A Definition of Anarchism

Anarchism is one of the most consistently misunderstood words in the English language. Even amongst those who would claim it as their guiding philosophy, there is much argument over what it actually is.

To put it a little too simplistically, there are two ways of understanding Anarchism.

The first — which is by far the most common — is based only on the mainstream usage of the word “anarchy” to denote chaos, disorder and violence. This understanding breeds smug, reductive criticisms of Anarchism that are based purely on the cartoonish representation of the anarchist as a masked insurgent preparing to hurl a flaming bottle, hostile towards any sort of order or morality.

The second way of understanding Anarchism (let’s call it the informed way) is, sadly, far less prevalent. This way is based on hundreds of years worth of Anarchist writing and thought — much of which would surprise those who claim to know Anarchism as a violent and disordered beast.

This second way of looking at it — while always to be preferred over the first way — is further divided into many different camps. These camps range from militant to passive, from potentially murderous to idealistically pacifist.

Amongst this widely varied hodgepodge of Anarchist sensibilities, it is possible to identify some fundamental principles that are more or less common to all of them — a sort of fundamental root that all the different views share.

At its most basic core, Anarchism is an answer to a long enduring question: what is the best form of government? Perhaps its first principle is the one etched permanently into the word, in its greek etymology. An (a negative preposition), Archon (the root, meaning leader), and Ism (doctrine, or condition) makes anarchism’s literal meaning a doctrine against the leader. By definition all adherents to anarchism must espouse an opposition to authority, and from this form arguments against tyranny, property, democracy, conceptions of justice, and capitalism among other things. But even before all these afterthoughts, the debates surround a familiar question (and it is here we start to lose the details on the road to base characterizations): what constitutes the legitimate or illegitimate exercise of power? To anarchists the answer begins with participatory, consensus based economic, political, and social organization.

Unfortunately, often the most obvious common denominator for all the different forms of Anarchism is an aversion to laws. This aversion is, quite often, the only thing people know about Anarchism. What so often confuses people about this distaste for law is that they don’t really understand what the Anarchist means when he or she talks about law. More often than not, law is taken to be synonymous with order and morality. This leads people to the incorrect assumption that Anarchists dislike happiness and security, opting instead for a fiery freedom in the most immoral and violent milieu.

In truth, the Anarchist objection to law is not an objection to order and morality, but an objection to the imposition of rigid interpretations of what qualifies as “right action.” One frequent characteristic of Anarchist writings is the assertion that the only law that everyone should absolutely have to obey is the law stating that contracts should be lived up to, for contracts are, by definition, participatory. You must put your name to an agreement in order for it to apply to you. But for disconnected, corrupted, and/or self-interested governmental institutions to interfere in the exercise of an individual’s socio-politic-economical good life deprives them of their most primal natural life, to be who they are. Though often taken to mean that Anarchists dislike organization in general, this is not the case. What Anarchists demand is that any institution that would seek to exert influence over people should be required to prove its validity to the people it seeks to influence.

As has become typical of our definitions at Nothing Just Is, this definition should not be looked on as any sort of authoritative dictionary definition. This definition is meant to tell you what we mean when we use the word Anarchism on our site. As such, you can expect our definition to change over time — whether it gets more elaborate, more concise, or even undergoes a complete rebirth. We will try to post an update on the main page if we happen to make any drastic changes, but in the meantime, feel free to chime in with any comments, criticisms or questions you may have. We would love to hear them.


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