TCS Daily

Looting an Ideology

By Kenneth Silber - April 11, 2003 12:00 AM

Political ideologies tend to lose credibility and adherents after their tenets are shown to be grossly at odds with reality. I recently wrote about how ideologies that glorify military prowess-such as Mussolini's Fascism and Saddam's Baathism-fare poorly after their central claims have been disproved by crushing military defeat. Other ideologies have been refuted in other ways. When the Berlin Wall crumbled, so did the residual credibility of Communism's pretensions to be the wave of the future or the means to a workers' paradise.

What about anarchism? The immediate aftermath of the collapse of Saddam Hussein's regime has brought a vacuum of governmental authority-and thus a test for a certain set of political ideas.

The view that a better society can be built in the complete absence of government has exponents on both left and right. On the left, there is a long tradition of anarchosyndicalism advocating worker control of the economy through nongovernmental collectives. The general goal of leftist anarchism, not always well articulated, is that society should be stateless and organized around collectives of some kind (composed of workers, artists, oppressed minorities, or whatever). In recent years, anarchism has been the stated objective of "black bloc" rioters at anti-globalization rallies and other protests.

A different tradition is anarchocapitalism, which seeks a stateless society that operates along free-market lines. Rather than collectives, the anarchocapitalist society would be organized around freely trading individuals and companies. Due to this market emphasis, anarchocapitalism generally is regarded as an extreme of the political right, although its adherents do not necessarily self-identify as right wing. Anarchocapitalism has been a tendency of some libertarian institutions and intellectuals (economist Murray Rothbard was a major advocate), and it sometimes receives a respectful hearing even in libertarian publications oriented toward limited, rather than nonexistent, government.

In Iraq, the U.S. and allied military forces have been focused, appropriately, on eradicating armed resistance by remnants of Saddam's regime, and have explicitly given lower priority to the broader goal of maintaining public order. (Less laudably, some military commanders appear initially to have taken a tolerant view that the looting would let the Iraqi population "blow off steam.")

The looting has been partly directed against palaces and buildings of the crumbled regime. But it has also been directed against private citizens and property, and even some looters have been relieved of their newfound property by other looters. Meanwhile, the fear resulting from the disorder has effectively frozen the economy and slowed progress toward the restarting of basic services such as those providing water and electricity.

There has been little sign in Iraq of the emergence of large-scale nongovernmental cooperation. Iraqis have not been forming collectives for peaceful interaction, nor conducting business in a free-market utopia. They are not behaving in a manner suggested by anarchist ideologies. On the contrary, many Iraqis seem to be agitatedly waiting for the foreign troops to establish some form of government authority. Indeed, there seems to be a considerable degree of anger among Iraqis that anarchy has been allowed to persist even for a brief time.

Iraq is not the first on-the-ground test for anarchism. In recent decades, the absence of government has occurred for extended periods of time in both Lebanon and Somalia. In each case, the consequence was one of widespread violence, poverty and despair; conditions were far worse than they had been during periods of governmental control. Portions of several countries have been effectively without government control on a quasi-permanent basis; these include Pakistan's tribal areas abutting Afghanistan, and the opium growing "golden triangle" of Burma, Thailand and Laos. None of these places is known for being peaceful or prosperous.

Anarchists of left and right should consider what "real, existing anarchy" looks like, and then explain, if they can, why their stated objectives would lead to anything different.

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