Inquisitive Individual Asks About Existentialist Anarchist Practice and Everyday Life in Anarchist Society

Inquisitive individual: I am new to philosophical Anarchism, and I am very interested in Existentialist Anarchism, but a big part of Anarchism is praxis, so how would an Existentialist Anarchist society work? What makes it different in PRACTICE (not just theory) than other forms or Anarchism?

Squee: To adequately answer this question, I will need to describe not only what existentialist anarchist practice could be, but also what other anarchist practices are.

So the 1 Trillion Dollar Question!

First things… what do we mean by the term “praxis”? This word has a specific meaning for existentialism (and here I mean Sartre’s) that should be considered. A very good discussion of Sartrean Praxis can be found in Matthew C. Ally’s “Ecology and Existence: Bringing Sartre to the Water’s Edge”.

To summarize, “praxis” from an existentialist perspective is more than everyday labor, work, or action. Praxis is the intentional activity of an individual or a group within the material environment that aims towards historical ends. Breaking that definition down into its parts would require some pages, but the point of emphasis here would be the relationships between intentionality, the material and cultural world(s), and history. Praxis is that form of activity that anarchists are engaged in when they are changing the historical material and social structures of the world.

Now, different anarchists approach praxis in different ways. Some anarchist praxis intends towards a predefined social arrangements. Some anarchist praxis intends only towards the negation of the current social arrangements, such-as capitalism, the State, other hierarchical institutions, etc. Still others intend towards changes in everyday life …culturally, lifestyle, various forms of mutual aid. Some are revolutionary and others are insurrectionary. Some are neither revolutionary nor insurrectionary and their praxis is gradual, sometimes thought to be reformist.

In general, there is a major difference among all those different approaches that divides them into two camps: those that have something like a “vision” or a “model” that they are attempting to realize, and those that do not have anything like a model who will try anything within limits to realize their freedom. Existentialist Anarchism would fall into the latter camp, with some modifications to approaches taken by egoists, mutualists, anarcho-punks, and others from that camp. Those modifications make the answer much more complex than it may seem at face value though, mostly because of the way that existentialists understand history and praxis.

Your question suggests that you’re interested in an answer that is more concrete than what I’ve said so far; but this aspect of existentialism (though “theoretical”) is fundamental to the answer. From an existentialist anarchist perspective, it is crucial to clarify how history develops and how individual and group activity fits into such historical development. Sartre’s unfinished two-volume work, the Critique of Dialectical Reason is exactly on this topic, but again I’ll summarize some of the conclusions.

Sartre (influenced by Henri Lefebvre and others) understands History as a dialectical development of (ultimately individual) praxis and what he calls “the practico-inert”. Unlike Marxist dialectical materialism, understanding existentialist dialectical nominalism begins from the ontological notions described in Sartre’s earlier works …Being and Nothingness in particular. That is to say, while Marxist (or Hegelian) dialectics begins from forces outside of individual human beings like the conflict between the Means of Production and the Modes of Production, Class Struggle, or, the development of Spirit, existentialist dialectics begins from an examination of being-in-the-world: consciousness’ ontological structure and the way that negation of the in-itself becomes the for-itself. Some of the heavier jargon aside, existentialist dialectics begins from an examination of the needs of individuals in a world of scarcity…

Consequently, this lack experienced by individuals in a world of scarcity leads to the world becoming (in experience) an “instrumental field”… In seeking to meet their needs, the potential for things in the world to be used for meeting those needs is emphasized for the individual and from that experience of an instrumentalized world, human beings also instrumentalize one another, becoming means and objects for one another, and competing with one another in a world of scarcity to meet their needs. History begins from scarcity.

While none of that itself explains the various ways that human beings relate to each other in groups, those processes of group formation are covered extensively in Sartre’s Critique of Dialectical Reason. It gets a lot more complicated and more difficult to summarize, so I’m going to skip over that and describe the consequences for anarchism…

So what does anarchist praxis look like when it is informed by existentialist dialectical nominalism?

For one, that means that existentialist anarchism recognizes and emphasizes the important role that the “practico-inert” plays in the development of history. More than just the recognition that the private ownership of the means of production is a form of political power, existentialist anarchism recognizes that all of the relationships that individuals (and groups) are in with the world are contingent upon the situations shaped by our shared, material circumstances. This includes not only labor (and work), but also aesthetic creation (art) and the ecological impacts of human decisions. Existentialist Anarchism is thus concerned with all of the above: labor, art, ecology, etc.

Another important point is that existentialist ontology informs an anarchist understanding of the State and the concept of Sovereignty that the State claims for itself. For existentialists, only the individual is sovereign. Institutions (governmental or otherwise) only function to the extent that individuals negate their own sovereignty (and freedom) towards the goals of such institutions. Existentialist Anarchism recognizes that in this way, all institutions …even those calling themselves “anarchist”… require the negation of individual sovereignty. However, there is a difference between institutions and organizations… and between organizations and affinity groups (or groups-in-fusion).

So as I said before, the notion of the “practico-inert” is very important to an existentialist anarchist approach. Here is one description of the “practico-inert” from Oxford Reference:

“Jean-Paul Sartre’s term in Critique de la Raison Dialectique (1960), translated as Critique of Dialectical Reason (1976), for the embedded or sunk (to use the economics term) results of praxis, by which he meant deliberate, goal-oriented human action. As such, the practico-inert is the matter with which praxis must work. For example, climate change is the product of hundreds of years of human endeavour, which until very recently was (and perhaps even still is) seen as activity contributing to the welfare of humanity. Industrialization brought real rewards to at least some sections of society, not only improving the standard of living in monetary terms, but also improving the quality of life by providing labour-saving, indeed life-saving new technology. But now it is clear that very same process has created the potential for a catastrophe on a global scale. As Sartre puts it with regard to his own highly localized example of deforestation in China, humans have done what humanity’s worst enemy would have done if it had wanted to destroy humankind. The very thing that calls most urgently for praxis now is in fact the result of past praxis.”

Alright… so ALL OF THAT (and there is much more) considered: Existentialist Anarchism begins from the concrete existence of the individual being-in-the-world and the ontological freedom of consciousness. After moving onward to investigating the ways in which human beings, in their attempts to meet their needs through praxis, have created the practico-inert field(s) that structure their context… then, Existentialist Anarchism concentrates on the various forms of groups, collectives, organizations, and institutions and their consequences for ontological and practical freedom.

That’s the analysis.

The particularly Existentialist Anarchist praxis is thus shaped by recognizing that institutionalization results in the creation of a practico-inert collectivity that negates individual freedom. So party politics, anarchist federations, etc. are not the recommended course of action. Instead, groups-in-fusion, pledged groups, and some organizational models preserve individual freedom and fill the needs to collaborate towards the ends of meeting human needs. But to maintain such groups and models, individual freedom must become the regulating condition with each individual recognizing the preservation of one another’s freedom as a top priority.

This praxis could look like mutual aid work, fighting colonial institutions (something extensively developed in the existentialist literature), land projects, artist coops, environmental groups, or whatever. The recognition that history develops through praxis, its practico-inert results, and the counter-finalities that cannot be predicted beforehand guides the focus of that praxis towards realizing freedom practically and meeting needs. Insurrections and revolutions aren’t of any value in themselves and revolutions can often result in new institutional arrangements. However, should such anarchist praxis have insurrectionary consequences then so be it.

It should also be emphasized that existential anti-essentialism informs much of the critique of Property, the State, the Nation, Capital, Rights, Laws, and many other topics. And it should also be mentioned that much of radical education has been informed by Paulo Freire’s “Pedagogy of the Oppressed” …Freire himself something of an existentialist:

And none of this even begins to touch on the extent to which psychoanalysis plays into existentialist anarchism, and from both the existentialist and the anarchist angle.

Hope that all helped! Please ask some more questions if you have any 🙂

Inquisitive individual: I see I see, thank you for that! I still have many questions but I do have a better idea! Very much appreciated

Squee, if there is one thing I would like to ask if you’re willing… Simply put, what would it look like in an Existentialist Anarchist society? What would such a place look like? How would daily life be different? I’m curious
If you could explain that to me I would appreciate it

Squee: Well as I said before…

“In general, there is a major difference among all those different approaches that divides them into two camps: those that have something like a “vision” or a “model” that they are attempting to realize, and those that do not have anything like a model who will try anything within limits to realize their freedom. Existentialist Anarchism would fall into the latter camp, with some modifications to approaches taken by egoists, mutualists, anarcho-punks, and others from that camp. “

That said, I understand the desire to imagine another world that would be more in-line with my desires. Even then, it’s important to keep in mind that a lot of things that have nothing to do with existentialism and anarchism shape society and daily life. Two of those things are the form of food production and the structure of the family. The differences between a hunter-gatherer society, an agricultural society, and an industrial agricultural society with complicated supply chains are pretty huge. And the differences between societies where extended families live together, or nuclear families, or single people/couples and friends make up the primary forms of household occupancy (among other forms) are also huge.

Another issue with proposing a model society is that most actual societies throughout history have been a mix of various forms. There’s a phrase, “don’t let perfection be the enemy of the good” – or, something like that – which I think is apt to bring up when someone asks a question like this…

Finally, the last issue I will bring up regarding the question(s) is that an existentialist answer is particularly difficult to come up with because there is an “otherworldly” aspect to the potential answer. To propose an idea for an Existentialist Anarchist society would be to risk idealism, which is something very far from the approach to concrete, lived experience that existentialism is based on.

Ok… so one other thing to note is that I’m not sure how different an existentialist anarchist society would be from any other anarchist society …based on the impact of existentialism alone. Existentialist criticism of things like revolution, representation, and institutions is very similar to insurrectionary anarchist criticisms of those things …for instance. Existentialist criticisms of identity politics and symbolic action also wouldn’t introduce entirely novel ideas to anarchist theory. 

As far as anarchist models of society, there are a few that I can think of from the top of my head: hunter-gatherer bands, eco-villages, communes, industrial societies with worker-owned/worker-managed production and distribution, and market anarchist societies. For the most part, each of these have been lived at some point in history. In all of these forms of society, what makes them different from their authoritarian counter-parts is that decision-making at all relevant levels is open to all who are effected by the decisions and participation is not coerced through various forms of violence …not the violence of police, nor the violence of artificial scarcities. 

There are two books that I recommend to anyone that wants insight into the structure of everyday life in anarchist societies:

James Horrox’s book, “A Living Revolution: Anarchism in the Kibbutz Movement”:

Sam Dolgoff’s book, “The Anarchist Collectives: Workers’ Self-Management in the Spanish Revolution, 1936-1939”: 

Full text available at:…/sam-dolgoff-editor…

There are probably other accounts of anarchist societies that I haven’t read, especially anarchistic hunter-gatherer tribes. George Orwell also wrote a book that discusses the Spanish Revolution-era anarchists, “Homage to Catalonia” …but, it’s not anywhere near as detailed.


Media Reviews Submitted to AJODA in 2016: Anarcho-Syndicalist Review, Cubed, and A Renegade History of the United States

These are some reviews I wrote for AJODA in 2016. I’m not sure which (if any) were published because I haven’t seen a copy yet. Re-reading these, I’m not sure how much I agree with myself from only a few years ago. But since I had the occassion to talk about one of these recently, I decided I would post them here.

Speech to metalworkers: Anarcho-syndicalism for South African unions today
Anarcho-Syndicalist Review #61 (Winter 2014)
PO Box 42531
Philadelphia PA 19101
$5 ($15 per year)

Before an audience of unionized metalworkers, Lucien van der Walt
debated with a South African Communist Party member. It is summarized
between cheers and laughs from the floor. If you haven’t ever witnessed
the spectacle of an anarcho-syndicalist putting a Marxist-Leninist to
shame before an audience of industrial workers, “Speech to Metalworkers:
Anarcho-Syndicalism for South African Unions Today” would be a good
piece to form a sense of the occasion. It is also the exact sort of
self-congratulatory material that you would expect from an anarchist
labor magazine: a few of the anarcho-syndicalist’s better arguments,
briefly interrupted by the Marxist-Leninist’s oldest and most oblivious
responses. In this case, the interruptions are quotes from Lenin’s What
is to be Done?

These debates tend to feel as slick as any other politician’s. The
audience is treated to a few versions of flattery and
confidence-boosting, the talking-points are polished and entertaining,
and there is little to dwell on when it is over. When an anarchist is
presented as the debate champion, the contradictions are even more
apparent. Here we have van der Walt arguing for the self-emancipation of
the working class through their already co-opted union. In other words,
van der Walt is reduced to pleading with metalworkers to do something
for themselves. As opposed to what? To continuing their working
relationships with political parties, even a Communist one. And how?
Well, let him tell you about the CNT and FAI. And what role will LvdW be
playing in this transformation? We don’t find out.

Challenging the SACP’s attempts to suck up labor unions isn’t itself a
bad thing. The issue with such rabble-rousing and agitation is that
despite the weakness of their arguments, the SACP offers some sort of
hand in carrying out its proposals. It’s a hand worth biting off, but
with what teeth? The advantage for the SACP is that their organization
is offering its resources, representation, and strategic leadership;
even if the offer isn’t to the benefit of the workers. Lucian comes to
the debate with some solid argumentation, including examples of
organized syndicalists; however, his suggestion that the workers
transform their state-friendly union into a syndicalist one asks more
from the workers than it gives. It asks them to take on all of the tasks
that are performed by the present leadership and/or future SACP
leadership, without really offering any help.

The article doesn’t mention the Zabalaza Anarchist Communist Front
(ZACF), but offering ZACF membership at the end of the debate for
interested “militants” wouldn’t surprise me. After all, the ZACF, as a
neo-Platformist organization, practices an insertion strategy that tends
to look a lot like the actions van der Walt is taking in this debate. It
also looks like anarchist motivational speaking and career counseling. I
wouldn’t mind seeing a follow-up from the metalworkers in response, I
just doubt that they will. From my experience, outside agitation tends
to annoy people, even when it takes the form of an accusation. When
outside agitation is the main strategy, I expect even less positive

Workers’ Self-Directed Enterprises: A Revolutionary Program
Anarcho-Syndicalist Review #61 (Winter 2014)
PO Box 42531
Philadelphia PA 19101
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Wayne Price’s contribution in this issue is “Workers’ Self-Directed
Enterprises: A Revolutionary Program.” Anarchist (and socialist) history
is filled with advocacy for the self-management and ownership of their
workplaces by the workers themselves. There are many examples to choose
from where workers have demonstrated their capacity not only to manage
their work, but to increase the average wage and out-compete capitalist
enterprises within the same industries. This is not the challenging
issue for Price. The larger question is the more difficult one to
answer: can a complex economy actually function in this way?

Price presents some of the other factors involved with this question.
Should these enterprises compete in markets? To what extent? Can they
exist alongside capitalist firms? Can the State be used to create them?
To plan their exchanges?

He provides answers that the quoted thinkers had not. The “workers’
self-directed enterprise” can play a major role in an anarchist
revolution. Not only this, but to truly resolve present-day and past
failures of implementing this mode of production, they must be
revolutionary: workers must be willing to expropriate from the
capitalist class their ill-gotten gains in labor, capital, and
productive machinery.

Price takes care to emphasize that this would be only one component of a
more elaborate program. He mentions the importance of neighborhood
associations and other organizations. Surprisingly for a self-described
anarchist, he also advocates for revolutionaries to accept state
intervention: public works programs, public funding for cooperatives,
instituting a political preference for these modes of production. Price
seems quite convinced that this could even resolve some larger crises
caused by capitalism.

This aspect of Wayne Price’s thinking flies in the face of revolutionary
anarchism. What makes them any less authoritarian than council tenancies
and other such social democratic mechanisms? Are we to imagine that the
State’s preference for workers’ self-management would somehow put more
power into the hands of the State’s subjects, simply because managerial
tasks are performed by the working class itself? These suggestions leave
workers subordinate to state regulations, market forces,  and whatever
other institutions are to emerge for their maintenance. They would
barely mend the complex divisions of labor that help reproduce economic
(and other forms of) inequality.

The fundamental economic oppression is the dispossession that compels
one to sell themselves to those whom use the State’s power to possess
the means to life. What is it to me if I am driven to subordinate myself
to a cooperative enterprise, instead of an enterprise owned by
capitalists and managed by other employees? The capitalists and the
managers may be upset with such reforms, but the basic compulsion to
work and the basic alienation of people from the means to their own
survival would still be in effect. The authoritarians would have the
last laugh: the representatives of this supposed transformation of labor.

From a less (or anti-) work-oriented anarchist, there is little to
argue with when it comes to such superficial alterations of economic
compulsion: it’s still work. If the choice is between Price’s
suggestions and the others he mentions, I’m fine with his brand of
social management …but not his claim that it is anarchist. A more
interesting issue for me, however, is his emphasis on, work; typical of
anarcho-syndicalists, he doesn’t question its existence or its history.
I agree that the bastards ought to be expropriated, but not through
state policy and not in this sense of merely eliminating the division
between workers and managers, or workers and owners of infrastructure. I
do not look forward to a world of workers, even if that world’s
dispossession is self-managed cooperatively.

For Cyber Syndicalism
Anarcho-Syndicalist Review #61 (Winter 2014)
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Philadelphia PA 19101
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“For Cyber Syndicalism,” by Jeff Shantz, is short but sweet. Shantz
compares contemporary hacktivism with a history of The Anarchy
Organization (TAO), a group of Canadian-based anarchist techies that
focused on the material basis for technological infrastructure. Shantz
notes that radical techs today seem to lack a depth of vision for their
projects. He notes some of the more popular hacktivist actions: DDOS
attacks on websites, online advocacy, facilitating communication between
on-the-ground actors. By way of contrast, TAO aimed immediately to
change the relationship among people and the way they use computers;
they supplied the resources necessary for the web’s existence, to be
managed collectively, by radicals themselves. While this also included
hosting services anarchists were using, TAO saw themselves as part of a
broader anarchist mission to create autonomous and self-reliant spaces.
I can see where Shantz would draw the connection between TAO and
syndicalism (hence the title), but I think that similar projects today —
that in fact exist — would hesitate to express their vision in such
worker-centric language. Where small-scale production for mass society
no longer made sense, anarcho-syndicalism grew as one response to the
exploitation of a mostly factory-working proletariat. The formation and
maintenance of servers and other hardware components do not come with
this problem (though the production of their materials may); they’re not
a good example for anything at the scale of the means of productive that
syndicalists traditionally look to expropriate. They are a better
example of a means of production that requires small-scale land, energy,
labor, and other such resources or practices. And for those, a
discussion of something like a revolution through syndicalist unions has
very little applicability.
Nevertheless, examining the early radical web is an important part
of coming to grips with contemporary conditions and the many ways that
they change anarchist practices, and anarchists’ lives.

Cubed: A Secret History of the Workplace
Nikil Saval

In Cubed, Nikil Saval covers the history of office work, beginning with scribes and scriveners, still unfolding and growing today as the predominant form of work in post-Industrial societies. Saval’s book is monumental. A study of office work – sometimes known as white-collar work – hadn’t been taken seriously since C. Wright Mills published White Collar: the American Middle Classes in 1951. Since then, the Office and its notorious cubicles has only proliferated, with 60% of United States employees droning away in offices in the year 2000. And what Nikil Saval explores that C. Write Mills did not is the rich history of this development and its consequences.

Saval isn’t an anarchist, but this shouldn’t dissuade anarchists from reading his book; especially those anarchists of a post-Left perspective. Cubed provides vivid insights into the failures of Leftist labor organizers to capture the hearts and minds of office workers, the futility in trying to reduce hierarchy in the workplace through office design or social engineering, and the exceptional misery of office work, demonstrated over-and-over again in literature, film, surveys, and comics. Additionally, Saval doesn’t shy away from noting people’s many forms of resistance to offices; and, the ways that capitalists have tried to appease white-collar workers, fearing they may side with such folks as the dreaded Haymarket anarchist. He even quotes Lucy Parsons, who writing for Alarm, advocates for the bombing of skyscrapers.

Cubed is full of other interesting bits. Take this excerpt on the relationship between office work and prisons, for example:

“Certain prison systems, such as that in Texas, responded to overcrowding by redesigning their jails along the lines of an open-plan office, replete with cubicle partitions. Prison inmates employed by the company with the classic 1990s name Unicor … were set to work manufacturing cubicle walls and occasionally the chairs that people sat in in those cubicles. At night, while others left their cubicles to go back home, some prisoners by contrast left the manufacturing plant to go back to their cubicles.”

Or here, on the symbolic importance of skyscrapers:

“skyscraper would remain one of the most peculiarly American of white-collar institutions, much more a symbol of the prowess, even ruthlessness, of American-style capitalism than what it equally was: an especially tall collection of boring offices.”

In the end, what Cubed really hits home is the erroneous beliefs of so many, that improvements to the workplace itself – its design, social atmosphere, and managerial schematics – will meaningfully impact the lives of office workers. Saval shows that it hardly matters if an office is designed like a food court, or if it is filled with private rooms, or if the managers work under the same environmental conditions as the most expendable employee: there is no escaping the horrible tasks at the root of office misery. From an anarchist perspective, this becomes a powerful argument against the Left’s utopian ideas for work-place reforms, and a strong motivator to emphasize the abolition of work instead.

A Renegade History of the United States
Thaddeus Russell

When it comes to popular US History books, there are two main narrative tendencies for mapping out important figures: the Great Men of History narrative, and the Social Movement narrative. A Renegade History of the United States breaks with these tendencies and invents an all-together new one. It is a history of those whom society is ashamed of, its renegades. The renegades include drunks, prostitutes, slaves, slackers, performers, migrants, sexual deviants. Those who disregard the social mores and laws of their time to pursue their desires. In telling their stories, Thaddeus Russell also presents his thesis that it is because of these renegades that personal freedoms have expanded beyond the narrow limits set down by Puritan colonists. The lesson being that personal freedoms are taken, not given.

It should be no surprise that Russell is something of a libertarian, though some of his positions are just as unique as his story-telling. He sides with capitalists on the importance of markets, but faults them for their work ethic. He sides with anarchists against the State, but shakes his head at their anti-consumerism. He doesn’t believe in a revolution, he believes in a shameless practice of pursuing one’s own interests. Above all, he is an individualist that isn’t afraid of making waves.

A Renegade History of the United States begins with an analysis of the colonial values that are at the foundations of this country. Mainly, the values of the Puritans; their two most central being the Work Ethic, and sex as an exclusively reproductive act between husband and wife. While the latter doesn’t require more clarification, the Work Ethic should be understood as the goodness of working itself and not as a means-to-an-end. Russell demonstrates how these values shaped the colonies, how they informed theories of democracy, and how they continue to define a barrier of entry into respectable, polite society. To put it another way, these are the values of Whiteness that said renegades transgress against the boundaries of.

By concentrating on Whiteness and the Puritan sensibilities underpinning it, Thaddeus Russell offers a refreshing break from the same old stories of social movements, with their workaholic figureheads and populism. Instead of a Marxist history of class struggles, A Renegade History gives us the struggles of those who can not or will not be assimilated. Its heroes are gun-toting madams whom clothed and sheltered the poor, whites who fled the colonies to live with local tribes; migrants who gave themselves pints of beer on the job and a 3-4 day week-end with their drinking habits; runaway slaves who gave themselves vacations; Italian and Jewish speakeasy owners and liquor smugglers who made a mockery of prohibition; and many, many others.

For as many stories of renegades, there is also the unfortunate stories of conformity that are just as interesting. The stories of Irish renegades becoming police, of movement leaders disciplining followers in the name of legal reforms, of the changing status of various ethnicities to White, of movements for sexual liberation turning their backs on drag queens. As we are all probably aware, the work ethic is still strong in the United States and although there have been many gains in personal freedoms, there is plenty of Puritan-like morality to go around.

What we get in A Renegade History is an opportunity to be aware of such moral tendencies. Even more, we get a rich sense of struggle that is cultural, rather than political. Although this cultural approach to social struggle is old, it can have very contemporary implications. In this new age of government and self-surveillance, precarious employment, relatively relaxed morals concerning pleasure, and the impotence of mass movements, resisting assimilation at a cultural level continues to be an option that can consequently change the ways we live together. I believe that Thaddeus Russell’s book is thus instructive for an anarchist audience and for those of us who challenge the supposed goodness of work, movements, and appealing to assimilationist norms.

Conceptualizing the State – A Response to Ben Burgis’ “Patron Request Topic: Anarchism and Prison Abolition”

This is a response to Ben Burgis’ post “Patron Request Topic: Anarchism and Prison Abolition”

[I initially wrote an eloquent response to this in the comments, but for some reason it didn’t post correctly so I’m going to just make my own post.]

As you mentioned, defining “anarchism” is already a challenge that can make discussions even amongst seasoned anarchists a grueling uphill voyage. But I think in this conversation a larger semantic issue must be addressed before your more specific rationale can be addressed. The semantic question here is, “What is the State?”

Now it seems to me like your approach to answering this question is to look at what states do. States tax people, they establish a judicial order, they administer public services, and specifically regarding your response, states incarcerate people. I can understand why you, along with many anarchists themselves, would critique the State based on what states do. After-all, if anarchists are going to fight for the abolition of the State, it would be useful to catalogue all the things that would be abolished along the way.

However, as one of many diverse anarchist thinkers, this is not how I approach the State myself. When I think about the State, I am thinking less about what states do and more about the history of states and how those histories describe what the State is. From this historical perspective, one of the more common themes is that states come into existence through conquest. This isn’t the only way that states are formed, as has been discussed by Peter Gelderloos in “Worshiping Power”; but, it’s the example I’ll use here.

As a historical entity, the State can be a Monarchy, a People’s State, a Republic, a Theocracy, etc. without fundamentally changing what makes the State distinct. And that distinction is that the State is always the first and only absolute power: the Sovereign. Before the land and other property rights that it grants its subjects, the particular taxes it imposes, the forms of law that it adopts, etc., the State establishes itself as the sovereign power.

So above all else, what we anarchists (at least some of us) seek to abolish is this sovereignty itself. This is important because following from this conception of the State, one can understand how an anarchist may be against the State’s prisons, but not necessarily against prisons created by …say, an autonomous commune. If the State is imagined as the sum of its functions, then it becomes quite difficult to imagine how all of those functions it currently positions itself to manage would be carried out without it. Fortunately, that isn’t the case!

I could elaborate on how this different conceptualization of the State changes the way that the State’s “withering away” is then imagined. There are also many other issues (such as the issue of Capitalism) that this different conceptualization impacts. But I think it’s sufficient to begin here, where our perspectives seem to initially diverge and save the rest for some other time.

Here’s that Gelderloos book: