A considered response to the many comments on this entry.
Thank you for your intensely thought-provoking comments, all. You have all made some very good points, and don’t let me be misunderstood, we are largely in agreement. However, as my aim in this is to weed out the differences and problems in various positions, please forgive me if I focus on where I disagree or do not understand.
By the way, just to be totally clear, although this discussion has gone pretty global in perspective, I am still essentially trying to determine what my path should be, not the one and only path. There are of course many different personal paths that I will not follow due to personal preferences and abilities, but for which I have total solidarity (e.g. social worker, nurse, teacher) provided they are followed for the right reasons.
In your third comment you question the standard Marxist 2-class model and the assumption that economics is the be-all and end-all. You should read the libcom / PPS debate Shitehouse mentioned (discussed below). If you’re anything like me you will start off thinking “Hey, these PPS guys are onto something!” then read on and start finding problems with their positions. I don’t think you will agree entirely with either side, but it will interest you and provoke thought, I expect. I have made significant notes on it and would be up for further discussion and/or a dedicated blog entry on it if you are interested.
By the way, an admission, I think you and I have both strayed a bit close to vanguardism / Trotskyist ways of thinking of things, especially in assuming that anarchism would be ‘imposed’. That is quite the opposite of what anarchists intend, of course. I’m not sure where that acknowledgement gets us though, because it just makes the achievement of stable anarchism even less likely…
@ Anonymous commenter
You make a good (and comforting!) point with
“Nobody expects that as an anarchist you ought not to compromise regardless of its effects on you personally – otherwise you’re held to ransom by the principles of anarchism as much as by the economics of capitalism, which sort of defies the point.”
Your point on not voting however… while it is well reasoned on first reading, I have two qualms. It disregards any possibility that positive outcomes can be achieved through democracy, which is debatably just as ‘historically contingent’ as the examples you criticised Monbiot for. But more significantly, it is precisely the type of absolutist position that you have said “nobody expects” with regards earning a living. So if you abstain from democracy because you think the system in itself is unfair, how do you justify not abstaining from the myriad other things with equally dubious ‘systems’, for example animal products, products and services contingent on oil, coal, and other extractive industries? (I am not preaching from a higher position on this, merely questioning your uneven, partly purist, partly pragmatic one.) Unless that abstention is purely symbolic, in which case nobody in ‘the system’ will know why you abstained, and you did so anonymously, so what has your symbol achieved?
In general, I am puzzled that your response seems to be based on a very black and white model of human society: it can either be anarchist or governed by an élite with malign intentions. I think the word ‘government’ is as problematic as the word ‘capitalist’ here, because the word is sometimes used to mean “anything that isn’t anarchist” yet also conjures imaginations of something like what we currently have. Can you not imagine any other arrangement? For example, one that runs essentially along the same lines as a co-op? Or a Cuban voting arrangement, but without the ‘party’ vanguard? One of the main jists of Monbiot’s book is a proposal for global democratic institutions (including a “world government”) to replace institutions like UN, IMF, and the World Bank. These existing global institutions are undemocratic unions of mostly democratic countries … which is pointless, because at these institutions the representatives are not answerable to their country’s population. The alternative would probably look something like proportional representation by recallable delegates, not necessarily divided along country borders, referendums for important topics, and no veto powers for any regions.
By the way, I find your criticism of Monbiot rather odd. He does not publish his books or Guardian blogs with the intention of being an autocrat any more than I do. To list 100 people he thinks are amazing does not imply he intends to form a government out of them! It is merely a piece of inspirational writing to congratulate those doing good work. I could only understand your rather angry stance on Monbiot if I assume you are against the publishing of all ‘opinion’ pieces on politics, which I am sure you’re not.
Moving on, you very neatly summarise the reasons for anarchism – which I’m grateful for the succinctness of, although I did already get it thanks. But your dismissal of any non-anarchist alternative (I’m avoiding the word government) as “either inherently flawed or unnecessary” seems to conveniently ignore a lot of truths. First of all, you haven’t spotted that exactly the same logical test can be applied to anarchy, with the same resulting incoherency. If we can all be trusted, what is the harm in having some elected people running centralised/regionalised services, to help society run more smoothly? If we can’t all be trusted, then why would you choose a social model that contains no checks and balances, and would not defend the majority from the malign intentions of a few? I think we can safely conclude which circumstance is true: that not everyone in the entire planet can be trusted. Therefore I think the answer to the fact that neither anarchy nor conventional government pass this logic test is to attempt to derive something in-between. Whether that is like Monbiot’s proposal or something else. I am not totally sold on Monbiot’s proposals by the way, but it is an interesting “jumping off point”.
Your argument ignores the enormous ‘added value’ that a little bit of organised administration and infrastructure can give to society (re. health services, electricity supply, etc.) that “freely associating communities” would really struggle to provide. That doesn’t necessarily require government in the current nation-state kind of way, it can just mean institutions that run certain services, potentially in a global way and/or in a local way. It probably does require elected delegates and some technical specialists, but they wouldn’t need to be given ‘governing’ powers – as per description of Monbiot’s proposal above.
It also ignores that a sizeable proportion of the population is apathetic and lazy, and want someone (currently the government, but not necessarily someone who ‘rules’ them) to run the big complicated things. Have you ever been to a university student’s union meeting? If not, then you yourself have had apathy over some aspects of your life. (You may have abstained because in your opinion it doesn’t affect you, but if you are a student there, the issues discussed do affect you, and your assumption otherwise would come from exactly the same place as apathetic people’s desire to ‘stay out’ of political/environmental/social action of any sort.) And if you have been, you have seen what a small proportion of the university attends these public meetings. As placid said, “anarchist visions of society rest on people essentially “all getting along”” – but they also rest on people all giving a fuck. And as much as I wish both were true, a political ideal that only works if these highly unlikely circumstances exist … well it seems to me that you might as well pray to god to fix everything, or hope that humans evolve the ability to breathe in space so we can run away from the climate crisis … these are about as likely to happen.
And finally, you ignore the small proportion of the population who actually have malign intentions. Or rather you don’t ignore, but you assume that they will get into positions of power only through government type arrangements, rather than the possibility of them also getting into power in stateless situations. And that is what Monbiot’s example of Sierra Leone and other stateless parts of national histories was about. Neither I nor Monbiot were suggesting the “rebels” of Sierra Leone are anarchists – quite the opposite. The point was that they are an example of the kind of characters that typically come to the fore and dominate in a ‘stateless’ condition. I understand that if my argument were “anarchism has not worked before, so it never will” with Sierra Leone as an example of an attempt, then of course the argument would be weak. But that is far from what was suggested.
My questioning of anarchism does not come from the “it has not worked before” corner at all. It comes from the problematic requirement for revolution to be simultaneously gradual and instantaneous for it to work. (See below for more on this.)
@ shitehouse and anonymous commenter
I’m not talking about abstract philosophy here, as I detect some might be. Abstract philosophical discussions are great fun, but this blog exists because I am trying to discern a political aim that might actually be realised. So while I very much appreciate the principles behind your calls for eternal struggle etc, I do not feel that either of you have addressed the primary problem with anarchism that I perceive: the impossibility of it ever coming into being in a lasting way, starting from the society we have now. I apologise if this issue bores you. I am quite aware that I have a strong tendency for ruining people’s enjoyment and spontaneity by asking about plans, details, logistics. But when the topic of conversation is the type of human society you want to see, surely these are questions worth asking.
None of us are in a position to effect major political change in the foreseeable future of course, so I am not saying this as though I or any of you are going to flick a switch and try it out tomorrow, based on the outcome of this discussion. Therefore, logistics perhaps seems irrelevant. But if there is a logical contradiction that precludes a decent attempt at anarchism even being possible, should we still struggle towards it? Should we not direct our efforts towards an aim that improves lives of as many as possible?
I anticipate the response “Just because it’s probably not going to happen doesn’t mean you shouldn’t try” or a repeat of the anonymous commenter’s historical contingency point. To these, it reply thus: If the very unlikely target being aimed for were, say, the complete eradication of HIV, I would say yes you should try. That’s because widespread benefits are achieved (the drastic reduction in instances of HIV/AIDS) even if the final aim is never reached. However, with anarchist society as the final aim, the mid-way points are likely to be bloody revolution, invasion and domination by non-anarchist states, large scale blood-letting and/or the “wrong kind” of statelessness. Put another way, it would be the pursuit of an economic ideal at the cost of almost everything else.
Please, if you can, try to answer me why anarchy is something we should still aim for, given what I’ve said. Please don’t give me abstract ideology though… please answer the issues raised.
Thank you for the pointer to the libcom/PPS debate, I read it cover to cover. (I tried to do part of that reading on the free internet at London St Pancras station, but it seems National Rail is into the censorship of political ideas – both pages were blocked!) I found I agreed with much of both sides, but could not agree entirely with either. I would like to outline my conclusions from reading that debate, but it’s really an entry in itself, so I’ll come to that later.
On the topic of class… I have similar problems to placid about the over-simplified class model for modern society. What you say about class struggle is meaningful to me, but as always I am uncertain where I stand in this. At the moment I am on the lowest rung of my “green” employers, though I expect I will not be there forever. But my interest in climbing the ladder and gaining more power is in order to have more influence in the renewables industry, not to earn more money or dominate others. I acknowledge that amongst those with managerial ambitions, this position is probably rare. But is it allowed by / where does it fit into your class struggle model?
Responses welcome from others too!