Anarchist Social Justice

Fourth in a Four Part Series

In our last publication, we addressed some of the problems of the TPP. It endangers the planet, threatens labor, violates human rights, and it globalizes free trade into another form of neo-imperialism. This is further proof that the 1 percent, both in the United States and around the world, undermine democratic self-determination in the economic and political realms. We argue that free markets, as they manifest themselves today, destabilize the world economy, while fair markets stabilize. Most importantly, the global economy needs to move away from comparative advantage theory towards fair competitive advantage. Although it works for the plutocracy and its corporations, comparative advantage is outdated, and it spells bad news for the rest of us. We argue for an economy, a global economy, based on “common pool resource theory,” in which the economy is understood as a natural resource to be protected just like the environment. We borrow this idea from Elenor Ostrom. Indeed, it is time to start thinking about the economy in the same way that we (ought to) think about preserving the environment and protecting it accordingly.

What follows is the final part of our analysis of oligarchy.

Community of Meaning, Popular Justice

As a justifiable reaction to the problem of oligarchy in organizations and liberal democratic institutions, some theorists and activists have identified alternative political arrangements to liberal democratic organizations and institutions. Such anarchist examples include Chomsky’s recommendations of the Kibbutzim villages of Israel and the worker-owned cooperatives of Spain’s Mondragon experiments. Other anarchist examples are based on the New Social Movements (NSM) school, which for the most part have become an activist alternative means of self-governance through autonomous grass roots organizations (see Alan Scott’s Ideology and New Social Movements). Leading NSM theorists include Alain Touraine, Ernesto Laclau, Chantal Mouffe, Claus Offe, Immanueal Wallerstein, Michel Foucalut, and Jurgen Habermas. These proponents base their anarchist tendencies on identity, politics, culture, and ideology, which for all intents and purposes has emerged in the women’s movement, ecological and environmental movements, LGBTQ rights, peace movement, and more.

Currently, anarchist NSM organizations have surfaced in the current culture through what can be described as the “community of meaning” and “popular justice.” The goal of these alternative methods of self-governance is to bypass the rigid oligarchy of the state, and for that matter, even nonprofit organizations that tend toward oligarchic structures. As such, the community of meaning concept is based to a large degree on the anarchist-environmentalist-feminist notion that human relationships in society are primarily based upon a “conscience collective,” that is, the fostering of diverse talents and skills within a local setting (community, neighborhood, school, etc.). The strategy enables persons to respond to various needs and cultivate unique talents while striving to maintain sustainable development strategies and promote “socio-economic justice.” The community of meaning can also be understood within the context of Marxist anarchist tendencies in which the state would eventually give way to self-governing communities with the intention of fostering both individual and collective solidarity “determined precisely by the connection of individuals, a connection which consists partly in the economic prerequisites and partly in the necessary solidarity of the development of all … on the basis of existing productive forces” (see Marx and Engels, The German Ideology). Likewise, individuals within a particular community are united, according to Durkheim, not so much by what they have in common, but rather, by their very differences, interdependence, and “organic solidarity.” The community of meaning, as Hampson and Reddy assert, becomes and indispensable condition for cooperation within society and is subsequently grounded upon ensuring a sustainable planet based on the fundamental human needs of local communities as the policy priority. This approach necessarily commits local and global communities, as Mittleman argues, to sustainable development strategies based upon mutually interrelated human concerns. Thus, if sustainability is to have priority in local policy initiatives at both the local and global community levels, and if public or nonprofit organizations are unable to meet this criteria, then anarchist communities of meaning must bypass these institutions and promote local and global strategies favorable to environmental and socio-economic justice based on sustainable development goals. The guidelines for a community of meaning, act as a strategy in which concerned people seek to address the causes of poverty and simultaneously prevent, and even reverse, environmental degradation. Moreover, the community of meaning, whether informal or formal in nature, seeks to seeks to implement where possible, policies based on what is known as “popular justice.” In fact, Engle Merry and Milner argue that the anarchist combination of the community of meaning and popular justice strategies “is part of a protest against the state and its legal system by subordinate, disadvantaged, or marginalized groups.”

The notion of popular justice for Engle Merry, “is a process for making decisions and compelling compliance to a set of rules that is relatively informal in ritual and decorum, nonprofessional in language and personnel, local in scope, and limited in jurisdiction.” Theoretically, popular justice governs the community of meaning and simultaneously attempts to apply local standards and rules, that is commonsense forms of reasoning to human relationships rather than state laws. Forums of popular justice, in its original conception, are specifically intended to resolve disputes that involve small sums of money, aspects of family life, and interpersonal injury short of murder. Nevertheless, popular justice forums can act, in similar capacity, as a model by which environmental and socioeconomic justice concerns can be addressed as a form of binding arbitration. According to Engel Merry and Milner, these forums thus create a venue for the less powerful members of society, such as, “the urban poor, rural peasants, the working class, minorities, women,” to voice their concerns. In contrast, elites utilize formal legal institutions through the state, since those same elites have co-opted those very institutions and can thus control those institutions for their own ends.

In the past, popular justice has manifested itself in numerous venues. One form of popular justice can be identified as “reformist.” In the reformist tradition popular justice intends to develop adequate procedures for the varied complexities the legal system facilitates; its goal is to make the system work more efficiently, not to change its fundamental principles. This is intended to increase popular participation in the functions of a centralized judicial system. Reformist approaches to popular justice usually appear in countries based on the principles of liberal democracy and capitalist economies. Failures in the judicial system are generally attributed to the burdens on the legal system rather than to the underlying structures of capitalism and its relationship to law and the state. On the other hand, the socialist tradition of popular justice is derived from Marxist-Leninist theories about the role of popular justice “tribunals” to empower the masses to address violations of laws and rules. The role of the tribunals is to also educate the masses in the creation of the Marxist “new man” of the revolutionary socialist order. According to Engle Merry, the masses are included when “socialist popular justice promises to transform relations of power from the domination of the bourgeoisie to that of the proletariat.” Yet popular justice in this tradition tends to reinforce existing structures of power in the same manner as that of the reformist. Both socialist and reformist approaches promote a form of institutional justice closely connected to, and controlled, by the state.

Another model of popular justice, based on violent uprisings in the anarchic tradition, is one that is associated with mass revolt against the state and the existing social order. While anarchic uprisings certainly can be nonviolent, they nevertheless tend to be violent and are derived from popular unrest due to perceived social injustices. As a result of anarchic uprisings, the masses generally intend to terminate their oppression and punish or reeducate their enemies. In this case the masses do not rely on an abstract idea of justice, but on their own experience and extent of the injuries they have suffered. However, this type of popular justice in its violent form is usually “quelled by the state or brought under control of local communities.”

The anarchic-environmentalist-feminist notion of popular justice associated with the community of meaning, tends to be more closely connected to, and controlled by indigenous people and grassroots movements. While this version of popular justice does not necessarily rule out its use by elites, it nevertheless attempts to function outside the state and institutional mechanisms. A withdrawal from society, which is arguably too rigid, hierarchical and bureaucratic to serve the needs of a popular majority, is one of the goals of popular justice. The central understanding of this form of justice, according to Rifkin, is “decentralization … replacing centralized bureaucracy with small, local forums on a more humane scale.” In this sense community norms govern people in a more humanistic and democratic manner while simultaneously maintaining local autonomy.


As Weber observes, “How are freedom and democracy in the long run at all possible under the domination of highly developed capitalism?” Some would argue that the vast disparity of economic power and wealth that is increasing in the United States, translates into greater inequality for the poor and marginalized. The question remains pertinent today. As this crisis deepens (the contradiction between the egalitarian expectations of democracy and the rational utility of capital), the state and its citizenry have the historical choice to address this conflict. Here, Marcuse urges the human community to initiate “the radical reconstruction of society … to find there the images and tones which may break through the established universe of discourse and preserve the future.” If organizations and their policy outcomes are to have greater meaning and democratic accountability for the twenty-first century, and if in fact it is worthwhile to understand how organizations tend to serve elites within these very organizations, and not the rank and file members that comprise it, then the primary goal of a democratic society would be to strengthen their democratic institutions and restructure the allocation of power away from elite control. As such, anarchist principles of social justice point the way for this restructuring and renewal of democratic institutions. The strengthening of democratic institutions must therefore come from outside these very institutions as a form of ongoing anarchist critique, agitation, and even civil disobedience if needed. The continued challenge for committed democrats is to be mindful that democratic institutions act on behalf of an elite interest and, ipso facto, subvert democratic egalitarian self-determining groups. Hence, providing resistance to the oligarchic nature of democratic institutions in the United States and other democracies through anarchic justice is vital to democracy and greater democratic participation. Anarchic resistance to democratic institutions is, in essence, the lifeblood of democracy.

Here is what we prescribe. We argue for anarchy as a form of democratic governance. One way to engender this in the United States is to move to a parliamentary system. Secondly, we argue for a Marxist form of economics that prevents exploitation. Additionally, Ostrom’s “common pool resource theory” is part of the solution. Finally, we argue, along with C. Wright Mills’ thesis in his great work The Power Elite, that the state has been coopted by the rich, or the 1 percent, and that the capitalist class uses the state at the expense of everyone else. In our next series, we want to take a look at liberalism and address some of the hidden aspects of social justice hidden therein, specifically through John Locke and Adam Smith.

Edward Martin is Professor of Public Policy and Administration, Graduate Center for Public Policy and Administration at California State University, Long Beach, and co-author of Savage State: Welfare Capitalism and Inequality..

Mateo Pimentel lives on the Mexican-US border. You can follow him on Twitter @mateo_pimentel, or read more at www.guerrillaprose.info.

Edward Martin is Professor of Public Policy and Administration, Graduate Center for Public Policy and Administration at California State University, Long Beach, and co-author of Savage State: Welfare Capitalism and Inequality.. Mateo Pimentel lives on the Mexican-US border. You can follow him on Twitter @mateo_pimentel, or read more at www.guerrillaprose.info.

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