My thoughts on anarchy.

Anarchy. I have heard this term thrown around a lot, especially by the “revolutionary” types here in North America. Brought out significantly in modern pop culture through the punk scene, anarchism can be witnessed in symbology throughout our society. Interestingly, anarchy has been labelled as being almost synomous with popular culture in its disruption and envelopment of every day life of those in societies.

I often wonder what people think anarchy really means. I wonder if the people who use this term have ever lived in a lawless, or semi-lawless society. If they have experienced the breakdown of society, or lack of government. I wonder what they envision a “true” anarchist society to look like. What they think will happen on the process towards anarchism. Many anarchists have themselves benefited tremendously from government systems and laws.

Anarchy and anarchism are difficult to fully define, since there are so many different interpretations and visions of what anarchism is ranging from extreme individualism to total collectivism. It ranges from libertarians and hard-core capitalist neoliberals to the most extreme “tree-hugging” environmentalists.

By dictionary definition, anarchy is the state of lawlessness and disorder, usually stemming from failure of government. Anarchism is a political theory that a community is best organized by the voluntary cooperation of individuals, rather than by government systems. There have been many so-called anarchist communities over time, but all of these communities have had some form of laws or policies that are followed and enforced by communal decree and systems that help make them run smoothly. They may not be labelled as “government” systems or laws, but they are definitely heading in that direction. Over time, one would think that communal decisions would lead us back towards creating governments. Essentially, communal decree is how governments in North America are supposed to run; through democracies. The voice of the people, doing what’s best for the people.

So where is the vision of anarchy that anarchists are really striving for? Are they looking for a different type of system than we have that are better suited to the needs of the population? That’s what I’m looking for too, but I would hardly call myself an anarchist.

I try to imagine a world without some form of government and it makes me incredibly fearful. Anarchy, in my eyes, means a lot of death. It means survival of the fittest as the government breaks down and people must learn to live in new ways without it. Those that find a community and are blessed with resources may find happiness, but those who don’t are doomed to live a terrible existence, especially at the world’s current population. Complete individualism to me is a scary existence that I would not want to experience. Anarchism to me always boils down to separation; but I also have difficulty separating the chaotic definitions of anarchy and the breakdown of government. Separating people from other people into small collectives may result in a thriving environment for some, but in the long run, who looks out for the global environment? Or those who do not fit into the collectives? Or those collectives who don’t have access to natural resources?

Some anarchists say they are rebelling from the coercion of the government, while others believe in using coercive measures to bring about anarchy such as mass violence, revolution or terrorism. In collectives there is also a lot of coercion. In most collectives, there is tremendous pressure to fit in and be part of the group, and this pressure can be a form of coercion.

If the government breaks down in a systemized manner that prevents death and destruction, is it still anarchism? Or would this require an altogether new label?

I’d love to hear other people’s thoughts or visions of anarchism, because to me, it’s the furthest thing from what I truly want or envision for the world. I can’t understand the drive I’ve seen among many educated people to be anarchists. Please enlighten me. I’m intrigued.

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  1. For me, anarchism means first and foremost a rejection of all authority. Whenever one person sets him or herself up as being in a position of authority over another, that is suspect. Authority here meaning roughly the ability or right to tell another what they have to do without having to give a reason, by virtue of their position, status, etc. Getting rid of all forms of authority may not be possible, for example parents are fairly naturally an authority to their children (at least until a certain age), but anarchism means striving to get rid of as much of it as possible. So far, this seems something that nobody could really object to. Authority is clearly absolutely speaking, a bad thing. It may be excused for reasons of necessity, if the alternative is chaos. It may also be excused if the practical consequence of getting rid of a particular sort of authority would be another, worse sort of authority. One could make the argument that this is where current forms of government come in. But the anarchist is always looking for another way of doing things so that the choice is not just between two forms of authority, but between authority and some other way that doesn’t involve it.

    Achieving an anarchist society would require a couple of conditions. First of all, it needs a reasonably well informed society, and one in which people are engaged with and understand their political environment to some extent. Secondly, it requires that people have access to an awful lot of information about what is going on in the world. Thirdly, it does require forms of organisation (although not authoritarian ones). Without organisation, individuals become vulnerable to others who do organise, and if their intentions are bad you end up with one group having authority over another again.

    Anarchism is not about a breakdown of order, or the survival of the fittest. Death and destruction are not part of it.

    It seems to me that there’s no doubt that an anarchist society as anarchists imagine it, with people organising themselves on a free basis, would be a positive thing. The only question is whether or not it’s possible. I would say yes, but an awful lot of work needs to be done first.

  2. Interesting perspective- and thank you for it.

    While I cringe at the thought of some authority, I also see difficulty living completely without it. I have worked in many collectives and find that even so-called “group” decisions are usually the brain child of just one or two people who have persuaded the rest because of their respected position, which to me, is a brand of authority. I can’t see how organization can really happen without some form of authority. It goes back to the coercion argument again.
    You say that death and destruction and the breadkdown of order are not part of anarchism. So during the breakdown of authority, how would chaos, destruction and death be avoided? If all authority goes away, who will stop those who would selfishly try to be destructive? If there are no police, how are people restrained from killing or abusing others?

  3. Hiya, sorry for the slow response, had a very busy week.

    There would surely be difficulties living without authority, but it seems to me that the difficulties are worth it. I mean, moving from a society ruled by a king to a democracy is clearly difficult, but in the long run it is worth it.

    Ideas coming from one person and not from a group doesn’t have to be a problem. That’s not exactly the sort of authority that I’m talking about, because the decision is still made equally by everyone. The sort of authority I’m worried about is more the authority that can be exercised without regard to what people think about it, or the consequences. There is a potential danger that there would be de facto inequality because some people were more respected than others, but it’s not so bad as the direct exercise of authority. And, in a free society where people were more used to exercising their own power to take decisions etc., this sort of power would be less.

    There are lots of examples of organisation happening without authority. All of civil society for example. If you don’t like the state you live in, you can’t choose not to obey its rules. But if you don’t like the book club you’re a member of, you can choose to raise issues about how its run, or leave it and start a new one, etc. That’s only the beginnings of an answer of course, and we really need to develop new and more effective forms of voluntary cooperation. But, it is possible and happens everywhere.

    The way to avoid chaos, destruction and death during the transition to an anarchist society is to build the foundations of the new society, to as great an extent as possible, within the old. If people become more and more used to participating actively in their political life, making their own decisions and having those decisions be meaningful, the disappearance of central authorities would be less damaging. There will be people in an anarchist society who want to be destructive, although because of a greater degree of equality and freedom this will be much less of a problem than at the moment. Still though, it’s a problem that needs to be dealt with and there are many different anarchist solutions to this issue. My own way of thinking about it is that an anarchist society would be much more open about information, so that destructive individuals would probably be known and groups could protect themselves from them by cooperating with each other. In some cases, this may necessitate the use of force (although it would be a force exercised democratically rather than on the basis of individual or state authority).

    That’s probably not entirely satisfactory. It is only a tiny text box after all. If you haven’t already seen it, you might like to take a look at the “Anarchist FAQ” which covers all your questions in any amount of detail that you want. They’re good questions and deserve better and longer answers than can fit in a comment box (although I’m happy to keep going!).

  4. Please feel free to keep going! I encourage discussion!

    I’ve read a lot on the subject, but it never seems to wholly work for me. There are too many holes it seems in the system and I can’t wrap my head around how it would actually work in reality. Even democracy doesn’t work… and anarchism seems to take that to a much further level of voluntary cooperation.

    What if the destructive individuals started their own group to be destructive? Voluntary cooperation seems to only work around certain types of people; there are others that always seem to take advantage or want more power, more share, whatever… There will always be greedy or destructive people, and I don’t know how the system could protect others from them.

  5. Well anarchism does require a certain view of human nature, that the majority of people are capable of engaging in cooperation, and don’t want to destroy things or hurt others. But doesn’t any hope for a good system have to make the same assumption? I mean, if a large number of people are inherently destructive, then there is no hope. But I think there are good reasons to hope that things aren’t like that. For a start, human nature seems very malleable, we adapt to the mores of the society we’re born into for the most part. It seems that the majority of destructive or criminal behaviour comes about because of the system we have. A large amount of petty crime and violent is drug related, which is because these drugs are criminalised. Poverty and inequality account for a lot of the remaining crime. Crimes which are not social in origin tend to be much rarer – crimes of passion, serial killers, etc.

    So if my view of human nature is correct, that the majority of people are predisposed to cooperate with each other where there are no structural reasons pushing them not to, then anarchism can work. No group of destructive individuals can become powerful because a well informed society would get to know of their existence, and a well organised society would band together to resist their attempts to destabilise the system. As I said, the prerequisites are a particular view of human nature, and a well informed and well organised society.

    Another way of looking at it is that for destructive individuals to form a group, they would have to organise themselves. How would they do this, given that their nature is uncooperative? To do so, they would have to be given incentives or threats to cooperate. But in an equal society, there would be no basis for these incentives or threats. If everyone is equal and free, you can’t really offer someone an incentive or threat to make them obey you. In an unequal society, you can do it because there will be inequalities of wealth, power, force, etc. which can be used as the basis of incentives and threats. But in an equal society, getting such a thing started would be much harder, close to impossible (and if it did happen somehow, as I said, people would find out, band together and act against it).

    Oh, and I would say democracy largely does work, but what it does is less than we usually imagine. I wrote a blog entry on this that you might find interesting:

    Short quote/summary:

    democracy shouldn’t be seen as a positive guarantee of good government, it should rather be seen as a negative guarantee: a guarantee that the extremes of bad government are excluded. It’s clear that all our voting procedures, our not-quite-free press, our unequal society and so forth do not necessarily guarantee a government that is good in any sense of the word. But, it’s also clear that in this system it would be very difficult to get a really awful government that acted manifestly against the interests of everyone in society.

  6. Thanks for the perspectives Dan! I think we mostly agree on what we would hope the world could become and how most crime is created. I wrote a piece about this kind of topic here and here. I think the inequity in society is definitely creating most crime.

    I tend to believe that most people in this world are inherently good and mean no harm to any other person or thing and would not knowingly or purposely hurt anyone else without reason. Unfortunately, I think the incentive for the uncooperative to cooperate with each other would be for control of resources and I think this would be difficult to stop. Reducing the inequities would go a long to also reducing the uncooperative however.

    I think my biggest problem is separating the word “anarchy” and its meanings from “anarchism” or “anarchist” ideas. It’s the chaos implied by the first meaning that is hard for me to avoid. I think I have a lot of the same hopes as many anarchists do, but I cannot use that term to describe these hopes or ideals because of the other connotations involved. Anarchism (the word) is rooted from the Greek “arcon” (meaning ruler/leader) and the prefix “an” (meaning without or against). I see government of any form, whether it is through voluntary cooperation or not, as some form of ruling. It is communal ruling, but ruling none the less in my eyes. I just cannot separate the word from these meanings.

    I have mixed feelings about democracy. I feel it’s the best system we currently have (in some forms), but is still no where near what I would actually call a democracy. I’ve written about this issue before here.

    I also feel that statism can work if the inequities are reduced in the system. If we had true democracy, instead of the current systems– it would be very similar to many anarchist ideals. If the government were to become less authoritarian and more equal, would that not be just as effective?

  7. The thing is that in a society free of inequality, desperation and poverty, there is no reason for the ordinary people to cooperate with the ‘bad’ people who want to take more than their fair share. Conversely, there is reason for them to cooperate against these people. If we agree that in such a society, the ordinary cooperative types will outnumber the bad ones, things should work out. Such a society would of course have to remain vigilant, but that would be part of the consciousness change necessary to create such a society in the first place. This is anyway an old insight that applies to contemporary society just as much, as in Jefferson’s quote “The price of freedom is eternal vigilance.”

    The word anarchy has gotten a bad reputation (as has the word socialism in the US of course), and has become associated with chaos. But except for a very few silly ‘anarchists’ that was never the idea. So I can sympathise with not wanting to use the word, lots of people who are very sympathetic to anarchist ideas don’t make a big deal about it probably for that reason.

    The point about rulings is interesting. In an anarchist system, you can have decisions made in a democratic way that are binding on the members of a community. The point is that there shouldn’t be a hierarchy with individuals or offices empowered to make these binding decisions on others. It’s another very complicated area.

    This relates to statism: the problem with it is that whenever you have a hierarchy where individuals higher up in the hierarchy are empowered to make binding decisions on people lower in the hierarchy, you form a sort of ruling class. This is a dangerous situation. I’m not saying a more egalitarian, less authoritarian government wouldn’t be a huge improvement over what we have now though of course. And in the short term, it makes sense to fight for more equality and less authoritarianism within the system, but that doesn’t mean abandoning the long term goal of doing without authority and hierarchy altogether (when the world is ready for that). Anarchists and socialists can and must cooperate on the short and intermediate term goals (unless we’re talking about old school socialism of the highly centralised, authoritarian sort, which should rightly disappear).

    There’s no such thing as ‘true democracy’ though. Democracy isn’t an ideal, it’s a loose concept which should be understood in historical terms. There’s no perfect conception of democracy which all forms of actual democracy aspire to. Try to define such a thing and you’ll run into trouble. It’s allied to some genuine ideals though, such as self-determination, self-management, equality, etc. These are all worth promoting and fighting for, and are consistent with anarchism and socialism.

  8. How could there be NO hierarchy or offices empowered to make binding decisions on others? Even if all decisions are made on group authority, through democratic means– who would enforce said decisions and ensure they were followed? The honor system cannot work for an entire society. It just cannot. There needs to be some sort of enforcement or regulation to ensure people are not infringing on other people’s rights. This always comes back to government to me. It just makes the most sense.
    The way governments are currently running is problematic, but if it were truly run democratically (on group decision and vote) and with the least amount of hierarchy possible– it could work well. If the people set to make binding decisions are put in place democratically, and can be removed if they don’t follow the voice of the population– then they are not truly authoritarian. I like the idea of group decision making, but even that has to be carried out by some individuals with some form of authority to protect the rights of others. Otherwise you have group decisions that are absolutely meaningless and hold no real power.
    If people are just left to their own devices, they will not always follow the group will unless there is some incentive to do so (or incentives not to do so), even if they are the most well-meaning.

  9. Assuming, somewhat idealistically, that everyone in the community knew what the binding decisions were, then if someone were not following one of them, someone in the community would know. Assuming the society was well organised, everyone who needed to know would find out. If the community decided that sanctions were necessary, they would be chosen by and enforced by the community. Suppose you let your dog shit on the street without cleaning up after it, despite a community decision not to allow that, maybe the community decides to increase your local services charge, or more creatively, they stop collecting your rubbish and make you take it to the dump yourself. No need for a hierarchy there. Some types of crime will require action to be taken on a larger scale than a local community, but that too can be organised. In general, the principle would be that decisions are taken by those who will be affected by it and not by anyone else. This is already sort of how it works for local government. Perhaps if you could give a concrete example of something that couldn’t be done in an anarchist system that you think ought to be done?

    It’s true that people won’t always follow the ‘group will’ (I’d rather say the group decision than the group ‘will’) without a reason to do so. In an anarchist system, the incentive is that cooperation as a strategy is more beneficial than non-cooperation. The society has to be structured so that this is the case. If you are someone who doesn’t cooperate, then others in turn will be less likely to cooperate with you, which will make your life more difficult. This shouldn’t seem strange, it happens in everyday life all the time. Suppose you like action movies and your partner likes romantic comedies. You go to see the rom coms even though you’d rather see the latest Bruce Willis movie because you know that this contributes to a happy and harmonious existence, and that you will also get to have company when Die Hard 5 comes out.

  10. The type of cooperation you are suggestion seems completely unreasonable to me. How would anything actually get done? You have everyone involved in decision-making of the most minor things, leaving little time and effort for anything else. This is why there is a need for ruling (government)by some and not all all of the time. Besides which, everyone is not in a position to make these types of decisions (nor would they want to) about other people because they don’t have the education or background to understand the complexities of the situation. There is a reason that there are people in charge of certain things, with the authority to make it happen. If everything is left up to group decision, nothing would ever work properly or ever get done.
    Incentive to be part of a group is not enough to make people cooperate. This was tried in human history, and resulted in many left out of society or societies creating governments to solve the problems.
    Anarchy just seems completely idealistic and not very realistic to me. It misses all the little things and takes great assumptions on all the major things. To me, it makes no sense at all and I don’t think it ever will. All the arguments always come back to needing a type of government or some sort of authority (albeit less than the current level), but with a different name.

  11. I don’t see why it would have to mean everyone being bogged down in minutiae. The small things typically only concern a small number of people (so only they would have to spend any time on it), but concern them quite a lot (so that they wouldn’t mind spending that time). One can also imagine representation playing a part if it were necessary for organisational reasons, but voluntary representation rather than the enforced system we have now. The difference is important, a system of enforced representation leads to alienation and gives the representatives undue power over everyone else.

    There is indeed a reason that there are people in charge of things, but that reason is nothing to do with it being a better way of organising things. It’s about power and how it is better for those who have it to organise power in hierarchies (easier to control from above). In the UK, our society started from one with incredibly centralised, hierarchical power, and has largely remained so (we went from having a king at the top to having an oligarchy of barons, to weak forms of democracy with no votes for poor people or women, to stronger forms of democracy). The power was originally captured by force, and the mitigations were fought for at every stage. At no point was hierarchy and authority introduced in order to make life better for ordinary people. It might seem like I’m labouring the obvious here, but there’s a good reason. We tend to assume that things are like they are because they must be like they are, or because there is a reason for their being like they are. Obviously you’re committed to social change so you don’t make this assumption, but nonetheless it can sometimes sneak in.

    When was a voluntary society free of coercion tried in human history? Are you talking about some primitive, tribal societies or something like that? If so, it seems fairly irrelevant for these days.

  12. I completely disagree. Yes, the small things typically only concern a small number of people, but what about the large things that effect everyone? Would everything be left to public decision and voluntary cooperation? This is what I am talking about. It’s completely unreasonable to expect this. If you removed government, people’s entire lifestyle would have to change. They would now be responsible, on their own or as part of the collective, for securing health care, education, all the little things that we all take for granted and would now have to be involved in these decisions daily. These are not small things, and each person would now have these added responsibilities in their life. Having voluntary representation to care for these decisions brings us back to government again, albeit in a slightly different form, and still requires a form of authority.

    There can be government without negative hierarchies, but it does require giving authority to individuals, even if to voluntary representatives. This requires going beyond assumptions as well and seeing what could be, as opposed to what is in regards to governments.

    Authority doesn’t have to be a bad thing… this is where I think I get so frustrated at anarchism. Authority is about trust. It’s about trusting someone enough to make important decisions that will effect everyone; our responsibility in modern democracy means ensuring that the right people are put in charge and removing those who have proven they are not to limit absolute authority and ensure the collective is respected. Authority can mean that someone has been thoroughly educated and is looking out for the best interest of the population and regarding their thoughts and opinions. Authority is not always this absolute negativity of power hierarchies.

    You have clearly been educated, and this required listening to some form of authority to get your knowledge. Reading a book is trusting a type of authority. There needs to be some authority out there or there is no trust at all. If there is no authority searching out answers, there is no learning. Placing important decisions on people who have not been educated or experienced on a subject is not always the best course of action, even if it the most “democratic” way. This does not mean that some authoritarian body must dictate all ways life. There must be some balance between the both. People can be put in charge of things because they have been educated to do so and have the knowledge necessary to understand all the factors that are involved. Throughout history, many may have come to power through force, but governmental requirements can change this by ensuring educational standards and proven success and by having a democracy that is actually respected. Have a council of learned individuals on each sector that change periodically or are elected into office for periods of time instead of one power-head to make decisions. There are many other options without having to go to the extreme of trying to achieve a no-authority society, which I think would only lead to absolute chaos.

    You expect people to just know about issues that would effect them and to know of the binding decisions in a society, but even this requires authority. They must read about the decisions or learn about them somewhere. More than likely, this will come in the form of a newspaper or similar media access, and this requires listening and trusting an authority on the subject to give them the information necessary to make a proper decision on the situation.

    I never said that a voluntary society free of coercion was tried in human history. I also don’t think this a possibility as coercion is something that is not avoidable, it is part of every human relationship (although on differing scales). I did say that the incentive to be part of a group is not enough to make all people cooperate. This is reality and has been tried and tested throughout time. It works for some, but never for all.

  13. There’s certainly a place for expert advice on political matters, but not, I would say, a place for expert political decision making. Once you give members of a particular class power over everyone else, the outcome will be bad, the members of that class will make decisions that benefit their class at the expense of everyone else. You see this throughout history: aristocracies, plutocracies (the current Western system, somewhat mitigated by democracy), bureaucracies (under Communism), etc. A meritocracy or technocracy, where political power is given to those distinguished by education or expertise, would have the same problems. Just as today, democracy doesn’t achieve as much as it could due to the fact that whichever party you vote for, it’s still more or less the Capitalist party, in a technocracy, whomever you voted for, they would still be in the Technocrat party, all with shared backgrounds and class interests. I’m not against expertise and education of course, but that shouldn’t be the basis for political power. Instead, it should be like in a jury trial, you have an extremely well educated set of experts (the lawyers, and expert witnesses) that put the case before a bunch of ordinary people who weigh the evidence and make a decision (and are free, if they like, to completely ignore the expert advice).

    I don’t really understand what you’re getting at by saying that if you removed government people’s lifestyles would have to change. In one sense, yes of course it would, and that’s no bad thing. At the moment, almost all individuals have little to no say about the conditions in which they live their lives, the structures of the institutions they find themselves in, etc. That would change, and that’s partly the point. Anarchism is about freedom, and that includes the freedom to participate in determining your own mode of living. But in another sense, many things wouldn’t change. You wouldn’t have to participate in providing your own health care for example. You would have to, at some point, enter into an association with someone or some group that provides healthcare. And seeing as it’s an important part of our lives, you might choose to be engaged with that group to some extent, understanding how it works and how it affects you. Very likely, part of the process of association would give you some say about how that organisation would run, which you could exercise, if you chose to, either individually or collectively as part of another group.

    So yes, being part of an anarchist society does put some extra workload on people, in that you have to be actively engaged with society rather than just passively engaged with it. I take this to be a good thing. Now maybe your point is that there would be so many things to engage with that it would be impossible to handle it all, you’d spend all your life thinking about it. But I don’t think that’s true. The point is that you would be able to be engaged with all these things if you chose to be, which is not true at the moment, but you wouldn’t be forced to be engaged in the running of everything all the time. Leaving aside, for the moment, the transition stage, after an anarchist society had existed for a while, for the most part, most of the time, most things would already work in an acceptable way. Your engagement would usually be a matter of occasional tweaks to the way things are run.

    Let’s compare this with the way things work at the moment, and the way you imagine them working. As a citizen who doesn’t have an active engagement with my political life, if I want something changed I can only express that in a very indirect way, via the minute effect of my vote every few years. In effect then, I’m powerless to exert any influence over the conditions of my life. Alternatively, I can become a political activist. This requires a significant commitment from me, requires me to break out from the passive structures of my life, learn about and understand the political and institutional structures whose details are largely hidden from me at the moment, and enter into voluntary associations with other people to attempt to effect a change. In other words, it involves me entering into a microcosm of an anarchist society. And even after all that, we can’t effect direct change, but only exert a terribly small influence on the people who have the authority to make decisions. These people can just choose to ignore us. Witness the 1m people who demonstrated on the streets of London against British involvement in the war on Iraq, and the polls that indicated a substantial majority of the population were against the war. End result: we were just ignored, at essentially no cost to the government. That was probably the largest voluntary political association ever organised in the history of the UK (outside of the trade unions), and it had no effect at all.

    A top-down society where other people organise things for you works fine when it works, but when things go wrong, change from below is much harder to effect. Changes that benefit the elites, the ruling classes, are easy to effect, but changes that benefit the masses have to be fought for, and can only be won when things are getting to the point where the alternative is insurrection or revolution. When do governments choose to give themselves less power for example? Hardly ever, why would they? But when do they choose to extend their powers? All the time. With this dynamic in mind, a top-down, hierarchical society would be expected to provide the minimum amount of equality and fairness to the masses necessary to prevent revolution, and not much more. And that is, I would argue, roughly what you see today. Things occasionally get better at moments of crisis (and now has the potential to be one of those moments, but so far it looks like nothing will get much better), but mostly get worse. Inequality tends to increase, government powers tend to increase, etc.

    Perhaps you could say what it is that you think is wrong with the current system? And why little changes to the way democracy works would make that better? For example, why would having an elected council of learned individuals for each sector work better than having a single individual?

What do you think?

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