I’m going to go right ahead and guess that for most people (at least here in the UK), anarchy is the video below. According to taste that was easy either loud and scary; scruffy and childish; or an invigorating shot of piss and vinegar. If it was the latter for you then its probable you’ll already be sympathetic to the topic of this post. For the rest, I’m going to try to attempt to appeal to your better senses and paint a picture of anarchy or more specifically, anarchism-that you hopefully won’t find as jaggy and scary. The Sex Pistols are, after all, just the public face of anarchy, but anarchy wears many faces. There are quieter, cosier forms. Anarchy doesn’t mean chaos after all, but freely chosen order. Saying that, an inkling of Pistol’s deep and thorough disrespect for authority will probably help, even if you wouldn’t express it in the same way.
Here’s the nub: even if you have perfectly legitimate intellectual objections to the notion of anarchism it would be difficult to argue with the basic moral position of anarchy. There’s no getting around this. Dismissing anarchism out of hand is effectively saying, “I think its okay for people to tell other people what to do”. Now to be fair, you wouldn’t be alone in that position, but that’s kind of the point of this post.
So, Anarchism comes to us from the Greek word anarchos, meaning “without rulers”, and is
generally defined as the political philosophy which holds the state to be undesirable, unnecessary, and harmful, or alternatively as opposing authority in the conduct of human relations (Thanks Wikipedia!)
Although there were earlier historical precedents modern Anarchism begins in the 1800s. For example, it was in 1849 that Pierre-Joseph Proudhon first said that : “Whoever lays his hand on me to govern me is a usurper and tyrant, and I declare him my enemy.” Proudhon developed the theory of spontaneous order in society, where organization emerges without a central coordinator imposing its own idea of order against the wills of individuals acting in their own interests. He stated that, “Liberty is the mother, not the daughter, of order” and argued that anarchism as the most rational and just means of creating order in society, advocating what he called “mutualism,” an economic practice that disincentivized profit — which, according to him, was a destabilizing force. For evidence of this see my earlier posts on what I called Psychopthonomics here and here. Under capitalism, he argued, employees are “subordinated, exploited” and their “permanent condition is one of obedience,” a “slave.” Or ‘wage-slave’ as Robert Anton Wilson puts it in an excellent article here.
The next major anarchist thinker in this absurdly reductive history of anarchist thought was Mikhail Bakunin who proposed a form of “anarcho-syndicalism,”. The socialist bent of this form of anarchism led to Bakunin and his associates joining the First International where they allied themselves with the federalist socialist sections of the International, who advocated the revolutionary overthrow of the state and the collectivization of property. To begin with, the collectivists worked with the Marxists to push the First International in a more revolutionary socialist direction. Subsequently, the International became polarised into two camps, with Marx and Bakunin as their respective figureheads. Bakunin characterised Marx’s ideas as centralist and warned against Karl Marx’s aspiration for a “dictatorship of the proletariat,” writing in 1868 that “socialism without liberty is slavery and brutality.” He predicted that, if a Marxist party came to power, its leaders would simply take the place of the ruling class they had fought against. So it goes.
A lot of words so far and still a bit more to go so why don’t we take a break by watching this clip of King Arthur’s encounter with an annoying peasant from Monty Python and the Holy Grail, in which Micheal Palin expounds to comic effect on the issues discussed so far? “Strange women lying in ponds distributing swords is no basis for a system of government”
In an earlier post I wrote about how capitalism is often presented as if it were simply a part of nature, “and that if this is so, then those who flourish within it, be they individuals or entire corporations, are the most highly evolved“. By contrast the anarchist Peter Kropotkin, whom Oscar Wilde likened “Christ… coming out of Russia“, advanced the notion of “mutual aid,” pointing to evidence in the natural world of species cooperating together without competition or coercion. Kropotkin found precedent for his position in the writings of the Greek philosopher Zeno, calling him “the best exponent of Anarchist philosophy in ancient Greece“. Zeno argued that although the necessary instinct of self-preservation leads humans to egotism, nature has supplied a corrective to it by providing man with another instinct – sociability. It is interesting that a philosopher more famous for his paradoxes should be an early proponent of anarchist thought. While hierarchical forms of governance rely upon binary distinctions between left and right, socialist/capitalist, anarchism’s rejection of hierarchy invites and cultivates a maybe logic beyond such either/or distinctions.
Perhaps more interesting is how this focus on ‘sociability’, ‘collectivism’ ‘mutual aid’ and such highlights the inherently optimistic nature of anarchism. This can be contrasted with the usual Hobbesian position taken by people who are pro-government (i.e. almost everyone)- that nature is red in tooth and claw; that people need control and order imposed on them (not us of course, but those other people). This attitude, like the protestant work ethic that prevents people recognising their status as wage-slaves (even being grateful for it) is a religious hangover. Its vision is of a fallen man, steeped in original sin. As will be seen in part 2, if this is what it is to be human then anarchism can be considered a posthuman politic. It is amusing and depressing, but not coincidental, that this internalised faith in hierarchy and authority, is also what supports the structure and practice of Psychopathonomics, a system that encourages the very same aggressive, harmful and cruel behaviour that systems of authority are allegedly supposed to keep in check.
Anarchism probably reached its higher water-mark (thus far) during the Spanish civil war, when for a few years in the 1930s, anarchist collectives thrived in Catalonia. George Orwell, who lived and fought with the Spanish anarchists described them as “a sort of microcosm of a classless society… where hope was more normal than apathy and cynicism.” From Wikipedia:
The anarchist held areas were run according to the basic principle of “From each according to his ability, to each according to his need.” In some places, money was entirely eliminated, to be replaced with vouchers. Under this system, goods were often up to a quarter of their previous cost. On the other hand, unemployment and industrial production in Catalonia worsened dramatically after collectivization. Despite the critics clamoring for maximum efficiency, anarchic communes often produced more than before the collectivization. The newly liberated zones worked on entirely libertarian principles; decisions were made through councils of ordinary citizens without any sort of bureaucracy. (The CNT-FAI leadership was at this time not nearly as radical as the rank and file members responsible for these sweeping changes.) In addition to the economic revolution, there was a spirit of cultural revolution. For instance, women were allowed to have abortions, and the idea of “free love” became popular.
Notably, it was not Franco and his fascists that led to the downfall of the Spanish anarchists. It was that, as Time magazine puts it, “An ideology that loathed hierarchy could never be tolerated by Stalin“. And so the anarchists fell victim to an internal putsch among Spain’s Republicans, led by U.S.S.R-backed Communists. (See TIME’s 1936 report on anarchism in Spain.)
On into the twenty-first century (hover-boards at the ready everyone!) anarchist ideas have been felt in the anti-war, anti-capitalist, and anti-globalisation movements, indeed a general period of social uprising inaugurated by the confrontations at WTO conference in Seattle in 1999. The current Occupy movement also fits with this trend but we’ll get to that in more detail in part two.
This history of anarchist thought has been brief (some would say not brief enough) but will hopefully suffice as a launching pad for the next section on anarchy and posthumanism. To summarise for now: Anarchism proposes a form of society that requires neither gods nor leaders. Anarchism is generally (not always-it wouldn’t be anarchism if it was that fixed) accompanied by a strong socialist perspective, although interestingly enough, socialists have been as guilty as capitalists and fascists (the children of the capitalists) of downplaying and suppressing anarchist uprisings. Unlike traditional ideologies anarchism insists that collectivism be a matter of individual choice rather than individuals being subsumed by the collective. It does seem that in a globalised era of unrestrained capitalism, religious fundamentalism and increased merging of the corporate and political worlds; a time where a cursory glance over history reveals the repeated failures and atrocities perpetuated by hierarchical systems of governance, Anarchism should seem more appealing than ever. We’ll end this section with a taster for the next post in this series, a quote from anarcho-feminist pioneer Emma Goldman.
Anarchism, then, really stands for the liberation of the human mind from the dominion of religion; the liberation of the human body from the dominion of property; liberation from the shackles and restraint of government. Anarchism stands for a social order based on the free grouping of individuals for the purpose of producing real social wealth; an order that will guarantee to every human being free access to the earth and full enjoyment of the necessities of life, according to individual desires, tastes, and inclinations (Emma Goldman in Anarchism and Other Essays)
What’s not to like?