catapult magazine

catapult magazine

Vol 6, Num 22 :: 2007.11.30 — 2007.12.14


Anarchism and hope

The prophetic imagination

Anarchism 101

Since the term “anarchy” is so loaded with negative connotations, perhaps the best way to begin is to unpack some misconceptions about anarchism. The two major misconceptions are that anarchy means chaos or disorder, and that anarchists are violent. The truth is that anarchism is not a politics of disorder—it is a politics of a different kind of order. Pierre-Joseph Proudhon, who may have been the first person to use the term “anarchist” self-referentially, is famous for his statement, “Anarchy is order.” He said, “Liberty is the mother, not the daughter, of order.” Proudhon believed that if people could be freed from external tyrannies they would create for themselves a structure in which to live life that would be, on the whole, more free, more just, and more ordered than that which was imposed by the alliance of government, economic power, and military and police violence. Or, as David Layson put it, “Anarchy is not chaos, but order without control.” Anarchism is not about disorder and chaos, it is about creating a different kind of order. Catholic Worker co-founder and anarchist Peter Maurin often described the goal of the movement as to create a society where it is easier for people to be good.

Also, it is incorrect to say that anarchists are violent. While it is true that some people associated with anarchism, whether in reality or only in public perception, have used violent means to accomplish their goals, anarchism is fundamentally a philosophy that critiques violence, both systemic and individual. The goal of anarchist politics is to create a less violent world, and even among groups that have used violent tactics the use of such was seen as less violent than the world they opposed. It also must be said that, in this society which often elevates property and profit over people, the destruction of property by anarchists (as well as those claimed as anarchists by mainstream media; for an excellent example of such distortion watch The Miami Model, an independent media account of the 2003 anti-FTAA demonstrations in Miami) has often been trumpeted as violence, when according to a more humanistic account destruction of property is not (or at least is not always) violent. Some argue there are situations in which property itself is violent, and to destroy it is a liberating act. The debate will not be settled in this paragraph, but I just wanted to point out that there is a debate, and a complex one at that.

Now that we've seen a bit about what anarchism isn't, now for a bit about what it is. As I said above, anarchism is a politics of a different kind of order—that is, a politics based on the principle of decentralized power structures where authority is shared by those who are affected by it. Anarchism has at its root the idea that centralized power structures should be criticized and even dismantled to allow for the development of more equitable and just structures where every voice is heard and those directly affected by decisions are the ones making them. The way power tends to work in society, as can be shown by a reading of history, is that it “trickles down” from CEO to boss to worker, or from ruler to governor to people, and while those who hold power may give up just enough to pacify those on lower rungs of the ladder, substantial change is rarely affected unless it is particularly in the interest of those on top.

As a result, the overwhelming majority of people, whether they are in a democracy or a dictatorship, don’t make decisions about what laws are made, what rules they have to follow or what policies they’ll put in place. A much smaller segment of the population retains the power to make these decisions and the rest of the people simply have to do it or face the consequences, even if they disagree or the rules don’t make sense. So although we can vote for the president and senators, you don’t vote on the kinds of policies you want them to implement. As such if you don’t like the job he or she does after they have gotten into office, you can’t really do anything about until their term is over and you get to vote again.

Anarchists reject “pyramid” models of organizing society and its institutions in favor of modes that are decentralized, where people share power more equally, and where no one person or group of people should have the ability to gain too much power over another. Decisions that affect groups of people are made by consensus, by agreement, and not by “I said so, you do it.”

The idea of decentralized leadership leads to the concept of direct action. Direct action occurs when people participate directly in decision-making processes or personally get involved in affecting political and social change. So instead of voting for representatives to make decisions on your behalf as we do in elections, people would have a direct say on the issues that affected them, by participating discussions, getting involved in protest or making different choices. It is not the same as participating in elections or complaining to, say, the Department of Weights and Measures if one gets cheated by the local deli. Rather, direct action means resolving situations in a ways that involve those affected. Even though it wasn't anarchist, the Civil Rights Movement was a prominent example of direct action being utilized to work for larger-scale changes in society.

A corollary of direct action is mutual aid. Mutual aid involves the creation of structures in which people directly help one another in times of need. For a recent example of mutual aid, look at how the Amish community came together after the recent horrific school shooting. Mutual aid can both take the form of impromptu action in the immediate time of need as well as creating channels for aid to flow in anticipation of needs. Mutual aid can also function as a kind of living critique of modern individual isolation. The early church in Acts 2 and 4 is a quintessential picture of a society based on mutual aid.

Anarchy is not without structure, but structures are decentralized and dynamic. It is not that there are no leaders, but leaders arise in the time of need instead of being appointed as kings and presidents for a specific time not related to the needs of a situation. Decentralized power structures lead to dynamic leadership structures that change as the needs of the group change.

Anarchy comes from the Greek an-, meaning “no,” and archos, meaning “ruler.” As such, anarchism is a political philosophy that favors no states in the modern sense of the term. This rejection of the nation-state flows out of the principle of decentralization and the critique of power structures. Anarchist critiques of the state point out that nation-states have historically evolved out of the desire of one group of people or another to maintain power over another, and as such the principle of decentralized leadership and shared authority is violated. Some anarchists also point out that capitalism has evolved alongside the modern nation-state and, particularly in its corporate form, capitalism has been a key component of colonial empires and of reducing the formerly colonial world to essentially a new kind of economic colonial status after their ostensible independence.

Many anarchists are particularly critical of the link between the United States and economic globalization. They point out that those who implement these policies will naturally (whether intentionally or not) design them to benefit themselves the most, creating a cycle of power and wealth on the one hand, and disenfranchisement and poverty on the other. Anarchists propose that the elimination of the modern nation-state and the economic tyrannies that accompany it will go a long way towards effecting the liberation of the people of the world. Political theorist Anthony Giddens (not an anarchist as far as I know) defines the state as a territorially-arranged entity that is able to successfully mobilize the use of violence to maintain its territory and identity. This is true regardless of whether it is a dictatorship or a so-called democracy, and anarchists believe that decentralizing those power structures and making sure those who make decisions are the ones who live by them will go a long way towards reducing the violence in the world.

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