Anarchy and Responsibility

This article is written by someone living in a house project and identifying as the anarchist.

"We are convinced that freedom without Socialism is privilege and injustice, and that Socialism without freedom is slavery and brutality." – Bakunin


If you talk in the context of anarchism about responsibility or even about rules in groups (agreed upon in a consensus-based group process) you are in danger of getting angry responses. Most of the time those angry responses are uttered from some anarchists and "anarchists" from the anarcho-individualist spectrum. There are some of those that even reject self-given and evolving methods and rules as dominance over the individual. They ask you what the group would do if some member does not respect the group rules, pressuring you until you say something that they can bend enough to accuse you of wanting sanctioning, police- or punishment structures.

That is not what I want. In my opinion, punishment is neither compatible with anarchist systems nor working. Nevertheless, if you live in real anarchist projects and not in an anarchist utopia you will find that people have diverse, sometimes contradicting opinions on the way anarchists should live or work together, they might fail to behave according to their own principles, they might not be able to see how their behavior is dominating others and due to past experiences there could also be a lack of trust between the members. To help building trust, to help people feeling safe in the group there has to be a structure that ensures that everyone is heard, that dominance is reduced and that people can rely on previous decisions.

This text describes, based on real life experiences with various kinds of anarchists, how structure, consensus-based rules, and responsibilities are vital for anarchist projects. It also discusses why agreements on procedures of separation should be a structural part of such projects.

Anarchist Real Life

Let's imagine you live together with other people. You live in a project that strives to reduce power over people and to support the transformation to an anarchist society. Lucky you! Everybody should have a chance like this. And take it. Living together can reduce social pressure, boost your own anarchist capabilities and even make a change outside of the project.

I don't want to depress or discourage you. I hope you can take the following paragraph with the smile of someone who knows how this can support social transformation into a respectful society: There will be people who think they have more experiences and know better than you. There will be people with social anxieties and those who were psychologically hurt by their previous social environment. There will be people with diverse, even contradicting visions and expectations. There will be those who don't realize how they dominate others. There will be those who are easily hurt in social interactions and those who always think that their situation is the worst. There will be people that talk a lot and fail to truly hear others. There will those who don't clean, those who act selfishly, those who judge and those who value their spiritual habits more than the interaction with the people in the project.

Certainly, there will also be friends, support, and laughter.


But how is it possible? To live together with a bunch of very diverse, sensitive and self-opinionated people? Let's say the overall principle is to reduce power over people, to create an anarchist environment.

Anarchy is neither chaos nor a free ticket for egoists. Anarchists have written about and discussed the "tyranny of structurelessness" (Jo Freeman, 1972) for a long time: Groups with no official structures tend to develop hidden structures and hierarchies that are more dominant than self-given structures. They are even a lot more unfair and more unpredictable when they are hidden.

Some people might say that you do not need structure, you need a common vision, trust, being nice and respectful to each other. To some degree that is true, but it might not be enough. Even in very homogeneous groups, there can be diverse needs or perspectives. And there will always be conflicts that need to be embraced instead of feared. If there is no concept of handling tensions or conflicts, unresolved disagreements might start to pile up.

Of course, some arbitrary structure or rules don't solve everything. There need to be rules created through a consensus based process by the group itself and they need to be embedded in a culture of responsibility, respect and separation. The following paragraphs go into details of these aspects required for anarchist structures.

  1. Agreements: Collectively deciding on rules might be a difficult process that requires a deep understanding of diverse perspectives and needs.

  2. Responsibility, Reliability, Respect, Reflection: Some members of the group might not always act according to their own rules. Handling these situations requires a mutual understanding in how to overcome the dynamics of judgments and create a culture of responsibility, support, and learning.

  3. Separation: When the efforts to make decisions or to resolve conflicts repeatedly fail and external support does not help, separation can be a fair decision.

1. Agreements

In anarchist contexts we a need special kind of rules or agreements: As there is no authority to watch over compliance, the group has to take the responsibility for their rules itself. That works best if everyone is involved in the decision making process. Rules need to be agreed on together, they need to be self-made and everyone needs to feel heard. Many anarchist groups use variations of the formal consensus decision-making process to ensure that everyone's needs are heard. There are books like "On Conflict and Consensus" that explain the process. Consensus is more than a process or method. It requires a culture of listening and understanding and process evaluation. Otherwise, vetos might be misused as a power instrument.

I think it is important that decisions made by the group are recorded in a book or other medium. Nevertheless, these decisions should be evaluated and maybe changed from time to time. This should not be done by an individual by simply ignoring the rule but by the group discussing the old decision and possibly changing it. Thus, the set of current decisions of the group is allowed to change, evolve and transform together with the group. It might even shrink to some basic rules as the group gets to know each other better.

2. Responsibility and Reliability, Respect and Reflection

These rules are only worth the time needed to agree on them as a group if the group takes the responsibility to stick to them. This means to speak up when rules are not respected even if no one was hurt. I think it is quite disrespectful to ourselves if we ignore our own rules.

This might not always be easy. Learning to take responsibility can be hard when you were raised in a context in which you had no full control over the things you did and some superiors that could be blamed. In an anarchist context, it does not help the group dynamics to shrug one's shoulders and say "I could not stick to that rule because person X did Y". There should not be a "there is no alternative"-mentality in an anarchist project.

Everybody in a group needs to take responsibility for his_her own well-being as well as the group's. It is not possible to interact with a group and not have an influence on it. Even by not participating in group activities you influence group dynamics. Thus, everyone should be aware that he_she is influencing the group and take the responsibility for his_her behavior. This also includes the reflection of the behavior if some other person is directly affected by it and wants to talk about it.

Talk about everything? No, but if at least one person does not feel comfortable, there is a (maybe only very tiny) conflict. In my opinion, conflicts arising in group contexts should not be handled as private matters. The group should feel responsible for supporting the involved people in resolving the conflict.

Taking responsibility as individuals and as a group, for the rules, that we have created is not only respectful but also a requirement for an atmosphere of reliability. Reliability is needed for many people to feel safe. Reliability is also a source of trust.

3. Separation

And what if people do not act according to rules if decisions can't be made and conflicts cannot be resolved? What if all methods of talking, support from internal and external people with mediation or other methods do not change the situation? This does not mean that anarchist ways of organizing are failing but that there need to be structured and consensus-based processes of separation between individuals and groups that allow them to develop and coexist in separate projects instead of slowly destroying their group culture by ignoring their own rules and responsibilities.

Separation sounds bad to some people. Either like throwing someone out or like failure. I think this negative connotation to the word separation is something we should question. It might not be true in all cases. If done carefully, with respect and not simply as the easiest solution, separation can be a valid method to reduce fights and enhance the wellbeing of everyone involved. Here are three examples of separation in anarchist contexts:

1) The idea of anarchist societies is not based on the idea of all people wanting the same, but on the idea of decentral groups each acting in their way as long as it does not affect others. In such a society separation from one group and joining an other or even travelling through some groups would not be a sign of failure of the first group or the individual but a chance for personal and group development.

2) Consensus decision making does not require all people to agree. The process encourages decisions in which people "stand aside", which means that they do not block the decision but that they do not want to be part of it.

3) Many anarchist projects have rules that support people leaving the project. E.g. commune Niederkaufungen has a contract with each member that lists the things and support this person will get when he_she leaves the project. The purpose of this arrangement is to help people to start a new life when they leave the project. If there was not such an agreement, people might stay in the project only because they do not have the things needed to start a new life. This is a good example of a rule or structure that opens more possibilities to people. The absence of this rule would be some sort of invisible power from the project over the individual that makes him_her stay even though he_she doesn't feel good in the project anymore. This would also have negative effects on the dynamics of the whole group.

Of course, separation can be hard, no matter what kind of support you get from the project. You might leave friends, nice places, partners, projects and kids behind you. I find it hard to decide when it is time to separate. It might need external help to understand which unmet needs lead to pain and fights, if the participants are willing and able to change the situation or if they decide that it would be better for all of them to separate. I would appreciate if there would be an anarchist culture of separation support, exploration of methods and processes of separation and maybe respectful separation celebrations. Not celebrating that one source of conflict has gone but that all involved people together decided to develop in new, separate directions.


Anarchist groups need consensus-based structures to avoid informal structures, which would lead to intransparent domination. To create a structure compatible with anarchist principles, an anarchist project or group needs more than a set of rules they decided upon. They need a working consensus decision-making process, a culture of responsibility and an openness to reflection, learning and external conflict resolution support. Last but not least, they need processes of respectful, development friendly separation in order to stick to their own anarchist values.