Sunday, 20 May 2012


Many anarchists use violence. If not against people, then against property, especially in protests. The motivating principle of anarchism, though, seems to be a rejection of coercion. To use Professor Crispy's definition (again), anarchism is the idea that all human associations should be voluntary. When you punch a cop, though, or recommend that crime victims hunt down and hurt their attackers, are you still expressing an anarchist idea?

Don't get me wrong. I think that, in certain situations, vigilante justice or punching cops (not necessarily mutually exclusive activities, mind you) are morally justified - but while I can reconcile those actions with my conscience, I have more difficulty reconciling them with my anarchist principles. Does coercion somehow become not-coercion when you're coercing somebody who's coerced you in the past?

In practice, anarchism comes welded with a libertarian-ish ideal of justice and retribution. Unlike libertarianism, however, anarchism is fundamentally idealistic about human nature and free will. It's also more principle-based than consequence-based, in my opinion: anarchists are more likely than most to say "screw it, let the world burn so long as I have my freedom". Again, I'm not condemning this attitude! Like Hume almost said, it's certainly not irrational to prefer even the total destruction of the universe over the slightest encroachment on your liberty. What I would like to question is how the idealism of anarchism works together with the idea of retributive justice. Because if it's okay to kill a man who murdered your friend, then surely it's okay to pay another man to kill the murderer. And surely it's okay to pay a group of men to kill murderers in general. Do you see where I'm going with this?


  1. The question with which I wrestle is this: is the act of retaliation by a victim coercive?

    Does it necessarily come wrapped up in the packages associated with coercions? In other words, does it have a hierarchy, vehicles of enforcement and traditions or norms?

    Not usually, when it's a victim - but that obviously allows for the fact that some victims have the power and influence to use hierarchies.

    Some do not. Absent a hierarchy, is all force coercive.

    The answer is simple enough: no.

    Anarchism does not imply pacifism.

  2. you can't commit violence against property; you can only vandalize.

  3. Jack, are you saying that coercion requires a hierarchy? The way I see it, hierarchies make coercion easier to perpetrate and harder to avoid, but they don't create the fact of coercion. I'm not sure I understand you, though, so let me ask you another question: absent a hierarchy, is any force coercive?

    Anonymous, I wondered when somebody would say that! I've got a post on that topic in the works - suffice to say that my position is tightly bound up in a Stoic idea of 'property' that may not even include the body itself.

  4. Phil,

    I'm suggesting that anarchism is not concerned with violence, as anarchism. The word anarchism implies, within its etymology and history, a struggle against power. Not violence.

  5. Jack, got it. I think we're coming at this from slightly different angles - I'm concerned with coercion, while you're more concerned with power. Certainly in terms of the historical meaning of anarchism, you're more on point.

  6. Phil,

    I don't want to give the impression that I think violence is curative. I don't. When I write against pacifism, it's to dispel a notion (not that I have a large audience; I don't) that moral perfection is necessary, in order to compel change. There is a rather widespread belief that violence poisons the actor, that it taints the soul and dirties up a movement.

    I find that belief ridiculous. For victims, especially, violence may be the only chance to escape. It may be an act of liberation. But, it doesn't fix past wrongs. Retribution does not erase. But, it may carve out space and time.

  7. But the problem is, absent some kind of social consensus, even, horrors, some kinds of laws, what is the definition of "victim" here? Is it always so clear cut?

    My understanding, jack, is that you even reject the concept of proportionate response. So, to use a topic which seems of importance to you, a MAN who feels victimized by a "scheming woman" under your ethics, (she manipulates him, steals from him, etc) why would it be wrong for him to violently attack her? On what grounds is this wrong, given that we are rejecting "law" or "the cops" or even "religion"? Is the only "right" might? Vendettas, as the woman's family wars on the family of the man?