Anarchist FAQ/Why do anarchists oppose the current system?/1

B.1 Why are anarchists against authority and hierarchy?Edit

First, it is necessary to indicate what kind of authority anarchism challenges. While it is customary for some opponents of anarchism to assert that anarchists oppose all kinds of authority, the reality of the situation is more complex. While anarchists have, on occasion, stated their opposition to "all authority" a closer reading quickly shows that anarchists reject only one specific form of authority, what we tend to call hierarchy (see section H.4 for more details). This can be seen when Bakunin stated that "the principle of authority" was the "eminently theological, metaphysical and political idea that the masses, always incapable of governing themselves, must submit at all times to the benevolent yoke of a wisdom and a justice, which in one way or another, is imposed from above."[1]

Other forms of authority are more acceptable to anarchists, it depends whether the authority in question becomes a source of power over others or not. That is the key to understanding the anarchist position on authority—if it is hierarchical authority, then anarchists are against it. . The reason is simple:

"[n]o one should be entrusted with power, inasmuch as anyone invested with authority must . . . became an oppressor and exploiter of society."


This distinction between forms of authority is important. As Erich Fromm pointed out, "authority" is "a broad term with two entirely different meanings: it can be either 'rational' or 'irrational' authority. Rational authority is based on competence, and it helps the person who leans on it to grow. Irrational authority is based on power and serves to exploit the person subjected to it."[3] The same point was made by Bakunin over 100 years earlier when he indicated the difference between authority and "natural influence." For Bakunin, individual freedom "results from th[e] great number of material, intellectual, and moral influences which every individual around him [or her] and which society . . . continually exercise . . . To abolish this mutual influence would be to die." Consequently, "when we reclaim the freedom of the masses, we hardly wish to abolish the effect of any individual's or any group of individual's natural influence upon the masses. What we wish is to abolish artificial, privileged, legal, and official influences."[4]

It is, in other words, the difference between taking part in a decision and listening to alternative viewpoints and experts ("natural influence") before making your mind up and having a decision made for you by a separate group of individuals (who may or may not be elected) because that is their role in an organisation or society. In the former, the individual exercises their judgement and freedom (i.e. is based on rational authority). In the latter, they are subjected to the wills of others, to hierarchical authority (i.e. is based on irrational authority). This is because rational authority "not only permits but requires constant scrutiny and criticism . . . it is always temporary, its acceptance depending on its performance." The source of irrational authority, on the other hand, "is always power over people . . . Power on the one side, fear on the other, are always the buttresses on which irrational authority is built." Thus former is based upon "equality" while the latter "is by its very nature based upon inequality."[5]

This crucial point is expressed in the difference between having authority and being an authority. Being an authority just means that a given person is generally recognised as competent for a given task, based on his or her individual skills and knowledge. Put differently, it is socially acknowledged expertise. In contrast, having authority is a social relationship based on status and power derived from a hierarchical position, not on individual ability. Obviously this does not mean that competence is not an element for obtaining a hierarchical position; it just means that the real or alleged initial competence is transferred to the title or position of the authority and so becomes independent of individuals, i.e. institutionalised (or what Bakunin termed "official").

This difference is important because the way people behave is more a product of the institutions in which we are raised than of any inherent nature. In other words, social relationships shape the individuals involved. This means that the various groups individuals create have traits, behaviours and outcomes that cannot be understood by reducing them to the individuals within them. That is, groups consist not only of individuals, but also relationships between individuals and these relationships will affect those subject to them. For example, obviously "the exercise of power by some disempowers others" and so through a "combination of physical intimidation, economic domination and dependency, and psychological limitations, social institutions and practices affect the way everyone sees the world and her or his place in it." This, as we discuss in the next section, impacts on those involved in such authoritarian social relationships as "the exercise of power in any institutionalised form -- whether economic, political or sexual -- brutalises both the wielder of power and the one over whom it is exercised."[6]

Authoritarian social relationships means dividing society into (the few) order givers and (the many) order takers, impoverishing the individuals involved (mentally, emotionally and physically) and society as a whole. Human relationships, in all parts of life, are stamped by authority, not liberty. And as freedom can only be created by freedom, authoritarian social relationships (and the obedience they require) do not and cannot educate a person in freedom—only participation (self-management) in all areas of life can do that. "In a society based on exploitation and servitude," in Kropotkin's words, "human nature itself is degraded" and it is only "as servitude disappears" shall we "regain our rights."[7]

Of course, it will be pointed out that in any collective undertaking there is a need for co-operation and co-ordination and this need to "subordinate" the individual to group activities is a form of authority. Therefore, it is claimed, a democratically managed group is just as "authoritarian" as one based on hierarchical authority. Anarchists are not impressed by such arguments. Yes, we reply, of course in any group undertaking there is a need make and stick by agreements but anarchists argue that to use the word "authority" to describe two fundamentally different ways of making decisions is playing with words. It obscures the fundamental difference between free association and hierarchical imposition and confuses co-operation with command (as we note in section H.4, Marxists are particularly fond of this fallacy). Simply put, there are two different ways of co-ordinating individual activity within groups—either by authoritarian means or by libertarian means. Proudhon, in relation to workplaces, makes the difference clear:

"either the workman. . . will be simply the employee of the proprietor-capitalist-promoter; or he will participate. . . [and] have a voice in the council, in a word he will become an associate. In the first case the workman is subordinated, exploited: his permanent condition is one of obedience. . . In the second case he resumes his dignity as a man and citizen. . . he forms part of the producing organisation, of which he was before but the slave; as, in the town, he forms part of the sovereign power, of which he was before but the subject . . . we need not hesitate, for we have no choice. . . it is necessary to form an ASSOCIATION among workers . . . because without that, they would remain related as subordinates and superiors, and there would ensue two . . . castes of masters and wage-workers, which is repugnant to a free and democratic society."


In other words, associations can be based upon a form of rational authority, based upon natural influence and so reflect freedom, the ability of individuals to think, act and feel and manage their own time and activity. Otherwise, we include elements of slavery into our relationships with others, elements that poison the whole and shape us in negative ways (see section B.1.1). Only the reorganisation of society in a libertarian way (and, we may add, the mental transformation such a change requires and would create) will allow the individual to "achieve more or less complete blossoming, whilst continuing to develop" and banish "that spirit of submission that has been artificially thrust upon him [or her]"[9]

So, anarchists "ask nothing better than to see [others]. . . exercise over us a natural and legitimate influence, freely accepted, and never imposed . . . We accept all natural authorities and all influences of fact, but none of right."[10] Anarchist support for free association within directly democratic groups is based upon such organisational forms increasing influence and reducing irrational authority in our lives. Members of such organisations can create and present their own ideas and suggestions, critically evaluate the proposals and suggestions from their fellows, accept those that they agree with or become convinced by and have the option of leaving the association if they are unhappy with its direction. Hence the influence of individuals and their free interaction determine the nature of the decisions reached, and no one has the right to impose their ideas on another. As Bakunin argued, in such organisations "no function remains fixed and it will not remain permanently and irrevocably attached to one person. Hierarchical order and promotion do not exist. . . In such a system, power, properly speaking, no longer exists. Power is diffused to the collectivity and becomes the true expression of the liberty of everyone."[11]

Therefore, anarchists are opposed to irrational (e.g., illegitimate) authority, in other words, hierarchy—hierarchy being the institutionalisation of authority within a society. Hierarchical social institutions include the state (see section B.2), private property and the class systems it produces (see section B.3) and, therefore, capitalism (see section B.4). Due to their hierarchical nature, anarchists oppose these with passion. "Every institution, social or civil," argued Voltairine de Cleyre, "that stands between man [or woman] and his [or her] right; every tie that renders one a master, another a serf; every law, every statue, every be-it-enacted that represents tyranny" anarchists seek to destroy. However, hierarchy exists beyond these institutions. For example, hierarchical social relationships include sexism, racism and homophobia (see section B.1.4), and anarchists oppose, and fight, them all. Thus, as well as fighting capitalism as being hierarchical (for workers "slave in a factory," albeit "the slavery ends with the working hours") de Cleyre also opposed patriarchal social relationships which produce a "home that rests on slavery" because of a "marriage that represents the sale and transfer of the individuality of one of its parties to the other!"[12]

Needless to say, while we discuss different forms of hierarchy in different sections this does not imply that anarchists think they, and their negative effects, are somehow independent or can be easily compartmentalised. For example, the modern state and capitalism are intimately interrelated and cannot be considered as independent of each other. Similarly, social hierarchies like sexism and racism are used by other hierarchies to maintain themselves (for example, bosses will use racism to divide and so rule their workers). From this it follows that abolishing one or some of these hierarchies, while desirable, would not be sufficient. Abolishing capitalism while maintaining the state would not lead to a free society (and vice versa) -- if it were possible. As Murray Bookchin notes:

"there can be a decidedly classless, even a non-exploitative society in the economic sense that still preserves hierarchical rule and domination in the social sense -- whether they take the form of the patriarchal family, domination by age and ethnic groups, bureaucratic institutions, ideological manipulation or a pyramidal division of labour . . . classless or not, society would be riddles by domination and, with domination, a general condition of command and obedience, of unfreedom and humiliation, and perhaps most decisively, an abortion of each individual's potentiality for consciousness, reason, selfhood, creativity, and the right to assert full control over her or his daily live."


This clearly implies that anarchists "challenge not only class formations but hierarchies, not only material exploitation but domination in every form." [14] Hence the anarchist stress on opposing hierarchy rather than just, say, the state (as some falsely assert) or simply economic class and exploitation (as, say, many Marxists do). As noted earlier (in section A.2.8), anarchists consider all hierarchies to be not only harmful but unnecessary, and think that there are alternative, more egalitarian ways to organise social life. In fact, we argue that hierarchical authority creates the conditions it is presumably designed to combat, and thus tends to be self-perpetuating. Thus hierarchical organisations erode the ability of those at the bottom to manage their own affairs directly so requiring hierarchy and some people in positions to give orders and the rest to follow them. Rather than prevent disorder, governments are among its primary causes while its bureaucracies ostensibly set up to fight poverty wind up perpetuating it, because without poverty, the high-salaried top administrators would be out of work. The same applies to agencies intended to eliminate drug abuse, fight crime, etc. In other words, the power and privileges deriving from top hierarchical positions constitute a strong incentive for those who hold them not to solve the problems they are supposed to solve. (For further discussion see Marilyn French, Beyond Power: On Women, Men, and Morals, Summit Books, 1985).


  1. Marxism, Freedom and the State, p. 33
  2. Bakunin, The Political Philosophy of Bakunin, p. 249
  3. To Have or To Be, pp. 44-45
  4. The Basic Bakunin, p. 140 and p. 141
  5. Erich Fromm, Man for Himself, pp. 9-10
  6. Martha A. Ackelsberg, Free Women of Spain, p. 41
  7. Anarchism, p. 104
  8. General Idea of the Revolution, pp. 215-216
  9. Nestor Makhno, The Struggle Against the State and Other Essays, p. 62
  10. Bakunin, The Political Philosophy of Bakunin, p. 255
  11. Bakunin on Anarchism, p. 415
  12. The Voltairine de Cleyre Reader, p. 72, p. 17 and p. 72
  13. Toward an Ecological Society, pp. 14-5
  14. Bookchin, Op. Cit., p. 15