Anarchists (left-leaning ones) say they don’t reject “government,” they reject the “state.” For them, the government is a non-hierarchical legitimate body chosen by direct democracy. In contrast, the state is larger, highly hierarchical, and anything short of direct democracy. In other words, anarchism doesn’t actually entail much anarchy. That is a relief for non-anarchists, but we still run into more problems with this nuanced concept of anarchy.
The first issue is that even local governments elected by direct democracy have hierarchies. Unless we’re assuming a hive-mind where everyone just knows and acts in accordance with the general will, there will always have to be leaders who are appointed to lead and execute the public will. Following from this, no individual leader has all the knowledge and skill necessary to direct the flow of government, so either that person will have to appoint positions for specialists (more hierarchy), or the electing body will have to elect a counsel to assist this leader (again, more hierarchy). This type of hierarchy seems inevitable in pretty much any situation. An anarchist may get around this hierarchy by saying it is legitimate hierarchy.
In addition to such de jure hierarchy of those who are elected to office (democratically of course), elected officials will inevitably also increase social hierarchy simply by being community leaders. The longer they remain in office and get re-elected, the more social status they achieve. It doesn’t seem likely that hierarchy is avoidable in government, official or social. Moreover, it is unclear that officials at a local level tend towards much less corruption than officials at federal levels.
Direct democracy has serious flaws as well. In practice, not everyone will participate, which inherently reduces the level of popular consent and democratic-ness in the democracy. Along these lines, not everyone will even be allowed to participate (people who are too young, those who are mentally disabled or ill, non members of the community, hardened criminals).
Additionally, democracy tends to favor people with the biggest mouths and star power rather than necessarily the most competent. It is a well-attested to psychological fact that people trust confidence drastically more than good ideas (because much of the time the people don’t understand the ideas). They irrationally favor good looks that have nothing to do with a representative’s competence, and demonstrate a host of other cognitive biases that negatively impact their ability to choose leaders properly. Demagogues thrive in representative democracies that are direct because people usually choose leaders who tell them they would give things that they can’t actually deliver on; tell them comforting lies instead of unpleasant truths.
Of course, true direct democracy is one where the collective doesn’t just elect representatives, but also directly chooses each and every policy themselves as a group. Keep in mind, even in this type of direct democracy, officials will still have to be elected (hierarchy) to execute the public will (coercively).
On the policy-choosing front, people seem no more capable of bucking cognitive errors than they are with choosing leaders. People would be likely to ignore long-term problems such as climate change in favor of short-term goals. Additionally, a fickle populace may swing drastically from one year to the next on policies they support and representatives they elect, again forcing focus on the short term at the expense of any long-term policy coherence.
People also likely to sacrifice the well-being of people not in their group for their own. If we’re talking about a continent of communal societies and local governments, what is to prevent one community from doing something that hurts another. For example, one community may live upstream from another on a river and save money by dumping waste into a river, knowing it will just be washed downstream to the next one. It would take a larger governing mechanism that controls multiple communes (more hierarchy) to prevent this behavior. Not to mention, there will be those in communes that say, “if that community isn’t doing what they’re supposed to, why should be economically hurt ourselves and do what we should?” People like that don’t just exist on the national level, and these egocentric tribal people may have even more sway at a small communal level.
With people as they are, I don’t see how these potential problems could be avoided with communes, and I don’t see how they would improve quality of life and prosperity for the average person over what a national government provides for.
The necessity for police force to punish law-breakers challenges things as well. Police will obviously be higher than a regular person in de facto hierarchy, and their power will be coercive. And, in light of all the cognitive biases mentioned earlier with regard to choosing policy and leaders, the legitimacy of the police will always be in question since the people who choose them are so profoundly flawed. Even then, when the police are right we often still told it against them (like when you get pulled over for speeding and you were actually speeding).
What about in the workplace? Well, (again from a left-anarchist perspective) the workers would collectively own the means of production or have legal ownership of the business itself. This might be practicable. If the union of workers owned the business then there would be nobody to have a strike against, eliminating one issue we see today. Additionally, with ownership and representation in the business, workers would feel like they are actually rewarded for harder work rather than ignored and exploited.
One problem, though, is that if this collective ownership is anything analogous to normal workers unions, a certain amount of coercion and hierarchy will still be in play. There will likely still be leaders in the union, and union members will still be compelled to accept the group’s decisions. Anarchists are generally fine with this, again, because this type of coercion and hierarchy is seen as “legitimate.” Of course, what about the question of who gets to decide what is “legitimate” coercion and hierarchy. This is a difficult question to answer. Moreover, how did the workers come to have the means of production? I would have a hard time seeing it as legitimate to strip a business owner of the business they built from the ground up and hand it to the workers. It is true that the workers could collectively found a business from the ground up, but if they were going to do this, I don’t see why they don’t already do it.
It seems to me that “legitimate” entails being competent to execute the task you were supposed to accomplish. In this sense, since the citizenry if often utterly incompetent at choosing leaders or choosing policy, their legitimacy is compromised.
I would love for anarchism to be made possible with the evolution of society towards something much better. But until society evolves in that direction, the anarchist utopia appears to be a pipe dream, and calling yourself an anarchist in a society which you acknowledge couldn’t handle anarchy now or in the near future seems pointless.
A perfect system is impossible, but the one I advocate would be similar on paper to the current one in the United States, but with notable improvements. Instant-runoff voting (also known as ranked-choice voting) is a must. Partisanship would be eased and we could finally move beyond having to decide from two extreme ideologies for policy.
I would also introduce epistocratic elements into our government. We know in psychology that several notable cognitive biases and errors are less intense the more knowledge you have; the Dunning-Kruger effect, stereotyping, availability heuristics, egocentrism, prejudice, and many more. Thus, the more intellectually competent should be favored in some aspects. I wrote a post on accomplishing this, and what it would entail.