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Anarchist Criminal Justice

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With criminal justice reform front and center in today’s news, it’s as good a time as ever to revisit some of the various anarchist approaches to issues of crime and punishment. One particular analysis written by Robert Anton Wilson and Robert Shea, Anarchism and Crime, remains as relevant today as when it was written — in the turbulent wake of the Vietnam war, Watergate and the surrounding social unrest. Anarchism and Crime wasn’t the first time Wilson and Shea collaborated. They co-authored the cult classic sci-fi triology — Illuminatus! — and previously worked together as editors at Playboy. Their work together continued throughout the remainder of their lives, as they edited and contributed to many of the same publications. Some of their most valuable but overlooked work — social criticism — is buried in obscure magazines and journals spanning five decades, as highlighted by Anarchism and Crime, which originally ran in Green Egg.

Wilson and Shea begin Anarchism and Crime by addressing the elephant in the room — “What about murderers, thieves, rapists? The government protects us from them. Would you just let them run wild?” But before they address this inevitable and important objection to an anarchist solution, Wilson and Shea spend time carefully evaluating the existing criminal justice system, as administered by the state. In so doing, they challenge the faulty premise on which that question is built.

Like many anarchists before them, the authors open their appraisal of the state criminal justice system by pointing the finger at the state itself, as the most dangerous criminal racket of all. By claiming a monopoly on the legitimate use of force, the state legalizes for itself the biggest crimes of all — theft, fraud, and outright murder on a massive scale. As Wilson and Shea point out, “huge banks, corporations and land monopolies finance both political parties,” ensuring that the state’s stranglehold over its subjects is never lost, and that the benefit to the state’s financiers continues to accrue.

Because of the state’s overwhelming focus on the protection of its own legal crime racket, it has few remaining resources to devote to “small-time” criminals like thieves, killers and rapists, leaving them at-large and unpunished. As Wilson and Shea recognized all the way back in 1974, the primary function of the state’s police force is to beat into submission low-level drug “crimes” which challenge the state-corporate monopoly on drug trade.

In the face of the gargantuan criminal enterprise known as The State, Wilson and Shea do not ask for more laws, better laws, or better statesmen. For the only tool the state has in its arsenal is coercive force. More state force can only entail further prohibitions for its subjects. Continuing down this path with additional laws can only lead us to the point Wilson and Shea describe as “everything not compulsory [is] forbidden, and everything not forbidden [is] compulsory.” And as we trend further toward this police state, the administrative bodies needed by the state to enforce such a Prohibition-style society grow like a cancer, to the point where all members of the society must eventually police their neighbors in order for the state’s laws to be effective.

Before considering what constitutes legitimate criminal law in an anarchist society, Wilson and Shea look at what passes for legitimacy in the current criminal justice system. There are three broad categories of criminal laws, according to the authors. The first are “show of power” laws: the laws in which the state declares how much it may legitimately steal from you via taxation, and the purposes for which they may physically enslave you. These laws are the least questioned and serve largely to reinforce the state’s all-powerful ruling class status. Show of power laws are at the state’s foundation.

The state’s second class of criminal law is coercive morality, which targets victimless crimes (i.e. – certain kinds of drug use, sex, behavior, etc.). Though nobody is hurt by these activities which the state declares illegal, the state nonetheless asserts its perverse brand of morality over all of society with the force of law. These laws allow the state to exercise yet more control (thus, overlapping with the first class), and also serve to protect certain elements of its own criminal scheme. A few other examples from Wilson and Shea of coercive morality laws: “Thou shalt not play Parcheesi on the Night of the Full Moon. Thou shalt not gamble on Sunday. Thou shalt not make love to your wife the way you and she both like, but the way the legislators like.” Through their humorous treatment of the state’s coercive morality laws, Wilson and Shea highlight their utter absurdity. Caught in the web of the state’s absurdity, sadly, are the millions that are exposed to the criminal justice system simply for failing to obey the sickly morals of government rulers.

The third class of criminal laws are those which most, if not all of us, can agree on: “No stealing. No rape. No fraud.” In other words, those laws which seem almost universal, and which no legislator need pass in order for them to be widely observed. Wilson and Shea dispel the bomb-throwing depiction of anarchists, explaining that like the rest of society, anarchists too wish to see these basic edicts followed.

With this common ground in mind, Anarchism and Crime goes on to predict that much of this third class of criminal would disappear with the abolition of the state-capitalist partnership. C4SS’s David D’Amato has written about the relationship between capitalism and crime, also seeing crime under capitalism as reflecting a lack of economic opportunity — a systemic problem. Like D’Amato, Wilson and Shea believe that:

[i]f people could work for themselves — if they received the full product of their labor through a syndicate of fellow-workers — almost all motivation for crime would disappear. If you didn’t have to pay taxes and rent, starting tomorrow, your purchasing power would be more than doubled. If other forms of exploitation and robbery, through the financial-interest system, were also abolished, your purchasing power would more than quadruple. How much envy, how much worry about money, how much irrational fear, ulcers, nightmares, headaches and other motivations to cheat a little or steal a little would survive after this simple economic justice was achieved?

To Wilson and Shea, a good portion of what constitutes real crime would be naturally eliminated in a society where people are free to choose their own paths to prosperity. Much of today’s killing, cheating and stealing is motivated by bare necessity under capitalism’s limited opportunities. The state-capitalist regime guarantees that so many of its subjects are backed against the wall without meaningful economic choice — unfree to work without the state’s permission for nearly every act. And that permission is often impossible to obtain, as many of the prohibitions on work under capitalism are intentional, in order to protect the upper echelon of the capitalist ranks from competition. Those stuck in the gears of this disease-ridden economic machine must often resort to exploitation of their neighbors for sustenance. Pure economic justice is one prong of the anarchist answer to the capitalist ill.

At this point, we must be mindful of Sheldon Richman’s lesson that the anarchist prediction is not one of utopia. Anarchists should be cautious not to paint a perfectly rosy picture resulting from the abolition of the state. People will continue to have problems with or without the state, but the anarchist’s forecast is that a broader range of peaceful solutions to those problems will be available sans state. But by viewing states as the world’s largest criminal organizations, anarchists are aware of the enormous peace dividend that would immediately accrue with the state’s ouster.

Wilson and Shea conclude Anarchism and Crime by addressing the initial objection: What to do about the “violent-nut-types”? — those members of society who will behave criminally for the hell of it. Their approach to violent nuts is two-fold: prevention and punishment. Like the criminal element that would disappear quickly through economic freedom, many other would-be criminals would be dissuaded from a life of crime in a freer, more permissive familial and educational system.

The authors believe that parenting and schooling in the state-run world are unduly harsh in order to prepare children for the brutal reality of dog-eat-dog capitalism and its sister program — war. In short, children are bullied and beaten into line, both at home and in school, in order to readjust them to the rigors of a life under rule by the state. By permitting “open families and open schools” — essentially voluntary associations on the family level as each tribe sees fit, a less authoritarian society begins to flourish, with more open-minded and less violent children growing into cooperative adult members of society. Much of the underlying sexual repression and holy-roller sexual mores of today would also dissipate with time absent the state’s imposition of a one size fits all educational system, resulting in less aggressive and depraved males — who serve as the world’s primary aggressors.

For the inescapable criminal class that remains, modes of “punishment” would look radically different in Wilson and Shea’s anarchist society. The authors list several alternatives to the violent methods of punishment currently mandated by the state criminal justice system. Rather than torture, imprisonment and death, anarchists past and present have explored a variety of alternative systems and remedies, such as social ostracization, restitution and indemnity, and private justice systems. Rather than dismissing these ideas as far-flung and impossible, Wilson and Shea urge readers to consider how they have historically been and continue to be used with great success, in many smaller-scale, non-state contexts. Instead of prescribing one particular form of criminal justice as best, Wilson and Shea simply advocate for the wholesale abolition of the state, leaving individuals and groups to shape their own criminal justice system for the better.

As we watch the horrendous injustice perpetuated by the current state-run system unfold before our eyes on the nightly news, we ought to be eager to jump ship and entertain some of Wilson and Shea’s fresh ideas.

The Center for a Stateless Society ( is a media center working to build awareness of the market anarchist alternative


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