Sunday, 1 June 2008


I've decided I need to blog more about political matters, if for no other reason than to keep my interest in that area alive. I mean, it was half of my undergraduate degree - I don't want to have wasted all that time. There's plenty of scope for it from a sceptical viewpoint, too: commentary on current legislation, criticism (or indeed praise) of particular politicians or parties for the quality of critical thinking they display; for this particular entry, I want to dispel a myth that has grown in the public consciousness. As you may have guessed from the title, my topic today is anarchism.

I don't think I need to go into an awful lot of detail as to the nature of the myth I'm attempting to dispel - it's a fairly familiar one after all. It is the view that anarchy is synonymous with chaos and disorder, and most usually associates it with civil disobedience and a refusal to recognise any form of authority whatsoever. There are many reasons for this portrayal, not least among them being the agenda of the ruling and elite classes. Obviously anarchism is a clear threat to their privileged position.

The other main reason behind the public misunderstanding of anarchism is its glamourisation in pop culture, such as the punk rock movement exemplified by the Sex Pistols. This really solidified the perception of anarchism as an extremist, disruptive and anti-progressive view; it also added touches of anti-intellectualism. All of this, ironically enough, has served only to marginalise and anathematise the idea, which was very much the purpose of the elitist agenda.

So how should it be perceived? Well if you know me at all by now, you'll know where I'm going to start: the word itself. The Greek word "Arkhos" means chief or ruler, and of course the "an-" prefix denotes a negative. It is simply the view of a society with no leader, no chieftain - no head (hence the term "acephalous"). This is not to say that there is no organisation or law in such a society - nor indeed that it would be primitivist and anti-progressive. In academic circles, the term "anarchism" is usually taken to refer to an anti-statist position, and "anarchist" to one who wishes to see the apparatus of state-governed society dissolved.

All very well, you might say - but what do they seek to put in its place? This is where the most surprises lie for those whose grasp of anarchy is simply an acceptance of the popular, chaotic image: they don't expect the anarchist to propose anything beyond the destruction of the state machinery. As a matter of fact, there are a great number of differing views within anarchism over exactly what form society should take.

Much of this disagreement stems from the level of authority of which the anarchist wishes to rid society - if it is simply centralised national government, then there are many options for organising people on a local level. If, however, they wish to enshrine the individual as the sole source of authority of every kind, then the result is inevitably the kind of chaos generally associated with the word. Clearly the more productive views are toward the former end of the spectrum, and there are many reasons why the latter would not work - or even be true anarchism.

There is much to be said in favour of an anarchist society; greater liberty being the most obvious and enticing. It is quite easy to conceive of a world in which people are able to function as a cohesive society governed not by elevated officials but by general consent. There is no reason why such a society would be amoral, as the popular depiction would have us believe - any more than would be true of an atheistic society. Indeed, there is an understandable trend toward atheism in anarchist thought.

The biggest problem for anarchism as a political ideal, however, is that it really is an ideal. It relies far too heavily upon goodwill and co-operation if it is to function at all well, and it is clear to anyone with even the most basic understanding of human nature that it simply would not work - the strong and unprincipled would rise to the top and exploit their natural position of power. I once wrote an essay on anarchism, and the quote I used to summarise at the end was this, from Andrew Vincent's Modern Political Ideologies:

Apart from some of the more rigid and strange absurdities of individualist anarchists, the communist, collectivist and mutualist anarchists express a millennial vision of what we would really like to be in our better moments, but which we know is relatively hopeless.

Just bear this in mind when you next hear the term "anarchist". In the true sense of the word, an anarchist is not a terrorist or someone bent on sowing chaos, but rather an idealist with a Utopian vision for society that will never be realised.


Mike Bracher said...

A very interesting post, and one that certainly will be of value to anyone seeking to understand some of the overarching political ideologies behind the various protest groups seen or sometimes only alluded to in the news.

I liked the idea of seeking to separate out anarchism as an ideology from the conceptions of randomness and chaos that inform many lay understandings of the various strands of anarchist thought and history. The piece was clear and concise, something of a treat really when one considers how many discussions on large amorphous blobs of political ideology sometimes develop.

In response to this discussion I thought I might bring up something that occurred to me when reading your piece.

Anarchism as utopian ideology - while I agree that contemporary anarchistic ideologies tend to gravitate towards a sometimes underdeveloped vague notion of human nature in its 'better moments', there is perhaps a little more to it than that.

On the doctrinal side, Rudolph Rocker famously wrote in his seminal work "Anarchosyndicalism: Its aims and purposes" that "I am not an anarchist because I believe that it is the final goal - I am an anarchist because there is no such thing as a final goal". Clearly in response to Marx's emphasis on the communist 'goal of history', Rocker's anarchosyndicalist doctrines were far less well developed than Marx's clear manifesto. There remains however, something more subtle in Rocker that echoes the earlier humanist works of Marx, specifically regarding the nature of the productive and coooperative human being

I don't think Rocker is overly optimistic in this regard, if one looks to the forms of tribal association and cooperation that have occurred across human history there certainly seems ample scope to allow for this view. Where the statement in your piece stated that anyone with a basic grasp of human nature realises that this is utopian fantasy requires perhaps some qualification. Cooperation in the societies I mentioned was underpinned by neccessity (e.g. the Bedouin tribes of the Arabian peninsula, Native Americans etc.) wereas our modern capitalistic societies actively encourage competative, individualistic pursuits that result in greater forms of competition between smaller groups. We are also able to obtain both neccessary and luxury commodities individually and with relative ease.

If we look to contemporary societies where economic conditions are perhaps not as stable and fruitful as British society, we can then perhaps see more space emerging for the anarchistic mode of social organisation - case in point: the Zapatista movements of Caracas in Mexico. This seems to work reasonably well for them, and appears preferrable to the conditions suffered by indigenous agrarian peoples through centuries of colonisation and capitalist exploitation. However I doubt similar conditions would be preferrable or indeed be likely to prevail in advanced capitalistic societies of the west - the systems of governance and the level of abstraction from the means of reproduction are just to far to endanger the existing structures.

Darkwinter said...

Thanks for the comment Mike, I agree with everything you said in it - particularly the qualifications to my own remarks. It's not always easy to put forward the strongest, most air-tight argument when you must also make it accessible to as wide an audience as possible.

I think the link between capitalism and dystopia (or lack of hope for Utopia) is one which would be fascinating to explore in more detail.

Mike Bracher said...

yeah - it would be - we should have coffee at Uni at some point if you're still about.

Correction to above post: the Zapatistas operate in Chiapas state, not caracas (which is in Venezuela) - d'oh!