sketching what little we can of that map in advance is the purpose of thinking through the no-government doctrine. Because any no-government doctrine is really a doctrine foretelling some future order that fills that no-government hole, and we must know what takes that place if we’re to be ready for it.
Our politics must also be a politics of getting ready.
The slogan of anarchist social change is “building the new world in the shell of the old.” It is important not to overlook how this implicitly describes failure: getting left with nothing but the shell.
The difference between a failed state and a successful anarchy is the difference between a power vacuum and robust institutions of self-governance. The risk-based case for cautiously living life as a run-of-the-mill classical liberal, social democrat, or whatever else despite anarchism “being true in the abstract” is really a reason to stop doing so and work on making anarchism a concrete reality.
We need to know what it looks like for a free world to work, and we need to build what’s necessary for a free world to work. Otherwise, we might forgo that free world for another thousand years in a cycle of command, collapse, command, and collapse.
We must find what fills the void of no-government. We must stay alert, stay true, and stay ready, and so we cannot stay complacent.
We must be all on fire, for we still have mountains of ice to melt.