What I Thought I Knew About Anarchism, Why It Was Wrong, and Why You’re Wrong Too.

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Banksy best captured what most people think of anarchists with the artwork to the left. He’s not far off, either. Many people have this misconception that these little punk rockers who still live at home off mom and dad are all that’s left of anarchist thought.  I was one of these individuals back in high school, but wound up growing out of it, in a way. One discovers quickly that spiked hair and combat boots does nothing to help people take you seriously, and, in the words of Stevo from SLC Punk, ” you can do more damage to the system from the inside than the outside.” As to what kind of damage I’m doing right now I really can’t say, but that’s a subject for another day.

Anyway, while the above painting is reflective of the stereotypical punk rocker anarchist, it hardly reflects any of the sort of values inherent within true anarchist communities, or even within anarchism itself.  Much of what the media and high school civics textbooks displays as anarchism is a gross misrepresentation of a community that actually affirms nonviolence, communal living, artistic expression, and morality. Before giving a definition of anarchism, it would be best to start with what anarchism is not.

1. Anarchism is not amoral egotism.  What that means is that it’s not a free-for-all where every individual gets to do what they want. This is how my civics textbook in high school defined anarchism, and it’s grossly inaccurate.  Anarchists understand that such freedom is ineffective and harmful, and seek instead to create community through voluntary action and agreement.  Anarchism doesn’t mean “no rules;” it means the rules are not forced up the people.

2. Anarchists are not terrorists, nor do they always support violent revolution.  Yes, some terrorists have adopted the name of “anarchist,” but they do not represent the whole any more than a jihadist represents Islam. Though some anarchists do support violent revolution, many anarchists are nonviolent, and seek to bring about the end of the state through nonviolent, grassroots movements.

3. Anarchism is not the rejection of organization. If it were, the movement would never have gotten started in the first place.  What good is a group of people who think the same on their own and never come together? No, anarchists collaborate together in all kinds of ways, be it through shared space for artists, or cooperatively owned businesses where all the employees own an equal share of the business itself (there’s an awesome place like this in Lancaster called The Seed which you should check out).

That’s what anarchism isn’t, so let’s get on to what anarchism IS…

Anarchism, in its narrowest definition, is merely the rejection of coercive government, but Spunk library gives a more positive definiton:

Anarchism is the free association of people living together and cooperating in free communities.

The predominant belief amongst anarchists is simply that all forms of coercion and domination, be it in the form of government, economy, or religion, are unnecessary, that the people have the ability to live in cooperation and harmony without government.  Effectively, “the primary goal of anarchism is the greatest possible amount of freedom for all…” (Chaz Bufe, Anarchism: What It Is And What It Isn’t), and that freedom does not need a government to ensure it stays that way.

Anarchism isn’t perfect, by any means, but neither is any other form of government (or, in this case, a lack thereof). Anarchists actually believe in the power of people to live in harmony with one another and work together cooperatively to achieve peace and community. I think this is why so many people balk at the thought of anarchism; they really believe people can’t behave.  Anarchists, in a lot of ways,are an extreme form of optimists, rooting for the human race, and they’re passionate enough to want to make human life as best as it is able.

So, next time you meet an anarchist, don’t blow them off.  Talk to them, spend time with them, whatever; you might just learn something really cool from them.

Primary Sources:
Anarchism: What It Is And What It Isn’t by Chaz Bufe

Misconceptions of Anarchism from “Fragments: A Memoir”, by Sam Dolgoff

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2 thoughts on “What I Thought I Knew About Anarchism, Why It Was Wrong, and Why You’re Wrong Too.

  1. I once told a guy I was an anarchist. “Well then what would you do if your house burned down?” he asked me. I told him I would call my neighbors and family and friends together and we would build it back up (a lot easier to do with my house than the house in which we had this conversation). Of course, if one is disillusioned and cannot believe the human community is capable of such cooperation, anarchism is rejected and a more fatalistic view must be adopted (e.g. government as a necessary evil). Of course, there are people who don’t behave (all of us, sometimes?), and conflict will always exist….but is coercion the proper way of handling this tension, or does it enhance evil when evil is present?

    I hope there is more dialogue about and attempts to build upon the relationship between reflection and action in anarchism. Although you’ve noted that the Banksy piece misrepresents anarchism to some extent, I feel like I have met many self-labeled anarchists who do a lot of “doing,” which can become mere immediacy activism born out of excitement and not critical reflection….as well as the intellectuals who are self-proclaimed anarchists but would rarely experience the “doing” which causes dissent and truly redistributes power. Thanks for the post, Pat.

  2. This is a wonderful post. Thank you for spelling out rather simply what is often misunderstood. One more step towards empathy to people sharing different viewpoints.

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