All political labels are limited in their usefulness, and confusion abounds regarding most of them. When a certain political persuasion is being criminalized, it is particularly important to examine the principles involved.
If anarchy means chaos, disorder, lawlessness, reckless disregard for person and property, then the London vandals who set private buildings on fire and the hooligans who jumped on police misconduct as an excuse to loot in the service of their worldly desires were indeed practitioners of anarchy. One could conceivably argue that the word means absence of archy—meaning absence of rule of any kind, including the rule of law, which would render the word a proper label to affix to lawlessness and a philosophy that favors social chaos.
But the word has another definition, which means something distinctly different. It can also mean the absence of rule as in government. And here we have to ask, what is government? Again, we arrive at two possible answers, at least. Government can simply mean lawful order, organization, social hierarchy. Or it can refer to the political institution known as the state—the organization that lays claim to a monopoly on legal violence. Many who have regarded themselves anarchists are opposed not so much to social order or even law and its enforcement, but to the state, arguing that in fact the state as an institution inevitably acts outside the natural law in order to maintain its coercive monopoly.
Most of the London looters probably do not qualify as this kind of anarchist, a serious philosophical tradition that includes Josiah Warren, Henry David Thoreau, Leo Tolstoy, William Lloyd Garrison, Lysander Spooner, Albert J. Nock, Karl Hess, Murray Rothbard and many others. This is the approximate heritage of lawful anarchy that is explored and defended in the Independent Institute book Anarchy in the Law.
In London, the characterization of the looters and violent rioters as “anarchists” carries very dangerous implications. This can be seen in the fact that the British police, about a week before the riots began, issued a warning for citizens to be on the lookout for and report anarchist behavior. What makes this especially disconcerting is the definition the British officials used for anarchism:
[N]ext to an image of the anarchist emblem, the City of Westminster police’s “counter terrorist focus desk” called for anti-anarchist whistleblowers stating: “Anarchism is a political philosophy which considers the state undesirable, unnecessary, and harmful, and instead promotes a stateless society, or anarchy. Any information relating to anarchists should be reported to your local police.”
As Brian Martinez pointed out, “This wouldn’t be so worrisome, had the police characterized anarchism in the uninformed and sensationalist fashion still common in mainstream media: that of radically leftist vandals intent on dismantling not just the state but the capitalist infrastructure that in their view props it up. Violent thugs, in other words; the kind who show up at G-20 summits to smash windows and set fires.”
Instead, the British government was defining anarchism in a purely philosophical manner, declaring that it was the mere belief that the state is “undesirable, unnecessary, and harmful” and so “promotes a stateless society.” Yet when the protests erupted, the media jumped on the bandwagon of calling the violent looters “anarchists,” making no distinction between believers in a peaceful philosophy of anti-statism and those who engage in wanton destruction of private property.
This conflation of anti-statism and violent thuggery is hardly new. House Republican leader John Boehner described some of the Tea Party attendees as “anarchists who want to kill all of us in public office.” In 2003, the FBI was involved in heavy surveillance of anti-Iraq war protesters—people who were principally opposing the lawless violence being unleashed in the Middle East by Washington, a reminder that the bad kind of “anarchy” is often a result of government planning—with one FBI official quoted as saying, “it’s obvious that there are individuals capable of violence at these [antiwar] events. We know that there are anarchists… trying to sabotage and commit acts of violence.”
This should send chills down the spine of civil libertarians all across the spectrum, since the United States has a poor record on the rights of so-called anarchists. In the aftermath of World War I, the feds rounded up and deported hundreds of such people to Communist Russia. Many of them indeed had some confused views on society and economics, to be sure, and some were hardly model citizens, but few were any sort of violent threat and none of them should have been damned to live under Bolshevik tyranny for their political views.
Many “anarchists” who call for the dissolution of the state want to replace it with a social organization that wouldn’t work. Many do not understand the necessity of the market and other traditional social institutions. But even these “left-anarchists” are not usually violent people. The looting done in London was mostly apolitical—it was a bunch of young folks, raised in a socially degenerate world destroyed by statism, particularly welfare statism, acting in their self-interest to seize whatever they wanted. The police responded in a violent way that hardly helped in the main. Gun control had long made it difficult for Britons to protect themselves. In the end, it was largely the people, including demonized immigrant populations, defending themselves and their communities from the violence, who were the big heroes—much as in the L.A. riots in 1992, when storeowners brandishing personal firearms maintained order in areas the police dared not enter.
As for the London inhabitants who actually identify as anarchists, their political and economic views are not my cup of tea. But despite what I view as their confusion about many issues, they tended not to favor the looting and violence. Even before the riots, they were targeted by the UK police for their opposition to the state, but they should not be lumped in with the welfare-state hooligans destroying private property. In a press release one anarchist group made it clear:
[A]s revolutionaries, we cannot condone attacks on working people, on the innocent. Burning out shops with homes above them, people’s transport to work, muggings and the like are an attack on our own and should be resisted as strongly as any other measure from government ‘austerity’ politics, to price-gouging landlords, to bosses intent on stealing our labour. Tonight and for as long as it takes, people should band together to defend themselves when such violence threatens homes and communities.
Britain has long been ahead of the United States when it comes to thought crime. Even before the London riots, their police were ominously going after people for their political views. Let’s hope the social chaos resulting from years of flawed government policies—in both social welfare and policing the streets—does not result in depredations on the civil liberties of anyone, particularly those whose only crime is opposing the existence of the very institutions that have failed to keep order and social peace.