Against “Thick” Anarchism

By Joseph Hunter

Usually this is a derogatory term for those anarchists who are not deemed “thick” enough in their prescriptions for a stateless society.

It is becoming more and more accepted among anarchists that this is a bad thing and that mere opposition to the state is not sufficient to achieve true freedom or equality. The idea that humans must be radically remodelled to achieve statelessness is gaining prevalence. This blog exists to be a bulwark against this creeping moral tyranny.

For most anarchists, the motivation for seeking statelessness is the recognition that most value systems are undecidable.  It is an acceptance of pluralism and a rejection of using violence to impose values. We are perfectly fine with despising one another, so long as the hatred does not cross the line into coercion. Live and let live.

But Anarchism+ inverts the priorities of anarchist analysis, and switches the ends for the means. For instance, Thickarchists see gender oppression as a problem within the context of the state. However, instead of seeing the abolition of the state as a means to end sexist oppression, they claim that the abolition of sexism (and even of gender norms) must be achieved to end the oppression of the state. And consonant with this inversion they have attempted to redefine anarchism as a dogmatic bundle of social values, usually culled from the popular left (though the right-wing National Anarchists could also certainly be characterized as “thick”).

The tendency of the “thick anarchist movement” towards an obsession with social justice is gradually evolving into a new popular hysteria which is, more often than not, considered immune to all critical analysis by those promoting it. Anarchists, no matter how much they like to pretend otherwise, are still human and are just as capable of being dogmatic, irrational, illogical and are still prone to becoming aggressive, emotional and abusive when their inconsistencies are questioned regardless of how well-intentioned the  particular dogma itself may be.

“Thick anarchism” often becomes a species of fundamentalism in its own right and has the potential to be another hegemonic source of division and social authoritarianism which approaches reality from the perspective of putting idealism about how people should live  before the goal of actually empowering people to live their lives as they personally see fit.

Anarchists look at oppression and see a common factor: The State.

Racism, sexism, homophobia, religious bigotry, etc. are nothing in themselves but personal preferences. It is the State and its various institutions that gives personal and social biases their teeth. To this end, we are content with being Mere Anti-Statists. And furthermore we offer a challenge. If your claim of “oppression” cannot be traced back to the State or to violent imposition of values, then it is not really oppression. It is simply disagreement, and you have no right to be free from criticism or offense.


7 replies »

  1. I don’t think that the personal development model of anarchism is a new thing at all. Gradualist, pacifist anarchists have existed for centuries. Its main proponents were usually rich people with important friends who helped to make sure they didn’t get arrested or murdered by the state because of their beliefs. Revolutionary anarchism has its roots in 19th Century Europe and has evolved pretty much shoulder to shoulder with Council Communist and Situationist philosophy. As political organisations, they have little popular support.

    I agree with your statement that people should not have the ‘right to be free from criticism or offence’. Although criticising people or setting out to offend them is normally a counter productive method of communicating with them. Racism and sexism on the other hand, are by definition, discrimination from a position of power. If it is not from a position of power it is just racial or sexual discrimination – it’s not oppression. But most racial, sexual and homophobic discrimination is undertaken from a position of power. All governments are racist, sexist and heterosexist and, you are right, they need to be destroyed – along with all other manifestations of power.

    • A couple of things: why should racism exist only, or primarily, from a position of power? There are plenty of instances of nasty opinions and stereotypes that would certainly fall under the category of racism being directed at the dominant part in a situation of power difference. I’m sure there are plenty of Palestinians under the Israeli yoke who harbor less than enlightened opinions about the Jews, for instance. And I somewhat doubt the degree to which most modern Western liberal capitalist states can be termed ‘racist,’ given the extensive, even celebratory, integration of ‘diversity,’ whether driven by ideological concerns or mere concern for the furtherance of state power (probably both).

      A somewhat more tangential quibble: one cannot destroy ‘all manifestations of power.’ If you’re going to destroy something, you must exert power over it. We may change power differentials, to be sure, but we can no more eliminate power in human relationships than we can wish unicorns into existence.

  2. I do think this article is rather confused about the thick approach. Folks like Long and Johnson argue that all anarchism is thick, i.e. that all ideologies embed/imply/etc. values that cannot be simply separated out. The idea that any non-state oppression isn’t oppression is, gasp, a thick value.

    That said, I think the author is justified in his confusion because most proponents of the thick approach argue for THEIR values, the ones they think are implied by libertarianism, or are grounds for it, or are bundled in it, or whatever. They are the anarchist equivalents of Christians who argue that, even thought Jesus said nothing about abortion, Christianity demands a pro-life stance. And I think this is what leads to the prescriptive universality that infects the left libertarian milieu.

    Indeed, I see ARV as an implicit recognition of the thickness doctrine. It’s just that it doesn’t demand fealty to one construction of thick values, but instead requests a detante on conflict over these undecidable values. A strategic orientation towards targeting the state is not a dismissal of thickness; it is a dismissal of the demand that we all agree on one specific, all-encompassing thickness.

      • I just want to be clear: there’s nothing wrong with Christians having views on abortion one way or another. But they’re not likely to do a lot of good works — which everybody agrees is a big part of Christianity — if they’re bogged down in making all Christians accept a pro-life orientation as a condition of their Christianity.

        Apply the metaphor to the thickies. 🙂

  3. Not all Xians go along with the “good works” thing Jez. Predestination and all that. In fact, if you think about it, the whole deal with Christians is pretty simple, follow the rule/rules, and get a postmortem pay out. Which would seem to suggest that cutting someone out of the game, by stopping them getting on the pitch in the first place, is fairly contrary to the whole concept. Fucking stupid idea you may say, abortion might be the kinda blessing having your Bon Jovi ticket spontaneously combust represents you might add, but that’s not how they see it.

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