Propositions for Discussion: The Idea of Anarchy


[Since posting the first installment of this project, I have considerably expanded the scope of the material to be covered, with the result that what was supposed to be a pamphlet’s worth of provocation may now become a short book’s worth of exposition. I’m going to post sections from the work, in rough form, in the hope that I might get some feedback on the general shape of the argument, and will return to further clarify and expand as time and inspiration allow. The work is essentially a rethinking of “anarchism without adjectives,” starting from the assertion that the concept of anarchy really is a sufficient center for a real, diverse and evolving anarchism.]

The Idea of Anarchy

  1. Anarchy is a simple, accessible notion, sufficient to provide the necessary glue for a real, diverse and evolving anarchism—the only anarchism worthy of the name.

There’s probably nothing simple about implementing anarchy, particularly in a world dominated by authority, hierarchy, absolutism and the like, but the notion of anarchy is really pretty simple. We have given it a variety of definitions, starting with Proudhon’s formulation, “the absence of a master, of a sovereign,” and some of these definitions may seem at first glance to conflict. But when we begin to seek a fuller understanding, the various approaches arguably converge. We have treated the ideal of anarchy as essentially negative, but perhaps we have confused things a bit. Certainly, our approach to anarchy is generally eliminative: we strip away the archic elements one by one—rulers, bosses, hierarchies, laws, authoritarian forms of organization, absolutist forms of thought—but at every stage, something remains. Full-fledged anarchy may remain undiscovered, and may remain so for some time, but is not nothing—and we advance stage by stage towards a fuller understanding of what it would entail. We glimpse its dynamics as we clear away those that obviously display other, incompatible tendencies.

  1. For our purposes here let’s define anarchy somewhat abstractly: Anarchy is simply the absence of archy.

And then let’s say that archy is the common denominator among all the various specific authoritarian, governmental, absolutist or hierarchical forms of social relations that anarchists have opposed—the factor by which we will recognize new obstacles on the road to an anarchist society. The effect is not to make our present targets any less clear, but to clarify the grounds on which we—as anarchists—target them, with an eye to the expansion of our opposition in new directions as new targets become clear to us. I think there is already a general sense that there will be new or newly recognized archies to combat for some time to come. Between our internal, sectarian struggles and the challenges posed by would-be “anarcho-” authoritarians of various sorts, we have plenty of incentives to think of our struggle as one with multiple dimensions and potentially unplumbed depths. We are constantly faced with definitions of anarchy or anarchism that don’t seem to be radical enough to truly get to the roots of things. At the same time, however, those same factors do little to encourage open exploration of our core concepts.

  1. A natural result of the tension created is that anarchy itself can come to seem like a weakness in our program, instead of its strength.
  1. We can end up limiting the anarchy we pursue to some particular sphere or spheres, in order to be sure that it is well-defined and practicable, even if it is not consistent and comprehensive.

The natural desire to live according to our ideal places pressures on us to keep things workable, particularly as we are constantly challenged to show examples of our ideas in practice. Those challenges often take the form of a sort of double-bind, demanding that we demonstrate the validity of our ideal by producing it in some more or less archic form—but that hasn’t, I think, prevented us from rising to the bait and from limiting our endeavors to forms that perhaps better fit the mold we’re trying to break.

  1. Meanwhile, our opponents are liable to claim that anarchy is, in fact, impossible.

The most common strategy here involves a conflation of force and authority, and, as a consequence, the naturalization of government as just one instance among others of the limitations that elements within a finite nature place on one another. Short of some claim that might makes right, this seems like a real confusion, mixing up questions of fact and of right rather indiscriminately. But has certainly been a common enough response to anti-authoritarians, from Engels up to the present day. And perhaps some of the tendency to limit our conception of anarchy comes from a fear that our opponents are in some sense correct.

  1. “Anarchy accepts no adjectives,” in the sense that any attempt to modify anarchy simply destroys it.

Let’s acknowledge that there are things about our chosen ideal that can be disconcerting, not least this tendency—recognized early in the period of organized anarchism—to resist any sort of complete specification. To extend the metaphor, we might say that anarchy is the adjective, in the sense that anarchy may modify other forms of organization, whether it seeps in as entropy or is introduced in a principled manner, but it simply ceases to be itself wherever it is subordinated to any other determined form of order. All of our explorations of the relationships between anarchy and order have been useful, particularly as answers to the prevailing, authoritarian notion of “social order,” but as with so many of our useful provocations (starting with “property is theft”) we have to make sure we remember that they are indeed provocative. Whenever we feel the need to specify our projects and positions more specifically than just as anarchist, we should probably call ourselves anarchistic communists, anarchistic individualists, anarchistic mutualists, anarchistic feminists, etc., rather than pretend, even in the limited context of a label, that it makes much of any sense to talk about a communistic or individualistic anarchy.

  1. If anarchy is sufficient, then, to serve as a point of convergence for the proponents of a diverse, dynamic anarchism, it is at least in part because it is ungovernable, and as anarchists we should view our own attempts to govern our ideal with suspicion.
  1. This particular sort of ungovernability may be unique to anarchism—in which case we need to pay particular attention to the resulting dynamics and learn the lessons required to practice a properly anarchic solidarity among ourselves.
  1. But ungovernability is not insufficiency.

Our concerns about it may point to shortcoming on our own part, but the beautiful and ungovernable ideal of anarchy is precisely what ought to urge us on to new efforts.

  1. There is a leap of faith involved in pursuing our intuition regarding anarchy, but we can have few illusions at this point about the realities of life under regimes of authority.

In another sense, then, we might say that even the possibility of anarchy is sufficient as a spur to further investigation.

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About Shawn P. Wilbur 2701 Articles
Independent scholar, translator and archivist.