Anarchism: Its Time has Come Again

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This column has no, as they say, hook, other than a fear the news media will begin to discuss anarchism rather than just referencing it. So far, they've been content to simply substitute the term for communism, terrorism, Islamic fundamentalism and similar frights: "Anarchy reigns in Genoa 'war zone.' " "Men in black behind chaos; anarchists, hardliners plan 'actions.' " "Chrétien: Canada will punish anarchists at next G8 summit." Its meaning is more or less assumed. Anarchists are violent; they believe in chaos. There are wry asides ("anarchists by definition are not supposed to be organized") on how contradictory it is to belong to an anarchist group or go to an anarchist convention!

There hasn't been much by way of "analysis" or "in depth" with sidebars and head shots of Mikhail Bakunin, Peter Kropotkin and Emma Goldman. That's the vacuum I'm rushing to fill.

What about all that chaos and anarchy? It sounds like a big pillow fight. How can they oppose organization and order? Actually, anarchists don't. They oppose order imposed from above; in other words, they oppose authority and power. Anarchism isn't about disorder but about the absence of authority. You could say it's taking the notion that power corrupts really seriously. It assumes people are naturally social and don't require laws to force them to get along; in fact, the natural human state is anarchy, which comprises the only true order. The coercive order of governments and laws distorts this state. "If there is a devil in human history," said one anarchist, "it is the principle of command." You can disagree with this, but it's arguable and interesting.

The anarchist rejection of governments is based on this faith in the human impulse to self-regulate; every government by its nature imposes an order on society. But the principle of anarchism is not primarily anti-government; it's anti-hierarchy. In our time, many people on both the left and right think the power of government has declined, while that of the private sector has grown. But the fight of anarchists has always been against all forms of domination, so you can see why they take a big role in protests against both corporate and state power.

Yeah, but what about the bomb-throwing and guys in black smashing up cars? Isn't that what they mean by direct action? Well, what's the alternative to direct action? It's indirect action, which is exactly the electoral systems we have. By voting, you transfer your power to act to representatives who, inevitably it seems, end up lording it over you. Direct action is the general term for people exercising political power themselves. That might mean the American Revolution, going on strike, creating co-ops or refusing to fight a war. The violent impulse is one strand of direct action, but so is the non-violence of Gandhi or Leo Tolstoy - figures in the anarchist tradition. It was an anarchist who said, "It is impossible to seize power in order to abolish it."

It couldn't possibly work, it's never even been tried. Actually, it has, for brief periods. During the English Revolution of the seventeenth century, the "masterless men" in groups such as the Diggers and Ranters applied anarchist principles. The Paris Commune of 1870 ran the same way. The most extensive experiments came in the Spanish Civil War of the 1930s, when whole cities operated, successfully it seems, on anarchist models. All these were brought to an end by the armed forces of wealth and power, not by internal failure. The jury is still out. You could say the same of democracy or Christianity.

Let me finish by saying something personal about the new appeal of anarchism. For me, that appeal lies in an ability to reconcile individualism with a commitment to society. I detest being forced into the anti-individual position. Voices on the right tend to claim individualism as theirs - even if most of them are locked happily inside big institutions such as the Fraser Institute, the National Post or the Departments of Foreign Affairs and International Trade. Those of us who incline, even if grumpily, to the left are expected to defend the collective against the individual.

Yet think about it. Which individuals flourish under the dominant economic and political culture today? Mainly the rich. Only they can afford the best health care, education, leisure, culture, plus music lessons and theatre trips for their kids. And even for them, there's a strong downside, especially if they have a social conscience. This system preaches individualism but actually grinds most individuals into poverty or pre-occupation with survival, destroying the chance for their individuality to thrive. Anarchism declines the choice. It teaches, in Emma Goldman's words, "how to be one's self and yet in oneness with others;" or, in Mikhail Bakunin's: "Man is not only the most individual being on earth, he is also the most social." That is, you can only truly be individual(ist) by being truly social(ist). I love wiggling out of those dichotomies.

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