Who builds roads for anarchists?
October 15, 2010 1:13 AM   Subscribe

So who will build the roads, anarchists? No really...I want to know.

A common discussion-ender on the topic of anarchism/libertarianism seems to be the question of infrastructure. In a libertarian society, sure, corporations could handle the work. What about an anarchist society where everything is local? How would such practical concerns be dealt with?
posted by Roman Graves to Law & Government (23 answers total) 17 users marked this as a favorite
Les UX seems to be doing an okay job of it in Paris.
posted by Ahab at 1:26 AM on October 15, 2010 [1 favorite]

Which flavor of anarchism are you talking? Some would see no need for roads and just maintain footpaths. Others would agree roads are necessary and figure it out.
posted by beardlace at 1:30 AM on October 15, 2010 [2 favorites]

From An Anarchist FAQ, which has answers to a lot of questions like this: Who will do the "dirty" or unpleasant work?

beardlace's reply is a good one, too. Anarcho-primitivists would answer the question very differently from anarcho-capitalists.
posted by twirlip at 2:24 AM on October 15, 2010 [2 favorites]

What about an anarchist society where everything is local? How would such practical concerns be dealt with?

Either a path would be drawn through a commons, or whoever can inflict the most violence on the other locals will probably get to decide.
posted by Blazecock Pileon at 2:34 AM on October 15, 2010

No form of anarchism has any mechanism for dealing with crime, so someone would simply drop by the commune with a gun and put the slaves to work building the road. Cost-efficient and quick.
posted by shii at 2:46 AM on October 15, 2010 [1 favorite]

I'll bite. Anarchism is a form of pure communism, where the workers would be united in their struggle against the ruling class. After the ruling class is done away with, work would be delegated according to whatever any given individual is capable of, and whatever the society needs in order to sustain itself. People won't have as many reasons to hate their jobs as they do under capitalism; imagine if all you had to do to be a productive member of society and enjoy food and shelter in a healthy community was do a shift of "dirty work." Not 8 hours a day if you're not capable of that, and not for the rest of your life if you're not capable of that either. Just enough to repair the road enough to make society functional. Consider also that there would be a lot less roads to be built when society isn't based on commerce and having to constantly produce and transport consumer goods, and when the economy won't be so dependent on manufacturing and selling cars. Also, I don't understand why it's so hard to believe that someone would desire to build roads for the sake of their community.
posted by DJ Broken Record at 3:23 AM on October 15, 2010 [9 favorites]

No form of anarchism has any mechanism for dealing with crime

This is, in fact, not true. The Anarchist FAQ that I mentioned above has an extensive discussion of the subject. Lots of anarchists look to indigenous communities for examples. Existing anarchist groups have attempted to implement "accountability processes" among themselves, with varying levels of success. The Stone Canal by Ken MacLeod shows a polycentric anarcho-capitalist legal system in action. Etc. I'm certainly not aware of any anarchists who advocate forced labor for building roads -- it would kind of contradict the whole "no masters" thing.

Roman Graves, do you want to know what anarchists specifically have had to say about your question, or are you looking for opinions on the subject from all over the political/ideological spectrum?
posted by twirlip at 3:23 AM on October 15, 2010 [3 favorites]

I don't think my in-laws' neighborhood precisely counts as an anarchist commune-- too close to West Palm Beach-- but it's down a gravel/ dirt road and only acquired some city utility services in the last couple years.

My father-in-law drags the road level himself (he somehow acquired a Bobcat at one point...) or hires a guy to do it, with contributions from all the neighbors, when it rains. Otherwise, you need a truck to get down the road for the ruts.
posted by fairytale of los angeles at 4:19 AM on October 15, 2010

There are a lot of different flavors of "anarchism." But one thing that a lot of anarchists (note: I am not one, though I have a lot of sympathy for it) would say is this:

Anarchy is about eliminating government, not organization. Toward the capitalist end of the spectrum, you might have road-building companies that would, perhaps, have a more complicated payment system than taxation - for example, all roads might be tolled, or the people of a region might agree to pay a road company to build/maintain a road network for 'free' use for the sake of local commerce, much like taxation works now, but A) perhaps without a government as a middle-man and B) without taxes being extracted by law.

Alternately, anarchists with a more socialist bent might respond that roads get built because they're necessary, so some people get together and organize it. I know that may seem "impossible," but if you've ever attended a fan convention, there's your analogy: Setting aside the cost of the space, nearly everything is done on a volunteer basis for the sake of the community, and/or for non-financial status within the community. (Yes, many cons pay high-up staff for legal reasons, many retain lawyers, etc, but many smaller ones are 100% unpaid, and I think the analogy stands.)

Alternate answer: Magical Robots. I'm of the school of thought that anarchy would be great, but it only works when you don't have scarce resources encouraging/requiring people to get guns to acquire/defend those resources. If you have a post-scarcity economy where self-replicating nanobots can be programmed by hobbyists to build roads, you have a whole host of other problems, but "how can we build roads" isn't one of them.
posted by Tomorrowful at 4:22 AM on October 15, 2010 [8 favorites]

I think you have to recognize that, in fact, the people who care about the community will be the ones to get these things done. In places where the government lacks the will and/or resources to maintain infrastructure, it falls to the residents to arrange for such maintenance. There are usually freeloaders amongst the residents, as well as people who are willing to bear the burden of those freeloaders. Then there's everyone else. Much drama ensues. Sometimes the maintenance happens, sometimes it doesn't, depending on the capacity of those who are willing to bear the extra burden to a) take on the entire extra burden, b) persuade the "I refuse to pay for the freeloaders" group, and/or c) persuade the freeloaders.

Presumably, something similar would happen in an anarchist setup.
posted by bardophile at 5:50 AM on October 15, 2010 [1 favorite]

as a not card carrying, but self-identifying anarchist;

i just want to nth Tomorrowful - anarchy rejects government, not organization. coming together to form collectives and get things done is a big part of most anarchisms.

there are already examples you can see of how anarchists deal with infrastructure with a lot of land projects. When the road starts rutting up too bad, you organize together to figure out how you want to get it patched (or whether or not you want to), typically drive a truck into town, buy/steal gravel or tar, and patch the road. you throw work parties seasonally to rebuild structures, fix water systems, etc, or maybe your group/organization decides to have designated jobs, or rotating jobs, or ... etc. i guess i'm curious, what level of infrastructure are you talking about?
posted by circle_b at 6:29 AM on October 15, 2010

Maybe the following quotes will help...

So how will the anarchist utopia work?

That’s a question we’ll never again be duped into disputing over, a red herring if there ever was one! This isn’t a utopian vision, or a program or ideal to serve; it’s simply a way of proceeding, of approaching relationships, of dealing with problems now—for surely we’ll never be entirely through dealing with problems! Being an anarchist doesn’t mean believing anarchy, let alone anarchism, can fix everything—it just means acknowledging it’s up to us to work things out, that no one and nothing else can do this for us: admitting that, like it or not, our lives are in our hands—and in each others’!

The above is from a Crimethinc pamphlet (Google quick view of a PDF) on anarchism, who may not be the best people to cite, but anyway.

Or to quote David Graeber in a little piece he did called 'Are you an anarchist? The answer may surprise you!':

Now, you might object that all this is well and good as a way for small groups of people to get on with each other, but managing a city, or a country, is an entirely different matter. And of course there is something to this. Even if you decentralize society and puts as much power as possible in the hands of small communities, there will still be plenty of things that need to be coordinated, from running railroads to deciding on directions for medical research. But just because something is complicated does not mean there is no way to do it democratically. It would just be complicated.

In fact, anarchists have all sorts of different ideas and visions about how a complex society might manage itself. To explain them though would go far beyond the scope of a little introductory text like this. Suffice it to say, first of all, that a lot of people have spent a lot of time coming up with models for how a really democratic, healthy society might work; but second, and just as importantly, no anarchist claims to have a perfect blueprint. The last thing we want is to impose prefab models on society anyway. The truth is we probably can't even imagine half the problems that will come up when we try to create a democratic society; still, we're confident that, human ingenuity being what it is, such problems can always be solved, so long as it is in the spirit of our basic principles — which are, in the final analysis, simply the principles of fundamental human decency.

posted by knapah at 6:37 AM on October 15, 2010 [3 favorites]

Mod note: folks - this isn't a general debate on anarchism forum here.
posted by jessamyn (staff) at 7:04 AM on October 15, 2010

Pre-development, the only roads in areas of settlements were dirt trails usually in locations where tree cutting wasn't necessary. They developed out of indian foot paths and mutual labor. I guess that is how you would liken it to anarchism. Of course there were decent passable roads between frontier military forts. Those were the first real roads which could be used by wagons. Later on, plank toll roads between cities were built by venture capitalists which would be the libertarian approach.

Regardless, it is just a mental exercise. American roads will never revert to either of those possibilities while there is an America. Post-apocalypse, sure but we shouldn't have to worry about that for many years to come.
posted by JJ86 at 7:57 AM on October 15, 2010

I'm not sure I agree with the idea that Anarchy is about abolishing Government, per se. I think of An-archy as the opposite of Hier-archy - simply an absence of hierarchy.

So there would still be government, of a sort - it would just be self government, with everyone participating as equals. And to aswer the question (which has already been done) - if a road needed to be built, the community would organize itself to meet the need.

Similarly with the threat of crime or violence - the community would organize to deal with crime in a way that was locally appropriate.
posted by natteringnabob at 9:20 AM on October 15, 2010

There are many different schools of anarchist thought and I think knapah's quote says it best that the detailed mechanics can't necessarily be worked out ahead of time. But, as one example, you could imagine infrastructure projects organized on a local level by a democratic assembly something like the open town meeting governments common in New England. Larger regional projects could be coordinated by meetings of elected delegates of constituent towns. Getting rid of the state doesn't mean getting rid of politics. People still have to organize, cooperate, and compromise. Group decisions still need to be made. The goal of most schools of Anarchism is to localize those decision when possible, democratize them, and remove violent coercion from the decision-making and implementation process.
posted by dreadpiratesully at 9:27 AM on October 15, 2010

Response by poster: circle_b, I was specifically thinking of interstates. Basically, who would maintain the connecting infrastructure between more developed areas.

And twirlip, yes, I was specifically asking anarchists or just those with more knowledge of anarchist literature/ideas than me.
posted by Roman Graves at 10:13 AM on October 15, 2010

International mail service works reasonably well without a central authority. In the same manner, local organizations will cooperate in planning and building roads via anarchist organizational structures. The aforementioned Anarchist FAQ is a great resource and it discusses this idea extensively particulary in these sections. It's a lot to read but well worth it and without a doubt the best documentation of anarchist beliefs and practices.
posted by Orchestra at 10:35 AM on October 15, 2010

I don't know anything about anarchism, but I do know a bit about libertarianism. Like progressives and conservatives, not all libertarians believe the exact same thing.

The OP wrote:

In a libertarian society, sure, corporations could handle the work.

To be sure, many libertarians would agree with this. But just as many, I think, feel that physical infrastructure is an appropriate concern of government.

(I.e., when libertarians say that government should do a few things and do them well, infrastructure is often one of those "few things.")
posted by Alaska Jack at 12:22 PM on October 15, 2010

People still work together, even if no one is directly in charge. And there is still money.

I live in a rural area, which isn't covered by any city services, off a dirt road that connects 12 properties to the main street. The road doesn't technically belong to any of us. But it doesn't belong to a municipality either, meaning that the county isn't going to re-grade it or plow it in winter or re-oil it when necessary.

To deal with this situation, all 12 property owners have formed the Road Committee. The committee meets 4x a year at the house of one of the members (whose house is determined by a rotating roster). At the quarterly meetings, everyone decides what needs to be done in the next quarter.

Every quarter, each person pays a pre-determined sum of money into the committee's funds. These funds are used to maintain the road.

Over the summer they hired one of those big "lawnmower on a big swinging arm" machines to come out and cut back the brush that had crept up the shoulders of the road. The funds also paid for a snowplow attachment, which lives with one of the property owners, who attaches it to his giant truck and plows the road when necessary.

I'm not a libertarian or an anarchist, but I see it in action all the time. Just look what the Open Source movement has accomplished!
posted by ErikaB at 12:23 PM on October 15, 2010 [2 favorites]

Even in America, roads haven't always been built by the government.

From the linked article on the Lincoln Highway:
Support for a system of improved interstate highways had been growing. . . . However, Congress as a whole was not yet ready to commit funding to such projects. . . . Henry Ford, the biggest automaker of his day, refused to contribute because he believed the government should build America's roads. However, contributors included former U.S. President Theodore Roosevelt and Thomas A. Edison, both friends of Fisher, as well as then-current President Woodrow Wilson, the first U.S. President to make frequent use of an automobile for relaxation.
In other words: Sometimes you can just find a few rich guys to do it because it needs doing.
posted by SuperNova at 2:28 PM on October 15, 2010 [1 favorite]

In the Middle Ages, public works were typically funded by usage tolls, or outrightly paid for by wealthy guilds and individuals as a gesture of noblesse oblige/PR. For instance, many (most?) of the St. So-and-so hospitals were established by guilds. Guild records regularly recorded outlays for repairs on bridges, quays, and suchlike.

That is a fairly anarchistic solution, and it's real-world.
posted by IAmBroom at 8:49 PM on October 15, 2010 [1 favorite]

Historically road maintenance has often been a communal enterprise, certain days were set aside annually and members of the local community supplied labour and tools (much as ErikaB's community does today). It is under a governmental system but the Highways Act of 1555, though not without problems, provides a god example of this and illustrates how something like this might occur under a non-governmental system.

The Interstate system is something of a special case: its origins lie in a combination of lobbying by the automobile and in Eisenhower's perception of the need for a key military transport infrastructure. In addition it has been seen as amounting to a subsidy for the growth of the suburbs. None of these are elements which fit easily into most conceptions of a possible anarchist society. (Anarcho-capitalists aside) many contemporary anarchists are likely to see a future anarchist as synonymous with a post-carbon/fossil fuel society where private car ownership has been replaced by a communal transport infrastructure and walkable living neighbourhoods.
posted by tallus at 11:09 PM on October 15, 2010

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