Anarchism these days seems to have a bad name. A nihilist rejection of society, it is epitomized by youths in black masks setting fire to police cars and smashing the windows of MacDonald’s restaurants. I suspect the same people were there the day before munching down on Big Macs. As for the police cars, it simply gives the Chief more ammo when he goes to City Council for better equipment.

Philosophically, anarchism has been co-opted by a kind of lame libertarianism as professed by the likes of Ted Cruz. A weird mixture of authoritarianism, religion and an uncritical approach to the real power in the modern state — corporations and billionaires — it smacks of a combination of the 4-year old cry of “You’re not the boss of me,” and a lickspittle admiration of the uber rich, particularly the nasty plutocrats who revel in their wealth like pigs in shit.

It wasn’t always this way. While some people point to Attila the Hun as the great grandfather of anarchism, he was in fact merely another warlord, no different than the kings and emperors he terrorized; save that he ruled from a silk tent rather than a stone throne.

Anarchism, like most modern philosophies, was born in the nineteenth century, in response to the upheavals caused by the American, French and Industrial revolutions. It was a considered critique of authoritarianism and the early stages of capitalism. It was built on a very specific model of human nature. It was not individualistic (modern libertarianism flows not from early anarchist thought but from the cult of the individual engendered by the British liberals and empiricists) but communal in nature.

Bakunin was the central thinker that posed these ideas — that a true society required no permanent structures but rather a process of continuous negotiation where the challenges of the group would be met by individuals with particular skill for the particular time. Once the task was accomplished, that individual would sink back into the pool of humanity and another would take on the next task.

Unfortunately tearing down the existing structures were a precursor to building this new structureless society, which eager youths attempted to do by throwing bombs into passing trains or cars or into crowded cafes or marketplaces. In doing so they managed to wrest the term terrorism out of the hands of the state where it had been a part of public policy for centuries and transfer it to the individual and small group. Thus the modern world was born.

In practice anarchism has never been shown to be a viable method of social organization — since joining an anarchist organization does seem an oxymoron perhaps that is inevitable — but the anarchist brigades in the Spanish Civil War were remarkably successful and some social experiments in anarchist education and, of course, the Occupy movement, have shown both the strengths and weaknesses of the ideas.

One might hope for more but I fear that “You’re not the boss of me” may drown out more nuanced discussion.

And that’s ten minutes.


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