Trevor Sacks
Trevor Sacks

On Workers’ Day, it’s Anarchy vs Chaos

Certain common word usages literally get my blood boiling. Okay, that one was on purpose. Slate’s great podcast, Lexicon Valley, discusses all kinds of language-related topics, like the evolution of swearing, the etymology of the word “dude”, how children acquire language.

They make it a principle to stay away from superior judgments on so-called incorrect usages, since they make it clear in several episodes how language is constantly evolving, and that meanings drift over time. In fact, some usages stretch back far earlier than you might expect. Take my use of “literally” in the first paragraph. Lexicon Valley’s hosts discover the “incorrect” usage of the word, ie as an intensifier, in Mark Twain, F Scott Fitzgerald and at least as far back as Dickens.

But my objection to the use of “anarchy” goes deeper than word-nerdism. Jacob Zuma, in his recent Freedom Day address in Giyani, was quoted as saying, “[South Africa] must not be destroyed by anarchists who have no interest in our well-being”. The word “anarchy” comes from Greek – “an-“, meaning “without”, and “arkhos”, meaning “ruler” (the same “–arch” in monarch). He’s not the only politician to abuse the word. Sure, people use “anarchy” colloquially, intending a meaning akin to “chaos”, but in doing so, they do a great disservice to a worthy political idea.

In their book, Black Flame, two South Africans, Lucien van der Walt and Michael Schmidt, do a thorough job of tracing anarchism’s roots to socialist thinking of the mid-19th century. It was a great force in the trade union movement’s early days, and spread worldwide. Many important improvements in workplace conditions, including the eight-hour workday, were won largely through the efforts, with great loss of life, of the anarchist trade union movement. International Workers’ Day itself is a commemoration of the sacrifices anarchists made in furthering their cause (hear Peter Linebaugh on the The Incomplete, True, Authentic, and Wonderful History of May Day).

Anarchism has a fascinating, hidden history, with solid intellectual theory underpinning it. Springing from socialist ideas put forward by Mikhail Bakunin and Peter Kropotkin, anarchism is non-hierarchical, deeply democratic and tightly organised. The last of those three descriptions seems to go against the colloquial usage of “anarchy” and may account for the mistaken view of anarchism as a system.

The kind of imagery conjured by the abuse of the word is of lawless and brutal regions where the strong prey on the weak, and it’s every person for themself. Somalia comes up frequently in discussions on the subject. But the handful of examples of anarchist societies in history show a highly organised, radically democratic structure, with workers controlling factories and municipal functions with great success. (For first-hand accounts of life in an anarchist society during the Spanish Revolution, watch Living Utopia).

There are hints in world history that anarchism is viable, although the resistance it faced was always considerable. For it to be rejected because it has never lasted, as is often the argument, is a tragic failure of hope and imagination. Constitutional democracies had never existed in Europe while Enlightenment thinkers of the 18th century were theorising about them. They saw it was a good idea, an improvement on the system they were currently living under, and worked to bring it about. Monarchs resisted then, unsurprisingly, and those in power today – governments and corporations – can be expected to do so too when faced with the threat of real people power.

It’s important to understand that the kind of socialism put forward by Marx is not the only flavour out there. Radically democratic society is an idea that must be explored, and the trade union movement could be a powerful tool to bring it about. While discussions are under way in Johannesburg to form a new trade union federation, I hope those taking part don’t suffer from a lack of ambition. South Africa has already surprised the world in the manner in which we ended apartheid and instituted one of the most progressive constitutions in the world. With true control by the people of our own destiny, we can go further still.

Anarchy is not chaos. Clearly there’s plenty of chaos and brutality happening daily under the supposed rule of law, in dictatorships and constitutional democracies alike. And better leaders are not the answer, unless ordinary people as a whole become the leadership unto ourselves.

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