What does Anarchy “really” look like?

At yesterdays day of action for Civil Liberties a police officer stood at the side of Spadina, exercising his democratic rights of free speech. He yelled slogans such as “Anarchists can kiss my ass” and “You don’t know what real anarchy looks like”.

It made me wonder what he meant by “real anarchy”. If by this he means the sudden absence of control by a central authority in a modern capitalist city, then he’s surely right. We don’t know what “real” anarchy looks like, since we haven’t tried it. Or, we might say, we have tried it and it looks like the Detroit Race Riots of 1943, or the New York Draft Riots of 1863. These incidents of the breakdown of order in a densely populated area had disastrous consequences.

However, it’s wrong to equate “real anarchy” with the absence of all authority, or with the absence of order. “Real anarchy”, which is surely what anarchists wish to achieve, means authority is legitimated from the ground up, and that order is a product of the social fabric – people getting along. There are examples of this, i.e. the police force in Free Derry between August 1971 and July 1972 (I’ve already written about this here).

It is true, however, that some anarchists use violence, rioting even, to try to push towards real anarchy. This is called insurrectionist anarchism. Insurrectionist anarchism, and its precedent illegalism, holds that violent conflict with established power structures is the only way to bring the popular masses to recognize the illegitimacy of current state structures. It is obsessed with the idea that Anarchist propeganda/public relations must be concrete actions, and that the uprising of the most excluded of society will lead to a wider and wider rebellion against the state.

Two points must be made about insurrectionist anarchism. First is that it is almost certainly wrong. Our society is not constantly on the brink of a rebellion, representation propaganda i.e. the media is almost certainly more powerful than “concrete propaganda” of destructive acts – especially since these destructive acts are portrayed in a manner which justifies to the mainstream more police oppression.

Second, however, it is crucial not to associate the methods of one or any breed of anarchism with “real anarchy”. The methods by which a political movement attempts to gain power is not the essence of that political movement. This would be akin to associating the methods of Robespierre during the Terror with “real democracy”, or the violence of the revolution of October, 1917 with “real communism”.

Anarchy is a serious political philosophy, and a real option for how we might more fairly organize and govern communities.  At the same time, we live in a city and country where “black baiting” is starting to hearken back to the red-baiting of the 1950s. If we are serious about open, civil discourse, if we are serious about our values of free speech, it is crucial that we do not fall into easy simplifications which allow the police to put peaceful organizers in jail.

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5 thoughts on “What does Anarchy “really” look like?

  1. I can recommend “Black Flame” by Lucien van der Walt and Michael Schmidt. This book traces the roots of anarchism and anarchism as a political movement between the 1880s and the 1930s. It’s more a historical work than a work of political philosophy, but it does a good job dispelling a lot of popular ideas of anarchism, i.e. anarchism’s association with the extreme right.

    I also will recommend Chomsky “On Anarchism”, although I haven’t read it yet. Ketan’s been reading it, he says “I haven’t read enough yet, I don’t know”.

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