Anarchism is an ancient Greek word literally means a society without rulers, not as is often thought, one without rules. The core principle of anarchism is reflected well in the closing line of John Mackay’s poem Anarchy “I will not rule, and also ruled I will not be”. I take this to mean not simply the absence of a ruling class, but the absence of subservience in all societal relationships. Anarchism is free people trying to treat each other as if they mattered equally.
The primary appeal of anarchism to me is what some may see as a weakness, that of its hopeless idealism. Any philosophy which wasn’t idealistic couldn't encapsulate the expansive dreams we should have for ourselves and our society. Absolute individual freedom and equality is a light which the inevitability of some darkness doesn’t diminish.
Ideals mean little though if they have no practical basis, so we must walk the fine line between idealism and pragmatism, pondering the world that should be as a guide to the firmly grounded progressive steps we can take.
As I introduce my ideas on anarchism, I want the reader to keep in mind that I am not prescribing a path to follow, just offering individual thoughts which might inform their own. There is no official anarchist doctrine, instead, there are principles most anarchists agree on and rivers of thought running in various directions from those.
As the signs above the door of Tibetan lamaseries read “A thousand monks, a thousand religions”, so too with anarchists and anarchism.
The forming of modern society
When discussing the structure of society it is worth taking a few moments to look at how humans have organised themselves in societies throughout history. There have been a vast array of social structures in human society down through the millennia and anarchism amongst them is not new as an organising principle. If latter-day hunter-gatherer groups are any guide, non-hierarchical social groupings may have been common for the majority of our two hundred thousand year journey as homo sapiens.
It was around ten thousand BCE that agriculture began to revolutionise human life in some areas of the globe, and small collectives started to make way for other social structures. Though farming was slow to spread it enabled larger fixed-place social groupings to form where once smaller nomadic groups had been. Although an individual might work longer days in a farming-based society, that time could be more productive. With the storage capabilities of new crops, overproduction wasn't wasted and thus for the first time sections of society were not required for food production.
Where once almost everyone required similar skill sets needed for survival, people freed from food acquisition could specialise in other fields, such as artisans, warriors, the priesthood etc. With the move from a nomadic lifestyle, the nature of human dwellings also changed, building became synonymous with human habitat. Sometime around five thousand BCE the first cities formed in Mesopotamia.
Humans living in large fixed groups for the first time led to new ways of structuring society. Power is essentially the ability to control others, and in these new larger groupings reliant on the social structure for their food and security, levels of power which simply hadn’t existed before became possible. In a hunter-gatherer society if people found themselves unhappy with the society in which they lived they have all the skills they need to survive and might simply walk away. With specialisation, dependency and living in fixed structures, people become more dependent on their place and the society around them and thus were easier to make accept their given circumstances.
Power enabled groups within society to have privileged access to many things which our evolutionary drives compel us to desire, shelter, mates, food, status. As elite classes took advantage of the possibilities which power presented, others consequently had to accept more subservient roles within society. Over time the hierarchy of society was formalised into rigid class and caste-based systems, and with a few brief hopeful exceptions, this form of social organisation has persisted to the modern-day.
There have been many advances for humanity via science, technology and cultural movements, however, structural inequality pervades amidst an ever-quickening flux.
The spreading of democracy, and by this I mean universal suffrage, is perhaps the best example of an increase in equality in society. Equality is also enshrined in law and most areas of political life. These forms of equality might be referred to as theoretical equality.
Though I would not wish to diminish the importance of theoretical equality, there is also the issue of practical equality. Whether one looks at health-care, education, housing, or our judicial systems, theoretical equality means little if practical equality is elusive. In most spheres of social organisation, we can still perceive a clear hierarchical structure which favours those who have power. All may be equal, but some are more equal than others, as Orwell so famously said.
Chiefs, nobles, royalty, the wealthy, the business elites, the upper class or caste, inequality persists, and many amongst them use their power to guard their privilege selfishly.
Where we are
The present often limits our thinking. It is common to work backwards from an existing situation to find logical reasons why it should have come to be. Human evolution is a prime example, our social mythologies tell us that humans were the fittest and rose inevitably to be the crowning species in our world. We look at the present human place in the world and feel it must have somehow always been inevitable, the result of an intelligent process, despite the fact that if an asteroid hadn’t crashed into the earth and caused the extinction of the dinosaurs we might not exist today or at least would exist in a very different form. Little is inevitable, the cosmos is in a state of flux, a thousand paths present themselves to our next step.
Thus the persistence of class-based society and its frequency in our modern world could lead us to the conclusion that it is the most natural, the best or even the only way to successfully structure a society larger than a few hundred people. I believe this to be an understandable mistake. Understandable because our thinking always struggles to break free from the shackles imposed on it by the surrounding reality. A mistake because class-based structure stops our society and each individual in it from living out their potential.
“Success” for a society is the ability to spread and perpetuate itself. What makes a society which can spread and perpetuate itself is not necessarily the one which fulfils any higher goals. Looking back through history perhaps the best predictor of success is not how advanced a culture was technologically or intellectually, but rather what sort of might it possessed.
Technology and culture often took a large backwards step as a mightier culture overtook another. The Mongol warlords who conquered the largest empire the world had ever seen, created a swath of devastation in their wake in towns and cities which they didn’t have the skills to rebuild. When the Romans, the most consequential empire in European history, invaded Greece they were exposed to art and culture which left them awestruck and they consequently tried to emulate. When the rise of Christianity in Rome shut down the Greek schools of philosophy, they extinguished a light which would not burn as brightly again in Western Culture for another thousand years. When the Western Empire in Rome was destroyed, within a few generations people walked past the large Roman constructions dotting their empire and wondered what sort of people had the skills to create them.
It seems simple enough to understand why militaristic society could come to be the dominant form, indeed it is almost mathematical in its logic. If a tribe/city/state decides to take over a neighbour it has many advantages such as surprise, planning, timing etc, thus on average we would expect the attacker to be successful. Success reinforces warlike culture and leads to further militaristic advantages such as increases in population, access to more resources and military experience. The neighbours of such a society, whether warlike themselves or not, would do well to militarise if they hoped to survive, thus militarism breeds militarism and the whole world becomes blind.
Other cultural factors also confer advantages in war, with a primary one being organisation. If you have a society where a ruling class can compel people en masse, where the population is used to subservience, military discipline is easier to maintain. A centrally organised religion or a class-based society are both ideal ways to do this. Religion has the additional power that you can not only compel someone by simplistic tools such as violence or a share in the spoils of war, but you also have a grip on their sense of meaning and identity. Any enemy can be painted as an enemy of the gods, and if the approval of said gods awaits in heaven, they will be both more willing to kill and to risk death. As the gods slowly turn their backs upon the modern world, nationalism has come to take the place of religion in giving people an identity that can be used to herd them to war.
What societies tend to succeed more than others is obviously complex, but it seems clear that a militaristic structure with a centrally organised population provides significant advantages in defending or expanding a society, and this helps explain the prevalence of these cultural artefacts. Thus it is difficult to say that people “naturally” fall into structured hierarchies when the historical record shows that for the majority of our history as hunter-gatherers they did not, and it is reasonably clear that in many other cases people have been compelled to do so for the sake of their cultural survival.
There is no doubt as history has shown us that these are efficient structures. They can respond quickly to internal circumstances and external threats. I do not believe however that the militaristic form of organisation serves many other needs of our society, certainly, they are a barrier to equality and the full unfolding of human potential, for these reasons we should move to more egalitarian structures.
Democracy itself is not a political system, it is merely a tool which can be used within one. Neither is democracy particularly aligned to any single political system. During the Cold War, it was something of a propaganda feat to equate democracy and capitalism although democracy is perhaps more compatible with communism, socialism and anarchism than with capitalism where much power resides in wealth.
The fundamental fairness of democracy as a system, with each person having an equal input into decisions which affect them regardless of power or privilege, has universal appeal. By the will of the people the twentieth century saw the dramatic rise of universal democracy as the system of choosing government across the world. In some of those countries, democracy was the result of a peaceful transition, in others, people died for the freedom to have a say in how they were governed, in others they died at the hands of their governments for freedoms never realised.
Democracy has been derided as the rule of the masses, who it is assumed are ignorant and self-interested. Indeed the word democracy once had connotations as negative as the word anarchy has now, to call someone a democrat was an insult. History has shown however that when the self-interested masses are entrusted with the responsibility of choosing leaders, they endorse fewer despots and incompetents than systems of government based on power or hereditary position. Democracy is as imperfect of course as we are as individuals, but I find myself in profound agreement with Winston Churchill's assertion that democracy is the worst form of choosing a government except for all the others that have been tried from time to time.
Discussing democracy we must acknowledge that there are many potential forms that democracy can take, direct democracy, participatory democracy, market democracy, consensus democracy, representative democracy etc. Most of these have their strengths and it is by finding the right combination of these and the continual reform of the democratic system in the direction of equality that societies will deliver the best outcomes for their citizens, or conversely the citizens of the future will deliver the best outcomes for their societies.
It is common to denigrate democracy when it doesn’t deliver the sort of government we wish for, to blame problems on the fact that we don’t really have “true” democracy. I find myself in agreement with Noam Chomsky that we have already have important and meaningful democratic forms. We have working constitutions which enshrine equality, charters of rights which can be appealed to in courts of law accessible to all, equal participation in the political system, free and anonymous voting etc. Problems persist despite these impressive forms, not because of them, and whilst we should constantly be looking to improve the systems via which we co-operate we should also understand their limitations. No system is going to create a decent society without an engaged citizenry. No system will create an equal society if corrupt elites are allowed to run rampant. We have the basics of a system which can provide equality, we must now look to ourselves as citizens to ensure it does.
Whilst we are discussing the enormous strides made in the last centuries toward theoretical equality, though practical equality has been more elusive we should not forget or take for granted the large positive steps in that direction as well. Healthcare, education, public spaces, safety, all of these things benefit from a functioning democracy. They benefit from the priorities the general citizenry puts on them as opposed to other forms of government which are primarily concerned with lining the pockets of the powerful and their allies.
Thus democracy has earned its place as the fundamental basis of any system of societal structure we might wish to propose. Democracy is just a system, however, and like all systems, it can be corrupted, dominated, gamed. Whilst better systems can help us live better lives and be better people, ultimately they are always limited in the good they can achieve by the quality of the people who wield power within them.
To ensure the continuation and health of the democratic revolution I believe that we must extend democracy to more areas of our lives, and deepen our participation in democracy, but we must also look beyond it to the political and economic structures which perpetuate inequality. Widespread democracy has not led to a restructuring of the class system, as many elites feared when democracy was little more than a theory. The elites logic was sound, with the majority of wealth concentrated in so few hands, surely if the masses governed they would immediately eliminate the wealthy classes and distribute their resources. This restructuring never happened and it is worth asking why the elites got it so wrong.
Keeping us in our place
When people in a democracy hold the ability to install any form of government, why has the structure not undergone a more radical transformation to equality? This is complex and I believe there are many reasons that could be discussed.
The continuity of the economic, religious, and political organisms of society is obviously key. Centralised religions may have withdrawn a step, but they are still in the background and used to control the large sections of society who hold belief in them. Religions, which may have been progressive in the ancient societies they come from, have in the modern world more often been a force for the status quo and conservatism. The most successful religions have been those which are able to capture powerful armies and states, thus we wouldn’t expect revolutionary religion as it is unlikely the ruling classes would encourage a religion which threatened their privileged positions. The New Testament says “Slaves obey your masters” and the Koran says “Obey those in charge amongst you”, the religions which said anything more destabilising would have been unattractive to the Roman empire or the Caliphate.
Much may have changed in the political sphere, but elsewhere change has been stagnant. The non-democratic hierarchical structure still holds sway throughout most of the organs of our society, including in religions but also the machinery of government, corporations, schools and the media. Workers, students, the utilisers of services, they do not vote for the people in charge of them. Thus people’s power in the theoretical sense increased in the political realm, however, their day to day practical exercise of power in their lives changed little. If freedom and equality are habits we have yet to have had the opportunity to acquire them fully in our day to day.
One of the keys to understanding power is that a leader does not need to have the support of the whole society, just enough of the society and that amount depends on the system. In a martial or feudal society this might mean extending privileges to just enough of the sword-wielding population as is required to keep the rest of the population in fear. In most democratic systems, 50% + 1 is enough to hand you power, that means of course not half of the eligible voting public but only half of those who turn up to vote on the day. Excepting tightly knit hunter-gatherer tribes there has never a system in which the powerful needed or wanted to please everyone. Democracy has no doubt extended the percentage of the citizenry who have some power over their government, but it has never been required to work for anywhere near the totality of the population, thus we might predict that it wouldn’t.
Then there is of course deliberate manipulation of the population by privileged elites in order to maintain the status quo. The media is the most obvious example of this, with the vast majority of media in most countries owned by the government or by corporations. The less obvious manipulations are large amounts of money which go into political lobbying, funding which influences universities, think tanks to manipulate public debates and efforts to ensure school curriculums are pro business. Unions and other organisations which may provide an alternative voice to corporate power are also vigorously opposed, indeed efforts to weaken democracy itself are part of weakening the opposition to elite rule.
The policeman in our head
Perhaps the reason we live in a hierarchical society is because we are genetically wired to do so, to follow, to conform. There is reasonable evidence for this. Psychological studies show a bias to think more favourably of people we believe are leaders or who have other forms of status. Other studies show a tendency towards conformity and obedience to authority. Though the percentage of people who don’t obey or conform in these studies is often overlooked there is a clear thread in our thinking. Anyone who has had any status at all is perhaps familiar with this.
We don’t instinctively compare our current political situation to some sort of idealised society, instead we compare it to our own past and the circumstances of others in the world. There is no doubt our societies have come a long way and knowing this increases contentment with the present situation. For instance access to healthcare may be unequal, but we also know that all of us have access to better health care today than anyone in the world a few decades ago. We can also gloss over other problems in our own societies when we compare them with others. Looking across at so many other countries with poor governance and security accentuates contentment with our own.
Then there is the fact that our society is constantly improving in so many ways. Not only improvements in democracy and the rule of law, but also healthcare, energy, food, technology, entertainment, the average person lives a life royalty of previous ages could not imagine. All these things have political ramifications, people living comfortable lives are less likely to agitate for change. This has long been understood by intelligent elites, as the Roman words on how to keep the population subdued “Bread and Circus” (Panem et circenses) make clear. The beginnings of the modern social welfare state in the late 19th century came not from the left but from the conservative Bismarck who was attempting to insulate the German state from class struggle. Other countries followed suit keen to limit growing social unrest and forestall the possibility of revolution. People are often risk averse, and will accept a tolerable reality over an uncertain idealised potential reality.
It is fashionable to disparage politicians, often enough by politicians looking for some populist points. People question the motives of politicians not as individuals, but as a class, believing them all to be out for their own interests. In this general condemnation people either believe only flawed individuals would accept a role in politics, or that something about the political system destroys the character of the individual, that Lord Acton was right when he said, “All power corrupts, absolute power corrupts absolutely”.
There are many good people involved in politics, and no doubt many of them have higher ethical standards and have given more to public service in their lives than the people who criticise them. There are no doubt rogues in politics and people who go along with the rogues for their own purposes, just as there are in every other sphere of life where power is located. The difference is that politics is a democratic realm, we have the ultimate say in who will govern us, and if politics is full of rogues then perhaps we have failed in our oversight of them.
There are many filters to this, so the saying “people get the government they deserve” can be a little unfair. Our choices are generally only as good as the information on which we make the choice, and as we may never meet the people we vote for, we are reliant on others to interpret politics for us in a fair and unbiased way. With government and large corporations generally owning the media there is little chance of this happening. Reclaiming the media is one step of course, but the most direct way in which we can understand and influence the political system is by our participation.
I don't believe in a separate political class and certainly not a highly paid political class. If those who make the decisions in a society live in a separate reality to the majority of the people in that society, then their decisions are likely to be divorced from the wider reality as well.
The initial steps to ensuring the political class represent their own interests are simple enough. Remove the influence of external financial factors on elections and politicians themselves. This means having political campaigns funded by the state and parties themselves being funded by set membership fees in order to align the funding base of parties to their support in the community, rather than the class of their support in the community. The salaries and living conditions of politicians should be maintained at the average levels of the community they represent, and I could even see a case for requiring them to live nearer to the conditions that the poorest amongst the community live. Once they leave politics, they shouldn't also be able to reap windfalls from any favourable decisions they made whilst in office by going to work in the private sector they were meant to oversee. This might be done by employing them in the civil service.
Ensuring politicians represent the community is only a single step. An even more important step is bringing the community into politics.
The society where the word democracy comes from was Athens in ancient Greece. The people (or demos) met in one place to discuss and vote on the issues of the day. Other aspects of Greek life such as slavery and gender inequality are abhorrent to the evolved mind, however, a large section of the population having equality in choosing how it was governed was a radical step forwards.
The size of most political groupings today are too large to allow meetings of all citizens such as in Athens, but technology can enable direct democracy on a large scale. A potential system would be to have a centralised place where people could look into matters they think are relevant to them, get expert opinions on the matters, share those matters with others, add relevant content for others. Although potentially on most matters people would not be sufficiently engaged in to vote on, it would achieve something for the transparency of government to have as much as possible open for the public to scrutinise. I imagine if the people were more involved in decision making things like consultants, restructures and department name changes would soon be less common, and front line services which affect peoples lives would receive more attention, however that would be for the demos to decide.
A perhaps more important way in which political equality could be deepened is by encouraging participatory democracy. The aim of this would be to have people physically more engaged in politics, especially in their local communities. The size of these groupings could be a neighbourhood, a small town, ideally no larger than that which allows each member to participate in discussion and decisions. People could also be members of other groups reflecting their skills or wider concerns. Referring back to the discussion about how we might change the nature of work, giving each person time to participate in a community group could be part of this change.
There are always dangers of localism, of people not looking at the longer term, or wider ramifications of their actions. A wealthy area might not wish to allocate resources to a poorer area. This is not terribly different to the system we currently have, where according to what borders you live within you might have good free healthcare or none at all. People who are raised within a society where empathy and giving are highly regarded might make different decisions than those raised in one where fame and power are sought after as we have today. Given where we start from, a universal set of rights and a mechanism for overseeing them would need to be in place.
Ultimately designing a system to overcome human failings can have some benefit, but its ultimate goal must be to heal those failings not to perpetuate them and therefore itself.
The term libertarian socialism, which is a stream of anarchism, seems like a contradiction in terms. We have been taught from a young age that the defining characteristic of human nature is selfishness, and thus if people were really given complete liberty, tyranny not socialism would ensue.
The idea that we are only selfishly motivated is a simplistic view of human nature. Humans have lived for hundreds of thousands, maybe millions of years in groups, we have evolved to be a deeply social being. We can empathise with each other in a highly advanced way, responding to facial expressions with only fractional differences between them. We can express and understand pain, pleasure, frustration, a whole host of complex emotions, we can even often tell if an emotion is insincere. It does vary, especially with context, but most of us are also instantly empathetic with the emotions of others, we don't like to see someone in pain, we enjoy seeing someone who is happy, we respond to others emotions without any wish to do so, much of the entertainment we consume involves taking us on rides through our empathetic emotions. On some level, one could rightly say this is just a tool for survival and is about the selfishness of the genes, but that is not something open to our conscious awareness. Just as a flower does not bloom purely for the sake of beauty, this does not change the fact that it is beautiful.
We can see examples where we are willing to put ourselves in harm's way for the sake of others. Parenthood is an excellent example of the selflessness built into our DNA, each of us was once a fragile infant that could never have survived without the assistance of others. Parents will often go to great lengths to protect their children, routinely putting themselves in greater danger than a purely selfish being would ever do. Of course again genetically speaking this is just the selfishness of the genes wishing to pass themselves on, but an animal is not consciously aware of this, instead, they are motivated for the bonds they feel for each other and the need to protect their child. It is the genes which are selfish, not us and our conscious awareness.
Physical evolution is a very slow process, and one of the triumphs of our universe is the evolving of intellect which can learn, adapt and essentially make evolutionary steps in the blink of an eye. This enables a level of abstraction in thought, so for instance where the genes might only be interested in us protecting our genetic offspring, we lack a sense for telling if someone is related to us. Instead, we use bonds with each other, such as closeness, familiarity, identification, love etc to identify connections between us and therefore who we might side with in times of joy and danger. We might be instinctively social beings, but it is the intellect which decides how that plays out in reality. We can see this in our identification with purely human-created concepts such as teams, suburbs, and states, and the sacrifices which many people are willing to make for these non genetically based groupings.
This identification which transcends the selfishness of the genes is clearest in times of crisis, where people donate time and money to help people they will never know or meet, who may live on the other side of the world and be from a different race, religion or culture. Most of us happily pay part of our tax dollars to help others in the community who don't have the ability to care for themselves at a level of human dignity we feel is appropriate. Many of course try to posit this as selfishness as well, that in essence, people feel good giving money so are just pursuing a hedonistic goal. Surely hedonism which helps others is no longer simply hedonism and needs a wider term. Also, most people who have given to others in crisis this will understand that it was motivated by empathy for how we might feel ourselves in the same situation and in alignment with our values of basic fairness in the world. Often we are motivated by empathetic sadness to give and we get little joy in giving, rather maybe some slight alleviation of our own sorrow compared to if we did nothing.
The importance of all this politically is that it is clearly evident that humans have the ability to transcend selfishness, to give deeply of themselves to others and that who they include in their circle of compassion to is not fixed, that it can change with their identifications. It is also of importance to state this case, because although it may seem self-evident on even the briefest of inspections of human psychology that we have a host of motivations for what we do, the pursuit of pleasure, the avoidance of pain, altruism, beauty, compassion, imagination, fairness, and yes often selfishness, for some reason those who defend a hierarchical capitalist system have fixated on a single negative emotion on which to base the economy of society. What is problematic is that fixating on selfishness becomes a self-fulfilling belief, if you raise people in an environment where they are indoctrinated with the idea that everyone around them is acting only selfishly, it would be naive of them to be anything but selfish themselves.
The myth of selfishness falsely places an anti-sociality at the core of human behaviour, and therefore anyone who has become successful, regardless of the ethics of how they became successful or the ethics of what they do with their success, is in some way to be envied or admired. Indeed conservative politicians often talk about the “politics of envy”, that they believe that calls for a more equitable society are really just the aspirations of the poor to live as the wealthy do. It is a revealing position, they cannot understand that people might believe in something beyond their own personal gain. I for one look down upon the garish and myopic lifestyles of the wealthy, I envy them only the power to do good that having their money might give me.
I am in deep agreement with Immanuel Kant's assertion that one should live in such a way that your actions could become a maxim. What I want is to live in a society where the productive capacity of humanity is assessed, giving heavy weight to environmental concerns and the rights of other species, and then we apportion the basics of life, health care, education, housing and food, to all people. Should there be a surplus after that, only then should it be used as incentives for others to compete with providing additional products and services if the community deems that worthwhile. For those obsessed with the politics of envy and selfishness, I don't think this because I would benefit materially from it. On the contrary, although I try to live simply that is relative to a wealthy society in which I live, I presume I would need to give up things I enjoy so that someone else I don't know can achieve greater dignity in their lives. It might mean less hedonistic pleasure for me, I might have less status and thus be less attractive or respected, however, I am willing to give this up for a society which I think is fairer.
Many may look at a society where they have less material goods would also be a poorer place emotionally. The correlation between rising wealth in society and happiness is only clear in societies which are moving out of mass poverty. When nutrition and healthcare are poor, where food and water are of poor quality, where education is non-existent and the choices in front of people are to take jobs in terrible conditions or live in crushing poverty, obviously an increase in the quality of material life is going to have a measurable effect. Once however, a society solves the problems of poverty, it is elsewhere than material gains it seems to need to look for happiness. Studies of happiness in “wealthy” countries have shown no increases in many decades, despite average wealth having risen dramatically, even doubling in that time. The juggernaut has rolled on however and we still pursue an environmentally bankrupt vision, lead by advertising and complicit corporate-funded government that seems to have no more beautiful vision of the future than to perpetuate themselves.
Predictably enough selfishness as an organising principle has not led to happiness, we should move on.
A new ethos
At the beginning of the 21st century, a milestone was reached in that for the first time more people were living in cities than outside of them. It is a strange thing that many people claim to not like “other people” and yet they cluster together in groupings of millions eyeing each other suspiciously.
In these huge conglomerates, large numbers of the people live in them feel alone and isolated, their mental health generally poorer than for those living outside of cities. As city sizes increase, many crimes increase even more. Many people seem to be immune from a comprehension of these problems around them. Whilst I am envious of their rosy outlook, the fact that there are few large cities in the world where women can feel safe on the streets at night should tell us that there are large problems.
We need to find a new way of living together. New rules for how we function as members of society. I meet many people who agree with this however I don't see in their lives significant evidence that they are willing to live it. It seems easier to conform to the world around us than to really embody change. Being different might make us less popular, or interfere with our hobbies and pastimes, or make our life just harder than it would otherwise be.
I believe that there are enough good people in the world, that if they actually lived true to their ideals, the changes we would make would be irresistible. We need a new ethos, a new way of judging ourselves and other people, a new hierarchy of society that rewards those who make the world more beautiful.
Humans have evolved as social beings, we seek bonds with each other which give us a sense of security and place. Hierarchies are thin veneers over our evolutionary inclinations, our natural tendency to need to belong.
The ability to provide benefits for the group such as food and protection is generally the basis for a loose status in hunter-gatherer societies. The structure of larger “advanced” societies assigns a more rigid status on often arbitrary terms. For example, individuals may acquire power and wealth from relatives or benefactors, class membership may provide opportunities not generally accessible to all. Despite perceptions of improvement studies of social mobility show that movement between classes has changed little in developed societies in the last century.
It is unsurprising given the variety of human psychology, that there will be members of society who take pride in their perceived superiority over others. Power and control bring with it benefits for those less hampered by conscience.
Humans are also often fear motivated, they prefer accepting a reality in which some of their basic needs are being met over the risks inherent in change, even if that might change hold the only promise a truly satisfying life. We fear chaos, we fear losing control, we fear each other and will accept mediocrity in our lives for some sense of safety and predictability. So the fear elite control is based on is not necessarily that of the clenched fist, but rather in the vulnerability of being an animal which can feel pain, a vulnerability which we all share and most of us are conscious of.
The costs to society of our fear and distrust of each other are immense. The most obvious costs are the world’s almost unfathomable military, intelligence, police, legal, prison and security expenditures, the world’s annual military budget alone being many times more than would be needed to end extreme poverty. Then there is our state of self-imprisonment in our homes, the fear and distrust embedded in the very architectures and businesses of our communities - locks, bars, gates, safes, banks, insurance, the lights and cameras burning energy all nights in our streets. All of this has not made us feel safe and has not meant an end to violence, instead, we merely try to contain it. Given that these things are an expression of human nature, how could we hope to have a society which was less controlled, when each step away from control might mean a step further into lawless chaos. Anarchism is focused on the hope that we can go beyond fear as a motivation in our dealings with each other, to a sense of interdependence and mutual respect. How might this practically be achieved is the primary challenge of anarchist doctrine.
Much of the crime in our society is structural. Tell me something about the crime committed, and within reasonable statistical bounds, I can tell you something about the person who committed it. The class-based nature of different crimes should be an obvious clue that the very structure of our society is the causal nature of many criminal acts.
It is accepted that power often corrupts, but it is less acknowledged that so does the lack of power. A system which subordinates groups of people to a lower rung of its hierarchy is going to find itself with a need to mollify the subordinated peoples sense of self-esteem. Many of the major religions have attempted to create social order by encouraging people to accept their inequality, telling them that it is their religious duty to accept subservience. This has worked to the degree in which it has made it easier for those in power to control society, however, the regular and somewhat suppressed incidence of class struggle throughout history shows that people have never really willingly taken on the mantel of the underclass. The upper classes in almost all societies have lived behind guarded walls, showing a fear they would have less need of in a society in which people felt more equal with one another. The perceived powerlessness that inequality engenders creates stresses in society at many levels, we would all be freer without them.
I am not idealistic enough to think an anarchist society is around the corner, or that it should be. A lasting anarchist system requires a radical change in how the majority of people see themselves and their place in society which is unlikely to happen quickly. With our still young understanding of what parts of us are the product of nature and nurture, we don't even know what sort of society is ultimately possible, so we must not look to constant incremental improvements rather than overly grand visions. Such change cannot be forced or taught by rote but must rather be embedded in the experience of their life and how it can be better. People shouldn't be forced into an anarchist society, people should be shown the benefits of an anarchist ethic, and make the choice to embrace it themselves, thus society will be anarchist only when the majority of its people believe in the philosophy of anarchism. I believe lasting anarchism will not be a product of a mass revolution but rather a withering away of an old system, as the logic and fear on which that system was based becomes irrelevant. The continual reform of our society along anarchist principles and the extension of its freedoms to others should be the focus of activism.
I live in a society where the state doesn’t oppress my beliefs, where social welfare is provided to the poor, where I periodically get a say in who governs the country, there is much to be improved upon but I try not to forget that to many this society would seem utopian. In countries with functioning democracies and high levels of personal freedom, I believe in engagement with the political system. I don’t share the traditional anarchist view that the state or government is the primary source of society’s problems, some might say that means I am not an anarchist, so be it. The corrupt societies early anarchist thinkers lived within were anathema to the freedom inherent in anarchism, but many of those societies have undergone dramatic changes since that time. Democracy has been instituted in all advanced countries by the long struggle of peoples against oppression, which I believe reflects a movement towards rudimentary anarchist principles. The dominance by wealthy sections of our society means we cannot put all our faith in the political system, however, the remedy is to reform it, not discard it.
As we start to reform society we may find that the benign liberal state is an illusion, that we are resisted by a ruling class which only allows freedom so long as they can monopolise wealth and power. If this were to be the case then obviously additional strategies would need to be employed, Gandhian strategies of resistance, non-cooperation and active nonviolence. If however we find that our ability to make change is primarily limited by our talents and energies, and the fact that we haven’t made a convincing case to much of the population is more of a problem than any repression, then we should continue to look to the strengthening of our own movement as the way to progress.
The Anarchist Society
An anarchist society could be seen of as a highly participatory democracy, where power is continually devolved down to the most granular level. To achieve this hierarchal structures would be replaced with organisation based on equality and voluntary co-operation. There are many ways people have used to achieve equal participation and I envisage combinations of them being employed in different situations.
Currently, representative democracy is a very blunt instrument, we vote for a single person who is unlikely to hold all the positions we think are important. I think we need to be involved in all levels of government where we can make a positive difference. I think this is important enough that we should pay people at least one day a week to work on social goods.
How we achieve participatory democracy is less important than that we achieve it. How we best achieve it we may not yet know, though we have many good ideas worth exploring. The understandings of human nature we make in the future will probably bear heavily on this, the technological changes we make no doubt will, the environmental reality we exist within will as well. Anyone selling us a perfect solution should be distrusted, we need to experiment, take what is good and discard what is bad. The people of the future will understand things we currently don't, it would be foolish for them to follow our ideas to the letter.
Trying to make sense of a complicated world is no easy task for any political philosophy and anarchism is no different. We can theorize about different systems, using all evidence available to us, however until that system is put into practice we are unlikely to understand anything but an approximation of how it would best function.
We should also remember that society is in a constant state of change. Part of the ideal of anarchism is to unlock human potential and should that prove to be successful the logic of any system we might define now wouldn’t be relevant to new generations whose fundamental attitudes and beliefs might be different to our own. Our focus should always be on reforming the world we see in front of us, of moving our culture to the next evolutionary stage, led by anarchist principles which give us a general outline of the society we are working towards. The strategies we employ are less important than our effects on individuals, ideas should not live greater lives than people.
What this means is for us not to be too fixating on convincing others of our ideas intellectually. It would be better where possible to put your ideas into practice and show them working, to give others lived experience of them. People have many around them trying to convince them of one idea or another, let us rise above this and instead focus on building something they can touch. Making people's lives more beautiful is the best form of propaganda.
Anarchism and work
Whilst we have had democratic revolutions in our political structures over the preceding centuries, this has failed to filter down to our working lives. The workplace is a good example of what anarchism would mean in practice, and I think one of the first places we should look to reform.
Most workplaces are run as strict hierarchical institutions. People at the top of these hierarchies receive many benefits only one of which is often much higher pay, meaning they effectively live in a different world to most of the people in their organisations and the rest of society. People below them are expected to be subservient to them, the further down the hierarchy the more subservient, and the suberservient accept this because of the simple fact that those above them wield a tremendous amount of power over their lives.
Since the first cooperative workplaces were set up in the early nineteenth century there have been many thousands of examples of organisations in which employees participate in decision making. From very large worker-owned enterprises to smaller local businesses, working in diverse fields from engineering to farming, cooperatives compete successfully in capitalist systems. Whilst generally following a standard set of principles regarding equality, there are numerous models of organisation within that framework which can be used as they best fit a given situation. Cooperatives give people greater freedom and control in their workplaces whilst producing the goods which people need, however, I also believe they have a wider role to play.
Participation in society, particularly politics may be theoretically open to all, however, there are skills and strengths which predict how successful a person can be. Some jobs involve organisational and social skills which lead more naturally into participation in political society than others. Some work is empowering for those who do it both from a psychological and social perspective. Conversely, other work, though often more important to the functioning of society, involves primarily repetitive, manual skills and gives the people doing it little assistance in participating in the political realm. By an organisation involving all people in decision-making processes, it empowers them with a sense of control over their lives and helps them practise the analytical and social skills for participation in wider decision making.
Participation in the decision making processes is an important step, but I would also like to see job rotation and sharing practised. It may be more efficient for a person to spend their entire workday doing one isolated task, however, efficiency is just one of a wide set of goals we might use in organising our work lives. Surely a sense of empathy, a deeper understanding of the workplace function, resilience, self-esteem, mental and physical health, and the consequences for wider society are all also important goals.
Even were we to focus on efficiency, our current system leaves much to be desired. Many people carry out jobs which don’t make use of anything near their potential. I know someone standing on the side of a road holding advertisements has more talents, ideas and energy they could contribute to our shared welfare. Many people are also engaged in work that society would be better off not being done at all, so the more efficient they are, the worse off the culture around them is. With so many unemployed or underemployed we must ask what talents and skills we are missing that they could be contributing.
This is an even more stark question for the people suffering from poor nutrition, poor education, poor health care and other disadvantages that capitalism will only get around to curing if it finds a way to profit from it. So much human potential is misdirected and unused, that reordering our work and educations systems to serve the interests of the people rather than an elite, is unlikely to mean a dramatic loss of efficiency.
It is also clear that the work-day and week are designed not in the interests of people, families or democracy, but in the interest of employers.
I believe the direction of society is that of anarchism. Societies based on freedom and equality best unlock individual potential to make a more beautiful world. These are the societies which should evolutionarily succeed, but it is a matter of when we will get to this state. Currently, around the world we can see many countries in which the elites are resisting any significant improvements in freedom and equality for their people. It is not necessarily the elites that are the problem, many people put in the same situation would do the same things the elites do. It is about us all and what we value in life.
Whilst the good life is seen by large sections of the population as wealth and status, it will be difficult to improve the living conditions for human and non-human beings. Not only are wealth and status often destructive, they are also relative. They require inequality to mean anything, power requires the powerless. People who desire wealth and status are unlikely to care about the people below them that make their position in the hierarchy possible.
We need to offer a different version of the good life. One of equality, environmental sustainability, beauty, creativity and compassion. We need to be clear on the direction. People need to understand there is a direction. They need a tangible one that relates to their lives and inspires them.
Hopefully, people will look up from the lives in which they have always struggled to be happy, to see that happiness is not an individualistic phenomenon. It is the product of living in a world conducive to happiness. We need to stop looking for happiness in comparing ourselves with others, and make a society in which we all work together for our happiness. That is what we hope to build, and I believe only a true understanding of anarchism can be the foundation for that society.