“Origin and Nature of Government” by Laurance Labadie

At various times during the evolution of man, groups found themselves in a circumstance of real scarcity. When a group of people had food for only half their number, if they divided equally all would die, and history would hear no more of them.
It is man’s nature to want to live, as an individual. Therefore scarcity begat a scramble, in which the stronger succeeded. Strength and predatoriness were life-preserving characteristics in a milieu of scarcity.
In a scramble, it would naturally be discovered that handicapping another–even killing him–would facilitate getting the goods in his possession. People learned another way of acquiring goods than working for them. Under the circumstances, robbery and accompanying murder appear to have been necessary if life were to continue. Individuals within tribes no doubt learned that cooperation in robbery was a safer procedure than lone robbery.
In time it must have occurred to someone that one tribe could rob another tribe. In such forays the winners would kill the losers. Natural handicaps made women weaker than men, so men became the warriors and the women did the work. Women thus being useful, in subsequent raids they were captured instead of killed.
Somewhere along the line a fellow who had been clubbed for his goods survived, and proceeded to gather more goods. When this was observed, probably the greatest humanitarian idea that man has discovered throughout the ages was born–that it was not necessary to kill a man in order to get his goods. This boon was slavery, which at least promised a lease on life. Thus, in conquest between tribes, the conquerors became the rulers and the conquered the slaves.
This, in my view, was the origin of the State, which may be defined as an organization of rulers who rob the populace over which it can hold sway, and which uses that populace as soldiers to enlarge the territory and number of people it can exploit. The political history of the world has been the record of internal struggles to grasp State power, and between governments to enlarge their domains.
(That governments provide services which citizens want or can be persuaded to want, does not alter the basic concept of nature and origin of the State.)
The ruler-ruled relation became in the course of time so ingrained as to become a universal superstition. It is the common belief that no society could exist without government. Indeed, what government will allow anything else to be taught in the schools? Further, are citizens not taught that rulers should be loved and revered, particularly the kind of government that happens to be over them? In some societies people are allowed to choose their own bosses, which is supposed to be very advanced. This is the political condition of the world today.
When a “nation” is relatively wise politically it requires considerable force, in the shape of police and army, to keep the populace in their place. Where people are steeped in political ignorance, very little force is necessary, especially when the illusion is kept up that when choosing their rulers they are actually ruling themselves.
I know of hardly one reformer or any other person proposing any feature for the betterment of mankind, in a hundred thousand, who does not propose or expect to implement his proposition through the coercive power of the government. The method of political thought from Plato down to the technocrats was to prefabricate an ideal society, and then to get governmental power to coercively fit people to their systems. The classic example of this type of thinking and action is the attempt to impose systematic communism on a populace. Communism itself is such an infantile conception of the solution of the social problem that it is no accident of circumstance that it is accompanied by continual liquidations.
At the present time, the strongest support for government appears to be habit, a common garden variety of ignorance, credulity, and superstition, sustained by a vast amount of mis-education perpetuated by governmental schools in every quarter of the globe. To this must be added emergencies in which sections of a populace find themselves (such as the present-day farmer), in a predicament, the immediate release from which no other power than government appears to exist. Thus, from the very evils caused by government, do governments find a pretext to come in as succor, and thereby enhance their powers.
Irrespective of their relative banefulness (for some governments are worse than others) the present day power struggle between governments threatens the annihilation of mankind in a carnage that can hardly be conceived as possible in the absence of all governments whatsoever.

“Healthcare Without Government” by Joe Peacott

The Therapeutic State
Health care systems all over the world are, to varying extents, dominated by government intervention. Whether it is a largely ‘private’ system driven by state funding and regulation, like that in the US, or a ‘socialized’ model like those of Canada and the UK, the state manages to insinuate itself into the most intimate contacts between individuals and their medical providers. Such intervention in the health care market is advocated by its supporters for two primary reasons. First, government is seen as the best protector of consumers, through such methods as compulsory licensure and accreditation of health care providers and institutions, as well as regulation of what medicines can be prescribed and distributed, and under what conditions. Second, in a world where health care can quickly become prohibitively expensive and private insurance is not always available or reasonably priced, government funding, either to individual consumers or the health care system as a whole, can often appear to be the only means by which people can afford to utilize modern health care providers and technologies.Despite the arguments of the defenders of government meddling, however, the state has shown itself not to be a good steward of our health care. It denies us the freedom to avail ourselves of the services of the practitioners of our choice. It has produced an incredibly expensive health care system which we are all forced to pay for, either out-of-pocket at our doctor’s office, with our insurance premiums, by taxation, or through a combination of these. It lies about disease prevalence and incidence in order to further bloat the budgets of public health bureaucracies. It has kept life-saving drugs off the market, and made some of those available so expensive as to be beyond the means of many who could benefit from them. It requires people to wait months for simple operations. It forces potentially dangerous vaccines on children. It restricts access to pain-killers because of myths, propagated by its own ‘experts,’ about addiction. It has turned physicians into an economic and social elite who often treat their customers with a complete lack of respect. And the individual people seeking and receiving health care, the supposed beneficiaries and focus of this system, are deprived of any real decision-making power, while at the same time they are prevented from taking their business elsewhere if they are dissatisfied.

A Different Vision
Anarchists believe that people are capable of managing their own affairs and providing for all their needs and wants without the state and other authoritarian institutions. In a world without government like that envisioned by anarchists, people would still get sick and sustain injuries and require health care, surgery, and medicines. But, because people have become so accustomed to government involvement in health care provision at all levels, it may be difficult for many to imagine how such needs would be taken care of in a libertarian society.Anarchists differ among themselves about how people’s medical needs and wants would be met in the absence of a government. Some believe that all health care should be provided free of charge with costs absorbed by the community at large, while people’s good intentions and dedication to the interests of the group would be sufficient to guarantee quality, ethical healing services. Others, of a more individualist bent, believe that health care, like all other products and services, could be provided on the free market, with prices restrained by competition and quality and safety insured by voluntary watchdog organizations and educated, self-reliant consumers. Such a market-based system would not only be capable of providing high quality, affordable healing services, but would also maximize the range of choices in providers and therapies available to people in need of medical or other therapeutic services or information.

The Current Model & Anarchist Alternatives
Government-run or -regulated health care systems rely on mandatory licensure and accreditation to ensure the competence and safety of providers and institutions. While this method is somewhat effective in achieving its goals, it has consequences that are detrimental to consumers. State control of who can and cannot practice medicine or other healing arts severely restricts the number of providers available to people in need of health care. By allowing the professionals themselves, whether doctors, nurses, therapists, or whatever, to accredit training schools and set standards for entry into practice, it allows established practitioners to limit the entry of new workers into the various approved health care fields, and either severely restricts or outlaws the practice of healing by those who advocate alternative models of health care.The libertarian approach is to allow anyone to offer their healing services on the market, and let customers sort out for themselves who is worthy of their business, as they currently do with so many other products and services. Consumer watchdog groups, on the model of the Consumers Union or People’s Medical Society in the United States, could investigate and rate the various health care providers, clinics, and hospitals and make their findings available to those seeking health services, enabling them to make an informed decision as to where to procure treatments and consultations. Voluntary certification societies, which already exist in the medical and nursing specialties, would also play a role in ensuring competence by giving their ‘seal of approval’ to providers who meet certain criteria. Meanwhile, those who reject western scientific (allopathic) medicine, would be freely able to seek out and purchase the services of practitioners of their choice, who would no longer be barred from the health care market. Many more physicians and other healers, of many different philosophies and orientations, would be available to those seeking out advice and treatment, introducing competition into the health care market that would require providers to deliver better and more humane health care in order to keep their customers.Medical education would still take place without government oversight and control, as it once did in the past. However, without state-imposed rules, it would likely take less time and be much less expensive. Here, as well, competition, now eliminated by government regulation, would bring changes, producing more and cheaper training programs, as well as more varied curricula. Potential health care professionals could choose from a variety of learning models, whether academic, apprenticeship, or some mixture of the two, and could learn at their own pace. Students would not be forced to spend their time and money studying subjects in which they have no interest, and could focus on and excel in the areas of their choice. The hierarchical and often heartless methods now seen in medical schools and post-graduate training programs would likely disappear, as it is hard to imagine anyone voluntarily submitting to such demeaning treatment if other options were available. Doctors who are treated in a kindly and respectful manner by those who help them learn their trade would then be more likely to relate to their customers in a humane and courteous way, unlike so many of today’s physicians.As in the case of professional licensure, government regulation of the production and distribution of medicines through agencies like the Food and Drug Administration, as well as the prescription system, by which people are prevented from purchasing medicines without a doctor’s note, purportedly exists to protect consumers. However, although some harmful or ineffective drugs are kept off the market by the FDA, and the need for prescriptions sometimes prevents people from using medicines inappropriately, these governmental methods come at an unacceptable cost. Helpful medicines are often kept off the market, tied up in regulatory channels for years, resulting in the death of people who could have been treated, and prescriptions force people to consult physicians or nurses whether or not they wish or need to, driving up the costs of health care and further enhancing the status and power of licensed health care providers. Government classification of some drugs as having a potential for ‘abuse’, and the attendant close monitoring of their prescription and distribution, cause many physicians to limit their patients’ access to narcotic pain-killers, often the only palliative for people with cancer and other serious illnesses.Just as there are non-governmental methods that would enable customers to wisely and safely choose their healing practitioners, there are alternatives to state control that could provide those who take medicines with the means to protect themselves from excessively dangerous or ineffective drugs. Consumer organizations are capable of guiding people in their use of medications or other treatments, and the studies published in medical journals available to the public are a source of information critical to choosing appropriate medications. Private health libraries could even be set up to collect medical literature to facilitate individual self-education. Knowledgeable buyers would then be able to make informed decisions about what remedies to put into or onto their bodies.Besides being able to provide health care and therapies that are safe and effective, the free market can also assure that treatment and professional advice are affordable. The competition introduced among providers and institutions by the removal of government restraints would drive down the cost of health services and consultations dramatically. Unlike the situation today, there would also be at least one less incentive for providers to try to charge exorbitant fees, since the costs of their education would be much lower in an unregulated system, leaving them free of the debt many now face on entering independent practice. Drugs would be much cheaper without the government regulatory system now in place that drives up the costs for manufacturers, while abolition of state-protected patents would allow increased competition among producers, forcing the price of pharmaceuticals down even further. And, when one does not have to consult a physician just to obtain a prescription, more savings will be realized.Despite the overall lower costs produced by a free health care market, there would still be circumstances where someone will require financial assistance to be able to afford a certain medical procedure or treatment. Even here, however, there is no need for government to step in. Inexpensive insurance of various kinds could be obtained on the free market, including the sort provided by voluntary organizations like the friendly societies of years past, which died out after the birth of the modern welfare/corporate state. Additional sources of monetary aid could also be found in the advocacy groups organized around health care issues, like the American Lung Association or the AIDS Action Committee. Such organizations now spend large amounts of the money they obtain from private donors to influence government agencies to direct ever more taxpayer-provided cash towards their favored cause, often using padded statistics and half-truths to influence policy and funding decisions. With no bureaucrats to influence and no lobbyists to pay, these groups could instead dedicate their resources to either helping people in need of services directly, or funding the medical research that would still be needed after the state is eliminated.Besides being able to provide for all the health care needs of individuals, a society without government would also produce a new, more egalitarian relationship between health care practitioners and their customers. Instead of a relatively small, privileged class of people who control the access of others to medicine and treatment, physician, nurses, homeopaths, and other health care workers would become service providers like any other. People would be able to shop around for doctors, as they now do for plumbers and car mechanics, and would not feel they needed to defer to their health provider anymore than they do to their grocer or bookseller. While health care is essential to our quality to life, so is food, plumbing, and intellectual stimulation. Our doctors deserve no more deference than do the other people who supply us with the means to go on living our lives as we see fit. A respectful relationship between equals is as appropriate in a doctor-patient relationship as it is in any other.

Freedom Requires Personal Responsibility
Of course, in order for government to be eliminated and a free market in health care to be instituted, individuals would have to change in important ways. A free market and a free world require people willing to take chances and be responsible for themselves and their voluntarily-chosen associates. People at present have accepted a sacrifice of their freedom to choose their health care providers, treatments, and medications, in return for a promise of safe and effective treatment from the medical-industrial-government complex. When they give up this real or imagined protection from the vagaries of the market, they will have to look out for their own interests when they seek out health care. This will require that they educate themselves about health and illness, current treatments, and available medicines and their adverse side effects. They will need to investigate the health care providers available to them and perhaps interview a few before deciding with whom to contract for their care and advice. This can be a time-consuming process and is not without risk. But nothing worth doing is risk-free.

Originally appeared in “The Individual” October 2002.

“Anarchism Without Hyphens” by Karl Hess

There is only one kind of anarchist. Not two. Just one. An anarchist, the only kind, as defined by the long tradition and literature of the position itself, is a person in opposition to authority imposed through the hierarchical power of the state. The only expansion of this that seems to me to be reasonable is to say that an anarchist stands in opposition to any imposed authority.

An anarchist is a voluntarist.

Now, beyond that, anarchists also are people and, as such, contain the billion-faceted varieties of human reference. Some are anarchists who march, voluntarily, to the Cross of Christ. Some are anarchists who flock, voluntarily, to the communities of beloved, inspirational father figures. Some are anarchists who seek to establish the syndics of voluntary industrial production. Some are anarchists who voluntarily seek to establish the rural production of the kibbutzim. Some are anarchists who, voluntarily, seek to disestablish everything including their own association with other people, the hermits. Some are anarchists who deal, voluntarily, only in gold, will never co-operate, and swirl their capes. Some are anarchists who, voluntarily, worship the sun and its energy, build domes, eat only vegetables, and play the dulcimer. Some are anarchists who worship the power of algorithms, play strange games, and infiltrate strange temples. Some are anarchists who only see the stars. Some are anarchists who only see the mud.

They spring from a single seed, no matter the flowering of their ideas. The seed is liberty. And that is all it is. It is not a socialist seed. It is not a capitalist seed. It is not a mystical seed. It is not a determinist seed. It is simply a statement. We can be free. After that it’s all choice and chance.

Anarchism, liberty, does not tell you a thing about how free people will behave or what arrangements they will make. It simply says that people have the capacity to make arrangements.

Anarchism is not normative. It does not say how to be free. It says only that freedom, liberty, can exist.

Recently, in a libertarian journal, I read the statement that libertarianism is an ideological movement. It may well be. In a concept of freedom, it, they, you, or we, anyone has the liberty to engage in any ideology, in anything that does not coerce others, denying their liberty. But anarchism is not an ideological movement. It is an ideological statement. It says that all people have the capacity for liberty. It says that all anarchists want liberty. And then it is silent. After the pause of that silence, anarchists then mount the stages of their own communities and history and proclaim their, not anarchism’s ideologies – they say how they, how they as anarchists, will make arrangements, describe events, celebrate life and work.

Anarchism is the hammer-idea, smashing the chains. Liberty is what results and, in liberty, everything else is up to the people and their ideologies. It is not up to THE ideology. Anarchism says, in effect, there is no such upper case, dominating ideology.

It says that people who live in liberty make their own histories and their own deals with and within it.

A person who describes a world in which everyone must or should behave in a single way, marching to a single drummer, is simply not an anarchist. A person who says that they prefer this way, even wishing all would prefer that way, but who then says all must decide, may certainly be an anarchist. Probably is. Liberty is liberty. Anarchism is anarchism. Neither is Swiss cheese or anything else. They are not property. They are not copyrighted. They are old, available ideas, part of human culture. They may be hyphenated but they are not in fact hyphenated. They exist on their own. People add hyphens, and supplemental ideologies.

I am an anarchist. I need to know that, and you should know it. After that, I am a writer and a welder who lives in a certain place, by certain lights, and with certain people. And that you may know also. But there is no hyphen after the anarchist.

Liberty, finally, is not a box into which people are forced. Liberty is a space in which people may live. It does not tell you how they will live. It says, eternally, only that we can.

“Reflections on Decentralism” by George Woodcock

I was asked to write on decentralism in history, and I find myself looking into shadows where small lights shine as fireflies do, endure a little, vanish, and then reappear like Auden’s messages of the just. The history of decentralism has to be written largely in negative, in winters and twilights as well as springs and dawns, for it is a history which, like that of libertarian beliefs in general, is not observed in progressive terms. It is not the history of a movement, an evolution. It is the history of something that, like grass, has been with us from the human beginning, something that may go to earth, like bulbs in winter, and yet be there always, in the dark soil of human society, to break forth in unexpected places and at undisciplined times.Palaeolithic man, food-gatherer and hunter, was a decentralist by necessity, because the earth did not provide enough wild food to allow crowding, and in modern remotenesses that were too wild or unproductive for civilized men to penetrate, men still lived until very recently in primitive decentralism: Australian aborigines, Papuan inland villagers, Eskimos in northern Canada. Such men developed, before history touched them, their own complex techniques and cultures to defend a primitive and precarious way of life; they often developed remarkable artistic traditions as well, such as those of the Indians of the Pacific rain forests and some groups of Eskimos. But, since their world was one where concentration meant scarcity and death, they did not develop a political life that allowed the formation of authoritarian structures nor did they make an institution out of war. They practised mutual aid for survival, but this did not make them angels; they practised infanticide and the abandonment of elders for the same reason.I think with feeling of those recently living decentralist societies because I have just returned from the Canadian Arctic where the last phase of traditional Eskimo life began as recently as a decade ago. Now, the old nomadic society, in which people moved about in extended families rather than tribes, is at an end, with all its skills abandoned, its traditions, songs and dances fading in the memory. Last year the cariboo-hunting Eskimos probably built their last igloo; now they are herded together into communities ruled by white men, where they live in groups of four to six hundred people, in imitation of white men’s houses and with guaranteed welfare handouts when they cannot earn money by summer construction work. Their children are being taught by people who know no Eskimo, their young men are losing the skills of the hunt; power élites are beginning to appear in their crowded little northern slums, among a people who never knew what power meant, and the diminishing dog teams (now less than one family in four owns dogs and only about one family in twenty goes on extended hunting or trapping journeys) are symbolic of the loss of freedom among a people who have become physically and mentally dependent on the centralized, bureaucratic-ridden world which the Canadian Government has built it since it set out a few years ago to rescue the people of the North from “barbarism” and insecurity.

The fate of the Eskimos, and that of so many other primitive cultures during the past quarter of a century, shows that the old, primal decentralism of Stone Age man is doomed even when it has survived into the modern world. From now on, man will be decentralist by intent and experience, because he has known the evils of centralization and rejected them.

Centralization began when men settled on the land and cultivated it. Farmers joined together to protect their herds and field from other men who still remained nomadic wanderers; to conserve and share out the precious waters; to placate the deities who held the gifts of fertility, the priest who served the deities, and the kings who later usurped the roles of priest and god alike. The little realms of local priest-kings grew into the great valley empires of Egypt and Mesopotamia, and overtowering these emerged the first attempt at a world empire, that of the Achaemenian Kings of Persia who established an administrative colossus which was the prototype of the centralized state, imitated by the despots of Northern India, the Hellenistic god-kings, and the divine Caesars of Rome.

We have little knowledge how men clung to their local loyalties and personal lives, how simple people tried to keep control of the affairs and things that concerned them most, in that age when writing recorded the deeds of kings and priests and had little to say about common men. But if we can judge from the highly traditional and at least partly autonomous village societies which still existed in India when the Moghuls arrived, and which had probably survived the centuries of political chaos and strife that lay between Moghuls and Guptas, it seems likely that the farther men in those ages lived away from the centres of power, the more they established and defended rights to use the land and govern their own local affairs, so long as the lord’s tribute was paid. It was, after all, on the village communities that had survived through native and Moghul and British empires that Gandhi based his hopes of panchayat raj, a society based on autonomous peasant communes.

In Europe the Dark Ages after the Roman Empire were regarded by Victorian historians as a historical waste land ravaged by barbarian hordes and baronial bandits. But these ages were also in fact an interlude during which, in the absence of powerful centralized authorities, the decentralist urge appeared again, and village communes established forms of autonomy which in remoter areas, like the Pyrenees, the Alps and the Appennines, have survived into the present. To the same “Dark” Ages belong the earliest free city republics of mediaeval Europe, which arose at first for mutual protection in the ages of disorder, and which in Italy and Germany remained for centuries the homes of European learning and art and of such freedom as existed in the world of their time.
Out of such village communes and such cities arose, in Switzerland, the world’s first political federation, based on the shared protection of local freedoms against feudal monarchs and renaissance despots.

Some of these ancient communes exist to this day; the Swiss Canton of Appenzell still acts as a direct democracy in which every citizen takes part in the annual voting on laws; the Italian city state of San Marino still retains its mountain independence in a world of great states. But these are rare survivals, due mainly to geographic inaccessibility in days before modern transport. As national states began to form at the end of the Middle Ages, the attack on decentralism was led not merely by the monarchs and dictators who established highly organized states like Bourbon France and Cromwellian England, but also by the Church and particularly by the larger monastic orders who in their house established rules of uniform behaviour and rigid timekeeping that anticipated the next great assault on local and independent freedom and on the practice of mutual aid; this happened when the villages of Britain and later of other European countries were depopulated in the Agricultural Revolution of the eighteenth century, and their homeless people drifted into the disciplined factories and suffered the alienation produced by the new industrial towns, where all traditional bonds were broken, and all the participation in common works that belonged to the mediaeval villages became irrelevant.

It was these developments, the establishment of the centralized state in the seventeenth century and of industrial centralization in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, that made men for the first time consciously aware of the necessity of decentralism to save them from the soulless world that was developing around them.
Against Cromwell’s military state, Gerrard Winstanley and the original Diggers opposed their idea and practice of establishing new communes of landworkers on the waste lands of England, communes which would renounce overlords and extended participation and equality to men, women, and even children.

When the French Revolution took the way of centralism, establishing a more rigidly bureaucratic state than the Bourbons and introducing universal conscription for the first time, men like Jacques Roux and his fellows enragés protested in the name of the local communes of Paris, which they regarded as the bases of democratic organization, and at the same time in England William Godwin, the first of the philosophic anarchists, recognized the perils of forms of government which left decision making in the hands of men gathered at the top and centre of society. In his Political Justice Godwin envisaged countries in which assemblies of delegates would meet – seldom – to discuss matters of urgent common concern, in which no permanent organs of central government would be allowed to continue, and in which each local parish would decide its own affairs by free agreement (and not by majority vote) and matters of dispute would be settled by ad hoc juries of arbitration.

The British and French Utopian socialists of the early nineteenth century, as distinct from the Marxists and the revolutionary socialists led by Auguste Blanqui, were inspired by their revulsion against monolithic industrial and political organization to base the realization of their theories on small communal units which they believed could be established even before the existing society had been destroyed. At that period the American frontier lay still in the valley of the Mississippi, and there was a tendency – which existed until the end of the pioneering days – for the small pioneers societies of trappers and traders, miners and farmers, to organize themselves in largely autonomous communities, that managed their own affairs and in many senses of the word took the law into their own hands. In this society, where men responded to frontier conditions by ad hoc participatory and decentralist organization, the European and American Utopian socialists, as well as various groups of Christian communities, tried to set up self-governing communes which would be the cells of the new fraternal world. The followers of Cabet and Fourier, of Robert Owen and Josiah Warren, all played their part in a movement which produced hundreds of communities and lasted almost a century; its last wave ebbed on the Pacific coast in the Edwardian era, when a large Finnish socialist community was established on the remote island of Sointula off the coast of British Columbia. Only the religious communities of this era, which had a purpose outside mere social theory, survived; even today some of the Mennonite communities of Canada keep so closely to their ideals of communitarian autonomy that they are leaving the country to find in South America a region where they can be free to educate their children as they wish. The secular communities all vanished; the main lesson their failure taught was that decentralist organization must reach down to the roots of the present, to the needs of the actual human beings who participate, and not upward into the collapsing dream structures of a Utopian future.

Other great crises in the human situation have followed the industrial revolution, and every one has produced its decentralist movements in which men and women have turned away from the nightmares of megapolitics to the radical realities of human relationships, The crisis of the Indian struggle for independence caused Gandhi to preach the need to build society upon the foundation of the village. The bitter repressions of Tsarist Russia led Peter Kropotkin to develop his theories of a decentralised society integrating industry and agriculture, manual and mental skills. World War II led to considerable community movement among both British and American pacifists, seeking to create cells of sane living in the interstices of a belligerent world, and an even larger movement of decentralization and communitarianism has arisen in North America in contradiction to the society that can wage a war like that in Vietnam. Today it is likely that more people than ever before are consciously engaged in some kind of decentralist venture which expresses not merely rebellion against monolithic authoritarianism, but also faith in the possibility of a new, cellular kind of society in which at every level the participation in decision-making envisaged by nineteenth-century anarchists like Proudhon and Kropotkin will be developed.

As the monstrous and fatal flaws of modern economic and political centralism become more evident, as the State is revealed ever more convincingly as the enemy of all human love, the advocacy and practice of decentralism will spread more widely, if only because the necessity for it will become constantly more urgent. The less decentralist action is tied to rigid social and political theories, and especially to antediluvian ones like those of the Marxists, the more penetrating and durable its effects will be. The soils most favourable to the spread of decentralism are probably countries like India, where rural living still predominates, countries like Japan where the decentralization of factories and the integration of agricultural and industrial economies has already been recognized as a necessity for survival, and the places in our western world where the social rot has run deepest and the decentralists can penetrate like white ants. The moribund centres of the cities; the decaying marginal farmlands; these are the places which centralist governments using bankers’ criteria of efficiency cannot possibly revivify, because the profit would not be financial but human. In such areas the small and flexible cell of workers, serving the needs of local people, can survive and continue simultaneously the tasks of quiet destruction and cellular building. But not all the work can be done in the shadows. There will still be the need for theoreticians to carry on the work which Kropotkin and Geddes and Mumford began in the past, of demonstrating the ultimately self-destructive character of political and industrial centralism, and showing how society as a whole, and not merely the lost corners of it, can be brought back to health and peace by breaking down the pyramids of authority, so that men can be given to eat the bread of brotherly love, and not the stones of power – of any power.

Originally published in Anarchy, October 1969

“An Overview of Decentralism” by Kirkpatrick Sale

I know that there are some of you out there who are wondering how two such disparate figures as John and I can be occupying the same stage and talking about the same subject – as colleagues. But I am afraid that such people are victims of what I would call the flat-earth delusion of politics. That’s when you see all political thought on a straight line, with Left over here and Right over there:


But as you all know, we’ve given up the idea of a flat earth—most of us have, anyway—and the appropriate way to look at politics today is with a round-earth perspective. In that, you see, the Left makes up one hemisphere and the Right the other.

And the important thing about it is that, at the poles, the Left and the Right are not so far apart—because at one pole you have the authoritarians of both camps, the Stalinist Left and the Hitlerian Right, for example, and there’s not much to choose between them; then down in the middle, along the equator, you have the squishy middle-ground liberal-moderate types of both Left and Right, far apart; and at the other pole you have the antiauthoritarians, the decentralists of all stripes, anti-big government, antistatist, communitarian, the anarchocommunalists and communitarians and communards and anarchists on the Left, and the libertarians and Jeffersonians and individualists on the Right, and they’re really not so far apart.

That is why John and I are here together tonight. Because I am a decentralist of the Left and he is a decentralist of the Right, and on most things, in most ways, we agree. I remember when we first got together as trustees of the Schumacher Society he sent me one of those Johnny Hart cartoon strips, you know, those little cavemen always hanging around rocks—”B.C.,” it’s called—and this one showed one caveman saying, “Can you stand it that everyone’s so happy?” “No,” says the other, leaning on a rock. “Well, then,” says the first, “let’s start a government.” Exactly. We had plenty of common ground there.

Let me start by suggesting some of the things that decentralists generally agree on, whatever part of the round earth they come from.

First, big is bad—the corollary of Schumacher’s small is beautiful. The centralized state, particularly the mass-society state of the 20th century, is inherently a failure: it is authoritarian and anti-liberty, imposing checks and laws on all individual actions; it is hierarchical and arbitrary, with power at the top and subservience for the great majority below; it is bureaucratic in order to function at all, but it functions poorly nonetheless because bureaucracies are always inefficient and clumsy and self-perpetuating; it is undemocratic, because it is too big to allow direct face-to-face decision making and substitutes various forms of representation, all of which take power from the individual.

I am reminded here of a story that Leopold Kohr, the great decentralist economist, used to tell, about going to Lichtenstein and wanting to visit the Prime Minister of the country. He went to the castle, rang the bell, and the man who answered the door and ushered him in, whom he assumed to be a servant, turned out to be the Prime Minister himself. And when they were seated in his office, chatting, the phone rang and the minister answered, saying, “Government.” You see? with a tiny country like that government is always there, always responsive, always able to answer the phone and take care of your problem.

But to continue with what we agree upon, we decentralists, about why big government is bad… it is dangerous, inevitably dangerous, because it favors war, welcomes war—war is the health of the state, as Randolph Bourn put it—and is not afraid to use its citizens as cannon fodder; and it is technological, continually amassing more and more complicated technology of the kind that increases its power and control over citizens, increases its ability to centralize all authority. In my book Human Scale, which is certainly appropriate to this gathering, and some copies of which I am told are available somewhere around here, I have a chapter called “The Law of Government Size.” It is lengthy, but it’s easy enough to reduce its lesson to a few words: “Economic and social misery increases in direct proportion to the size and power of the central government of a nation or state.” Among the many historical proofs of this is one of my favorites, having to do with the German people. When they were divided into dozens of little principalities and duchies and kingdoms and sovereign cities, from about the 12th century to the 19th, they engaged in fewer wars than any other peoples of Europe: they were so small attacks by them were few and feeble enough, and so small attacks on them by larger powers were seen as useless. But when the German people were united and formed into a state of 25 million people and 70,000 square miles, it almost immediately embarked on wars against the other European powers, conquered territories in Africa and the Pacific, and ultimately instigated two devastating world wars within the space of thirty years.

Enough, then, about big government—that is the place where all decentralists begin, the common ground for all the rest of our shared understanding.

The next, following, point of agreement is that power should be diffused, and to the lowest level possible— which means to a bioregional level, and beyond that to a community level, a neighborhood level, a family level, an individual level. Nothing should be decided at any level beyond that where the people effected get to have their say and participate in carrying it out. Following from that, as a next point of agreement, is that the community is the most important human institution in the life of the species—the small, place-based community, where each member is known to every other. It is primarily there that power should reside—social, economic, political, whatever.

And finally, also following, liberty is not the daughter of order but the mother. In a true decentralist society, freedom comes first, upon which are then built the needs and obligations of individuals one to another, and thus the order and harmony of the community and the society at large. Liberty is the mother of order.

Now having said all that, I am obliged to confront the question of where we decentralists stand today—together, communalist Left and libertarian Right. But we both must recognize that this is, without question, the Age of Authoritarianism. And even if the most egregious forms of that have, for the moment, been subdued except in the smaller states of Asia and Africa, it is still true that the 20th century is the era of the large and powerful nation-state, a condition only made worse by the fact that it is also the era of the global corporation, superpowerful entities that have all the characteristics of the state, except any vestige of responsibility, and operate with their own free – wheeling authoritarian ways. Yes, what we face today, in both political and economic spheres, is Authoritarianism Triumphant.

And yet—and yet—these are facts: decentralism is the basic human condition; decentralism is the historic norm for human societies; decentralism is deeply in the American tradition; and, despite everything, decentralism is alive and well today. I want to expand briefly on each of those points.

1. Decentralism is the basic human condition. The community is the oldest human institution, found absolutely everywhere throughout the world in all kinds of societies. As Rene Dubos has pointed out, more than 100 billion human beings have lived on earth since the late Paleolithic period, and “the immense majority of them have spent their entire life as members of very small groups…rarely of more than a few hundred persons.” Indeed, he believes that the need for community has lasted so long that it is encoded in our genes, a part of our makeup, so that “modern man still has a biological need to be part of a group”—a small group, the community, the village, the tribe.

2. Decentralism is the historic norm, the underlying system by which people live even where there arises, from time to time, those centralizing empires that historians like to focus on and pretend are the principal systems of humankind. Empires are infrequent, do not last long, and are sparsely located. Yes, there was a Greek empire, for example, but it lasted effectively for less than twenty years; the real story of Greece is long centuries of decentralization, each city-republic with its own constitution, its own social life and cultural peculiarities, hundreds of separate communities that created the Hellenic civilization that is still a marvel of the world.

Even in the belly of the large nation-states of today, even in this Age of Authoritarianism, there is an underlying current of separation, of localism, of regionalism, of tribalism. On every occasion when the power of the state is dissipated—in revolutions, for example—the power of localism is reasserted, sometimes in the form of militias and warring bands, sometimes spontaneous popular councils, sometimes regional independence movements, but always giving expression to a spirit of decentralism that does not die.

3. Decentralism is deeply American, from the anti-state Puritans, through the communalistic Quakers and Mennonites and religious sects, and on to the original colonies, independent bodies protective of their special differences and characters. A unified state did eventually arise, the product of powerful banking and mercantile forces desiring centralized authority—and helped along even by Thomas Jefferson, who made the United States twice its original size even as he kept talking about the value of “small republics”—but even then the contrary forces were powerful, too. Emerson and Whitman and Thoreau gave voice to the old New England traditions of town-meeting democracy and parish rule; Utopians and communards like Lysander Spooner, Benjamin Tucker, and Josiah Warren gave voice to the yearning for community control and villages free from outside interference; the emancipation movement, the women’s rights movement, and the populist movement all were impelled by a decentralist anti-statism throughout the 19th century.

In the 20th century that tradition continued with the Country Life movement and other communal impulses; with Lewis Mumford and the original Regional Plan Association, devoted to a resurgence of regionalism; with the Southern Agrarians, determined separatists explicitly, and eloquently, opposed to the national government and its economic hegemony; with the various organizations and movements we now call “the Sixties,” attempting to redress the balance of power even against the most potent government in the world.

4. And it continues even now, it is alive and well in this country and around the world. I cannot say it is a dominant mode, anywhere, but I can point to all those ineradicable threads to be seen throughout the American scene: the wonderful bioregional movement, for example, with representatives in all parts of the continent, holding its seventh biennial congress this year; the resurgent Indian tribal societies and organizations for tribal culture; the growth of worker-owned firms from 1600 twenty years ago to more than 10,000 today; the phenomenon of local cooperatives, numbering 47,000 in 1995, up from 18,000 in 1975; the spread of such schemes as community land trusts (100 of them today, at least ) and community-supported agriculture outfits (some 450 today) and local farmers’ markets (an estimated 3,000); the burgeoning of the intentional commune movement, now with more than 500 members. All of this is evidence that this great tradition, this basic human impulse, is still to be found in America, no matter how autocratic a power it has become.

And in the rest of the world, as well. Separatism, of course, is a powerful force in almost every land, famously in Canada, Spain, Italy, France, and virtually everywhere in Africa, existing in a hundred splinter movements and “independence” parties and groupings wherever you look. Yugoslavia, in its sad way, is evidence of the power of tribalism, of separatism actually in the hands of the thugs, the worst sort of face this tendency could have but not denying its deep resonance; the disintegration of the Soviet Union is another, somewhat more benign. A handful of recent books has attested to the decentralist sweep abroad: Hans Magnus Ensenberger has called it a Civil War in all advanced societies; Samuel Huntington finds a Clash of Nations both between and within modern states; Benjamin Barber’s Jihad Against McWorld is an account of how fundamentalist and other local movements are working to undermine Western hegemony and the power of states in thrall to it; Robert Kaplan’s Ends of the Earth details the collapse of government throughout Africa, Asia, and the Middle East; and Noviko Hama, in Disintegrating Europe predicts “a giant patchwork of 100 or more city-states” in Europe “within the next twenty years, in which cultural and national difference, divergences and identities are asserted and maintained, and the brief experiment in federalism is abandoned.”

There is the picture for you, there is the reality of the world: of the power, the eternal, resurgent, inevitable power of decentralism. Let it fill your hearts; let it guide our deliberations this weekend.

Now of course that doesn’t mean that I am telling you decentralism necessarily will prevail, considering all the stark force of the nation-state to prevent its triumph. I am telling you, however, that it can triumph—it should triumph—or the sake of the earth and all its species, including the human, it must triumph. We here must help build that movement so that it someday prevails—starting now, this weekend, starting right here. Think locally, act locally, think locally, live locally—it is, really, our only hope.

From a lecture at the 1996 International Decentralist Conference at Williams College, Williamstown, MA

“Why Neighborhoods Must Secede” by Karl Hess

The Italian revolutionary Giuseppe Mazzini warned us not to “imagine that you can free yourselves from unjust social conditions before winning a country of your own. Do not be seduced by the idea of improving your material conditions without first solving the national questions.”

The Irish revolutionary James Connolly translated that into the independence of his people. Lenin, impressed by Connolly, used the idea to do his thing at home rather then globally. Barry Goldwater, when he was was a revolutionary, used to talk about something similar when he spoke of independence and virtual nationhood for states, counties, even cities. Huey Newton talks about it still, seeing the liberation of his oppressed comrades in independent, decolonized communities.

Since all of the others are either retired from revolution or dead, Huey Newton is the most vital. He also may be the most perceptive in seeing where, in this particular nation-state, a great energy for social change is to be found. That energy is in the neighborhoods.

To survive, the people in neighborhoods are going to have to secede.

In every large city the problems of crime, of welfare, of health care, of education, have outpaced every ability of metropolitan planners and bureaucrats. There is no successful big city in this nation. And no amount of enlargement of the bureaucracies and spending in the cities has changed this. The alternative seems, clearly, to be toward decentralization.

Resources? The liberal myth that poor neighborhoods, for instance, receive more from Government than they could afford on their own has been sharply disputed in the first survey of such a neighborhood which does not fall for the standard swindle of giving the poor neighborhood its pro rata share of such unwanted expenditures as the Vietnam war or subsidies to big business and big politicians.

In one of the poorest welfare sections of Washington, D.C., the survey showed that the residents shell out at least $40 million in taxes, licenses, etc., to all levels of government. They get back, in geographically located services and payments, about $30 million, thus losing $10 million to the rich, the powerful, the people who are supposed to be protecting them but who, instead, are simply fleecing them.

Civility? That resource is historically available. Neighborhoods in crisis throw up all manner of self-actuating groups to get jobs done. Some shrink in horror that one such group might be of vigilantes to crack down on street crime. Is the F.B.I. or the downtown police really more trustworthy, more accountable to the people themselves? Both institutions are, in fact, far less accountable than community-controlled police.

As for general governance, to the exact extent it is needed and only to that extent, the neighborhoods are ideally suited for government by assembly, for participatory democracy, for town-meeting government. The role of larger, regional or even continental government in a land of free, fraternal communities would be simply that of coordination or, while national interests persist in the world at large, the role would be one of representing the communities as a Federal emissary or, woefully, as a Federal coordinator of defense forces composed, on the Swiss or Chinese models, of local citizen soldiers based and rooted in the neighborhoods themselves.

Many who oppose decentralization are haunted by a specter of resurgent plantationism in the South. But local power there certainly need not mean Klan power over everyone. Rather, localism could mean a chance for black communities to have the sort of local identity which can defend against depredations by making the black community something more than just a niggertown appended to the white establishment’s turf. The rural patterns of the South are made to order for local power. Decentralization has been thwarted so far by white, rich landowners seeking to maintain their own hold on resources and control over populations.

But it is in the cities that the neighborhoods have been most abused. They have been gobbled up by the urban imperialism of downtown rentiers. They have been insulted as ethnic or racial while the downtown Wasps milked them dry for votes or zoning. And yet they persist–occupied by strange police, harassed by criminals who have more connections downtown than any of the victims, impoverished by absentee landlords and tax collectors, abandoned by megalopolitan hospitals and treated like Skinnerian mice by visiting school teachers.

They need not take it. They do not need it. They should rise. They should secede.

Originally published in The New York Times January 31, 1972