“Anarchism”, from the Greek an and arches, means “no chief”—hence “no rule”. But there is more than one way of interpreting this, and it has been anarchism’s big problem that people tend to settle on the wrong one—the idea of anarchy as mere chaos. It was in this sense that John Milton used it—as the state of affairs . . .

Where eldest Night
And Chaos, Ancestors of Nature, hold
Eternal Anarchie, amidst the noise
Of endless warrs and by confusion stand.
For hot, cold, moist, and dry, four Champions fierce
Strive here for Maistrie

John Milton, Paradise Lost, 1667.A15

Let us instead look to the main body of anarchist literature. We cannot really speak of “mainstream” anarchism because anarchist writers, as you might expect, have tended to disagree with each other. But there is a fundamental proposition in common: governments have a poor, even catastrophic, record, guided by almost any motive other than the interests of the people to whom they are in principle responsible. If governments could somehow be persuaded or forced to back off, the people could make a far better job of things.A16

There are some famous names in this literature, and they deserve a mention:

• William Godwin (1756–1836) argued that the guide to our actions should be reason, the logic of the Enlightenment. Once people have a rational understanding of their duties, there is no need for such sensibilities as honour, generosity, gratitude, promises, or even affections; nor for such limitations on individual judgment as marriage, orchestras or the theatre; nor, of course, for government. He did admit that this enlightened deference to reason would not be easy to achieve; it would require ceaseless vigilance and self-examination, he supposed, but beyond that, there were no suggestions about how it was to be done, and Godwin’s rule of logic lives on in the literature as perhaps the most heroic of all statements of the perfect society, a fantasy with remarkable staying power, for here we are considering it two centuries later.A17

• Max Stirner (1806–1856) took individualism as far as it would go: no state, government, private property, religion, family, ethics, love or associations beyond what individuals happen to want, when they want it.A18

• Leo Tolstoy (1828–1910) looked to the Gospels for the peace and love which is all that is needed, he claimed, to sustain society without governments, laws, police, armies and private property.A19

• Pierre-Joseph Proudhon (1809–1865) was an early and strong supporter of localisation: the best safeguard of liberty and justice lies in food producers and craftsmen working together in cooperatives.A20

• Mikhail Bakunin (1814–1876) looked to the violent overthrow of the state, and its replacement as a bottom-up federation of trade unions (anarcho-syndicalism).A21

• Peter Kropotkin (1842–1921) developed his advocacy of communal living and the abolition of private property in an extended and valuable discussion of land, biodynamic farming, decentralised urban planning, technology and the history of effective local action.A22

The common factor for most of these (but not Matthew Arnold, see “Culture and Good Sense” sidebar) is the desire to see the end of government, and the most explicit statement of this is Bakunin’s anarcho-syndicalism, which sees trade unions as the spearhead of revolution, destroying both the government and the capitalism that sustains it. In this way, the strengths of traditional anarchism’s positive visions and insights were impaired by the tendency to focus on one ideal solution—an ideology in its own right—as the magic preliminary pain that had to be endured before anarchism itself could have a chance. A broader, more real vision was suggested by Alexander Herzen (1812–1870), who warned of the consequences of abstraction, and insisted, instead, on the case for focusing on the local, the feasible, the practical, the tangible, the proven—on the freedom to make and care for the particular place. It was this grounded vision which, a century later, was taken up by Colin Ward.A23

Matthew Arnold’s orderly anarchism

For Matthew Arnold (1822–1888), the cohesive principle is a common culture. By “culture” what he had in mind was the very highest standards, “a pursuit of our total perfection by means of getting to know, on all the matters which most concern us, the best which has been thought and said in the world”.A25

Later critics picked him up on this: culture is not limited to the best; it is, less ambitiously, the common story and tradition of a community. But Arnold’s point holds: the way in which a community can preserve itself from anarchy (in its chaotic, Miltonian sense), is to build a community which is interesting enough to recognise itself as a particular place with its own identity, loyalties and obligations. The previous sentence fills in the logic which Arnold does not spell out, but the outcome, as he put it, is that a community learns “to like what right reason ordains”.A26

For Ward (1924–2010), anarchy (or, perhaps less confrontationally, “anarchism”) is the study of organisation—of rule of a particular kind: self-rule; the orderly habits and interactions that come into being with the formation and maintenance of human groups. Anarchism, as Ward explains,

is about the ways in which people organise themselves,A24

and . . .

Anarchists are people who make a social and political philosophy out of the natural and spontaneous tendency of humans to associate together for their mutual benefit.A27

As Ward points out, the reality underlying this is undeniable: the speed, efficiency and imagination with which people bring order to a situation which has potential for chaos is revealed whenever a group of people are aligned, in the sense of having common interests and a common purpose. Such alignment applies, for instance, at times of protest—at Climate Camp in the United Kingdom in 2008, for example, or in the uprisings in Budapest in 1956 and in Prague in 1968, when good order and altruism were as solid as the commitment to sustain the revolutions. During the Hungarian uprising, it was the custom in Budapest . . .

. . . to put big boxes on street corners, and just a script over them, “This is for the wounded and for the families of the dead.” They were set out in the morning and by noon they were full of money.A28

Happenings like these are exceptional, of course. Eventually the revolutions are either suppressed or successful, and things go back to normal; and yet they have something to tell us which could be useful. Among the students of revolution who have noticed the remarkably competent groupings and councils that come into being if given a chance, Hannah Arendt writes,

Each time they appeared, they sprang up as the spontaneous organs of the people, not only outside of all revolutionary parties but entirely unexpected by them and their leaders. They were utterly neglected by statesmen, historians, political theorists and, most importantly, by the revolutionary tradition itself. [Even sympathetic historians] regarded them as nothing more than essentially temporary organs in the revolutionary struggle for liberation; that is to say, they failed to understand to what extent the council system confronted them with an entirely new form of government, with a new public space for freedom.A29

The emphasis here is on what can be done in practice (a bottom-up way of thinking), rather than on ambitions that require a lot of demolition first.

On the other hand, the state’s natural reflex is indeed to make things difficult, even without intending to do so. The essential freedoms and resources which enable local action are eroded by governments, and, in some cases, such as education, their elimination is comprehensive. And in terms of sheer practical possibility, too, the option of effective local community is becoming more remote: it is harder to make practical sense of things, for instance, in a locality which has lost its post office, hospital, school, surgery, shops, abattoir, railway station, local trades, church, magistrates court, probation services and local presence in farmland, and where it is difficult to decide on a collective celebration, owing to (amongst other things) prohibitions on grounds of health and safety, the fees and lead-times needed for an entertainments licence, and the sense that there is no cultural expression which does not exclude or offend many or most of the people living there (Multiculturalism).

And yet, anarchism, in the cool, practical, local sense intended by Colin Ward, recognises that we innate community builders ought to concentrate on what we can positively do. We have a talent for order, and the inherited culture and accomplishments of the modern world are mainly the product of this talent. The history of social inventions—the institutions and social capital that give us existence as a recognisable and living society—is the history of anarchism in this sense. Medicine—both the science and the institutions—was the product of voluntary persistence, backed by charitable donations, as were the schools and universities. The whole of our inheritance of education was invented and made to happen by citizens, investing their time and talent in schools and colleges, in teaching as a creative skill in its own right, in sustaining diversity, and in increasing access. Even such fundamentals as insurance against accident, sickness and loss of income—arranged through the friendly societies, owned by their members—were voluntary enterprises and, from their start in the eighteenth century to their displacement by a state system in 1911, they had expanded their reach to almost universal coverage of working people in the UK. The organic movement began as a citizens’ inspiration, developing its authority and its scientific standing via its freedom to decide for itself.A30

The weak point in that capacity for invention—in the spontaneous order that is the primary aim and accomplishment of anarchism—is that it is exposed to the distrust and jealousy of centralising governments. If it works, it tends to be taken over, and the spontaneous order tends to die.

Anarchism has had its moments. There are insights there that are relevant to a future of insolvent government, a deeply diminished economy, and no alternative for communities other than to invent everything for themselves, including the meaning of community. Lean Logic will borrow from it, and will mix it with other lines of enquiry which most anarchists would have been horrified by. But, then, anarchists have always had trouble with their allies.A31


Related entries:

Lean Household, Commons, Assent, Constructivism, Democracy, Incentives Fallacy, Cheirarchy.

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David Fleming
Dr David Fleming (2 January 1940 – 29 November 2010) was a cultural historian and economist, based in London, England. He was among the first to reveal the possibility of peak oil's approach and invented the influential TEQs scheme, designed to address this and climate change. He was also a pioneer of post-growth economics, and a significant figure in the development of the UK Green Party, the Transition Towns movement and the New Economics Foundation, as well as a Chairman of the Soil Association. His wide-ranging independent analysis culminated in two critically acclaimed books, 'Lean Logic' and 'Surviving the Future', published posthumously in 2016. These in turn inspired the 2020 launches of both BAFTA-winning director Peter Armstrong's feature film about Fleming's perspective and legacy - 'The Sequel: What Will Follow Our Troubled Civilisation?' - and Sterling College's unique 'Surviving the Future: Conversations for Our Time' online courses. For more information on all of the above, including Lean Logic, click the little globe below!

2 Responses to “Anarchism

  • mikebrunt
    2 years ago

    Another inspirational and uplifting person who left us far too soon; Toby Hemenway. He created a tremendous podcast called “Liberation Permaculture” which spoke to anarchy; in it’s true meaning and application. It is now, very hard to find, having gone from SoundCloud and also the permaculturevoices web site. I found it on Youtube and will try to share it here.

    If this is not acceptable here and any are interested you can find me at