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ISSN number: 1746-4757


The trouble with anarchism

James Black

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James Black is an academic, but he asks that this not be held against him. In the 1980s he worked as a computer programmer and now moonlights as a web designer and activist on behalf of local environmental organisations. He asked that this essay be published under his chosen pseudonym.

Why is anarchism so troubling to political commentators? I present here six interrelated answers to that question. I make no claims that this is anything other than a personal exploration of the idea, but then again, that is the way in which anarchism is best developed; personally, individually, and autonomously.


The trouble with anarchism is that the word "anarchy" has developed false connotations. There is nothing in its Greek origins which implies chaos, violence or vandalism. It in fact describes a particular type of association, or a decision-making method, in which there are no identifiable leaders or rulers. The word is derived from a-, the prefix denoting the absence of something, and arkhos, ruler; compare this with monarch (one ruler), oligarch (few rulers) and so on. Now, it is true that language evolves, and therefore so do meanings. But in a country where the high form of language is still called the "King's/Queen's English", we cannot forget that control over the evolution of language is just one more means of exercising political power. When one sees the relatively abstract word "anarchy" applied to the material phenomenon of, say, a riot, one must remember that this is an application of a metaphor. Therefore, perhaps the first and most important task of the modern anarchist is to seek to reclaim the word.

It is easier to twist political terms into any desired shape because of their inherently abstract nature. This is why Orwell wrote [1] that "most political writing is bad writing". Language is slippery enough at the best of times: most words have multiple meanings even in the dictionary, let alone in everyday life. However, at least when we talk about a dog, a car or a forest, everyone will have had material experience of such an object (even if the specific form of the object will differ between people). With political ideas, no clear material example is available, so we fall back on metaphors. To say, as I've already done, that "anarchy" describes a particular kind of decision making process is easy. To describe what the experience of anarchy is like to someone who believes themselves never to have encountered it is harder: the metaphors keep crowding in, attempting to make our conversation easier but in fact obscuring our intention.

Whereas "anarchy" describes a particular form of association, my particular take on anarchism is that it is a critique of the belief that authority over one's life can be legitimately delegated to others [2]. Note, though, that this delegation of autonomy (whether actively consented to or not) is exactly how states have claimed legitimacy since the 18th century, whether they be liberal-democratic or state communist. So it is perhaps unsurprising that anarchists find themselves under attack from both sides and, to be fair, that they in turn criticise both approaches to the state (the division being essentially economic rather than political). [3]. Anarchism does not deny that power has an economic basis, but this is not all that power is; it is also psychological. Anarchism explores the ways in which we are encouraged to yield to arbitrary authority, and the practical means by which we can reassert our autonomy in the face of this authority.


The trouble with anarchism is that the central concepts of authority and autonomy are as abstract as "anarchy" itself. We may define "authority" as the power to impel someone to do something they would not otherwise have done, but it is not as simple as that. Authority does inhere in certain people, such as judges, politicians, nightclub bouncers or one's own children (I write that as a parent...). But authority may also lie in objects: a red traffic light, for example, or a no smoking sign. And what of abstract things such as laws, human rights, customs and rituals?

Authority is not wholly objective. At least in part, it resides in the minds and dispositions of those who are subject to it. Calculations of costs and benefits are not always made consciously, but they still play a part: we stop at the red traffic light because we accept that not doing so will probably have dangerous consequences. But sometimes, de jure authority (that is, existing in law) becomes disconnected from de facto authority (existing in fact), as seems to have happened with the smoking of cannabis in the UK (most people who want to smoke cannabis are already doing so regardless of the fact it is still illegal at the time of writing). Therefore, our response to authority varies from person to person, and situation to situation.

Authority should not be thought of as permanent and/or unchanging. We may think that authority is somehow permanently institutionalised in a government, or the police force, or (for schoolchildren) in one's teachers, but it is not. Authority is multifaceted and dynamic. It updates itself in response to new developments. It can also be challenged, and in such moments of challenge, change and development occur. A law may lose its moral force (such as the laws against homosexuality in the 1960s); a child may defy his or her teachers or parents and so realise they are not perfect beings; police orders to demonstrators to turn back from a barricade may be ignored. At these moments, what emerges from under the shadow of authority is the light of free will; or, as I shall term it, autonomy. I suggest, then, that authority and autonomy are concepts in opposition to one another.

This is not a dichotomy, but a continuum: there are shades of grey inbetween these two poles just as there are between "black and white", "young and old" or "capitalist and communist". There are times when the exercise of authority is perfectly justified, such as when a parent stops their child expressing their autonomy by running out into a busy street. The child may resent it, but no-one would consider this illegitimate. (The red traffic light performs a similar function.) But most questions of autonomy versus authority are more ambiguous than this. It may seem perfectly normal to delegate autonomy in, say, medical diagnosis to a doctor, and this is something most people do freely -- and usually with good reason. But doctors can make mistakes. They can also "medicalise" conditions in which their intervention is not always for the best (is the child hyperactive and in need of Ritalin, or is he/she just bored to tears with irrelevant teaching?). Anarchists have pointed to the dangers that lie in the unquestioning obedience of authority: "a man [sic] can decide to obey the commands of another without making any attempt to determine for himself whether what is commanded is good or wise" [4].

Similarly there are dangers with the totally free expression of autonomy. At the very least we should accept J. S. Mill's "harm principle", whereby free will should always become subject to controls if and when it does harm to others [5]. We are conscious, reasoning beings: responsibility for our actions is a consequence of our capacity to choose. In this simple insight lies both the defence of autonomy, and of agreed-upon authority. Wolff argues that it is a complete violation of our humanity to delegate both the choice and the responsibility to arbitrary "authority". We should accept that some constraints on our actions are necessary, but these constraints are only legitimate if and when they have been negotiated and agreed upon. Finally, these constraints should not be permanently set, but subjected to constant review and dependent on circumstance [6]. (See section 4 of this essay.)

Autonomy, then, has both "negative" and "positive" aspects [7]. In negative terms, it is the absence of arbitrary authority and the coercion which flows from this authority. In positive terms, autonomy means the ability to understand and recognise that one has a free choice, that there are always alternative courses of action. It means having enough (trustworthy) information on which to base a decision; to have enough education, wisdom or intelligence to judge the quality of this information and to weigh up the alternatives; and to have the self-confidence to make the decision. Finally it means having the maturity to accept responsibility for the consequences of one's choice.

What one can never remove from anarchism is the self. People cannot be reduced to "voters", or "employees", or "consumers", or "donors", or "viewers" (I could go on). In anarchism, every individual human being remains a conscious, self-motivated actor, who ideally will have agreed upon all constraints to which they are subjected. Herein lies anarchism's essential strength; it also represents the reasons why anarchism is so problematic to large, bureaucratic organisations which depend precisely on usurping the autonomy of the many people whose lives they affect, and reducing them to one or all of the classifications mentioned in the first sentence of this paragraph.

I must however accept that I am describing ideals here. In reality anarchism faces certain practical questions, which I deal with in the remainder of this essay. First, how can effective action take place if the conditions have to be continually negotiated? Second, what happens if the negotiated conditions and constraints are simply ignored? Finally, what hope do these ideals have when faced with the depressing reality, of dominance by exactly the large, bureaucratic institutions which it fundamentally opposes?

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1. Orwell, G. (1950), "Politics and the English Language" in Shooting an Elephant, London, Secker & Warburg. return

2. In this I am broadly following the position of R. P. Wolff (1970), In Defense of Anarchism, Berkeley, University of California Press. return

3. Various anarchist critiques of Marxism and state communism can be found in Woodcock, G. (ed.) (1977), The Anarchist Reader, Brighton, Harvester, pp. 138-162. return

4. R. P. Wolff, op cit., p. 14. See also M. Bakunin, God and the State (the relevant passage is included on this month's snippets page). return

5. J. S. Mill (1865), On Liberty, London, Longman. return

6. R. P. Wolff, op cit., p. 14-18. return

7. compare with Berlin, I. (1991), "Two Concepts of Liberty", in Miller, D. (ed.) Liberty, chapter 2. return