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I Don't Get It: Anarchy


“We are governed best, when we are governed least.”

When it comes to anarchy, there is an image we as a society collectively hold in our heads; anarchists are dumb teenagers who are rebelling against authorities, probably hate their parents and think violence is cool. When I first discovered anarchy late last year, I genuinely was imagining some post-apocalyptic Walking Dead or Mad Max: Fury Road future. There's probably some sort of deep analysis I could do with that, the way we associate government with order means that we believe the absence of government equals disorder. Its also worth noting the fact that we often characterise left wing movements as being for edgy angsty stupid young people. I can’t help but feel like these attitudes are ones that have been deliberately formed by people in power in order to discredit left wing ideas.

I used to dismiss anarchism as something my weird high school classmates were into. Framing it this way gave me an excuse to avoid taking the ideas behind it seriously. Then I fell into the gateway of progressive YouTube channels like Thought Slime, and discovered that pretty much all my preconceived notions about the anarchist movement were wrong. My hope in writing this article is not to convert you into a socio-anarchist but to provide an insight into what anarchism really is. Of course, as with any movement anarchy sits on a spectrum and there are lots of different branches one can go down. Because of that, there is diversity of thought among anarchists and some genuinely interesting debates happening.

I also want to try and reference a diverse range of figures. Anarchy has been literally whitewashed which is bizarre given that the people with the biggest stake in overthrowing the government are normally the groups who have been marginalised by the ruling class. This is a direct result of ideological colonialism, and neglects the key contributions of people of colour to the theory of anarchy.

American anarcho-communist, Lucy Parsons (1851-1942) summarised the key philosophy behind anarchy; “We look away from government for relief, because we know that force (legalised) invades the personal liberty of man… from this exercise of force through governments flows nearly all the misery, poverty, crime and confusion existing in society.” In Anarchic theory, poverty is violence, unfair hierarchies (such as those in the workplace) and homelessness are forms of violence which are perpetuated by the state. Any infringement on individual liberties can also be viewed as violence, as a result the government's existence is criminal and it should be abolished. Those in government will not abolish the government because it goes directly against their own interests. Therefore, anarchists such as Parsons often argue that anarchy will only come about as the result of revolutions. Parsons also argued that sexism was created by capitalism, and consistently applied an intersectional lens to her theory.

So what would an anarchist world look like? Here is where things get tricky. The problem with living in a world dominated by liberal democracies and capitalism as a sort of default government, is that we have no creativity when it comes to brainstorming new ways to live. When we grow up in a world surrounded by these institutions, it is impossible for us to imagine a world without them. As a result when people visualise anarchy they have a tendency to see violence, an apocalyptic scenario, something straight out of Mad Max: Fury Road. When we associate the government with order, the absence of the government is disorder.

There are also numerous ideas surrounding what an anarchist state would look like. Generally, anarchists argue that we should all live in stateless communes. For example, we would take the population of Sydney, about 5 million, and then divide it into communes based on how big we think an effective community can be. Some social scientists argue that communities stop being effective once they are bigger than 150 people. In a city as big as Sydney, that would mean creating A LOT of communes. However, there isn’t any real research giving us a number to limit communes to. Maybe this would look like all the suburbs in Sydney functioning individually or separated into councils. Then there would actually be a form of government and authority. Here’s the irony of anarchy, the stereotype is that there is no authority, no one enforces the law, and we would all be able to murder each other if we felt like it with no consequences. But anarchy is fundamentally anti-violence. Our current government causes violence because it is a hierarchical system, hierarchies are violent. Because of this, many anarchists advocate for a government which is non-hierarchical. It's called horizontal government, and the main idea is that it is direct and there aren’t any executive members. Basically everyone has the same status and we all vote for all the people involved. There would be no permanent member of an anarchic congress with Parsons stating that leads to inevitable abuses of power. By having a much more localised government, for example one council for about 100 000 people, our interests would be represented. We would have governing bodies who we vote in, come from our areas and because of that understand our interests. Some anarchists argue that there should be a random lottery to decide our representatives (that's called sortition).

Parsons actually suggests society should be split into unions, different workforces being able to vote and make decisions without hierarchies. This is because she was an anarcho-syndicalist/socialist so viewed things through the lens of class and labour.

Makhnovia from 1918-1921 was a stateless anarchist society formed as the result of the Ukrainian revolution. With a population of around 7 million, Makhnovia was named after its founder, iconic anarchist Nestor Makhnov. Makhnov served as a military leader to protect Makhnovia’s interests. Makhnov himself was a complicated character, like most famous revolutionaries he was seen as both a Robin Hood like iconoclast but also as a traitor who sacrificed his own libertarian principles to maintain power. Unfortunately, we don’t really have examples of anarchist states outside of times of warfare which means it can be hard to find precedents.

One lesser known example of an anarchist society is Zomia, a region in the South East Asian Highlands with a population of about 80 to 100 million people. The name Zomia was coined by James C. Scott who argues that this is "the largest remaining region of the world whose peoples have not yet been fully incorporated into nation-states.” Zomia has a totally decentralised stateless culture, and comprises a multicultural multilingual population. Every aspect of this society has been designed to prevent autocracy from developing. One example of this is the reliance on oral storytelling and history, written records can create an unfair hierarchy depending on who possesses them. This can be seen as the result of the Chinese, Vietnamese and other authoritarian governments whose crackdowns on individual liberties have historically forced people to flee to the mountain ranges.

Sam Mbah and I. E. Igariwey make the interesting argument that many traditional African cultures had anarchic elements. For example, often tribal groups had horizontal structures and a lack of laws but would persecute murderers and violent individuals. The leadership of tribal elders did not function the same way as the authoritative governments we have today. In 2001 there were a series of violent protests called “the Black Spring” in Kabylie, Algeria. Since then a decently sized part of the region is now actually an anarchic community. Algeria is a country with a long history of anarchic movements in response to French colonisation. Within Algeria, Barbacha is often praised by anarchists for its anti-authoritarian system of governance. There are about 34 villages with a population of 27 000 people, who forced the military and police out of the region during the Black Spring and saw a massive decrease in crime. Now the area is governed by traditional village systems who coordinate everything from school maintenance to garbage collection and welfare for the population. Once again, we can see that in countries with authoritarian governments which seek to limit individual freedoms, inhabitants often attempt to form their own states where they can protect themselves and their communities.

There is no one theory of what an anarchist world would look like or how it would be structured. Anarchists tend to agree on the issues facing our society today but often disagree about what the solution is. Different philosophies focusing on certain areas include: anarcho-feminism, anarcho-socialism, anarcho-syndicalism, post-colonial anarchism, queer anarchism, and green anarchism. If you aren't an anarchist fair enough, but at least now you know more about it. I think there are a lot of zesty ideas about the role of government in society that we can take away from anarchism, and it would be wrong to throw the whole thing away. Maybe by seeing how alternative systems of living work, we can get inspiration for how to improve our own.

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