09 February 2013

Anarchism and abolitionism

I've let myself get sucked in to some discussions with anarchists on Facebook recently. Here's a comment of mine which I thought would be handy to hold onto.

The common anarchist claim that advocating for the abolition of the state is morally comparable to the 19th century movement advocating for the abolition of slavery is — putting it generously — tiresome.

Now I vigorously agree with many (though not all) of anarchists' criticisms of the modern state. I hesitate to join in advocating for the elimination of the state not because of enthusiasm for it as a perfect solution, but rather out of a deep skepticism that there are plausible superior alternatives: “the worst form of society except for all of the others”.

But for the sake of discussion, I will set that problem aside for a moment. One need not have a complete plan for cotton farming to be an abolitionist.

Let's also set aside also the objection that slavery was a unique evil, that one should never compare any other movement to abolitionism. It should be apparent why that is a significant objection, one which I do not set aside lightly. But for the sake of discussion, I will do so.

There are at least two levels at which we might compare the evils of the state to the evils of slavery: at the level of fundamental principle, and at the level of real-world effects.

If we start with principle, we have the common anarchist observation that the state claims the right to tax citizens' wealth to reapportion it to other people, and it will enforce this claim with lethal force if a citizen resists its claim vigorously enough.

“Aha,” says the anarchist, “in this the state is no different from the slaver, who also will enforce their will with lethal force if the slave resists the slaver's commands.”

But though the final recourse of enforcement is the same, the claim being enforced is very different. The state makes a limited claim to a portion of the citizen's wealth. The slaver, on the other hand, makes an unlimited claim against the slave: not only the slave's wealth but their obedience in all things, even claiming ownership of the slave's own body. The slaver may separate the slave from their family, mutilate or kill them at a whim.

“But,” the anarchist objects, “there are states which have made all these claims against all their citizens. Sure, there are states which do not exercise that claim, but to defend the state because some states are not totalitarian is like defending slavery because some slavers were kind to their slaves.”

But there is a profound difference here. Recall, we are talking at the level of principle. Even the kindest slaver claims the right to unlimited control over the slave; this is definitional to slavery. But most states not only do not exercise unlimited control over citizens, they do not claim a right to it. Liberal democratic states make a claim to only limited powers, exercised through constrained processes. This is a profound difference, one which marks slavery as categorically more unjust than the liberal democratic state.

“But,” replies the anarchist, “states commonly violate the supposed limits of their powers. One must look not at the principles of what states actually claim but at what states actually do.”

Fair enough. But notice that this is a shift from an objection of principle to an objection of practice. If we move the ground to what states actually do, we see that most states do not act nearly so repressively or cruelly as the antebellum slavers did. So again slavery is categorically more unjust.

The comparison between anarchism and abolitionism simply does not hold. The comparison is in fact so dramatically uneven that it is — again — tiresome. Putting it generously.

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