Why not anarchy?
December 5, 2010 7:47 PM   Subscribe

What would happen if society, especially American society, were to lapse into anarchy?

I know a couple people who believe that the best thing that could happen would be for the United States (and ultimately all countries) would be for the government/s to cease to exist and an anarchy to take its place.

While I have a gut feeling that things wouldn't work out as well as anarchy's supporters imagine in this scenario, I can't articulate why. So, what would happen if the US became an anarchy? (Authoritative and scholarly sources would be great.)
posted by LSK to Grab Bag (66 answers total) 15 users marked this as a favorite
 
I'd also prefer discussion of quantifiable effects over more general arguments. Articles saying "If we move towards anarchy, X million people will be without housing / food / etc." would be great.
posted by LSK at 7:56 PM on December 5, 2010


You can point them to any modern reference points on what Mogadishu is like today, for the best analogue to total anarchy.
posted by thewalrus at 7:59 PM on December 5, 2010 [8 favorites]


It depends on the magnitude of what caused the anarchy in the first place. It would have to be something pretty big. We've gotten really fucking good at organizing ourselves.

There are many steps between here and there.
posted by Bonzai at 8:02 PM on December 5, 2010 [1 favorite]


It also depends on what you consider "anarchy" to be, or more precisely what you consider the goals of anarchism to be. I'd consider myself somewhat anarchist, politically speaking. And yet I don't think a complete removal of all government would be a good thing. Or even a "politically necessary so that the true revolution can happen" sort of thing.

One reason I'm in favor of a large centralized government, however, is that it enables us to have major infrastructure like electricity, running water, paved roads, the internet, etc. I'm not sure how that sort of thing would be accomplished on a large scale without the modern nation state.
posted by Sara C. at 8:06 PM on December 5, 2010


Without the government to provide infrastructure, I would imagine that the only place it would come from would be the private sector. The thing is, with the probable security costs being so absurdly high (highly armed, fiercely independant, suddenly ungoverned populace), what self-respecting multinational corporation would stay here? If there was really full on anarchy, I would imagine a large number of corporations would just leave, finding greener, safer bases of operation elsewhere.

So, yeah, Somalia. Maybe not at first, but at some point. The moment Bob in accounting realizes that the cost of providing security, roads, clean water, and schooling for Steve in marketing, everything starts going down the drain.
posted by Ghidorah at 8:13 PM on December 5, 2010


It also depends on what you consider "anarchy" to be, or more precisely what you consider the goals of anarchism to be. I'd consider myself somewhat anarchist, politically speaking. And yet I don't think a complete removal of all government would be a good thing. Or even a "politically necessary so that the true revolution can happen" sort of thing.

It's ill-defined, which is obviously a problem here, but the general notion among these acquaintances is that it would be something like a libertarian's paradise, with nobody to tell you what to do.
posted by LSK at 8:16 PM on December 5, 2010


The thing is, with no government, the whole society thing (our group morals and ideals, held together by laws and courts) becomes kind of opt-in, and you can say

it would be something like a libertarian's paradise, with nobody to tell you what to do.

up until the group with more followers, or bigger guns tells you what to do, where to do it, and just exactly how you should get it done.
posted by Ghidorah at 8:20 PM on December 5, 2010 [3 favorites]


LSK, that is not a universal desire amongst anarchists. I don't want to be all No True Scotsman about it, but it's not as simple as "anarchists want the whole world to be like Somalia".

And "nobody to tell you what to do" is not a goal of anarchism in any but the silliest most sophomoric sense. For one thing, even in places where there is no central authority (like, sure, Somalia), the social contract still holds. Institutions like religion, society, tribe, family, friendship bonds, etc. still exist. And those institutions are, of necessity, constraints on our individual liberty. There is really no way to escape that and still be a human being.
posted by Sara C. at 8:23 PM on December 5, 2010 [2 favorites]


Maybe you should take a look at a couple of periods of social unrest in the US to project a picture. For example, the events around the Rodney King decision in Los Angeles. At one point, there were over a thousand fires going in the city. Some people were shooting the firemen as they arrived to put out the fires, so they became reluctant to respond to fires in poor areas. Random commuters were pulled from their cars and beaten by angry crowds. Stores were looted and smashed. I was surprised that Target and Fredrick's of Hollywood (Hah) were completely stripped. No accounting for taste, I suppose.

Anyway, a lot of the wealthier folks bought subautomatic weapons and Hummers. Storeowners were positioned on rooftops to protect their property. Wealthier areas had much more visible emergency responders.

That event really impacted Los Angeles very unfavorably, deepening division and driving poor areas deeper into poverty.

The Los Angeles Weekly would have some background in their archives.
posted by effluvia at 8:27 PM on December 5, 2010


There is really no way to escape that and still be a human being.

That's sort of what I was thinking. Thanks for articulating it.
posted by LSK at 8:36 PM on December 5, 2010


Detroit from the late 60's to today would also be worth a look. It's significant to me that, 40 years later, we're just starting to have a sense of a comprehensive plan to make Detroit work as a city again. And if any of those plans come to fruition, it's going to be a very different notion of what a city is.
posted by Sara C. at 8:39 PM on December 5, 2010 [1 favorite]


This post is a bit ill-conceived. Anarchism is a broad philosophy meaning little more than no state. There are all sorts of flavours of anarchism, which would result in quite different outcomes.

More generally, speaking as a non-believer, things that generally haven't worked terribly well in the past when there hasn't been an authority around have been the rights of people. Social norms just don't seem to cut it in larger groups, when people are able to get away with harming other people without some social cost. Works OK in tribes which can shun or expel members, but whenever the cops don't turn up for work in any larger town, the ne'er-do-wells seem to come out of the woodwork. So yeah, the first thing that wouldn't work in anarchism is the safety of people. Which means trust would generally be diminished, which would destroy any economy.

Anarchism hasn't really posited a solution for the tragedy of the commons.
posted by wilful at 8:50 PM on December 5, 2010 [3 favorites]


One change I'd expect would be a decentralization of decision-making. I could imagine the spontaneous re-creation of something like Neighborhood Councils, but I have trouble imagining the City of Los Angeles remaining one unified government.

I would guess that taxation would become less systematized and more voluntary. Big infrastructure projects might not happen and, so for instance, the Golden Gate Bridge might decay over time.
posted by salvia at 8:51 PM on December 5, 2010


Imagine a great metropolis covering hundreds of square miles. Once a vital component in a national economy, this sprawling urban environment is now a vast collection of blighted buildings, an immense petri dish of both ancient and new diseases, a territory where the rule of law has long been replaced by near anarchy in which the only security available is that which is attained through brute power. (1) Such cities have been routinely imagined in apocalyptic movies and in certain science-fiction genres, where they are often portrayed as gigantic versions of T. S. Eliot's Rat's Alley. (2) Yet this city would still be globally connected. It would possess at least a modicum of commercial linkages, and some of its inhabitants would have access to the world's most modern communication and computing technologies. It would, in effect, be a feral city...

This article first seeks to define a feral city. It then describes such a city's attributes and suggests why the issue is worth international attention. A possible methodology to identify cities that have the potential to become feral will then be presented. Finally, the potential impact of feral cities on the U.S. military, and the U.S. Navy specifically, will be discussed.
Does not sound like fun.

-Your friends should watch the movie Collapse. I guarantee you, they have fantasies of being the ones who will "outrun the bear". Ask them what preparations they're making.

-Your friends should also read the book World Made By Hand; DC & LA get nuked, the government shuts down, the world gets fed up and just stops trading with an crazy America that can't afford anything anyway, the electricity shuts down, the gas runs out, the medicines run out... now what?

-Afghanistan is essentially a country without a central government. Karzai is the Mayor of Kabul, and a corrupt one at that. The rest is powerful warlords who control whatever the local valuable resource is (opium poppies), and use the profits to hire violent, armed men, and make their lives better than the poor, unarmed masses around them.

Your friends are reading too much Alan Moore and taking him too seriously beyond being an artist. Anarchy = the strongest, best armed, best organized group will assert it's will (or try to). And either they will succeed and in effect become a government, or it's just a feral situation until someone quells it and declares himself High Lord of Whatevertownthisis.
posted by Pirate-Bartender-Zombie-Monkey at 8:56 PM on December 5, 2010 [9 favorites]


Without the government to provide infrastructure, I would imagine that the only place it would come from would be the private sector.

Oryx and Crake.
posted by ovvl at 9:02 PM on December 5, 2010 [3 favorites]


Niven and Pournelle visited this kind of thing twice, and showed us two possibilities which were pretty much opposites.

One was "Lucifer's Hammer", when a comet struck the earth. In that one, everythingg goes to hell.

The other was "Footfall", when an alien spaceship appeared with the intent of conquering the planet. In that one, the government is mostly gone but people cooperate and don't let things go to hell.
posted by Chocolate Pickle at 9:06 PM on December 5, 2010


Social norms just don't seem to cut it in larger groups, when people are able to get away with harming other people without some social cost. Works OK in tribes which can shun or expel members, but whenever the cops don't turn up for work in any larger town, the ne'er-do-wells seem to come out of the woodwork.

There's probably a reason groups like the Mayans deserted the cities very quickly after their civilizations "collapsed".

Oryx and Crake.

From reading that and its sequel, I'm pretty sure it doesn't describe an anarchistic future as actual anarchists would imagine it. It seems more like a corporate plutocracy which leaves the poor to fend for themselves. Though I suppose The Year of the Flood does depict a scenario where society has collapsed. Most people have died of a plague, though, so you don't really have the problems that most sci-fi imaginings of societal collapse present. Lack of a central authority to secure a large populace isn't really an issue.
posted by Sara C. at 9:15 PM on December 5, 2010


This was the state for most of humanity so I imagine government would eventually revert back to villages, tribes, local rulers, councils of elders and that sort of thing. Being governed by a council of their elders or most well-armed neighbors is probably not going to be so super great for the dreadlocked crusties & paranoid recluses that promote anarchist self-governments as a post-modern utopia around here. I'm pretty sure they'd be the first & second ones burnt at the stake.

There's a reason all those billions of kids around the world got off the farm or out of the village and took the bus to the big city in the first place.
posted by fshgrl at 9:15 PM on December 5, 2010 [3 favorites]


No one would have any money except whoever owns the banks. That's okay, though, because no one having money would make money worthless. Ditto with gold. Goods and services would be the only things of value.

The Police and Fire Departments would become Mafia-styled "protection" rackets overnight. Without a government as a middleman, you'd have to pay them directly. With favours and loyalty, because money is worthless. These gangs would have endless battles over territory. You would be fighting these battles as payment for your protection.
posted by Sys Rq at 9:23 PM on December 5, 2010


Sys Rq, that's actually what 19th century police and fire departments were actually like. Well, except money existed. But the rest, yes.
posted by Sara C. at 9:27 PM on December 5, 2010




The first thing would be to recognize how many layers have to break down for us to fall into anarchy, and more importantly, to stay in it for more than a very short period.

If the Federal government falls, we also have state, county and city levels of government, many of which employ a lot of people who have vested interest in keeping it running, as well as citizenry who like things like electricity, running water, internet, phone service, etc.

The government organizations, are, in fact, decentralized units, so that even if some of the people were removed, the system is built to have others step in. If they can keep electricity, phones and/or internet running, it's a hassle but not terribly difficult for folks to keep things running state-to-state, city-to-city levels, etc.

Assuming those magically all collapse, there's also the military. Although we're used to endless tales of how shitty the military is organized, they would operating a) on home territory, with current maps and intel, b) not necessarily against violent opposition, and in many places, with a co-operative population, c) and not with various civilian politicians forcing choices or limiting choices on them in terms of organizing things.

But, we'd probably have to assume the military also vanishes for the local governments to have disappeared.

At this point, citizens are going to fall back on local organizing groups - police, firefighters, schools, churches. It will be hectic and not great. We could probably operate this way for a month to a few months before it becomes crazy-warlord time, though there's stuff like militia groups, white supremacists, some organized crime groups who would be quick to step up.

This assumes also that another country doesn't move in to stabilize things. No one really wants the country with the most nukes, chemical and bio-weapons to turn to anarchy. No one wants the country that ships out food around the world to collapse into anarchy.

American isolationism won't matter much- people are likely to HELP the organizing country provided they don't come in jackboot occupation style. Again, people like having electricity, running hospitals, etc.

If we go a step further and say that things are so bad that no one CAN step in (magical forcefield, zombie apocalypse, whatever), then international trade is gone as well, which means California ceases being the world's 7th largest economy. Economic power shifts to whoever can organize and get control over a) food, water, and electricity generation, b) transporting & distributing it all and c) has enough military power to hold it.

At that point, the anarchy doesn't last more than a few years at most- which is basically the process of warlord-ism and the re-dividing of the US into smaller states.

All of the places we can see long term anarchy, in reality, are places that have been war torn for generations and either lack enough resources to be worth the effort, or, at least the effort is cheap and trivial enough to get resources that it's not worth building long term infrastructure.

In reality, anarchy won't last for long, given our 1st world proclivity and desire to organize and maintain infrastructure. Pretty much we're talking magical alien zombie mega-disease or something to really do the job.
posted by yeloson at 9:41 PM on December 5, 2010 [3 favorites]


No one would have any money except whoever owns the banks. That's okay, though, because no one having money would make money worthless. Ditto with gold. Goods and services would be the only things of value.

The Police and Fire Departments would become Mafia-styled "protection" rackets overnight. Without a government as a middleman, you'd have to pay them directly. With favours and loyalty, because money is worthless. These gangs would have endless battles over territory. You would be fighting these battles as payment for your protection.


Day 2: We should probably print some money.
posted by Bonzai at 9:42 PM on December 5, 2010


Oh, yes, I guess magical shifts in the laws of reality could also do it- electricity ceases to work, combustion engines stop, etc. That would be a bigger problem in what your new society looks like, I'd imagine, though.
posted by yeloson at 9:43 PM on December 5, 2010


I know, Sara C. (I also wedged the draft in there!)
posted by Sys Rq at 9:43 PM on December 5, 2010


Day 2: We should probably print some money.

Day 3: We should probably burn their money.
posted by Sys Rq at 9:45 PM on December 5, 2010


Anyone who gives you a definite answer is pretty arrogant. This is a hugely complex question.

Not very many anarchists think the government should disappear overnight. A lot of modern anarchism concentrates on "building a new world in the shell of the old" - that is, learning and teaching people how to operate by themselves. This is why anarchists tend to organize cooperatives, communes, syndicates, unions, and so forth.

There are a pretty big handful of historical examples here; the Spanish Civil War is probably the best one. Essentially, Russia supported the republican side (or the part it liked most), while the rest of the world supported the fascists for fear of "communism". There's also the Paris commune, the Hungarian revolution, and a whole host of others.

Sorry if the "not very many" and "a lot" and things bother you - as the saying goes, you could ask three anarchists what their ideal world is and get seven answers. By it's very nature, anarchism is not unified, but that's okay: nearly every flavor of anarchism could function well and independently in a truly anarchist world. The disagreement comes from how we get there from here.

But honestly, when you go out to dinner with your friends, do you worry about them killing you? Do you really think the state is the only thing holding them back?

Want me to go on? I can go on much more if you'd like.

up until the group with more followers, or bigger guns tells you what to do, where to do it, and just exactly how you should get it done.

To paraphrase Alan Moore, this is what he have now.
posted by wayland at 9:56 PM on December 5, 2010 [3 favorites]


Anarchy is not what most anarchists think it is. Human nature is to be selfish, and, in anarchy, this is allowed completely. Without social contract, there is no real safety from another's will and, in reality, anarchy would never truly exist--people would form a tribal system and slowly build up to the level of government and infrastructure we live in today.

I'd like to say that New Orleans after Katrina is probably the closest to this "anarchy" America has seen. That or the Old West, before it was tamed.

But, then again, according to Žižek, many of the allegations made against the people of New Orleans following the disaster are completely false, so I guess I would have to argue that the image of New Orleans after the disaster would be the closest to anarchy we've come.
posted by MHPlost at 10:07 PM on December 5, 2010


ovvl, I was thinking of Oryx and Crake when I wrote that. I love the book, but I'm not sure if things would play out like that. While large corporations have shown themselves willing to get involved with dangerous areas/situations, it's nearly always because that place has something valuable, something that makes it worth the investment. To that end, what possible reason would, say, Microsoft have for remaining in Seattle if everything went to shit? Mayhap Microsoft is a bad example (if the world turns to shit, do we still need Powerpoint?), but they're loaded, and they could, feasibly, maintain some sort of worker's compound, complete with schools, creche's, community centers, and the rest. The big question is why would they? Why wouldn't they just decamp to a safer, more stable place? They could easily take their prized/valuable employees with them to their new place, and the cost of the move would, over time, be much less than the construction, upkeep, and security costs of their own little world.

If the U.S. govt. collapsed, and for whatever reason other countries didn't, well, I don't see many companies sticking around to create the company town. They go where it's cheapest to go, and maintaining your own society isn't cheap.
posted by Ghidorah at 10:45 PM on December 5, 2010


Total derail, but was there some point in Oryx and Crake where it's stated that the government did, in fact, fail? I mean, prior to the apocalypse engineered by Crake. My reading was that the government as such was simply irrelevant to the story - the real power was wielded by corporations who ramped up modern day gated community suburbia into heavily controlled company towns, and everything else just sort of rotted. Which isn't too far fetched when you consider the disparity between, for example, Cupertino and Flint. But we can save the dystopian book club for another day, of course.
posted by Sara C. at 10:53 PM on December 5, 2010


wayland, no, I don't worry about my friends killing me, but at the same time, I also don't need to worry (too much) about whether or not I'll be able to get safely to and from the restaurant. I don't need to worry whether or not the trains will be running at their posted times, or if I drive, that the roads will be fairly well maintained so that travel is possible. I can be reasonably assured that I will be able to purchase fuel for my vehicle, and that when I flip the lightswitch, light will come on.* I can also eat my dinner with a pretty good chance of dining in a restaurant that at least makes an appearance of following health codes, knowing that it's pretty unlikely that dining there will sicken me.**

It's not my friends that I'm worried about. It's the people who don't like me, or who don't like choices I've made, or people that I'm friends with. Or people who decide that, hey, I like that guy's hat, I think I'll take it, just for random examples. Unfortunately, anarchy relies on people being, well, better than people usually are to work. The ideal is great, but the reality is what we've got here.

*Offer may not be valid under certain Bush administrations, or during natural disasters.

**Offer not valid at Jack in the Box.

posted by Ghidorah at 10:57 PM on December 5, 2010


First, one must get it out of one's head that anarchy involves lack of organization. An anarchic society could be highly organized, but it would be decentralized.

Why should anarchy lead to a dystopia of violence and decay? Even a pack of hipsters fixing up a dilapidated Detroit block is a model of anarchism and leads to the exact opposite.

I think that when people visualize violence and decay, what they're seeing is the failure of a state that has taught people to be complacent, to not think for themselves, to fear the other and to be utterly reliant on faceless institutions for their survival. After having been trained away from self-reliance, equality and cooperation for so long, what are people supposed to do? And knowing what its failure would bring, why shouldn't the state attempt to frighten people away from the alternatives?

On the other hand, there's a certain inevitability in the way people behave and the political structures that emerge, though they may be shaped by history and intellectual development, always seem to take the same shape.
posted by klanawa at 11:24 PM on December 5, 2010 [2 favorites]


Ghidorah, I think a lot of that brokenness is a result of arbitrary hierarchy. What's keeping your potential hat-thief from getting a hat for himself? In my ideal society, at least, if someone wants something, they can either find someone who can make (or grow, or find, etc) it and ask nicely or make it themselves. The way things are now, people who really fucking enjoy making hats either can't, because it doesn't pay the bills, or are forced to make really expensive fancy hats, because it might. If you ask why anybody would bother with making hats, it's because people like doing work. It's a good feeling to feel useful. Look at the huge things open source software has done, for example.

About health codes: people are driven to operating kitchens unhealthily because cooking's just a job for them. Capitalism has taken the natural rewards for cooking - making people happy, feeling useful, making good food - and replaced them with profit. And it's a lot easier to make a profit once you stop caring about the people who eat your food.

You have all those things right now, but there are a lot of people who don't. In fact, it's damn pretty rare, and, to my thinking, inevitable under capitalism. I hate to be glib, but why can't people who are starving walk into your house and eat your food? Should they be allowed to?

I guess a lot of my thinking hinges on the idea of having networks of voluntary communities. Still, some people might decide that they don't like those communities or whatever, and that's okay too. But if you decide that you don't like being around people, you can't really expect nice things that other people make, can you? Though I sort of have to concede with you about the trains running late thing (that's actually something George Orwell points out during the Spanish Civil War in his excellent Homage to Catalonia, haha) . Still, specific times don't seem like they would be such a big deal if it weren't for someone saying you have to be at point x by 7:30.

p.s. Thanks for being so nice about this. I don't think I've ever seen a thread on metafilter so filled with ad hominem attacks and general meanness as this one.

Anarchism hasn't really posited a solution for the tragedy of the commons.

You bet they have
posted by wayland at 12:20 AM on December 6, 2010 [1 favorite]


Even a pack of hipsters fixing up a dilapidated Detroit block is a model of anarchism and leads to the exact opposite.

That sounds a little like kids going rafting and calling themselves pirates. Can there be anarchy when all of you and all of your friends and all of your potential and actual enemies are monitored, controlled, and protected by a highly organized hierarchical system of local, state, and federal governing bodies and supplied by a huge net of commercial operations that are also controlled by those governing bodies? You might as well call them entrepreneurs, not anarchists.
posted by pracowity at 12:21 AM on December 6, 2010 [4 favorites]


wayland, honestly, I love the idea of anarchy. I would love to believe that it is possible, but unfortunately, I have absolutely zero faith in humanity. Corruption is so horribly commonplace that it's more likely to be news when someone has a chance to be corrupt and doesn't take it. Abuse of power is pretty much everywhere. Democracy might be the best system we have, but dear lord, it's pretty horribly flawed. And keep in mind, I'm not advocating capitalism. People who say anarchy won't work aren't always saying that because they believe in capitalism. Again, it's horrifically flawed, and again, mostly due to what horrible shit people will do when given the chance.

As for the trains, I know that even bringing them up puts me on a path to being equated with someone who loves Mussolini, but it's not that. For any kind of train system to work, there has to be an absurd level of planning, timing, and control. Getting the trains to run at all is a minor miracle (I'm looking at you, Chicago), let alone getting them to run reliably.
posted by Ghidorah at 1:15 AM on December 6, 2010


Ursula le Guin explores the idea of an anarchistic society in The Dispossessed. Definitely what you're looking for.
posted by chmmr at 1:25 AM on December 6, 2010


Perhaps the "wild west" is a good example. (The historical one rather than the genre of manly fantasy fiction).
Groups and communities naturally form their own hierarchies and either intentionally or organically appoint some of their members to arbitrate disputes and maintain order. In some communities, those hierarchies are (or become) rotten and abusive, in others, they are democratic or at least benevolent. Communities with more order tend to become more prosperous than others (which attracts more disorder - and growth) and on the world turns.
posted by -harlequin- at 1:53 AM on December 6, 2010


“up until the group with more followers, or bigger guns tells you what to do, where to do it, and just exactly how you should get it done.”
posted by Ghidorah

kind of sounds like what government is.

I don't think pointing to Somalia or any other area that is engaged in a civil war is a relevant analogy. The civil wars and ethnic strikes resulted in anarchy rather than the other way around. And it's not really anarchy it's just controlled by people that are unpalatable.

I have absolutely no idea what would happen if the United States would fall. Sounds like pure speculation and conjecture to me.

Sounds like a great place to inject a bit of randomness and chaos theory. If everything is random and it seems like there are an infinitesimal amount of outcomes that could result.

A couple of points that I think are of reference:
compare what happened when Sioux City Iowa Cedar Rapids Iowa flooded in the last couple of years with what happened after Katrina. Different places would have different reactions.

In the wild West days, during the settling of the West and during the gold rush often times there were vast aamounts of territory that had effectively no government.

corporations wouldn't necessarily have to pack up and go right away, because wages would probably fall substantially within a short period of time.

If I were to make a prediction I would say that you might get corporate towns springing up. Rather than paying off the firefight or the police officer directly groups of individuals or corporations would establish towns. The safest towns would be able to extract the highest rents and also attract more wealth.

I think I can say with certainty the following
I don't see gold coin out of style. Gold has been so universally used as a monetary unit in store of value that it's hard to imagine it not being worth anything.

For that matter, there would be no reason to immediately abandon the dollar. The dollar is not backed up by anything right now anyway. tomorrow if society fell not much would change. It wouldn't be backed up by anything and would still be in limited supply and hard to duplicate-- make that harder.

As for detailed specifics and the level of violence I really have no idea.
posted by chinabound at 2:28 AM on December 6, 2010


Anarchy = the strongest, best armed, best organized group will assert its will (or try to).
Yeah. The best description of this, and the logic that produces it, is Thomas Hobbes's account of the state of nature in Leviathan. People often make the mistake of assuming that Hobbes was writing primarily about non-European "savages." He wasn't. The book was written in the context of the English Civil Wars, and is very much about what happens—what must happen—when centralized authority breaks down and people are left to survive on their own:
To this war of every man against every man, this also is consequent; that nothing can be unjust. The notions of right and wrong, justice and injustice, have there no place. Where there is no common power, there is no law; where no law, no injustice. Force and fraud are in war the two cardinal virtues. Justice and injustice are none of the faculties neither of the body nor mind. If they were, they might be in a man that were alone in the world, as well as his senses and passions. They are qualities that relate to men in society, not in solitude. It is consequent also to the same condition that there be no propriety, no dominion, no mine and thine distinct; but only that to be every man's that he can get, and for so long as he can keep it.
posted by Sonny Jim at 4:49 AM on December 6, 2010


Nukes would fly!
I can almost guarantee that.

and after that, what else do you need to know.
posted by Flood at 5:05 AM on December 6, 2010


Human beings are organizing animals, the primary purpose of which organizing is to amass and protect resources. Actual anarchy will always be short-lived as a result.

Whenever you see something that looks like sustained anarchy, a deeper look will always reveal (a) a fair measure of alternate organization and hierarchy and (b) one or more group or faction deriving great benefit from the residual disorder.
posted by MattD at 5:13 AM on December 6, 2010 [1 favorite]


and after that, what else do you need to know.

Sticks and stones will break my bones.
posted by pracowity at 5:30 AM on December 6, 2010


I think most of you are talking about chaos.

Anarchists love organisation, they're just opposed to hierarchy and authority. There's a pamphlet I've referenced here before, written by an anarchist academic that might be useful to the OP - it's called 'Are you an anarchist? The answer may surprise you!' and is by David Graeber.

It's pretty short and simple, but it might help.

"Chances are you have already heard something about who anarchists are and what they are supposed to believe. Chances are almost everything you have heard is nonsense. Many people seem to think that anarchists are proponents of violence, chaos, and destruction, that they are against all forms of order and organization, or that they are crazed nihilists who just want to blow everything up. In reality, nothing could be further from the truth. Anarchists are simply people who believe human beings are capable of behaving in a reasonable fashion without having to be forced to. It is really a very simple notion. But it's one that the rich and powerful have always found extremely dangerous." [My emphasis]
posted by knapah at 5:42 AM on December 6, 2010 [3 favorites]


Oh yeah, and the US wouldn't become an anarchy. If you think that anarchist society would look like the state then you are already speaking at cross purposes to anarchists.
posted by knapah at 5:52 AM on December 6, 2010


I think that most self-proclaimed anarchists really have in mind a sort of commune as an ideal. Everybody contributes, everybody cooperates, everybody works towards a common goal and everybody reaps the benefits in equal measure. This sounds great, but it can never work, because even if it's not conquered from the outside by someone with bigger weapons, it will start to fall apart as soon as one person doesn't want to play by the rules. One person will say, "Why do I only get three potatoes? I want five! In fact, I want all the potatoes!"

And this is why we can't have nice things.
posted by Faint of Butt at 6:40 AM on December 6, 2010 [3 favorites]


Pointing to fiction is not really helpful in the context. You would be better to look at what has happened historically where control and governance has broken down in a large modern state. There aren't many examples with the main being the fall of imperial Russia. Comparisons with that situation are problematic for any number of reasons.

I suppose it depends on the nature of the catastrophe or trauma that could induce a large scale failure of US Federal government but it is fairly clear that the vast majority of Americans would be horrified by anything approaching anarchy. Presuming some sort of politically induced failure the overwhelmingly likelihood would be that state/local government would fill the gap.
posted by zemblamatic at 7:10 AM on December 6, 2010


Yeah, the answer to the question:
What would happen if society, especially American society, were to lapse into anarchy?
is that it wouldn't happen, no matter how hard you try to define "anarchy" to mean something no one but a true anarchist would understand. Nothing would break apart the current hierarchies except replacement hierarchies with replacement guys telling you what to do. There will always be a boss, or multiple competing bosses, no matter how loudly you declare "you're not the boss of me" and how deep in the forest you build your stockade.

But if somehow the US federal government suddenly lost power -- if that's what is meant by this question -- such that the US central authority over its possessions fractured, parts of the US government and the shitload of weaponry each part controls would grapple for control of the entire current USA, so that you'd have pieces of the world's scariest armed forces taking sides against itself. That wouldn't be good. Life, as brief as it would be, would become one of those shitty Tom Clancy boys adventure books but without the happy ending. First the world-threatening civil war, and then some foreign powers looking to stabilize things and side with the winners would step in, thus turning civil war into world war. Yay.
posted by pracowity at 7:16 AM on December 6, 2010


it will start to fall apart as soon as one person doesn't want to play by the rules. One person will say, "Why do I only get three potatoes? I want five! In fact, I want all the potatoes!"

For what it's worth, I've lived in a commune and this is not what it's like. At all.
posted by Sara C. at 8:40 AM on December 6, 2010 [3 favorites]


We are living in the future. Corporations routinely build cities of 50-80,000 from scratch, complete with schools, medical clinics, shopping malls, streets, plumbing, security, etc., and the only government involvement is to make sure there won't be too much impact on the surrounding traditional communities. Corporations already take a lead role in major infrastructure projects like airports and telecom, I don't see why they couldn't provide highways and police forces too if it were in their best interest.

If the US government fell apart slowly, without any major wars or collapse of the banking system, I suspect things wouldn't change all that much for most people as corporations gradually took over government functions. Of course, it would really suck to be unemployed, disabled, or old and poor in such a world!
posted by miyabo at 8:49 AM on December 6, 2010


You should watch the BBC series "Survivors." It's fiction, but it gives a really good feeling for what it would be like if government just disappeared, and it has some neat ideas about what the challenges and methods would be of those who want to end the anarchy.
posted by jbickers at 9:06 AM on December 6, 2010 [1 favorite]


One of the bigger problems that Utopian anarchists have yet to solve are the threats of group action: both internal warlords and external invasion. In every case where order has broken down, warlords take over in the short-term and hereditary tribalism happens in the long term. That's why people keep pointing to failed states like Afghanistan and Somalia, why central LA tends to come up as well. There's never been a stable, multi-generational autartic society. (An autarch is a "self-governor", a term I prefer to anarchy, "non-governed").

A weak or non-existent state is also ripe for takeover by organized neighbours. Even given a self-organized collective of autarchs, who have somehow managed to figure out a magic system which works with reasonable justice and fairness, how are they going to stop, say, the Chinese from invading? A mid-west town with small arms might be safe from gangs, but it would not make a big difference to modern MI army with armour and air-strike capabilities.

To be effective as a society autarchy has to ignore the human impulse to team up, both within its boundaries and outside them. Like communism, it posits a utopia conditional on rejecting a fundamental human behaviour. Like communism, in practice, anarchy results in some of the worst human atrocities ever recorded.
posted by bonehead at 9:18 AM on December 6, 2010 [2 favorites]


it will start to fall apart as soon as one person doesn't want to play by the rules. One person will say, "Why do I only get three potatoes? I want five! In fact, I want all the potatoes!"

For what it's worth, I've lived in a commune and this is not what it's like. At all.


So why do you no longer live in a commune?
posted by Faint of Butt at 10:33 AM on December 6, 2010


There's never been a stable, multi-generational autartic society.

Of course there has. On the contrary - our notion of government has only existed for a tiny blip on the timeline of human existence. That said, the reason most humans for most of time have lived without government is that they have extremely simple societies. Once you decide you want temples and writing and professional artisans, you need government of some kind.

The question posed by anarchists, however, is whether such a government needs to necessarily be autocratic and hierarchical in nature. The existence of (relative) democracy over the last couple hundred years implies that the answer is no.
posted by Sara C. at 11:13 AM on December 6, 2010


So why do you no longer live in a commune?

I got a job with crazy hours and didn't have time to go to all the meetings and such. Much easier to just accept the mantle of mainstream society, even if it means I don't get to live in an 8000 sf loft with views of the Manhattan skyline anymore.
posted by Sara C. at 11:16 AM on December 6, 2010


Of course there has. On the contrary - our notion of government has only existed for a tiny blip on the timeline of human existence. That said, the reason most humans for most of time have lived without government is that they have extremely simple societies.

Can you point to one? I'm not an expert of anthropology, but I'm not aware of any stable societies that have regulated by individual governance. There are uncountable many that rely on small familial groups, but that's not the impression I have of what most libertarians mean when they talk about autarchy. A tribal existence is very much about being part of a mesh of mutual dependence and responsibilities. Bands also tend to have explicit hierarchies, in contrast to flat anarchic self-regulation.

The Shakers and like communes are probably the best examples I can come up with, but even they had a limited hierarchy.
posted by bonehead at 11:30 AM on December 6, 2010


The !Kung are a great example of a modern-day culture which lives this way. Richard Lee's work is worth looking at if you want to understand their approach to organization, especially as it concerns hierarchy vs. equality.

It's important to note that, as far as I'm aware (and I identified as anarchist for a long time and have done A LOT of reading on the subject), no anarchist has ever literally suggested that the world would be better off if nobody were responsible to anybody else, or if the social structure didn't exist. From what we know about primates, that's just not realistic at all. In a whole different way than communism is unrealistic, or that expecting people to just cooperate peacefully all the time is unrealistic*.

*It's worth noting that even the loose, egalitarian band-based cultures definitely have a structure built in to deal with nogoodniks. It's just not as organized as our law enforcement and court system - it's more like "you don't cooperate, you don't eat". It's a little more organic, but I'm not sure it's very much more humane.
posted by Sara C. at 12:17 PM on December 6, 2010 [1 favorite]


I got a job with crazy hours and didn't have time to go to all the meetings and such. Much easier to just accept the mantle of mainstream society, even if it means I don't get to live in an 8000 sf loft with views of the Manhattan skyline anymore.

Then I'm sorry to say you're the one who wanted all the potatoes, by which I mean something (I'm guessing the income from the job) that you couldn't get while remaining a part of the commune. Now, I'm not saying you made a bad decision, or did anything inappropriate. You decided, rationally, that your own goals were incompatible with those of the commune and left (presumably) in a manner that did no harm to the commune as a whole. That's absolutely fine, as far as I'm concerned.

But it helps to illustrate why communes can only function on a small scale: when a society depends on total cooperation, there has to be someplace else to go for those who can't or won't cooperate. The bigger you scale the concept, the closer you approach the inevitability that someone won't fit in, and if it's the organizing principle of an entire nation (or planet) there's nowhere for them to go and so they cause trouble.

I realize that I've derailed the thread, and so I'll apologize and withdraw, but I think my point about what most "anarchists" really want still stands.
posted by Faint of Butt at 12:43 PM on December 6, 2010 [1 favorite]


Apologies for the long quote, but Graeber is again relevant.

For anarchists who do know something about anthropology, the arguments are all too familiar. A typical exchange goes something like this:

Skeptic: Well, I might take this whole anarchism idea more seriously if you could give me some reason to think it would work. Can you name me a single viable example of a society which has existed without a government?
Anarchist: Sure. There have been thousands. I could name a dozen just off the top of my head: the Bororo, the Baining, the Onondaga, the Wintu, the Ema, the Tallensi, the Vezo...
Skeptic: But those are all a bunch of primitives! I’m talking about anarchism in a modern, technological society.
Anarchist: Okay, then. There have been all sorts of successful experiments: experiments with worker’s self-management, like Mondragon; economic projects based on the idea of the gift economy, like Linux; all sorts of political organizations based on consensus and direct democracy...
Skeptic: Sure, sure, but these are small, isolated examples. I’m talking about whole societies.
Anarchist: Well, it’s not like people haven’t tried. Look at the Paris Commune, the revolution in Republican Spain...
Skeptic: Yeah, and look what happened to those guys! They all got killed!

The dice are loaded. You can't win. Because when the skeptic says “society,” what he really means is “state,” even “nation-state.” Since no one is going to produce an example of an anarchist state—that would be a contradiction in terms—what we‟re really being asked for is an example of a modern nation-state with the government somehow plucked away: a situation in which the government of Canada, to take a random example, has been overthrown, or for some reason abolished itself, and no new one has taken its place but instead all former Canadian citizens begin to organize themselves into libertarian collectives. Obviously this would never be allowed to happen. In the past, whenever it even looked like it might—here, the Paris commune and Spanish civil war are excellent examples—the politicians running pretty much every state in the vicinity have been willing to put their differences on hold until those trying to bring such a situation about had been rounded up and shot.

There is a way out, which is to accept that anarchist forms of organization would not look anything like a state. That they would involve an endless variety of communities, associations, networks, projects, on every conceivable scale, overlapping and intersecting in any way we could imagine, and possibly many that we can't. Some would be quite local, others global. Perhaps all they would have in common is that none would involve anyone showing up with weapons and telling everyone else to shut up and do what they were told. And that, since anarchists are not actually trying to seize power within any national territory, the process of one system replacing the other will not take the form of some sudden revolutionary cataclysm—the storming of a Bastille, the seizing of a Winter Palace—but will necessarily be gradual, the creation of alternative forms of organization on a world scale, new forms of communication, new, less alienated ways of organizing life, which will, eventually, make currently existing forms of power seem stupid and beside the point. That in turn would mean that there are endless examples of viable anarchism: pretty much any form of organization would count as one, so long as it was not imposed by some higher authority, from a klezmer band to the international postal service.


From Fragments of an Anarchist Anthropology [pdf] pp. 38-39
posted by knapah at 12:44 PM on December 6, 2010 [4 favorites]


Perhaps all they would have in common is that none would involve anyone showing up with weapons and telling everyone else to shut up and do what they were told.

Which, there, is his utopianism coming through. That's a handwave. Until and unless this problem is solvable in some manner, I would argue, true anarchy isn't possible. How do the free ungoverned deal with gangs of bullies, stronger than any single individual?
posted by bonehead at 1:28 PM on December 6, 2010


Which, there, is his utopianism coming through. That's a handwave. Until and unless this problem is solvable in some manner, I would argue, true anarchy isn't possible. How do the free ungoverned deal with gangs of bullies, stronger than any single individual?

No, his point is that each anarchist group only has that in common with each other, i.e. that none of them will be using force to impose their will on others.

I believe he discusses the invader argument somewhere, but I don't have time to find it now. It's not something that has gone unaddressed by anarchists.
posted by knapah at 1:35 PM on December 6, 2010


That link should go here I think.

that none of them will be using force to impose their will on others

Right, but that's just the issue the other way around. What happens if one "collective" decides they'd rather not collect their crops this year and get their neighbours to do it form them? The question is unanswered, assumed.

I believe he discusses the invader argument somewhere...

Not with any concrete solutions, not that I can find. In fact, he notes that historical anarchies "were even more marginal than the Vezo or Tsimihety were in Madagascar; all of them were eventually gobbled up." (pp 66--67) His best answer seems to be a sort of anarchic collective within a "state" working towards an eventual anarchy, a cuckoo strategy. He seems to be arguing for a sort of post-capitalist autonomy which somehow discards its coercive (legal, political) structures. Here and there are (somewhat) defined, but the middle seems murky.
posted by bonehead at 2:12 PM on December 6, 2010 [1 favorite]


For mine, anarchism is a more extreme example of communism - great in theory, so far not shown to be workable in practice, beyond trivial niches (which are the only examples given). I have faint hopes that a post-scarcity society will reduce some of the pressures on people and allow us to evolve towards this level of cooperation at a broader and deeper level than currently possible. Fundamentally I believe in cooperation over competition, but I'm a naive optimist there...
posted by wilful at 2:34 PM on December 6, 2010


It's also likely that in a state of anarchy, you'd get a resurgence of patriarchy (gender has not been much discussed in this thread). Many American right-wing anti-government types uphold the father and husband's right to control how his wife and children live and control how the children are educated, usually meaning fundamentalist Christian homeschooling which takes all of mom's time. They are opposed to public education, social services, etc.

In a true anarchy, you'd get guys with guns carrying off women and raping them.
posted by bad grammar at 8:13 PM on December 6, 2010


Two kinds of anarchy:

1) The kind of anarchy that is theorized as a form of government in itself, whereby collective groups make autonomous decisions and these decisions come together in a larger process of governance. You can't "lapse into" this form of anarchy; it requires planning and dialogue.

2) Anarchy created by a power vacuum. This almost always becomes warfare. This kind of anarchy can be "lapsed into." In science fiction films, it tends to be an all-against-all dystopia (Children of Men).

It seems that the confusion between these two forms leads people like your friends to believe that if the U.S. state disappeared, we'd have anarchy in the first sense. That is resolutely not the case.
posted by outlandishmarxist at 7:58 AM on December 8, 2010 [1 favorite]


Anarchism hasn't really posited a solution for the tragedy of the commons.

Because the price mechanism works so well for that problem.
posted by outlandishmarxist at 8:00 AM on December 8, 2010


Then I'm sorry to say you're the one who wanted all the potatoes, by which I mean something (I'm guessing the income from the job) that you couldn't get while remaining a part of the commune. Now, I'm not saying you made a bad decision, or did anything inappropriate. You decided, rationally, that your own goals were incompatible with those of the commune and left (presumably) in a manner that did no harm to the commune as a whole. That's absolutely fine, as far as I'm concerned.

But it helps to illustrate why communes can only function on a small scale...


Late to the party here (a few days "communing" with my grandparents in the country, sans internet), but seriously, you have NO IDEA what you are talking about. You should really just stop.

1. Everyone in the commune had jobs. This wasn't a farm somewhere in Northern California - it was New York City. We had to have jobs to pay the rent on the space. Many of the people who lived there were freelancers or had careers that made only limited demands on their time. I was not so lucky.

2. I didn't take on a job with crazy hours because I was greedy and ambitious and it fed into my need for status/a "high-powered" career. It was simply that the job that I had required me to work a lot of hours. It wasn't even a personal choice. Trust me, I'd love to work in a field that only required 40 hours of labor a week.

3. Theoretically, in a world where people had more self-determination - or, hell, even a world that wasn't quite as economically constrained as ours - people could choose lives that included time to foster the sorts of communities that don't exist in capitalist America. I'm getting a little utopian here, but I'd like to think that if we had a society that was closer to the goals of anarchism, it would be possible for people to live in ways that gave them more than a couple of hours of free time each day.

4. Since when did I declare myself in favor of forced communal living? Even in my anarchist utopia, I don't think there'd be a Stalinist drive towards collectivization. People would be free to choose the kinds of lives and communities they wanted to have. I doubt many would choose "have no time to do anything but eat, sleep, commute, and work", but if they wanted to do that, sure, why not?

5. "Sorry I have to go be a wage slave and have no time to foster relationships with you guys" != "I want all the potatoes". I'd say more, but it would be insulting.
posted by Sara C. at 5:39 PM on December 8, 2010 [1 favorite]


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