As Black Lives Matter activists declare an autonomous zone in Seattle, Tom Hodgkinson reflects on the history of anarchism
The first philosopher to call himself an anarchist was Pierre-Joseph Proudhon. In his 1840 book, What is Property?, he declared: “I am an anarchist.” By this he meant not that he wanted to throw spherical black bombs under the carriages of noblemen, but that he distrusted the principle of authority. The literal meaning of the word, which is Greek, is “against authority” or “no authority”. This means that the adjective “anarchist” can be applied to institutions as wide-ranging as the village cricket match or the medieval city state or a punk gig in a squat. The cricket match and city state and the punk gig might be very well organised, but they have been organised by a voluntary group and not under compulsion.
Later in the 19th century the anarchist Prince Kropotkin, a Russian aristocrat turned geographer turned political radical, wrote a book called Mutual Aid: A Factor of Evolution, which attempted to prove that, far from being locked in a winner-takes-all competition, humans and animals are in fact naturally inclined to help one another out.
Anarchy is in the news because a group of Black Lives Matter activists has taken over a set of buildings in Seattle and declared themselves to be a self-governing city state, rather like Christiania in Copenhagen. It’s called CHAZ, or Capitol Hill Autonomous Zone. Accounts of the atmosphere of the occupation remind me a little of George Orwell’s description of the intoxicating period when Barcelona went briefly anarchist during the Spanish Civil War. A reporter from the Counterpunch website wrote:
“The businesses on the street were still open as was the park when I visited. There was no sign of smashed windows or burnt buildings. There had been no looting and there was no violence of any sort occurring.
“There was a ‘No Cop Co-Op’ covered stand offering free fruit, vegetables, snacks, umbrellas, hand sanitizer and water set up in the middle of their occupied territory. There was also a covered truck converted into a People’s Community Clinic with its own emergency medical team.”
As is customary with such innovations, the authoritarian enemies of the free thinkers spread slanders. President Trump has already attacked Seattle’s mayor, writing on the advertising sales business Twitter: “Take back your city NOW. If you don’t do it, I will.” He referred to the group as “ugly anarchists” and “terrorists that burn and pillage our cities”.
Anarchism in fact has a long and distinguished history as a peaceful political philosophy. You can find out more from my online course, A Brief Introduction to Anarchism.
These comments were mailed to us after the above piece was sent as a newsletter. We like to publish a selection and reserve the right to edit them for clarity. Feel free to drop us a line with your thoughts.
Fun to see my home town featured in a missive from across the waters. Thought you might like to know that the organizers of the autonomous zone are no longer using CHAZ, but rather CHOP in their communications: Capitol Hill Organized Protest. Another little local venture that might be of interest is the tiny town of Tenino, Washington–they are creating their own wooden currency to help those in need during the pandemic.
– Lyanda Haupt, Seattle
Speaking as an ex-spin bowler, how do I claim an LBW [leg before cricket] is an anarchic cricket match?
– James Aughterson
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