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The State of Nature and Anarchists

In Ideology on December 15, 2009 at 10:01 pm

By Stephen Wan

Political ideologies need a starting point. Sometimes, they start off in reason, such as liberalism. Others like to look at class struggle and economic conditions, like marxism. Still more seek to begin with what the current problems are in society and how to improve them, ecologism and feminism to name but two.

Some though, like to look at how humans lived before there came along something called the ‘state’ – how did we used to live before there was a government? This is a particularly important question for anarchists and absolutists, although liberals, conservatives and socialists have a stake in this as well.

It’s important to note this is not a ‘historial account’ of how societies actually were before the state; no political theorist believes this is a literal account. Instead, we use the ‘State of Nature’ as a theoretical idea to say how we think humans would interact with each other without the constrains of government. It is therefore a reflection of what we believe about human nature; if we are naturally social, or primarily self-interested, and many more positions besides.

The most famous philosophers who contemplated the State of Nature are Thomas Hobbes, John Locke and Rousseau. However, since anarchist thinkers have a primary interest in this idea, as anarchists actively advocate a stateless society to be brought about, I’m going to focus on their views and problems associated.

Anarchists thinkers such as William Godwin believe in the ‘perfectibility’ of humans; that whilst currently flawed, humans can be moulded to become non-aggressive and highly cooperative. Russian anarchist Peter Kropotkin furthers this argument by viewing humans as profiting primarily from ‘mutual aid’ throughout history. As an alternative to Darwin’s theory of evolution through competition, Kropotkin argues that the fittest are those that in fact best able to achieve cooperation.

At the same time, anarchists subscribe to the idea of humans as automonous and naturally free, whilst being naturally rational and moral beings. This is necessary for anarchists to take account of the natural order that will rise without government; anarchists believe people will naturally organise their own lives in a harmonious and peaceful fashion. Without the pervasive influence and dominance of government, humans will finally be free to live life in a sociable and positive way.

Anarchists also accept the need for the authority of experts within society; some people know best how to farm, others know best how to hunt – it is entirely sensible to take their judgement when it comes to these matters. In the state of nature therefore, although there will be no government, we may still find ourselves obeying others in accordance with their better judgement. This can come even into the case of national defence, where strict discipline and generals are needed to fight against invaders. Although this may begin to sound like some political institutions, it is important to note the distinction that exists; these institutions would be entirely voluntary in a way no government can be.

It will be important to note at this point the existence of the different strands of anarchism that exist, particularly collectivist anarchism, which can be considered the stage of communism in marxist theory, and capitalist anarchism. The two schools of thought take a different approach here, with collectivists believing in a cooperative form of economic organisation, whilst capitalists rely on market forces and microeconomics. This results in two very different views of the state of nature, with one emphasising the social aspect of humans, and the other the freedom that comes with absence of state.

Whilst there is certainly a lot I can expand here on anarchism, I’m still in the process of studying it, so I’ll finish off here and will no doubt write more on the topic at a later date. However, before that, I will make one critique of anarchists of which I’ve had no satisfactory response. That is, how exactly did government come about in the first place, and what is to prevent it happening again?

Anarchists rely on people being naturally good in order to justify their natural order that arises in the state of nature. Anarchists argue that people are made selfish and greedy by the state, which encourages the negative aspects we have. Governments are not the solution to anti-social behaviourl they are the cause. However, if people are naturally good, how did a ‘bad’ government system come about in the first place? Some may argue that a group of small, greedy and powerful individuals took power and control to form the government. However, if so, that undermines their very premise that humans are naturally good in the first place.

An anarchist may respond that we are thinking of the state of nature in the wrong way – it is not set in the past, and governments ‘came about’, but is set in the future, when the fall of government leads instead to the state of nature. This explanation overlooks still how governments came about in the first place, since they did not spontaneously come into existence. Nor can it ascertain how we, living in this society that is corrupted by government, can ever form an ‘un-corrupted’ society without government.

Note that this problem is unique to anarchists, as other ideologies can easily account for government existence. Fundamental socialists view government as a weapon of class oppression, created by the bourgeosise. Conservatives take a Hobbesian account of the state of nature, so government is necessary to prevent a collapse into a state of war. Liberals tend to ascribe more to Locke’s ideas, that government is an inevitable result of scarcity.

In conclusion, anarchists paint a rosy picture of humans, and use this to justify most of their theory, as seen in the state of nature. However, upon further inspection, anarchists seem to be unable to account for government in the first place, nor how a stateless society can be established in the future (though admittidly that might be my own ignorance than anything). Personally, John Locke’s theory appeals most to me, and if you have the time, I’d recommand looking them up. In the meantime, I’m going to be stock-piling tinned food in case the government does collase – somehow, I don’t think my neighbour is going to want to share his cow after all.


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