Magazine article New Internationalist

The A Word

Magazine article New Internationalist

The A Word

Article excerpt

I must have been eight or nine years old when I first heard the a-word. I don't remember the context, but I do remember asking my mother what 'anarchists' were. She said: anarchists are people who want to destroy everything, and rebuild it all from scratch.

To her credit, my mother's answer was quite generous: at least it included the part about rebuilding. It did get me thinking that anarchists had good intentions, that they wanted to 'destroy everything' not just for the hell of it, but because they thought 'everything' was unjust and dysfunctional. Her definition was neither accurate nor very nuanced, but there was a grain of truth to her association of anarchism with the notion that society needed to be changed at a very fundamental level, and that such change couldn't happen through piecemeal reform but instead required a thorough transformation from the ground up.

I think I was lucky; imagine what most kids hear in response to the same question.

In 1910 American activist Emma Goldman wrote: 'Anarchism stands for the liberation of the human mind from the dominion of religion; the liberation of the human body from the dominion of property; liberation from the shackles and restraint of government. It stands for a social order based on the free grouping of individuals.'

A full century after Goldman penned her inspiring words, there remains the same need to dispel misconceptions about anarchism, bred of the unholy matrimony between plain ignorance and vile slander. Chaos, suffering, destruction, tumult, strife - these are things that anarchists have never called for. Yet most people imagine anarchists as people who do actively desire such things, people who must be either evil or insane.

But actually there is nothing very surprising here. As Goldman noted in the same essay: 'In its tenacious hold on tradition, the Old has never hesitated to make use of the foulest and cruellest means to stay the advent of the New... Indeed, as the most revolutionary and uncompromising innovator, anarchism must needs meet with the combined ignorance and venom of the world it aims to reconstruct.'

This has led many who endorse anarchist values to shun the label itself. Some activists will call themselves 'libertarian socialist', 'antiauthoritarian', 'autonomous', or nothing at all, just to avoid the a-word and its bad PR. But there are also those of us who carry the label with pride, and tirelessly repeat what it really stands for.

Direct action - a core principle

What, then, do anarchists want? The answer is simple. Anarchists want a social order without rulers or hierarchy. Anarchists want freedom and equality for all. We want a world with no borders and no social classes, no gods and no masters, where power is as decentralized as possible and every individual and community can determine their own destiny. We believe in independent thought, international solidarity, voluntary association and mutual aid. This is why we seek the abolition of capitalism and the state, which place economic and political power in the hands of a tiny minority. It is why we resist patriarchy, white supremacy, compulsory heterosexuality and all other systems of domination and discrimination. And it is, I suspect, why so many teachers, corporate journalists, clergy, business people and police work so hard at hiding our values from the general public.

What also distinguishes anarchists is a strong commitment to being the change we want to see in the world. This approach, sometimes called 'prefigurative polities', is evident in decentralized organization, decision-making by consensus, respect for differing opinions and an overall emphasis on the process as well as the outcomes of activism. It is also the motivation for our constant effort to déprogramme ourselves and overcome behaviours and prejudices that are sexist, racist, homophobic, consumerist and conformist. As anarchists we explicitly try to be and live what we want, not just as end goals, but as guides to political action and everyday life. …

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