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.


2 Responses to “Anarchism”
  1. Shenonymous says:

    We know what murderous anarchy is like, one just has to read up on episodes of violence in Spain and elsewhere where destruction of governmenet has occurred throughout history. The rest, i.e., pacifistic anarchy is all idealistic theory that does not say exactly how an anarchic collective would work in the real world. For instance, what would an anarchic society of 10,000 individuals be like? How would disputes really be settled?

    • Dave says:

      Part of the reason why these idealistic theories don’t have a huge amount to say about practical Anarchism in the real world is the fact that, as theories, they have been given precious little chance to apply themselves to reality. As much as you refer to Anarchism in Spain as “murderous anarchy,” it must be remembered that there were many variants of Anarchism attempting to operate in the mess that was Spain at that time, and they were all — in the end — violently opposed by the government and others. After his victory, Franco had thousands of anarchists executed. To say that Anarchism in Spain caused the violence is an oversimplification. There were many people’s movements at that time, some of them anarchist, some of them not, who were also the source of and (somewhat more often) recipients of brutal violence. Asking how large scale Anarchism would work in the real world is almost a pointless question as long as the real world is so hostile towards Anarchism.

      To answer your questions, however, I think it would be best to point to a few good sources (that is, if you're genuinely interested):

      First is a 1976 interview with Noam Chomsky in which he describes certain aspects of a possible Anarchist society:

      Second is a book calledChomsky on Anarchism,” which has a number of interesting essays on the topic. (though Chomsky’s ideas of Anarchism don’t always jive with all Anarchists (few things do))

      Third is a book called The Great Anarchists: Ideas and Teachings of Seven Major Thinkers”, which is a really great book that samples the work of seven very different Anarchist thinkers with an aim to finding the single thread that connects them all. The writers vary from complete pacifism (as with Tolstoy) to fairly violent.

      Finally, I would highly recommend taking a look at “The Dispossessed” by Ursula K. Le Guin. It’s a science-fiction novel dealing with a hypothetical Anarchist society and their limited interactions with the outside world. Good read.

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