Is Anarchism Socialist or Capitalist?

A new defense of libertarian anarchism makes the case that the philosophy belongs on the left.


Anarchy and Legal Order: Law and Politics for a Stateless Society, by Gary Chartier, Cambridge University Press, 416 pages, $115

If a just society is one rooted in peaceful, voluntary cooperation, and the state aggressively precludes and preempts this kind of cooperation, then the just society must be a stateless society. Philosopher and legal scholar Gary Chartier presents this argument on the first page of Anarchy and Legal Order, and the remainder is largely a defense of that bold claim.

In 2011, Chartier published The Conscience of an Anarchist. It was not an academic work, but rather a call to "envisioning a new kind of society and beginning to construct it." Conscience suffered from the two large stumbling blocks that plague most anarchist manifestos: 1) most people aren't quite sure what anarchism is, and 2) a not insubstantial percentage of political theory is devoted to justifying the state. And since most people associate anarchism with violent madmen, the justification of the state is usually the given.

The new book, then, is a rigorous, well-argued academic treatment giving a comprehensive, scholarly defense of the idea that the state is not only unnecessary for a just social order but actively interferes with its development. Academic books suffer from their own stumbling blocks, including the sad fact that many people will avoid them on the assumption that they will be obscure or hard to follow. But Chartier's book is neither. His arguments are laid out with such elegance and precision that any intelligent lay reader should be able to understand them. For most people, the only real challenge will be to their presuppositions and long-held beliefs about the nature of government.

Chartier begins with a list of basic moral principles, such as fairness, respect, and recognition. He argues that from these concepts it logically follows that we have good reason to "avoid aggression against people's bodies and just possessory interests," referring to this as the "nonaggression maxim." Not only is it morally wrong for individuals to aggress against others, he writes, but it's wrong for groups of people to do it, too. Since the state's actions are inherently aggressive, these moral principles will inevitably be violated.

Most people will agree with Chartier that aggression is wrong. But many will think that the state is either (a) not inherently aggressive, because its actions embody the will of the people, or (b) justified in its use of aggression, because without the state, peaceful and voluntary cooperation would be impossible. Chartier dispenses with the former objection in short order, and devotes several chapters to the latter.

It's not enough to observe that peaceful, voluntary cooperation is possible without the state. Chartier goes the next step by positing that the state is actively inimical to such cooperation. Besides its reliance on aggression, the state uses power to favor groups over one another, making people more likely to regard each other in adversarial ways. If one group is the beneficiary of special privileges, this not only makes life difficult for others, but creates incentives for antagonistic, zero-sum thinking. Chartier's point is that in order to have a society of peaceful, voluntary cooperation, we need to eliminate all forms of aggression—and that the leading source of that aggression is the state.

There are many non-state forms of aggression, of course. Chartier devotes another chapter to explaining how stateless societies would respond to non-state aggression. He shows that there is no contradiction in opposing the state and supporting a system of legal rules. There is indeed ample precedent for the "polycentric" legal order he advocates; see, for example, Bruce Benson's The Enterprise of Law or Randy Barnett's The Structure of Liberty, which Chartier cites and discusses.

While some legal system is a necessary component of social living, Chartier writes, it's a mistake to assume that only the state can provide it, or indeed that there should be only one system. A stateless society will have mechanisms for resolving conflicts and rectifying injury that do not depend on relentless government aggression. (Similarly, Chartier argues that the voluntary society will be one in which wealth inequalities will in fact be mitigated, but not by aggressive confiscation.)

It is perhaps a mark of the progress of libertarian ideas that there are now understood to be several different kinds of libertarianism. While some people associate the philosophy with conservative thought, there is also a segment that identifies itself with "the left." (And, to be sure, there are those who steadfastly reject the left/right dichotomy, insisting that classical liberalism cannot be neatly classified on the modern political spectrum.)

Chartier is unabashedly a left-libertarian, arguing that his conception of a stateless society is distinctly leftist, anti-capitalist, and socialist. He is aware that much hangs on such terminology, and he spends a chapter exploring the distinctions.

Some of this positioning flows from hostility toward relationships based on subordination, which he views as morally wrong. While deleting the state would eliminate many such relationships, he argues, there survive many other subordination-enabling pathologies, from racism to sexism to corporate hierarchy. To overcome these non-governmental problems, Chartier favors smaller, participatory firms where the "boss" figure is minimized or avoided altogether. Concern for the well-being of the worker qua worker, or about the subordinate role of women in a patriarchal society, makes his position distinctly leftist, he argues.

Chartier also claims that opposing war is leftist, on grounds that "opposition to aggressive war is a defining leftist commitment." The obvious rebuttal to which is that plenty of conservative thinkers have opposed war, too, and that many warlike states have been founded on and committed to leftist politics. Were not Lenin and Mao men of the left?

But these counter-examples can be taken as demonstrating the moral superiority and greater logical consistency of anarchist leftism over statist leftism. "Many of those associated with the Left might go on to hold particular positions…quite inconsistent with those I have defended here," he writes. Traditions can be understood by their common goals rather than by the means for realizing them.

A related discussion follows from "anti-capitalism." Isn't capitalism a system wherein people are free to make voluntary exchanges of their private property? How could an anarchist oppose that? Chartier in fact doesn't. But he observes, correctly, that there are several distinct senses of the word "capitalism," most of which are inconsistent with the voluntary social order he advocates. For example, the word "capitalism" can also refer to the quasi-free economy we live in now, which is famously riddled with market distortions caused by state interference and political cronyism. Anarchists (and indeed libertarians generally) should certainly oppose that. "Capitalism" can also refer specifically to domination of the many by a small number of people—capitalists—who control resources.

Chartier says that since most uses of the word are of the objectionable sort, anarchists have good reason to avoid it, the negative connotations far outstripping the positive. He argues that the language of "anti-capitalism" makes it more clear that anarchists are not advocating the status quo, in which many individuals and large corporations have acquired vast wealth through special privilege and the intervention of the state. Furthermore, he claims that this usage helps emphasize "solidarity with the workers."

I am agnostic as to whether an anarchist society would be one without bosses and large corporations, but Chartier's larger point is a valid one: If "capitalism" chiefly denotes special privilege and political manipulation of the market, embracing the word would be a poor sales tactic.

Lastly, Chartier claims that his view is socialist. Here too, it's all about the definitions, although in this case, I wonder whether the same reasoning that leads him to eschew the c-word should also recommend against the s-word. Yes, markets are a social phenomenon, and the free society is marked by voluntary cooperation, and the evolved common law is the product of experiments in social living, and the human good is profoundly social. But the prevailing denotation of "socialism" is not a voluntary society, it is a society in which individual freedom is curtailed for the good of society. Surely anarchists should be against that?

Chartier notes that Benjamin Tucker defended a conception of socialism in which state-secured privilege was abolished and voluntary cooperation could therefore flourish. That is consistent with anarchism, but it's not how Marx uses the word. So Chartier seems to be saying, with regard to "capitalism," that although there's one meaning which is consistent with anarchism, in most usages it's not, so we should avoid it; but regarding "socialism," since there's one meaning which is consistent with anarchism, we should use it. This argument is unpersuasive.

Differences such as these notwithstanding, Anarchy and Legal Order is an impressive contribution to libertarian thought generally, and in particular to the ongoing debates on anarchism versus minarchism and on libertarianism's place vis-a-vis the left/right dichotomy. It's a must-read for those interested in political philosophy, and it may well challenge readers' long-held beliefs about the nature of government.