If Anarchism has always existed, might it just be a base state of human existence?

Modern society is currently experiencing a breakdown in its seemingly stable structures as hierarchies are flipped and new centers of power and authority develop. On the internet, lawless communities like 4chan helped elect Donald Trump—the most chaotic president the United States has ever had. There’s a rise in aggressive nationalism, a drive toward isolation with the United Kingdom’s Brexit, and a turning away from centralized power in European Union countries like Spain and Greece, victims of the ongoing consequences from the 2008 financial crisis.

The atmosphere of the moment is one of everything-for-itself: at the level of individual people, community organizations, and cities, as well as on the scale of political parties and national governments in the arena of international realpolitik. Alliances last no longer than necessary—the main rule is rules don’t matter. The word for this state of affairs is anarchy. Trump even identified it at the 2017 G20 summit in Hamburg, tweeting congratulations to Angela Merkel, the Chancellor of Germany. “Everybody felt totally safe despite the anarchists,” he wrote on Twitter on July 8. He was talking about the city’s reputation as a hub of dissent, home to the iconic Rote Flora squat.

Insurgent forces are, in fact, everywhere: From the “black blocs” of anonymous marching protesters, to groups in Greece and Syria such as Rouvikonas and Void Network that are replacing missing basic government services in their own communities, to digital nomads stretching an independent network across the globe. When the Economist Intelligence Unit determines that the U.S. is no longer a “functioning democracy”—as it did after the election in January 2017—there doesn’t seem to be much good in participating in regular forms of government or social regulation. The thinking goes: Why not improvise your own version, in which all actions are direct?

Anarchism has always existed and, indeed, it might be a base state of human existence. In a literal sense, anarchy means “without a leader,” from its ancient Greek roots.In 404 B.C. Athens, a group of oligarchs displaced the Archon—the then-Athenian ruler’s traditional title. The people, who felt the oligarchs were illegitimate, labeled the moment “an-archic.” Anarchy soon became a philosophy based on self-government, a move away from traditional hierarchies. Unlike its context today, Plato associated the word with democracy in a negative sense: Allowing the authority of the individual meant running the risk of tyranny and the breaking down of social and class systems that the philosopher saw as “natural.”

Since then, many groups have been identified as anarchic: from the Anabaptists in 16th-century Europe to some offshoots of American pilgrims, like Roger Williams, the founder of Providence, Rhode Island, who split off from the original Puritan settlers. In this time, anarchism was more of a retroactive label than a coherent strategy, the province of separatists. Around 1789, French revolutionaries adopted the identity, casting anarchism in a positive light as they sought to establish a republic, removing power from the church and the monarchy in favor of the people.

But anarchism was given its modern valence in the mid-19th century. The Frenchman Pierre-Joseph Proudhon published his key work “What Is Property?” in 1840, which argued that “property is theft” and advocated for self-organization among workers, pointing toward some of the same work that Marx would later outline in “Capital: Critique of Political Economy,” the first volume of which was published in Germany in 1867. The Paris Commune of 1871 presented a test case for ideas of labor association and government without oppression, but it quickly dissolved.

In 1876, however, the Italian Errico Malatesta put forward a new concept of anarchic actions—rising above the everyday systems of national government—as a kind of media stunt, signaling anarchy’s transformation from a constructive leftist philosophy into a form of provocation—often violent—against the status quo, whatever it may be. “The insurrectionary deed, destined to affirm socialist principles by acts, is the most efficacious means of propaganda,” Malatesta wrote. His logic was indicative of the evolution of the idea: Anarchism is not composed of a system for self-government, but the “insurrectionary deed” points to a different, separate concept of authority (or the destruction thereof). This meant the primacy of the individual who changes the flow of history, which its adherents took to heart. In the decades that followed Malatesta and the Russian philosopher Peter Kropotkin (who espoused a similar approach), anarchists were involved in the assassinations of presidents, prime ministers, and kings in Italy, France, Spain, and the United States.

Since this emphasis on provocation took hold, it has been hard to stop. It has informed our associations with anarchism in the last century, which is less about coherent methods than it is the libertarian romance of the individual, an attitude the internet has also brought to the forefront. In the second half of the 20th century, anarchism became more of a cultural signifier than a doctrine. It was made up of visual symbols and styles—70s and 80s punk, with its torn clothes and D.I.Y. decoration, embraced anarchy as a negation rather than something constructive, rebelling against everything and building nothing. Its apotheosis was provided by musicians (see the Sex Pistols’s “Anarchy in the U.K.”), but it also cast a broader net, with the rise of philosophers like Slavoj Žižek and artistic movements like Fluxus, oriented toward a disregard of norms and an embrace of all-encompassing absurdism. Moving into the 90s and 00s, technology companies gave that revisionary impulse a space in which to develop. Rather than acting out in underground concert venues or flouting mainstream norms on the street, the cyberpunks could immerse themselves in virtual space, determining their own rules.

For how much Silicon Valley has commodified it, the internet today remains a surprisingly anarchic space. Memes still fly and information leaks; files are shared and identities hidden. Cryptocurrencies such as Bitcoin and Ethereum allow money transfers at the level of millions of dollars to be anonymized as well. Such currencies are deployed to purchase illegal substances and services on marketplaces like the Silk Road; as soon as one such digital market is shut down, more grow in its place. The internet is a site of constant resistance, an unbounded space (or at least the most ideal one we have) that allows anyone to connect with anyone else, enabling a particular kind of anarchy. It creates a space for temporary infrastructure for organizations without permanence or stable leadership by embracing the autonomy of the crowd, which is given visibility by social media. And, however much it has been occupied by the large platforms and companies that profit from it, the internet is first and foremost a user-generated system. As Google’s Eric Schmidt has said, “The internet is the first thing that humanity has built that humanity doesn’t understand, the largest experiment in anarchy we’ve ever had.” Even as far back as 1993, the science fiction author Bruce Sterling observed it as “a rare example of a true, modern, functional anarchy.”

The W.E.L.L. (Whole Earth  ’Lectronic Link) is one early example of functional anarchy online. Launched in 1985 by Stewart Brand and Larry Brilliant, it was a dial-up bulletin board that made its own rules for its nascent community. The image message board 4chan launched in 2003, inheriting the principle of self-organization if not the W.E.L.L.’s fastidious intellectualism. On it, every poster is anonymous, always masked, and the result is more about posting pornography and the aforementioned political memes than figuring out a replacement to the government. It is, however, a system that allows a certain kind of anarchy to function. Stemming from 4chan is Anonymous, a decentralized, leaderless group of digital activists that take Malatesta’s ethos of insurrectionary deeds to heart in their support of WikiLeaks, raids on groups seen as counter to freedom, and viral pranks on the internet at large.

Self-organization is key to the internet’s success: It allows individuals to find each other and create associations based on shared interest and motivation—whether it be humor, fetishes, or labor organization—in a way that anarchist philosophy has long looked for. It is a conduit that spreads networks across various geographies and political systems. In the past decades, it has created a home for piracy and file sharing, flouting the rules of copyright and ownership through anarchic organizations like The Pirate Bay and LibGen, a massive online library. But as Spotify and Netflix have come to dominate media sharing, the social internet is increasingly oriented around community and the spread of ideas.

Look to Facebook’s “Groups” function to see the most powerful force in online communities today. Oriented around ideology, these groups help reinforce their members’ identities and—through the social network’s algorithmic feed—constantly remind users of their beliefs, whether conservative, liberal, or anarchist. Groups like Anarcho-Syndicalism post memes with slogans like “Don’t Vote” and “Abolish Capitalism.” Following or sharing them is a way to participate in anarchist politics with less public risk than acting offline. These online groups are echoes of, and support systems for, pro-anarchy groups that exist offline as well, however. “Anarchy” has in fact become a buzzword. In a July 2017 advertisement, the N.R.A. advocated for “organized anarchy,” gaining 2.6 million views and decrying demonstrators in the wake of Trump’s election. Some on the left embrace anarchic tactics as well, in the name of fighting racism and nationalism. Each offers a competing vision of anarchy’s “brand,” as we might call it, but the most anarchic thing about it might be that there is no mode in which the two can coexist, save anarchy itself.

“Anarchy is not a means of getting media attention or agitating for political revolution, but rather an act of cooperation, figuring out how to survive in situations where everything else has failed.”

But in practice, there are more ground-level examples of anarchy functioning in the world today. Anarchism has become a defensive reaction to the economic austerity politics of the European Union or the simple absence of government infrastructure itself. In modern Athens, the group Void Network creates and manages community centers; hosting concerts, exhibitions, and theater performances, as well as working to find shelter for refugees entering the country. Similar centers have also emerged in Madrid. The British ex-diplomat Carne Ross recently created “Accidental Anarchist: Life Without Government,” a documentary on the emergence of the philosophy in Syria. In these physical spaces, anarchy is not a means of getting media attention or agitating for political revolution, but rather an act of cooperation, figuring out how to survive in situations where everything else has failed.

There is an element of cynicism here, not toward fellow humanity, but government as an institution. This ethos of embracing instability and speeding the decay of authority has labeled itself the Dark Enlightenment. The philosopher Nick Land, a major proponent of the concept, has gone as far as to label the politicized public “a howling irrational mob.” Plato might have seen anarchy as a dangerous move toward democracy, but Land and the Dark Enlightenment observe that democracy has already failed, casting us back into a Hobbesian state. Their emphasis on the power of the individual might be anarchic, but they move more toward fascism and neo-monarchism than peaceful self-organization.

Accelerationism, one thread of contemporary anarchy and its provocations, says that the only way to end capitalism is by exaggerating its contradictions as much as possible, hastening its self-destruction. The self-organized groups of Syria and Greece underline the predations of capitalism and the international hierarchy, suggesting that we could all do better on our own. Land, the Dark Enlightenment, and the alt-right under Trump espouse the idea that power is only for the taking. These are two different approaches to the apocalyptic moment: The former envisions a peaceful, small-scale society built on community, while the latter points to a reconstruction of violent hierarchy in the name of freedom.

Because it heeds no rules, anarchism is ultimately a label that justifies whatever happens underneath it. However, it is still worth asking which direction we want it to go. Do we want a better version of democracy, one emphasizing communal agency? Or does stability require a further mode of oppression in which hierarchical platforms are justified by the ethos that authority belongs to anyone who can take it? There is no clear answer; as we see today, global interconnectivity has enabled more conflict rather than stronger community. If anarchy works, then, perhaps it must work in details, on the ground, in small scale, between people.

View Slideshow