Philosophy 221 - 11.4.6 Anarchism

While the idea of negative liberty decries unnecessary government intervention in people’s lives, anarchism literally means “no ruler” or “no government.” The absence of a political authority conjures an image of the state of nature imagined by Thomas Hobbes—that is, a state of chaos. Anarchists, however, believe that disorder comes from government. According to this view, rational individuals mostly desire to live peaceful lives, free of government intervention, and this desire naturally leads them to create societies and institutions built on the principles of self-governance.

Motivations for Anarchism

One defense of anarchism is that governments do things that would be impermissible for private individuals. French philosopher Pierre-Joseph Proudhon (1809–1865) observes that governments monitor citizens’ activities and attempt to control their behavior through force. The more technology governments have, the greater their attempts to control people. Proudhon ([1849] 2012) observes that such treatment is against human dignity.

Proudhonian anarchists are aware of the argument that people may have consented to give up some of their power to the government (as people do in a representative democracy, for example), which means that they must accept the treatment they receive. Yet Proudhon would deny that there is any example in history of a just government. Lysander Spooner (1808–1887), the 19th-century anarchist, says that all governments have come into existence through force and maintain their existence through force (Spooner 1870). Thus, some defend anarchism on the grounds that governments violate human rights.

Limits of Anarchism

Criticisms of anarchy are often twofold. The first is that without an organized police force, society would be unable to control outbreaks of violence. A related concern is that without a judicial system to arbitrate disputes and mete out justice, any resolution would be arbitrary. Anarchists, on the other hand, claim that most incidents of violence are the result of socioeconomic imbalances that would be resolved if the government were dismantled. Social anarchism, for instance, points to community involvement and mutual exchange of goods and services as a solution (Fiala 2021).

Yet some people associate anarchism with political violence, and in fact, some anarchists see violence as an unavoidable result of clashes with a violent and oppressive government. One of the most famous anarchists, Emma Goldman (1869–1940), wrote in her essay “The Psychology of Political Violence,” “Such acts are the violent recoil from violence, whether aggressive or repressive; they are the last desperate struggle of outraged and exasperated human nature for breathing space and life” (1917). However, many anarchists favor nonviolent tactics and civil disobedience, such as protests and the creation of autonomous zones, as opposed to political violence (Fiala 2018).

A photograph shows Emma Goldman sitting on a bench in a street car. Two men are sitting next to her on the bench.
Figure 11.9 Born in Lithuania in 1869, Emma Goldman experienced anti-Semitic persecution before moving to the United States at age 16 and becoming a factory worker. She was quickly introduced to the anarchist movement and became a prolific writer and passionate speaker advocating the movement’s principles. (credit: “Emma Goldman on a Street Car, Library of Congress)

Anarchism and Feminism

Within anarchism, anarcha-feminism seeks to fight against gendered concepts that create inequity. Traditional gender roles only serve to cement unequal power distribution and further the class divide. Particularly, traditional concepts of women’s role in the domestic sphere mirror the depersonalization of the worker, with the woman seen as an extension of the home and domestic labor, rather than an independent autonomous person. It is worth noting that anarcha-feminism is in direct opposition to Proudhon, who believed that family was an essential aspect of society and that the traditional role of women within the family was necessary for its success (Proudhon 1875).

The author and poet bell hooks believes that the concerns driving anarchism can provide a motivation for current social action. She notes that the gaps between the rich and the poor are widening in the United States and that because of the “feminization of poverty” (by which she means the inequality in living standards due to gender pay disparity), a grassroots radical feminist movement is needed “that can build on the strength of the past, including the positive gains generated by reforms, while offering meaningful interrogation of existing feminist theory that was simply wrongminded while offering us new strategies” (hooks 2000, 43). She sees such a “visionary movement” (43) as grounded in the real-life conditions experienced by working-class and impoverished women.

Feminists historically have had to fight to make space for themselves within anarchist movements. The Spanish female collective Mujeres Libres formed during the Spanish Civil War (1936–1939) in reaction to what they saw as a dismissal of women’s issues by the anarchist movement. Members of Mujeres Libres sought to support female activists and improve the lives of working-class women through literacy drives, employment programs, and child care facilities in both neighborhoods and factories (Ackelsberg 1985). These and other initiatives that focused on creating opportunities for women helped develop a sense of social engagement and foster a desire for social change.

A headshot of Lucia Sanchez Saornil is placed over a photograph of a building that was destroyed by a bomb. The building shell is visible on the sides of the photograph, and rubble from the building is visible below the photograph.
Figure 11.10 Lucía Sánchez Saornil, pictured here in 1933, was a Spanish anarchist and cofounder of Mujeres Libres. (credit: “Lucía Sánchez Saornil in 1933” by Unknown/Wikimedia Commons, CC0 1.0)

Table 11.2 summarizes the political ideologies discussed in this chapter.

Political Ideology Description Key Concerns
Conservatism Favors institutions and practices that have demonstrated their value over time Favors action at the local level, supports property rights, believes in the importance of self-discipline, sees the role of government as protecting the fundamental values of society
Liberalism Favors limited government on the grounds of utility (different from current meaning of “liberalism” in the United States) Attempts to maximize individual liberty, including both negative liberty (the absence of government control) and positive liberty (people’s power to control their own lives)
Egalitarianism Gives primary place to equality Aims to guarantee equal rights and equal opportunities to all, but not necessarily equal outcomes
Socialism Favors public ownership and management of goods and resources Typically allows for the ownership of private property, but gives most control over basic resources to the government
Anarchism “No ruler” or “no government”; instead of a central government, sees people as capable of governing themselves Believes that government is the cause of, rather than the solution to, most problems; views human nature as rational and peaceful
Table 11.2 - Political Ideologies

The content of this course has been taken from the free Philosophy textbook by Openstax