Anarchist Conflict Resolution and Community Defense

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login date: 2022-05-11

Author's Note: before or after you read this essay, I highly recommend you read What Is Individualist Anarchism, which overlaps with this one in a few ways but in general elaborates more on values, property norms, and long term goals, but less on institutions specifically. I view these essays as essentially two sides of the same coin, and the way I phrase my ideas in one or the other my make more sense to you.

Two of the most important general social problems that an anarchist society needs to solve in order to be safe and stable are conflict resolution and community defense. After all, conflicts will inevitably arise in all human societies that require either resolution or intervention and defense. Moreover, these are the primary functions that the state is said to perform to justify its existence, since, according to it and its propagandists, these crucial functions cannot be done without it. So if we anarchists cannot provide feasible alternatives to the state to perform these functions --- even in radically altered and reduced ways --- then we will ultimately fall into the state's rhetorical trap. In addition, the usurpation of these functions from the community and social sphere is also what allows the state to leverage them into the power to dominate, control, and exploit us, since if an external entity controls how you defend yourselves and decide who in a conflict is in the right and how to resolve that conflict, it gains enormous power over your community. This means that taking this power out of the hands of the state is extremely important for anarchist ends.

1. Conflict Resolution

The primary problem of 'organization' in an anarchist society is conflict resolution. The fullest extent of each person's interests are always, at least at the borders, going to come into conflict with those of others, since the full satisfaction of everyone's desires is not possible. This naturally leads to conflict, but that conflict itself is expensive and generally undesirable compared to a state of reconciliation and cooperation, since it imposes material and interpersonal costs. Thus, it is in everyone's interests to have some means of resolving the conflicts that arise of necessity as part of living among other people.

One solution to such conflicts is to subordinate the interests of one party of the conflict to the other. This does not resolve the conflict, but instead anoints one side as 'legitimate' and the other as 'illegitimate' and perpetuates an eternal war against the 'illegitimate' side in the name of 'ending' (really, disguising) the conflict. This is the solution which most societies throughout human history, since the creation of the state by the first priest or warlord, have pursued, because it is the easiest. Instead of actually giving up anything, resolving anything, or reconciling anything, one side gets everything they want, and wages constant conflict on the other side, which is cowed, defeated, indoctrinated, repressed, confused, and loaded full of sacred ideas to protect the authority and legitimacy of the others.

Another solution is to subordinate the interests of both sides to a 'sacred idea' such as Law, or Equality, or Justice. This is the idea behind most modern representative democracies, and it, too, is easy; instead of resolving the conflict, it pushes down, hides, 'ends' the conflict by meting out punishments and rewards so that people can feel satisfied, as if something has been accomplished, and leaves it at that. Of course the underlying causes of the conflict are not resolved, and nothing is fixed or healed by this method, and so, inevitably, it reduces to the first method of conflict resolution: an eternal war on the part of society, on behalf of the class that happens to be privileged by the Laws that are constructed, against those who are disenfranchised by it. This, too, is no real solution; such a centralized, rigid legal system is, despite statist myth-making, more damaging to its host society than beneficial. It is a band-aid, a Procrustean bed.

As an example, imagine that someone shoplifts a bicycle. In a modern liberal-capitalist-democratic society, such a person would likely be fined and/or sent to jail --- after having the vehicle taken away, of course. Is this truly the right solution? If someone was in such terrible need as to risk social conflict to obtain the bicycle, maybe they need it --- maybe allowing them to keep it would allow them to obtain transportation to a job, which would help raise them out of poverty. This is a classic problem with poverty, after all: it takes resources to get into a position to make money, and without money this can turn into an unsolvable chicken-and-egg problem without resorting to 'illegal' actions. Moreover, stealing a cheap bicycle from your average supermarket store, like Target, is barely a blip on their radar, whereas protecting their property by preventing such theft, and even punishing the thief, can be an utterly disastrous thing for the thief. The assertion of the fullest extent of the corporation's minor interest over the desperate needs of the thief is a clear subordination of the latter's interests to the former, a grotesque decision. Not only does doing so merely perpetuate the social conflict, without resolving any of the underlying problems, it increases it, as someone who was merely poor before now gets kidnapped, put in a cage, and has this 'put on their record.' This is why, incidentally, recidivism rates are so high after prison --- how is someone supposed to get back on their feet after having their life utterly destroyed in such a way? And hence the conflict worsens, and the cops get more militarized.

In contrast, since an anarchist 'society,' by definition, rejects such systemic violence, subordination of the interests of some to others, and adherence to the law as a fixed sacred idea, the focus must inevitably be on the actual resolution of conflicts between the parties to the conflict, and nothing else. The interests of both parties are all that is relevant to such an endeavor, and the resolution of the conflict by finding a mutually beneficial and satisfactory end must be the only goal. Although the resolution can be informed by social norms and values, this is only through the reaction of the community at large --- at least, those who are aware of the conflict --- to the resolution of the conflict, and the beliefs and values of the parties that are involved, insofar as they have internalized any social norms or values. No set of norms or values can be elevated to a position of a 'sacred idea' over the actual interests of those involved.

In this model, some conflicts may not be resolvable; sometimes, the cost of social war is less to each involved party than the cost of accepting any compromise whatsoever. In such a case, conflict is inevitable, and that's okay. Such a situation can only arise, in my opinion, when one side is attempting to unilaterally subordinate the interests of another: the would-be master requires surrender from the slave, and the slave cannot accept this. We are, in a sense, in just such a situation now --- no 'resolution' to the conflict between the rich and powerful and everyone else is possible; the former must be eliminated (not by killing them, to be clear, but by taking away their power).

Based on this, instead of a set system of courts and judges, with bureaucratic procedures and state enforcement, in an anarchist society I envision a system where conflicts are first and foremost resolved by face to face communication between the aggrieved parties, or through the mediation of family members, neighbors, or friends. However, in response to occasions when these fail, perhaps because the aggrieved parties don't trust any of the people listed previously to mediate the dispute evenhandedly, a class of wandering, competing arbitrators could arise to serve the required social function.

They could be aware of the way previous arbitrators had resolved similar disputes, perhaps compiling lists of history and tradition that they thought aligned with their personal philosophies, but they would be primarily concerned with arriving at a solution in their particular situation, for the specific needs of the people involved. Their job would not be to 'hand down' a final decision --- any number of other people could always be consulted for a second opinion --- or be the mouthpiece of some absolute law, and their decisions would not be enforced unless the people involved themselves found them worthy of enforcing. Such arbitrators' only job would be to try to use their broad experience with resolving conflicts and their speaking and arguing ability to find some mutually agreeable solution so that social conflict can end. In essence, they would be trying to find some unique point in the ongoing bargain between the two parties that would be better for both of them, and the primary enforcement of their ideas would be, if they are successful in their job, the fact that such reconciliation is better than ongoing conflict for everyone involved.

This sort of approach to resolving conflicts in society has some historical precedent; it is, in fact, fairly similar to the filid of Ancient Ireland:

First of all, the law itself was based upon immemorial custom passed down orally through a class of professional jurists known as the filid. These jurists added glosses to the basic law from time to time to make it fit the needs of the times; several schools of jurisprudence existed, and the professional jurists were consulted by parties to disputes for advice as to what the law was in particular cases, and these same men often acted as arbitrators between suitors. They remained at all times private persons, not public officials; their functioning depended upon their knowledge of the law and the integrity of their judicial reputations. They are the only “judges” Celtic Ireland knew; their jurisprudence was her only law, national in scope, and completely detached from the tuath, the kings and their respective wishes.

How was this law of the filid enforced? The law was enforced by the action of private individuals allied with the plaintiff and defendant through a system of sureties. Men were linked together by a number of individual relationships by which they were obligated to stand surety for one another guaranteeing that wrongs would be righted, debts paid, judgments honored, and the law enforced.1

Although historical precedent is not absolute, and we should dare to dream beyond the limits of what has been done before, instead of confining ourselves to mere cannibalism of the past, historical parallels to suggested projectual anarchist ideas are, in my opinion, very useful in demonstrating that such ideas are possible and can arise.

2. Protection

Now, not all social conflict is amenable to resolution. There will probably be those who don't want to try to solve a conflict by a mutually-agreed-upon compromise of some kind, but want to take whatever they please from others by force, because they think they're stronger. There is also violent crime to consider, and attacks on a community from the outside. Furthermore, although the fact that resolutions to conflicts are mutually beneficial, and ongoing conflict in a community is costly and destabilizing, will usually be enough to motivate compliance, sometimes decisions made and agreed to in arbitration will need some mechanism of enforcement. To a large degree, diffuse social sanctions can suffice for this; refusing to trade with people, disassociating from them, or criticizing them in ways that can damage their reputation, are actually powerful motivators, and it has the added benefit of allowing each person in the community to make their own decision as to someone's guilt or innocence and the degree of it, which means no need for central community councils or anything. Nevertheless, sometimes a little more is needed.

For all these purposes, I suggest mutual defense associations. These could be composed of, and in turn controlled cooperatively by, the people whom they existed to protect. In other words, these mutual defense associations could be composed of part-time volunteers, maybe rotating by some schedule or maybe just being called into service by proximity, from the community, that answer to the needs of the other people in their community and can call each other up for help as well. By this means, everyone would band together to protect, or come to the aid of, any one of their members, in return for the willingness of the others to do so for each of them, in classic mutual aid fashion. There could be multiple overlapping such institutions, with different bylaws and membership, etc, for each community, not locked down to any territory, nor enacting any set of rigid laws, but merely operating on the basis of the needs of the people in them. They might have rules that their members have to follow to remain a part of the association and gain the benefits therein, or you might get the benefits of the associations imply for being part of the community. There are a myriad of different ways to do it, all equally valid for different situations and communities.

One possible concern might be that such mutual defense associations might turn into states, but I don't think that such a situation is any great risk. Without sacred ideas legitimizing the rule of any particular institution, it would be very difficult for any would-be state to grab much power, as everyone would begin leaving it, refusing to pay dues, refusing to obey orders, and joining other mutual defense associations to counteract it. Trying to force every single person within its claimed territory, or even a significant fraction of them, to obey its orders would be a Herculean, or perhaps better yet Sisyphean, task. After all, the state does not perpetuate itself by sheer repression, but through indoctrination into sacred ideas such as 'law' and 'social contract' and 'legitimacy,' as well as a show of intimidation through its police and armies which would nevertheless not be enough to actually control the whole population. Without already having a population indoctrinated in these ideas

The benefit of such a system is that, unlike cops, mutual defense associations wouldn't be an occupying army that 'descends from above,' alien to the communities they patrol, designed to enforce laws deaf to the norms and needs of the communities they walk through. They would be of, by, for, and accountable to the people that they actually serve and protect. It would be something everyone in the community could take a part in, and a part time affair at that, meaning that everyone who did would be fully part of the community, with other jobs to weave them into it. Thus there would be no special class that performs functions of defense and peace-keeping, which views itself as separate from and superior to everyone else. No more "sheep, "sheepdogs" and "wolves." It would just be members of the community doing each other a service, not because it's their job, but because they get something out of it too. Members of such associations, being members of their community, could also be held accountable for their actions if necessary via the same diffuse social sanctions and even, if necessary, force, that every other member of the community would be subject to. Without the special privileges of authority, they would not be viewed with undue respect, and thus would not benefit from the same lack of accountability as cops. And aren't the people who use violence in society to protect others those most in need of proper accountability and limits, of being forced to be careful and considerate and slow to anger and violence?

What's more, since protectors are just volunteers who, otherwise, are like anyone else, such associations couldn't claim a monopoly on helping other members of the community. Any member of the community could act to protect the others, so if you saw someone in need of help or protection, you could do what you needed to do, without fear of reprisal from "the authorities." Of course, if you judged the situation wrong or acted too brutally or whatever, the community could hold you accountable just that same as anyone else.

Moreover, since these MDAs would be composed of members of the communities they protected, minorities and oppressed classes could have their own MDAs serving their own interests, counterbalancing the power of majorities. (Imbalances in numbers could easily be made up for with modern military technology such as automatic weapons.) No longer would we have to live in a system where the majority or the minority gets to dictate what happens to everyone, opening up the gates to oppression. People with different interests could abide by different rules and live in different ways, disassociating from each other if necessary, but, as long as live and let live attitudes prevail, living together as well.

Furthermore, these communities would not need to 'win' any conflict outright, in the sense that states must absolutely crush their enemies, but only make the conflict costly enough to the people trying to oppress them for it to not be worth it. In turn, because of this structure, that threshold would be far less than under a state: the state is an incredibly efficient, centralized system for enforcement of laws which is considered legitimate, and therefore cooperated with, by nearly everyone in society, and which has no competitors, and has the ability to tax everyone in society, even those it seeks to oppress. It even maintains a separate class of people to actually do its dirty work, separating the people who make the decisions to oppress people from actually having to invest any time, energy, resources, or their own lives in actually enforcing their decisions. MDAs share none of these features --- there are competitors, they don't have sole legitimacy, they can't tax anyone, let alone everyone, and the people making the decisions are also responsible for carrying them out. How many Republicans do you think would find it worth it to legislate against trans healthcare, for instance, if they actually had to get up out of their armchairs and manhandle doctors and kidnap trans children?

Such mutual defense associations could also double as insurance agencies, pooling resources through dues paid by the members that can afford to do so not only for weapons, armor, and training for those that don't already have them, but also to have a pool of money to pay any reparations that may be assigned to any of their members in case they can't pay themselves. This would provide a way of avoiding even more conflicts, of course, and taking the burden of reparations off people who may not be doing so well.

Systems similar to this have also existed in history, such as the borh system of ancient England:

For purposes of security, the most important social unit was the borh. A borh was an association, typically of twelve people, who stood surety for one another's good behavior. If a member of a borh committed a crime, the other members were committed to bringing him to justice — but also to helping him pay restitution for his crime. (Financial restitution rather than retribution was the normal sentence for most crimes; those who refused to pay restitution were outlawed, that is, placed outside the law — meaning that anyone could kill them with impunity.)

The borh may have originated as a kinship group, but if so, its kin-based aspects soon dwindled; at the height of the Anglo-Saxon system, borhs were purely contractual arrangements. Individuals were free to apply to a borh of their choosing, and members of that borh were likewise free to accept or refuse the applicant; once accepted, an individual was free to leave, and could also be expelled. Since the members of the borh would be held responsible for one another's actions, there was a strong incentive to police members' behavior. Likewise, there was a strong incentive to belong to a borh and not be kicked out, because few were willing to deal with someone who belonged to no borh; such a person was in effect an uninsured risk, since he had no fellow borh-members standing surety for him. The borh system thus created powerful incentives for responsible behavior.2

Another similar system existed in England much later as well, although it focused more on the absolute enforcement of laws and (were forced to) use(d) government courts for prosecution, which obviously wouldn't work, let alone be acceptable, in an anarchist society:

But before the reign of the Bobbies, English law enforcement relied heavily on organizations known as Associations for the Prosecution of Felons — also known as thief-takers' associations. Imagine a cross between a Neighborhood Watch group, an insurance agency, and an Old West style posse. People in a particular neighborhood would pool their resources, and supply their own labor, to support their local thief-takers' association. The association would keep its eyes open for robbers (particularly those who robbed houses displaying the plaque of association membership!). If a crime (against an association member) did occur, the association would hunt down, or pay to have hunted down, the wrongdoer, often cooperating with similar associations in other districts — and then use the pooled resources to pay for the felon's prosecution in a government court. (Criminal justice was not free in those days.)2

3. Property Norms and Economics

Now, what sorts of general norms do I think are likely to emerge in an anarchist society that used the sorts of systems I'm proposing? To be quite frank, that's a question that cannot possibly be wholly answered --- in a society that is focused on the needs and interests of the actual individuals involved in conflicts, coming up with norms that serve them, and avoiding hierarchy, domination, and authority instead of enforcing a law or a plan, the norms would be different, sometimes subtly, sometimes drastically, in every place, and even from time to time in the same place. However, if the positive emphasis of anarchism is on self-determination and autonomy, the positive mirror image of domination and subordination, I can venture some guesses.

First of all, I think that traditional property norms would have to disappear. Property, in allowing for absentee dominion over resources which one does not use but which other people do, directly conflicts with self-determination and autonomy, and directly serves domination: if you use something, rely on it for your life in some way, have your interests tied up in it, and yet someone else controls it, that creates a relationship of dependency from you to them which is imbalanced, because you have no control and they have all the control, and they (the owner) can exploit that to control you. We see this sort of relationship between e.g. the capitalist and their workers, or the landlord and their tenants. The absentee owner 'uses' their property only to gain dominion over others through state-backed violence, that is the only use they have for it and the only interest they have tied up in it, and interests that require domination are not to be respected in an anarchist society. Refusing them such a 'right' to absentee property only serves to prevent domination. Meanwhile, the occupiers and users of such property, if given primacy, take nothing real away from the 'owner', just as stepping into a place on the sidewalk which your friend will never set foot in, nor use themself, does not take anything away from them, whereas if they try to prevent you from walking down the sidewalk to somewhere you need to go, they are robbing you of some liberty.

Nevertheless, property does perform some functions that might be useful to protect autonomy in an anarchist society, in allowing the individual to separate herself form the collectivity, so that she does not become dominated by it in the same way she was dominated by the state or the capitalist, beholden to it through dependence on its resources and subjugated to the wills of many others instead of a few. This is why Proudhon said both "property is theft" and "property is liberty." To quote Proudhon from Theory of Property:

Property is not measured by merit, as it is neither wages, nor reward, nor decoration, nor honorific title; it is not measured by the power of the individual, since labor, production, credit and exchange do not require it at all. It is a free gift, accorded to man, with a view to protecting him against the attacks of poverty and the incursions of his fellows. It is the breastplate of his personality and equality, independent of differences in talent, genius, strength, industry, etc.3

This is where occupancy and use possession comes into play: granting 'ownership' of things --- the 'right' to have primary say in the use of something

Note that this is not re-instating capitalist property: since all those who have an interest in something, or who use it, have an equal claim by this logic, shared means of production, for instance, which all use and all maintain, are the property of the group that collectively maintains and uses them; likewise, the products of labor are the property of all those who cooperated to produce it where the relations of mutual aid and cooperation involved in the process of production weren't broken up by trade to alienate any claims to the products of production; similarly, all those who live in a house own it, all those who regularly work in a field share claim to it, etc. For any one person who uses or occupies things to claim sole possessory rights to it would be to make all the other users dependent on them, and defeat the whole point, not to mention being simply arbitrary. Any decisions made regarding shared objects must either be individual, but not likely to effect the use of others --- so if you use a factory machine, maintain it and leave it ready for another to use, and don't try to use it while someone else is --- in the manner of usufructuary, or must be done with the express consent of the others who use the object, either directly (consensus democracy) or through some means agreed-upon beforehand.

Nevertheless, I do not see any reason to think that even occupancy and use possession will be taken as an absolute law or 'sacred idea' to be enforced with prejudice and unilaterally. In an egoist anarchist society such as the one I have described, respect for any norm would only be assured as long as that respect was beneficial to the ones doing the respecting as well as the ones respected. In an anarchist society where conflict resolution is the focus, not Law or Justice (revenge), this will be further reinforced, because conflict resolution will be focused on doing what is necessary to naturally and positively encourage people to respect each other's interests. As such, possession will be protected in the community only insofar as having it as a norm is mutually beneficial to all, making it a second-order set of 'rules of thumb' which are responsive to the underlying needs of the society. That means that the respect for possession norms would come directly from the reciprocal gain to each individual who has to respect them of having their own possessions respected.4

Thus, if the possessory claims of one set of people become onerous enough, or another set has nothing of their own anyway, then the incentive to respect such possessory titles would evaporate, and they would just take what they need. After all, saying "I will respect you and all your possessions" to a homeless or starving person is utterly laughable as a promise for which to expect anything in return! Likewise, promising to respect the possessions of another when you own everything is stupid and they would have no reason to respect that. Crucially, this wouldn't just be on an individual level: in an anarchist society, any 'violations' of possessory claims would be recognized as no more or less inherently 'legitimate' than the claims themselves, and the lack of interests on the part of the violating parties in respecting the possessions of the other party would have to be recognized, and their interests in the objects they took examined and weighed. Thus, the people resolving such disputes would have to focus on making sure the violators gained an interest in supporting general possessory norms, insuring that they no longer need to violate them, in order to resolve the conflict.5

What this implies, when worked out in the long run, I can't say for sure. Personally, I envision an economy dominated by local, community-based worker- and consumer- cooperatives, joined and regulated by federations where the power flows from the bottom up instead of the top down like in a representative democracy (i.e. an elective aristocracy); the gaps between these cooperatives would be filled by independent artisans using advanced home manufacturing equipment, embedded in a market freed from the cash nexus so that people can barter or exchange using whatever they have, or operate on (interest free) debt or credit. I would expect people to claim empty property and build what they need out of what is available to them, so few would be homeless, as they could simply squat unused buildings or build on unused land; likewise, without licensing and regulation, as well as the overbearing control of landlords, people could run businesses doing whatever they know how to do --- from hair braiding to cooking --- out of their own homes if they needed to. In such an economy, I don't think there would be anyone, no matter how 'disabled' that wouldn't be able to contribute something, and since they would work on their own terms and receive the full product of their labor, responsible for their labor time, it would be far more fulfilling and worth it. For those who truly couldn't support themselves, mutual aid would probably be widespread, as well as the distribution of all excess production, which the state currently forces corporations to throw out instead of providing to people6, to those who need it; on top of that, as I discussed before, 'theft' would be a legitimate way to survive.

In the end, I can't plan out an anarchist society ahead of time, nor do I want to. Nevertheless, I hope I've sketched a promising picture of how the basic substructure of such a society could work.


[Anarchy in the UK by Roderick Long](http: //


This is similar to something William Gillis discussed in From Whence Do Property Titles Arise?