Anarchism is a broad and deep ideology with huge historical roots and much investigation and conceptualisation which has fleshed out many interlocking theories and systems of power. It has a large range of intelligent thinkers behind it, ranging from Proudhon and Kropotkin through to Rothbard, Carson and Hoppe. However, it has never truly caught on from outside its theoretical abstractions, remaining on the fringes of both political ideology as well as political reality.
This gives much ammunition to the ideologies of statism, who can simply say that our theories and ideas are pulled from the minds of intelligent fools and have no bearing on the realistic politico-economic relations that currently shape the world. Going one step further, they usually assert that one cannot find any truly anarchistic society which has functioned peacefully for any significant period of time, except for their childish arguments concerning Somalia.
But of course this is statist thinking for you. It requires no introspection and the simple pulling up and batting down of straw men. Anarchist societies have both existed and prospered throughout history. Whether it be the decentralised Tuatha of Ireland, the Icelandic legal system of private juries, judges and law courts or the quasi-anarchistic systems of law and politics within the Hanseatic League. All of these societies prospered for long periods of time, usually being brought down by the outside action of imperialistic states or through the coercive reforms of their own polities. At an economic level, anarchistic relations of voluntary contracts, duties and obligations have existed interstitially within both the feudal and capitalist systems of economic governance, determining outcomes and creating new strands of socio-economic organisation. The Hanseatic League was one such example which I’ve already mentioned. There also exists the cooperative economic systems of voluntary capital-labour relations found in the Mondragon Cooperative group and the Salinas cooperatives in Ecuador, and the freed market systems of the Third Italy and the Shenzhen economy in China. Then there is the deregulated Taiwanese marketplace of pop-up vendors.
Going more substantially into sociological relations and systems, anarchism can be seen in the non-coercive activities of individuals negotiating, creating contracts, using property or developing collective systems of political and economic governance. Fundamentally, all non-coercive activity engaged in by consenting individuals and groups can be seen as the workings of an anarchic order. Such actions do not constitute a peripheral space like much larger examples (Ireland, Iceland, etc.) do.
In this sense, the arguments of statist ideology have little basis. Their inability to conceive of a realistic ideological alternative to the totalities of the state means they cannot truly engage with anarchist ideology. Instead, they bleat on about how realistic it is or isn’t, or how it’s never truly been implemented.
However, this does not leave anarchism as some untouchable ideology removed from criticism. The major problem with the questions statists raise is that they are the wrong questions. Anarchist societies and polities have existed and will most likely always exist so long as there is an innate desire to escape coercive power relations. The more important question which anarchism must face is why anarchism and anarchists have consistently failed to move their ideological and concrete structures away from the peripheral and the interstitial. There are blatant anarchistic tendencies amongst individuals who act. Simply look at a free market, or the many constructions of non-coercive political institutions. But these tendencies never seem to expand to encompass a truly new polity. Why is this?
Such a question is too long to answer in a short blogpost, and outside the parameters of my current knowledge. The one thought I have is that while anarchists have sometimes been excellent at overthrowing order in an existing political construct, they haven’t been nearly good enough at constructing a new order which helps structure the society and the community. Revolutionary zeal only lasts so long before the wider community desires a return to normality. If an anarchistic polity cannot create that, the desire for statism returns. At an abstract ideological level, a similar thing can be seen among different anarchist groupings. They have a seeming inability to construct a shared ideological and political front which recognises voluntaryism and pluralism, the most basic of concepts. Instead each becomes more exclusionary and inward-looking, concentrating on criticising other anarchist sects while the corporate state continues on unabated.
A strategy such as Keith Preston’s pan-anarchism and pan-secessionism seems the most likely form of success in both of these areas. Without it, that most fundamental of questions that anarchists seem unable to answer will continue to plague the wider movement.