Hometownsmen liked money as much as anybody else, and maybe more than most, but their circumstances and their neighbors kept them from getting very much, and they fiercely resented anybody who did get very much. Guilds were conscious and recognized institutions for maintaining a satisfactory degree of equality, by penalizing or excluding the pushy whether rich or poor, and by the mutual agreements among the membership that restrained expansion and that promised security. The civic constitutions and the rights of membership they embodied were instruments of a democracy among members no less fraudulent than those which many polities with more democratic affectations have had. But hometown equality and hometown democracy meant the subjugation of everybody in the community to everybody, to limits set by the whole community. Hometownsmen were neither political theorists nor ideologues, and for the equality and democracy that existed among them the motives were no doubt a shared jealousy of the stronger and richer and a shared contempt for the weaker and poorer. Their communities—guilds, constitutions, and all—were the kind of polities such motives sustained; and very strong and stable polities they were. An important source of their coherence may have been the suppression within the community of anxiety about standing and place that modern ideas of equality and democracy, which leave the stability out and do not have the hometownsmen's walls, are sometimes thought to have created: hometownsmen directed that against outsiders. Where community sanctions prevailed there was little reason for that kind of uncertainty becaue there could be little change one way or another. Membership resided securely there. If modern class and racial hostility have developed, underground so to speak, as ways of asserting status and location in legally open and egalitarian societies, then such phenomena were unlikely to appear where status and location were immediately recognizable by familiarity or law; inside the community, that is, while the alien was outside. While each community's walls held, such resentments and anxieties were directed against people who did not belong, and so strengthened rather than dividing the society where membership was primarily located. Even rules on what clothing who might wear did not actively assert rank and place so much as accept their existence and inhibit the race after status by the display of wealth. "Presumption in clothing not only causes waste," wrote Christian Wolff, "it also arouses the jealousy of others, from which hatred and enmity follow." Presumption can mean either pretending to belong when you don't, or pretending not to belong when you do. Hometown egalitarianism and democracy punished both kinds of presumption.
- Mack Walker, German Home Towns: Community, State, and General Estate, 1648-1871
I've been an anarchist for probably as long as I've been thinking about politics in any coherent way. I like to think I'm past the point of "growing out" of it (can any phrase be more condescending?), in the sense that the problems with the other available alternatives continue to seem insurmountable even when looked at as objectively as possible. Lately, however, I've been coming to the realization that anarchism is not something I've successfully been able to defend to myself either; rather, it seems increasingly like a final shoal on the route to complete indifference. Like so many other strands of critical thought, in other words, it works well as a via negativa but offers little in return.
Part of the problem is that political discussions that involve anarchists are rarely tilted in the direction of subtlety. The debate is invariably predicated on some kind of consensus that out there is a big, malevolent System with a monopoly on violence and a will to crush good communitarian values. Discussions of coercion inevitably circle back to the consensus bad guys, and when the issue of power within noncoercive communities comes up, it is waved away with bland assurances that everything will be all right as long as we work together. (The David Graeber approach seems to substitute "we'll put in safeguards that make our societies harder to coopt" for "let's all work together," but this curiously liberal twist is not really any more convincing.)
But at least "the tyranny of structurelessness" is an acknowledged phenomenon. Much more difficult to deal with is the idea that power in state-dominated societies stretches beyond the limits of sovereignty, political economy, or institutions. (My point here is distinct from the more typical arguments that the state interpenetrates with society or Foucauldian variations on the same.) In other words, we are far too eager to assume that any observable injustice is in some way traceable to an institution or a state-legitimated form of oppression, and will accordingly disappear once the revolution comes. It does not help that opponents of anarchism rely so heavily on specious evo-psych or other arguments about "human nature."
Reading Mack Walker's excellent book German Home Towns really brought home to me the limitations of such an approach. Walker constantly counterposes the localist and blinkered worldview of these little cities to the rationalizing productivism of the eighteenth-century state. At first, this was irritating: after all, these are states too, and they represent organized violence as well as any Prussian regiment! As I read further, however, it became clear to me that the forms of power at work in these communities were not in any significant degree dependent on a formal monopoly on violence. These towns, in fact, were more or less what you would expect an anarchist community to look like after a few centuries of contented stability. Formal restrictions may have existed on paper, but power was exercised through personal authority and communal respect. More importantly, the social order was rendered almost entirely consensual and egalitarian through the strategic redefinition of the parties to the consensus.
Walker makes it hard to see this as anything but a nightmare. The fetishization of continuity, the tribalist xenophobia, and the narrow horizons open to the towns' residents all make state domination look like an appealing alternative. It would be possible for an anarchist to object, of course: the presence of organized violence itself has a corrupting effect even if it is not extensively relied upon; people in real anarchist communities will have a more productive set of shared values; xenophobia would prove maladaptive for a civilization which depends on multilateral horizontal cooperation.
All true enough, and it may well be that if the magical anarchist utopia finally strikes it will have a much greater preponderance of truly open and pleasant communities. It is a reasonable assumption, however, that some significant number will follow the hometown model. But what is a citizen of a hometown-style community empowered to do if he finds it too constricting? After all, he cannot claim to represent the will of a majority; he has no coherent institutions to oppose; he has no model of power relations to substitute for the informal Gemeinschaft, since Gemeinschaft would seem to be at the heart of the anarchist value system.
Even in a scenario in which it is victorious, then, anarchism does not give us enough of a language of opposition to cover even a predictable scenario such as this one. In that way it resembles the inchoate liberalism of the pre-French Revolution period. Perhaps the only way to get around this issue is to assume such a language will be worked out in practice, as it inevitably must. But isn't that the coward's way out?