Just a heads up – this is going to be a political post. Avert your eyes if you don’t think you can handle it. This week a story in the New York Times reported an increase in general interest in anarchism. I suppose that’s a good thing, but there are several different flavors of anarchism, and, like most social groups, the stereotypes don’t do us any favors. So I find myself cringing a bit when people who don’t know anything about anarchism start talking about it. For some people, their only exposure to anarchists was the 1999 protests against the World Trade Organization in Seattle. For most of the rest, they assume that anarchy and chaos are synonyms and move on. Allow me to enlighten you.

First, let’s be clear that even anarchists can’t agree with each other on a definition (and that’s why you have a Q&A site like Anarchy101 – a great place to get your questions answered, by the way). There are plenty of different schools of thought and some of them view the others as heretics for not believing in the “true” version of anarchy (just savor the irony there for a moment). If you would like to see one particular definition laid out in exhaustive detail (most of which I agree with), check out this thoughtful appeal. But if you ask me, I will boil it all down to this: it starts with recognizing that human beings don’t like to be told what to do (most of them, anyway). Once you accept this fact of human nature, and embrace the notion that no one has the right to tell other people what to do, congratulations – you are an anarchist!

It is important to note that anarchy is not a system of government – it is the absence of all forms of centralized government. It is simply a rejection of any hierarchy that claims authority over the individual or tries to establish a monopoly on the use of force. In those terms, it is easy to categorize the Framers as anarchists. So before you dismiss anarchists as a bunch of hoodlums breaking windows and spray-painting capital As on walls, consider the principles at stake. Everyone says they value freedom. Anarchists actually do. And while the use of violence and destruction of property is never a good thing, as Dr. Martin Luther King said, a riot is the language of the unheard, so it is to be expected that a Boston Tea Party will occur from time to time. This should not be viewed as the message, however. Chaos in the streets is a means to an end, not the end itself. It is a ringing phone, meant to be answered, not ignored.

 

What Is Anarchy?
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