Introduction to Anarchism – Part 1 – Authority, Hierarchy & Liberty

What is anarchism? If we are to believe the common understanding of anarchism in mainstream political discourse it is chaos, violence, disorder and a war of all against all. Yet nothing could be further from the truth. Anarchism as a political philosophy can be divided into two categories. What anarchism opposes and what anarchism advocates. What anarchism opposes is authority and hierarchy. What it advocates is liberty, equality and solidarity. In this video, I shall be examining the anarchist position on authority, hierarchy and liberty.

Anarchism holds that authority does not justify itself and that if an instance of authority cannot be justified, in particular by those who exercise this authority, then it should be dismantled. An instance of authority is usually unjustified in either of two ways. The authority is morally unjust or is unnecessary. Often a type of authority is found by anarchists to be both morally unjust and unnecessary. For instance, the authority of a slave owner over a slave cannot be justified since it is clearly immoral and so is an injustice. While it is unnecessary because free persons can perform the essential tasks which slaves historically performed like farming and as a result slaves are not required for an economy to function. Therefore slavery should be abolished. What separates the anarchist from others who condemn slavery is that the anarchist applies this test of authority to all instances of authority and not a mere selection.

Anarchists do not however reject all authority because some types of authority can be shown to be justified and necessary. Anarchists do not for instance believe that a person should be free to do whatever they want no matter the harm they cause to others. For example, it seems both just and necessary to exercise authority over a person attempting to murder another by stopping them from murdering. Or to take a less extreme example it is just and necessary for a parent when crossing a road to stop their child from running into on-coming traffic because this exercise of authority saves the child’s life.

Further distinctions between different types of authority are made by anarchists. A person can be an authority, have authority or be in authority. Firstly, a person is an authority if they are competent and knowledgeably on a given subject, a good doctor for instance is an authority on healthcare while a good librarian is an authority on the storing and cataloguing of books. In this sense there are certainly anarchist authorities like Noam Chomsky who is an authority on the foreign policy of the United States of America or the 19th century anarchist Peter Kropotkin who was an authority on communism and biology.

Secondly, a person who has authority is a person who is in a position of just control over something, for instance a person has authority over their possessions since they justly control their possessions or a secretary of a club has authority and therefore just control over the task of informing members of club meetings. Anarchists believe that the authority a member of a group has is made just by it being delegated by the other members of the group. Thus, outside of direct control over one’s life, positions of having authority are usually only made legitimate via delegation from those over whom the authority applies.

Lastly, a person is in authority if they have powers of coercion and are in a relationship of command and obedience with those subject to their authority. What separates a person in authority from a person who is an authority or has authority is that their authority applies to those who do not consent to their authority or those who do allegedly consent and obey their commands but do not consent to their authority meaningfully. A non-controversial examples of a person in authority would be a feudal Lord because the Lord’s serfs were subjected to his authority via a bargain they entered into because they lacked a meaningful alternative to subjugation. Their choice was between homelessness and starvation and becoming a serf. While those peasants who attempted to revolt and end serfdom were massacred and punished. Anarchists point to police officers, politicians and CEO’s as modern day examples of people in authority. An anarchist can be an authority, have authority but he or she may not be in authority.

Anarchists reject hierarchy because if one is an anti-authoritarian and if one is consistent then one ought to also oppose all hierarchical institutions and relationships because they embody the principle of authority. A hierarchical organisation is one in which every member of the organisation, except those at the very top of the hierarchy, is subordinate to another member higher up in the hierarchy. Hierarchies are composed of a series of grades, ranks or offices of increasing power, prestige and usually also remuneration . Hierarchies are therefore pyramid structures in which a small group of decision makers at the top make decisions for a broader base of people below them who have no or a limited say in decisions which affect them. To illustrate this let us examine a corporation. In a corporation power is strictly top down from the board of directors to managers to lower managers and ultimately to people on the shop floor. There is no flow of power or planning from the bottom up. The structure of power is fundamentally linear from the top to the bottom. A corporation is therefore an organised system of command and obedience and all those in a position of hierarchical control within a corporation are in authority since those below them in the hierarchy are subject to control from above. Speaking more generally, anarchists view all forms of hierarchical organisation as being organised systems of command and obedience.

One of the main reasons why anarchists reject authority and hierarchy is that both violate liberty. Anarchists understand liberty as the freedom of the individual to have control over their own life or rather the freedom of the individual to be autonomous. To be autonomous is to be one’s own person. It is to be directed by considerations, desires, characteristics and conditions which are one’s own and of one’s own choosing. Autonomy is violated when a person is directed and controlled by the imposed external actions of another individual. An obvious example of a violation of autonomy is when one person physically assaults another person. But there are less obvious examples such as an authoritarian teacher who makes students perform tasks which are not only against the will of the students, who would rather be studying something else, but are also in deep opposition to the personalities of the students such that they cannot authentically embrace the task. The reason why this teacher violates the autonomy of the students is that he or she is imposing conditions onto the students which result in the students not being in control of their own education. From these two examples are derived two senses of freedom. Freedom from external coercion such as freedom from being violently assaulted and freedom to develop one’s individuality such that a person’s freedom is violated when they are in a situation which is based on external control and stifles their development and growth as a person, be this situation a school lesson, an office meeting or a conversation between two friends.

Instances of authority and hierarchy can therefore violate autonomy and thus liberty in two ways. They either rest on violent coercion or infringe upon a person’s freedom to develop their individuality. Many types of authority and hierarchy violate both forms of freedom. An abusive partner for instance not only coerces their partner by violently attacking them but also ensures that their partner is not free to develop themselves. They may stop their partner from seeing their friends or engaging in rewarding and creative activities. Such actions ensure that their partner lacks control over their own life and consequently violates their autonomy.

In summary, anarchists are those who reject unjust and unnecessary forms of authority and hierarchy because these forms infringe upon the freedom and autonomy of the individual. In part 2 I shall explain the anarchist position on equality and solidarity.


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