Twitter debate on meaning of “anarchy” the word

Some friends of mine on Twitter got into a long conversation about the term “anarchist” or “anarchy” while I was out helping my aged mom by walking her dog for her. I don’t know how they knew I was away but the clever devils knew somehow. Anyway I read the whole give and take when I got the chance because they were all kind enough to keep my name in the conversation so I’d see it later. Bless them.

A fellow named Corbett Ball summed up his position early with this tweet

Corbett Ball@corbettball

@libertycrucial Evidence of organization & leadership. Whether formal or informal, such is evidence of not total anarchy #family @MarkStoval

to which Dave replies:


@ArbitraryDesign @corbettball @MarkStoval anarchy is ‘without rulers’ not ‘without organization or leadership’. Highly nuanced.

and so, Corbett responds:

Corbett Ball@corbettball

@ArbitraryDesign To nuance anarchy is to define it as minarchy. There’s either structure or there ain’t. @libertycrucial @MarkStoval

Later, Corbett responds to ArbitraryDesign with:

Corbett Ball@corbettball

@ArbitraryDesign Voluntaryism is very cool. Thing is, people voluntarily organize. Such is not anarchy IMO. @libertycrucial @MarkStoval

and that has Dave respond:


@libertycrucial @corbettball @ArbitraryDesign @MarkStoval Such is why I think anarchy is a useless word that does more harm than good.

Those few tweets sort of sum up the long, long conversation that is still going on as I type these words. I am sure I did not credit enough people in the conversation or pick the best tweets, but I hope I gave a good overview of the positions taken on the word “anarchy”. I promised them via a tweet that I would give my take here since they all know that I am somewhat “tweet challenged” in that I just can’t make many arguments that I can get into 140 characters on twitter. Heck the reason I started this blog was to respond to my friends in longer fashion than Twitter allows. So following is my take on the word “anarchy” or “anarchist”. By the way, it turns out that I have written on this before. I have not changed my mind since then and you might want to take a look at that short essay also.


First, many people even think that anarchy means chaos when it most certainly does not, but it is truly sad that Dave has a good point in saying that the word anarchist has been so demonized that the word does our side more harm than good with some folks. A lot of people think of a bearded crazy man tossing bombs into innocent crowds of people or the total chaos of a failed state situation when they hear the word “anarchist”. Even when people know that is not the reality, they still get that mental picture and that effects their emotional response to the word. This is very convenient for the government and its minions who help perpetuate that image every chance they get is it not? You see, in order for the state to function and control the masses it depends on the people believing in its legitimacy. When the old USSR lost legitimacy it fell apart without bloodshed — the state just came to an end. To kept legitimacy the state uses various classes of professional apologists and it controls the means of propaganda. It uses the government schools, the sycophantic press, and other state allied intellectuals.

Is the word anarchy so damaged that that is does our side no good? I’ll get to that later, but first let me define the terms the way I see them. I have always thought that “anarchy” meant “no rulers” and before anyone jumps up and hollers that “there you go again” quoting Murray Rothbard, let me give you a quote from before his time:

As the word “anarchy” etymologically signifies the negation of governmental authority, the absence of government, it follows that one indissoluble bond unites the anarchists. This is antagonism to all situations regulated by imposition, constraint, violence, governmental oppression, whether these are a product of all, a group, or of one person. In short, whoever denies that the intervention of government is for human relationships is an anarchist.
But this definition would have only a negative value did it not possess, as a practical complement, a conscious attempt to live outside this domination and servility which are incompatible with the anarchist conception. An anarchist, therefore, is an individual who, whether he has been brought to it by a process of reasoning or by sentiment, lives to the greatest possible extent in a state of legitimate defence against authoritarian encroachments. From this it follows that anarchist individualism — the tendency which we believe contains the most profound realization of the anarchist idea — is not merely a philosophical doctrine — it is an attitude, an individual way of life. ~ Emile Armand, in Anarchist Individualism as Life and Activity (1907)

To support Corbett Bell I did find an essay from Murray Rothbard that he wrote but never published. In it he makes the analysis libertarians are not anarchists because “We must conclude that the question ‘are libertarians anarchists?’ simply cannot be answered on etymological grounds. The vagueness of the term itself is such that the libertarian system would be considered anarchist by some people and archist by others.” But then later after he had developed his system of market anarchy or Anarcho-capitalism he would write for publication that:

This sort of criticism can only involve us in an endless and arid dispute over semantics. Let me say from the beginning that I define the state as that institution which possesses one or both (almost always both) of the following properties: (1) it acquires its income by the physical coercion known as “taxation”; and (2) it asserts and usually obtains a coerced monopoly of the provision of defense service (police and courts) over a given territorial area. An institution not possessing either of these properties is not and cannot be, in accordance with my definition, a state.

So, as it turns out, I believe that the real definition of anarchy should be that there is no person, group, or entity that has the monopoly on the legitimate use of force and so will never have the coerced monopoly on defense service and will never be able to forcibly tax people. There may be hundreds of groups that will sell to you “defense services” (police and courts) or protection against invasion by some foreign state if such still exists after the world sees the peace, prosperity, and progress the absence of a state will bring but there will not be just one.

If I peer into my crystal ball to see what, exactly, would happen in a society that is state-less all I get is a message that says “depends on what the people want”. You see: it is up to the people making Trillions of decisions though voluntary cooperation and voluntary exchange  to form the “system” that would be the best for the individuals involved. In different locations people might have widely different customs and rules of behavior but these rules would arise out of mutual voluntary cooperation and not top-down from some ruler enforcing arbitrary rules via the use of force, fraud, and intimidation.

Can anarchy work? Certainly, and it has worked in many places in times past. Anarchy by my definition I mean. But is the word anarchy worth using given the confusion it brings at times even among those who are trying to be honest in their assessment of the term? That is a whole other category of question. That delves into the realm of tactics.

What word could we use to describe a situation in which there was no state with its monopoly on the legitimate use of force in a given territory?  We could use “Voluntarism” or “Agorism” instead of anarchy. Both lack any real name recognition and that is both a pro and a con at the same time. Agorism is often defined as a tactic for fighting the state as an individual and so that looks to be confusing if we used it. So, we can use “Voluntarism” or we can use Anarchy.  For myself, I hate letting the statists set the terms of the debate once again. They have almost ruined the term “capitalist” and they really ruined the term “liberal” (think of classical liberalism compared to the modern horror called liberalism). All things considered, I’ll stick to using anarchy or anarchist for now.

Corbett, I hope you’ll understand.


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