The order of anarchism

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A red ‘A’ messily graffitied on to the pavement. Rioters violently demonstrating outside buildings of authority. Non-sensical placards advocating chaos. Although today, the word will conjure up images of obscure and disorderly protests against the state, the philosophy of anarchism strives for anything but. As Pierre Joseph Proudhon proudly said, “I am a firm friend of order.” How does the philosophy of anarchism function? What are its beliefs? Or is it little more than a glorified justification for violence and obscenity as many suppose? Despite the literal contradiction, there is indeed order within anarchy.

It is not, as many would believe, simply a reaction to governmental over-regulation or economic stagflation. Anarchism is a philosophy in its own right, although individualist anarchism, most associated with the violent tradition of dramatically ‘destroying’ the state, has dominated the image of the way of thinking. So too has its left-leaning roots, as David Goodway noted in the Guardian, “For a century and a half anarchists have been overwhelmingly socialist.” Their core beliefs have not changed though. Lucy Parsons, co-founder of the Industrial and Workers of the World and former-slave wrote “Anarchism has but one infallible, unchangeable motto — freedom, freedom to discover any truth, freedom to develop, to live naturally and fully.”

The word ‘anarchism’ comes from the greek word ‘anarkhos’ meaning ‘to be without a chief’, and anarchism’s primary objective has always been to create a stateless world. They do not subscribe to the theory that order can only be imposed by a small body of superiors upon the masses, and do not necessarily distinguish between whether those superiors have been elected or are tyrannical.

‘To be governed is to be watched, inspected, spied upon, directed, law-driven, numbered, regulated, enrolled, indoctrinated, preached at, controlled, checked, estimated, valued, censured, commanded, by creatures who have neither the right nor the wisdom nor the virtue to do so” – Pierre Joseph Proudhon

Jean Jaques Rosseau, one of the foremost thinkers during the 1789 French revolution, said of direct democracy,

“If there were a nation of Gods it would govern itself democratically. A government so perfect is not suited to men.”

Part of democracy’s failing is, in anarchists’ eyes, that people are fundamentally egotistical and concerned by themselves more than they are with altruism. Although born tabula rasa, or as a blank slate, humans prefer goodness to selfishness, but society corrupts our nature. Max Stirner was a German revolutionary and a progressive thinker in the 19th century, who firmly believed in the egoism of humans. In his work The Ego and His Own, he wrote:

“I consume [the world] to quite the hunger of my egoism. For me you are nothing but my food, even as I too am fed upon and turned to use by you. We have only one relation to each other, that of usableness, of utility of use.”

As such, they are distrustful of a system which relies on the election of individuals from the same corrupt society into positions of power. Their view is encapsulated in the darkly funny quote, sometimes attributed to Mark Twain:

“If voting changed anything, they’d abolish it”

Is there not truth in the supposition that change is too slow and often unsatisfactory? Greta Thunberg, a naturally progressive thinker with only a single objective in mind, criticised the European Union’s former target to reduce harmful emissions by 2050, ‘a surrender’. In the United Kingdom, a private survey commissioned revealed that in 2019, more than 60% of people in 4 out of 5 age groups believed that the British government was not doing enough to combat climate change. Why does government policy not fully reflect public beliefs?

Anarchism’s focus on individual sovereignty may also mislead those unfamiliar with the philosophy. Mihail Bakunin and Peter Kropotkin argued that freedom means being a part of a ‘social milieu’, to live in a community. They made no distinction between a close-knit society and the individual. These communities, or workers’ federations will eventually replace the state, argued the pair. The voluntary nature of both organisations allows for order whilst maintaining individual liberties.

Without the need to enforce the laws of property the state becomes purposeless, as Mikhail Bakunin argued when he noted that all people share the same notions of justice and ‘natural law’. Therefore the supervision and ‘artificial enforcement’ of pre-ordained moral imperatives is obsolete; the state is useless unless acting as a tool of oppression they argued.

The tenets of anarchism become lost if you accept that, at least in Europe, people are as free as can be reasonably expected without infringing on others’ rights. But as with every system of belief, there is always something to learn. A healthy skepticism of authority, especially entrenched authority, is universally beneficial. As Noam Chomsky, historian, scientist and activist, once said:

“I think it only makes sense to seek out and find structures of authority, hierarchy and domination in every aspect of life, and to challenge them; unless a justification for them can be given, they are illegitimate and should be dismantled, to increase the scope of freedom.”

Anarchism is, sometimes correctly, attributed to unnecessary violence and destruction. It is often used as a facade for pointless acts of damage and force, and is a magnet for world-weary revolutionaries who want to misplace their anger and cynicism through dangerous means. However, the acts of individuals and their interpretation of one philosophy must not overshadow the core ideas which they are meant to follow. Despite its reputation, there is an unrecognised and unacknowledged order to anarchism. Perhaps some of its ideas should be taken more seriously than the illogical barbarity which follows it.