Why do Anarchists consider the State to be unnecessary?

Russell Haggar

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Page last edited: Thursday, 16 July 2020


Essay: Why do Anarchists consider the State to be unnecessary?


A state might be defined briefly as a political organisation which possesses sovereign jurisdiction within a defined territory and exercises its power through a set of permanent institutions which in liberal democracies include Heads of State [Presidents or Monarchs], central governments and their bureaucracies, legislatures, judiciaries and the organisations of regional, state and or local government, the armed forces and the police. Using this definition let us consider some of the key features of the state in more detail

Liberals, conservatives,  evolutionary socialists and social democrats would all agree that states fulfill several necessary functions but disagree vehemently  as to the ideal functions and scope of state activity and classical and neo-liberals especially draw attention to what they see as the potential dangers of excessive state power. Thus although it might generally be argued that liberal democratic states provide for the representation of the people and enable them [indirectly] to register their policy preferences Classical and neo-Liberals argue in that limited states can best provide for individual liberty combined with social order while One Nation Conservatives, Social Liberals, Social Democrats and Evolutionary Socialist all argue in support of varying levels of government intervention  to promote economic stability and develop comprehensive welfare states designed to alleviate  poverty and promote greater economic equality and improved living standards for all. Marxists meanwhile argue that capitalist states govern in the interests of the economically and politically dominant Bourgeoisie and against the interests of the Proletariat [or working class] and that, under Socialism and ultimately Communism states will eventually “wither away”.


Anarchists, however, argue that states should be abolished as soon as possible and that their necessary functions can be performed more effectively by others means while other state functions prove to be entirely unnecessary. There are of course important theoretical divergences ranging through anarcho-communism to collectivism to mutualism to anarcho-capitalism as to the types of political organizations which should ideally replace the state and in the remainder of this essay I shall attempt to describe  alternative Anarchist proposals for the replacement of the state by alternative institutions


The anarcho-communist analysis of the capitalist state is similar in important respects to the Marxist theory of the capitalist state. In both cases capitalist states exist primarily in order to defend the interests of the small, privileged capitalist class which profits from the exploitation of the workers in the capitalist system. Thus the state constructs laws which defend private property; the state punishes workers for crimes which derive in many cases from the injustices of capitalism; capitalist education systems socialise individuals to accept the injustices of capitalism without criticism; and capitalist welfare states persuade their clients that their interests are being protected.


However once the injustices of the capitalist system are fully recognised leading to its abolition the capitalist state is rendered unnecessary because its major function [the protection of the interests of the capitalist class] has disappeared because after capitalism there will no longer be a capitalist class in need of protection. Of course it is here that major disputes arise between anarcho-communists and Marxists as to whether the state should be abolished rapidly during the revolutionary process [anarcho-communism] or whether it should be allowed to wither away gradually following a period in which the state will be organised on the basis of the dictatorship of the proletariat. However there is general agreement that once capitalism and the capitalist class have been abolished the state sooner or later becomes unnecessary.


The opportunities for working class political participation under conditions of 19th Century capitalism were severely limited because of the limitation of the franchise and the absence of strong socialist or social democratic political parties which might represent their interests but anarchists have argued that even fully developed liberal democratic political institutions would not adequately represent citizens’ interests. Instead citizens should themselves participate much more fully in politics.


According to both the early anarchist William Godwin and the anarcho-communist Peter Kropotkin individuals should ideally live in small scale communes in which there will be maximum possible opportunities for active political participation. Rather than choosing representatives to take decisions on their behalf, individuals would take their own decisions and in doing so enhance their liberty and their political consciousness; decisions would ideally be reached via consensus following rational debate although some majority voting would occasionally be necessary. Communes would combine into regional, national and international federations but each commune would remain its autonomy and delegates to federal meetings would be subject to recall if they reflect local commune interests.


By such mechanisms the actual necessity for rules and regulations would be much reduced as individuals come to realise that individual liberty lies in freely serving the interests of the community and such rules and regulations as are necessary are made by the individuals themselves rather than by state representatives and officials so that once again the state becomes unnecessary.


In these communes ownership of private property would be abolished and replaced by the communal ownership of the means of production and goods and services would be allocated in accordance with social need. Since all the means of production are communally owned the communes, operating in federations could perform any economic functions currently performed by states and could do so more effectively since excessive state bureaucracy will be removed and local circumstances could more easily be accounted for. Furthermore Godwin, Kropotkin and their followers have demonstrated an ecological consciousness which has often been absent from the thinking of most states.


Godwin and Kropotkin also claimed that once private property was abolished the major motivation for crime would be removed and that commune members who did infringe regulations could be persuaded by rational argument to mend their ways so that state systems of law enforcement and punishment would no longer be necessary. They further believed that under conditions of world wide anarchism all individuals would be community spirited so that wars would be inconceivable and the need for state military forces would also disappear.


States currently provide a range of welfare services such as health, education and social security but according to Godwin, Kropotkin and their supporters the needs for such services could be much reduced under communal living and such services as were necessary could be better provided by communal institutions organised on a more collaborative user friendly basis than sometimes seems to be the case in hierarchically organised welfare states. Also anarchist welfare institutions would provide true welfare rather than engage in what according to anarchists amount to authoritarian processes of social control.


In summary, in the anarchist programmes of Godwin and Kropotkin the legislative, representative, economic, environmental and welfare functions of states can all be performed more effectively in systems of federated communes while the law and order and defence functions of states would simply disappear thereby rendering the state unnecessary.


Other anarchists agree with these key conclusions that the state can be rendered unnecessary but disagree as to what institutions should replace the state and how they should be organised. Bakunin agrees with Godwin and Kropotkin that federated communal living, maximum possible individual involvement in decision making and collective ownership of the means of production can combine to make the existence of the state unnecessary.


However he also has a rather less optimistic view of human nature which leads him to believe that individuals will not necessarily be persuaded to accept communal regulations and that they must sometimes be forced to do so or to leave the commune; he also believes that education should be compulsory and that the allocation of goods and services should be according to work done rather than according to social need. Bakunin was heavily influenced also by Anarcho-syndicalist ideas believing that the syndicates could promote anarchist ideas in the work place prior to the revolution, play a significant role in revolutionary anarchist change and be the major institutions for workers’ control after anarchism had been introduced.


Thus Bakunin’s arguments that the state was unnecessary were essentially the same as those of Godwin and Kropotkin although his anarchist programme derives from a less optimistic view of human nature which obliges him to introduce elements of compulsion. However David Miller has argued that Bakunin’s collectivism might gradually converge with Kropotkin’s Anarcho-communism as anarchist ideas gained fuller acceptance.


Proudhon too supported federated systems of small scale autonomous communities in which all members should be encouraged to participate actively in political decision-making thereby replacing political parties, so-called representative parliaments and states. However he certainly did not approve of the communal ownership of the means of production which he believed would undermine individual liberty


Instead he made a very important distinction between possessions[ the limited amounts of land and work tools which workers would use in their own working lives] and property [the huge amounts of land and other means of production, ownership of which enabled the rich to exploit the poor.] Possessions, he said, were essential if individuals were to retain their liberty and independence while, property, in Proudhon’s well known phrase “is theft” and should be abolished, along with profit.


Once property and profit had been abolished people should live in federated systems of autonomous communities where workers should work in so-called mutualist systems in which they would draw up contracts to exchange their goods and services solely on the basis of their labour costs, profit having been abolished. Proudhon hoped also that peoples’ banks could be established which would provide loans to producers at low rates of interest [ although Proudhon’s own attempt to set up a national bank failed not least because Proudhon was at this time imprisoned as  a result of his radical political activities.


Proudhon believed that if workers were to retain their liberty they should be allowed to receive incomes according to work done and that competition among workers would encourage innovation and help to keep prices low as well as promoting individual liberty. Proudhon’s proposals would inevitably result in some economic inequality but its extent would be limited due to the abolition of private profit and the processes of competition so that there was no danger that these limited levels of economic inequality would undermine individual liberty: indeed he believed that individual liberty would be better protected in his programme than under systems of communal ownership of the means of production.


Many of Proudhon’s ideas derived from his own upbringing in a small scale rural community but as he travelled to large, more industrialised cities he also began to develop syndicalist ideas according to which workers would gradually take over the organisation of larger businesses and run them according to anarchist principles so that in this case it would be the participation in decision making processes of worker associations rather than individual possessions which would help to protect individual liberty.


Thus according to Proudhon the state is unnecessary because political decisions can be taken more effectively by individuals living in federated systems of autonomous communities which might include large scale factories organised on Anarcho--syndicalist principles and because economic production and distribution can be organised along mutualist principles combining the absence of exploitation and work incentives designed to safeguard individual liberty and promote economic efficiency which would be defined to include environmental sustainability which was another key theme in Proudhon’s work.


Critics of Proudhon have argued that his imagined community organisations composed mainly of individual autonomous producers might not be strong enough to undertake all of the tasks of coordination currently undertaken by states and similar arguments might apply even more strongly to the schemes of the American individualist anarchists Josiah Warren and Benjamin Tucker. Thus if the main rule of the Community is “Mind your own business” one must wonder how welfare services designed to help the community as a whole are too be developed unless we can rely on the enlightened self-interest of community members.


Whereas classical liberals traditionally argued in support of laissez-faire combined with a limited night watchman state which was necessary to provide for internal law and order and for defence against external enemies and neo-liberals have argued much more recently for the rolling back of the social democratic state and the extension of free market principles into areas such as the provision of health, housing, education and social security, Anarcho-capitalists have claimed that the entire state is unnecessary and that even legal institutions, the police and the armed forces can best be provided via the free market mechanism.


Anarcho-capitalists accept so-called public choice theory arguments that all government services are provided inefficiently mainly in the interests of government officials organising the government services and/or in the interests of workers providing these services [who may be organised in powerful trade unions although this is rather less likely nowadays]. Thus it is argued that professionals and other workers in state services are reasonably well paid and that they have a vested interest ion the expansion of their services but that they do not necessarily provide a good service because they know that most of their clients have nowhere else to go.


Anarcho-capitalists believe that in a competitive free market system all goods and services would be provided more efficiently and so all would gain if the state were abolished in its entirety. Thus the state is unnecessary and its abolition would increase individual liberty as well as economic efficiency. It is true that in the Anarcho-capitalist programme economic inequality would increase very significantly but this would promote faster economic growth which would promote rising living standards and increased liberty so that there is no contradiction between increased economic inequality and increased liberty according to anarcho-capitalists.


Anarchists argue that since states undermine individual liberty and inhibit individual self-development human potential can be maximised only if all state institutions are abolished. Furthermore although it is argued from other ideological positions that states of one kind or another are actually necessary because they fulfil a range of useful functions anarchists reject these arguments but there are a very wide range of arguments within anarchism which are used to suggest that states are unnecessary.


Thus Anarcho-communists argue that once the capitalist system is abolished the major function of the capitalist state [the protection of the capitalist class disappears] and that other functions of the state can be more effectively carried out in stateless federations of communes, a view that would be accepted broadly also be Bakunin although there are also divergences between Anarcho-Communism and Bakunin’s collectivism.


Other anarchists such as Proudhon and the individualist anarchists Warren and Tucker reject both anarcho-communist and collectivist arguments that private property should be entirely abolished and believe instead that individual ownership of a limited amount of property is necessary to secure individual liberty but they do believe that individual freedom can best be protected in small scale communes where individuals can take decision affecting their own lives without the restrictions of an overarching state although it might be argued that in such schemes opportunities for collaborative decision –making might in practice be rather limited.


Finally we have the anarcho-capitalists who argue that individual liberty and economic efficiency can best be achieved by means of a free market system in which private corporations take over all of the existing functions of the state and perform these functions much more effectively than the state could do. Once again the state is unnecessary but the anarcho-capitalist argument would be criticised especially by anarcho-communists who would argue that the economic inequality so generated would undermine rather than protect individual liberty thereby indicating very strong differences in the analysis of the concept of liberty within the ideology of anarchism.