Autonomy and Federalism Reply

By Sam Dolfgoff (1986)

The revival of interest in anarchism has recently produced works on the ideology and history of the libertarian movement. By far, most modern writers confirm popular misconceptions about how the anarchists view the relationships of society to the state, of individual freedom and local autonomy to social order and of organization to authority. It is hoped that these brief remarks will clarify some important aspects of these problems.

The critics believe that since modern society is becoming increasingly complex and interdependent, individual freedom and local autonomy on the scale envisioned by the anarchists would fracture society by breaking it down into small, isolated, loosely related groups. In the ensuing chaos, each group would be free to do anything it pleased without regards to the rights of neighbors or the general welfare. Since modern social life is impossible without large-scale organization and such organization involves authority which the anarchists reject, it follows that anarchism as a practical theory of social regeneration is a pipe dream.
While anarchism might have worked in a relatively primitive society, they contend, its only useful role today is the negative one of curtailing the excessive encroachments of the state on individual and social freedom. While recognizing that some of the anarchist criticisms of the state are correct, the fact remains, they assert, that supreme authority, intelligently exercised, must continue to be vested in the state. They consider that the state is indissolubly linked to society and that society cannot function without the state. It is at best a blessing, and at worst a necessary evil.
To the anarchist, society is the association of all the people cooperating in an infinite variety of organizations for the performance and satisfaction of all mankind’s myriad individual and social needs.

The political scientist E. Barker declares:

. . . the area of society is voluntary cooperation. Its energy is that of good will. Its method that of elasticity; while the other, the state, is rather mechanical action, its energy force, its method rigidity. (Political Thought from Spencer to the Present Day, p. 67)

These ideas are in general accord with the anarchist conception of society. Kropotkin envisioned the anarchist society as

the fullest development of free association in all its aspects, in all possible degrees, and for all conceivable purposes, an ever-changing association bearing in itself the elements of its own duration and taking on the forms which at any moment best correspond to the manifold endeavors of all … we conceive the structure of society to be something which is never finally constituted …. (Encyclopedia Britannica, 1905)

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