What is Anarchism?
By anon anon at Jan 10, 2008
In brief: Anarchism is the idea that all living creatures should be autonomous and free, and that all forms of institutional oppression, hierarchy, violence, and exploitation should be abolished. Anarchists envision a decentralized, ecologically-sustainable society run by voluntary, democratic community institutions such as municipal councils and worker’s cooperatives, and use direct action tactics to fight tyranny and injustice while seeking to “build the new society in the shell of the old” by creating new institutions which reflect egalitarian and libertarian principles.
Anarchism is a political philosophy rooted in the idea that all living creatures should enjoy autonomy and freedom. This emphasis on the need to maximize individual freedom can be seen as fundamentally rooted in utilitarian ethics. If one is interested in minimizing global suffering, maximizing global happiness, and maximizing the number of individuals who achieve self-actualization and personal fulfillment, as utilitarians are, it seems clear that one must first seek to maximize individual freedom. No one is better equipped, at any given time, to take action to reduce an individual’s suffering, increase an individual’s pleasure, or increase an individual’s feelings of self-actualization and personal fulfillment than the individual himself, because no one else can completely know the individual’s intimate desires or psychology. Anarchists take it to be an empirical fact that people who exercise the greatest control over their own affairs are the happiest and most fulfilled, while people who exercise the least control over their affairs are the most unhappy and unfulfilled; therefore, if we want people to experience maximal satisfaction and minimal suffering, it is best to allow them to control their own lives and make their own decisions, and to dismantle any institution which prevents them from doing so.
In order to create a society in which people could experience maximal happiness and minimal suffering, it would be necessary to abolish authoritarian government, as it is by definition a violent, oppressive, and hierarchical organization which exists for the sole purpose of imposing the will of a minority on a majority and limiting the scope of human freedom. Government has been responsible for the worst atrocities in human history including holocausts, genocides, gulags, wars, and slavery. They incarcerate, torture, and execute people on a daily basis. During the 20th Century alone, governments were responsible for an estimated 262 million deaths. It hardly seems that it should be controversial to suggest that an institution responsible for the destruction of so many human lives should not have a place in a free and decent society.
Corporations would also have to be abolished, as they are inherently exploitative and undemocratic institutions which exist for the sole purpose of enriching a tiny elite. In the process of accruing profit, corporations routinely exploit and oppress workers, devastate the environment, abuse animals, endanger consumers, and destroy small business. Again, it seems obvious that anyone interested in establishing an ethical society would have to support the abolition of economic institutions which have caused such immense suffering.
But what institutions would replace government and corporations in an anarchistic society? Anarchists envision a society run by voluntary, egalitarian, nonviolent, and democratic community institutions such as municipal councils and worker’s cooperatives. Community-based institutions are clearly superior to massive, centralized institutions, in that they are less corrupt, more efficient, and more democratic than large-scale institutions. This is because it is relatively easy to hold community institutions accountable for their actions, but it is virtually impossible to hold massive, centralized institutions accountable for their actions, as any attempt to do so requires the creation of another massive, centralized institution which itself will become corrupt, abusive, and unaccountable.
In an anarchistic society, policy concerning labor, the economy, social services, education, the environment, medicine, science, technology, and other issues could be decided upon in democratic municipal meetings attended by citizens of the community. Individuals who did not wish to participate in these organizations would have no obligations to them, but would not reap their benefits either. Conflicts between individuals would be resolved organically through cooperation, compromise, and consensus, rather than through institutional violence. People would form reciprocal relationships with other members of their community to defend each other, rather than relying on coercive and often predatory institutions for protection.
In economic matters, workers would be completely self-managed and self-employed. All workers would participate in decision-making at their workplaces and would have the freedom to work in different sectors of the economy at different times and to split time between intellectual and physical labor. Productive property would have to be collectively owned—for if it was privately owned, the owner would inevitably place conditions on the right of workers to use the productive property, limiting worker freedom and autonomy—but workers would decide how to divide up the fruits of their labor amongst themselves. An autonomous worker, freed from the humiliating constraints of wage-slavery and completely in control of his own work experience, would reap all the fulfillment and enjoyment from growing food or building a house or making clothes that the poet reaps from writing a poem and the scientist reaps from discovering a new principle.
Could an anarchistic society work? On the face of it, the answer to this question seems rather obvious. The state is, after all, a relatively new development in human history, and certain organs of the state, such as the police force, came into existence within the last 500 years. There are also clear precedents of successful anarchistic societies that have existed in the modern era: Revolutionary Spain in the 1930s, the Zapatista communes in modern Mexico, Freetown Christiania in Denmark, and the Israeli kibbutzim, to pick a few noteworthy examples. The real question, then, is not whether or not an anarchistic society could work, but whether or not authoritarian institutions would reemerge.
While authoritarians would almost certainly attempt to reestablish coercive institutions, it seems unlikely that they would succeed, as they could only do so by convincing a large number of people to knowingly and willingly submit to domination. Freed slaves do not typically renounce their freedom. However, it is also clear that as long as humanity exists, there will be struggles between individuals who wish to oppress and dominate other human beings, and individuals who wish to protect liberty. So long as those individuals who wish to protect liberty remain united, proactive, and vigilant, however, they will always be able to defeat an authoritarian elite.