Authority (Language of)

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In societies where authority is the dominant principle, we can expect to find that the language of authority has become ubiquitous, often adapted to describe relationships in which authority, hierarchy, etc. play no role even in existing societies. This tendency has presented difficulties for anarchists, who wish to speak in the language of the societies of which they are a part, but wish to express ideas that break with the dominant principles of those societies. That has led to a certain amount of wordplay and what we might now call a deconstructive tendency in anarchist rhetoric. Proudhon’s infamous declaration that “property is theft” has that character and Bakunin’s writings are full of curious rhetorical constructions, attempting to turn the language of authority against authority itself.

It is likely, however, that we have long since passed beyond the point where anarchy is such a novelty that we can only speak of it in terms borrowed from the language of authority. And we should probably acknowledge that the language of anarchy poses problems of its own sufficient to keep us on our toes. So there is almost certainly a good argument to be made for a rhetorical practice that consistently underlines the differences between the regimes of anarchy and authority, rather than clinging to those instances where the language of authority can be stretched to include the most radically anti-authoritarian positions.

What we often see, however, seems to be a strong resistance to abandoning notions like “legitimate authority” and “justifiable hierarchy,” often involving an even more pronounced effort to stretch the language of authority to fit all cases. At stake is the distinction between anarchy and mere voluntarity, the loss of which seems fatal to consistently anarchist thought.

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About Shawn P. Wilbur 2703 Articles
Independent scholar, translator and archivist.