As I understand it, there are two different components of anarchical thought which should be stressed:1
- No central government
- No restrictions on individual freedoms
There are some things that these do not imply:
- A person should only act selfishly.
- Chaos is encouraged, and should be the normal mode of life.
- Any attempt at local, temporary order should be avoided.
While there are many different variations in anarchist thought, I think that proponents of almost all would agree that these are not what anarchism stands for. Those are the points I want to clear up first.
Anarchism stresses the ideas of individual liberty and freedom of expression. Having some well-defined order, a central authority, infringes upon that liberty. Any artificial law, though designed to be fair, will limit a person's individual development, and therefore is not compatible with anarchism. As Emma Goldman2 put it in Anarchism and Other Essays,
Anarchism stands for a social order based on the free grouping of individuals for the purpose of producing real social wealth; an order that will guarantee to every human being free access to the earth and full enjoyment of the necessities of life, according to individual desires, tastes, and inclinations.
As proposed in this chapter, along the lines of Goldman's thinking, natural laws are the only laws that allow an individual to flourish:
Human life, like every other form of life, is a flow of creative energy that follows natural laws. True freedom means being free to develop organically by the laws of nature.
. . .
[C]ooperation, like everything else in nature, is spontaneous, not commanded by a central authority. Yet the result is not chaos. When individuals are totally free, they spontaneously create the forms of order that are best for them. So there is no conflict between the individual and the group; what is best for one is best for all.
Therefore, there is a difference between anarchy and chaos. Anarchy allows a person to act as they wish and see fit; chaos does not allow for such freedom. In a chaotic society, nobody is guaranteed social stability, and a person may loose control over their own life. The idea that individual freedom would allow for harmony and mutual societal benefit, by the way - which is tempting to interpret as everyone acting in their own self-interest - is quite reminiscent of Adam Smith's invisible hand, although I'm reluctant to make any close connections.
People might be quick to reinterpret this and say that anarchism is a doctrine of selfishness, where the strong quickly take advantage of disorder and seize power for themselves; therefore, laws are inevitable as the holders of power regulate society. Arguably, yes, that has happened in times when anarchism of some sort took over. Infamous examples include parts of the French Revolution (the Directory comes to mind) and the Somali Civil War (which saw the rise of power-hungry armed factions). In those cases, people with power did indeed take control, and true anarchy - if that was ever the goal, which it likely was not - never happened.3
The optimal system of enforcement in anarchism doesn't involve petty warlords. There was already a discussion of how anarchism views of the solution of disputes, in How are quarrels managed according to anarchism?. I think Sam I Am's answer there is key: an third-party arbiter of ephemeral, limited power would solve disputes, if possible. However, that arbiter could not be allowed to have control for any lasting period of time; that would constitute some sort of state - and is the closest thing to government you'd optimally have.
Let me add one more note on the idea of small-scale structure. Quoting from the same source as above,
Cooperation extends beyond the small group. Groups can relate to each other in the same way that individuals interact: naturally, freely, and spontaneously. When two groups can help each other, they will naturally form mutually helpful connections. On some occasions, those connections may become relatively permanent, so that the union of two or more groups forms a larger group. That larger group may then link up with other larger groups, if it seems natural and mutually beneficial to do so. But these conjoined groups do not create centralized organizations or administrative structures that become ends in themselves. Their connections are not permanently institutionalized or legally binding. They last as long as they are needed to get something done that needs to be done.
Associations are quite possible in anarchist societies, and may be needed for short-term stability in a variety of situations. However, they must not be allowed to become permanent, or to grow to have power over large numbers of people.
In summary, anarchy only recognizes a few key laws - if you really want to stretch things and call them "laws"; I'd rather call them principles
- People are free to follow the laws of nature and live as they see fit. Any limitations whatsoever are not in line with a pure anarchist approach.
- Conflict resolution should not just be based on whoever is strongest, but should be mutually beneficial to all parties.
- Association in groups is fine, so long as the groups are temporary and do not restrict individual freedoms.
1 The two are different things. It's possible to have a central authority to arbitrate disputes without necessarily having laws, and it's possible to have de facto laws by group agreement, without having a state to enforce them. I'm not aware of any major political philosophy that subscribes to just one - although Immanual Kant's barbarism (Perpetual Peace, Section 2; see also Kant’s Political Theory: Interpretations and Applications) comes close to fitting the latter case.
2 Goldman was a key figure in contemporary anarchist philosophy during the turn of the century; Anarchism and Other Essays was one of her earliest works.
3 You might be reminded of criticisms of communist societies, which in practice almost always featured a central figure of power backed by a strong set of supporters.