The Will to Belong – How Anarchists Could Leverage the Instinct to Conform

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The purpose of this essay is to convince anarchists that achieving a stateless society may require us to adopt the personal characteristics of conformity and submission to hierarchy. It may require us to adopt these characteristics and voluntarily submit ourselves to a new hierarchical, bureaucratic organization, one whose entire reason for being would be to fight the state.

I acknowledge that promoting conformity and submission may seem to contradict the vision most anarchists have of the future. Anarchists are a skeptical bunch. We tend to value intellectual independence far more than most people. We want a world full of people like ourselves, a world that is non-hierarchical, spontaneous, and fluid. We want a world where people think for themselves and challenge authority. Therefore, it may seem counterintuitive for an anarchist to argue for more conformity and submission. Nevertheless, that will be my argument. I ask that readers keep an open mind, and remember that any path to a free society should be considered, provided the path does not call for the violation of the non-aggression principle. Murrary Rothbard, at the end of one of his most influential essays, The Anatomy of the State, said as much: “The problem of the State is evidently as far from solution as ever. Perhaps new paths of inquiry must be explored, if the successful, final solution of the State question is ever to be attained.”

Before I explain why we need more conformity and willingness to submit to hierarchy, I want you to consider two other potentially objectionable means: violence and shaming. Many anarchists find both disagreeable in the abstract. Both may not “feel right”. However, both are acceptable and consistent with anarchist philosophy if used within the right context.

Consider violence. Most anarchists, like most people, detest violence in the abstract. Nevertheless, we are not pacifists. We make a distinction between defensive violence, which we approve of, and aggressive violence, which we condemn. We might actually wish for more defensive violence if we thought it would deter aggressive violence. Such a position might reflect an enlightened hatred of violence, in general. To us, it is the specific context of any violent act that is most important, not violence per se.

Next, consider shaming. As with violence, most anarchists detest shaming in the abstract. We tend to be open minded and enjoy rational discourse and the free play of ideas. Nevertheless, we acknowledge that shaming would be permissible in a free society, because it does not violate the non-aggression principle. Some anarchists even argue that shaming of statists should be deployed more often. They argue that “defensive shaming”, like defensive violence, is a good thing, one that might work to promote a more just world. What’s important is the context within which the shaming is done not shaming per se.

So, both shaming and violence have their place. Anarchists do not seek to completely abolish these means from the world. Instead, we seek a world where they are used only in proper circumstances. I bring up them up because it is my hope that anarchists will begin to think about conformity and submission to hierarchy (the topic of this essay) in the same way they think about violence and shaming. They may not like conformity or submission, in the abstract, but hopefully they will recognize that context matters, and that in some cases they can be good. Just as anarchists recognize defensive violence, and defensive shaming, we should also recognize “defensive conformity” and “defensive submission.”

With those preliminaries out of the way, let us briefly consider the problem of the state. There exists a group of people who use force and violence to impose their will on the rest of us. They have constructed a parasitic and predatory organization, called the state. Through this state, they steal money from others. They then use that money to propagandize the falsehood that they are necessary to the orderly functioning of society. They have been very successful in their propaganda effort. Many people not only accept their claim, but even encourage them to expand their predation.

A tiny percentage of people, however, reject the statists’ claims. They call themselves anarchists. Anarchists insist that the state is not needed. They claim that the very concept of a state is harmful. According to them, state employees, acting under the false legitimacy of the state, exempt themselves from universal rules, such as prohibitions on theft and murder, that should bind them. Because these universal rules do not bind everyone, disorder results. Anarchists make this argument to others, but discover that most people (non-anarchists) are unwilling to listen. Therefore, state employees continue to cause disorder without resistance.

Non-anarchists do not listen to the anarchist’s arguments for a simple reason, one that is critical for anarchists to understand: Non-anarchists do not construct their political philosophy out of principle. Instead, they absorb it from their environment. They hear state propaganda tell them that “the state is necessary”. They hear it from many sources: public schools, state regulated television, tax exempted churches, from the mouths of state employees, and from other sources. When they hear the message enough, they begin to accept it. They accept it unconsciously, without critically examining it. Each repetition of the message strengthens their “conviction” that it is true. Because the message has been delivered to their minds unconsciously and via repetition, it is not able to be changed through reason. It is a sort of religious dogma, one that a person will resist changing, even though he may be unable to rationally defend it. Because the idea has been implanted unconsciously, the only effective means of changing it would be a counterpropaganda effort of similar intensity. By repeating the message that “the state is not necessary” anarchists could, in principle, “deprogram” a person’s mind. But to do so would require far more resources than anarchists command at this point. I will return to this idea later in the essay. But the critical fact I am driving at is that anarchists are different from non-anarchists. They are obedient to reason. Their political philosophy is accessible, able to be changed through rational discourse. Non-anarchists do not think that way.

What makes anarchists different? Why do they critique state propaganda, if most people do not? The answer has to do with their character. Anarchists tend to be rebellious by nature. They don’t like authority. They don’t like people telling them what to do. They resist conformity, and they resist submitting to hierarchy. They seek ideas that will give voice to their instinct to rebel. Therefore, when they discover anarchism, they latch onto it. Anarchism gratifies their impulse for rebellion. It gives them an alternate system of values, diametrically opposed to the consensus. Anarchists bind themselves to reason, and the only rational political philosophy: anarchism, because they detest binding themselves to any person or authority. Reason becomes their authority.

However, most people are not wired like anarchists. Consider the profile of the average anarchist compared to the average non-anarchist. He is a rebel, a nonconformist. Most non-anarchists are not, by definition. He is repelled by hierarchy, bureaucracy, and any type of formal organization. Most non-anarchists seek to belong. They seek membership, and even identity in groups, and they respect hierarchy. He detests systems. Most non-anarchists go along with systems. They are comforted by routine and ritual. He insists on standing alone, independent. Most non-anarchist seek to conform and belong. He seeks to comprehend the theoretical underpinnings of his system of ethics. Most non-anarchists are not interested in the provenance of their ideas. In other words, anarchists have a unique character, which impels them to pursue truth, and become “thought leaders”. But the great majority of people will always be “thought followers.” Considering the stark differences between the character of anarchists and the character of most non-anarchists, should anarchists be surprised when the thing that converted them to anarchism, reason, does not work on others?

Most anarchists do not grasp this critical point. For all their penetrating insights, they lack self-awareness. Their error is their assumption that other people are like them, that, like them, other people seek to know truth. They act on this misunderstanding. When anarchists see that other people continue to support the state, they assume that they just haven’t been exposed to the right ideas. Therefore, anarchists attempt to put the right ideas in front of them, confident that once they see the truth, they will be converted. Anarchists assume that reason will suffice to convert other people, since it worked so well for them. But they find, to their dismay, that it does not work. People do not respond. They are not converted.

People don’t respond, not because they lack the capacity to understand. Anarchist ideas are not so difficult to understand after all. No, people don’t respond because they are not seeking truth. They are not inclined to rebel. They do not wish to fight the consensus. They do not wish to critically review the mores of the people around them. They do not wish to go against the grain. They are not interested in being convinced by the anarchists. They don’t care what the “truth” may be. This is not to say that they necessarily reject the anarchists’ argument. Most do not. Many, in fact, are sympathetic… to a point. They listen politely when anarchists address them. But, their response is “so what”? When the anarchist leaves, they revert back to their usual mental pattern of going along with the state, and internalizing its falsehoods.

Many anarchists, after experiencing other people’s indifference long enough, become disheartened and frustrated. In many cases, their frustration turns to rage. They believe their rage is justified. After all, it is the bad ideas of others that is harming them. But rage, justified or not, is not sustainable. Eventually and unfortunately, many throw up their hands, and accept that the state will always exist, and most people will always support it.

But this is defeatism. Anarchist ideas are correct. What anarchists should do is not give up, but instead develop a new strategy, one that recognizes the personality differences between themselves and others. They should develop a strategy that will not require non-anarchists to fundamentally change their character. In previous essays, I have elaborated one such strategy and I will briefly discuss it again below. But before embarking on it, anarchists must be willing to drop their cherished contention that everyone will become like them. We must accept the “state of play.” We must accept the world as it is, first, if we ever hope to change it. If most people respond better to repetition than reason, we should accept this and adapt our strategy to it. If the average person seeks conformity and is willing or even eager to submit to hierarchy, we should accept that as well and adapt our strategy to it. I am arguing that anarchists should recognize themselves as constitutionally different from other people, and adjust their strategy accordingly.

I have previously proposed a strategy consistent with what I have written above. My strategy, which I have outlined in other essays, is for anarchists to create a formal organization committed to spreading our philosophy. In my mind, the organization would be structured like a church. I am convinced that if anarchists would build such an organization, it would yield our movement significant advantages. It is not the purpose of this essay, to elaborate those advantages. I have done so in other essays. Instead, I want to address the objection some anarchists have to the idea regarding the topic of this essay: conformity and submission to hierarchy.

I have found that many anarchists reject the idea of creating a formal organization dedicated to anarchism. They seem to reject it instinctively, almost unconsciously. They do so because, as I explained above, they tend to be non conformists. They do not like formal organizations. They protest that building such an organization which would necessarily require hierarchy, and rules for membership, would “be the exact thing we are fighting against.” But their argument is not correct. Strictly speaking, we are only fighting the state. We are not fighting hierarchy, rules, or bureaucracy per se. We are fighting coercive hierarchy, coercive rules, and coercive bureaucracy. The distinction is critical.

Anarchist philosophy is silent on the question of whether hierarchy, bureaucracy, or even conformity itself are good things or not. All that anarchist philosophy insists on is that nobody initiate force. In an anarchist society, there might be huge organizations with massive bureaucracies, innumerable rules, and formal hierarchies. No anarchist could have a principled objection to them, assuming they were voluntary. Similarly, no anarchist, should object, on principle, to the construction of such an anarchist church. To attempt to do so is analogous to arguing that a person should not use violence, even defensive violence, because anarchists don’t like violence. It is similar to arguing that a person should not shame a statist because anarchists don’t like shaming. Neither is correct. If we want our movement to succeed, we must be clear about what we are fighting against. We must distinguish between those things that don’t appeal to us because of our personality, and those things that we reject because of our philosophy. We are fighting the state and only the state. Any means consistent with our principles should be considered “fair game” in that fight.

Anarchists should check their natural rebelliousness, and consider that we would be far more powerful unified in an organization of rebellion against the state than if each of us remains isolated. We must unify! We must unify if for no other reason than because the state is unified against us. As a defensive mechanism, we must join forces. Unifying would give us the ability to synchronize and coordinate our efforts against the state. But to unify would require an organization with rules for membership. It would require a willingness by each anarchist to be part of a hierarchy. It would require them to voluntary submit to that hierarchy. The organization would not be effective if everyone constantly attempted to rebel against it, something that anarchists are constitutionally inclined to do. This is why I am arguing that for our movement to succeed we must emphasize voluntary submission and conformity to this “liberty church”. Since it would NOT have the power to use force to compel people to submit to it, we must compensate by emphasizing the importance of doing so voluntarily.

Consider the advantages if we were able to construct such an organization! We would gain us legitimacy. Instead of approaching people on our own and attempting to explain how the state is illegitimate, we would be able to approach them as representatives of a large and growing organization. No longer could a person tell himself that our arguments are just one person’s crazy ideas. With a formal organization behind us, we could point to our membership to demonstrate that our ideas are not so unusual after all. As far as I know there is no organization currently attempting to register all anarchists. But if we collaborate and build one, we could market ourselves as having “10,000 members” or whatever the number might be. This would not only give us legitimacy in the minds of skeptics, but it will put doubt into the minds of statists. They might think “What do they know, that I don’t?” Of course, anarchists are not convinced by numbers. We do not care how many people support an idea. We only care if the idea stands the test of reason. But again, other people think different. Numbers do matter to them.

A formal organization would enable anarchists to coordinate their efforts. It would allow them to move methodically and systematically against the state. It would possess the great advantage of bureaucracy. The word bureaucracy carries a negative connotation but it is not necessarily bad. Bureaucracy simply means specialization and division of labor within an organization. By specializing, a person can do something at higher quality and productiveness than would be possible if that task was one of many. In aggregate, specialization allows a group of people to produce much more at much higher quality than if they were all doing everything themselves. In the “church of liberty” one anarchist might be tasked with coordinating local chapters and facilitating the exchange of best practices, while another would focus on developing counter-propaganda to the state, while another would research historical narratives, while another would develop strategy, while another would create marketing material for anarchism, and another would focus on fund raising etc. Having a corporate structure would allow anarchists to pool their resources and not have to perpetually “reinvent the wheel.”

But I have largely made these points in other essays. More to the point of this essay, having a formal organization would enable the conversion of people not currently willing to consider our ideas. A newly converted person would be more comfortable calling himself an anarchist if there was a formal organization that he could join. He could become a proud “card carrying” anarchist. By registering and participating in formal and informal activities of the group, he would be joining a community, not simply rejecting the state. He would be positively affirming something, not simply rejecting something. Formally joining a group may not appeal to anarchists, because their personality resists binding themselves to others. But it does appeal to most people. And having a group will help us reach them. Each newly converted person will find comfort knowing that everyone else in his new community shares his principles. They will make his acceptance of the anarchist philosophy easier. In addition, because he is not alone, because he is supported by a formal community, he will be more willing to be public and outspoken about his views. Since his social circle will increasingly consist of other anarchists, he will not hesitate to declare himself one. The more anarchists that go public, the more the idea will become credible in the minds of non-anarchists.

A formal organization will help our movement grow. It will enable us to lock our ideas into the minds of new converts. It will enable us to “convert” the minds of the average person in the only way that seems to work: through repetition. Remember that most people do not think for themselves, and do not construct their political philosophy from principles. They are not obedient to reason. They take cues from their environment. So we should create an environment that promotes our philosophy. If we can convince somebody to join our organization, and pull the person “into our orbit,” if you will, we can then begin a steady campaign of deprogramming – a campaign in which our central ideas would be repeated over and over again. Each repetition of the message will strengthen our ideas in the minds of the members of the organization, and further immunize them to the falsehoods that statists try to plant in their minds. Having a formal organization would allow us to “lock in” and reprogram minds in a way that is impossible without one.

Many anarchists do not like this vision of a hierarchal, bureaucratic, membership based organization, even one that promotes anarchist philosophy. They argue “We don’t want to brainwash people! We want to convince people. We don’t want to convert sheep. We don’t want there to be sheep!” I have heard this exact argument before. My response is that if people are going to be sheep anyway, why do we resist stepping up and being their shepherd? If people are going to mindlessly echo the propaganda of the statists and in doing so hurt us, why should we not, as a defensive mechanism, if nothing else, try to get them to “mindlessly” echo OUR propaganda. Remember! The organization I am proposing would be voluntary. It would be a defensive method of defeating the state. At any point a person could choose to leave. This is what would make our organization fundamentally different from the state.

Counterintuitive as it seems, a “church of liberty” might even help create a world full of rebels and non-conformists. As it grows so the anarchist philosophy will spread. A true alternative to the state will present itself, embodied in the values of our organization. Our truth repeated over and over by our acolytes will begin to weaken the grip the falsehoods of the state have over people’s minds. As we begin having success, and the state starts to shrink, some anarchists may become dissatisfied with our organization. They may think “Enough is enough. I hate the state, but I don’t like the church of liberty either.” And they will be free to act on that impulse and leave. Because, unlike the state, membership in our organization will be voluntary. Once its purpose has been served, once the state has been eliminated, it may very well be disbanded, or at least splinter into thousands of different groups. The non-hierarchical, non-bureaucratic dream of the anarchists may then be a reality, one achieved, ironically by means of conformity, submission to hierarchy, and bureaucracy.

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