and the Capitalism that needs to be stopped
Anarchism, as understood by the majority of the population, is a dirty word. Mention Anarchism and to those unfamiliar with its theories you evoke images of violence, vandalism, anger and destructive nonsense. The very word ‘Anarchism’ is, to the conservative mind, synonymous with ‘chaos’. In ignorant mainstream thought it is believed to be a social situation in which all rules of all kind have been totally torn up, in which even the slightest scratch of ‘government’ or ‘law’ gets destroyed before it can breed, and in which every individual ultimately will be pitted against all other individuals in a battle for whatever resources are available. In fact I wouldn’t be at all surprised to find that a lot of people picture a post-apocalyptic landscape of the kind H.G. Wells dreamed of inventing when the word ‘Anarchism’ is mentioned.
How funny, then, that I am going to argue that Anarchism is anything but chaos. In fact it is so far from its popular conception that what I’m going to describe here will probably sound not in the least what you might expect of it. I’m going to argue that Anarchism is in fact one of the most profoundly peaceful, organised and (in my opinion) sensible political philosophies we as human beings could possibly realise. And, moreover, it is inevitably going to be the form the political Left of the 21st Century will take – because it already has.
Anarchism as a social theory has never, ever, in its entire history, meant chaos. Equating Anarchy with chaos is like saying that the Soviet dictatorships were the apotheosis of ‘Socialism’. Anarchists have almost always believed in highly organised societies, but from the bottom up rather than the top down. In general, since its first recorded use in 1642, it has favoured self-governed, cooperative societies that focus on the acquisition of peace, provision and true democracy. However, rather than being a fixed, enclosed system (like Marxism-Leninism was), it is better described as a definite historical trend, without a seminal text equivalent of, say The Communist Manifesto. The best way to view it is as the Libertarian wing of Socialism: that is to say, Socialism without the state getting in the way. To put this in perspective, this would have made George Orwell an Anarchist.
Viewed from this perspective it then ought to be clear what Anarchism is really about, rather than what we tend to assume it is. The basic principle is that power that isn’t justified by the will of the governed ought to be dismantled and refashioned from below. Anarchism pictures society being built from the bottom up, rather than the top down. There should not be a centralised government or small group of powerful elites governing the country; instead we should have highly localised, genuinely democratic governments run by the people it seeks to serve. Workers should own and govern their own workplaces, communities should be able to provide for the needs of everyone. As ought to be clear, this involves an incredible amount of organisation and order, not the chaos and violence most assume it involves. But the organisation starts with the bottom of society, not the top.
In the 21st Century this Libertarian Socialism is becoming the popular school of thought on the Left. Following the Neo-Liberal surge of the 1980s and the end of the Cold War, ‘ State Socialism’ is a term now tarnished by Conservatives and property-holders. The Right have convinced the Socialists to stop believing in Socialism; this is why we had New Labour, and why Margaret Thatcher considered Tony Blair to be her ‘greatest achievement’. With Socialism out of the picture since Blair’s election as Labour leader in 1994, there has been an enormous gap opened up on the Left of British politics. State socialism is no longer represented in parliament (apart from at the moment by the remarkable Jeremy Corbyn, likely though he is to be just a flash in the pan due to the hostile atmosphere of the Neo-Liberal Establishment), and at any rate it is felt by many that the State element of Socialism is no good and never really was.
This is where Anarchism arises – the Socialism without the State. We have seen it already this century in the likes of, amongst others, the Occupy movement, Anonymous and the popularity of Russell Brand: all movements and people who question power both in its corporate and state guises.
In particular the thing that Anarchism seeks is true liberty. True liberty is not some sort of abstract concept, but the real and concrete possibility for every human being to realise their moral, intellectual and spiritual potential. The less this development is encumbered by political and ecclesiastical circumstances, the more efficient and harmonious the human personality will become. We are often told that certain forms of oppression and authority are necessary for us, either in order to keep us from committing terrible errors or to protect us from foreign enemies. The simple fact is that we need scepticism when we are told this. We need scepticism when we are told that authority and oppression are necessary due to ‘human nature’, the ‘demands of efficiency’ or the ‘complexity of modern life’. These are egregious terms designed to obfuscate prevailing, self-interested and fearful attitudes. Anarchism has for centuries been undermined by those with power, because the loss of control they would suffer is terrifying to them. The powerful see true liberty as so awful that they have constantly sought to give it a bad name; hence the reputation Anarchism has in mainstream culture.
What is particularly interesting and especially ironic about Libertarian Socialism (a term I’ll use interchangeably with Anarchism) is that it actually appeared to be championed by the very men who supposedly fathered modern Capitalism. Adam Smith, for example, is known both as the father of modern capitalism and a Libertarian; well, he certainly was a Libertarian, but in the 18th Century being a Libertarian was much closer to Socialism than anything else. It is a little known fact, for example, that Smith abhorred the division of labour, one of the main things industrial Capitalism brought about. Classical Liberalism, nowadays seen as essential, laissez-faire Capitalism, was originally anti-capitalist. Smith was in favour of markets because he thought that if you had perfect liberty, markets would lead to perfect equality. He believed that people ought to be completely equal, because as a Classical Liberal, he believed that people’s fundamental character was one of sympathy, solidarity and the desire to control your own work – all the exact opposite of Capitalism.
So we can see that Anarchism make enormous intellectual sense. It seeks to achieve equality, community and the ultimate potential of the individual whilst removing the government and power structures that lead to systems in which the freedom of the few is built on the slavery of the many. This was always the problem with State Socialism and 20th Century Communism: by keeping the state as a tool through which to try and deliver social justice, oppression inevitably occurred. The existence of a government necessarily implies class dichotomy. When Communism was enacted, the result was always going to be ‘Red Bureaucracy’, along with highly inefficient systems of planned economy.
Capitalism, in its turn, is fast creating the case for its own destruction. It is necessarily oppressive, destructive and outstandingly wasteful. It is entirely built on the exploitation of both people and the planet. It is increasingly diminishing people to the status of economic unit, their existence purely to earn enough money to stay alive and serve the economy. It cultivates the worst aspects of people – greed, selfishness, jealousy and material desire – while caring not a jot for the things that make people happy – community, compassion, connection. In this age of corporate hegemony, in which government and corporatism have become synonymous, and in which the option presented to you in life is to either rent yourself in a soulless occupation or starve, it is ever more necessary to champion Libertarian Socialism as a serious alternative.
The past 50 years have seen two particular trends of government: State Socialism and State Capitalism. State Socialism (or Social Democracy, which involved the maintenance of capitalist markets) only survived the 35 years following the Second World War, and State Capitalism since then has become increasingly militaristic. We can see this in things like the draconian laws the Tories are currently trying to pass to pacify the Unions – Capitalism even at the cost of freedom of speech. The term State Capitalism can in particular be applied to the US economy, where large enterprises deemed ‘too big to fail’ (e.g. the banks) receive enormous state subsidies that both save them from risk and undermine market laws. As a result private production is largely funded by taxpayer’s money, yet private owners reap the profits. This is also happening most particularly in commercial agriculture, in high-tech industries (dependent on the Pentagon) and pharmaceuticals, massively subsidised by publicly funded research. The picture is firmly similar in the UK.
This current state of affairs, much more accurately described as State Capitalism than laissez-faire Capitalism, is obviously an intensely bad deal for the public. With power being shipped to private owners and corporations in spades, the rest of us are left to deal with outrageous rent prices, low and stagnant wages, and the proliferation of long-hours, low-paid service sector jobs. Contrast this with certain households who benefit from Britain’s central position in global trading, corporate, professional and finance networks. The top 1% are growing while the 99% are being squeezed, and the government is as complicit in it as you could imagine. The need for Anarchism has never been so strong.