Anarchism is very common in left-wing political organizing. There is no progressive cause whose advocates do not include at least a few who are bent on turning society on its head. Environmentalism has its radical neo-agrarians , the struggle for distributive justice has its class warriors, and feminist blogger Twisty Faster reminds us that the only way for women to make progress is through a global feminist revolt.*
Aside from the fact that they are all calling for a global revolution that is never going to happen in the real world, these groups are also brought together by the fact that, were they ever to actually get their way, they would produce a political order no less violent or oppressive than the one they replaced.
Before I argue that point, I have to disarm a little red herring. Radical political movements, fractious as they are, have a rather convenient ability to shift their fundamental convictions in the face of criticism. So whatever I argue here about anarchism, I will be accused of attacking a strawman by those who happen to define the word a bit differently than I do. Therefore, I shall define anarchism as follows: A belief that social progress can only be made through a complete overturning of the existing political order, using direct action tactics which serve to dismantle any vestige of the old government.
EDIT: A recent twitter conversation has persuaded me that I need to make a brief clarification regarding this definition, namely that it is not intended to encompass all of what people call anarchism, or all the activities undertaken by anarchists. In the context of this post, it is intended simply to be a tag for a particular political goal shared by a number of social activists.
I admit that this is a very seductive ideology. Having recently witnessed a catastrophic failure of our democracy, there is a very frustrated part of me that wants to just start breaking stuff. Who wouldn’t want to feel the triumph the Egyptians felt in Tahrir Square after their struggle succeeded in forcing a brutal dictator from power? What is not recognized by many who idolize the Egyptians’ struggle is that it culminated in a democratic referendum, which will usher in presidential elections this coming fall. There are questions about whether the referendum really addressed the protesters’ concerns, but the fact remains that after weeks of street fighting, most of the population voted to move a step closer to the system that we already have. The problem with anarchism in any liberal democracy is that we have no brutal dictators to force from power. Our government is made up of people who, for better or worse, represent us.
If a concerted effort of thousands of black bloc street-fighters were to gather on the steps of Parliament Hill tomorrow, drag Stephen Harper along with all government and opposition MPs out of the building, and throw a dubstep party in the House of Commons before burning the Peace Tower to the ground, their jubilation would be quickly tempered by the realization that most of the rest of the country is very, very angry with them. The unfortunate reality that anarchists tend not to face is that the vast majority of citizens in a country like Canada are quite happy with the status quo. They may want to see a change of government, and even a change in the system of government, but most people are, with good reason, quite content with the fact that there is a government. In Canada, we’re lucky enough to have a government that works to stop us from getting mugged, to provide us with education and health care, and to ensure that we have a legal recourse if we are wronged by those who are more powerful than us. It is by no means entirely successful in any of those goals, but most people appreciate the attempt. Anarchy wants to do away with all of these useful things.
We can quibble all day about the proper use of the term ‘violence’, but one thing that characterizes the revolutionary change that anarchists advocate is the failure to seek the consent of those who their revolution will affect. Whether the government is overthrown with guns or strikes or just by sitting in the street holding flowers and singing, the fact remains that direct action is necessary to force the change on some segment of society without first seeking their consent. Whether this is achieved through fear or inconvenience or moral checkmate is of no material difference.
Having overthrown the government, a successful anarchist movement is stuck with a dilemma. They could seek popular endorsement of their ideas, but the only conclusive way to do this is through some kind of election or referendum, in which the Conservative Party of Canada would quickly re-emerge and probably win a landslide. If they don’t like this option and want to consolidate their victory despite public opposition then they will have no other choice but to pick up the discarded tear gas grenades and sound canons of the riot police they have just vanquished and, having spraypainted big anarchist “A”s over the word “Police” on their riot shields, advance on the rest of the population in order to impose their radical, self-organizing direct democracy on the clueless masses.
You see the contradiction? So long as the majority doesn’t agree with anarchist ideals, anarchist methods will be oppressive. Should the population ever come to agree with anarchist ideals, then this fact can be confirmed through a fair election and anarchist methods will be rendered unnecessary. There is still a place for radical politics and direct action, but it must be focused on those crooked politicians, greedy business leaders and tyrannical majorities are quite happy to subvert our democracy. There are still plenty of reasons to take to the streets and clash with riot cops. Just make sure that you are fighting a battle that can be supported from within the halls of power, not a battle to destroy those halls.
Dreaming up political fantasies about dramatic liberation is cowardly; it dupes people into thinking that they can throw bottles at riot cops for a while and pretend that they’ve changed the status quo. True revolutionary courage is found in the ability not only to stand up for your beliefs, but to constantly question them and through doing so, have a coherent vision of a world not only worth standing up for, but a world that can actually be attained.
*For more on this topic, check out Pervocracy’s excellent take-down of Twisty Faster’s revolutionary politics. While the subject is feminism, most of Holly’s arguments would apply just as well to just about any revolutionary movement.
**For even more on this topic, look up The Rebel Sell, by Joseph Heath and Andrew Potter. It’s a great read, and it is what persuaded me of most of the points I made here. I’ve been meaning to give it a proper review for months now, but don’t hold off on my account.