Being relatively ignorant of anarchism, and its American cousin libertarianism, I read James Scott’s Two Cheers for Anarchism to see what all the fuss was about. The fear of the anarchist is legitimate; history has often shown States abusing their power. However, it seems to me that anarchists and libertarians are too concerned about “official” forms of oppression, which is understandable as these sources of power are more salient. But as far as I know, anarchists lack a compelling argument for how to deal with informal sources of oppression, and because of that, I must remain pro-government. Even if government is inefficient and oppressive, it would still be a lesser evil to the alternative.
Oppression can broadly be categorized into two forms: official oppression and informal social oppression. The former is wielded by the so-called State, which presumably acts as an autonomous agent, and the latter is located within the community or family. My problem with anarchism is that it takes for granted the oppression that society can impose on its members. Scott for instance, notes examples in history of “anarchists” societies existing in peace and stability, but neglects to mention how these societies possess rigid social hierarchies that enforce class and gender-based roles. Even if we go back to idyllic tribal societies, power is centered in the patriarchal family.
The implicit claim for anarchists and libertarians is that the family and community are justified in exercising power, while the government generally is not. For instance, libertarians may find the government oppressive for forcing their kids to go to school or for over-regulating vices. Yet, these same people may find it legitimate for a parent to force a child to go to school or to beat a child for smoking pot. Perhaps I am missing something, but I don’t see any reason a priori that a parent should be able to conduct these acts, while the government shouldn’t. Oppression is located in the act, and oppression is oppression is oppression. If it is oppressive to beat children, then it doesn’t matter who commits the act. If it is oppressive to tell children to go to school, then it doesn’t matter who issues the order. Often times it seems like rather than fighting oppression, libertarians and anarchists simply desire to give the patriarchal family a monopoly on oppression. The consequences of this policy would be terrible, as it will allow the family or community to oppress its members rather than to pursue what is best for them. An anarchists/libertarian may say that only a community knows what is best for itself, but I am not as optimistic. Societies may know what is best to maintain their stability and efficiency, but I am skeptical that they knows the best way to ensure human freedom.
Consider crime. The typical anarchist arguments I find for crime is community-based. The community will self-enforce laws, and a community tribunal will dictate punishments for crime. But is this really just? History has shown community tribunals executing and ostracizing members, which I don’t find a very liberating philosophy for justice.
Freedom means more than freedom from structural boundaries. It also means freedom from social judgement and norms. A society cannot be free if it forces people to adhere to arbitrary community norms. The cliché examples are racism and sexism, but consider less visible forms of social oppression. The child bullied for dressing a certain way. The man in an African tribe that doesn’t want to participate in rituals. The rural American who doesn’t believe in God. In my opinion, subtle social oppression is less desirable than official oppression. At least when the government oppresses me, I have a locus for aggression. When my friends and family oppress me, there is no one I can turn to or attack. While State oppression may make me fear for life, social oppression can turn me suicidal.
The most consistent basis for anarchism I can think of is some type of moral relativism. The argument would state that since morals are inherently relative, there doesn’t need to be a government force to promote “moral” policies. As such, it is alright if communities dictate their government and social norms differently. Perhaps one anarchist society will find corporal punishment for children acceptable, while another will not. Perhaps some will find executing heinous criminals justified, while others will find it cruel. Since there is no overarching morality to dictate these decisions, all we can rely on is community consensus. I admit there is basis for this argument, and a similar argument forms the basis of even a big government ideology like democratic socialism. But this argument is self-defeating for anarchists and libertarians. If there is no moral basis for anything, then how can one make the moral claim that State oppression is bad? It’s contradictory. Personally, I think certain moral norms exist independent of culture. For instance, no matter who or where you are, rape is immoral. Furthermore, the reason I support democracy is because I recognize the fallibility of humans, and so a democratic market of ideas is the best system to minimize injustices we may not recognize. And one of the ways representative democracy avoids the relativist and “mob rule” problem of anarchism is its constitutional framework, which provides a knowable and structured way for people to organize their lives.
I will admit though, that I still do not have a comprehensive understanding of anti-government theories. For instance, many anarchists protests social issues that are upheld through culture rather than official institutions. However, as far as I can tell, the anarchist solution for social problems appears to be “yell at bad people until they start acting good.” That’s not a tactic I can support, and until I hear a more practical anarchist strategy, I must remain a government-loving socialist.