How Many Anarchists Are There?

While I disagree to some extent with the author’s view that just about anything and anyone can at some point be labelled “anarchist”, given the nature of language and modern communications, I still maintain that there is a fairly cogent tradition of actions and body of thought that can be more obviously and without too much disagreement, be considered “anarchist”. Many disagree. Many don’t like the label, the tradition, the baggage. Regardless, I think this essay makes some important points about who we are as radicals and how we might stand clearly and boldly with a new conception of the world amidst all the digital and televised noise and static and feedback that passes for “communication” in the 21st century. This blog will no doubt benefit from taking his points seriously and from future contributions. I have known and been close to the author for over 13 years and he is not only a fellow traveller, he possesses a keen intellect which he combines with real-world experiences that are colorful (some might say “crazy”), triumphant, tragic, worldly, and most importantly, *human*.


How Many Anarchists Are There?

The question in this post title is a very loaded one. To have any semantic value as a question at all, this question would require a commonly accepted definition of the word “anarchist”. And, by extension, “anarchy”- because the author believes most people could get as far as agreeing that an “anarchist” is one who believes in, supports, or works for ”anarchy” as an ideal state of being on some level. Beyond this, discourse begins to fall apart, as the word under discussion might imply.
The normal thing to do here would be for the author to pick his favorite dictionary and quote a definition for “anarchy”. Or begin quoting political philosophers, if one is asking a rhetorical question and preparing to offer a definition of anarchy. But that is not what this post is doing.
There are labels galore for political affiliations and/or positions. To the extent that life itself is political, they apply on many levels beyond the overt business of the government of nations.
Consider the words “liberal” and “conservative’, which are entirely defined by context, both in conversation and in terms of political labels. A 1950s liberal could be a post-1980s conservative without switching a single viewpoint. These words are applied to all forms of policies: relationships, finance, drug use, nearly every aspect of life.
Academics make careers out of arguing about the semantics of various labels. This is not to denigrate them: they often have real ideas that they need to explain by first pinning down the English language. They are quite happy to tell you what “anarchy” or “liberalism” or “fascism” or “democracy” are, because they have suggestions for the betterment of the human race (or some small segment of it) that they need to explain in common terms that are often quite vague.
The vagueness of English has many effects other than creating academic careers. Think, just for a moment, how much pain has been caused through the years by the many definitions of the word “love”. Shattered hearts, lost lives, broken souls, and endless bad relationships, simply because the word “love” was being used with a different definition than the one that was understood.
Arguing over the subject is fruitless: last time I looked it up (in a basic dictionary intended for ESL students). “Love” had 17 different definitions. If you want to go by how it is actually used in the real world, it has millions more, an uncountable number that is being added to anytime anyone uses the word.
Likewise, the word “anarchy” is used by people other than political scientists, professors, and activists. For many reasons, in many ways. It has some basic semantic connotations: “an-“ means “no” or “not”, and “arch” denotes power, government, or control. For some, it is a term of horror. For others, a state of bliss and joy, or an ideal goal of human society.
Language evolves with usage, and people are using more language than ever, especially English, which is mostly down to English being the primary language of globalization; the Chinese are aware enough that not so many Westerners are going to struggle with the seven tones and thousands of pinyin used in Mandarin. Europeans know English, because England is an integral part of Europe. The thousands of tribal tongues in Africa have been overlaid by the languages of slavers and colonists, of which the most useful and widely spoken is English. Spanish and Portuguese dominate South America, and nearly any major country you care to name has a tradition based on its language – unless that language is English. But English is the most widely spoken 2nd language in the world, and globalization is necessarily accelerating the spread of English – and its use- as a natural consequence of improved information technology.
So more people are speaking more English, and “anarchy” is an English word. The world is flooded with information, too much for any human to ever process on ANY reasonably broad subject. How many academic papers, tracts, articles, and essays have been written about this word? Many. By the time you finish reading this one, the number will have changed.
Many great ideas have been formulated, many suggestions proposed that might benefit the human race. My own humble suggestion is that these suggestions work best when presented in concrete terms, whether they are plans for global revolution or a protest march against a government policy.
Language about language is masturbation. And, yes, I am masturbating as my fingers hit these keys, even though I am typing two-handed, sitting upright, and do not have prehensile feet or obscure sexual devices at my disposal.
Ideas have value, and will always have value. But the point is to communicate these ideas in the most straightforward and direct manner possible for them to not be misunderstood.
To all self-identified “anarchists” (of which I am one), I offer this challenge. Accept that the question in the title does not matter and cannot be answered. Say you’re an anarchist and you are, because the language is that vague. DON’T say you’re an anarchist, and someone else might say you are, because the language is also vague enough for that.
[By one common definition – anarchy as chaos…] George W. Bush is an anarchist. He certainly encouraged plenty of chaos and lack of control in the world. Hitler was an anarchist for the same reason, with the added benefit of giving a good portion of the world a common enemy they could agree on for a while. Rush fucking Limbaugh is an anarchist, certainly by personal example. Total control is impossible, and creates reaction.
More insidious forms of de facto control are being practiced on a giant scale today. Things that limit our freedom to feel alive and human, sometimes by giving us too much freedom that we choke on our own society of the spectacle. Think Aldous Huxley, Neil Postman, David Foster Wallace. Control through an excess of pointless and manipulative choices evolved to create something that is not even the illusion of freedom, but its devaluation through the great irony of the most basic economic principle there is:
“Scarcity creates value.”
And, by the same token, glut reduces it. Too much language devalues the language so that it loses the power to truly communicate. Every 18 year old whose family can afford university and does not attach required direction has too many choices to count. There is so much media accessible that it only has any meaning and power if a person can filter out thousands of alternative messages. We are bombarded, overloaded with information that is abstract.
Concrete things are scarce. Good jobs (pick one) are scarce. Money is scarce. Satisfying sex is scarce, and deeply fulfilling romantic relationships scarcer. I mean this relative to the amounts of unsatisfying sex and not deeply fulfilling relationships that exist in the world.
Control is control of value. Money means more in poor countries. Happiness (another abstraction) in rich ones. The status quo is maintained through surplus and scarcity. The richest societies have the most ennui. Where life is cheap (the Middle East, for example) it has value. Where it is secure, there is boredom, alienation, loneliness.
There is always the chance for genuine human connection – but we are now connected to the world. Anyone who speaks a common language (billions, if you understand this) can get on the internet and compete for the attention of anyone with everyone. And the signals get vaguer and vaguer, since they are filtered through technology, transmitted at near-instantaneous speeds, to anyone anywhere.
So many of us are overwhelmed. The concrete pressures of financial survival are real, and getting more real as wealth in all forms is leveraged and redistributed to the wealthy. Once, most of society was ignorant because they were illiterate and starved for information. Now. We are so glutted with it that we are becoming ignorant because we can’t separate real signals from all the noise.
I suggest signals be kept simple. Concrete. Feasible. Real. Things people can receive, understand, and have immediate incentive to do. A signal needs to be strong and clear enough to cut through the static, simple enough to have value and power. “GO picket the new Walmart to save your family business” has power. “Create global equality and a fair society through (insert complex idea here)” does not.
Simple slogans, like “Occupy Wall Street” have some power, but lose critical momentum to the extent that they are not concrete and feasible. The people who actually occupy Wall Street work there. Sure, you can find enough people in Portland or Seattle to stage a protest against some issue, try to blast a message through the static. And I admire those folks for doing it. But it doesn’t occupy Wall Street, or show us how to defuse the power and momentum of global corporate control of economies, government, media, and lives. These people mostly have jobs.
China, not the USA, is the world’s pre-eminent superpower, the nation that potentially wields the most control over the future of the human race. I can prove the above statement by the theoretical thought experiment of them calling in America’s national debt and nationalizing all manufacturing on Chinese soil if we don’t pay up – which would annihilate our economy. It’s an economic nuke, as powerful as the Manhattan Project made the USA immediately following WWII.
Of course, the real powers are not nations anymore, but shadowy multinational networks that cannot easily be identified or traced through the glut of information. This is how control is maintained. Policies are decided, filtered through politics and media where necessary, and implemented. These policies are concrete, but reach us through a haze of abstraction. The people making them are few, scarce, valuable – and anonymous. The public faces are many, but have no power.
Consider the rise of ISIS. What is its appeal? How does a ridiculous literalist 7th century Islam carve a nation from nowhere, against the entire modern world, with no overt support? Well, they are very concrete and very selective. They know what they want and communicate it very clearly. Creating a small minority of Muslims willing to kill and die for their khalifa. And the modern world needs enemies, creating publicity. And many of the truly powerful networks see no advantage in shutting them down quickly: they are a source of cheap oil and an eager market for weapons. But their power is in their blunt and concrete idea, which thankfully enough is concrete enough to smash. Unless you are a fan of genocide, mass rape, burnings alive, and beheadings, that is.
ISIS are anarchists, despite having one of the most autocratic power structures ever, a theocracy with a single figurehead. They are anarchists because they are actively opposing the powers that control the world, and they can do so because these powers are not actively opposing them, except as a token using the most “expendable” possible people: poor indigenous Iraqis. The West talks a big game, but it’s Iraqis trying to retake their own cities, and failing. They will succeed eventually, when ISIS outlives their usefulness and becomes a black eye to the world. No one else wants their khalifa. But their message was concrete enough so that those who did want ISIS’ brand of anarchy (the triumph of Allah over the West and the fulfillment of prophecy, with its attendant infinite value to true believers and loss of all power by all secular governments) knew where to go and what to do, even if governments everywhere tried to stop Muslims from travelling to join them.
Now, what if a different vision could be inspired the same way, with the same force and clarity? ISIS delivered on its promises, no deviation from their interpretation of the Qur’an. Which will destroy them when the time is right for proper military intervention, since their battle plans were drawn up more than a millennium ago. But their power comes because they made concrete promises and delivered. Al Qaeda caused a lot of havoc, but never did more than provoke responses and thus polarize Muslims to set the stage for something concrete like ISIS – who built a state instead of blowing up buildings.
SO, if you want a change, make it concrete. Clear. Empirical. Provide a means of changing from state A (the status quo) to state B (the desired result) that will not only work, but provide motivation to do so. And send the signal clearly. Tell people what needs to be done and why they should do it in direct and simple terms that appeal to basic needs and values, and do not get swallowed in the glut of consumer alternatives.
To which I am now finished adding. Let me answer my own question. How many anarchists are there? Too many and not enough.

Nate Pinson

2 thoughts on “How Many Anarchists Are There?

  1. Interesting view, but I’d have to disagree with the author’s understand of the word “anarchy”. The author correctly broke down the definition when he defined “an” and “arch”, but then seemingly ignored the definition. Anarchy can be used outside of politics, but it still means the same thing – without authority. While trendy use of the word may make people think of anarchy as synonymous with rebellion, it is quite different. For example, the author called ISIS anarchists, but they have a chain of command in their structure, and thus by definition are not anarchists. An anarchist is someone who does not answer to any authority – even if they agree with said authority. A group of anarchists would have to be a group of people with equal say and no authority figure, or they are not anarchists. This is why anarchy is generally not considered to be realistic – even if given freedom, many people would still come together, make rules, and appoint structures of authority. I believe the author is speaking of rebellion, not anarchy. Rebellion speaks of defying authority, anarchy speaks of having no authority. Other than the improper use of the word though, the message of rebellion is quite good.


    1. Thanks for the comment. I also have a probl;em with his understanding, and what he believes most people’s understanding, of the word anarchy means, along with it’s associated concepts. But that’s part of his point – that language and the meaning of words become devalued over time as well as shift according to one’s perspective. The so-called “post-anarchists” as well as many other anarchists don’t help the matter when they pick and choose (or abandon altogether) concepts/ideals/strategies/tactics from what most would consider the anti-authoritarian leftist tradition.

      Liked by 1 person

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