Saturday, January 20, 2007

What I like about anarchism

I am not an anarchist. There, I've said it. Cue joke about throwing bombs or dogs on strings... however, there are a number of things that attract me to anarchism and I'd like to explore that for a moment. I hope you'll forgive me if for the time being I don't clutter this post with caveats. I'm just going to talk about what I like about anarchism, particularly that found in the UK.

Anarchy1. Autonomy

The emphasis on decentralisation and non-hierarchical decision making can be frustrating at first, for those used to other forms of organising, but when done well it provides something unique. You even start to enjoy the silly hand wiggles instead of applause after a while.

Perhaps it's just my bad experiences with over centralised organisations that push me in this direction but the absence of having to do something because your group decided it is absolutely lovely. Instead of losing activists permanently because of an on-going insistence on controlling what they campaign about and how, you simply accept that sometimes people aren't going to want to be involved in everything the group does.

2. Action

Most anarchist circles have an emphasis on doing something over talking about doing something. This can lead to weaknesses - IE doing something pointless - but it's a healthy instinct that the rest of the left could do well learning from.

3. The relegation of theory

I doubt many anarchists would like me saying this - but the fact that only around 3% of anarchists have actually read any proper anarchist theory, let alone discussed it in depth, is a real strength. It means there is very little self questioning about whether something is ideologically proper and the emphasis remains on a specific "is this the right thing to do" which is where we should always keep the question coming back to.

Of course, it means that there is often slippage in self defining anarchists actual anarchist credentials (like standing for the Green Party, or engagement with the local council) but I love that willingness to promote actual life over a set of dead text.

4. Fun

Some may call it lack of depth and dilettantism - I call it fun. The willingness to do absolutely pointless political protest just because they want to... that's great. It's important to recognise that we have needs, and whilst there can be a tendency to take this too far, in reality I don't think that happens too often as the majority of anarchists I know have serious productive political work which they top up with an occasional dose of froth.

5. Self reliance

Leninists will have a hundred arguments against why the Zapitistas are wrong to try to create an island where the people are in charge. But it is they who are wrong. Anyone who tries to reclaim even one part of their life, let alone one part of the planet, from the overwhelming forces of neo-liberalism is doing something direct, concrete and important in promoting the idea that there are other ways of living and capitalism is not the only way of doing things.

6. Consensus

Consensus decision making is a bit of a dirty phrase for much of the organised left, but what it avoids is this winner takes all approach that essentially wastes the time of those who find themselves in a minority on controversial issues, and challenges them to go off and do their own thing.

We've probably all seen this taken too far, but in fact the vast majority of groups who use this form of decision making don't use it as a block to effective action, just a tool to ensure decisions a minority are really unhappy with are modified and fully discussed to hopefully produce something acceptable to the maximum number of people.

Majority voting on the left often works to circumvent that process. A brief debate then vote may have the benefit of speed - but it can also alienate committed activists from the group leaving them either pessimistic, uncomfortable or even lost to the campaign.

I doubt I'll ever go the whole hog and actually describe myself as an anarchist, but I genuinely believe that a world without anarchists is a world where paving stones have lost their real purpose.


Chris Baldwin said...

Libertarians are indeed worth having around, as long as they stay away from that "post-left" bullshit.

Derek Wall said...

I would not describe myself as an anarchist but fun, autonomy and action have merits

Disillusioned kid said...

Nice post, we'll sign you up yet! (Incidentally the anarchists who come closest to the ideal you describe are often those who identify to some degree with post-leftism.)

a very public sociologist said...

One thing I've kept with me from my brief flirtation with anarchism is;

1) Politics should be fun. Making it dull turns people off.

2) Working class people have the capacity to make their own destiny. A matter many Leninists pay lip service to but in practice tend to approach the working class as something to be "managed".

mish said...

Yes - these are the reasons I ended up thinking of myself as an anarchist (more than anything else - I have little patience for dogmas or fundamentalisms).

I came from a background of environmental activism and the groups I gravitated towards were anarchist in nature, though they never used the word at the time - it was just how they organised. A mix of consensus and autonomy (and the other 4 points above).

I chuckled a little at the "relegation of theory" item. For a start "I doubt many anarchists would like me saying this" - don't know why really. I like this aspect. And the anarchist book that seems to be the most commonly read is Emma Goldman's autobiography "Living My Life". Not much theory, lots of doing. Another one that often comes up is The Dispossed - a sci-fi novel that details one way an anarchist society might be organised. I have read both these, and heard far more discussion about them, than any anarchist theory text.

And a little note on the fun side - almost all anarchists I know are happy to laugh at themselves and not take themselves too seriously. One instance of this is the reaction that David Rovics reports to two of his songs. One is about socialists, one about anarchists. Apparently he has had some quite severe reactions to "Vanguard", while "I'm a better anarchist than you" always goes down well. (Tracks can be downloaded legally from )

mish said...

Oh and looking through the above comments I have no idea what "post-left" means, and no inclination to find out :-P

Alex Gregory said...

"It means there is very little self questioning about whether something is ideologically proper and the emphasis remains on a specific "is this the right thing to do" which is where we should always keep the question coming back to."

How is this a strength? Surely you need to look at the broader issues and consequences that your actions have, and at the deeper aims that you hold?

As you've phrased it here it looks very strongly negative - as though anarchists necessarily ignore any evidence that might show them to be wrong.

Rich said...

I'm always kind of glad that Jim won't describe himself as an anarchist (even though he is really!)


Jim Jay said...

alex: I think you misunderstand me.

When I say "questioning whether something is ideologically proper" the emphasis is on the way some of the left are so concerned with ensuring their actions conform to their pre-set philosophy they actually never look at real issues and consequences.

For instance, I have come across some revolutionary socialists who basically condemn all demands and campaigns they come across.

Keep the local nursery open? Reformist. Fight NHS privatisation? Supporting the state.

But what it means is they themselves, even in the best of cases, end up doing nothing but well argued nothing. Which is much worse than reformism, imho.

It is of course possible for anarchists to do just this - it's just they rarely do in the UK, where as the Marxist left has a tradition of rigidly policiing its ideological boundaries which can lead to this tradition cutting itself off from real working class fights, because the aims are too narrow, too locally focused or they are contaminated with some "wrong" ideas.

Oh and to the rest of you: I feel obliged to post on why I'm not an anarchist now... but I don't want to :(

AN said...

I dunno. I am a consistent political the sense that I don't think governments should be involved in people's private lives (ie. no bans on smoking, guns, hunting, etc), and should only manage the (clmpletely state ownded, and planned) economy. BUt the idea that you don't need a government seems utopian to me.

And my expereince, having been politically active in Bristol for many years, where Ian Bone comes from, and Class war had a big following, my own observation would be:

Anarchists can be just as undemocratic and bureaucrtaic as the socialist left. Class war was a very autocratic organisation.

Also, political activism based on consensus can also be problematic. Sometimes you do have to deal with the particpiation of what you might call "perverse minorities", who have diffreent strategies. You need a mechanism for the majority not to be vetoed.

Another problem with consensual politics is that not everyone's opinion is equally valied. If a qualified consultant surgeon told me i needed my leg amputated, I would probably agree, but if a bloke I casually met in the ub suggested it, I might object.

Jim Jay said...

Well how legitimate would be to compare all socialists to the behaviour of, say, the WRP?

Although some might say they exemplified the worst aspects of the Marxist left in sharp focus, I suppose.

Class War were quite a distinct organisation and quite different to the main stays of todays UK anarchist movement. Thankfully.

The point i'm making about the way concensus is actually used is that only a tiny number of people actually take it to the extreme to prevent effective decision making and your example about the surgeon just shows how important autonomous decision making is. It's only the Leninists that would insist you seek the medical treatment they approved of.

It's your decision - and anarchists think you're grown up enough to make it for yourself.

Jack Ray said...

consensus isn't the only way anarchists make decisions by the way.

Most anarchist groups use majority vote.

(I think anarchist theory has always been very weak, and the movement tends to let libertarian marxists do the heavy lifting in that regard.

I think Bookchin is the only significant exception within living memory.

A lot of anarchist writing actually reads like an organising manual - like say Rocker or Tom Brown)

jimmer said...

I think the whole less talk, more action thing has really held the British anarchist movement back and stopped it developing into a more effective force.

Jim Jay said...

In what way do you think?