Boff Whalley: 'In defence of anarchy'

originally published

It's the catch-all term that's being used to describe this week's riots. But is this really anarchy? Not even close, says Chumbawumba's Boff Whalley, a self-professed anarchist

Friday, 12 August 2011

ANARCHY SPREADS!" So ran the front-page headlines of The Daily Telegraph and the Daily Mail this week. Add in the Daily Star's "ANARCHY IN THE UK" and The Sun's "ANARCHY" and you have the print media's current (and ongoing) favourite catch-all word: anarchy. Just the ticket for a spot of lazy demonising.

I became an anarchist, gradually, after seeing the Sex Pistols on our black-and-white TV in Burnley in 1976. Thirty-five years later, I still label myself an anarchist, albeit with various philosophical explanations and political definitions. For most of those 35 years I've played in a band – Chumbawamba – whose crowning moment (according to the demonising press) was chucking a bucket of water over the deputy prime minister John Prescott at an awards ceremony.

Chumbawamba began life in 1982 as an anarchist collective; it remains so to this day. Our working principle, inspired less by theoretical posturing than by the practicalities of working Unlike most pop groups – which appear to wallow in the bad-vibes hierarchy of songwriter-as-boss, drummer-as-slave – we choose to put equal value on our separate roles in the band. And not just in the band – lead singers have to wash the dishes and drive the van, too.

Anarchy – or, to be more precise, anarchism – gives me, and gives the band, a framework for working respectfully and equally with each other. We manage ourselves, we don't vote on decisions (in an eight-piece group, that might mean three disgruntled people bent to the will of the other five). Instead, we discuss, compromise and eventually reach an agreement we're all relatively happy with. Yes, it sometimes takes a long time.

Anarchy. It comes from the Greek anarchos: "an" meaning without, "archos" meaning leaders or rulers. Without leaders. It could be that simple; instead, this is where it gets complicated.

The political and philosophical idea that is "anarchism" has become, headline by headline, dislocated from the current use of the word "anarchy". Anarchy used to mean the state to which anarchism aspires. Now, of course, it has come to mean disorder – the kind of disorder that comes with photographs of boys throwing bricks at riot police and kicking their way into electrical-goods shops. Anarchy is modern shorthand for the law of the jungle. How did this change come about? Where was the semantic leap from "without rulers" to "disorder"? That change came from above. There are several ways that words can change their meaning over time; popular culture especially loves to shake up the Scrabble letters and create new meanings from old words. But there's also a tradition of words being redefined to suit the needs of those in power: from "Luddite" to "friendly fire" to "hoodie".

The latter is now used to denote those opportunist consumers who are, according to The Sun, "anarchists", despite not having the slightest idea of who Pierre-Joseph Proudhon was. He was the first self-declared anarchist, who in 1840, in What Is Property, defined anarchy as "the absence of a master, of a sovereign". Later, in The General Idea Of The Revolution (1851), he urged a "society without authority". See, no mention of disorder or chaos. Whatever we might think of our latter-day looters, they're not anarchists. But this current crop of masked lads is not the one bandying the word "anarchy" around, after all. All they want is to do some free shopping and have a laugh. Perhaps it would be a good thing if these disenfranchised, disengaged kids did learn a bit about the brush they're being tarred with – anarchist? Wot, me? Then again, they're growing up under a government that seems to actively dissuade poor families from pursuing higher education.

The headlines following the rioting that broke out at the London anti-cuts demonstration in March and at last November's student protest noticeably avoided the word "anarchy". Student hooligans, thuggish, disgraceful – but not quite anarchy. The inference is that those riots weren't the dreaded hoodies, and that and smashing Topshop and McDonald's has a political explanation. The current rioting does bring to mind a very specific form of anarchist politics, that of Situationism. Guy Debord, Parisian anarchist and Situationist philosopher, first described the so-called Society of the Spectacle in 1964. This classic anarchist text described a world where consumerism would run rampant and the acquisition of "things" would become the dominant force in society. The representation of that world – as a spectacle – would supersede reality. Debord knew about reality TV and the Nintendo Wii decades before they were invented.

Again, reading Debord, there's no mention of disorder, of mob rule, or of victimisation, bullying or mugging. But his critique of the alienating effects of capitalism – and the spiritual vacuum of modern life – chimes with this week's TV images of youths roaming the city. When I first discovered anarchism as a teenager, I was relieved to discover a political idea that looked like fun – unlike the earnest, po-faced championing of wage-slavery or the careerist élitism of the major political parties. Anarchism seemed relevant and contemporary. It changed according to the way the world was changing – unlike the old dogmatic socialist stuff, it was able to accommodate new ideas like feminism and environmentalism. There wasn't a party line but yes, there were parameters, albeit loose ones. These encompassed respect, equality and mutual aid and were never broad enough to allow whatever definition The Daily Telegraph, Daily Mail or The Sun have put on the word this past week.

Proudhon, in his essay "What Is Property?" (1840), explicitly rejected the conjoining of anarchism with destruction and disorder: "I am not an agent of discord. Man's government of his fellow man, no matter the name under which it lurks, is oppression: society's highest perfection lies in the marriage of order and anarchy." Similarly, Mikhail Bakunin answered the criticism that getting rid of leaders would result in the law of the jungle: "Do you want to make it impossible for anyone to oppress his fellow man? Then make sure that no one shall possess power."

As a teenager I turned from the gang mentality of hanging out on street corners into an idealistic and hopeful anarchist, more concerned with scrawling peace signs on my schoolbooks than setting fire to things. There was still cynicism; but there was also hope. Noam Chomsky depicts anarchism as "based on the hope that core elements of human nature include sentiments of solidarity, mutual support, sympathy and concern for others". To me, it's still that way.

Some self-proclaimed anarchists you may have heard of: George Melly, John Cage, Noam Chomsky, Emma Goldman, Germaine Greer, Henry Miller, Joseph Proudhon, Malcolm McLaren, Mike Harding. If you can picture any of them amongst the mugshots on the front of this week's Sun you could grab yourself a reward. Do you think any of the people I've mentioned would use the description "anarchist" as meaning "one who loves disorder"?

When the Spanish anarchists in 1936 declared war against General Franco's fascist coup, thousands of British people (including George Orwell) went to help them. The British government stood by and watched as the fascist Italian and German forces came to Franco's aid and installed a Nationalist government. Three years later, strengthened by the victory in Spain, Nazi Germany and its Italian allies declared war on the rest of Europe. I like to think that this was a time (during and after the Spanish Revolution) when all right-thinking people reflected on an opportunity lost. A three-year span when, along with fighting a war on several fronts, the Spanish anarchists were collectivising land and property and organising according to libertarian principles.

Over the years, as a musician and as a writer, I've watched how traditional hierarchies in the workplace create divisions and arguments. I don't think I'm alone in not wanting to have a boss tell me what to do. I refuse to have a boss tell me what to do. The bargaining tool that's unspoken in that statement is that I will happily relinquish the power to tell other people what to do. That, for me, is anarchism. I won't order you about, if you don't order me about. And together we'll make it work.

It sounds so naïve. But I'd rather have that sense of possibilities, of something better, than the all-too-obvious battle being waged between dislocated youth and millionaire politicians. As the Prime Minister ups the rhetoric – egging on the police to stick the boot in harder – it's easy to see the similarities between the two scrapping factions.

I have sympathies with the hooded kids on the streets of our cities, if only because they're among the most neglected, ridiculed and dismissed people in Britain. I don't sympathise when they're breaking into my house. I don't sympathise when they're setting fire to local shops, when they're mugging and intimidating.

But when I see the TV shots of them in Manchester city centre, breaking into the Arndale Centre – a truly Debordian Palace of Consumerism – stealing shoes and tracksuits, I find it hard to be overly critical. These are kids brought up in an age of buy and sell. Labels, logos, status, advertising. This is the world we've given them; a world they're throwing back at us.

Andrew Maxwell, an Irish comedian, put it best: "Create a society that values material things above all else. Strip it of industry. Raise taxes for the poor and reduce them for the rich and for corporations. Prop up failed financial institutions with public money. Ask for more tax, while vastly reducing public services. Put adverts everywhere, regardless of people's ability to afford the things they advertise. Allow the cost of food and housing to eclipse people's ability to pay for them. Light blue touch paper."

Anarchy is not disorder. Anarchy is a state that is arrived at through the philosophy of anarchism. Mutual aid. Without rulers. Living together. Working things out together. David Cameron returned from his holiday in Italy this week and stood outside Downing Street, declaring to the media that the rioting was "criminality, pure and simple". More lazy semantics, more meaningless shorthand. "Criminal" isn't an explanation, it's a word that begs an explanation. Yes, they committed a crime. What was the crime? What was the reason for the crime?

These kids who are being labelled with pure and simple definitions are becoming little more than cartoon baddies playing out roles for the front pages. Why ask questions (Where are they from? How did they get to this point? What can they learn? Can they begin to understand what they're doing?) when you can just call it anarchy? And anarchy, unlike questions, sells.

The politicians and the press are able to bandy words around without depth or explanation because they last for one day. Instant hit. Tomorrow, there will be a whole new set of semantics to frown about, to criticise. But by the time you've written a 2,000-word diatribe, it's time for the next day's edition.

I love words. I always loved words. When we started Chumbawamba in 1982 we decided that our raison d'etre would be topicality. Change. Keep up! Over the past 29 years we've tried to keep faith with that simple ethos and along the way we've realised that words are flexible, adaptable, up for grabs. That's a lovely challenge for any writer, songwriter or poet. Some words you want to let go of, get rid of, kick out. Some words you want to keep close and protect. Right now, subsequent to the newspaper headlines, I'm almost prepared to let the word "anarchy" (as opposed to "anarchism") go. But you know what, I can't do it, not to The Sun and the Daily Mail. It's like letting the burglar look after your house.

Anarchism, anarchy, they're only words; but they're my words, they're our words. No manner of headlines will take them away from us. As Johnny Rotten once said: "I am an anarchist."