“[A]n ideological philosophy and political movement that had been thought of as a dusty oddity, a relic of the late 19th century, has returned to the fore,” writes Abe Greenwald in Commentary. Worse yet, opines Greenwald, this return is fraught with “enough consequence that Secretary of State Hillary Clinton recently denounced terrorism ‘whether it comes from the right, the left, from al-Qaeda, from anarchists, whoever it is.’”
Like those rumors of Mark Twain’s death, recurring claims of anarchism’s demise and resurrection are greatly exaggerated. Greenwald misinterprets his own observations. It is not resurrection he sees, it’s resurgence: A cyclical phenomenon driven primarily by the reliably recurring failure of the modern state to deliver on its most basic promises of peace, prosperity and respect for human rights.
At its least introspective, anarchism seems a merely visceral response to those failures. When confronted by some particularly repugnant manifestation of X, it’s only natural to reflexively posit Not-X as the solution. The growth of the state — its increasing size, its ever more insistent insertion of itself into new areas of human interaction, and its thoroughness in regularizing and co-opting, rather than remedying, social ills — makes it more and more the usual suspect for the role of X. Thus the more and more frequent renascences of anarchism as populist street theater.
Beyond that visceral expresion, anarchism — fundamental, principled opposition to the existence of the state — survives as numerous unbroken (though often evolving) intellectual traditions, awaiting, nay begging, adoption by those street actors as both explanatory tool and plan for more considered action.
As the Hobbesian experiment we call “the state” polarizes along the lines of its own contradictions of “left” and “right” authoritarianism (Hobbes, meet Hegel!), anarchism emerges not as antithesis, but as synthesis. When the state runs short of convincing fictions (“constitutionalism,” “dictatorship of the proletariat,” “fuhrerprinzip”) to disguise those contradictions and stands weakened, near collapse over the pit of its own digging, it is anarchism we invariably see approaching, shovel in hand, ready to bury the failed experiment and turn, with humanity, to new ones.
For two centuries, give or take, the anarchists have — sometimes in breathless anticipation, sometimes in a stoic spirit of resigned obduration — looked for inspiration to Cato the Elder’s admonition that Carthage must be destroyed. The state, we say, must be destroyed, the sooner the better. Can someone please pass the salt?
Translations for this article:
- Portuguese, O Retorno do Retorno do Anarquismo.