An Intro to Anarchism

Removing Your Prejudice

Anarchism. The word stirs up strong opinions in most people. Because it’s ridiculous, right? I mean, if there’s no one telling us what to do then all hell will break loose. Why should you even give it the time of day when we’ve clearly moved passed this primitive idea and have gone on to much better, more complex things like Capitalism or Socialism? Anything would be better than nothing, right? In case the sarcasm wasn’t obvious enough, I apologize for having led you even further in the wrong direction. But this is the thought process of most people and it’s a travesty. There is a veil of misconception covering the simple beauty of anarchism that keeps it from being considered as a viable option for the future of society. The need for a government is taken for granted in most political and economic discussions. If the veil on anarchism is lifted and given the chance in spite of the current systems, a wonderful hope for the organization of future societies can be seen: one founded in true freedom to promote humanity. In order to analyze why this is the case, we should first address what the current understanding of anarchy is, and why it is the way it is.

From what I gather from the mainstream view, anarchism is:

Bill O'Reilly Yelling
The worst impression

“A naive attempt at utopia that inevitable encourages and leads to violence and chaos.”

That’s the worst impression I get from it. It’s never said in those exact words, but it’s implied over and over until it forms this impenetrable wall of doubt that most people can’t get through when contemplating anarchism. In fact, the word itself has gotten so much bad publicity that it’s become synonymous with “chaos.” However, I didn’t want to be a hypocrite and just assume that’s what people think because the media says so. So I explicitly asked a few.

I’ve been collecting the opinions of my friends, family and coworkers in order to gather a realistic representation of what people actually think of anarchism. I asked them only a few, short and direct questions but received somewhat lengthy and strongly emotional opinions. To be fairer than the introduction to this article was, quite a few of the people I asked actually had a very accurate answer to “what is the definition of anarchy?” Others had somewhat skewed views, but overall I was pleasantly surprised.

“My basic understand of anarchy is: giving power to the people with no government to rule over them because the belief is that people can govern themselves and absolute power is no good.”

Vincent Yip

“I think it involves the abolition of any form of governance; to form some sort of community based structure, no top-down approaches to anything but rather voluntary involvement.”

Nessa Ghassemi

These are great answers if you compare them to the actual definition of anarchism. Looking at the etymology, the greek root of the word roughly translates to “without authority”, which is its most broad definition. It’s also the definition I give to others, because although most discuss anarchism in terms of only political governance, it carries much broader implications than that. It’s a philosophical approach to the world. It’s the crusader for true freedom. Its focus is on avoiding at all costs, the presence of authority, or in other words hierarchical power. So for example, a true anarchist would just as much reject Christianity because of its emphasis on hierarchy as they would authoritarian government.

The answers I received made it apparent that people weren’t just ignoring this idea, they’ve considered it and quite often have an emotional response to it because, I think, they want it to work. Who wouldn’t want it to work? I soon found out why.

When asked if it has its merits, it was apparent there was quite a few misconceptions. It seemed like they had given it some thought, but just didn’t go any further because the conclusion would inevitably be the same: anarchy wouldn’t work in practice. In fact, this was by far the most popular reason why people didn’t agree with anarchism. “It’s good in theory, just not in practice.” This is the same response usually given when discussing communism as well. Ironically, communism and anarchism have never really been giving a true large scale attempt; meanwhile the current systems that have been tried are not living up to their own theories and are failing in practice.
Capitalism:  Bringing you lower quality and fewer choices since the 16th Century.
A very accurate summation of the general opinion was given to me by Craig Steinberg:

“I believe in living in a lawful and civilized country. In my opinion anarchism is a passing feeling amongst the youth (under 40) and is not beneficial to our society primarily because it has been hijacked and associated with radical extremists that think it’s ok to have chaos because it leads to anarchy. I think the majority of people don’t know what anarchism truly is. So do I think anarchism in its present form has merit? no. Do I think the definition has merit in theory? yes. Much like communism it’s a great idea on paper but in reality it leads to much suffering.”
Craig Steinberg

He’s correct in saying that the term has been used and re-used until it belonged in the trash, which is why I’d like to restore it and give it new meaning. Meaning that will be concrete and leave little room for theft or slander. I hope to give the term merit in theory and practice, because what good is theory if it has no use?

If any of this seems similar to your own beliefs about anarchism, I urge you to read on to see why it’s far from being ridiculous, utopic, or naive; see why we think we need a government and why that’s a completely false belief.


In order to clear up the confusion, a brief history of Anarchism is in order.

Members of the Blood tribe participate in a pow-wow
Native tribes had authoritarian structures before classical religion or government was born.

Anarchism was practiced for a very long time before it was ever conceptualized and given a name. This should be obvious since there was a beginning to authoritarian structures like the church and state, therefore there was none before them, aka anarchy. Please note that this is an oversimplification to which I’d like to draw attention. Just because there was no official hierarchical overseeing doesn’t mean authority didn’t naturally arise within group dynamics. Humans are social animals and if a group is to succeed, the individuals within it must compromise with each other to establish the most beneficial structure for the group. The more athletic ones did the hunting, the craftier ones made tools, and the older ones gave advice. This in itself is not authoritarian, it’s simply cooperative and organizational. The problem comes when you have an individual with a particular set of traits. This set of traits makes it clear that they should be the one to organize or coordinate the others within the group, since there’s often a need to coordinate between parties. It’s at that point that the individual and the group can allow this person to become an authority. Since it’s so easy for this to happen, it would be naive to think authoritarianism didn’t exist before church or state did. However, just because it happened easily, doesn’t mean it was right or necessary.

Then came organized religion and its disguised twin, the state. Needless to say, this was an extremely authoritarian era that suppressed most of what it is to be human. As a response to this overly structured system, The Enlightenment happened and brought in the Romantic era.

No, I’m not talking about the “Leonardo DiCaprio and Kate Winslet Titanic” – type of romantic, nor the “50 Shades of Grey” – type. I’m referring to the rebellion against structure and the celebration of human nature, freedom of thought and creativity that happened at the turn of the 19th century. It’s what helped free people from the Church, and to a lesser extent, the State. This is where Anarchism was conceptualized in an attempt to re-examine the need for a State, remove Authoritarianism, and encourage true humanity, not the “humanity” defined by Church and State that was more like a human-resource than anything else. So if the Enlightenment and the Romantic era were such a good thing for civilization, how did Anarchism become so infamous?

There’s a lot to say on the smearing of the word “anarchist,” but I’ll be brief. It’s been actively bashed since its inception until today, so there’s no real wonder why it has a negative public perception. We have to put things in perspective and realize that people and specifically violent groups commit violent acts. These people can belong to any number of groups, religions, countries, and ideologies. But if you want to discourage or smear a particular sect, all you need to do is refer to these bad apples by that particular name. You can see how the media and other institutions can use this tactic to their advantage and effectively influence public opinion of any group simply by how they word statements. If they wanted to discourage Islam, they’d report a violent act as “today, a Muslim group blew up a bus,” not “today, al-Qaida blew up a bus.” This is what regularly and very obviously happens to anarchism. As soon as anarchist ideologies and groups around them started to form, acts of violence were routinely blamed on “Anarchists” even when they weren’t anarchists! For example, the German Baader-Meinhoff gang were often called “anarchists” despite their self-proclaimed Marxist-Leninism.

The students march along Sherbrooke St to demonstrate against pending tuition increases in Montreal, on Thursday, March 22, 2012.
Photo by Dave Sidaway / THE GAZETTE

I constantly see in the press, especially during the Montreal student protest, the media referring to students breaking windows as anarchists. Most of them are not anarchists, and are not demonstrating anything close to anarchism. Even if they were self-proclaimed anarchists it wouldn’t mean anything in relation to the crime. It means an immature angry asshole broke someone’s window for such and such a reason – that’s what it means. This may seem a fine line, or like I’m mincing words, but it’s been shown over and over again that there’s an active attempt at smearing any group that’s anti-authoritarian and falsifying charges against them so they can publicize it and show the public how dangerous it would be if more people were against authority against their authority. “Les agent provocateurs” are a very real thing. But don’t take my word for it, since I’m not going to go in depth and attempt to prove this to you. Start by taking heed from the anarchist thinker, and Nicolas Cage look-alike, Emma Goldman:

Portrait of Emma Goldman
Emma GoldmanLooking suspiciously similar to Nicolas Cage. Conspiracy theory, anyone? 

“It is a known fact known to almost everyone familiar with the Anarchist movement that a great number of [violent] acts, for which Anarchists had to suffer, either originated with the capitalist press or were instigated, if not directly perpetrated, by the police.”
Emma Goldman

The state of anarchism (no pun intended) isn’t good. Its commendable roots have been stolen and discounted to the point where it’s almost taboo to discuss out loud. Hopefully, now that you’re more informed about its unfortunate upbringing, you can more openly consider its merits. In the next part of this series on anarchism, I’ll go into detail on more of what it is than what it isn’t and hopefully destroy many of the misconceptions surrounding anarchism.

27 thoughts on “An Intro to Anarchism”

  1. Hey Greg, I find this post to be well thought out and written. I enjoyed reading it very much and looking forward to the next edition.

    Oh, by the way how the hell does this star thing work?

  2. Nicely written article. (:
    I can’t say I disagree with anything you’ve written…

    But seriously, I don’t know. I like to believe in the good of people, but I still have a hard time believing that anarchy could rightfully exist in the world we currently live in–in a stateless society, hierarchy emerges out of the simple fact that humans as social beings. I guess it all comes down to not trusting the possibility that it would all amount to the same thing? I’m not articulating my thoughts properly…so I’ll try approaching it a different way:

    as you pointed out, media–the capitalist state we live in–has an uncanny way of controlling the masses/mainstream knowledge by completely insulting and removing all authority from people which go against the profits of the capitalist state. this all contributes to ridding all truth from the actual concepts of communism or anarchism, mainstream knowledge is distorted into believing that these ideas are bad.

    Okay. We agree on this, right? So when we all know and understand the proper definitions of these alternative ways of living…the problem then occurs in the actual implementation of these ideas.

    Never mind communism or anarchy, how do we even achieve a true state of democracy? True democracy has yet to be achieved.

    So I guess where I find the problem, is how can we abolish something before we ever achieved the current state we’re supposed to be in? Or, if we want anarchy or communism, or even just socialism, how do we do it without creating a civil war?

    How do you convince the people who are in charge in the worlds, who all happen to be rich/white/men, to step down and join the masses.

    It’s all about who’s in power, and what one does with the power.

    And though I tend to side on the optimistic perspective, on the side that we will win the battle against the tyrants ruining the planet we live in, I think of people in my life who can’t be bothered into even doing anything about it.

    If we know that the only way we can get a just world is in the power of “we”, but this “we” is constantly divided, or uncaring, or unknowledgeable, how can we ever put down the few that are in charge?

    I digressed…but in the end, I suppose I’m challenging the thought that it can ever be possible. I believe anarchy may be possible on a small scale, case by case, but how could you make it happen at a large spectrum? How can you be sure that there won’t be people benefiting more over the detriments of others?

    • he same way Gandhi did it. Through peaceful protests. By no longer using money, you simply start taking care of your own personal needs. No government will survive without money. Who will they have “power” over if they don’t even get money from he people. It works on an individual scale and through example can spread until a government simply cannot exist.

      • See, that is soooo problematic. In what way is that a solution to anything?

        And in what way do you propose to convince the entire population of the planet to stop using money completely? There are so many bad things that have come out of globalization but there are also good things–and the initial idea of globalization is inherently good, we just haven’t applied it properly.

        Trade has existed since the uprising of civilization…there will always be some sort of trade–it’s a matter of efficiency.

        Again, I see it happening on a small scale. But you can’t just erase all of the advantages that living in a social state has brought to us?

        You’re proposing to remove the entire standard of living that we currently have across the world. I believe the standard of living needs to seriously change to make it more just, but erase it completely?

        Yes, mass mobilization and peaceful protests are key in creating change. But I don’t believe your solution to the world/systemic issues is the right one–it’s just outright impossible.

        • I agree with Marty in the sense that merely being more sustainable and personally responsible for your own well being is a huge and actionable step towards making anarchy work. When people can take care of their own needs without a government, they effectively sever the tie and government becomes useless.

          That’s how it would work on a small scale, but like you said, there’s some problems with applying this on a global scale in order to coordinate populations and global trade. However, we’re not proposing changing the standard of living, we’re proposing alternatives to achieving it.

          I’ll address how global trade would work within an anarchist system in part 4: “Anarchy in Practice”. An “economy” wouldn’t really have a place in anarchist society, since resources are completely shared, but there’s still ways to continue production and trade.

    • In my view, all members of an anarchic society must have at least this ONE quality – a very high level of sophistication. This is ultimately required to ensure the ongoing thriving of that community. The absence of a high level of sophistication invariably drags A into everything it officially does not stand for, creating the false impression of it. i am all for it, but where to start? Here in South Africa, we have the most unsophisticated form of mob rule of which one man and his political cronies are the sole beneficiaries. A man that I can at best describe as a stone age barbarian. His reign so infuriates the barbarians from all the other ages (ancient and modern!) that a meaningful discussion is lost in screaming and shouting and violence that dominates the political scene in the country. And everyone looking at all of this thinks that Anarchy is busy overtaking us. Where to start? With one self? It can and will work, for me, you and the next like-minded person. But I do not see it as the universal order any time soon or ever!

      PS: I have been an ‘anarchist’ since the age of 14 and have great fun declaring the fact to everyone – even if only sightly interested.The expression on their faces are priceless.

      • The fact that you have corrupt, unsophisticated political parties is precisely why there shouldn’t be government. If there’s no one to rule, the rulers can’t be corrupt. So once again you hit the nail on the head when you say it starts at the individual level because people must first take back their own power and rights.

        I don’t really agree that all members of an anarchist society must be sophisticated, because that will never happen. However I don’t think it’s necessary.

    • Nessa,

      One of the things I think you may have misunderstood (or possibly simply misarticulated) is this thought that we really need to “abolish” anything.

      The way anarchism would be achieved is on a small-scale basis, either individualistically or communally. The whole point is that off-the-grid living can essentially provide an anarchistic lifestyle, person by person. It’s not that anyone is overthrowing or usurping or abolishing anything, but rather, once our basic needs our met, we won’t need to live underneath the hierarchies of government and economics in order to assure that we can provide food, water, shelter, etc. for ourselves. Or at least to whatever degree anyone is ever really “assured” anything haha. But as more an more people start doing this, the economy will dry up and flake off. Money will be less valuable simply because it will be less necessary. Same with politics, or really any of the vertical structures under which we currently slave away for a paycheck.

      It’s really just a matter of assuring everyone has their needs met. I mean, if you think about it, aside from the statistical eventuality of those who might have some sort of aberrant mental condition, why would anyone have to fight or argue or squabble past that point? War, theft, small-scale violence… all of these are products of the discrepancy between the haves and the have-nots. If we take back the power to “have,” (by which I really mean the power to provide for ourselves) well then we really take back the power to be happy.

      And that’s why anarchism is fucking rad. :)

      (Btw, I keep a blog.

      • Here’s my two cents.

        There is always a lot of confusion on this topic. Often this comes down
        to meaning and definition. Oh, and propaganda: there are limits to what
        we can believe, especially when we are continually reinforced as to what is
        and what is not possible. Monarchists thought that democracy would bring chaos to society. Imagine, the people running the place. “Don’t they understand that god put us monarchs here”, they would lament.

        I have found the following figure helpful in these sorts of discussions.
        Here’s my “ideology square”.

        | |
        state | | no state
        | |

        Marxism is the bottom left: strong state, strong socialism.
        Anarchism is bottom right: no state, strong socialism.
        Libertarianism is top right: no state, strong capitalism.
        Fascism is top left: strong state, strong capitalism.
        (or corporatism as Mussolini called it).

        And here are a few facts that I base my discussions on so that they are

        less confusing and we can focus on contrasting ideas.

        – Anarchism and Marxism are both socialist but as Bakunin told Marx,
        Marxism would bring in the worst form of slavery ever known to man.

        – Anarchism, is full participatory democracy, not the fake representative
        democracy that we have here.

        – Anarchists make distinctions between the state and society
        and between poperty and possession.

        – There have been examples of anarchism actually working in society.
        Spain in the 1930s and areas of Ukraine during the early part of the
        Soviet Union.

  3. If you want to develop anarchism into a global community, through these green communities and voluntary involvement, do you believe we can have a successful communal effect. Would there be any sort of organization for progress? I imagine the best system would result from people using a similar formula to develop communities, and all be interconnected through common utilites, like railways and fiberoptics.. but they are all obviously run on green energy, so there’s no taxes or anything to sustain them.. I’m curious if anarchy would lead to a huge incredibly diverse group of disconnected communities… anyways, just a thought. Good job on everything you’re doing!

    • I think you got the gist of it. Anarchism wouldn’t really work as one global system, in my opinion. You need tons of small communities organized at a local level. Then you can coordinate amongst them and have them connected.

  4. I would be the first to applaud taking more personal initiative and responsibility. I think alternative forms of government are laudable when you are considering potential solutions and looking for social change that allows a greater degree of freedom and personal choice. I see the frustration with ineffective government and economy and the desire to reform or replace systems that do not (or no longer) work for the people they attempt to serve (or have been corrupted / perverted to the point where only the few truly benefit).
    However, I think you should be careful not to toss the baby with the bathwater. Let us not tear down a system simply for the sake of or desire for change. (And read my words carefully there…) Replacing an existing system with the lack of a system does not seem like an entirely practical solution (and I think we are all seeking solutions that provide the most benefit for the greatest good).
    There are at least three areas where some system of governance is actually of more benefit than harm.
    First, there will always be some element of society which is unable to exist within the confines and boundaries of society, no matter how free or evolved that society may be. This is how we first gained a system of government — to resolve disputes. You must have some way to ensure justice and to prevent harm to person or property. How would you handle theft, vandalism, or murder?
    Second, unless you are going to declare this new society to be utopia and the ultimate of everything, there must be a system in place to continue to ensure progress. Even if this new society were the ultimate, how would you handle disasters or unforseen events? There are alternatives (such as some form of consensus, for example) that allow for decisions to be made about how a society will progress without necessarily sacrificing the common good or freedoms.
    Third, how do you handle distribution of goods? Economy and government being what they are, they have allowed for specialization and improvements in production. Granted, all of this can be improved, and you can imagine a system where everyone is free and equal and responsible for their own needs. Ok, what if I am a better farmer and you are a better mechanic? Or vice-versa? Should we each still maintain individual responsibility for food and equipment? What happens if another group has more of a certain type of resource that we need? Also, what about services currently maintained by the existing government such as roads / transportation, education, health care, fire and police to name a few?
    Just some thoughts. I’m curious to know if you have answers, and what they are if you do.
    Thanks for the good read and interesting discussion!

    • Thanks for your input, Jeff!

      1. I will address this in the upcoming parts.

      2. Why would anarchy negate this? It can operate off of consensus just as well as any other system. The difference is that the consensus doesn’t automatically take away your freedoms.

      3. Socialism is an integral part of Anarchism. In fact, you can’t really be a practicing Anarchist without being a socialist as well. Or else, you’re right, we’re back in the stone ages living in isolation

      Hope you come back to check out the next parts! I’ll address your concerns as much as possible. Subscribe to our feed to be notified:

      • 1.) Will look forward to seeing what you’ve got. :-)

        2.) Most of the groups that I have known that have experimented with anarchy have been forced to opt for other structures once they have grown past a certain point. In order to facilitate groups past this point, they have generally found that it just isn’t practical to maintain a system that does not have a hierarchy or leadership, plus not every individual chooses to take on a role of leadership (or even participate in “politics,” which I am going to define here as a system of governance for a society — governance being how a society is structured, ordered, and maintained — just so we’re clear on how I’m using the terms). And perhaps I’m still not clear on exactly what you’re envisioning when you talk about anarchy, as people seem to have different ideas about it and implement it differently. The one thing that seems to be common is that people see anarchy as a system in which everyone governs themselves and there is no centralized government (even a centralized “local” government, as in say a city).

        Without some manner of centralized governance, though, it becomes very difficult (from what I have seen in practice) for a society to continue to progress or even to decide *how* to progress.

        Let’s say, for the sake of discussion, that the entire world decided to implement a system of anarchy, where everyone was free to maintain things more or less as s/he felt fit. How does this world make a decision about, say, how to approach the issue of climate change? Does everyone more or less approach the issue individually, each person doing his or her own thing? Let’s say that the world has implemented a system where they hope that each person who wants a say has a voice. How long does it take to get to a point where everyone has had a chance? Would it be more practical to limit the decision process to a localized area? How would you handle dissenters and people who felt they had a right to handle things differently? (Say I have a logging company and don’t make as much money without cutting more trees and I don’t want to limit myself?) How would the decision even be made about how these groups were structured and where the borders were?

        Let’s say, again, taking a different approach, that an anarchistic system encourages cells of people to form where it makes sense, and this places limits on the number of people who can make up a cell for practical purposes. Now, let’s say that a new group of people wants to join this cell. Who gets to decide whether they are able to join? What happens if adding this new group taxes the available existing resources, or negatively impacts the group dynamics or decision process?

        As a final example, let’s say that a scientist makes a discovery or invention that has potentially powerful negative impacts (it’s easy enough to imagine without this invention even being necessarily a weapon). Let’s say also that this invention has some very beneficial and desirable aspects as well. If the negative impacts were potentially wide-ranging and had the potential to affect not just the individual using the invention but also others, how would the decision be made about whether the costs outweighed the benefits?

        One last note — on the issue of consensus, would this be a true consensus (unanimous)? Would it be a limited consensus (majority rule)? How would you handle consensus blocking?

        3.) You may see socialism as an aspect of Anarchism, but it is not inherently. (See here, for example and more extended discussion — There are quite a few people who would take issue with your claim that you can’t be a practicing Anarchist without being a socialist.

  5. I’m confused as to how you can want freedom from government, but be a socialist. This is genuine confusion here, not being sardonic. This has never made sense to me, and I have studied political science both in school and independently. It seems that anarchists want freedom from government oversight, while preserving government entitlements. Is this true? If so, how are entitlements justified? No one has ever given me a satisfactory answer. You seem extremely rational based on this article, so I was hoping you would have an equally rational answer.

      • Government payments to people who are not disabled or temporarily out of work. Basically the government paying for things with $ they appropriate from private citizens to distribute to other citizens. If there is no government, who does this? Sent on the Sprint® Now Network from my BlackBerry®

      • Actually in this situation I guess I would expand my (personal) definition of ‘entitlement’ to basically mean all money seized from some citizens to be given to others for any reason. I guess my confusion has always been how a system built around no government or no government infringement could still have a functioning government? Not sure if I’m wording it correctly but anyway thank you for getting back to me I have asked a lot of people & they usually either don’t know or get defensive its clear you have it figured out so I hope you can clarify! Have a good day.
        Sent on the Sprint® Now Network from my BlackBerry®

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