One of the fundamental differences between anarchists and authoritarians (both left and right) is that anarchists believe in people. We don’t offer grand schemes and minutely detailed plans because we have faith in people’s ability to sort shit out for themselves. We don’t propose centralised systems and one-size-fits-all ideology because we recognise, relish and respect the beauty of diversity. Those of other political persuasions might genuinely care about people — although most authoritarians limit their caring to people of a certain ethnicity, race, nation, sect, ideology or class — but they don’t actually respect the people they ‘care’ about enough to let them act for themselves; otherwise they would never bind them within the arbitrary confines of hierarchy, dogma, state and other mono-systematic shackles. Only anarchists are comfortable with our fellow human’s ability to think and act for themselves.
The lie of capitalism is that it offers freedom of choice. But what real freedom can there be in a system which is so blatantly reliant on constant, low-level, fear and anxiety. In a system based on survival tokens (money), power is ensured through the careful control of the flow of those tokens. The flow is always, of course, in the direction of the rich, but the flow itself is central to neoliberalism’s debt-based economic bondage. In our rentier economy, where just about every essential element of human life is rented from a company, corporation or state, the rich, as ever, get richer, while the rest of us become more deeply bound by a lifetime of debt. The joke of anarcho-capitalism is that they believe that they can be free while still being in awe of money. A libertarian is just an anarchist with a trust fund.
The other great lie is that the state is necessary to protect us from the excesses of capitalism. Modern governments may offer a certain level of damage control (the democratic choice on offer in most countries is between being shafted and being shafted by somebody who cares), but they in no way operate in opposition to the needs of capitalism, and they never have. Despite the comical mutterings of neoliberalism about freedom from government, governments do much more to protect the interests of the rich than they ever do to support the victims of the rich. In an interview which I often cite as my favourite summary of anarchism, Alan Moore gives Margaret Killjoy a perfect one-paragraph overview of the true nature of government:
There was a very interesting piece, a 10 minute television broadcast, made over here by a gentleman from the London school of economics, a lecturer who looked like the least threatening man that you can imagine. He didn’t look like an apocalyptic political firebrand by any means; he looked like and was an accountant and an economist. And yet the actual picture he was painting was quite compelling. He was saying that the only reason that governments are governments is that they control the currency; they don’t actually do anything for us that we don’t pay for, other than expose us to the threat of foreign wars by their reckless actions. They don’t actually really even govern us; all they do is control the currency and rake off the proceeds.
Government keeps people sedated in much the same way as religion does, through jam-tomorrow promises and the peddling of a false hope that things will get better (backed up with a healthy dose of judiciary violence for the non-believers). Even when the pretence of democracy is used to justify the manoeuvrings of government, nothing is left to chance. The most powerful way to change government is through lobbying, not voting. And the way lobbying operates, it is only the rich and powerful who are guaranteed a voice.
The game of government matters little to the everyday population. Everything good which has ever been delivered by parliament (and its a short fucking list) was not a gift from benign leaders, but a concession to a militant population. Government only ever gives us anything of value when it is afraid that we are going to take it anyway, and then it is always a compromise designed to placate rather than genuinely provide. Ironically, we only get what we want from the government when we threaten to become ungovernable.
The lesson we should take from this is that we should just ignore the government and get on with things ourselves. But we have been controlled for so long that we have lost confidence in our own abilities. That’s the whole point of control. We carry on turning the hamster-wheel simply because we are afraid of what will happen if we stop. Where will we get our survival tokens? Without those survival tokens, who will feed us? Who will house, shelter and care for us? The answer, of course, is the same people who feed, house, clothe, care for and entertain us already… us. WE MAKE EVERYTHING. The rich just rip us off while we do it.
In his turn of the millennium article, The Welfare Road We Failed To Take (published in Social Policy, An Anarchist Response London: Freedom Press, 2000), Colin Ward shows how, while offering some welcome protections for the most vulnerable in society, the development of the welfare state was also used to sweep away existing grassroots, self-organised, community-based initiatives, industries and practices. As Ward observed:
The great tradition of working-class self-help was written off, not just as irrelevant, but as an actual impediment, by the political and professional architects of the welfare state[…]
Things were undeniably hard prior to the welfare state, which is why working-class communities began to organise for their own protection. In his essay Ward offers a quote from his book Anarchy In Action to help illustrate the fundamental difference between bureaucratic, top-down delivery and grassroots, bottom-up, self-organised mutual aid:
When we compare the Victorian antecedents of our public institutions with the organs of working-class mutual aid in the same period, the very names speak volumes. On one side the workhouse, the Poor Law, the National Society for the Education of the Poor in Accordance with the Principles of the Established Church; and on the other, the Friendly Society, the Sick Club, the Co-operative Society and the Trade Union. One represents the tradition of fraternal and autonomous associations springing up from below, the other that of authoritarian institutions directed from above.
The architects of the Welfare State, being bureaucrats themselves, opted for centralised, state-based systems which are prone to stagnation and bloating. At the time there was an opportunity to support the existing working-class initiatives to create a decentralised, federalist network which would have been cheaper, more demographically specific and more adaptable to change. But federalism empowers communities, and the last thing any state wants is a self-reliant, autonomous population. True to form, the top-down delivered Welfare State, while undeniably beneficial in part, has created high levels of paternalism and dependency. Now that it is being systematically picked apart in the name of Austerity, our communities are much less well equipped to protect their own interests in the face of the multiple crises we face. The situation was already bad 20 years ago when Ward wrote his essay:
The appalling problem, for you as much as for me, is the question of how we get back on the mutual aid road instead of commercial health insurance and private pension schemes. […] As the official welfare edifice […] becomes merely a safety net for the poor who can’t afford anything better, the likeliest slow renewal of the self-help and mutual aid principle seems to me to emerge from the new so-called underclass of those people rejected by the economy in alliance with those declasse people who just can’t stomach current economic and social values. I am thinking of marginal activities like food co-ops, credit unions, tenant self-management, and LETS (Local Exchange Trading Schemes).
Huge welfare networks were built up by the poor in the rise of industrial Britain. Perhaps they will be rebuilt, out of the same sheer necessity during its decline.
Colin could not have envisaged the dramatic unfolding of the 21st Century. The 2007/2008 ‘Credit Crunch’ armed government with an excuse to dramatically accelerate the dismantling of the Welfare State. These so-called Austerity measures expanded the underclass and left millions of us living precarious lifestyles even before 2020 smacked us on the arse.
The pandemic, itself a symptom of the wider ecological crisis that we also face, has had one unexpected benefit. With more than a little help from Freedom, it has put mutual aid back on the agenda. Grassroots aid projects were up and running before the government even saw fit to put the first lockdown in place. The Covid-19 Mutual Aid Network was just one of many projects which blossomed as people became more socially aware than they had been in decades. Not only did new projects emerge, but existing grassroots community groups began to work more closely with each other than they had in the pre-pandemic era. As Austerity accelerated the dismantling of the Welfare State, the pandemic has helped to speed the (re)development of the principles of self-help and mutual aid.
I believe that it is essential for anarchists in the 21st Century to build upon this recent flourishing of mutual aid. Some people feel that it is wrong to celebrate the anarchist principles which surround us in our everyday lives — as Ward does in Anarchy In Action — because it might somehow make anarchists less keen to fight for immediate change. But surely there is far more to be gained from normalising anarchism in our communities. There is another paragraph from the Alan Moore interview which is of particular significance in this regard:
This is one of the things about anarchy: if we were to take out all the leaders tomorrow, and put them up against a wall and shoot them—and it’s a lovely thought, so let me just dwell on that for a moment before I dismiss it—but if we were to do that, society would probably collapse, because the majority of people have had thousands of years of being conditioned to depend upon leadership from a source outside themselves. That has become a crutch to an awful lot of people, and if you were to simply kick it away, then those people would simply fall over and take society with them. In order for any workable and realistic state of anarchy to be achieved, you will obviously have to educate people—and educate them massively—towards a state where they could actually take responsibility for their own actions and simultaneously be aware that they are acting in a wider group: that they must allow other people within that group to take responsibility for their own actions. Which on a small scale, as it works in families or in groups of friends, doesn’t seem to be that implausible, but it would take an awful lot of education to get people to think about living their lives in that way. And obviously, no government, no state, is ever going to educate people to the point where the state itself would become irrelevant. So if people are going to be educated to the point where they can take responsibility for their own laws and their own actions and become, to my mind, fully actualized human beings, then it will have to come from some source other than the state or government.
Mutual aid and self-help within our communities are that ‘other source’. The encouragement of — and active engagement with… — practical, grassroots solutions is not just about protection from capitalism and the state, it is ultimately about emancipation from authoritarian control. What could be more central to anarchism.
This is the first in a series of articles which will celebrate mutual aid projects around the world, develop and encourage new principles and practices, and encourage anarchists of all persuasions to do whatever is in their means to ensure that the third millennium truly becomes the Mutual Millenium.
If you would like to contribute a text to this series, please get in touch: editor(at)freedompress.org.uk
Photo by Warren Draper