Is Panarchy A Coherent Concept?



I have a confession to make: I have a more totalistic and non-inclusive/non-tolerant concept of freedom than many of my peers in the libertarian anarchist movement. Actually, this really isn’t a confession so much as something that should be obvious based on many of my criticisms of certain ideas within libertarianism over the past few years. What it boils down to is this: I don’t think that relativism/hyper-pluralism, panarchism, or reductionistic voluntaryism (these concepts tend to run together in my mind) have anything to do with a sensible notion of human freedom.

It seems to me that there is a questionable tendency to concieve of anarchism as if it was panarchism. The notion that “everyone has a right to choose what form of government, and what particular government, to live under” is ambiguous. At face value, this may seem like a certain phrasing of the principle of consent. But when one takes into account the nature of how governments actually work, which essentially precludes the possibility of everyone living under it to explicitly consent to it, and when one considers the implications of absorbing all forms of government into libertarianism, panarchy ends up looking like a confused concept. It’s as if the panarchist wants the spirit of anarchism while simultaneously wanting to preserve the state in any of its forms.

The idea, for example, of a purely “voluntary monarchy”, just seems conceptually incoherent. Perhaps it is concievable that a particular individual gladly wants to be subject to it, but as a system that inherently is territorial in nature it would seem to inevitably effect people who just happen to live or be born in the area and don’t explicitly consent to it. Once one takes into account how the social dynamics of political systems actually work, geographic scarcity, as well as the problems of intergenerationality and the disagreements that exist within any society, the whole thing seems like a mish-mash that amounts to little more than relativistic tolerance towards the existence of multiple states or forms of states.

The practical reality that this picture paints to me seems to be along the lines of an even greater multitude of states over smaller geographical regions, accompanied by an even greater diversity in the form that states take. But is that freedom, or just a localized re-structuring of non-freedom? This idea seems to cut the normative ground out from under freedom, and replaces it with a rather indiscriminate and self-contradicting sense of tolerance. The legal systems that it is tolerant towards are internally intolerant, in that they preclude the possibility of the mutual consent of all of those that live within their domains. So it seems like what one ends up with is tolerance between states which are themselves internally monopolistic.

Panarchism is an incoherant position if it reduces to an attempt to absorb things that are inherently incompatiblewith anarchism (such as monarchies and representative democracies) into anarchism. The very nature of these political systems are internally non-anarchistic, and panarchism seems to simply insist on having anarchism between states – and yet that’s exactly what we already have in terms of the relations between nation-states in the absence of a global state. At best, panarchism minaturizes/localizes and diversifies this.

This is not what I think of when I invoke pluralism in a positive way. For one thing, I concieve of pluralism being a value that is in some sense contextual to and grounded by other values – it is not indiscriminate relativism. But the issue extends beyond this. The concept of pluralism that I have is one of mutual co-existence between different types of people within the same area. In other words, it’s cosmopolitan pluralism. Yet the pluralism of panarchism and the libertarians I disagree with seems to be just the opposite of this: it’s the rigid separatism of different types of people into their own little geographic areas and entrenched systems. Internal to each geographic area is systematic exclusion and oppression. This is just micro-authoritarianism advanced in the name of tolerance!

The direct consequence of this is that various authoritarian ideologies have been given a rationalization from libertarian circles that they can use to their advantage. It’s as simple as using the concept of freedom of association to justify systems that are internally or locally unfree. On the other hand, libertarians themselves begin to be apologists for this or even explicitly propose such models under the ambiguous banner of legal pluralism. At that point, non-libertarians are entirely justified in attacking libertarians as being shallow (although this would be unfair to libertarianism as a whole). I can’t say I can necessarily blame them to the extent that libertarians haverefuted themselves in this way.

Posted by Brainpolice at 12:02 AM 


Neverfox said…

There is perhaps one way to make the concept of panarchy acceptable, or rather ‘pan-anarchy’. Practical reasonableness allows for plenty of variety in norms without it undermining the basic ethical core of thick libertarianism.
March 2, 2010 2:13 AM

Shawn P. Wilbur said…

I’m pretty certain that panarchy is not coherent, unless it is based on a foundation of anarchism. But “rigid separation” or “micro-authoritarianism” probably isn’t fair as a critique of the concept. The concept is polycentric order and a laissez-faire free market in governance. There may be some “vulgar panarchists” out there, but you have to figure that the notion of a free market in government systems is going to be prey to every mis/understanding of free markets.
March 2, 2010 3:58 AM

TomG said…

Does ‘anarchy’ presume itself as bearing the assurance of self-maximization throughout potentials in action? If so, then would not this optimal ideal get subverted the second there’s any form of outside force (whose yielding-to would by definition make it an authority) that hinders the anarchic agent’s freedom to act and choose at will? So wouldn’t any collusion among market players manifest itself in the negation of a purely free market? All seems untenable by human tendencies throughout – including the impulse to cheat and deceive in the aim toward personal gain at others’ expense. Cheers.
March 2, 2010 6:07 AM

quasibill said…

It’s a decent critique of something, I’m just not sure what, or of whom.I could level the opposite critique of absolutism – world spanning norms that meet any possible dissent with crushing, if arguably non-coercive, sanctions is just totalitarianism by other means.

Why can’t we allow for *both* rigid separatism – for those who desire it – *and* plural cosmopolitanism – for those who desire it? Those who wish to segregate themselves into intentional communities cut off from the wider world should be allowed to do so. First, because there is no justifiable reason for denying them this right of association (and the implied right of dis-association), and second, to allow them to be an exemplar of where their ideas lead. Fools that believe that utopia can only be reached in racially pure (whatever the hell that means) societies will be able to gaze upon the idiocy that results and re-evaluate their ideals.

As far as “micro-states”, I agree that voluntary monarchism is a silly idea; I just don’t see any reason to drop crushing sanctions on top of people who are innocently silly. And perhaps their experiments can teach the rest of us something important. I tend to define a state as any organized attempt to impose the will of another upon me. Under that definition, even Kevin Carson’s panarchism is really just micro-states, because local norms will be imposed on me by organized means. As such, I tend to feel that states are at some level *inevitable* (not to be confused with the minarchists’ *necessary*) because somewhere, somewhen, someone is going to look for the easy way out. States have arisen through many different mechanisms throughout history – I’m not sure you can plug all the holes in the dike at once.

I don’t believe that there is one single, objective perfect answer to the question of human society. There is a continuum that ranges from horrendous to pretty good. And in the range from good to pretty good, there are many, many mutually exclusive options. Given this, I can’t sign on to moral totalitarianism, no matter how it gets gussied up.

March 2, 2010 8:15 AM

TomG said…

this “continuum of ranges” is the crux of the matter – of imperfect human beings, through trial and error, trying to create some form of social contract that optimizes both freedom and security at once. But it’s realization comes with tradeoffs, whose reality can be best understood through the Economics prism of revealed preferences – where the faulty incentive structures, together with the very human impetus of self-maximization, result in societies inevitably short of the fully moral and efficient mark. And so it is and ever shall be on this material domain. Amen 😉
March 2, 2010 9:38 AM

Brainpolice said…

The issue to me seems to be one of finding some sort of balance between a sense of pluralism and a sense of general norms, without proposing minarchy. It’s not that I’m proposing universalist absolutism, but objecting to a bunch of isolated spaces for particular absolutisms and then dubbing that freedom.It may be that panarchy is, as initially proposed, just a phrasing of anarchistic pluralism, but the concept easily gets polluted when pluralism is treated as a foundation in and of itself that everything else is subverted to. And that’s what I’m running into with the self-proclaimed panarchists and anarchism-as-panarchism conceptions, as far as I can tell.

By “rigid separatism”, I imply more than just voluntary disassociation. I imply the entrenchment of a local system that, while it might initially or superficially bear resemblance to a voluntary disassociation, ends up being internally oppressive. This seems to happen the moment that the separatism becomes institutional.

March 2, 2010 10:19 AM

quasibill said…

But objecting to isolated spaces, without regard to the context, is in fact imposing a form of moral absolutism. I agree that a world of nothing but isolated spaces of internal oppression is a pretty horrible world, but still probably marginally better than a single world spanning oppression. ‘Exit’ is always the primary basis of freedom.I don’t see the isolated spaces outcome as a likely stable outcome (one might argue that this is exactly what we live under right now) of a panarchist movement – the ability to externalize the costs involved in oppression requires ever larger populations to parasite from. Wars, revolutions, and just plain competition will eventually destabilize such a system.

I think large swaths of the world, and likely the most productive parts of it, would consist of plural cosmopolitanism. I just think there should be any coordinated effort to crush those who wish to disassociate from this model. I don’t think these dissidents will be attractive to many people – they most likely will be poor, unpleasant places to live. But that’s their choice.

As far as institutionalization, I think turning *anything* into an institution is equivalent to leaping blindly over a high cliff. And the bigger the putative institution, the higher the cliff. Institutionalization is the first step in obscuring human agency, and therefore to be avoided at all costs. Groups, associations, etc. are all fine so long as don’t become seen as something independent of those people who comprise it.

March 2, 2010 11:57 AM

Wade said…

As I understand it, you are saying that by attempting to establish governmental services based on panarchy (non-territorially coercive means) that the result will be many physically smaller geographically sized territorially coercive governments. I’m not sure how you are getting from the pursuit of governmental services by means of panarchy to the consequence of physically smaller territorially coercive governments. I guess if you define a government as a territorial monopoly then yes government cannot be a non-territorial monopoly or panarchistic but I don’t think that this discredits the idea of panarchy which is a non-territorially coercive means of government.
March 2, 2010 2:21 PM

Wade said…

First I guess we have to establish what we mean by government. There are the goals of government and then there are then means by which those goals are attained. So the idea behind panarchy is that the goals remain the same, but the means changes from territorial coercion to voluntary membership.
March 2, 2010 2:28 PM

Christopher said…

I’d say this is where the distinction between anarchism and libertarianism needs to be distinguished (as you have done in the past). Anarchism appears self-evident — the idea that there are certain people selected bycertain means who should hold status as legitimate authority is fundamentally absurd. However, the [extreme] libertarian position of complete mental and physical liberation of every individual may very well be something that could result in catastrophe and it seems very reasonable to advocate it with some reservation about its superiority.But, yes, a multiplicity of governments is not libertarian. Government of any kind is anathema to libertarianism. However, panarchism may be a decent step or means to a greater end on the road to total liberation.

(Hat tip to quasibill. I thoroughly agree with his analysis.)

March 2, 2010 6:50 PM

Danny said…

Panarchism seems more like a sort of pluralistic localism than a sort of anarchism…do panarchists really claim to be anarchists? If so, then why? What’s gained by that association?Is the idea that panarchists seek an initial transition to anarchism before letting localities create their own political structures? (Do they in fact seek this?) I suppose you could say that within any anarchistic order we might expect to see some people start to incorporate their land into communities with governance structures, and so proto-states could emerge organically out of anarchy. But that seems like it’s saying that anarchism is unstable and should generally be expected to result in states due to various advantages coming with territorial governance. It doesn’t seem like a variety of anarchism!

March 3, 2010 12:52 AM

Bitininkas said…

As I said before, me don’t thinks that anarchism is somehow not a just a new model of government.I simply don’t understand how power can be destroyed in thė society if would describe power in Foucauldian terms.

Panarchism seems to me as very rational model, because it is atteritorialism in a pure form. It implies a structure of some kind of georgism.

I don’t believe that decenralized society of communes, or cooperatives can be somehow clena from poewr if it;s already implies some model of law and enforcement. Anarchism is self-contradcitory in this way, bevause anarchism must have a model of law and power to enforce the law. There is no such thing as vuluntary law. It’s like voluntary slavery. We must base our society on the rule of majority, or minority. If someone will be ofr example killing peaple – we will neutralize him, or what? We will ask his consent to this? No.

Power is everywhere, because it coming from everywhere.

March 3, 2010 4:11 AM

Bitininkas said…

We cant destroy the will to power.
March 3, 2010 4:14 AM

TomG said…

Yup, as the song’s refrain goes – “everybody wants to rule the world” … and why is that? Because the physical domain is a mere extension of all the potentialities of limitless self-centeredness that comes from any unchecked consciousness! We want to be the center of our respective universes – inclusive of all we perceive affecting us from outside ourselves (and by logical extension, why it is that peaceful anarchy can never be). Cheers.
March 3, 2010 10:37 PM

身材維持 said…

March 5, 2010 7:45 AM

TomG said…

Indeed – if the presumption is that the way things are is good, then yes it’s good. If, on the other hand, it just means that we exist in a fault-default existence, then it can be deemed sucky-but-as-good-as-it-gets (a 60% score that gets curved to a 95% since nothing beyond can be expected from us pathetic prototypes of human beings 😉
March 6, 2010 6:15 AM

Gian Piero de Bellis said…

Those who confuse panarchy with anarchy have not really understood the difference between ideology and methodology. Panarchy is a methodological tool; is not at all a new ideology that wants to replace anarchy. By the way, to associate territorial connotations (segregated groups) to panarchy (other than in the case of small voluntarily secluded communities) means to have missed the entire notion on which panarchy is based. Are we really talking about the same idea? For clarifications I suggest a quick look at “On Panarchy” (
March 6, 2010 2:20 PM

TomG said…

Thanks good sir, will take a look at its description. On the face of it, the preface “pan” means across and connotes ‘cooperation’. So that the inherent contradiction in the term panarchy, as taken to its logcial extreme, is that a pure anarchist doesn’t will to be answerable to any authority except self – which rather negates the idea of cooperating with anyone else, which requires some degree of relinquishing of one’s self-determination. It all seems to relegate Panarchism to an oxymoron. Again, at the extreme – which has been my problem with pure anarchists – these concepts fall apart because of our imperfect traits and tendencies to collude and gang up on especially the unwary, making this utopian ideal of a culture free of authority/domination unachievable (which makes me question its adherents’ thought processes or, worse yet, honesty). Cheers.
March 6, 2010 7:22 PM

Mantan Calaveras said…

Oh brain police, you so crazay.Think of it this way. The state is a form of service provider.

Social structures for service provision can take many forms.

One modern trend in service provision is the package deal.

A panarchic state is a package deal of various social services.

So long as a structure is voluntary, is can function.

I’m not particularly concerned with whether Panarchy is “freedom” as freedom pretty clearly does not exist. It’s a notion, defining it too strictly is about as useful as trying to quantify angels dancing on a pinhead.

You know what I think? You are too entranced with notions.

March 9, 2010 2:29 PM

Shawn P. Wilbur said…

“So long as a structure is voluntary, is can function.” And this is where the critics of panarchy start to ask questions: If each of the -archies in a panarchy are constantly voluntary, non-binding on citizens who can always opt out, why is this not anarchy in drag?
March 9, 2010 2:42 PM

TomG said…

anarchy itself seems to have no foundation – since its sans rules (authority) outside self (and I may even contend, if I took the time to think much on it, that even ‘self’ impses rules that trump true anarchic thought/action). Instead of a structure for practical existence, it’s totally fluid and at best an unachievable ideal that assumes a state of utopian freedom – whereas the Jeffersonian concept of absolute minimal governance (i.e. adequate/absolutely necessary) seems to be the only realistic expectation. Cheers.
March 10, 2010 5:10 AM

TomG said…

sorry, ‘impses’ meant ‘imposes’ – see, even I have a problem with coercive terms 😉
March 10, 2010 5:12 AM

Shawn P. Wilbur said…

Perhaps there are ways of defining “anarchy itself” as a purely impracticable ideal, and unquestionably some anarchists have done so, but anarchism itself certainly hasn’t been limited to impracticable ideals. A “true anarchic thought/action” that was incompatible with even the notion of the self would be a very radical break with anarchist tradition, merely a distraction.
March 10, 2010 2:22 PM

TomG said…

Granted, the semantics does enhance disconnects – however just as there are laws in physics that can’t be defied successfully, so are there laws within human existence that make for the usurpation of others’ liberty by those more powerful … making the concept of universal and complete self-determination by each and all participants in human drama impossible. Moreover, there’s nothing to prove that achieving this supposed ideal state would actually create a better, more perfect level of self-actualization for individuals or a utopia for all – I’m not even certain it matters all that much in our finite life and certain eventual death. Rather, it may be that self-sacrifice and helping the less fortunate is where the true blessings of life really lie all the while. Cheers.
March 10, 2010 7:58 PM

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S. said…

Panarchy is really an interesting idea to me i must admit though I disagree with it. I like this article because it says everything I wanted to say in way better terms. It is just one more division that I don’t think our country, or world for that matter needs.
April 6, 2010 11:20 PM

Pirate Rothbard said…

“The idea, for example, of a purely “voluntary monarchy”, just seems conceptually incoherent. Perhaps it is concievable that a particular individual gladly wants to be subject to it, but as a system that inherently is territorial in nature it would seem to inevitably effect people who just happen to live or be born in the area and don’t explicitly consent to it. “For it to be consensual you have to gain consent from each individual born within the territory upon reaching adulthood.

There is nothing incoherent about having a security company, owned by one person, that obtains market dominance within a region by consensual means, and wills his company to his oldest son. If someone wants to call this “consensual monarchy” then the concept is not incoherent.

April 24, 2010 10:39 AM

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