I have touched on this subject before, in the column Real and Fake Anarchism, but the duality of anarchism cannot be discussed enough. Just like some would say there may be parallel universes that are each other’s opposites, what is referred to as anarchism is both Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde.
Consulting any dictionary on the meaning of the word anarchism makes the confusion obvious, yet people seem to not take notice. This is what Merriam-Webster’s online dictionary says about the word “anarchy”
1 a: absence of government b: a state of lawlessness or political disorder due to the absence of governmental authority c: a utopian society of individuals who enjoy complete freedom without government
It is fairly obvious that a and c go well together – they mean basically the same thing. b stands out as the “oddball” in the three-parted definition of “anarchy.” But b does seem to go well together with c through the word “utopian,” and also offers an “explanation” to the realized ideal in a.
I am not sure why the word “utopian” is necessarily a part of the definition of what the political theory of anarchism strives for. It seems “utopian” doesn’t add anything but the subjective assessment of this certain political theory’s validity, which is hardly a part of the word’s definition.
Nevertheless, Merriam-Webster doesn’t say that anarchy means chaos – only that it means “political disorder,” which is certainly true if “political” is interpreted as the organization of government. In anarchy there is no government, so such organization would definitely be “disorderly.”
A much more common definition of the word anarchy, where the contradiction is obvious, can be found in e.g. Microsoft’s Encarta:
1. chaotic situation: a situation in which there is a total lack of organization or control
2. lack of government: the absence of any formal system of government in a society
Now this is very interesting, especially considering that the definition of “government” in Encarta is “political authority: a group of people who have the power to make and enforce laws for a country or area”. I guess without that “group of people” with “the power to make and enforce laws” the situation would indeed be chaotic.
The question is how people would react in a setting where no such group of people or their representatives are present. Say, in a school class, in a bus, in your apartment. Obviously a chaotic situation in desperate need for a “group of people who have the power.” So why don’t we all establish such power structures whenever we meet people?
The contradiction in the definition exists because there is no obvious link between the two separate definitions, and this makes the word ambiguous. Yet people seem to think there is only one definition of the word “anarchy” and that it always means “chaos” and “disorder.” And anarchists, they conclude, must of course strive for such chaos and disorder – that follows from the very word “anarchy.”
This is of course not true in any sense, unless we add the subjective assessment of the situation in which there is no group of people with power – that it would immediately cause chaos and destruction. As we have seen, such an assessment has been made part of the very definition of the word in Merriam-Webster’s dictionary.
The problem here is that some people have taken all this confusion to heart, and exploit it. There is today an international movement of people who are only interested in destroying and fighting – and they call themselves anarchists. These idiots have nothing to do with the anarchist tradition or the real anarchist movement, but they free-ride on its name and are pretty effective in destroying the word as well as the reputation of the peaceful anarchism movement.
When journalists report on the rioting by the free-riders they tend to augment the distortion through calling the people busy burning property and terrorizing people “anarchists.” They have of course nothing to do with anarchism as it was spelled out by Proudhon and the other “greats” of anarchism, but they are successful in mooching trademarks and symbols. There is a reason they often use well-known anarchist symbols like the circled A and the black flag.
Even though some people who are well-read on the anarchist tradition seem to join them at times (I guess to blow off some steam), the rioting freaks usually know nothing of the ideas or aims – or understand the reasons. They are “anti,” but don’t have a clue what they are pro.
The fact is that this “movement” of rioters are the Mr. Hydes of anarchism. They are not the original or the true movement; they are freaks out of control who have chosen a name that was already taken. And the worst part of it is that they are utterly statist in what they do and say – destruction, violence, and terror are all means of state and power, not of anarchism.
The movement following the tradition of Proudhon, Tucker, Kropotkin and others are the Dr. Jekylls. And as we know, people take notice of and fear violent action, whereas voluntary cooperation seldom hits the news.
The article, Blame Anarchism?, is available here.