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  • Hakim Bey and Ontological Anarchism
  • Leonard Williams

At the most basic level, anarchism is fundamentally opposed to the existence of the state and the authority relations that the state codifies, legitimates, or represents.1 Although anarchism has been associated primarily with political and social movements of the nineteenth century, it has recently moved to the center of attention for both activists and theorists alike.2 Embracing domains beyond its time-honored focus on the state, contemporary anarchism constitutes a political culture manifesting itself in common forms of organization and political action, common ideological discourses, and common elements of material culture.3 Through it all, anarchism has retained its opposition to the presence of coercion and hierarchy in human affairs, its "negation of authority over anyone by anyone."4

In this essay, my aim is to explore one aspect of this political culture, namely, the theory and practice of "ontological anarchism"—a stance that regards anarchism less as a political program and more as an artistic practice. Drawing on the works of Hakim Bey, I examine ontological anarchism's principles as well as its critiques of other strains of political theory and practice. The focus will be on what problems ontological anarchism has confronted and on what apparent solutions it has offered. Tracing affinities between ontological [End Page 109] anarchism and other energetic radicalisms, as well as addressing debates among various advocates for anarchism, I seek to understand the merits of the sort of ideological position that proclaims "the triumph of life over dogma."5

Contemporary anarchists often express disdain for abstract or academic theory. As an action-based creed rather than an intellectual dogma, there is no shortage of people who can offer a definition or account of what anarchism is (and is not).6 It seems as though a person cannot be an anarchist without having to explain the nature of anarchism and of anarchists. Though there is no universal understanding of or single approach to anarchism, my aim here is not to forge one. Instead, my project rests upon the claim that, despite some distaste for academic theory among anarchists, there is nevertheless a significant role for reflexive thought. As Saul Newman notes, "Given the decline of Marxism as both a political and theoretical project—and given the desire for a politics that avoids statism, authoritarianism, class essentialism and economism—perhaps it is time to invoke the anarchist tradition, or at least reflect more seriously upon it as a radical political alternative."7 Indeed, the recent revival of anarchist theory and practice has spurred just such an effort to think seriously about this strain of thought.8 The point is not to argue endlessly about revolutionary theory or describe the infinite details of life in utopia. It is, rather, to engage in or contemplate those political actions that will actually make a difference in the struggles against what appear to be overlapping networks of domination.

In what follows, I will first place Hakim Bey's ideas in the context of contemporary political thought. Once that context has been set, the goal will be to outline the core ideas that mark Bey's ontological anarchism and, then, to identify some major criticisms of it that have been advanced by others. In the final section, I will offer an assessment of Bey's project and his contributions to anarchist political thinking.


In pursuit of a contemporary anti-authoritarian politics, the lives and concerns of anarchists have certainly been shaped by various political and intellectual forces. The movements in and around the New Left of the 1960s no doubt provided some stimulus for a revival of anarchist theory [End Page 110] and practice, as did the new social movements that flourished thereafter. Quite naturally, as these forces confronted an increasingly postindustrial and global economy, thinkers loosely grouped together under the rubric of poststructuralist theory tried to make sense of these forms of resistance. The result was that, by the late 1990s, there was enough evidence to claim that a paradigm shift had occurred within the anarchist tradition.9 One facet of this paradigm shift has been the emergence of a postanarchist tendency among any number of thinkers and...