Well over 18 months ago the south west’s local and green free paper The Spark published a shortish piece on Anarchy, a basic introduction really. To be honest we weren’t that impressed, its seemed fairly weak and wishy-washy, as if the politics of anarchism had been watered down for the The Spark’s more touchy-feely readership. This was surprising given that we knew who the author was, and had a lot of respect for both his practical implementation of his anarchist ideas, and his writing ability. So in due course we got our hands on his original and longer unedited article, and unsurprisingly were much more impressed with what had been written. We’ve been sitting on it for a while, but present it here as part of our ongoing Anarchy in the UK – AnarchoSeries. So here’s ‘Anarchy in the UK…but not as we knew it’, by N8 (images & editing by bookfair editor).
Anarchy in the UK…but not as we knew it
In Summer 2009 the Bristol Evening Post lead with the headline “Anarchy but only in a nice way”. It was reporting on the squatted ‘convergence space’ that formed a base for people taking part in ‘Bristol Co-mutiny’.
‘Co-Mutiny’ was week of workshops, talks, films, free food and accommodation as well as practical actions around the city that sought to draw attention to, and directly challenge, global inequalities, the arms trade, UK housing and urban ‘development’ strategy, immigration policy, climate change and environmental destruction. For many of us involved, the week was about joining the dots between problems that are normally treated as single issues and thus draw attention to the broader social and economic context within which they emerge.
The headline reporting in The Post was shocking to many participants – not to be associated with anarchy – indeed, by organising without leaders, sharing a critique of all forms domination (so that includes capitalism, racism, patriarchy etc!) whilst practicing our vision of another world in the present, those of us taking part could certainly be called ‘anarchists’ of some description. Instead, what was surprising was the use of “anarchy” and “nice” in the same sentence, and what’s more in a “mainstream” newspaper such as The Post.
One only has to look as far back as the G20 demonstrations in London (April 2009) to see examples of the traditional media representations of anarchists; as masked invaders, hell bent on destruction, and of anarchism; as a state of total chaos and disorder in the absence of any overriding authority. Perhaps the headline was just that one that slipped through the net, The Post was certainly quick to follow that Friday with a more predicable and derogatory story. Or maybe, just maybe, the writer’s feeling that it was even possible to paint anarchists in a positive light reflects a broader acceptance of the need for decentralised and anti-authoritarian approaches to social change. Mistake or intention, it is in part through such interruptions to the ‘same old story’ that a change in perceptions can begin to take place.
In what follows I try to demystify what is meant by anarchism today. In doing so, I aim at one such interruption to the ‘same old story’. I begin with a spanner in the works, a caveat before I can begin, which is to note that it is difficult, if not outright contradictory, to try define anarchism in an article – this is not for lack of space since many books fail also. Instead, it is because when written word attempts to fix or contain something that is constantly evolving and that blurs the lines between theory and practice, then what’s left on the page will be little more than a trace of the author’s intended target.
Noting this problem, Peter Marshall likens anarchism to a river with many currents and eddies constantly being refreshed by new surges but always moving towards the wide ocean of freedom. Thus, whilst there are differences in thought and practice that mean some anarchists may read and disagree with what I write here, there are also certain common principles around which these multiple forms of social action converge. So what are they?
Freedom + Equality
Anarchism’s most basic principle is that freedom and equality are mutually inclusive: they cannot be separated. Whether inequality exists in material wealth or in power, in the context of the home, work or social group, the imbalance inhibits the freedom of those with the short straw. As such, anarchists argue that it is impossible for all to be free when inequality exists. This contrasts sharply with liberalism where a notion of freedom is decoupled from wealth or power and defined in terms of rights. Under liberalism huge inequality is allowed to exist whilst we all ‘free’ because we enjoy equal rights before the law. Freedom plus equality or ‘egaliberte’ (egalitarian + libertarian) as it has been called by contemporary French theorist Etienne Balibar, also contrasts against an orthodox or authoritarian Marxist notion of equality. Under authoritarian Marxism, a powerful state could impose equality top down through complex redistributive mechanism. Though this would achieve material equality, there would be massive inequalities of power between state and public and thus massive inequalities in the degrees to which humans would be free.
It is from this concept of freedom plus equality that we come to an opposition to domination in all its forms. Indeed, the domination of one over another is only possible due to unequal power relations existing between the two. Hierarchies are an example of such a relationship. In a hierarchy, certain individuals possess authority over others in virtue of their position and are thus able to dominate. Anarchists thus oppose all forms of hierarchy and authority on account of their opposition to domination. Moreover, they propose that these coercive forms of power are actually unnecessary for society to function.
From Principle to Critique
Looking at free-market or ‘neoliberal’ global capitalism it is easy to see why anarchists (as well as many others) might oppose it. The story is well known – the removal of “barriers to trade” such as environmental regulations and labour rights, the pursuit of profit at almost any cost and cuts in social spending alongside increased military and policing to counter popular resistance. The results have been abhorrent – increasing inequality worldwide both within and between countries, climate change and environmental degradation, ongoing war on multiple fronts and state sponsored violence against those that protest.
But what would be so bad about green capitalism for example, or a capitalist social democracy that taxed the rich to provide public services? Would anarchists, defined as we have said by a desire for freedom plus equality and an opposition to domination, be against such a system?
As employees within a capitalist economy we sell our labour and time (by working) to our employer. If we work in the private sector, our employer capitalises (makes a profit) from our work in virtue of the fact that he or she owns the means of production (the workplace/tools/computers/machinery etc). Thus, what you earn in a capitalist economy is not so much dependent on how hard you work (think about pay in sweatshops or for refuse collection!), instead it is largely dependent on how much you own. If you own the means of production then others work whilst you profit. In capitalism then, he or she who begins with the most ends with even more and thus inequalities will only widen.
Certain capitalist social democracies attempt to mitigate these inequality-producing effects by imposing high taxes on the rich and distributing ‘benefits’ to the poor. This is like recognising the illness but treating only the symptoms – we know capitalism produces inequality so rather than try to get rid of it we live with it but try to treat it. This involves highly complex redistributive mechanisms that can only be carried out by the state. It is inherently disempowering because it is a hierarchical (top down) approach – the powerful state effectively giving handouts to the poorer. This acts as a disincentive to work both for the rich (since they with will not make what they expected) and for the poor (since they’ll get paid anyway) as well as institutionalising the dependency of some humans on others. Further, since the system remains a capitalist one, profit remains the ultimate goal. As such, within capitalism we’ll always be fighting a losing battle against big businesses who wish to weaken the regulations around labour rights and the environment. Indeed, such a system will only be as fair as those in power allow – as late 19th – early 20th Century anarchist Lucy Parsons famously warned: “Never be deceived that the rich will allow you to vote away their wealth.”
Whilst famed for a critique of capitalism and state, this does not define anarchism. Instead, these social forms are simply some of the most visible sources of oppression. Taking a critique of domination as a starting point, anarchists look to the multiple ways in which we are oppressed, be it through class/work relations under capitalism, insitutionalised and informal racisms within society, through gendered hierarchies, or on account of sexual orientation, disability, background (the list could go on). Thus, unlike Marxism, which analyses the world through economics, seeing capitalism and class as the sole source of all oppression, anarchists look to the multiple ways that domination exists through a multitude of social relationships.
From Critique to Practice:
Because anarchism is a practical philosophy or ‘praxis’, the critique of domination and proposal for a free and equal society is not just a theoretical standpoint but something anarchists are committed to enacting through their daily lives. For example, in order to bring about and sustain a society free from domination and hierarchy, anarchists recognise that we have to work together. Thus, mutual aid and solidarity – that is, helping one another out and standing up for and supporting each other in times of need – are core anarchist principles that we see enacted directly through varied forms of collective action.
Similarly, anarchists organise ‘non-hierarchically’, that is, without leaders or an organisational structure that gives some power and authority over others. Where informal hierarchies emerge, for example if a member of a group has a special skill the others don’t (and thus becomes an authority), a conscious effort is made to counter the imbalance of power.
Hierarchies and oppressive practices also emerge along the lines of race, gender, disability and background. As such, anarchist groups try to both cultivate an awareness of and actively counter the ways in which we re-produce the injustices we see in society through our own daily practices – for example by inhering within traditional gender roles. Non-hierarchical or ‘horizontal’ organising is thus always incomplete – it is a work in progress that can always be improved through sensitivity towards the emergence of hierarchical relations.
Organising ‘horizontally’, also affects how decisions are made in groups – usually this is by ‘consensus’. In contrast to being told what to do by a leadership (minority dominates majority) or voting (where the views of the majority dominate the minority), a ‘consensus decision-making process’ allows all participants to have a say in an open forum. Any decision that is made must be acceptable to all members and every effort should be made that those who wish to, can participate.
As a praxis then, anarchism is concerned not only with opposing injustice ‘out there’ in the World but also in our daily lives. It is thus a form of what some call – ‘pre-figurative politics’ – that is pre-figuring a future world in the here and now or being ‘the change you wish to see in the world’. This mode of acting directly to affect a reality rather than lobbying, voting, paying or praying for others to change things for us, is also known as ‘direct action’.
Many contemporary approaches to social change from LETS schemes, the free-economy, community gardening, autonomous social centres, open source software and the creative commons, food, housing and workers cooperatives to the multiple DIY solutions for more sustainable living are thus examples of direct action and accord with anarchist principles – they are bottom up (non-hierarchical), based on voluntary mutual aid and solidarity and are part of building a freer, more just and sustainable world in the here and now rather than waiting for others to do it for us.
Is that it?
So, if anarchism is already happening, will capitalism simply wither away if we get on with doing all the positive stuff? Myself, and most anarchists would argue no. Though the practices outlined above are crucial to the formation of the future in the present, history has shown time and time again that those with wealth and power will not simply give in if we ignore them. As such the concept of solidarity and mutual aid from the perspective of an anarchist praxis means taking action to destroy oppressive structures whilst at the same time building the new.
It is crucial then, not to play into the moralising divide between those that throw stones and those that plant vegetable patches (often they are the same people anyway!). In a social system where the wealthy rule by force, throwing a stone at plate glass window can plant a seed of insurrection, shattering the illusion that business is all powerful, rupturing the visual order of the city space suggesting something else is possible, not to mention materially damaging the profits of that particular company. Simultaneously, planting a vegetable patch throws a half-brick at the corporate food chain that treats the earth as vessel to be drained of its value – it is another way of prefiguring a possible world in the present. These actions should not be separated along some moral register but seen as complimentary if we are genuinely committed to rebuilding the world along egalitarian and libertarian lines.
N8 – December 2009, Bristol
Editors postscript – in mid-August 2011 a group of anonymous individuals claimed an attack on the Evening Post building on the night of 11 August, critiquing it for its role in siding with and aiding the state and capital in the aftermath of a series of street distrubances and clashes with police in Bristol. The Evening Post has consistently worked with the police to identify individuals alleged to have been involved in street disturbances, publishing images and reporting verbatim police reports. One young Bristol anarchist is presently wanted by the police in relation to this action, wherever he is we send him our love and solidarity.