Why is anarchism always 'self-described'

"Self-described anarchist" Jeff Monson

Reading through some of the coverage of the greek riots which have been happening, I couldn't help but notice the words 'self-described anarchists' cropping up a lot.

The picture is of Jeff 'self-decribed anarchist' Monson, a well-known professional fighter with, you may note, a red and black star on his chest, just over his heart.

It's kind of difficult to see Monson as anything other than an anarchist. The guy is never short of a word or two if asked on the subject, and having read a couple of interviews, he seems pretty solidly in my political camp. Yet apparently, his word isn't good enough for a host of writers from around the world.

Neither is mine for that matter. The last time I intervened in an online debate where right-wingers abounded, noting as I went that I was an editor of the anarchist newspaper Freedom, I was told off for being not only a self-described anarchist but one who had the temerity to use the internet.

Most recently of course, we have all these self-described anarchists running the streets of Athens throwing mollies and merrily causing CHAOS (oh and by the way a child was shot by police).

Now to be sure, there are people calling themselves anarchists who really shouldn't, but spotting them in a crowd of thousands is quite an achievement.

So do these reporters know something we don't? Are our protestations that no, really, we actually do think there are better ways of organising the world than capitalism and hierarchy not good enough? And why are Tories let off the hook? Why is David Cameron not a 'self-described conservative'? Why is Gordon Brown not a 'self-described neo-liberal'?

The answer of course is that the root of such phrasing is ignorance. The average reporter, while attempting to sound like an unerring authority on every subject under the sun, understands so little about what anarchism actually means that they think citing it as your political creed must just be shock tactics - a way of sounding that bit more hardcore, because anarchists, well, they're into CHAOS aren't they.

Around this site are a thousand and one articles explaining why this is a ridiculous assumption, so I won't waste space through repetition. But suffice to say, this kind of rubbish the fault of their ignorance, not our self-definitions.

Perhaps, if they want to be truly accurate, they could start with a byline of John Smith, self-described 'reporter'.

Posted By

Rob Ray
Dec 9 2008 21:52


Attached files


Dec 9 2008 23:11

Well, it isn't always "self-described" -- sometimes it's "self-styled", "self-proclaimed", etc.

Dec 9 2008 23:42

I saw some journo friendly type claiming that it was because "anarchist" could be used as some sort of insult adding "self-styled" was a way of saying that it wasn't the journalist dubbing these people under fairly as "anarchists", but that was how they chose to label themselves.

Either way it's obviously bollocks, and it appears as a clear attack on the idea or image of anarchism

Dec 10 2008 00:08

I remember discussing this with a friend last year - after the state terror raids in NZ which saw anarchists (amongst others) arrested, there were a few days where the media started referring to them (and even to some of us supporting them) as "anarchists" without a prefix. Only lasted for a few days though, then it was back to "self-described"...

Dec 10 2008 14:41

I think what many hacks are trying and struggling to describe is just how stylish anarchists are. (Especially the Greek ones.)

futility index
Dec 10 2008 16:36
I was told off for being not only a self-described anarchist but one who had the temerity to use the internet.

The anarchism = anti-civillisation thing is annoying.

Black Badger
Dec 16 2008 01:39

Even self-described anti-civilization types use the internet; even those not self-described do.

Dec 16 2008 10:57

Ah you know as well as I do if someone has said they're an anarchist and you have the notes to prove it they've got nothing, no arse-covering required.

Black Badger
Dec 17 2008 03:04

I'm willing to go out on a limb and say that very few (if any at all) self-described or self-styled reporter has ever interviewed one of the people they refer to as self-described anarchists.

Black Badger
Dec 17 2008 13:21

When was the last time you were interviewed during or about a riot?

Black Badger
Dec 19 2008 02:09

Rob was specifically bringing up the context of the riots in Greece; that's what I was responding to. But you haven't answered my question: When was the last time you were interviewed at all?

Dec 19 2008 03:03

BB - I've been interviewed tons of times over various campaigns/demos over the years. Sometimes my quotes are taken out of context/misrepresented, but sometimes they aren't.

Black Badger
Dec 20 2008 03:51

And are you called a "self-described" anarchist? Or just "anarchist"?

Dec 20 2008 04:02

Off the top of my head, I think I've prob been called both. Also "protester", "activist" and "environmentalist".

Black Badger
Dec 20 2008 18:14

Self-described enviro, or self-described protester, or self-described activist? The last time I was approached respectfully by a reporter, there were no instances of "self-described" anywhere in his article. That there were over 200 of us at an explicitly anarchist gathering may have had something to do with the lack of that condescending adjective.

Dec 21 2008 12:27

no, no self-described on those 3, as far as I can remember...

Black Badger
Dec 22 2008 01:55

Which is precisely the point.

jef costello
Dec 23 2008 03:09
Black Badger wrote:
Rob was specifically bringing up the context of the riots in Greece; that's what I was responding to. But you haven't answered my question: When was the last time you were interviewed at all?

In the context of the riots I doubt it is really arse-covering, it's not as if the people on the streets are likely to file a licel complaint. I'd imagine it's mostly used in interviews to make sure it's clear that the person has described themselves as such and to belittle anarchism and the person themself. 'Self-described' implies that the description is either wrong or is pejorative therefore the person has picked this label for some reason that a 'normal' person isn't really going to understand.

Dec 24 2008 04:10
Black Badger wrote:
Rob was specifically bringing up the context of the riots in Greece; that's what I was responding to. But you haven't answered my question: When was the last time you were interviewed at all?

Well yes but his point is a more general one, hence the use of Monson and various interviews where he's cited as a 'self-described' anarchist. Another pop-culture figure I've seen labelled with the 'self-described anarchist' tag is the drummer from that band FallOutBoy, Andy Hurley. Now whatever about Hurley's politics (he's a 'green anarchist' and played on infamous hardline band Vegan Reich's reunion ep years back), fact is in most things I've read about them where politics comes up the 'calls himself' or 'self-described' thing is right in there.

To me it seems like a way, not only of derision or covering asses, I mean no one feels like they need to cover their ass to label someone 'conservative', but to make it seem like anarchist tendencies are not even legitimate. So it goes beyond deriding them as stupid or wrong, but rather not even worth considering on the political radar - 'yeah they call themselves anarchists, but no-one really believes that stuff'. Such a view ignores the history of anarchism as an established tendency.

As for the ass-covering, I could understand it in the context of highly contentious, potentially libellous currents - labelling someone 'white power' carries with it more risk, even if the person labelled is overt as hell aboutn their persuasion. Other labels like ooh i dunno 'irish separatist' might warrant the 'self-described' because they are unfamiliar, puzzling, and no-one even know quite what the fuck they mean wink

Jan 1 2009 19:04

I think xConorx is spot on: the "self-described" adjective is used to discredit anarchism as a valid political orientation for grown-ups.

Mar 13 2010 02:37

i think the problem tends to be that the journalists bible, the associated press (ap) stylebook, lacks a strict definition of when to use the word anarchist. especially because the political use of the word was reclaimed by political philosophers long after its more commonly accepted meaning as chaos and disorderly conduct. while a wikipedia article might fill you in on the political anarchist movement, which is not an appropriate source for professional journalists (not my personal opinion, but its understandable to a point) a legitimate professional source may not have that information available (common dictionaries/thesauruses/encyclopedias). so in ones mind, who may have little interest in the story being covered beyond it being a recent event, thinks of "anarchy" as "chaos".
i remember a front page article from a paper that was captioned in big bold letters "ANARCHY" and under that caption was not a picture that comes to my mind when i think of anarchy in big bold letters (anarchist unions and organizing during the spanish civil war, collective run economic practices, black blocs or meetings that seem never to end). it was an aerial shot of a destroyed city after a storm. so this is the kind of way that a professional journalist would use the term "anarchy". if this is the term they use, then its for the best if they use "self-described anarchist" for political anarchists. i dont see it as a journalist being a jerk and trying to say "look this gals so crazy, he calls herself a journalist". i see it more like "im being fare, im not calling this person an anarchist b/c of my perceptions of his actions, im calling this person an anarchist b/c im reporting what she said to me or what he presented."
beyond that, is "anarchist" still a relevant term to use today? it has preconceived ideas from its history as a negative term, its definition of "lack of government" is not very fitting for its political work and analysis today covering economics, gender, race... its usage seems shocking to the general public who are unfamiliar with the political usage of the term, why not use terms like libertarian-socialist or autonomist when speaking to the media?
also, anarcho-capitalists were at a recent anarchist book fair. they didnt use the term "anarcho-capitalist" they used the term "anarchist". if you were writing a report on them would you call them "anarcho-capitalists" or say they were "self-described anarchists, that misguidedly believe capitalism is not at the root of all exploitation"?