In the past two weeks, this same question keeps coming up. Whether I’m posting on the internet, carrying flags around labour rallies or sitting at a conference, the topic has been almost inescapable. It’s not always an easy subject – there’s an incredible amount of stigma attached, plenty of ignorance and cartoonishly super-villainous stereotypes. Nevertheless, I’m hardly ashamed. I am an anarchist. That means something, and it’s worth taking the time to explain (which is why I’ve spent the last week consumed with re-writing this essay three times).

Given the misconceptions it’s traditional to start off talking about what anarchism is by explaining what it isn’t. I’m not a terrorist or a nihilist – I don’t oppose laws, order, organization, morals, justice or society. What I and other anarchists do oppose is power based on force and coercion, even under the guise of law, order or morality. We question everything – government, class, race, schools, prisons and war (to name a few) in our attempt to build an analysis and plan of action which directly confronts their common roots.

Placing any form of power “above question” would lend it tacit support. This isn’t just an issue of hypocrisy. Attempting to abolish capitalism without questioning the state itself led to the deaths of tens of millions in Russia and China, and attempting to stamp out communism and implement “market utopias” led to millions of deaths across Latin America, Asia and Africa. “Humanitarian interventions” have exacted continuing massive death tolls as they raged against foreign tyrants without stopping to reconsider the underlying imperialist, colonialist and fundamentally racist ideas driving them. Given the ugly options available, it’s not hard to see why so many become apathetic or adopt a cold pragmatism – which is exactly why so many do everything they can to make sure anarchism isn’t offered up as an option.

Is anarchism an ideology? If so, then just barely. There is no central, unified dogma. Groups of anarchists are always arguing about the details of some theory or vision, and over the decades this fierce self-criticism has driven its evolution in theory and practice. This ‘anarchic’ diversity suits us – it offers an incredible range of ideas, tactics and underscores the principle that truly free forms of organization need not be mutually exclusive and can never be free if they’re implemented by force. Historically speaking, it’s certainly a “movement” – with slogans, writings and symbols shared and evolving for nearly two centuries now.

Why take such a hard-line approach? Because ultimately, beyond any particularly nasty kind of rule, power itself is the question. States and empires conquered and enslaved people long before today, and the problems we face are far from unique. While capitalism (or “Communism”) has a lot in common with feudalism or old-style imperialism, equating them all would be hopelessly simplistic. While the economic models and rationales changed, though, they tended to be implemented the same way – as anthropologist Stanley Diamond states, “Civilization originates in conquest abroad and repression at home”, and all of these societies have shared remarkably similar bureaucratic and militaristic methodologies (unlike most stateless societies…).

To say that states rule by force isn’t some theoretical technicality. States are defined by violence. They begin and end at the limits of the control of their military (borders), enforce their edicts and laws with domestic security forces (“police”) and maintain order through a “monopoloy on the use of force” (define “legitimate” violence). They are literally military occupations, no matter how they’re dressed up – they don’t prevent violence, they institutionalize it. This isn’t to say that this is the only kind of force or coercion, but states and empires not only practice this on an unparalleled scale, but also make countless other forms of domination possible.

Economic issues come into the question as states strive to fund their war machines and ever-growing bureaucracies. Armies aren’t cheap, and neither are government officials. They can levy taxes, but this is very difficult without a prosperous (and technologically advanced) economy to draw from. Commerce (and inequality) has been around since the dawn of civilization, and ever since increasingly complex forms have been the driving force behind the expansions of states and empires. When I studied archeology in school, it really didn’t surprise me that the first states come along with the first skeletons several inches taller (and obviously healthier) than the rest, covered with jewels. Inequality is key here – whether the working masses were serfs, slaves or waged workers, a large imbalance in control over resources has always been key to getting them to work. It’s easy to characterize this as “greed” (and certainly, lots of greed is involved), but personal spending is beside the point – it isn’t about personal property, it’s about who “owns” (controls) the property we share – like factories, forests or farmland and the products of our collective work on them. States legally define ownership, set the rules of competition and enforce the laws, and in return they get the products they need to make it happen.

There’s obviously a degree of competition when elites expand to include religious or commercial leaders, and across history this has led to many conflicts as militaries, religions, industries and bureaucracies struggled for primary control. These conflicts, though, tend to be greatly exaggerated. This glosses over how much they have in common and rely on each other, as well as downplay their much larger conflict with everyone else in society. For all that they compete, they all end up at the same parties, unlike the rest of us. What tends to get ignored when people talk about the grand conflict between businesspeople and the government is that the property-owning middle class already did go to war with “the state” when they overthrew the old European aristocracies two centuries ago, setting the stage for the industrial revolution and defining the modern world. The power structures created as a result aren’t “conspiracies” and only in the simplest examples (warlords, etc) are run by single organizations or institutions. Collusion helps, but it isn’t required – the mutual benefits are clear enough to everybody involved.

This process imposes itself on entire societies. Hierarchies operate by ranking people within them. Those at the top get the most benefits and pay the lowest price, and the far larger groups below get much less (as a group and moreso as individuals), and often pay far higher prices (longer jail terms, shorter lifespans, smaller homes etc). This makes people far easier to rule by placing each “rank” above the last, giving each a reason to identify with the overall power structure and resist change for fear of losing what little they have to those below them. While one’s economic position (class) is clearly very important here, there’s a lot of other factors. By ranking entire groups of people by race, gender and other characteristics, further amounts of oppression are justified. In Ontario today, an average woman of colour makes 53 cents for each dollar made by an average white male. That incredible discount shows the profits possible by devaluing people in this way, and it magnifies with every dimension added (age, ability, sexual preference, religion, etc) measuring people against a definition of “normal” which gets more scarce with each one (what percentage of the society are really white, straight, middle-class, Christian, english-speaking, adult males?). Beyond the economic benefits, states and elites also gain important social controls, since this process effectively limits access to the political system to those on the lower levels, ensuring that those with the loudest voices will be those with the most to gain.

But, how else would people organize themselves? And perhaps more importantly, how would people manage to organize themselves well enough to wrest power from states and corporations without getting shot? Well…they’d do it themselves. The many proposed models of anarchist organizing have one thing in common – they all focus on the people directly involved. Nobody knows a workplace better than the workers, and nobody knows a neighbourhood better than the people who live there. This is the point where ideas and practice meet. Anarchism cannot be imposed, it has to grow from the ground up, which is why grassroots, community-based organizing is so important. A revolution needs to come from everybody, or it just isn’t a revolution at all.

One of them main points anarchists make is that we can’t wait for a revolution to start solving our problems. This power structure is massive, and no single act can dethrone or replace it. Direct action means actively pursuing goals instead of begging those in power to do it for us, or seeking state power for ourselves. Prefigurative politics are all about beginning the kind of organizations that we’d like to see in a revolutionary future today – free-schools, co-operatives, neighbourhood assemblies etc. It gives us a chance to experiment with and learn from different models of our ideas in action, and presents a picture to the public far easier to grasp. We don’t naively hope that “bringing down the government” will bring about a better world – we intend to build one in spite of them.

Anarchists are getting a lot of press these days. And while, as always, it’s focused on rioters, it reflects much deeper growing current. Over decades, as the influence of authoritarian communist ideas and parties declined, anarchist ideas and organizing methods have filled much of the vacuum. It was visible by the late 90s with the rise of the Anti-Globalization movement which operated through anarchistic “spokescouncils” of “affinity groups” and which celebrated self-organized rebellions like the Zapatistas or popular assemblies and factory takeovers of Argentina. The popular protests of the last year took this one step further, occupying public squares with open-air assemblies which shunned parliamentary politics and brought down a number of governments. This polar shift in radical thought toward libertarian ideas has gone well beyond those who identify as anarchists (as always), spreading widely throughout technological, academic and activist circles.

The consequences of this shift are only beginning to be felt. For decades conservatives have held a virtual monopoly on “libertarian” ideas in public discourse. The emergence of a libertarian left on a large scale threatens both sides of the traditional political spectrum. On the right, it threatens to de-throne Ron Paul and his ilk as champions of ‘liberty’. On the left, the failures of statism and moderation are quickly finding a new champion in President Obama. Revolutionary sentiment spread quickly around the globe over the last year, but after the first large round of battles, most are now involved in licking their wounds and re-thinking their tactics. These things take time to unfold, but are already clearly visible if you know what to look for.

In the wake of the first big round of “Occupy” protests and evictions, as well as others like them around the world, questions of direction remain. The rhetoric of “the 99%” is fundamentally incompatible with a movement which seeks mainly to reach out to “normal” middle-class Americans (or Canadians, Egyptians, etc), and a conflict limited to “peaceful” and “legal” means (as defined by the state) means competing entirely on terms dictated by those such a movement claims to oppose. So far, many are unconvinced that it’s more than a power play or temper tantrum by people far more privileged than themselves, something I can’t fault them for. A broader, more organized and consistent movement is clearly going to be needed if real “change” is to come, but also one which doesn’t achieve those goals at the price of its convictions (as have so many…). Revolution can’t just be re-branded to escape the stigma and connotations of past terms, and there’s no use in reinventing the wheel unless you’re willing to pay close attention to where you went wrong the last time. “Anarchy” says it in a single word, as in its Ancient Greek origins: an arkos, or no rulers.

Over the years, anarchists have used many other names in order to be polite – libertarian socialists (or communists, municipalists, etc), syndicalists, mutualists, primitivists, anti-authoritarians, autonomists, horizontalists and many others. Each of these schools of thought had its own writers and movements, many of whom weren’t “anarchists”, and most still exist as somewhat distinct within the anarchist millieu today (“anarcho-syndicalists” etc). None of these names, though, have had the staying power or ability to continually resurface. Admittedly, I will just as soon join any movement which promises to get even some of these ideas direly needed public attention (I’m a member of “Occupy” and others), but for all it’s faults, the anarchist movement is the only one I see with the potential to really connect these struggles. The name may be thoroughly stigmatized, but that’s because anarchists have been stirring up these conflicts for well over a century. In this business, if you’re not slandered by the press and prosecutors, you’re probably doing something wrong.

Even in the massive protests of the last year, anarchists have generally been a fairly small group (except, perhaps in Athens, Oakland and a few others). What’s important, though, is that anarchist groups took part in thousands of actions across the Americas, Africa, Europe and Asia. This international and historically rooted presence says something, and it’s only a matter of time before ignorance of anarchist ideas can’t be used as a defense in public debates. As we grow in numbers and influence, the questions we raise become increasingly hard to ignore, both to power and the notion of revolution and resistance.

Yes, I’m an anarchist. And no, I’m not alone.