Discussions about anarchy and anarchism too often jump right into talking points about competing ways to organize economic or political structures. This doesn’t seem to happen only when skeptics and cynics are present — it also tends to be a pitfall for those who value a stateless future. But it’s putting the cart before the horse. Whether you’re trying to introduce someone to anarchist ideas or even going through your own intellectual journey, thinking about anarchy first in terms of systems and structures is a false start for many reasons. Most importantly, it misses fundamental principles.
Unintentionally, it positions anarchist ideas (and the history of anarchist thought) as merely an alternative to the current systems of organization. In this way, one skips past how, at its core, anarchism is a fundamental set of ideas and values that begins with understanding the validity of our lives and those of our fellow human beings, and how one should regard the validity (or lack thereof) of interactions and dynamics between people (i.e. hierarchy and authority).
Anarchists and those learning about anarchism should prioritize the bare-bone fundamentals of anarchist thinking, and these tenets should be the starting point. Such fundamentals almost always simply and neatly refer back to how one regards hierarchies and power in general, and which ones (if any) can justify themselves. If they can’t justify their existence, they ought not exist. Put another way, underneath it all, the anarchist — regardless of what social or economic question is at hand — should apply a critical eye to: 1) identifying and understanding hierarchies and power dynamics, 2) assessing if said hierarchy or dynamic is able to justify itself or is justifiable, and 3) if it is not, then calling for it to be dismantled.
One and two are relatively easy to navigate — in fact, a proud part of many areas of the anarchist tradition is the conviction that most of our fellow human beings have the capacity to judge interactions and dynamics as just or unjust with the same sort of base-level intuition. It’s this intuition that tells everyone (and can be teased out in an accessible fashion) that a parent or guardian grabbing a three-year-old before they run into traffic is a justified use of authority and force. It’s that same intuition that tells us that a parent or guardian beating one of their adult children to a pulp for spilling a beverage on the floor — and then claiming they can do so because it’s “their child” and they can do what they want with them — is an exercise of authority that cannot be justified, and warrants the end of their authority. Ultimately, if any authority or dynamic is considered justifiable — like the parent grabbing a young child from running across the road — then the task of the anarchist is thinking about the conditions of justified and unjustified force, and when one crosses the boundaries in between.
Three is a little trickier to navigate, and, of course, doesn’t stop with simply the statement that an authority ought to be dismantled. Each social and economic arrangement, institution, and so forth claiming authority that you yourself don’t have is not as simple to be rid of as a bad parent in a mental experiment might be. And, many will argue, much of what is enjoyed and provided to us in modern society is done in less-than-just or even deeply unjust ways. If that is the case, and, say, a state ought to be dismantled, the anarchist is tasked with understanding the desirable effects or actions (if any) being delivered by such an arrangement, institution, or dynamic, and then think on how the same could be enjoyed from arrangements and structures built up via voluntary actions between individuals that can be justified.
Building up from such fundamental principles makes eventual touring through, and grappling with, more complex anarchist (or market-based) works on macroeconomic and macro-social observations a lot more understandable and coherent. In fact, it is the absence of these principles that make anarchism, in certain presentations, seem to be a kind of stripped-down set of ideas and proposals for social and economic frameworks that just don’t have a state — full stop.
Consider a contract between a business owner and hired help that stipulates a wage to be paid and hours of weekly work. Many market anarchists could consider such an arrangement acceptable and even preferable in certain circumstances, but questionable and perhaps disturbingly exploitative in others, while also serving as an example of larger problems with the dynamics of production and trade (and masters and wage-earners) in modern capitalist society. Some tend to be confused as to how this could be logically coherent, and find themselves concluding that market anarchists themselves are confused, and ultimately immature utopians — wanting their market cake while eating their anarchist (socialist) rhetoric too. In reality, to get to what’s really going on with any of these stances without an understanding of the anarchist fundamentals discussed in this essay would be extremely difficult. One would be drawn into many different directions and questions that parse through exactly why such-and-such a contract might be valid or not, or how one could question the validity of a voluntary contract. It is only by starting from anarchist fundamentals that one can set up a framework of thinking that leads to understanding how an employment arrangement and a dynamic in a truly freed market setting is one thing, but perhaps another in the broader context of a state-capitalist corporatocracy.
These anarchist fundamentals are often tightly paired with the assertion (or at least hunch) that they are most compatible with maximum opportunity for individuals to flourish in their own way, with minimal constraint. One might be (at least I certainly am) so bold as to say that they are also, in fact, necessary assumptions, and most compatible with natural human tendencies: creativity, problem-solving, community feeling, cooperation, inquisitiveness, and desire for justice and fairness.
Ultimately these fundamentals are starting points for anarchist thinking. Discussions on how affordable shoes would be produced without the kind of huge corporations that exist within our systems today; how a community might decide on who has the right to use the communal stream and how they’re allowed to; what kind of structures exist for group decision making and what they would be applied to (and not); all these discussions come after these fundamentals. Without them you have a superficial version of anarchy up for discussion. That superficial version is only capable of criticism (some might say cynicism) that only goes as far as pointing out the negative tendencies of states and current arrangements as far as issues like taxation are concerned — it’s just the most radical political and social version of telling your mom to get out of your room.
To be clear, yes, absolutely, one important aspect of anarchist thinking is sharp criticism against current systems and arrangements, but that is nothing without being able to explain why many of the current arrangements are such an affront to human dignity and justice, and on what fundamental tendencies and principles we should base our proposed alternative arrangements and systems. If the only thing that you can do with a hammer is break things, then you don’t know how to use it.