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What's Wrong With The Anarchists?

31st May 2003, 8:30pm

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Sometimes you encounter people who challenge the way you think, the values that you hold true. Sometimes it can make you uncomfortable, but it helps you grow much more than being around people who nod and smile and keep their true thoughts to themselves. I think I'm a nod-and-smiler, but luckily I've encountered several challenge-the-way-you-think'ers this week. They might make a challenger out of me yet.

One of those "challengers" was reading my FAQ. Under the What's all this stuff about punk-ethics? heading, I included a statement that I don't really identify with the anarchist side of [the Anarchist's Punk Ethic] anymore. That prompted a challenging email question from the document's author - what's wrong with the anarchists now?

I didn't have an immediate answer - not anything coherent anyway - so I sat down tonight for several hours to work out exactly why I don't identify as an anarchist anymore. I mean, it's not as if the Sex Pistols are suddenly uncool or anything.


My disappointment with anarchists peaked during the Iraqi War protests. Peaceful protests are a good thing, they encourage people to develop views on important issues. However the methods used by two protest groups (some of whom identified as anarchists) left me disheartened.

In Perth, like most cities, we had a huge number of high school students walk out of classes to protest. I think that protesting during class hours weakens their cause. If you're really committed to something, you'll be prepared to give up your own time for it, eg protesting on a Saturday, or after school. Instead, this seemed like students "anarchists" using any excuse to get out of class - Disappointment One.

More seriously, another protest group blocked major roads during peak hours as their protest against the war. Why? How does disrupting daily life and reducing productivity aid their cause? Sure, it brings media attention, but it doesn't provide an incentive for people with contrary views to change their opinion - in fact it's likely to harden their current views. It's a form of coercion, and coercion is not a long term solution. This little group made me ashamed to have given myself the anarchist tag. Disappointment Two.

I'm tired of people who protest for the sake of it, who seek to cause mayhem without any real commitment to a cause - basically the rent-a-crowds and the bandwagoners. I don't identify with those "anarchists". I believe that if you want to criticize something, you should offer a credible alternative. In many cases it isn't happening.

In short, I wanted to dissociate myself from anarchists I did not identify with.

Anarchist by definition

Of course, one shouldn't base their decisions solely on the actions of others. It would be wrong to denounce anarchism due to the actions of a few. Instead my decision should be based on the meaning of anarchism - and for that, I turn to as my reference. Each heading below is one of the definitions of anarchism quoted from The American Heritage® Dictionary of the English Language, Fourth Edition.

Rejection of all forms of coercive control and authority.

I have no problem with rejecting coercive control. I can't think of any occasions where threats or intimidation would be justified - unions and employers take note. However I don't reject all forms of authority. I will challenge authority if warranted, and I have some history of doing this, but I won't reject authority for the sake of it. I'm happy to co-operate with the police, but I would challenge corrupt police practices.

Active resistance and terrorism against the state, as used by some anarchists.

I have a real problem with this, so I'm thankful the definition was qualified with the phrase "some anarchists". Terrorism is immoral and pointless - it's a form of coercion and it doesn't benefit any cause or anyone. It's just plain wrong.

The theory or doctrine that all forms of government are oppressive and undesirable and should be abolished.

I'm not entirely convinced of this - and considering this is the crux of anarchy, it's a big deal. I can't say that all forms of government are oppressive - I haven't experienced them all, I haven't done research to support or deny the claim. I would expect that most governments use at least some form of oppression. Does this make them undesirable? I don't know if I feel that way. Would anarchy reduce oppression? Or should we accept oppression under anarchic systems because anarchy is ethically right? I'm not convinced that anarchy is a credible alternative anymore, but feel free to try and convince me.

Internet Anarchy

Hang on, isn't the internet an anarchic system? Most of my early anarchic views were predicated on the internet being an anarchy. If the internet works and provides a functioning and prosperous community, doesn't that demonstrate that anarchy can work in practice? Unfortunately, I now think both my predicate and conclusion are false.

Is the internet a true anarchy? I don't think so now. There are underlying rules that control the internet, the network protocols. They define how computers should talk to each other to interact correctly - and if they don't adhere to the protocols, something tends to stop working somewhere down the line. The protocols themselves are (to my knowledge) ratified by a single organization, the Internet Engineering Task Force. There are gatekeepers to the internet - my ISP can cut off my dialup connection whenever they like, and can ban me from their services if I breach their terms and conditions. All of these restrict in some way what a user can do online, and demonstrate some form of control or governance. None of them control everything that happens online, but neither do governments control everything every single person does.

Does the internet provide a functioning community? For the most part, yes... but the spam epidemic is getting worse and I believe it does threaten the health of the internet. Spam shows how the actions of a few individuals can affect many other people. There are technical solutions being put forward, some of these solutions involve authorities vouching for the identity of a user (or a spammer as the case may be). It's a step away from anarchy and closer to governance... even then, internet performance may still be degraded by spammers. So the internet works, but for how long? Hence my original conclusion may have been false too.

... so?

It comes down to this: I still hold some anarchic views, but since I don't act on all of them, I don't see myself as an anarchist.

Imagine for a second that I am an anarchist - by definition, this would mean that I reject all authority and believe that all government should be abolished. When was the last time that I acted on that? I can think of few occasions where I've stood up to authority lately, and no occasions where I have advocated the abolishment of government. At the very least I'm not a practicing anarchist. It's more likely I was a faux anarchist all along.

I believe that one should always act on their views. Failure to do so can be hypocritical, and hypocrisy causes those views to be devalued by others. I haven't acted on the few anarchic beliefs I hold, nor do I have a real passion or desire to act on them. For that reason, I no longer identify as an anarchist.

Sorry Johnny. I'm still an antichrist though.


NrrrdBoy (the author of An Anarchist's Punk Ethic) was nice enough to reply on 19 June 2003 to my comments above in his post Anarchism Reconsidered. Update Sept 2020: sadly, the URL is no longer available.