Please don’t ask me if I’m an anarchist, thanks

In response to Robert Paul Wolff’s “In Defense of Anarchism” — probably my last piece on philosophy because I am tired of thinking and I have a paper due today

“So you go to protests now? Is it true that they have one every week?”

“You probably read Marx in every single class, huh?”

“Crazy how Berkeley brainwashed you…so you’re an anarchist now?”

First of all, everyone needs to shut the fuck up and mind their own business. Second of all, yes, kind of. I even had to read Marx for my university’s environmental science class, which I thought was kind of weird.

But let’s focus on the last question. Am I an anarchist?

I live in a state, where a group of people exercise authority over a given territory or a population. In In Defense of Anarchism, political philosopher Robert Wolff defines authority as “the right to command, and correlatively, the right to be obeyed”; if I were to acknowledge that the state has an authority, I then have a duty to obey the laws of my state simply because they are the laws. However, although I am a citizen of a state, I am an individual as well. This leads to the problem of how the state’s authority and my individual autonomy collides.

As Kant pointed out, a man with both free will and reason has an obligation to take responsibility for his actions. A responsible individual may not always do what is right, but will not disregard attempting to do what’s right and “acknowledge himself bound by moral constraints”.

I, as a responsible individual, will have to make my own moral decisions and give law to myself. By self-legislating myself, I am autonomous, where I have the freedom to choose my own decisions but also acknowledge my own responsibilities to make rational, moral decisions. Unless the state is under a rightful, de jure legitimate authority that is aligned with my individual autonomy, I would be putting myself to the will of the state and lose my autonomy.

Wolff argues that philosophical anarchism is the only political doctrine aligned to preserve my autonomy, since an individual’s autonomy and the authority of the state are genuinely incompatible.

We think of anarchists as people who resort to violence, chaos, and destruction; they’re seen as people who are against any form of law and order, breaking windows and setting things on fire.

Despite our negative portrayal of an anarchist, Wolff states that an anarchist doesn’t deny the necessity of following the law under certain circumstances and may even doubt if eliminating the state as a human institution has any merit to it. An anarchist is like a man without a country, where he would have the same moral relationship with the government he’s from to any other government in the world.

For example, if an anarchist were to visit France, he would be following the French laws due to “prudential self-interest and because of the obvious moral considerations concerning the value of order, the general good consequences of preserving a system of property”. Wolff posits the absolute moral and intellectual autonomy of an individual as the external ground on the notion of obligation.

Wolff seems to be saying that it’s realistically impossible, or extremely difficult and unlikely, for any government to achieve a de jure authority that we can call a “legitimate” government. He believes that the only legitimate government that aligns with our notion of individual autonomy is unanimous direct democracy. Direct democracy — a political community where everyone votes on every issue — governed by a rule of unanimity is the only solution to a genuine compatibility between authority and autonomy. Every member of this community are citizens with laws to which they all consented to, thus harmonizing the duty of autonomy with the commands of authority.

What makes unanimous direct democracy so difficult to achieve is that by the rule of unanimity, a single negative vote will defeat any motion, and the slightest disagreement over an issue will stop the operations of the society. To resolve this conflict, the citizens will have to agree unanimously on the laws to be adopted. Every. Single. One.

Wolff gave a scenario, where all community members agreed on “some principles of compulsory arbitration by which economic conflicts are to be settled.” Let’s say a community agreed unanimously on some principles or arbitration to settle an economic conflict. A community member, however, finds himself disadvantaged by the unanimous principle he voted on. As a self-legislating individual, the community member will acknowledge his moral obligation to accept the voted principle — despite his disadvantages — and recognize it as his own obligation. What?

I thought this scenario of unanimous direct democracy can be translated to majority rule democracy, where not everyone has to agree. By participating in voting, everyone unanimously consented to the procedure for reaching the final decision, no matter what the result is. Concluding that the consented voters of the majority rule democracy community are unanimous is misleading, but it still raised a question on whether it would really be an ideal community for me. The scenario above seemed like the disadvantaged community member had to bind himself to a decision he disagrees; is he losing his autonomy in an unanimous direct democracy community?

Because we have the capacity to reason out our choices, we have an obligation to take responsibility for them. Wolff talks about how children and madmen are often categorized together as “beings not fully responsible for their actions” because madmen lack freedom of choice and children do not have the power of reason in a developed form. Does this mean that children and madmen do not have their autonomy? Wolff’s autonomous man seems too idealistic to me.

I asked myself, if Wolff didn’t believe in legitimate authority because a de jure authority government that is able to preserve our autonomy is factually impossible, why do I have to believe in an autonomous man if I also think it’s factually impossible? I think his premise of an autonomous man is unachievable, since I believe that there are plenty of times when our desires sway us from making a “moral” choice. Even if you’re mentally fine or old-enough to make socially acceptable decisions, can anyone confidently say that they’ve never made an irrational choice?

Whether or not I have both reason and free will, I know I make immoral or irrational decisions time to time, so from Wolff’s definition, I am not an autonomous person. You may ask how I know whether I made an immoral, irrational decision: I broke my moral code of, let’s say, staying sober. Well obviously, for legal reasons, this is just an imaginary scenario but going back to the main point: I know that it wasn’t a responsible thing to do, but I still did it purely for pleasure.

We can’t expect people to make moral decisions all the time, so his expectation of “autonomous” people having to be philosophical anarchists to preserve autonomy just seems pointless to me, or that his definition of “autonomous” person is incomplete.

Regardless, I believe in Wolff’s true message, that we shouldn’t abide to law just because it’s law. My personal belief is in the notion of complying to the law out of a sense of respect; to me, it seems like an intermediate case between a strict sense of political obligation and no obligation whatsoever.

I know, I didn’t answer the question of whether I’m an anarchist or not. But can’t a girl just live? Now excuse me, I have to finish a paper for my class.

Aspiring layman in pursuit of eudaimonia. Writes about history, culture, politics, surface-level philosophy, and quarter-life crisis.

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