Anarchy for Beginners

Anarchy: absence of government and absolute freedom of the individual, regarded as a political ideal. (Google definition)

I do not use the word anarchy to describe chaos. That’s a different thing.

I am an anarchist. In other words, I am a romantic, a political idealist, and I believe in liberty, as defined in J.S Mill’s On Liberty, when the only time a person has the right to infringe another’s liberty is in their self defence, or the defence of their community, and only then if the interference is not worse than the offence they are trying to stop.

In my idealistic dreams, we have free speech, and we all respect that, because we know that, even if someone says something that is wrong, misleading or offensive, we need to hear it so we can keep alive the proofs, and not rely on unsupported dogma and fashionable ideas to stop the misinformation and rhetoric. When I was about 20 I met someone who claimed he believed the world was flat. All the trite “proofs” I had that it was, in fact, spherical, he countered happily – no doubt he had heard them before. Because I didn’t know how to prove the Earth was spherical, all I had was the insufficient dogma of my education.

This was a defining moment for me. If we care about the truth of something, we have to know that truth for ourselves, and if it is something that someone else would argue against, we had better know their arguments and the answer for them in advance, or how could we discredit their arguments to our own satisfaction? How could we not allow ourselves to be rationally swayed by their more compelling arguments? There’s a big difference between wanting to believe something is true, and knowing it is true. As Michael Freedman used to say: “Believe nothing, question everything. Discover the truth for yourself.” I studied ethics to know what really made an action right or wrong, and I’m employed as a professional sceptic: a test analyst. (If you don’t believe that’s what a tester is, watch their faces when a dev says “it should work like this…”)

Of course, in reality, this is not how free speech works. Humans tend to be:

  • gullible or lazy – we’ll let others tell us how the world works. This is the legacy of a spoon-fed “education”
  • biased, prejudiced, and disinclined to question things we want to believe
  • emotional and easily stirred to irrational responses
  • attuned to sensationalism, self-interest and scaremongering

So anything said could be believed without question or not properly debated in an equal and open forum.

Anarchy is also about freedom of action, with the qualifier above that people can rightly stop you if your actions interfere with their actions enough. No-one has any right to say what you can and can’t do with your adult self past that. I’ll dress how I like, have sex and form relationships with whomever I want (assuming they want to, as well). I will choose what I read or watch. I’ll imbibe what I want and take my own risks, and from there, I will accept the consequences of these actions. These consequences might include the risk of illness or injury, isolating myself from other people, failure and ruin, but if that’s the risk I’m willing to take, it’s my choice to make. There are complications, of course, like if you have dependants, and when exactly someone is considered adult enough to take those risks, but I dare say that by now I might be considered enough in command of my own faculties to make those decisions.

The consequences of enforcing safety through laws and standards is a vicious cycle of a blithely careless population who do not take responsibility for their own injuries, and a more and more restrictive set of laws to protect them from their carelessness, since no-one else wants to be responsible for them, either. These laws are called “patronising”, but I generally call them “matronising”, as they are far more like how mothers treat their children, keeping them anxious, fearful and dependant for as long as possible. Another term I use is “smother love”. You do not show you care by disenfranchising another of their personal responsibility. You instead make them dependent, needy, and define, reinforce and validate their weaknesses.

Once again, in real life this gets complicated. We live in groups with various rules and laws against our personal autonomy, and some ability to hurt us in the enforcement, and about the most choice we have is which groups we allow to tell us what to do, and whether we obey them or not. I choose to subject myself to the laws of NZ, for instance, and because I don’t want to spend time in prison I don’t get caught breaking them. I have a t-shirt that says “No-one rules, if no-one obeys” and that is always an option. Conscientious objectors have existed throughout human history, and paid the price for their disobedience, but they have also been the ones that have brought about change in the rules.

To me, the strongest weapon of the anarchist is not freedom of speech or action, but the freedom to NOT do what someone expects or orders. I recommend reading And Then There Were None by Eric Frank Russell. It changed my life. The anarchist community of the story had an unbeatable weapon: each had a plaque with the words “I won’t” pressed into it. We, in our Western communities at least, are very good at imposing our will on others. We will order, ask or expect people to do things with no right to do so, no contract or agreement, and no thought that they might say “no”, and we commonly take offence, or are at least surprised if they actually refuse. We also commonly don’t even acknowledge when they do comply with our illegitimate requests. We task each other to establish dominance, we take each other for granted all the time, we assume that they will want what we want and do what we want. Our society accepts this pervasive coerciveness as normal, without comment. We expect polite compliance to our impolite impositions. There are several breeds of people who can’t say “no”, all with their own pathology, and these come about because we want to please and be appreciated by others, and to avoid awkwardness and confrontation.

Learning to say “I won’t” was one of the best things I have done for myself. For instance, unless I choose to for my own reasons, I won’t:

  • Take responsibility for another person’s mistakes
  • Tolerate being treated rudely, unfairly, with disregard or contempt
  • Allow myself to be coerced into a decision or action just because someone has acted in a nice or helpful manner to me in the past. This is a biggie: our ideas of reciprocity don’t apparently allow us to choose how we reciprocate, if it’s not negotiated in advance. Nowadays, unless I know someone very well, and can trust they won’t expect me to do something I don’t want to do, I will ask someone if their contribution is a gift, in which case I will accept it as such, with nothing owed, or I will make explicit my intention to pay them and negotiate the terms to nullify the debt
  • Allow myself to be puppetted by or bullied through my emotional tendencies, for example, desire to be accepted, polite or kind, or by my principles, such as honesty, generosity, friendship or integrity. If someone is using these things to get me to do something that I don’t want to do I will drop it, and pick it up again later, when it’s not longer poisonous. We only keep these things for our self respect, and if they cost our self respect to keep, they are no longer useful. A simple example is when the sleazy Uncle wants to give you a friendly shoulder massage. Are you polite, or do you say no?

Anarchists can have leaders, but they don’t have rulers. We can accept that someone is an authority on some topic, but deny that it gives them authority over us. We choose to cooperate because it is in our own best interests, as social creatures, but we don’t have to. Anarchists should not give orders where they have no right to do so, or dictate how a person should live. They should say “please” when they make a request, and “thank you” after, to show it is a request, and they should accept “no” to a request with no displeasure. They should not coerce, impose or assume compliance. I like being an anarchist – it makes me both free, and a better person to other people.


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