What Is Anarchy? Definition and Examples

Occupy Wall Street effectively shuts down the main strip of the New York financial district.
Occupy Wall Street effectively shuts down the main strip of the New York financial district. David Miller/Wikimedia Commons/Public Domain

Anarchy is a situation in which a government either does not exist or has no authority or control over the people. The philosophy of anarchism suggests that societies can survive and thrive only when operating under alternatives to traditional government rule. While often misused in describing a state of violent lawlessness, chaos, and social collapse, anarchy is synonymous with concepts such as freedom, liberty, independence, and self-government. In theory, anarchism envisions a peaceful, kinder, and more equitable society.

Key Takeaways: Anarchy

  • Anarchy is social and political theory calling for the replacement of government rule with a system of self-government and unlimited individual liberty.
  • Anarchy is also used negatively as a term describing violence, chaos, and social collapse.
  • The two main schools of anarchist thought are individualist and social.
  • Individualist anarchists oppose all forms of government authority and demand unchecked individual freedom.
  • Social anarchists that political power, economic resources, and wealth should be shared equally by all members of the society.

Anarchy Definition

The term anarchy comes from the ancient Greek word anarchos, meaning “without rulers.” As used today in political science and the area of international relations, anarchy can refer to the reduction or total absence of conventional government rule. It can also refer to any country or community that is temporarily or permanently under no system of governmental control. For example, when Black Lives Matter movement protestors took control of areas of Portland, Oregon, and Seattle, Washington, in the summer of 2020, President Donald Trump declared the cities to be in a state of anarchy and dispatched federal law enforcement agents to restore order. The Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) has classified acts of violence in the pursuit of anarchy to be a form of domestic terrorism

In reality, however, anarchy describes a peaceful utopian society in which the best aspects of communism and classical liberalism are combined to produce what sociologist and author Cindy Milstein has called a “free society of free individuals.” That is a society that emphasizes individual freedom and equality.

Anarchism

Anarchism is a political philosophy and movement that questions authority and opposes government rule and the creation of bureaucratic enforcement systems. Often used negatively as a nickname for violent extremism, anarchism is characterized as a radical, left-wing belief calling for the abolishment of government and all government systems that enforce laws in unequal or unjust ways. Anarchism seeks to replace government-sanctioned power structures considered to be naturally unfair to minorities, such as capitalism or the prison industrial complex, with non-bureaucratic systems in which decisions are made by the people. Key tactics of anarchism include peaceful political protest and mutual aid—the voluntary sharing of economic and humanitarian resources among all members of the society. 

Anarchists

Anarchists are individuals or groups that advocate anarchy. They believe that government authority is unnecessary and potentially harmful to society. Instead, they believe people should be allowed to rule themselves through voluntary political practices such as direct democracy. Anarchists feel that such practices embody the attributes of equality, individualism, economic self-reliance, and community interdependence. 

The Occupy Movement

Protesters affiliated with the Occupy Wall Street movement march though Lower Manhattan on October 5, 2011.
Protesters affiliated with the Occupy Wall Street movement march though Lower Manhattan on October 5, 2011. Mario Tama/Getty Images

As one of the best-known examples of a modern anarchist organization, the Occupy movement opposes economic inequality resulting from what its members consider cases of “false democracy.” Inspired in part by the Arab Spring uprisings of 2011, the Occupy movement strives to advance economic equality and the establishment of new, more progressive forms of democracy. Indicative of its cause, the movement uses the slogan, “We are the 99%” about its claim that the top 1% of income earners in America control a disproportionate share of the nation’s wealth compared to the other 99%. According to a recent report from the U.S. Congressional Budget Office (CBO), the after-tax income of the top 1% of income earners has nearly tripled since 1987. 

Occupy first gained widespread attention between September 17, and November 15, 2011, when an estimated 3,000 protestors taking part in its Occupy Wall Street movement established encampments in New York City’s Zuccotti Park. By October 9, 2011, similar Occupy protests were underway in Oakland, California, Washington, D.C., and at least 600 other communities across the United States. By November 1, 2011, Occupy protests had spread to dozens of other countries.

Since the last Occupy Wall Street encampment was cleared, the Occupy movement is credited with making income inequality an issue that presidential candidates and lawmakers can no longer afford to avoid. One of Occupy’s largely unrecognized victories is the momentum it has built for a progressively higher federal minimum wage in the United States.

The Foundations of Anarchism

In 1904, Italian anarchist composer and poet, Pietro Gori defined the foundations of anarchy as the creation of a new, fully liberated society through the application of the moral principles of mutual aid and social solidarity.

“The freedom of each is not possible without the freedom of all—as the health of every cell cannot to be without the health of the whole body. And society is not an organism? Once a part of it is ill, the whole social body will be affected, and suffering.” -- Pietro Gori, 1904

In his writing, Gori strongly rejects the belief that violence is a tactic of the anarchist movement. Instead, he contends that the unjust application of overstepping government power is the source of violence, and the peoples’ struggle to resist that power is a natural reaction.  

Mutual Aid

Proposed by Russian philosopher and anarchist Peter Kropotkin in the late 1860s, mutual aid refers to the evolutionary tendency of human beings to work together as a community in overcoming shared problems, defending against shared enemies, and creating a society in which all people who contribute will equally share the benefits. Today, mutual aid as envisioned by Kropotkin is the basis for institutions such as labor unions and collective bargaining, credit unions, collective health insurance plans, and any number of organizations of people who volunteer to help other members of the community.

Solidarity

Closely related to mutual aid, social solidarity is the idea that evolution has left humans with a natural desire to form and participate in mutually beneficial groups or communities and to have a selfless and unshakable concern for each other’s wellbeing. For example, when the Occupy Wallstreet movement protestors were arrested and jailed, other Occupy members assisted them by arranging for experienced defense lawyers, raising bail, and sending money and clothes to them in prison. Social solidarity also takes the form of working together to organize protest campaigns and other actions intended to influence public opinion. Finally, solidarity supports the anarchist argument that people are capable of governing themselves.

Anarchy Symbol

Anarchy symbol
Anarchy symbol. stevanovicigor/Getty Images

The best-known modern symbol for anarchy is the circle-A, the capital letter “A” displayed inside the capital letter “O.” The “A” stands for the first letter of “anarchy.” The “O” stands for the word “order.” Placed together, the circle-A symbol stands for “society seeks order in anarchy,” a phrase from Pierre-Joseph Proudhon’s 1840 book What Is Property?

The circle-A was first used in the late 1860s as the logo for the International Workingmen's Association, a European labor movement dedicated to bringing together several similar left-wing socialist and communist trade unions to further the struggles of the working class. During the 1970s, several popular punk rock bands of the anarcho-punk movement used the circle-A on their album covers and posters, further raising public awareness of the symbol’s meaning.

Logo of the Spanish Regional Association of the International Workingmen's Association
Logo of the Spanish Regional Association of the International Workingmen's Association. Vilallonga/Wikimedia Commons/Public Domain

History

While anthropologists suggest that many prehistoric societies operated as anarchies, the first examples of formal anarchist thought emerged around 800 BCE when philosophers in ancient Greece and China began to question the authority of government to limit individual freedom. During the Middle Ages (500-1500 CE) and the Age of Enlightenment (1700-1790 CE), conflict among religious sects and the rise of scientific rationalism—the belief that the functions of society should be based on knowledge rather than on religion of emotion—set the stage for the development of modern anarchism.

The French Revolution, from1789 to 1802, marked a turning point in the history of anarchism. The revolutionary uprisings by masses of everyday citizens in events such as the Storming of the Bastille and the Women's March on Versailles would influence the thinking of future anarchists.

Partly as an outgrowth of Marxism, modern anarchism during the 19th century focused on the labor movement’s struggle for workers’ rights. The Industrial Revolution, objections to capitalism, and mass migration helped spread anarchism around the world. It was during this period that the major branches of anarchism—anarcho-communism and anarcho-socialism—sprang up. While anarchism played a key role in the 1917 Russian Revolution, the anarchists were brutally persecuted after the resulting Bolshevik government under Vladimir Lenin began to exert its authority. During Lenin’s so-called Red Terror, as many as 500,000 former anarchists, suddenly declared enemies of the state, were jailed, tortured, and executed.

During the Spanish Civil War from 1936 to 1939, anarchists established their state of Catalonia. Featuring powerful labor unions and successful collective agriculture, the Catalonian anarchists and their allies were driven out during the rise of fascism in Spain under dictator Francisco Franco.

In the 1960s and 1970s, today’s brand of anarchism emerged as activists of the New Left movement campaigned for social reforms such as civil rights, same-sex marriage, feminism, and women’s reproductive rights.

Schools of Thought

While each has several variations, the two major schools of thought in anarchy are individualist anarchism and social anarchism.

Individualist

Individualist anarchists regard society as a group of separate self-governing individuals and thus value individual liberty above all other considerations. To gain and protect their liberty, individualist anarchists argue that because the conventional government has the power to impose taxes and restrictive laws, it must be abolished. They believe that free of government restrictions, people will naturally act rationally, working to better themselves by achieving their personal goals. The result, they say, would be a stable and peaceful society.

Individual anarchism has been the basis for several alternative lifestyle movements, such as the Yippies. Founded in late 1967, the Youth International Party, whose members were commonly called Yippies, was a radical youth-oriented countercultural revolutionary offshoot of the free speech and anti-war movements of the late 1960s. More recently, some advocates of bitcoin currency have described themselves as individualist anarchists.

Social

Also known as “collectivism,” social anarchism considers mutual aid, community support, and social equality as being essential to securing individual freedom.

In contrast to individualist anarchists, social anarchists embrace positive liberty—the ability to take control of one’s life—rather than negative liberty, which is the total absence of obstacles, barriers, or limitations. According to the concept of positive liberty, freedom is not just the absence of government interference but the ability of individuals to realize their full potential when political power and economic resources are shared equally among all members of the community. In this manner, social anarchists favor direct democracy and shared ownership of wealth and the means of production.

When most people speak negatively about “anarchism,” they are thinking of social anarchism. However, social anarchists say that rather than violence, chaos, and social disorder, they seek a “level playing field” of political, social, and economic power. As a process then, social anarchism seeks to empower the powerless, include the excluded, and share power and authority.

Types of Anarchism

Like most political ideologies, anarchism has proven to be far from a consistent concept. Instead, it has changed and taken different forms as people have interpreted and applied it in different ways according to their beliefs and needs. 

Anarchist Capitalism

While most types of anarchism fall on the extreme left end of the political spectrum, there are surprising variants. Rather than unrestricted individual freedom, anarchist capitalism, or lasseiz-faire capitalism, embraces free-market capitalism as key to a free society. Unlike most anarchists, anarchist capitalists believe in the individual, rather than communal ownership of property, means of production, and wealth. They contend that private enterprise, if free of government control, could and would provide the people with all essential services, such as health care, education, road construction, and police protection. For example, American anarchist capitalists argue that the nation would be better served by a privately owned prison system.   

Anarchist Communism

Also known as anarcho-communism, anarchist communism stresses social equality and the elimination of class discrimination caused by the unequal distribution of wealth. Anarchist communists call for replacing capitalism with an economy based on collective ownership of means of production and distribution of wealth through voluntary associations such as trade associations and trade unions. Government and private property do not exist under anarchist communism. Instead, individuals and groups are self-governed and are free to satisfy their needs through their voluntary contributions to economic productivity. Since people are free to engage in whatever activities best fulfill their needs, traditional wage-based work is unnecessary in anarchist communism.

A recent example of anarchist communism in practice is the Capitol Hill Autonomous Zone (CHAZ), a six-city block area in the Capitol Hill neighborhood of Seattle, Washington, that was occupied by protestors from June 8, to July 1, 2020. Originally protesting the police shooting of George Floyd, the CHAZ occupiers went on to demand nationwide social reforms including lower rent, free medicine hospitals, the “abolition of imprisonment,” and greatly reduced funding of police departments.

Anarchist Socialism

Anarchist Socialism, or anarcho-socialism, is a broad and ambiguous term that refers to the two major schools of anarchist theory—social anarchism and individualist anarchism. The first combines the basic principles of socialism and anarchism to create a collectivist society—s society that places the needs and goals of the group as a whole over those of each individual. The latter stresses individual liberty in a society that places the needs of each individual over those of a group as a whole.

Green Anarchism

Typically associated with the often confrontational actions of activist groups like Greenpeace and Sea Shepherd, green anarchism emphasizes environmental issues. Green anarchists extend anarchism’s traditional focus on interactions between humans to include interactions between humans and non-humans. In this manner, they stand for not only for the liberation of humans but for various degrees of liberation for non-humans. Some animal rights activists, for example, argue that some non-human species with thinking and conscious minds and a sense of self-awareness be given the same basic rights as humans.

Crypto Anarchism

Crypto anarchists support the use of digital money, such as Bitcoin to get around the control, surveillance, and taxation by what they consider governments and financial institutions, thus permanently crippling their authority. Crypto anarchists argue that like the printing press reduced the power of medieval craft guilds and monarchies, the use of digital money will change the nature of big corporations and end government interference in economic transactions.

Famous Anarchists 

Far from shadowy, bomb-throwing malcontents, the foundational figures in the creation of modern anarchist thought have been peaceful yet progressive philosophers, economists, and academics. While they all held decidedly negative views of traditional government, their many variations, interpretations, and methods for achieving societies free of government control continue to inspire anarchists today.

Pierre-Joseph Proudhon

Portrait of Pierre Joseph Proudhon (1809-1865).
Portrait of Pierre Joseph Proudhon (1809-1865). Leemage/Corbis via Getty Images

Pierre-Joseph Proudhon (January 5, 1809 - January 18, 1865) was a French socialist, politician, philosopher, and economist who was the first person to publicly call himself an anarchist. Widely considered the “father of anarchism,” Proudhon is best remembered for his 1840 work What is Property? Or, an Inquiry into the Principle of Right and Government. In this seminal thesis, Proudhon asks the question, “What is property?” to which he memorably answers “it is robbery!”

Based on the foundational principle of mutual aid, Proudhon’s philosophy of anarchism called for a cooperative society in which self-governed individuals or groups freely shared the goods and services they produced. These “producers” were able to borrow credit to start new businesses from a non-profit-making “Bank of the People.” While Proudhon’s theory rejected large-scale ownership of private property, in the form of wealth, as a form of theft, it allowed individuals to own enough property to maintain their livelihoods and independence. As his theories of anarchism evolved to combine elements of pure socialism with limited capitalism, Proudhon came to state that as a safeguard against government control, “Property is liberty.”

Mikhail Bakunin

Portrait of Mikhail Alexandrovich Bakunin (1814-1876).
Portrait of Mikhail Alexandrovich Bakunin (1814-1876). Fine Art Images/Heritage Images/Getty Images

Mikhail Bakunin (May 30, 1814 – July 1, 1876) was a radical Russian revolutionary credited with creating social or “collectivist” anarchism. Bakunin’s theories rejected all forms of hierarchical power and authority from God to government. In his 1882 manuscript God and the State, he wrote, “The liberty of man consists solely in this, that he obeys the laws of nature because he has himself recognized them as such, and not because they have been imposed upon him externally by any foreign will whatsoever, human or divine, collective or individual.” Bakunin detested the privileged classes arising from social and economic inequality. In this vein, he considered both capitalism and government in any form to be the most dangerous threats to individual freedom.

Bakunin was deeply committed to orchestrating a universal revolution in which peasants and workers would rise up to form a utopian communal society in which all people were socially and economically equal. His outspoken dedication to this goal earned Bakunin the reputation as being the creator of the theory of revolutionary terrorism.

In his later life, Bakunin developed a feud with communist revolutionary Karl Marx who had called him “a man devoid of all theoretical knowledge.” Bakunin, on the other hand, spoke of Marx as a man with no “instinct of liberty,” who was “from head to foot, an authoritarian.” Bakunin argued that Marxism could result only in a dictatorship that was nothing but “a sham expression of the people's will,” adding that, “When the people are being beaten with a stick, they are not much happier if it is called ‘the People’s Stick.’” 

Peter Kropotkin

Peter Kropotkin (1842-1921).
Peter Kropotkin (1842-1921). APIC/Getty Images

Peter Kropotkin (December 9, 1842 – February 8, 1921) was a Russian anarchist and socialist widely credited with creating the most agreed-upon definition of anarchism in all of its many forms. “Anarchism,” wrote Kropotkin in the 11th edition of the Encyclopedia Britannica, “is a name given to a principle or theory of life and conduct under which society is conceived without government—harmony in such a society being obtained, not by the submission to law, or by obedience to any authority, but by free agreements concluded between the various groups, territorial and professional, freely constituted for the sake of production and consumption, as also for the satisfaction of the infinite variety of needs and aspirations of a civilized being.”

As a proponent of a communist society based on self-governing communities, Kropotkin criticized what considered the shortcomings of capitalism—unequal distribution of wealth, poverty, and an economy manipulated by a false scarcity of goods and resources. Instead, he called for an economic system based on voluntary cooperation and mutual aid between individuals.  

Emma Goldman

Famous Russian revolutionary Emma Goldman.
Famous Russian revolutionary Emma Goldman. Bettmann/Getty Images

Emma Goldman (June 27, 1869 - May 14, 1940) was a Russian-born American activist and writer who played a key role in shaping anarchist political philosophy and activities in the United States from around 1890 to 1917. Attracted to anarchism by the 1886 Chicago Haymarket labor riot, Goldman became an acclaimed writer and speaker drawing thousands to her lectures on the use of extremist anarchist tactics to achieve women’s rights and social equality in a classless society. In 1892 Goldman assisted her life partner Alexander Berkman in an attempt to assassinate anti-labor industrialist and financier Henry Clay Frick as an act of defiance. Frick survived, but Berkman was sentenced to 22 years in prison. Over the next serval years, Goldman was jailed several times for inciting riots and illegally handing out propaganda supporting the general use of birth control practices.

In 1906, Goldman founded Mother Earth, a magazine devoted to American anarchism. In 1917, Mother Earth ran an article opposing the United States’ entry into World War I and urging American men to refuse to register for the military draft. On June 15, 1917, the U.S. Congress passed the Espionage Act, establishing harsh fines and prison terms of up to 20 years for anyone convicted of obstructing the draft or encouraging “disloyalty” to the U.S. government. Convicted of violating the Espionage Act, Goldman had her American citizenship revoked and was deported to the Soviet Union in 1919.

Criticism

The fact that there are currently no developed countries in the world that operate as pure anarchies indicates that there are critical problems with anarchist theory. Some of the major criticisms of anarchism include: 

It is Not Feasible 

The very feasibility of a purely anarchist society is questionable. While anarchist practices can work in small city-states, regions, or villages, such as the rural Spanish settlement of Marinaleda, it is unlikely that anarchist organizations can take hold and sustain themselves on a national or global level. For example, history has shown that direct democracy, an essential element of anarchism, is simply too unmanageable to work among large, politically, and culturally diverse populations such as those of most countries.

It is Destructive

Critics contend that anarchism is merely a less-threatening name for chaos and civil disorder resulting from a rejection of structured order. Anarchists, they claim, are violent and nihilistic and dedicated to destroying everything, even morality itself. To be sure, history is filled with cases of violence being a tactic or a result of anarchism.

It is Unstable

Anarchy, critics say, is inherently unstable and will always evolve back into structured government rule. In developing the theory of the social contract, Thomas Hobbes and other political philosophers maintain that government naturally emerges as a corrective response to anarchy which maintains order and protects the interests of the people. Another theory holds that a so-called “night-watchman state” can emerge as a response to anarchism in which people protect their property by buying the services of a private protection agency, which eventually evolves into something resembling a government.

It is Utopian

Critics further suggest that exercises in anarchist thought are fruitless because it is simply impossible for individuals or small groups, no matter how dedicated, to destroy or deconstruct an established governmental structure. It would be better, they argue, to concentrate on the inequality, and threats to liberty posed by the ruling government and work for reforms through the existing political processes.

Sources and Further Reference

  • Kelly, Kim. “Stop blaming everything bad on anarchists.” The Washington Post, June 4, 2020, https://www.washingtonpost.com/outlook/2020/06/04/stop-blaming-everything-bad-anarchists/.
  • Milstein, Cindy. “Anarchism and Its Aspirations.” AK Press, January 5, 2010, ISBN-13: 9781849350013.
  • Thompson, Derek. “Occupy the World: The '99 Percent' Movement Goes Global.” The Atlantic, October 15, 2011, https://www.theatlantic.com/business/archive/2011/10/occupy-the-world-the-99-percent-movement-goes-global/246757/.
  • “The Distribution of Household Income, 2017.” U.S. Congressional Budget Office, https://www.cbo.gov/publication/56575.
  • Oglesby, Carl. “The New Left Reader.” Grove Press, 1969, ISBN 83-456-1536-8.
  • Proudhon, Pierre-Joseph (1840). “What Is Property?: An Inquiry into the Principle of Right and of Government.” Whitlock Publishing, April 15, 2017, ISBN-13: 978-1943115235.
  • Bakunin, Mikhail (1882). “God And The State.” AK Press, January 7, 1970, ISBN-13: 9780486224831. 
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Longley, Robert. "What Is Anarchy? Definition and Examples." ThoughtCo, Feb. 17, 2021, thoughtco.com/anarchy-definition-and-examples-5105250. Longley, Robert. (2021, February 17). What Is Anarchy? Definition and Examples. Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/anarchy-definition-and-examples-5105250 Longley, Robert. "What Is Anarchy? Definition and Examples." ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/anarchy-definition-and-examples-5105250 (accessed July 25, 2021).