The word ‘anarchy’ has long been misconstrued as meaning ‘chaos and violent disorder’.
anarchy1. a state of disorder due to absence or non-recognition of authority or other controlling systems.synonyms: Lawlessness, nihilism, mobocracy, revolution, insurrection, riot, rebellion, mutiny, disorder, disorganization, misrule, chaos, tumult, turmoil, mayhem, pandemonium2. absence of government and absolute freedom of the individual, regarded as a political ideal.
A direct translation from the original Greek αναρχία or ‘anarkhos‘, would be ‘without (‘an‘) a leader/ruler (‘arkhos‘)’. And I think we can see the huge split in the two definitions thus: while an anarchist movement sees the second – the political ideal which elevates (and demands) every citizen’s participation and contribution and chooses an optimistic view of human nature and sociability, anyone describing anarchism from the position of the entrenched ruling elite will, of course, plump for the first – chaos, mutiny, insurrection.
It seems almost impossible for us in our large, centrally-controlled nation states* in the 21st-century world to imagine how an anarchist society might work. Indeed, I am new to anarchy myself (identifying as such only within the past 12 months) and still learning. But it unquestionably true that anarchism is the longest-running system of human organisation, the form of social organisation within which the human species evolved and grew up, and it continues to be the way in which mobile hunting-gathering-foraging peoples live. I guess that, if pushed, I would suggest a political system of local collectives which decide issues by consensus (predicated upon total freedom of movement and the choice to join together in whatever collective best suits your own inclinations), accompanied by a system of participatory representative democracy at a larger level, so that all citizens could/should take a turn in representing their communities.
An anarchist world would not be without problems and divisions, of course. So many, many people are unhappy, ignorant, lazy, mis-educated, and in order for us all to live and let live, we will need to address this. But community life breaks down a huge amount of barriers and heals a lot of wounds, as I know myself. Working hard together on projects that are larger than one’s own concerns is excellent at creating ties between people. Hunter-gather-forager communities do have to work to keep everyone equal. Typically this is accomplished with humour and love, gentle teasing, and practices such as ‘insulting the meat’ to prevent prolific or skilled hunters, for example, from getting too full of themselves. This is a lovely post about how this egalitarianism is sustained, and reproduced generation to generation.
Although we may think that such organisation is impossible in the huge nation states of today, if we stop to think about most of the movements and technologies that make major and positive changes to our lives, we can see that it’s always people/citizens that make the difference, make the change. A truly representative government should indeed always follow the people, but our governments, only having to worry about their remit every 4-5 years, often do so only when forced to by overwhelming public feeling. Universal suffrage, the civil rights and anti-apartheid movements, the dismemberment of empires, LGBTQ rights, environmentalism; all of them started at grass-roots level, all eventually gaining enough momentum to force policy change in governments. The fight goes on on all these fronts and new movements begin all the time.
But does this not inevitably lead to the question: so why do we need the governments? They almost cannot help becoming distanced from the people, because they are corralled and given special status. While the hunter-gatherers make sure no-one’s ego gets over-inflated, our leaders are driven around in fleets of limousines with police escorts and wined and dined in palaces. They almost cannot help getting mired in corruption and graft because it costs so very much to become a leader. Because half of our MPs were privately educated, networks which link them to business and the judiciary are inherent to the system. A sense of specialness and privilege imbued since primary school is hard to eradicate (just go and have a look at some of the private schools and prep schools and try to imagine what it might have felt like, walking into one of those places every day, seeing other children walking into crappy comprehensives. There’s no need for the difference to be articulated, it can be seen and experienced).
Meanwhile, 75% of human ingenuity, creativity, intelligence, passion, ability, talent, is languishing. It’s stuck behind gender and colour bars, wasting away in refugee camps and prisons, working in bullshit jobs or sweatshop jobs or slave-labour jobs. It’s scrabbling to feed its children and pay for medicine and school and housing while we pour oil on the land, plastic into the sea, particulates into the air. We have all drunk the Kool-Aid about anarchism. We don’t feel capable of dealing with these huge issues, making these important decisions. But it will take every single one of us getting involved in our society to change our society. Not just by voting – our representative democracies are at best a compromise, at worst a sham – but by acting, organising, communicating, taking responsibility. There are different things that all of us can do, from the utterly radical to the small and everyday. Try something. Take back power, a little at a time. Join a demonstration, educate yourself about some issues, give your plastic packaging back to the supermarket, volunteer, change your bank or your energy supplier, support a grass-roots movement or campaign in your area or globally. It feels good. It feels like being an independent, free, human being with a brain and a heart. Like being an anarchist.