Anarchy: Definitions, History, and Anarchists Today

June 21, 2018

Photo Source: Wikimedia Commons


     The term anarchy brings with it a lot of images.  There is the anarchy symbol and songs of the early and modern punk rock movement.  There is the infamous anarchy movement of the 1890’s that lead to an assassination that kicked off the first World War which lead to the second World War.  And today, there is the hard-left anarchist and the hard-right anarchist—both forming communities on the internet and especially YouTube.  


     The definition of the word anarchy is a: absence of government b: a state of lawlessness or political disorder due to the absence of governmental authority c: a utopian society of individuals who enjoy complete freedom without government. (Merriam Webster) There is another definition of the term anarchy when anarchy is used in International Relations (IR). When anarchy is used in IR, it means the absence of a global power.  Today, our world is technically an anarchic world in that it is a collection of independent states that do not have a global, unifying authority ruling over the world with an administrative, judiciary, legislative, and military body enforcing its laws.  


     In the 1890’s, a movement arose of both individual actors and small organized groups that labeled themselves ‘Anarchists.’ Paris was the hotbed of the movement; however, significant people attached to the anarchist movement were all over Europe especially in Russia and Spain.  In 1867, a key invention was made: dynamite by the Swedish chemist and engineer Alfred Nobel (the Nobel Prize Nobel).  It was immediately called, “the great equalizer” by anarchists because it could be used by the small and weak against the large state. (Dynamite Club: The Anarchists, Nov. 21, 2008, Yalecourses [Yale University], YouTube) The anarchists of the 1890’s were disgusted by capitalism and the state and the wealthy people who propped up the state.  Their goal was not to overtake the state but to destroy it.  They viewed violence as an important spark that would (hopefully) cause a revolution by the masses.  The anarchists gathered in several small groups, attended large speeches, and there were several anarchist newspapers at the time.  These were largely tolerated by the French government.  There were, however, terrorist attacks and assassinations that lead to public executions of anarchists.  Most notably was Emile Henry.  He is considered to be the father of modern terrorism.  Instead of bombing or killing state leaders or uniformed representatives of the state such as police officers or judges, he chose to kill citizens at cafes he deemed to be the well-off that were keeping the brutal state afloat.  The motivation for the anarchists of the 1890’s was primarily stark income and life inequality. (Dynamite Club: The Anarchists, Nov. 21, 2008, Yalecourses [Yale University], YouTube)


     I spent a fascinating journey on YouTube looking up anarchist individuals.  There were some similarities between the left and right anarchists—mainly the promise of the internet and bitcoin to allow people to live outside the state as best as possible.  For the most part, violence was not part of the agenda.  Rather, a combination of believing world collapse (especially the large, liberal democracies) was imminent and believing there were ways and means to separate themselves as much as possible from the current (corrupt and dying) state.  There were a few utopian anarchists who saw hope in the future as a world where people lived in small communes with pure democracy void of hierarchy (and violence).  There were some that brandished weapons and stated the need for weapons; however, it was not for the use of terrorism as in the anarchists of the 1890’s, rather, protection from the State.  I did not find on the normal web anarchist groups or individuals propagating violent terrorism as a way to quicken the destruction of the state; however, I have every reason to believe they are out there and communicating in more obscure parts of the web including the so-called dark web. Some argued taxes and increasing ideological state oppression (political correctness) were why they believed the state was terrible and should collapse (the hard-right anarchists), and some argued that extreme income inequality and environmental destruction was why the state was terrible and should collapse (the hard-left anarchists). What unified them was their anarchism—they were not trying to take over and control the state.  They were either waiting for the collapse of the state, wanted to live outside of the control of the state, or wanted to help destroy the state.  


     In between listening to one YouTube post after of another of self-defined anarchists and watching college lectures on anarchy, I watched a very cool lecture about the collapse of civilization in the Bronze Age as well as a lecture about anarchy and how it is defined and viewed from the perspective of International relations. In Dr. James Fearon’s lecture titled Anarchy is a Choice: International Politics and the Problem of World Government anarchy is presented in a few ways. One way is to view anarchy as equaling how much a group needs to spend on military protection.  The smaller the group, the more painful amount of human and material treasure needs to be spent on military protection.  In the forming of the U.S. at the constitutional convention of 1789, the issue was hammered out.  The conflicting needs were the states not wanting to have to arm themselves against each other and wanting their values, or cultural preferences, respected.  It was there they came up with the federal system that both provided military protection as well as provided an equal voice for smaller states.  This was why the Senate was created.  Large and small states both had equal representation. Anarchy can remain stable as long as the states involved are large enough, the more bands of people become fractionated, the more they become unstable, and war becomes constant.  (Anarchy is a Choice: International Politics and the Problem of World Government by Dr. James Fearon, Columbia University, Nov. 22, 2011, YouTube) This can be seen in the Germanic tribes during the Roman period as well as the warlord period in China and Japan. When the groups are too small, a state of constant war arises, and a key side effect of a war-based society and economy is that economic innovation is stifled as well as stable trade. Not to mention, of course, the other side effect of war which is massive amounts of death, disease, and suffering.


     The other great lecture (1177 BC: The Year Civilization Collapsed, Dr. Eric Cline, Oct. 11, 2016, NCAVideo, YouTube) was on how the Bronze Age world collapsed and entered a dark age.  The Bronze Age was a very modern time not unlike our world today.  While it was a ‘small world’ it is still considered a Global World. Globalized worlds rarely occur. Global Worlds are worlds where the nations of the world know each other, trade with each other, and are in communication with each other.  Additionally, the world of the Bronze Age shared a host of stable, powerful, wealthy, and peaceful group of nations—a ‘G9.’ For years, the collapse of the Bronze Age civilization was blamed on the ‘Sea People.’ The Sea People were largely attributed to groups of island people in the Mediterranean. However, after exhaustive research and modern scientific methods, it became clear that the Sea People were a symptom of the problem and not the reason for the ultimate collapse.  It was actually a combination of things that finally collapsed the G9 (excepting for Egypt; however, Egypt would never regain the glory it had in the Bronze Age). The combination of killers was: drought, famine (brought on by the drought), intruders as well as internal revolts, earthquakes (so many as to characterize it as an ‘earthquake storm’), and finally the collapse of international trade routes.  It turns out the Sea People were a lot like what happened in Syria meaning some did form violent bands that attacked the large empires (like ISIS) but most came as refugees fleeing to find food and stability (like the Syrian refugee crisis today).  What is also made clear is that States can survive one, two, or even three of those destructive events; however, when they come on all together wave after wave, no empire can survive.  Throughout the lecture, Professor Cline gave allusions to our world with our problems that very well marry the problems that plagued the Bronze Age. Do we have currently just a few of the Bronze Age contributors to collapse or do we have all of them? Are the modern anarchists correct that imminent collapse of our global system is near? Or, does it take a lot to take down a large empire and Globalized World, and the anarchists are just some earnest but fundamentally insignificant rebels who refuse to get with the program? Big questions. Fascinating questions. And possibly important questions.



Jennifer Barnick is a painter and writer. She studied painting at the San Francisco Art Institute. She founded Twenty-two Twenty-eight. “One of the most exciting aspects of Twenty-two Twenty-eight is building a channel for artists and writers to share their work with the world.”


Check out Jennifer’s book. You can read the first short story for free on Amazon here.




Share on Facebook
Share on Twitter
Please reload