I’m an anarchist which means I want to abolish capitalism and the state in favour of the free association of free producers. In response to this people often ask me questions about how an anarchist society would solve all kinds of different social problems. People in the comment section be like hey anarchopac how will anarchism organise healthcare? How would an anarchist society respond to people who go drunk driving? How would an anarchist society deal with scientology or other dangerous cults? What would happen to murderers? And so on and on.
All these are very sensible questions and raise problems any society will have to overcome if it is function and guarantee human well-being. But I can’t answer these questions by myself. I’m just a nerd who has spent far too much time reading books on anarchism. If you want to know what anarchists historically argued on a certain topic I can tell you but I don’t have all the answers. I can’t tell you how people in the 21st century should solve all kinds of really complex problems like how to effectively organise public infrastructure because I myself know basically nothing about public infrastructure. These are the kinds of question which can only really be answered in practice by lots of different people with different kinds of expertise and life experiences who are organised on the ground. They’re not going to be solved by an anarchist youtube philosopher sitting in their room thinking about the topic. To suggest otherwise is to put myself on the pedestal and act as if everyone else should just listen to me.
Anarchist theory doesn’t tell you exactly how to solve social problems. Instead anarchism advocates a system of self-organisation through which people come together to solve the problems which arise in their specific situation. It proposes that people horizontally associate as equals and make decisions as a group through a system of direct democracy in which everyone has a vote and an equal say in decisions which affect them. These groups then associate with other groups to form federations at a regional, national and international level in order to co-ordinate action over a large area through regular congresses. These congresses would be attended by instantly recallable mandated delegates that councils had elected to represent them. Crucially, delegates would not be granted the power to make decisions independently and impose them on others. Decision making power would remain in the hands of the group who had elected them. This system of decision making isn’t something I invented in a study. It’s how anarchists and syndicalist trade unions with memberships in the hundreds of thousands actually organised in real life since the 19th century to the present. We know it works because it already has.
What decisions these groups make isn’t something anarchist theory can give you all the answers to. Instead they’ll have to work things out for themselves and decide on what they think the best course of action is. In other words, anarchist theory doesn’t tell you what decisions to make. It only indicates a method through which to make decisions yourselves and the values which these decisions should seek to promote, such as freedom, equality and solidarity.
This idea was explained in-depth by the Italian anarchist theorist Malatesta in his 1891 pamphlet anarchy, which you should read if you haven’t already. According to Malatesta,
All that you have said may be true, say some; Anarchy may be a perfect form of social life; but we have no desire to take a leap in the dark. Therefore, tell us how your society will be organised. Then follows a long string of questions, which would be very interesting if it were our business to study the problems that might arise in an emancipated society, but of which it is useless and absurd to imagine that we could now offer a definite solution. According to what method will children be taught? How will production and distribution be organised? Will there still be large cities? or will people spread equally over all the surface of the earth? Will all the inhabitants of Siberia winter at Nice? Will every one dine on partridges and drink champagne? Who will be the miners and sailors? Who will clear the drains? Will the sick be nursed at home or in hospitals? Who will arrange the railway time-table? What will happen if the engine-driver falls ill while the train is on its way? And so on, without end, as though we could prophesy all the knowledge and experience of the future time, or could, in the name of Anarchy, prescribe for the coming man what time he should go to bed, and on what days he should cut his nails!
Indeed if our readers expect from us an answer to these questions, or even to those among them really serious and important, which can be anything more than our own private opinion at this present hour, we must have succeeded badly in our endeavour to explain what Anarchy is. We are no more prophets than other men, and should we pretend to give an official solution to all the problems that will arise in the life of the future society, we should have indeed a curious idea of the abolition of government. We should then be describing a government, dictating, like the clergy, a universal code for the present and all future time. (Malatesta 2014, 139-40)
Anarchists can instead only indicate a method through which society would be organised and decisions would be made. For Malatesta the method of anarchism is
the free initiative of all and free agreement, when, after the revolutionary abolition of private property, every one will have equal power to dispose of social wealth. This method, not admitting the reestablishment of private property, must lead, by means of free association, to the complete triumph of the principles of solidarity.
Thus we see that all the problems put forward to combat the Anarchistic idea are on the contrary arguments in favor of Anarchy; because it alone indicates the way in which, by experience, those solutions which correspond to the dicta of science, and to the needs and wishes of all, can best be found.
How will children be educated? We do not know. What then? The parents, teachers and all, who are interested in the progress of the rising generation, will meet, discuss, agree and differ, and then divide according to their various opinions, putting into practice the methods which they respectively hold to be best. That method which, when tried, produces the best results will triumph in the end. And so for all the problems that may arise. (ibid, 142)
What Malatesta said was true in the 19th century and I think its only become more true in the 21st century. Society is larger and more complex than it used to be. I can’t create a detailed blueprint for how an anarchist society would function but I don’t need to. Anarchism isn’t about me telling you exactly how you will live in my ideal society. Its you and everyone else deciding for yourselves how you shall live through a decentralised system of self-management, rather than doing what a tiny minority of rulers, like bosses or politicians, tell you to do. I don’t have all the answers but collectively we can pool our shared knowledge, skills and experiences to solve the problems which we will have to overcome in an anarchist society. We won’t always make the best or the right decisions but it doesn’t have to be perfect, only better than what we currently have – which is an oligarchy that is currently driving all 7 billion of us towards total environmental collapse in order to make short term profits.
Malatesta, Errico. 2014. The Method of Freedom: An Errico Malatesta Reader. Edited by Davide Turcato. Oakland, CA: AK Press.