As a political and social philosophy, anarchy comes from the 19th century, and it generally opposes one group ruling over another group. Some anarchists are against all hierarchies, while others are willing to compromise a bit for practical purposes.
For example, some kind of police would probably be necessary for certain functions in society.
There is considerable reason to think that a more equal distribution of power and responsibility would be more effective, for example, at responding to a pandemic or weathering a market crash. People who are happy, have met their needs, don't feel stuck or forced to live a life they don't want to live or do work they aren't suited for, generally don't just commit crimes out of nowhere.
However, crime will still happen. We need a better solution for it.
The outdated prison and justice system in the United States has been criticized for decades by thinkers and well-known activists like Malcolm X. Putting people in isolation, exploiting them for free labor, marking their record and permanently decreasing their ability to get a steady job, is not conducive of rehabilitation. Quite the opposite, people usually come out of prison even deeper stuck in the hole that led them to crime in the first place.
Justice could be a much more personalized, meaningful system. Primarily, schooling and counsiling could be the alternatives to (or adminstered in conjunction with) prison. Because most people just want to meet their needs and be happy, we can provide these people opportunities to grow and develop something to do in life, their chances of re-offending should go down drastically.
In the event that someone takes actions which harm others' human rights considerably, there must be some response, or we are not really upholding liberty in society. If such a case arises in an anarchist society, I imagine the ideal would be a network of local authorities with rotating duties to avoid institutionalized power, and to spread out the negative impact of these jobs as well.
Liberals (in the classical sense) call anarchism an idealistic philosophy.
Liberal democracy is purported to find individuals on whom the citizenry are willing to place their trust, so that they may wield certain authority over some organizations and, in effect, lives of the people who rely on them. Yet every time an election comes around, people with large amounts of wealth from inheritance and exploitation are able to tip the tables in their favor. They may not decide who you vote for, but they can decide who appears in front of you on TV, slander and inappropriately associate names with buzz words like violent anarchist, and influence who goes on the ballot.
An anarchist would respond to the liberal, then, that western liberal democratic countries are irrational. They give institutionalized power to people over most others, they are unjust, and they are undemocratic.
Anarchists look out on a world where there are something like 230,000 extremely wealthy people and just masses, millions upon millions, of individuals struggling to get by, who have no access to healthcare, living day to day... They see this absurdly unequal situation, and the idea that somehow these billionaires and people just trying to get by are going to co-exist, have an election, and vote in some benevolent person that acts in all their interests, just seems a little... idealistic.
Anarchists are radical individualists.
They reject the kind of individualism which develops under a totalitarian state where it's sort of like a child being praised by his parents for doing a good job, and the organizational models that lead to that kind of social behavior. Anarchism wants to help humans achieve the best of what they are capable of becoming, by empowering people to participate in their own governance.
Not only should you, of course, have power over your own personal life from your hair color to your sexuality, but you should have a say in the workplace that you go to half of every day. All the people working in a factory should have a say in how the factory is run, and there would be no authoritarian structure telling you how to spend however many hours of your day doing whatever task you're doing there.
The impact this change has will vary wildly. Almost everyone has bad manager stories, though, so if you've had a job, try to imagine if that shitty manager just, ya know... didn't exist.
Yeah, just take a moment to let that beautiful thought sink in.
Now, of course, a managerial role could be important as an intermediary between teams in a larger organization, and there may be specific industries or cases where they are helpful. In this case, a manger would probably be elected by the workers and wouldn't have singular hiring and firing power over them.
You could imagine a situation where a research team has discovered that a very expensive machine being used by the company produces harmful gas which could have long-term health effects on the workers. Investors, and executives who are ultimately beholden to the aforementioned investors, would prefer not to spend the excess money to replace the machines with a newer model.
Alternatively, just look at what's happening right now during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Investors and CEOs don't want to close up for a few weeks to save hundreds of thousands of lives, that would cost them some fraction of a percent of their total wealth! So instead, they spend millions lobbying for governmental action and politicians that will let them bring people back to work.
Meanwhile, they've been manipulating the fiat currency, raising prices in response to inflation without raising wages, and other things to put more pressure on the workers and poor people. When you ask workers whether they would like a quick quarantine session across the country to get rid of the virus, you see two responses:
I need to work to pay my bills. If we lived in a more equitable society, you'd be living off a portion of what is currently going to managers, a CEO, and/or rich capital investors, and you would not need to worry about bills.
They're trying to take my freedom! We have two sides - one trying to ignore the problem altogether for profit, and the other taking a reactionary white knight stance which can seem preachy and overbearing, but may be necessary to counter literal conspiracy theories... This is the result of a tribal mindset. People who are hurting don't see the logic, they aren't even involved in the decision. They feel like pawns being shoved around by the rich and powerful.
At a workplace operating in anarchist society, this kind of situation would likely be brought to some kind of emergency meeting to be deliberated on. They could discuss and research different options, weigh the costs, and make an informed decision, instead of simply being told to keep putting themselves in danger to make the stockholders happy.
Imagine you and some friends are deciding where to go to dinner tonight. If one person just nominated themselves the Food Czar and told everyone where they'd be going, this isn't going to be most enjoyable and agreeable to everyone in the party. Three of the five might vote for one restaurant, but the other two hate that eatery, or one of the other two is allergic to shellfish.
Just having a majority-wins democratic vote would result in the most people getting what they want, but maybe not the happiest dinner party. Ultimately, it would come down to a conversation, to decide the most preferred decision that everyone could live with given the circumstances.
Now, I hope you are beginning to get a better grasp of what anarchism is. You can see this working when deciding what to eat with your friends, but there are concerns with how this could scale up to real political systems. A hundred thousand people can't sit down in a room and have a conversation until they reach an understanding.
In anarchist circles, you will almost always see a preference for localism. If a decision can be made locally and doesn't fundamentally affect anyone else outside the local system, then make it locally.
The idea that growth is always good was pushed on us from capitalism. Growth isn't always good, and it's not always bad. A corporation taking over hundreds of small businesses and ending up with control over what people of entire countries communicate with or use for transportation would probably be very frowned upon by anarchists, because these things have many intricate factors that may impact people differently.
Anarchists generally see wider society forming as relationships within a federation, or a network of self-governing units. People in a local community would meet and discuss issues, then send a representative. This would ideally be a much different representative from what we imagine today, so they would not be elected to then go do whatever they want for a set period of time. Representatives would be sent to, literally, represent what the people decided through their democratic discusssion. They would discuss and deliberate with other representatives, then come back to their community for ratification or to decide on any potential disputes.
This process is time consuming, like how our capital punishment - where we still hold onto the savage practice - is much slower than that of a dictatorship of centuries past deciding whether to execute groups of prisoners, but don't you think that's for the better?
You allow people to act as temporary representatives of local groups without gaining excess power and influence. You might send one person today to represent the group and another person the next, especially if a certain set of issues on which they have expertise is being discussed by representatives. For example, you may send the leader of the electrician's union to talk about coordinating electric grids, or a climate scientist to discuss ways to lower carbon emissions.
So, if the United States had been an anarchist federation, maybe many of the states would've just continued having slavery. Well... ideally, people don't just sit on their hands when injustice is happening to others, right?
If some groups failed to end the oppressive hierarchy of slavery to continue to profit from exploitation of other human beings, many anarchists would argue it is the other groups' moral responsibility to advocate for the freedom of these slaves. Part of the tension leading up to the civil war was a patriotic abolitionist movement which drew upon ideals of the American Revolution. Americans of this time were far more aware of their material interests, and I like to think they would've opted to help the oppressed slaves eventually.
A similar argument would eventually need to be had about other countries. Supporting global liberation movements should be a goal, because authoritarian governemnts anywhere are a threat to democracy everywhere.
We want to free people of coercive and unjust systems, but how do we get there? Many sleepless nights have been spent writing notes, theory and responses about tactics. Some anarchists advocate for reforming the economic systems through political advocacy, but others doubt this approch due to the previously mentioned problems with our current forms of democracy.
Most fall somewhere in-between supporting "revolution" or reform. Personally, I think revolution in some sense will be required, because the current conditions wouldn't allow for the kind of society we're talking about to thrive. It would probably look more like feudalism with these centralized entities owning everything
However, we may be able to reform conditions in a direction that will allow for a more easy, peaceful transition of power. When people focus too much on one of these and not the other, they can get lost in useless strategizing that will never convince anyone of anything.
The truth is, power structures maintain themselves. Imagine this: you work in a position that gives you power over other people, and you think you're doing a good job, and that nobody else could do it better. Until someone tells you that you having that job is unfair, and tries to take away that power. You would probably argue, right?
In your head, there's nothing wrong with having that power, because you use it justly. So, you will use your influence to keep things the way they are, because it's better that way. In... your opinion. What about the people over whom you wield the power? What do they think?
People in our society already know how to run restaurants and schools and courts, they've been doing these things for centuries. If the people can become more aware of their own best interests, a transition to a truly free, democratic society could happen, and it shouldn't be that huge of a shock.
Gustav Landauer, a sort of Christian-inspired anarchist, wrote in 1910,
One can throw away a chair and destroy a pane of glass; but [only] idle talkers...regard the state as such a thing or as a fetish that one can smash in order to destroy it. The state is a condition, a certain relationship among human beings, a mode of behavior between men; we destroy it by contracting other relationships, by behaving differently toward one another.… We are the state, and we shall continue to be the state until we have created the institutions that form a real community and society.
In other words, Gustav and many anarchists who are directly or indirectly inspired by his ideas, would argue that the state can exist apart from the physical things we commonly associate with it like police, military, or the DMV. When people work together in groups, that creates social relationships that grow and change and intermingle, and this may be too complicated to fully un-tangle into a completely "stateless" society.
The primary goal, then, would be to transition ownership of the means of production over to the workers who use them to create value. Everything else would sort itself out through consensual relations within this more natural "state".
Of course, more revolutionary-minded individuals don't like thinking of it this way at all. They would say that the state is a coercive force and that we need to keep pushing to dissolve any kind of relationship between people which allows one to have unfair advantage or control over another.
I believe these factions really agree on most everything if only they could drop the loaded terminology and talk frankly about what their ideal world would look like. In fact, I think the same is true across all political ideologies. Most people, especially workers and the poor across the world, have really similar needs and economic interests.
Humans are amazing. We've accomplished so much, and we have the ability to introspect. We know we have problems, but we can't seem to agree on what those problems are. If we can just find a common set of definitions, a list of things to solve together, we can reach for the stars.
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"Anarchism" from Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy
"How Hunter-Gatherers Maintained Their Egalitarian Ways" by Peter Gray Ph.D.
"The best books on Anarchism"
A bookworm may be interested in No Gods, No Masters: An Anthology of Anarchism. This is a collection of unpublished documents, letters, debates, manifestos, reports, impassioned-calls-to-arms and reasoned analysis" of the Anarchist movement. Compiled by Daniel Guérin, author of Anarchism: From Theory to Practice.
If you're more audio-minded, you can listen to this podcast episode recorded from the University of Chicago on which this post is based. Recorded from the University of Chicago with Professor of Philosophy Mark Lance.