What Is Anarchy?

Anarchy is a belief system that rejects governmental authority in favor of self-governing or community consensus. It has become a synonym for chaos and the breakdown of civil order.

Anarchism as a political philosophy in opposition to the rule of government and the establishment of hierarchies. It developed fully in the 20th century, but its roots as an epithet for extremism go back further, at least to the French Revolution.

The word derives from a Greek word meaning "having no ruler."

Understanding Anarchy

As a political belief system, anarchy breaks roughly into two separate schools of thought. One rejects all government authority in favor of a belief in the individual's liberty and the right to self-govern. The other rejects government authority in favor of a belief in collectivism, or the primacy of the group over the individual.

  • Individualist anarchists believe in the freedom of the self and oppose the authority of government.
  • Social anarchists believe that political power and resources should be shared equally by all in a community.
  • Both schools of thought influenced movements and events throughout the 20th century.

Self-described anarchists have formed fringe groups in tumultuous political times, such as the Russian Revolution and the Spanish Civil War. They usually occupied a place to the extreme left of the left-wing of the cause they espoused.

Anarchy is also used colloquially as a term denoting societal breakdown and collapse. While the common critique of anarchy is that it results in lawlessness and chaos, anarchist philosophy's adherents suggest that societies can remain intact and even thrive under alternatives to traditional hierarchies.

As noted, there are two major schools of thought in anarchism, the individualist anarchists and the social anarchists.

The Individualist Anarchists

Among the individualists was Isaiah Berlin, a 20th-century British political philosopher, who described a concept of negative liberty, which focuses on the right of the individual to be free from constraints, in this case by the state or the larger society.

Individual anarchism has influenced many bohemian movements, including the Yippies of the 1960s and the punk rockers of the 1980s.

Some advocates of bitcoin currency would describe themselves as crypto-anarchists.

The Social Anarchists

Social anarchists, by contrast, focus on the concept of positive liberty, which identifies freedom as not merely liberty from outside interference but the fulfillment of the individual's full potential when power and resources are shared equally among all members of a community.

They favor direct democracy along with common ownership of the means of production. This school of thought has a number of branches, including collectivist anarchism, also referred to as revolutionary socialism; anarcho-communism, also known as libertarian communism; and anarcho-syndicalism, which promotes collectivist labor unions with no union bosses to speak of.

The Anarcho-Capitaists

Most anarchists fall on the far-left end of the political spectrum, but there are surprising variants. Anarcho-capitalists, or lasseiz-faire capitalists, see free-market capitalism as the basis for a free society, and unlike many anarchists, believe in some version of private property. They maintain that private enterprise, if unhampered by government, would provide all of the services that people need, up to and including road construction and police protection.

In this case, the group is similar in ideology to libertarians, although at the extreme edge, as they reject all state involvement in economic and personal matters.

Anarchist Influence on Present-Day Economics 

Anarchist philosophy was embraced by some of those who joined anti-war, anti-capitalist, and anti-globalization movements in the late 20th and early 21st centuries.

Anarchists were involved in the protests against the meetings of the World Trade Organization, Group of Eight, and the World Economic Forum, which led to the confrontations at the WTO conference in Seattle in 1999.

Crypto-anarchists support decentralized currency such as Bitcoin. Some advocates of Bitcoin claim that cryptocurrency was created as a reaction against corrupt governments and financial institutions, and to undermine the authority of both.