Wednesday, April 06, 2011

What is Anarchy?

I'm selling books at the Anarchist Book Fair this weekend in San Francisco, and it has me wondering: what exactly is anarchy? I have a general idea from readings and from my friends who call themselves "anarchists." Plus, the ideal of anarchy heavily influenced the punk rock movement. Or was that the other way around? But when I talk to people inside and outside the anarchist philosophy, there are wildly different opinions about what anarchy is. Is it destruction and disorder; a free society that holds everyone responsible for their own actions; or something in between?

Merriam-Webster Dictionary defines anarchy as "absence or denial of any establishment or authority."

"absence of government."

"absence of order."

But also, "a utopian society of individuals who enjoy complete freedom without government."

The word originated from the Greek anarchos, meaning "having no ruler." This is the heart of the ideal of anarchy. Anarchist have no ruler, no rules, no one to tell them what to do or how to behave other than themselves. But if there are no rules, what stops a person from murdering and thieving? That seems to be the question I hear most from people who know nothing about anarchy, and what seems to scare people the most about the concept.

What would stop a group of strong people from massacring the weak, like something out of Mad Max?

To be honest, I'm not sure, but what I've witnessed from my friends who call themselves anarchists is a strong belief in personal responsibility and honor. Being granted unlimited freedom creates a burden of personal responsibility. You alone are responsible for your actions and if you do something to cause harm to others, you alone take the blame. People are held accountable for their actions, not by a judge or legal system, but by the collective censure of the community in which the person lives. That ideal of extreme responsibility is what keeps anarchy from collapsing into total chaos. This is where the "utopian ideal" definition comes in.

As I've said, I'm not an expert on anarchy and I really don't have any scholarly information to pass on; I can only share my understanding of what the term means to the people I know. The people who identify as "anarchist" are some of the most honorable people I have ever met, more so even than some of the people I know who identify as "Christian." This is very different from what most people imagine an anarchist to be.

This is what Wikipedia has to say about anarchy:

Anarchy (from Greekἀναρχίᾱ anarchíā, "without ruler") may refer to any of several political states, and has been variously defined by sources. Most often, the term "anarchy" describes the simple absence of publicly recognized government or enforced political authority.[1][2]When used in this sense, anarchy may[3] or may not[4] imply political disorder or lawlessness within a society. In another sense, anarchy may not refer to a complete lack of authority or political organization, but instead refer to a social state characterized by absolute direct democracy[5] or libertarianism.[4]

Anarchy appears to be a fluid term, with many different ideas about how it means to live as an anarchist.There are many people who call themselves anarchists and are indeed destructive and violent, who seem to think it is vital that a person create as much havoc as possible to bring down the established order. Are these people "real" anarchists? Are the others, the ones who talk philosophically about personal honor, only idealistic anarchists?

I'm going to an Anarchist Book Fair and I have no idea what to expect. But I hope to learn a great deal about what the term "anarchy" means.

What do you think? Please leave a comment and tell me what you believe anarchy means.

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