Are We Against Authority?

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August 28, 2007

When people think of anarchists, they often envision ragtag groups of spoiled college kids burning things and hoisting black flags at rallies, nihilists who are angry at the world, hippies who want to do whatever they want to do, consequences or responsibility be damned. And to be fair, there are a lot of people out there calling themselves anarchists who do indeed fit this profile. Hence we get the Great Smear that is perpetrated against anarchists: "anarchy is chaos!"

The word "anarchist" comes from the Greek for "no ruler". From "no ruler", you might immediately assume "no rules" or "no authority" whatsoever. Ah, there's the rub!

When you go to the doctor for essential medical treatment, you are accepting her authority for this particular situation. When you go to work for a company, you are accepting the boss' authority insomuch as running the business is concerned. You also accept a mechanic's authority when you go to get your car fixed -- go ahead, just try to fix that internal combustion engine yourself. You also accept a teacher's authority in a college course -- go ahead, just try to analyze Schopenhauer yourself! And you definitely accept your spouse's authority when he or she tells you (for the fifth time) to take out the trash already.

All the preceding examples have one thing in common: they are voluntary authority -- you made a free, rational decision to accept it and the benefits that come from the resulting relationship, based on your needs and values and their knowledge and abilities. Nobody forced this relationship upon you, and there is likely some sort of contract involved.

So the anarchist doesn't reject any and all authority outright and call that anarchism. No, it is a certain type of authority the anarchist questions and ultimately rejects.

After all, you don't accept a robber's "authority" to rob you, a burglar's "authority" to invade your home, a terrorist's "authority" to blow you up, or a tyrant's "authority" to throw you into a dungeon to torture you, do you?

Why then would you accept some idiot's supposed "authority" to tell you how to run your own life? How could someone accept thoughtlessly someone else's unproven and unmerited ability to run everything politicians and interest groups wish to run: the economy, national industry, social morals, personal lifestyles, matters of war and peace?

I now address the voting crowd: when you goes to the voting booth come November (if you're into that sort of thing) and pick somebody who you feel more or less represents you, your values (and the policies you want enforced on you and others), I hope against hope that you take a moment to think...what about the people who their candidate does not represent and can never represent, folks like us or even rival partisans? These folks are left out in the cold!

If you're a diehard Ron Paul supporter for instance, Hillary Clinton and Mitt Romney can't really represent you at all and they probably oppose every value you believe in. They're likely to enact policies that will harm you or otherwise offend your interests, and you'll have to foot the bill in true democratic fashion. But wait! That tingling sense of discontent you feel when the opposite party scores a victory...that's your mind telling you that they shouldn't have any authority over you! They don't deserve it! They didn't earn it! You didn't give it to them freely! They've done nothing for you in order to merit that authority!

And that is why you see so much anti-Bush campaigning these days!

To put it bluntly, their authority is illegitimate, it's authority without any basis except force or default, no values, no meaning or relevance to your life. All government acts must be backed up by the point of a gun somewhere down the line, otherwise it couldn't work. If a State is a monopoly on "legal" violence then politics is the means by which that force is channeled so that certain people get what they want in the name of the "public good". You have no options, no choice in the matter. It wasn't even asked for.

By nature, there's nothing bonding you to another's will. We create hierarchy to achieve organization, to delegate tasks, or to form the boundaries of human relationships. It should be based on the needs at hand and one's merit: Who is best suited to whatever task is at hand; who has experience; who has knowledge; who can rally people around them to a particular end; and so on. There's nothing wrong with this in itself.

But the anarchist sees the distinction between legitimate authority and illegitimate authority. It's a distinction between authority based on a rational, voluntary choice for social cooperation, and "authority" based on the threat or overt use of force, irrational whim, or simply accepting it without argument. It's a distinction between social cooperation, and inhumane domination. It's a distinction between right and wrong authority. If I leave you with one concept to ponder today, let it be this!

After all, you make similar distinctions each day -- where you choose to work, where you choose to go to school, whether to go into your own business, who to choose to marry and raise your kids, who to have pull your teeth, who to fix your truck, who to place trust in and support you. You even make a similar distinction between right and wrong authority on Election Day! (Again, if you're into that sort of thing.)

So the final step is whether to accept or reject certain types of authority, not rejecting any and all authority outright. That's a choice that requires careful consideration and a real gut check at times. And it's a choice and a distinction that you have to make as one crucial step toward enriching freedom.

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Marcel Votlucka's picture
Columns on STR: 29

 Marcel Votlucka writes from Brooklyn NY.  His work focuses on the connections between psychology, culture, and anti-politics.  Visit his new website at