Having established the philosophical foundation for all anarchist thought —empowerment of the individual to live by volition and self-control— we can look at two complementary trajectories by which this one principle can be put into action. I call them the political and the spiritual.
Political anarchism could also be called “external” or “extroverted.” It consists of direct action that works to further the core anarchist principle in the outer world— protection and empowerment of marginalized people; the fight for economic justice and leveling and for the freedom to build community-based alternatives to top-down authority structures; the breaking down of all barriers to self-expression and freethought; just to name a few of the many. For those who know true anarchists as opposed to punkish posers, these will likely be the first things that come to mind because they are the most common and visible.
Spiritual anarchism (“internal” or “introverted”) is liberation work aimed in the other direction, toward the interior world. The aim is to empower the true self to overthrow its own head of state—the ego—and thus live a more fruitful and fearless life in direct contact with its base of existence.
Let’s make two important points very clear. First, this has nothing to do with religion, which is generally a top-down approach to spirituality. There is also a strong heritage of anarchism that takes root in the spiritual practices of many religious people, particularly among Christians. We’ll explore this more in a later post, but I would posit that unprogrammed Quakerism is the most successful and widespread manifestation of the principle of anarchism, so naturally combining elements of the political and spiritual that it’s easy to forget there is a religious organization behind it. But there is no need for spiritual anarchism to associate with any formal religion, and in most cases it would be a hindrance.
Second, please do not confuse “overthrowing the ego” with the self-ghosting of some mystics whereby “everything is illusion” and all trace of self disappears. Again, there is some potential for overlap with this belief system, but there’s more than one way to skin a self. The phrase “true self” was chosen carefully for its impartiality. For some, this will mean the physical organism; for others, a more self-actualized person free from the bindings of social roles and programming; for others still, something more sublime like the soul or greater Self. The true self could be God. It is whatever you are once you’ve stripped away the artifice of what you think you are. Those who think their understanding of the true self is the only correct one clearly haven’t done it yet.
The end goal of spiritual anarchism is the same as with its political complement: empowerment of the individual/true self to live and move and have its being with its own sense of volition and self-control. Force or coercion, either by external or internal authority, suggests a top-down approach that’s antithetical to the anarchist principle. The spiritual anarchist finds their God/Nature/Ground of Being within, and works to bring it out.
It is possible to be fully immersed in either practice of anarchism without giving any thought or energy to the other, though as with most things, balance is healthier, and I would make the case that political anarchism is bound to stay very limited in success and scope unless it embraces the spiritual practices that curb the excesses of ego. Personally I’ve always been a political anarchist sympathizer, but not much of an activist, perhaps only because I’m a rather extreme introvert; the spiritual aspect comes much more naturally to me. We can certainly use more people who are well-versed in both, but since the spiritual side is far less recognized, it doesn’t hurt that some of us are wired to specialize in it.
In the next installment, we’ll look closer at the inner mechanics of spiritual anarchism as seen from a Pan-Perennialist lens (that of “The Peasant and the King”), with an emphasis on fleshing out the concept of conscience.