Ph.D. Octopus

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Anarchism and Barbarism

with 3 comments

by Weiner

I’ve long associated anarchism with modernity. I think of figures like Emma Goldman (left) or Mikhail Bakunin (right) at the vanguard of a movement associated with the industrial revolution, Marxism, feminism, technology, and radicalism of all kinds, moving society forward; swiftly, violently, but always forward.

Mikhail BakuninIn retrospect, I was being a bit silly.

At a recent American history workshop at NYU, I got to hear University of Washington historian Moon-ho Jung present a terrific paper, a work in progress from his upcoming book The Unruly Pacific: Race and the Politics of Empire and Revolution, 1898-1941. Without giving away anything significant from that project, one thing I did realize was that, in the rhetoric surrounding the Spanish-American War in the Philippines, commentators linked anarchism with barbarism, with savagery, with a pre-modern lack of civilization.

In a way, this makes perfect sense. Thomas Hobbes‘ (below) major book, Leviathan, a staunch defense of conservative government, contrasts the stability of a regime governed by an absolute sovereign with barbaric, pre-modern “state of nature” where life was “nasty, brutish, and short.” Despite it’s conservatism, Hobbes’ government is progress.

If we return to the Old Testament (or as I like to call it, The Bible), there’s a sense in which the pre-historic past, in the Garden on Eden, is one that is prior to government. The introduction of the law is what leads to the establishment of the Kingdom of Israel. Again, government is progress (though there is a strong anti-authoritarian strain in the Hebrew Bible as well).

The ancient Greeks too seemed to distinguish between their own culture, epitomized by democratic Athens, as the height of civilization, as distinguished from the non-Greek barbarians they encountered in warfare. Rome, as a republic or an empire, shone above the barbarian hordes waiting at the gates to destroy it, bringing about the “Dark Ages.”

Of course, the links between anarchism and pre-modernity need not be entirely pernicious. Jean-Jacques Rousseau (right) posited the existence of a pre-modern, non-European state of equality to be envied, if not necessarily emulated.

So despite my association of anarchism with modernity, one can just as easily link anti-government thought to the pre-modern, even the pre-historic, either to celebrate that state of nature for its lack of oppression or to condemn it for its violence and chaos.

Again, all this is somewhat intuitive if you just stop to think about it. I guess I just never did.


Written by David Weinfeld

April 11, 2011 at 20:09

3 Responses

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  1. one word: atavism!


    April 11, 2011 at 22:27

  2. Although anarchy, as an idea, clearly has a long history – extending back to Ancient Greece at least – the affirmation of anarchy as a good state of affairs, I think, is probably a more modern idea. So I think you’re initial intuition was right.

    Rousseau, as you said, was one of the first to glorify anarchic society. But it’s hard to think of examples that predate him. Maybe the Ancient stoics, perhaps, are one example. They thought that earthly existence and politics were worthless and meaningless, and that only the universal Kingdom of God or reason was real.

    Also, in the bible, there’s a very obvious sense in which pre-political society (i.e. the Garden of Eden) is the greatest of all. OK, there’s progress when we get the Kingdom of Israel, but presumably it would have been even better had Adam not eaten the apple and we had never been banished from the original garden.

    Aside from these examples, though, I do think the endorsement of anarchy as a positive social ideal is a relatively modern phenomenon. As you say, it must be associated with Marxism and its radical criticism of capitalism, to a certain extent, but I don’t really know enough about its roots to say much more. Perhaps its associated with the gloom and pessimism of the 20th Century?

    Can I just add that I often find it strange and paradoxical to see anarchists and socialists intermingling at protests. Recently in London there were major protests against the raising of tuition fees. When the protests went violent, it turned out, I think, that it was the anarchists who were doing most of the vandalism.

    But why are ANARCHISTS and not socialists, or social democrats, protesting the reduction of the role of government in society? Isn’t the whole idea that anarchists want no government, no social programs, no welfare, no state? Shouldn’t the retraction of government subsidies be a good thing, according to an anarchist? I don’t understand their presence at such protests.

    Adam E

    April 12, 2011 at 13:03

  3. Thanks for the comment Adam.

    I think it’s probably correct that the positive view of anarchism is more recent, though I actually think this more positive view of anarchism is pretty solid in the Hebrew Bible, and not just in the garden of Eden. As I mentioned in the original post, there is an anti-authoritarian, anti-monarchical strain in the Bible. There are strains that opposed the idea of a king, arguing that God should be the only king necessary. There are is an anti-urban sentiment in the Bible, which associates cities with sin, which I think can in some sense be construed as anarchical, or at least anti-government. Since many authors put the Bible together, these strains exist along with pro-monarchical voices.

    I also think there is an ascetic tradition in the Hebrew Bible, and even stronger in the New Testament, which has some anarchic tendencies. Downplaying the importance of the material world is in some sense an attack on government, as government is supposed to govern the material, not the spiritual. Jesus’ line, “Render unto Caesar the things which are Caesar’s, and unto God the things that are God’s” (Matthew 22:21) does not call for the destruction of government, but certainly seems to denigrate the importance of government. St. Augustine’s distinctions between the City of Man and City of God follows this same line of reasoning.

    As for the more current situation, I think you’re right to point out these bizarre inconsistencies. Part of this I think is the notion of “les extremes se touchent,” that you can have left-wing anarchists who are sympathetic to socialism and right-wing anarchists, or anarcho-capitalists who have taken the libertarianism of Ayn Rand to what they see as its logical extreme. I don’t know as much about this as I should, so I should probably read Robert Nozick.

    I think there are people who oppose state power in terms of the military and abuses of civil liberties, who might seem to have anarchist tendencies, but endorse state power in terms of the welfare state, healthcare, etc. That’s on the left. On the right, some seem to oppose state power in terms of the welfare state but like a strong military. Neither position is really consistent if you profess anarchism, or even libertarianism really. But consistency is political views is often hard to come by, and I think we’re all guilty of hypocrisy every now and again.

    I think part of the problem is the unnecessary reification of the state, the view that the state somehow acts independently of the people who make it up: voters, taxpayers, bureaucrats, elected officials, etc. To me, the state, at least ideally, represents the will of the majority (though protecting minority and individual rights) in some form of social contract.


    April 12, 2011 at 19:48

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