Re: Contra-Anarchy

I dunno. I think people who use the word “anarchy” use it as a package-deal: it’s not that it means chaos instead of freedom from rulers; it’s used to mean both chaos and freedom from rulers, because people who use the word that way think that the two are the same thing, or at least inevitably connected with each other.

So when people are package-dealing, there’s two ways you could respond. You could reject the term and come up with a new one. But what would you come up with? “Peace?” “Freedom?” That’s what anarchy means, but obviously the common uses of those terms are just as knotty as the common uses of “Anarchy.” “Lawlessness?” “Ungoverned?” Both of these imply chaos in common usage just as much as “anarchy.” “A spontaneous, polycentric, or non-hierarchical social order?” Gag.

Fortunately, there’s another thing you can do when dealing with a conceptual package deal: you can pick out the part of the concept you want to preserve and defend, and then explicitly challenge the presupposition behind the attempt to package-deal it with the part of the concept you don’t want to defend. For example, this is what gay men and lesbians did when they reclaimed the words “homosexual” and “bisexual” from the psychiatrists; the words used to be used so as to imply both (1) having particular types of sexuality, and also (2) suffering from mental illness. The gay liberation movement embraced (1) but chucked (2) out the door, and it didn’t take too long for much of the rest of the world to catch up.

It might seem like taking the reclamation route is somehow a drain on time, since it gets you tangled up in other people’s confused terminology. But I’m not at all sure that’s right. Identifying and challenging the confusion that’s implicit in the ordinary use of the word — e.g. the confusion between lawlessness and riot, or the presupposition that only government force can produce social harmony — is part and parcel of the strategy of reclaiming the term. In some important ways, it involves you much more in meeting people where they are, whereas minting new language can lead you into inadvertently sidestepping the real issue, by not confronting the confusion that’s at the core of the dispute over the meaning of e.g. “anarchy.”


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