Breaking the Anarchist Silence
When talking about student activism, one piece of advice is usually stressed for libertarians who are also anarchists: don’t talk about anarchism.
“You already agree with minarchists on most things, so why talk about what you don’t agree on? It might scare people off; they’ll think you’re crazy. After all, this is just an academic question; Focusing on more immediate policy changes is a lot more practical. This is needlessly divisive.”
This line of thought has become almost universal among libertarian activists, anarchists included. However, I think it’s wrong on virtually all counts.
Libertarians who are also anarchists should, when given the opportunity, lead with their anarchism. It should play an active role in framing the way they talk about other issues. Most importantly, they should never make a point to hide their anarchism, let alone endorse positions that directly contradict it.
So what about those common criticisms?
“Anarchists and minarchists agree on most things.”
Even while this is true, there are a couple important reasons why it’s not a good argument for anarchist silence.
The first is that not all issues are equally important, and not all state activity is equally bad. The closer and closer you get to the state’s central functions, the worse and worse things typically get.
If you believe that the problems of mass incarceration are inherent to the prison system, then your focus should be on abolishing prisons. If you think that the police are necessarily a criminal institution whose incentives make brutality inevitable, then you should stress getting rid of the police. If you think war is always mass-murder, then your aim should be on eliminating the military, not just limiting its use.
The second reason is that anarchist silence, whether implicitly or explicitly, is not neutral on those issues. If anarchists just refrain from talking about those more fundamental issues, then minarchism is assumed. If they actually join in calls for “limited government” or “a return to the Constitution,” then they’ve fallen into endorsing things they oppose.
“It might scare people off; they’ll think you’re crazy.”
Admittedly, plenty of people are immediately turned off by anarchism. That being said, that isn’t universal, and it’s just not true that people are always more receptive to general libertarianism than outright anarchism.
Many people assume they already know what libertarianism is, and that it means something bland like “Republicans who smoke pot.” Because anarchism so clearly bucks that conservative image, it can be inviting for many who might otherwise write off libertarianism. Even for those who are more skeptical, its radical nature catches their attention in a way that more general libertarianism doesn’t.
When the Oklahoma University Students for a Stateless Society (OU S4SS) held its first Ask an Anarchist Day, there was a constant stream of people genuinely interested in hearing what we had to say. Even before the event, after we’d put up posters advertising it, professors we didn’t even know brought it up in their classes as a way of starting off discussions. (“What would you ask them?”)
What I’ve found is that, as counter-intuitive as it may seem, there are plenty of people who you can more easily convince that we should abolish the military, police, and prisons than that we should abolish the minimum wage. These are people alienated by power, with radical political intuitions, who haven’t yet settled on a particular ideology. Once you convince them on the larger points about why markets and civil society are always better than governments, then they can better understand more specific issues. Furthermore, when you talk to them about those more specific issues, they know that they’re not talking to a conservative.
“Focusing on more immediate policy changes is a lot more practical.”
Obviously this makes sense if you’re a minarchist, because your goal is to get rid of government’s excesses without getting rid of government. Given that, you’d prefer incrementally reducing the state from the inside.
Yet, if you’re already an anarchist, it doesn’t. Your goal is not just to reduce government abuses, but to eliminate government, which is itself the abuse. Moreover, trying to do that from the inside is doomed to failure, because the state’s internal dynamics make it resistant to reform.
With all that in mind, it’s often easier to leave the policy-centered approach entirely and strike issues at their root.
For example, it looks increasingly implausible that any meaningful reform to copyright law will come from electoral politics or even court battles. At the same time, it also looks increasingly implausible that intellectual property can survive forever, thanks to file-sharing. Marijuana legalization may be just over the horizon, but the development of online black markets is still probably a safer bet for other illegal goods. Denationalizing money through Congress looks pretty unlikely, but emerging alternatives like Bitcoin are already a reality.
All of which is to say that the decision between anarchism and minarchism is an important one, because different ends require different means. When your ends are about a society completely free of government, the three most important means are going to be education, building alternatives to state services, and providing avenues for circumventing unjust laws.
“This is needlessly divisive.”
This is not a call for conflict between anarchists and minarchists, or for them to stop organizing together. Anarchists definitely should collaborate with minarchists on the large majority of issues they agree on. However, that should be a collaboration between equals. It would be absurd to tell minarchists not to talk about limited government or the Constitution, so why should anarchists feel compelled to shut up about polycentric law?
Big tent alliances are incredibly valuable, but they must always be honest alliances.
Anarchists should break their silence and feel free to engage in explicitly anarchist activism.
One way to start down that path is to start an S4SS chapter, and hold events like Ask an Anarchist Day (or Week). There you can distribute openly anarchist literature, such as S4SS’s bi-monthly newsletter, TheNewLeveller.
It also opens up more provocative speaker topics, like an anti-Constitution talk on Constitution Day. You can also peacefully combat the state’s minimal functions through counter-recruitment against the military on your campus or organizing cop-watches to film police encounters.