‘Anarchists are like Tories’ and other fairy tales

Political compass: anarchism and conservatism are diametrically opposed

Anarchism has been getting a lot of attention lately, including some oft-peddled but easily refuted myths.

The cops have been urging people to report anarchists to the anti-terrorist police. Various Trotskyist groups like the Socialist Workers Party and AWL have been running prolifically ill-informed articles on why anarchism is bad and wrong and you definitely shouldn’t investigate it for yourself. Numerous members of the Twitter commentariat have also weighed in. Obviously each of these groups has their motives, from cops building up bogeymen to justify their budgets to Trots with one eye on the party coffers worried about the appeal of anarchist ideas to potential young recruits. But the result has been a torrent of disinformation ranging from the spectacularly dishonest to the tragically ill-informed. I’ll correct some of the more common motifs here (consciously leaving aside the interminable reduction of anarchism to the black bloc that accompanies the mourning of every broken window).

Myth #1: Anarchists are like Tories

This one has been peddled by Maeve McKeown and Mark Fisher, amongst many others. For McKeown "There is a fine line between libertarianism (the ideology of some Tories) and anarchism", while Fisher claims a "remarkable congruence with the ‘Big Society’ rhetoric pushed by David Cameron". This 'similarity' supposedly rests on a shared anti-statism. It's ridiculous for several reasons:

Edit: Mark Fisher points out on Twitter that he's specifically talking about people who "didn’t belong to any kind of political organisation" with "anarchist-lite views" as opposed to anarchists in any serious sense. To that extent, it's not a good pick on my part as an example of the 'anarchists are like Tories' fallacy, since he's explicitly not talking about anarchists but those who favour loose informal networks like UK Uncut.

1. Anarchists are by and large anti-state communists, Tories are pro-state capitalists. Even in the somewhat limited terms of the political compass, these are diametrically opposed.1 You know who's closer to the Tories than anarchists? Pretty much anyone, certainly mainstream liberals (who are of course governing with them), or anyone who seeks state power to effect their political programme (most of the Marxist left), or anyone who favours some form of market economy (most Guardian readers).

2. Anarchism is a kind of anti-capitalism that comes from the workers' movement, the Tories are a capitalist party that serves the interests of the ruling class. The interests of the employing and the employed classes have nothing in common. The Tories are unashamed class warriors for their side, as anarchists are for ours. I suppose if you prefer to ignore class conflict or pretend class is an old fashioned thing from the 1970s then they look pretty similar. But does this facile nonsense really pass for political commentary?

3. Tories aren't in any meaningful sense 'against the state', they run it ffs! If you fancy yourself a political commentator, distinguishing between political rhetoric and political reality is pretty elementary stuff. The Tories are of course currently running the elected part of the British state, and are using state power to force through their policies against popular opposition (as Nina Power notes, 'Let's stop assuming the police are on our side'). What the Tories oppose, and following in Labour's footsteps are in the process of dismantling, are public sector welfare functions which have been run by the state, not the state itself. Liberal pin-up Adam Smith was remarkably candid about this:

Laws and government may be considered (…) in every case as a combination of the rich to oppress the poor, and preserve to themselves the inequality of the goods which would otherwise be soon destroyed by the attacks of the poor, who if not hindered by the government would soon reduce the others to an equality with themselves by open violence.

The Tories are so keen on this classical liberal state they don't want it encumbered with pesky welfare functions. Meanwhile more socially minded liberals prefer their 'combination of the rich to oppress the poor' to chuck in a few welfare services to sweeten the deal. Which brings us nicely to...

Myth #2: Anarchists are inconsistent for opposing public sector cuts

In liberal-left mythology, the welfare state was a gift from munificent politicians from a better age. The Golden Age is now being ruined by nasty ideological Tories, and we need some good decent politicians to set things right. That's variously hoped to be the neoliberal, scabbing Labour Party of Ed Milibot, or a new workers' party hoped for by some socialists and trade union bureaucrats. Poor, disorientated Sunny Hundal of the Liberal Conspiracy blog has even advocated voting Tory, LibDem and Labour in the last year or so. But this understanding of the welfare state is nonsense. While the NHS was founded under a Labour government, the formation of the welfare state represented cross-party (i.e. pan-ruling class) consensus, as summed up in the 1943 Beveridge Report. What was the source of this consensus? Fear. The ruling class knew what happened after WWI where revolutions and mass unrest spread across Russia, Germany, Italy - and Britain, with even the police on strike in 1918 and 1919 and tanks on the streets in 1926. So in the words of Tory Quintin Hogg, the ruling class knew "we must give them reform or they will give us revolution". Once the threat of working class revolution was broken, the dismantling of the welfare state could begin (see Charting the class struggle).

Therefore, as partisans of working class struggle, of course anarchists oppose the cuts. On the one hand, the cuts are a direct attack on hundreds of thousands of workers' livelihoods and those of their families. Attacks on benefits thrust the millions of sick and unemployed deeper into poverty. On the other hand, public services form part of our 'social wage', with healthcare, education and so on being provided universally by capitalism in general rather than being paid for by individual workers out of their wage packets. So of course anarchists oppose these attacks. Just as you can oppose the organisation of human society into classes whilst fighting for better wages, terms and conditions for the working class in the meantime, you can oppose the organisation of human society into states whilst demanding our needs to healthcare, education are met. The inconsistency here is not on the part of anarchists, but those who wish to reap the fruits of the class struggle whilst opposing or denying the class struggle itself.

Myth #3: Anarchists are against organisation

This one is a perennial favourite. Like the colour black in fact. It is of course, completely untrue, but is a favoured criticism by liberals and statist socialists alike.2 It doesn't take much to refute. Just the existence of national organisations like the Anarchist Federation and the Solidarity Federation - themselves part of international organisations - should be enough. But it's worth drawing out a few more of the implications. The basic claim of the 'anarchists are against organisation' canard is to equate organisation with hierarchy. These are not at all the same thing, but otherwise intelligent people seem to have all sorts of problems separating them out. For example, Mark Fisher quotes popular blogger Richard Seymour (a.k.a. Leninology):

Richard Seymour argued that hierarchy “is, as much as anything else, an ordering of priorities and tasks, a division of labour (...) there is nothing about hierarchy per se that is objectionable. On the other hand, there is such a thing as the tyranny of structurelessness.”

Did you spot the slight of hand? Hierarchy or structurelessness, organisation or 'anarchy'. Of course, this isn't the definition of hierarchy at all. A hierarchy, when talking about organisations, is not of tasks but of people. The ideotypical example is the military, where information flows up the chain of command and orders flow down. But the whole state is organised this way, as are TUC unions and Marxist parties. This is a form of organisation, but it is not the only form, as its advocates would have you believe. On the other hand, anarchists are highly critical of tyrannies of structurelessness (e.g. see this piece), but do not see a tyranny of hierarchy as the solution. Rather, anarchists typically favour non-hierarchical organisation in the form of federalism.

Anarchist federalism is in fact fairly straight forward. I'll use the example of SolFed, since I'm most familiar with it, but it's not the only, nor necessarily the best example. All members belong to a Local, all Locals belong to the national Federation. All local decisions are made by Locals on the basis of one member, one vote while all national decisions are made by the Federation on the basis of one Local, one vote. Any member can bring a proposal to their Local for discussion, and if it requires Federal action the Local can take the proposal to the national Federation. There is no central or steering committee running it. No paid officials. No full-timers. We have four national lay officials; national secretary, national treasurer, international secretary and external relations officer. None have any policy-making power, all are given clear mandates setting out what they can and cannot do and all are subject to immediate recall if they overstep. There's numerous other mandates for things like training and particular projects or campaigns.

Anarchist federalism is highly scalable, because whenever a group is too large to function on the basis of face-to-face direct democracy, it can simply divide and co-ordinate its activity through councils of mandated, recallable delegates. So if we grew to say 100 members in Brighton, we could simply divide into either geographical groups for Hove, Central, Falmer, Hannover, Hollingbury etc, or industrial groups such as Education, Public Sector, Transport, Unemployed, or some combination of the two, co-ordinated via a city-wide delegate council. In this way of organising, decision-making power remains with the membership at all times. In other words, the organisation is non-hierarchical and formal structure ensures that equality; the twin tyrannies of structurelessness and hierarchy are avoided. This isn't rocket science, and anyone who's serious about changing the world should probably take it seriously rather than emulating capitalist organisational tennets like hierarchical structures.

  • 1. Indeed, Mark Fisher's useful notion of 'Capitalist Realism' describes precisely the reduction of the political spectrum to a small bubble in the top-right quadrant to which There Is No Alternative.
  • 2. You can of course find self-defining anarchists who are opposed to formal organisation ('insurrectionary anarchism' would be the obvious current), but this no means justifies the claim anarchism per se is opposed to organisation.

Posted By

Joseph Kay
Aug 1 2011 14:21


Attached files


Rob Ray
Aug 4 2011 14:02

Again, you're overegging the pudding here. Just as there's no such thing as total freedom, there's no such thing as total engagement mooted in anarchist philosophy. In reality, what would happen is that collectives would run themselves and only engage in the affairs of others when something was clearly going wrong.

Let's take one example of a shoe industry. This would be made up of say, nail, glue, equipment, thread, lace, leather makers etc, plus all the ones further down the chain (farmers, miners blah) and transport groups which can then move the resources around. But the cobblers' collective does not need to interfere in the process of each of these.

It needs to know a) what the demand for shoes is - asked for in the regular public postings at regular intervals through the year b) the material requirements, which are then passed down the line to labour agencies and the various supporting collectives to establish availability. Interaction would be largely limited to requests and negotiations over things like how long to get the resources, what slots are available in the transport collective's timetable etc.

The only point at which they'd need to give a shit about any other consideration would be if say, there was a fire at the main nail producers which would affect production.

For the wider public, what might be desired is an annual report summing up that industry's current state of play with the figures, so nosy people like me can look through the stats and ask any questions about resource use that are needed. But I for one am not going to feel the need to go to the shoemakers' AGM unless I spot something which looks out of whack.

That's just one vision off the top of my head while I'm at work of course, the reality would probably be a lot smarter than that!

Rob Ray
Aug 4 2011 14:08
The rest of the fed denying resouces to the belligerent region that's coercion as well, and a 'state-like' course of action.

I think you're misunderstanding the word "state" here:

Wikipedia wrote:
A state is a compulsory political institution that maintains a monopoly of the legitimate use of force within a certain territory.

There's no compulsory membership of the body and no threat of force inherent within the federative system - unless you count "we don't co-operate with you unless you co-operate with us" as force.

Chilli Sauce
Aug 4 2011 15:07

Yeah, and I find this 'state like action' a bit of a red herring. The UK state offers healthcare--the NHS. If we offer universal, guaranteed health care under anarchism (which of course, we will) I don't really care if anyone thinks that's 'state like'.

Regarding mandates, being an active member of SolFed, wide mandates are good thing given you have a good delegate who make sure their 'negotiate' based on the discussions and wishes of the group they are 'representing'.

But then again, that's the beauty of written mandates, instantly recallable delegates, and federalism.

Aug 5 2011 15:35
Rob Ray wrote:
I think you're misunderstanding the word "state"

I dont think so. There is no generally agreed upon definition of a state, its actually very difficult to pin down definition-wise. And the problem with the definition you just mentioned is that there are some strange examples, like the USA potentially being the state for Afghanistan, for example. There are quite a few states with no military what-so-ever, some of which have no provisions for this, and others which have treaties with other states, like australia or usa.

Rob Ray wrote:
There's no compulsory membership of the body and no threat of force inherent within the federative system - unless you count "we don't co-operate with you unless you co-operate with us" as force.

I think I successfully showed that in some circumstances the membership may be compulsory, like with the 'belligerent region' example. An embargo, sanctions, or a blockade would be considered coercion.

Aug 5 2011 15:42
Chilli Sauce wrote:
I don't really care if anyone thinks that's 'state like'.

Me either, but anarchists say they are against the state, but in fact i think they propose a different kind of state.

Chilli Sauce wrote:
Regarding mandates, being an active member of SolFed, wide mandates are good thing given you have a good delegate who make sure their 'negotiate' based on the discussions and wishes of the group they are 'representing'.

Yeah, exactly, and if mandated recallable delegates, are in practice actually just mandated recallable representatives, I think there is no problem with that.