In the novel “Lord of the flies”, William Golding tells the story of a group of boys who get stuck on an uninhabited island. They are forced to govern themselves; however, their system quickly falls apart as the boys unleash their evil and savage sides. The result is a fight for survival. Golding’s message is that a society without rules and governments would result in a complete chaos. But does this really have to be the case?
What is anarchism?
Media often makes a connection between anarchy and violence. However as anarchy encompasses a broad range of ideas, this is often a too biased generalization. The word anarchism originates from Greek and it means “without ruler” while the Merriam Webster dictionary defines it as a belief that government and laws are not necessary.
There are two main branches of anarchism: social anarchism that stresses social equality and individualist anarchism that opposes the individual being controlled by the state or society. In the next paragraphs, let’s dive into history and explore examples of anarchistic societies – small scale anarchist communities as well as anarchist movements – to see if societies without governments really only result in chaos.
Historically, there have been some attempts to create anarchist societies; examples include Jamaica in 1720, Catalonia 1936-1939 and Ukraine 1918-1921. In 1918, during the Ukrainian revolution, an attempt to form a stateless anarchist society resulted in the formation of the “Free Territory”. This area, populated by approximately seven million people, was controlled / protected by Nestor Makhno’s Revolutionary Insurrectionary Army. Shortly after the formation of the Free Territory, social parties were banned, the concept of the State was rejected and free workers councils were created which supported self-management of workers. Trading between rural and urban communities formed the basis for the economy. However in 1921 the Bolsheviks defeated this social-anarchist society since they feared that the Free Territory was growing too strong and might pose a threat.
The establishment of anarchist societies has proven to be hard and rarely successful through history both due to external and internal forces. External factors, e.g. neighbouring governments, have often crushed well-organized anarchist societies (like in the example of the Free Territory) due to fear, desire for power and natural resources. In other cases, including Albania in 1997, an anarchist society can also fall apart from the inside. In Albania an anarchist state was formed due to state collapse, which boosted the influence of criminal gangs. Thus one can ask the question: If anarchy is hard to establish on a nation-wide level, can it be more successful on a smaller scale?
Examples of small-scale anarchistic communities are Drop City and Trumbullplex in the US, and Freetown Christiania in Denmark. Maybe mostly known for its open cannabis policy (which changed in 2004), Freetown Christiania is an anarchistic community within the city of Copenhagen, Denmark. Created in 1971, it has since been wildly controversial. The inhabitants have their own flag and currency, and the area is also regulated by a special law – the Christiania Law of 1989.
Christiania’s mission statement was created in 1971: “The objective of Christiania is to create a self-governing society whereby each and every individual holds themselves responsible over the wellbeing of the entire community. Our society is to be economically self-sustaining and, as such, our aspiration is to be steadfast in our conviction that psychological and physical destitution can be averted.” However, after 40 years of successful autonomy, the Danish government has been trying to enforce their law in Christiania despite protests from its approximately 900 inhabitants. Forced by police actions and bulldozers, the inhabitants of Christiania lost a bit of their independence when they had to accept a real estate deal with the politicians – to buy the land before 2018.
In addition to anarchistic societies and communities, there are also anarchistic movements that influence our society. One such example is “Occupy Wall Street”. What started as a protest in New York City’s financial district in 2011, ultimately gave rise to a whole Occupy movement, which partly is inspired by anarchism.
On a smaller scale, anarchist communes and movements can be successful if they are given a chance. However, as there are many different branches and schools of anarchy, it can be hard to motivate all anarchists to follow a common agenda. Therefore the anarchist communes still need a defined organization based on cooperation.
Selecting governments like choosing garments?
Anarchism has often been criticized as utopian and unrealistic. Since there are only few, short historical examples of anarchist societies, maybe this philosophy is hard to implement on a large scale. But can it fulfil a function opposed to today’s governmental structures? Or is there a middle ground? New philosophical ideas keep emerging and they combine anarchistic thoughts with other movements. Examples include “green anarchism” which emphasizes environmental issues or “anarcho-capitalism”, which believe in a voluntary society where a society without rules would improve itself based on free market principles.
In her TEDxGöteborg talk, the anarcho-capitalist Susanne Tarkowski Tempelhof is exploring the idea of alternative governance solutions in the form of non-territorial corporate states. The idea being that people, acting like consumers, could decide which government they would like to be governed by or even to start their own governments. If this is feasible is hard to predict, but surely it challenges today’s government system.
What do you think?
Life is never black or white, which also is true for political philosophies. History has so far shown that anarchy is hard to sustain in the long run, partially due to forces wanting to extend their power. It is also a philosophy that has influenced (and still influences) other schools of thought, and maybe occasionally challenging our generally accepted “truths” is not so bad. What do you think? Can anarchist societies exist for longer periods of time and can they be unlimited in size? Or do we need clear structure and rules in order to maintain functional societies?