Posted by: Mark | January 26, 2009

My thoughts on, of all things, ANARCHY

Yes, this may seem like an extremely random post idea, but I can’t help it. I was reading a friend’s blog post about anarchy, and it’s hard for me not to react. I teach a unit in my history class on the “Ism’s,” and Anarchism always gets the biggest crowd reaction. High school kids tend to either love it (in a bit of a Beavis and Butthead way, to be honest), or else find it utterly absurd.

In the abstract, I think that anarchism is the most optimistic political ideology that there is. As I break it down, anarchists must believe that people are so fundamentally good, and altruistic at their deepest cores, that they don’t need rules to be regulated. Power hierarchies, as the anarchist argument goes, create inequality, and with that comes a whole bunch of lovely things like envy, greed, jealousy…which then need to be suppressed by a more entrenched power hierarchy. And so on and so on, and as a result our basic goodness has been darkened by our desire for power.

anarchyredIn the abstract, that is groovy, baby. I love it. It allows me to understand how there are actually Christian Anarchists, and that phrase is not an oxymoron, and how it almost seems that to be a true Christian (all created in God’s likeness, all fighting against sin) you’d almost have to be an anarchist. [Insert mental image of Simpson character Ned Flanders in a Sex Pistols t-shirt.]

But then in creeps my real world conceptions. Now granted, I find myself believing in everyone’s innate goodness, and I believe that very strongly. The problem is, in a pluralistic world, people have different views then I do. Not everyone thinks that all of humanity is so good that they can be trusted to regulate themselves without some powerful force helping to keep them in check. So I might be the good little anarchist, wanting everyone to voice her/his opinion, not wanting money to create distance between us and give up all my possessions, and some jerk face might come and just take all my crap. Sucks for me. (The anarchist counter-argument is that my perception is too distorted by the whole societal power hierarchy outlined above, and I anticipate that, but still think my point is legitimate.) I mean I’d love to think that if we just took away power structures, peace would be achieved throughout the world. But I have a hard time thinking that Palestinians and Israelis will abandon old hatreds and prejudices just by opening up the whole land for everyone.

So then it comes down to maybe anarchy could work in a small community. The classic, Northern California commune argument. Get a bunch of like-minded people together, people you trust, and then live in some redwood forest in blissful anarchy.

That is even more groovy, baby. But in pops a question of sustainability. When these groups of like-minded people start to have kids, their kids need to be given the freedom to explore any ideology they want, which may in fact not be anarchy but instead rigid capitalism, or Maoism, or whatever the hell they want. So then in order to keep the anarchist community pure, the like-minded founders isolate their kids from all knowledge, which in some circles is called brainwashing, and stamp out the freedom they were going for in the first place.

[Take, for example, the M. Night Shmalyman (whatever his name is, I never know) movie “The Village.” While on the surface a horror movie, I think it’s actually a statement on commune utopias. The little utopia, which willingly removes itself from the modern world and transports itself into an early 19th century world, creates a mythical boogeyman type creature with a bad color associated with it, basically to scare the crap out of all the kids in the commune from ever leaving and experiencing the real world and gaining outside knowledge, all out of fear that the kids might deliberately choose to leave the commune.]

At its heart, I think that is the problem with anarchy. If you give everyone total freedom, then they’re free to not like anarchy, and to want hierarchy, and to create hierarchies, and as a result, replace the concept of anarchy. It’s almost self-defeating. And I think that since throughout all of human history anarchy has been merely an idea, and very rarely a long-lasting reality, it seems that human nature needs some sort of checks and balances to freedom, with said checks and balances needing to come from others, and others that are arranged hierarchically.

I enjoy reading about the idea, and thinking about the utopian communes of trust and generosity, but I can’t help but to express my doubt about them.

SPGreenlaw, any thoughts back?



  1. You touch on some awesome points here. I think the real issue is that, in the vacuum of space, many isms sound ideal. But here on earth, where isms collide, nothing is as easy at it seems (isms included).

  2. Some very good points, Mark. I’ll try to address them succinctly. If I’m being too vague, or misunderstanding any of your points, just let me know and I can try to zero in on something.

    First, you say that there would be no rules, or that a community would be powerless to defend itself or it’s individuals from any violence or theft of goods. That puzzles me, especially since how an anarchist revolution and its communities ought to best defend itself is a fairly frequent subject of anarchist literature, and has been ever since Bakunin split from Marx. I don’t think that an anarchist community would be without rules, just without rulers. As I said in my post, the politics of anarchy are the politics of direct democracy. That allows for there to be restrictions put in place, as long as they are agreed upon by the majority of the community, and are not so foul to the minority decided against that they choose to secede from the association. And I don’t think an anarchist community would have much of a problem properly defended itself, especially in cases of petty theft (and I think those will mostly disappear in a society that does away with private ownership of the means of production, provides everyone with an equal standard of living, and gives an equal share in decisions relevant to them). The anarchists during the Spanish Civil War put up a good fight against opposing groups, many of which were funded by the world powers, so I don’t see much of a problem with upholding decisions and protecting individuals from abuse within a collective.

    You bring up a very accurate criticism about starting a utopian style commune separated from the rest of society. For what it’s worth, I don’t think any community can last for long if it tries to remove itself from the greater human network, and, incidentally neither do a good number of other anarchists. Kropotkin, one of the most important anarchist thinkers, was highly skeptical of that set up, and you can read more about his doubts here: Generally anarchist communities would interact with each other in a similar way that personal relationships function (free association) to trade resources and luxury items based on mutual aid and benefit. No modern community can really function if it is truly separated from others. As far as children leaving a commune, well, the ability to associate freely is vital to an anarchist society. Most Americans no longer stay in the same neighborhoods that they grew up in. These neighborhoods don’t collapse into ghost towns because of it.

    The last point you made, if I haven’t missed anything, has to do with the longevity or sustainability of anarchist structures within a free society. It is an interesting one. And oOent models of economic organization (anarchist mutualism, primitivsm, and communism for example) and can exist in different locations, and coexist peacefully. I’m not sure I agree with it, but, it is there. But you talk about new hierarchies sprouting up from anarchist communities, or communities adopting Marxism or let’s say a hierarchal form of republican, government sanctioned capitalism (like what we have now) all over again. Well, authoritarian communism (I’ll just capitalize Communism when referring to authoritarian Marxism) has, as it’s goal, a stateless society. Since an anarchist society has already achieved what Communists see as the end goal, in their teleological view of societal progression, I can’t see that ever happening. As for a representative democracies, they came about to entrench the power of the growing bourgeoisie, taking authority away from the monarchs and aristocrats, and ensuring against the “tyranny of the majority” (the only minority our founding fathers cared about defending were themselves, the rich landowners, and the only thing they were trying to protect was their capital creating property) so in a society without classes, which is what an anarchist (again, ignoring the an-cap types, because they would overly confuse the topic) I can’t ever see there ever being much push for a reestablishment of our current system. Will each community choose to operate differently? Sure. Is that a problem? Not at all. Anarchism is adaptable to specific scenarios, because people are. That’s what humans do.

    PS The thought of Ned Flanders in a Circle A shirt delights me.

  3. Oh dear, seems I did something disastrous to one of my sentences. The sentence in the fourth paragraph: “And oOent models of economic organization (anarchist mutualism, primitivsm, and communism for example) and can exist in different locations, and coexist peacefully” should read : “And there is a tradition of “anarchism without adjectives”, that is, believing that different models of economic organization (anarchist mutualism, primitivism, and communism for example) can exist in different locations.”

    Not sure how I missed that when proofreading.

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