Anarchism, speech, and democracy

Update, April 22, 2020: I fully develop my critique of Federalist No. 10, mentioned below in my discussion of republics, in “A constitutional oligarchy: Deconstructing Federalist No. 10.”

Somewhere, I believe in Chomsky on Anarchism,[1] Noam Chomsky offers an example of himself as a grandfather holding out his hand to restrain his young granddaughter from running out into traffic.

Chomsky introduces this example to distinguish between legitimate and illegitimate authority. No one would criticize his action to protect a young girl—this, we would call legitimate authority—but, as he notes, he is in fact deploying physical force and thereby impeding the girl’s autonomy. And I think we would agree that the latter framing doesn’t sound as nice.

The trouble here is that distinction between ‘legitimate’ and ‘illegitimate.’ A contrary example, for example, of Nazis in the Holocaust illustrates a clearly illegitimate, horrific exercise of authority. What about cases in between? What about the very slippery slope from the legitimate, stopping a granddaughter from running into traffic, to the illegitimate, gassing Jews?

Similarly with speech, I have seen an intentionally violent analogy: My right to swing my fist stops somewhere before your jaw. A problem here arises when my so-called “free” speech intimidates you (thus entailing violence) or in any way inhibits your free speech, suppressing your ideas, excluding them from public consideration.[2] Something has clearly gone wrong there and we cannot say that speech is inherently innocent. Again there is that very slippery slope in between, from speech that illuminates to the “speech” of burning crosses on people’s lawns and hanging effigies from oak trees.

The anarchist answer is (direct) democracy. Authority and speech are legitimate when the people say they are and only for as long as they say so.

But human rights are necessary because majorities cannot be trusted to protect minorities. To choose an intentionally evil example, in Federalist No. 10, James Madison sought to protect the minority rights not of any subaltern group, but rather the property rights of wealthy white slaveholders. In advocating a republic (so-called “representative democracy”) over a direct democracy, Madison trusted the rich to set aside their own personal interests in favor of the country’s and he distrusted popular mobs who he feared might confiscate their property, presumably including enslaved humans.[3] Again, there is the slippery slope: Few today would argue against the abolition of slavery. But what when a majority unquestioningly accepted the enslavement of human beings as normal? And how different, really, is it when capitalists, with the acquiescence of large majorities in the so-called “civilized world,” use their power over workers to pay them a pittance and require them to work in hazardous or otherwise unhealthy conditions?

A majority in Nazi Germany acquiesced to the gassing of Jews. A majority in World War II Japan acquiesced to the continuing rape of “comfort women” and to other horrors. In that very same era, the U.S., that supposed pillar of human rights and “democracy,” fighting against the other two, forced Japanese-Americans into internment camps.

Similarly, Blacks in Amerikkka can point to a long legacy of slavery, sharecropping, lynchings, and Jim Crow. No majority saves Blacks even today. And American Indians can point out that the European solution to minority status was simply to import enough whites to commit genocide against native people, reversing the majority/minority dynamic. Throughout history, majorities have stood by while minorities were vilified and attacked, even encouraging attackers as they carried out their pogroms.

I can certainly point out that these examples occur in a context of an authoritarian system of social organization in place since the Neolithic, that human nature and even our understanding of it may be constrained accordingly.[4]

But structurally—and this is where anarchists are right—a flaw lies in any power over others, whether democratic, republican, or otherwise authoritarian. The conundrum of so-called “free” speech, where my exercise of that speech might intimidate you into silence, and thus that my speech would in fact be violence, is in fact inherent to any power relationship, which is why anarchists recognize power as violence and why they are the foulest of hypocrites when they deploy violence themselves.[5]

In the past, indigenous peoples, faced with such conundrums, could simply split up, with some moving away, forming their own societies when differences were irreconcilable. But all of earth’s inhabitable land is now allocated; there is no longer any place to move to. Uri Gordon notes something similar of anti-authoritarian movements, acquiring participation only through the free choices of participants and of participating organizations.[6] But what when we are no longer speaking of social movements but rather of stable, fixed societies to which there are no alternatives?

Perplexed by the paradox of so-called “free speech” and violent “free speech,” I had written of speech and technology company censorship that,

I’m pretty clear that I’m thinking about this problem in the wrong way. I know that the high tech industry has it wrong. I know that the advocates on both sides of the conundrum have it wrong.

But I don’t know what’s right.[7]

Part of my problem seems to be that I was not thinking of it broadly enough. Another part, a part we too often deny and therefore fail to take into account, is that we are a social species, interdependent upon each other, and with very limited opportunities for separation and diversity. We are thus constrained to live with each other in some form of social organization.

And no matter how we organize ourselves, we need to be better than we are: Madison trusted the rich; in his system, elected officials and judges, or at least a sufficient number of them, must have the best interests of the country and of the people at heart. A direct democracy trusts the people; the majority must keep the best interests of minorities at heart. The dictator trusts him- or herself, needing merely to maintain a pretense of concern for the people.

But none of these solve the problem of ‘power over,’ which inherently assumes precisely that enough of those who have power will be at least among the better of us, not among the worst, not as George Monbiot noted, the psychopathic, the narcissistic, and the Machiavellian. Without explaining what his alternative would look like, he argued that we should “develop systems that encourage kindness, empathy and emotional intelligence,” that is, systems that reward psychologically healthy people rather than their opposites.[8] I’m not sure at this point in our evolution as a species we even see that such people even exist.

It would seem we have forgotten Chomsky, the grandfather. How can we encourage him?

  1. [1]Noam Chomsky, Chomsky on Anarchism, ed. Barry Pateman (Edinburgh: AK, 2005).
  2. [2]David Benfell, “Cheering political incorrectness and irresponsible speech,” Not Housebroken, January 28, 2016,; David Benfell, “The paradox of free speech and censorship,” Not Housebroken, November 1, 2019,
  3. [3]James Madison, “Federalist No. 10,” in The Federalist Papers, ed. Garry Wills (New York: Bantam, 2003), 50-58.
  4. [4]David Benfell, “Why we won’t respond to climate change,” Not Housebroken, October 16, 2018,
  5. [5]David Benfell, “Violence is the illegitimate authority that begets all other illegitimate authority,” Not Housebroken, July 1, 2019,
  6. [6]Uri Gordon, Anarchy Alive! (London: Pluto, 2008).
  7. [7]David Benfell, “The paradox of free speech and censorship,” Not Housebroken, November 1, 2019,
  8. [8]George Monbiot, “Outer Turmoil,” June 17, 2019,

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