Monday 13 April 2009

The relevance of anarchism

Encouraged by the example of Martin Rowson at Compass, I want to take a closer look at one of the keywords of the media's coverage of the recent G20 protests: 'anarchist'.

In mainstream media debate, and perhaps more widely, the term 'anarchist' means something like this: a member of the hard-core wing of G20 protesters ready and willing to engage in violent 'direct action', e.g., by smashing a window at the RBS.

So far as I can tell, there do seem to be some people who think of themselves as anarchists who fit this description. I hope, for the sake of anarchism, that they do not become too influential. I find it hard to see what progressive purpose is served by smashing bank windows or encouraging violent confrontation with the police.

It is hard to see what moral justification there is for such 'direct action'. On a purely tactical level, moreover, such behaviour seems only to play into the hands of those who wish to dismiss the very serious issues that lie behind popular protest - the inequity of contemporary capitalism, the threat of catastrophic and irreversible climate change - and portray contemporary protest as, in the words of Tristram Hunt, speaking on BBC's Newsnight Review on April 3, as merely a modern-day 'bread riot'.

I am also suspicious of the underlying mind-set of this kind of 'anarchism'. To relish the prospect of violence for its own sake is a feature of one other ideology: fascism. Those anarchists who get off on violence may be intellectually anarchist (I'll give them the benefit of the doubt) but they are also spiritually fascist - an 'anarcho-fascist tendency'.

It would be a great pity if the anarcho-fascist tendency were to become the dominant image of what anarchism is because, putting this tendency to one side, anarchism potentially has a very important role to play in maintaining the equilibrium of the left and society in general.

First, anarchism has an important contribution to make in the form of its vehement anti-militarism. I am not a pacifist, and so I do not think all war is unjustified. Nevertheless, it is, to put it mildly, clear that states often engage in unjustified war. The ruthless interrogation of militarism which anarchists provide is essential in helping the left and society in general to keep watch over the appalling war-making leviathan that is the modern state.

Second, anarchism has an important contribution to make to our thinking about the structure of, and strategy for building, a better - more egalitarian and green - society. The key concept here is that of mutual aid or mutuality.

Perhaps the one work of anarchist thought which makes this contribution most clear is Colin Ward's wonderful Anarchy in Action, first published in 1973 and recently reprinted by the anarchist Freedom Press. (The Freedom newspaper, from which Freedom Press takes its name, was originally founded in 1886 by Charlotte Wilson. She was, of course, also an early member of the Fabian Society....)

Ward is a self-consciously non/anti-utopian anarchist thinker. He does not believe that an 'anarchist society' is possible (at least under modern conditions). Anarchy is not a society completely free of the state, but a particular organizing principle, that of mutual aid, which we can draw on creatively to solve social problems as an alternative to the state or the market.

The point of anarchism is to take direct action to expand the space of mutuality in society, pushing back, without ever eliminating, the spheres of social life regulated by the market and the state.

Thus, for Ward, 'anarchy in action' means: housing cooperatives; cooperative squatting; community gardens and allotments; self-help therapy groups (e.g., 12-step groups); Friendly Societies; consumer and producer coops; community self-build housing projects; LETS schemes; adventure playgrounds; 'free schools' established by parents with public subsidy; political and fiscal decentralization.

Ward's perspective is not, of course, without its problems. What is to stop particular islands of mutuality becoming socially exclusive - falling into the trap of 'collective egoism' which Martin Buber (a major influence on Ward) rightly diagnosed as a danger with workers' cooperatives? What is to stop welfare provision becoming markedly unequal across localities because of inequality in resources? How can a degree of equality be maintained without a central state structure, and a corresponding ethos of citizenship, to coordinate redistribution?

But while these are good and pertinent questions, I think Ward's anarchism is important in redirecting the left to one of its traditions, one which was arguably occluded and neglected in the course of the last century: the tradition of cooperative self-help which begins with Robert Owen. One can see Ward's anarchism as an attempt to deepen and widen the insights of the broader Cooperative tradition in the labour movement.

The best thinkers in the Fabian tradition - such as G.D.H. Cole - sought to integrate this tradition into a conception of socialism or social democracy which also included an important, corrective role for the central state. In my view, this aspiration remains as valid and important as ever. A strong and vibrant anarchist movement can offer constructive criticism of more state-centric conceptions of social democracy, and so provide helpful resources in thinking about what a more mutualistic, less paternalistic social democracy might look like.

It was a sad day when Charlotte Wilson and her anarchist allies felt compelled to leave the Fabian Society. Perhaps the time has come, if not for anarchists to rejoin the Fabian Society, then at least for a dialogue that might give a more balanced view of anarchism and make for a better social democracy.


Tom said...

"an 'anarcho-fascist tendency'"

I think you're missing the key element of authority here. I think a lot of these people smash someone up purely as a demonstration that at certain points, nobody has the power to stop them.

Weber (rightly, in my view) defined the state as an entity with a monopoly on coercive force within a given area.

These people seem to me to be trying to show that the monopoly can be broken.

Not that their ideas aren't fundamentally idiotic and regressive...

Chris Brooke said...

It was a sad day when Charlotte Wilson and her anarchist allies felt compelled to leave the Fabian Society.Charlotte Wilson did leave the Fabian executive committee in 1887, when the Society explicitly oriented itself towards a parliamentary strategy, and the anarchists withdrew from their involvement in the Society, but she came back quite a bit later, and served on the exec again from 1911-1914.

Stuart White said...

Thanks for the correction/clarification, Chris. I think it underscores the point that anarchist thinkers were not as margibal then as they are today.

Miller 2.0: you may be right. I guess I am struck by what I see as a tendency to romanticise violence on this wing of the anarchist movement. That I see as having a spiritual affinity with fascism.