Granting Rights

Anarchism assumes, above all else, that no one has the right to tell you what to do, and vice versa. We are each empowered to enter into our own agreements and arrangements with others as long as we recognize the fundamental right to not have our rights taken away. In order to protect this fundamental right to not have our rights taken away, we must first acknowledge that only we can grant our own rights. In order to grant our own rights, we must not take away anyone else’s rights or allow anyone’s rights to be taken away. To witness one’s rights violated is to have one’s rights violated. Rights that can be taken from someone else can be taken from you. There is a famous poem by Pastor Martin Niemöller about this concept:

     THEY CAME FIRST for the Communists,
     and I didn't speak up because I wasn't a Communist.

     THEN THEY CAME for the Jews,
     and I didn't speak up because I wasn't a Jew.

     THEN THEY CAME for the trade unionists,
     and I didn't speak up because I wasn't a trade unionist.

     THEN THEY CAME for the Catholics,
     and I didn’t speak up because I was a Protestant.

     THEN THEY CAME for me
     and by that time no one was left to speak up.

However, the poem’s Nazi context implies that it is our responsibility to stand up against leaders and governments only when they take away the rights of and persecute certain populations. Indeed, the poem is often recited to compare the extremes of oppressive governments with that of the Nazis. This interpretation of the poem (which seems to be accurate in simply determining the intent of the author) overlooks the broader context of the ever-present possibility of any government becoming extreme in this sense.

The Nazi Holocaust was not a product of fascism or Hitler’s brand of national socialism, it was not a product of social Darwinism or social hierarchy, it was not a product of a lust for power or a savior complex, it was not a product of propaganda or lies, it was not a product of military conquest or the justification of violence, it was not a product of ignorance or apathy or any other cause that researchers, historians and philosophers might assign. Or, to be more accurate, it was a product of all those things combined in one entity that modern society is reluctant to recognize as such. The Nazi Holocaust was a product of government, and every government on Earth is capable of doing the same (indeed, many have tried both before and after WWII).

Government is the sole entity publically endowed with the socially, culturally and legally acknowledged power to grant rights, and with the power to grant rights also comes the power to take them away. The abolition of government seeks not to win back the rights of the people, but to cease their infringement. Acknowledging the authority of government to grant rights or even to protect them is an invitation to have one’s rights taken away. Therefore, (and ironically by popularly misled definitions of anarchism) the aim of anarchism is to protect our rights by eliminating government, all political, economic and social hierarchies, and any system of power that is dictated from above.

Ultimately, anarchism assumes that our rights are fundamental, that the power to grant rights does not exist unless we grant that right to government, and that granting that right to government in effect grants government the right to take our rights away thereby taking away our own rights. Although government now has the power to grant and take away rights, it is we in fact who have taken away our own rights by allowing government that power.