Anarchy and Justice

Were an anarchist to hold his beliefs side-by-side with the reality of modern government, he would, in every case he examined, see the few, the powerful, legislating and domineering over the weak, to serve the interest of the powerful and to maintain the existing hierarchy. This phenomenon occurs in all existing forms of government because the nature of the state is to regulate its subjects; therefore, to the anarchist in this world where the masses are unfairly subjected to the dictates of a self-serving state, the natural conclusion is the abolishment of government. Although many factions of anarchism exist, they rest on the firm belief in the supremacy of individual freedom, “leading to the denial and condemnation of any authority which hinders [the individual’s] free and full development” (Novak). This includes states whose laws are substituted for the reasoned judgment of the individual, and that place in the hands of the governing few the power to exact punishment on those who diverge from the values of the state. Because all men are inherently equal in their natural state, any system that infringes on an individual’s rights by subjecting him to the will of another individual or group is unnatural and unjust.

Since no anarchist state exists, the natural response to the anarchists’ proposition should be: how would individuals interact with such a state in terms of the duties traditionally fulfilled by the state?

In order to validate their model, in which such interactions are carried out in the absence of state-coordinated oversight, anarchists must establish one vital generalization about human nature, namely that man is innately good. This assumption contrasts the inherent depravity of governing bodies with the inherent good of man (Novak). Because it is in the nature of man to cooperate with his fellow man for the common good, dictation and enforcement of certain behaviors would be unnecessary to the anarchist society.

But where do his notions of “right” and “wrong” come from? From leftover remnants of religion? From some guiding document? As Hobbes states, “Where there is no common power, there is no law; where no law, no injustice.” The notion of justice is an expansion on the basic rights of the individual, delivered to citizens through their environment, including laws, culture, and education, dictating to citizens definitions of just and unjust behaviors. In the anarchist society where these factors have no place, there exists the danger that, as a result of varying and unchecked moral standards among citizens, the society might spiral into the lawless chaos that many already associate with anarchy. Even between “good” men, there will likely be disagreement on what constitutes the full range of just behaviors. However, in order to make possible the kind of cooperative anarchist society described, the properties of a “good” man must be more or less common to all. But how should a universal set of values be decided upon and instilled? Does this process not entail the original imposition of these values on the population, infringing on the full freedom and full development, material, intellectual, and moral, of every individual (Bakunin)? Locke summarizes his assessment that, as a natural consequence of the equality of men, a man would be wrong to inflict bodily, social, or material injury on his fellow man (Locke); however, in his Republic, Plato demonstrates through Socrates’ exchanges with Polemarchus (Plato) that even this is an oversimplification of the nature of Justice, leaving the anarchist society still in need of a uniform moral standard. For even if one will subscribe to the belief in the inherent good of man, one cannot assume that this “good” will be consistent or cooperative between individuals.

If we set aside the initial problem of determining moral standards in an anarchist society, we must still consider the problems that follow when citizens’ actions stray from these standards. If one refers again to Locke’s work, we find that, in the natural state, the individual should be accountable to the injuries he inflicts on his fellow man. He describes two functions associated with punishment for wrongs committed: the first is reparation by the injured party, so that he who was wronged may be vindicated; the second is deterrence, so that others may learn from the example of the punished individual and may act according to his own fear of similar punishment. In such a case, where one man commits injustice against another, who shall be called upon to exact restitution from the offender? In more familiar political structures, allocation of justice is placed in the hands of the State, through public authorities. But anarchism leaves no place for policemen or judges to serve as the deliverers of justice, with various models offering different alternatives. If we allow for the necessity of punishment, we may examine Godwin’s proposal of mediation by an unbiased party or by jury (Godwin). Consider the process by which disagreements would be settled in such a system. Two individuals approach the mediating party with grievances. In the absence of laws, it is conceivable that each individual may think himself in the right. Each presents his argument, and the mediating party decides whether a wrong has in fact been committed or whether the offending actions were within the rights of the offending party. Because the mediating party must return to its composite status as equal individuals, the decision made in these proceedings will not establish precedent for the next similar case (to be mediated by another jury of equals). Therefore, should public reaction to certain behaviors change in the course of time, an action that was a crime yesterday might be a right tomorrow. In such a system, prevailing opinion dictates truth and justice.

In this system, in which the rule of justice is reinvented and altered on a case-by-case basis, without any overarching standard to check its development, there exists the possibility that the list of punishable offenses may evolve differently from one region to another. Therefore an action an individual conceives to be his right in his own region may be punishable as he travels between localities. If, in fact, it is possible for the “inherent rights of the individual” to vary by location, is an individual accountable to regional sanctions imposed which do not align with his own definition of just behavior? If his actions are punished by the local mediating party, have his human rights been infringed upon? And if his actions are not punished, has the injured party’s right to reparation been violated? In such a case, no determination can be made without violating the primary tenet of anarchist philosophy. Anarchism’s lack of a concrete definition of justice almost undermines the anarchism itself in the creation of these mini-state-like entities, each with discrete rules of just behavior.

In its appointment of individual rights as the foremost concern of a society, anarchist theory fails in many aspects as a functioning social system. Though human nature may be inherently good, there is no natural human standard of just behavior. And in that which men are left to determine for themselves, there is almost certain to be variation along the axes of time and place, resulting in variable definitions of what is one’s right, and what one has no right to do. For this reason, the anarchist activation of justice is unsound.

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