Anarchism has made fleeting appearances in several media outlets in the last couple of months, and the Occupy Wall Street protests seem largely responsible for those appearances. Before about two weeks ago, I understood anarchism to advocate a lack of any authority (and I incorrectly assumed this meant an absence of social order), and I had some vague association between anarchism, violence, and labor unions in the 1920s. But anarchism and its history is far more complicated, and far more interesting as a series of social movements, as an approach to social order, and as a study in the origins and development of ideas.

Part of the misunderstanding of anarchism may stem from the great diversity of both thought and practice that falls into the category of anarchism. Anarchist thought spans a continuum from extreme individualist versions, which stem from a philosophy of the complete sovereignty of the individual and her property over the state or groups and communities, and resembles what we think of as libertarianism, to social variants. (Individualist anarchism is mainly theoretical in the sense that it has rarely been part of anarchist social movements.) In social versions of anarchy, individual freedom depends on equality, community and mutual aid. Private property, as the source of inequality, is undesirable, and decisions should be made democratically. Versions of (and nomenclature for) anarchism have proliferated: anarcho-syndicalism, anarcho-capitalism, anarcho-communism, anarcha-feminism, anarcho-naturism, Christian anarchism, post-left anarchism. (For explanations of each of these, try here.)

The main principle, however, is an opposition to centrally governed, state-based societies in favor of non-hierarchical voluntary association. In one of its most utopian formulations, Emma Goldman argued in Anarchism and Other Essays that “Anarchism stands for a social order based on the free grouping of individuals for the purpose of producing real social wealth; an order that will guarantee to every human being free access to the earth and full enjoyment of the necessities of life, according to individual desires, tastes, and inclinations.” Different types of anarchists have historically disagree on the tactics that should be employed toward social change: many advocate non-violent forms of resistance, while others support coercion through violence or propaganda. As Drake Bennett writes, a central tenet of modern anarchism is that “revolutionary movements relying on coercion of any kind only result in repressive societies.”

Reporters covering Occupy Wall Street have observed anarchist thought and principles in the protest. In a recent essay in The New York Review of Books, Michael Greenberg related his interactions with some of the organizers he met at Zuccotti Park. Some of the these organizers, he observed, seemed guided toward a kind of faith and optimism, part of which “seemed to derive from the fact that anarchism, as they loosely conceived of it, had hardly been tried. It offered a process of mutual cooperation, not ideologies or even fixed goals.” Occupy Wall Street’s General Assembly structure, which lacks hierarchy among participants and is based on consensus decision making, draws on principles of anarchism.

And media attention to the role of David Graeber, an academic anthropologist and anarchist activist who recently published a expansive history of debt, in the organization of the protests, and in discussions of Occupy Wall Street, have highlighted anarchist thought as well. (For his dissertation, Graeber studied a rural community in Madagascar that the central government abandoned in the aftermath of IMF-imposed spending cuts. Graeber found that the community of 10,000 created an egalitarian social system governed by consensus.)

Regardless of whether you think the philosophical basis of anarchism is valuable, for many people, anarchism necessarily fails in the execution. As Bennett reports in his article on Graeber, economist Tyler Cowen found Graeber’s recent work on the history of debt persuasive. Anarchism however, makes less sense to Cowen, who “sees little alternative to the modern state. ‘Look at Somalia. If there’s a vacuum, something has to fill it.’” Graeber acknowledges such a sentiment: “’Most people don’t think anarchism is a bad idea. They think it’s insane’…Yeah, sure it would be great not to have prisons and police and hierarchical structures of authority, but everybody would just start killing each other. That wouldn’t work, right?’ Graeber’s father, however, had seen it work. ‘So it wasn’t insane. I was never brought up to think it was insane.’”

When I first visited Occupy Wall Street in September, I was struck by how much energy went into sustaining the community itself as opposed to developing strategic plans, or formulating policy recommendations. But understanding the threads of anarchism present in the OWS protests (though, of course, not everyone in the core of the protests are anarchists), helped me understand that at least for some participants in OWS, the entire goal was to create an egalitarian community governed by consensus in part as a demonstration that such a thing was possible and preferable. Formulating policy recommendations for the state to act on does not make sense in an anarchist framework: policies are state tools for action. If you do not believe the state should organize social life, then proposing tools for the state are not even in the realm of consideration.

In my next post, I’ll discuss more of the history of anarchism in social movements, the forms of social organization advocated by anarchism as a replacement for the state, and what a sociological account of ideas can tell us about the philosophy behind anarchism.

More about anarchism and individualist anarchism.


Image by arimoore.