Misconceptions of Anarchism

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There is an immense amount of literature and video content that argues in favor of anarchism. However, when poring through it all, it becomes quite evident that they are not all arguing for the same kind of society. Some of these versions of anarchism are barely related to one another, and to move towards one would be to pull away from another.

At times it seems that many advocates of anarchism are unaware that other self-identified anarchists hold significantly different views. Even among a subset of anarchists, the anarcho-capitalists (ancaps), there appear to be several different visions of what such a society would look like. What does it mean when both communists and conservatives are making their own case for anarchism?

It might then be worthwhile to take a moment and point out the significant differences between these schools of thought, especially among the ancaps.

Anarchists: Left and Right

Much like the term libertarian, the term anarchist was originally used by anti-capitalist leftists. Libertarian and anarchist thought was generally built on the ideas of Proudhon and Kropotkin, among others. This form of anarchism opposed private property, hierarchy, and typically aligned with socialist thought, though have since divided into several schools of thought. This is why “libertarian socialism” is not a contradiction in terms, when understood outside the modern American context.

These terms were then taken and redefined in America by a new set of thinkers, with Albert Jay Nock and H.L. Mencken identifying as libertarians, and then later Murray Rothbard identifying as an anarcho-capitalist, influenced by the individualist anarchist Lysander Spooner. Unlike other schools of anarchism, anarcho-capitalism favors laissez-faire capitalism based on private property rights, and is only opposed to the initiation of aggression, rather than hierarchy itself.

Anarchist by Definition

Among the infighting between leftist and Rothbardian anarchists on who are the “real” anarchists, it cannot be ignored that the leftists were there first. However, the Rothbardian ancaps will often point out that the term anarchism by definition does not mean “no rules,” but rather “no rulers.” So long as the leader of a voluntarily-organized hierarchy cannot be defined as a ruler, the ancaps do fit within the definition of anarchist.

But then there is the problem of popular definition. When the average person thinks of an anarchist society, do they picture a system based on private property with legal, social, and/or cultural rules, or do they picture John Lennon’s Imagine, or a place like Slab City?

Anarchists: Custom and Tradition

Most anarchists, including many ancaps, see anarchism as opposing not just violence, but also many social, cultural, and legal bonds. A global anarchist society would surely have voluntarily-organized communities, but could also be seen as a borderless world with seven billion individuals. This is the basis for much conservatism criticism of anarchist philosophy. They see such dismissal of social cohesion, local community, and tradition as hopelessly utopian and destructive.

But then, within anarcho-capitalism, there is a more conservative variety of anarchism (briefly known as paleolibertarianism), best represented by Justin Raimondo, Hans-Hermann Hoppe, and Murray Rothbard, that holds all of the basic ancap views, as well as four additional positions:

  • The egalitarian ethic as morally reprehensible and destructive of private property and social authority.
  • Social authority, as embodied in the family, church, community, and other intermediating institutions, helps protect the individual from the State and is necessary for a free and virtuous society.
  • Western culture as eminently worthy of preservation and defense.
  • Objective standards of morality, especially as found in the Judeo-Christian tradition, as essential to the free and civilized social order.

If the paleolibertarians are to be considered anarchists, then the only common thread among all forms of anarchism is opposition to the state. As to which groups are true anarchists, that is irrelevant for the moment. The main point is to acknowledge the vast differences in anarchist thought.

The State: Abolish or Privatize?

A common thread of misunderstanding among anarchists is the legitimacy of certain state functions. Though anarchists can all agree that the state shouldn’t be doing anything, should certain functions be privatized, or should they be prevented altogether? There are many questions for self-described anarchists to ponder.

  • Would an anarchist society have any form of police (or privatized security force), or would such entities be absolutely nonexistent?
  • Would an anarchist society have any form of legal system, private or otherwise? Would contracts be enforced by a third party, or based on an honor system?
  • Would an anarchist society have borders? Could a community or commune establish boundaries and prevent unwelcome outsiders from entering?
  • Would an anarchist world be a series of communities, or a series of individuals, or possibly both?
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Nathan A. Kreider is the host of The Conversation, a podcast about ideas and how to spread them. He also publishes a blog and video content, including short book reviews, which can be found on his website nkreider.com. He can be contacted by email via [email protected]

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