Monday, March 30, 2009

Ask your conscience if anarchism is right for you

When I was growing up, anarchism was a poorly rendered capital "A" above the elementary school toilet. In this context, it did not capture my imagination. I understood it to mean "anarchy" -- chaos -- and presumed it to be about as well conceived as the myriad of sexual proposals my gradeschool brethren produced alongside it. Sure, life might be bad, I would explain to them mid-pee, but reverting back to romper room was not the answer.

Throughout high school and college, the "anarchists" continued to make no impression. If anarchism meant a lack of structure, what possible use could come of it in the real world? Drop out if you want -- from meat, from paying taxes, from showering; do you expect that anyone will miss you? Conditions that go on without organized resistance go on unopposed, I would say. Government is here: do you want it to work for you or kick you in the shins? Dressing like a Mexican peasant in a hoodie and stewing in your own subculture might make good theatre, but it stands rather shabby as a threat.

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It was much too late in my life before I discovered the intellectual tradition that underpins contemporary anarchism, and which disabused me of prior impressions. The main thrust of it was the notion that all authority requires the consent of those it affects. Without consent, authority has no legitimacy, by default.

There are exceptions to this rule, but where there are exceptions, there are justifications. For example, adult authority does not always enjoy the consent of a child during childhood, but that does not mean such authority is always illegitimate. It just means such authority must demonstrate why it is legitimate.

This orientation toward power informs our understanding of every exercise of authority in life. For this reason, anarchism does not prescribe specific behavior as much as it describes the natural human preference for making one's own choices; or, conversely, the human resistance against being told by others what to do.

One needn't call this "anarchism"; in fact, most people would not consciously think about it all. But insofar as the anarchist tradition strives to illuminate this innate tendency and defend its practice, it stands as a useful resource for anyone wanting to develop their own capacities further.

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