I first became political at the age of seven. I sat in the living room in November 2000, watching my liberal parents’ looks turn from anxiety to dismay as Florida went red on the TV map and George W. Bush took the podium. I asked my mom, in all my seven-year-old wisdom, how Gore could get more votes but Bush was still the President. Electoral College or no, it didn’t seem just.
I spent my high-school years living up to every stereotype of Angry Politics Girl. I had strong opinions on everything from the Iraq War to gay rights to Ayn Rand. I argued politics with anyone who would listen (and mostly with people who wouldn’t). In college, unsurprisingly, I majored in Political Science. Marx joined my personal library, along with Edward Saïd, Howard Zinn and Angela Davis. I stopped caring so much about policies, and started thinking more about roots. My vocabulary expanded to include terms like “prison-industrial complex,” “intersectionality” and “Orientalism.”
In my junior year of college, I took a class called Political Economy of African Development. On our very last day of class, after wrapping up all talk of aid and trade, my professor made a curious non sequitur that would alter the course of my life. He recommended a book to us.
That book was Two Cheers for Anarchism by James C. Scott.
I read it. Then I read Seeing Like a State. Then, The Possibility of Cooperation by Michael Taylor. I finished college. I went to grad school. I read Bakunin and Proudhon and Kropotkin and Goldman, Graeber and Bookchin and Newman and Gelderloos. I scoured The Anarchist Library and CrimethInc. I learned what a TAZ was. P2P networks and degrowth. Community accountability and transformative justice. Polyamory, abundance, the gift economy, Taoism, antifragility, emotional responsibility, interbeing.
The more I explore, the more I see anarchism at the heart of everything. It is the thread that weaves my worldview together, the singular feeling that gives rise to it all.
My anarchism is not a phase. It is not a youthful act of rebellion. It is my politics, my purpose, my morality, my personal practice, my spirituality, my essence.
I am an anarchist. That is just what I am.
When most people think anarchist, they think spray paint and Molotov cocktails. They think of The Anarchist Cookbook, the Against Me! song, and white boys with blue hair in black jackets. They judge these things as though they invalidate the philosophy. They don’t think of the rich history of anarchist theory and practice, the intrinsic logic and practical conclusions. They see graffiti on a Starbucks, never a Utopian commitment behind it. They think of we’re a bunch of young punks. They never think we’re right.
Some anarchists are young, some are punks, and neither of those descriptors mean we are wrong.
To start at the beginning: what, actually, is anarchism?
Notice that the word I use is not anarchy. Anarchy is a state of being, popularly used as loosely synonymous with disorder or chaos. Anarchism is the term for a political and social philosophy of free association, self-determination, statelessness, mutual aid and individual autonomy.
Simply put: No government. No centralized authority. No established hierarchy. Just people being people, doing the things that people do, independently and collectively, organized or chaotic as they see fit. Your freedom ends where someone else’s begins. You negotiate the boundaries.
If you’re looking for specific policies, you won’t find them. Why? Because establishing any codified policy that everyone or anyone must subscribe to is entirely antithetical to anarchism.
There are as many ways to practice anarchism as there are anarchists. There are as many conceptions of anarchism as there are anarchists (for example, I personally don’t consider “anarcho-capitalism” to be anarchism, because capitalism necessitates an established hierarchy and having private property requires a state to enforce its privacy).
I cannot really tell you what anarchism is. I can only tell you what anarchism is to me.
To me, it is everything. It is political, social, personal, and spiritual. It is both the means and the end. It is the daily practice of autonomy and authenticity, of deconstructing and questioning, of embracing fluidity, operating based on consent, trusting myself, trusting others, the conscious building of my Utopia in each moment by following my feelings and needs, respecting others’ autonomy, and choosing to act with love.
Like Tao, anarchism is eternal and unfixed, that which emerges organically out of human nature and (inter)action. It is a philosophy broken by attempts to define it and dictate behavior within it.
Anarchism is naïve, but it is also wise. Anarchism is idealistic, but it is also practical. Anarchism is radical, but it is also mundane. Anarchism is individual, but it is also universal. Anarchism is everywhere, and it is working. If we stopped being so afraid of it, we could see all the more clearly how well it works.
Here’s the thing: you’re already an anarchist. Yes, you are. Democrat, Republican, Communist, Neo-Con, Fascist, you are still an anarchist. All of us are anarchists, at least in some ways, at some points.
We do not look to a centralized authority to rule on every decision we make. We embody our own agency and enact our free will for most aspects of our lives. We break laws, or at least rules. We question systems and authorities. Whether you question the government or a particular leader in it, a religious doctrine or a social norm or a mainstream anything, if you have ever looked to yourself for an answer, you are an anarchist. Congratulations. Your black flag will be sent to you shortly.
So if you’re already an anarchist, why don’t you believe in anarchism? Well, I don’t know, you tell me. But I can offer some guesses:
First, maybe you fear how your life might be in an anarchist world. You’re afraid of a world without government, police, soldiers, borders or laws. On the most basic level, you fear that people would hurt you or your loved ones (so by extension, you) if there weren’t a state to stop them.
Your answer, then, is to get people to stop people from hurting people. But not all people. You only sanction some people’s ability to hurt people, give them tremendous resources to do so, and outlaw other people from defending themselves against those people.
You trust people because you don’t trust people. Perhaps the problem is not people, but any system that allows some people to wield tremendous power over others.
Second, maybe you just don’t understand anarchism. You’re either looking for concrete policies that aren’t there, or you equate anarchism with violent revolution alone. Not all anarchists believe in the use of violence. Not all anarchists believe in anything. We’re anarchists. The whole point is to choose your own adventure.
If you believe in the state (famously defined by Weber as the human community that claims the monopoly of the legitimate use of force within a territory), you already believe in violence. The point you’re hung up on is “legitimate.” You think violence at the hands of police or military is legitimate, but if a black bloc burns down a building, that’s illegitimate. I ask you: Why?
It’s not like you can invoke the name of democracy. As a private citizen, do you vote for your neighborhood beat cops? No. Do you vote for directors of the FBI, CIA, NSA or ICE? No. Do you vote for justices of the Supreme Court? No. Do you vote for soldiers and generals? No. Do you vote on foreign policy? No. Did you even vote for the Constitution? No. The list goes on.
Maybe you think some people have better training, or institutions in place that make them less violent and more accountable. In the U.S., nearly 1000 people are shot and killed by police each year. Our police officers are almost never prosecuted for murder or manslaughter. Military forces across the world commit countless atrocities, nearly all of them fully sanctioned by their respective governments. Our soldiers are almost never investigated for war crimes (even if they’re caught on video and published on Wikileaks). The military is notorious for refusing to investigate or prosecute sexual assault, or support victims. Don’t even get me started on prisons.
Face it, the state is violent. You are the only person who can decide if you deem that violence legitimate. You can decide that you don’t.
The problem is, even if you don’t legitimize the state, that alone won’t keep the state from engaging in violence against you. I do not have to recognize the “right” of a police officer to use lethal force for that officer to shoot me in the head. I may not consent to this system, but my lack of consent means nothing to it.
As for the “social contract”? I never signed it.
Any contract, legal or imagined, is nothing but a poor stand-in for consent. Consent is a feeling that can be removed at any time for any reason. Contract cannot. The essence of consent dies in the face of coercion, power hierarchy, and force. If I put a gun to your head and say, “Have sex with me or I’ll shoot you,” you can say Yes, but can you really give consent? Instead of sex, it’s any obedience. Sometimes it’s a gun, sometimes it’s the threat of imprisonment, torture, eviction, homelessness, starvation.
Claiming I or any of us live in a kind of contract with the government of the United States is ludicrous. The parties are wholly unequal. We’ve no power to negotiate the terms for ourselves. We’ve no option not to sign. There aren’t even the weak trappings of a legal contract, and there’s no true consent whatsoever.
Likewise, law is nothing more than a poor attempt to codify morality and force others to comply with it, when morality is deeply personal, subjective, and evolving. Most of us know not all laws are moral. Slavery was legal. The Trail of Tears was legal. COINTELPRO was mostly legal (and the law did nothing to counter or stop its illegal components).
We even pass laws that seek to outlaw our very nature, as though it could conform to an arbitrary view of morality. It’s not like criminalizing homosexuality made gay people any less gay.
The state’s attempts to change behavior, streamline conflict resolution, foster justice and unify morality are a failure. There’s a strong argument to be made that the very existence of a legal system reinforces antisocial behavior, muddles conflict resolution, legitimizes injustice and polarizes morality. When forced to obey a system, our ability to cooperate, remedy conflict and support one another atrophies.
If you still believe in the Rule of Law, I ask you: Should we obey law above morality? Which laws are moral, and which are not? Why do you believe them to be moral? Why should you believing a law is moral mean I should believe it is moral? Even if I should, what if I don’t? Must I be forced to break my own morality simply because yours is different?
Never mind the way laws are enforced. Law itself is ridiculous.
Agreements, negotiations, personal moral codes, shared commitments, mutual aid, chosen cooperation, these make sense to me. They are practical, responsive, adaptable and fluid. In being unique and unfixed, they are simple. In being personal, they are far more just. They open the door to different kinds of conflict resolution, and different kinds of association.
As an American citizen, if I disapprove of laws or leaders, where can I go to not be obliged to follow them? I hold no other citizenship. I cannot just walk away. If I tried to declare myself sovereign within this territory, I would face almost immediate arrest or physical violence.
Even if I agreed with all policies in this territory, I still could not consent to them. If I do not have the option to say No, my Yes is rendered meaningless.
Anarchism does not mean there is never authority. It means you are free to choose which authority to follow, for what purpose, for how long, and whether or not to follow an authority at all. You could follow a leader, a god, a friend, a doctrine, your own judgment, your intuition, or nothing at all. You choose if, when, and what to trust.
Democracy does not allow us to disassociate from our leaders should we stop consenting to their rule. It does not allow us free movement or free association should we wish to disengage from that rule. It does not allow us to explore our options wholly. Democracy only allows us to choose who some of our rulers are. On rare occasions, we may choose how we are ruled. We do not get to choose if we are ruled.
Why shouldn’t that be a choice?
You don’t have to practice your autonomy, but this collective addiction to authority is inhibiting those of us who want to. As for me? I want the freedom to live a life I consent to.
If it’s forced, it’s not consent. To be consent, it must be freely given.
The thing is, we are freer than we know. We are closer than we even realize. We can make one change, right now. It always starts with one. We can question authority. We can determine our own morality. We can cultivate abundance. We can embrace ourselves and each other. We can cooperate. We can learn to trust. We can make choices, and be fully, radically aware of our ability to choose.
For all the negative portrayals of anarchism, it is the most positive, bold and beautiful philosophy. It respects human nature, affirms human goodness, embraces human potential, and fosters human cooperation. It is built on trust, by and for freedom.
Those who claim anarchism could never work ignore how much it already does. They hang up on nonexistent policy points without looking at the total logic. They declare Utopia to be impossible without ever trying to live it.
Anarchism is possible. You can see it there in the friends you choose to be with and the love you choose to give, in the kindness you choose to offer and the times you choose otherwise, in the questions you ask, the conflicts you resolve, and the person you choose to be.
Must you practice greater autonomy in your personal life, or seize the means of production, or break laws? Must you resist or fight back, quit or drop out, dumpster dive, squat, or riot? Must you speak freely or love freely or question everything you’ve been told to believe in?
No. Anarchism is about freedom. If you must, you are not free.
I can’t tell you what to do. I can only tell you what I feel: that shedding this adolescent form of social organization is the only way we’ll allow ourselves to grow. If we don’t, the ripcord will be our noose.
It’s time to let go.
Reform or revolution, violence or pacifism, individual autonomy or collective liberation, I can’t tell you how to get there. If I dictated it for you, it wouldn’t be anarchism.