Dee Hock. Jane Jacobs. Ricardo Semler. Peter Block. Parker Palmer.
Whether they acknowledge it or not, each of the philosophies and ideas shared by these writers align directly with the fundamentals of anarchism.
When it comes to “anarchism” there are few more loaded words in the English language, and not many that are more misunderstood. The best summation to me is that anarchism is asking systems of power to prove their legitimacy, and when they can’t, to get rid of them. (I’m paraphrasing Noam Chomsky here.)
People think of anarchism as a political ideology, but that’s far too limiting. It applies at literally every level of life. At it’s core, it’s about the equal value of every person, the importance of authentic freedom, and our need to cooperate and support each other.
The fundamentals of anarchism are anti-authoritarianism, direct action (self-governance, individual responsibility to improve things), free association, and mutual aid (we’re all in this together and we need to help the weakest first.)
Anarchism is not an ideology, it is actually about trying to live out what you’ll find is already most true about reality if you study the science of emergence. (A great book looking at this is Steven Johnson’s Emergence: The connected Lives of Ants, Brains, Cities, and Software.) The more that we can work in ways that consider the value and insights of each of the contributors, the more we will operate based on the way nature works. In nature, there’s no such thing as a queen bee directing the rest of the bees.
As a manager and an employer, I don’t own people. They aren’t an extension of me. They aren’t part of my machine. They are individual, autonomous, uniquely valuable people. If they are great at doing their job, we are lucky to have them. If they are mediocre at doing their job, we are lucky to have them. If they are incompetent at doing their job, we are lucky to have them. If they epically suck at doing their job, we are lucky to have them.
None of us are entitled to anyone doing any goddamned thing we want, regardless of how much or little they get paid to do it. The minimum expectation for a basic functioning organization should be that its managers treat people entrusted to them in a way that acknowledges their inherent value.
So, that said, here’s my top 5 favorite anarchist thinkers (whether they acknowledge the title or not) who deeply influenced my thinking about business, community building, life, and basically everything—and a bunch of my favorite thoughts of theirs.
This post is ridiculously long, but these are gems I’ve mined here and I wouldn’t trade them for all the bitcoin in the world. You’re welcome.
Founder of the VISA, and essentially the modern economy. No one seems to know who this man is and it’s a shame, as he’s one of the most valuable thinkers I’ve read in my life. Even wilder is that no one seems to know the remarkable story of how VISA came to be, and it’s worth reading by basically everyone. He tells it in One From Many and weaves in a lifetime of insight.
“In the deepest sense, distinction between leaders and followers is meaningless. In every moment of life, we are simultaneously leading and following.” I highly recommend reading this entire excerpt on leadership and management from One to Many, as it is the single most valuable thing I have ever read on those topics.
“People are not “things” to be manipulated, labeled, boxed, bought, and sold. Above all else, they are not “human resources.” They are entire human beings, containing the whole of the evolving universe, limitless until we start limiting them.”
“Trust is not negotiable. One either trusts or one does not. I prefer trust.”
“In a very real sense, followers lead by choosing where to be led. Where a community will be led is inseparable from the conscious, shared values and beliefs of the individuals of which it is composed. True leaders are those who epitomize the general sense of the community — who symbolize, legitimize, and strengthen behavior in accordance with the sense of the community — who enable its conscious, shared values and beliefs to emerge, expand, and be transmitted from generation to generation-who enable that which is trying to happen to come into being. The true leader’s behavior is induced by the behavior of every individual who chooses where they will be led.”
“Given the right circumstances, from no more than dreams, determination, and the liberty to try, quite ordinary people consistently do extraordinary things.”
“Where does the compulsion to control come from? Let’s pretend that I can take my desire for control and develop it to the ultimate. What would that mean? I’d have to know every event that ever happened in the past and everything that could possibly happen in the future. I would have to go, along with desire, hope, love, and hate. If I [were to] reach that state of total and complete control, what would it be like? I’d be dead! Life is mystery. And uncertainty. To wish absolute control is to wish you were not alive. At bottom, desire for control is a death wish.”
“There are two ways to look at opposition: I want to do it and they won’t let me, or they want to prevent me and I won’t let them.”
“If you accept a world in which there is no limit to what you can get, you must accept a world in which there is no limit to what can be taken from you. If you accept a world in which there is no limit to your power, you must accept a world in which you may be enslaved. If you accept a world in which there is no limit to your wealth, you must accept a world in which you may be impoverished. When you accept such a world, you are consenting to deprivation, impoverishment, and enslavement of your grandchildren, their children, and their children’s children.”
What if we set aside all discussion of how things were, as they are, and as they might become, and instead immersed ourselves in how they ought to be. What if? What if?”
True leadership is based on educed behavior and has an affinity for good, while false leadership is based on compelled behavior and has an affinity for evil.”
“Rules and regulations, laws and contracts, can never replace clarity of shared purpose and clear, deeply held principles about conduct in pursuit of that purpose.”
“It has ever been my belief that, in the deepest sense, one can never own anything until it is given up, freely, completely, without regret or remorse. Only then, can it never be lost or taken from them.”
“Innovative change is never accompanied by sufficient information and knowledge; it often requires acting wisely and prudently on the basis of very little information.”
“Since the strength and reality of every organization lies in the sense of community of the people who have been attracted to it, its success has enormously more to do with clarity of a shared purpose, common principles, and strength of belief in them, than with money, material assets, or management practices, important as they may be.”
“Making good judgments and acting wisely when one has complete data, facts, and information is not leadership. It’s not even management. It’s bookkeeping. Leadership requires ability to make wise decisions and act responsibly upon them when one has little more than a clear sense of direction, proper values, and some understanding of the forces driving change.”
Took on the powerful top-down city planner, Robert Moses, and saved Greenwich Village in New York. In doing so, she created the entire framework for healthy cities. Her insights are relevant to anyone thinking about organizations, community, the way we interact with each other, and the harm of hierarchical thinking.
“Cities have the capability of providing something for everybody, only because, and only when, they are created by everybody.”
“When we plan things top-down, we miss out on the way that things sustainably grow and thrive and develop real character, which is bottom up.”
“We expect too much of new buildings and too little of ourselves.”
“The psuedoscience of planning seems almost neurotic in its determination to imitate empiric failure and ignore empiric success.”
“To seek “causes” of poverty in this way is to enter an intellectual dead end because poverty has no causes. Only prosperity has causes.”
Peter Block’s Community is an overview of the thinking of grassroots community organizers, theorists, and practitioners, but it’s also revolutionary in its own right as it synthesizes fresh and clear insights about how communities thrive. Like Jane Jacobs’ work, it has broad applicability.
Freedom is what creates true accountability: “The real task of leadership is to confront people with their freedom. This may be the ultimate act of love that is called for from those who hold power over others. Choosing our freedom is also the source of our willingness to choose to be accountable… Freedom is what creates accountability. Freedom is not an escape from accountability.”
Focusing on problems divides. Focusing on possibility unites.
Systems are capable of executing a service, but they are not capable of actually caring about anyone or anything.
“Well-funded efforts, with clear outcomes, that spell out the steps to get there do not work. Changes that begin on a large scale, are initiated or imposed from the top, and are driven to produce quick wins inevitably produce few lasting results.”
Leads one of the most unique companies on the planet—Brazil’s SemCo, which does just about everything and is a massive beehive of productivity where significant creative control is given to employees to chart the organization’s path.
“Forget socialism, capitalism, just-in-time deliveries, salary surveys and the rest… concentrate on building organizations that accomplish that most difficult of all challenges: to make people look forward to coming to work in the morning.”
“People are responsible adults at home. Why do we suddenly transform them into adolescents with no freedom when they reach the workplace?”
Employees should be able to hire their own managers.
“The purpose of work is not to make money. The purpose of work is to make the workers, whether working stiffs or top executives, feel good about life.”
“To survive in modern times, a company must have an organizational structure that accepts change as its basic premise, lets tribal customs thrive, and fosters a power that is derived from respect, not rules. In other words, the successful companies will be the ones that put quality of life first. Do this and the rest—quality of product, productivity of workers, profits for all—will follow.”
Teacher and guide of an honest and grounded way of thinking about ourselves and each other.
“Before I can tell my life what I want to do with it, I must listen to my life telling mewho I am. I must listen for the truths and values at the heart of my own identity, not the standards by which I must live—but the standards by which I cannot help but live if I am living my own life.”
“Everything in the universe has a nature, which means limits as well as potentials, a truth well known by people who work daily with the things of the world. Making pottery, for example, involves more than telling the clay what to become. The clay presses back on the potter’s hands, telling her what it can and cannot do-and if she fails to listen, the outcome will be both frail and ungainly. Engineering involves more than telling materials what they must do. If the engineer does not honor the nature of the steel or the wood or the stone, his failure will go well beyond aesthetics: the bridge or the building will collapse and put human life in peril.”
“True vocation joins self and service, as Frederick Buechner asserts when he defines vocation as ‘the place where your deep gladness meets the world’s deep need.’ Buechner’s definition starts with the self and moves toward the needs of the world: it begins, wisely, where vocation begins-not in what the world needs (which is everything), but in the nature of the human self, in what brings the self joy.”
“By surviving passages of doubt and depression on the vocational journey, I have become clear about at least one thing: self-care is never a selfish act-it is simply good stewardship of the only gift I have, the gift I was put on earth to offer to others. Anytime we can listen to true self and give it the care it requires, we do so not only for ourselves but for the many others whose lives we touch.”
“By failing to look at our shadows, we feed a dangerous delusion that leaders too often indulge: that our efforts are always well intended, our power is always benign, and the problem is always in those difficult people whom we are trying to lead!”
PS I feel it necessary to reiterate that anarchism doesn’t need to mean lack of process or structure, despite feeble stereotypes. On that front, here’s a summary of one of the best essays (Jo Freeman’s The Tyranny of Structurelessness). Highly recommended perspective as a counterbalance.