Anarchy 31/Anarchism and practicability

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An­arch­ism and prac­tic­ab­il­ity


Ask the present people of Bri­tain if they would like to live in a peace­ful, class­less, race­less so­ci­ety and the only dis­sent­ers would be those who ima­gined they had some­thing to lose or who for reas­ons of per­sonal in­ad­equacy or sup­port of re­ac­tion­ary ideas ap­prove of hier­arch­ical so­ci­ety and dread a world of free and equal hu­man be­ings. Ex­plain to the as­sent­ers the prob­able time scale, the fact that much of ‘our Brit­ish way of life’ must be dis­carded, and that the per­sonal ef­fort in­volves much more than a vote every 5 years and their num­ber will be greatly di­min­ished. There re­mains those people who are dis­en­chanted with present so­ci­ety, see the need for rad­ical change and, most im­port­ant, are pre­pared to do some­thing about it.

  Now tell these re­main­ing people that you are de­scrib­ing an an­arch­ist so­ci­ety and that the method of achiev­ing it is an­arch­ism and you are left with a few curi­ous people and the con­vinced liber­tar­ians. Why then do so many well-in­ten­tioned people re­ject an­arch­ism and devote their ener­gies to short-term solu­tions to hu­man prob­lems which rarely deal to last­ing good? One of the main reas­ons is that they re­gard an­arch­ism as im­prac­tic­able. The ar­gu­ments used to sup­port this as­ser­tion fall into two cat­egor­ies: the first con­cerns as­sump­tions which an­arch­ists are falsely ac­cused of mak­ing; the second con­cerns views they do ex­press. The first group are the fa­mil­iar ‘ra­tion­al­isa­tion’ based on fear, pre­ju­dice and ig­nor­ance. Such as ‘an­arch­ists be­lieve people are natur­ally good’ when all that is main­tained is that they could be good enough to live in a free so­ci­ety. Or that ‘you can’t change hu­man nature’ (whatever that is) when what you hope to change is hu­man be­ha­viour by creat­ing a so­ciety which pro­motes good be­ha­viour. Or that ‘men are con­cerned primar­ily with self-in­terest’ which is true and the cre­ation of a har­mo­ni­ous so­ci­ety is surely in every­one’s self-in­terest. Or it is poin­ted out that priv­ate grief and per­sonal ant­agon­isms would still ex­ist in a free so­ci­ety as though lovers’ quar­rels ne­ces­sit­ate a stand­ing army.

  The second cat­egory of ob­jec­tions, however, those based on ac­tual an­arch­ist ideas in­cludes many valid points which must be con­sidered if an­arch­ism is ever to be­come a prac­tical, pos­it­ive force in so­ci­ety. There must be plenty of people, per­haps even a few in high places, who would be glad to adopt liber­tar­ian solu­tions to hu­man prob­lems if they thought such solu­tions real­istic. They often do adopt them in
lim­ited fields but this is not enough. Pre-Hitler Ger­many was full of ex­per­i­ments in art and films, psycho-ana­lysis, nud­ism, wan­der­ing ideal­istic youth move­ments but the re­sult­ing men­tal cli­mate did little to pre­vent Hitler’s rise to power. Indeed, really clever con­trol­ling classes would en­cour­age liber­tar­ian­ism in un­im­port­ant fields to divert at­ten­tion from the main issue which is eco­nomic.

  Many an­arch­ist ideas are of no prac­tical use, have no relev­ance in the modern world and should be con­signed to the museum. Before going on to discuss some of these use­less ideas and try­ing to sug­gest real­istic al­tern­at­ives, the word ‘prac­tic­abil­ity’ must be de­fined, for ac­cord­ing to how long you are pre­pared to wait and bear­ing in mind the state of flux pre­vail­ing in pres­ent so­ci­ety it is pos­sible to argue that any­thing, even the most Uto­pian sci­ence-fic­tion type so­ci­ety is prac­tic­able! In this art­icle, however, the word means ‘that which can reas­on­ably be re­garded as prac­tical either now or in the fore­see­able fu­ture’.

  Many ob­jec­tions con­cern the shape of an an­arch­ist so­ci­ety and while this can only be de­scribed in the broad­est of broad out­lines there are two often heard ver­sions which can well be set aside. The first is of a totally ag­ri­cul­tural (or even pas­toral) so­ci­ety with ma­chinery dis­carded. If indi­viduals want this well and good and there is noth­ing to pre­vent them start­ing next week provid­ing they are cap­able of mak­ing the neces­sary ef­fort. But to ex­pect whole pop­u­la­tions to re­vert to the simple-life is mere wish­ful think­ing. The ul­ti­mate end of some simple-lifers, the sort of ego-pro­jec­tion they mis­take for the fu­ture was aptly de­scribed by Ted Kavanagh in Anarchy 28 as ‘groups of bal­let dan­cers ca­vort­ing on verd­ant lawns with the Mantovani Strings in the back­ground and groups of fair-haired chil­dren sing­ing the verses of Pa­tience Strong’.

  At the other ex­treme from the dream of rus­tic sim­pli­city is the vi­sion of a so­ci­ety in which the smal­lest whim can be satis­fied by pres­sing a but­ton. This may be pos­sible in the ex­treme long run but the time-scale is enorm­ous, the degree of plan­ning and organ­isa­tion re­quired is dif­fi­cult to visu­al­ise in a free so­ci­ety and the ma­terial re­sources of the world would prob­ably not per­mit such mas­sive ma­ter­i­al­ism. The time scale is the most rel­ev­ant point. To ex­pect people to work now for some­thing which may be pos­sible 1,000 years hence, is a waste of time. However, left-wing ideas about so­ci­eties which be­long to the re­mote fu­ture, in­stead of stres­sing the time-scale, often give the im­pres­sion that such so­ci­eties are real­is­able in the next few years. The La­bour Party made this mis­take be­fore com­ing to power in 1945. Their pre-elec­tion pro­pa­ganda prom­ised a higher stand­ard of liv­ing, less work and to free the Em­pire on which the mea­gre liv­ing stand­ards largely de­pended. All this in the after­math of a de­struct­ive war. They for­got to make clear the length of time neces­sary to ef­fect such a pro­gramme and the re­sult was that many Labour voters be­came dis­il­lu­sioned when the So­cial­ist Utopia wasn’t crea­ted be­tween 1945 and 1951. The hard fact is that there isn’t enough pro­duct­ive ca­pa­city in ex­ist­ence now to pro­vide the whole world with the stand­ard of the
Brit­ish work­ing-class of 1900. Be­fore going any fur­ther with ideas of a shiny new world with every­thing on tap re­mem­ber that at this mo­ment most people haven’t got the bare es­sen­tials and that due to pop­u­la­tion in­creases the aver­age world liv­ing stand­ard is ac­tu­ally de­creas­ing. In world terms the Brit­ish are ex­ploit­ers. Our stand­ard of liv­ing still de­pends very much on the sweat of Asia and Africa. Coupled with the fact that people in rich coun­tries will prob­ably have to tighten not loosen their belts if a uni­ver­sal healthy liv­ing stand­ard is to be reached and main­tained is the fact that people in a heavy-con­sump­tion free so­ci­ety would have to show a great deal of pa­tience while the garden cities and auto­mated factor­ies were being con­struc­ted. Who gets the first and who gets the ones in­her­ited from the pre­ced­ing cap­it­al­ism? Re­mem­ber it’s not a mat­ter of wait­ing ten minutes in a bus queue but of wait­ing years, pos­sibly dec­ades, while con­struc­tion is going on. If people in such a free so­ci­ety can vol­un­tar­ily re­strict con­sump­tion in the ini­tial stages and wait their turn for new pro­ducts then they can surely do without lux­ury gim­micks and gad­gets al­to­gether.

  A sens­ible ma­ter­ial stand­ard for any type of so­ci­ety, free or not, is one which is healthy and whole­some and eas­ily at­tain­able on a large scale.

  Ideas about the size and nature of the or­gan­isa­tional unit of a free so­ci­ety need cla­ri­fy­ing. A free so­ci­ety is one in which re­spons­ib­il­ity for the run­ning of so­ci­ety is taken by the whole com­mun­ity and not by rul­ing cliques. To this end an­arch­ists have en­vis­aged na­tional states being split into col­lect­ives, com­munes and syn­dic­ates each autonom­ous but co-op­er­at­ing with each other for mu­tu­al be­ne­fit and either self-sup­port­ing or ful­filling a func­tion in a re­gion. Now if mem­bers of these col­lect­ives, etc., are to be re­spons­ible for their own com­munal activ­it­ies, then they must make all the de­cisions af­fect­ing these activ­it­ies. So the com­mun­it­ies must be of such a size that mass de­cision mak­ing is pos­sible. There­fore large indus­tries with many workers will have to be split into func­tional com­mit­tees, the activ­it­ies of which will have to be co-ordin­ated. The larger the indus­try the re­moter will seem the co-ordin­at­ing com­mit­tee to rank and file work­ers and the growth of a per­man­ent bur­eau­cracy with au­thor­it­arian ten­den­cies is almost in­ev­it­able if the indus­try is to func­tion ef­fi­ciently. The people con­cerned may have the best will in the world but sheer size will breed in­sti­tu­tion­al­isa­tion. Can anyone en­vis­age for in­stance, the in­ter­na­tional pet­rol pro­duc­tion and dis­tri­bu­tion indus­try func­tion­ing ef­fi­ciently without some sort of cen­tral­ised au­thor­it­arian­ism however mild and be­ne­vol­ent that au­thor­ity might be?

  In mass de­cision mak­ing com­plete un­an­im­ity is highly un­likely. In con­tem­por­ary or­gan­isa­tions like am­a­teur sport and so­cial clubs where there are no ves­ted in­ter­ests and people vol­un­tar­ily co-oper­ate there are three or four opin­ions on all the re­l­at­ively trivial de­cisions which have to be taken. Which is a healthy sign. And so people vote and so they must in an­arch­ist so­ci­eties. To ex­pect com­plete agree­ment is na­ive and be­hind it lies the idea that there are ‘natural’ ways of doing things which in an­archy be­come self-evid­ent. On small is­sues
like the colour scheme of the hos­pital or the lay­out of a park com­prom­ise is pos­sible but in de­cisions re­gard­ing large scale en­ter­prise such as the sit­ing of a reser­voir or a change in work­ing tech­niques, one de­cision must be final if chaos is to be avoided, and vot­ing is the only an­swer. An­arch­ists then must be pre­pared to prac­tise loc­al demo­cracy, this word not to be con­fused with the hy­po­crit­ical farce which is called demo­cracy today.

  Vot­ing, in­sti­tu­tion­al­isa­tion in large indus­tries and even group en­ter­prises them­selves can only be avoided in so­ci­et­ies of total sim­pli­city or total auto­ma­tion neither of which are likely to come about.

  So much for ends, now a few words about means. Firstly, the idea that in soph­ist­ic­ated, in­dus­tri­al­ised coun­tries ‘spon­taneity’, ‘in­stinct’ and ‘nat­ur­al re­ac­tions’ could still play a part in other than com­par­at­ively un­im­port­ant as­pects of life can be dropped once and for all. The an­arch­ists of the fu­ture will have to be edu­cated in the pos­it­ive as­pects of an­arch­ism. The idea that could gov­ern­ment and co­er­cion be sud­denly re­moved so­ci­ety would ‘in­stinct­ively’ adopt a liber­tarian pat­tern is at least a cen­tury out of date. In Northern Europe and North America in­stinct got lost in the smoke of the in­dus­trial re­vo­lu­tion, and nat­ural spon­taneity is a lost cause. It is ex­cel­lent in love-mak­ing but not in in­dus­trial de­cision tak­ing. We are not a simple, good-hearted people as were the Span­iards, close to the soil or only a gen­er­a­tion re­moved, think­ing in terms of their own vil­lage or area, co-op­er­at­ive and ideal­istic. Such people take to an­arch­ism as a duck takes to water. The an­arch­ist mes­sage put into words what they had felt all their lives. In Bri­tain de­based cap­it­al­ist val­ues have been at work for nearly two cen­tur­ies and people are largely cor­rupt. The slow pro­cess of edu­ca­tion alone can im­plant pos­it­ive an­arch­ist ideas into peoples’ minds.

  As with pos­it­ive an­arch­ist ideas so with eth­ics, val­ues and per­sonal beha­viour stand­ards. These do not come out of thin air any more than any­thing else does. It is true that the lives of cer­tain prim­it­ive tribes sug­gest that there is a nat­ural stand­ard of eth­ics and val­ues but whether it would find a place in the com­plex­ity of an in­dus­trial so­ci­ety is du­bi­ous to say the least. In achiev­ing a free so­ci­ety the stand­ards and val­ues of cap­it­al­ism must be dis­carded. What is to re­place them? May I sug­gest a simple all-em­bra­cing idea like ‘do unto others—’ which is ap­plic­able to all people at all places at all times. To the ob­jec­tion that the teach­ing of val­ues is au­thor­it­arian I can only re­peat ‘val­ues do not come out of thin air’. Span­ish ones owed a great deal to sim­pli­fied Chris­tian­ity al­though it’s a fact not of­ten ad­mit­ted.

*   *   *
  Towards the end of the nine­teenth cen­tury, Kropot­kin saw Europe and to a lesser ex­tent the rest of the world, as a place where mu­tual aid and solid­ar­ity were very real things and where the newer ideas of edu­ca­tion, sci­ence, hu­man­ism, ra­tion­al­ism, etc., were coming into prom­in­ence. Kropot­kin, a man of wide learn­ing real­ised that if the older mutual aid ideas were joined to the more re­cent edu­ca­tional type ideas, the re­sult prom­ised to lead to a freer so­ci­ety. This im­min­ent prac­tic­ab­il­ity of an­arch­ist ideas is one of the reas­ons for the com­par­a
t­ively large an­arch­ist and syn­dic­al­ist move­ments at that time. But alas, the pro­pa­ganda pro­cess was slow and so­ci­ety did not stand still. Sci­entific de­vel­op­ment rap­idly altered the en­vir­on­ment, the state got wise to edu­ca­tion and solid­ar­ity de­clined. Today’s en­vir­on­ment is shaped by a hand­ful of sci­ent­ists, in­dus­tri­al­ists, etc., and is usu­ally at least two dec­ades ahead of pub­lic aware­ness of it. Many people in Bri­tain today are men­tally in the 1930’s, some in the nine­teenth cen­tury, a few still in the Middle Ages. The men­tal cli­mate neces­sary for an­archy in Kropot­kin’s Bri­tain of 1900 wasn’t avail­able till 1930 and you can’t ex­pect people to re­vert 30 years. The H-bomb was never part of my con­scious­ness until the nuc­le­ar dis­arm­a­ment cam­paign was well under way: I knew of the Bomb and could prob­ably have given ele­ment­ary facts about its de­scruct­ive powers but the aw­ful sig­ni­fic­ance of those facts nev­er entered my head. The con­scious­ness of the masses drags be­hind real­ity.

  Again many people can’t see fur­ther than the ends of their own noses. This is partly due to an edu­ca­tion sys­tem primar­ily in­ter­ested in pro­du­cing cogs for the cap­it­alist ma­chine but mainly due to a lack of nat­ive in­tel­li­gence. They have enough com­mon sense to know that rant­ing about the mach­in­a­tions of gov­ern­ments and the chi­canery of politi­cians will get them nowhere, but lack the pa­tience and in­tel­li­gence to under­stand so­ci­ology, eco­nom­ics, power polit­ics and sim­ilar sub­jects. Shout­ing ‘more grub and down with the boss’ was fine with the un­soph­ist­ic­ated Span­iards, but is use­less in com­plex, highly or­gan­ised so­ci­eties like Bri­tain and Amer­ica. And at the other ex­treme try­ing to re­late an­arch­ist pro­pa­ganda to, and pro­mote so­cial con­scious­ness in, a so­ci­ety which gets pro­gres­sively more com­plex, gets pro­gres­sively more dif­fi­cult.

  Does all this make an­arch­ism im­pos­sible? Def­in­itely not. What it does make im­pos­sible is the kind of an­arch­ism where you think of a liber­tarian pat­tern for con­tem­por­ary so­ci­ety and hope to work towards it. It is no good hav­ing cut and dried type free so­ci­eties and say­ing ‘look, isn’t it nice, let’s set about achiev­ing it’. An­arch­ism can have no fixed ends, al­though an an­arch­ist so­ci­ety could be static but that would be by chance rather than de­sign. Tent­at­ive ideas, of or­gan­isa­tion and of pos­sible broad out­lines of a free so­ci­ety can be dis­cussed as in this art­icle be­cause people aren’t likely to move into the un­known. What should be ad­voc­ated mainly however is pos­it­ive liber­tar­ian­ism com­bined with hav­ing as little as pos­sible to do with the state. The free­dom to be en­cour­aged is not the ‘ab­sence of the aware­ness of co­er­cion’ else every bingo-player and telly-watcher is free. Nor is it the ‘free­dom’ to in­dulge in every self­ish, little whim pro­duced by present so­ci­ety. The kind of free­dom to pro­mote is that which en­cour­ages the growth of the pos­it­ive side of the hu­man per­son­al­ity, and you don’t need a de­gree in So­ci­ology to know what that is. When there is more kind­ness, co-op­er­a­tion, freer edu­ca­tion, do-it-your­self, mu­tual or­gasms, cul­tur­al and eco­nomic equal­ity, re­spons­ib­il­ity, urban de­cen­tral­isa­tion, good health and smil­ing faces people will be more ready to of­fer two fin­gers to the state. It will not solve all the world’s prob­lems but it will be a long way down the right track.