Nightmares of Anarchy: Language and Cultural Change, 1870-1914

By Wm. M. Phillips | Go to book overview

Epilogue

THE SITES OF SOCIAL CONFLICT CAN BE LOCATED WITHIN THE KEY WORDS and conflicting narratives of a given historical period. In the late nineteenth century, the words, phrases, and narratives that were associated with anarchism became the site of a battle over the direction of society. The concept of anarchy, which had previously signified simple disorder, took on a larger significance as the more centralized, authoritarian industrial state subverted the democratic promises of the Enlightenment. The rhetoric of liberty and rights that the middle classes had used to wrest power from the aristocracy was now used by advocates of the lower classes to attempt to wrest control from property owners, which led the middle classes into an alliance with the upper classes they had resisted a century before. In this new political situation, "anarchy” (as used by Matthew Arnold and others) came to represent the challenge to the authority of the property owners by the working classes.

The "problem” of the working classes was one of the chief topics in the dialogue of the day. As iniquities in the early industrial system produced squalid urban living conditions and extreme differences in wealth, police and military power were used more and more often to defend the extensive property rights of the upper classes. As rural workers were forced off their lands and into the overcrowded cities, people were increasingly alienated from one another by a socioeconomic segregation that made neighbors seem sinister and mysterious. The "masses” (the word itself is dehumanizing) were depicted as increasingly hostile, prone to violence, and opposed to every refinement with which the propertied classes identified themselves. Advocates of corporate institutions promised a better future through material prosperity (the "mass culture” of capitalism) and centralized control; they used their domination of public discourse (through publishing houses and journalism) to define anarchism and push the movement and its ideas to the margins of public discourse. Faced with political, economic, and cultural authority actively working to preserve their control through centralization, some radicals argued that control itself—any kind of authority over others—was the problem.

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