Writing by Will Lewallen. Illustration from Unsplash.
As protests continue around the United States after the execution of George Floyd in Minneapolis, one does not have to search hard to find examples of the media portraying the protesters as anarchists. Trump recently referred to the individuals continuing the struggle in Portland, Oregon as ‘anarchists & agitators’ and Tom Cotton, the senator of Arkansas, who is rumoured to run for office in 2024, was quoted saying that ‘rioters have plunged many American cities into anarchy.’
This portrayal of anarchists as Molotov-throwing, violence-loving and society-hating citizens is nothing new and is certainly no mistake. The mainstream media on both the left and right (although predominantly the right) have always sought to portray anarchy in this light as they know that anarchy, when understood correctly, offers the biggest threat to systems of oppression. George Orwell highlights this point in his account of fighting in the Spanish Revolution, Homage to Catalonia. He recounts how the Anarchist revolution, which reached its peak in the mid 1930’s in northern Spain, was crushed by the combined force of fascism, communism and western democracies. Whilst these parties had their differences they all agreed that the efforts of free people to control their own lives had to be crushed. Then, and only then, could they turn to their petty differences, which we now call the Spanish Civil War.
Anarchism, as highlighted above, is a term that has been subjected to varied use and much abuse, making a specific definition next to impossible. Rudolf Rocker, a political thinker and anarchist activist, summarised this well, writing that anarchism is not, ‘a fixed, enclosed social system but rather a definite trend in the historic development of mankind.’ A trend that could broadly be understood as a rejection of institutions which seek to constrain human freedom without justification. It is worth highlighting that this burden of proof always falls on the system of coercion, hierarchy, or oppression itself; no such systems are self-justifying. If such structures cannot justify themselves, they ought to be dismantled and rebuilt from the bottom up. This, Rocker continues, leaves open the space for an ‘alliance of free groups of men and women based on the cooperation of labour and planned administration of things in the interest of the community.’
Thus true anarchists are not those who seek to tear down civilization but rather those who believe in individual liberty and freedom from exploitation. Contrary to mainstream portrayal, anarchist societies are actually highly organized structures. Whilst it is the desire for real democracy that necessitates this, it is the fact that such structures are the product of mutual aid and voluntary association that facilitates it.
Activism carries significant weight within the anarchist tradition. Rocker goes on to call for groups of workers and other popular movements to create ‘not only the ideas but also the facts of a future society itself within the current society.’ Since anarchism has been the first system of ideas to give me genuine hope, I thought I ought to give some thought about how to turn its ideals into a reality. Plainly, the thought of trying to start to alter a world so set in its ways is daunting. Thus, a common idea is that we ought to start small and just try to democratize our immediate environment to begin with, be it a school or a football team, and then hope that this continues to grow.
I began to think about my flat and flatmates in this light and started to notice something. My flat, where I live with 4 close friends, resembles, in some ways at least, an anarchist commune. Whilst there certainly are marked differences, I shall attempt to show that there are some key connections between cohabiting friends and anarchist communes. The examples I will give below are, of course, very specific to my situation; yet I hope they point to a larger connection with the anarchist commune which can be helpful to understand.
It’s Always Sunny In Philadelphia is often the first television show we choose to put on; this is because we have all watched it in its entirety, and enjoy the show. An episode will be suggested but if one of us has watched it very recently, and don’t want to watch it again so soon, the episode is basically vetoed. This continues until we find an episode we are all happy to watch; sometimes this takes a few tries. This is what is referred to in anarchist literature as deliberative democracy. Every party has the power to veto which ensures a uniform decision. This use of consensus allows for a system of non-rule to occur. Of course, a consensus may not always be reached, but when the group is a product of voluntary association and social cooperation, I believe some form of consensus is usually possible. Anarchist societies operate in similar ways. Anarchist communes in Athens at the current time hold large general meetings which last until a consensus is reached; regularly in excess of 6 hours. Similarly, Ireland and Canada have been experimenting with new forms of deliberative democracy through the use of citizen assemblies. Of course, an anarchist society of any considerable scale would have to have some system of representation but this, contrary to popular belief, does not have to be at odds with a legitimate bottom-up democracy.
Another feature of our flat is that there is virtually zero notion of private property. Almost everything in the flat is seen and treated as for communal usage; even capital. We have a house card which we each deposit money onto and then that card is used to purchase anything we need for the house be it food, drink or other miscellaneous items. Despite one of Pierre-Joseph Proudhon’s (the first self-proclaimed anarchist) most well-known assertions being “Property is theft”, he was in favour of small scale individual ownership but fiercely opposed individual ownership of large industries or conglomerates. These tendencies are reflected in the flat as all items of property of a large scale, as in those that carry importance to the whole flat, are treated as communal regardless of their origin. Plainly we all have our own possessions as well but even these are shared with the most minimal degree of consent. Though it ought to be noted that whilst the relation between anarchism and the inability to hold property rights is a common one, it is not a necessary one.
Finally, a key idea in the anarchist tradition is that the only way for people to truly become free from exploitation is by people “themselves being master of production.” I see this idea manifesting itself in our flat, one of those ways being how we organize our cooking. We developed a rota so that one of us cooks each night, always making enough for everyone, so even if we are eating at different times there is food to reheat. This also reflects anarchist ideals in the sense that it is highly organized; as mentioned above, organization is a key component of any society of free beings. It is obviously the case that some of us are better/prefer cooking but we all have a desire to share the workload. In a large scale anarchist society, you would see a similar situation with democracy. Some may be naturally better at working in institutions of government but in a voluntary society, all members would actively partake in the democratic process.
I have attempted to show that when all members of any given subset are friends, anarchist forms of organisation do in fact occur organically. One of the main reasons for the existence of the state is to mediate conflict between groups in a way that is deemed fair, but in a group where all agents are friends, of course no conflict, thus no need for hierarchical structures to govern our lives.
In a way, I believe this stands to act as an argument in favour of anarchist forms of society. Towards the end of his life, Proudhon noted that states relate to each other in a system of anarchy. That is to say, there is no higher body of authority to mediate disputes. Yet it is plainly the case that states are able to organize their relations in an orderly manner despite this lack of governing authority. This is possible through many different mediums such as states voluntarily entering into agreements to protect their interests and citizens. But the fact alone that these systems of order do exist, gives rise to a suggestion that we could interact like this on a domestic level. I am suggesting that the nature of cohabiting friends I have outlined gives more credence to this claim.
Anarchism to me, far from being a radical, dangerous system of ideas it is portrayed to be by the likes of Trump, is actually something that we all live every day through our relations with our friends and family. I believe it to be a natural state of being if not the most natural for human relations. These are the values that ought to be guiding us as we continue to create and build the facts of our future society.