On the Failure of “do what thou wilt” in Relationship Anarchy

Do what thou wilt shall be the whole of the Law

— Aleister Crowley, “The Law of Thelema”

I’m an anarchist. This label is overloaded with connotations for a lot of people, frequently conjuring images of the above Law: a society in total chaos yoked by nothing, the individual id unleashed from moral obligation. As it happens, that’s not what my anarchism is, nor is it a particularly common version of anarchy among anarchist scholars and activists. I don’t take the failure of bourgeois democracy to be a failure of the concept of democracy, and my “ideal society” (though I have reservations about labelling it as such) is some mixture of Max Stirner’s theoretical union of egoists and a more typical anarcho-syndicalism, where the means of production are controlled democratically by workers. Nonetheless, in the popular eye, anarchy is frequently seen as teenagers in masks running around with spray paint; a desire to project the angst and rebellion of youth onto the structure of a new society. Correcting this belief is a big part of engaging politically with liberals, and it doesn’t always end fruitfully.

As someone who also strives to practice ethical non-monogamy in a style heavily influenced by relationship anarchy, I’ve noticed that despite the fact that anarchism doesn’t actually entail destructive chaos, practitioners of relationship anarchy end up in situations that suggest it does. Indeed, a lot of people conflate non-hierarchical polyamory with relationship anarchy, and while the two are compatible, they are quite different in definition. My version of relationship anarchy is about not confining partners to implicit expectations, and about specifically making any implicit expectations explicit so they can be discussed and agreed or disagreed upon. Wikipedia says (forgive me):

Relationship anarchy (sometimes abbreviated RA) is the belief that relationships should not be bound by rules aside from what the people involved mutually agree upon.

Here we have a rejection of societal relationship norms and the implicit expectations that follow, and a desire to individualize relationships instead of coercing them to conform. But in no way are explicit expectations disallowed, in fact it follows from this definition that relationships should be bound by what the people involved have mutually agreed upon. This exists because relationships without explicit communication of rules and expectations are actually not healthy. When expectations are not set explicitly, wants and needs go unfulfilled, communication can break down, and decisions can be made that hurt other partners.

Not agreeing to any rules at all, or assuming that all of your partners will fend for themselves as regards the impact of your decisions (about romantic relationships or otherwise), is in my opinion a dysfunctional mode of relationship anarchy that I call the “do what thou wilt” style. Decisions will be made, partners consulted or no, and it is upon everyone involved to either deal with it or break up. I believe that this is not a healthy way to relate to anyone, especially not romantic partners to whom we make such strong emotional commitments. Instead, expectations and rules should be codified and discussed, and big decisions should be vetted not by individual partners through “veto power” but through the rules that have been put in place to deal with them. Even then I would personally take into account emotions and how my partners would feel about making a particular choice, because I want to remember the distinction between can and should. I suggest that a lot of dysfunctional polyamorous relationships have characteristics of the “do what thou wilt” style, and it is upon our community to stand up for better education on ethical non-monogamy and communication skills.