Q&A: Anarchism

Anarchism is an oft-misunderstood political ideology - it’s not mainstream, it doesn’t seem to have a set of defined principles and to many, the word means ‘chaos’.

Ideas - Posted on Saturday, April 26, 2008 0:02 - 13 Comments


Anarchism is an oft-misunderstood political ideology – it’s not mainstream, it doesn’t seem to have a set of defined principles and to many, the word means ‘chaos’. Here, Usayd Younis answers some common questions.

Why do anarchists object to the establishment?

The establishment is the current system in place. It usually refers to the organised bodies of the state (e.g. the police), and concentrations of private power (e.g. corporations).

“It only makes sense to seek out structures of authority,” says Noam Chomsky “and to challenge them. Unless a justification for them can be given, they are illegitimate, and should be dismantled.”

This implies is that anarchists are not dogmatically anti-establishment – but that the onus is on the establishment to justify its authority. If the establishment cannot justify the reasons for its authority, then it should be dismantled. Thus, in the Chomskyan example, some instances of the use of authority and coercion – like pulling a child back from a road with heavy traffic – are justifiable. Most are not.

Anarchists generally believe that people are quite capable of fully participating in meaningful decisions which affect them, and the society. They pit themselves against the traditional conservative view (dating back to Plato) which argues that some kind of an elite is necessary to preserve the good of the society as a whole. To an anarchist, everyone who is involved in society must have an equal say in the way it is run.

In the U.K., as in other ‘polyarchial democracies’, the voter is presented with a selection of representatives to make decisions on their behalf. To an anarchist, this is the wrong way round. Anarchists would push for consensus decision-making, where no power is disproportionately vested in certain people.

Why do anarchists believe that the state is unnecessary?

One of the central themes running throughout anarchism is anti-statism. The state is a sovereign body that exercises supreme authority over all individuals and associations living within a defined geographical area. Either forcibly or by non violent means, the removal of the state plays a crucial role in defining anarchism against other ideologies that it can be related with, notably socialism and liberalism.

Sebastien Faure, in Encycopedie Anarchiste, defined anarchism as ‘the negation of the principle of Authority’. He saw ‘Authority’ as an offence against the principles of freedom and equality. By rejecting the state, anarchists endorse instead the principles of absolute freedom and unrestrained political equality. Authority with the right of one person or institution to influence the behaviour of others enslaves, oppresses and limits human life. It damages and corrupts both those who are subject to authority and those who are in authority.

The state is automatically a possessor of high authority. It is only by this concentration of authority that states could carry out the crimes of slavery, mass genocide and illegal occupation that are widely witnessed in both recent history and in the present day.

To be in authority is to acquire an appetite for prestige, control and eventually domination – giving rise to a ‘psychology of power’ of which Paul Goodman (1911-72) said, ‘many are ruthless and most live in fear’. This is especially true when political authority is backed by the machinery of the modern state.

Other ideologies, though they dislike its ill-effects, recognise the state as a necessary evil. Anarchists, in contrast, see it as a negative and destructive force embodied in institutions of law and government.

The ‘social contract’ is largely a myth, say anarchists. You become subject to a state by being born there, not out of free choice. And the massive coercion used to get you to obey the rules of the state does not constitute a fair contract, agreed to without duress. The state is a coercive body whose laws must be obeyed because they are backed by the threat of punishment. You can dress this up in the term ‘social contract’, but its essence doesn’t change. Since the advent of the state system (caused largely by the needs of European capital and constant fighting in Europe), point out anarchists, we have seen extreme ideologies of fascism and Stalinist communism run vast swathes of the world. We have seen every imaginable atrocity, genocide, and catastrophic war. We have come close to destroying every living thing on the planet – indeed, this possibility is still far from unlikely. Isn’t it time we lost trust in the state?



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May 26, 2008 17:57

Good short reasoning behind anarchism….
For further info see – http://www.geocities.com/CapitolHill/1931/

May 29, 2008 13:31

Wouldn’t Anarchism only work if all the people of the world started to be really nice to each other ? If someone didn’t agree to do this, decided to act individually or with a group and began to inflict physical harm on other people because they enjoyed it, what would happen ? could they be stopped from pushing the child onto the traffic heavy road ? By whom ?

May 29, 2008 16:35

Bladorr, couldn’t you coversely say – “wouldn’t capitalism only work if all the people of the world started to be really nasty to each other?” Yet this isn’t the case. I think there’s a large vein of left-libertarian thought that sees much of human action as constrained within institutional limits. Thus, if institutions are built which are grassroots-focused and which emphasise solidarity, rather than individuality, and human beings, rather than individual profit, it is thought that these characteristics of human behaviour will be given a far greater opportunity to express themselves in society and in the economy.

Jun 4, 2008 11:32

Hello Musab,

Indeed, good points and ones that I think could reap great rewards – note the rise of extreme Right-Wing movements in times/ geographical areas of hardship, brought on by a feeling within the individual of being socially and financially in the wasteland. A feeling that stems in no small part from the fall out from Capitalism for those that don’t live the lifestyle touted as being attainable via the successful pursuit of wealth.

A Leftist approach as, outlined in your comment, which offered support to the individual and focus on a collective would go some way to addressing the imbalance and hopefully avoid us having to read reports of the BNP winning seats on Councils etc.Indeed, I am a supporter of such a system and exercise my right to vote for such each time the ballot boxes are wheeled out ( the leftist one that is !!).

What I referred to in my original post is the inevitable individuals who just plain enjoy seeing others suufer and how Anarchy would address such souls. We witness time and again malicious actions within Society that could run unchecked under a doctrine that had no law or judicial system.

Jul 9, 2008 16:14

Bladorr, your point about the lack of coercive power within an anarchist society and thus the inevitable inability to prevent individuals from pursuing violent/malicious actions is a common and understandable reaction to anarchism. I think it’s important to point out that there are a number of other principles and conditions which many anarchists promote alongside anti-statism, including a drastic reduction in inequality (seen as one of the main causes of crime and violence), equitable systems of production and consumption, and full, participatory democracy.

In my opinion, these are necessary preconditions to the removal of state power, and thus it should be these issues which anarchists should be focusing their attention on. This may in fact even lead to supporting the state in certain circumstances (e.g. provision of free, state-run health care). The conception of anarchism set out in the article should be seen as an ideal towards which we can work by fighting social injustice and improving equality, aims which are broadly shared by many groups on the left.

Sep 18, 2008 1:21

could they be stopped from pushing the child onto the traffic heavy road ? By whom ?

The same situation could arguably not be stopped in our own capitalist society today, unless the child was lucky enough to be standing next to a police officer. You would hope that anyone, either in our society, or in an anarchist society, would do everything in their power to stop such an event.

As French anarchist Elisee Reclus said ‘I see a cat that is tortured, a child that is beaten, a woman who is mistreated, and if I am strong enough to prevent it, I prevent it’. In an anarchist society you wouldn’t wait around for a state power to prevent harm to another being, you would have to take responsibility- either personally or through community response- to act in events of injustice,

You can see examples of this, for instance, in contemporary anarchist circles which have implemented community responses to sexual assault within radical communities, whereby perpetrators ot sexual abuse are ostracized from the community and assisted in dealing with their behaviour without involving the usually insensitive and useless state justice system.

Sep 18, 2008 12:27

The interesting question in my opinion – one not addressed in the article, and that which tends to provide the greatest divergence of views amongst anarchists – is how to (effectively) bring about the removal of the state in a way that can be sustained. Some advocate the forceful overthrow of those in power as the only way to bring down a highly flexible and resilient capitalist system. Some maintain a fundamental and invioable belief in non-violence, whilst others believe (as indicated by Ben above) that reform in order to reduce inequality, improve education,etc. is a necessary pathway to a sustained anarchistic society.

For me the fundamental question is “reform or revolution”? Given that capitalism has evolved in such a way as to give most people (in the West, and rapidly “developing” countries elsewhere) the belief that capitalism works, how can genuine revolution be achieved in these countries without the consent of the overwhelming majority? So reform is perhaps the answer. Except for the fact that the power to reform is held by those with a vested interest in the maintenance of the status quo.

Any thoughts on these issues would be appreciated. I’m just typing stuff as it comes to me, and am always keen to learn what others think.

Sep 30, 2008 14:17

Although this doesn’t always mesh with the general good-feeling, positive vibe of many anarchists, I think you’ll find that the anarchist state can be happily self-policing as individuals who cause trouble will meet with ostracision and, if that is not sufficient, being beaten with a stick.

Nov 4, 2008 22:20

Great to see an article addressing soem of the pre-misconceptions surronding anarchism. I find it to be an incrediblly misunderstood doctrine; often bundled in with the likes of communism, which it is indeed very different to. anarchism is a better alternative to capitalism without a doubt, however it is terrifying how much people have been socialised and indoctrinated and beliveing there is only one system of government that can succed. I myself am 16 years of age and find it very to hard to find anyone my age who will even consider that there is something drastically wrong with the way our society is. Maybe I’m one of the lucky ones who has escaped the brainwashing. Anyway good article. Am very open to conversation or debate as often find it hard to find.

Nov 4, 2008 22:21

Apologies for all the above spelling and grammitcal mistakes.

Apr 10, 2009 14:16

I’m in agreement with all of the theory and the anti-statism. Every single bit of it is true.

However, as is my constant frustration with certain branches of anarchism, no tactics are presented. “Either forcibly or by non violent means, the removal of the state plays a crucial role”. True, but how?

If you do find a way, it would have to be a worldwide revolution. More revolutions fail than succeed, so that’s extremely unlikely. If you dismantled the state in one country, then you’d have imperialists homing in on you within minutes. External capitalists will never allow an anarchist society to function. As admitted in this article, the state is a mechanism for exerting power, so how can an anarchist expect to fight imperialism without having a state itself?

I’d probably class myself as a communist with the emphasis on the libertarian aspects (as in, a real thirst for pure communism as opposed to socialism). I recognise the state not just as a necessary evil, but as a temporary one, preferably with limited powers under a constitution. A state is required to fend off capitalists during the transitional period and also allows for people to adapt and become more cohesive after the isolation brought by capitalism. If you don’t believe in the state “withering away”, then under a socialist system, you face no more challenges than you did when fighting the capitalist state in terms of removing it. You probably have a greater chance of revolting against a socialist state given that the workers commonly own the means of production, at least indirectly.

Good post otherwise.

Apr 10, 2009 15:09

Samson – you raise a very valid question. However, as Bakunin pointed out so incisively, there is no such thing as a “temporary” state, even one that is set up under so-called “socialist” or “communist” principles. Bakunin noted that the “temporary” state you (and many others) advocate is “based on [a] fiction of pseudo-popular representation – which in actual fact means the government of the masses by an insignificant handful of priviledged individuals … [Like the capitalist state, it represents] the same government of the majority by a minority in the name of the presumed stupidity of the one and the presumed intelligence of the other. Therefore they are equally reactionary …” (Bakunin, M. 1873 ‘Statism and Anarchy’ pp.136-7).

You highlight the problems a revolutionary state would face, and these are real. But the problem of a resurgence of elite rule, re-packaged and re-sold to the masses after a revolution, is at least as great a problem, as history very clearly illustrates. Your notion that it would be easier to revolt against a state that is socialist in name is confusing: are you saying there was more freedom, and revolution was easier, under the Soviet Union than say, Sweden or Denmark? The kind of state you are advocating would be concerned with maintaining itself, as all systems of power are by nature, and would likely veer towards totalitarianism and social control.

Finally in my view it’s not necessarily true that “if you dismantled the state in one country, then you’d have imperialists homing in on you within minutes.” If a social revolution took place within a hegemonic power, such as the US today, I think it’s unlikely that another state would decide to invade.

Mar 30, 2011 13:34


Anarchism would arguably work because in an anarchist society you would respect each other. You wouldn’t kill someone because then you know someone would a motive to kill you, which obviously most wouldn’t want

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