The realization of freedom - David Wieck

Submitted by Juan Conatz on June 25, 2016

ANARCHISM BEGINS BY EVALUATING THE society we live in-our "way of life." In this life we find too much misery and unhappiness, too much destruction, too little fulfillment of the potentialities of human beings.

First, there are the gross evils that everyone perceives: the waste, the destruction, the restrictions. Our nation is involved in endless wars, the government conscripts our young men, wealth is destroyed. Our natural riches, our scientific genius, are not shared with the impoverished nations of the world, but are the means of control and exploitation. Now, in the climate of permanent war, a great cloud of prohibition and fear is darkening the face of our people, and citizens fearful of being silenced are beginning to learn the dismal art of silence.

Thinking people are aware, too, that after a dozen years of high prosperity, millions still live on the borderline of poverty. They know a little of what it means in America to belong to a dark-skinned race. It is easy to see that only a minority of Americans can "succeed," while the greater number are condemned to lifelong, futile pursuit of the goals of wealth and social status they have been educated to aspire to.

The truth is that the wealth, the position, the standard of living we have learned to strive for, do not yield deep satisfaction-they are joyless and even boring. The successful man feels a dissatisfaction he tries to resolve by renewed struggle to achieve greater heights. In our emphasis on wealth and status, we squeeze out everything irrelevant to these goals, everything that could possibly be worthy of our effort, and rewarding.

We all know that work is dominated by motives of profit-but this is not the worst. It is absolutely dominated by motives of consumption, as profits, or wages, or (in "welfare" theories) quantity of social production. To this aim all our scientific endeavor, all our ingenuity of organization, is attuned. But man is not-need it be said?-merely a consumer, he is a worker. As a worker he is now only a machine-tender, a passive instrument of industries geared to production of quantity. The deterioration of the quality of goods is a painful, if minor, consequence of this one-sided economy: the debasement of work in a society dedicated to economic progress is an irony and a disaster. ..

In our society, too, we take it for granted that we should be strangers to each other-strangers who work together, and "deal" with each other, by the media of authority and money-exchange. We miss, hardly aware of our loss, the qualities of social warmth, of fraternal rivalry and cooperation-we miss these satisfactions and the strength they would give us.

We take it for granted that a small number of people, more or less talented, shall make-one would hardly say "create"-under the usual consumption-oriented conditions of the market, our "works of art," our "entertainment," while the rest of us are spectators.

And we are also a people who, in grave conflict within ourselves, have created all manner of crippling make-shifts to reconcile, with the life-goals our society teaches us, with the demands for conformity made upon us, our half-perceived but real yearnings for love, for self-respect, for friendships, for creative activities. Or rather, not reconciled the two forces, but reconciled ourselves to heavy deprivations.

Now, we must praise our country for its marvelous productive techniques, its medical miracles, the high development of scientific knowledge. We have, as few societies have ever had, the basis for living. But there is still-except for a very few nothing but existence, an unworthy survival.

It is the purpose of anarchism to look beyond survival-to look at what must be done if we are to achieve a worthy and noble life.

How can these problems be met? The obvious way, the one continually tried by good-intentioned people, is to attack each problem separately. We are plagued by war-so we look for ways to achieve peace. Poverty and gross inequality are unjust and destructive-the treatment of law-breakers is a scandal to a civilized country-our educational systems make the many literate, but educate very few-and so, on these and many other fronts, men and women are working to undo the evils.

A right beginning! But it does not turn out well, and failure to pay frank attention to the results, and the reasons for the results, leaves many good-hearted people fixed in dead-ends.

In certain cases, like war, the evil stubbornly resists every effort to abolish it. or even limit it.

In other cases the evil can be modified, but its most destructive features persist. Thus, prison reform can eliminate certain brutalities, but imprisonment, no matter how modified, destroys the best qualities in a man. Or, the conditions of labour in industry are improved-the worker is protected against injury, discharge and humiliation-but the work does not, by becoming less inhumane, become human. Or, the living standards of workers are raised-but still the worker must sell his labour-power, still he is only an instrument, a hand, whose mind and inventiveness are not wanted. Nor does "economic security" transform a lonely, frightened citizen into a human being.

Or a third thing occurs: the reform can be achieved, but only by adding to the bureaucratic structure of society. Such has been the destiny ofthe labour movement. And bureaucracy is the deliberate-and only possible-method of government to cope with economic destitution in old age, with the reckless exploitation of natural resources, with the economic piracy of monopolists ...

If we look at the history of each reform-effort, we can see that neither lack of good will, nor ignorance, has defeated or limited them. Reform has failed because each ofthese evils fulfills an essential function in our society (or is bound up with an essential function), and none can be arbitrarily ripped out of the total pattern. In the best cases, the evils can be mitigated only by the pyramiding of bureaucracy. In the worst cases, not even this much relief is possible.

How could the unequal property system be upheld without police and prisons? How can capitalist exploitation be mitigated, if not by the superimposition of bureaucracy? How could there be community when people are competing desperately with each other, when we are frightened of each other, hostile toward each other? How can our lives as workers become different, while consumption and war remain the dominant motives? How can there be war, and no centralized government? How centralized government, and no war? The list could be extended almost indefinitely. These are the dilemmas of reform.

Our society does change constantly, of course-but always it turns on the poles of power, war, the State. It becomes more bureaucratic or less, more warlike or less, more restricting or less-there can be all the stages from Capitalism to State Communism, from limited democracy to totalitarianism. These variations can mean the difference between tolerable and intolerable existence. But they do not allow, in the best of them, for the growth and development of Man. For the great majority of people, there is no life, merely labourious survival.

In order to give a new tone to our society, a new quality to our life, we must change the central principles of our society-we must learn how to live socially, and work together, without the profit-and-power motive; without a monopoly property-system; without centralized political authority; without war. This is why the anarchist proposals are so extreme, so sweeping; and why anything short of them brings disappointment. only superficial change ...

Anarchists, anarchists alone. propose to reorganize our common life without the crippling destructive principles of power, monopoly-property, and war.

The principle which anarchists propose to substitute is Freedom-but freedom in a sense quite different from its debasement in the vIars of propaganda. We contend that men need to be free of restriction in order to grow to the limit of their powers-and that when these powers are released from inhibition, entirely new solutions to our economic, political. and social problems will be possible.

Our anarchist philosophers have emphasized different facets of our unutilized "human resources";

1. Man tends to be rational, to be able to recognize his problems and solve them. A false education, from infancy to adulthood, and the "positive institutions" by which society has tried to preserve order and morality among a bewildered population, have crippled these powers. Let men be free, from the first, encouraged to discover their own abilities and own interests, let them be ungoverned, and they will tend to have "right opinions." (In the false education oftoday, the suppression and distortion of sensual pleasure certainly plays a dynamic role. I think it remains moot whether it plays a decisive initiating role--and will therefore be a special problem in achieving freedom-or is a reflex of social unhappiness, inhibition of sociality, and other factors. In either case, its crippling influences make the sexual mores, both here and now and in respect to a free society, a natural major concern of anarchists.

2. The self-interests of people clash, but we need not dread this clash. It is destructive now because people submit to others, because they acknowledge Power and Authority. It can be productive, it will lead men beyond anything the isolated individual could possibly conceive of-and Authority is just such an isolated individual-but only if men are unashamedly themselves, not possessed by Ideas, Gods, Authorities, or Neuroses.

3. Men possess a natural tendency to solidarity, to cooperation. This tendency our social institutions check and even suppress. Let men rid themselves of these constraints, and we will come into our biological heritage of mutual aid ... Reason, fraternal conflict, mutual aid-these powers of men, stifled in our lives today, can be the principles, the heart ofa new society. Men must be free of the control and restrictions of economic and legal authorities, free of coercion to conformity: but these constraints exist because men accept them, so they must be willing to be free. This is the hypothesis of freedom.

Let men be free, and then the problems of economics and politics can find good solutions. No longer need our industries be owned monopolistically by corporations or government-the practice of voluntary cooperation, the principle of equality, will allow new kinds of organization. Released from cramping monopoly ownership, our engineering and managerial ingenuity will find ways to balance our interests as consumers and as workers. Our political life will no more be centralized in national government, and men and women will gain sovereignty over their destinies. The individual can be liberated from demands for conformity-we will need no more prisons-and so on through a host of "social problems" which remain unsolvable so long as the fundamental principles of the society are unchanged.

(Oh, yes! the solutions will tax our ingenuity. But at last they will be, in principle, possible, and the freedom of communities and groups to try even the most extreme experiments should accelerate the discovery of the best solutions.)

Nothing less than Paradise!-so it must seem to those afraid of bold dreams ... On the contrary! The vision is modest; it is only because we are habituated to a meager life, only because we have timidly accepted the traditions of capitalist-militarist society, that freedom appears fantastic. Once achieved, it will doubtless seem like no more than a stage in human progress ...

History is not, as man used to hope, marching us toward our freedom. We claim only this: we see in man the potentiality of living in freedom; we know there are times, now and then, when social conflicts create the demand for liberty, for equality, for justice, and moments when the grip of the past is loosened and choice becomes possible. At such times, can the desire for freedom, the love of freedom, be evoked in people by anarchists? This is our hope.

The present is not a time when men feel an excess of power, or ideals seem possible of realization . Our time is permeated by despair and deadness of spirit. To submit to this spirit is simply to confirm it. Those who are able to perceive that this is a time of degradation and not an inevitable expression of man's nature, have a responsibility to hold before their countrymen an image of what men may be, if we gain our freedom and humanity ...

When opportunities finally arise, then we shall have to think through the first acts of freedom; but first people must gain the will to be free. What marvelous arrangements they will invent then, it is hardly worth the trouble to try to guess ...

When people begin to lose faith in the old order and a revolution occurs, communalistic, democratic institutions invariably spring up to perform the functions of the fallen institutions. As at all times, the work of anarchists is to show people how they can extend their freedom-because if they do not, authority speedily reconstitutes itself. ..

Progress toward freedom consists of the awakening of desire for freedom in the apathetic masses. It consists in resisting and undermining even the revolutionary institutions when they do not yet represent the free actions of the people. Even theoretically, this idea is difficult; but by it, we can understand why revolutions have all turned out so badly, why a revolution is desirable only if it can lead toward freedom. People who are deprived of masters , but do not desire to be free, have never had difficulty in finding new masters ...

That people are human, or proletarians, or intellectuals, gives them no automatic impulse toward freedom. It is nice to talk of "the universal yearning to be free"-but this means only, "people do not like to feel oppressed and restricted"; it certainly cannot mean that they yearn to make choices and exercise the responsibilities of free men. To be free-not merely to escape oppression-is a potentiality of man, the condition, we think, of man's nobility; not given, only earned ...

[A]narchism is a philosophy based on the premise that men need freedom in order to solve urgent social problems, and begin to realize their potentialities for happiness and creativity. Anarchists initiate their practical actions by looking squarely at the time and place they live in, and deciding what can be done now to forward their goal: to find the next step to be taken, to take it, and encourage others to move ahead.

The step to be taken now, we believe, is to keep alive the idea of freedom, and the desires it is meant to serve; to live and work with people and act toward social institutions in the ways which will grant us the nearest approach to the humanity of which we dream; to come together in the solidarity of anarchists to invent actions together. In these ways, if we are inventive, we can introduce into our neighbours' lives the idea and practice of freedom.

Originally appeared in Resistance, Vol. Xl, No. 1 (August 1953).