ANARCHISM: An introduction.  

Ted Trainer


Unfortunately the terms “anarchy” and “anarchism” are misunderstood, commonly taken to imply chaos and lack of order or rule. They also refer to a variety of ideas, but the main concern here is with the anarchist philosophy of government; i.e., ideas about the best way for humans to organise and run a society.

The essential anarchist theme is the rejection of domination, of some having power over others. Anarchists insist that humans should govern themselves through their own assemblies in which all citizens participate with equal power, rather than be governed by representatives, officials or politicians.  Anarchists do not believe that it is necessary or sensible to give power to experts, politicians and bureaucrats, or to the state. They warn against what happens when power is in the hands of a few people. Anarchists are strongly in favour of participatory democracy, as distinct from representative democracy. This is based on the belief that humans are capable of getting together to make sensible and mutually beneficial decisions mostly through informal discussions. They argue that when a problem arises or something needs altering or organising people spontaneously come together and work out mutually agreeable solutions.

When you decide to go on a picnic you do not need to submit an application form in triplicate to an authority that will decide and tell you where and when you are to go. You just discuss options and preferences and sort out what best suits you all.

Anarchists are especially opposed to the state, seeing it as extremely powerful, clumsy and inefficient, and dangerous. It can “legally” kill people, demolish your house to build a freeway, and make war. Only the state can afford to build battleships and organise armies, and legitimise the killing of others.  More importantly, the state rules over us, and that is in principle not desirable.

When total power to determine what happens is in the hands of a few in a cabinet, or one prime minister, it is easy for powerful interest groups such as corporations or a dominant class to influence or capture the government.  Governments always rule mostly in the interests of the very rich, if only because the rich and powerful have more capacity to influence, bully or buy government (e.g., via election fund contributions, media campaigns...)

Most Australians were opposed to involvement in the Iraq war.  But one man decided that we would be involved.

Even well-intentioned centralised governments cannot provide for the diverse situations and wishes of many different communities.  Very different arrangements and rules might be desirable in different communities, but central governments impose “one size fits all” policies.  Then when some resist the centre sees this as disobedience or a threat and cracks down with force to impose uniform rules.  Bureaucrats have to be heartless and rule-bound, or someone will object that they are failing to do their job properly.  Often you can’t get decisions reconsidered properly, or challenge rulings without paying high legal fees.  Getting anything done takes a long time.  Officials can be arrogant and callous bullies, impossible to challenge, and they never admit they were wrong unless they are forced to.  By contrast small local communities can deal with issues quickly, flexibly and sympathetically, and agree to overlook anomalies or bend the general rule in special cases.  Governments force their decisions through, often against the wishes of 49%, whereas communities are more able to keep discussing towards consensus arrangements which accommodate the wishes of most or all.  Governments rule over us; they decide, not us, they tell us what we have to do, they make us conform.  But we should be doing the ruling.  A major concern is the secrecy. Governments often decide very important issues without consulting us or telling us what is being considered. (For instance, the negotiations in a very important free trade pact between Australia and the US that threatens to give up crucial Pharmaceutical Benefits Scheme provisions will not be revealed until the agreement is settled.)

Anarchists are optimistic about the capacity of ordinary people to come together cooperatively to organise and run a satisfactory society. They point out that when there is a need for organisation and action, such as after a natural disaster or a revolution, ordinary people do quickly work out what needs doing locally, organise and take action without any need for authorities to tell them what to do. This is “spontaneity”.

Anarchism is obviously most easily practised in small communities.  However anarchists say that large tasks such as managing a railway system or flood control for a valley can be organised via meetings to which delegates are sent from local communities, without giving any power to a central organisation. Thus they think in terms of "federations" of autonomous small communities. These might hold frequent assemblies of delegates from various communities to handle tasks that overlap borders.  Standing committees can be organised for continuing issues, such as the management of a river valley, but anarchists would not set up a superior authority with power over the communities, to handle such problems. The more centralised committees might research the options but proposals would be taken back to all the citizen assemblies to be voted on.

The European rail system is immensely complex, coordinating services and timetables across many countries, but there is no overarching authority.  Everything is worked out at meetings of delegates from participating nations.

“Subsidiarity” is a related anarchist principle.  This means not having anything organised or decided at a higher level when it can be decided at a lower level.  In small communities most things can be dealt with at the level of community discussion and arrangements.

It should be clear from the foregoing that anarchism does not mean absence of order, regulation or rules. It means that all citizens directly decide on what the rules should be. There can still be a role for bureaucrats and experts who might carry out the management of a railway system or a river catchment for instance…but not have any power to make policy decisions.

Anarchists are optimistic about the capacity of ordinary people to become involved and contribute to public life and make sensible decisions,  if they are given the opportunity. There have been historical cases where ordinary people were remarkably able to take the initiative and organise satisfactory systems, even in regions containing millions of people. (For example during the Spanish Civil War, and in the Paris Commune.)

“What about disagreements? Sometimes the minority has to conform.” This is true, but because anarchists are strongly inclined to avoid situations where some force others to do things they don’t want to do they will try to continue discussion as long as possible to find a win-win solution all can accept. That is, they will seek consensus decisions.  In the villages and suburbs following The Simpler Way this will be much easier, firstly because life will not be about individuals competing to maximise their benefits against the demands of others, and secondly because the focal concern will be what’s best for the town, as all will know that their personal welfare will depend on whether the town thrives.  Yet at times it will not be possible to satisfy everyone.  In a town where we all realise the importance of high morale and concern for each other we would try to handle these situations in a caring way, perhaps by compensating people generously.  All would probably realise that we have to give way on something from time to time for the good of the town.

A problem concerns the possibility of a “tyranny of the majority.” Small communities can be conformist and prejudiced, and unfair to minorities. However Local communities can be bound by national laws minimising unfairness, and again the Simpler Way vision recognises how crucial it will be for settlements to have a high level of satisfaction and consensus if they are to function effectively. Thus in addition to the anarchist’s opposition to tyranny there would be forces weighing against the domination of minorities.

We are probably entering an era of severe resource and ecological limits. This seems to make anarchism the appropriate social philosophy, both regarding the nature of the good future society and the transition strategy, because the resource limits will make it impossible to run big centralised states and international economies, e.g., involving much trade, or powerful and well-resourced bureaucracies. The most viable form of social organisation will have to involve mostly small local communities running their own affairs in participatory ways.

            Relation with Marx.

Anarchists in general accept Marx's analysis of capitalist society and its undesirability, but they emphatically reject the Marxist's willingness to endorse centralisation and authoritarian practices, e.g., to believe that the state must organise and control society and that leadership by a powerful and ruthless party apparatus is necessary for revolutionary social change. There has been a long and sorry history of sometimes deadly conflict between Marxists and anarchists over these issues

Marxists and anarchists seem to have quite similar ideas about the form that society will take in the long term, i.e., a “communism” in which there are no social classes, no structured relations of power or privilege, in which things are done cooperatively, all are cared for, and in which there is no “alienation” and all can have a good quality of life.  Both also see no need for a state, in the long run. But they differ sharply on how to get so such a goal.

Note however that Marxists see authoritarian leadership as a temporary necessity to establish new ways, and over time as people adapt to the new ways they think it and the state will “wither away”.  In other words their long term vision would seem to be an anarchist one.  The trouble is that it is by no means certain that the power taken by the vanguard party will be given up.  Even if that intention remained, it would be extremely difficult to run a post revolutionary society without force, let alone to bring about the enormous cultural change required before communities could run their own affairs without an authoritarian state.  This is the problem of transition strategy, on which the anarchists have a very different approach to the Marxists (below).

The major criticism of anarchism and in favour of the Marxist vision would seem to be that humans are not capable of self government and need to be ruled by strong leaders, and experts. Anarchists are very optimistic about what humans are capable of.  This is not to assume that if coercion was removed people would immediately behave cooperatively and nicely.  The anarchist vision is to do with the nice ways humans could in principle or eventually treat each other, and it might take a long time and a lot of educating before we ended up with citizens able and willing to function according to the anarchist vision.  It is easy to overlook the huge cultural change that would be needed before people could run their own communities well.  At present most people in passive-consumer-capitalist society are driven by self-interested individualism, competition, and desire for limitless wealth, and there is not very strong concern for others, collectivism, the public good, or the environment.  Some classic anarchists, such as Tolstoy and Kropotkin realised that this is the crucial area and that desirable social change can’t take place unless profound change in these psychological and cultural factors is achieved.  The anarchist approach to transition sees this problem as the prior one, whereas the Marxist thinks that it can be dealt with after state power has been taken by force.

Regarding transition.

Marxists believe that fundamental social change from capitalism is not possible without the leadership of a strong, centralised and determined revolutionary party, and that it will involve violence because dominant classes never voluntarily give up their privileges. This is a plausible position and perhaps the anarchist view is rightly criticised by the Marxist as being naēve. Anarchists focus on building new social systems here and now within the old society, towards the day when we have replaced it. This is called “prefiguring”. (Note that this is not about working within the systems of capitalist society, such as parliament, to reform them; it is about beginning to build elements of an entirely new social system within the old.  The Simpler Way strategy sees the reason for doing this as primarily educational, i.e., to increase the realisation that radical system change will eventually be needed. Below.)

Thus it can be seen that the Marxist critique of anarchists as naēve fails to see their point that there is no value in trying to take state power if the ultimate goal of the revolution is communities running themselves without state authority.  If that’s the goal then the crucial task to focus on is developing the ideas and values that will enable people to do this, and taking state power will not contribute to that.

This does not mean that the anarchist thinks vicious class conflict can be avoided.  Late in the day it is likely, but whereas the Marxist seeks to confront capitalism from the start in order to defeat and replace it, the anarchist is more inclined to work at “pre-figuring” and educating and to see the conflict stage as a late or final one.  In fact it can be argued that if the educating is done well large numbers of ordinary people will be so strongly committed to change that tipping out the capitalist class and taking state power will be relatively straight forward and will best be seen as consequences of the revolution (…in consciousness.)

It is very important to stress this difference to do with the anarchist’s insistence on the need for widespread acceptance among ordinary people of the new vision, the outlook that will enable the new society, before revolution becomes possible. The anarchist strategy relies on education and example, and assumes that nothing of significance can be achieved without a long period of grass roots awareness raising.  After all, their vision is of ordinary people taking the control of their own affairs into their own hands, and this cannot happen unless people understand the desirability of this and want to do it.  Thus ideas and values have to be changed before significant structural change in society becomes possible.  Probably the most powerful illustration of this is given by the success of the Spanish Anarchist collectives in the 1930s, which drew on the widespread understanding of the importance of cooperative self-government that had been built over a long preceding period. Other examples are evident in the Paris Commune, and the Soviets that sprang up after the Russian revolution.

The anarchist approach to transition offers the possibility of experiencing and enjoying post-revolutionary social systems and relations here and now, whereas the Marxist can only look forward to this in the far distant future after the revolution. The Anarchist approach also holds open the possibility of a relatively peaceful transition.  If most people wanted the transition it could occur quickly and without violence as they simply moved to establish the new cooperative local systems.  (The ruling class will resist of course, but their power depends on how widespread and strong the demand for a new system is held.)

            Ecological connections.

Kropotkin realised that nature doesn’t need organising by any superior or external authority; it is self-regulating, mutually adjusting, flexible and ever-changing, and it is about local organisation, local conditions and local organisms.  The members of an ecosystem organise themselves; they are not organised from above.  Purchase (1994) notes the Western tendency to assume that order has to be imposed from outside by some powerful authority.  Once God was seen as the source of order. Even in recent history nature was seen as wild, chaotic, needing to be tamed by man.  Hobbes thought there would be chaos without an all-powerful ruler.  We tend to assume that the police, the state, the UN etc. are needed to impose order.

Thus a small and highly self-sufficient anarchist community operating within a local economy would be best thought of as an ecological system.  All elements within its biological and social systems would mutually adjust in a process of self-regulation requiring minimal imposition of “government”. As in chaos theory, the overall order would emerge from the many minute interactions between the many small components of the system, as distinct from being decided in advance by some authority (such as God or the state), and imposed top down.  This again is the notion of spontaneity; arrangements will be worked out and adjustments will be made as participants rub shoulders, share information and perspectives, make requests, and accommodate to each other.  No top down authority is needed to plan and run the picnic.

It is well known that this is what happens in disasters.  As was noted above, if there is a storm or a car accident ordinary people immediately jump into cooperative helpful action; they don’t need to be told or organised by any authority.  (Then the authorities turn up, take control and start bossing everyone around, and classifying those ordinary people as part of the problem to be managed.)

Localism is likely to develop a sense of dependence on one’s local social and ecological conditions, and thus to bond people to their place and to lead them to appreciate its services, and thus to reinforce their readiness to look after their local ecosystem. Thus The Simpler Way is likely to remedy what Bookchin saw as the tendency humans have to dominate nature as well as other humans. When you know your welfare depends heavily on how well you treat your local ecosystems you will probably care for them and appreciate what they do for you.

For these reasons The Simpler Way is best thought of as a variety of “eco-anarchism”. Its ecological sensitivity, and its ecological nature, are not optional features tacked on; they are essential built-in components.

Purchase also notes the way localism enables women’s liberation.  The intensely local focus of The Simpler Way would involve men and women in sharing that large amount of non-monetised “work” which will take place within the household, gardens, working bees, committees and the local community.  Domestic and voluntary contributions will be seen to be very important and this will mean women will not be so likely to be left with low status housework etc. while men go off to the “important” work” in offices.


            What are the weaknesses in and criticisms of this view?

1. This view takes for granted the basic limits to growth analysis.  Those who do not think that analysis is sound would not think there is any need to take The Simpler Way seriously.

2. Anarchists are open to the criticism that they assume humans are much nicer and more sensible than they actually are.  Certainly the new communities described within The Simpler Way could not function well unless most people were fairly strong on cooperation, social responsibility, sharing, and caring.  But what is easily overlooked here is that the conditions we would experience in these new communities would powerfully evoke and reinforce these dispositions.  We would all be acutely aware that our fate and welfare as individuals depended entirely on how well the town was going, not on our individual wealth, talents or effort. More importantly we will find it a delight to live in these communities.  Good citizenship, helping, giving, turning up to working bees will be enjoyable.  In these conditions it is likely that people will indeed behave well.

3. “Too slow.  There isn’t time for that gradual development of the necessary dispositions.” But there is no other way; a sustainable society in the coming era of severe scarcity cannot be achieved unless the ways indicated above are established, and that is not possible unless and until most people have come to the ideas and values outlined.  We have to work as if there is time.

4. “The capitalist class will eliminate you as soon as they see you as a threat.”  Again the coming conditions of scarcity and breakdown will make it very difficult for the dominant class to control large numbers of towns all over the world moving to develop their own arrangements, especially when the petroleum they need to run their equipment will be scarce.


 Marx; An Introductory OutlineMarx.htm

The Spanish Anarchists.  Spanish.html

Capitalism; A brief critical outline.  Capitalism.htm

The Transition.  TRANSITION.htm

G. Purchase, Anarchism, and Environmental Survival,  Sharp Press, Arizona, 1994. (This book makes some valuable points but is not highly recommended as an introduction or overview.)