"Man was born free and is everywhere in chains." The nature of Anarchy.

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Andrew Wallace/1592038/Dr. P. Bradshaw/Political Science/MAS2010

“Man was born free and is everywhere in chains.”


When someone today thinks about anarchy, it pictured as a chaotic Hobbseian state of nature in which it is everyone for themselves.  However this is just the pejorative notion of anarchism and this essay will not be entertaining that notion.  The ideology of anarchism was as rationally conceived as liberalism or Marxism and shall be analysised from an academic perspective.  Anarchism is in truth, an intellectually processed theoretical alternative to just about all other political ideologies.  There are still today many activists voicing its features today.  The question being addressed in this essay is to “critically evaluate the anarchist claim that it is possible to create a society without compulsion”.  That it is possible to for people to exist without any centralised authority to govern their day-to-day life; to exist without rule in which humans manage themselves.  The anarchist ideology was born out of the enlightenment of the 18th century by William Godwin.  He developed a very individualistic concept, which over time has expanded into various schools of thought.  From Godwin’s individualist anarchism, collectivist, communist, mutualist, and anarcho-sydicalist versions have appeared creating a wide range of anarchist literature.  But while there are numerous variations of anarchism, some common themes can be extrapolated. (Please note: The main themes which are common across all versions of anarchism will focused on in this essay.  Therefore the different variations will not be addressed).  The first theme in anarchism is the view of the individual.  Its focus was derived from the enlightenment, which stressed that humans are rational and cooperative.  The liberty of an individual can only be achieved when all forms of suppression and coercion are abolished, which leads to the next theme, the State and government.  Anarchy is opposition to the rule by centralised authority.  The States’ rule is seen as the cause of conflict in society because of its adverse effects to compel everyone to conform.  Finally when the state is abolished, a society can exist without an overarching hand of government.  Humans would recognize that it is in their interests to cooperate to further their development.  Of all of the political ideologies, anarchism has been the most criticised.  It had been labelled a utopian dream to deep nostalgic naivety.  Anarchists also disagree on the means to achieving their society.  Some call for a violent revolutionary overthrow while others call for a more rational and passive process.  However given the complexity, diversity, and fragmented nature of 21st century society, an anarchist one in which all participants ‘get along’ is unrealistic.  

The Nature of Anarchy:

On the Individual.

According to Harold Barclay, Anarchists have: “provided a continuous and fundamental criticism of the modern concept of the state, and have challenged the assumptions of nearly all schools of contemporary political thought”.  Anarchism has urged people to question the authority that presides above them.  Is it really necessary?   For William Godwin, the founding father of anarchist thought, definitely not.  Godwin was influenced by the intellectual movement of the Enlightenment, in which rationalism was the driving force.  Godwin believed “enlightened self-interest leading to virtuous behaviour was the motive force holding society together”.  Godwin was the first to carry a philosophy of anarchism to its’ logical conclusions “however absurd and surprising these might have been”.  In Godwin’s view, there is no crime without a motive, no act that cannot be explained.  As can be seen here Godwin’s analysis starts with the individual and “his personal needs and desires, rather than with society, the state, or the pattern of history”.  The state was seen in Godwin’s eyes, as a coercive organization limiting freedom of the individual.  Thomas Hobbes, another philosopher and forerunner to the enlightenment, took the same direction as Godwin but came to the opposite conclusion.  Hobbes saw society as ‘brutal’ and ‘harsh’ if it existed without government preserving the peace.  Godwin however, traced the evils of society to have come from the very institutions that protect us.  “May it not happen, that the grand moral evil that exist in the world, the calamities by which we are so grievously oppressed, are to be traced to political institution as the source, and their removal is only to be expected from its correction? May it not be found that the attempt to alter the morals of mankind singly and in detail is an injudicious and futile undertaking”.  The main reason Godwin highlights fore the removal of the State is because of its oppression of the individual.

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On the State and Government.

Opposition to the state is central to anarchism.  However a definition of the State is required here.  The state is usually associated with its main organs – the administrative bureaucracy, the police, and the military; from an anarchist viewpoint the judiciary and the church may also be seen as adjuncts of state power.  The main anarchist analysis of the state was formulated in the 18th century.  Nicolas Walter commented in the journal Anarchy: “The anarchist literature weighs heavily on the present, and makes it hard for us to produce a new literature of the future. ...

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