Sam Dolgoff

Autonomy and Federalism




In this short paper the author highlights how federalism proposed by the anarchists is the appropriate solution to solve problems of organization and coordination of complex realities.

The following is a somewhat revised version of an article that appeared in Towards Anarchism (formerly Views and Comments) No. 50, Summer 1965 — the final issue.



The revival of interest in anarchism has recently produced works on the ideology and history of the libertarian movement. By far, most modern writers confirm popular misconceptions about how the anarchists view the relationships of society to the state, of individual freedom and local autonomy to social order and of organization to authority. It is hoped that these brief remarks will clarify some important aspects of these problems.

The critics believe that since modern society is becoming increasingly complex and interdependent, individual freedom and local autonomy on the scale envisioned by the anarchists would fracture society by breaking it down into small, isolated, loosely related groups. In the ensuing chaos, each group would be free to do anything it pleased without regards to the rights of neighbors or the general welfare. Since modern social life is impossible without large-scale organization and such organization involves authority which the anarchists reject, it follows that anarchism as a practical theory of social regeneration is a pipe dream.
While anarchism might have worked in a relatively primitive society, they contend, its only useful role today is the negative one of curtailing the excessive encroachments of the state on individual and social freedom. While recognizing that some of the anarchist criticisms of the state are correct, the fact remains, they assert, that supreme authority, intelligently exercised, must continue to be vested in the state. They consider that the state is indissolubly linked to society and that society cannot function without the state. It is at best a blessing, and at worst a necessary evil.
To the anarchist, society is the association of all the people cooperating in an infinite variety of organizations for the performance and satisfaction of all mankind's myriad individual and social needs.

The political scientist E. Barker declares:

. . . the area of society is voluntary cooperation. Its energy is that of good will. Its method that of elasticity; while the other, the state, is rather mechanical action, its energy force, its method rigidity. (Political Thought from Spencer to the Present Day, p. 67)

These ideas are in general accord with the anarchist conception of society. Kropotkin envisioned the anarchist society as

the fullest development of free association in all its aspects, in all possible degrees, and for all conceivable purposes, an ever-changing association bearing in itself the elements of its own duration and taking on the forms which at any moment best correspond to the manifold endeavors of all ... we conceive the structure of society to be something which is never finally constituted .... (Encyclopedia Britannica, 1905)

From these basic libertarian concepts it follows that there is no basic conflict between individual freedom and society. On the contrary, it is in this social environment that the personality and the freedom of the individual expands, thereby enriching social life.
The conservative political scientist James Garner illustrates the difference between voluntary association and the state. A member of a voluntary association is:

free to withdraw whenever he elects to do so, whereas membership in the state is compulsory and the citizen can throw off his membership only by expatriation [in which case he will still fall under the jurisdiction of another state - Sam Dolgoff] ... voluntary associations lack the legal power of coercion -the supreme power to command and enforce obedience. Voluntary associations cannot command and enforce obedience, at best, they can only employ the pressure of public disapprobation or expulsion ... they cannot arrest, fine, or imprison, whereas the state can do all this and more in case its commands are disobeyed and its authority defied. (Political Science and Government, pp. 63, 64).

The difference between the state and society is the difference between freedom and slavery. This is why anarchists advocate the abolition of the state and the eradication of the statist principle which permeates voluntary organizations that accept the state as their model. [Note: A voluntary organization that accepts the state as a model might be considered as a state in itselfs or a state in progress. The clearest example is a party aiming at gaining state power].
The greatest threat to the freedom and happiness of man is the growing concentration of power in the state and its satellite institutions. Although this fact is generally acknowledged by more and more thoughtful people, it is maintained that the state is necessary to assure order in society. We anarchists maintain that while society is incomprehensible without order, the organization of order is not the exclusive right of the state.

The great anarchist thinker Proudhon considered that absolute liberty cannot exist in an organized society but held that society must organize itself in such a manner that the limits of liberty are broad enough to include the maximum amount of liberty commensurate with social order. Proudhon anticipated over a century ago what many sociologists, jurists and philosophers, faced by the growing power of the state, now advocate: the dispersion of power to the decentralized, functional units of society to insure the direct participation of everyone in matters affecting their lives.
Libertarian organization must reflect the infinite variety and complexity of social relationships and promote solidarity on the widest possible scale. This cannot be achieved through artificial unity imposed from above. It must be attained through the practice of federalism, by which we mean coordination through free agreement, locally, regionally, nationally and internationally: a vast coordinated network of voluntary alliances embracing the totality of social life, in which groups and associations reap the benefits of unity while still exercising autonomy within their own spheres, thus expanding the range of their own freedom. Federalism has been aptly defined as "the organization of freedom."

We do not claim that the millennium is around the corner. But if human society is to survive it must be headed in this general direction. Nor do we claim that all will be sweetness and light, that there will not be inevitable friction, violation of agreements and even serious rifts. No form of organization is immune to these things and there is no guarantee that everything will work out as anticipated. But the greatest attribute of the free society is that it is self-correcting and self-regulating. Victor Hugo realized that:



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