What Is Anarchism All About?
What Is Anarchism All About?
By Andreas Wittel / theconversation.com
Nov 10, 2015

Whenever public protests ignite into violent behaviour, the mainstream media are often quick to refer to “anarchy” and to “anarchists”. Those who are referred to as anarchists are protesters who burn tyres or engage in battles with the police. In this narrative, anarchists are lawless hooligans and anarchy is about chaos and pointless violence.

The latest example is the Million Mask March in London on November 5. This event was indeed organised by a number of anarchist groups – and there were limited outbreaks of violence – but the equation of chaos and violence with anarchism is about as productive as the equation of circles with squares. It is a crude and bizarre misrepresentation.

What is anarchism anyway? It is a radical and revolutionary political philosophy and political economy. While there are many definitions and many anarchisms, most would agree to the definition formulated by Peter Kropotkin. This definition is in an article which Kropotkin was invited to write for the 11th edition of the Encyclopædia Britannica.

According to Kropotkin, anarchism: “is a name given to a principle or theory of life and conduct under which society is conceived without government – harmony in such a society being obtained, not by the submission to law, or by obedience to any authority, but by free agreements concluded between the various groups, territorial and professional, freely constituted for the sake of production and consumption, as also for the satisfaction of the infinite variety of needs and aspirations of a civilised being.”

Free society of free individuals

Let’s unpack this a bit. The etymology of the term traces back to the Greek word “anarkhia”, which means “without rulers” or “without authority”. It stands for the absence of domination, hierarchy and power over others.

Anarchism is a process whereby authority and domination is being replaced with non-hierarchical, horizontal structures, with voluntary associations between human beings. It is a form of social organisation with a set of key principles, such as self-organisation, voluntary association, freedom, autonomy, solidarity, direct democracy, egalitarianism and mutual aid.

Based on these principles and values, anarchism rejects both a capitalist economy and a nation state that is governed by means of a representative democracy. It is a utopian project that aspires to combine the best parts of liberalism with the best parts of communism.

At its heart is a mix of the liberal emphasis on individual freedom and the communist emphasis on an equal society. I particularly like the definition of Cindy Milstein about anarchism being a “free society of free individuals”.

Long history

The political philosophy of anarchisms emerged in the mid-19th century – as part of the thought of Enlightenment. Key anarchist thinkers include Pierre-Joseph Proudhon, William Godwin, Peter Kropotkin, Mikhail Bakunin, Emma Goldman, and Max Stirner. Proudhon is credited as the first self-proclaimed anarchist and is often seen as the founder of classic anarchist thinking. In particular, he developed the concept of spontaneous order in society, where organisations can emerge without central or top-down coordination.

In fact, Godwin developed his anarchist theory half a century earlier – without ever using the term. His writings are a profound critique of the state and its structural violence, arguing that the state and its government has a bad influence on society in that it produces unwanted dependency. He has also pointed out that law and legislation is created by the rich and powerful. Sound familiar?

Coming sometime, maybe? Jeff Meyer/flickrCC BY

However, it is also important to emphasise that most anarchist principles, convictions and moral positions are not at all an invention of modern anarchist theory – they are as old as human civilisation. And due to the rather different political philosophies of liberalism and communism, anarchist theory – like most political ideologies – is not a consistent and homogeneous concept. It evolves as different people articulate its core ideologies in different ways.

We can at least distinguish between two rather different schools: social anarchism and libertarian anarchism (or free market anarchism). While social anarchism puts emphasis on society and often supports a political economy that socialises the means of production, libertarian anarchism is mostly concerned with ensuring the maximum amount of liberty for the individual. Here, the will of the individual is considered to be more important even than a harmonious and egalitarian society.

Anarchism and activism

Over the past two decades or so, anarchist practice has enjoyed a significant revival. This is particularly visible in new social movements that have been influenced by anarchist forms of organisation with horizontal structures and non-representative decision-making processes.

Anarchist forms of resistance have also largely informed the alter-globalisation movement – which believes in the benefits of global thinking but rejects economic globalisation. The 1999 battle of Seattle was perhaps the first moment of a reinvigorated anarchism. It has been followed my many other movements and forms of resistance such as Reclaim the StreetsEuroMayDay, various environmental movements, and more recently the Occupy movement and the hacktivist group Anonymous. And they are having quite an impact. One could easily argue that anarchist forms of resistance are now outperforming the more socialist and hierarchical forms of resistance.

Oscar Wilde, a libertarian anarchist, is widely associated with the following bon mot: “The problem with socialism is that it takes up too many evenings.”

An anarchist world?

But questions must be raised about the feasibility of anarchist practice. While anarchist organisation clearly can work on a local level, on the level of small communities and on a rural regional level (see the Zapatista movement or large parts of Kurdish rural regions) the jury is still out on whether anarchist social organisation can be embedded in large urban areas, or on a national or global level.

How can forms of direct democracy, such as the general assembly of the Occupy movement, be built and maintained in settings with large populations? At first glance, this seems rather unlikely. Then again, digital technologies might open up new possibilities for large-scale forms of anarchist organisation. Certainly, anarchism is on the rise.


For a non-academic, fictional approach to an understanding of anarchism I would warmly recommend The Dispossessed, a 1970s sci-fi novel by feminist writer Ursula Le Guin.

 is Senior Lecturer in Social Theory, Nottingham Trent University

4.0 ·
1
Trending Today
How a Lack of Touch Is Destroying Men
Mark Green · 5,477 views today · Why Men Need More Platonic Touch in their Lives
Globalization Makes No Sense
Chris Agnos · 3,377 views today · When I lived in San Francisco, I often would marvel at the movement of goods through the ports across the bay in Oakland. Full container ships would enter the bay one after...
Proof of Evolution That You Can Find on Your Body
4 min · 2,276 views today · Vestigial structures are evolution's leftovers — body parts that, through inheritance, have outlived the context in which they arose. Some of the most delightful reminders of...
Immigrants For Sale (2015)
33 min · 1,966 views today · The detention of migrants has become a multi-billion dollar industry in which immigrants are sold to the highest bidder and traded like mere products. The Corrections...
Those That Did Not Seek Revenge
Dr. Ann Russo · 1,421 views today · Dr. Ann Russo on violence, healing, and transforming justice.
Your Lifestyle Has Already Been Designed (The Real Reason For The Forty-Hour Workweek)
David Cain · 1,311 views today · Well I’m in the working world again. I’ve found myself a well-paying gig in the engineering industry, and life finally feels like it’s returning to normal after my nine months...
How Comedy Can Disarm Bullies
3 min · 1,309 views today · As long as you're funny, it can get you out of almost anything - even getting mugged, as co-founder of Between Two Ferns Scott Aukerman recounts. Unfortunately, not everyone...
DAPL Opponents Vow to 'Rise' From Ashes of Oceti Sakowin and Keep Fighting
Lauren McCauley · 1,276 views today · 'They cannot extinguish the fire that Standing Rock started,' Dallas Goldtooth declared
A Hauntingly Beautiful Short Film About Life and Death
5 min · 960 views today · The Life of Death is a touching handdrawn animation about the day Death fell in love with Life.
Compassion, the Antidote
Martin Doblmeier · 946 views today · Thich Nhat Hanh has published nearly 100 books and is one of the best-known teachers of Zen Buddhism in the world today. In the early 1960s his practice of what he termed...
John Lennon's "Imagine," Made Into a Comic Strip
John Lennon. Art by Pablo Stanley · 938 views today · This is easily the best comic strip ever made.  Pabl
Without Saying a Word This 6 Minute Clip From Samsara Will Make You Speechless
6 min · 859 views today · Can you put this video into words? It's a clip from the phenomenal documentary Samsara, directed by Ron Fricke, who also made Baraka.  If you're interested in watching...
Stunning Small Homes Form Part of a Communal Compound for Best Friends
Lighter Side · 849 views today · If you’re lucky enough to have longtime friends even as an adult, then you know probably already know how much it means to be able to spend time together. Maybe you even have a...
Today I Rise: This Beautiful Short Film Is Like a Love Poem For Your Heart and Soul
4 min · 773 views today · "The world is missing what I am ready to give: My Wisdom, My Sweetness, My Love and My hunger for Peace." "Where are you? Where are you, little girl with broken wings but full...
How Wolves Change Rivers
4 min · 689 views today · When wolves were reintroduced to Yellowstone National Park in the United States after being absent nearly 70 years, the most remarkable "trophic cascade" occurred. What is a...
The Foiled Bomb Plot in Kansas That Didn't Make Trump's Terror List
5 min · 683 views today · When a plot by a pro-white militia to bomb a Somali mosque in Kansas was foiled by the FBI last October, the aborted conspiracy received little national coverage - nor did it...
Where the Term "Redneck" Came From
15 min · 619 views today · If you don't know this story, you'll never look at the word the same again.  This is just a window into the sometimes shocking, subversive and untold history of the United...
Touch Isolation: How Homophobia Has Robbed All Men Of Touch
Mark Greene · 565 views today · Homophobic prohibitions against male touch are hurting straight men as well.
10 Words Every Girl Should Learn
Soraya Chemaly · 381 views today · "Stop interrupting me."  "I just said that." "No explanation needed." In fifth grade, I won the school courtesy prize. In other words, I won an award for being polite. My...
The Most Astounding Fact about the Universe
3 min · 259 views today · This is Neil Degrasse Tyson's response when asked to describe the most astounding fact about the universe. Background music is the cinematic orchestra - To build a home.
Load More
What's Next
Like us on Facebook?
What Is Anarchism All About?