Anarchy – what it means to me and what it could mean for the future

There is a tremendous amount of baggage associated with a word like anarchy, and even people identifying themselves as “anarchists” can often disagree over fundamentals of how to define it. So rather than trying to pin it down precisely as an ideology, or attach a label to myself, I’ll go over some of the ideas associated with anarchy as a political philosophy that I feel most personally drawn to.

Anarchy as a word often seems to inspire a gut reaction of fear and revulsion, bringing to mind associations with violence, nihilism, terrorism and assassination. Having taken the trouble to read the works of self-identifying anarchists like Proudhon, Bakunin and Kropotkin, as well as writers like Tolstoy, who while not adopting the label “anarchist” himself valued many of its ideals, it now means something rather different to me.

The word “an-archy” means literally “without government / rule”, hence the many successful efforts of propagandists to suggest anarchists are against any means of social organisation. But anarchists would not equate “government / rule” via social hierarchy (see above image!) with “organisation”. To me, probably the best brief description of anarchy as an alternative method of political and economic organisation was put forward by Mikhail Bakunin in his Revolutionary Catechism of 1866:

“The political and economic organization of social life must not, as at present, be directed from the summit to the base — the center to the circumference — imposing unity through forced centralization. On the contrary, it must be reorganized to issue from the base to the summit — from the circumference to the center — according to the principles of free association and federation.”

So the real issue is not an objection to organisation. Anarchists want the means of social organisation developed freely through federation, not imposed on us by rulers, elected or otherwise. To have one group of human beings merely imposing their will on others, through hierarchical chains of command, is a system contrary to human freedom and dignity. Unless a very good argument can be given for such a hierarchical system, we should prefer systems of free federation. Noam Chomsky puts it like this [read/watch the whole interview here]:

“The core of the anarchist tradition, as I understand it, is that power is always illegitimate, unless it proves itself to be legitimate. So the burden of proof is always on those who claim that some authoritarian hierarchic relation is legitimate. If they can’t prove it, then it should be dismantled.

Can you ever prove it? Well, it’s a heavy burden of proof to bear, but I think sometimes you can bear it. So to take a homely example, if I’m walking down the street with my four-year-old granddaughter, and she starts to run into the street, and I grab her arm and pull her back, that’s an exercise of power and authority, but I can give a justification for it, and it’s obvious what the justification would be. And maybe there are other cases where you can justify it. But the question that always should be asked uppermost in our mind is, “Why should I accept it?” It’s the responsibility of those who exercise power to show that somehow it’s legitimate. It’s not the responsibility of anyone else to show that it’s illegitimate. It’s illegitimate by assumption, if it’s a relation of authority among human beings which places some above others. That’s illegitimate by assumption. Unless you can give a strong argument to show that it’s right, you’ve lost.”

This interview also serves as a nice introduction by Chomsky to some of the fundamentals of anarchy.

To the common objections that anarchy is “utopian” or “contrary to human nature”, I say that it is distinctly anti-utopian, in large part because it adopts a view of human nature far more realistic than that of most political philosophies. The idea of anarchy, as the striving towards an unattainable perfect state of free federation, is explicitly anti-utopian; one does not try to set up any perfect state in the first instance, but instead strives to reach it from the current state, through the formation of voluntary associations, accompanied by the dismantling of illegitimate hierarchies. I feel that anarchy is a methodology or means, not a system or end, and that those who assume the contrary have misunderstood its nature.

What is anarchy’s view of “human nature” then? While most political philosophies seem to adopt the rosy view that power can be exercised by rulers for the good of all, anarchy adopts the far more realistic view that power will corrupt a person, in precise proportion to the degree to which they exercise it. Hence it tries to remove the exercise of power directly, or where this is impossible, to spread its use as thinly as is practically possible. It sees human beings not as fundamentally good or evil, but fundamentally social. Therefore, how we behave is largely a function of the social institutions in place. For example, Bakunin argued that it is futile to assassinate the king – “Le Roi est mort, vive le Roi! ” – and that instead the institution of monarchy must be dismantled, then replaced with democracy. Serious anarchists will therefore work to build alternative social institutions supportive of human freedom at the same time as they seek to dismantle conventional social institutions opposed to human freedom.

Is anarchy as a societal methodology applicable to today’s world? Perhaps species survival will require exercises of authority that can bear Chomsky’s “burden of proof” from the passage quoted, though we should be aware that we are playing a very dangerous game in welcoming their widespread use. It would be a little like placing Frodo’s ring of power around the necks of our leaders, with their sole aim to soon cast it into in the fires of Mount Doom, so as to rid the world of power once and for all. Temptation during the journey may get the better of our ring bearers, so society must monitor them carefully and oppose vigorously any use of the political powers they wield for mere self-advancement.

It is probably naive to think that local community autonomy will be sufficient by itself to handle the myriad crises heading our way soon, or that international anarchist federations of such communities could be developed in time for this. But if we are optimistic enough to assume our civilisation survives the current century in some tolerable capacity, I believe anarchy will necessarily become the means of social organisation practiced in the 22nd century. By then, we will hopefully have passed through the most dangerous period of human history – an era of hyper-expansion involving hierarchical means of domination over our fellow human beings, perpetrated through genocide, slavery and war – and gained the wisdom to make the required transition to sustainable and humane alternative ways of living.


~ by freedomthistime on July 1, 2011.

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