Should There Be Any Government At All?
by John Spritzler
April 20, 2019 (updated June 11, 2022)
[Also see "What Makes a Government Legitimate?"]
Anarchism is the "ism" that says there should be no government at all. I disagree with this anarchist idea, and here's why.
First of all, let's not misunderstand the anarchist position. Anarchists don't want chaos, as they are often wrongly accused and widely misunderstood to want. Anarchists want social order just like most people do, but they think social order does not require a government. Anarchists think that social order can be based on individuals cooperating for mutual aid. They think social order can be better obtained this way than with a government. When anarchists use the word "government" they have in mind ONLY an organization that oppresses ordinary people for the benefit of the few. This is why anarchists say "No" to any government.
The problem with this anarchist point of view is that, in practice, it results in exactly what the anarchists want to avoid: oppression of the many by the few. Here's why.
Consider what it means for an organization to be a "government." Forget for the moment whether it is a good or a bad government. What makes it a government in the first place? The answer is that a government is the organization that enjoys a monopoly of violence in a given region. Period! Whatever organization enjoys this monopoly of violence is, by definition--for better or for worse--the government in that region. This "government" can take any form, from a ruthless gang with some leader (or leaders) it obeys, to an aristocracy (large land owners or otherwise rich people) with, perhaps, a royal family, or an elected parliament, or a priest class, or--what I advocate--a voluntary federation of egalitarians, or whatever.
If an organization is the "government" in a region, then whatever it says people must do, or not do, is the "law" in that region because when push comes to shove the government alone has the means of using the violence necessary to enforce that "law" and nobody else has the means of using enough violence to disobey the law and get away with it.
Sometimes, it is true, there is no "government" in a region. There are two very different ways this might happen.
The first way it might happen that there is no "government" is when no single organization has a MONOPOLY on violence in the given region, as during a civil war. But this situation is only temporary. One of the competing would-be "governments" will eventually prevail over the other(s) in a contest of force including violence or its credible threat, and it will obtain the monopoly of violence and become the government. In every civil war, one side almost always prevails over the other and becomes the government. Or, less likely but possible, if the two sides agree to a truce then they become, jointly, the new government with a monopoly of violence in the region that will be used against those who, for whatever reason, try to forcibly oppose the social order agreed upon by the two sides of the civil war.
The second way it might happen that there is no "government" in a region is when* the entire population voluntarily--without any coercion or threat of coercion--agrees to accept and live by the same fundamental social order.** There have been, maybe still are, some places where this is or was the case, and where it remained the case, or has been the case, for a long time. But in the huge part of the world that has been capitalist for many generations, with a substantial minority of the population enjoying great wealth and power and privilege at the expense of the majority of people, it is extremely likely that--for at least a long time into the future--there will be in this part of the world some people trying to defend or re-establish class inequality and others trying to defend or establish egalitarianism (the abolition of class inequality); thus in this part of the world there will end up being a government that is either pro-egalitarian or anti-egalitarian.
"No government" is therefore, in most of the world at least, not an option in practice. Some organization is going to end up with the monopoly of violence in a region. The only real question is, What organization--what kind of organization--does one wish it to be?
I advocate that the government should be a genuine democracy that is what I call Voluntary Federation of Egalitarians, as I discuss here.
If you, dear reader, are an anarchist, then I strongly urge you to read about the anarchists in Spain in 1937 (during what is called the "Spanish Civil War" but which was actually a huge revolution in about half of Spain, when anarchists were fighting for anarchism against the fascist General Franco) who called themselves the "Friends of Durruti Group" after Buenaventura Durruti who was a much beloved, inspiring and courageous anarchist leader who had been killed in November of 1936, shortly after the revolution broke out.
The Friends of Durruti Group were anarchists who came--sadly too late--to the realization that it had been a HUGE mistake for the anarchists to adopt the "All governments are bad" theory. This mistake, they realized, meant--in practice--allowing the capitalists to form a government (i.e., obtain a monopoly of violence). In 1936 the anarchists were the overwhelming force in Spain's Catalonia province, and could easily have asserted a monopoly of violence--i.e., have created a government aimed at using violence to prevent anybody from oppressing anybody else. But leading anarchists at the time said, "No, that would be wrong because government is bad, power is bad." The result was that the capitalists set up a government and this led to the defeat of the Spanish revolution, as I discuss at the end of my article on anarchism here.
* In some societies the social structure changed seasonally; in one season there was no need for and hence no government, and in another season people established a government because there was need for one. Read about this in The Dawn of Everything: A New History of Humanity by David Graeber and David Wengrow, in the section that starts on pg. 106.
** If everybody, without exception, voluntarily follows the Golden Rule strictly and without exception, and honors all mutual agreements and never harms another person except in necessary self-defense (i.e., acts according to egalitarian values), then there would be no need for a government. But when there are some people who do not follow the Golden Rule and do not honor mutual agreements and do sometimes harm others not for self-defense (be they members of the society in question or foreign people aiming to attack it), then the people who act according to egalitarian values must either a) suffer the consequences of allowing the anti-egalitarians to get away with their wrongful deeds insofar as egalitarians acting merely as individuals are unable to prevent, or b) create some kind of organization egalitarians sufficient to forcibly (with violence or its credible threat) prevent the anti-egalitarians from behaving wrongfully, which organization is, by definition, an egalitarian government.