When last month’s Anarchist Bookfair in London implemented and shared some well-established practices designed to help neurodiverse people cope in crowd situations, the responses on Twitter were disappointing to say the least. As somebody with autism in the family, the use of things like colour-coded lanyards, ear plugs and fidget toys were all familiar concepts to me, designed to help make people aware of some of the particular needs of certain people on the autistic spectrum (or with any other anxiety related issues), and to help people cope in environments which can cause anxiety or stress. A voluntary system of measures designed to maximise access and diversity. The trolls were not happy (not that happiness ever seems to feature heavily in their sad little lives).
The majority of negative posts came from people who seemed to think that anarchy equates to selfishness and chaos. This is a vision of anarchy perpetuated by authoritarians of all ilks to try and dissuade people from the path of autonomy and freedom. “Without me to guide you, your world would fall apart.”… said every tyrant, priest, politician, cult leader, vanguard and domestic abuser in history. The authoritarian stance is that they offer ‘order’ and without them we would tear each other apart or succumb to mob rule. Surely if you want a true definition of anarchy it would be better to ask the anarchists, rather than the authoritarians? For any trolls interested in finding out what anarchism actually means, Kropotkin’s definition for the 1911 edition of Encyclopedia Britannica remains a great place to start. But, as Alan Moore points out in his wonderful interview with Margeret Killjoy, even if we take the authoritarian definition, anarchy brings us to a much better place than the authoritarians ever could:
“I believe that all other political states are in fact variations or outgrowths of a basic state of anarchy; after all, when you mention the idea of anarchy to most people they will tell you what a bad idea it is because the biggest gang would just take over. Which is pretty much how I see contemporary society. We live in a badly developed anarchist situation in which the biggest gang has taken over and have declared that it is not an anarchist situation—that it is a capitalist or a communist situation. But I tend to think that anarchy is the most natural form of politics for a human being to actually practice. All it means, the word, is no leaders. An-archon. No leaders.”
No leaders. Not ‘no rules’. Or even ‘no laws’. And certainly not ‘no order’. The now infamous circle-A design which can be found on walls in virtually every city of the world is said to symbolise ‘O’ for ‘order’ coming from ‘A’ for ‘An-archon’ (no leaders). There is order, but there is also the absence of the kind of hierarchical leadership, dogma and top-down bureaucratic infrastructure which inevitably leads to inequity, tyranny, exploitation and oppression. Instead, we anarchists seek to collectively create non-coercive, egalitarian systems designed to make human interactions work for the benefit of all… such as implementing procedures which allow for greater neurodiversity at anarchist bookfairs.
Such procedures may well be a set of guidelines or ‘rules’ designed to facilitate the complexities of modern society. This is not in itself against anarchist principles. Would you really want no rules for roads? Even though my own dream for an anarchist future has far fewer cars, with roads which exist for human societies rather than for the infernal combustion engine, we would still want to ensure that they are safe so that they do not put others at risk. These rules would be agreed and adapted by those who make use of the roads, for the benefit of those who make use of the roads. Conformity does not have to mean capitulation. Unlike authoritarian systems — like the one we currently find ourselves in — rules and laws in anarchist societies would exist solely for the protection and betterment of life. How do we agree on procedures, rules and even laws without leaders, authority and coercion? Through principles.
Anarchism is based on principles such as voluntary cooperation/participation, mutual aid, autonomy, solidarity and equality. Anything which falls outside of these basic principles is much less likely to be an anarchist initiative. Each of these principles encourage the development of further sets of principles specific to a specific project, time and/or place. Anarchism does not seek universalism (beyond a universal self-determination guided by the principles of anarchism), so the principles observed by each project or community would be unique to themselves and influenced by their own specific ecological, social and economic needs. These site/community specific principles would be dynamic, adjusting to change via consensus decision and feedback loops. In a world without borders or scarcity, it would be also possible for people to vote with their feet, giving projects and communities an incentive to create a welcoming, nurturing and inclusive environment for all.
We have been experimenting with principles a lot at Bentley Urban Farm (an anarchist run ‘upcycled market garden’ just outside Doncaster). As a DIY, ecologically aware, food growing project, we observe the 12 Permaculture Design Principles, the 7 Principles of Zapatismo and the 10 Principles of Burning Man. In combination these have created a site which grows and shares food in an ecologically sensitive way, which makes good use of resources which other people might consider waste, and which builds radically inclusive relationships in one of the poorest regions of the UK. On a site specific level (although still heavily informed by permaculture, the zapatistas and Burning Man), we observe the three core principles of Bentley Urban Farm: No Dig, No Waste, No Cruelty. As an open and dynamic site controlled by its members, these core principles allow a very diverse cross section of people to become involved in consensus decision making processes while ensuring that we never lose sight of our reasons for creating the project in the first place.
Principles are also a more human way of dealing with potential conflict. More authoritarian procedures, such as codes of conduct, can often cause more conflict than they solve, especially when dealing with people for whom bureaucratic procedures have been used as a weapon of suppression throughout their lives. Bentley Urban Farm has adopted a set of principles written by Carissa Honeywell — author of one of my favourite books on modern anarchy, Anarchism (Polity Press, 2020) — for our new Commensality Kitchen (a place where we can share food, warmth and companionship without stigma or judgement):
We are who we eat with! We hope these rules help to create a community space that is safe and welcoming, please honour them here:
- Welcome and respect strangers, feel free to be strange and receive welcome and respect
- Strong communities embrace differences. Listen to each other’s experiences.
- Remember that no one is better than anyone else: everyone is equally important, regardless of experience, qualifications, age, gender, sexuality, ethnicity, class, background.
- Trust and safety are built through compassion and care, not through personal protection and power. So, please, no shunning people, breaking stuff, raging, threats of or actual violence, bitching about people or undermining each other.
- Do challenge behaviour that hurts you or others, with gentleness, and be willing to be gently challenged.
- People make mistakes: and that’s ok. Learn from mistakes, make amends and make changes, without judgement or shame for yourself or others.
- People do wonderful things. Please name them and celebrate them when that happens, especially small things.
We also have a great set of principles for our ‘Throne Room’, the poshest compost toilet in Donny! There is no coercion to follow any of these principles. Don’t like something which corresponds to the kitchen? Feel free to eat elsewhere on the site. Uncomfortable with the rules of the compost toilet? There’s a ‘normal’ option available in a neighbouring project. Don’t like one of the core principles of the site? Great, go elsewhere for whatever it is you urgently feel that you need to do which goes against the core principles (screaming in the woods next door is always good for letting off steam), but know that our door is always open for your return… in principle, at least.