by Scott Thompson

With three grand jury resisters now in jail for refusing to testify against their friends, even people with no sympathy for the Occupy movement have started to take notice. The police state tactics are finally starting to scare people, or at least a few of them. But even those who express support for Leah Lynn Plante and the other resisters feel the need to preface their comments by saying something like “I’m not an anarchist” or “I don’t believe anarchy could ever really work, but…”

So let’s talk about anarchism, because the term as used by serious anarchists probably doesn’t mean what you think it means. It doesn’t mean “chaos,” for one thing, because an anarchist society would have to be very well organized to work at all. It doesn’t mean a dog-eat-dog Mad Max post-apocalyptic warlord scenario. It means “no rulers.” Anarchists reject the idea that the only viable way to organize society is by putting someone in charge of it. One of the most widespread forms of anarchism aims to create a society of autonomous networks of self-governing democratic structures. Imagine a society where you would go to work every day at an employee-owned, democratically-governed workplace instead of working all day for someone else’s benefit and at the mercy of someone else’s whims. Imagine a society where “government” meant you and your neighbors getting together to talk about decisions immediately affecting your own lives. That is one example of what an anarchist society might look like.

Noam Chomsky once defined anarchism as the idea that hierarchies are not self-justifying. In other words, it’s not that there could never be a situation where a hierarchy was justified, but that the existence of any hierarchical arrangement has to be justified by necessity, rather than just by assumption as is more frequently the case. For instance, on a fishing boat the captain usually has absolute authority over all decisions. Fishing boats are very dangerous, and life-or-death decisions have to be made so quickly that even a poor decision made rapidly is often safer than the ideal decision made too slowly. In situations like that, you could argue that a hierarchical power structure is an absolute necessity, but most situations are not like that.

For many years now, much of the world has embraced the idea that political decisions should be made democratically, yet most of the other decisions that affect our daily lives are made by decree, and we have no input into them whatsoever. If democracy is good for nations then why is dictatorship good for corporations? We call ourselves free people, yet most of us spend most of every day following orders. Are anarchists so crazy to question that arrangement?

“Anarchism could never work,” you say. That’s what almost everyone says. That’s what everyone said about representative democracy before anyone tried it. But if you think about it empirically, we really don’t know whether it could work or not, because the few historical attempts to create anarchist social structures were always surrounded by powerful enemies and destroyed from outside before they had time to fully develop. No one really knows whether anarchism could ever work.

We know how well hierarchical social structures work, though. Here the empirical data is overwhelming. Thousands of years of war and slavery and genocide and famine—that’s how well they have always worked. Even a representative democracy like ours is only able to sustain itself by projecting overwhelming violent force around the world, from the streets where armies of riot police swarm in to destroy a tent city, to the foreign countries where our soldiers fight and kill and die to maintain the world order we prefer. Maybe anarchists couldn’t do any better, but we really don’t know yet. Until someone has a chance to seriously try it, any comment about how “unrealistic” anarchism is can only be an argument from ignorance.

Of course, the government doesn’t have to argue from ignorance because it has a much more potent argument—the argument of fear, coercion, imprisonment and violence. “Anarchists are scary terrorists”—that’s what they want you to believe. But anarchists didn’t kick down people’s doors and throw flash-bang grenades at them for owning the wrong kind of book—the FBI did that. And the government’s panicky reliance on terror when confronted with the anarchist critique of its power merely tends to support the anarchist position. If even a “democratic” government must rely on violence and fear to compel obedience, then you have to ask yourself—what good is it?