Contrary to popular thought, anarchy does not mean "chaos"

A man plays guitar in front of a burning police car during a protest against the G20 summit in downtown TorontoThose who realize the potential for a human future free from both the coercive night-stick of the state and the bondage of the modern money system often self-identify as anarchists. In all truth, there is necessarily a limitless spectrum of beliefs and ideological subgroups within the Anarchy movement (as there is in any ideology).

There are, however, a few core beliefs that tend to bind them together:

1) That the existence of the state is undesirable and, in fact, incompatible with the simultaneous existence of completely free human beings (Once again there are some Anarchists who believe that the state is actually harmful, unnecessary, and directly opposed to this).

2) That property as an ideal (as well as in practice) is a human creation and has no basis in objective reality. Various types of Anarchists debate on how to actually use this information in an effective way.

3) That religious institutions (and similarly other means of societal control) are given their validity through culture and language and are thus also creations with no inherent basis in objective reality.

4) That coercion, or the means by which violence or other types of behavioral manipulation (educational, economic, stereotypical, etc.) are used to direct the actions and life choices of individuals, is, similar to the state, generally seen as opposed to the freedoms of the individual.

I. The History of Anarchist Thought

Human history comprises around 200,000 years. The state as we know it has only existed for around 10,000-8,000 years. In that time I think it is safe to say that not much has changed biologically between our ancestors and us. The human brain has become smaller, yes, however this is simply a result of the evolution of society and the loss of more “primitive” hunter-gatherer skills. Anatomically-speaking (with a few exceptions) we are much the same as the thousands of generations that have come before us.

There are many early examples of Anarchy-inspired thought. Diogenes of Sinope (412-323 BCE) was one such individual. There is a story in the accounts of Plutarch of a meeting between Diogenes and Alexander the Great (who can be [and was] seen as the epitome of the realization of the combination of God, state, and man). Alexander had found Diogenes relaxing in the sun. When the Macedonian king  asked what possible favor he could do for the great thinker, Diogenes simply asked him to step away and stop blocking his sun.

This seems to be illustrative of Diogenes’s view of the world. Human customs have no inherent meaning, and thus do not inherently deserve respect or reverance (this is something to be earned). Another account suggests that when asked about which funeral preparations he would prefer he answered that his body was to be thrown from the city walls to be devoured by wild beasts like garbage (eschewing the traditional reverence surrounding the burial process in Greek culture).

Antiphon the Sophist (480-411 BCE) wrote of the subjective nature of the human law establishment:“For laws have been established for the eyes as to what they must see and what they must not, and for the tongue, as to what it must say and what it must not, and for the hands, as to what they must do and what they must not, and for the feet, as to where they must go and they must not, and for the mind, as to what it must desire and what it must not. Now the things from which the laws deter humans are no more in accord with or suited to nature than the things which they promote.”

Epicurus (341-270 BCE) emphasized the necessity of an almost ascetic lifestyle. The Epicurean adherent was, in many ways, a hedonist in that “pleasure” was seen by them as the ultimate good. Epicurean hedonism was, however, balanced in that those things which cause desire in the world (this is very similar to the practices of Buddhist monks, for example) are also removed.

Thus the Epicurean would find him or herself freed from the pain caused by desire. He stated of the simple life, “The wealth required by nature is limited and is easy to procure; but the wealth required by vain ideals extends to infinity.” This fits in very closely with the tendency of Anarchist communities to be highly agrarian and less “civilized”. Epicurus also had a similar, subjectivist conception of the nature of human construction. He stated of justice that it, “is a contract of expediency, entered upon to prevent men harming or being harmed.”

The actual term “anarchist” did not technically even enter the English language until the English Civil War in the 17th century. At that time it was used as a derogatory insult for any individual perceived to be guilty of upsetting the current order. In fact the English Civil War bred much of this type of thinking in the political theorists of the day like Thomas Hobbes (1588-1679).th

He writes of the role of the state in Leviathan, “For the laws of Nature (as justice, equity, modesty, mercy, and, in sum, doing to others as we would be done to) of themselves, without the terror of some power, to cause them to be observed, are contrary to our natural passions, that carry us to partiality, pride, revenge and the like.”

Hobbes also likens the natural state of humanity to be a war of brutes. He writes, “To this war of every man against every man, this also in consequent; that nothing can be unjust. The notions of right and wrong, justice and injustice have there no place. Where there is no common power, there is no law, where no law, no injustice. Force, and fraud, are in war the cardinal virtues.” 

In a sense Hobbes is right. Without power to enforce them, many of the practices and requirements of society would be rendered as absurd. Is this necessarily a bad thing? Power and coercion can also take many forms which are far more subtle than mere police brutality.

Truly modern anarchism has its roots in the Enlightenment of the late 17th and 18th centuries. French thinkers such as Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1712-1778) and Denis Diderot (1713-1784) stressed the absolute necessity of the human connection with nature, often using the native peoples of North and South America as evidence of a “lost age” of human culture.

In the Supplement to Bougainville’s Voyage Diderot details the rant of an aged Carribean islander who rebukes the allegedly statist, violent, and “civilized” European visitors to the island of his birth. He says that, “We follow the pure instincts of nature, and you have tried to erase its impression from our hearts. Here everything belongs to everyone, and you have preached I can’t tell what distinction between ‘yours’ and ‘mine’ […] We are free, but into our earth you have now staked your title to our future servitude.”

Peter Kropotkin (1842-1921) is seen by many as the founder of much of modern Anarchist thought. He was a staunch advocate of a communal society ruled by the voluntary association of all individuals. Much of his writing centers around the development of Anarchist theory and the ways in which its influence manifested itself before and during his lifetime.

II. Anarchy in Practice

In the fallout of the embarrassing French defeat in the Franco-Prussian War (1870-1871) at the hands of Imperial Prussia, many French citizens found that obtaining the essentials of everyday life had become increasingly difficult. These conditions led many to seek alternate means of resource management.

Kropotkin writes of the eventually-failed Paris Commune“This overthrow of the central power took place without the usual stage effects of revolution, without the firing of guns, without the shedding of blood upon barricades. When the armed people came out into the streets, the rulers fled away, the troops evacuated the town, the civil functionaries hurriedly retreated to Versailles carrying everything they could with them. The government evaporated like a pond of stagnant water in a spring breeze, and on the nineteenth the great city of Paris found herself free from the impurity which had defiled her, with the loss of scarcely a drop of her children’s blood”

PARISCOMMUNEBesieged on all sides by hostile state forces, the Commune was short-lived. A refusal to accept the authority and control of the French state did not make things look fortunate from the beginning. Government forces eventually moved in, “And after this mad orgy, these piles of corpses, this wholesale extermination, came the petty revenge, the cat o’ nine tails, the irons in the ship’s hold, the blows and insults of the jailers, the semi-starvation, all the refinements of cruelty. Can the people forget these base deeds?” It is estimated that the French government executed between 10,000-30,000 people.

Kropotkin asserted that the failure of the Paris Commune sat firmly in the inability of its members to effectively implement their thinking in the face of real world power. He writes that the Anarchists of the future “will trust the free organization of food supply and production to free groups of workers which will federate with like groups in other cities and villages not through the medium of a communal parliament but directly, to accomplish their aim.”

During the Spanish Revolution in Revolutionary Catalonia (1936-1939) a form of what has been characterized as “pure” Anarchism developed. The creation of a libertarian trade union made labor strikes common. Anarchism as an ideology began to spread liberally throughout the working classes as a consequence of greater organization and sharing of information. Other ideologies such as anti-clericalism formed in the minds of proletarians, a strong resistance to closely-held power. This developed over the years into a desired system of autonomous towns that were more or less self-governing and self-sustaining. The Spanish communes came to an end with the rise of Francisco Franco in 1939.SPAINANARCHY

III. Questions and Answers

So, there is also a multitude of questions commonly asked to self-proclaimed Anarchists that they often cannot answer. Why is this? Those capable of answering appear to have been doing quite the awful job of relating the essential information to waiting hearts and minds. I have therefore taken it upon myself to answer just a few in a long list of queries and criticisms.

1) Is Anarchy chaos? or similarly, is Anarchy a force through which society will be torn apart and within which the material and social qualities in human life will be severely diminished?

No! Anarchy is defined as a condition of being without a state. The absence of a state authority does not always necessitate the degeneration of voluntary human interaction.

2) Is a stateless society possible today?

This is very difficult to answer. A “conservative” estimate would indicate that, no, it will take much longer than the average lifespan of a human today. The necessity for an economic system which is capable of coping with an entirely free society does not, as of yet, exist. This is not to say, however, that it will never be realized. In fact, the operative variable here is that of humanity’s technological advancement.

Clearly there are many things to be decided by the next generation, my generation, the millennials. As technology evolves at a steadily more exponential rate the task will be the management of this advance toward a better future for the next series of generations. It is impossible to tell just how far civilization will advance in the next century, certainly the possibilities are endless.

3) What force in an anarchist society will keep order (and thus keep civilization together)?

Force, here, is really the issue in question. It is clear that, in practice, various groups (albeit generally small and agrarian ones) have shown that a more or less voluntary relationship between human beings is possible. The short-lived Paris Commune as well as the Anarchist experimentation in Spain have showed that under certain conditions semi-voluntary or entirely voluntary societies may exist.

ANARCHYPROTESTThe problem with maintaining order is, at its root, one with maintaining human temperament. Marx discussed the necessity for a fundamental alteration in human nature being required for the large-scale implementation of the Anarchist Utopia. In a society populated with individuals who are inherently ethical, concerns of law and order become tertiary at best.

The struggle for total freedom will inevitably be a long and difficult one. Clearly the current world system has problems, just as all systems throughout history have had. In the interests of providing the best possible future for the next several generations, the quest for Anarchy cannot go ignored. The vast majority of Anarchists are not mere “trouble makers”, although much difficulty can be delivered unto those who oppose the freedom of the individual.


    • Congratulations on your opinion. The point of the article was, in fact, to state that Anarchy does have a lacking political reality today. The task we share as humans is to evolve beyond the destructive state, religious, and ideological practices of the past and to BUILD that political reality. As far as my analysis being naive and immature, those are both subjective value-judgments with no real inherent meaning. Furthermore, my faith in humanity extends only so far, in fact I did state that a fundamental change in human nature would be necessary for the realization of a stateless future.Thank you very much for your incredibly valuable input!

    • Actually, the statement you make following your first ellipsis betrays a right “naive and immature” analysis of, as you put it, “religious Dogma.”

      Classical, traditional, creedal, biblical Christianity places little or no faith in, as you put it, “Humankind.” And, though I depart from any number of the tenets that mark classical, traditional Christianity, I do not depart from that one—looking at the history of our species from anthropological, social, cultural and ethical perspectives, I find absolutely nothing to indicate that humankind is, by nature, either ethical or moral.

      The notion of “Original Sin” has, by-and-large, been a construct of institutional religion and does not dive deeply enough into a multi-disciplinary understanding of human nature. Hence, it has never been part of my own theological/philosophical construct. However, it is useful to the extent that it points to the fact that nowhere in either its biblical or creedal traditions does the Christian religion profess optimism about what humankind can accomplish on its own. In other words, “the greatness of the human spirit” is not a sentiment that would have a seat on the bus of traditional Christian thought.

      I can’t speak for other religious systems. But I can speak for my own. Or, at least, for its classical and traditional iterations.

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