Saturday, 13 November 2010

A digression on what it means to be an anarchist

As should be no secret by this stage, I am an anarchist - proudly and without apology. But you can't tell by looking at me. It has nothing to do with the way I dress, how I carry myself, or the expression on my face. It's not an aura that surrounds me. Hell, it doesn't even define my personality.

The reason that I point this out is a single, throwaway line in the Guardian;
You had only to look at the crowd to know that the vast majority of them were not anarchists, but reasonably regular twentysomethings.
The article was about the occupation of Millbank Tower on Wednesday, and the condemnations that it earned from various quarters. The point of that sentence was that, contrary to the image painted by the outraged, this was not an act committed by professional hooligans or agitators, but of students from a wide variety of backgrounds and political leanings.

This is fair enough. After all, many have commented on the fearful excitement of many people getting their very first taste of direct action. For most, the only applicable label is that of a student, and certainly the black bloc stereotype doesn't hold up to scrutiny.

But, still, my eyes were drawn to that juxtaposition. "Reasonable" and "regular" held up as a sharp contrast to "anarchist," that dark word beyond which the fears of those who value security and order lurk. The word which denotes a terrific and malicious person, drawn up from the sewers at times of unrest and social turbulence, to pay their homage to the lords of chaos.

Yes, I am overexaggerating. I may also be reading far too much into a simple sentence. But it remains a source of much curiosity for me that anarchist ideas and the philosophy which underpins them can seem perfectly reasonable to so many people in conversation - until that word rears its head.

This has become ingrained as a cultural norm, now, the distinction between the ideas on the libertarian left and the descriptor of "anarchist". So much so, in fact, that even left-wing writers often feel the need to justify having anarchist ideas with the disclaimer that they aren't anarchists.

In her New Statesman blog, Laurie Penny comments on one very green protester by noting that he is "clearly not a seasoned anarchist." The act of engaging in direct action is made safer with the caveat that those doing so aren't "kitted out like your standard anarchist black-mask gang." And she quotes a lad who feels the need to state that "I'm not one of those black-mask anarchists, by the way" before she admits that "I just think this is right. This is what needed to happen. We needed to make ourselves heard."

Now, I'm not writing this in order to be offended or outraged if someone "misuses" the word "anarchist" or "anarchy." If you want people to change their perceptions, you have to make the argument to them, not throw your toys out the pram and demand that they see things your way. Rather, my aim was simply to note this phenomenon and to offer a counterpoint.

As already stated, I am an anarchist. I'm also a reasonably regular twentysomething, and I'm not one for dressing all in black and covering my face. Leave that to the ninjas.

(Incidentally, I'm also not one for espousing anarchism as a fashion statement or a lifestyle choice. I don't believe that the revolution will be born in the pot-haze of a hippy drum circle, aloof and scornful of the working class as they succumb to consumerism, conformity, and - y'know - the practicalities of getting on with life. But that's a different argument entirely.)

Rather, the views I hold are probably ones which Laurie's interviewees would agree with. Especially in a setting where they didn't have to defend their honour by telling the world that they're not one of those crazy, scary anarchist types, honest. Where ideas are more important than labels.

This isn't to say that everyone who advocates direct action or holds any kind of libertarian viewpoint is an anarchist. Far from it. There is a difference between sympathising with a viewpoint and holding it, after all, and levels of sympathy will no doubt vary widely. But there is also a difference between disagreeing with an idea and distancing yourself from a word without knowing the ideas behind it, simply because it carries with it a political stigma.

Thus, I think it would be extremely interesting to get an honest and informed answer to that question from those who hold libertarian ideas but deny anarchism for its connotations. Are you an anarchist?

Last time I asked that question, I provided a rough basis for the answer;
What anarchists oppose
  • Hierarchy – anarchists oppose domination of one person or group of people by another as detrimental to human society. We believe that people should be free to make their own decisions and that relationships of command and obedience are to be opposed.
  • Authority – all forms of authority must bear a heavy burden of proof in order to demonstrate their legitimacy and necessity. Some positions of authority meet this burden, for example the relationship between teacher and student or parent and child, but most – government, bosses, religious leaders, slave owners, etc – do not and must be dismantled.
  • The state – centralised rule of a set geographical area (country) or people (nation) by a government of elites is inherently illegitimate. The state / government is essentially nothing more than a near monopoly on the use of violence maintaining order with armed bodies such as the police and military and coercive institutions such as courts and prisons. Even when elected in a watered-down form of “democracy,” the state serves only elite interests and never those of ordinary people and the working class.
  • Capitalism – anarchists oppose capitalism, the system that puts wealth, power, and the means of production (capital) in a few private hands and forces everybody else to rent their labour to that few in exchange for a wage or to starve. This system leads inevitably to privilege and injustice.
  • State socialism – the “alternative” to capitalism, state ownership of the means of production, is essentially just capitalism in another form. Still, the working class have no economic freedom and often – in practice – no political freedom either. State socialism, often termed Communism, is little more than brutality and slavery.
  • Nationalism and fascism – these are but the worst forms of the state, gaining the loyalty of the people with strong, often brutal discipline and by developing an almost religious, fevered love of the state and the rulers in the form of patriotism. Often, racial and national differences are exploited to bring about this mentality, which serves only to divide he working class and strengthen the position of the rulers.
  • Discrimination – nobody should be excluded or discriminated against based on nothing more than their gender, ethnicity, sexuality, background, or beliefs. Anarchists do not expect all people to have the same talents and abilities, nor to all be carbon copies of one another. Equality does not imply that all people are the same, merely that all people should have the same opportunities and be judged only on their personal qualities rather than on superficial group characteristics.
What anarchists stand for
  • Liberty – all people should be free to live their life as they see fit, without rules and laws passed from above that serve no purpose other than control and domination, as long as they are not infringing the right of anybody else to the same.
  • Equality – as stated above, nobody should face discrimination because of their gender, ethnicity, sexuality, background, or beliefs. Nobody should have to face indescribable poverty whilst others live in luxury, merely because of an accident of birth. And nobody should have power or control over any other.
  • Community – human civilisation evolved, from its primitive roots, through the priciple of Mutual Aid. On an ordinary, everyday level, this principle remains, and human beings still cooperate and help each other. It is those at the top, and the capitalist system, which promotes competition and domination, and this should be removed as it is harmful to the advance of civilisation.
  • Solidarity – humanity is divided only between the rulers and the ruled. Other divisions, those which bring about sexism, racism, heterosexism, and other bigotries, are promoted by the ruling class in order to divide their subjects and keep them under control. As long as we foster these divisions and define ourselves by them, our strength as a unit is removed. Only together, in solidarity across borders and racial lines, do we stand any hope of bringing about any meaningful change.
How anarchy would work
  • Self-management – groups, such as workforces or local communities, would be free to operate and govern themselves free of any higher authority. Decisions would be made by popular assemblies using direct democracy, so that everybody would have an equal say in how their community or workplace operated.
  • Free association – all individuals would be free to live where they wanted and associate with who they chose. Not only would they be able to choose who to associate with, they could choose who not to associate with, which means that people could elect to not be part of a participatory community in their local area and opt out of decisions on the running of a place if they opposed them, so long as they did not violate the basic liberty and equality of others.
  • Voluntary federation – instead of the state, where indivudal communities and groups of people are bound together by the coercive force of a central authority, local communities and workers collectives can choose for themselves which other communities or collectives to associate with. Each would retain their own autonomy and elect spokespeople to voice agreements on trade and other matters between the different groups.
  • Direct democracy – unlike in parliamentary democracy, these spokespeople would be just that, elected not to a position of authority but to voice decisions that remain in the hands of the people, as in trade union and workers council structures. This principle, “bottom-up” decision making rather than “top-down” power could operate from a local and regional level right up to a national and international level.
  • Mutual Aid – in participatory communities and workers collectives, Mutual Aid is a central principle. Easily summed up with the phrase “from each according to his ability, to each according to his need,” this boils down to voluntary cooperation, fair distribution of resources, and help and support to those who need it within a local community.
  • Free, fair trade – for the sharing of resources between different communities and individuals who opt out of Mutual Aid, anarchy would see the emergence of a truly free market.  The “free market” of capitalism is not in fact free at all, as the trading relationships are distinctly unequal because of the accumulation of wealth in the hands of a minority that is an inevitable part of the system, and the coercion that results removes all but the pretence of freedom. Truly free trade is fair trade, without domination and exploitation of the poorer or weaker trading party. In other words, the free market is only free without capitalism.
  • Individual liberty – 90% of “crime” is either victimless, harming either nobody or only the perpetrator by their own choice, or a product of the injustice and inequality created by capitalism and the state. Anarchy would not be governed by vast statutes of law that control people down to the last action and instead holds to the liberty of every person to do as they please so long as they are not harming the person or liberty of others.
  • Collective defence – this is not to say that anarchist society will contain “perfect people,” and there will certainly be acts of aggression, oppression, and violence – albeit on a lesser scale than is commonplace in today’s world. Rather than monopolise defence in a police or military force, this would be the responsibility of everybody either on an individual basis or by voluntary participation in a communal militia.
  • Justice, not vengeance – courts would be elected for each individual case, rather than appointed and given unnecessary authority, with the aim to establish guilt or innocence, negotiate reparations, and organise rehabilitation rather than to support the oppressive prison systems which only make matters worse by serving as little more than universities of crime.
In short, anarchism is not a rebellious phase or a street gang, but a political philosophy grounded in principles that reasonable people should be able to get on board with.

If you think are an anarchist or have anarchist leanings, then getting "kitted out like your standard anarchist black-mask gang" is not the best way to pursue that. Instead, I'd suggest getting in touch with anarchist groups active in your area. Our aim isn't just to fight, but to educate, agitate, and organise.