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Anarchy is for Anarchists

Image: Paul Humpoletz, “The Pied Piper of 1919”, “The Götz”, June, 1921.

Anarchists often argue with opponents who have already assumed certain criteria for political philosophy. A capitalist will assume that rational self-interest is a predominant characteristic of human nature that is best managed through private property and market competition. A socialist will assume that the common good depends on a society of relatively equal members contributing to the economic security of all. A fascist will assume that nationalities are primordial, nearly-natural types of categories – or at least so irreversibly ingrained in cultural history – that society ought to be organized to preserve and promote each nationality to the benefit or detriment of each other. 

These positions all have something in common. They move more-or-less directly from the premise that certain characteristics define the human species to prescription for how to best respond to those characteristics. This logical progression from the characterization of humanity as a whole to an ideal for humanity as a whole is often critiqued by post-modernists and/or post-structuralists as a totalizing, and therefore totalitarian form of logic. They claim that this is a narrativistic way of thinking that offers grand stories and designs instead of nuanced and realistic interpretations. Many anarchists familiar with this critique have sought to incorporate it into their thinking about anarchism. They have called themselves the post-anarchists

While I agree with this critique of totalizing systems of thought, especially vulgar forms of humanism and utilitarianism, I think that it is much less of an update to anarchist theory than it may initially seem. 

If one of the first conditions for anarchy is the freedom of association – that is, voluntary forms of organization – then by definition, anarchy can only ever be for those who want it. Anarchy can only be for anarchists. As far as I know, this has always been a definitional condition for the anarchy promoted by anarchism. While there have been plenty of anarchists who have built their arguments upon notions of human nature or universal characteristics of social life, they haven’t been able to contradict the conclusion that at the end of the day, anarchists create anarchy for themselves and not for all of humanity. If anarchists were to conclude otherwise, they would be suggesting some sort of compulsory situation for those who do not agree with anarchist modes of social organization. Granted, it’s conceivable that anarchist actions can impact bystanders, but even for actions so impactful as the smashing of the nation state, the goal isn’t to put non-anarchists into a situation they did not want. At most, the goal is to allow others a first opportunity to truly decide what it is they want. This is even the case for those anarchists who have sought animal liberation through the freeing of animals from captivity. 

Considering this fact of anarchist orientation towards others, we would be served well by clarifying this standpoint from the outset when arguing against our opponents. Numerous confusions are avoided this way. All of those obnoxious hypotheticals popularized through mainstream media regarding the social consequences of various apocalyptic scenarios and all of those irritating suggestions that anarchists should solve for all human problems before doing anything can then be put into perspective. Since our fight is a fight for ourselves, it is also a fight that is definitionally guided by practices that we have always-already agreed with each other about. This includes practices of mutual aid, communal property, forms of rule-making and consequences for rule-breaking, pedagogy and child rearing, and a variety of other topics that anarchist thinking addresses. These are not our prescriptions for all of humanity. They are the constitutional foundations of our own anarchist projects. 

One last thought about all this. When anarchists argue from this position of our own particularities, we also imply that there is no eventual end to our practices of anarchy. Nor is there a clear beginning. We decide at some point in our lives that these are our standards of operation, we then put them into practice with one another, and we continue to do so for as long as we think that we should. We may aim to increase our capacities and powers, but that is secondary to our decision to live our lives by a different code of ethics. An ethics that isn’t based on the belief that anarchy is for everyone. An ethics based on the recognition that anarchy is for anarchists.