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Anarchism, Christianity, and the Prophetic Imagination 6

Written by Jason Barr : November 24, 2007

To this point we have engaged some preliminary questions about the natures of empire and resistance. Now it’s time to begin exploring the basics of anarchism, starting with a rebuttal of some common misconceptions about anarchy as a political philosophy (I should note here that I tend to use “anarchism” as referring to political anarchy, though my usage is not always consistent). Anarchism as a political philosophy is often confused with a more generalized notion of the meaning of “anarchy”. To quote Jesus Radicals:

Just like the word “Christianity” itself, the words “anarchy,” “anarchism” and “anarchist” are abused terms. They are abused so often by the media, state historians and government officials that, by no fault of her own, the average person on the street only thinks of chaos, terrorists and random violence when the term anarchist comes up.

The first major misconception is that anarchism is about chaos or disorder. In fact, anarchism is not a politics of disorder - quite the opposite, really. Pierre-Joseph Proudhon, who may have been the first person to use the term “anarchist” self-referentially, is famous for his statement, “Anarchy is order”. He said, “Liberty is the mother, not the daughter, of order.” Proudhon believed that if people could be freed from external tyrannies they would create for themselves a structure in which to live life that would be, on the whole, more free, more just, and more ordered than that which was imposed by the alliance of government, economic power, and military and police violence. Or, as David Layson put it, “Anarchy is not chaos, but order without control.”

Anarchism is not about disorder and chaos, it is about creating a different kind of order. Catholic Worker co-founder and anarchist Peter Maurin often described the goal of the movement as to create a society where it is easier for people to be good. This is a far cry from the common picture of anarchy as chaos that would inevitably be characterized by lawlessness and vigilante action, a dog-eat-dog world where strong prey on the weak. Anarchism is about as far as that as you can get, as we will see when we get more into what it is.

The second major misconception is that anarchism and anarchists are violent. The truth is that anarchism is fundamentally a critique of violence. It is true that some anarchists have used violent means to further their goals. It is also true that anarchists have often been confused with nihilists – there were groups of nihilists in Europe, particularly Russia in the late 19th and early 20th century who made a conscious tactical decision to assassinate as many people in positions of power as possible, hoping to create an attitude of fear among those who would be leaders and so eventually persuade them through fear of violence to leave those positions of power vacant. The relationship between nihilism and anarchism is complex, but on the whole anarchism is more critical than utilizing of violence and anarchists generally desire to create a more peaceful world.

It should also be noted that the destruction of property is often included in official reports as “acts of violence”, but there is a real debate that is going on, and has been going on for some time, about whether destruction of property should be considered an act of violence. Some would argue that it is, or at least can be, fundamentally an act of liberation. Anarchists tend to value human beings over property, and many feel that the modern nation-state, historically based as it is on Lockian philosophy that emphasized the state as an alliance between property owners for their mutual benefit, elevates property above humanity. This is not to necessarily endorse the destruction of property in all or even any circumstances, but rather to illustrate that there is actually a viable debate about property destruction as it relates to the concept of violence, and so it is disingenuous to automatically and unquestioningly point to property destruction as “acts of violence”.
Next time I shall begin to explore more of the nature of anarchism itself, beginning to discuss what anarchism is, rather than what it is not.

Jason Barr is a musician, writer, and the teaching pastor/worship leader at Ecclesia Christian Church in Evansville, Indiana. He is also the author of the radical Christian blog An Absolution Revolution. He is working on a Master of Arts in Liberal Studies at the University of Southern Indiana.


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    Jason,

    As I have had the opportunity to read your thoughts before over at Jesus Radicals, I wanted to say that I appreciate this particular series. As someone who is "flirting" with anarchism (with a Christian flavor), I must say that this post, above other things I have read, has begun to help me simplify and order what I really think. I look forward to your future posts.
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    I really recommend Ursual LeGuin's _The Dispossessed_ as a 'thought-experiment' on how an anarchic polity might function in actual practice, as contrasted with how governments and our owners run things. Not a state of perfection, nor an easy thing to achieve, but we've tried the alternatives! (which may well have brought us to being about to undergo fascism next, if I'm reading the signs of these peculiar times aright!)
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    Thank you for this series, Jason. As one who is also exploring these concepts I appreciate your cogent thoughts. I agree that 'anarchist' is a much-maligned word; even among intelligent, well-read Americans it instantly conjures up thoughts of Sacco and Vanzetti.

    I read your recent article on this subject at Absolution Revolution as well. I want very much to believe your claim that the current Republican fascisti do not represent all Republicans, but I keep coming back to the fact that Republicans intrinsically support the notion of order achieved through power and control, which, whether they comprehend it or not, leads inevitably to fascism or something very much like it.
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    And Sacco and Vanzetti were, according to some fairly reliable accounts (or at least accounts that must be considered for a full historical overview) railroaded.

    I am not sure that the Republican bent towards fascism is really significantly different from the Democrats', if you want to get into "slippery slope" style arguments. I think the basic tendency of government, regardless of party, is towards authoritarianism. But I do think there's a real difference between neoconservatives and Moral Majority-types and what I might call "true conservatives" who are often more like libertarians in their actual beliefs - limited government, fiscally conservative, and a number of "true conservatives" do not favor the kind of overseas interventions we've been undertaking for over a century. There's a very real historical anti-imperialist faction in the Republican party that has unfortunately been pretty effectively covered up for the last 60 or so years. That's the kind of "non-fascist Republican" I'm thinking of.

    Since I tend to think modern modes of government are pretty much inherently violent and totalizing I tend to see both major parties as leading to some kind of authoritarian rule - I used to say it was a matter of the Fascist Right versus the Totalitarian Left, but now I'm not so sure both parties aren't right-bending in terms of their practical politics.

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