Anarchy is commonly associated with a philosophy of social freedom, through a state of chaos and an absence of social structure. The ideology of anarchism holds a fundamental belief that governmental authority is oppressive, and should be eliminated, allowing people to engage in social cooperation voluntarily. This philosophy is based on the premise that man is the best judge of his own instincts, and should be allowed to act on those instincts. To explore this concept, consider the following anarchy definition.

Definition of Anarchy


  1. A societal state without government or law
  2. A state of political disorder or lawlessness
  3. Lack of obedience to authority; insubordination


1530-1540       Middle French anarchie   (or Medieval Latin anarchia)

What is Anarchy

The political philosophy of anarchy promotes a self-governing society, based on voluntary adherence to societal principles. This type of society is thought of as “stateless,” as anarchism believes government institutions are not only unnecessary, but detrimental. Some anarchists, in addition to having an anti-government belief system, actively oppose authority, as well as other hierarchical systems of human relations.

Anarchy and Objective Law

Some philosophers have deemed anarchy to be a societal attitude in which “anything goes,” where people are free to make up the rules as they go, acting on whatever suits them at the time, with no need to provide rational or logical reasoning.

Objective law falls short of being the opposite of anarchy, in that it is principled, with a reliably consistent system. The rules under objective law do not drift along on the waves of human fancy, changing with the desires and notions of legislators, or of the lobby groups that put pressure on them. Objective law is predictable, both in substance and enforcement. The laws under an objective law system are founded on rational and justifiable beliefs of society.

Example of Objective Law

Leo and Suzanne have a six-year old little girl at the time they file for divorce. The court must determine custody, visitation, and child support issues. When Leo claims the child may not be his, as Suzanne had an affair around the time the baby was conceived, the court finds itself in the position of having to determine parentage. The court will need to use objective tests, which means the tests must be based in fact, demonstrable, or tangible. A DNA test provides an objective answer, based in fact proven by science.

Family courts often use DNA testing to prove parentage. This method is set out in objective law, as there is a concrete method for determining whether or not an individual is the biological parent of a child.

In many jurisdictions, the courts abide by an assumption that any child born to a woman while she is married belongs to her husband. This supposition is rooted in the long-held belief that a woman’s husband is her only (or at least most frequent) sex partner. This rule, regardless of how societal views are rapidly changing, is based on observable reality. This means that it is easy to determine whether the rule has been followed by a court when making decisions of parentage.

In addition, however, the presumption that the husband is the child’s father can be disproved by a man who does not believe he is the father, making it a reasonable test. Not only can he provide evidence of the wife’s indiscretions, but he can request that a DNA test be performed. This is an example of objective law being applied in a situation that may have any number of exact circumstances.

On the other hand, when Melinda and Mary appear in family court during their divorce, seeking a custody and visitation order on the two children they have been raising together for 9 years, the issue is not so clear. There is no clear-cut, objective test that can be applied to determine “parentage” in such a relationship. While one of the women may have given birth to the children, that is not always the case. While a DNA test may prove that one of the women is the children’s mother, the other woman has a claim to parenthood as well. There is no objective or scientific test to determine the value of either mothers’ love for the children.

The court may come up with a “test” based on the judge’s reasoning, but that is far from an “objective” test, as it would be different in every situation, changing with the opinion of the individual judge. For instance, if the judge makes a decision based on his opinion of how much love and actual parenting has been done by the non-biological mother, it assumes a free hand in bestowing parental rights on one parent, while snatching away the rights of the other.

A pattern of solving of problems, or rendering legal decisions, based on subjective evidence or opinion, is an example of anarchy, where objective law is thrown out the window, or simply does not fit modern situations.

Criminal Anarchy

In the United States, the belief that the government, as organized by the people, should be overthrown by force, or by assassination of the heads of state or its executive officials, is considered criminal anarchy. Promoting such a notion, whether by speech or in writing, is a felony offense.

Federal law, under U.S. Code, Title 18, Section 2385, provides that:

“Whoever knowingly or willfully advocates, abets, advises, or teaches the duty, necessity, desirability, or propriety of overthrowing or destroying the government of the United States or the government of any State … by force or violence, or by the assassination of any officer of any government …

“Whoever, with intent to cause the overthrow or destruction of any such government, prints, publishes, edits, issues, circulates, sells, distributes, or publicly displays any written or printed matter advocating, advising, or teaching the duty, necessity, desirability, or propriety of overthrowing or destroying any government in the United States by force or violence, or attempts to do so …

“Shall be fined … or imprisoned not more than twenty years, or both …”

By this law, the act of advocating the overthrow of the government by force or violence is punishable by up to 20 years in prison. Such acts may also result in the individual losing his or her U.S. citizenship. In addition to federal law, most states have their own laws prohibiting the advocacy of overthrowing the government by force or violence.

Anarchist Extremism as Domestic Terrorism

While most people who hold anarchist beliefs prefer to create change through legal, non-violent methods, there are those who believe change must come through violent acts. In the U.S., anarchist extremism ranges from anti-capitalist views, to anti-globalism, anti-urbanization, and anti-pollution or “green” anarchy. For the most part, these people are only organized in a loose manner, acting on local opportunities, such as conventions, summits, and meetings of the groups or organizations they feel are the cause of the world’s ills.

It is not uncommon for anarchists to protest by rioting, vandalizing property, setting fires, and engaging in other illegal, destructive acts. A concern in the past decades has been that some anarchist extremists are willing to use improvised explosive devices (“IEDs”) or other weapons with the potential to cause a great deal of harm to people. In the U.S., the FBI is tasked with keeping track of known extremists in an effort to prevent domestic terrorism.

Anarchy and Seditious Speech

Seditious speech is any speech that attacks the basic institution of government, or which is directed toward overthrowing the government. This may extend to include criticism of governmental leaders, if it is in the vein of overthrowing the current government. This does not include, of course, a person’s right to speak out or express his opinion, or to participate in the legal process of ousting leaders and electing new ones.

Political philosophers grant that there is a fine line between engaging in lawful criticism of government and governmental officials, and seditious speech. A fine line between associating with others who share a hearty disapproval of government and engaging in subversive activities. The Freedom of Speech clause of the First Amendment provides, in part:

“Congress shall make no law … abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press …”

While the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution protects every individual’s right to speak his mind, it does restrain private individuals or organizations from putting a stop to someone’s speech.

Example of Anarchy through Seditious Speech

Harold was born and raised in the South, his entire family having very conservative values. Harold believes that everyone has the right to say what they want, and a right to be armed in order to protect their interests. Harold belongs to a group of people who believe that immigrants to the U.S. are the cause of many problems, including violent crime and terrorism. The group is very vocal about the need to close the country’s borders to all foreigners, and to arm every U.S. citizen, giving them the right to enforce that goal through violence if necessary.

Harold’s group begins holding conventions and demonstrations criticizing the actions, or lack of action, by Congress and the President, urging people to arm themselves and “take back their country.” As more people rally to their cause, Harold’s group becomes more bold, actually planning to intimidate certain Senators through fear and threats of violence.

In this example of anarchy, Harold and his group have the right to criticize the nation’s leaders publically. They can even talk to other people, hold gatherings and marches encouraging others to speak their minds and to take the proper steps to remove those leaders from office. What they cannot legally do, however, is plan to do violence, or to overturn the government by fear, intimidation, and violence. This behavior becomes sedition, and is a felony that carries a very stiff punishment.

Anarchy Example or Seditious Speech

In the summer of 1964, in Hamilton County, Ohio, KuKlux Klan (“KKK”) leader Clarence Brandenburg invited the media to film the Klan’s rally in which men in robes and hoods burned a cross and made inflammatory speeches. Speeches made during the rally commented on getting “revengeance” against “niggers” and “Jews,” and made claims that the U.S. President, Congress, and the Supreme Court were suppressing the white race. At the rally, plans to hold a march on Washington D.C. on the Fourth of July, were announced.

Brandenburg was arrested and charged with violating Ohio’s criminal anarchy laws for his speeches advocating for intimidation, violence, and other acts of terrorism as the best route to accomplishing political reform. He was convicted, given a $1,000 fine, and sentenced to 1 to 10 years in prison. Brandenburg appealed his case to the U.S. Supreme Court, claiming that the state’s statute violated his right to free of speech.

The Supreme Court overturned the Ohio court’s ruling, warning that the government cannot punish someone for abstract or hypothetical advocacy of using force or violence. Instead, the Court introduced what is known as the “Brandenburg test,” or the “imminent lawlessness action test,” which requires the elements of intent to use violence, imminence of a specific violent act, and likelihood that the act will be carried out.

In this example of anarchy, the Supreme Court issued a landmark ruling that speech that may be considered seditious, including speech that seems to incite others to violence, is protected by the First Amendment, as long as there is no “imminent threat” of violence or other lawless action.

Related Legal Terms and Issues

  • Assassination – The murder of a public official or political official.
  • Domestic Terrorism – The act of committing terrorism within one’s own country.
  • Felony – A crime, often involving violence, regarded as more serious than a misdemeanor. Felony crimes are usually punishable by imprisonment more than one year.
  • Intent – A resolve to perform an act for a specific purpose; a resolution to use a particular means to a specific end.
  • Parentage – The determination of a child’s legal parents; often referred to as “paternity,” this term is commonly used in family law matters.
  • Sedition –Speech or conduct that incites people to rebel against a lawful authority.

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