Photo Blog Blog Technical Blog About Papers essa Fortunes Japan 2010 China 2010 Lisboa 2009 Robot Walk 2008 Seattle/Vancouver 2008 Thailand 2006 Taiwan 2006 Hong Kong 2006 Macao 2006 Guangzhou 2006 Chicago
What is anarchy? Is it the total absence of any government or hierarchy? Is it living alone and self-sufficiently in the mountains? Is it angry teenagers? Is it terrorism? Is it a temporary state of chaos that revolutionaries use to subvert power before replacing it? Is it a war-zone? A riot? A protest? Is it a kind of capitalist or socialist society? Is it a political position? Is it a contradictory, paradoxical, or impossible ideal? I've been thinking about these questions recently. I'm interested anarchy, and the word has meaning for me, but perhaps haven't understood it well enough to explain it properly. Nonetheless, I'm going to give it a shot here.
The dictionary tells us that the word anarchy means "without leader". So what does that mean?
Anarchy can be social. People can and do engage in social activities that are undirected by any kind of leader or hierarchical rule. For examples, people dancing at a concert may spontaneously develop a collective groove. A group of friends might start a business together in which no one in particular is in change. A crowd of strangers may help each other in a violent situate. Since anarchy can be social, it's for more than just recluses and psychopaths.
Anarchy can be embedded, alongside, or on the edges of hierarchy. For example, Wikipedia is a collectively produced project. Among the editors there isn't much in terms of leadership or hierarchy. Editors can anonymously contribute new information, edit existing information, or dispute other editors' contributions. The space created by Wikipedia is quite purely anarchic. However there are aspect of Wikipedia that are not anarchic. The creators of Wikipedia are leaders. They have some authority. They set the rules for the website, the mission statement and intent for the culture of Wikipedia, maintain the hardware and software required by the site, and take care of logistics and fund-raising. But, however ironic this may be, through leadership, Wikipedia's leaders create a space where anarchy thrives.
In addition, Wikipedia, its leaders, and its editors exist within the economic, social, and cultural structures of the world, which involve many hierarchies. The editors who contribute to Wikipedia's anarchic encyclopedia likely take part in many hierarchical kinds of business and social activities in their everyday lives. Further, being an editor of Wikipedia is an earned privilege and not everyone can contribute to Wikipedia. Thus the editors represent a class with a hierarchical relationship with its readers. Even this is really an oversimplification though, because Wikipedia's success relies on the editors satisfying its readers. Further many editors are readers themselves.
Anarchy may aptly be called a contradiction. It is often interconnected with or reliant on hierarchical aspects of society. However, this point invalidates anarchy no more than it invalidates hierarchy (which in a total and ideal form likely does not exist very often either). Many critics of anarchy claim that anarchy is only an ideal or contradiction that cannot exist or always fails in practice. I argue rather that many anarchic spaces such as Wikipedia exists in our everyday lives and are an important aspect of society.
Anarchy doesn't have to be fleeting. There are historic examples of anarchic activities thriving over substantial periods of time. For example, for over a hundred years (mostly the 16th century) citizens of Kyoto, Japan engaged in a kind of street dancing called fūryū-odori (風流踊り). Through word of mouth dancers would gather at random locations at night in the streets and dance wildly.They dressed in costumes that hid or defied class and gender status (see Mary Elizabeth Berry's book The Culture of Civil War In Kyoto). Likewise, historians believe that the Icelandic Commonwealth operated as an anarchic capitalist society between 930 and 1262.
Anarchy does not inherently lead to good or bad. Both violence and panic or incredible kindness and creativity can occur in anarchic situations (for example, the protests in Egypt this past year contain examples of both). Both good and bad clearly come out of all other types of social organization including hierarchy, so anarchy is not alone here. Check out Jeff Shantz's book Living anarchy: theory and practice in anarchist movements for an excellent example of goodness in anarchy.
Lastly, anarchy is personal. It would be contradictory for an anarchist to push a political agenda (including anarchy) on others. However, there is no contradiction if an anarchist is interested in taking charge of him or her self. For example, I'm interested in anarchy because I think it can be very beautiful. I like to do certain anarchic activities in my spare time and am interested in knowing and interacting with other people interested in anarchy. With some exceptions, I don't care for social rules and laws. I want to let go of many of the socially and legally imposed inhibitions that I have internalized, so that I can live my life from my heart and by what makes sense to me.