WHY I AM AN ANARCHIST
1st November, 2020
When I tell people that I’m an anarchist they usually think I’m joking. When I tell them a second time they start to worry that I might be serious.
Do I throw bombs at monarchs passing by in their carriages? Am I plotting the overthrow of Parliament? Do I keep dynamite under my bed? (No, no and no.) So I thought it might unfurrow a few wrinkled foreheads if I say a few words about anarchism and why I am an anarchist.
Anarchy is sometimes wrongly defined as an absence of government. It is in fact a form of society in which people govern themselves, so it is an ordered society not a disordered society.
There are three key questions that usually come up when the idea is discussed. First, do we really want to slide back into a primitive anarchic state, having come so far politically? Second, how do I propose we get to an anarchic state – start a revolution, tear up democracy and start again? Third, and perhaps most important of all, who is going to empty the dustbins in an anarchic society?
First, haven’t we fought long and hard to emerge from an anarchic society, clawing our way slowly to the decent, civilized democratic world we have today?
It’s a perfectly natural assumption - one I’ve made myself in the past - to think that 500 or 1,000 years ago, society was more anarchic and that in a more lawless society the weak went to the wall. That, over the years, we have become more civilized, more compassionate and less anarchic. In fact past history is pretty nearly the opposite of this assumption. For the past 1,000 years (or more) Britain has been ruled by a succession of monarchs, who ruled by force and more or less by personal whim. Occasionally the monarch was replaced by a despot who also ruled by whim - such as Cromwell.
Since King John was forced by the barons to agree to Magna Carta in 1215, Britain has been nominally a parliamentary democracy. This has saved us much of the time from the tyranny of a single ruler, but rule by the barons has not been so very different from rule by a despot – a small group of wealthy, powerful people have employed tiers of servants beneath themto keep order, collect taxes and enact laws as they saw fit.
We are still nominally a Parliamentary democracy and the barons are still with us today. They are no longer medieval warlords but they are just as undemocratic. They include billionaire media moguls, multinational corporations, wealthy industrialists, as well as posh boys from Eton and Oxbridge and spivs like Sir Philip Green and Sir Richard Branson. The livery and means of hanging onto power change, but the division of society into “us and them” remains the same. It is a sham designed to make us feel that we participate in running society when in fact we are merely paying an elite to tell us what to do.
I call this sham politics Despocracy – paying lip service to the idea of democracy while tamely colluding with the modern medieval barons to run many aspects of society pretty much as they like at our expense – no different in fact from medieval despots.
The important point to notice here is that the idea that we have already tried anarchy and that it failed is the opposite of historical fact. Every cruel, harsh, selfish thing that happened in society over the past 1,000 years happened under parliamentary democracy. Anarchy is the one system of government that has not been tried.
Life was nasty, brutish and short not because society was anarchic but because it was despotic. Parliamentary democracy is the political system of the past: anarchy is the political system of the future.
The idea that democracy is an evolved form of anarchy is the opposite of the truth. Anarchy when it arrives will be the most evolved form of democracy: anarchy will truly be government of the people by the people – as people, not as subjects.
My second question is how do we get from where we are today to an anarchic society? Blow up everything? And what will this anarchic society look like when we get there?
I certainly do not propose to start a revolution. The history of the past 400 years – from Cromwell to Robespierre, to Lenin, Mussolini, Hitler and Mao - shows clearly that revolution merely plays into the hands of another Despocracy: yet another way of maintaining the illusion that those who are ruled over are more free.
On the contrary, it is the great strides that have been made in dispossessing the barons of their privilege and power over the past two centuries that encourage me to think that anarchy is now possible by peaceful evolution rather than violent revolution. The less power that the barons have to wield, the more power individuals have to make decisions for themselves and in their own interests, and the closer we come to a society where we rule ourselves, rather than being ruled by other people.
There is a cumulative transfer of power gradually taking place already and we are approaching a tipping point. I see numerous signs of this shift in power from barons to people as individuals. The internet, of course, has played a major role as an enabler ofthis process. There are already in existence global communities and systems that are quasi-anarchistic or quasi-autonomous in that they are self regulating rather than regulated by central authority. For example eBay, crowdfunding, peer to peer lending, electronic payment systems and even virtual currencies like Bitcoin.
Individuals’ behavior and practices have to be acceptable to other community members for those individuals to maintain their reputation as trustworthy and hence continue to be accepted by others in the community.
The essence of such online communities is that they are Trusted Networks. Research on eBay shows that traders with 100% positive feedback sell more goods and can charge more for postage than traders with less that 100% – acceptable behaviouris promoted by positive feedback, unacceptable behaviourcarries penalties in reduced reputation and financial costs.Simply put, people get what they deserve.
Interestingly this incentive to behave honestly works well even though the anonymity and remoteness of the internet affords ample opportunity for people to cheat.
Another aspect of these self-regulating communities is that they have replaced or are replacing networks or communities that used to be regulated and policed by authority either of the state or of an industry. Examples are auction houses (replaced by eBay) estate agents (replaced by online site) banks (being replaced by peer-to-peer lending and online Angel investment).
My third question was: who is going to empty the dustbins in an anarchic society? By this, of course, I mean, how will society be organized when there is no central organisation or organisers?
Let me widen the scope of the question even further. In what way exactly would an anarchic society be different from the parliamentary democracy that we already have?
I expect that in most respects it will be very similar. There will, though be one very big difference. At present, the central government compels its citizens to give about 50% of their income to the state. It then takes this money, pays itself and the administrators it appoints, and decides how to spend what is left on education, roads, defence, and all the rest. The process is just like that of medieval barons and just like medieval barons and princes, much of the tax collected is spent on making wars.
In an anarchic society, we will keep all that we earn and will decide for ourselves, individually, what we wish to spend our income on. It will be the aggregate of our individual decisions that shape society.
People sometimes think that this means there will be no organs of state any more, no central services, no professional administrators, but that is not necessarily so. I’ll come back to the important point in a minute.
In the anarchic society of popular imagination, where people are unintelligent brutes and care only for instant gratification, that might be the case.
But that is not the kind of society in which we live and that is not the kind of people we are.
No-one compels us to prefer peace to war; no-one makes us take up a rewarding career; no-one insists that we help others – we do these things because they are more rewarding than the alternatives.
There is one very important point to realise about our government in Westminster and Whitehall. People naturally think that the Department of Education is responsible for teaching children, that the Ministry of Justice is responsible for policing and administering justice and that the Department of Transport is responsible for building roads. This is not so. No-one in Whitehall teaches children. No-one in the Department of Transport builds roads. No-one in the Department of justice arrests burglars. Roads are built by road-builders, children are taught by teachers and villains are arrested by policemen.
All these people – teachers, builders, policemen and the rest of us – do our jobs not because we are compelled to or directed to by government. We have chosen our jobs for two reasons: first because we think we might like it and be good at it, and second because we are paid to do the work. There is no reason whatever to think that this will change in any future society.
People do not empty dustbins because they are made to. They empty dustbins because they are paid to do it. If I wish someone to take away my waste, I must either pay someone to do it, ortake it away myself. Competition ensures that those offering refuse disposal do so at the market rate.
Indeed this leads onto a central issues that is sometimes overlooked. The most important aspect of our society is that markets and prices of goods and services are entirely self-regulating. Governments and dictators like to pretend that they intervene to regulate markets and prices but history shows that when they do they are defeated by the aggregated behaviour of individuals. It is individuals who govern prices without intervention from any central authority.
It might seem that to do away with central government means doing away with all central organisation and with public administration but this is not so. There is nothing to prevent people coming together in any way they wish to organize their activities, just as long as they do not try to impose their will on others who do not wish to join them.
For example, there is nothing to prevent people coming together to manufacture electric kettles for sale. There is nothing to prevent manufacturers of electric kettles meeting to decide on adopting common standards for their products if they wish. There is also nothing to prevent someone manufacturing an electric kettle to no standard, or their own standard. It is up to buyers of electric kettles to decide if they want to buy standard products or non-standard products.
Crucially, we already have accepted international standards on the manufacture of all electrical goods and there is no reason why we should not build on this valuable foundation by continuing to keep them. And there is no reason why standards committees should not continue to meet. Anarchy does not mean giving up what is good and substituting something worse. Equally anarchy does not mean behaving in an uncivilized way: it means building on the past to increase individual freedom.
It might appear that to do away with central government is to take a great and unnecessary risk. What if we get rid of today’s barons only to find that the Mafia moves in, or some self-appointed brigand decides to take over at the point of a gun?
It’s important to appreciate that I am not arguing that we dismantle any of the organs of society that perform a useful function: only that we do away with people who collect taxes and decide how tax money should be spent, and instead decide for ourselves how to spend our income.
I am completely happy with the police service that I receive at the moment and am more than happy to continue to pay for it at the current rate. If a private security firm, should decide to offer additional services, I’ll be happy to consider using them, too.Currently, if I have something valuable to protect, then I protect it by making commercial arrangements of one sort or anotherbecause that is safer and more convenient than buying a gun.The same applies to refuse disposal and all the other services I buy. We can start from where we are now – we don’t have to regress to some primitive state just because we take over responsibility for own lives.
But what about all the special cases, for example where the cost of entry is so high that almost no-one could afford to enter the market commercially – as for example with public service TV broadcasting?
The point here is that this 2016, not 1820. We do in fact already have a public service TV broadcasting organisation in the form of the BBC and it is already charging for its services – just not on an equitable basis. Parliament passed a law stipulating that those who use BBC iPlayer to watch programmes must pay a license fee. The BBC could have achieved the same result simply by charging a small sum for a mobile app, or per download, without recourse to parliament.
I said earlier that people sometimes think that an anarchic society necessarily means an end to all central public organisations, but this is not necessarily so. At present, we have a wide range of valuable central services that are created by and maintained by central government – services such as standards organisations, food purity and testing services, medical and pharmaceutical standards bodies and, of course, the National Health Service.
That these and similar services are socially useful to the vastmajority of people is undoubted. But given that they already exist, there is no reason why they should have to be re-invented in an anarchic society. Nor is the any reason why individuals should not choose to set up and run such organisations for themselves, if they choose to – all they have to do is to persuade enough of their fellow citizens to support them financially for their initiative to be financial self-supporting.
This already happens. Individuals decide to come together to form and finance political parties, private medical insurance and treatment, and building societies. There is no reason why this should not continue to happen, if (and only if) there are individuals who wish to network in this way.
It's interesting to note that within my lifetime, before the NHS was founded in 1947, all of the major hospitals such as London’s five big teaching hospitals, were founded not by governments but by private individuals, often acting together voluntarily. This is still the case with important national charities such as Mind.
What about the nation’s defence? Surely we must continue to have a government if only to ensure the defence of the country and the ability to wage war if necessary? Who will pay for the army, the navy and the air force? What about nuclear weapons?
Interestingly, Britain has recognized the right of conscientiousobjection to war since as long ago as 1757 when Quakers were excluded from the Militia Ballot Act. Conscientious objection was recognized in the first world war and the second. Today, we no longer have conscript armed forces, but everyone pays taxes some of which go to support professional services. Now, the right to be excluded even from the financing of war is starting to be recognized.
In July 2016, Ruth Cadbury MP introduced a bill in Parliament seeking to allow citizens to divert the portion of their taxes that would ordinarily pay for military operations into a conflict prevention fund instead. The Bill passed its first reading.
Sooner or later this measure will be enacted, and sooner or later, the people paying to prevent war will outnumber those paying to make war. This will be another tipping point where there will no longer be a worthwhile difference between having a central government dedicated to spending money on war and having people decide for themselves how to spend their income.
Does this mean Britain will become defenceless? I don’t believe that will happen. Most of the cost of a nuclear weapons capability goes on maintenance: maintenance of the thermonuclear warheads themselves; maintenance of the submarines and aircraft that deliver them and administration of the organisations that manage this maintenance. In comparison, the cost of making a nuclear weapon is relatively small.
How will we defend ourselves against jihadists, terrorists and suicide bombers?
As I said earlier, I have no objection to paying a police force to provide security services. But there is another important point to bear in mind. Every terrorist who has blown himself up has done so with the aims of gaining media publicity for their cause tobring pressure to bear on government to change their foreign policy. In an anarchic state these aims are pointless, so anarchy paradoxically offers a chance to reduce this kind of violence.
But what about the economy? Without a firm hand on the tiller by economic experts, won’t the ship of state drift onto the rocks of recession and unemployment?
Actually the meagre evidence that we have on this point suggests the reverse. At the time of writing (November 2016) Spain has effectively had no government for 10 months. Spain has held two general elections but no party has won enoughseats to be able to form a government. There has been a caretaker government of course with ministers. But the absence of a parliamentary majority has meant that no one has been able to do anything. There have been no plans and no interventions in the economy.
The result has been that unemployment has dropped from 20% to 18.9% - the lowest for six years – and the central bank expects the Spanish economy to grow by 3.2% this year, making it the fastest growing economy in the Eurozone.
Similarly, Belgium has experienced political deadlock since the general election of 2010 when 11 parties won parliamentary seats but with no overall winner. It took Belgian politicians a year and a half of horse trading before a government was formed and, again, the country ticked over nicely without them.
What about the weakest members of society? The single mother, the mentally or physically disabled, the homeless? Who will care for them if there is no central or local government to look after them?
It’s easy to forget that the state took over the role of providing universal welfare relatively recently, in 1947. There were some state provisions for welfare in the previous 40 or so years, but these were very basic. Instead, for the previous two hundred years, the weak, the ill, the homeless and the disabled had been cared for through largely voluntary local systems of welfare.
These arrangement varied widely from place to place, had some dreadful shortcomings, and were often crude by today’s high standards. But almost all public medical facilities before 1947 were the result of public charity. Between 1720 and 1745 five new general hospitals were founded in London. All became great institutions and were the products of the voluntary hospital movement, that is, charity hospitals supported by the voluntary contributions of the public.
It’s easy to imagine that the advent of government welfare services has banished the kind of hardships that existed before 1947 but this is sadly far from the case. Starvation was common in earlier centuries, but is still with us today. Last year more than 1 million visits were made to foodbanks. Mainly by mothers unable to feed their children. Starvation is not unknown even in the NHS system – more than 1,100 people have starved to death in NHS hospitals over the past four years.
It is an illusion to imagine that the weakest and most vulnerable are being looked after by central government. The reality is that that the weakest are being saved mainly by the charity of individuals in contributing too foodbanks and giving to charities like Oxfam.
The main objection usually raised against anarchy is that it is not a perfect system of government.
This objection is, of course, true. The price of liberty will always be eternal vigilance and there will always be some people who are without scruples and without conscience whatever form of government is in power.
But there are two things thing that encourage me to prefer anarchy to parliamentary democracy. The first is that these same problems already beset democracy and have not been solved by democracy. The second is that although anarchy is not a perfect system of government, it is potentially perfectible. Democracy has demonstrated that it is not.