How does the doctrine(s) of anarchism address the following issue?

If there's no government, no army, no central police, who will stop local charismatic leaders from taking over and creating their own (dictatorship) government?

We observe that dozens of times wherever the central government collapsed or was ineffective: Sicily (famous Mafia), Somalia, Islamic State, warlords in Congo and West Africa, etc.

I'm not asking about speculations — how that could work — but how the ideologues of anarchism address that issue in their political doctrine(s).

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    You may get a better answer if you specify what school of anarchism you're interested in knowing about. I don't know enough about other schools to say for sure, but I doubt the anarcho-capitalists and, e.g., anarcho-socialists agree on this.
    – Tyler
    Feb 21, 2015 at 5:18
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    Not at all an answer, but if you'd like two examples of leaders doing the exact opposite of your examples, refusing to use/abuse the state apparatus: archive.lewrockwell.com/rothbard/rothbard107.html. In short, Pennsylvania spent 14 years in a relatively anarchistic state during the colonial period.
    – Tyler
    Feb 22, 2015 at 6:54
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    A power vacuum cannot exist, there will always be a government of one sort or another. The only real argument is the nature of that government. Feb 22, 2015 at 23:04
  • If government is defined as a group of people giving orders to a bigger group of people, then yes, if there wasn't one in place, then people will create one. Ruling other living/not-living things is a desire we all share. Just look at the anarchy minecraft server 2b2t, there wasn't a defined power structure at the start, but then people started to create one
    – Faito Dayo
    Oct 14, 2021 at 19:46
  • The iron law of oligarchy (en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Iron_law_of_oligarchy) states that "who says organisation, says oligarchy". As soon as a group of people decide that they need to act collectively then they need to organise themselves, and as soon as you have organisation you have people doing the organising. These people are an embryonic government, and pretty soon they evolve into a real government by excluding people they don't like from the collective endeavour. Oct 28, 2021 at 10:15

9 Answers 9


From the historical-materialist perspective, states are tools of class rule. What will prevent the emergence of states is the dissolution of class in full communism. Without a differential form of productive relationship, classes necessarily cannot form, and any hierarchical relationship amongst people in full communism would necessarily not be a state.

Further: the equalitarian basis of a universal productive relationship (that all people relate to making useful things in an identical way), precludes the kind of intense social differentiation that creates states when men on horses start to murder people to impose property relations.

This is of course a theoretical account, though the categories in use seem relatively secure. Practical accounts vary between capture of the revolution by a nomenklatura (1919), and progress towards smaller states through the implementation of anarchist principles of self-governance (1956's workers councils).

This account is not necessarily incompatible with the non historical materialist account, but they exist as separate tendencies within the literature.


The ancap answer from Robert Murphy.

Summarized, the argument is that anarchy can't guarantee that society won't devolve into civil war between warlords. A society of warlike people will behave as warlike people with or without government. Likewise for peaceful people. The argument is that government never helps. Government only centralizes and empowers the warlike people to reach new heights of destruction. (E.g. $.5M cruise missiles would be very rarely used in an anarchistic civil war.)

It occurs to me that this seems to be only tangentially related. To clarify, the equivalence between the establishment of a new government and civil war relies on the assumption that some people would resist the new coercive government. (It wouldn't be coercive if they wanted it and it wouldn't be government if it weren't coercive.) If literally everyone wants it, it's not coercive and not government. Thus the first step to founding a government in anarchy is to start and win the civil war.


People Wouldn't Want To

One of the first modern anarchists was William Godwin. His writing was largely a response to Edmund Burke (who in turn was writing as a response to the French Revolution). In An Enquiry Concerning Justice Godwin describes his idea of the transition to anarchism and how the society manages itself.

Godwin's argument is fundamentally utilitarian. The government is necessary now because it is a tool to repress the public who otherwise would stage a violent revolution. In a stateless society, Godwin expects liberty (as well as economic and social progress) to be significant greater, so no reasonable person would want to establish a state.

A contemporary analogy might be, "How would the people in a modern capitalism resist the move to reinstate feudalism? They wouldn't ever need to."

  • Re "the move to reinstate feudalism ... wouldn't ever need to": not unless sort of Neo-Feudalism somehow devolved...
    – agc
    Nov 25, 2017 at 12:49
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    The reason feudalism isn't a threat to modern capitalism is because there is a strong state to resist it. Nov 20, 2020 at 19:20

To set up this answer, let me note that anarchism is a philosophy or ideology more than a political theory. By that, I mean that anarchism asks people to think in certain ways, not to act in certain ways. Political theories outline behavior by creating structures and institutions; one can live within a political system without really understanding its founder's intent, merely by conforming to the structures. Political philosophies or ideologies outline ideal principles under which people should organize themselves collecitively, but principles of that sort can only be applied through conscious, dedicated thought. This distinction may seem picky, but as I'll show in a moment it becomes important.

Now, one of the unavoidable (if often undiscussed) aspects of government is that government works through authority, and authority is power that is delegated from the populace to the governors. A leader is a leader because she says "Do X" and most of the people, most of the time, choose to go along with it. If no one went along with it, in what sense would she be a leader? There are obviously all sorts of ways to get people to comply — inducements and bribes, violence and threats, appeals to reason or intellect, appeals to norms or habituation, sheer charisma — and while these don't all have the same moral valence, they all have their own unique effectiveness. But the point is that a government simply cannot exist without a certain general consensus that it has a right to exist. Usually this is summed up under the term 'legitimacy': when we perceive the authority of a government to be legitimate, we accept its right to issue orders to the population as a whole.

A person whose authority is seem as legitimate governs, in the sense that people do as she says. A person who is not seen as having legitimate authority becomes another guy on a soapbox, shouting incoherently at the passing masses.

In an anarchist society, it is assumed that the vast majority of people have embraced anarchist ideology, which can be summed up by the principle that no stable, permanent delegation of authority is legitimate. Anarchists might agree to temporary governance for specific issues or concerns — delegating power to some person or group and agreeing to follow their orders because they have some special skills or aptitudes for a task — but they would not allow it to be established as a norm or an institution. Someone might gather an army and try to impose a government by force — assuming the he could find enough people willing to give up the principles of anarchism and follow him blindly — but none of the anarchists would see that as legitimate authority, and thus would not accept it as governance. They would see that 'leader' and her 'army' as a persistent nuisance or a group of immature and unenlightened thugs, and walk around them the way kids in grammar school walk around avoiding a bully. We sometimes see that situation in the real world after a revolution, where a deposed ruler still demands that he is the leader of the nation and issues commands from within his fortified compound, while the nation roundly ignores him.

If people don't give into threats, what would an ostensible government like this do? Kill everyone, and then put the soldiers to work tilling the fields and minding the shops? Governments need people to govern or they have no purpose, so a government can't kill everyone. But if people refuse to be governed...

Whether this is viable in terms of practical human psychology is a different question. It takes a lot of insight and strength of will to adhere to a philosophical principle strongly enough to risk death. But if we could find a nation of such people who refuse to be governed without conscious, free consent, it would be all but impossible to force a government on them.

  • But a government does not have to be legitimate (and the question did not put that up as a restriction Somalia, Islamic State, warlords in Congo). We see plenty of that around. Good answer otherwise. Killing everyone is more of an extreme thought experiment boundary condition than a realistic limitation - killing 1/20 or 1/10 would probably amply suffice to impose some form of dictatorship. Sep 8, 2020 at 16:22
  • "assuming the he could find enough people willing to give up the principles of anarchism and follow him blindly". There doesn't seem to be any shortage of such people. Anarchists assume that everyone will basically agree with them once they have it properly explained. Trouble is, someone else will come along and properly explain something else. Maybe a religion, maybe QAnon, but something. And then everyone goes and believes that instead. Sep 8, 2020 at 16:41
  • @ItalianPhilosophers4Monica: killing a few people would only impose a dictatorship if the remaining people were sufficiently frightened to cede power to the dictator. If no one cedes their power, the dictator has accomplished nothing by killing those few. The act of killing is merely a fear argument aimed at living people. Most people would find that a legitimate fear and be willing to cede their power to the dictator (granting him a degree of legitimacy). But again, it's that ceding of power based on a legitimate fear that creates authority and government, not the act of killing itself. Sep 9, 2020 at 1:33
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    "a government simply cannot exist without a certain general consensus that it has a right to exist." False. Sure, there might be consensus among the governing that they are legitimate, but that doesn't mean that there is among the governed. There are plenty of counter examples in reality, such as Vichy France, Jim Crow, and drug cartels, and even more when it comes to hypotheticals (e.g. the Saviors in TWD). Unless you're going to weasel out with the phrase "certain general consensus" and say that whatever consensus there was, no matter how little, is that "certain" general consensus. Nov 20, 2020 at 19:28

From the non-historical materialist perspective of class struggle anarchisms, states tend to be bureaucratic monopolies on force, including soft force. These apparatus form from social differentiation over socially productive property, and from the hierarchical and absolutist tendencies of ways of relating to people based on power.

It is hypothesised that in anarchist social relations, being identical with the conception of "full communism" that both the solution to limited control over socially productive property being universal social access, combined with the revolutionary struggle to remove hierarchical and power relations, will have eliminated the pre-conditions for power.

This is again an account in terms of theory. In terms of practice James C. Scott's book The Art of Not Being Governed: An Anarchist History of Upland Southeast Asia Yale may help. Communities have become ungoverned and maintained their ungovernability over long periods of time in resistance of armed bureaucratic states. I'm sure that other anarchist comrades would immediately want to start inspecting the local politics of these communities critically for hierarchical power relations.

This account is not necessarily incompatible with the historical materialist account, but they exist as separate tendencies within the literature.

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    Interesting. A part of the Scott book can be found here: law.yale.edu/sites/default/files/documents/pdf/… Trouble is, this doesn't scale. These people live as subsistence farmer/gatherers on marginal land. The main reason they are left alone is that subduing them would cost more than could be raised in tax. The community size isn't mentioned, but I bet its around Dunbar's Number. Which works fine for subsistence farmer/gatherers, but as soon as you try to do anything bigger it collapses. Sep 8, 2020 at 16:38

I'll make a few points in addition to @SamuelRussel's answer - which is valid, but terse and rather abstract.

There is an underlying assumption in your question, which is that society is already organized with centralized coercive power (a key element of a state). You asked about charismatic leaders "taking over"... but they don't have an existing social structure to take over. Of course some people are more charismatic than others and some more shy; and leaders do form, to some extent, within groups of peers with the same class background. But an authoritarian proto-structure will need to get many individuals to subjugate their will consistently to that of a small minority; to clash with the majority of people who will view this unfavorably considering existing norms; and to actively and perhaps violently claim resources for control in authoritarian fashion and not through existing non-hierarchical forms.

In some senses this is similar to asking why won't a new monarchy form in a democratic society when there is no recognized individual sovereign, no established line of ruler succession, and no division of dominion among vassals. While this is perhaps not impossible theoretically, even with a charismatic leader, there would be a huge amount of "rewiring" of people's collective brains necessary to get them to accept such a change - which isn't only that person's absolute authority, but their ownership of all land; hereditary rulership rights for their children; administration of social affairs by people the monarch bestows with favor rather than modern state ministries etc.

I should also mention (and this might sound a little obvious if you're an Anarchist) that such a charismatic leader cannot gain power by amassing material wealth: Neither money (which, in an Anarchist society does not exist), nor manufactured goods nor even a stock of naturally-occurring items. You see, that charismatic leader can't sell them nor even exchange them in an Anarchist society, because it is not based on exchange of commodities. If a group of people produce something, they basically give it - in collaboration with others for planning the distribution. They gain prestige and gratitude, but they don't get "rich" in our current sense of the word.


No one really, that is kind of the thing. Human history has been a series of moments where when one government collapses, a new one is created in its place. Depending on who you ask, the definition of a government is “the system by which a state or community is controlled or regulated”. According to Enlightenment thinker John Locke in philosophy, if a system regulating a community provides three things (law and order, protection of property rights, and enforcement of contracts), then it counts as a government. Sources like Encyclopedia Britannica refer to militias as political institutions with many informal communities and nations having militias as their governing bodies, so even those can be seen as governments. With these definitions, a simple clan or neighborhood watch, or group of people forming a citizen’s arrest group would count as a government as long as it protects the public against the many people who lack empathy and compassion or simply don’t want to follow the rules (who will always exist because many mental disorders associated with a lack of empathy like Antisocial Personality Disorder and Narcissistic Personality Disorder may be caused by genetics or a combination of genes) , those who would misuse private/public property, and guarantee that contracts are enforced instead of ignored by those who just don’t want to follow through. Human beings naturally form into groups since we need to socialize or suffer negative effects. Heck, in his book Anarchy, State, and Utopia, socialist libertarian Robert Nozick created the concept of the night-watchman state: a concept where any of the governments previously described can be considered a 'state' as long as it meets the requirements set by John Locke & the concept has been accepted by scholars such as Charles Townshend. It is also considered the minimum requirement for a 'state' according to Oxford in their peer-reviewed book The Oxford History of Modern War & writings from Fund for Peace (an American non-profit, non-governmental research and educational institution), and other peer-reviewed political works. When we form together, we create systems that enforce the rules and when the government collapses, no one can really stop people from coming together and creating their own system to fill the void: not without ironically forming your own group that fulfills the criteria of a basic government to stop people from forming their own government.


People absolute will create a government, however the nature of that government may not be similar to current incarnations. It might take the form of corporate rules, terms & conditions, or the form of a commune, or the form of a gang leader. It depends on the culture of the people. In the 17th century, a majority of people believed a monarch was necessary, and so they pledged allegiance to a monarch. In the 20th century, people rejected monarchs, seeing them as unnecessary, and demanded democracies. Even independent territories like Alaska, Hawaii, and Arizona chose to join a democracy. In the future as governments go bankrupt (Greece, Venezuela), or lose control of their lands (Mexico, Iraq, Syria), people may demand a different form of government, or none at all. Those who try to forcibly impose a new government may be met with lethal force by the entire population.

I predict in poor countries that cannot afford security, gang members and warlords will rise to power, and use their force to extort protection money from the population. Assuming they do not have the population's cooperation or willing allegiance, they are likely to be limited in size by approximately the area that IS, Afghanistan warlords, or Mexican cartels control.

In rich countries with a tradition of private property rights and peaceful conflict resolution however, they will hire security to protect their life and property ($200/yr). These security agencies will no doubt gain a bit of power and set guidelines and rules for their customers to live by. They won't obtain a monopoly however, as the efficiency of security is inversely proportional to the area patrolled. So the nature of government may indeed change.


To prevent this, if you want to be a member member of anarcho-capitalist society you should be obligged to sign a contract, which will state that you won't make an attempt to create a government. Something similar to agreement for participating in Free State Project project.

Sign me up as a Participant: I hereby state my solemn intent to move to the state of New Hampshire. Once there, I will exert the fullest practical effort toward the creation of a society in which the maximum role of government is the protection of individuals’ rights to life, liberty, and property

Free State Project is minarchistic, thus it's not consistent from an-cap point of view and it is open for interpretations. But, it shows how to deal with a problem.

I believe anacho-capitalists will create similar project with less subjective and more restrictive requirements.

Update: Actually these concepts are succesfuly realized in Prospera ZEDE.

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    who will enforce this contract ? Feb 22, 2015 at 23:04
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    @user1450877 Wesson and Smith.
    – Chloe
    Feb 23, 2015 at 6:06
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    If you're oblidged to sign a contract that is further enforced, how does it differ from actual government? Feb 23, 2015 at 7:17
  • @РСТȢѸФХѾЦЧШЩЪЫЬѢѤЮѦѪѨѬѠѺѮѰѲѴ actual government did not sign any contract; especially a contract, which would ban itself.
    – mip
    Feb 23, 2015 at 12:42
  • @user1450877 as on free market - there are endless possibilities. It may be up to jurisdiction or private military, Last resort is to resign and found new jurisdiction.
    – mip
    Feb 23, 2015 at 13:26

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