Constructing Anarchisms: Anarchy as Criterion

Constructing Anarchisms

Part III—Drafts
II—Margins and Problems
I—Constructing an Anarchism

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Let’s start with a story:

A human individual encounters anarchy and recognizes in it a radical alternative to the archic social relations that surround them and seem to limit them in a variety of ways. They embrace the notion and begin to internalize it, to the degree that their circumstances allow. This causes them to alter their behavior, their social practice, as they try to realize anarchy in an archic world.

At this point, they might say “I am an anarchist” and call their practices anarchism. But where anarchy is an idea or principle that one can presumably embrace without worrying too much about affiliation, however tangled some of the senses of the terms may be with anarchist ideologies and movements, claiming anarchism and making that anarchist declaration place us more obviously on complex, contested social terrain. Our declaration can hardly avoid association with a long history of similar declarations and, whether we like it or not, implicates us the ongoing discussion about anarchism, its focus, its characteristic expressions, etc.

This is admittedly a bit of a just-so story—a narrative that puts some flesh on the proposed general formula of anarchism. The situation of the would-be anarchist and the old hand trying to negotiate a place amid the changing circumstances in the anarchist milieus is, as often as not, more a matter of rocks and hard places, with the individual simultaneously attempting to accommodate the demands of both the elusive ideal of anarchy and the complexities of anarchism in all of its various forms. But the argument of the current work is that, even if we don’t get into this familiar predicament in such an orderly manner, understanding the general relation between a small set of basic concepts—archy, anarchy, anarchist, anarchism—may be key to extricating ourselves from the worst of its tangles.

It may also be one important tool in the general defense of the anarchist project.

At this point, I’ve spent a lot of time working on the promised exploratory typology of anarchisms, concentrating on extending the comparative apparatus I’ve been building around it to address an increasingly broad range of anarchisms and would-be anarchisms, while at the same time attempting to strip out various kinds of potentially partisan assumptions. I think the work will demonstrate that at least some of the distinctions that anarchists would like to make between anarchisms, near-anarchisms and authoritarian pretenders to the title can be established solely on the basis of formal adequacy. When we try to map the elements of a given anarchism or would-be anarchism onto the formula, most constructions will probably show themselves weak in some respects, but some will be such bad fits that they will simply seem implausible as examples of anarchism.

In “Constructing an Anarchism,” the “journey from anarchy to an –ism” included ten intermediate steps, simply because relating our most fundamental terms to so many other terms, and then relating those terms to one another, forced a certain degree of elaboration that we might not otherwise achieve. The formula proposed — Anarchism = (((an + arche)ist)ism) — specifies a particular path between those key terms, but the goal is now not to construct an anarchism, but instead to map an existing one. We can easily imagine it as a complementary project.

As long as the central operation in the formula—the combination an– and –arche—leads us to consider anarchy a radical alternative to the archic status quo, our other terms—the anarchist who internalizes anarchy and then the anarchism they create or express as a result—would seem to be recognizable as expressions of the anarchy of anarchisms we are trying to address. If that that is the case, then our next moves would seem fairly straightforward: engaging in the comparisons that allow us to establish common ground among them, identify instances of uneven development, compare notes, learn from one another, synthesize or explicitly specialize, etc. And that central operation would seem to be necessarily radical. No means no. Arche really does seem to indicate something fundamental, foundational. To internalize an anarchy understood in those terms and then to express it in practice is no small task. We have our work cut out for us. But, given that seemingly obvious fact, it would seem hard to mistake that work for any sort of obviously reformist tinkering.

So the capitalists, the monarchists, the fascists, the traditionalists, etc., all of whom appear to reject that sort of anarchy for some much more partial rejection of the status quo, would seem to be formally excluded, either because they explicitly embrace some other principle (voluntarity, etc.) or because their “anarchy” shares little but homonymy with our own.

This, however, is where the issue of “pluralism” with regard to meaning rears its head. Meaning arises from use, with etymology, lexical descriptions and the like influencing the development of that use, but not ultimately setting any hard limits on the potential semantic drift. There is no ultimate authority to which we could appeal to maintain the close connection of the word “anarchy” with the etymological construction an-arche and with the radical, fundamental rejection of the status that shapes at least some “anarchist” thought and practice. Nor, of course, is there any particular sanction that is attached to the uses of majorities—and anarchists have been working against the semantic grain with the language of “anarchy” right along. There are simply practical consequences if, imagining that we are resisting some kind of authority or dogma, we allow our key terms to drift free—not perhaps of precise, shared meanings, as those have been hard to come by throughout the development of anarchist thought, but of conversations and controversies in which those terms and their meanings at least remain a fundamental concern.

Elsewhere, I have suggested that a focus on what I might now call an “an-arche-centered anarchism” has historically been the function of an undercurrent or countercurrent among anarchisms. While it has never been “dominant” in any of the senses that anarchists might accept, that project has at least had the support of anarchists that it was hard to ignore or deny: Nettlau, Goldman, Berkman, Mella, Voline, Faure, etc. And if there have been libertarian figures for whom the language of “anarchy” was an unfortunate choice—Tarrida del Mármol, Guillaume, Leval, etc.—their voices were unlikely to drown out those of the anarchists for whom “the beautiful idea” remained beautiful indeed. It has at times seemed instructive—and a snarky sort of fun—to emphasize the ways in which the internal development of anarchism has been hard to clearly distinguish from the kinds of hostile takeovers contemplated by our authoritarian rivals. But if, for example, the anarchist communists were pretty stingy in the credit they would give their mutualistic predecessors, the conflict involved was largely driven by a clash between two conceptions of anarchy, both of which were in their way quite radical.

In the course of attempting to understand the history and development of anarchist ideas, it has been necessary to dwell on the ruptures and ideological coups that can be recognized as clearly internal to anarchism-in-general. I consider that work entirely consistent with a project of synthesis in the present, as the differentiation involved simply provides more fodder for combination and mutual correction. Revisiting, even emphasizing old conflicts in this context seems like a matter of picking useful fights, particularly as we can only get our feelings bruised, and that in the most indirect sort of way. 

But what the present work has underlined for me is the very different character of what I can only really describe as a struggle against anarchy, at least in the realm of ideas, in which we see so much nominally anarchist energy exerted in defense of “legitimate authority,” “justified hierarchy,” various forms of “pure” or “direct democracy,” etc. and in favor of voluntarity as an alternate principle, “pluralism” for its own sake, etc. My initial response to that agitation is unabashedly partisan, a defense of the “beautiful idea” that is a product of both long reflection on anarchist theory and the kind of passionate commitment that may be necessary to really embrace anarchy. But neither of those things are precisely shareable. Our reflections are our own and certainly the same is even more true of our passions. So the struggle in the context of this new work has been to try to make the case in favor of that “an-arche-centered anarchism” as much on purely practical grounds as possible.

The position that I’m inclined to champion is that anarchy, understood in that form of an-arche, is, in fact, clear enough in its meaning to function as a criterion. That basic sense—a rejection of existing foundations or fundamentals—is simple enough, even if understanding all that it entails in various specific contexts is not. That standard of formal adequacy seems broadly applicable. As we contemplate anarchistic practices or elaborate anarchistic theory, are we really saying “no”—and saying no to something fundamental to the existing systems of social relations that we oppose?

If we are indeed proposing that sort of thing, most of the objections I see raised seem a bit misguided. It is natural to wish to avoid specialized language and to avoid rhetoric that is needlessly alarming. But in this case we seem to be speaking in a kind of plain speech that even Chomsky might have to recognize as such. We can rationalize the reasons for a thoroughly revolutionary change in social relations as much as we like, but that is really the specialized discourse. While we may not feel that putting an end to exploitation and oppression is a project that should be associated with “chaos” or “disorder,” it’s hard to escape the sense that, if we are “speaking the language of the people,” our task is probably to confront the fact that, given existing systems and the pervasive effects they have on our sense of what is natural and possible, that association is going to be hard to avoid. And we should confront that fact as directly as possible. A slogan like “anarchy is order” perhaps opens a new conversation, but it’s up to us to make the apparent paradox intelligible.

About Shawn P. Wilbur 2575 Articles
Independent scholar, translator and archivist.