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.
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!
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: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Anarcho-syndicalism
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:
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