“Let’s All Be Anarchists and Run Around With Our Pants On Our Heads!”

The title is, in fact, a quote from a friend in high school. Anarchy — what is it? What does it mean? It carries so many connotations in today’s society. There seems to be this cultural idea of anarchism as meaning people running around doing whatever they want, regardless of the effects of their actions on others, or burning buildings down, and generally causing  havoc. But is that really what anarchism means?

When I think of anarchism, I think of this awesome “anarchist bookstore,” The Wooden Shoe, in Philadelphia, PA. The Wooden Shoe is actually “an all-volunteer collectively-run Infoshop . . . that seeks to embody the principles of anarchism and other movements for social justice” and wishes to be “an empowering resource for activism, organizing, art, self-education, dialogue, community-building, and the anti-capitalist struggle.” It’s full of great books and cool people.

I think of Robert Paul Wolff’s In Defense of Anarchism, which I read for my class on the philosophy of law. Wolff began believing that he could “solve the fundamental problem of political philosophy . . . roughly speaking, how the moral autonomy of the individual can be made compatible with the legitimate authority of the state” (xxvii). He realized, however, that he could not find any theoretical justification for the authority of the state and that he had become a philosophical anarchist:

The defining mark of the state is authority, the right to rule. The defining obligation of man is autonomy, the refusal to be ruled. It would seem, then, that there can be no resolution between the autonomy of the individual and the putative authority of the state. Insofar as a man fulfills his obligation to make himself the author of his decisions, he will resist the state’s claim to have authority over him. That is to say, he will deny that he has a duty to obey the laws of the state simply because they are the laws. In that sense, it would seem that the anarchism is the only political doctrine consistent with the virtue of autonomy (18).

I think of AK Press, “a worker-run collective that publishes and distributes radical books, visual and audio media, and other mind-altering material” and is “organized around anarchist principles.” For the people at AK Press,

Anarchism means abolishing the state and all coercive social relations. It means a society in which individuals create and control their own collective organizations to meet their social and economic need. . . . Anarchism, and the anarchist movement, is about emancipation, empowerment, and agency. . . . anarchism is a practical framework for working out these issues [of interlinked oppression]. It’s a revolutionary analysis that helps us understand the roots of domination, both as individuals and as members of exploited social groups

I realized that over a dozen of the books I own and read the most were either published by AK Press or are sold at the AK Press bookstore online.

Yes, there may be people who call themselves anarchists and advocate overthrowing the state using violence. But such a narrow subsection does not speak for, and should not represent, the numerous and varied people who advocate for anarchism.


Wolff,  Robert Paul. In Defense of Anarchism. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1998.

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