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Anarchism & Violence; A Brief History
The greatest challenge facing humankind is the struggle against our own destructiveness and cruelty.
The devastation we’ve wreaked on the natural world, and the danger our weapons pose to one another
and other living things threaten to make the world uninhabitable. Should we fail to deal with industrial
culture’s propensity for violence, we risk catastrophe on a global scale.
Unfortunately, violence is deeply embedded in Western culture, and the “solutions” offered by
religions, philosophies, and political ideologies have proven worse than the disease. One exception is
the modern blend of humanistic individualism and non-hierarchical mutual cooperation ideology
loosely termed Anarchism.
Anarchism offers a way out of the coercive torment of modern civilization, suggesting humans can live
together in intentional communities, opposed to hierarchy or slavery in any form. But Anarchism’s
history is also problematical, lacking a clear consensus on the use of violence, its ethics, and what place
violence occupies in achieving political aims. Nor has any study of Anarchist beliefs explored the new
body of knowledge science has accumulated on the origins of violence and how this relates to human
This brief analysis will attempt to answer some of the vexing questions that confront anyone seeking to
understand violence, and Anarchism’s relation to it. These include such fundamental issues as whether
or not violence is innate in humans; its origins; the sources of cruelty and destructiveness; how
society’s structures foster violence, and possible cures. These and similar matters are explored in the
hope of reaching some conclusions about the nature of violence, understanding successful (i.e.
nonviolent) societies, and the ethics of violence between individuals, and versus the state.
Many of these questions have received superb treatment in recent years. Erich Fromm’s magisterial
work The Anatomy of Human Destructiveness contributed much to the present essay, as has Lewis
Mumford’s Myth of the Machine. Other profound guides include Derrick Jensen, in his A Language
Older Than Words, and with George Draffan, Welcome to the Machine, along with classics by writers
such as Bakunin, Goldman, and Proudhon.
The heart of these questions turns on beliefs about human nature. Are people basically good, or are they
evil ? Value systems flow from how you answer this question. Those who believe humans are
fundamentally good see violence as a product of culture, and propose systems that value life, healthy
relationships, and the dignity and independence of the individual. Those who believe humans are
essentially evil view viciousness as being innate, and insist this justifies systems of control and
I believe that malignant aggression (roughly defined as violence that serves no purpose in aiding
survival) is unnatural, agreeing with Fromm that “… destructiveness and cruelty are not part of human
nature.” I believe the evidence shows that although there are many types of aggression, human violence
is directly tied to the repression of sexuality, hierarchical societies, and the sicknesses arising from
modern machine cultures.
In order to obtain insights into violence and anarchism, it’s necessary to follow Marcus Aurelius’s
advice, and focus on “first principles”, the basic elements that act as catalysts or causes of systemic
problems and behaviors.
To discover the origins of violence, it’s useful to examine its biological ancestor – aggression.
Aggression is nearly as old as life itself; behaviors shared by most living things, designed to increase an
animals chances of survival. It can be traced as an adaptation in the competition for resources, or put
another way, the search for energy.
Ecology (the science of understanding how life finds and consumes energy), divides lifeforms into two
groups, defined by how they obtain energy. These are ‘autotrophs’ (self-feeding), and ‘heterotrophs’
(other-feeding), that between them create food chains. If aggression is defined as the threat or use of
force against another, then autotrophs and simple heterotrophs are not aggressive.
Autotrophs, broadly classed in four phyla as plants, capture energy directly from the sun, converting it
into food. The earliest types were blue and green cyanobacteria some 3 billion years old. Scientists
believe life evolved not long after the earth was formed 4.5 billion years ago, but the planet has been
radically transformed over the eons, leaving few traces of early life on the surface. As best as can be
figured, plants have had the place to themselves for 2 1/2 billion years, the only competition from other
autotrophs; a peaceful and strife free world.
Trouble arrived with the emergence of more advanced heterotrophs, simple marine invertebrates that
swam in the seas of the Cambrian era 600 million years ago. Invertebrates (animals without spines)
today make up 95% of all species. They ate plants, and initiated the biological arms race of plants
developing poisons, and animals developing ways to survive them. Aggression didn’t arrive until the
first vertebrates arose 500 million years ago, starting with a kind of jawless fish.
With the vertebrates, evolutionary biologists believe a crucial division between living things occurred;
heterotrophs separated into two types – the so-called ‘primary consumers’ (plant eaters), and ‘secondary
consumers’ – those that eat other animals. Secondary consumers are by definition aggressive, their
behavior enabled by the new brain structures they possessed.
Though there are many unknowns, by the time amphibians crawled onto the land during the Devonian
era some 400 million years ago, animals had evolved a recognizable hind, mid, and forebrain.
Amphibians and reptiles(the first secondary consumers ) consume other animals; the former eat insects,
the latter other vertebrates like fish.
Paul MacLean, former chief of the Laboratory of Brain Evolution at the National Institute of Mental
Health, calls this primitive brain the Reptile or R-complex. Fish possess R-complexes, as do their
descendents. They form the brainstem in all vertebrates from lizards to squirrel monkeys, on up to and
including humans. The R-complex is responsible for prompting aggression, combative behavior, sexual
display and mating rituals, territoriality, and establishing social hierarchies. As Carl Sagan discussed in
the Dragons of Eden, our responses show the R-complex is still very much a part of us.
This reptilian brain increased in complexity by several orders of magnitude with the addition of the
limbic system some 200 million years ago. The limbic system are the brain structures that produce
emotions. Birds have limbic systems, as do all mammals. Limbic structures include the HPA-axis (the
hypothalamus – pituitary – adrenal axis),which governs the response to stress, and initiates the ‘fight or
flight’ reaction. It’s also thought to be involved in building ‘self-referents’, the mental copies of the
nervous system the brain makes and uses to distinguish ‘self’ from ‘not-self’ – the roots of selfawareness.
The R-complex and the limbic system overlap and are intertwined. Together, they regulate the ‘organic
drives’ (formerly called ‘instincts’); the drive for food, sexual satisfaction, shelter, and other functions
that aid the survival of the individual and the species.
The last big innovation in brain evolution came in the Triassic, about 75 million years ago, with the
addition of the neocortex, the distinguishing feature of the mammals. More advanced structures like the
cerebral cortex arose with the cetaceans – whales and dolphins (perhaps as early as 60 million years
ago), and the Hominidae, or human family tree, during the late Miocene or early Pliocene some 10 to
15,000,000 years ago.
It’s thought that our distant relatives – Homo habilis, Homo erectus, Australopithecus africanus, and A.
robustus, among others, possessed a version of the cerebral cortex. The eminent anthropologist L.S.B.
Leakey found evidence that many hominids had campfires, tools, and dwellings. The sort of
cooperation needed to hunt large, dangerous mammals, as these creatures did, indicates considerable
intelligence. Some scholars also argue that there was murderous competition between these ancient
species, a theory designed to explain why so many early hominids were mysteriously wiped out
(though there is no direct evidence to support this view).
Our understanding of neurology is too limited to pinpoint the brain structures responsible for such
things as the awareness of death, altruism and love, but since mammals display at least some aspects of
each, the neocortex is probably their source. Some specifics have been uncovered, such as the crucial
role the amygdala plays in aggression. In several species, removing the amygdala renders an animal
docile, and in monkeys, makes them fearless.
In general, though, we have trouble relating the operations of the brain with behavior. For example,
how and why the social insects – who lack these brain structures, are capable of complex behaviors like
waging warfare, practicing the institution of slavery, and gardening (to name but three of many),
remains an enigma.
While our brain structures, neurochemistry, and origins are all shared with animals, the types of
aggression we share with animals doesn’t explain the full spectrum of human destructiveness.
Dominance – subordination, or the primal ‘pecking order’, for instance, is a strategy for avoiding
conflict, and social hierarchies in monkeys, to mice, to chickens, to beetles and ants, works to
harmonize group relations.
Host – parasite and predator – prey relationships are types of ‘niche’ specializations, or as ecologist
Eugene Ordum put it, are a species “profession”. When they form food chains like that of snowshoe
hare and lynx, or of lichen, reindeer, and reindeer herders, the kinds of aggression observed are
unrelated to violence as we experience it.
The one source of aggressive response humans do share with animals – violence that erupts from
overcrowding, in mice as in men, has been traced to the destruction of social bonds, and the breakdown
of social structures (this research will be discussed in the next section). It’s opposite – social isolation,
has also been demonstrated to produce violent aberrations in monkeys, as with the notoriously cruel
experiments raising monkeys separated from their mothers in infancy. Such monkeys become “monster
mothers”, that ignore, abuse, or torture their own infants. Whether crowding or isolation, it is the
absence of social norms or interactions that precipitate violence, not some ‘instinctual response’.
It’s true that intraspecific competition occurs in most animal species, and the weak, young, and old are
preyed upon or shunted aside when stronger group members compete for scarce resources. Broader
conclusions can’t be drawn from this, however, because just as many instances of cooperation and
beneficence occur to make generalizations meaningless. Selfishness is often as dysfunctional in
animals as it is in humans, and as fighting wastes precious energy, nature has gradually worked to
minimize violence within species.
Our increased knowledge of brain chemistry has slowly confirmed this. A breakthrough discovery in
the Netherlands in 1993 revealed a missing enzyme – monoamine oxidase A(termed M – A – O – A), a
gene that damps down anger. Follow-up studies of M – A – O – A by Terrie Moffitt at the Institute of
Psychiatry in London, showed that it prevented violent tendencies. When a M – A – O – A gene was
absent in children who also suffered abuse, they were more prone to act out violently. By itself, absence
of the gene did not equate into violent behavior. Violence, as an expression of anger, is designed to be
Human behavior begins to diverge from that of animals with the differences between ‘organic’ and ‘nonorganic’
drives. Organic drives are associated with instincts, whereas non-organic drives are considered
character rooted passions. Both emerge from a tangled interaction of learning and heredity (in animals
as in humans), but the passions are not ‘programmed’, and are not common to all people. Nonorganic
drives include ambition, tenderness, curiosity, and (a la Fromm):”destructiveness, narcissism, sadism,
masochism”. They are not a product of, nor do they serve organic needs of food, shelter, and sex.
Konrad Lorenz and Sigmund Freud (among many other prominent thinkers) puzzled over this
distinction, and subscribed to instinctivist arguments. They argued that although environment plays a
role, it is the organic drives that dominate behavior. Later theorists took an opposite position, like the
beliefs of B.F. Skinner, who attempted to show that all behaviors were learned, a reflex response to
‘conditioning’, a theory termed Behaviorism. This academic debate of ‘nature versus nurture’, or
heredity/genetics versus learning/environment, continues today but most agree it’s a mixture of the two.
Robert Ardrey’s thesis, put forward in The Territorial Imperative, suggests that human violence is a
kind of evolved territoriality; warfare and aggression are supposedly instinctual defense mechanisms.
Ardrey relies heavily on animal behavior studies, and despite pointing out many interesting facts and
providing some valuable insights, his theory is no longer considered valid. Humans have definitively
been shown to lack instinctive territoriality (as scientists understand the term), and on closer
examination, his ethological analogies have proven untenable.
Similarly, Desmond Morris’s ethological attempt in The Naked Ape, to show that humans are innately
aggressive and predatory has been proven inaccurate. Humans, and Old World primates, generally, are
not phylogenetically categorized as predators. Humanity’s original diet was that of a
gatherer/scavenger, as are other omnivores (like pigs), over 75% vegetarian, somewhat less than a
quarter meat. This is in stark contrast to true predators, whose diet consists entirely of meat, or other
Character versus instinctual drives are also the point of departure from ethological studies(i.e.
inferences drawn from animal behavior). Attempts to use ethology to justify various theories of human
aggression fail to provide answers that survive rigorous scientific scrutiny.
How then do we explain the prevalence of violence in modern societies? I believe answers to that
question must be sought in a fuller understanding of human social relationships.
II. Sources & Causes
A great deal of scholarly attention has been paid to how violent ancient societies were, and nonviolence
within primitive (that is, pre-technical) cultures. These studies frequently identify the characteristics
that mark violent versus nonviolent groups, and their findings have been roughly consistent. There are
many complex factors involved, however, and isolating the critical ones from irrelevant details is a
The amount of violence in early societies remains a matter of intense debate in scholarly circles and in
academia. The archaeological record of prehistoric sites is ambivalent, and thin, as artifacts seldom
reveal much about the social arrangements of the groups that produced them. Agreement is even
lacking on when truly human awareness and social habits emerged. Scientific consensus on prehistory
is rare, but most agree a recognizably human consciousness had arisen by the Pleistocene era (the last
few Ice Ages), some 40,000 years ago, with numerous relics of art, jewelry, and grave goods placed
with the dead.
There is archaeological evidence of cannibalism, and – more rarely, of human sacrifice. A piece of
Aurignacian cave art (circa 20,000 B.C.E.) at Cogul in northeastern Spain depicts nine women, thought
to represent the three triads of the phases of the moon (three maidens, three mature women, and three
crones), preparing to devour a Dionysus-figure, a young man with an enormous erect phallus. Primal
myths of blood sacrifice and hints of cannibalism are common in mythologies around the world, and
evidence of priestesses emulating earth or moon goddesses eating male children in orgiastic frenzies
are found in many cultures.
The idea that blood is the life force, and is the most valuable thing one can offer to the spirits was
strengthened when humans began domesticating animals approximately 15,000 years ago. Dogs, goat,
sheep, pigs, and other domestic animals menstruate, and the association between the creation of new
life with the cessation of bleeding during the menses was equated as a need for blood. This blended
with a much older realization that blood and flesh can fertilize plant growth brought blood and human
fluids into regular use in magico– religious rituals.
Cannibalism has similar magical origins; the flesh of the victim being thought to contain personal
characteristics, and the divine spark. To eat a valiant enemy was to capture his essence for oneself, a
belief still current in some primitive cultures (such as the Yanomami and the Jivaro in the Amazon, and
many tribes in Papua New Guinea).
Just how widespread ritual cannibalism was, and how frequently blood sacrifices were offered is
debatable. Many prehistoric sites in the Near East, Europe, and Asia have provided evidence of animal
and human sacrifices, but it’s not a universal practice, and there are as least as many sites without
evidence of ritual violence than there are with it. Thus, the record is equivocal.
So, too, with regard to the first cities, founded about 10,000 years ago in the Near East. Jericho, in the
Jordan River Valley, is the earliest known city, and shows signs of having been sacked several times.
Great efforts were made by its inhabitants to enlarge and strengthen its stone fortifications. By
comparison, it’s near contemporary – Catal Huyuk in Turkey, established about 9,500 years ago was
occupied continuously for 800 years without any sign of conflict, and the city was never sacked or
burned. It’s religion was peaceful; no blood sacrifices were offered to the mother goddess and her
horned consort they worshiped, and its citizens all died of natural causes, buried inside their homes in
What archaeological and anthropological evidence both support is the fact that violence grew
exponentially with the development of civilization, the invention of warfare, and the division of labor
that made these innovations possible. Quincy Wright’s epic Study of War, made a cross-cultural
comparison of 653 primitive peoples, and found that the sharper the division of labor in a society, the
more warlike it is. Those societies with strict class distinctions are the most violent and warlike of all.
Wright’s work fits in neatly with neurobiologist James Prescott’s study in Body Pleasure & the Origins
of Violence, comparing over 400 preindustrial societies. Prescott found regular signature characteristics
of violent and nonviolent peoples. Nonviolent cultures encourage physical affection, are tolerant, have
little hierarchy, and aren’t too concerned with wealth and property. There is little theft, low levels of
conflict, and sexual freedom. Violent societies are much more rigid and controlling in character. They
regard women as inferior, practice torture, mutilation, and slavery, have wide inequalities in wealth,
and an emphasis on hierarchy and power. Sex is also tightly controlled.
Prescott concluded the critical differences lay in sex. During the two vital phases of sexual exploration
and self discovery – infancy and adolescence, when sexual expression isn’t suppressed, societies tend to
be loving and nonviolent. When sex is forbidden and physical affection is rare or taboo, adults are
prone to violence, and cultures are warlike.
This dovetails with Erich Fromm’s thesis in The Anatomy of Human Destructiveness, that cruelty and
violence arise when individuals are unable to form healthy relationships. Those that are deprived of
affection as children, and who fail to develop loving relationships as adolescents are far more likely to
be violent than others able to satisfy their needs for love and acceptance. Fromm sees sadism,
necrophilia, and other kinds of ‘malignant aggression’ (his term), as a reaction to powerlessness and an
inability to gain love. The urge to control others is thus a displaced demand for love. If love can’t be
obtained normally, perversions and dysfunctional relationships with others are the result.
Other scientists have obtained similar results. Anthropologist Peggy Reeves Sanday studied over 100
cultures for the prevalence of rape, and found the highest incidence among militaristic and sex
segregated societies. Sanday’s work focused on trauma, observing that the worst sexual violence
occurred in groups that had suffered recent traumatic experiences, such as famines, forced migrations,
and wars. The shutting down of feelings, lack of emotion, and loss of autonomy contribute to increased
Ruth Benedict’s studies divided preindustrial societies into those that were ‘life affirming’, like the Zuni
Pueblos, the Semangs, and the Mbutus, versus those that were destructive and surly, like the Dobus, the
Kwakiutl, and the Aztecs. Benedict tied the frequency and severity of violence to how groups handled
wealth. Nonaggressive societies tend to reinforce behavior that benefits the group as a whole, whereas
aggressive cultures reward individual gains at the expense of others, and promote harming others for
the purpose of advancement.
Sex is closely correlated with wealth as a causative factor in violence thanks to the matter of
inheritances. In societies where property is more important than people, sex must be controlled in order
for legitimacy to be established, so the rightful heirs inherit. When wealth is inherited according to
hierarchical rules, tracing one’s lineage and ‘legitimate’ birth become important. Where sexual freedom
is the norm, inheritance of property must necessarily be a more casual affair, and property is considered
insignificant compared to loving and healthy relationships.
Of course, there are many other factors that have an impact on the levels of violence within a culture.
One of the most ancient and widespread of these is the attitude of a group toward ‘outsiders’. Many (if
not most) cultures trace their group’s name to a word meaning ‘people’, or ‘persons’. It implies that
group members are human, and nonmembers are something less than that, closer to animals. This is a
nearly universal phenomenon. For example, in Africa, the Bantu languages encompass a vast
geographical area, with over 400 dialects, and thousands of subgroups. Bantu derives from the word
‘ntu’ = person, and ‘ba’ = the plural prefix. Similarly, the word ‘Han’, the name of the Chinese for their
own ethnic group, is derived from the word for human. The Navajo tribe of the American Southwest
call themselves the ‘Dine’, meaning the people. Examples like these could be expanded upon
indefinitely. Almost every language on earth has similar prejudicial or exclusivist terms for who is a
person, based on their membership in a particular racial or cultural group.
As history has repeatedly demonstrated, portraying outsiders as inhuman is at the root of every sort of
atrocity. Demonizing or dehumanizing others allows a group to use violence against them with fewer
objections, and is the basis for justifications for wars and pogroms. Here also are the wellsprings for
caste systems, slavery, and genocide – the belief that some people are ‘better’ than others, and only
members of the ‘in’ group are really people at all. Enemies are labeled as inferior, or subhuman, and this
has been a source of conflict possibly as long as human societies have existed.
Another very ancient cause of violent social relations are the value and belief systems associated with
money. Money, in its simplest form, is an artificial symbol of value, which people will accept in
exchange for goods and services. The profound, incredibly damaging consequences of money have
subtle beginnings, and are ignored or hidden by sociologists, economists, and all those that have a stake
in supporting the status quo.
Prior to the invention of the first coins in western Turkey in 640 B.C.E.(made from electrum, a natural
combination of gold and silver found in the Black Sea region) people regarded nature as a sacred,
living being with whom humans had deep, binding, and reciprocal relationships. Animals, plants, rocks,
trees, rivers, were considered as a ‘thou’, individuals with a sacred character that humans had to respect.
Money rejects that worldview, treating everything in nature as a commodity with a price. The land and
its living inhabitants are reduced from ‘thou’ to ‘it’. The messages similar to the ‘in’ versus ‘out’ group
attitudes: “you are not my kind, and since I have no obligation to you, I can harm or abuse you as I
As was mentioned earlier, social attitudes to wealth relate directly to how violent a group is. This is
seen today, as statistics show the greater the income inequality in any given country, the more violent
and crime ridden it is. The basic belief underlying money is that human needs and desires are the only
important ones. This belief sets up a social paradigm of violent conflict, as people race each other to
despoil nature, and others of whatever a society considers valuable (i.e. what can be traded for
currency, the ultimate valuable). It’s a belief system that condemns the majority of people and the
entirety of the natural world to a vicious cycle of abuse and misery, where a man-made symbol replaces
meaningful relationships as the source of what is desirable and valuable.
This idea structure forms the foundation of the modern industrial world. ‘Capital’ is simply money used
to purchase labor, or machinery that duplicates labor. This replaces relationships where labor is given
as a gift, is exchanged directly for people’s produce and handicrafts(barter), or communal efforts to
achieve a goal, among other human exchanges based on fellow feeling.
In the value system of money commodities are interchangeable; property is valuable, not people;
nothing is sacred (except property), and there are no true communities – since one piece of land is as
good as another, with some variation as to physical beauty or the ‘resources’ (oil, ores, etc.) associated
with the ‘real property’ in question.
Violence flows directly from this system. People that are uprooted and have no ties to their community
are frightened, feel threatened, and are easily provoked into violence. Communities are tied in many
ways to the landscape, and social bonds are responses to the life of the community as it exists in a
particular time and place. Social bonds, in turn, are vital in maintaining harmonious relations among
members. This is graphically shown in laboratory studies of overcrowding with mice. Crowding and
rapid turnover of populations leads to the destruction of social accords and norms. These studies, in
effect, duplicated slum conditions, and the results were shocking; infanticide, murder, rape, and robbery
became frequent occurrences when animals were ‘strangers’ to one another. This is also tied to social
isolation, and the disintegration of healthy relationships between individuals within a larger group. It
applies to humans as much as it does to animals.
Perhaps the most insidious, and least acknowledged, causative factor behind modern violence is the
constant, unrelenting coercion experienced by anyone living in industrial societies. Derrick Jensen in A
Language Older Than Words, deftly points out:”if coercion is our habitat, then trauma is the food we
daily take into our bodies.” Coercion is the essence of the state, and “it engulfs, forms, and deforms us,
to where we no longer perceive it as an aberration.”(Jensen).
We are forced to follow an endless, repressive set of arbitrary rules, designed solely to make us
obedient to authority. As children, we are forced to suppress the urge to explore nature and one another,
and instead must memorize boring facts empty of meaning, required for years to master routines and
lists by rote. Failure to obey is punished by a sliding scale of severity starting with humiliation in front
of one’s peers, on to intimidation and physical punishments, then on to medication, and for those who
simply refuse to comply, with imprisonment in juvenile dungeons. As adults, the number of rules to be
followed lengthens exponentially. We must dress the ‘right’ way, speak the ‘right’ way, think the ‘right’
way, work at a job the vast majority (over 65% in the US) of workers hate; accept a mediocre, boring
life, pursuing materialistic goals few want or need. Those who refuse are ostracized, mocked, harassed,
and for those who are actively disruptive, put in prisons where they are physically and psychologically
tortured. Those outside of the ‘privileged’ mainstream – i.e. the poor, can be and are murdered by the
state at will.
Consider a a brief list of Western forms of coercion and abuse which are daily occurrences, that pass
without more than a meaningless expression of regret, if they receive any notice at all. This wretched
list must include homelessness; widespread rape and domestic violence; child abuse; police brutality
and extrajudicial killings; government trained death squads; ‘preemptive’ wars and state-sponsored
terror; torture and indefinite detention of people without legal evidence or hearings; the list could go on
for many pages. The intense trauma this causes cannot help but deform us, and drive many to respond
with violent defiance.
Fromm goes to great lengths to make clear the connection between feelings of helplessness and
humiliation, and a desire to degrade and oppress others. This perversion of human needs translates into
compensation for what is lacking, a sad vicious cycle of abuse and trauma. To be powerless and weak
is tantamount to being victimized, and is perceived as being shameful. Shame is peer pressure writ
large; society’s psychological whip to keep the underclass in line. As social activist and politician Tom
Hayden put it “… The trigger for violence is shame. Poverty is shameful in this country, and it’s the
shame and humiliation some poor people feel that makes them violent… They live their whole lives in a
context of traumatic shame.”
Thus a picture emerges of how and why violence becomes common in human cultures. It is not a
‘natural’ component of human nature, or some innate response to an environment, but is a product of
social structures (or their lack), and social dysfunction.
A society that’s hierarchical, sharply divides labor, controls sex and affection, debases love and
relationships in favor of wealth and property, is by nature coercive. When such a society alienates and
uproots its members, traumatizing them with shame, humiliation, and physical threats and brutality,
will produce intense levels of violence and behave in a warlike manner.
When our society is compared with those known to be virtually free of violence and crime, the
contrasts are stark. There are two separate tribes, both native to the Malay Peninsula, that are known to
be nonviolent and crime free. These are the Temiar Senoi, and the Semay.
The Temiar Senoi are called the “Happy People” by their neighbors, and were studied intensively by
anthropologist Pat Noonan in the 1930s, before their exposure to Western culture. They live
communally in large huts, share food and belongings, and have little hierarchy or formality. One of the
unique aspects of the Temiar Senoi is their custom of sharing their dreams daily. During breakfast, the
members of each lodge house (where extended families live together), share their previous night’s
dreams. Nightmares are ‘cured’ by gently urging the dreamer to confront and befriend the monster or
threat in the dream.
This seems to function as a very efficient and nonthreatening format for conflict resolution. It also
incorporates aspects of Jungian ‘shadow-work’, where the ‘dark side’ of the personality is recognized,
accepted, and integrated so that its power to harm is diffused.
Among the Semay, similar living conditions and social strictures prevail. In particular, no coercion is
used in social interactions. Children learn by example, play-acting and mimicking adults. If a child
doesn’t want to do something, they need only say the word “bood” (roughly equivalent to “I don’t feel
like it”), and the subject is considered closed. The same respect for the wishes of others is raised to the
status of social imperative among adults, and in this climate of tolerance and consensus, violence is
The sources and causes of violence, while complex, are not mysterious. Vicious behavior is a cultural
artifact. Cultures that value relationships are less violence prone than those that worship control and
power. Affectionate, sexually free cultures are less cruel and dangerous than those that are rigid,
unfeeling, and repressive. The essential difference lies in that some cultures respect their members,
versus those that coerce and traumatize them.
The choices we as individuals make decide what a society will be. We faced momentous decisions, and
formidable opponents if we decide to challenge the status quo. To work toward change is to challenge
those in power, specifically the state, which are the armed forces protecting the property and
prerogatives of the elite. Here is where Anarchism as a philosophy addresses human concerns, and
suggests answers to our most vexing questions.
III. The Search for Solutions
As it presently exists, our society is oppressive, coercive, and intolerant of dissent; a breeding ground
for violence and despair. The majority of people would disagree with this view, as they are fed a steady
diet of media hype and propaganda about how “free” they are, and how wretched other peoples are by
comparison. The soul-crushing nature of our society is further disguised because people have so
thoroughly internalized the vast list of do’s and don’ts that they no longer consciously perceive them.
This becomes obvious when modern life is compared to life as it’s experienced on a South Pacific
island; lacking clothes and clocks, modern conveniences and distractions, and the entire apparatus of
regimentation and control. Such vacations to free societies aren’t perceived as revealing how tortured
our lives have become, and instead are treated as a reward for ‘good behavior’, not as a model for
transforming our day-to-day lives.
The only time people really become aware of the pressure they live under is when something crucial
malfunctions. When blockages or breakdowns occur in the flow of socio-industrial activities,
frustration quickly boils over into rage and destructive behavior. Traffic jams, for example, are an
everyday occurrence, yet they provoke intense anger, frustration, and cause heart attacks, fistfights,
even killings with their own name – ‘road rage’, not to mention the longer-term effects of years of
stress, over exposure to pollution, and related ills. A simple delay in travel is enough to push many over
the edge from being ‘responsible citizens’ to becoming homicidal maniacs.
Entire populations panic and run rampant when more serious disruptions occur. Electrical outages,
temporary delays in delivery of food and fuel supplies, and the like witness urban areas erupting into
violent mayhem, with riots, looting, hoarding, and antisocial behavior become common. This isn’t out
of any real need, but is the result of fear, and the opportunity to lash out at the hated system.
Unfortunately these brief moments of awareness of just how tormented postindustrial life is, and of the
fragility of our social structures, seldom lingers once the crisis is past. Our social definition of ‘normal’
has come to mean anesthetized and sedated into numbness, either with mind-deadening ‘entertainment’
like TV, video games, and Internet surfing, or with psychotropic medicines, now estimated to be used
by an astounding 40% of the adult US population, when one includes antidepressants, heavy pain
medication, and mood ‘alteration and enhancement’ drugs. Illicit drug use probably makes the
percentage much larger.
Government, industry, media, and the corporate elite work in concert to maintain the illusion that their
overarching control of the populace is ‘normal’, and even desirable. They work feverishly to control
public perception of crises, making certain the underlying power dynamics aren’t openly questioned,
steering public attention away from natural needs and inclinations, and instead focusing on materialistic
The average person wants peace, but is mind-fucked into supporting war. The vast majority are
concerned with their health, and that of their children. This natural concern is constantly subverted by
advertising and marketing tricks into promoting behavior that destroys health; eating junk food,
sedentary lifestyles, and forced attendance at boring schools and stressful, meaningless jobs. In every
area of human endeavor – the arts, literature, education, recreation, etc., our natural impulses are
manipulated and twisted into supporting interests detrimental to our real needs and wants. The elite
foster a culture of control that’s at war with natural human tendencies, which are free and require little
material to satisfy. The sensual pleasures of the body, the intellectual life of the mind, the contentment
of healthy relationships, and the fulfillment of community sharing and aid. These impulses are
perverted, repressed, and altered by capitalist societies so as to convince people that expensive artificial
materials and/or equipment are ‘required’, and rules are imposed requiring people to obtain ‘approval’
for activities from some self-appointed authority.
In short, as Emma Goldman knowingly described it, modern life has become:”a degrading race for
possession, prestige, and supremacy”, equivalent to slavery. As previously discussed, violence is the
expression of emotions generated by trauma, the result of repressing sexuality, of inequalities in wealth,
and of unequal power dynamics in which ‘high’ status people display disrespect and contempt for those
of ‘low’ status(not to mention the elite’s victimization and oppression of the poor).
The problems are manifest everywhere, and are almost overwhelming in their intensity, scope, and
horror. Terrorism, especially of the state-sponsored variety called war, suicide bombings, mass murder,
genocide, ecocide, and far too many other atrocities from which we avert our gaze with shame and
What solutions are on offer? What has been tried or is suggested as a curative? Philosophies, both of
the religious and secular types, are legion, but offer few real alternatives to the status quo. Indeed, most
tend to support it.
The mystics that frequently found religions may initially promote an anti-establishment view, rejecting
wealth and power, and demanding social justice. Once the founders are gone, however, their followers
quickly build power-hungry organizations. Religious hierarchies are easily co-opted by elites, and join
the forces of oppression in exchange for positions of privilege. They then use their spiritual authority to
keep the masses subservient and complacent. This has been true of every major religion, including
Buddhism, Christianity, Hinduism, and Islam.
Secular philosophies with political implications have not fared much better.
Those ideologies that trace their ancestry back to Enlightenment thinkers like Hume, Locke, and Kant
have morphed into justifications for different flavors of ‘liberal’ democracies. Democracy, of course, is
a loaded term, as Winston Churchill wryly noted, “it’s the worst form of government ever devised by
man, except for all the others.”
No major Western philosopher, save Rousseau, challenged the fundamental assumptions of Western
civilization, and Rousseau’s vision – typified by the concept of the ‘noble savage’, failed to do much
more than create a romantic stereotype. Liberalism and its cousin Humanism never question the
existence of elites, classes, the state’s usurpation of power, and related dynamics. So long as the
government operates by the consent of the governed (and when has the state ever refrained from
making such a fatuous claim?) and supposedly acts for the ‘greatest good of the greatest number’
(another very convenient fig leaf for using state power to exploit populations, being so subjective a
measure), liberals claim all is well.
Violence within a society is a right reserved for the state, and its agents use it without hesitation to
enforce its interests. When the state is confiscating property – as taxes, or via the use of ’eminent
domain’ or for some ‘crime’, the threat of violence is always present; obey, or you’ll be imprisoned or
killed resisting. Similarly, the state uses violence and the threat of force in applying ‘law enforcement’,
and in the methods police use – kidnapping people, breaking into their homes, arresting them, torturing
them, and often killing them when they fight back. This is only to be expected, as the police are
recruited from ex-military personnel, who have been trained as killers, to do the dirtiest work of the
state – the terrorism known as war. War is the ultimate expression of state power and violence.
Liberal philosophers like John Stuart Mills explained war as a result of autocratic governments
interfering with economic cooperation between democratic states. According to this belief once all
governments are democratic, wars will cease. The patent falsity of this philosophy needs no further
The failure of liberalism to provide relief from violence (both between members of society, and
between members and the state) is echoed in the failure of Socialism to do so. Socialism was another
‘answer’ to problematic social relations, developed in the 19th and 20th centuries in Europe. It viewed
class structures as the root of the problems of the status quo, particularly the variant created by Karl
Marx. The Socialists failed to address the fact that the state is the principal organ of oppression, and
that Communism (the offspring of Marxist ideology) merely replaced one repressive government with
another. Under both liberal and socialist systems, elites control the power, wealth, and dominate
The sciences have weighed in on the debate, affecting philosophical discourse. Sociology is the most
frequently cited science in this arena, and the sociological argument places the blame for war on special
interest groups. Ordinary people prefer peace, but those in charge of government have selfish interests
that favor wars. Sociological studies also put an onus on Nationalism, recognizing that nation states
create ideologies of paranoia to maintain power (the old ‘us versus them’, ‘in versus out’ group
propaganda ), and selfishness and greed run rampant in nationalist hierarchies.
The 20th century is a graveyard of vicious, failed belief systems – communism, fascism, socialism,
capitalism (unfortunately, an unfettered version of the latter has yet to die), responsible for the pointless
deaths of hundreds of millions of innocent people.
One ‘ism’ rejecting the foundations of our society emerged during the same period in Europe, but was
only sporadically tested, and failed to gain traction – Anarchism. Early anarchistic philosophers like
Max Stirner rejected all social structures, insisting that the self is supreme, and should be the sole basis
for decisions with the ego acting as the only reliable moral compass (a belief termed Egoism). Less
radical, but equally opposed to Western mores and norms were philosophers like Proudhon, who felt
the complete absence of rules and authority was necessary, and only when cooperation for mutual
benefit was purely voluntary was it consistent with humans enjoying freedom and dignity.
The problem, of course, is how to achieve this ideal; how to build a utopia in the face of the murderous
opposition of the state? The leaders of the American and French revolutions(and their historical
imitators) asserted the right of ‘the People’ to overthrow tyrannical regimes. Anarchist revolutionaries
like Mikhail Bakunin expanded this belief by claiming all governments are inherently tyrannical, and
require violent overthrow. Modern intellectuals with anarchist leanings, such as Noam Chomsky, have
also come to advocate(privately) violence against the state as justifiable.
Anarchism has had a troubled relationship with violence, with different factions advocating different
positions. Most accept the idea that violence against state repression is justified. Others believe that
violence against forms of property and injustice is necessary. Then there are those who insist
nonviolence is the proper path, emphasizing economic sabotage and noncooperation are the only
morally acceptable methods to bring change.
Though still very much in flux, it seems the broader anarchist membership is turning in favor of the
limited use of violence to achieve anarchist ideals. Anarchist activist and organizer Peter Gelderloos, in
How Nonviolence Protects the State (2207, South End Press), makes the case that governments are
immune to appeals to conscience, only agreeing to serious negotiations when the movement is a threat
to the power structure. Gelderloos’s reading of the history of nonviolent protest is insightful,
instructive, and worthy of study.
The three most frequently cited instances of “successful” nonviolent resistance (in Western media), are
Gandhi’s work to end British rule in India; the Civil Rights movement in the US, and the protests
against the Vietnam War. Gelderloos debunks the myths of nonviolent protest, showing that in each
case “success” was either token or entirely illusory, and that significant change didn’t occur until
violence erupted. These are very relevant issues, and deserve a brief review here.
In the case of India, Gelderloos probes deeply into history, and finds that while Gandhi’s nonviolent
protests were useful, they were far from the major factor that beat the British. The British Empire,
weakened by World Wars I & II, was faced with bombings and armed struggles on many fronts
throughout the subcontinent. Bhagat Singh committed selective assassinations in the Punjab, and
Chandrasekhar Azad led hard fighting in the East. The militant candidate Subhas Chandra Bose was
twice elected president of the Indian National Congress (in 1938 and ’39), which clearly preferred
Bose’s tactics to those of Gandhi.
The “terrorist” attacks of the Jews against British targets in Palestine in 1945 – 48 further weakened the
resolve of the Imperial bureaucrats, and when it became evident that Indian revolt might make India
ungovernable, the British decided to negotiate an exit with the lesser of evils – Gandhi’s nonviolent,
conciliatory faction. By negotiating with the pacifists, the British managed to transfer India to
neocolonial rule, and use India’s elite to maintain a powerful hold on that nation. They kept India weak
and divided, dependent on the West; handicaps the country has yet to fully overcome. It’s a whitewash
to say Gandhi’s efforts and nonviolence ejected the British and freed India. It’s more accurate to say that
freedom fighters (nowadays labeled terrorists) threatened to make India impossible to rule, speeding
the British exit.
A similar story emerges regarding the Civil Rights movement. Martin Luther King Jr.’s nonviolent
protest in the South gained media prominence, but earned no significant change after many years of
effort. Kennedy and Congress stalled on the Civil Rights Act, playing for time, until – out of patience
and enraged at repeated provocations, 3,000 blacks rioted in Birmingham, Alabama, stoning the police.
When the elite saw that black communities wouldn’t remain nonviolent forever, they grudgingly agreed
to change. As always, however, the powers that be negotiated with the weakest, least objectionable
group, the pacifists. King’s faction ended up accepting minimalist reforms, ending only de jure
segregation, not the de facto sorts, and as a sop, the number of blacks admitted to the bourgeoisie
expanded. It was far short of equality, and blacks remain marginalized and virtual outcasts in today’s
Nonviolent protest was also a failure in regard to the Vietnam War. Thousands of officers were
“fragged” (attacked by their own men with grenades); troop morale had almost collapsed, but it still
took a near mutiny in the Army before Nixon agreed to withdraw. The crowds of protesters, while good
sport for the media, changed nothing – as the present multimillion person rallies against the Iraq war
demonstrate. Citizens of democracies are powerless, and nonviolent tactics win at best token reform.
The state plows over disobedience and noncooperation, rendering passive resistance ineffective.
It’s true that carefully organized economic sabotage can have great impact (and recent laws in the US
making the targeting of corporations a form of terrorism, as in the animal rights/Huntington life
sciences case have shown, reveal the rage felt by elites at this sort of effective strategy). Boycotting
specific companies over negative activities can force quick changes of heart, as companies are at the
mercy of consumers. Likewise, monkeywrenching and the sabotage of vulnerable bottlenecks in
production and distribution channels, like attacking factories, bridges, power plants, etc., can cripple
But when faced with an enemy that refuses to slow or stop their destructive actions peacefully, violence
may be required to stop them. To paraphrase Derek Jensen, there cannot be peace with someone who
has declared war on you; only capitulation and even that doesn’t lead to peace, but only to further
degradation and exploitation. Advocating violence against the state, though, is a slippery slope, as
revolution after revolution has shown. Foul means guarantee that the ends achieved will be horrible.
So how to untangle this Gordian knot? Malignant aggression is a product of warped societies; we wish
to eliminate aggression and the forces of oppression, but to do so requires violence. Fortunately, some
guidance is available from ethical philosophers. One of the most accessible is Prof. Tom Regan, a
philosopher and animal rights advocate, who sets out to examine moral rights in his work Empty
Regan agrees there are justifications for violence, with certain provisos (he defines violence as the use
of physical force for purposes of harming, or abusing other things). To begin with, Regan takes the
position that all sentient beings – including animals, have a basic right to their lives, bodies, and liberty.
This includes the right against physical trespass, that is – that others are not free to harm us, use us
against our will, or take our lives. Others are not free to interfere with our choices, so long as we don’t
impinge or injure others.
When others violate these rights, we are within our rights to fight back, even if it’s seriously harms the
aggressor. Regan puts forth a few simple rules for justifiable violence: A). Excessive violence must
never be used (only the violence needed to stop the wrong); B). Violence may only be used when
necessary to rescue or protect others and oneself from terrible harm; and C). Violence may only be used
after nonviolent alternatives have been exhausted. In these cases, violence is justified. Regan’s rules
possess restraint and embody eminent good sense, condoning the sort of violence such as when you
shoot the man who is machine-gunning children.
To prevent torture and executions, violence is justifiable, but by its very nature aggression threatens
humanistic visions. Adding to the complexity of these problems is the fact that violence is selfperpetuating;
is deeply embedded in our culture, and is seen as a solution to difficult problems. Worse
still, violence can be intoxicating, particularly for the powerless.
Novelist Martin Amis brought powerful insight to this issue with regard to the phenomenon of suicide
bombers. Amis noted in an interview with Bill Moyers, on the PBS series Faith & Reason, that it’s no
longer a secret that there’s a joy to be had in killing, and that murdering others can be empowering. For
the oppressed, a life of failure is given meaning and is rectified by killing others in a bomb blast or a
mass shooting. An orgy of violence transforms a social loser into his opposite – the wielder of terrible
power. As Amis said, in the post-9/11 era, the world (or at least the US) has entered the moral and
spiritual equivalent of the Great Depression.
There is a general tendency towards violence and inhumanity, and people feel isolated and helpless.
However, anarchists and people of conscience agree on a few simple principles for change. These
include the premise that violence is a dysfunctional response to social relationships, and since the
maximum freedom for individuals is incompatible with aggression, people must seek to reduce
violence in interpersonal relationships and with society as a whole. Further, our goal must be the
reduction of suffering and oppression around the globe.
Western civilization is based on a culture of coercion, control, and trauma, with a value system that
doesn’t value life or nature, destroying and poisoning everything in its path. It is a sick culture. And the
only way to heal, to reach a state of wellness, is to offer a real alternative; to build a culture that values
life and living.
Anarchism offers a political framework for such a culture; that of the self managed society, where
intentional communities of people sensitive to each other and to the land relearn what makes life worth
living – healthy, loving relationships. We create what we value, and in order to become well, we must
reacquaint ourselves “with the language of the earth, of our bodies, and of dreams” (Jensen). All we
want is to be accepted, to love and be loved. Our recovery depends on creating a new society that understands this, and a willingness to defend it against the state. Only then can human beings have a chance to return to equilibrium, and in violence within our communities and in the world.