It was the spring of 2011, and the women of Cherán had had enough.

Illegal logging operations had been razing the oak forests surrounding the town for years, with the backing of one of the sprawling cartels that now effectively controls large swaths of Michoacán, the Mexican state in which the town of 20,000 resides.

And since neither the local police nor the Mexican government seemed interested in following up on the community’s complaints, Cherán’s residents — most of them indigenous Purépecha people — suspected these entities were cut in on the deal. After loggers began kidnapping, raping, and murdering locals, and the clear-cutting began to threaten a nearby spring, the town’s women made up their minds to fight back.

Early in the morning of April 15, a few dozen of them, armed with rocks and fireworks, surrounded a bus full of loggers. They took two loggers hostage and kicked the rest out of town. Then they ejected the mayor, the cops, and any representatives of Mexico’s main political parties they could get their hands on.

Seven years later, the cartels haven’t come back to Cherán, and neither has the government. A citizen militia tightly controls the border around the town, searching visitors for party propaganda along with more common types of contraband. On voting day for the recent presidential election that put leftist reform candidate Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador in power, Cherán residents who wanted to cast a ballot had to travel to neighboring towns to find a polling place.

Cherán now has a council of citizens instead of a mayor and a citizen watch patrol instead of police, and it effectively exists outside the rule of the Mexican government, thanks to a supreme court decision in their favor. Sending the feds packing seems to be working out for Cherán. Crime is down, happiness is up, and the forest is starting to grow back.

In 10,000 years of human civilization, we have yet to come up with a single form of government that’s functional, stable, and capable of scaling up to fit our forever-expanding societies. From god-kings to colonial empires, every idea we’ve had for organizing large populations under one power structure has collapsed when it was stretched too far. It seems like the only ways to unite people behind a government are to threaten them (like North Korea) or bribe them (like Denmark, which is so swamped with oil money that its secondhand-vinyl sellers can afford to winter in South America).

There was a minute there, between the fall of the Soviet Union and the launch of Russia’s internet war on Western politics, where it seemed like liberal democracy might win out as history’s final form of government, capable of uniting the whole world under one global order. But that was before hackers uncovered its possibly fatal vulnerability to the new information paradigm, and brought the entire postwar political order to the brink of collapse with what appears to be a modest Facebook advertising budget. The schisming of the United States, the European Union’s teetering on the edge of a breakdown, and liberal democracy’s seemingly insurmountable difficulty in finding a foothold in the Middle East all strongly suggest that this system isn’t any better suited for the future than Soviet communism was.

For the past few years, the news has felt like play-by-play commentary for a society spinning out of control. Our young millennium has seen technological change, societal change, and environmental change accelerate to dizzying, unprecedented speeds. We’re bound for a kind of a social singularity, one where our increasingly interconnected, digitized, globalized society reaches a tipping point and… something changes on a deep, fundamental level.

We’re about to cross the threshold into a new epoch, one as distinct as the Iron or Industrial ages, and we don’t really know what’s on the other side. Moreover, it’s becoming increasingly obvious that we don’t have a working plan for how we’re going to govern it.

So here’s the question: If we can’t figure out a kind of government that’ll work for us the way we want it to, why should we bother having governments at all?

Cherán isn’t the only community on Earth functioning effectively without a government. Other indigenous communities in Mexico have followed the example of the Zapatista uprising in Chiapas and established their own autonomous cooperatives. Christiana, the leaderless city within Copenhagen, has existed almost entirely outside of direct rule by the city or national governments since 1971, and has even survived a few organized attempts by those governments to shut it down. Closer to home, Burning Man has been collectively building, operating, and dismantling a more or less hierarchy-free city in the Nevada desert every year for over three decades. Maybe, the animating idea goes, we’d all be better off if we gave everyone in power the boot.

The technical term for organizing people without a government — or at least the kind of top-down hierarchical structure that we usually mean when we say “government” — is anarchism. And for a growing number of people, it’s looking like the future of power.

In American politics, anarchism is a dirty word. We typically think it means bomb-throwing terrorists sowing chaos for chaos’s sake, which is why conservatives have for so long used it to try and discredit everyone from labor organizers to civil rights leaders. But America is, in a lot of ways, a deeply anarchist nation, born out of rage against restrictive systems of power, and has remained intensely skeptical of power, even during periods like the one right now where we vote for leaders who openly revel in accumulating it.

We’re taught early on that the United States is a democracy, but the ideal America that we’re raised to believe in — a place of infinite personal liberty, where everyone gets a say in how things are run and anyone who doesn’t like it can head out west and try their own way — is quintessentially anarchist.

The friction between the Thoreau-style anarchist utopia we’re raised on and the constraints of an imperfectly designed representative democracy has done more to shape the American political identity than anything else.

Although anarchism in the United States has operated mostly on the fringes, some of its most potent ideas have managed to embed themselves deep in the mainstream. Anarchism’s success as a political concept is difficult to measure by standard means. For obvious reasons, there isn’t an Anarchist Party fielding candidates whose votes we can tally. But its influence on mainstream American politics is undeniable, even if it doesn’t get much credit.

For instance, the model used by nearly every successful social protest movement of the past decade — horizontally distributed, leaderless, local — was designed for antinuke protests in the seventies and eighties by anarchists, along anarchist principles. On the left, social and political ambitions that even just a few years ago were considered untouchably radical by most politicians have become part of the mainstream discourse. “Abolish the prison system” used to be an intentionally provocative anarchist slogan, so far outside polite political discourse that it could shock an audience into action or reaction. Now? It’s something that people put in their Twitter bio.

Since the Reagan era, republicans have been infatuated with libertarianism — the idea that the government should be shrunk down to a size where it can be drowned in the bathtub.

Liberals have for decades dismissed their anarchist cousins as either ineffective political daydreamers lost in theory and to the infighting that can arise over tiny points of abstract disagreement, or, alternately, as hotheaded hooligans who use revolutionary politics as a cover to excuse their enthusiasm for property damage. But as anti-Trump resistance pushes liberals farther left, many of them are rediscovering their anarchist roots and raising the black flag of anarchy over social media.

Anarchism hasn’t made the same kind of inroads on the right, which makes sense considering how much emphasis conservatism puts on structure, order, and obedience. But it’s there. Since the Reagan era, Republicans have been infatuated with libertarianism — the idea that the government should be shrunk down to a size where it can be drowned in the bathtub. Over the years, libertarianism’s antigovernment ideals have flourished so extravagantly on the right that it’s stopped being shocking to hear GOP politicians making passionate speeches against the validity of the governments they’ve been elected to serve.

All that libertarianism has left conservatives open to accepting ideas like the somewhat contradictory-sounding anarcho-capitalism, which pushes faith in the supremacy of the free market to its furthest logical conclusion, calling for the transformation of a government’s services and duties into saleable products. This philosophy’s been most closely associated with Silicon Valley, where everything new is by nature better than anything that’s been done before, and where the combination of billions of dollars and intense competition have produced egos of a seemingly ungovernable size. But it’s also found open arms in the business-friendly conservative mainstream, where legislators and regulators are already working closely with corporations to reduce the government’s ability to govern them.

PayPal co-founder Peter Thiel is one of the world’s most outspoken anarcho-capitalist true believers, and was one of Donald Trump’s biggest tech supporters during the election. His attention-grabbing speech at the 2016 Republican National Convention shows, ironically, just how much influence anarchism currently has in the upper echelons of power.

In real life, the current flourishing of anarchist enthusiasm doesn’t look much like the Hollywood action-movie conception we’re familiar with: balaclava-clad rioters, guerilla bombing campaigns, rogue hackers releasing viruses that shut down the world’s financial systems while broadcasting video of a shadowy anarchist leader, probably wearing a balaclava, reading a manifesto. Despite their badass reputation, most anarchists are bookish poli-sci wonks who spend more time arguing over theory than anything else.

All that arguing and theory have led to a vibrant spectrum of ideas about what anarchism means, and what the end results might look like. There is, of course, the kind of anarchism familiar to anyone who’s spent any time on a college campus since the eighties: left-leaning, heavy on collectivism, and intersectional with a whole range of social justice causes. There are anarchist schools of thought focused on ecology, ones centered on feminism, and ones for people who don’t want to do anything to help anyone else.

Queer and trans people have expanded the range of possibility for anarchist revolution by adding sex and gender to the list of systems it could disrupt. There are anarcho-communists counterbalancing the current fad for anarcho-capitalism. There are militant anarchists and pacifists. There’s veganarchism, which is exactly what the name suggests.

One of the advantages of anarchism is that it’s easily shaped into nearly anything that someone wants it to be. In an age where our politics and our identity are becoming nearly the same thing, this is a key strength. In our representative democracy, reform is electing someone who sees things more like you than the last person who had their job. Anarchism gives you a plan to tear everything down and rebuild it to fit your specific worldview.

From an outside perspective, the different models might seem impossible to implement in real life, but in truth organizing things along generally anarchist lines makes practical sense.

Systems that are regimented to within an inch of their lives can give the illusion of being secure and stable while hiding massive vulnerabilities. The U.S. spent two decades trying to figure out ways to protect its voting system from hackers and saw a presidential election disrupted by a swarm of cheap Twitter bots. Conversely, an anarchistic system designed for maximum flexibility and adaptability — maybe some kind of data-generated direct democracy — would be able to absorb the effects of unforeseen change. You don’t have to worry about whether or not your president is being blackmailed by foreign agents if you don’t have a president.

The internet gives us a real-life illustration of a nonhierarchical system in action. Organized to avoid hierarchy, the internet stands as the greatest experiment in mass anarchism in human history. It was deliberately designed with a bare minimum of rules by a community of scientists and programmers mixing radical anarcho-leftists and libertarians, and it’s largely resisted efforts by the strongest political powers in history to control it.

Anarchism’s influence on mainstream American politics is undeniable, even if it doesn’t get much credit.

The internet transcends geographic and social borders, allows theoretically anyone on Earth to speak to a global audience, and is set up in a way that even repressive, technologically capable governments like China’s can’t entirely dictate how people use it. In many ways, it’s the culmination of a century’s worth of anarchist dreaming.

The culture that’s emerged online is similarly anarchic. From the very start, the internet’s denizens have revolted at any top-down attempt to infringe on their ideal of unimpeded digital liberty, even as governments and multinational corporations have gotten involved.

Reddit and Twitter became two of the biggest communications hubs on the planet largely because they refused to tell people no in any but the most extreme cases of abuse. As internet culture rewarded platforms that allowed users to set the rules themselves, en masse, and starved ones that tried to import IRL hierarchies, it created a virtual world where the distribution of power is far more favorable to the average person.

In a very real sense, we are never more free than we are when we’re online. And the more time we spend in this virtual anarchist utopia, the more we want the real world to feel the same — and the more frustrated we get when it doesn’t. It’s no coincidence that some of the most effective political and social movements in recent memory have not only been born online, but reflect the internet’s inherently anarchist nature.

There’s no president of Black Lives Matter or #MeToo. There also isn’t a single mastermind behind the alt-right movement or the burgeoning incel intifada that began as an internet joke before crossing over into the real world with tragically real consequences.

Nor does it seem to be a coincidence that the most recent victorious presidential campaign was the one that promised more than anything to get rid of as many rules as possible.

Dapper white nationalists and sexually frustrated spree killers are strong arguments against making the real world more like the internet — and for keeping the societal structures that sometimes feel constraining and outdated but still do a decent job of holding the world together. Some people really do just want to watch the world burn. Giving them ways to share ever more sophisticated means for destruction has made the world more chaotic — a place where prank phone calls have evolved into swattings, where mass shooters are held up as heroes, and where national security specialists (and other concerned people) lose sleep over the possibility that a misanthropic 4channer will somehow set off a nuclear conflagration for the lolz.

Anarchism is a philosophy based on the idea that we can take away the rules and people will still more or less behave themselves. Certain quarters of the internet represent exhibit A in a very strong case that we don’t deserve that trust.

The idea of corralling the internet’s anarchist tendencies went out the window a long time ago. Still, if the world of the internet was organized in a nonhierarchical way, its creators weren’t actively seeking to dismantle dominant real-world structures and global power centers. Blockchain technology, on the other hand, is specifically designed for this job.

You don’t have to worry about whether or not your president is being blackmailed by foreign agents if you don’t have a president.

Like the internet itself, it can be confusing to explain in detail how the blockchain works, but in simple terms, it’s a way of distributing a bunch of information to a bunch of people in a way that preserves the secrecy of the data and prevents corruption by outside parties.

Its best-known application is Bitcoin and the many cryptocurrencies that are causing a virtual gold rush of as yet to be determined proportions. The identity of Bitcoin’s creator, the pseudonymous Satoshi Nakamoto, isn’t known, and so ascribing any specific political philosophy would be just a guess. But since the technology’s unveiling nearly a decade ago, Bitcoin has attracted anarchists of all stripes — in particular crypto-anarchists — who are united less by a specific political goal as by a desire to make it as hard as possible for governments to snoop in on private communication. They want to create conditions for a revolution (or revolutions) without getting hung up on what specific form it will take.

While crypto-secured communication is undoubtedly helping to power some burgeoning people’s revolutions — and is most definitely empowering whistleblowers — it’s the more audacious goal of replacing government-issued money that seems to have the most potential to upend the status quo.

We deal with money every day. Money permeates every corner of our lives, and as long as the government controls money, it gets to share that constant intimate presence. It’s the ultimate form of control. If the U.S. government disappeared overnight, there wouldn’t be rioting because we felt like the grownups had left the room, but because we wouldn’t know how to buy and sell things anymore.

Being able to create and exchange money without the government’s involvement could potentially be even more powerful than communicating without the government being able to overhear. Cryptocurrency poses an existential threat to the establishment, not just because a lone wolf terrorist might use it to buy a nuke on the black market, but because a lot of people might use it to buy a lot of things.

Cutting the government out of our financial transactions would significantly shrink its footprint in our lives. And that’s only the beginning.

Thinking up ways to replace everyday government functions has become something of an obsession in the blockchain world. People are already designing smart contracts that would eliminate the need for courts to verify or enforce them. The blockchain could conceivably replace even deeper government functions, like voting.

If the technology’s evangelists have their way, it’ll chip away one by one at all the myriad roles the government plays in our daily lives until there’s nothing left to hold it up, and it collapses, unmourned and unmissed — anarchy through obsolescence. The fact that most of the financial daredevils flooding the blockchain market are in it for fortune and fast cars, and not explicitly to destabilize Western democracy, is beside the point.

The blockchain is a promising tool for bringing down the established order of things, without a clear picture of what will replace it (besides more things built on the blockchain). There’s a lot of hope that the tech world will be able to deliver us a solution to the situation, even though there’s not yet one in sight.

The model for how things might work after the social singularity we’re heading for could come from treating the distributing of power like selling apps. Software engineer Patri Friedman wants to apply the tech world’s iterative design philosophy — build it, break it, and build a better version — to our quest for a new way of running the world.

The co-founder of the Seasteading Institute, Friedman wants to turn the ocean into a laboratory for applied politics by creating autonomous mini-countries on floating platforms where we can see how even the most experimental governmental theories work out in practice. It’s a radical, sci-fi-level idea — not to mention the source of a lot of jokes about Silicon Valley “visionaries” — but it very well could make it off the drawing board. Friedman and the Seasteading Institute are tantalizingly close to putting a test platform in the water off French Polynesia.

The son of economist David D. Friedman, who coined the term “anarcho-capitalism,” and grandson of the Nobel-winning libertarian theorist Milton Friedman, Patri Friedman is personally rooting for a system based on a radically untethered free market. But the benefit of trying out every conceivable approach is that we might find the solution where we least expect it. Maybe someday soon the residents of a pontoon city in the Pacific will discover that veganarchy is actually the way of the future.

There are others who believe that technology is sufficient on its own to deliver us to the next stage in the evolution of human civilization. We’re on our way to becoming entwined with our technology on a deeper level than we can even wrap our heads around yet. AI, cybernetics, and most likely some new kind of technology yet to be invented are going to blur — and then maybe even erase — the line between us and our computers, between the real world and the virtual.

Anarcho-transhumanists fear that the world-shaking technological breakthrough we’re careening toward could turn into an opportunity for established powers to control us on a much deeper level than before — imagine being offered a powerful new computer brain, but you’d have to agree to let Google use it to sell you customized ads.

On the other hand, if we do things the right way, spreading this new power out evenly, and using it to maximize our use of the planet to benefit every person equally, we could be looking at a world of limitless abundance, where scarcity will disappear, along with the war and oppression and strife that scarcity breeds.

Anarchists are some of the only people besides sci-fi writers who’ve thought seriously about what that kind of world might look like. (The anarchist philosopher Murray Bookchin was already thinking about it when he published Post-Scarcity Anarchism all the way back in 1971.) And anarchy is really the only system that would make sense in such a world. If we don’t have poverty we won’t have crime, which means we won’t have cops.

Cryptocurrencies’ audacious goal of replacing government-issued money seems to have the most potential to upend the status quo.

In these kinds of futures, anarchy is both an inevitable outcome of our maturing as a civilization and a reward for growing up. If we can get to a point where everyone signs on for global peace and equality, we’ll show that we’re not only ready to live without so many rules, but that we deserve to. We’ll have earned our return to the idyllic hierarchy-free existence our species may have once had before we settled down and built farms and towns and cities and nation-states. After 10,000 years, we’ll finally have what we think we’re naturally entitled to: civilization without the constraints of civilization.

But do we really deserve to be let back into paradise? A hundred centuries of nonstop murder, war, slavery, genocide, and wanton environmental damage suggests otherwise, according to anarcho-primitivism, a fairly recent development in anarchist thought that’s surprisingly popular, considering its end goal is the dismantling of every aspect of human civilization separating us from our hunter-gatherer beginnings, all the way down to our use of language.

We get so caught up in politics and money and the busy work of keeping civilization running that we rarely ever stop and wonder if the costs — measured in lives shortened and ecosystems ruined — are worth it. The idea that the world would be significantly better off without us — that ultimately, the only path to peace is suicide on a civilizational scale — is almost incomprehensibly pessimistic.

And yet there it is, lurking in the back of your mind. It flashes into the open for a moment when you see photos from the latest mass shooting. Or when you reach for a bottle of water, realizing that the plastic will end up leaching toxins for decades, and grab it anyway. Or when you think too long about the fact that after 10,000 years, we still haven’t evolved a way for different kinds of people to live together without killing each other.

Asking humankind to throw away its computers and antibiotics and words for things, along with every other redeemable idea we’ve had, to go with our ten millennia worth of bad ones, is easily one of the most absurd demands ever made in the history of politics.

But it’s hard to deny that, if nothing else, it would at least be satisfying from a narrative perspective. Anarcho-primitivism’s idea of a utopia is one that most people wouldn’t enjoy living in — if they even managed to survive the cataclysmic transition it would take to get there. If we don’t figure out a way to handle all the power that we’ve created for ourselves as a species, we might end up there not on purpose, but by accident.

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