What I Mean by "Anarchy"


I post in a lot of forums devoted to politics, current events, and cultural topics, and some people reading my views seem to get confused or even angry that I would consider myself an 'Anarchist.' With few exceptions, I believe this opinion strikes them as misguided at best and totally mad at worst. So an explanation of what Anarchy is and what I mean when I refer to it is in order. I don't put this explanation forward to preach at or convert anyone to my views, but to give people an understanding of what I mean when I use the term, and more importantly, what I don't mean by it.

The Merriam-Webster Dictionary defines the term in two principal ways:

'Anarchy (noun) Origin: Ancient Greek anarchos 'having no ruler'

1. A state of lawlessness or political disorder due to the absence of governmental authority.

2. Absence or denial of any authority or established order. Synonym: chaos.'

I reject the first definition because I don't accept political 'disorder' as being the absence of government authority. In practice, I believe it is 'authority' that causes an irrational and authoritarian order or hierarchy to develop in the first place. Governmental authority especially.

I dispute the second definition as just being wrong. Anarchy is not meant to mean chaos. Unfortunately, that is the most commonly understood meaning for the term. It is unfortunate both because it is so widespread and because it is incorrect.

The internet encyclopedia Wikipedia gives a much more nuanced and definitive explanation of the term 'anarchy' as a concept of societal organization.

'Anarchism is a generic term describing various political philosophies and social movements that advocate the elimination of social hierarchy. These philosophies use anarchy to mean a society based on voluntary cooperation of free individuals. Philosophical anarchist thought does not intend to advocate chaos or anomie ' it intends 'anarchy' to refer to a manner of human relations that is intentionally established and maintained.'

So when I refer to anarchy or anarchism, it is in this context. A society that is absent a large, controlling entity regardless of what this entity happens to be: corporations, religious institutions, political parties, criminal gangs, military forces, wild, leaderless mobs or anything or anyone else.

If we have learned anything from recent history, it is this: Without a large and powerful state enforcement apparatus to compel them otherwise, people tend to affiliate with people like themselves.

By 'like,' I mean a shared vision or theory of religion, politics, culture, sexuality, occupation, and many other subsets of affinity. When this compelling force is absent, the large. multi-race, multi-culture nation-states immediately devolve into their subsets. In recent history, examples of this phenomenon are the collapse of the former nation-states of Czechoslovakia , the Soviet Union , and Yugoslavia .

Absent their unifying supra-national monoculture-based hierarchy, (Communism in this instance), and the huge and harsh police apparatus needed to enforce its dominance, these states collapsed as easily as balls falling to the floor when a juggler stops juggling them.

The same phenomenon but in opposite form are the national liberation struggles of the Irish, Kurds, and Palestinians, who exist as ethnic groups, but have no sovereign nation-state. All were dispossessed of their traditional lands due to political arrangements made by colonial powers in late 19th Century or before.

I hypothesize that given a condition where no sovereign authority prevails, people will organize themselves not only on the basis of broad racial, ethnic, political, or religious affinities, but on many assorted subsets of affinity.

To present examples of what I mean, I refer to two novels by Neal Stephenson, Snowcrash and The Diamond Age. In Snowcrash, Stephenson describes a situation where the sovereign entity called the United States of America exists as one of numerous sovereign states in North America . A multiplicity of sovereigns exists and can be joined on a self-selected and voluntary basis. No person seems to be a citizen on the basis of birth alone. A person has citizenship with a particular sovereign entity because that is what they've chosen to join.

In the Diamond Age, Stephenson refines this notion further. People join sovereign arrangements called 'phyles,' based on their own desire to affiliate with people who share their outlook, beliefs or lifestyle.

As in Snowcrash, these phyles have a distributed geographic territory, as they are located in multiple locations (similar to embassies), which while located within another country's boundaries, are for legal purposes distinct and separate sovereign territory.

I posit that if a condition of 'no-authority' came to exist in the physical world and endured for even a short time, that broad categories of people and numerous subsets would spontaneously arise and form communities, analogous to bio-forms on growth medium in a laboratory petri dish.

Given free choice, these groupings would likely take numerous and diverse forms. Independent 'city-states' based on voluntary affinity would likely be the first to form. The innate desire of people to affiliate themselves with like or like-minded people may even be inherent to our species (Pinker).

Throughout American history, numerous societal experiments have been tried by such diverse groups as the Quakers, Mennonites, Shakers, Amish and the Mormons, just to name but a few. Their results have varied.

One of these enclavist experiments were the Mormons. The Mormon religion came into existence in early 19th Century America, a time and place where religious freedom was firmly enough established to allow the community to form, but insufficiently tolerant to allow it to exist and flourish, or fail on its own terms. So the Mormons found it necessary to migrate to the southwestern area of North America (sparsely populated Utah ), where neither Mexico nor the US had established either de jure or de facto sovereignty. They went to Utah because it was a place having no sovereign authority. The Mormon community lived there able to freely practice their chosen way of life until Utah came formally under the control of the US when it was annexed as a territorial possession in 1850 (Shipps).

Given the chance to, I think other groups of people would try to form independent communities. The Nation of Islam, for example could found their own sovereign community, and run it on their own terms. So could Socialists, ethno-nationalists, vegetarians, Druids, skate-boarders or any other group that chooses to. Those who decline to interact with them are free of compulsion to do so.

Choice is central to human existence, and it is inescapable; even the refusal to choose is a choice. Freedom of choice entails commitment and responsibility. Because individuals are free to choose their own path, scholars of liberty have argued they must accept the risk and responsibility of following their commitment wherever it leads.

In Anarchy or a condition of "no-authority," people will still need to obey the rules, laws and customs of the group they have chosen to affiliate themselves with, or whose territory they inhabit or are currently in. Governance would not disappear; it would necessarily devolve to smaller groups, self-selected by the individual, though.

If a person steals, disturbs, disrupts, assaults, is violent, or otherwise breaks the rules, laws and customs of such a community, they should expect the full force of the local community to intervene to halt that behavior. Acting against the community's laws, rules or customs and fostering a chaotic milieu based on violence and force couldn't be done with impunity, as critics often say.

Chaotic areas would likely exist, as they do now, where there is no established community to create order. There are still vast areas of the world that have this situation, even though on maps they are territories of a nation-state officially.

In a condition of no-authority, there is no mega-State to use force to require obedience to the ruling classes and their chosen ideologies, religions, and laws by the population of a given area. This force being absent, people are free to enter, leave, or form their own societal entities of whatever sort and based on their own criteria.

Some philosophers and political scientists will no doubt object that these small city-states are still States, after all, so where is the progress? Won't they accrete power and evolve toward larger, ever more despotic regimes? Perhaps some will. Perhaps some won't. It largely depends on how large a voluntary association can get before 'authoritism' (de jure or de facto) emerges. This question can only be answered by allowing people the necessary freedom to try, and so find out what the answer is. No amount of discussion can provide an answer to this question, in my view.

In the 'real world,' (as opposed to think tanks or internet forums), it may well be the best that can be done at this point in human political evolution and development. Like the perfectly round circle, 'perfect' anarchy may only be able to exist in theory, at least for now. But it is my goal to establish a non-authority social structure to inhabit with my family and like-minded people in my lifetime. And so I'm willing to keeping trying.

Sources Cited

Pinker, Steven, The Blank Slate: The Modern Denial of Human Nature, New York :Viking Penguin, 2002.

Shipps, Jon. The Quakers, Mennonites, Amish and Mormons: Independent Religious Communities in America . New York :Daulder Press.1984.

Stephenson, Neal, Snowcrash. Los Angeles :Sagebrush Education Resources. 2000.

Stephenson, Neal. The Diamond Age: Or, a Young Lady's Illustrated Primer, Bantam Books, Incorporated, 2000.

Wikipedia. < 10 July 2004

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Ali Hassan Massoud's picture
Columns on STR: 43

Ali Massoud is a proud old-school isolationist who writes for the Internet and blogs.