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 lead 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

JEFF ROBINSON, born Middlesex 1935, is a transport worker who became attracted to anarchist ideas at Hyde Park open-air meetings.

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 broadcast 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 voter 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.

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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 free or freer society. This imminent practicability of anarchist ideas is one of the reasons for the comparatively 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 destructive 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.

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Nov 20 2017 00:31


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