Has there ever been a non-trivial, stable, and functional anarchy?

Sure there are lots of small groups that operate on personal relationships and don't have what could be called a government. I don't dislike such things. I just worry that they are not candidate models for a country big enough so that everybody does not know everybody personally. And lots of anarchic conditions arise through some kind of war or disaster or some such, but don't last very long, or are very grotesquely bad places to consider living.

Let non-trivial be defined as roughly the size of or bigger than Iceland in population. (About 350,000.) Or 100,000 for individual ancient cities if you have an example.

Let's be a little relaxed about the definition of functional. Maybe something like, if the country you currently live in was like that, you would not find it worth while to move to get away from it. This feeds into the stable thing. If a place is so horrible nearly everybody wants to leave then it can't be particularly stable.

Let stable be defined as at least 25 years with substantially the same arrangement. That is chosen to be about one generation.

So, no kings, no oligarchs, no junta, no elected law makers, no priestly leaders handing out punishment for transgressors. Only all voluntary, all the time. Anything like that?

An explanation of why I put in those requirements (though they might seem like very high standards):

There are currently a large number of countries, using other political systems, that satisfy the requirements I set. I certainly would not label any of them perfect, but then, they are jammed up with people. What are you going to do? There are plenty of countries that big. Many of them have been around substantially in the form they are now for at least 25 years. And there are many where people don't suddenly en mass abandon the place. So lots of other political systems exist that people can tolerate for at least long enough to raise children, and that involve communities of millions.

So, if anarchy was a model political system for those communities, it would have to deal with those limits. If, say, it only works for groups of a few 100, then it isn't a model for, say, the USA, China, or Europe. If it could only be kept together for, say, 5 years max, ditto. And if nearly everybody who tried it wound up hating it, again, ditto.

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    Anarchies in modern times are never stable outside of warzones or intense poverty because there is usually many incentives (investments, protection of the physically weak, healthcare, commerce, etc) to form some kind of stable non-anarchistic government system . And the first people to do so are more likely to be on top of the new social structure. Commented Jul 6, 2018 at 15:58
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    To clarify, in my answer I wrote of "high standards". What you mean by an "anarchy" is not what other people might mean. It might mean something more like Marxism. Anarchists of the 19th and early 20th century were not about a complete absence of law, but for a law written by and for the benefit of the proletariat.
    – James K
    Commented Jul 7, 2018 at 21:46
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    @JamesK Yeah, I've seen that movie. Spoilers, but... At the end, nearly everybody dies.
    – user21424
    Commented Jul 7, 2018 at 21:48
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    @MarkRogers I am a cynic, I have to say we see it from widly different sides, heh. Not that you are wrong, I was just about to comment that there are many incentives (power, wealth, status) and many bad human traits (greed, dominance, vigilantism, religious idolatry) that certainly will degrade an anarchy to some sort of authoritarian regime quite quickly.
    – Stian
    Commented Jul 9, 2018 at 10:18
  • Is Freetown Christiania in Denmark too small?
    – benjimin
    Commented Oct 2, 2022 at 6:38

12 Answers 12



While it is hard to prove a negative, wherever two people come into conflict, either the stronger will come to dominate the weaker, or both will defer to an even stronger power, ie a government.

Consider the usual examples of anarchist societies such as The Paris Commune, Nestor Makhno's "free territory" all had systems of government. These might be "peasant councils". Besides the Free territory only lasted 3 years, and the Paris commune only a few months.

Local communes, like the Twin Oaks Community, are much smaller, but still have "rules" for dealing with conflict and are, of course, embedded into a country with a system of laws. You are not free to "do what thy wilt", you are expected to conform to the community standards and the laws of the land.

Unintentional anarchies, such as parts of Somalia are actually a network of microstates with a baron or war lord ruling such a region as he is able (it usually is a "he") by the threat of force.

You have set a very high standard for "stable anarchy" and there are no examples where this standard has been met. There are various lists of anarchies online, but I think none meet your standard.

  • 32
    I think defining anarchism as 'no rules' is a bit simplistic. I also think that eg peasant councils are not incompatible with anarchism (eg anarcho-syndicalism is considered to be a branch of anarchism). But I agree that OPs standard for "stable" is too high. The free territory or revolutionary catalonia eg seem to have been stable and functional internally, but were brought down by external forces.
    – tim
    Commented Jul 6, 2018 at 9:58
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    "No rules" would be anomie, not anarchy. Anarchist groups tend to have quite a lot of rules that are enforced by (almost) all group members in the absence of police, and this automatically limits the group size as rules still need to be agreed on. Commented Jul 6, 2018 at 12:34
  • Now you got me wondering. Did Machno actually claim that his territory was "anarchy"?
    – user4012
    Commented Jul 6, 2018 at 18:49
  • @tim yes, but those are the standards that the OP set "just voluntary, all the time" I think Machno would call himself an anarcho-communist following the tradition of the 19th century anarchists.
    – James K
    Commented Jul 7, 2018 at 19:01
  • @JamesK - I'm making a difference between what Machno called himself vs. what he called the territory he held. (think Communists vs. Socialist Country distinction)
    – user4012
    Commented Jul 7, 2018 at 21:09

Iceland during the Icelandic Commonwealth period is itself one of the closest examples.

For a lengthy period of time in the Middle Ages, it had an island-wide legislative/judicial body but not an executive branch. The legislative/judicial body would decree when laws were violated by someone to maintain basic honoring of contract, property and personal freedom from violence rights, but would merely authorize private enforcement of their decrees by the victim and the victim's allies.

There was little or no taxation in this period other than in kind contributions of time to attend the legislative/judicial body somewhat akin to jury duty.

It wasn't pure anarchy, because village chiefs had some authority in supervising their villages and seizing property or impressing labor while doing so in their local villages, but people could leave one village for another if they could find a new one that would take them, or could live in the wilderness if they wished, if they could survive on their own.

So, no kings, no oligarchs, no junta, no elected law makers, no priestly leaders handing out punishment for transgressors. Only all voluntary, all the time. Anything like that?

There were volunteer legislators selected by some means from each village decreeing punishments (largely to prevent blood feuds or terminate them), but not actually handing them out. Also, the number of legislator/judges per capita was very high by modern or historical standards, not quite Athenian democracy proportions, but a few thousand people per rep (many of whom would have been children) at most v. tens of thousands for a typical modern state legislator or big city city council person or county official.

Still, this is one of the closer historical examples.

In general, the default situation, when the state collapses, is a society based upon extended family based clans and warlords who rule by might without few checks or balances on their power. See, e.g., Somolia and Afghanistan in recent times. Historically, the Scottish borderlands in the early modern period, and China in periods of disorder between dynasties would be relevant examples of clan and warlord systems.

  • 1
    Being 'feudal' in the Middle Ages doesn't make it anarchistic: "There was little or no taxation in this period other than in kind contributions of time ...." It just makes it typical feudal. Europe was suffering from a devastating inadequacy of specie, so the (somewhat) fungible "day of labour" had to substitute for it. Commented Jul 8, 2018 at 14:51
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    @PieterGeerkens The Icelandic Commonwealth wasn't feudal. The relationship between village chiefs and village residents was not a lord-serf relationship, and the village chiefs had no superiors to themselves other than the collective All Thing which didn't have an "ownership" type relationship with the villages or the land outside villages. It demanded time of participants but not tribute.
    – ohwilleke
    Commented Jul 8, 2018 at 22:16
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    Thank you for this very interesting information which was entirely unknown to me. Commented Jul 9, 2018 at 4:45

Short Answer - no

Slightly longer answer

It is really dependent on your definition of anarchy. For most of human history, societies have been organised without the existence of a centralised bureaucracy. To quote Robert L. Carneiro from "Political Expansion as an Expression of the Principle of Competitive Exclusion" (1978)

For 99.8 percent of human history people lived exclusively in autonomous bands and villages. At the beginning of the Paleolithic [i.e. the stone age], the number of these autonomous political units must have been small, but by 1000 BC it had increased to some 600,000.

In fact, there is an interesting case study in the archaeological remains of the Indus Valley Civilisation. It has been argued that the IVC could have been a vast, federated society (though that is obviously speculation).

The reason why I answer no to your question is your wording "only all voluntary, all the time." The idea of voluntary association is a relatively new concept, formed in reaction to observations specifically of capitalism; anarchists view our associations under capitalism involuntary due to the threats of violence or starvation for lack of cooperation. I'd even argue that the concept of voluntary association can lead to nonconstructive albeit interesting philosophical dead end discussions i.e. how can someone retain their reproductive rights and adhere to the idea of voluntary association?

I don't believe there have been any instances of anarchism that absolutely follow the concept of voluntary association. Prehistoric societies would still have been subjected to many pressures that would not have been solved in adherence to the foundational concepts of voluntary association. Any more modern examples may have emulated something close to voluntary association, but were too short lived or too small in population to reach your required threshold of "non-trivial, stable, and functional anarchy".

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    Re: definition of anarchy. When I get up the courage I will ask the same question about has there ever been a libertarian organized society.
    – user21424
    Commented Jul 6, 2018 at 14:21
  • @puppetsock - Sealand? :)
    – user4012
    Commented Jul 7, 2018 at 21:11
  • Re your statement about reproductive rights, have a look at article 20.2 in the UN declaration of human rights here un.org/en/universal-declaration-human-rights - didn't the authors reflect upon the consequences of that sentence?
    – d-b
    Commented Jul 8, 2018 at 15:13
  • FWIW, Carneiro is a bit off the mark on his dates. The Upper Paleolithic era is normally viewed as ending about 8000 BCE (i.e. at the commencement of the Neolithic era within the Holocene), and the earliest Copper Age civilizations begin around 4000 BCE. The Bronze Age starts around 3500 BCE to 2500 BCE and ends around the time of Bronze Age collapse ca. 1200 BCE, followed within two or three centuries at most (some people would say immediately) by the Iron Age which lasts until the fall of Rome. Cities bigger than villages were starting to emerge in the Copper Age.
    – ohwilleke
    Commented Apr 30, 2021 at 0:48

There is a body of work in anthropology that describes anarchist societies.

One of the most famous works in this tradition is "Fragments of an Anarchist Anthropologist". Although the author is principally interested in a theoretical argument, he uses some case studies of the Tsimhety culture in Madagascar. Based on their population alone (about 700,000 - 1 million) they aren't trivial. According to wikipedia, their success is because they didn't fight the establishment of a state, but their system coexisted with the colonial governments. One quote from the aforementioned book:

To this day they have maintained a reputation as masters of evasion: under the French, administrators would complain that they could send delegations to arrange for labor to build a road near a Tsimihety village, negotiate the terms with apparently cooperative elders, and return with the equipment a week later only to discover the village entirely abandoned—every single inhabitant had moved in with some relative in another part of the country.

  • But they are "trivial" (per the OP, " I just worry that they are not candidate models for a country big enough so that everybody does not know everybody personally.") because, as you cite in your example, "every single inhabitant had moved in with some relative in another part of the country." The OP was specifically not looking for " lots of small groups that operate on personal relationships and don't have what could be called a government".
    – user23715
    Commented Jul 6, 2018 at 21:53
  • @user23715 The OP defined trivial as less than about 350,000, so this is well above that limit. Also, I don't think the quote means that everyone moved in with the same relative (i.e., that one person suddenly had a million relatives move in with them). Everyone, even that Potter kid, has relatives to move in with. FWIW I had read that statement as hyperbole anyway. Commented Jul 6, 2018 at 21:57
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    @user23715 If that is really what OP means, then the question is self-contradictory. They want a government without having a government. I'll leave this answer up because I think it contributes a meaningful answer to the question, but I can recognize where you are coming from. Commented Jul 6, 2018 at 22:14
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    Hmmm... Food for thought. I will need to read up more on these folks. Interesting note right off. en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Philibert_Tsiranana They don't seem entirely averse to political hierarchy.
    – user21424
    Commented Jul 6, 2018 at 22:23
  • 1
    Agreed. Hence @ChrisW 's answer and the apt quote from V for Vendetta.
    – user23715
    Commented Jul 6, 2018 at 22:24

Kowloon Walled City (KWC) aka the "City of Darkness" was a Chinese territory surrounded by British land. An article entitled Kowloon Walled City: A place of anarchy from the South China Morning Post describes it as a largely ungoverned, megablock of urban/architectural configuration. It's 6.4 acres had a population of over 50,000 when it was demolished, making it the most densely populated area on earth.

According to Wikipedia, KWC was originally a Chinese military fort which became an enclave after the New Territories were leased to Britain by China in 1898. Following the Japanese occupation of Hong Kong during WWII, its population increased dramatically.

A fire broke out there in January of 1950 that destroyed over 2,500 huts, home to nearly 3,500 families and 17,000 total people. These ruins gave new arrivals to the Walled City the opportunity to build anew, and with no government enforcement from the Chinese or the British aside from a few raids by the Hong Kong Police, the Walled City became a haven for crime. From the 1950s to the 1970s, it was controlled by local triads and had high rates of prostitution, gambling and drug abuse, although most residents were not involved in any crime and lived peacefully within its walls.

Though it doesn't meet your population requirement of 100,000 people, it seems close on other aspects.

  • 1
    Not going to kick about the population. It seems unlikely everybody knows everybody in a group of 50K, even in an area so small. I will need to be reading up on them. It seems to have made the time limit. Probably it would still be there if various external politics had not intervened. I've been to the modern Kowloon a few times. It will be keen to read up on the history.
    – user21424
    Commented Jul 8, 2018 at 4:18
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    The Triads (aka chinese mafia) ruled KWC for a long time, there was no anarchy in the question's sense, but simply the absence of official government structures. Afterwards, HK police took them out, and there was official government.
    – janh
    Commented Jul 8, 2018 at 7:25



The word anarchy comes from the ancient Greek ἀναρχία (anarchia), which combines ἀ (a), "not, without" and ἀρχή (arkhi), "ruler, leader, authority." Thus, the term refers to a person or society "without rulers" or "without leaders"

If you understand it to mean "without rulers" or "without leaders" (rather than "without laws"), then maybe would a place like Classical Athens qualify?

It was a democracy -- with laws; and at some point in their history they tried to ensure there were no leaders -- no king, no tyrant.

Citizens were selected for public office by lottery. I was told that the overall leader was a figure-head, also selected by lottery ... and changed every day? -- I don't have a reference for that, don't know the details myself, but for example see e.g. here:

Although the process of the next transition is unclear, after 487 BC the archonships were assigned by lot to any citizen and the Polemarch's military duties were taken over by a new class of generals known as strategoi.

V for Vendetta more-or-less explains "anarchy" like this:

  • Eve: All this riot and uproar, V... is this Anarchy? Is this the Land of Do-As-You-Please?

  • V: No. This is only the land of take-what-you-want. Anarchy means "without leaders"; not "without order". With anarchy comes an age or ordnung, of true order, which is to say voluntary order... this age of ordung will begin when the mad and incoherent cycle of verwirrung that these bulletins reveal has run its course... This is not anarchy, Eve. This is chaos.

  • I considered ancient Athens. But my knowledge of it is pretty much limited to what I know from reading the works of Plato and Aristotle, and from reading about the Peloponnesian war. So, I'm not really well enough informed to know. They seemed to have courts and elections and such.
    – user21424
    Commented Jul 6, 2018 at 14:48
  • Yes I'm relaying what I was told by Classicist/Historian. His point was that "democracy" in Athens was different from "democracy" these days. These days, even allegedly "democratic" countries have something like a "ruling class", professional politicians, professional civil servants, even dynasties. Whereas Athens' system of a) Everybody voting (so not "representative" democracy), and b) Using lotteries to select the executive (councils, magistrates), and c) Making these executive appointments temporary, helped to ensure that no-one person, no family, and no class of people, could take power.
    – ChrisW
    Commented Jul 6, 2018 at 14:59
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    Though you could consider the "free citizens" of Athens the rulers / ruling class and the large number of slaves those they ruled over.
    – janh
    Commented Jul 6, 2018 at 16:15
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    @janh -- Worth noting that ancient Greek democracy was largely limited to property owning adult males who were also citizens of the local community.
    – user23715
    Commented Jul 6, 2018 at 21:57
  • Given that "anarchy" is a greek word (ἀναρχία) we would know about it if the ancient greeks had lived under such a system for any considerable time.
    – Tom
    Commented Jul 7, 2018 at 6:39

We do have the biblical book of "Judges".

From Wikipedia's article on "Book of Judges", section called "The Deuteronomistic history":

A statement repeated throughout the book "In those days there was no king in Israel" (Judges 17:6, 18:1, 19:1, and 21:25)[...] this statement is accompanied with the statement that "every man did that which was right in his own eyes"

Oddly, that Wikipedia article doesn't seem to discuss a length of time, but another does. Wikipedia's article called "Biblical judges": section called "Historicity and timeline" estimates this to be about 300 years.

  • Interesting example. Is there any estimate on the population size? (to check for non-triviality requirement).
    – Alexei
    Commented Jul 8, 2018 at 13:58
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    The Bible is not really a reliable historic source.
    – Philipp
    Commented Jul 8, 2018 at 14:09
  • Alexei: Wikipedia's "Historical Jewish population comparisons" gives 611.730 when they left Egypt (under Moses). Then there was Joshua as a leader, then the time of the judges, then Saul, then David. The same Wikipedia article gives a partial population of 1,300,000 and probably a full population of about 5 million by David's time. So, presumably between 600k and 5,000k, thereby meeting the 100k or even 350k 'non-trivial" requirement posed by the question.
    – TOOGAM
    Commented Jul 8, 2018 at 16:21
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    @Philipp : Regardless of whether you accept the reliability of the bible as a whole, Israel was a theocracy, and so the bible was not just a supernatural guide but was also their nation's primary official history records (e.g., including a lot of birth records). Even if you choose to try to discount all of the book's supernatural claims, this remains the nation's official historical log and if the nation's log books say there was a judge named Debra, I see little reason to reject such claims (or other historical security records) unless there is some contrary evidence.
    – TOOGAM
    Commented Jul 8, 2018 at 16:31
  • Oh yeah and the cool thing is, some guy down here has already written a answer talking about the essene Jews, the ones who existed during Bible times that practice a form of anarchism for their community: politics.stackexchange.com/a/86580/29927
    – Tyler Mc
    Commented Mar 23 at 18:01

Yes, there are, but they are rare. Here are some examples:

  • The people of FEJUVE or The Federation of Neighborhood Councils-El Alto. Back in 2008, FEJUVE was estimated to have a population of 114,000 and the community has been around since 1979, so it has lasted for forty-three years and still exists to this day. FEJUVE is a participatory democracy based around having over six hundred neighborhood councils to provide public services and jobs. Each council has at least 200 members with their own leadership committees that hold monthly neighborhood assemblies similar to town meetings. The whole thing has an informal anarcho-mutualist economy self-managed by city workers and small trader/sole proprietorships as described by Emily Achtenberg in the book Community Organizing, Rebellion, and the Progressive State: Neighborhood Councils in El Alto, Bolivia.

  • Rebel Zapatista Autonomous Municipalities has been around since January 1994. This anarchist territory exists in the Chiapas region of Mexico which has a population of close to 363,000 people. It is still around to this day, follows an economy of worker cooperatives according to the book Resistencia Autónoma: Cuaderno de texto de primer grado del curso de "La Libertad según l@s Zapatistas", runs on a libertarian socialist consensus democracy, and currently fights against the Mexican government and various drug cartels in a conflict known as the Chiapas conflict.

  • The Sarvodaya Shramadana Movement has been around in Sri Lanka since 1958 according to the book The Impossible Community: Realising Communitarian Anarchism. by John Clarke. It has been around for over 63 years and the movement is active in 15,000 villages in Sri Lanka. It follows Buddhist anarchism and Gandhism (ideas inspired by M.K. Gandhi).

  • Freetown Christiania is an anarchist community practicing agorism: a form of market anarchism invented by Samuel Edward Konkin III. It is located in the borough of Christianshavn in the Danish capital city of Copenhagen which has been around since 1971 and offers cannabis and other 'soft drugs' to visitors.


As others have described, there are multiple non-trivial historically significant anarchist communities, though they are rare.

There is the Autonomous Administration of North and East Syria or Rojava. It has been around since 2012 and since 2018, it has a population of over 2 million. It has been supported by anarchists in texts like Stateless Democracy by Jonas Staal and Renee In der Maur. It is one of the first communities to successfully practice a form of democracy known as democratic confederalism. It practices gender equality, religious & cultural diversity, and defense of minority & religious rights within Syria. Here is how former diplomat Ross Carne described the community on September of 2015:

"For a former diplomat like me, I found it confusing: I kept looking for a hierarchy, the singular leader, or signs of a government line, when, in fact, there was none; there were just groups. There was none of that stifling obedience to the party, or the obsequious deference to the "big man"—a form of government all too evident just across the borders, in Turkey to the north, and the Kurdish regional government of Iraq to the south. The confident assertiveness of young people was striking.

From what I see, this is the largest anarchist mass society around in the modern world, bigger than anyone that is currently in existence.


As others have pointed out, there have been examples of anarchist communities in modern times in the past, despite how rare they are. As described in the book Foundations of Christianity by Karl Kautsky, the Essene Jews in biblical times practice a form of communal anarchism from the second century BC to the first century CE. Also as described in an article written by Peter Gelderloos, there was an anarchist Christian community called Frisian Freedom from 800 AD to 1523 AD in Europe. There are also others, but this shows that while rare, there were significant anarchist or anarchism adjacent societies to exist.

  • Gelderloos, Peter (2010). "What about global environmental problems, like climate change?". Anarchy Works. San Francisco: Ardent Press

In modern times you have the Sarvodaya Shramadaba Movement that has been in Sri Lanka for years since the year 1958 that practice is a form of Buddhist anarchism mixed with gandhism. It is mentioned in the book The impossible community: realizing communitarian anarchism by John Clark and works for self-governance along the many outcaste villages in the nation.

You also have the Barcelona's squatters movement that started in 2000 and practices autonomism - a form of post Marxist anarchist thought.


Probably the entire American frontier from the 19th century to 1920 qualifies as anarchy. Even though there were definitely federal efforts to displace native peoples there was little reliance on government and institutions like cowboys, vigilante groups, and other entities formed in the place of government. This numbered millions of people over multiple generations so the wild west would definitely meet your definition of anarchy. Even though the federal government nominally controlled the area it meant very little in practice and people mostly supported themselves.

Feudalism should also be considered anarchy. Even if you consider manorialism to be a government, it operates on a small scale and a large part of the population was villeins and outside any system. The whole world before the 20th century, or the french revolution at least, had little meaningful government and monarchs were mostly private landlords.


You say:

And lots of anarchic conditions arise through some kind of war or disaster or some such, but don't last very long, or are very grotesquely bad places to consider living.

Anarchy, politically speaking, does not mean chaos. It generally means without a centralised executive with accompanying bureaucracy. Bakunin, one of the most prominent theorists of anarchism, has said that if a state exists then this naturally means the domination of the state, and classes allied with it over any other class. A more contemporary voice is the Irish philosopher, Gerard Casey has gone even further and characterised them as criminal organisations no matter how benevolent they are.

There is a great deal to contest here. States aren't monolithic creatures. They are complex and sophisticated and have many moving parts. They have grown organically out of the soil of human engagement with each other. To write this all off seems extreme. But to we need to do so? Does anarchism need to posit this?

Anarchism is founded on the notion of individual liberty being the most important and supreme human good. It is to Marxism, what libertarianism is to Capitalism. But there is in democracies, in so far they are true democracies, a great deal of freedom. For example there is the saying:

An Englishman's home is his castle

This does not demolish the state but draws a border where his liberty reigns supreme. Outside his home, he has to contest with others and hence requires some way of mediating conflict. This is where generally the apparatus of the state comes in. A hardcore anarchist, like Bakunin or Casey, has no theoretical response to this. Which is basically why hardcore anarchism has failed to flourish.

But I would argue that democracies are, to a large degree, to the degree that they allow for human freedom, are anarchist. Thus you can pick any Western democracy as a flourishing example of an anarchist political system. However, the coercion that Bakunin identifies, is still there - in the compact that such states have with capital. But I expect this to eventually wither away. This is a variant on the socialist and communist view.

  • 2
    I have a hard time understanding how this is answering the question. Is this a frame challenge to what the OP defines as an anarchy?
    – Alexei
    Commented Apr 15 at 11:29
  • 1
    @Alexei: In some respects, yes. But rather to Bakunin, than the OP. Commented Apr 15 at 21:02
  • "Thus you can pick any Western democracy as a flourishing example of an anarchist political system." Incredible.
    – user76284
    Commented Apr 19 at 2:04

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