‘All is to be doubted.’


There’s an inherent challenge in organizing anarchists and even in defining a single philosophy of anarchism, when the concept itself holds the kernel of an extreme, radical individualism.

The American Heritage Dictionary leaves no wiggle room for this far-right state-denier, citing first the “theory or doctrine that all forms of government are oppressive and undesirable and should be abolished”; next, referring broadly to “active resistance and terrorism against the state, as used by some anarchists”; and finally—like the terrible twos forever—“rejection of all coercive control and authority.” The cautious dictionary browser is advised to move along, go back to your home.

Still, the principles expressed are a useful starting point, if one cares to linger awhile. It doesn’t have to be all or nothing. That said, let’s come to the heart of the matter: the Sovereign Individual, who may volunteer whatever cooperation or association the anarchist society needs to function.

As a more positive definition, the “libertarian” label comes to hand: “1) One who advocates maximizing individual rights and minimizing the role of the state; 2) One who believes in free will.”

With that last zinger the needle has zoomed right past moderate to extra diverse and all-inclusive: capitalists and communists, artists and dictators, lovers and killers, Christians and Satanists. So let’s retreat to the more meaningful focus: the contest between the King and I.

What does it mean to be “sovereign”?

The dictionary fairly includes here the democratic attributes (self-governing, and independent) as well as the usual, state-based brand. Important to both is the central, almost sacred role bestowed upon one (state or individual) who is sovereign: “paramount, supreme.” The term also implies “permanent”—like the claims of the eternal Church, the undying Reich, the UN Security Council, the Neoliberal “end of history.” And like, on the anti-state side, the perennial pushback from the Ron Pauls, the Alex Joneses, the Julian Assanges; the Dutch farmers and Canadian Truckers and New Zealand Maori.

In a notable essay Jeffrey Tucker makes the case for a sensible bifurcation of the loose tribe of rugged individualists into two camps of different characters, with opposing visions and styles in their defiance of socially sanctioned authority: “Against Libertarian Brutalism: Will libertarianism be brutalist or humanitarian? Everyone needs to decide.” Yes, even the capitalist and communist builders of concrete monstrosities (the brutalists) claim the right to exercise their free will; along with the more pastoral and peaceful wing, the humanists. So moral judgement, an assumption of humane majority norms, is brought to bear. Tucker rests on a premise of benevolence in “civil standards of values and etiquette,” instead of throwing the baby out with the bathwater under the stripped-down banner of boorish, intolerant and abusive “liberty.”

Tucker’s article betrays in its subtitle a contradiction even in this most basic classification of libertarians (and here we will especially want to include anarchists): “Everyone needs to decide.”

Is that imperative any different (except in moral judgement) from Georgie Bush’s infamous, “Yer either with us or yer with the terr’ists”? It reminds me of the radical student manifestos of the 1960s, the lists of demands: “We must… The US must… The university must…” After such demands are met with silence, inaction, and downright repression, they tend to carry less weight as a tactical strategy. Maybe it’s because they are self-contradictory at the outset: challenging authority with the pretense of reverse authority.

Opting out of the political arena altogether (as far as one cares to take that road) is what I call the metapolitical alternative. The artist or mystic cannot far engage with doctrinal refinements, calls to group action, mission statements, or campaign strategies. Truer to principles of individual sovereignty, this breed of anarchist sniffs the odor of creeping systemization; of grassroots institutions growing authoritarian legs of their own; of growing legions of followers conjuring their own expectations of reputation, allegiance, compromise, monetization.

Movements imply leaders as well as followers. What leaders can be entrusted to represent everyone present—even if they were capable of sufficient transparency to recuse themselves from a deciding vote? And what is a leader without authority to lead?

Then there is the problem of doctrine, policy, and the inherent limitations of group identity. Even naysayers develop a code through which to communicate the world to each other: an in-group jargon for their ears while shunning the mainstream narrative.

The dilemma resembles the benign but unavoidable paradox of the Quakers (a “Society of Friends,” after all). Even in their practice of honoring “that of God in everyone,” they develop an inbred persona as a society (peace-loving, principled, pious). Historically they expressed their tribal character with quaint dress, and by using the democratic personal pronoun “thee.” In written doctrine or priestly title, they take pride in having none; though the elders in every meeting carry “weight” and speak in aphorisms baked into Quaker lore.

With the self-limitations of any “-ism” to avoid, maybe anarchism belongs more to metaphysics than to politics. Where even the religious affiliation among a society of friends, or a weekly gathering of subversive types at the coffee shop or pub, is a step too far into the fatally co-opted material matrix.

Is the sovereign individual then reduced to a lonely existence in blissful communion with Nature, or Spirit, removed from the strife and verbal wrangles of their primate band?

Maybe, in theory… but what is theory without practice, or Spirit without Nature? The last human standing in this debate is the first human.. And that implies clan and tribe, at least (not a lone wolf, likewise mythic). The forms of voluntary association dance through the ages, all the way to today’s primitive skills workshop, chic eco-retreat, or direct action affinity group. The defining characteristic of “sovereign” is its limitation in the context of one’s social milieu. How far does one’s will to power extend? The globe, the empire, the nation, the family, the self?

We come to the essence of individual sovereignty, the third-chakra domain, what Nietszche called “the Will to Power.” What do we want to achieve with our influence, or protect with our care?

At the primal core, we can beg off the false gods and idols of our society, and assert the purity of truth, of the absence of our desire for power in the world. Empty will yields empty power, however, without life force; and besides, it’s a contradiction when the zealous nihilist substitutes that passive goal for everything else. It’s still a goal, a desire, a fixation.

With a more positivist orientation, leaving behind the political sphere can allow the uncompromised life force to find expression instead in other areas of life. The doors are open to savoring the texture of our relationships; honing the harmonic craft of our everyday voice and creative expression; reflection and appreciation of life’s wonders and mysteries; expansion of identity to embrace all that is. Naturally, while still maintaining the integrity of that health and home.

After good health, and the comforts of home (chakras 1 and 2, most basic in the hierarchy of needs), the still unsatisfied ego asserts the will to power. Where will it turn its immense reach, its drive for significance? If the question is bypassed, it’s left blank for other aspirants of power, other players in the tournament of wills, to fill out as they choose. Through the breach of missing political will, alas, rush the demons of material lust: the taxman, the axman, the lawman, the outlaw…

Our most basic will for sovereignty compels us to react. We witness, we respond.

Perhaps anarchists’ lack of political punch (too wary of organization and leadership) is not only its weakness, but also its strength, resiliency, natural immunity to corruption, true principles held unconquered in the hearts of its practitioners.

We do not hasten to erect paper fences, toy cannon. We meet directed force with moving water.

We volunteer our service to the cause of human defense, loyal not to rebel princes but to principle.

We shake the world bear awake, and learn from how she remakes the world in her image.

This post first appeared on Nowick Gray’s Substack, New World Dreaming.