Are You An Anarchist? (the answer may surprise you!)
Chances are you have already heard something about who anarchists are and what
they are supposed to believe. Chances are almost everything you have
heard is nonsense. Many people seem to think that anarchists are
proponents of violence, chaos, and destruction, that they are against
all forms of order and organization, or that they are crazed nihilists
who just want to blow everything up. In reality, nothing could be
further from the truth. Anarchists are simply people who believe human
beings are capable of behaving in a reasonable fashion without having to
be forced to. It is really a very simple notion. But it's one that the
rich and powerful have always found extremely dangerous.
At their very simplest, anarchist beliefs turn on to two elementary
assumptions. The first is that human beings are, under ordinary
circumstances, about as reasonable and decent as they are allowed to be,
and can organize themselves and their communities without needing to be
The second is that power corrupts.
Most of all, anarchism is just a matter of having the courage to take the
simple principles of common decency that we all live by, and to follow
them through to their logical conclusions. Odd though this may seem, in
most important ways you are probably already an anarchist - you just
don't realize it. Let's start by taking a few examples from everyday
* If there's a line to get on a crowded bus, do you wait your turn and refrain from elbowing your way past others even in the absence of police?
If you answered "yes", then you are used to acting like an anarchist! The most basic
anarchist principle is self-organization: the assumption that human
beings do not need to be threatened with prosecution in order to be able
to come to reasonable understandings with each other, or to treat each
other with dignity and respect.
Everyone believes they are capable of behaving reasonably themselves. If they think laws and
police are necessary, it is only because they don't believe that other
people are. But if you think about it, don't those people all feel
exactly the same way about you?
Anarchists argue that almost all the anti-social behavior which makes us think it's necessary
to have armies, police, prisons, and governments to control our lives,
is actually caused by the systematic inequalities and injustice those
armies, police, prisons and governments make possible. It's all a
vicious circle. If people are used to being treated like their opinions
do not matter, they are likely to become angry and cynical, even violent
- which of course makes it easy for those in power to say that their
opinions do not matter.
Once they understand that their opinions really do matter just as much as anyone else's, they tend to
become remarkably understanding. To cut a long story short: anarchists
believe that for the most part it is power itself, and the effects of
power, that make people stupid and irresponsible.
* Are you a member of a club or sports team or any other voluntary
organization where decisions are not imposed by one leader but made on
the basis of general consent?
If you answered "yes", then you belong to an organization which works on anarchist
principles! Another basic anarchist principle is voluntary association.
This is simply a matter of applying democratic principles to ordinary
The only difference is that anarchists believe it should be possible to have a society in which everything could be
organized along these lines, all groups based on the free consent of
their members, and therefore, that all top-down, military styles of
organization like armies or bureaucracies or large corporations, based
on chains of command, would no longer be necessary. Perhaps you don't
believe that would be possible. Perhaps you do.
But every time you reach an agreement by consensus, rather than threats, every
time you make a voluntary arrangement with another person, come to an
understanding, or reach a compromise by taking due consideration of the
other person's particular situation or needs, you are being an anarchist
- even if you don't realize it.
Anarchism is just the way people act when they are free to do as they choose, and when they deal
with others who are equally free - and therefore aware of the
responsibility to others that entails. This leads to another crucial
point: that while people can be reasonable and considerate when they are
dealing with equals, human nature is such that they cannot be trusted
to do so when given power over others. Give someone such power, they
will almost invariably abuse it in some way or another.
* Do you believe that most politicians are selfish, egotistical swine who
don't really care about the public interest? Do you think we live in an
economic system which is stupid and unfair?
If you answered "yes", then you subscribe to the anarchist critique of today's society - at least, in its broadest outlines.
Anarchists believe that power corrupts and those who spend their entire lives seeking power are the very last people who should have it.
Anarchists believe that our present economic system is more likely to reward
people for selfish and unscrupulous behavior than for being decent,
caring human beings. Most people feel that way. The only difference is
that most people don't think there's anything that can be done about it,
or anyway - and this is what the faithful servants of the powerful are
always most likely to insist - anything that won't end up making things
But what if that weren't true?
And is there really any reason to believe this? When you can actually test
them, most of the usual predictions about what would happen without
states or capitalism turn out to be entirely untrue. For thousands of
years people lived without governments. In many parts of the world
people live outside of the control of governments today. They do not all
kill each other. Mostly they just get on about their lives the same as
anyone else would. Of course, in a complex, urban, technological society
all this would be more complicated: but technology can also make all
these problems a lot easier to solve. In fact, we have not even begun to
think about what our lives could be like if technology were really
marshaled to fit human needs.
How many hours would we really need to work in order to maintain a functional society - that is,
if we got rid of all the useless or destructive occupations like
telemarketers, lawyers, prison guards, financial analysts, public
relations experts, bureaucrats and politicians, and turn our best
scientific minds away from working on space weaponry or stock market
systems to mechanizing away dangerous or annoying tasks like coal mining
or cleaning the bathroom, and distribute the remaining work among
everyone equally? Five hours a day? Four? Three? Two? Nobody knows
because no one is even asking this kind of question. Anarchists think
these are the very questions we should be asking.
* Do you really believe those things you tell your children (or that your parents told you)?
It doesn't matter who started it." "Two wrongs don't make a right." "Clean
up your own mess." "Do unto others..." "Don't be mean to people just
because they're different."
Perhaps we should decide whether we're lying to our children when we tell them about right and
wrong, or whether we're willing to take our own injunctions seriously.
Because if you take these moral principles to their logical conclusions,
you arrive at anarchism.
Take the principle that two wrongs don't make a right. If you really took it seriously, that alone
would knock away almost the entire basis for war and the criminal
justice system. The same goes for sharing: we're always telling children
that they have to learn to share, to be considerate of each other's
needs, to help each other; then we go off into the real world where we
assume that everyone is naturally selfish and competitive. But an
anarchist would point out: in fact, what we say to our children is
right. Pretty much every great worthwhile achievement in human history,
every discovery or accomplishment that's improved our lives, has been
based on cooperation and mutual aid; even now, most of us spend more of
our money on our friends and families than on ourselves; while likely as
not there will always be competitive people in the world, there's no
reason why society has to be based on encouraging such behavior, let
alone making people compete over the basic necessities of life. That
only serves the interests of people in power, who want us to live in
fear of one another.
That's why anarchists call for a society based not only on free association but mutual aid. The fact is
that most children grow up believing in anarchist morality, and then
gradually have to realize that the adult world doesn't really work that
way. That's why so many become rebellious, or alienated, even suicidal
as adolescents, and finally, resigned and bitter as adults; their only
solace, often, being the ability to raise children of their own and
pretend to them that the world is fair. But what if we really could
start to build a world which really was at least founded on principles
of justice? Wouldn't that be the greatest gift to one's children one
could possibly give?
* Do you believe that human beings are fundamentally corrupt and evil, or that certain sorts of
people (women, people of color, ordinary folk who are not rich or highly
educated) are inferior specimens, destined to be ruled by their
If you answered "yes", then, well, it looks like you aren't an anarchist after all. But if you answered "no',
then chances are you already subscribe to 90% of anarchist principles,
and, likely as not, are living your life largely in accord with them.
Every time you treat another human with consideration and respect, you
are being an anarchist. Every time you work out your differences with
others by coming to reasonable compromise, listening to what everyone
has to say rather than letting one person decide for everyone else, you
are being an anarchist. Every time you have the opportunity to force
someone to do something, but decide to appeal to their sense of reason
or justice instead, you are being an anarchist. The same goes for every
time you share something with a friend, or decide who is going to do the
dishes, or do anything at all with an eye to fairness.
Now, you might object that all this is well and good as a way for small
groups of people to get on with each other, but managing a city, or a
country, is an entirely different matter. And of course there is
something to this. Even if you decentralize society and puts as much
power as possible in the hands of small communities, there will still be
plenty of things that need to be coordinated, from running railroads to
deciding on directions for medical research. But just because something
is complicated does not mean there is no way to do it democratically.
It would just be complicated. In fact, anarchists have all sorts of
different ideas and visions about how a complex society might manage
To explain them though would go far beyond the scope of a little introductory text like this. Suffice it to say, first
of all, that a lot of people have spent a lot of time coming up with
models for how a really democratic, healthy society might work; but
second, and just as importantly, no anarchist claims to have a perfect
blueprint. The last thing we want is to impose prefab models on society
anyway. The truth is we probably can't even imagine half the problems
that will come up when we try to create a democratic society; still,
we're confident that, human ingenuity being what it is, such problems
can always be solved, so long as it is in the spirit of our basic
principles-which are, in the final analysis, simply the principles of
fundamental human decency.
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I'm an Anarchist who has been disenfranchised by a hard life and experience with ugly people. I still dream about it sometimes and it makes me sad. Every once in a while a fire will grow in my belly and the younger version of myself will fire me up and I will quote some Emma Goldman. Oh! that reminds me just the other day I was watching the movie "J. Edgar" and there was a scene with Goldman and I got really excited. I have daydreams about hanging out with her sometimes. For the most part though I've conceded to Libertarianism.