The state is not something which can be destroyed by a revolution, but is a condition, a certain relationship between human beings, a mode of human behavior; we destroy it by contracting other relationships, by behaving differently.
— Gustav Landauer
Freedom of contract has long been the rallying cry of proponents of “free enterprise” opposed to all manner of government regulation. Some have even translated their opposition to government interference with the economy into opposition to government as such, placing their faith in the “free market” as the solution to all social ills (Rothbard).
Yet some have gone even further, arguing that freedom of contract is not only incompatible with all forms of government, but with all forms of domination and exploitation, including “free market” systems based on the private ownership and control of the economy. These are the anarchist advocates of contract.
They argue that underlying the notion of contract are two fundamentally subversive ideas, freedom and equality. Any contract which fails to maintain the freedom and equality of the contracting parties is, from their point of view, inherently illegitimate. It is only to the extent that contract secures freedom and equality that it receives its justification (Proudhon, 1989).
The anarchist notion of contract can be seen as the natural extension of the liberal conception of society as a voluntary association of free and equal individuals. The abolition of all involuntary, coercive and unequal relationships by means of contract is just the final step in the movement from status to contract which began in Europe during
the revolutionary struggles against royal absolutism, a step which liberals themselves are no longer willing to take.
As liberalism has become the official doctrine of the capitalist state, its commitment to its original ideals has become weaker and weaker, to the point of almost complete abandonment. Liberals are no longer so much concerned with determining which institutions and practices are compatible with individual freedom and equality as they are concerned to justify existing power relationships. In the process, their notion of contract has been reduced to a largely rhetorical device, the primary purpose of which is to legitimate unequal and coercive relationships, all in the name of a specious individual liberty.
Where the liberal seeks to justify subordination and inequality by making them appear the result of contracts entered voluntarily by free and equal individuals, the anarchist decries as a fraud both the process and the result.
To portray the parties to an employment contract, for example, as free and equal to each other is to ignore the serious inequality of bargaining power which exists between the worker and the employer. To then go on to portray the relationship of subordination and exploitation which naturally results as the epitome of freedom is to make a mockery of both individual liberty and social justice.
The anarchist advocates of contract argue that contract will be come a genuine expression of individual freedom and equality only where people are sufficiently equal to each other that none will ever be in the position of having to sell him or herself to another. Freedom and equality must be the basis of contract, not merely the largely fictitious result. Only then will contract really serve as a means of creating and maintaining a society in which people freely associate together in accordance with their individual desires and the principles of justice.
Contract then, from an anarchist perspective, should perform a dual function. Its primary purpose is to ensure individual liberty by substituting voluntary contractual relationships for all relationships based upon any form of coercion, whether it is the economic coercion exercised by the capitalist over the worker or the political and legal coercion imposed on individuals by the state. Its secondary purpose is to eliminate economic exploitation and to ensure economic justice through the equivalent exchange of products between free and equal producers.
In a “free market” system based on private ownership, massive disparities in wealth develop because the workers are forced by economic necessity to sell their labor to the capitalist at a price which does not reflect its real value. Associated together, the workers create a “collective force” greater than the sum of their individual capacities, but it is the capitalist who reaps the benefit (Proudhon, 1970).
Only when the workers become entitled to the full product of their labor will economic freedom and justice be achieved. Workers will then be able to exchange their products directly between themselves for products of equivalent value. No longer will anyone be in a position to exploit the needs of others for his or her own superior advantage. Instead, contract will become a means of exchange between free and equal individuals which imposes reciprocal obligations on the parties to their mutual benefit.
The purposes of such contracts need not be limited to economic matters. They may include social or political objectives as well. The important thing is that whatever the specific nature or purpose of the contract, the parties must be of roughly equal bargaining power, and what they exchange must be of equal value, so that everyone benefits equally from the exchange and no one becomes so powerful as to dominate the others.
Only then can it be said that the terms of the contract have been freely accepted by all the parties to the agreement, and only then is it likely that the effect of the contract will be to maintain everyone’s freedom and equality. For when everyone is roughly equal to each other, no one will any longer be in a position where he or she will have no choice but to accept the terms of a contract which results in his or her own exploitation or domination.
In political terms, this notion of contract as a free agreement based on equivalent exchange necessarily excludes the idea of government. Government, despite the claims of the social contract theorists, is not based on free agreement. Rather, the anarchists claim, it is a coercive imposition.
According to social contract theorists, society and the state should be conceived as having been created by a voluntary agreement between free and equal individuals. In the “state of nature” which exists prior to this agreement, each person’s freedom is under constant threat, so they claim, because there is no authority to prevent anyone from violating the rights and liberties of each other.
To escape this wretched condition, people agree to submit themselves to a state authority which will then secure and protect their individual rights and liberties. The state is to ensure that people will abide by their commitments and refrain from violating the rights and liberties of others. Because the benefits of creating a state are allegedly so obvious, social contract theorists assume that the agreement to create the state must have been unanimous. Everyone has a positive obligation to obey the commands of the state because everyone has, in one way or another, agreed to do so (Hobbes).
Social contract theorists have shown great imagination in detailing the ways in which one can bind oneself to state authority, from voting to accepting social benefits. Some have even gone so far as to argue that the agreement to obey the laws of the state can be inferred from the mere fact of living in society, on the pretext that this indicates acceptance of state authority in exchange for the benefits which purportedly result from the creation of the state.
Anarchists have never been much impressed by these sorts of arguments. In the first place, even if it could be plausibly argued that everyone has agreed to the “social contract,” what it really amounts to is the sacrificing of individual liberty, not the securing of it, in exchange for state protection. Once that fateful exchange is made the individual must obey whatever the state commands, a condition which can hardly be described as one of freedom. That people may have a right to vote does not alter the fact that they may be required to submit to laws to which they have never expressly agreed and which they may actively oppose.
Where the parties to the contract are not equal to each other, what is in fact secured by the social contract is that very inequality, which is now protected by force of law. The rich need no longer fear being deprived of their possessions by the poor because the state will protect everyone’s property rights. For those who lack property, it is difficult to see the attraction of this bargain.
It is absurd to claim that by virtue of their passive acceptance of this institutionalized inequality the disadvantaged have assumed an obligation to obey the laws which serve to maintain their unequal status. Acquiescence to state authority may be based on any number of factors, from fear and intimidation to the lack of any viable alternatives, none of which may indicate support for the state or the social order which it upholds.
Not only is the social contract an historical fiction, it is a conceptual impossibility. If prior to the creation of the state people really had lived in a “state of nature” in which they were constantly at each other’s throats, the very notion of a social contract would have been inconceivable. In conditions of such great uncertainty and conflict, the social practice of contracting with others would never arise because no one would have any reason to expect that anyone else would ever fulfill the terms of a contract into which he or she may have entered.
The idea of making commitments to others and abiding by them would only occur to people involved in ongoing social relationships based on at least a minimal degree of trust. Before one can enter a contract with others, one must share a common language or means of communication. Only people who share a common conception of what it means to contract will understand what is expected of themselves and of others when they enter into one. Society is the basis, not the result, of contract (Bakunin).
Moreover, the ability to enter contractual relations with others presupposes a level of individual development and self-awareness which can only be achieved within society. For a contract to be a genuine agreement, it must be the result of critical, informed and rational choice. Such a level of individual autonomy is only possible in certain social conditions. Autonomous contracting agents do not appear out of nowhere. The free and equal individual of the social contract is the product, not the author, of society.
In place of the fiction of the social contract, anarchists propose that all associations be based on contracts which have actually been negotiated and agreed to by all of the members of the association. Such contracts of association must expressly reserve the rights and liberties of the parties, including the right to vary the terms of the contract of association and the freedom to withdraw from the association itself (Proudhon, 1924).
However, that individual autonomy is a social artifact points to a potential problem with the anarchist ideal of society as a voluntary association of free and equal individuals. Contractual relationships presuppose a sphere of noncontractual relationships, such as the family, in which the individual develops the moral and social capacities necessary to engage in the social practice of contracting. Anarchists must be careful to ensure that this noncontractual sphere does not replicate the relations of inequality and subordination which they oppose in other spheres of society This requires a genuine commitment to nonsexist and nonhierarchical personal relationships (Pateman, 1984).
Central to the anarchist notion of contract is the concept of equivalent exchange. Yet many anarchists have come to reject this notion, while remaining committed to the idea of free agreement, the other aspect of the anarchist contract. They argue that the notion of equivalent exchange is confused and unworkable when applied in the economic sphere, while it is inappropriate and inapplicable to noneconomic relationships.
One of the central problems confronting advocates of equivalent exchange is to arrive at a common standard by which to determine something’s true value. Without such a standard, it is impossible to determine whether the parties to a contract have agreed to
exchange something of equivalent value and thereby stand to benefit equally from the exchange.
That this whole manner of evaluation is inapplicable to agreements which do not involve an exchange of goods should be readily apparent. People can and do freely assume obligations the fulfillment of which is not dependent on the receipt of some equivalent benefit, as when someone promises to help another person with no expectation of reward.
To require the receipt of some benefit for an agreement to be binding would be to reduce all voluntary social relationships to a series of self-interested bargains. People would only keep their agreements when it was to their advantage, and break them whenever it was not. Social life would be robbed of its spontaneity as people would engage in an endless series of calculations of their individual benefit in which there would be no place for love, generosity or genuine concern for others.
Even if the notion of equivalent exchange were held applicable only to economic contracts involving an exchange of goods, similar problems would arise. Those who were unable, for whatever reason, to produce goods with an appreciable exchange value would have to rely on the charity of others who wou1d have no obligation and no reason to assist them. Although, strictly speaking, this would involve no exploitation of the economically disabled, in terms of individual autonomy and well-being they would clearly be in a far worse position than the economic producers, and completely dependent on the latter’s goodwill.
Those anarchists who endorse the notion of equivalent exchange are primarily concerned with eliminating economic exploitation. They have searched for a standard for measuring economic value which accurately reflects the moral worth of the individual producer’s labor so as to ensure that the producers receive what they truly deserve. That search has been in vain.
When labor itself is treated as the basis for exchange, as some anarchists advocate, its market value, even if uniform, will not necessarily reflect either the moral worth of the individual worker’s labor or the social utility of the product itself. An individual worker may spend considerable time and effort producing goods with little or no exchange value. Other workers, in suitably favorable circumstances, may be able to produce highly valued goods with ease.
The disparity in value may very well be due to factors which are beyond individual control and for which the workers are not personally responsible, such as better access to markets and resources and more advanced technology. Because these economic advantages can never be evenly distributed, it is impossible to devise a system in which economic reward matches individual desert.
The concept of individual desert is itself highly problematic. If the instruments of labor, the means of distribution and exchange and the capacity to labor itself are the collective products of society, as most anarchists agree, then it is impossible to determine the actual moral worth of any particular person’s contribution to the economy. So even if individual desert provided a fair basis for distributing wealth, a claim which itself is open to question, in a society of any degree of complexity such a scheme is simply unworkable (Kropotkin).
This is but one of the reasons why many anarchists now advocate distribution according to need and advocate the complete abolition of wage labor. Another reason is to ensure that the agreements people do make are freely entered into. Where people are guaranteed the satisfaction of their needs, it will no longer be necessary for them to agree to certain courses of action simply to ensure their own survival. Instead, they will be free to choose whatever suits them best (Cafiero).
More importantly, they will no longer have to seek to maximize their own advantage through competition’ with others. They can freely give themselves unto others with no expectation of reward, giving free reign to spontaneity and their most generous feelings. Any contracts or agreements which they may wish to enter will become the public expression of free choice between persons whose relationships are characterized by cooperation and mutual aid instead of the maneuvering for competitive advantage found in capitalist society.
Some individualist anarchists go a step further and argue that the very notion of contract as free agreement should also be done away with. The problem with contract, from their point of view, is that it requires someone to act according to prior commitments rather than his or her present understanding or choice (Godwin). The notion of a “free agreement” is a contradiction in terms, they claim, because the obligations which result from an agreement constrain future liberty of action and initiative just as much as economic necessity may constrain one’s present choice.
Anarchists who endorse free agreement reply that far from conflicting with individual autonomy, the obligations which arise from truly free agreements presuppose it. To enter an agreement and to assume an obligation to perform a certain act requires making reasoned choices and critically evaluating the various courses of action which are open to one. The terms of the agreement, and therefore the content of any resulting obligation, are defined by the person making it.
It is always open to a person who has assumed an obligation by means of free agreement to re-evaluate his or her commitments and, if necessary, to change them. It is a mistake to think that the self-assumed obligations which arise from various forms of free agreement, whether contracts or promises, are binding in the same sense that laws are. Laws are binding in the sense that they are enforced by some sort of political authority. Yet one can freely assume an obligation by agreeing to perform a certain action without this entailing any form of coercion.
Whether the failure to abide by an agreement results in the application of a coercive sanction depends on the existence of some sort of enforcement agency, not on the nature of the obligations which may result from entering the agreement. Absent such coercive institutions, nothing prevents people from continuing to exercise their critical judgment after assuming an obligation by means of free agreement, or from later deciding that, all things considered, it ought not to be performed.
Those anarchists who oppose any kind of obligation as an infringement of individual liberty would perhaps respond that this is to confuse the process with the result. Although the act of making an agreement may presuppose a certain level of individual autonomy, the resulting obligations may nevertheless be completely incompatible with it, as when someone agrees to obey the commands of another. That people may freely agree to forfeit their autonomy is sufficient, in their view, to justify completely dispensing with any notion of obligation itself. After all, is it not by appeal to some notion of obligation that the social contract theorists attempt to justify the authority of the state?
Anarchists who endorse free agreement look at things differently. They conceive of obligation, freely assumed, more as an extension of individual autonomy than as a limitation to it. Through cooperation with others on the basis of free agreement and association, individuals expand their scope of action and initiative. Free association is seen as a form of collective self-empowerment, as a way of uniting various individuals on a strictly voluntary basis for the mutually beneficial satisfaction of their many needs and interests. Through the creation of social relationships of reciprocal obligation, free association gives expression to and reaffirms human solidarity and community (Malatesta).
Underlying this disagreement are differing conceptions of individuality and community. For individualist anarchists, association and cooperation of any sort threaten individual autonomy, because they require individuals to conform their actions to the needs and expectations of others, so that they may work in concert. Yet by opposing association and cooperation, the individualist anarchists deprive people of any means of transcending their individual circumstances through solidarity with others (Pateman, 1985).
There can be no prospect of genuine community in a society composed of isolated individuals concerned only with their own interests. It is doubtful that there would be any society at all. In the absence of any ongoing social relationships, the “autonomous individual” would cease to exist, as there would be no human society from which such an individual would be able to emerge. It is a mistake to conceive of freedom and autonomy as merely the absence of coercion or constraint; they are kinds of social relationships. This fundamental error effectively relegates the individualist anarchist ideal to the realm of intellectual fantasy.
However, anarchists who favor free agreement do not go to the other extreme and argue that one must always fulfill one’s obligations. They argue that in so far as the process by which an agreement is reached or the content of the agreement itself is incompatible with the anarchist ideals of freedom and community, no binding obligation can arise from it. Between worker and capitalist there can be no free agreement because of the inequalities of power existing between them. Particular social preconditions must exist before it can be said that agreements genuinely have been freely entered into, namely equal well-being for all and the abolition of all hierarchical social relationships.
Promises to obey, contracts of (wage) slavery, agreements requiring the acceptance of a subordinate status, are all illegitimate because they do constrict and restrain individual autonomy. But far from justifying the complete rejection of the notion of self-assumed obligation, this merely emphasizes the continuing need for people to exercise their critical judgment and choice when deciding whether an obligation ought to be assumed or performed.
Individualist anarchists originally isolated obligation as the underlying concept which gave social contract theory its particular force as a justification of political authority. They would argue that by accepting the notion of obligation, the anarchist advocates of free agreement leave open the possibility that some forms of political authority are legitimate, thereby fatally compromising their anarchism. In fact, in The Problem of Political Obligation, the feminist political theorist, Carole Pateman, has argued that the notion of self-assumed obligation provides a conceptual basis for a theory of direct, or self-managing, democracy.
Direct democratic voting can be seen as the political counterpart of promising or free agreement. By directly voting in favor of a particular law or proposal, the individual citizen assumes an obligation to abide by it. The citizen, in concert with others, defines the content of his or her political obligations, and in so doing must exercise critical judgment and choice. Political obligation in this context is not owed to a separate entity above society, such as the state, but to one’s fellow citizens.
Although the assembled citizens collectively legislate the rules governing their association, and are bound by them as individuals, they are also superior to them in the sense that these rules can always be modified or repealed. Collectively the associated citizens can be said to constitute a kind of political authority, but their authority is based on horizontal relationships of obligation between themselves, rather than on the vertical relationship existing between the individual and the state.
The citizens do not exchange their obedience for the protection of the state, as in the social contract, but create reciprocal relationships of obligation in their collective undertakings and social life, front the workplace to the community, on the basis of their own voluntary choice. Each vote constitutes an express renewal of the social compact, which may be dissolved at the will of the parties, who remain free to dissociate from each other.
Society is conceived as a complex web of directly democratic voluntary associations. This scheme remains anarchist in the sense that there is no central authority, or state, claiming sovereignty over the various associations. Rather there is an association of associations, each having a directly democratic structure, freely federated with one an other.
If this scheme looks familiar, it should, for it closely resembles the anarchist theory of federation. The relationship between anarchism and democratic theory has always been ambiguous. Many anarchists have advocated the application of democratic principles in the voluntary groups which they see as the base units of a future free society. Yet anarchists have claimed to reject all political authority, denouncing the tyranny of the majority and the fraud of universal suffrage.
Critics of anarchism would claim that this merely demonstrates the conceptual incoherence of anarchism. But if one conceives of direct democratic voting as an expression and extension of self-assumed obligation, as Pateman does, then this supposed incoherence disappears. It is perfectly consistent for the anarchist proponents of free agreement to support direct democracy when it is conceived as giving political expression to the ideals of self-assumed obligation and individual autonomy which they support. While this may commit the anarchists to some sort of political authority, it is not the same kind of authority as that claimed by the state.
The political authority claimed by the state is hierarchical, coercive, and monopolistic. The state is necessarily authoritarian. It is not a voluntary association created by free agreement, but a compulsory body exercising authority over everyone whom it asserts falls within its jurisdiction regardless of their individual consent. The most it offers its subjects is the opportunity to elect their rulers during periodic elections. The content of the law, and hence of the citizen’s political obligations, is decided by someone else. The political obligation owed by the citizen to the state is not and cannot be self-assumed.
When anarchists denounce universal suffrage as the counter revolution they do not necessarily denounce democracy as a whole. Universal suffrage, by itself, is counterrevolutionary because it gives the people the illusion of self-government when in fact they remain subject to the authority of the state. Parliamentary forms of democracy score no great advance beyond aristocratic forms of government because the essentially hierarchical structure of political authority remains intact.
It is for this reason that anarchists have also denounced the socialist “people’s state” as a dangerous illusion, because it still retains the distinction between the ruler and the ruled, a distinction which can only lead to the domination of the governed masses. Charges that
anarchism is anti-democratic betray a confusion between parliamentary and direct democracy, between obligations which are imposed and those which are self-assumed.
Some confusion regarding the anarchist attitude to democracy results from the anarchists’ own concern that democracy, no matter how direct, may constitute a new form of domination by the majority over the minority, and is therefore unacceptable. The question which then arises is whether the idea of direct democracy is necessarily tied to the concept of majority rule. If direct democracy is conceived as a form of self-assumed obligation, as in Pateman’s scheme, then clearly it is not.
People who find themselves in a minority on a particular vote, or who abstain completely, are confronted with the choice either of consenting to the majority decision or of refusing to recognize it as binding on them. To deny the minority the opportunity to exercise its independent judgment and choice is to infringe its autonomy and to impose obligations upon it which it has not freely accepted. The coercive imposition of the majority will is completely contrary to the ideal of self-assumed obligation itself.
We can begin to see then how the notion of self-assumed obligation and the political implications of that notion help to clarify a number of issues confronting anarchist theory and practice. Self-assumed obligation is one of the ideas underlying notions of contract and free agreement which gives them their peculiar attraction and force. By recognizing the implicit role of self-assumed obligation in anarchist theory it is possible to make sense of the anarchists’ ambivalent response to democracy.
As anarchists have abandoned the notion of contract as equivalent exchange, the notion of contract as free agreement has come to the fore, pointing the way to a new conception of direct democracy which is both radical and anti-authoritarian, helping to show us the way in which we may, in Landauer’s words, destroy the state by contracting other relationships.
Michael Bakunin, “State and Society,” in Selected Writings (New York: Grove Press, 1974)
Carlo Cafiero, “Anarchy and Communism,” in Anarchism: A Documentary History of Libertarian Ideas, Volume 1: From Anarchy to Anarchism (300CE-1939), ed. Robert Graham (Montreal: Black Rose Books, 2005)
William Godwin, Enquiry Concerning Political Justice and its Influence on Morals and Happiness (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1976)
Robert Graham, “The Role of Contract in Anarchist Ideology,” in For
Anarchism: History, Theory and Practice, ed. David Goodway (Routledge: London, 1989)
Thomas Hobbes, Leviathan, Parts I and II (Indianapolis: Bobbs-Merrill, 1977)
Peter Kropotkin, The Conquest of Bread (New York: New York University Press, 1972)
Errico Malatesta, Life and Ideas (London: Freedom Press, 1977)
Carole Pateman, The Problem of Political Obligation: A Critique of Liberal
Theory (Cambridge: Polity Press, 1985).
“The Shame of the Marriage Contract,” in Women’s Views of the Political World of Men, ed. J. Stiehm (New York: Transnational Publishers, 1984)
Pierre-Joseph Proudhon, The General Idea of the Revolution in the Nineteenth Century (London: Pluto Press, 1989)
— De la capacité politique des classes ouvrières (Paris: Rivière, 1924)
— What is Property (New York: Dover Publications, 1970)
Murray Rothbard, For a New Liberty (New York: Collier, 1978)
This essay was originally published in Reinventing Anarchy, Again, ed. Howard Ehrlich (San Francisco: AK Press, 1996)