Uncovering the ideological enigma of Anarchy
In the 2014 movie “The Purge: Anarchy,” for 12 hours the government suspends all services and crime is legal. The film depicts people using the temporary lack of a government to commit acts of violence. The movie is centered around the common assumption that an absence of government — anarchy — would lead to chaos and destruction. However, in actuality, anarchism as a political philosophy is far more complicated and nuanced than portrayed in the movie.
Anarchism has deep roots in the United States, with famous early Americans such as transcendentalist author, poet and philosopher Henry David Thoreau in the 1800s and activist, writer and orator Emma Goldman in the early 1900s espousing forms of anarchist ideology. But along with many other political philosophies that vary from the established order, anarchism is poorly understood.
David Friedman, a professor of Law at Santa Clara University, said the combination of the violent actions of a few people who called themselves anarchists, and the general perception of anarchy as being chaotic, has led to a negative connotation with the word.
One such action that has caused people to associate anarchism with violence was the 1901 assassination of President William McKinley by anarchist Leon Czolgosz. But despite the violence of some anarchists throughout history, there have been many anarchists who disavowed the use of violence. One such thinker was radical journalist and activist Dorothy Day — considered an anarchist — who helped found the Catholic Worker Movement, a cause that has championed nonviolent resistance.
Gary Chartier, associate dean and professor of law and business ethics at La Sierra University, said the actions of a small number of anarchists have been used to make a sweeping generalization about anarchism. However, Chartier said those perceptions don’t reflect the reality of the political philosophy.
“It is not chaotic violence, which is what so many commentators and pundits and people on the street say,” he said. “Anarchy means a social order without rulers … that is top down authority figures who exercise their control without consent of those whose lives they seek to manage.”
Jake Tompkins, a member of the Workers Solidarity Alliance — an anarchist activist group — said anarchism has been deprecated by the elites in society because the introduction of anarchy into society would threaten those elites’ status and way of life.
Noam Chomsky, a well known progressive activist, critic of the U.S. government and proponent of anarchist thought, wrote in an email that anarchism forces hierarchical structures to prove why they are needed in society. Chomsky said while he is skeptical of commitment to one specific ideology, he does see merit in anarchist philosophy.
“There are, I think, some sensible guidelines for political thought and action,” he said. “That includes what I think has been the driving principle of anarchism as of its classical liberal antecedents: that relations of hierarchy, domination, subordination must demonstrate their legitimacy, and if they cannot (which is quite common), they should be dismantled in favor of structures that are more free and just.”
Chomsky said the challenge is applying these ideas to the real world. However, he said anarchism is possible within society, citing Russian revolutionary anarchist Mikhail Bakunin who advocated creating the institutions of the future within the reality of the present.
“That is happening all the time, for example, with community control, worker-owned and managed enterprises, cooperatives, and other forms of mutual aid and popular decision-making, not forgetting advances in civil and human rights that dismantle illegitimate authority,” Chomsky said. “With sufficient scale, such initiatives can become the foundation of a new society that approaches anarchist ideals.”
In addition to being misunderstood as a political philosophy synonymous with chaos and violence, anarchism is also often inaccurately perceived to be one specific ideology. While it is true that most anarchists would say anarchism simply means the absence of government, the means taken to abolish the government — as well as what society would look like after — varies widely based on the anarchists one speaks with. As a result, anarchism contains many different ideologies within it, with some on the left wing of the political spectrum, others on the right wing and still others rejecting both ends of the spectrum.
Approaching anarchism from the left are Tompkins and the Workers Solidarity Alliance, proponents of what is known as anarcho-syndicalism. Tompkins said anarcho-syndicalism is an anti-capitalist form of anarchism that seeks to take the power and the means of production out of the hands of the government and wealthy elite and give it to the workers.
Tompkins said the goal of anarcho-syndicalists is to promote a mass unionism of workers.
“We’re anarchists with a specific kind of strategy, and that strategy is one that people call revolutionary unionism, which is where workers unions organize to not only get concessions from bosses, owners and companies, but also to bring the means of production — factories and things like that — under the control of the workers themselves,” Tompkins said.
Anarcho-syndicalists believe that capitalism creates a society in which the means of production are owned by only a few powerful people and that this creates an untenable situation for the workers, Tompkins said. He said historically, it has been the state that has protected the interests of the powerful and the upper class, instead of looking out for the workers.
Tompkins said this creates a top-down, authoritarian structure to society and is why anarcho-syndicalists advocate the absence of the state and oppose electoral politics.
“We fundamentally think that the state should be abolished in favor of … more worker control, a horizontal organization of society,” Tompkins said.
The Workers Solidarity Alliance has started an initiative to build the anarcho-syndicalist movement in North America, Tompkins said. He said the idea is to involve more anarcho-syndicalists in social struggles and to try to shift the labor movement in a direction that is comparable with anarcho-syndicalist viewpoints.
Tompkins said this can be achieved in a couple ways, such as getting anarcho-syndicalists involved in organizing workers or getting involved in environmental activism. The ultimate goal, he said, is to further the push for liberation from oppressive structures.
“An authoritarian relationship doesn’t promote liberty for workers … and so we’re trying to build a movement that can have the critical mass support to change that structure of society,” Tompkins said.
Another form of anarchism is post-left anarchist perspective. Lawrence Jarach, co-editor of the magazine Anarchy: A Journal of Desire Armed, said traditionally, anarchists have been linked to left-wing ideology.
“A post-left anarchist perspective is one that tries to get back to a principled, anti-bureaucratic way of engaging theory and practices,” Jarach said. “Most post-left anarchists would reject the idea of any kind of representation or delegate model for decision making.”
Jarach said one of the main critiques post-left anarchists have of left anarchists is that they may become involved in formal organizational projects, such as organizing in the workplace or through independent meetings.
“And it often slides into — especially this year — a kind of soft on electoralism. Let’s play footsies with the pro-[Bernie] Sanders crowd or the Green Party or things like that,” Jarach said.
He said the more left anarchists go, the more they seem to be drawn into the realm of electoral politics, which anarchists have historically rejected. Instead of electoral politics, anarchists prefer to organize through direct action, which Jarach said involves organizing yourself with others to further your views without using any sort of representational politics.
Another distinction between left anarchists and post-left anarchist perspective is that Jarach said leftist anarchists seem to believe that if people knew the truth about anarchism, instead of perceiving it as chaotic and violent, there would be a far greater number of people interested in the movement. However, Jarach said he doesn’t believe that’s the case, suggesting if people were aware of the nuance within anarchy, many would still not be attracted to it as an ideology because people don’t always want high degrees of autonomy.
Despite this perception of anarchism as violent, Jarach said, much like the term “queer,” anarchism has been reappropriated by those who identify with it and is used as a badge of honor among those who oppose the control of the government.
Still others have taken a different approach to anarchism, such as Friedman, who is an anarcho-capitalist, an ideology that advocates the elimination of the government in favor of privatization and the free market. Friedman said his philosophy constitutes an extreme version of classical liberalism.
“The idea is to consider a society where you’ve privatized everything government does that’s worth doing,” Friedman said. “So you have a society which, like ours, has private property and voluntary exchange but in which there is no government.”
Friedman added that in this system of anarcho-capitalism, there would be private firms that would sell the services of protecting people’s rights and settling disputes. The firms, Friedman said, would realize there may be conflict between them if there is conflict between their customers, and they would agree on a private arbitration court to settle any disputes between their customers.
Friedman said the best case scenario for this form of anarchism is a slow, continuous process in which more things are done by the market so when the last bit of government disappears, no one notices.
Anarcho-capitalism is somewhat similar to libertarianism but not synonymous, Friedman said. He said the difference is libertarianism describes an outcome while anarcho-capitalism describes a set of institutions. However, Friedman said he believes these institutions are relatively likely to produce libertarian outcomes.
Friedman said the reason this system would be preferable to having a government is that in a market situation — for the most part — each person pays most of the cost of what they do and also gets most of the benefit. This rational individual behavior usually leads to rational group behavior, Friedman said. However, he said this is not the case when it comes to the government.
“If you think about the political system, it’s almost never the case that individual actors are actually bearing the cost and receiving the benefit of their actions,” he said. “Hence, they very rarely have an incentive to take those actions, and only those actions that produce net benefits. That’s sort of an economist’s view of why we don’t expect government to work.”
Also centered around market-based ideas, but very different from anarcho-capitalism, is left- market anarchism.
“Market anarchy involves the view that a peaceful society is one in which people enjoy robust possessory rights and can exchange in voluntary exchanges,” Chartier said.
Chartier said left-market anarchism emphasizes the central cultural and economic priorities of the traditional left.
“With things like war and civil liberties and privacy, inclusiveness and race and ethnicity, these kinds of concerns that you might associate with the left need not be embraced as somehow requiring either top-down control and regulation of the state or indeed the absence of robust possessory rights and market exchange,” Chartier said.
Left-market anarchism is an anti-capitalist ideology, Chartier said. He acknowledged this might sound contradictory given the presence of the word “market,” but he said it all depends on what one means by capitalism. He said when most people use the term capitalism, they are usually simply referring to market exchange. However, he said many left-market anarchists understand capitalism to mean the set of economic arrangements currently in place.
“Those arrangements are certainly not ones in which market exchange and legitimate possessory claims are consistently respected,” he said. “Rather, the system we have now is one in which well-connected individuals and groups use state power to gain privileges … at the expense of the public and also at the expense of workers.”
This is why Chartier said left-market anarchists advocate for a “freed market” instead of a “free market.” He said they want to emphasize that in a world of left-market anarchism, the market would have been liberated from the privileges that currently dominate it.
Additionally, Chartier said one of his other reasons for not trusting the state is that the people who run for elected office are not randomly selected citizens, but instead people who crave and seek power. Chartier said this power comes with a lot of internal and external pressures that can make even the most moral of people use power in harmful ways.
There are other forms of anarchism besides the philosophies discussed, as the goal of the abdication of government leaves a myriad of ways to make that a reality and continue as a society afterward. Ultimately, however, what all forms of anarchism seek is the removal of the privileges enjoyed by the state, such as the government’s right to enter into people’s lives, enact laws that sometimes curb personal freedoms and prop up the elites in society at the expense of the oppressed.
“The government is an organization that people treat as if it has special rights,” Friedman said. “People think it has the right to decide whether you work for it, the right to provide you services and make you pay for it whether you want them or not. Anarchy is a society with no organization that acts like that.”
Evan Popp is a sophomore journalism major who can distinguish method over madness. You can reach him at