Anarchists often make categorical claims to the effect that no state is legitimate or that there can no such thing as a justifiable political state.
As an absolute or a priori claim, anarchism holds that all states always and everywhere are illegitimate and unjust.
The term “a priori anarchism” is found in Simmons 2001; but it is employed already by Kropotkin in his influential 1910 article on anarchism, where he claims that anarchists are not utopians who argue against the state in a priori fashion (Kropotkin 1927 [2002: 285]).
Despite Kropotkin’s claim, some anarchists do offer a priori arguments against the state.
This sort of claim rests upon an account of the justification of authority that is usually grounded in some form of deontological moral claim about the importance of individual liberty and a logical claim about the nature of state authority.
One typical and well-known example of this argument is found in the work of Robert Paul Wolff.
Wolff indicates that legitimate authority rests upon a claim about the right to command obedience (Wolff 1970).
Correlative to this is a duty to obey: one has a duty to obey legitimate authority. As Wolff explains, by appealing to ideas found in Kant and Rousseau, the duty to obey is linked to notions about autonomy, responsibility, and rationality.
But for Wolff and other anarchists, the problem is that the state does not have legitimate authority. As Wolff says of the anarchist,
“he will never view the commands of the state as legitimate, as having a binding moral force” (Wolff 1970: 16). The categorical nature of this claim indicates a version of absolute anarchism.
If the state’s commands are never legitimate and create no moral duty of obedience, then there can never be a legitimate state. Wolff imagines that there could be a legitimate state grounded in “unanimous direct democracy”
—but he indicates that unanimous direct democracy would be “so restricted in its application that it offers no serious hope of ever being embodied in an actual state” (Wolff 1970: 55). Wolff concludes
A less stringent form of anarchism will argue that states could be justified in theory—even though, in practice, no state or very few states are actually legitimate.
Contingent anarchism will hold that states in the present configuration of things fail to live up to the standards of their own justification.
This is an a posteriori argument (see Simmons 2001) based both in a theoretical account of the justification of the state (for example,
the social contract theory of liberal-democratic theory) and in an empirical account of how and why concrete states fail to be justified based upon this theory.
The author of the present article has offered a version of this argument based upon the social contract theory, holding that the liberal-democratic social contract theory provides the best theory of the justification of the state,
while arguing that very few states actually live up to the promise of the social contract theory
One version of the contingent anarchist argument focuses on the question of the burden of proof for accounts that would justify political authority. This approach has been articulated by Noam Chomsky, who explains:
[This] is what I have always understood to be the essence of anarchism: the conviction that the burden of proof has to be placed on authority, and that it should be dismantled if that burden cannot be met. Sometimes the burden can be met.
Chomsky accepts legitimate authority based in ordinary experience: for example, when a grandfather prevents a child from darting out into the street. But state authority is a much more complicated affair.
Political relationships are attenuated; there is the likelihood of corruption and self-interest infecting political reality; there are levels and degrees of mediation, which alienate us from the source of political authority; and the rational autonomy of adults is important and fundamental. By focusing on the burden of proof,
Chomsky acknowledges that there may be ways to meet the burden of proof for the justification of the state. But he points out that there is a prima facie argument against the state—
which is based in a complex historical and empirical account of the role of power, economics, and historical inertia in creating political institutions. He explains:
Such institutions face a heavy burden of proof: it must be shown that under existing conditions, perhaps because of some overriding consideration of deprivation or threat,
some form of authority, hierarchy, and domination is justified, despite the prima facie case against it—a burden that can rarely be met.
Chomsky does not deny that the burden of proof could be met. Rather, his point is that there is a prima facie case against the state, since the burden of proof for the justification of the state is rarely met.
Contingent anarchism is based in consequentialist reasoning, focused on details of historical actuality. Consequentialist anarchism will appeal to utilitarian considerations, arguing that states generally
fail to deliver in terms of promoting the happiness of the greater number of people—and more strongly that state power tends to produce unhappiness. The actuality of inequality, classism,
elitism, racism, sexism, and other forms of oppression can be used to support an anarchist argument, holding that even though a few people benefit from state power, a larger majority suffers under it.
There is a significant difference between anarchism that is offered in pursuit of utilitarianism’s greater happiness ideal and anarchism that is offered in defines of the minority against the tyranny of the majority.
As we shall see in the next section, individualist anarchists are primarily concerned with the tendency of utilitarian politics to sacrifice the rights of individuals in the name of the greater good.
Before turning to that conception of anarchism, let’s note two classical authors who offer insight into utilitarian anarchism. Godwin articulated a form of anarchism that is connected to a utilitarian concern.
Godwin’s general moral thought is utilitarian in basic conception, even though he also argues based upon fundamental principles such as the importance of liberty.
But Godwin’s arguments are a posteriori, based upon generalizations from history and with an eye toward the future development of happiness and liberty. He write
Some anarchists remain obedient to ruling authorities; others revolt or resist in various ways.
The question of action depends upon a theory of what sort of political obligation follows from our philosophical, moral, political, religious, and aesthetic commitments
Anarchism in political philosophy maintains that there is no legitimate political or governmental authority.
In political philosophy anarchy is an important topic for consideration—even for those who are not anarchists—as the a-political background condition against which various forms of political organization are arrayed, compared,
and justified. Anarchy is often viewed by non-anarchists as the unhappy or unstable condition in which there is no legitimate authority.
Anarchism as a philosophical idea is not necessarily connected to practical activism. There are political anarchists who take action in order
to destroy what they see as illegitimate states. The popular imagination often views anarchists as bomb-throwing nihilists. But philosophical anarchism is a theoretical standpoint.
In order to decide who (and whether) one should act upon anarchist insight, we require a further theory of political action, obligation,
and obedience grounded in further ethical reflection. Simmons explains that philosophical anarchists “do not take the illegitimacy of states to entail a strong moral imperative to oppose or eliminate states