'Aristocrats were always anarchists'

It’s been three years since I last quoted this, from G.K. Chesterton’s The Man Who Was Thursday: A Nightmare. So it’s about time I quoted it again.

“You’ve got that eternal idiotic idea that if anarchy came it would come from the poor. Why should it? The poor have been rebels, but they have never been anarchists; they have more interest than anyone else in there being some decent government. The poor man really has a stake in the country. The rich man hasn’t; he can go away to New Guinea in a yacht. The poor have sometimes objected to being governed badly; the rich have always objected to being governed at all. Aristocrats were always anarchists.”

  • Tonio

    Well, I question whether the distinction is relevant in practice. I suspect “owned by the people as a collective” ends up being state ownership, since a government apparatus would still be needed for administration. Would you elaborate on the relevancy of the distinction?

    But the real issue is that neither system would seem to allow for private enterprise. (At least any enterprise that matters to the overall economy. I can imagine both systems allowing for small personal transactions such as selling a used car.) I agree with Loki that what’s often called libertarianism is really opposition to any government initiative that would correct for inequalities in power and privilege. My community considered transferable development rights some years ago, and a few residents labeled the concept as communism. Most here would probably agree that if one flings the words communism and socialism at any such initiative, at best that renders the words meaningless, and at worst it furthers the economy’s march toward oligarchy.

  • Anonymous

    Communism, like anarchy, stops working in groups bigger than the monkeysphere.

    I identify socialist but I don’t want everything to be socialist. I like owning the fruits of my labor. I just want to socialize everything the public sector does better than the private sector and everything that I don’t care how well the private sector does it because everybody needs the product-or-service and not everyone gets it because of money issues.

  • Tonio

    A while back I pointed out that anarchy is essentially the absence of any method or apparatus for governing a society, instead of the absence of a formal apparatus. I questioned the logic of some self-identified anarchists who favored a flat universal democracy in place of a formal government. My point was that a government is a government is a government, and a state is a state is a state.

    And I agree with you that the public sector does some things better, with “better” including the compensating for the tendency of laissez-faire capitalism to turn into an oligarchy of billionaires. I just disagree that having the public sector take over something like health care is inherently socialistic. Otherwise, one would have to dub public utilities and police departments to be socialistic as well. I’ve encountered a few people who even see privately owned membership corporations as socialistic. I suppose my real objection is to the defining of capitalism in narrow laissez-faire terms, as if anything less than that meant pulling out the prayer rug and intoning the hallowed names of Marx and Lenin and Mao. Which is what too many self-identified libertarians would have us believe.

  • Onymous

    It’s a bit of a non-sequiter but I always feel the need to bring up the Modragon Corporation and cooperative economics in general when talking about finding a happy medium with socialism. 
    The Mondragon Corporation is group of workers co-ops 83,000 people strong in several industries. It’s one of those things that shows that dirty hippy socialist principles can scale past the monkey sphere and gives me hope that a flat society can exist.

  • Anonymous

    Interesting. I’m basing my statement mostly on Chesterton’s fiction, not having read a lot of his non-fiction; a lot of the Father Brown stories seem mostly concerned with attacking “outsiders” and the more disadvantaged, and portraying institutions in a positive light. There’s one story that rips into communism, another where Brown goes to great lengths to portray the military as being run by wise, noble and basically infallible people (though that story itself has a general committing murder, which he seems to claim as an aberration…maybe Chesterton was being ironic?) And there’s another story that basically pooh-poohs the idea that Jews and heretics had it rough during the middle ages, or if they did, that it might have had anything to do with the church.

    “Notting Hill” is indeed anti-colonialist, but that’s not really the same as saying that it’s against the institutions that generate cultural imperialism.

  • Sgt. Pepper’s Bleeding Heart

    @EllieMurasaki 

    Maybe you’re a social democrat rather than a socialist?

  • Anonymous

    It’s more likely than you think.  I consider myself a social democrat and therefore a man without a party (even social democracy is on the fringe in the Democratic caucus).

  • Anonymous

    Testing, testing…does Opera like Disqus? Because Firefox no longer seems to. Anyway, Sgt Pepper, it is entirely probable I am a social democrat. It’s just that, one, ain’t nobody ever heard of the Social Democratic Party, and two, I’d rather reclaim the word ‘socialist’.

  • Anonymous

    I questioned the logic of some self-identified anarchists who favored a
    flat universal democracy in place of a formal government. My point was
    that a government is a government is a government, and a state is a
    state is a state.

    How so?  A state is a fairly specific sort of political institution: to paraphrase Max Weber, it’s compulsory, has a centralized government, and holds a monopoly on the legitimate use of violence within its territory.

    Not all human societies are organized around a state–indeed, basically none of them were before a few thousand years ago.  I don’t particularly want to live in a stateless society myself, but I don’t think it’s inherently illogical for anarchists to desire one.

  • Anonymous

    I questioned the logic of some self-identified anarchists who favored a
    flat universal democracy in place of a formal government. My point was
    that a government is a government is a government, and a state is a
    state is a state.

    How so?  A state is a fairly specific sort of political institution: to paraphrase Max Weber, it’s compulsory, has a centralized government, and holds a monopoly on the legitimate use of violence within its territory.

    Not all human societies are organized around a state–indeed, basically none of them were before a few thousand years ago.  I don’t particularly want to live in a stateless society myself, but I don’t think it’s inherently illogical for anarchists to desire one.

  • Anonymous

    What I meant to say is that “wealth” depends on the consent of the society. If these chiefs and big men exploited the poor downtrodden majority of their societies and were hated by the people, they couldn’t remain rich without some kind of state apparatus to protect them from the consequences.

    But that aside; even if “stateless oligarchies” are possible, then what makes these chiefs Anarchists?
    What makes the looters and rioters in London today Aristocrats?

  • Tonio

    I would take out the “centralized” aspect, because that seems to be derived out of practicality from the size of the society being governed. With that removed, Weber’s definition appears broad enough to apply to any kind of governance for a compulsory human community, from a modern nation of a billion people all the way down to an extended family in the pre-civilization era. There’s no reason that universal democracy for a monkeysphere-sized community shouldn’t be considered a state, since it’s still compulsory and still has a monopoly on legitimate violence. And more to the point, there’s no reason to dub that concept “anarchy” since that word seems to properly apply not to a stateless society but a society that lacks any sort of governance. (I suppose such a “society” would really amount to individual hunter-gatherers like a pseudo-libertarian’s fantasy.)

  • Anonymous

    What I meant to say is that “wealth” depends on the consent of the society. If these chiefs and big men exploited the poor downtrodden majority of their societies and were hated by the people, they couldn’t remain rich without some kind of state apparatus to protect them from the consequences.

    Very true.  But if wealthy folks are sufficiently hated by the people, a state apparatus doesn’t protect them either, because a state apparatus is administered and staffed by people.  Revolutions and regime changes do happen.

    Also, as I’m sure you know, exploiting the downtrodden majority doesn’t necessarily mean you’re hated by them.  Chiefs and “big men” are usually profiting quite handsomely off their allies, and everyone else would often benefit from a more equitable distribution of wealth.  But as long as the common people don’t know that…or do know but don’t mind, because they have no expectation of better treatment…or do mind, but don’t trust their fellow poor people to help them change things…the rich folks still enjoy the consent of society.

    Which is how it works for us too, of course.  Even as Rockefeller Jr. and Carnegie were having picketers shot to death, they were financing a thousand philanthropic projects which made them public heroes.  And every corporation these days has a “community involvement” side project.  It seems to work, at least in conjunction with the general admiration we have for the successful; very few of our wealthy are widely hated.

    But that aside; even if “stateless oligarchies” are possible, then what makes these chiefs Anarchists?

    Oh, they’re definitely not.  Some of them lived in an anarchy, by one definition of the word, but they were all about amassing political power.

    What makes the looters and rioters in London today Aristocrats?

    Nothing at all; like I said, I think Chesterton’s completely wrong in trying to draw an anarchy-aristocracy connection.  I wouldn’t call the rioters anarchists either, though.  They’re just breaking the law, they’re not trying to completely destroy the legal system or anything.

  • Anonymous

    I would take out the “centralized” aspect, because that seems to be derived out of practicality from the size of the society being governed.

    ‘Tain’t necessarily so.  Feudal societies were highly decentralized, but could span vast areas, such as Japan and most of Europe.  The Iroquois Confederacy covered a large area and a lot of people too.  

    I personally don’t think a large society can be governed well in a decentralized fashion, and I would shudder to live in a large society that wasn’t governed at all, but it’s not theoretically impossible or anything.

    With that removed, Weber’s definition appears broad enough to apply to any kind of governance for a compulsory human community, from a modern nation of a billion people all the way down to an extended family in the pre-civilization era.

    Not really.  For one thing, most hunter-gatherer communities aren’t compulsory; if you want to renounce your family or your clan and strike out on your own, you can do that.  You’ll lose all support from your former kinsmen, and if you actually get in a fight with any of them you’re screwed–and if you hang out nearby and compete for resources you probably will get in a fight, eventually.  But you won’t actually be prevented from leaving.  By contrast, if you live on American soil, you’re subject to American law; you can’t just opt out, go live on a mountain somewhere and ask the government to ignore you.

    For another, even compulsory communities need not have a monopoly on violence.  So long as I live in Washington, the state government has the right to use violence to force me to do various things, but it doesn’t have a monopoly; the federal government can also come in and make me do stuff, and punish me if I don’t comply.  (For that reason, individual US states aren’t “states” in Weber’s sense, and it’s been argued that the UN and EU member nations are gradually sliding away from statehood.)

    There’s no reason that universal democracy for a monkeysphere-sized community shouldn’t be considered a state, since it’s still compulsory and still has a monopoly on legitimate violence.

    That depends on the sort of universal democracy envisioned by the anarchists you were talking to, I suppose.  Were they thinking of it as compulsory, and as having a monopoly on violence?  I’m no expert on anarchist thought, but as I understand it they’re generally pushing for voluntary-participation institutions without such a monopoly.  For instance, free-market anarchists envision multiple security organizations operating on the same territory, each one policing on behalf of the chunk of the population that hired it. 

    And more to the point, there’s no reason to dub that concept “anarchy” since that word seems to properly apply not to a stateless society but a society that lacks any sort of governance.

    It applies to both; the word’s got multiple meanings, and has since the French Revolution or so.  I don’t think that’s a problem so long as people define their terms.

    (I suppose such a “society” would really amount to individual hunter-gatherers like a pseudo-libertarian’s fantasy.)

    Something like Rousseau & Hobbes’ state of nature, yeah.

  • Tonio

    Feudal societies were highly decentralized, but could span vast areas, such as Japan and most of Europe.

    Valid point. By “centralized” I meant in terms of power, not necessarily in terms of structure. The feudal system still amounted to the few governing the many.

    For instance, free-market anarchists envision multiple security organizations operating on the same territory, each one policing on behalf of the chunk of the population that hired it. 

    That sounds like a recipe for de jure corporate oligarchy, where Google and Microsoft would be the official governing bodies.

    I don’t think that’s a problem so long as people define their terms.

    I agree. My larger issue with the type of anarchists we’re talking about is that they seem to long for a stateless Eden that never existed. Having all of humanity revert to small communities as voluntary-participation institutions sounds appealing at first. But in practice, such a planet could exist only if humanity’s numbers were drastically reduced, maybe to a few million. And it would make the continued production of technology very difficult.

    It’s generally the same flaw as libertarianism – without the larger-scale cooperation involved with formal government, life becomes much more of a struggle to survive. Both groups seem to want it both ways – they apparently want a world with good roads and Web access but without the governance mechanisms that make it possible.

  • http://profiles.yahoo.com/u/FUBWFFFSCFMN7NS5VJGDTGVWUU C

    Classism wasn’t and isn’t anarchy.  Aristocrats have always merited death.

  • Jakobijnen

    Really? Anarchism calls for the socialisation of the means of production and workers control. It is a socialist ideology, why would the rich want socialism?Also, the notion that the poor were never anarchists is nonsense. The Spanish anarcho-syndicalist CNT had 1,500,000 members in the 1930s, all of whom were poor workers and peasants. The third and fourth largest trade unions in Spain have 110,000 members combined and are anarchist.People need to learn that anarchism isn’t about free market capitalism, it’s about socialism without authority.
    This is all elementary stuff!

  • hf

    Funny thing is, according to S&P’s  own press release, failure
    to raise revenues played just as much a part in the downgrade.  Here is
    the quote:

    we believe that the prolonged controversy
    over raising the statutory debt ceiling and the related fiscal policy
    debate indicate that further near-term progress containing the growth in
    public spending, especially on entitlements, or on reaching an agreement on raising revenues s less likely than we previously assumed

    Which still seems wrong, because from what I understand the long-term deficit predictions come mainly from predictions of growing private health-care costs. Simply cutting government spending on health-care will not solve the problem unless we have a plan to deal with the riots.

  • http://profiles.google.com/deathpigeon Viktor Brown

    People who are anarchists because they are aristocrats don’t understand anarchism. When the workers rise up in the anarchist revolution, they will have the furthest to fall. Anarchy is about no hierarchy, and aristocrats need hierarchy to be aristocrats.


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