Monday, November 8, 2010

Myths of Anarchism ("Anarchism, Part I")

[This is the introduction to a very ambitious paper I wrote in 1999--my first essay on anarchism--that contains all the signs of my writing at the time: creative-"extending" of the English language, bubbling enthusiasm/cheer-leading, an undergraduate-esque desire to impress even when going beyond the grasp of my own understanding, and (what appears to be) the desire to assault the reader with torrents of argumentation. Even given its problems (sorry, I've retained all the wince-inducing-grammar), this is still pretty good... and it still resonates with my analysis today. More of this treatise to come...]

Anarchy, n:
The worst fear of every politician. A nightmare situation in which institutionalized violence, coercion, and extortion are replaced by free association, voluntary cooperation, and mutual aid. Fortunately, governments the world over maintain secret police, informers, provocateurs, torturers, prisons, execution chambers, and herds of obedient men armed with weapons of mass destruction to guard against this dreadful possibility.

- Chaz Bufe[1]

Power and Authority

Anarchism's casual association with chaos and violence is as unfortunate as the predominate Western-associations of socialism to totalitarianism and the often male-voiced association of feminism to man hating. These generalizations and broad assumptions do a great disservice to the debate over such subjects and work to eliminate discussion before it even takes place.[2]

Taking the word "anarchy" literally, as most anarchists do, it simply means "without authority". The root of the word "archy" means "rule" and the "a" prefix, means "lack of" or "without". It implies nothing to do with chaos or violence unless one assumes that chaos and violence can only be avoided via authoritarian structures, which history has proven to not be the case. In this day and age, however, there is a stigmatism that follows all dictionaries and walks of life that uses the word "anarchy" as the semantical equivalent of "disorder", "chaos", and "terror".[3]

Anarchy's primary concern is with the relationship of power within society and its effect upon human freedom. Anarchists view authority and the power it wields to be coercive and oppressive, because it subjects people to the whim of others without consent of those subjugated.[4]

Authority exists in many facets of society and anarchists argue that all of these should have their legitimacy challenged and removed. Authorities can be found within the all levels of government, private corporations, military structures, religious institutions, and within different social groupings, including intimate relationships, families, and neighborhoods.[5]

Noam Chomsky on anarchy and how people should deal with authority:
Anarchism... is an expression of the idea that the burden of proof is always on those who argue that authority and domination are necessary. They have to demonstrate, with powerful argument, that that conclusion is correct. If they cannot, then the institutions they defend should be considered illegitimate. How one should react to illegitimate authority depends on circumstances and conditions: there are no formulas.[6]

Thus, anarchism is the attitude of wanting to identify the oppressive powers at work in people's lives, and work to increase human freedom, usually through the decrease or removal of that authority. Many anarchists believe that all forms of authority are illegitimate and harmful, and therefore should be removed. Others feel that they should be challenged in, and only the ones that serve a great and mutually-agreeable function within society should be allowed to remain. For example, if a child is walking out into a busy street, many anarchists feel that exerting themselves physically to overpower that child is justifiable. But, often force and coercion are restrictive, not protective, of human freedom.[7]


Anarchists have often been seen as violent people who throw bombs and assassinate others. It is very true that some anarchists have done this. Then again, so have many other groups within societies done similar things, including socialists and Marxists, not to mention conservative elements and established powers whose violence is often officially condoned.[8]

Anarchism, as an idea, has been rigorously derided as an idea through-out the world for its association to a violent minority within its ranks, but most importantly, because of the threat it poses to power and privilege everywhere in the world.[9]

So, although some anarchists have used violence to expand their cause (often in the "propaganda by deed" period of the anarchist movement), many decry all forms of violence and coercion, seeing it simply as another form of control over others, and therefore no different than oppressive authorities. Most anarchists do, however, recognize that force and assertiveness are often necessary, but nearly all stop short of condoning violence. As many are fond of saying, "true anarchists aren't terrorists".[10]

They challenge the notion of "terrorism" itself, asserting that actions are often viewed in the mainstream, especially media, only as terrorism if they are performed by official enemies. Thus, when "friends", "associates", or the state commit atrocities against people it is seen as "justified" and "necessary". A good example of this practice as it is done by the US government can be seen when Turkey (a country that the US is friendly towards) commits atrocities against its Kurdish population, the US turns the other way, yet when Iraq (a country that the US is hostile towards) commits similar atrocities against its Kurds, it is met by harsh criticism and condemnation. Turkey is "handling domestic problems" and Iraq is "committing terrorism against its population". An anarchist views both as wrong and rightfully decries both as terrorism.[11]

Human Nature

As an idea, anarchism (and similarly socialism and communism) is attacked and discredited because many feel (especially in the West) that people aren't "nice enough" to treat others well without authority figures and that it goes against "human nature". The abstraction of "human nature" derives itself from Social Darwinism (now considered an antiquated idea), which expresses essentially the same thing: that people are by nature competitive, Evil, and will go to any lengths to win or beat others.[12]

Taken at face value, this could be a plausible hypothesis. Surely, some of these symptoms apply to our society in many ways. Yet, humans can be generally described as anything one would like to-- "bad", "good", "greedy", "kind", "selfish", "humble", "disrespectful", "noble", etc. Labeling all people to be some certain way, is a dangerous thing. Certainly not all humans are the same, and it would be foolish to assert something like that. Yet, many do, saying that humans are by nature competitive.[13]

Anarchists, in addition to others, disagree with this for a number of reasons. People are capable of working together in groups for absolutely no personal gain. They participate in community projects that share their resources for the betterment of all. They donate to charities, spend time caring for children, the elderly, the poor. In 1902, Peter Kropotkin, a Russian aristocrat turned natural scientist, wrote "Mutual Aid", in which he argues that it is the characteristic of cooperation that facilitates the advancement of society, as opposed to competition. He studied the interaction of animals, "savages", barbarians, the medieval cities of Europe, and civilization at the turn of 20th century. He came to the conclusion that by working together individuals achieve protection, attain older ages, accumulate experience and learning, higher intellectual development, further sociable habits, and secure the continuance of the species and its future maintenance.[14]

This does interplay with the notion of competition, but not on an individual basis. If "competition" does exist, it exists in the respect of the species itself against the hardships of the natural environment, against problems within society, and to come up with the best solutions to benefit all.[15]

Albert Einstein, who was not an anarchist, gave his observations on the concept of cooperation and competition:
Darwin's theory of the struggle for existence and the selectivity connected with it has by many people been cited as authorization of the encouragement of the spirit of competition. Some people also in such a way have tried to prove pseudoscientifically the necessity of the destructive economic struggle of competition between individuals. But this is wrong, because man owes his strength in the struggle for existence to the fact that he is a socially living animal. As little as a battle between ants of an ant hill is essential for survival, just so little is this the case with the individual members of a human community.[16]

Mutual aid is also a useful characteristic as it facilitates the ability for people to unite together against oppressive systems and authorities. This solidarity is a way for people to work to remove authorities and advance larger individual freedoms. Also, this notion of mutual aid is the means that a society can function more freely and with the interaction and participation of all.[17]

Anarchism, then is a collaboration between the desire to expand personal freedom and the recognition that only through mutual aid and working together can people become free. Therefore, these combined premises show that anarchy cannot be at all analogous with chaos, since an "order" must exist within society for people to be free. Chaos is the absence of order, and order most definitely exists within an anarchical frame of mind, although it is not coercive and top-down like authority is.[18]

People within a free society need to recognize the rights of others as well as exercising their own. Members of such a society recognize that their actions can adversely effect others around them, and need to work to make sure that they are not restricting the rights of others. While someone smoking in a small room is practicing his/her right to smoke, they do not have the right to infringe on the rights of others by polluting others' lungs with smoke. Thus, even though smokers have the right to smoke, they shouldn't around others who don't want them to. Those who smoke must realize this relationship, and not do it. This may be accomplished without any outside or higher-up authority dictating it.[19]


1. Chaz Bufe, "The American Heretic's Dictionary", an inclusion within "The Devil's Dictionaries", Tuscon, Arizona: See Sharp Press, 1995.

2. Various authors and editors, "An Anarchist FAQ (Frequently Asked Questions) Version 7.8". Section A.1 "What is anarchism?" The FAQ is undoubtedly British in origin, judging by the spelling of certain English words.

3. Merrian-Webster's WWW Dictionary for etymology. Other definitions drawn from Webster's Dictionary 1996 and Fast-Times Political Dictionary 1998. Interesting to note, however is a 1966 definition from The Random House Dictionary of the English Language (Unabridged Edition) on "anarchist": a believer in voluntary association as the most satisfactory means of organizing society. Terror or chaos is not even mentioned. Analysis from Anarchist FAQ Section A.1.1 "What does 'anarchy' mean?"

4. Rudolph Rocker, "Anarchosyndicalism". Martin Secker and Warburg Ltd., 1938.

5. Anarchist FAQ Section A.2.2 "Why do anarchists emphasise liberty?" The ideas of religion and family as potentially authoritarian structures derive from statements and acknowledgments made by Michael Bakunin ("God and the State", Chapter II) and Noam Chomsky ("Anarchism, Marxism and Hope for the Future", from the Chomsky Archives) respectively.

6. Noam Chomsky, "Noam Chomsky on Anarchism". Edited by Tom Lane, from the Chomsky Archives. December 23, 1996.

7. Michael Bakunin, as cited in Anarchist FAQ Section B.1 "Why are anarchists against authority and hierarchy?" The legitimacy of authority is heavily discussed in Anarchist FAQ Section B "Why do anarchists oppose the current system?" (et al). The "child in the street" example comes from "Anarchism, Marxism, and Hope".

8. Peter Kropotkin, "Anarchism and Violence", from "The Anarchist Reader", Sussex, England: The Harvester Press Ltd., 1977, edited by George Woodcock, 184-185.

9. Anarchist FAQ Section A.2.18 "Do anarchists support terrorism?"

10. Ibid. and Warren Lerner, "A History of Socialism and Communism in Modern Times", Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey: Prentice-Hall, Inc., 1994, 46-50. Here there is a very short discussion of anarchists and the terror that is credited to them. "Propaganda by deed" is mentioned as well as some superficial associations with the Haymarket Square Massacre, and the assassinations of Alexander II, James Garfield, and William McKinley.

11. Alexander Berkman, "The Violence of the Lawful World", taken from "The Anarchist Reader", 185-187. The application of the term "terrorism" is applied from "The American Heretic's Dictionary" definition of "bomb": a means of persuasion. When employed by those in power, its use is customarily termed 'in the national interest', and those who use it are customarily described as 'tough' and 'courageous'. When employed by those out of power, its use is customarily termed 'terrorism', and those who employ it are customarily described as 'ruthless' and 'cowardly'. The US's attitude on Turkey and Iraq is drawn from the mainstream media, which can be observed from the articles, 06/28/99 "Grieving Turks call for Ocalan's death" and 08/18/99 "U.S. pushing war crimes charges against Iraq's Saddam Hussein". Also, relevant to the terrorist state discussion is Noam Chomsky, "Deterring Democracy", New York: Hill & Wang, 1991, 193-194.

12. Emma Goldman, "Anarchism: What It Really Stands For" from Sue Davis, "American Political Thought: Four Hundred Years of Ideas and Ideologies". Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey: Prentice-Hall, 1996, p373 and Albert Einstein, "Why Socialism?" from Leo Huberman and Paul M. Sweezy, "Introduction to Socialism". New York: Modern Reader, 1968, 14-15.

13. Anarchist FAQ Section A.2.15 "What about Human Nature?"

14. Peter Kropotkin, "Mutual Aid: A Factor of Evolution". Originally published 1902. His areas of study are broken down by chapter in "Mutual Aid", with his findings summarized in the Conclusion chapter.

15. Personal observations of working on teams, in large groups, and as a community. In such cases the "opponent" is only the problem at hand, not each other.

16. Albert Einstein, from an address in Albany, NY, October 15, 1936.

17. Anarchist FAQ Section A.2.6 "Why is solidarity important to anarchists?"

18. Ibid.

19. Ibid. and Anarchist FAQ Section A.2.11 "Why are most anarchists in favour of direct democracy?" The latter tackles the idea of "self-restraint" which is nothing more than common respect for others, in a community sustainability sense. Public smoking example is personally created, yet adapted from Anarchist FAQ Section A.2.4 "Are anarchists in favour of 'absolute' liberty?"

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