What Holds The System Together?


by Harold Barclay
Number 97 – Apr 1999

Those who are used to living in a society governed by policemen and legal sanctions often fail to appreciate the significance of the sense of obligation to play the game as motivating force for social order even within their own society. We must not forget that in all human societies most members chose to follow rules because they want to and because they believe in them. They would resist any attempt to lead them into nonconformity. In any society, sanctions of whatever kind are for the tiny minority. Were all law enforcement to be removed tommorrow there would probably be an initial burst of crime, but after the novelty wore off it would dissipate. At the same time, the vast majority would not be involved, but would go about its business as usual. To hold, as some apparently do, that were the law to be removed there would occur some momentous explosion of brutish and murderous behavior among all the populace is, in the first place grossly to overestimate the present power of the police. More importantly, it is grossly to underestimate the years of conditioning about right and wrong to which all have been exposed and the power of the internalized censor or conscience.

In those cases where traditional techniques for social control have been removed suddenly, or greatly relaxed, two consequences are noteworthy. One is the extent to which voluntary mutual aid spontaneously appears and spreads – people begin helping each other. The other consequence is the opposite response – the one the ‘law and order’ supporters would predict. That is, there is rioting, looting and mayhem. But the reason for this reaction is not because there is no police to keep order. The reason is suggested by the kinds of people who engage in such behavior. The people are definitely not the members of society who have prospered from it, nor are they the ones in positions of prestige, power and influence. On the contrary, they are always from the ranks of the disadvantaged and frustrated. And the revolt – which is what it is – is an attempt at catharsis, to relieve pent up aggression and hostility generated by a system perceived to be oppressive (whether it is ‘in fact’ oppressive is beside the point; it is seen to be such and that is what counts).

It is an error to think of humans as ‘naturally’ good; it is equally erroneous to condemn them as monsters. And radicals, of all people, should appreciate the extent to which people are conformist.

Some criticize anarchy because its only cement is something of the order of moral obligation or voluntary cooperation. But democracy, too, ultimately works in part because of the same cement. And it works best where the cement is the strongest. That is, democracy ultimately does not operate only because of the presence of a police force. The free elections and two-party system could never survive if they depended upon the army and the police to enforce them. They survive because participants have a belief in the system and a feeling of obligation to play according to the rules. Hocart has said that government depends on “spontaneous and incessant goodwill. Without it governments would collapse.”

De la Boétie, Machiavelli and Spooner among others would add however, that in any system of government submission is induced by fear and fraud. In The Politics Of Obedience: The Discourse Of Voluntary Servitude Étienne de la Boétie devotes himself entirely to the question of why people submit to rulers. He makes the following points:

  1. People submit because they are born serfs and are reared as such.
  2. People are tricked into servitude by the provision of feasts and circuses by their masters and because they are mystified by ritual practices and religious dogmas which aim to hide the vileness of rulers, imbue reverence and adoration as well as servility.
  3. The ‘mainspring’ of domination is not physical force so much as it is chain effect: the ruler has five or six who are his confidants and under his control; they in turn control 600 and these in their turn control 6,000. “The consequences of all this is fatal indeed. And whoever is pleased to unwind the skein will observe that not the six thousand but a hundred thousand, and even millions, cling to the tyrant by this cord to which they are tied. According to Homer, Jupiter boasts of being able to draw to himself all the gods when he pulls a chain.”

Also suggestive of why people obey is Lysander Spooner’s classification of “ostensible supporters of a constitution”: knaves, dupes and those who see the evil of government but do not know how to get rid of it or do not wish to gamble their personal interests in attempting to do so.

In anarchy there is no such delusion for there is a priority placed upon individual freedom which is absent in democracy. Democracy – granted its concern for liberty and individualism – nevertheless like any other system of rule, puts its ultimate priority in the preservation of the state. When in a democracy one group threatens to withdraw – to secede – there is always the final recourse to a ‘war measures’ act to compel compliance and suppress ‘rebellion’. To summarize, order in the anarchic polity, is founded in diffuse sanctions. It is maintained through self-help, self-regulation and self-restraint and these devices are channeled by fear as well as by the motivation to make the system work and to play the game with a minimum of friction.
— Harold Barclay, People Without Government (1982, pp. 116 – 117).