Being against “all authority” is silly

24 September 2008 by Mike Gogulski
Posted in philosophy | 10 Comments »

There are some anarchists who like to make noises against “all authority”, no matter what the source or situation. Many of these hail from a decidedly more socialist-anarchist background than I do, and at least a good number of them conflate anarchism with a sort of mindless, juvenile rebellion against anything they might perceive as a limitation on themselves. Daddy won’t let you borrow the car tonight? Oppression! Et cetera, et cetera.

One ridiculous example of such is that of “Alberto the Penguin”, blogging at on “University Life and Oppression: what can we do?“:

Several oppressive forces weigh down on the average college student. The first which is financial cripples him for long into his adult years as he struggle to pay off loans. Then they feel the chains cast on them in everyday life as up to four police departments patrol their small campus area. The sirens become a part of every thought process. Next the administration (and even some professors) push students toward a “real” world in which the only worth while thing we have going for us is a decent job and our last global hope is the formation of a World Economy. Finally, even the recreation of a student’s life is controlled by countless mafias hiding under banners of Greek letters. Hierarchies are built upon hierarchies.

This is why it becomes extremely necessary to organize vital attacks on propaganda institutions every college campus over. But how can we go about organizing? Can we work within the system, maybe form a club? No! For what we are doing the highest amount of secrecy is necessary. I (as I’m sure others are) am in this position and would like to know what is the best way to organize in such a situation? I hope others will take the advice given as well and organize in their own towns.

The obvious answer is quit going to university, dummy, but that message somehow won’t be heard. Having signed up for the university program and everything that goes with it, there’s little in the way of “oppression” this person is subject to thereby that I, as perhaps a different sort of anarchist, should fret about. What some anarchists oppose is all authority. What I and the (I would like to think) more sensible anarchists oppose is all unjust, illegitimate, coercive authority. There’s a big difference between those two sets, and I must admit to have little patience for those of the “against all authority” mindset if they fail to add this important qualification.

With the confession right up front that I’ve never really read Bakunin, I stumbled upon this a little while ago:

Does it follow that I reject all authority? Far from me such a thought. In the matter of boots, I refer to the authority of the bootmaker; concerning houses, canals, or railroads, I consult that of the architect or the engineer. For such or such special knowledge I apply to such or such a savant. But I allow neither the bootmaker nor the architect nor the savant to impose his authority upon me. I listen to them freely and with all the respect merited by their intelligence, their character, their knowledge, reserving always my incontestable right of criticism and censure. I do not content myself with consulting a single authority in any special branch; I consult several; I compare their opinions, and choose that which seems to me the soundest. But I recognise no infallible authority, even in special questions; consequently, whatever respect I may have for the honesty and the sincerity of such or such an individual, I have no absolute faith in any person. Such a faith would be fatal to my reason, to my liberty, and even to the success of my undertakings; it would immediately transform me into a stupid slave, an instrument of the will and interests of others.

If I bow before the authority of the specialists and avow my readiness to follow, to a certain extent and as long as may seem to me necessary, their indications and even their directions, it is because their authority is imposed on me by no one, neither by men nor by God. Otherwise I would repel them with horror, and bid the devil take their counsels, their directions, and their services, certain that they would make me pay, by the loss of my liberty and self-respect, for such scraps of truth, wrapped in a multitude of lies, as they might give me.

I bow before the authority of special men because it is imposed on me by my own reason. I am conscious of my own inability to grasp, in all its detail, and positive development, any very large portion of human knowledge. The greatest intelligence would not be equal to a comprehension of the whole. Thence results, for science as well as for industry, the necessity of the division and association of labour. I receive and I give – such is human life. Each directs and is directed in his turn. Therefore there is no fixed and constant authority, but a continual exchange of mutual, temporary, and, above all, voluntary authority and subordination.

— Mikhail Bakunin, What is Authority?

The same goes for “hierarchy” as well. Your mileage may vary.

  1. 10 Responses to “Being against “all authority” is silly”

  2. By Kent McManigal on 24 September 2008

    REAL “authorities”, experts, are a good thing as long as they do not decide that their expertise authorizes them to Rule over others.

    Good post!

  3. By on 24 September 2008

    Franc needs to read this essay!

  4. By Darian W on 24 September 2008

    As one who generally uses the word “authority” to name a target for abolition, I’d respond by saying that we’re talking about 2 different things here. As I see it, the “authority” of the engineer is the mastery he or she has over the principles of engineering. Mastery in this case would mean “ability to use” not “ownership of.”

    Social or cultural authoritarianism, as in being told your place by others, induces a person to hold another’s values and perceptions as superior to his own. This is not only harmful to individualism in itself, but also contributes to the power of political authority.

    As for the college dude in the example, he would apparently rather remove authoritarian values from the university than remove himself from the university. I can’t say I blame him. It’s also true that the person of usual college age is fresh from a life of experiencing almost constant social, cultural, and political authoritarianism, and is still frequently told that he is too young and inexperienced to know how the world really works. So it’s perfectly healthy to err on the side of anti-authoritarianism.

    But as long as you’re for undermining the state and against forcing me to live a certain way, I’d consider you an ally.

  5. By Mike Gogulski on 25 September 2008

    Darian: Not disagreeing with you, and there’s an aspect you point to that I passed over without mentioning.

    The university the writer attends is most likely either a state institution itself or affiliated with a religious organization. These are authoritarian institutions by their nature, and the institutions that they spawn in turn carry the trait. The challenge of purging the school of the trait while preserving its more desirable aspects might be akin to purging God from the church while continuing the mass.

    The authoritarianism in the family is a social disease that I hope to see die away just as I hope to see churches and states die away, and the use of the mentally imprisoning sort of authoritarianism is undesirable because (insert compelling argument here).

    But I don’t participate in the writer’s university, nor do I participate with him in his family. What I do participate in with him is political society, no matter where I exist on the planet and no matter how much any of us might prefer it weren’t so. When I look at what we share in common and what we might change together for our mutual benefit, I see statism as our joint target of greatest interest. Statism also back-stops and provides justification and social model-myths which serve to justify non-consensual and/or controlling relationships in other contexts. Finally, the state is the institution that both of us are forced to participate in whether we like it or not, assuming we demand to continue living within its borders — and I do mean living, as in not being killed. To withdraw from a voluntary social grouping such as the university student body or one’s biological family past a certain age is something nobody will come to you for and put a gun to your head with a fresh demand for obeisance.

    You can quit coming round for Christmas, and you can quit school. But you can’t quit the state. I see a fundamental difference there, and the primary target toward which I see it as desirable to focus on therefore is the truly involuntary relationship.

    (more later, too many interruptions while replying)

  6. By on 26 September 2008

    Excellent post, Mike! Crap like this is partly what made me want to start my own blog. I think market anarchists give these gadflies waaaayy too much praise and credit, and waste too much time sucking up to them in a futile attempt to gain acceptance.

    A lot of this stuff simply parodies itself. I recall a section of the so-called “Anarchist FAQ” condemning hospitals for their “hierarchy.” Wtf?

  7. By Mike Gogulski on 27 September 2008

    Thanks. The “FAQ” is the subject of a forthcoming post casting it in the light of the no true Scotsman fallacy and objecting to its overall bias and utopianism. Doing so requires actually re-reading and analyzing the loathsome thing, and responding to its particulars.

  8. By on 30 September 2008

    I disagree with the way you inserted the word authority into Alberto’s post. I think that your use of authority conflates expertise and power. I expand on my thoughts here:

  9. By Mike Gogulski on 30 September 2008

    I see your point, though I read “oppressive” as implying authority. The most important distinction I would like to make is that the OP in this case and in many others I see attempts to liken himself to someone who is in prison, when the prison is actually one of his own choosing and where the doors all stand open. I could have chosen a better example to attack.

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