The FAQs! What is Anarchism?

OK. I’ve been meaning for some time to tackle some basic sorts of questions folks ask me about anarchism, so here goes. I’ll be breaking up the deep historical stuff with some very present-oriented, opinionated bits, which you can think of as gradually answering parts of the “why bother?” question – which is what people usually ask me about my historical work. I’m going to be uncharacteristically breezy here. If you want the footnotes, someone else can supply them for a change. I suggest the Anarchist FAQ and the Mutualist FAQ for more serious study.

I was sitting outside a coffee shop yesterday, sifting through printouts about Bessie Greene, when an older gentleman sat down at the next table. He asked me something about the stuff I was reading, and it came out that I was working on a bit of anarchist biography. He snorted a bit at that, and then proceeded to roll out all of the usual surface-level objections: anarchists as bomb-throwers; anarchy as impractical (though later he owned that it might just be personally inconvenient, since he was pretty happy in his own “groove”); terrorism as equivalent to anarchism (though, again, he had to admit that there wasn’t much anarchistic about fundamentalism)–and so on. I’m used to that sort of thing. I tend to do a lot of patient explaining. Oddly enough, however, no amount of patience, or specific knowledge, for that matter, seems to clarify things for many folks. What’s up with that?

So I guess that’s two questions: What is anarchism? And why can’t people hear the answer when you say it?

The first one isn’t all that hard. Anarchism is a political tendency with a long history, the core truth of which is that we all get along better–individually and collectively–if we keep the processes of social organization simple, local and responsive to new conditions and desires.

I think that’s a fair sort of plumb line for the movement, one that cuts to the heart of the matter better than many of our slogans. In his entry for the 1910 Encyclopedia Britannica, Kropotkin defined anarchism thus:

ANARCHISM, the 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 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 civilized being. In a society developed on these lines, the voluntary associations which already now begin to cover all the fields of human activity would take a still greater extension so as tosubstitute themselves for the state in all its functions. They would represent an interwoven network, composed of an infinite variety of groups and federations of all sizes and degrees, local, regional, national and international temporary or more or less permanent – for all possible purposes: production, consumption and exchange, communications, sanitary arrangements, education, mutual protection, defence of the territory, and so on; and, on the other side, for the satisfaction of an ever-increasing number of scientific, artistic, literary and sociable needs. Moreover, such a society would represent nothing immutable. On the contrary – as is seen in organic life at large – harmony would (it is contended) result from an ever-changing adjustment and readjustment of equilibrium between the multitudes of forces and influences, and this adjustment would be the easier to obtain as none of the forces would enjoy a special protection from the state.

That sounds alright, doesn’t it? We’re not talking about Eden here. A lot of conflict, and a constant labor for liberty, is tucked away in that phrase about “ever-changing adjustment and readjustment of equilibrium.” Reading Kropotkin it’s hard to imagine why folks so immediately back away from the very thought of anarchism. After all, the “no government system” ought simply to be the vanishing point–which is to say, the point of perfection–of any government truly of and by the people. And isn’t that what we’re fighting for?

Maybe not, actually. I was sitting in my favorite diner the other day, and heard a really amazing exchange between a couple of high school students. Someone at the table said, in response to some bit of news, that “religion is evil.” A young man replied that, no, religion was good because “without Catholicism, I would do bad things.” Another chimed in, suggesting that the values didn’t come from the religion–and I thought perhaps that there was going to be an appeal to individual values and convictions. But, no. . . . What really keeps us from doing bad stuff, apparently, is simply fear of getting caught.

Now, I suspect that the guy arguing for fear as a moral compass might be willing to make some finer distinctions, under other circumstances and perhaps a little prodding, between, say, “doing bad stuff” and disobeying authorities. Some of our daily transgressions are really things we think of as in some sense “bad,” but many are simple punishable (in one sense or another.) I’m not sure that young Catholic really believes that without religion, he would be evil. In practice, most of us are a whole lot more likely to believe the other guy is innately depraved than we are to think that way about ourselves. This is naturally, a boon to all sorts of authoritarianisms, since our fear of the other guy keeps us buying into social schemes that limit our liberty.

The political–or anti-political–aspirations of anarchists don’t differ that much from those of any number of other nominally liberty-loving ideologies. Be anarchists are a bit relentless–at least at their best. The 19th century individualist anarchists opposed their mutualism to capitalism’s version of the “free market” on the grounds that they were, in the words of Benjamin Tucker, “consistent Manchesterians.” In July 2002, the anarchy-list was home to a lengthy debate on this and related subjects. At that time, I described that rheterical move in this way:

When Tucker speaks of being “a consistent Manchesterian” the emphasis is on *consistency.* The implication is that the Manchester crowd are not consistent in their Manchesterianism, so to be consistently Manchesterian is to be *opposed* to the Manchesterians.

It was also Tucker who explained, using a similar move, that:

The Anarchists are simply unterrified Jeffersonian Democrats. They believe that ‘the best government is that which governs least,’ and that which governs least is no government at all.

Anarchism, imagined this way, starts to look like the most ordinary aspirations of freedom-loving people, but intensified and taken seriously in a way that can be frightening.

Perhaps anarchists would cover more ground toward their goals if they contemplated more seriously both the ordinary nature of the aspirations and the extraordinary demands their attainment is likely to make on us all.

Which may or may not answer either of my questions. . .

About Shawn P. Wilbur 2685 Articles
Independent scholar, translator and archivist.

1 Comment

  1. Just stumbled across your blog and am very happy to see another perspective on mutualism.

    I think that Tucker and other individualist anarchists who hold, or held, a “stirnerite” or “egoistic” position on the question of “why bother”, would consider the perspective of “I do what I can get away with” as totally valid.

    If anything this perspective should encourage dissolving the state as it is the state which is the greatest inhibiter of human actions.

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