How Anarchism Works

Could Anarchism Ever Actually Work?

One common knock upon anarchism is that it's a dreamy utopian vision that would never actually work on a large scale. Critics can point to places such as Somalia, where the demise of the government in 1991 left a void that's been filled for years by violent warlords, religious extremists and pirates, as proof that humans need authority and structure to live in peace [source: Winter].

Some have argued, though, that by some measures Somalia is better off now than it was when it was ruled by a corrupt dictator. Economist Peter Leeson wrote in 2007 that life expectancy, infant mortality and access to sanitation were all better currently than they were in the last years of the Somali government's existence. (These trends still hold true in the 2010s.) "Contrary to conventional wisdom, it is simply not true that any government is always superior to no government. If state predation goes unchecked, government may not only fail to add to social welfare, but can actually reduce welfare below its level under statelessness," Leeson wrote.

Either way, Somalia is still not a desirable place to live. While there isn't an example of a successful experiment with anarchism on a national scale, anarchism has sometimes worked on a local level. One example is Christiana, an 84-acre area within the city of Copenhagen, Denmark. In 1971, a group of squatters and artists took over what had been the buildings of an abandoned military base and proclaimed it a "free zone" that would function outside Danish authority.

In 2012, the Danish government offered to sell Christiana's land to its residents for a below-market price of $13 million, and they accepted the deal, setting up a collective that would own the community. Vanity Fair writer Tom Freston, who visited Christiana the following year, described the town-within-a-city and its 900 residents as "perhaps the largest and longest-lasting commune in history," and noted its vibrant cafes, buildings covered with murals and numerous hashish shops.

In Greece, where years of government austerity and a recent influx of refugees from the civil war in Syria have resulted in an erosion of social services, anarchists have stepped in. In the capital of Athens, for example, anarchists have taken over 15 abandoned buildings and turned them into shelters to house 3,000 refugees. The anarchists have argued that the conditions in their un-authorized housing are better than those in camps provided by the government, which have been criticized by human rights groups as dirty and unsafe. Anarchists also provide food, medicine and other services to impoverished Greeks through scores of social centers that they've set up.

As Tasos Sagris, member of a Greek anarchist group called Void Network, told the New York Times, "Every failure of the system proves the ideas of the anarchists to be true."