Anarchists vs. Anarchists

I read in the news today that most of the violence at the World Trade Organization's meeting in Seattle was committed by “anarchists,” who called themselves Black Clad Messengers. There’s a problem with the word anarchy: It means different things to different people. In 1993 Anarchy: A Journal of Desire Armed reviewed my book Laws of the Jungle. I give you my response to this review. It was published in the Spring issue that year. I made the mistake of identifying Mr. Price with the magazine's editorial position. He was not speaking for the magazine in his review. I hope this letter clarifies the difference between various sorts of anarchists.

Dear Mr. Price:

I read your review of Laws of the Jungle with great interest and would like to make a few comments on it. But first I have to apologize for my overly free use of the word anarchist. When I wrote the book, I was only vaguely aware that calling myself an anarchist might provoke some hard feelings among people who feel that they are the only true anarchists. It befuddles me when some anarchist insults another by casting doubt on his anarchism or excommunicates him from the great church of anarchy. My definition of government is that group of people who hold the generally accepted monopoly on the use of acceptable violence. That's what I'm against. You conclude your review by characterizing my ideas on anarchy as “Chauvinistic, conservative, stateless, but certainly not anarchy." By my definition, statelessness is anarchy. Perhaps we disagree. I hope I can put the first two adjectives in a little more perspective.

Anarchocapitalism is an unfortunate choice of label. I do come from that tradition but I don't think I ever used the word itself. For now, let's call these people Libertarian Party Anarchists (LPAs). The LPAs I know use the word capitalism in a specialized way that probably misleads many people. To an LPA, capitalism is any economic activity without government intervention of any kind. To the modern English speaker, capitalism is the American economic wstem. When an LPA calls himself an anarchocapitalist many listeners hear anarcho-fascist because the American system is substantially that partnership of state, capital, and labor celebrated by Mussolini. The LPA understands an anarchocapitalist to be an anarchist who favors an economic system without government intervention. To him, it's a sort of tautology. I suppose that he uses the label to comfort people but he often misleads them. I know that anarchocapitalists have written books showing how the functions of the state can be taken over by capitalistic enterprises. But even the most utopian of these writers would not deny the possibility that other economic systems could exist in anarchy. Nor would their existence distress them. I did not paint a picture of large corporations taking over the state's functions and I don't think most LPAs have that vision in mind. They certainly believe that there's a place for large businesses in anarchy. But let's say that an LPA came across some people living in stateless syndicalisrn. I don't know if you would permit them to call themselves anarchists but that's what the LPA would call them. Furthermore, the LPA would call their economic arrangement anarchocapitalism because there would be no government intervention in their economy. I know it sounds stupid but that's what LPAs mean by capitalism. I suppose some would be horrified by stateless collectivism and some might even disagree with my definition. But most LPAs mean economic anarchy when they speak of capitalism.

You rightly say that I "fail to challenge the underlying hierarchical assumptions of capitalism." I'm only interested in reducing and eliminating the state; the whole social and economic structure can be left as it is. If there's something wrong with that system, it's up to the people in it to change it to their liking, not mine, I've even suggested a method for destroying government's monopoly without touching anything else. My essay, "Biarchy," outlines a method for turning the Republican and Democratic parties into private enterprises that compete for tax dollars, When I talk about what will happen without a state, I only predict. Your [MY ERROR] magazine prescribes. I predict that some very large businesses will continue to exist without a state. If I turn out to be wrong. I’ll admit I was mistaken. At least, I'll try to weasel out of my prediction. If Anarchy: A Journal of Desire Armed's prescriptions are not followed, you will simply pronounce, "stateless, but not anarchy."

I've tried not to make too many predictions about the shape of anarchy because I'm afraid that my predictions will be taken as descriptions or even prescriptions. You might label me “propertarian" since I believe that current concepts of property ownership will persist without a state; but I’m sure that other fonms of ownership will also exist. They do now. You have a nice paragraph linking anarchocapitalism to Reaganomics; and I can see how you wouldn’t want to leave it out. But I think you’re a little too eager to brand me as an anarchocapitalist so that I can fit your attack. When I predict that nearly everyone might accept “No tresspassing” as a single law that everyone could accept, you seize on the prediction and chide me for codifying the status quo. If the workers seize all the industrial property and set up stateless communism, I wouldn’t be disturbed a bit, as long as they did not form a state to prohibit other economic systems. To me, the problem is the state and its monopoly on violence. Once that is gone, we will probably have economic systems that neither of us imagine (or perhaps approve of). Maybe I misunderstand your suspicion of a "No trespassing" agreement. Would it be OK for a group of capitalists to seize the communists' property by force? If you mean 'Everyone may trespass," I understand and agree. But if you have a certain class of people in mind who may trespass with impunity, we already have that. We call it the state. I've heard Libertarian Party members suggest that a benevolent Libertarian despot would be very desirable. Such a tyrant would limit government to national defense and the protection of life and property. I disagree with these people. They think their own conceptions of ownership are self-evident and don't realize that they would be using the state to uphold their unexamined system. No one in America could believe that there is one obvious religion that everyone would naturally subscribe to. We have something very close to religious anarchy in America today: the state has only a minimal influence over religion and that is waning. But even as the last vestiges of state control over religion are being destroyed, religion and religious fanaticism are stronger than ever. We see that the results of religious anarchy are not atheism or even the destruction of hierarchical religious assumptions. I can't think that Anarchy is pleased with the strength of many American religions. Could it be that total anarchy will not deliver the economic system you have in mind? Just as religious anarchy has allowed people to seek religious gratification in different (and sometimes bizarre) ways, so anarchy would free them to find social and economic systems that they find agreeable. Will it break your heart if a lot of people choose something like the status quo? Will you then long for a benevolent despot? You refer to my "muddled form of anarchocapitalism." If you understand how most Libertarians use the word "capitalism," you see that anarchocapitalism is, by its nature, a muddled mess. It's just like the American religious system. There is no American religious system. People do what they want to. Is this chaos bad? I don't think so. Personally, any religious consensus would scare me to death.

I don't doubt that the writers of Anarchy are passionately committed to a host of positions. But this very fervor is a problem for me. Can't a racist be against the stale? Can't the rich man inherit the kingdom of Anarchy? I don't know anyone who agrees with Anarchy on every issue. Let's say we both agree that slavery is wrong and ought to be ended. You tell me, "We have to challenge the hierarchical assumptions that lead to slavery and the wage slavery we call capitalism.” I reply, "Uh?" You elaborate, "Slavery and capitalism are really the same thing; it's futile to destroy slavery and leave capitalism intact. Masterless, yes, but hardly free." I would certainly be convinced that you were against capitalism but I would doubt your seriourness about ending slavery. From your point of view, I have failed to come to terms with the real economic issues and so have apologized for the present system. From my point of view, you have yoked a political platform to the simple idea of statelessness and so have turned anarchy into your personal property. I, too, “wish we could find different words to describe ourselves but I'll just have to keep calling myself an anarchist because there's no other word in English for what I believe.

I thank you for your attention to my book. You must have found parts of it excruciating. And I would also like to thank you for giving me the opportunity to write three pages without once answering the question, "Yeah, but what if someone killed your wife?'