The God Delusion and anarchism

Most anarchists (although not all) will find Richard Dawkins' critique of god and religion in The God Delusion (Bantum Press, London, 2006) both admirable and timely. However, most would be surprised that any critique of god would fail to mention, never mind discuss, Bakunin's God and the State. This anarchist classic explores the logic of religion, explaining why religion has such a baneful effect on humanity. Most anarchists would agree that its logic and passion is essential reading for all seeking to understand religion. Bakunin is, however, mentioned in passing and it is worthwhile to explain the fallacies associated with it.

First, it is essential to note that the argument against anarchism is not Dawkins, but as they are in his book and this would be where most people would see it. It is, however, a quite common fallacy, and resurfaces with regularity -- particularly when a government (for whatever reason) becomes neutralised. The resulting disorder is usually labelled "anarchy" and some point to this as empirical evidence that anarchism is impossible. As will become clear, few anarchists would argue that the argument is fallacious as it is based on a fundamentally mistaken notion of what anarchism actually argues.


What is the fallacy? As part of his excellent discussion on whether religion makes us good or not, Dawkins quotes [p. 228] "Steven Pinker's disillusioning experience of a police strike in Montreal":

"As a young teenager in proudly peaceable Canada during the romantic 1960s, I was a true believer in Bakunin's anarchism. I laughed off my parents' arguments that if government ever laid down its arms all hell would break loose. Our competing predictoions were put to the test . . . when the Montreal police went on strike . . . city authorities had to call in the army and, of course, the Mounties to restore order. This decisive empirical test left my politics in tatters. . . "

Dawkins presents this "just to weaken our confidence", after arguing that "I dearly want to believe that I do not need such surveillance -- and nor, dear reader, do you." [p. 228] Needless to say, Dawkins makes the obvious point that "not everyone behaved badly as soon as the police were off the scene." [p. 229]

What does this example (and others like it) mean for anarchism? Surely this shows that governments are needed? Anarchists argue that it does not mean much for anarchism. Few anarchists are remotely surprised that in such circumstances people take advantage of the lack of police and act in anti-social ways. This is because, regardless of what the teenage Steven Pinker thought, anarchists do not think that simply removing government will transform the humans previously subject to it. Rather, we see anarchy coming from a process of social struggle and not being created "over-night" by chance or misfortunate.

This issue has been addressed by anarchists for sometime. Here is George Barrett's analysis of this issue from his excellent Objections to Anarchism. It is worth quoting in full:

"Even if you could overthrow the government to-morrow and establish anarchism, the same system would soon grow up again.
"This objection is quite true, except that we do not propose to overthrow the government to-morrow. If I (or we as a group of anarchists) came to the conclusion that I was to be the liberator of humanity, and if by some means I could manage to blow up the King, the Houses of Lords and Commons, the police force, and, in a word, all persons and institutions which make up the government - if I were successful in all this, and expected to see the people enjoying freedom ever afterwards as a result, then, no doubt, I should find myself greatly mistaken.
"The chief results of my action would be to arouse an immense indignation on the part of the majority of the people, and a re-organisation by them of all the forces of government.
"The reason why this method would fail is very easy to understand. It is because the strength of the government rests not with itself, but with the people. A great tyrant may be a fool, and not a superman. His strength lies not in himself, but in the superstition of the people who think that it is right to obey him. So long as that superstition exists it is useless for some liberator to cut off the head of tyranny; the people will create another, for they have grown accustomed to rely on something outside themselves.
"Suppose, however, that the people develop, and become strong in their love of liberty, and self-reliant, then the foremost of its rebels will overthrow tyranny, and backed by the general sentiment of their age their action will never be undone. Tyranny will never be raised from the dead. A landmark in the progress of humanity will have been passed and put behind for ever.
"So the anarchist rebel when he strikes his blow at governments understands that he is no liberator with a divine mission to free humanity, but he is a part of that humanity struggling onwards towards liberty.
"If, then, by some external means an Anarchist Revolution could be, so to speak, supplied ready-made and thrust upon the people, it is true that they would reject it and rebuild the old society. If, on the other hand, the people develop their ideas of freedom, and they themselves get rid of the last stronghold of tyranny-the government-then indeed the revolution will be permanently accomplished." [p. 355]

Elsewhere, Barrett addressed the same issue:

""Even so it may be questioned: 'What can we do? Smash up the institutions of today and what have we? Simply chaos until something similar is put in their place.'
"This is true in one sense, but it is an argument that cannot be used against us. It is true that the various institutions of slavery which exist today are there because people upon whom they depend are slavish in their thoughts. If, therefore, some great hurricane swept through the country, destroying all such institutions and their leaders, it is quite certain that the people who still believed in such things would set to work to rebuild them. On the contrary, if this 'hurricane' took the form of a movement of the people themselves, who had outgrown their slavish attitude of mind, then there would be no restoration of the old, but a reconstruction on new and revolutionary lines." [The Anarchist Revolution, pp. 15-6]

Given this, anarchists would not be surprised at the result of the police strike nor consider it a "empirical test" of anarchism. Perhaps it could be argued that Pinker was not aware of Barrett and his analysis, yet the same points can be found in a close reading of the anarchist he does mention, Bakunin.

Bakunin, like most anarchists (see section A.2.15) did not have a benign perspective on "human nature" (if we did then we would not be anarchists as giving power to people would be unproblematic!). "All men", he argued, "possess a natural instinct for power" and that "we realise that power and authority corrupt those who exercise them as much as those who are compelled to submit to them." [The Political Philosophy of Bakunin, p. 248 and p. 249] Given this, it seems unlikely that Bakunin would have concluded that simply removing the police would suddenly transform those corrupted by authority into moral individuals nor made those who have never heard of anarchism into libertarians. He was well aware of the effect of environment on an individual's development:

"Everyone carries within himself the germs of this lust for power, and every germ . . . must develop and grow, if only it finds in its environment favourable conditions. These conditions in human society ae the stupidity, ignorance, apathetic indifference, and servile habits of the masses." [Op. Cit., p. 248]

How the police strike could have transformed the "habits of the masses" is left unexplained by Pinker, nor how it could have created appropriate "favourable conditions" to overcome centuries of hierarchical society. This is not to say that Bakunin did not think that a free society was impossible nor that people could not live without government or police. Thus "to make men moral it is necessary to make their social environment moral". Bakunin argued that there three things "necessary for men to become moral": "birth under hygienic conditions"; "a rational and integral education accompanied by an upbringing based upon respect for work, reason, equality, and liberty"; and "a social environment wherein the human individual, enjoying full liberty, will be equal, in fact and by right, to all others." [Op. Cit., p. 155]

Need it be stressed that a police strike creates none of these preconditions? How can a police strike create such an environment, unless you assume that humans are unaffected by hierarchical social relations -- a position which Bakunin would have, rightly, mocked.

How did Bakunin see as the means of getting from a bad social environment to a good one if the former ensures the impossibility of creating people able to live freely? By means of social struggle, by which people transform themselves by changing the world (which is why anarchists argue for self-liberation -- see section A.2.7). "How can this ignorance be dissipated, how can these disastrous prejudices be destroyed?" asked Bakunin. By "only one way: That is complete solidarity in the struggle of workers against the employers", that is "the way of a practical emancipation." Strikes, for example, "awaken in the masses all the social-revolutionary instincts which reside deeply in the heart of every worker . . . but which ordinarily are consciously perceived by very few workers, most of whom are weighed down by slavish habits and a general spirit of resignation." However, "those instincts" are "stimulated by the economic struggle" and anarchist ideas can "find their way to the minds of the people" and "swiftly proceed toward their full actualisation." [Op. Cit., p. 316 and p. 384] And as we discuss in section I.2.3, this struggle also creates the structural framework of a free society:

"The organisation of society through a free federation of workers' associations -- industrial and agricultural as well as scientific, artistic, and literary -- first into a commune; the federation of communes into regions, of regions into nations, and of nations into a faternal international union." [Op. Cit., p. 410]

Thus anarchism is the struggle by the oppressed to ensure "to assert his rights". Today, Bakunin stressed, "that struggle is taking place under the double aspect of exploitation by wage labour by capital, and of the political, juridical, civil, military, and police oppression by the State and Church." [Op. Cit. p. 248] In what way would a police strike have produced such a struggle? Such a transformation in those subject, and so degraded, by hierarchy? Such new social organisations in which people manage their own affairs? None, of course.

Nor did Bakunin (like all anarchists -- see section I.2.2) consider a free society as being perfect after a revolution. He pointed to a "more or less prolonged transition period" and he was well aware that a free society would need to defend itself against those seeking to impose their authority on others (and what is genuine crime but that?). Thus, "in an intelligent, wide-awake society, jealously guarding its liberty and disposed to defend its rights, even the most egoistic and malevolent individual become good members of society. Such is the power of society, a thousand times greater than that of the strongest individuals." [Op. Cit., p. 412 and p. 249] Anarchists, in other words, do not consider anarchism to need perfect people to work, quite the reverse (see section A.2.16). All we argue is that, after struggling for freedom, people will, in general, act in better ways than they do in unfree ones -- as would be expected, given in the degrading effects of authoritarian social relationships and the empowering effects of revolt and freedom. If you like, freedom, and the struggle for freedom, encourages the better aspects of human nature to predominate and flourish while guarding against and minimising the worse aspects.

It also seems strange that Pinker was surprised that looting took place -- after all, any supporter of "Bakunin's anarchism" would know that capitalist society is one marked by massive inequalities, with wealth concentrated in the hands of a few. In such circumstances looting (i.e., individual expropriation of wealth) would be expected as people seek to take what they needed but could not afford. So, no looting (i.e., a respect for inequality and capitalist property rights) would be a surprise for anyone familiar with the anarchist critique of capitalism. This is not to suggest that looting is part of the anarchist programme, far from it (expropriation should be social in nature, otherwise ownership is transferred rather than eliminated). The differences are explored in "Anarchy in Iraq?" [pp. 4-5, Black Flag, no. 223] while "From Riot to Revolution" [pp. 20-4, Black Flag, no. 221] goes into what is required to turn spontaneous revolts ("disorder") into lasting change (anarchy).

Clearly, then, anarchists would not be surprised by the example of the Montreal police strike. This is because the so-called "anarchy" was imposed by an outside event rather than created in the process of a people fighting for their freedom. Moreover, even in those circumstances, anarchists would not be surprised if some individuals did not take advantage of the situation to loot, get revenge, and so on (as did happen, for example, immediately after the defeat of the military coup in Barcelona in July 1936). In addition, it should be noted that anarchists also think that it is unlikely that anti-social behaviour will totally disappear in a free society -- rather it would just be greatly diminished (see section I.5.8 for a discussion).

Given time, it is likely that the police strike would have resulted in some form of community self-defence developing. After all, it would be strange if people did not try to stop those seeking to coerce them -- people have been doing so long before the police were created by the state. From an anarchist perspective, this is hardly problematic. As Errico Malatesta argued, if people impose themselves by force then "they will be the government" and "we will oppose them with force" for "if today we want to make a revolution against the government, it is not in order to submit ourselves supinely to new oppressors." Anarchists, he continued, "believe that to act criminally means to violate the liberty of others" and so "when there remains a residue of criminals, the collective directly concerned should think of placing them in a position where they can do no harm, without delegating to anyone the specific function of persecuting criminals." [At the Cafe, p. 99, p. 100 and p. 101]

Like Bakunin, Malatesta argued that "all the bad passions . . . will not disappear at a stroke. There will still be for a long time those who will feel tempted to impose their will on others with violence, who will wish to exploit favourable circumstances to create privileges for themselves", "those who would encroach on personal integrity, liberty and the well being of others." Hence "we will defend ourselves . . . without delegating to anyone the special function of the defence of society" and this, he sressed, will be "the only effective method." The fundamental problem, he argued, was that "the major damage caused by crime is not so much the single and transitory instance of the violation of the rights of a few individuals, but the danger that it will serve as an opportunity and pretext for the constitution of an authority that, with the outward appearance of defending society will subdue and oppress it." [Op. Cit., p. 131, p. 132 and p. 101] As is the case under the state today, where the police impose the wishes of the ruling elite and defend capitalist property rights well, to various degrees (depending on their wealth), defending the rights of all within that framework.

Ultimately, the notion that anarchy is against free people defending themselves against those seeking to coerce them is a strange one. Engels, as we discuss in section H.4.7, subscribed to a variation of this fallacy when he proclaimed revolutions as authoritarian acts, so confusing the ending of coercion with coercion (against the coercers!). As Malatesta put it, some seem to suppose "that anarchists, in the name of their principles, would wish to see that strange freedom respected which violates and destroys the freedom and life of others. They seem almost to believe that after having brought down government and private property we would allow both to be quietly built up again, because of respect for the freedom of those who might feel the need to be rulers and property owners. A truly curious way of interpreting our ideas." [Anarchy, pp. 42-3]

Finally, anarchists would point to a flaw in one of Dawkins own statements in The God Delusion. In his useful discussion of "Does our moral sense have a Darwinian Origin?", Dawkins presents a summary of how our ethics could be produced by natural selection rather than being imposed by an external being. He starts by clearing up a common misunderstanding: "Isn't goodness incompatible with the theory of the 'selfish gene'? No. This is a common misunderstanding of the theory -- a distressing (and, with hindsight, foreseeable) misunderstanding." [p. 215] After discussing altruism to relatives, he notes that "other main type of altruism for which we have a well-worked-out Darwinian rationale is reciprocal altruism ('You scratch my back and I'll scratch yours'). This theory, first introduced to evolutionary biology by Robert Trivers . . . , does not depend upon shared genes." [pp. 216-7]

Anarchists would argue that Trivers independently developed this theory a century after it had first been expounded, a theory better known in anarchist circles as "mutual aid" -- a notion developed by Kropotkin in his classic work of the same name. Kropotkin, while the best known defender of this theory, did not invent it -- he popularised, with substantial evidence, a commonplace position in Russian scientific circles of the time (see Stephan Jay Gould's excellent essay "Kropotkin was no Crackpot" in his book Bully for Brontosaurus for details).

Dawkins argues that reciprocal altruism produces co-operative behaviour, and "between members of widely different species, when it is often called symbiosis" and can lead to "mutualistic relationships" between species. [p. 216 and p. 217] Kropotkin, however, concentrated on how animals of the same species co-operated and, like Trivers, advocated the same solution to why animals do so -- it benefits those who do so. As Dawkins notes, it is based on the "strategy 'Start out being nice, and give others the benefit of the doubt. Then repay good deeds with good, but avenge bad deeds.'" It is often called "Tit-for-Tat", involves "reciprocators" [pp. 217-8] A close reading of Kropotkin's Mutual Aid shows the same process at work, with Kropotkin arguing that uncooperative ants would be penalised, that "selfish" ones would be "treated as an enemy, or worse." For bees "anti-social instincts continue to exist" but "natural selection continually must eliminate them" as those with "predatory inclinations" would be "eliminated in favour of those who understand the advantages of sociable life and mutual support." He generalised this to other species, such as birds and mammals. [Mutual Aid, p. 29, p. 32, p. 61 and p. 51] His anarchist works, it should be noted, also noted the un-co-operative individuals would be asked to leave any groups if they did not change their ways (for example, see Chapter 12, "Objections" of The Conquest of Bread [pp. 152-3]).

Kropotkin, it should be noted, had been discussing the evolutionary base for ethics since the early 1880s (see "Law and Authority", Words of a Rebel). In the 1890s he wrote the essays refuting Dawkins hero Thomas Huxley's arguments that human society was maintained against our natural instincts (these essays became Mutual Aid). Echoes of Huxley's position can be seen in Dawkins comments that while our ethics do have an evolutionary base, our wonderful "urge to kindness" is the result of a "misfiring" of our evolved need for reciprocal altruism, "the misfired consequence of ancestral village life." [p. 221 and p. 222] Anarchists would tend to reply that there is no misfiring at all but rather co-operation is in our best interests (both as individuals and as a society) regardless of the size of society we live in. That Dawkins does not mean anything negative by the term "misfiring" is beside the point as it, at root, suggests that there is no evolutionary value in doing so once a society reaches a certain level of complexity, that "selfish" behaviour rather than co-operation is in our best interests. Again, this seems more an assumption driven by the surrounding capitalist environment than a serious evaluation of the evidence.

For more discussion of Kropotkin's classic and its relationship to modern evolutionary theory and anarchism (as well as refuting some of the more common myths about it) see Mutual Aid: An Introduction and Evaluation by Iain McKay.