What is anarchism? A go-to definition

The most historically and theoretically grounded definition – the one that goes back to classical figures like Elisée Reclus – is quite simple: anarchy consists of the critique of all systems of domination and the struggle to abolish those systems, in concert with the practice of free, non-dominating community, which is the real alternative to these systems. Anarchy is the entire sphere of human life that takes place outside the boundaries of arche, or domination, in all its forms – statism, nationalism, capitalism, patriarchy, racial oppression, heterosexism, technological domination, the domination of nature, etc. It rejects the hegemony of the centralized state, the capitalist market, and any hybrid of the two, and seeks to create a society free of all systematic forms of domination of humanity and nature. It envisions a society in which power remains decentralized at the base, decision-making is carried out through voluntary association and participatory democracy, and larger social purposes are pursued through the free federation of communities, affinity groups, and associations.

Anarchism is not merely about a transformation of social institutional structures, however. As further discussed in my book The Impossible Community, it also encompasses a fundamental transformation of the social imaginary, the social ideology, and the social ethos. Communitarian anarchism assumes that social transformation, to be successful, must encompass all major spheres of social determination. It recognizes that there are ontological, ethical, aesthetic, psychological, and spiritual dimensions of anarchy or non-domination. According to Reclus and other communitarian anarchists, these are not just vague ideals to be achieved in some future utopia; rather, such a transformation is immediately realized here and now wherever love and solidarity are embodied in existing human relationships and social practice. Anarchism is strongly committed to “prefigurative” forms of association, and to the idea of “creating the new society within the shell of the old.” In fact, the communities of liberation that we create here and now do more than “prefigure” the ultimate goal; they are actual “figurations” of our ideals, actually giving a form, or a face, to them in the present.
By demonstrating that the most deeply rooted social order arises not out of coercion, oppression, and domination, but out of mutual aid and cooperation, communitarian anarchism is a truly revolutionary project. In working to regenerate community at the most fundamental level, it seeks to reverse the course of thousands of years of history in which relations of solidarity have been progressively replaced by market relations, commodity relations, bureaucratic relations, technical relations, instrumental relations, and relations of coercion and domination. The ecocidal and genocidal effects of such relations compel us to consider whether we will remain on history’s present catastrophic course, or seize the opportunity to rededicate ourselves to the flourishing of both humanity and the whole of life in the biospheric community. In the work of Reclus we find universally accessible, immediately implementable alternatives.
Reclus cites some of the anarchic forms of human community that have made up much of world history, and remarks that “the names of the Spanish comuñeros, of the French communes, of the English yeomen, of the free cities in Germany, of the Republic of Novgorod and of the marvelous communities of Italy must be, with us Anarchists, household words: never was civilized humanity nearer to real Anarchy than it was in certain phases of the communal history of Florence and Nürnberg.” Today we can add the names of many movements that span the century since Reclus: the collectives in the Spanish Revolution; the Gandhian Sarvodaya Movement; the global cooperative movement; the rich history of libertarian intentional communities; the Zapatista Movement; radical indigenous movements throughout the world; the global justice movement; and recently, the “horizontalist” practice of the Occupy Movement.
From a 2014 interview with John P. Clark
Image from the cover of Anarchy, Geography, Modernity: Selected Writings of Elisée Reclus, edited and translated by John Clark and Camille Martin.
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