Previous post: Introduction to Spiritual Anarchism
(The following series of posts under the Spiritual Anarchism banner will present a very personal viewpoint of the subject. Ask ten other anarchists to define the philosophy of anarchism, and hopefully you’ll get at least 8 or 9 very different answers. An authoritative definition of anarchism is an oxymoron.)
The first task is to clear up the important distinction between the philosophy of anarchism and the first thing most people think of when they see the A-word, which is anarchy. Scenes from Somalia and the American Wild West of yesteryear or the “Mad Max” movies fill the popular imagination with the idea that anarchy is a frightening, terrible state. This has nothing at all to do with anarchism.
The common thread through all aspects of anarchism is a bottom-up approach to empowering the individual to live by self-control. Ammon Hennacy’s oft-cited ideal of an anarchist as “someone who doesn’t need a cop to make him behave” is a reflection of this emphasis on self-governance. Contrary to the cliche of an unleashed beast doing and taking whatever it impulsively desires, the true product of anarchism is a highly principled individual who is led primarily by conscience (which is a concept worthy of its own post later).
If you took all the inmates of a maximum-security prison and dropped them on an island without supervision or external controls, you would, at least initially, have the popular concept of anarchy, and you would have the opposite of anarchism.
Part of the difficulty in realizing the difference is that we are trained to think in terms of top-down dynamics, whereas anarchism is in all ways a bottom-up approach to life. There’s no better way to illustrate the difference than to draw the distinction made in anarchist thought between power and authority.
A top-down mentality uses the words interchangeably, but anarchism flips the script, saying “we love power, we hate authority.” Power is the individual’s potential to live and love and work and create,and to voluntarily offer their power to collective efforts to meet collective needs. Authority is what puts some people in power to use other people’s power toward their own ends. Even when those ends are desirable to meet collective needs, authority accomplishes them through coercion and the threat of force.
This automatically triggers the question to anarchist philosophy: if a collective need must be met through threat of force, how necessary is it to a well-lived life? Is it possible that we as individuals have given up too much of our power to meet artificial needs imposed in top-down manner by an outwardly republican but subtlely authoritarian society? What would life be like if we reclaimed that power and lived for what is most important to us as the smallest units of being —as individuals, families, and communities?
But that better life doesn’t get accomplished through creating a vacuum of authority over disempowered people —that’s how you achieve the worst caricature of anarchy. As much as some anarchists would love to “smash the state,” this cannot be the primary point of focus; this is a top-down mentality that is an odds with its own ideals. ***The emphasis must be on creating empowered individuals and communities*** who can then choose to see state control as unnecessary, redundant, and in many cases even an oppressive force contrary to true power.
Flipping this script is the greatest challenge to being able to make practical use of anarchist ideals, but once you do, everything falls perfectly into place. Anarchism is a systematic approach to facilitating individual empowerment.
In the next installment, we’ll distinguish between anarchism as a political philosophy and its applications to spirituality.