ANARCHISM: An introduction. 

Ted Trainer


Unfortunately the terms “anarchy” and “anarchism” are usually misunderstood, and commonly taken to imply chaos and lack of order or rule. They also refer to many different ideas, but the main concern in this account is with the anarchist philosophy of government that is central to The Simper Way; i.e., ideas about the best way for humans to organise and run a society.

From The Simpler Way perspective 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, politicians or a distant, centralised state.  Anarchists do not believe that it is necessary or sensible to give power to experts, politicians, 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. They insist that humans are capable of getting together to make sensible and mutually beneficial decisions mostly through informal discussions. They argue that in general when a problem arises or something needs altering or organising people can spontaneously come together and work out mutually agreeable solutions. (On dealing with technical issues or those involving large areas, see below.)

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, rules us, and to the anarchist 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 or challenged 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. They conceal information and refuse to reply. They have an interest in secrecy and maintaining procedures convenient for themselves.

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, we don’t. They tell us what we have to do, they make us conform.  But we should be doing the ruling of ourselves. 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 quickly work out what needs doing and organise and take action without any need for authorities to tell them what to do. They refer to this as “spontaneity”.

Obviously Anarchism is 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 to handle such problems anarchists would not set up a superior authority with power over the communities. 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 handled 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 large numbers 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 should still be bound by national laws and courts dealing with issues of justice, and within villages we should have procedures for monitoring how things are working out and suggesting solutions. 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 given the anarchist’s general opposition to tyranny we would try hard to avoid situations where the majority dominated.

Anarchism is strongly oriented towards cooperation and mutual benefit. Capitalist society is built on individualistic competition and winner-take-all morality. This reduces the readiness to assist each other or to care for the underdog, it generates inequality, and it undermines social solidarity. However Kropotkin was impressed by the way nature is highly cooperative. Ecosystems involve competition but they also involve complex systems of mutual benefit; for instance trees fruit and provide bats with food and the bats spread the tree seeds. When the general outlook is cooperative people are more inclined to be generous and helpful and to think about the welfare of others. They are more likely to be conscientious and caring citizens. You know that the more you enable others and the community to thrive the more you will benefit. Thus synergism emerges; good deeds multiply goodness.

The world is probably entering an era of severe resource and ecological limits. This  makes 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, financial systems 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. (This is illustrated by a study comparing the supermarket path for egg supply with a village cooperative path; Trainer, Malik, and Lenzen, 2019.The local path involved far lower resource costs.)

It can be argued that the Anarchist form of government corresponds to political maturity for humans. For humans to be governed by superior authorities is to accept that they are not capable of governing themselves, and cannot be trusted. As young people move towards personal maturity they move towards autonomy, readiness to think for themselves and to make their own decisions and to take moral responsibility for decisions and actions. Personal maturity is not compatible with someone else making the decisions for you. Yet most people do not see the contradiction between this and the political situation where we let a few decide for us and tell us what to do, force us to do what they decide, and punish us if we do not conform. That’s the way you treat children. Tolstoy looked forward to when “…humans outgrow the governmental stage in history.” (Marshall, 1992, p. 372.)

Easily overlooked here is the educational significance of participation in our own government, its importance for personal growth. Bookchin explains how this was recognized within Ancient Greek society through the concept of “Paidea”. When the ordinary person is trusted with thinking, discussing, deciding, implementing, monitoring and reviewing, and understands how important for his society it is to get the decisions right, he is under a strong incentive to be conscientious, well informed, considerate, thoughtful, disciplined and tolerant. The experience of governing therefore contributes to personal growth. “Participating in the political life of the self-governing Greek city state… was the ‘school’ in which the citizen’s highest virtues were formed and found expression…Politics in turn was not only concerned with administering the affairs of the polis but also with educating the citizen as a being who developed the competence to act in the public interest.” (Bookchin, 1987, p. 59. See also de Hart, 1984, p. 27.)

            Relation with Marx and “Socialism”.

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.

Anarchism can be seen as a variety of Socialism given that the essence of Socialism is rejection of capitalism; both want control to be exercised by society, in some form. They also seem to have quite similar ideas about the form that society will take in the very 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 they think undesirable attitudes and values and especially 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 to drive the revolution through will be given up.  Even if good intentions remained, it would be extremely difficult for a centralised state 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, or govern themselves well. The Anarchist vision is to do with the admirable ways in which humans could in principle 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. A major difference between Marxists and Anarchists is that the Anarchist approach to transition sees this cultural problem as the prior one, whereas Marxists 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 power and privileges. This is a plausible position and perhaps the Anarchist view is rightly criticised by the Marxist as being naïve. Anarchists focus on building new systems here and now within the old society, towards the day when we have replaced it. They call this “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 here and now elements of an entirely new social system that someday will replace the old one. The Marxist criticises this as mistaken; they say we can’t replace the old one by slowly replacing bits of it because before long the ruling class will stop us. Thus they say at some point the whole system must be scrapped. This is probably true but The Simpler Way strategy sees the building of elements here and now, the prefiguring, as an educational process. That is in this early stage of the revolution when most people do not understand our vision, prefiguring is the best way for us to get more people to see that radical system change will eventually be needed, and to understand the kind of ways we must adopt. (See further below.)

Thus it can be seen that the Marxist critique of Anarchists as naïve fails to acknowledge 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 ultimate goal then the crucial task for us to focus on here and now is developing the ideas and values that will enable people to do this, and taking state power will not contribute to that.

Also note that in previous revolutions the goal was to take power from the ruling class and then run the industrial “growth and affluence” system to increase the production and consumption of the workers, but in this revolution the new conditions of resource scarcity determine that the goal has to be degrowth to frugal “living standards”. Many Socialists today can be criticised for not seeing this.

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 and grasp state power, the Anarchist seeks to work at “pre-figuring” and educating and sees the conflict stage as a late or final one. In fact it can be argued that if we do the educating 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 peaceful, and it 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 to a Simpler Way 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 they see the need for ordinary people to take control of their own community affairs into their own hands, and this cannot happen unless people understand the desirability of this and of running the new communities. 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 involved in the Russian revolution. . (For a detailed account of the Simpler Way and Anarchist view of transition...).

An attractive aspect of the Anarchist approach to transition is that it offers the possibility of experiencing and enjoying, to some extent, post-revolutionary social systems and relations here and now. 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 has come to be.)

            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 council, the UN etc. are needed to impose order.

A small and highly self-sufficient Anarchist community running its local economy would be best thought of as an ecological system. All elements within its biological and social sub-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 external 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 will 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.

The Simpler Way is a variety of “Eco-Anarchism”. Its ecological sensitivity and its ecological nature are not optional features tacked on; they are essential built-in components. There are two vital connections to the notion of ecology. The obvious one is to do with the global ecological problem, the fact that this cannot be solved unless there are dramatic reductions in resource and ecological impacts and that some kind of Simpler Way is the only way to do this. More subtly, the Anarchist society we must move to must be thought of as a bio-physical-social ecosystem in which resilience, robustness, complexity thriving and the quality of life experienced by all depend on and are determined by cooperation, mutual assistance and contributing, not on trying to accumulate individual wealth or to win in competition with everyone else, or on top-down governing.

The author 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, especially “caring”, 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 factories and offices.

Anarchism does not necessarily mean reduction resource and ecological impacts; it is conceivable that an Anarchist society could still be a rampant consumer society.  But the point is that a sustainable and just society has to be run on Anarchist principles.

There are also powerful implications for global peace.


            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. A major criticism is that Anarchists 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 good at 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 good 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 would 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. Living in these communities will require these values and ways, but it will also reward  and reinforce them.

The common pessimistic view on this issue is based on the behaviour often observed in consumer-capitalist society. But in that society there are strong forces driving people to be selfish, competitive, stressed, depressed and discontented. National policies focus on maximising business turnover and consumption, not on maximising happiness, (…which is the supreme national goal in Bhutan.) It is not a culture that brings out the best in us. And the society is not structured in ways that prompt and facilitate cooperation, helping, community; consider the dormitory suburbs in which people do nothing cooperatively and don’t even know their neighbours. Ecovillages enable, facilitate, require and reward happy helpful citizenship. So it should not be that difficult to create the conditions and dispositions that Anarchism assumes.

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 that are moving to develop their own arrangements, especially when the petroleum they need to run the police forces and armies will be very scarce.


Bookchin, M., (1987), The Rise of Urbanism and the Decline of Citizenship, San Francisco, Sierra Club.

de Hart, R., (1984), Ecosociety, Dehra Dun, India, Natras Publishing.

Marshal, P., (1992), Demanding the Impossible: The History of Anarchism, London Harper Collins.

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

Trainer, T., A. Malik and M. Lenzen, (2019), "A comparison between the monetary, resource and energy costs of the conventional industrial supply path and the “Simpler Way” path for the supply of eggs.", Biophysical Economics and Resource Quality, 4(3), pages 1-7, September.