The Optimistic Anarchist: Thinking in Terms of Personal Anarchy and Enforcement Zones

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PunkRockLibertarians.com (PRL) founder Matt Bergman private messaged me on Facebook last Saturday asking me to write for PRL. I was thrilled since of all the pro-liberty platforms out there right now, PRL seems like the best fit for my style of writing and my love of the DIY approach to liberty. As such, I recommend that you submit your own writings to PRL too!

In my first article for PRL, I want to share a concept that is very near and dear to my heart, one that hopefully resonates with PRL readers. This concept is something I call Personal Anarchy (PA). Readers of my newest book Strange Attractor know that I do not consider myself “anarcho-capitalist” for many reasons. One main reason is that the concept “property” is doomed to being eternally ill-defined. Right now, as it has always been and likely will always be, there are many competing theories of property out there and they all justify violence under certain circumstances. For example, some anarchists vehemently believe that “taxation is theft” while others equally righteously believe that instead, “property is theft”. Either way, these competing theories of property are what fundamentally separate the assorted “anarchists-with-hypens” you see pontificating across all the social media platforms and in poorly produced YouTube videos. These disagreements over definitions stand firmly in the way of the anarchist critical-mass needed to usher in their particular brand of anarchist utopia where everyone will miraculously “just get along” (paraphrasing that iconic victim of state violence, Rodney King).

Look, I like the idea of property rights and you probably do too. However, how we establish ‘what belongs to who’ is a long standing question with no clear answer in sight. Some people still adhere to Locke’s labor theory of value that says something becomes yours by magically mixing your labor with it. Others believe that it is homesteading that somehow makes something “yours” (e.g., the childhood concept of calling “dibs”, although many indigenous cultures can testify that such claims did little to stop imperialism). Yet others, such as the Georgists and Cherokee, believe that while you can own the fruits of your labor, the natural resources like water, trees and land are communal property. Some people even believe if something is not scarce it cannot be considered “property” (i.e., some argue that intellectual “property” isn’t property at all on these grounds).

There are a lot of variables involved with claims of property, and different people use those different variables to define what is and what is not “property” to them. Personally, I don’t have any fancy deontological theory of property backed by Aquinas or Locke that I will bore you with. Believe me, there is already plenty of that out there. Instead, I would like to share with you how I see property. I take a more anthropological approach. I see what we generally call property as a subset of a very natural occurrence within mammalian politics; territorialism. Grandiloquence be damned, it seems to me that we ultimately define “property” with our “territorial pissings” (to steal a title from a Nirvana song). However, much to the chagrin of some propertarian libertarians, without a state to enforce these property rights, that which we call “property” (including the property we hold in our own bodies) really just boils down to that which you can defend (or hide) until someone with superior firepower and intel decides they want to use “your” property “their” way. Period.

A close corollary to this idea that “property is simply that which you defend (with either violence or the threat of violence) or hide (conceal via deception, confusion or omission) from others” is the closely related idea that “liberty is simply what you can get away with”. In this corollary I’ve tweaked a concept promulgated by the esteemed libertarian gadfly and guerilla ontologist Robert Anton Wilson who originally said, “reality is what you can get away with.” Now all this may or may not sound like a different justification and strategy for liberty than you are accustomed to, but for those interested in learning more, this line of reasoning comes from individualist anarchists like Max Stirner and Benjamin Tucker.

For me, thinking about liberty and property this way is liberating in itself. If you accept, like me, that people will never fully agree on the definition of property or on the definition of liberty, then you can begin to let go of the utopian thinking (and the inevitable disappointment that follows utopian thinking) and abandon the heavy sense of duty that you must convince everyone of “the one true way”.

Instead, you can come to realize that you actually already enjoy tons of what I like to call Personal Anarchy (PA), as long as you steer well clear of what I call “Enforcement Zones” (EZ). For clarity, I define an EZ as any place where rules/laws/codes are actively enforced with the threat of some sort of punishment.

For example, when you drive the speed limit only because there is a highway patrol person watching you, then you are in an EZ. When you drive freely (and most likely illegally faster than the legal speed limit allows) as soon as the cop is gone, then you have left an EZ. EZs are few and far between actually, especially if you make a little effort to avoid them or conceal yourself from them. It is my opinion that PA is the only sort of viable, sustainable anarchism since it really relies on nobody else’s participation. As the saying goes, “No cop, no stop”. In fact, if it is true that the average American commits three felonies a day, then that means that your average American is already an unwitting anarchist! All you have to do is wake them up from being hypnotized by the words of the state (aka “laws”) when they are outside the EZs.

Now, some of you may have noticed a kinship between my PA concept and the idea of a Temporary Autonomous Zones (TAZ). In some ways, my notion of PA flips the notion of a TAZ on its head, and this is where the ‘optimism” in the title comes in. To me, the TAZ concept seems more pessimistic; e.g., in a TAZ, freedom is only temporary and relegated to “zones”. PA, on the other hand, reminds us of the permanence and near ubiquity of liberty and that it is actually the EZs that are temporary and zoned.

In this sense, Personal Anarchists have already won and we only have a few small fires (EZs) to put out (or avoid). Remember, most EZs are small (there are exceptions, unfortunately) and we can help keep it that way by embracing and promoting things that enhance PA like cryptography, supporting organizations like the EFF, etc. Just remember, in many ways the fight for privacy is the fight for personal anarchy. Any and all liberty to be had in the future will likely be some sort of crypto-enforced PA, whether it is a low-tech secret society type of shit (like secret handshakes, trust & reputation, etc.) or a high-tech variety (crypto-currencies, privacy apps, etc.).

About Author

Jake Shannon

Jake Shannon (1973 - ) was born in Colorado and has worked in a hodgepodge of professions including "Quant" (i.e., financial mathematician), serial entrepreneur, Discordian Pope, radio talk show host, Chairman of the Libertarian Party of Utah, Luchador (i.e., mexican wrestler), and Comedy Hypnotist before settling upon pursuing an unwitting vow of poverty as an independent writer, practical magician (Chaos Magick) and more importantly, as a stay-at-home dad (his greatest accomplishment by far). He currently lives in Salt Lake City, Utah (which still surprises him) with his lovely wife, three bright children and three loyal dogs.

  • LeaveWellEnoughAlone

    I really enjoyed this article and you make some good points. But a freedom that’s based on enforcement zones and temporary enforcement zones isn’t truly freedom. At best it’s temporary freedom. Stalinist Russia, Franco’s Spain, Hitler’s Germany…all theoretically contained these “zones” but in reality those zones were few and far between. I only wish I could share your optimism. As long as we live in a society where there is an entity that feels the need to “enforce” anything then in my view nobody is truly free.
    Your point of view has provoked thought, however, and has given me some ideas for further reading. Great article!

    • Chubby Checkers

      You miss the point, I submit. Unless you believe that the world will ever be rid of entities vying for control and power. All historical considerations point to the probability of that happening in bulk being nil. “Truly free” is not definable by any one person. No one is ever “truly free” if that’s the case; there are other things that can act as obstructions to one’s sense of personal freedom outside of the ubiquity of the State, like your own neurobiology. The point of personal anarchy is not that anyone is “truly free”, but rather you treat adversarial forces, in the form of the State, in the form of environment, in the form of a roving band of savages as minor encumbrances to your own sense of freedom. Such as this: if your objective is freedom, than it doesn’t require optimism, it simply requires you finding the tears in any enforcement zone to attain that.