A couple weeks ago in The Guardian, Ellie Mae O’Hagan very thoughtfully bewailed the mainstream media’s treatment of anarchists. “The problem with the contemporary media narrative on protest,” she said, “is that, in its refusal to understand the nuances of anarchism, it is using the term as a euphemism for ‘dangerous’, ‘violent’ or ‘bad’.”
O’Hagan couldn’t be more right, and while she has no trouble recognizing that anarchism is a “broad-based political philosophy,” she points out that the media at large is intent on using it as a proxy for vandalism and destruction. The smearing of anarchism, she argues, is approaching the level of McCarthyism, with spurious, “Orwellian charges” becoming more and more frequent in the United Kingdom and elsewhere.
The anti-anarchist, police state phenomena highlighted by O’Hagan cry out for anarchists to instruct society in our creed, not to explain it away in a way that compromises its radical message, but to convey what it really is. And that, as O’Hagan correctly notes, is a tradition of thought that “accommodates people of significantly contrasting viewpoints.” Arbitrary violence and destruction of property are about as much (or rather as little) a part of anarchism as they are of any other political persuasion.
Governments enjoy playing up “propaganda of the deed” as necessarily a feature of anarchism; it allows them to turn around and use the phrase “known anarchist” in the headlines when they throw people in a cage on trumped up charges. Random, warrantless police raids are far more palatable to a public that has been suckled on the lie that anarchists are thoughtless agents of chaos.
Pierre-Joseph Proudhon, the first to explicitly style himself an anarchist, did not choose the word out of a desire to promote chaos or disorder. Indeed, Proudhon identified himself as “a firm friend of order” and saw anarchy as expressing the “highest limit of liberty and order to which humanity can attain.” Through the history of anarchist thought, its proponents have taken great care to emphasize the differences between the kind of order offered by the state and that by free and voluntary society.
The former, they argued, was no order at all, but a war executed by a small elite against its own subjects, an abrogation of the natural, social order that would obtain in the state’s absence. Quite contrary to championing disorder or some kind of lawless mayhem, Proudhon imagined the coercive apparatuses of the state “dissolved” within a true market, with “political functions … reduced to industrial functions.”
In a very real way, it is the state that substitutes the chaotic and the violent for what is otherwise innate in the value-for-value trades between sovereign people. Government intrusions against, for example, a farm in the French village of Tarnac and a peaceful community action group in London demonstrate all too clearly that simply concerns about public safety is not the whole story.
In fact, it has been increasingly obvious that public safety is a mere subterfuge used to mask the state’s blatant attempts to discredit anything that might expose it for the band of criminals that it is. Since anarchism opposes hierarchy, authority and an economic system grounded in coercive privilege, it is eminently understandable that the state would want to bring its advocates into disrepute.
Against the rubric of senseless violence, however, anarchist couldn’t hope to approach the carnage rendered by the state. So when anarchists or other political dissidents are taken in for things like “suspicion of conspiracy to cause a public nuisance,” a healthy dose of skepticism is in order.
If anarchists succeeded in replacing the state with voluntary, consensual institutions, it wouldn’t mean a perfect, crimeless utopia. What would surface, though, would be a society that could avail itself of all the latent potential now stamped out by the rigid, decaying force of statism; it would be a society without sanctioned coercion, without the ancient idea, absurd on its face, that society’s worst, most powerful criminals are to be revered and respected.
That the state is a moral abomination is easy enough to show and to understand. What is more difficult is communicating that message in a world rigged so that people can’t understand, so that disinformation becomes truth. That’s the state’s game, but, as they say, truth will out.