The Anarchist Handbook: William Godwin

I’m going to work through the essays in The Anarchist Handbook (Amazon affiliate link), written/edited by Michael Malice, over the course of the next several weeks. It’s a collection of works by an eclectic brand of thinkers who align, at times, only on their opposition to the state.

Today we’re starting the series off with a look at William Godwin.

William Godwin’s take on political philosophy seems to me to share a good deal of affinity for Spooner’s later antiestablishmentarian philosophy. However, he is more of a balanced thinker and falls more in the Lockean tradition of discourse than the rougher American style that Spooner uses.

The Social Contract

Michael Malice provides a sample of a larger text, and most importantly the part which details Godwin’s take on the social contract.

Godwin addresses many of the points of contention that I have with Locke, notably:

  1. The idea that consent can be given without an explicit compact and that it cannot be withdrawn.
  2. The idea that there should be a distinction between citizens and noncitizens with regards to the validation of political relationships to the state.

This second point is relatively nuanced, and deserves some explanation.

The Formation of the Social Contract

The first examination that Godwin undertakes is the origin of the social contract.

Social contract theory is a major part of the Scottish liberal and by extension the American perception (carried forward by thinkers like Jefferson and Adams) of how the government is legitimated.

It says that since people have inherent and inalienable rights which include their own freedom and property, and the state must by definition occasionally impinge freedom (even if only for the collective interest and not its own designs), therefore the state must form a contract with its citizens in order to be legitimate.

There are some major benefits to this approach, namely the fact that it carries with it inherent limits to the nature and scope of government. While this is not a strong first principles approach (something which Godwin points out and objects to, albeit not quite in those terms), it is something which leads people to at least think about the fact that an odious government is an illegitimate one (while ignoring the fact that a beloved government may also be illegitimate, especially since perceptions may differ).

Godwin’s First Point: The Generations

The fundamental problem with the social contract as it extends to the relationships between a state and an individual is that states take on the form of an established government.

Little will be gained for the cause of equality and justice if our ancestors… had a right indeed of choosing the system of regulations under which they thought proper to live, but at the same time could barter away the understandings and independence of all that came after them…

William Godwin, Enquiry Concerning Political Justice and its Influence on Morals and Happiness

This problem is two-fold.

  1. Each generation must accept the contract for it to be valid.
  2. If there is any time when people must submit outside that acceptance (e.g. during the age of minority), something must be found to warrant that obeisance.

This case is interesting. It’s one of the arguments made against serfdom and peasantry (at least to the degree that the peasants were a pseudo-caste) during the feudal era, and it’s something that is highly relevant to the modern concept of the state.

In particular, the question arises whether people can really consent in a vacuum, something which we should be interested in given what we know of psychological development and the nature of child development in the modern world.

Given that the state engages in compulsory education, is it even possible for a person raised by the state to give informed consent? We would raise serious moral and ethical concerns if a step-parent or teacher were to engage in intimate relationships even with an adult charge, yet we do not accept the same limitations with regards to institutions. Bear in mind that in many places the state encourages (though does not directly compel) pledges of allegiance to the state, which almost certainly has a psychological impact.

Only the intellectually feeble or dishonest seek to make a child’s oath to uphold the state legally binding, but this does not change the fact that there are serious issues surrounding the consent, even were it given, of a generation raised within the context of a state.

Godwin’s Second Point: Consent, Citizenship, and Locke

A second point is to ask what the basis of consent must be, that is: when and how do people even give consent to their government?

Secondly, what is the matter of the consent in consequence of which I am to be reckoned a party to the frame of any political constitution?

William Godwin, Enquiry

The prevailing sentiment (as can be found in Locke’s writing) in Godwin’s time (and which you might see trotted out in contemporary discourse, though this is one point where the general modern illiteracy of political history can mercifully shield us from the inanity and feebleness of the arguments for this point) is that acquiescence is sufficient to serve as consent.

Godwin points out that this is far from affirmative consent. We do not consider that a man has consented to being robbed because he does not fight back against a man holding him at gunpoint!

So it is that there are major issues here. Locke’s argument is that a man should obey any government in whose borders he has interests (which raises its own questions, given the dubious nature of many governments’ territorial claims), and Godwin refutes this because it is dubious.

One major flaw here is that according to Godwin it gives anyone who is involved in a state via territorial residence liability, but only those who affirmatively consent gain the benefit of citizenship.

While this point is not developed further, there is something simple and obvious in the fact that this seems like a backwards arrangement. Everyone should have their interests protected by the moral responsibilities of others which preclude interference in their affairs. It is only those who consent to the law who should bear the responsibilities of living by it.

Ultimately, Godwin does not really make a clear point regarding what the solution to this is. There’s a Spoonerite argument to be made about some of this, and I’ll cover that when I get to Spooner’s section in The Anarchist Handbook later.

Godwin’s Third Point: The Persistence of Contracts

One fundamental concept in the Scottish liberal parlance of human rights is the idea that rights are inalienable.

This is important to understand when one approaches Godwin’s third point. The inalienability of rights means that they can never actually be surrendered entirely. Now, there’s an argument to be made (e.g. by Locke and the more conservative figures) that rights which are inalienable can still be violated as the result of actions (i.e. “your rights end where mine begin”), though there are some flaws with this as it is frequently applied.

However, the important point with inalienable rights is that they cannot be voluntarily or permanently surrendered. Their exercise may be curtailed contractually or via emergent situations, such as the conflict between a robber and a victim in which the robber’s life is forfeit if the victim defends himself.

Locke himself is somewhat iffy on this (for instance, while Locke wouldn’t make a strong pro-slavery case by the time he was developing his later political works, his interest is not in abolition and he does not condemn slavery when he talks about it), and Godwin doesn’t develop this concept despite relying heavily upon it as his foundation.

What he does draw out, however, is that contracts with the state must be terminable.

This comes down to two real questions:

  1. Does any pledge of loyalty to the state truly have a timeframe associated with it?
  2. Can the allegiance owed by an individual to the state be revoked if changes in circumstance or information arise?

In the first case, this question is fairly limited. Obviously one could contractually consent to a state for a set period of time, while this idea is rarely considered in the modern notion of perpetual citizenship.

In the second case, things get more interesting. People cannot fully understand many things about the state. They do not know its executives, its legislations, how its legislations are interpreted, and how these things may change in the future.

If a revolution takes over the government, is a citizen of the old regime subject to the new regime? Can one commit abstractly to a concept of the general will?

Godwin argues against this, and here he aligns closely with Spooner (and quotes Rousseau in doing so, drawing on one of the few points in which Rousseau can be considered anything other than a cancerous blight on the intellectual traditions of humanity).

The fundamental issue here is that any contract with the government cannot really be made with the government. This presages both Stirner’s idea that the government and the nation are spooks, but also Spooner’s conception of the government as a conspiracy of nameless robbers and thieves who send agents who would not recognize their own masters to do their bidding across the lands.

This idea that contracts cannot be binding when made between a person and a specious, mercurial, and nebulous entity is really the most important question that anarchists raise as a weapon against the state as it currently exists.

While there is something to be said for the philosophical principles behind anarchism being fundamentally valid, as in the case of the anarcho-capitalists who would argue that the state is a violation of the non-aggression principle, one of the questions for someone who truly desires an end to the state must be the mechanism by which the state will be abolished and the ethical, legal, moral, and philosophical rationales for this.

For those of us who rank among the non-revolutionary anarchists (whether pacifist by nature like myself, given my Tolstoyan bent, or those rendered pacific by outlook and temperament), we must be prepared to answer both why any previous agreements we have made with the state must be considered non-binding and why people should not consider the state as a valid subject for loyalty.

In this case, Godwin hits upon something important and it is interesting to see that this has run from the very first modern anarchist thinker up into the modern traditions.

Where the anarcho-capitalist and modern right-anarchists might write this off as a given (or even argue that the proper and ethically binding understanding of contracts precludes any arrangement of the nature that citizens are claimed to owe to states, which is correct but which people are sometimes hesitant to accept in part because it raises questions about things like marriage and other familial relationships), it is important to remember that anyone who has pledged allegiance to a flag, a figurehead, or any other synecdoche has ultimately accepted a relationship with something that they do not understand.

A contract can be rendered invalid because of vagueness. For instance, who pledges allegiance to the state with a fully conscientious understanding of what the draft would mean for their life? Who pledges allegiance to rationing? Who pledges allegiance to a bureaucrat lying to them about a pandemic? Who pledges allegiance to taxes that are determined by a coalition of distant bandits, only some of whom even claim to represent them?

This is, of course, a slanted perspective, but it is nonetheless valid. The understanding that anyone has of government falls victim of the fact that they are understanding something by relationship and valance that is fundamentally distinct not only from other governments but also from anything else which an individual would encounter: this is a good reason to draw a comparison to Stirner’s spooks, because the government not only lacks a concrete disposition (e.g. there is no part of it which has a fundamentally aligned relationship to the person who enters a relation to it) but also lacks a concrete substance and physical essence.

Godwin’s Fourth Point: The Dissenter’s Rights

The liberal understanding that government flows from the consent of the governed is underpinned by two things:

First, that there is consent granted.

This is a point that anarchists would dispute based on their understanding of the nature of consent and the relationships between individuals and states. We might in the modern day point to the coercive nature of the state and the consequences for non-consenting people that impose a pressure, but even absent these pressures there are legal and philosophical arguments to be made against this idea.

Second, that this consent is functionally universal.

But this is not a goal, even in a democratic regime. Rather, democracies are majoritarian institutions. Even if an implied consent, with the legally and morally dubious process that entails, can be accepted as a basis for government, a follow-up question must be answered.

I do not consent to the government. My lack of consent is a matter of preference. It is also a matter of moral conviction. When the government takes (by force, because they would use force if necessary and we do not delude ourselves in thinking that the robber who does not shoot his victims has not used force against them) my money, they use it to at the very least take money from other people.

Taxation is robbery. War is murder. Conscription is slavery. I consider these things true. The state has committed all of these things. The state will continue this course of action.

Yet still they will use my money to perpetuate this.

I am a nearly absolute pacifist. My one concession to utilitarian thought is that one imminently threatened with death should defend one’s life, because the odds that a murderer will kill or injure others in the future is greater than the odds that one who defends themselves will do the same (barring other moral and philosophical arguments, which I consider compelling but which I do not consider to outweigh the moral responsibility to respect the image of God in others by avoiding coercion and force against them).

The state’s fundamental basic function is to act in ways which violate my moral convictions.

So I do not consent to the state.

Does the state have a right to govern me?

Not under the liberal conception that the authority of the state comes from those it governs. Barring the fact that I would consider the governing relationship one that falls outside the realm of things to which one can consent (e.g. I do not believe that one can consent to be killed, yet the state can kill–or imprison to the point of death–its own citizens).

Of course, I do not labor under the mistaken conception that our government functions under classically liberal principles.

This is the point that Godwin reaches: that the state which claims to govern those who not only do not expressly consent to its role in a formal compact but also will govern those who explicitly voice their desire not to be governed by the state does not pass the metric of legitimacy set forward by the liberal conception of the consent of the governed.

My Take

While it’s probably not correct to put Godwin in my philosophical camp (he is an anarchist in the liberal tradition, I am an anarchist in the Tolstoyan and Rothbardian traditions), I do not disagree on any of the points he raises in the passage Malice includes.

Now, one of the things about Godwin is that he clearly hasn’t had much in the way of really eloquent counter-arguments to face off against. Despite this I think he holds up pretty well, which has to be a testament to a certain clarity of thought and understanding that he brings to his thought exercises.

It’s interesting because I read Locke back in January or February and I found many of the things that Godwin points out in Locke to be troubling, so it’s good to see someone that drew many of the same conclusions that I draw in terms of a critique of Locke.

One of the things that frustrates me with the classically liberal tradition is that it has obviously mutated into something much less benign with the advent of the modern nation-state. When someone like Rawls is considered a liberal, there are major issues with the branding and philosophy of the movement and a clear split between the old liberal modes and the neoliberal modes must be established.

Godwin confirms many of my theories on this point with his take on things, which is good because I’ve often faced struggles with whether my own curmudgeonly perspectives are just a matter of me being locked into my limited frame of reference as a lone human or whether the deeper philosophical questions I struggle with are really things that are subjects of valid critique.

One reason I hesitate to strike at liberalism is that it is the best foundation for a state, and any state outside a philosophical adherence to liberalism is limited only by technique and expectations. While this certainly applies to the modern nation-state, it is worth considering that there are worse philosophies than the one we currently live under and there is some good reason to be cautious about tearing that down.

It’s also worth noting that this early in anarchist thought we already see conflicts between anarchism and democracy. The illegitimacy of democracy is an important point for anarchists, because those who believe that democracy is inherently legitimating (the only way I consider a vote legitimate is by unanimity, not majoritarian coercion, at which point it is merely a matter of polling and not a political exercise) should not be permitted to take that stance for granted.

Did Malice Make a Good Choice?

I hesitate to judge Michael Malice. He’s something of a hero figure to me.

But we’re both experts on this subject, him more than I. My context is different than his, however, so I consider my critiques valid within that framework.

And I think that this was the perfect first selection for a look at anarchism from a historical lens, at least within an American perspective (or the perspective of anyone familiar with the Anglosphere’s political history).

I wasn’t terribly familiar with Godwin from the perspective of a political thinker (though I was familiar with his role as the father of Mary Shelley), and it is clear to me that he either influenced many later thinkers or they independently reached the same conclusions.

There are some minor issues with the text, but nothing that really hinders legibility. Namely, there’s one place where punctuation is missing, and it’s not clear whether some errors (judged from a modern perspective) are in the original text or introduced by transcription.

All the same, it’s not a bad rendering of the text and I suspect that going to most sources would be little better.

Wrapping Up

This was a great first section, and I really felt that Malice gave a great selection. Godwin’s prose is clear, and while I’ve probably written more text than Malice included in the excerpt, it’s foundationally important to the concepts that will be discussed later.

I’m also glad that he started with someone who is fundamentally aligned with universal anarchist principles. The left-anarchists love to point to certain figures (Bakunin springs to mind) as the fathers of anarchism, but they’re mistaken in the sense that the people who they identify are rarely influential outside their own sphere (barring some overlap).

One thought on “The Anarchist Handbook: William Godwin

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *