Fifteen Eighty Four

Academic perspectives from Cambridge University Press


Social Anarchism and the Rejection of Moral Tyranny

Jesse Spafford

My sophomore year of college, I stumbled across an anarchist forum while browsing the internet. I decided to take a few minutes to investigate, reflexively adopting the outlook of an anthropologist: I’d see what these political eccentrics had to say, learn about their subculture, and move along. So, you can imagine my shock when I found myself reading what were effectively my own thoughts mirrored back to me on the screen.

After a series of classes on ethics, political philosophy, gender studies, and political theory, I had developed a constellation of heterodox views that I thought of as being fairly idiosyncratic. I objected to capitalism on the grounds that it was intolerably coercive (“work or starve!”), limited the freedom of the poor (who were denied many of the options afforded to the rich), rested on the freedom-limiting enclosure of natural resources that were once available to all, unfairly directed most of the wealth to people who were lucky enough to be born into favorable circumstances, and fostered pernicious competitive attitudes that corroded the kinds of human relationships that I valued. I had also come to see gender norms as unduly restrictive of people’s autonomy, children as oppressed in virtue of being totally subject to parental power, the consumption of meat as unethical, drug laws as an unacceptable restriction on people’s cognitive freedom, and fascism as a rising threat. And, notably, I thought of each of these beliefs as both uncommon and independent of the others such that my endorsement of the entire set was something of a coincidence. Thus, I was taken aback to discover that there was a group of people—the anarchists—who endorsed not only my more radical and unusual views, but also the bulk of what I thought about social life. It was a striking moment of realization: I was not an isolated thinker, but, rather, a member of a diverse community of passionate and humane people spanning continents and centuries. It felt like coming home.

Roughly fifteen years later, I have written a book defending the moral position that I take to be at the heart of the anarchist movement. Its first aim is to translate the essentials of anarchism into the language of contemporary analytic philosophy. Over the past fifty years, analytic political philosophers have developed an impressive toolkit of moral principles, concepts, distinctions, and arguments. However, these philosophical tools have gone largely unused by anarchist theorists. At the same time, anarchism—or, more specifically, social anarchism (the egalitarian variety of anarchism endorsed by most self-described anarchists)—has received little philosophical attention. The book seeks to rectify these omissions by restating anarchism in terms recognizable to philosophers.

Specifically, it presents anarchism as the joint endorsement of five major theses. First, people are obligated to obey the laws of the state only if they have consented to do so; however, given that no one has consented in the relevant way, there is no such obligation. Second, people own themselves: they have rights against other people using their bodies without consent. Third, there is a stringent proviso constraining people’s ability to transform unowned resources into private property—where, fourth, this proviso makes it such that no one can actually come to own any resources (in a moral sense). Finally, in the absence of private property, people are assigned egalitarian rights over resources such that each person has a right against others using any resource in a way that would leave her worse off through no fault of her own.

While I can only describe the position briefly here, the book explains and defends it at length. Beyond this, it also shows that anarchism is coherent, which is to say that the position’s core principles are logically connected. As noted above, I was instantly struck by the fact that anarchists endorsed a broad set of views that I favored but did not see as obviously connected. After all, there is an explanatory puzzle here: why is it that anarchists so reliably gravitate toward this same set of views? What is it about these views that seemingly renders them a package deal? In the book, I try to show that this convergence is non-accidental, as the various anarchist commitments either entail one another or all follow from a more fundamental principle that determines which moral theories are acceptable (I call this principle “the moral tyranny constraint”).

In short, I try to show that anarchism is a plausible and coherent moral theory. This result might come as a surprise to many, who associate the ideology with chaos and disorder. But hopefully those who read the book will be convinced. Perhaps, like me, they will discover they were anarchists all along.

About The Author

Jesse Spafford

Jesse Spafford is a Lecturer at the Victoria University of Wellington. His work explores debates between libertarians, socialists, and anarchists over the moral status of the marke...

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