What is anarchism?

[Preface: There is no perfect way to summarize what anarchy and anarchism are. These things entail different responses based on different experiences. What follows is my own overview that I trust is simplified enough to where it retains accuracy in all the necessary concepts and ideas. There is a brief list of resources at the end of this page for further reading.]

Anarchism is a philosophy and social movement with many unique variations, each expressing the same idea: that relationships of authority and hierarchy (power over others organized into chains of command) are coercive, undesirable, and undermine a complex reality by building a rigid, violent culture of abuse and popular complacency.

These relationships include (but are not limited to) capitalism, the state, patriarchy, gender roles, homophobia/transphobia/queerphobia, white supremacy, fascism, colonialism, prisons, police and ecological devastation.

Anarchists are engaged in a long-term struggle for a better world. Our politics rest on a an active drive to overcome authority in all its knowable forms. We want to abolish class, state and prison society, dismantle global industrial capitalism, assert our own individual and collective strength against the state, prevent white supremacists from entering communities, allow the wounds of colonialism and genocide to heal, interact with each other on equal footing in groups of our own making, and rebuild relationships on grounds of trust and free participation. This is called anarchy.

Anarchy is thought to be sustained by different values that work in symbiosis, making the necessary social glue that contours to the desires of free individuals. Some of these values are:

  • Autonomy: Every individual is unique and free to define and organize themselves on their own terms, and work together as they wish.
  • Self-organization: Autonomous people come together around common interests, working on the same level without holding power over others, and controlling tools they use indivisibility.
  • Free association: The total absence of force in being part of a group of people.
  • Mutual aid: Cooperation among equals or spontaneously assisting others as the basis of social interaction and exchange. Mutual aid is an incentive founded on generosity instead of coercion. All parties involved in mutual aid are equal and interchangeable.
  • Direct Action: Accomplishing goals without the mediation of politicians, representatives or authorities. People involved in direct action use whatever means they agree to, regardless of legality.
  • Horizontal decision-making: People using decision-making processes, like consensus or voting, in a way that keeps power on a single shared level without authority or rule.

Anarchist practice uses a wide range of tactics engaging on all levels of activity: everything from demonstrations, handing out pamphlets, feeding or housing the homeless, to direct actions, insurrections and seizing or destroying private property.* Anarchists use these sporadically and simultaneously. The goal is to build projects across all boundaries capable of defending against coercive hierarchies which are then destabilized and defeated. 

[*Private property refers to the tools, machinery, buildings and land belonging to property owners: bosses, managers, CEOs, landlords and others in positions of capitalist authority. Private property does not refer to the personal belongings or dwellings of individuals. Anarchists are interested in abolishing capitalism and rethinking what tools are useful to our freed desires, and how to use them in equitable, agreeable ways that don’t monopolize resources or exploit populations.]

A lot of anarchists distinguish their personal anarchism by economic and organizational adjectives. To name a few: collectivist, mutualist, communist, syndicalist, individualist, platformist, insurrectionist, synthesist, etc. When different anarchists work together, they either respect the boundaries of each other’s projects while supporting them, or merge tactics into a flexible, overlapping variety of approaches.

The history of anarchism as an explicit philosophical body goes back to the mid-eighteenth century, when French political philosopher Pierre-Joseph Proudhon laid the groundwork for Mutualism in his treatise “What Is Property?” He was the first to self-identify as an anarchist and sealed it with his [in]famous declaration: “Property is Theft!”

Before this, anarchistic ideals have existed in Taoism, Ancient Greek stoicism, numerous indigenous societies, common lands in medieval Europe and various anti-authoritarian movements. Anarchism didn’t invent anarchy, but it did draw certain ideas over time that became a clear set of ways to achieve it. Anarchy itself is more akin to face-to-face relationships around common interests without privilege or hierarchy, rather than perfectly branded anarchist ideas originating from European settings.

In the last century of anarchist theoretical development, there have been opportunist attempts to sabotage the inherently anti-capitalist, anti-authoritarian nature of anarchy. Self-identified “anarcho-” capitalists advocate for the abolition of the state while retaining what they call “voluntary exchanges of goods and services in a stateless, free market economy.” This notion is faulty in a few key ways: It assumes that the modern state’s essential role is not the protection of private property relations through the police, or appeasing the working class with reforms to make things “not as bad.” It also assumes that capitalism has existed in a vacuum of “voluntary” relations, when in reality capitalism has always relied on enslaving and exploiting populations, attacking communal societies and autonomous projects that didn’t want capitalism, and violently repressing workers and keeping them in line through the state. In this sense, “anarcho-” capitalism is simply a contemporary spin on feudalism where market forces and property owners simply trademark these functions themselves.

Another skewed monstrosity of “anarchist” theory is “national anarchism.” This idea attempts to merge anarchism with white supremacists notions of race, nation and ethnic separatism (which never happens voluntarily.) These are incompatible with anarchism because they’re imbued with artificial importance by racist authoritarians, and manipulated into social hierarchies used to justify inequality and reduce all of life down to fake categories.

The overarching reason these two are not anarchistic is that they try to make harmful and ultimately empty notions exist in a future world where (hopefully) exploitative relations are overcome and no longer have use to free people. They simply don’t have purpose within anarchy. Bosses, property law, racial/ethnic/cultural castes and presumptuous doctrines about the “natural order of things” run contrary to the interest of individuals who have freed their desires and discovered the sheer possibility of their own power. When it becomes clear that these concepts only serve the powerful in their control over us, people are usually inclined to try something different.

While anarchism is normally considered a left-wing or far-left political philosophy, there are anarchists who prefer to transcend the political spectrum entirely and the recuperative and quelling forces associated with it. They might call themselves “autonomous,” “post-left” or simply “anarchist” instead of positioning their interests on any side of an [allegedly] oversimplified model. Some of the reasons for this include the belief that the left, including the revolutionary left, is outdated, impotent and creates interests of its own at the expense of who it affects. This isn’t to say at all that anarchists are right-wing, but that the ways of distinguishing left and right are false distinctions when looking at the different ways repression and coercion can happen. For example, authoritarian socialism, liberal activism and party politics. Some anarchists consider highly formal organizations to reproduce aspects of authority under different names with adaptive means of control.

Much of anarchist representation in mainstream media has never been good. We all know the caricature of nameless, faceless vandals whose sole convictions are to smash windows for chaos and destruction. In late 2016, North America experienced an uptick in anti-fascist activity when white nationalist and right-wing populist organizing prompted responses from the left and autonomous groups. This was a goldmine for the media to publicly bash these “violent far-left thugs” by exaggerating details about property destruction and assaults to distract from the ideas behind all of this.

This ultimately doesn’t bother us. We expect nothing good from large authoritarian entities like the news or professional liars and apologists like pundits, especially when tasked with reporting about us. Their jobs are mainly to reassure the public of the fake legitimacy of authority, encourage complacency and snuff out any line of thought that deviates from this society. We center trust in ourselves alone, and intend to do the heavy work in showing others that anarchy is preferable over all forms of abuse and confinement that we face every day.

Breaking the spell is always a tough experience for most people. This is when the property, symbols, language, norms and defense mechanisms of society are attacked, disrupted or overcome by a dissenting force that has had enough of them. The outrage from everyday people who see this is a reaction inherited from their rulers; the spell: An emotion or value that sanctifies the existing order as the only one that can ever be. People think this is their own idea, when its simply what they were taught to feel. Overcoming this spell is like a growing pain that happens inside humanity every ten to a hundred years. When anarchists attack a bank, burn a flag or self-organize themselves, those are the results of the spell being broken.

At the end of the day, we’re interested in the autonomy and complete liberation of ourselves and oppressed peoples, while the sensibilities of a society hypnotized by the sanctity of property and nation are just obstacles. Centuries of lived experiences continue to show that its more worthwhile, enjoyable and mutually beneficial to erase every faucet of coercive relationships and totally reconstruct life in a new sense of connection with each other. In complete and permanent freedom, defended at all costs.

The basis of our perspective is the undoing of all authority and involuntary mediation. The negation of all masters and gods; whether they take the form of impersonal institutions that we have to obey, ideas in our heads that make us do things don’t actually want to, or the tiniest sacrifice of personal autonomy.

We trust in our own power and abilities to succeed over forces that want us captured as replaceable tools in coercive relationships. There are many ways to act, the secret is to begin.

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