Upon discovering that I call myself an anarchist, people give me different reactions. Many are curious about what that means. To which I say it means I’m against any person having control over another; whether that is physically, economically or socially. It means I want to work towards a world where people have more control over their own lives and less over others’.
Maybe unsurprisingly, the conversation then often turns to what an anarchist society would look like. How would decisions be made? What would you do about crime? Would there be any borders or private property?
This is all fair enough. I mean, you want to interrogate ideas by asking questions, plus visions of an alternative society help stimulate our imaginations as to what is possible and what we want to work towards.
But in a way these questions are a bit annoying because I think they miss the point on why anarchism is relevant as an ideology. Because anarchy (“without rulers”) doesn’t begin on some distant day when we somehow manage to convince everyone who currently holds power over others to give it up. Anarchy is a philosophy relevant and revolutionary to our lives right now.
“I learned a new phrase,” an elderly activist friend said to me recently. “‘Prefigurative politics’. But I think it’s just a new term for the old idea of being the change you want to see. Right?”
Prefigurativism (or whatever name you want to give it) is a helpful idea in a world of wars for peace and control to protect freedom. It’s also useful to how we inspire imaginations and conversations about the kind of world we want. It’s a good concept; and yet with its eyes still firmly planted on a prospective future society, it also doesn’t quite grasp what is for me the value of anarchism.
Because to me anarchism is neither locked up in a future dimension, nor is it prefigurative. Never mind what the dictionary says; to me anarchy is a verb in the present tense.
The idea of anarchy at its most basic – “without rulers” – leads us intuitively to the conclusion that no one can give it to us or do it for us. No one is in a better position than us to put it into practice. So this means to start living it out we don’t need to wait for anyone’s directions or consent.
But more than that, it means why would we want to? The minute we cede the terms of anarchy to anyone else we might as well give up on it.
Now you might point out here that it’s not as easy as just announcing a personal state of anarchy while there are vast structures of power held in place by the forces of the state. You might also say that as a white male in one of the world’s richest countries I have to be conscious that even the freedoms available to me are not necessarily there for everyone. And in saying that you would be correct. To really struggle for a world of more level power structures means working to dissemble the inequalities that currently exist – especially the ones that consciously or not give me power over others. To do this is undoubtedly hard work and means real reflection on what our world is really like and how we can change it.
But still, when I first met anarchists and decided I was one too, it was not at all a theory that inspired me. It was the praxis (what a wonderful word that is) of anarchism – radical social centres, food not bombs, squatting, DIY culture. I already knew there was something wrong with our society and believed a better one was possible; these guys helped me believe it was possible right now.
These things of course are not everyone’s vision of an ideal society, and in fact the sentiments I’ve just described are often derided as “lifestyle anarchism” or self-centred pap. But the truth is, I don’t know whether I really believe in an anarchist society. The urge for power is very elusive and amorphous – its very difficult to eliminate. If the rest of the world wasn’t evidence enough of that then consider those organisations that openly identify as anarchists – they constantly have to deal with struggles for and abuses of power. I’m not convinced that bringing an end to capitalism would tame these impulses either.
I definitely believe a better society is possible, and an anarchist revolution may be a way of bringing that about. But to me anarchism is not a static situation one day to be realised – it is a constant motion that moves towards the levelling of power imbalances. After the revolution the need for that motion would be just as much as now.
All this may sound self-defeating from someone who has for so many years now (metaphorically) flown the black flag. But the anarchism I believe in is powerful and active. I see in it the ability to inspire, provoke, liberate and transform lives, communities and societies. This simple idea can radically change the way we relate to people around us and society as a whole; the way we assess our values and priorities; the way we structure our communities.
And by its very nature, I see these changes taking place right now, by ordinary people willing to take up anarchism’s challenge of not deferring responsibility to anyone else, but rather doing it ourselves.