This article critiques a selection of the wide range of anarchist responses to the coronavirus/COVID-19 pandemic so far, and discusses the currency of anarchist ideas in this profound crisis. Different variants of anarchism hold to specific (though largely overlapping) political priorities, and these characteristics have been emphasised in the analyses of the pandemic crisis from across the anarchist spectrum. This could be interpreted as a kind of sectarian confirmation bias as people cling to their favoured ideologies like self-affirming life rafts, but anarchist ideas have, once again, gained some traction in the wider popular imagination. Anarchists of all stripes can, and should, contribute to this popularisation from their own specific perspectives, but we cannot remain confined within our comfortable echo chambers. Anarchist ideas are crucial at this moment as a bulwark against the ‘nightmare’ re-installation of ‘a savage neo-liberal system’ imposed by ‘powerful state violence’ – the ‘neo-liberal plague’ as Chomsky has recently termed it – and, as such, we must do everything we can to sustain and deepen the proliferation of anarchist thinking and organising in this moment.
Is it going to be anarchy?
In the midst of any crisis or disaster, swarms of commentators shrilly warn of the ‘anarchy’ that is about to befall us (unless we follow the specific course of action exhorted by that particular commentator, naturally). But, in the context of the coronavirus/COVID-19 pandemic crisis, we can identify numerous manifestations of the kinds of ‘anarchy’ we, as anarchists, would applaud. I don’t want to be glib – the reported death toll is already approaching 120,000  globally, thousands upon thousands more people are going to die as a result of this pandemic, and millions upon millions will see their livelihoods upended by the economic recession and depression that is taking hold. Those apparently hyperbolic voices that cry, ‘it’s going to be anarchy’ aren’t entirely wrong – as Proudhon put it in his own adoption of the ‘anarchist’ nomenclature in 1840: ‘[t]he ordinary meaning attributed to the word “anarchy” is … as a synonym of “disorder”’. But it is the ‘positive anarchy’ of a much more hopeful bent that has been a key trope of people’s response to the crisis. We should push this popularisation of anarchist ideas and anarchistic forms of organisation as far as possible against the oppressive trends of increased police powers and state surveillance. The pandemic crisis has called to a halt the political circus that Frank Zappa described as ‘the entertainment branch of industry’. In place of ‘Politics’, more fundamental social issues have come to the fore, and anarchist ideas are resonating around those conversations.
In recent weeks, anarchistic language has become commonplace even beyond the plethora of anarchist media platforms, blogs, listservs and message boards. For example, mainstream/right-wing journalists have discussed UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s ‘libertarian mind’ struggling to come to terms with the huge state interventions that have been undertaken to try to tackle the pandemic. Jon Bigger, writing for Freedom News, has skewered that bogus application of anarcho-terminology, reminding us that the word has been ‘bastardised’ and that ‘to be really clear … Boris Johnson is not a libertarian’. Whatever shade of Tory Johnson was supposed to be prior to the crisis, he seems to have undergone a Damascene conversion, as evidenced by his statement on 29th March that ‘there really is such a thing as society’ (contra Thatcher – though he was already on his way to full communism with his ‘fuck business!’ blurt in June 2018). The Belarusian president, Alexander Lukashenko, also struck a ‘libertarian’ pose, telling journalists while playing in an ice hockey match on 28th March that ‘it is better to die on your feet than live on your knees’. In Ireland, the Taoiseach, Leo Varadkar, announced a tightening of ‘lockdown’ measures on 27th March with a paean to the virtues of freedom:
Freedom was hard won in our country, and it jars with us to restrict and limit individual liberties, even temporarily. But freedom is not an abstract concept. We give it meaning every single day – in the way we live our lives – and in the decisions we take willingly to protect our loved ones.
Varadkar may have been attempting to deflect from the uncomfortable gaffe of paraphrasing Winston Churchill during his St. Patrick’s Day speech ten days prior, but in any case, this extraordinary language from state ‘leaders’ would have been a ludicrous prospect just a few short weeks ago. We are a far cry from Politics-as-usual.