Ethics Explainer: Anarchy

Anarchy isn’t just street protests and railing against the establishment.

It’s a serious political philosophy that believes people will flourish in a leaderless society without a centralised government. It may sound like a crazy ideal, but it’s almost worked before.

A hastily circled letter Aetched into bus windows and spray painted on walls. The vigilante anarchist character known only as V from V for Vendetta. The Sex Pistols’ Johnny Rotten singing, “I wanna be anarchy”.



Think of anarchy and you might just imagine an 80s punk throwing a Molotov cocktail in a street protest. Easily conjuring rich imagery with a railing-against-the-orthodoxy rebelliousness, there’s more to anarchy than cool cachet. At the heart of this ideology is decentralisation.

Disorder versus political philosophy

The word anarchy is often used as an adjective to describe a state of public chaos. You’ll hear it dropped in news reports of civil unrest and riots with flavours of vandalism and violence. But anarchists aren’t traditionally looters throwing bricks through shop windows.

Anarchy is a political philosophy. Philographics – a series that defines complex philosophical concepts with a short sentence and simple graphic – describes anarchy as:

“A range of views that oppose the idea of the state as a means of governance, instead advocating a society based on non-hierarchical relationships.”

Instead of structured governments enforcing laws, anarchists believe people should be free to voluntarily organise and cooperate as they please. And because governments around the world are already established states with legal systems, many anarchists see their work is to abolish them.

The word anarchy derives from the ancient Greek term anarchia, which basically means “without leader” or “without authority”. Some literal translations put it as “not hierarchy”.

That may conjure notions of disorder, but the founder of anarchy imagined it to be a peaceful, cooperative thing.

“Anarchy is order without power” – Pierre-Joseph Proudhon, the ‘father of anarchy’

The “father of anarchy”

The first known anarchist was French philosopher and politician Pierre-Joseph Proudhon. It’s perhaps notable he took office after the French Revolution of 1848 overthrew the monarchy. Eight years prior, Proudhon published the defining theoretical text that influenced later anarchist movements.

“Property is theft!”, Proudhon declared in his book, What is Property? Or, an Inquiry into the Principle of Right and Government. His starting point for this argument was the Christian point of view that God gave Earth to all people.

This idea that natural resources are for equal share and use is also referred to as the universal commons. Proudhon felt it followed that private ownership meant land was stolen from everyone who had a right to benefit from it.

This premise is a crucial basis to Proudhon’s anarchist thesis because it meant people weren’t rightfully free to move in and use lands as they wished or required. Their means of production had been taken from them.

Anarchy’s heyday: the Spanish Civil War

Anarchy has usually been a European pursuit and it has waxed and waned in popularity. It had its most influence and reach in the years leading up to and during the Spanish Civil War (1936-1939), a time of great unrest and inequality between the working classes and ruling elite – which turned out to be a breeding ground for revolutionary thought.

Like the communist and socialist movements that grew alongside them, anarchists opposed the monarchy, land owning oligarchs and the military general Francisco Franco, who eventually took power.

Many different threads of the ideology gained popularity across Spain – some of it militant, some of it peaceful – and its sentiment was widely shared among everyday people.

Anarchist terrorists

While violence was never part of Proudhon’s ideal, it did become a key feature of some of the more well known examples of anarchy. First there was Spain which, perhaps by the nature of a civil war, saw many violent clashes between armed anarchists and the military.

Then there were the anarchist bomb attackers who operated around the world, perhaps most notably in late 19thand early 20thcentury America. They were basically yesteryear’s lone wolf terrorists.

Luigi Galleani was an Italian pro-violence anarchist based in the United States. He was eventually deported for taking part in and inspiring many bomb attacks. Reportedly, his followers, called Galleanists, were behind the 1920 Wall Street bombing that killed over 30 people and injured hundreds – the most severe terror attack in the US at the time.

No one ever claimed responsibility or was arrested for this bombing but fingers have long pointed at anti-capitalist anarchists inspired by post WWI conditions.

Could it come back?

While the law-breaking mayhem that can accompany a protest and the chaos of a collapsing society are labelled anarchy, there’s more to this sociopolitical philosophy. And if the conditions are right, we may just see another anarchist age.