As a young man, I was a typical liberal. I believed in private ownership, competition, and “freedom”. I had been told the “capitalism just works” and that it is “natural” and believed these things without questioning. I dreamed of having a successful career and the material rewards that come with that. (And yes, as a young man with full of hormones that included a sex-bomb of a wife, a couple of Ferraris and Champagne for breakfast every morning.)
In those days, anarchism was synonymous with criminals and terrorists in my book. I didn’t really know much about anarchism, and I did not really care. After all, people in my environment who “knew” about anarchism told me that anarchists were dangerous individuals who want nothing but chaos. Only an idiot could ever believe in a society without government and without laws.
Due to a series of events in my personal life I began to re-evaluate my political position. My eyes gradually began to see the people who were the victims of liberalism. I began to question whether private ownership was always a good idea. Some things are of public interest and it began to seem that putting ownership of such things into the hands of private interests who by their very nature are forced to prioritize their profits seemed wrong.
Competition might increase organizational efficiency, but I had begun to ask questions of what the purpose of life was. Did we get born just to work? Was that it? Work, work, work ’til you can’t work any more and then you die. And when you’re not working you fuck, fuck, fuck so that you can spawn off the next generation that will also work and fuck themselves into the grave.
The liberal idea of freedom no longer seemed like freedom. Liberal “freedom” seemed to benefit the powerful elites in society. I had come to see the word “freedom” as nothing but an empty slogan, a convenient word to throw at the working classes any time they complain about their situation.
As is common in the world of humans, I gravitated from one extreme to the other, in other words, the Marxist version of socialism (in those days I thought Marxism was the only form of socialism). Marxist propaganda has been very successful at making itself stand out as the alternative for the “masses”.
But Marxism seemed to have very little regard for the working classes. Why couldn’t the workers take matters into their own hands? Why did they need to be led by an enlightened elite? Marxism soon began to smell like Libertarian capitalism.
One day I found this quote by Mikhail Bakunin:
Freedom without Socialism is privilege and injustice. Socialism without freedom is slavery and brutality.
But Mikhail Bakunin was an anarchist. Wise words, from a reprehensible criminal (and an anti-Semite at that). But wait! I had gone through a radical political transformation. Why shouldn’t I find out more about what anarchism actually stands for, before I judge it?
What I found was a world of many diverse beliefs and ideas, some backed by theoretical models, others by slogans such as “do what the fuck you want, fuck everybody else”. Eventually I discovered Noam Chomsky. I found his explanation of what brings all people who call themselves anarchists of one form or another together very agreeable.
The core of the anarchist tradition, as I understand it, is that power is always illegitimate, unless it proves itself to be legitimate. So the burden of proof is always on those who claim that some authoritarian hierarchic relation is legitimate. If they can’t prove it, then it should be dismantled.
He goes on to give an example of a case in which an exercise of authority may prove itself to be legitimate.
Can you ever prove it? Well, it’s a heavy burden of proof to bear, but I think sometimes you can bear it. So to take a homely example, if I’m walking down the street with my four-year-old granddaughter, and she starts to run into the street, and I grab her arm and pull her back, that’s an exercise of power and authority, but I can give a justification for it, and it’s obvious what the justification would be. And maybe there are other cases where you can justify it.
This all sounded very good, but I was confused. I knew Noam Chomsky to be a peace activist and had heard about him in connection with the Vietnam War protests. It seemed very odd that an anarchist (in other words, a violent criminal) should be a peace activist. Somehow, Prof. Chomsky didn’t look like a member of the Brigate Rosse to me.
Had I misunderstood anarchism all these years? I began to read more and discuss with people who called themselves anarchists. Nobody told me they wanted a chaotic society without rules to live by. On the contrary, all the anarchists I spoke to realized that to have functioning societies we do need to have agreed upon rules for what we can and cannot do. But most anarchists will reject the form of legal systems that are the norm in modern liberal democracies.
So in the end I did arrive at anarchism. Initially I tried to use other terms, like “stateless socialism” or “libertarian socialist” in order to avoid the word anarchist with all the stigma attached to it. Now I no longer care. Propaganda systems made me first a liberal, then a Marxist. Life made me an anarchist.