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is mass society conducive to anarchic relations?

+1 vote

clearly, anarchic relations can exist within mass society. in what ways does/can mass society foster such relationships? in what ways can/does it hinder such relations?

and perhaps most importantly: what are viable alternatives for individuals who desire anarchic relations and find them difficult within the context of mass society?

for the purposes of discussion, mass society can be described as:


Mass society is any society of the modern era that possesses a mass culture and large-scale, impersonal, social institutions. A mass society is a "society in which prosperity and bureaucracy have weakened traditional social ties".


modern industrialized urbanized society : the society of the mass man especially when held to be marked by anonymity, high mobility, lack of individuality, and a general dominance of impersonal relationships.

asked Jul 1 by funkyanarchy (11,550 points)
first thought: if i think of mass society figuratively as something that is available in cities and not in small towns/villages (obviously that's a simplification) then i consider that many people leave small towns to live more independent lives, or at least lives that feel more open to them--one less (not un-) constrained by people's expectations and assumptions.

it's a pretty broad question! i'll come back to it...
It alienates the individual from themselves and others and works on destroying the uniqueness of individuals to a degree. The individual is incorporated into the totality of society (homogenized) and it sort of causes people to become detached or lose their closeness and affection abilities with another person to some extent. I've wondered how much of a factor mass society has on those people that go and kill a bunch of people.

It also kind of makes individuals dependent on people they don't know and could care less about, like with all the technological advances. It's a very capitalistic thing with as handful of ass tunnels at top manipulating and scheming. I don't mean to imply that all interpersonal relations are effected by mass society. A lot are, but not all

I guess some people today may view it as a positive thing because it's inclusive by bringing people of different background together into a collective blob, tricks the masses into believing they are empowered and creates a collective behavior of the people. In a way, that aspect of it seems to be the commie/socialist wet dream minus the capitalist economic factor of mass production for mass consumption, regardless if mass production is a giant waste or not. I don't think it really promotes an environment for individuality

It's almost like proto-Borg and resistance is going to be futile. ;)

2 Answers

+3 votes
To begin this, I want to say that I am generally critical of mass society for reasons detailed in both the Wikipedia and Meriam-Webster definitions posted in the question. If those two, taken together aren’t an argument against mass-societies compatibility with anarchic relations, I don’t know what is. Instead, I want to focus on what makes mass society conducive to anarchic relations, and then maybe circle back to some criticism on the back end.

Mass society can foster anarchic relations in that it detethers individuals from place. Industrial civilization and all of its wonderous splendors (internet, jetliners, cellphones, highways, etc) allow a person to uproot themselves and transplant themselves elsewhere in a way that humans have been largely unable to do for 99% of our existence. This allows for the possibility of individuals from disparate backgrounds but who share affinities to find each other and carve out new spaces where they might more live out their desires.

For all of the ways in which we (anti-civ/green) anarchists tend to talk up small scale forms of human organization (bands, tribes), these small societies can become insular, and cultural mores (for example around gender roles, ritual/religion, intergenerational relations) can become deeply entrenched, and while there is perhaps no written law, there are customs and taboos which can circumscribe the autonomy of individual members to express themselves fully without facing ostracization. Without access to a wider array of options, one orders whatever is on the menu, without realizing that in addition to salmon and huckleberries there are also mussels and nettle greens. As some friends like to say, “yes, and…”

Mass society allows for anarchists to more easily and widely disperse their message. As to the efficacy of this, I am suspicious, but at least theoretically, if we view our ideas as one of many contagions, mass society permits these contagions, whether ebola or anarchy, to spread. Of course, mass society will also try to leverage its wealth of resources in ways that contain the spread of contagions detrimental to its own smooth functioning.

While I am opposed to efforts to make anarchy an evangelical project, I am interested in seeing the what A.G Schwarz refers to as “signals of disorder” increasing in frequency and impact, that, to sound like an insurrect-bro for a minute, moments of rupture become increasingly diffuse. Mass society offers particular advantages to this ranging from pop culture, and our ability to influence aesthetics of such, to social mores and the opportunities to spread new or more liberatory modes of interacting. I desire these things not because I want other people to be like me, or see things my way, but because the more spaces that operate or are informed by more anarchic relations the more I can exist on terms that I would prefer, both in depth and temporally.

Those are some of the possible benefits of mass society to anarchist projects, but on the other hand, mass society has always had a certain gravity to it that constantly pulls things towards the center, towards homogeneity. It is the cultural melting pot we were taught about in school, it is the caution to not say something to far outside of what people already believe for fear of alienating them. It is millions of people marching in pink hats as a symbolic representation of some degree of disagreement with the state of things. It is choosing to vote because it might slightly slow the increasing spread of authoritarianism, or half-mitigate the more reactive elements of mass society itself. Mass society is the melting ice caps that are the cost of our ability to more widely travel and communicate. It is the toxic waste from a medical industry that is allowed to continue because it at least temporarily eases the suffering of those in dis-ease.

Mass society might have some arguable benefits to anarchy, but I am still opposed.
answered Jul 20 by ingrate (21,620 points)
i 100% agree with your answer, obviously anarchists can't do anything about mass society in a large scale political manner and so many aspects of it make it hard or impossible to live without centralized authority and electoral politics. However, now adays it is easier than ever to hover anonymously through the crowds and carve out your own autonomous existence.

I think that cities themselves aren't at all compatible with living without  police forces and capitalism, because cities are essentially wholly dependent on the two. Large population centers are always going to need mafia-style rackets to function. One shift i would like to see in people over the next couple decades is a loss of interest in political competition. I'm not so unrealistic to say people should just stop competing with each other on many fronts, because that's laughable and wouldn't even be a good thing, but people start viewing the egotistical power games as being futile and stupid.
0 votes
What is unique about modern mass society is not that you have large groups of people behaving in ordered and coordinated ways. You can find instances of that in ancient times with corvée labor, slavery, military conscription, etc. What is unique is that the ordering of those large groups of people is now effected without direct violence and domination, and that even when we are apart from other people we are still, ineluctably and immediately, participants in a mass organization. Such that the social order of capitalist modernity is really deeply anarchic. And since it is anarchic it is much more difficult to figure out how it might be superseded or destroyed. There are of course certain things that if I did them I might be arrested, tried, and executed, but in most important respects my behavior is directed by abstract and statistical "laws" which are not really laws at all, since after all, it is only my own behavior, multiplied a thousand times, that produces them. Why do I take one job and not another? Buy this shoe or eat at that restaurant? Because I reckon that I can maximize my human capital best if I consume the things that express the kind of "individuality" that suits me, reckon that the job I take will increase the skills that I judge will give me the best return on my investment. Algorithms, not policemen, track these decisions. My decision-making participates in the statistical process by which it is produced. And though I might perceive those decisions to be small, it is ultimately because those small decisions complete the circuit of valorization, that production goes on as it does, and resources are distributed as they are. These are the decisions that matter, that destroy the earth and use up everyone's time and blood, while statesmen and police can only trail along behind like aging loyal pets.
answered Aug 5 by asker (7,900 points)
edited Aug 5 by asker
i think it's a bit misleading to discuss the modern society as being mostly devoid of violence as contrasted with a supposed pre-owned modern world that was intensely violent.  the acts you talk about dominating today's world, commerce, trade and industry, have existed in some form since even before the advent of widespread agriculture and have played a crucially important role all throughout history.  I mean it's hard to say what time period you mean when you talk about 'modern' societies, but corvee labour, slavery, and military conscription are still very much features of the world today, and are certainly not consigned to 'ancient times' as to my knowledge there has never been a period in history without them.  the exception possibly being 'corvee labour' something I would just see as a subset of slavery with pertinence to a particular time in history, but I would bet you could almost certainly find examples today that fit the description well enough.

certainly policemen aren't all powerful, but they very much serve in a role of domination.  internal policing of a state or polity is not a new phenomenon, but policemen as we have them today are a distinctly modern invention, reflecting the states from which they derive.

dominance, force, violence have always been and remain a tool of statecraft, they just happen to be expensive and crude.  the threat of that same force often serves the same function of control for a hell of a lot cheaper, and arguably even more important are the the forces of social relations you discuss , such as commerce and production, or even religion and family, duty, morality, law and bureaucracy etc.  but that is not a modern development, that has always been the case.
most likely you are familiar with the phrase: "kill the cop inside your head"

i think the cop inside our heads exists as a direct (and indirect) result of mass society and its interdependent institutions.

granted, the concept of a cop inside your head is probably only an issue for those who reject moralism, not necessarily all who identify as anarchist.
my intention is not to say that capitalist modernity has done away with all types of pre-capitalist social domination. i shouldn't have said that the 'government' of mass society is "effected without" those things, but that where they are enacted they are contingent upon (anarchic) market forces, so that what seems to be ultimately determining of the violence which occurs in capitalist society, is a sort of noisy chorus of individual "wills" - that's the sense in which I want to say our time is anarchic.

I do think we can contrast this with social forms where, so to speak, violence might very often be primarily determining of social activity, for example in situations where the primary exchange relationship between groups is tribute, taxation, tithes, or direct theft.

I am talking about a distinct phenomenon, where the self-movement of capital increasingly dominates the entire planet, such that there are not really "societies" but effectively one single market and workforce. I take that to be an ongoing and accelerating process that began with the British industrial revolution but which presupposed the existence of colonial trade networks, slavery, etc. that situation is certainly different than previous modes of social domination: empirically, since the violence it entails has different functions and techniques, as well as essentially, since unlike other social forms, capitalism is not a system but a dynamic.