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What is Anarchy?

Tricia Christensen
By
Updated Feb 22, 2024
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Anarchy is a confusing word to define, since it has several possible definitions. The word comes from the Greek word anarchia, which simply translates as without or lacking in authority. In the modern sense, it may be used negatively or positively, but most often, the word is used in a negative sense to imply a complete lack of order.

In another sense, anarchism may refer to the idea that people would better profit without a government of any kind. Anarchists believe that most people can govern themselves and would be happier doing so. Within this idea of self-government, as opposed to government by the state, fall many theories of how lack of a government could possibly work. There are questions of whether people, for instance, have the same currency, be asked to abide by the same laws, or have any types of organized assistance.

It would be hard to argue that all individuals are capable of doing this. For instance, in a society that is deliberately anarchist, there is the question or what would be done with a person who was severely incapacitated by mental retardation. The person might not be able to act in his or her own best self-interest or for the welfare of the society. If that person had no caretakers, it's unclear what provisions in an ungoverned society there would be for caring for such a person.

Common sense might indicate establishing institutions for such people or at least some form of aid, but it's not clear how the money be obtained for it. It’s certainly been the case that formerly government run programs to help such people, that are now run on the basis of charity often need more money than they can get through individual donations. There would be no assurance in an anarchistic society that people requiring extraordinary care would ever receive it.

These types of questions have led to many anarchism societies — the words themselves are almost oxymoronic given anarchism philosophies — each with different ways of suggesting how anarchy could successfully work. Some believe that individuals would use their common sense to help those less able to work in the world, and believe in maintaining some sense of rules and societal structure without a large government structure overseeing the process.

Others believe in total anarchy, supporting absolutely no agreed upon rules, with each person acting for his or her own self interest. All community acts would be voluntary, but such a society would still be based on the neighborly interests of helping others for the good of a whole community. This would include things like voluntary agreement to repair roads, or keep hospitals open. Most anarchistic philosophies stress that communities would have to be relatively small and tightly knit in order to work. There have been a few small communities that have maintained anarchism for several years without major difficulties. Chief among these was The Free Territory in the Ukraine, which thrived in the early 20th century without a government.

Another type of anarchy, which relates more clearly to the negative definition, occurs when a revolution leaves a country in a temporary lawless state. For instance, the Reign of Terror following the French Revolution was anarchistic and frightening. It was characterized by a basic lack of certain rights most democratic and republic countries take for granted. Violence could be committed at any turn, without much reason, and the resulting death toll was enormous. Other countries have gone through periods of chaos, and often, the people look for someone who will restore order. This often leads to dictatorship.

Anarchy is an unusual concept, and perhaps expresses the desire in its most ambitious form for true freedom. It is not necessarily negative, but it may be somewhat naive. It’s hard to imagine how it could work for a long period of time in the modern world, especially since so many people appear to want leadership, rules, and some sense of governmental support.

WiseGeek is dedicated to providing accurate and trustworthy information. We carefully select reputable sources and employ a rigorous fact-checking process to maintain the highest standards. To learn more about our commitment to accuracy, read our editorial process.
Tricia Christensen
By Tricia Christensen , Writer
With a Literature degree from Sonoma State University and years of experience as a WiseGeek contributor, Tricia Christensen is based in Northern California and brings a wealth of knowledge and passion to her writing. Her wide-ranging interests include reading, writing, medicine, art, film, history, politics, ethics, and religion, all of which she incorporates into her informative articles. Tricia is currently working on her first novel.

Discussion Comments

By jessiwan — On Oct 26, 2013

Well, I am too ignorant to speak on the subject of whether anarchy is good and/or should be embraced, but I do have a question. Let's say there exists such an anarchic state. And let's say another country attacks it. Said anarchic state now has to organize an army to defend itself. And now, they are forced into having some form of government? Does this mean that anarchy is fundamentally un-achievable?

By anon212401 — On Sep 07, 2011

Well said anon27397. The government is so corrupt. There thirst for power and money is the leading cause of many of the terrible things that has happened. Including that whole Iraq fiasco. It didn't belong to them, but no, they wanted to take it anyway. So many Iraqi women and children were raped for that.

And trying to control people through fear with 911. Sure, they're the only ones who can protect the people- considering they organized the whole thing to start with.

By anon150617 — On Feb 08, 2011

It's not fair enough for saying that people can't govern themselves. Then what is the function of election?

By anon138279 — On Dec 30, 2010

This is supposed to be an expository composition, not a critique. Please edit the author's questions and hearsay speculations about whether or not anarchy will work.

By anon104610 — On Aug 17, 2010

Wow, this website is so biased and no rational thought was put into this article. Seriously, read at least one book on anarchy before making yourself look bad.

By anon99510 — On Jul 26, 2010

this is great info.

By anon87333 — On May 29, 2010

It could more easily be said that capitalism is naive - placing all your faith in one class of people. Putting all of your eggs in one basket, so to speak.

By anon64199 — On Feb 05, 2010

the reign of terror can't really be categorized as anarchy, simply for the fact that there was a governmental structure in place, which was the Committee of Public Safety, headed by Robespierre. This ultimately contradicts the fundamental base of anarchism which is the "lack of authority". Just because there of the lack of right and enormous death toll, doesn't mean it was an anarchy.

By anon45571 — On Sep 18, 2009

Anarchism literally means "without *any* authority whatsoever". There's no such thing as an anarchist. At best they are minarchists. At worst they are attention seeking losers.

By anon42825 — On Aug 24, 2009

The second last paragraph is describing the dictionary style anarchy (i.e. no order) as opposed to the political philosophy you are trying to denounce. Viva la Resistance,

Solidarity

By anon38320 — On Jul 25, 2009

This is one of the worst articles on anarchism that I've ever read. Perhaps this should be called, "We don't know what anarchism is, so here's what it isn't."

By anon27397 — On Feb 27, 2009

Just because you have a hard time imagining how a concept works doesn't mean that it is naive to believe in it. It's far more naive to believe that social harmony can be achieved through government - an organization that exists through armed robbery and operates through aggression and usurpation.

Power struggles among rulers and wannabe rulers do not count as states of "without-rulers."

Better introductions to various schools of anarchism can be found online.

Tricia Christensen

Tricia Christensen

Writer

With a Literature degree from Sonoma State University and years of experience as a WiseGeek contributor, Tricia...
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