Sunday, 17 June 2012

A small FAQ on anarchism

Hey readers. Sorry for the lack of content recently, I've been working hard on transcribing all the talks from Intersect (which can be found here), and in more shocking news, I've been offered a job which starts tomorrow. So yay that. Hopefully I can return to blogging a bit more regularly when I'm settled in with the job and everything.

A couple of weeks ago I wrote a post in which I castigated myself for not explaining my views and opinions in easily accessible ways, and said I was going to try do a bit more to explain myself and try educate people beyond my bubble about ideas and theories. Last week, someone asked me if they could pick my brains about some questions they had about anarchism. I agreed and we exchanged emails. With her permission, I've decided to reproduce the emails here because the sort of questions she was asking are ones I hear a lot, and I thought they might be useful for other people to look at. Quick disclaimers first - I'm not saying these are comprehensive answers, I've reproduced the emails without editing or adding anything in and I was answering the email when I was somewhat pressed for time. These answers can only be read as my personal opinions and ideas and not automatically ascribed to anyone else, I'm not trying to speak for all anarchists everywhere.

Hello Nat, 
Thank you for taking the time to answer my questions, I really appreciate it! I'm sorry if they come across a bit silly, I am pretty new to political theory, just trying to make sense of it all. If you can explain quite simply that would be brilliant because I'm still not quite sure of terminology. Determined to learn though. 
I understand that essentially anarchy is absence of a government or a leader, but I don't understand how that would work. Obviously anarchists are not crazy, violent folk, but if there's no control whatsoever would that not put a huge amount of people at risk of violence, poverty etc?  
How would we produce anything? Food being the no.1 priority, I suppose even if there is no moral obligation to farm crops people would still do it for themselves out of necessity. But what about the people that can't do work like that, disabled or without access to the materials that they need? It would be cool if it was mutually beneficial, so no one ends up starving in the street. Maybe I am thinking of communism. (Also assuming that in an anarchist world we are all vegan and so don't farm - or harm - animals. If we did then it wouldn't really be anarchy because there's still a hierarchy, am I wrong?) 
Also what about property? If there are no laws then surely no-one "owns" anything? With buildings and things I get it - no one should have to sleep on concrete when there's a house with a free bed 10 minutes away, so I'm all for buildings being usable by everyone. However, personal items like a box of teabags you just traded some carrots for, would that not 'belong' to you? If someone stole it, that would be a bit shit.  
Perhaps I am getting entirely the wrong end of the stick! 
If you can recommend any books or articles that would be great. Thanks again for your time! 
Best wishes 
- J

Hi J, 

I'll try take your points in order, let me know if I miss anything or I'm not clear.

Anarchy's not just the absence of a government or a leader, it's the belief that the only true democracy we can have is one in which everyone has a voice. To start at the very beginning, there are various types of anarchism, and some which actually do have the flaws that you're raising. For example, anarcho-capitalism (yes, really) is basically the belief that everyone should just go their own way without government interference and if someone fails, well that's too bad for them. This is basically just Ayn Rand style Economic Libertarianism under another name, and it sucks. Another very problematic strand of anarchism is anarcho-primitivism, which doesn't account for people's medical needs, and that also sucks.

I'd say I'm an anarcho-communist, which is probably the most popular 'type' of anarchist. Usually if people say they're an anarchist, they mean they're an anarcho-communist and will specify with the use of a different suffix if they're not that. In this email, when I just refer to 'anarchism', I mean 'anarcho-communism'. Anarcho-communism is basically what you were alluding to, it's communism but without leaders. The way this works is through the use of meetings and collective organisation. So, for example, there's a general meeting of all the people in the group, which will make broad decisions (i.e. 'we need to re-tile the loos in the social centre, we need to organise a demo about X cause, we need to make food to serve at the film night and we need to update the Y campaign website'). The general group will come to agreements about basically how to tackle those things, then will split off into smaller groups which handle the in-depth work and decision making. You can see this type of organisation in anarchist communities already, there's anarchist social centres in lots of major cities who organise together and try to create spaces away from the influence of government and the state. So, collective housing, community allotments, fundraising events, protests, skill-teaching classes, etc., which are all done according to anarchist principles and consensus decision making in order to create mutual and community benefit.

One important thing to realise about anarchism is that it's not designed so that all of the people in the country make all the decisions about everything. It's designed to work in small communities, who may work together if it's mutually beneficial - for example, several communities could get together to run a hospital which they all use, because there wouldn't be enough people with the knowledge to do it in one community.

Secondly, you raise the concern about violence and people not following moral obligations. Just because there's no state-mandated law doesn't mean there'd be no rules or no consequences for breaking them. Consider other places that aren't run by the state, like a book club or something. There are minimum expectations on you, say that you'd at least read the book and bring a bottle of wine to the group, and if you consistently don't even do that, you won't be welcome back. Well if you consistently didn't do what you could to help or attacked someone, you could be ostracised by the community (at worst, obviously there'd be levels of stuff in between that).  

You also raise the question of ill and disabled people. Well, if we recall the old Marxist slogan, 'from each according to his ability to each according to his needs'. That still holds true if there's no leaders. No one would be expected to do something they were incapable of when there's loads of other ways they could help contribute. There are a couple of other points to make here: firstly, a lot of what we think of when we think about 'disability' is actually imposed by society - for example, poor accessibility to public spaces means people can't get around outside the house or the inflexibility of working means that people can't get jobs where, for example, they could take a two hour break to sleep every three hours. We can realise this, plan around it and change it, which would enable people to do more things than they do now. Secondly, on treatment-based healthcare and associated issues, there's a lot of questioning of anarchism which is along the lines of 'but where would we get doctors?'. Moving into a society based around collectivism wouldn't mean we'd lose knowledge, it would just mean knowledge wouldn't rest solely in the hands of those who can afford it. We'd still have higher education, skill-sharing and learning, they just wouldn't cost £9k a year. We'd still be able to develop medicine, it just wouldn't then be patented to be sold off to only rich people. With the specific examples of medical doctors, we could have people who are trained to the level of the average doctor now, but we could also have people who are trained in treating minor illnesses/accidents, which wouldn't take as long and could be more widespread knowledge.

On the assumption that we'd all be vegan, I'd tend to agree with you - there's a strong representation of vegans in the anarchist movement, and most anarchist social centres I'm aware of are vegan-only (meaning that all the food etc on the premises is vegan, not that you have to be a vegan to step foot in it!). However, I also know that there are anarchists who disagree with veganism as a central tenet, because they only concern themselves with human hierarchies. I disagree strongly with them, but I'd consider that a small community keeping chickens and a couple of cows is possibly an acceptable compromise between full veganism and the industry-scale factory farming we have now.

On individual property, yeah, I see your point, but I'd distinguish between carrots and teabags and, for example, things like CDs or a scarf. The reason I make this distinction is that if you've got collective farms and allotments and suchlike,  the food and associated stuff it belongs to everyone, so you just wouldn't have the situation you described, if that makes sense? I'm not saying it's all communal cooking for the whole group all the time, but I'd compare it to an anarchist group I know in Brighton who grow loads of veg, and they've squatted a shop and people just come and take what they need. With regards to stuff like CDs and scarves, I don't think it's something that would be endemic or more common than usual, like, if your friends come to your house now they wouldn't just start pinching things. People are a lot better at sharing than we give ourselves credit for, we lived in communities like the ones that I've described for hundreds of thousands of years, capitalism is a mere dot in comparison. And, as I said above, no government =/= no rules or consequences.

I hope that answers your questions, feel free to email me any follow-ups if you want. I've got a busy few days coming up but will try get back to you when I can. I didn't really have any pertinent point to include these above, but I'd also like to mention a couple of other 'types' of anarchism. Firstly, anarcha-feminism, which is what I'd primarily consider myself. This is basically the same as anarcho-communism but makes special note of the oppressive role that gender inequality plays in our lives, and that we must get rid of that before we have a truly hierarchy-free society. Secondly, anarcho-syndicalism is fairly popular and not mutually exclusive from anarcho-communism. I'm not totally au fait with it, but it's basically collective organisation of workers and not having bosses. The wiki page on that can probably tell you more than I can: 

Finally, on books and websites I'll have to get back to you later, especially with books. My partner knows a lot more about that stuff (and even sells some) so I'll ask him and let you know. I hate reading political theory, I much prefer just talking about it and learning that way!


UPDATE: Chris from Good Lookin' South has provided this list of books and websites on anarchism:


A critique of capitalism

Basic primer on anarchist concepts and FAQs

Really good introduction to anarcho-communism, covers history, concepts and deeds in a fair bit of detail, without being too heavy going



  1. I can see that anarcho-communism can be an effective way of organising and managing a group or community on a small scale, especially as these groups tend to attract people who see the value in it and want it to work.

    The problem I have with Anarchism is that, when it is expanded to encompass an entire society, I don't see how it deals with the arsehole factor. By arsehole I mean people who don't necessarily break the rules but who work against the spirit of the system for their own ends (I think that's basically the definition of capitalism).

    I know that you mention ostracising people from the community who consistently fail to meet the expectations placed on them, but when you are talking about an entire society where do they go? Do they lose the right to take part in any decision making process and we end up with a new arsehole subclass? Do they just get ostracised from the group where they were causing a problem but allowed to join other groups or form their own arsehole centric group?

    I'm not saying that I have a better solution, I can see very similar problems in many political systems, I'm just looking for a system that can deal with these problems.

    1. RE: 'the arsehole factor' (good name by the way!):

      Interesting question, and not one I'm sure I have much of an answer for, except to say that when we look at anarcho-communism in comparison to the society we live in now, I'd expect an actual lowering in the number of arseholes/arseholic incidents. In a capitalist society it's actually encouraged and applauded to live a life of being a certain kind of arsehole, and when you're not being a societally-approved arsehole, there's societal sanctions in place. One has to weigh up the personal benefit of being an unapproved-arsehole v the risk of sanction. Contrast with (e.g.) an anarcho-communist society where it's not condoned to be any kind of arsehole, and the short-term benefits of arseholeism wouldn't outweigh the long-term benefits of living in a mutual society. As for what those sanctions should be, that's a whole other debate that I couldn't comment on without serious thought and debate with others.

  2. I'm glad you brought up the perceived problem regarding scientific progress in an anarchistic society, as it's something I've always wanted to ask a self-described anarchist about. While your post does explain your position to some degree, I'm still not convinced.

    In many ways, science is run in a distributed way similar to the way you describe an anarchist society. There are small groups of researchers working on specific problems. However, in some fields (medical science being one), capitalism has played a positive role. For example, drug development is almost entirely paid for by provide companies. Ok, so they parent and charge for access to these drugs - but the fact is they save lives (and not just rich lives).

    Another field I would bring up is space exploration, which is something I'm pretty interested in. It strikes me that such a thing would be impossible in an anarchist society, as it would be too decentralised.

    I'm just wondering whether you've thought about this kind of thing.



    1. Hi Jon,

      Yeah, it's something I've given some thought to, but being neither a scientist nor an astronaut* not a disproportionate amount.

      It's interesting what you say about capitalism funding medical research and other things and this being a positive. There's a couple of points that I'd make on that matter: Firstly, humans have always been spontaneously doing medical research with no financial incentive, as there's always been a much better incentive - the survival of the human race and indeed the researchers themselves. I don't expect scientists to be purely altruistic, but non-financial rewards have been motivating people since the dawn of time.

      Secondly, capitalism may fund research, but researchers have been forced into that by capitalism, and it shapes what research we're allowed to do. You need to get funding in order to research, otherwise you can't do it at all. You need money to access previous research, you need to be in an academic setting which you have to pay for entry to, and so on. How many brilliant researchers have been forced into alternate careers just so they can keep a roof over their head? How many of them were denied the entry into education in the first place?

      I think what I'm trying to say is that - and this isn't a criticism of you, it's a criticism of capitalism - if the best example you can come up with is companies paying for medical research so they can line their pockets by patenting drugs, that's not a very positive picture to paint, and I'm not sure why you think there'd be less research done if financial restrictions and limitations to access were lifted.

      (*sorry 5 year old Nat, I know you had your heart set on it)

    2. Thanks for the response.

      Just to make it clear, I'm not defending capitalism and certainly not drugs companies. I'm not simple talking about capitalism funding research, since in a capitalism society that's just where the money comes from. In communist societies, the resources came from elsewhere. Also, I'm not talking about medical research in general, which from what I can gather is overwhelming academic in nature. Again, what I'm really talking about is the development of drugs.

      I chose this example not because it proves how wonderful capitalism is for scientific research, but because drug development (like space exploration) seems to be an exception to most other forms of research in that it requires a vast, centralised source of funding and resources. I don't see how anarchism can provide that, and I'm yet to see somebody really explain how it might*.

      * that said, I haven't exactly gone out of my way to find out either :-)

  3. The "arsehole factor" is present, and it may be one that doesn't have pleasant answers, but it's also present in capitalism, where the answer tends to be "starvation or prison".

    On a large enough scale, I imagine we'd elect specialists to handle tasks that cannot be reasonably done on a small scale. They'd be tasked with carrying out tasks that need doing based on broad consensus, and would be recallable if they screw around with our faith in them.

    They wouldn't necesarily have any significant governing power or decision making ability invested in their roles. It'd be the societal equivalent of calling the plumber.

    1. Actually I think capitalisms answer to the arsehole factor is usually a big car, a big house and a position at the head of a large corporation.

  4. Just to let people know I'm debating about whether to publish a 1000-word long conspiracy theory screed from some dude called Richard Watkins, who has apparently taken a wonderfully enlightened viewpoint that anything that he deems bad in the world may be blamed on members of the Jewish faith. In part, he claims that "Racism is healthy.
    Adolf Hitler was the greatest leader/philosopher Europe has ever produced.
    The Queen, Obama, Cameron, Churchill, FDR, Eisenhower, Lenin, (and John Lennon) are/ were all Jews". It continues in that vein and manages to be even more hideous as it goes along.

    Since I have a 'no racism' clause in the comments section, I won't be publishing it. However this is not, as Richard claims, proof that he is telling 'the truth' (and I quote: "The fact that you don't recognize any of this; the fact that I have transgressed into the Taboo; the that this reply will certainly not be published, (disappear down memory hole), is the proof itself.").

    So yeah, wow. I've had some painful idiots on this site, but this is the first time I've ever felt violently ill at quite how disgusting and wrong someone has been.

  5. Richard decided to comment again to assure me that fascism is totes awesome. I'm really not sure why he thought that the comments section of an avowed anti-racist, anti-fascist blog would be the place to ply his particular brand of xenophobic conspiracy theorising, but none of it is getting published.

  6. Hi, I'm not sure of another way to contact you, so here goes:
    I saw your piece on the F Word Blog about anarcha-feminism and I was wondering whether I could interview you? I'm looking to interview some fellow anarcha-feminists for my senior capstone project (college, not high-school). In this project I'll be comparing liberal feminism and anarcha-feminism and attempting to prove that anarcha-feminism is the more inclusive, effective, truly liberatory choice. I'll also be talking about some of the problems that may be found in the movement today, however, like manarchists or the privileging of white voices. Anyway, if this sounds like something you'd be interested in, that's awesome. If not, that's cool, too!

    1. Hi Naoko,

      I don't know if you use Twitter, but if you do the best way to contact me would be there (@TheNatFantastic) so I could privately message you my email address. Alternatively, you could leave a comment here with your email address - it will be emailed to alert me but won't be published.