Misarchism

Jonathan HavercroftBy Jonathan Havercroft, Senior Lecturer in International Political Theory at the University of Southampton (Academia.eduGoogle Scholar). You can read more posts by Jonathan here.


misarchism

My current research project examines the ideology of misarchism. Misarchism means the hatred of government or rule.  I am interested in both the intellectual history of the concept and its revival in contemporary right-wing populist movements in the U.S. and Europe. The term originally appears in German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche’s Genealogy of Morals, second essay, section 12, where he writes:

The democratic idiosyncrasy of being against everything that dominates and wants to dominate, the modern misarchism (to coin a bad word for a bad thing) has gradually shaped and dressed itself up as intellectual, most intellectual, so much so that it already, today, little by little penetrates the strictest, seemingly most objective sciences, and is allowed to do so.

In developing this term, Nietzsche was critiquing the political philosopher Herbert Spencer for attempting to ground political philosophy in the new science of evolution. Nietzsche objected to these types of philosophies on two grounds. First, evolutionary philosophies were reactive ideologies – they focused on the process of adaptation to explain change – where as Nietzsche felt that change was brought about through power struggles by conflicting entities. Second, these evolutionary philosophies denied the roles of power, struggle, and domination in both political and biological processes.

Today, we tend to label the political philosophy of Herbert Spencer and his followers social Darwinism, but this term is doubly misleading. First, it is misleading because what 19th century theories of evolution had to say about politics was (and still is) a contested terrain. Second, it is misleading because Darwin’s theory of evolution was not the most influential biological theory in this debate. That distinction belonged to the French biologist Jean-Baptiste Lamarck. Lamarckian evolution posited that a mechanism of inherited characteristics was the driving force behind how species evolved. Conversely, Darwin argued that random variation in the traits of organisms drove the process of evolution. This difference in causal mechanisms leads to two different views about what evolution is. If one sides with Lamarck, then evolution is a progressive process in which only the fittest organisms survive over time. Conversely, if one agrees with Darwin, then evolution is a process of random selection in which mutations in an organism’s traits and changes in the natural environment lead to species variation, but there is no clear progress or teleology in the evolutionary process. In this debate Spencer sided decisively with Lamarck and argued that social changes in areas as diverse as economics, politics and morality were all driven by an evolutionary process in which only the best traits were inherited from one generation to the next.

For Spencer, this process of “survival of the fittest” meant that society itself was getting better over time and individuals were becoming more moral. This belief that society was progressing through a process of the survival of the fittest, led Spencer to defend a radical laissez-faire ideology. He believed that any attempt by the government to intervene in the market place or offer assistance to the poor or disadvantaged would undermine the process of social evolution, and as a consequence would weaken society.

This 19th century ideology of misarchism had four core features: 1. opposition to any kind of government action except for the administration of justice; 2. opposition to any assistance to the poor and disadvantaged; 3. belief that the social system will produce the best possible outcomes for society as a whole when the individual members of society act without government assistance; 4. the belief that morality, rather than government, should regulate the behavior or society. What this added up to was a fierce opposition to any government action outside of the use of a judicial system to punish crimes against individuals and private property.

In labeling Spencer’s philosophy as misarchist, Nietzsche points out that it is hatred of government that animates these types of movements. The term combines the ancient greek roots mis for hatred and arkhein for government or rule. This makes misarchism distinct from two other right wing ideologies – libertarianism and social conservatism. Libertarians ground their ideology in a defence of individual rights and freedom. And while libertarians would agree with misarchists on issues of the government’s role in the economic sphere, they differ when it comes to the police powers of the state as misarchists tend to favour heavier police interference in areas of personal conduct such as drug consumption. Conversely, social conservatives ground their ideology in the preservation of the existing social order and defend the use of government in areas that preserve traditional values and social institutions.

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