Anarchy refers to a society without a government. It can take a variety of forms, all of which are based on the dissolution of authority and hierarchy.
Anarchists believe that institutions of power (such as the government) are oppressive and restrain human freedom. Therefore, they argue that, even without a central authority, humans can live together peacefully through mutual cooperation.
In popular understanding, anarchy is often synonymous with chaos and violence. But that is not what anarchists advocate.
Instead, their emphasis is on promoting individual autonomy and organizing society through mutual cooperation (without having a centralized authority).
Peter Marshall defines anarchy as
“a political philosophy that advocates the elimination of centralized government, and the replacement of the state with voluntary associations of free individuals” (1992).
Anarchism can take a variety of forms, spread across the entire political spectrum:
- The far-right position advocates for reducing state influence so free markets can prevail.
- The far-left position argues that, when true communism is established, the state will naturally fade away.
So, irrespective of the political leaning, the ultimate goal is to reach as close as possible to a governmentless society
The English philosopher, William Godwin, was the first person to write about anarchism.
Later, partly under the influence of Godwin, Pierre-Joseph Proudhon developed a systematic theory of anarchism, which is why he is considered the “father of anarchism”.
According to Proudhon, an ideal society would function without a central government.
It would be made up of a number of small units organized on the principle of mutualism, which refers to an “equitable exchange between self-governing associations of producers.” (Scott, 2014).
Anarchy, as Proudhon wrote, is “Not the Daughter But the Mother of Order” (McElroy, 1998).
Anarchists, depending on their political orientation, advocate for a variety of different things, such as:
- The establishment of direct democracy,
- The creation of workers’ cooperatives, or
- Greater privatization.
Today, the influence of anarchism can be seen in contemporary discussions of communes, workers’ control, federalism, etc.
Its ideas were a huge influence on the trade-union movement, the Spanish Civil War, Gandhi’s non-violent protests, and so on.
- Hunter-gatherer societies: Most nomadic hunter-gatherer groups are stateless societies. They do not have any formal system of hierarchy or authority. Instead, they rely on shared norms and traditions to maintain social order. Resource sharing is also based on need rather than ownership. Anarcho-primitivists regard these societies as the ideal, criticizing modern civilizations for increasing diseases, inequalities, and warfare (Zerzan, 2002).
- Horticultural societies: Horticultural societies such as the Semai and the Piaroa also function without any formalized authority. The Semai live in the rainforests of Malaysia and practice shifting cultivation. They rely on consensus-based decision-making and resolve disputes through negotiation. The Piaroa live in the Amazon rainforest, and practice horticulture along with hunting-gathering to survive.
- Zomia: Zomia is a vast upland region in Southeast Asia that is stateless. The surrounding hills isolate Zomia from the lowland states, making it a refugee haven. The rugged terrain also protects Zomia from outsiders, which has allowed its residents to develop unique social structures and practices that prioritize individual autonomy. Its people form small communities on the basis of kinship and live together in harmony.
- The Diggers: The Diggers were a group of English agrarian communists active during the mid-17th century. They advocated for communal land ownership and the abolition of private poverty. As such, they were against the traditional hierarchies, which allowed landowners to oppress others. They also rejected the government, seeing it as a tool of the upper classes. However, the diggers were never able to realize their vision.
- Jamaica: 18th-century Jamaica is an example of state-collapse anarchy, which was characterized by lawlessness and violence. At that time, Jamaica was a British colony that was heavily dependent on the labor of African slaves. In the absence of laws, a small group of plantation owners controlled the whole population. Nicholas Lawes, the Governor of Jamaica described the place as “absolutely anarchical”.
- French Revolution: This is an anarchy example in history. The most radical phase of the French Revolution lasted from 1792 to 1794. During this period, the government of France was overthrown, and a group of radical revolutionaries seized power. Rejecting the monarchy, they advocated for a decentralized government, emphasizing mass mobilization. However, this phase was also marred by violence and power was concentrated only in a few hands.
- Albania: While there are few anarchy examples today, we can look at anarchy country examples as recently as the 1990s. For example, in 1997, after the collapse of pyramid firms, Albania became an anarchy example country. It suffered huge financial losses and fell into anarchy. Heavily armed criminals roamed freely, and there were 3-4 gangs in every city. Things were especially bad in the southern part of the country, where the police did not have enough resources to deal with crimes.
- Somalia: Between 1991 and 2006, Somalia went through a civil war and its government collapsed. There was no central authority and the residents relied on local forms of conflict resolution, which were either secular or religious (Islamic law). The formal judiciary system had been destroyed but it was slowly rebuilt under small macro-regions such as Puntland and Somaliland.
- Spanish Civil War: In 1936, anarchist trade unions created militias and mobilized against the Second Spanish Republic. They gained power and began to establish anarchism. Many working-class citizens lived in anarchist communities, some of which were thriving. However, through the support of the Soviet Union, the government of the Spanish Republic slowly regained power and ended anarchism.
- Utopia, Ohio: Utopia is an example of an intentional community. Based on the principles of individual freedom and mutual cooperation. The community was established in 1844 by a group of anarchists led by Josiah Warren, There was a decentralized, voluntary system of governance, where decisions were made by consensus. Each person’s contribution was valued, and there was a system of barter exchange.
Anarchism vs Libertarianism
Although both anarchism and libertarianism share some similarities, they are ultimately quite different.
Libertarianism, as Scott writes, “takes the principles of liberalism to their logical extreme” (2014).
It is based on the writings of the 17th-century philosopher John Locke.
For Locke, individual autonomy (the rights to life, liberty, and property) was of the highest importance, and this meant the “elimination of coercive intervention by the state, the foremost violator of liberty” (1689).
However, the prioritization of individual freedom is also a key feature of conservatism. Indeed, in both the United States and the United Kingdom, libertarians are often considered part of the conservative right.
Libertarians believe that the state should serve as a mere “protection agency” (Nozick, 1974).
Friedrich Hayek coined the term “catallaxy” for the ideal libertarian society. Here, social relationships are based on market exchanges. The government’s only task is to maintain peace and provide public services that require large initial capital investments.
Similarities and Differences
While both anarchism and libertarianism emphasize individual freedom, they differ in their views on the role of the state and the economy.
Anarchism, as we have been discussing, advocates for a governmentless society. There is neither a centralized authority nor any hierarchical structures of power. Instead, society is organized on the basis of mutual cooperation.
Libertarianism, on the other hand, is based on limited government. The government is still expected to play some role in society, such as maintaining law & order, establishing large-scale public services, etc.
So, the main difference between the two philosophies is their view on the state. Anarchists believe that the state is oppressive and unnecessary, while libertarians argue that the state is needed to protect individual rights and maintain peace.
There are also some differences in terms of economic views. Libertarians belong to the right end of the political spectrum. They support free-market capitalism, that is, an economy with minimal government intervention.
Anarchists are spread across the political spectrum. While some may advocate privatization, many of them argue that capitalism itself is quite oppressive. Therefore, they propose more egalitarian economic systems.
Anarchy is a society without government. Instead of formal hierarchies and authority, the group functions by mutual cooperation.
Anarchy can take many forms, covering the entire political spectrum. In today’s world, the influence of anarchy can be seen in discussions about the downsides of trade unions, decentralization, etc.
Libertarianism is another philosophy that, despite some similarities, is different from anarchism.
Hayek, F. (1975). Principles of a Liberal Social Order, in A. Crespigny and J. Cronin (eds.), Ideologies of Politics. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Locke, J. (1988/1689). Two Treatises of Government (P. Laslett, Ed.). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Marshall, P. (1992). Demanding the impossible: A history of anarchism. Los Angeles: Fontana Press.
McElroy, W. (Winter 1998). “Benjamin Tucker, Liberty, and Individualist Anarchism”. The Independent Review. New York: The Independent Institute.
Nozick, R. (1974). Anarchy, State, and Utopia. New York: Basic Books.
Scott, J. (2014). A Dictionary of Sociology. Oxford: Oxford University Press.Zerzan, J. (2002). Running on Emptiness: The Pathology of Civilization. London: Feral House.