Comments on Anarchy and Modern Society

By Harold Barclay

After my book, CULTURE: THE HUMAN WAY (1982), I prepared another which I entitled PEOPLE WITHOUT GOVERNMENT: AN ANTHROPOLOGY OF ANARCHY. Here I briefly described some of the numerous different societies around the world which thrive without any state or government. It was an attempt to demonstrate that anarchy was neither chaos nor an utterly utopian dream. I pointed out that in one respect–that is, the absence of government–all humans were anarchists ten thousand years ago. Anarchy has, it seems, worked in small face-to-face communities, although some ethnic groups such as the Nuer or Dinka numbering hundreds of thousands have maintained anarchic type polities. Where it really requires testing is in the context of concentrated and large populations. The book did not stress the absence of anarchy in urban, modern style societies. The only example of anarchy in a modern society is during a short period in the Spanish Civil War when anarchists did organize an urban society, but, unfortunately, it suffered under war conditions and was soon ended by the combined efforts of the Communists and Fascists. I later discussed the problem of “Anarchism and Cities” in a book, CULTURE AND ANARCHISM.

I would not agree with those who say that the examples of anarchy among the small scale societies that I described in PEOPLE WITHOUT GOVERNMENT have no relevance to modern industrially oriented and heavily populated communities. The very idea of the face-to-face interaction characteristic of small groups is directly applicable and of major importance to the functioning of large scale societies. The greatest solidarity, personal satisfaction, and dedication to the group is maintained by the direct and equal participation in decision making regarding the substantial issues confronting any community. The Tonga of southern Africa provide yet another example. They are a matrilineal society of several hundred thousand people who were primarily gardeners. They had no centralized political system and were an anarchic society in which each individual was obligated to several different cross cutting groups, which in turn were part of a network of further obligations so that any negative action against an individual or group resulting from one set of relationships had its counter restraining effect resulting from affiliation with other groups and individuals. One’s obligation to the network of groups to which he was a member acted as a device to maintain mutual aid and social control. No chiefs or police acted to impose and force “proper” behavior.

A characteristic of functioning anarchic societies is the technique for conflict resolution where the aim is primarily directed at reestablishing or maintaining group harmony rather than seeking to determine guilt and impose vengeance motivated punishment. Thus, in a conflict between groups an independent, uninvolved mediator agreed upon by both parties is chosen to consider the matter. Before proceeding, however, he will require the opposing parties to agree to his decision and he will then first attempt to bring a compromise agreement between them. Failing this he will decide the case. He is a mediator, not an arbitrator, meaning that he has no police power to enforce his decision. Agreeing to his decision is considered a moral obligation on the part of those involved. Another not dissimilar technique for dealing with conflict and wrong doing is provided by the traditional practice of some American Indian groups in their healing circles. I would highly recommend Rupert Ross, RETURNING TO THE TEACHINGS, EXPLORING ABORIGINAL JUSTICE (1996, Penguin Books) for details on this approach.

In anarchic polities as well one important feature concerning conflict is psychological. That is, in several such societies considerable emphasis is placed on anger control. It is imperative to restrain one’s temper. In addition it is to be noted that the greatest number of casualties and worst kind of human conflict is warfare which is carried to its supreme climax by the state. During the twentieth century over one hundred million people lost their lives as a consequence of wars conducted by the several nation states. Stateless or governmentless societies lack the means and the motivation for conducting such mass killing.

Consensus is the primary mode for making decisions in an anarchic society. Matters of major policy require unanimity of consent or acquiescence – a sense of the meeting. Strongly dissenting factions are permitted to withdraw from the larger group. Thus, every effort is made to protect “minority” rights without jeopardizing those of the majority. Obviously, in a highly heterogeneous population such consensus would be difficult or impossible to achieve. Some have therefore suggested that consensus be reserved for matters of general principle while practical application could be dealt with by majority vote while still reserving the right of withdrawal.

As I have observed earlier in this essay in an anarchic society there is a heavy emphasis upon personal responsibility. One does not have access to the state among other things to provision the group. Today in the modern state an individual spends 30-40% of his working hours to support, in the form of taxes, governments which proceed to spend these funds on large military establishments, top heavy bureaucracies, ludicrous frills for state administrators, bribery and corruption. In an anarchist society one would direct his energies to participating in the management of cooperative enterprises dedicated to the maintenance of the community. Productive enterprise, whether industrial or agricultural, would be administered by those responsible for it–that is, those who produce the goods. Necessary activities such as fire protection, road maintenance, water supply, medical attention or what have you would be matters of group responsibility. The several enterprises would be federated with other similar groups to provide regional oversight and service. Power would be retained at the local level and would be minimal at the upper confederated level.

In most of the simpler societies property as individually owned material things are generally limited to movable items. Communal ownership of land, the chief resource, is the ordinary practice. There are many anarchists who advocate communal ownership of all land, industrial capital, and natural resources which raises a serious question of how this is to be achieved. Perhaps anarchists are not adhering to their principles if they seek to expropriate all land, industry and resources by compelling on the threat of violence a minority to submit and surrender what they see as their wealth. At the same time it might be possible to achieve such a goal if the community at large were to ostracize those who did not conform. I should prefer to see an arrangement which allows for both individual and communal ownership but where no one exploits others. That is, individual ownership would therefore be limited to small businesses employing only owner operators or partners.

… There are a couple of other points … concerning the anarchist society which should be mentioned. First, a point I have made before but deserves repetition: the ground work for any such society must be laid in the education of the youth and the radical reeducation of the mass of adults all in the direction of an emphasis upon mutual aid, cooperation, personal responsibility and techniques of peace. Given the propensities and training of most people today any large scale anarchist society would never work. Particularly important is the need to develop a devotion to non-violence for there can be nothing more socially disruptive than violence and this is especially true of anarchic polities. Secondly, at least a quasi-anarchist way of life can be pursued within the existing system. One may ignore and avoid government and the state as much as possible. One may join with others in cooperative societies for all sorts of purposes; mutual aid amongst neighbors can all be developed within the existing order. The Amish and Hutterites, for example, thrive through all their lives within a large society of outsiders and maintain their own local community managed mutual aid system which has little or no dependence on outsiders [or] the state. Perhaps, as Gustav Landauer observed, if enough people avoided the state and looked to other social relationships, the state itself might be undermined.

[Excerpted with permission of Harold Barclay, email of August 20, 2005. From LONGING FOR ACADIA: Memoirs of an Anarcho-Cynicalist Anthropolgist, Victoria: Trafford, 2005, pp. 265-272. Call 1-888-232-444 or email orders@trafford.com for more information about this book.]