Anarchism and Power

by Ron Carrier

I originally wrote the following piece for the February 1993 issue of Autonomy, which is the monthly newsletter of Some Chicago Anarchists, an educational anarchist group which holds monthly (at least) forums and (during the summer) picnics. If you would like to get in touch with Some Chicago Anarchists, you can write to:

Some Chicago Anarchists
Box 163
1340 West Irving Park Road
Chicago, IL 60613


A common description of anarchism is that it has as its aim the abolition of the state. Now, while this is certainly correct -- it would indeed be hard to find an anarchist who is positively enamored of any government apparatus, be it located in Chicago, Washington, Moscow, or Baghdad -- , it is not (to my mind) the best way of describing the anarchist goal.

Rather, anarchism should be understood as aiming at the abolition of all forms of domination. That is, anarchism is resolutely opposed to any relations between humans in which one decides for another, without the other's consent, how that other is to live and coerces that other into living that way. So anarchism is opposed not only to government, to the police and military and legislature and judiciary. It is also opposed to capitalism, in which a few possessing the means of production compel the rest, on pain of starvation, to produce for the profit of those few in return for a wage; and to racism of any form; and to any sort of oppression on the basis of one's sexuality. In place of all this, which is inherently reprehensible (and if you want a justification of this claim, try living in an explicit state of being dominated and see what you think of it!), anarchists seek to being about a situation in which everybody determines for oneself as much as possible, in as free and cooperative as can be devised, how one is to live one's life.

So anarchism is opposed to power, right? All we need to do is overthrow all the bosses who are repressing our desire for freedom, and all will be well? -- Well, not quite. I don't think it's right to identify power with domination and domination with repression, as was just done in the two questions just posed. Here's why.

What is power? It seems to me that power shouldn't be thought of as some mysterious substance which some people (at the top of the heap) possess by some means or other and which others (at the bottom) do not. Rather, power exists only as a certain kind of relation between people in which one person does what another person wants the first person to do. Now, simply described that way, power relations are not inherently relations of domination: one can do what another wants her/him to do because the two of them have both freely consented to this as much as because the latter person has coercive control over the former. So anarchism, properly understood, does not seek the abolition of power, in the sense that it does not seek to eliminate the possibility of power relations. For it is hard to see how this could come about without the abolition of any and all social relations, which no anarchist wants! Instead, anarchism seeks to foster and maintain only those power relations which do not involve coercive domination, and to destroy those that do.

Furthermore, not all those power relations which involve domination operate by repression alone. That is, domination does not, to my mind, consist only in keeping people from doing things. Rather, domination also involves a certain positive aspect, in that it involves the dominator acting positively (and not just by denial) upon the one to be dominated (upon both her/his body and mind) so that the dominated will reliably act in a docile and obedient fashion. For example, part of that power relation which is wage slavery consists in making the wage slave an obedient slave by a careful and meticulous technique of training by which the wage slave-to-be is brought to act in as productive a manner for the employer and not otherwise. (This training does not take place only within the factory gates -- our system of compulsory education contributes mightily to producing docility.) In other words, relations of domination have the force they do in large part because they endow kthe dominated with positive characteristics, with real abilities that they did not have before.

What this means for anarchists is that it is not sufficient for eliminating domination and establishing a free and cooperative society merely to eliminate repression. (Which is not to say that it shouldn't be done; only that this isn't enough.) For the ability to act in a free and cooperative fashion is not something that one possesses naturally, is not a natural capacity which one already possesses in a fully developed way and which is somehow being stifled by the oppressors. On the contrary, it is also a product of training, of a training in which one is encouraged to act freely and cooperatively, to develop one's own singular capacities and one's ability to think for oneself (so that is training is necessarily a self-training). Just as one's domination is something that is made, so one's liberty is something that cannot simply be uncorked, but also has to be made. If all one does is throw the bums out, one does nothing either to undo the effects of the training which one has received or to actually bring about the ability to live in a cooperative and uncoerced fashion. If throwing the bosses out is all one does, it will not be surprising to find a new set of bosses setting themselves up in short order; for the greater part of the relations of domination will remain, relatively unscathed.

In short, anarchists should not trust to the so-called natural proclivities of human beings toward freedom and cooperation, for there are no such proclivities. Or rather such proclivities are, as proclivities, no stronger than the equally natural human proclivities to dominate and be dominated. The task must be to encourage these proclivities, to make them into really existing practices of freedom and cooperation, for it is only in this way that there can be any realistic hope of bringing about a society without domination.

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