What's So Scary About Anarchism? by Dana Williams


A number of years ago I picked up my handy pocket-sized dictionary to find out what an “anarchist” was. I was curious, because the woman whom I was dating at the time was describing me to her friends as one.

I had a pretty good idea what it meant, and I didn’t much mind the label. But, I wanted to make sure that when her friends opened up a dictionary they didn’t read about “terrorism”, “bombers”, “chaos”, “violence”, “destruction”, and so forth. I imagined their concern for her safety if this was the case. Thankfully, when I opened up my dictionary I read the following simple definitions:

“anarchism, n., a political theory opposed to authority”
“anarchist, n., one opposed to authority and the State”

If you look at the root of the word “anarchy”, this becomes obvious. The “-archy” suffix is used to describe different systems of rule and governance: monarchy (rule by one), patriarchy (rule by men), and oligarchy (rule by the few), which are also awful close to democracy (rule by the people), autocracy (rule by a dictator), plutocracy (rule by the rich), and so forth. Applying the prefix “an” negates it. It means “without” or “no”. Therefore anarchy means “without rule” or “no rule”.

When I made that mental connection, all the chips fell into place. No one rules me (or should rule me). And I don’t have the right to rule others. It was clearly a philosophy of freedom. Freedom for you and me. It was a critique of power... It seemed to encapsulate the “golden rule”... I realized it was the best yardstick I had yet to come across with which to measure things in society.

I started thinking of everything in terms of power. The relationship of power amongst people. The deficits of power between the rich and poor in society. The power of government politicians and bureaucracy. The power men hold over women. US power compared to the other countries in the world.

Everything suddenly came into focus.

Yet, I was assuming that power was a violent tool wielded by the powerful over the weak. Later, I discovered a broader definition of power, which was better able to explain my beliefs. There are, according to this theory, three kinds of power: the power over (to force someone to do something), the power within (internal power that allows an individual to do something), and the power together (collective power that is pooled to become stronger than just an individual).

This eliminated the contradiction I saw in wanting to eliminate the power of oppressors, but wanting power myself or in the hands of “the people”. I realized that the first kind of power, according to my thinking, was undesirable. It was the power of murderers, dictators, sadists, brutalizers, and the violent. Conversely, the other two kinds of power were what I was all for. Anarchism is all about individual freedom and empowerment, which it sees as the core of the human experience.

In a society where we can’t all do everything on our own, collective power is mandatory. Humans are social creatures, and we all have shared interests that require us to act on behalf of the good of all. Additionally, in such an inter-connected world, our actions deeply affect others and the earth, and therefore we bear a heavy responsibility for our actions.

Is this scary? (And if so, in what ways?)

I’m annoyed when people would say, “yea, that’s great, and I agree that’s the perfect world, but people aren’t good at heart. It’s not human nature...” Blah, blah, blah. I continue to be astonished as people use the “human nature” argument to explain their own perverse reasoning for why we need prisons, police, “law and order”, war, guns, and a surveillance culture. People can be whatever one wishes to portray others as: hateful or loving, competitive or cooperative, selfish or selfless, callous or caring.

Humans are not by nature evil, violent, or cruel. That’s learned behavior (i.e. not “nature”). Everyday, billions of people interact with billions of other people, and the vast majority of time these interactions are kind, supportive, and friendly. If the “human nature” crowd were correct, we’d have billions of murders every day due to people who can’t peacefully deal with an annoying co-worker, a speed-demon on the road, or a badgering spouse.

We have to hope for the best in other humans. We need to. Our world is so interdependent that circumstances demand cooperation. We are long past the days of hunters and gatherers who only needed their immediate surroundings to supply the necessities of life. Ants work for the benefit of the entire anthill, and we too must work for the common good.

Anarchism is a progression of human liberation. It has always been the general inclination of human beings to throw off one set of chains after another. Feudalism used to rule the world. There used to be slavery in countless cultures. Vast theocracies used to dictate the will of nearly all the world’s people. Women nearly everywhere used to not be able to have any say in their own lives. These things were all struggled against, and in many ways, defeated. In addition to completely wiping these oppressions from the face of the earth, we must next focus on all forms of domination, including Capitalism, patriarchy, racism, militarism, and the State.

Pretty scary, huh?

People most often use the word “anarchy” as a synonym for “chaos”. Indeed, if anarchy meant disorder, that would be true. However, anarchy only means without rule, not disorder. Anarchists recognize that society must have order if it is to function in a respectful, egalitarian, non-hierarchical fashion. Indeed, anarchists are likely some of the most organized individuals on the left end of the political spectrum. Organization and order may of course exist in the absence of hierarchy. Anarchists recognize the need of studious and inventive organization in order to avoid hierarchy, which is often the socialized tendency, even in activist groups.

Detractors (always those in power) have charged that anarchism creates violence. Anarchists threw bombs and assassinated people, and nowadays they break windows during demonstrations, etc. True, anarchists of the late-19th and early-20th centuries occasionally tried to assassinate people, but only those who were oppressors of the common people. The powerful killed scores more proportionately by the use of goon squads during strikes, infantries during insurrections, and economic violence in times of economic boom and bust. Anarchism has greatly evolved since that time and has since realized that such tactics are out-dated, if not almost always immoral themselves.

By charging that breaking windows is “violent” our culture’s preference towards property rights is shown. Is breaking a pane of glass the equivalent of hitting someone in the face? Is writing graffiti on a wall the same as scratching words into someone’s skin with a razor blade?

Indeed, by equating property destruction with violence, we are elevating property to the status of human life. That is not only callous, but also very dangerous.

Anarchists have always responded to accusations of violence by turning the question around. Are not those in power the most violent members of society? They run the armies that kill thousands, they make the laws that place harmless people in jails, they create the jobs that exploit people’s labor, they are the ones who rape the earth in the name of profit.

Who creates more misery in the world... a common burglar or the CEO of General Motors? Who causes more death... all those rotting away on death row or the world’s generals? Who lies more pathologically... a street hustler or a bought-and-paid politician?

So, I’m an anarchist. I’m not going to fire a gun at you, I’m not going to lob a bomb at you, and I’m not going to punch you in the face. That is what oppressors do. It is to their advantage to accuse those out-of-power (like anarchists and the rest of society) of being violent.

As an anarchist, I stand for the underdog, all those who have their necks under the boot of oppressors. I stand with women, with people of color, with immigrants, with non-heteros, with the poor, with the powerless, and with the people of the 3rd World.

I support those who are incarcerated by judges, bombed by fighter jets, beaten by husbands, marginalized by the ruling class, judged by the pious, ignored by the righteous, degraded by managers, and exploited by landlords.

Anarchists look like you and me. We are of every skin color imaginable. We wear all manners of clothing. We work at all sorts of jobs. We are as young and as old as one could imagine. Some of us call ourselves anarchists, while others shrug the label. Anarchism isn’t just another “ism”. It’s a tendency and a thrust of human development. It cries out for a newer, more just world. We are united in this conviction.

Another world is possible.

See? That’s not scary. It’s exciting! And it’s entirely possible.