Build Counter-Power, Create an Authority Vacuum

by Darian Worden

The prospect of a state collapsing brings forth worries about a “power vacuum,” an unrestrained state of nature where chaos rules until the strong take over. But chaotic conflict is produced by efforts to seize power and exert power over other people. It is not the rejection of rulership, but the struggle to achieve rulership, that creates deadly conflict. The negation of authority, as advocated by anarchists, does not necessitate the chaotic mess associated with the phrase “power vacuum.”

Anarchy would mean that power is dispersed among individuals who would rather safeguard each others’ freedom than rule over each other. And if power is firmly in the hands of organized people then there is no power vacuum.

In politics, the word power generally signifies the ability of an individual or group of individuals to influence the decisions of others. Authority is an attempt to legitimate the exercise of power to compel obedience or allegiance to the higher ranks. Anarchists reject authority in favor of individual autonomy. Anarchy means that individuals have ultimate decision-making power over their own lives, and the only social arrangements recognized as legitimate are those that are based on consensual cooperation.

When authority amasses and exercises political power against people, it creates conflict. Hence the axiom that “anarchy is order, whereas government is civil war.”

The very concept of having no rulers often encounters fears of a power vacuum – an unsustainable, dangerous situation that can only end in the re-establishment of rulers. But the rejection of authority does not mean that power is up for grabs — it means that power is widely distributed, making it harder for tyrants to usurp.

The practice of anarchism fills society with empowered individuals, diffusing power throughout society so that no authority can take it over. Interactions of free individuals – the everyday pursuit of needs and desires combined with the recognition that mutual respect for freedom is the best way to realize needs and desires – build counter-power. Organizations of social cooperation that are established for the mutual benefit of participants, not for the power of some at the expense of others, help keep power dispersed in a fashion that safeguards individual liberty. Institutions of authority can be subverted or seized for the purpose of dispersing power.

Certainly, anarchy requires a number of people to accept the idea, but this true of any state of affairs that does not rest on brute force alone. A state can only exist so long as it can muster a significant level of allegiance. Every individual has the decision of whether to obey the decrees of those trying to amass power, or to follow the logic of appeals to disperse power. The creation of dispersed power establishes a basis from which authority can be effectively challenged.

When individuals possess power over their own lives, it means they have no personal power vacuum that tyrants could exploit. Power held by ordinary individuals gives them a greater stake in a functioning society as well as a more effective means of preventing social catastrophe.

The rejection of authority, as advocated by anarchists, does not mean that a nightmare scenario associated with the phrase “power vacuum” is likely. It means the power that authority monopolizes will be dispersed among the people.

7 responses to “Build Counter-Power, Create an Authority Vacuum

  1. Lovely theory but human experience does not seem to support it. For whatever reason, humans aways seem to endup constructing hierachical power structures. ‘Dispersed’ authority always ends up being centralised in the end.

    Much as we wish it were otherwise the realities of human behaviour are hierachical, this is a real challenge for Liberatarian thought and action.

  2. Very important point. Are there any countries out there who are existing the way Sean recommends? Have we an actual historical example of a country existing like this?

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  4. This is part of my reply to EFGD’s reply to me on his Website. He cited this as germane to what he had to say [I presume here that EFGD is a male. We always risk error].

    The prospect of a state collapsing is not likely to be a part of the liberal quest to privatise the state out of existence. Darian Worden seems to say as much.

    The “strong” can only take over if there is the political institutions accepted by traditional authority to take over as we saw from the twelfth century to the nineteenth century when the state usually based in London attempted to conquer what we now [thanks to the Vikings] call Ireland. There was simply no state authority beyond the pale.

    In such a case, the ambitions to rule are futile as the means to rule are lacking. Anarchy is the case.

    The anarcho-liberals have no wish for that. It is just chance tat complete liberalism will be an anarchy rather than it being a particular aim but there is a particular aim to be rid of illiberal proactive coercion. So anarchy of a kind will be the result. But this will not be the collapse of any state but rather its deliberate rolling back by privatisation.

    Unless we have political institutions, political ambition will be futile. It was so beyond the pale in Ireland in the past and it will be so in the future liberal society also.

    But power will not be merely dispersed by anarcho-liberalism but rather it will be dissolved; it will vanish or cease to exist. Murray Rothbard was right to say that there is no political power on the market [see his Power and Market (1970)]. There would be no surviving political power at all. This would no more give rise to a vacuum than would a cure for cancer do so if it was successful with someone who suffered from tat disease. Jan Lester’s Escape From Leviathan (2000) is about the best book on anarcho-liberalism.

    Darian Worden writes as if he is a bit confused about authority and power within liberal anarchy, or about how it is today. To repeat, power needs well-established institutions that are accepted by the public and authority is this wide spread acceptance, as Thomas Hobbes rightly held. Authority allows political power rather than the other way round as Robert Nozick mistakenly thought. Authority is the widespread feeling that we need the institutions that it supports but the institutions tend to be able to confer it on those they promote.

    Liberals reject authority as illiberal. Darian Worden is right that politics is war, cold war I called it in Free Life [see the archive on the LA website] backing the 1980s. Once political power has been rolled back and finally crowded out of existence by pristine liberalism there is not much scope of a revival.

    Why C.H. Ingoldby imagines tat experience need to have something to do with innovation is far from clear. Bygones and are bygones and history is not germane to the future. But, to repeat, power will not be so much dispersed as dissolved by liberal anarchy. I see no challenge in what he says.

    To reply to what EFGD says here, it is most likely that the whole world will have rolled back states before the first modern state is crowded out by liberal anarchy. As said, this posted here is part of my reply to his Website reply to me.

  5. Cheers David McDonagh – I thought somewhere I said I was female :) No problem though. Thanks for the input here.

  6. ”Why C.H. Ingoldby imagines tat experience need to have something to do with innovation is far from clear. Bygones and are bygones and history is not germane to the future. But, to repeat, power will not be so much dispersed as dissolved by liberal anarchy. I see no challenge in what he says. ”

    So, you don’t see any relevance in looking at the entirety of human experience to find lessons on human behaviour?

    How stupid and arrogant of you.

    You sound just like one of the Bolsheviks before the Russian Revolution loudly proclaiming that human nature would be different ‘after the revolution’.

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