Anarchy is Anarchy

One of the many useful features of Google search is that you can quickly look up the etymology of words. I searched for “anarchy etymology” and Google returned a neat graphic (below), which shows the definition (in this case two definitions) of the word, its origins and a chart showing the usage of the word over time in literature. The latter data comes from Google’s Ngram tool, which allows you to chart the usage frequency of any given word or set of words across 5 million books and over 500 years.


One of the first things that struck me about these results is that anarchy has the most profound identity crisis. We don’t seem to know what it is. It’s either the political ideal for Man (number two). Or it’s completely undesirable chaos (number one). We just can’t seem to decide, so we define it as both (in true Orwellian double-think fashion) and just hope no one notices – or cares. But it can’t possibly be both the most desirable and least desirable state of society because that’s illogical, and so something’s not quite right here.

Perhaps we can uncover the true definition of anarchy by probing deeper. Let’s look at the etymology of the word to see if that gives us any clues. The original and literal meaning of the word anarchy is simple, it is: “without ruler”. Note that the first definition of anarchy supplied above adds a prefix to this: “the state of disorder due to…being ‘without ruler’. This definition refers to a supposed effect of the state of anarchy and not the actual state of anarchy itself. At some unknown point in the past, then, it appears we started to primarily define anarchy by its supposed effects, and not by the actual state itself. At some point this error crept in and has remained ever since. The second definition, however, is equal to the original (and accurate) meaning, but seemingly only exists in order to point out the fact that anarchy is regarded as a political ideal by some; as if to say “anarchy in reality is this undesirable state, but some people believe the opposite”. Like defining God as a fictional entity, but then explaining that some people believe the opposite. Surely this is quite revealing of the prevalent view of anarchy.

Let’s now look at what is implied if both definitions are true. To recap, the first definition is: A state of disorder due to absence of non-recognition of authority. The second definition is: Absence of government and absolute freedom of the individual.

If both definitions are true, then “absolute freedom” for the individual (regarded as a political ideal) leads to disorder, chaos, turmoil, rioting etc. In short, that which would prevent the existence of peaceful societies. Before we assess whether this conclusion is true we need to define what is meant by “absolute freedom”.

If “absolute freedom” means individuals with the legal and ethical freedom or right to perform any action they want to (e.g. murder and theft) without anyone having the right to use force to resist, then peaceful societies would, of course, be impossible. But an ethical system that does not allow for the forceful prevention of any actions at all is the equivalent of having no ethics at all. And so what “absolute freedom” can only mean, then, in this case, is the total absence of any concept of morality in the human mind; it means a reality where all human beings are incapable of empathy. In other words the proposition is: if hurting and killing others was not strongly undesirable to human beings and therefore we didn’t desire to establish the ethical right for everyone to resist such actions, then this would lead to social chaos. But this is merely stating the obvious. Peaceful societies would be impossible if humans didn’t pass down their universal aversion to violence and theft from generation to generation and there was no ethical right to resist it, but, evidently, we do and there is. Today’s societies are possible because only a very small minority of human beings regularly engage in violence – and because the ethics upon which they are founded (i.e. the law) permits the use of force (by the State) to prevent and punish such acts. (Leaving aside the murder and theft committed by the State itself, which the State’s laws prohibit the resistance of).

Therefore, the argument if “absolute freedom” for the individual existed, then peaceful society would be impossible, is true, but it is merely hypothetical. It actually only says something useful about reality when the argument’s premise is false; it says that morality must exist in the minds of a people for the existence of ordered communities where it is permitted to use force in order to prevent or punish acts of violence.

Today’s widely accepted dictionary definition of anarchy goes beyond simply defining what the word anarchy means and asserts or assumes that the state of being “without ruler” leads to “a state of disorder”. This seems to reflect the fact that the vast majority still believe in the necessity and virtue of the coercive entity known as the State. Indeed, it represents one of the many assumptions that form the foundation of people’s moral acceptance of and intellectual support for the State – e.g. without the State there could be no social order, no affordable education or healthcare, no infrastructure, no help for the poor etc.

The graph for the use over time for the word ‘anarchy’ is interesting. It seems the word is occurring in literature approximately half as frequently as it was two centuries ago. More specifically, immediately following a slight rise, the word’s frequency took a sharp dive from around the 1970’s onwards. What might this be a reflection of? This roughly correlates with the relatively sudden and exponential growth in the size and scope of  governments in many of the major democracies. It could mean that, now that the western world’s governments are bigger than ever, the masses fear anarchy far less than they have for a long time. In the 19th century, it seems, anarchy was being mentioned much more often, which perhaps reveals that many more people than today feared it could happen. Under today’s very big and pervasive governments the masses feel almost totally safe and secure, perhaps, and far fewer of them fear a state of anarchy could ever materialise.

Liberty advocates would, I’m sure, interpret this as a bad sign. Trust and belief in the virtue of the State has never been higher, it seems. I would suggest that this is because the government is more active in people’s lives than it has ever been; it’s doing (and spending) more than any governments in history ever have. It’s giving people an income, it’s paying their rent, it’s paying for the raising of their children, it’s helping them buy a home, its raising their wages, it’s imprisoning people for doing non-violent things like possessing and smoking drugs because other people prefer that they didn’t; and much more besides. A great deal more people are more reliant or totally reliant on government than ever. Aside from the significant material need for the State’s handouts, the masses have a greater psychological need than ever to trust government and believe in its virtue; for if the government is not virtuous, then the way they are living their lives and raising their children is also not. As creatures who desire to be good that represents the possibility of realising our worst fear: that we aren’t. Continued blind faith in government is how we hope to avoid ever confronting that horror. If the government can’t be completely trusted, then we are not shielded from all harm in the comfy creases of the duvet of democracy as was believed, but are in fact sitting defenceless in the skeletal hand of the State.

Anarchy means “without ruler”. It means an ordered community free from a coercive authority. It means a world where all human interactions are voluntary or contracted, and therefore peaceful. Anarchy is the preferred state in which billions of people continuously choose to maintain their private relationships with friends, family and co-workers, which is what makes our struggle and failure to define it correctly so curious.

One comment

  1. Great post.

    The explanation for the ‘doublethink’ definition of anarchy is depressingly simple. Just as history is written by the victors, dictionaries are written by the rulers.

    The definition of anarchy is simply the absence of violent and coercive rulers (due to the recognition that coercion, violence and theft are not legitimate ways to treat others). Not being coercively ruled by others is something we all strive to achieve (and enjoy) in our daily lives. We all greatly value and enjoy the anarchy we do have (the freedom to marry who we want, live where we want, choose a career, choose what to wear) …… but sadly from the age of about four we are trained for hours and hours every day by government schooling to fear and reject the anarchy we don’t have (the freedom to own all of our wages or the freedom to not fund a war if we don’t agree with killing people).

    “…..“anarchy in reality is this undesirable state, but some people believe the opposite”….. (is like)….. defining God as a fictional entity, but then explaining that some people believe the opposite….”

    Kind of….. but the comparison doesn’t quite work. ‘Anarchy’ merely describes a condition – the condition of having no coercive and violent ruling class. Whether the condition of anarchy is desirable or undesirable obviously depends on what your desires are! eg. the desire to rule (or be ruled) vs the desire to be free of rulers. To define anarchy as undesirable incorrectly (or rather, deceptively) presumes everybody’s desire is to be a ruler and/or to be ruled by them.

    But ‘God’ does not describe a condition, it describes a being (or one of the many thousands of beings worshipped throughout history). Defining ‘god’ as fictional is valid because the amount of empirical evidence for the existence of any of the thousands of gods currently stands at zero. If after thousands of years there is still zero evidence for the existence of any of religions’ gods then, objectively speaking, God is a fictional entity (at least until evidence is forthcoming). This is why we define god as a matter of ‘faith’, ‘belief’, ‘superstition’….. lack of evidence.

    “…The second definition is: Absence of government and absolute freedom of the individual….”

    You already went on to deconstruct the phrase ‘absolute freedom’ (and you made some excellent points), but it is also fun to deconstruct the word ‘government’ too.

    Defining anarchy in terms of the ‘absence of government’ implies it is possible for a ‘government’ to be present, or to exist in the first place. It implies ‘government’ is real (like a tree) and that anarchists remove it or destroy it in order to create a condition of anarchy (like chopping down a tree to make a clearing).

    But the truth is that ‘governments’ do not actually exist – at least not as agents capable of acting on other people. The only thing which is real about a ‘government’, or a ‘choir’ or a ‘football team’, or a ‘book club’ is the people involved. Only *people* can score goals, sing songs or coercively and violently rule other people with guns and tasers.

    A ‘government’ is just a collective term for a group of PEOPLE who claim (and violently defend) a monopoly on the legal and moral right to *initiate force* against everyone else to achieve their objectives.

    And so anarchy does not really mean the absence of ‘government’ …. because ‘governments’ do not exist – only people exist. Anarchy is simply the recognition that no person or group of people can legitimately claim a monopoly on the right to coerce others and steal their property.

    Why does this distinction matter?…. Well, if you ask anybody in the street if people can have a legitimate right to coerce other people and steal their property they will almost always answer “no”.

    So why isn’t everyone an anarchist if everybody classifies coercion, violence and theft as immoral and socially unacceptable behaviour? …. Well, the reality is that most of the time everybody IS an anarchist! Our everyday business and personal interactions and transactions are all anarchic in nature. And if anyone tries to introduce an element of coercion (if anybody attempts to rule others around them) we call it ‘extortion’, ‘blackmail’, ‘rape’ ‘forced marriage’, ‘terrorism’, ‘street mugging’, ‘slavery’ and we condemn this behaviour as totally unacceptable.

    As long as we view people as people we are all proud upstanding anarchists. We only drop our noble anarchic principles when we view people NOT as people, but as representative or agents of ‘government’ (and previously ‘the church’). When we decide people are acting ON BEHALF of a ‘government’ we stop applying even the most basic moral standards to them. We let them behave immorally – we literally let them get away with murder and we do not object……. in fact we often cheer and wave flags at them.

    But logically speaking, the ‘government’ does not exist as an agent capable of acting. A ‘government’ is just a bunch of people – just like a choir or a football team. And so the people who call themselves ‘government’ are acting ‘as themselves’ – just like the rest of us are! This means when the people who call themselves ‘government’ coerce, steal, murder, assault, kidnap and extort it is THEY who are performing those actions, and not some entity called ‘government’…….. for no such entity actually exists.

    If I join a choir and then go and murder someone, I cannot claim the choir committed that murder. I cannot claim I was only acting ‘on behalf’ of the choir or ‘doing the choir’s will’.

    Suppose some people on my street invent an entity called Zagatejogiwana and they club together to buy a warehouse which they turn into an administrative building for Zagatejogiwana. Next they start going door to door demanding money at gunpoint from everybody in order to pay for the administration of Zagatejogiwana (and lots more weapons!). Some of this stolen money is offered back to the local people as bribes in order to secure more support for Zagatejogiwana in the form of ‘votes’.

    Anybody who objects to this kind of coercive, violent and thieving behaviour is an anarchist. But it is innacurate to say they “oppose Zagatejogiwana” or that they “hate Zagatejogiwana” or that they are “anti-Zagatejogiwana” or that they “wish to destroy Zagatejogiwana” or “overthrow Zagatejogiwana” or even “remove Zagatejogiwana”.

    They are none of these things because they do not even believe “Zagatejogiwana” exists in the first place.

    They issue they have is with the PEOPLE who keep going around pointing guns at everyone, stealing everyone’s money and generally coercing everyone using the threat of violence. Whether they do it under the banner of ‘Zagatejogiwana’, or ‘The People’s Front of Judaea’ or ‘the government’ or ‘the mafia’ or ‘Zeus’ or ‘Allah’ or ‘God’ or ‘Hollywood’ or ‘the Harry Potter fan club’ is irrelevant.

    The reason for labouring this point so much is that the overwhelming majority of the population ALREADY rejects the use of coercion, theft, violence, murder, assault (AKA ‘the initiation of force’) and they ALREADY live by the principles of anarchy in their day to day lives. They do not point guns at other people to obtain their lunch, ride the bus, make business transactions, shop for clothes or have sex with people they are attracted to. And they condemn anyone else who behaves this way.

    Strictly speaking the anarchist is not in opposition to ‘government’, because like Zagatejogiwana a ‘government does not exist. The anarchist simply opposes the use of coercion, violence and theft. The anarchist realises that ‘governments’ do not coerce people, assault them, murder them or steal their property……… all of these actions are performed by people. An anarchist is just someone who acknowledges this, and then applies normal everyday moral rules accordingly to those people, instead of being morally inconsistent and morally hypocritical like statists are.

    The anarchist is not attempting to redefine basic morality, nor impose a new set of radical moral rules onto society. The anarchist is simply APPLYING ordinary existing moral rules which everyone already accepts (don’t hit, don’t steal, don’t murder etc) to everyone consistently – including anybody who happens to call themselves ‘government’.

    You could say the anarchist is pointing out that ‘government’ is really just another word for ‘god’. After centuries of bloodshed we finally recognise that people who coerce, assault, murder or steal in the name of ‘God’ should still be judged as responsible for those actions. Claiming to be ‘a representative of god’ or ‘doing god’s work’ is not a legitimate excuse for immoral behaviour.

    Anarchists recognise that people who coerce, assault, murder or steal in the name of ‘government’ should also be judged as responsible for those actions. Claiming to be ‘a representative of government’ or ‘doing government’s work’ is also not a legitimate excuse for immoral behaviour.

    I suppose I am saying the definition of ‘anarchy’ needs to include a definition of ‘government’ and a quick reminder of ordinary everyday moral standards. Otherwise it is a bit like trying to define the Heimlich Manoeuvre without mentioning anything about any lodged food, or explaining that the lungs and stomach share the same entrance!

    Defining anarchy in terms of ‘the absence of government’ is not exactly incorrect – but it IS potentially misleading, given how we are all trained to regard government as ‘real’.

    A more enlightening definition of anarchy is ‘the absence of a belief in government as an entity capable of acting’. Once you accept that ‘government’ cannot act – because only people can act – then normal moral rules kick in with respect to theft, coercion, assault, murder etc……… and we all end up realising we were anarchists all along.

    Contrary to popular propaganda, anarchists do not wish to ‘destroy or overthrow government’ anymore than atheists wish to ‘destroy or overthrow god’. They simply do not regard coercion, violence and theft as legitimate ways to behave towards others.

    Not believing in unicorns does not make a person ‘anti-unicorn’ nor does it make them a would-be ‘destroyer of unicorns’.

    You cannot fight against, destroy or overthrow something which you do not accept even exists.


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