There’s a fundamental problem with anarchy––and it’s the responsibility of the anarchists to solve it if they want to win more of us to their cause. The problem is anarchists inevitably become the oppressive authority they’re trying to overthrow.
Protesters in Seattle have claimed “several city blocks” in the name of the people. They’ve submitted a list of “demands” that need to be satisfied in order to retreat from the occupied territory.
From the New York Times: "This space is now property of the Seattle people," read a banner on the front entrance of the now-empty police station. The entire area was now a homeland for racial justice — and, depending on the protester one talked to, perhaps something more.”
This space has been named “CHAZ” by the protesters. This stands for “Capital Hill Autonomous Zone.” Who is in charge is not exactly clear, but there are many reports of armed protesters patrolling and keeping order, at least their vision of order.
“There’s no singular central organization or person that’s leading all of this,” said one area resident according to a report in the Seattle Times. “…autonomy (on Capitol Hill) depending on the person, it means so many different things.”
Anarchy by definition means “having no ruler.” That’s where the genuine anarchist always runs into the ultimate conundrum. How can you “organize” genuine anarchy? Why does it take “leaders” to inspire anarchy, and why do “leaders” always emerge in the midst of anarchy?
Back to the Seattle Times report by Evan Bush:
“Sarah Tornai, a demonstrator leading by microphone Tuesday, called for pragmatic organization so demonstrators remain safe and in control of the area.”
Apparently it’s difficult to sustain anarchy without organization and it’s difficult to organize without leadership.
I’m not trying to be snarky here––this is a real problem.
The other major problem here is the claim that the CHAZ was taken over to make it “property of the Seattle people.” The police station and city hall at the center of the Zone is public property. Wasn’t it already property of “the people?” By definition, that’s what public property is.
It also seems like a lot of private property got swept up in the excitement too. An anarcho-communist would have no problem with this happy coincidence. Since they eschew any claims to private property, they would simply be liberating that property for “the people” and they usually sincerely believe it’s for the greater good.
In another interesting twist, there are now fears that another group is planning an assault on the protesters to counter-liberate the area. This group has also flown the anarchy banner when it suits their needs––the white supremacists. They are conveniently anarchist when they oppose any government interference in their activities, but strangely supportive of authoritarian methods when it suits their ends.
The historic record is clear. Anarchy is unsustainable without authority. It is seldom sustainable without force.
So the ultimate conundrum the anarchist need to address is how they justify their own use of force in order to eradicate authoritarian force.
Not to get into the political philosophy weeds, but the libertarian or classical liberal has no such conundrum. The use of force is justified when––and only when––it’s used to gain, protect and defend individual liberty. There is an acknowledgement that no matter how necessary it might be, government is by definition a mechanism to apply force. That’s why the powers and authority of any government must be clearly specified, limited and subject to constant scrutiny and skepticism.
There are two important questions to consider before we condemn the Seattle anarchists:
1) Is it just human nature that we need or want to be lead––even as we reject authority? 2) Is it ever right to impose our will or authority by force with the sincere belief that it’s for the people’s own good? C.S. Lewis struggled with those questions in his essays. He wrote:
“My contention is that good men (not bad men) consistently acting upon that position, (imposing ‘the good’) would act as cruelly and unjustly as the greatest tyrants. They might in some respects act even worse. Of all tyrannies, a tyranny sincerely exercised for the good of its victims may be the most oppressive.”
I’m not challenging whether the Seattle protesters have the right to their beliefs. I'm even sympathetic to some of their "demands" and have in the past worked to achieve some of them. I’m challenging the idea that their methods have any moral authority and whether their methods are effective beyond exciting the passions of a small number of enthusiasts.
The ultimate proof that their methods are not justified, from a classical liberal perspective, is that they’ve enthusiastically presented their platform as a list of “demands.” They leave no room for debate. They presume some authority to speak on behalf of others if not the majority and they obviously consider themselves superior to anyone who doesn’t agree with their demands. After all, if we disagree or question their demands, we are obviously ignorant, obtuse or simply in need of their paternal guidance.
Recent events make it difficult for even the most ardent super-patriot to ignore the fact that many people feel that “the system” just isn’t working for them. But as imperfect as our system is, there is none that provides better opportunities to inspire and lead change while respecting the rights of others. I know from personal experience how difficult it is to try and work for reform within the system, but I also acknowledge that many of the barriers I’ve encountered along the way are there because other people feel differently than I do. If I’m a sincere advocate of individual liberty, I have to accept the condition that it is not my privilege to trample on anyone else’s liberty in pursuit of mine. If I decide a particular situation warrants stepping outside the law or even socially acceptable behavior, then I must accept the consequences that go along with that choice.
My challenge to the Seattle anarchists is this…
If you want to win others to your cause become leaders, not occupiers. Persuade. Make your case based on reason. Earn your seats in local, state and national government with the support and consent of the people.
I’ll be the first to admit that some of these demands make perfect sense. Some have already been supported and promoted by libertarians and classical liberals for years. And in some areas, incredible progress is being made. We are decriminalizing drug use, particularly marijuana. We are reforming the way we deal with non-violent crime and youth incarceration.
And as far as police reform, there is obviously no going back to business as usual at this point. And I’m hearing little resistance to the call to eradicate racism, except from fringe elements with little or no support from the vast majority of “the people.”
If you believe your demands can only be fulfilled by force, you might consider the possibility that the people themselves might not want everything you want. And that’s the messy reality of a democratic society.
You’ve got to sincerely examine your motives. Are you truly acting to better the lives of the people? Or are you seeking to replace the authorities you oppose with your own? You say your goal is to overthrow tyranny.