Toggle full-width

In Defense of Anarchism

In Defense of Anarchism by Robert Paul Wolff. 86 pp. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1998. Originally published 1970. Paper.

The reprinting of this Sixties classic reminds us of how far we've come. Anarchism's convergence with ecology and feminism, and its current move toward ceasing to be an "ism" at all, is encouraging. We are gradually prying off the shackles of the Western world-view, beginning to see that humanity's future lies outside that morass of hierarchy, domination and patriarchy. Reading Wolff's book again after all these years is like remembering all the dumb things you did in high school — one still feels mortified, but also grateful for the lessons learned.

The preface to the 1998 edition is the best part of the book. Wolff leads us on a fascinating and nostalgic journey through his Sixties Angst - believe me, not as trite or dated as it sounds. The Defense arose out of his early involvement with the anti-nuclear movement, when he was still a bottom-of-the-pecking-order instructor at Harvard. Starting from the moral theory of Kant, he set out to prove that no state authority can be compatible with individual autonomy. One or the other has to go — and for Wolff, as for all anarchists, it had to be the legitimacy of the state. The essay was first sold as "Political Philosophy," part of an ambitious but ill-fated Harper Guide to Philosophy series under the editorship of Arthur Danto. This Columbia philosopher may not be well known to many of today's readers. His name looms large, however, among radical historians who seek to undermine the foundations of their archaic discipline.

Wolff wanders about the cultural landscape, touching on Rambo movies, Lani Guinier, Nelson Mandela, game theory, and the Free Speech movement. Mentioning that the $500 advance he received for the first edition paid for five weeks of psychoanalysis, he goes on to say that his essay can be reduced to the bumper-sticker slogan "Question Authority" — perhaps not a good thing to be proud of. Entertaining as the new preface is, it suggests that the author has not changed his thinking much since 1970.

The essential core of post-medieval political philosophy, as Wolff precisely says it on page one, is "how the moral autonomy of the individual can be made compatible with the legitimate authority of the state." Like all anarchists, he believes that it can't be. However, this is a modern answer to a modern question — and we have now surely moved into or beyond a post-modern age. Wolff and most traditional anarchists (if one may be permitted that oxymoron) share with the "archists" some basic assumptions arising from Renaissance humanism, Enlightenment liberalism, and the alliance of capitalism and central authority that has marked the industrial era. One of these is "the State" as a given, an entity we all have to deal with, regardless of our opinion about its legitimacy. Another is "the autonomous individual," whose existence was not questioned in modern times although it is relatively recent, philosophically arguable and ecologically dangerous. Is Wolff's question one that anarchists still ought to be asking?

The State as such is moribund. Nearly everyone fears, ridicules, evades or simply ignores it. Even the most troglodytic Veteran of Foreign Wars or Christian Coalitionist no longer trusts it. In a sense, a primary goal of anarchism has already been attained. As for the individual — well, that one is a bit more tricky. None of us wants to surrender the basic personal and human rights so hard won over the past centuries. Anarchists have always made the free individual the heart and soul of their philosophy. But postmodernism and ecology have rendered the concept highly suspect. We are all so intimately interconnected with one another and with the rest of the biosphere that any boundary separating "me" from "you" may be seen as arbitrary or even hegemonic. A review is not the place, of course, for a full-blown attack on the underlying assumptions of the book. But those assumptions are indeed under attack, and this places the Defense squarely in the mainstream of classical anarchism, not on the cutting edge.

A brief chapter-by-chapter commentary may be in order. The essay is in three parts, concisely and logically laid out. In "The Conflict between Authority and Autonomy," the author first describes the idea of authority itself. This section has clarity and elegance but says nothing not already said by Godwin, Proudhon or Kropotkin. Next Wolff tackles autonomy, and here he sticks very close to Kant. To be moral means to strive for autonomy. Then in two short pages he brings the two together: we may choose to obey the state and its laws, but only when that is compatible with our search for autonomy. The state certainly has power of coercion, but it does not have the right to tell us what to do. "If all men have a continuing obligation to achieve the highest degree of autonomy possible, then there would appear to be no state whose subjects have a moral obligation to obey its commands." (Yes, the appearance of "man" or "men" on nearly every page is jarring, but let's give Wolff a break, he was writing thirty years ago,)

In part two, "The Solution of Classical Democracy," we find a standard exposition of democratic liberalism in words that might have come from John Stuart Mill. Democracy is certainly a feasible solution to the problem of balancing autonomy and authority, but only when one concedes the inevitability of authority. Wolff begins with "unanimous direct democracy," or what today we would call "participatory democracy" or "consensus." John Rawls has demonstrated that such a system is more practical than one might think at first, and Wolff uses his arguments extensively. He recognizes the limitations of consensus: it requires that people be generally rational and altruistic, and that the community not be too large. But he questions whether the result of such decision-making ought to be termed a 'state.' Next he demolishes the legitimacy of representation, but this has been done better, before and since. The bottom line is that representatives are not truly representative, because they do not obey the wishes of their constituents. Many theoretical arguments have been advanced as to whether true 'agency' is possible, but they are beside the point. No matter how you define the relationship between the agent and the electors, elected rulers simply are not identical with the ruled. This has nothing to do with the nature of the bond. Rulers and ruled are two different species. Wolff does not say this quite so bluntly, but I think that's what he is getting at.

Next we come to the most embarrassing section of the Defense, an "Appendix: A proposal for Instant Direct Democracy." Anticipating the Internet by some decades, Wolff proposes that "a system of in-the-home voting machines be set up." The "device" would be, I swallow hard before quoting, "attached to the television set." Everyone could now vote on everything, with results tabulated by "a computer in Washington." De democratiae per Web-TV, libera nos Domine! Wolff predicts that the Establishment will react in horror to this recipe for mob rule: "Bills would be passed or unpassed with the same casual irresponsibility which now governs the length of a hemline or the popularity of a beer…. Gone would be the restraining hand of wisdom, knowledge, tradition, experience." But Wolff has more faith in the common man. On the contrary, "America would see an immediate and invigorating rise in interest in politics…. Politics would be on the lips of every man, woman and child, day after day." The media would improve their coverage to satisfy this hunger for accurate news. "Social justice would flourish as it has never flourished before." Sheesh!

It's hard to know where to start. Cyberia is anything but liberating, though we might forgive Wolff for not seeing that in 1970. What about this unquestioned assumption that every household will have a TV set, even if it has to be "supplied by a federal subsidy"? Why does the central computer have to be in Washington? Why would this marvelous system have to be folded into the current mechanism of bill-passing, or even be called "voting"? No, sorry, you just can't fight the Establishment with its own tools. Above all (and I don't apologize if this sounds cynical), the critics would be right: the American people, at least in their present state of sheeplike materialism and willful ignorance, would indeed prove incapable of governing themselves. Like too many liberals, Wolff cannot see that our culture needs changes a good deal more fundamental than electronic democracy.

There's a lot more to the book after this digression, and some of it is worthwhile, if the reader can take an antacid and go on reading. The critique of majoritarian democracy is concise, showing that Locke and Rousseau did not really understand the difference between getting what one wants and getting what one wills. As is well known, majority rule always fails to protect the liberties of the minority, but Wolff argues that it even works against the best interests of the majority. The reasoning employs game theory, and is rather difficult to follow, but the reader should try to stick with it.

In Part III, "Beyond the Legitimate State," we arrive at a foregone conclusion: no government can be legitimate. Either we must be anarchists, or we must surrender our autonomy to whatever authority seems best at the moment. Wolff makes the telling point that no particular form of government is inherently or a priori better than another - that is, there is no reason I should prefer a democracy to a dictatorship. In either case I lose my autonomy. This is a promising start, but now we run suddenly into this book's most disturbing claim.

"Man confronts a natural world which is irreducibly other, which stands over against him, independent of his will and indifferent to his desires." Is this as bad as it sounds? Alas, yes. Because nature is not "rational," Wolff assumes that we must stand in eternal opposition to it. Worse, the "social world" is not part of nature at all, but "consists merely of the habits, expectations, beliefs, and behavior patterns of all the individuals who live in it." The whole is no more than the sum of the parts. Wolff dichotomizes society and nature in order to prove that since the former is of our making and the latter is not, it should be possible to restructure society so as to eliminate domination and illegitimate authorities such as the state. No anarchist today (I hope) could agree with this reasoning. By divorcing humans from the rest of nature Wolff commits the ancient error of physis and nomos, repeated and compounded over the millennia by capitalists, Marxists and traditional anarchists alike. It is in fact the fundamental error of Western civilization. Anarchism today is unique in that it looks over the edge of that failing Western paradigm, converging with ecology to propose that true liberation comes from reintegration with nature. Admittedly, most anarchists thirty years ago were not conscious of being mired in moribund Western assumptions such as this. But some, notably Murray Bookchin, were, and Wolff today has no excuse for reprinting and perpetuating such dangerous nonsense.

The last few pages consist of "utopian glimpses of a world without states." I wish he hadn't used the word "utopian" - Marx was right to reject the whole notion. If the world were happily fragmented into a million small anarchist communities, how would large-scale projects be carried out? (Why does he assume that there should be such projects?) Of course many radical philosophers have tackled that question, and Wolff adds nothing new. In fact he subtracts a bit. As Peter Marshall points out in Demanding the Impossible, Wolff "aligns himself with the anarcho-capitalists and right libertarians" - he offers no alternative to private property or the free market. But what sort of large-scale activities are we talking about? Evidently his anarchist utopia will still have "nations" and "borders" to defend, perhaps with an army "run on the basis of voluntary commitments and submission." A genuine free-market economy would be compatible with anarchism only with "extreme economic decentralization." But that will be possible with small-scale local energy sources and advanced production technology. This would mean "a high level of economic waste," but it would enable us "to break the American economy down into regional and subregional units of manageable size." He takes it for granted that the current highly technological standard of living must be maintained, and apparently gives no thought to whether all those teeming Chinese and Africans ought to have cars and TVs. "The exchanges between the units would be inefficient and costly…considerable waste, and so forth. But in return for this price, men would have increasing freedom to act autonomously." Indeed, yes — to act ourselves autonomously right into ecocatastrophe and extinction.