What is Anarchism?

What is anarchism? It is an attempt to bring about a more peaceful, cooperative, equitable society, as well as a framework with which to judge existing society and a set of tools with which to change it. But anarchism isn’t really one thing; it is rather a range of tendencies, bound together by their libertarian character—notably their opposition to the state—and their critique of both capitalist economic relations and the various forms of state socialism that have come and gone. The coercive power of the state underlies both capitalism and socialism, at least as we have known them, both dominating and submerging the individual and, through law-backed privilege, dividing owners from workers. Both are centralizing, hierarchical systems, monopoly systems kept afloat in the final analysis by force. Anarchists have presented a wide variety of economic proposals and lived a colorful medley of real-life social and economic experiments, sure that other ways—consensual and mutualistic rather than authoritarian and exploitative—are possible. As anarchism has matured, it has confronted ever more inequalities of authority, resisting racism and sexism, among other sources of social domination.

Anarchism emerged in the first half of the nineteenth century as a response to several related phenomena: the growth of industrial capitalism, the development of political economy as a separate and distinct discipline, and the rise of nationalism and the modern nation-state. And while the world is a very different place today, anarchism’s critique of centralized power remains relevant. Anarchism is a real, workable answer that, despite its provocative name, does not drive at lawlessness or chaos, but at a free, fair society in which communities are allowed to develop their own bottom-up solutions to concrete problems. Anarchism takes seriously the idea that if all people are equally free and equally entitled to dignity and autonomy, then no individual or group can have the right to impose upon or violate anyone. Thus did the eminent writer and historian George Woodcock suggest that anarchism is “aristocracy universalized and purified.”

Anarchists see that today’s crises, social, environmental, and economic, are the problems of largeness, of unaccountable monoliths in both the so-called public and private sectors. Concerned to cultivate and preserve genuine, human-scale communities, anarchism is fundamentally decentralist. It contemplates a society of loose networks in which groups may federate from time to time for given purposes, but in which there is no single institution arrogating the power to dictate rules, to dominate social and economic life, to preclude the spontaneous activities of free people. The dominant political dialogue and its menu of choices present a series of false choices, all quarters, whether putatively left or right, progressive or conservative, socialist or capitalist, submitting that, in Ivan Illich’s words, “monopolistic oligarchies” ought “to determine the means by which [our] needs shall be met.” It is not seriously considered by any party or side that monolithic bureaucracies, staffed with the appropriate experts, should not lord over us, making the important decisions as a duly appointed guardian would for a ward. The conversation seems to be premised on unthinking acceptance of twin absurdities: that an economy of giant multinational corporations is a proper free market and that the poor and powerless would benefit under a state socialism in which one capitalist, the state, owns and controls everything. Anarchists say that the names we give our systems are less important than the behaviors and relationships at issue; we argue that any attempt at socialism should be horizontal, decentralized, and libertarian, and that any free market must be free from the pervasive privilege that has always defined corporate capitalism as a matter of historical fact. Anarchism is revolutionary insofar as it looks forward to an end of the existing order, its replacement with a free society. But it requires neither the immediate overthrow of the existing order nor resigned despair until the day of the revolution. To again draw on Woodcock, we might treat anarchism “not as a formula for the immediate changing of society, but as a criterion, as a standpoint from which to judge and criticize existing society, and by which to shape one’s actions so that the libertarian and mutualist elements that exist in every society might be constantly activated and the authoritarian elements diminished.”

Anarchists do not hold fast to one view of human nature, if indeed they believe that such a thing exists at all. They do, however, suggest that if the essence of human nature is good, the state is redundant; if human nature is evil, rapacious, selfish, then the state, empowered with its geographical monopoly on the use of legitimate violence, is even more dangerous than mere criminals, the criminality of whom is at least recognized as what it is. Anarchists have attempted to call attention to this paradox not as enemies of law, order, and social cooperation, but as the harbingers of a more principled and complete order. Even as they are the friends of order, anarchists are the enemies of static orders, of regimentation and social monoculture. Current political language talks a lot about the Peoplebut doesn’t trust them to govern themselves, positing various intermediaries, all of whom of course have their own interests and desires. Our rulers maintain the pretense that they are governing for the good of all in order to continue their plunder and domination, aware that power of the conquerors lives first and ultimately in the minds of the conquered. When we change our minds, anarchists say, their power comes to end.


David D’Amato is an attorney, writer, and law professor.