Daily Archives: June 26, 2011


When you see this word, what image comes to mind? A bearded bomb-thrower from the early 20th century? A political assassin? A punk rocker? A teen spraying a big red A in a circle? A “protester” wearing a bandanna mask smashing shop windows and torching police cars?

These seem to be the general images associated with anarchist. Certainly anarchy tends to be used as equivalent to chaos or the sort of wanton violence that characterizes a failed state. The anarchist is viewed as a sort of antichrist.

I’m sure, in fact, that the taste of antichrist in anarchist has had an effect on the word’s reception. It wasn’t lost on the punk group the Sex Pistols, whose hit song “Anarchy in the U.K.” opens with the following lyrics:

I am an antichrist
I am an anarchist
Don’t know what I want
But I know how to get it
I wanna destroy passerby
‘Cause I wanna be anarchy

It has the extra charming touch of pronouncing anarchist to rhyme with antichrist. (It’s linguistic anarchy, I tell ya!)

Anarchist has a well-established history of negative, deprecatory tone in common usage, so much so that when I stop to think what word it is, reeking of chaos and dripping with acid, that this word makes me think of, I realize that it’s actually anarchist itself that I’m thinking of.

Its first usage in English was in application to those who wanted to overthrow the King, in the 17th century. (Such a difference in tone from such a small change in form between monarchist and anarchist!) My first encounter with the word was actually in a Tintin book (King Ottokar’s Sceptre) in which Tintin shouts warnings of a plot to a king but is dragged away and not heard, and the king’s aide describes him as an anarchist. I wasn’t sure exactly what an anarchist was, but I knew it was someone who wanted to act against kings and government.

Which is pretty much accurate. An anarchist is someone who is opposed to top-down government of whatever sort. It comes from Greek ἀν an “without” and ἀρχή arkhé “sovereignty”. The basic attitude often manifests as the sort of puerile anti-authority rebellion that leads clove-cigarette-smoking undergraduates to decorate their notebooks (and campus walls) with A’s in circles. But there’s much more to it – and other – than that.

Anarchists, you see, have had a variety of leanings and philosophies and even gone under a variety of names. After all, if you are against having a state with a ruling apparatus, how do you propose that people make things work? Many anarchists have believed in collectivism – leaderless communism, as it were. Anarchism (particularly anarcho-syndicalism) was a driving force in the origins of the labour union movement. Another name for one set of people who believe in doing without sovereignty or top-down government and prefer reliance on the individual is libertarians – which has a more positive tone, but libertarianism is, among other things, anarchist.

Much group organizing and massed protest and disruption was done by people who called themselves anarchists a century ago. But now the people who call themselves anarchists are often mild-mannered graduate-student types. They see humans as born free but everywhere in chains, and believe that we should build communities without hierarchical or bureaucratic structures. They have, in short, a stronger belief in the possible goodness of human nature than most of us do, because such communities require a level of cooperation and civic thought that clearly is not universally manifest in the world we live in now.

It is ironic that anarchists, who are likely to see official celebrations of massive spectacles such as team sports as a narcotic for the masses, are being blamed for hockey riots in Vancouver. I’m not saying that there were no punks who call themselves anarchists involved in those riots (there certainly were some in the G20 riots in Toronto, but anyone who smashes shop windows and loots is engaging in exactly the sort of behaviour that vitiates the collectivism or at least mutual respect that functioning anarchy would rely on), but the evidence is that in general most of the damage was done by youthful addicts of consumer goods who were bombed on cheap beer. Meanwhile, at home, reading their books, were self-identified anarchists such as you may encounter in this article: www.vancouversun.com/technology/blame+anarchists+professor+says/4998569/story.html.