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(en) wsm.ie: Common Threads #1 - What Is Anarchism?
Sun, 9 Apr 2017 09:01:22 +0300
Like almost any political term, ‘anarchism' is very broad in scope and covers a huge range
of ideas and practice. Instead of trying to give an exhaustive description, or detail
everything that is and isn't anarchism, this article will attempt to get to the heart of
it, and capture the essence, as far as possible, at the core of anarchism. Giving a
complete definition of such a broad term would take many more words than will fit here and
has been done well in other places (e.g. An Anarchist FAQ). ---- Any short, simple
statement trying to define anarchism will necessarily fall short: it will lack nuance,
depth, and be open to misinterpretation. However, if a concise defining phrase is what
we're seeking then, "favouring cooperation over authority", seems about as complete and
accurate as can be captured in just a few words, though it does, of course, leave a huge
amount of room for discussion.
Anarchism embodies a kind of skepticism of power and domination in that it assumes that
the burden of proof lies with those who wish to exert them. In other words, I don't have
to give reasons why I should be free, you have to give reasons (and good ones!) why I
shouldn't be. The definition given above naturally splits in two: favouring cooperation
and disfavouring authority.
On the pro-cooperation aspect, anarchism proposes alternate (leaderless) models of
organisation and concepts for better, more egalitarian organisational mechanisms and
structures. On the anti-authority aspect we find analysis of the current system,
criticism of its manifestations, exposition of its lies and machinations, and challenges
to its institutions through direct action.
There are many myths and misconceptions about anarchism and, though this will not be an
exhaustive list, it seems useful to address a couple of the more common ones. The first
is that anarchy equals chaos and no rules, and anarchists are those who want chaos (or
bomb-throwing mayhem) and a society where everyone simply does whatever they feel like all
There may very well be some people who wish for this, but no one can seriously expect to
be able to run a complex society this way. However this seems to be the definition most
often upheld by the mainstream.
Beyond simple misunderstandings of the term, the most common criticism of anarchism is
that it is utopian and therefore unrealistic. That it requires that all ill intentions
cease in the absence of repressive force, and everyone becomes something like a perfect being.
Anarchism makes no promises of such an idealistic world to come, only one to strive for -
and this it surely has in common with most any other ideology. Dictionaries tend to
define anarchism in terms of its opposition to governments, but this is really something
that comes out of anarchism rather than being a defining feature.
The fundamental question underlying any political philosophy is: what values or ideals do
we wish to promote and emphasise, and which ones will we devalue and de-emphasise? In the
state-capitalist world in which we live, one of the main values that underpins the
political system is authority - the right for someone to have control over others' actions.
Some people are in charge of others and make decisions for them, or on their behalf. We
are expected to (for the most part) obey those who are in charge of us, and be obeyed by
those we are in charge of. This is how most of society's organisations are arranged,
there is a hierarchy of authority from the ‘ordinary' members or workers, up through some
sort of management structure to a single person and/or small committee at the top (board
of directors, council, etc).
The main value that's sacrificed under this system is freedom. The freedom for people to
decide for themselves - or even, in many cases, have any input into decisions that affect
them - is ceded to managers or, within the electoral system, ‘representatives'.
What we're supposed to gain from this sacrifice is order, and a well functioning system.
This rests on the assumption that outside of authoritative systems order is impossible.
History has tested this assumption many times and has found it wanting: the Paris commune,
the Spanish Revolution, the Limerick Soviet. These are just some examples of events in
history in which communities decided to favour the value of freedom over authority and
Devaluing authority as an ideal doesn't mean we eliminate it completely. This would be
undesirable, and surely impossible. One can think of many examples where authority is not
only favourable but essential. For example, if we see a toddler about to run out on the
road into oncoming traffic, we would exercise authority over the child in order to
physically prevent them from doing so. Instead of seeking to abolish authority, anarchism
prescribes that authority requires justification.
Strong justification. This justification is primarily owed to those over whom authority
is to be wielded, If I wish to exercise authority over a group of people the best way to
justify it would be to get their agreement. This, of course, does not always make sense
and is not always possible, as in the example above - we do not stop to get the child's
permission before we prevent them from running into traffic.
Authoritarianism and anti-authoritarianism are both strong values that seem to develop
naturally within all us of from the time we are children. We are resistant to authority
("You're not the boss of me!") and at the same time we exercise authority over those
smaller/weaker than us - a child might take a toy from a smaller, younger sibling.
The notion that authority requires justification is also an early development. If asked
why did you take the toy, the child generally doesn't simply say, "I'm bigger and stronger
and I wanted it." Instead we're more likely to hear justifications like, "Well they
weren't using it anyway" or "I had it first." It's much easier for someone wielding
authority to justify it to themselves than to the subject of the authority.
Of course the younger sibling in the example is unlikely to accept or agree with the
justifications and would, if they could, resist the imposition of authority and keep the
toy in question.
So what this example also points to is the fact that authority doesn't exist on its own,
and cannot uphold itself by its own virtue. Instead it needs to be underpinned by
violence, or "might makes right". In the example of the siblings, the older child is
essentially backing up their authority with something like an implied threat. They want
the toy, they take it, and, since the younger child is physically overmatched, any
struggle to retrieve it will likely be met with some force.
Similar implied underlying threats exist within the world's political system(s). The word
‘violence' is a rather poorly defined term, and doesn't have a very agreed-upon
definition; how it is used in this article in the context of authority is to mean,
"something bad will happen to you if you don't obey." It's quite easy to test that this
is the case within society, just stop obeying and see what happens. Just to take one
example, let's say you decide that you want electricity in your house but you can't (or
don't wish to) pay for it. First step is probably to stop paying your electricity bills.
What's likely to happen then is you'll be written to, called on, phoned, texted, emailed,
or all of the above, with requests and entreats to pay off the bills. These are likely to
then escalate to demands and threats - of being cut off and/or having debt collection
agencies employed to retrieve the payment.
Once your electricity is inevitably cut off, if you decide to just reconnect it yourself,
you'll then be committing a crime and the electricity company (assuming they find out) may
very well press charges. If you keep pushing it far enough, particularly if you are open
and forthcoming about what you're up to, eventually people (police) will come to your
house and physically remove you and lock you up, and if you resist this part of the
process you will be subjected to what most anyone would agree is violence - i.e. battery.
The authoritarian, hierarchical nature of the system inherently makes greater reward
available to those further up the hierarchy. The division is extreme currently, with a
fraction of a percent of the world's population owning most of the wealth, but the general
trend is only to be expected: those in power will naturally pay more attention to their
own needs and desires, like most people.
This is at the heart of class division. Class analysis is an extremely complex and
in-depth subject and a single paragraph can barely hope to scratch the surface, but, put
simply, in a ‘democracy', there's a specialised class: the elite, political, or manager class.
These are the responsible, intelligent people (historically, men) who presume to know
what's best for everyone and have the role of doing the thinking and planning. The part
everyone else is expected to play is to mostly be spectators, and occasionally to turn out
to the voting booths to choose between one or another member of the specialised class to
be a leader (these days usually called a representative).
The underlying framework of this system has changed very little, if at all, since early
civilisation. The ostensible leaders (even in dictatorships) rule only as long as they
have the support of those with real power - the wealthy elites who own society. In older
times, merchants and manufacturers; these days, CEOs, hedge-fund managers and such. What
has changed is how power is imposed upon the masses.
Thanks to labour organising and other large-scale mass direct action, the amount of
freedom available to the public in western societies has increased dramatically and the
oppression, and degree to which those in power are able to resort to violence, has
decreased (particularly if you're of the ‘right' colour, creed, nationality, gender, etc).
It was becoming easier for people to organise collectively and effect positive changes
in public policy. No longer could the people simply be beaten down.
The ability for people to achieve societal, system change is a serious threat to the
established order: most people would like the world to be more fair, which necessitates
the rich and powerful become less rich and powerful. Naturally this is something they're
against: to oppressors, fairness and equality feel like oppression.
As totalitarian states grudgingly gave way to ‘democracies', propaganda took over from the
bludgeon as the main tool for controlling populations and set itself to the task of
diverting people away from organising and participating in politics, and of promoting
values that serve the interests of power.
This tendency is visible right up through all the major institutions of society beginning
with the family unit and the education system. Schools tend to instill values like
obedience and competitiveness and individual achievement, and discourage values like
dissent, challenging authority and mutual cooperation.
The public relations industry is by now a massive, multi-billion euro enterprise, the main
function of which is influencing and controlling the public mind. Spectator sports, tv
shows, advertisements, movies, and the like, all serve to divert and distract people's
attention from the ills of society, while building up power-serving values.
Those who succeed or ‘make it' in this system will tend to be those who have had the
required values successfully instilled in them. And those who reject these values will
tend to be ostracised or marginalised by society's institutions.
A tiny minority of the population have had their hands on the reins of the system, shaping
and designing it to their ends, while at the same time trying their best to hide this from
International investment agreements are negotiated in secret; neoliberal capitalist
organisations have almost no answerability to the public, just to their shareholders (the
majority of whom are other members of the wealthy elite); and governments plead national
security whenever they can, and employ other instruments in order to hide what they're up to.
The level of secrecy in place is a good indicator both of the extent of public opposition
to the policies, and also of how damaging they are - destroying the environment, and
spreading tremendously powerful weapons throughout the world, are two examples that come
This is not a conspiracy of course, it's just how the system works, and what it tends to
emphasise. If you're the CEO of a major corporation and you decide to adopt fairer,
greener, or more equitable (and, therefore, popular) policies you'll soon find your
corporation floundering or, more likely, lose your job.
If you're a politician seeking to implement popular policies you'll be less likely to
receive the backing of the business community (which includes, crucially, the media) and
most likely find yourself losing out to the candidate who aligns themselves with economic
The state-capitalist system upholds and propagates a lot of dangerous and damaging trends
in humanity - economic inequality, resource depletion, environmental destruction, warfare,
large scale discrimination and racism, among others. They are opposed by the majority of
the world's population, polling data from almost everywhere it's gathered shows this
The will to end, or at least address, them exists - what seems to be lacking are popular,
widespread, interconnected institutions that can challenge the power and domination of the
wealthy minority, along with showing alternate, more egalitarian, modes of organisation.
Anarchism holds that these should be institutions of cooperation and mutual aid, worker-
and community-controlled enterprises that are well structured but leaderless and without
top-down power hierarchies. Human beings have all sorts of natural tendencies: greed and
generosity, compassion and animosity, solidarity and individual ambition.
Leadership roles tend to not only attract, but also emphasise the negatives of greed and
personal ambition; while leaderless, egalitarian organisations encourage the positives of
generosity and solidarity. There are many such organisations in existence: worker owned
co-operatives, community groups, and activist collectives are just some examples that come
to mind of non-leadership organisations.
Many of these use ‘bottom-up' forms of organisation, with members making the decisions and
accountable delegates appointed to carry them out. This form of organisation seeks to
eliminate (using agreed rules and guidelines) the possibility of a leadership emerging to
make decisions ‘on behalf of the members' and keep the group under the control of its
Of the problems the power-hierarchy based system has created, there are two that loom
particularly large: environmental devastation, which seems poised to eliminate the
possibility of decent human existence on the planet; and nuclear weapons, which, either
through war or accident (and there have been many close calls on both) could also make our
planet all but uninhabitable, but on a much shorter timescale - this is an extremely
serious threat that is largely missing from mainstream media and conversation.
These two issues bring a sense of extreme urgency to the anarchist pursuit, an urgency
that has been noticeably lacking from the governments and institutions of the
state-capitalist system. To the contrary, their responses have been, on the one hand,
planning for the further exploitation of natural resources (e.g. Arctic oil and mineral
exploration), and, on the other, spending billions upgrading nuclear arms (in
contravention of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty). The powerful minority is failing
to address these (and many other) issues, that necessarily leaves it up to the rest of us!
A common (possibly even the standard) response to the overwhelming complexity and
severity of the world's problems, is a kind of passive urban nihilism: the world is
screwed, there's nothing I can do as an individual, might as well just get on as if it's
not happening: concentrate on work, or raising my family, or just partying.
This response is perfectly understandable, the problems are much too huge for any one
person to attempt to address. But we should keep in mind that those most responsible, the
rich and powerful, would barely fill the average town hall.
They are organised, active and engaged, and they command massive military and police
force, but their numbers are small and their grip on power tenuous - and they are well
aware of this, hence the massive propaganda enterprise and military spending. However
understandable this passive despair reaction is, it has the function of supporting the
continuation of the power division, since it tends to isolate and demotivate people so
they don't pay attention to what their leaders are up to.
And even if our world is beyond the point of saving why should we not live together as
well as we can for as long as we can? We need to get ourselves organised and figure out
what we want to do about our problems and how we want to live together.
Anarchist organising is something almost everyone is familiar with, in informal settings.
A group of friends on a night out, for example, is usually leaderless, with no one
particular person deciding what movie to go see or where the group spends the evening.
What tends to happen is someone makes a suggestion and sees if the others are on board. If
somebody strongly disagrees then perhaps another suggestion will be made, and so on until
the group comes to general agreement, also known as consensus.
Such a leaderless group can be thought of as an informal anarchist collective, using
informal consensus decision making. In anarchist organising, formal consensus decision
making works in much the same way, except the rules/guidelines tend to be codified and
The thrust of anarchist theory and activity is separable into six fairly distinct, though
Create. Building the new egalitarian institutions, collectives and enterprises, which are
to comprise the massive-scale popular organisation effort that will be required to bring
about the society we wish to inhabit.
Transform. Altering existing authority-based institutions and groups into ones with more
Advocate. Anarchist advocacy, spreading the theory and practise of anarchism, through
writing, lectures, interviews, workshops, etc.
Challenge. Challenging the authority of power-centres of all kinds, seeking good
justifications for their authority and, when none are found, seeking to dismantle them. In
practise through direct action and in theory through analysing and critiquing aspects and
institutions of the current system.
Expose. Seeking out and making public the secrecy, lies, corruption and other machinations
of the system.
Reform. Chipping away at some of the more oppressive aspects of society through the
available avenues within the current system.
Whatever kind of world we want to live in, it will not simply be granted to us by our
‘masters', we will all need to be involved in the running and decision-making of the
communities in which we spend our time. Where we work, live, and socialise there are
already businesses, institutions and establishments that decide what these experiences are
like. We mostly tend to just accept them as they are because any one of us, as an
individual, can have little effect on them. What we need to do is organise amongst
ourselves to transform these institutions into egalitarian, inclusive leaderless ones, or
to create new ones of our own. Seek out and get involved with such organising groups and,
where they don't exist, find like minded people with whom to start them.
If we wish to have a hand in deciding what our world is like, and we wish to leave
something behind for future generations, each of us needs to get active and involved.
Alan MacSimóin, Follow the Leader?, 2011, http://struggle.ws/ws93/leader38.html
Edward S Herman & Noam Chomsky, Manufacturing Consent: The Political Economy of the Mass
An Anarchist FAQ,
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