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It’s hard to know whether a word can ever be rehabilitated—or whether the attempt should even be made.
Words are weapons, and can be used like any tools, for good or ill. We are all aware of the clichéd uses of such terms as “terrorists” versus “freedom fighters,” etcetera. An atheist can be called an “unbeliever”; a theist can be called “superstitious.” A man of conviction can be called an “extremist”; a man of moderation “cowardly.” A free spirit can be called a libertine or a hedonist; a cautious introvert can be labelled a stodgy prude.
Words are also weapons of judgement—primarily moral judgement. We can say that a man can be “freed” of sin if he accepts Jesus; we can also say that he can be “freed” of irrationality if he does not. A patriot will say that a soldier “serves” his country; others may take him to task for his blind obedience. Acts considered “murderous” in peacetime are hailed as “noble” in war, and so on.
Some words can never be rehabilitated—and neither should they be. Nazi, evil, abuse, rape, murder—these are all words which describe the blackest impulses of the human soul, and can never be turned to a good end. Edmund may say in King Lear, “Evil, be thou my good!” but we know that he is not speaking paradoxically; he is merely saying “that which others call evil—my self-interest—is good for me.”
The word “anarchy” may be almost beyond redemption—any attempt to find goodness in it could well be utterly futile—or worse; the philosophical equivalent of the clichéd scene in hospital dramas where the surgeon blindly refuses to give up on a clearly dead patient.
Perhaps I am engaged in just such a fool's quest in this little book. Perhaps the word “anarchy” has been so abused throughout its long history, so thrown into the pit of incontestable human iniquity that it can never be untangled from the evils that supposedly surround it.
What images spring to mind when you hear the word “anarchy”? Surely it evokes mad riots of violence and lawlessness—a post-apocalyptic Darwinian free-for-all where the strong and evil dominate the meek and reasonable. Or perhaps you view it as a mad political agenda, a thin ideological cover for murderous desires and cravings for assassinations, where wild-eyed, moustachioed men with thick hair and thicker accents roll cartoon bombs under the ornate carriages of slowly-waving monarchs. Or perhaps you view “anarchy” as more of a philosophical spectre; the haunted and angry mutterings of over-caffeinated and seemingly-eternal graduate students; a nihilistic surrender to all that is seductive and evil in human nature, a hurling off the cliff of self-restraint, and a savage plunge into the mad magic of the moment, without rules, without plans, without a future . . .
If your teenage son were to come home to you one sunny afternoon and tell you that he had become an anarchist, you would likely feel a strong urge to check his bag for black hair dye, fresh nose rings, clumpy mascara, and dirty needles. His announcement would very likely cause a certain trapdoor to open under your heart, where you may fear that it might fall forever. The heavy syllables of words like “intervention,” “medication,” “boot camp,” and “intensive therapy” would probably accompany the thudding of your quickened pulse.
All this may well be true, of course—I may be thumping the chest of a broken patient long since destined for the morgue, but certain . . . insights, you could say, or perhaps correlations, continue to trouble me immensely, and I cannot shake the fear that it is not anarchy that lies on the table, clinging to life—but rather, the truth.
I will take a paragraph or two to try and communicate what troubles me so much about the possible injustice of throwing the word “anarchy” into the pit of evil—if I have not convinced you by the end of the next page that something very unjust may be afoot, then I will have to continue my task of resurrection with others, because I do not for a moment imagine that I would ever convince you to call something good that is in fact evil.
And neither would I want to.
Now the actual meaning of the word “anarchy” is (from the OED):
Absence of government; a state of lawlessness due to the absence or inefficiency of the supreme power; political disorder.
A theoretical social state in which there is no governing person or body of persons, but each individual has absolute liberty (without implication of disorder).
Thus we can see that the word “anarchy” represents two central meanings: an absence of both government and social order, and an absence of government with no implication of social disorder.
Without a government . . .
What does that mean in practice?
Well, clearly there are two kinds of leaders in this world—those who lead by incentive, and those who lead by force. Those who lead by incentive will offer you a salary to come and work for them; those who lead by force will throw you in jail if you do not pick up a gun and fight for them.
Those who lead by incentive will try to get you to voluntarily send your children to their schools by keeping their prices reasonable, their classes stimulating, and demonstrating proven and objective success.
Those who lead by force will simply tell you that if you do not pay the property taxes to fund their schools, you will be thrown in jail.
Clearly, this is the difference between voluntaryism and violence.
The word “anarchy” does not mean “no rules.” It does not mean “kill others for fun.” It does not mean “no organisation.”
It simply means: “without a political leader.”
The difference, of course, between politics, and every other area of life is that in politics, if you do not obey the government, you are thrown in jail. If you try to defend yourself against the people who come to throw you in jail, they will shoot you.
So—what does the word “anarchy” really mean?
It simply means a way of interacting with others without threatening them with violence if they do not obey.
It simply means “without political violence.”
The difference between this word and words like “murder” and “rape” is that we do not mix murder and rape with the exact opposite actions in our life, and consider the results normal, moral, and healthy. We do not strangle a man in the morning, then help a woman across the street in the afternoon, and call ourselves “good.”
The true evils that we all accept—rape, assault, murder, theft—are never considered a core and necessary part of the life of a good person. An accused murderer does not get to walk free by pointing out that he spent all but five seconds of his life not killing someone.
With those acknowledged evils, one single transgression changes the moral character of an entire life. You would never be able to think of a friend who is convicted of rape in the same way again.
However—this is not the case with “anarchy”—it does not fit into that category of “evil” at all.
When we think of a society without political violence—without governments—these spectres of chaos and brutality always arise for us, immediately and, it would seem, irrevocably.
However, it only takes a moment of thought to realise that we live the vast majority of our actual lives in complete and total anarchy—and call such anarchy “morally good.”