“Anarchy” conjures negative feelings in nearly all people. To most, it represents the
breakdown of social order, and it elicits images of young men throwing Molotov cocktails while wearing bandannas on their faces. The common (mis)perception of anarchy perpetuates the notion that the anarchist longs for an Hobbesian social environment in which all must fend for themselves in a dark world devoid of the comforts and prosperity provided by modern civilization. Put simply, people believe anarchists love chaos. Not surprisingly, when describing “anarchy”, people often equate it with absolute social disorder. As the logic goes, in an anarchic world, murder, theft, rape, and assault not only pervade everyday life but are encouraged. Consequently, the order and safety provided by hierarchical relationships save us from anarchy’s chaos. Such (mis)conception about anarchism could not be further from the truth.
First, let us concern ourselves with the meaning of anarchism. The root words derive from Greek. “An” simply means “against”. “Archy”, coming from the Greek “arche”,
means “power” or “leader”. Combined, the roots create the word “anarchy” meaning “against power/leaders”, not “for chaos”. This may be a little misleading; anarchism, universally, encourages power. That is to say, anarchism seeks empowerment of all people, not just a few. Empowerment rests deep in the heart of anarchism. Anarchists long to see all people empowered to act freely, to live in liberation, to exist without alienation and domination, and to take control of their own lives. What anarchists stand against is someone utilizing their empowerment to coerce another person into action. This means there must be a delineation of terms. “Anarchy” indicates a place in which no person possesses power over another. That is to say, in the event of a disagreement, one cannot force the other to obey. Succinctly, “anarchy” is the opposite of hierarchy. “Anarchism” represents the movement, both practical and theoretical, attempting to bring about “anarchy”; “anarchists” are those attempting to simultaneously live in and bring about a world without power taken over one another.
Additionally, autonomy stays very close to the heart of anarchism. Too often, anarchists work to keep others from taking power over themselves while negating the requisite
anarchist lifestyle of identifying personal capacity for enforcing and reinscribing hierarchical forms of organization. This makes anarchism both deeply reflective and deeply communal. Since using power to coerce others contrasts starkly with anarchism, cooperation with others remains an integral part of anarchism. Anarchists rarely act naively enough to believe they do not need the help of others. In the words of the anarchist Bob Black in his book Anarchy After Leftism, “In an anarchist society the individual gains freedom, not at the expense of others, but in cooperation with them. A person who believes that this condition–anarchy–is possible and desirable is called an anarchist. A person who thinks it is not possible or not desirable is a statist” (33). Ultimately, the message of anarchism arrives at this simple statement: liberation and freedom come from egalitarian relationships exercised cooperatively rather than hierarchical relationships relying on the benevolence of the most powerful.
A caveat about the meaning of “power” is required. Frequently, people identify power over others (hierarchy) as natural, innate, and inherent to human interaction. They fail to question the social constructs put in place that create hierarchy. Rather than looking at all people as equally necessary, our current social construction imbues value into certain people. Elite government officials, executive officers of corporations, owners, doctors, directors, lawyers, and many other people receive unnatural elevation. To claim these people are more necessary than educators, secretaries, farmers, or writers fails to consider how people currently in power rely on those who serve them. Never have I heard of a CEO who doubles as a custodian, nor have I seen a doctor schedule her own appointments. Nonetheless, these people require each other. Why is one considered more important than the other? Simply put, we decided some people are worth more than others. Power and hierarchy are not inherent. They, in fact, are constructs, and social constructs are ours to destroy or create.
This is a primer on anarchism. In the following posts, I will be identifying the existence of hierarchical relationships, why anarchism stands against them, and how anarchy creates viable alternatives. Identifying these hierarchies represents one of the most important activities in being an anarchist. We must be hyper-vigilant as we observe hierarchical relationships; we must understand the damage they do to our well-being; and we must promote effective alternatives that value and encourage the voices of all people. May these thoughts help you accomplish that task.