Anarchism, The Underlying Force of Human Society

Anarchism — The Underlying Force of Human Society

Emergence, Evolution and Impact on Modern Society, a Geographic Approach

Sheng Zhengmao

    Anarchism, defined by Webster dictionary as “a political theory holding all forms of governmental authority to be unnecessary and undesirable and advocating a society based on voluntary cooperation and free association of individuals and groups” (Merriam-Webster), is now widely regarded as a school of thought that causes disturbance and instability. The public only looks at the first part of the definition, which asks for an elimination of governmental systems, ignoring the second, which is truly the core of this seemingly unacceptable, and unrealistic theory.

The “voluntary cooperation”, or “free treaty” or “gift relation”, as many modern anarchists prefer to call it, is not an idea completely contradicting the very existence of an administration, but one that refuses to give it any real power, politically or economically (Graeber). Amny might speculate the demand for anarchism first originating from some underdeveloped regions of the world where a fully functioning government never existed, thus remaining the traits of an independent society in which each and every residents mind their own business. Though such a theory is proved true in some cases, most anarchist theorists or leaders were, or are, from the states in which traditional rulers have been in place for long, and a centralized seat of power has prevailed. Yet, at the moment anarchists appeared, all these “hosts” were in decline, or were experiencing some significant turmoils that weakened the government.

In the history, anarchism has emerged in four centers: China, Sub-Saharan Africa, Western Europe and North America — and in the last three it has survived until this day, yet the African model followed a quite different path compared to the other three.

Ancient China

    Interestingly, the first anarchists were born into one of the most centralized monarchies in the ancient world, Zhou China, around 7th century BC (IEP). However, at that time, the royal family was gradually losing control of the kingdom, and multiple smaller states run by warlords and aristocrats rose to dominance. Such a fragmented political environment inevitably led to doubts about the legitimacy of government and its sacredness, as well as public debates on the best form of government — a resemblance between the ancient Chinese and the Greeks, whose scattered city-states also fostered various theories but not anarchism.

Laozi, a Chinese scholar around whom an aura of mystery clouds, was the first theorist who had ever written on anarchism. In Laozi, he emphasizes “wuwei”, or “without action” as the most ideal means of ruling as a ruler (Bai, 4). Noticeably, in this case Laozi never proposed the abolition of monarchy or any forms of government, but simply for a mode of passive administration in which the bureaucracy serves a nominal or symbolic purpose, while real political and economic powers reside in the hands of the people.

However, due to the strong tradition of a centralized government and the flat terrain of Northern China, the interconnection among different groups and nations never allowed the application of anarchist schemes. Instead, the philosophy of Laozi, emphasizing passiveness and moderation, was replaced by the Legalist school of Hanfei, who claims that the state shall oversee closely the locals, and to inflict heavy punishments as well as generous rewards to guide the human nature and the ruler’s subjects to obedient and moral behaviors (Stanford University).

Despite such setbacks, the ideas of Laozi was not without success during the Warring States Era (475 B.C.—221 B.C.). The emperor of Qi imposed the Zouji Reformation to lower taxes, cut excessive governmental officials and to revise the redundant ritual ceremonies, in order to “avoid interrupting the people” (Sima). Geographically, Qi is the most ideal place to start such a reform. As its location suggests, the states lies in East China, along the coast and the fertile agricultural lands. The practice of grinding wheat into flour also developed during that period, providing a boost to food production (Indiana University). The promotion of trade and commerce, combined with Qi’s early dominance in China, also contributed to the prosperity of it. According to David Graeber, the famous advocate of modern anarchism and the author of Fragments of An Anarchist Anthropology, the anarchists’ goals for more personal freedom are most likely to be fulfilled “in good times”, and Qi confirms the assumption — when the people are enjoying an affluent life, they would depend less on assistance from higher authorities, and local “autonomies” would soon emerge.

Sub-Saharan Africa

    The pre-industrial societies of Sub-Saharan serve here as an example of all other such communities around the world: They remained for long isolated and self-sufficient, independent from external intervention, thus never giving an opportunity for organized political forces to emerge. Therefore, these “anarchist” societies are not an response to existent governments, but an instinctive way of living. They are not entities of abundance either: Most of those societies are located in tropical areas where rainforests prevail and no lands for large-scale agriculture are available, unable to enjoy food surpluses which gave rise to centralized governments in Eurasia; subsistence agriculture ensures their mere survival but not prosperity, creating communities in which little socio-economic inequality exists, barring the passage of the ambitious to rise to political dominance.

An interesting sample would be found in Tiv tribe in today’s Nigeria (Graeber). Their basic social unit is a “compound” or plantation, in which a family resides. Relationships within a family are highly stratificational and well-defined, with the elders controlling their younger sons and brothers. However, “no political organizations larger than a compound” exist. It is a widespread belief that political power could only be acquired by “consuming others”, by their traditions a practice of the evil wizards (Bohannan).

The long-lasting faith in anarchism, however, is now being decimated due to the cultural invasion of Christianity. Religion is a major driving force behind the organization of governments. This explains why the most centralized and bureaucratic societies are found on Eurasian continent or North Africa, as well as the latter colonies of these societies (including the United States, Australia and coastal Africa), as they are the birthplaces of christianity, Islam and Confucianism, all valuing obedience and a highly hierarchical fashion of management. As these religions or philosophies encroach these previously untouched regions like Tiv, new trends of social organization emerged. Just like how the colonists imposed common law and monoculture onto the colonized, the Roman Catholic Church is transforming the Tiv society by building a new “sense of community” and integrating the Tiv population into the national political campaign by participating in national elections (Iorliam).

The Tiv example also leads to another problem on defining an anarchist society. Like in any other geographic studies, “scale” always matters. If Tiv, in which every “compound” serves as an independent political unit, is considered anarchist, then inevitably the most remote villages in a Middle Age, European feudal state were also anarchist in nature. We could even claim that many ancient European settlements, whether Roman outposts or Gaelic manors were as well anarchist, as the lack of transportation made them de facto autonomies. In Ancient Greece, there were also colonies established by dissidents who were banished or ostracized from city-states; there may be leaders in these groups (University of Leiden), but it is doubtful if their control over the others was as strict as it of the Tiv elders, who “have many wives while the younger males are forced to remain single”.

Yet, it is rare for any sources to indicate those communities as anarchist. Persuasively it is prejudice and sense of racial superiority that prevents those works to draw parallel between the cradle of Western Civilization and the “uncivilized” tribes along Benue or Amazon. Furthermore, the more recent outbreaks and exhibits of anarchism gave the term a considerably unloveable impression, as the Europeans and Americans began to experience it by themselves.

Western Europe

    The fame of anarchism in Western Europe, most notably in Britain, France and Spain, experienced an increase in 18th century but was soon deteriorating. Anarchist theories of Europe were not naturally developed as those in Africa, and were not as purely theoretic as those in Ancient China. Instead, they were carefully devised and revised by the sociologists, theologists and reformers, who faithfully discussed their ideas and carefully implementing them into application, creating valuable experiments which would prove, or disprove their original prospects.

The Enlightenment thinkers in England have been deeply impacted by Sir Thomas More’s Utopia, and began to imagine the different approaches to the ideal society. Some of those imaginations are actually put into application, such as Robert Owen’s New Harmony (Gordon). Some of these communities were designed as models to respond the contemporary social dilemmas like overcrowding and water pollution; some of those were new religious societies in response to the oppressive Roman Catholic or Anglican Church. Therefore, these communes seldom set up the institutions they escaped from, and remained evangelical and equal. Interestingly, many of those attempts were made in the New World, which was then considered a territory without governmental intervention.

New Harmony, located in Indiana, was created by the famous Robert Owen as the first of a series of communities he envisioned. It is a settlement “based entirely on co-operation” (Robert Owen Museum). However, as time passed by, chaos appeared when new immigrants expected more gifts and generosity from Owen and refused to do the arduous agricultural or manufacturing jobs, choosing to “live off Owen’s bounty”. As a response, a constitution for the Preliminary Society was drafted and adopted, and the settlement was no longer without strong central organization (Carmony and Elliott). The failure of New Harmony indicates why the state of anarchism is unlikely to develop in “societies of plenty”, as the surplus of food inevitably leads to social stratification and the emergence of elites, who would have to grant certain rewards to the others for support (In this case, Owen appealed to the public for immigrants to New Harmony), thus creating dependence on those elites and the government under their control.

The Quakers, or Society of Friends, as well as the Congregationalism in New England, especially Massachusetts, were two sample religious “anarchies” (Morgan). The Massachusetts Bay Colony established no central administration of religions; they appointed no bishops, and the church members, regardless of their secular positions and statuses, enjoy the same privileges and obligations. The governor John Winthrop had no authority to exocuminate or condemn a commoner, and the relationship among different congregations was identical to the modern theory and definition of “voluntary cooperation”: As those different churches had to negotiate on specific religious or even political opinions. Such a convention named “synod”, however, had no real authority over making decisions.

As the 19th century gave way to a more organized 20th century in which nation-states rose and incorporated most population on Earth. WWI and WWII furthered state control within its borders and the commercial society connected the once untouched terrains to other parts of the world, eliminating the soil for anarchism to grow. The only major anarchist movement from 1900s to 1980s was the one in Catalonia, Spain during the infamous Spanish Civil War (Graeber). In that region where Communist Party enjoyed high prestige, factory workers seized the manufacturing plants and every other public buildings and enforced a “doctrine of equality”: self-management replaced managers, no signs of “class divisions” were allowed, tipping was forbidden, even dresses and ceremonial speeches were considered inappropriate, if not illegal, as “Nobody said ‘Señior’ or ‘Don’ or even ‘Usted’; everyone called everyone else ‘Comrade’ and ‘Thou’, and said ‘Salud!’ instead of ‘Buenos dias’” (Orwell).

For a long time after the World Wars, no anarchists were noticed: half of Eurasia was under communist governments in which national authorities imposed strict control over all aspects of the society, while the other half, as well as the Americas, was being ruled by administrations guided by capitalism and Puritan values that stress profitability and wage systems that are the opposite of anarchist autonomy. The recent rebirth of anarchism, beginning in the 1990s, was a direct result of globalization, a force never before so explicitly present and influential.


    The Americas, where once gave birth to Shakers and Quakers, again breeded a new generation of anarchists, many of which are also anti-globalization. The first incident occurred on November 30, 1999 in Seattle in the form of an anti-WTO protest. According to their rationale, the World Trade Organization is “some rich guys’ club”, profiting from the suppressive capitalist exploitation of workers and the periphery countries. Befriending the labor unions, progressive students and some religious organizations, they proposed a vision of global cooperation instead of the existing “free trade” rules (Hornblower).

The native American population in these years also struggled to revitalize their traditional ways of living, which was decimated by governmental assimilation, characterized by the Homestead Acts and the Dawes Act of 1887. These calls not only included demands for tribal lands and recognition, but also freedom from federal administration.

Now, after the analysis of anarchism in history, it might be possible for us to examine modern society and to indicate the geographic areas in the world where anarchism might eventually take hold and prosper.

First, the largely underdeveloped African or South American hinterlands, where anarchist sentiments were historically unchallenged will continue to remain so despite the outer interference of Christianity, as the physical barriers prevent the complete penetration of Western civilization and the national governments, formed during the decolonization period were unable to unite the different ethnocultural groups within them, leaving vacant “enclaves” for tribal structure to survive and thrive.

Second, the Great Plains of North America. An anarchist society has to be self-sufficient, but can not be affluent and definitely not excessive, while the lack of necessities on the other hand causes unrest and the emergence of popular leaders; some interactions with other communities are allowed, but large scale trade would lead to accumulation of wealth and thus stratification. Therefore, an ideal modern anarchist society has to be predominantly agricultural and rural, with a small population, basic industries and plenty of empty spaces (to avoid proximity to others, with the potential of merging into cities or conflicts). Taking all these factors into consideration, the towns of Great Plains would be perfect, as long as the federal or state governments are not directly involved in local affairs.



    Although the principles of anarchism could never be globally applied, nor the visions realistic, these theories do reflect the limits of modern society and those terms and institutions we see as normal or even necessary: government, wages, global markets… The global division of labor, supranational organizations and international migrations were all consequences of the Colonial Era. As anarchists persuasively argue, those devices and systems were, at least partially, simply the outcomes of our own misbehaviors. Of course, human societies cannot prosper without organization and eventually governments; however, is the degree of governmental administration really beneficial? Is the capitalist theories many hold as basic truth really sustainable? Without the Puritan or Calvinist theory of predestination, the working condition for 19th century factory laborers might have been better; without mercantilism, the native Americans or West Africans might not have been exploited and destroyed as they were, and without such a history, racial inequality and riots might not have been a problem. Indeed, the course of history is not reversible, and these institutions are not be to denied without recognition to their contributions; however, the anarchist ideals might be a good supplement to our modern mindset. The monotheist of Ur, not accepting the dominance of polytheism, led his people to the Promised Land and began the search for human perfectibility, and now, why cannot answers to some of our contemporary concerns be found in anarchists’ belief?


Fragments of an Anarchist Anthropology. Graeber, David. 2014.

Homage to Catalonia. Orwell, George. 1938.


“How to Rule without Taking Unnatural Actions (无为而治): A Comparative Study of the Political

Philosophy of the Laozi”. Bai, Tongdong. Xavier University.


Indiana University. “Technological Change in Warring States China”. Web.

Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy, “Laozi”. Web.

Merriam-Webster Dictionary. “Definition of Anarchism”. Web.

“New Harmony, Indiana: Robert Owen’s Seedbed for Utopia”. Carmony, David and Elliott,

Josephine. Indiana Magazine of History, Volume 76, Issue 3, September, 1980. Indiana



“Recreating Community Life Among Young People in Tiv Society, Nigeria: ‘The New Heavens

and New Earth’”. Iorliam, Clement. Saint Leo University. Web.

“Robert Owen”. Gordon, Peter. UNESCO, International Bureau of Education. Web.

Robert Owen Museum. “New Harmony”. Web.

Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. “Legalism in Chinese Philosophy”. Dec, 10, 2014. Web.

“The Battle in Seattle”. Hornblower, Margot. November 22, 1999. CNN. Web.

The Puritan Dilemma: The Story of John Winthrop. Morgan, Edmund. 1958, Toronto.

Universiteit Leiden. History of International Migration. “Greek Colonization”. Web.

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