g’day fellow australians. andy, i’m not overly familiar with current anarchist doctrine, so i leave myself open to ridicule, but isn’t the underlying theme one of shared responsibility and communalism, without the need for a centralised authority dictating forms of law and commerce? if so, isn’t this a form of tribalism which merely encourages xenophobia? also, just like communism, it seems to forget that humans will be humans, meaning, some will take advantage of others. others will refuse to cooperate, and others will want to exploit the inherent weaknesses in the system to advance themselves and their allies. what occurred in soviet russia is a perfect example of this. i know anarchism isn’t communism but the point remains the same. it is an unavoidable paradox, therefore, that to create a utopian society you must create a police state to ensure it’s survival. finally, as a nonconformist, andy, where would your place be in an anarchist society? mate, i’m not trying to be a smart-arse, i just would like to hear your views.
Q. Is the underlying theme of current anarchist doctrine shared responsibility and communalism? That is, the creation of a society without the need for a centralised authority dictating forms of law and commerce?
A. I would suggest that notions of communalism and the sharing of responsibility are one of the themes which have animated anarchist theory, but that these are not unique to anarchism, nor what makes anarchism distinct from other political philosophies. For example, the idea that individuals have social responsibilities — that is, ethical obligations towards others — is the cornerstone of any moral or social philosophy. Beyond this, I think that the relationship between communalism, authority, the law, and commerce, is complex. So: communal forms of living vary considerably; not all forms of authority are illegitimate; economic modes and social norms do not always require — or do not always proceed from — clearly identifiable sources of centralised authority; “commerce” — insofar as this term denotes economic exchange, and also production — may be considered fundamental in terms of determining the central characteristics of any given society, but the relationship between what some Marxists sometimes refer to as the economic base and the cultural or political superstructure upon which it rests is also — complex. See : Karl Marx, Preface to ‘A Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy’ (1859/1977).
Q. If so, isn’t this a form of tribalism, one which merely encourages xenophobia?
A. No, I don’t think so. But of course, the nature of the relationship between communalism, tribalism and xenophobia varies according to circumstance, and the nature of our understanding of such terms. Googling the terms ‘communalism’ and ‘anarchism’ for example, throws up Murray Bookchin’s essay ‘What is Communalism?: The Democratic Dimension of Anarchism’. Bookchin makes a number of distinctions in the essay (between ‘communism’ and ‘communalism’ for example), complains that in English-speaking societies anarchism has been shorn of its socialist component in favour of some variant of individualism/bourgeois liberalism, and argues that ‘democracy’ is not a form of rule to which anarchists should object, but the realisation of anarchy. Suffice it to say that: a) logically speaking, there is no requirement for any — and every — human community to be ‘xenophobic’ and; b) in terms of historical practice, the kinds of relationships that have existed between one human community and another, as well as the attitude these collectivities have displayed towards strangers, has varied considerably.
Q. Doesn’t anarchism, like communism, forget that human beings are essentially selfish, competitive, exploitative?
A. Leaving aside the distinction between anarchism and communism: no, I don’t think so. In fact, I’d argue the contrary. That is, proponents of anarchism, and similar doctrines, have almost invariably had to face such objections, and have been doing so for probably over 150 years. At the very least, I would suggest that what human beings are, essentially, is far from settled, but that in any case, the realisation of anarchy does not require human beings be angels.
It’s often said that a stateless society might work if everyone were angels, but due to the perversity of human nature some hierarchy is necessary to keep people in line. It would be truer to say that if everyone were angels the present system might work tolerably well (bureaucrats would function honestly, capitalists would refrain from socially harmful ventures even if they were profitable). It is precisely because people are not angels that it’s necessary to eliminate the setup that enables some of them to become very efficient devils. Lock a hundred people in a small room with only one air hole and they will claw each other to death to get to it. Let them out and they may manifest a rather different nature. As one of the May 1968 graffiti put it, “Man is neither Rousseau’s noble savage nor the Church’s depraved sinner. He is violent when oppressed, gentle when free.”
Others contend that, whatever the ultimate causes may be, people are now so screwed up that they need to be psychologically or spiritually healed before they can even conceive of creating a liberated society. In his later years Wilhelm Reich came to feel that an “emotional plague” was so firmly embedded in the population that it would take generations of healthily raised children before people would become capable of a libertarian social transformation; and that meanwhile one should avoid confronting the system head-on since this would stir up a hornet’s nest of ignorant popular reaction.
Irrational popular tendencies do sometimes call for discretion. But powerful though they may be, they are not irresistible forces. They contain their own contradictions. Clinging to some absolute authority is not necessarily a sign of faith in authority; it may be a desperate attempt to overcome one’s increasing doubts (the convulsive tightening of a slipping grip). People who join gangs or reactionary groups, or who get caught up in religious cults or patriotic hysteria, are also seeking a sense of liberation, connection, purpose, participation, empowerment. As Reich himself showed, fascism gives a particularly vigorous and dramatic expression to these basic aspirations, which is why it often has a deeper appeal than the vacillations, compromises and hypocrisies of liberalism and leftism.
In the long run the only way to defeat reaction is to present more forthright expressions of these aspirations, and more authentic opportunities to fulfill them. When basic issues are forced into the open, irrationalities that flourished under the cover of psychological repression tend to be weakened, like disease germs exposed to sunlight and fresh air. In any case, even if we don’t prevail, there is at least some satisfaction in fighting for what we really believe, rather than being defeated in a posture of hesitancy and hypocrisy.
There are limits on how far one can liberate oneself (or raise liberated children) within a sick society. But if Reich was right to note that psychologically repressed people are less capable of envisioning social liberation, he failed to realize how much the process of social revolt can be psychologically liberating. (French psychiatrists are said to have complained about a significant drop in the number of their customers in the aftermath of May 1968!)
The notion of total democracy raises the specter of a “tyranny of the majority.” Majorities can be ignorant and bigoted, there’s no getting around it. The only real solution is to confront and attempt to overcome that ignorance and bigotry. Keeping the masses in the dark (relying on liberal judges to protect civil liberties or liberal legislators to sneak through progressive reforms) only leads to popular backlashes when sensitive issues eventually do come to the surface.
Examined more closely, however, most instances of majority oppression of minorities turn out to be due not to majority rule, but to disguised minority rule in which the ruling elite plays on whatever racial or cultural antagonisms there may be in order to turn the exploited masses’ frustrations against each other. When people get real power over their own lives they will have more interesting things to do than to persecute minorities.
So many potential abuses or disasters are evoked at any suggestion of a nonhierarchical society that it would be impossible to answer them all. People who resignedly accept a system that condemns millions of their fellow human beings to death every year in wars and famines, and millions of others to prison and torture, suddenly let their imagination and their indignation run wild at the thought that in a self-managed society there might be some abuses, some violence or coercion or injustice, or even merely some temporary inconvenience. They forget that it is not up to a new social system to solve all our problems; it merely has to deal with them better than the present system does — not a very big order.
If history followed the complacent opinions of official commentators, there would never have been any revolutions. In any given situation there are always plenty of ideologists ready to declare that no radical change is possible. If the economy is functioning well, they will claim that revolution depends on economic crises; if there is an economic crisis, others will just as confidently declare that revolution is impossible because people are too busy worrying about making ends meet. The former types, surprised by the May 1968 revolt, tried to retrospectively uncover the invisible crisis that their ideology insists must have been there. The latter contend that the situationist perspective has been refuted by the worsened economic conditions since that time.
Actually, the situationists simply noted that the widespread achievement of capitalist abundance had demonstrated that guaranteed survival was no substitute for real life. The periodic ups and downs of the economy have no bearing on that conclusion. The fact that a few people at the top have recently managed to siphon off a yet larger portion of the social wealth, driving increasing numbers of people into the streets and terrorizing the rest of the population lest they succumb to the same fate, makes the feasibility of a postscarcity society less evident; but the material prerequisites are still present.
The economic crises held up as evidence that we need to “lower our expectations” are actually caused by over-production and lack of work. The ultimate absurdity of the present system is that unemployment is seen as a problem, with potentially labor-saving technologies being directed toward creating new jobs to replace the old ones they render unnecessary. The problem is not that so many people don’t have jobs, but that so many people still do. We need to raise our expectations, not lower them.
Q. Isn’t what occurred in Soviet Russia a perfect example of the intractability of human nature, and hence the impossibility of anarchism?
A. No, I don’t think so. Of course, much depends on what you believe actually happened in ‘Soviet Russia’. Generally speaking, the anarchist version varies considerably from that of the Bolshevik, and where the successful capture of state power by the Bolshevik (later Communist) Party is regarded by Leninists and others as constituting the essence of the Russian revolution, from an anarchist perspective it was the beginning of the end: the crushing of the Kronstadt rebellion in 1921, undertaken under the close instruction of Trotsky, constituting not a rupture but rather the final nail in the coffin in a logical and entirely predictable train of events. See, for example, Maurice Brinton’s (Christopher Agamemnon Pallis, December 2, 1923–March 10, 2005) The Bolsheviks and Workers’ Control: The State and Counter-Revolution (1970). There are many other sources of infos on the period, including accounts of anarchist activity, and the counter-revolutionary role of the Bolsheviks. See also : Anarchism & Marxism Part 666 (May 11, 2009).
Q. Given these facts, to sustain the existence of a utopian society, isn’t it necessary to create a police state?
Q. What is the place of a nonconformist in an anarchist society?
A. That depends. I think some forms of conformity, like some social norms, are good and proper. A prohibition on the abuse of children and other animals, for example, is, I think, something to which individuals should, in fact, conform. Most of what is referred to as examples of ‘non-conformity’ is generally harmless, and concern matters of aesthetics, not ethics. As for my own place, you’d have to elaborate.