Brien Gartland goes "Dumpster diving" every day for his food. He raids the garbage bags outside gourmet grocery stores looking for slightly bruised mangos, unopened containers of rice pudding and the like.

Known as "Deadbolt," the bearded 21-year-old sleeps in a vacant building and refuses to get a job because he is disillusioned with capitalism and Western democracy, systems he believes exploit the poor and give power to the elite.

Gartland is an anarchist. He views government or any hierarchical structure as coercive and ultimately undemocratic.

Anarchists have drawn attention in recent years as key participants in sometimes violent protests at meetings of international organizations, such as the World Economic Forum, a gathering of government and business leaders that begins Thursday in Davos, Switzerland.

The world would be a better place, Gartland and other anarchists argue, if everyday people were directly involved in making decisions through group consensus about their communities instead of leaving that up to lawmakers and corporate executives. "I don't feel like I have a say in what goes on around me. My vote doesn't matter," Gartland said recently at Mayday Books, a tiny anarchist bookstore in Manhattan's East Village where he volunteers. "I believe in working together with people to create a society that benefits everyone, not just a few."

He said he tends to avoid demonstrations because he is afraid of getting beaten up by police. Instead, he prefers to play a supportive role, cooking food for protesters.

Gartland's lifestyle is extreme even by anarchist standards. Most try to strike a balance between their disdain for capitalism and the need to make a living.

But anarchist views are spreading among young activists, largely because of the anti-globalization movement -- or the global justice movement, as its supporters prefer to call it.

Some anarchists have grabbed the spotlight with aggressive tactics -- confronting police and breaking store windows -- from the demonstrations that shut down a World Trade Organization meeting in Seattle in 1999 to protests in Quebec City, Prague and Washington. Clashes with riot police in Genoa, Italy, during a Group of Seven summit in 2001 left one protester dead, killed by police gunfire.

Many anti-globalization demonstrators reject the anarchist label and condemn combative acts. Yet the protests have been shaped by anarchism, both in theme -- a call to return power to the local level -- and in structure -- small groups cooperating without central authority.

"Seattle was a large coming-out party for anarchists," said Mark Lance, a philosophy professor at Georgetown University and an anarchist. "Anarchism has certainly become much more visible through the global justice movement."

It is hard to know whether the number of anarchists in America has risen, particularly because of their disdain of structure. Even in Europe, where anarchism has a deeper tradition and is considered less odd than in the United States, they are well outside the mainstream.

But Lance and other experts believe anarchism is more widespread today than at any time since the 1930s, surpassing its revival during the 1970s anti-nuclear movement.

AK Press, a publisher of anarchist and other radical literature in Oakland, Calif., said its sales have risen about 20 percent annually the past several years.

Food Not Bombs, an anarchist network that serves free vegetarian food, has grown to about 150 chapters across the United States, up from 100 a couple of years ago, said Keith McHenry, who helped found the group in 1980.

On the academic front, more anarchists are invited to speak at conferences and more scholarly work about anarchism is published, said Cindy Milstein, a faculty member at the Institute for Social Ecology, a small leftist institute in Plainfield, Vt.

Because of student demand, Lance taught a class on anarchism at Georgetown last term. In true anarchist fashion, there were no assignments -- at least from the professor. Instead, the class of 50 used consensus, a key anarchist concept, to decide on readings, papers and discussion topics.

Still, anarchists fight an uphill battle for a positive image.

Many people equate anarchy -- Greek for "no rulers" -- with chaos. Its critics say that removing authority structures, particularly in this age of global terrorism, would be disastrous.

Soviet communism also started with utopian visions of egalitarianism, but it led to dictatorship, noted Brink Lindsey, a senior fellow at the Cato Institute, a conservative think tank in Washington.

Anarchism, he said, is based on a naive understanding of human nature and would lead to a backward, village-based society incompatible with the complex division of labor in the global economy.

Anarchists counter that terrorism, war and poverty are a direct result of the inequities created by capitalism and political systems that give power to just a few. The system is corrupt and needs overhauling, they say.

Chaos is not what they are after but a purer form of democracy -- "direct democracy" -- rather than the representative form.

"Capitalism isn't asking, 'Is it right?' but, 'Can we make a profit?' " Milstein said.

Using a model developed by anarchists during the Spanish Civil War in the 1930s, today's anarchists function in autonomous "affinity groups."

These groups interact through "spokescouncils," particularly leading up to and during demonstrations. Delegates -- known as "spokes," a rotating post with no decision-making authority -- relay information between affinity groups and the council. Decisions are made by the entire group.

Kate Crane, 27, was drawn to anarchism's emphasis on egalitarianism and community.

"I want a society that's not authoritarian, where everyone's voice is important," said Crane, who has joined protests in New York and Washington. She works as a copywriter in New York and volunteers with a group that promotes community gardens and other public spaces.

Amy, a 27-year-old who declined to give her last name, learned about anarchism during protests at last year's World Economic Forum in New York and liked its emphasis on communal aid and group consensus.

"I'm still learning about anarchism, but I like the idea that there are no leaders," she said.

Noam Chomsky, probably the most prominent American anarchist, believes the philosophy's appeal comes from the "discontent of people feeling they have no control over the decisions that concern them." He pointed to declining voter turnout over the years as evidence.

Chomsky, a linguistics professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, describes anarchists as "radical democrats" who constantly question the legitimacy of hierarchical structures.

"If it doesn't meet the burden of justifying itself, it should be dismantled," he said.

Still, very few anarchists today advocate overthrowing the government, Milstein and others say.

That was not the case at the turn of the last century, when anarchists committed numerous violent acts, including the assassination of President William McKinley in 1901.

Today, most anarchists say they strive to transform society from within, working toward a day when government will shrivel and disappear.

"You have to build the new society in the shell of the old," said Eric Laursen, 42, of New York.

As for the window-breaking, many anarchists defend such acts as a way to draw attention to bigger problems. They define violence as harm done to people -- something they disavow.

Chomsky disagrees to some extent. "Breaking a window is violence. We all know that," he said. "Like any form of violence, it requires justification. You need to have a good reason for that act."

Anarchists also wrestle with their participation in an economic system they oppose. Lance, the Georgetown professor, said he participates in capitalism "in a million ways."

"I'm not crazy about that, but I have a kid to take care of," he said.

More unusual is Gartland, who said he "eats well" on food from the trash and estimates he lives on about $4 a month.

He spends much of his time helping a Food Not Bombs group in Manhattan and compiling a monthly pamphlet on free events in New York.

"I just don't want to work for something I don't believe in," he said.

A protester stands among flaming trash bins during protests outside the 1999 World Trade Organization meeting in Seattle, where anarchists protesting globalization were blamed for extensive damage.