The main difference between anarchists and authoritarians (…on both the right and the left), is that anarchists have faith in people (in fact, I’m not sure that authoritarians even like people). This faith is born from the understanding that relationships are key to building a better, braver, brighter future for all (indeed, in modern physics, it is relationships, rather than atoms, which seem to be the building blocks of the universe). Upon reading Carissa Honeywell’s recent book Anarchism (Polity Press, 2021), I was reminded of the following Gustav Landauer quote:
“The state is a relationship between human beings, a way by which people relate to one another; and one destroys it by entering into other relationships, by behaving differently to one another.”
This quote sums up perfectly the nature of our struggle and the immediatism inherent in all truly anarchist activism. Where the authoritarians simply want to change who is in the driving seat and/or where the car is going, we anarchists want to stop the car, bask in the sunshine, and have a picnic while we enjoy each other’s company and every minute of what Mary Oliver perfectly described as our ‘one wild and precious life’. Carissa herself says of anarchism:
“[In anarchism] we can identify a radically interpersonal (or inter-being) philosophy of grassroots relationship building that aims to foster or model ideals of community wherein all needs are taken seriously. The practices that emerge from these ideas (or the ideas that emerge from these practices) may be a source of new thinking in difficult political times.”
Carissa and I are both admirers of Freedom’s Colin Ward. In his own favourite — and most often cited — quote, Ward shows that this relational/ interpersonal feeling is embraced by all self-organised, grassroots, working class initiatives.
“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 the one side the Workhouse, the Poor Law Infirmary, the National Society for the Education of the Poor in Accordance with the Established Church; on the other, the Friendly Society, the Sick Club, the Co-operative Society, 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.”
Colin uses his own quote in his important essay, The Welfare Road We Failed to Take. The essay deals with the fact that we threw the self-organising baby out with the bathwater when we allowed a Fabianist welfare state model which increased paternalism and dependence on the nation state at the same time it increased social security. Colin’s wider body of work was awash with countless examples of grassroot self-organisation, but here’s one Carissa uses in her book:
“Within anarchist discourses, social order is reckoned to be the spontaneous collective product of human creative and collaborative problem-solving impulses. Anarchist writers, from Kropotkin to Colin Ward, point to examples of the organisations and institutions that have emerged from the voluntary practices of individuals and groups in order to meet complex lived human needs without the hierarchical authority of state, law, armies or police forces. In fact, Ward points to the origins of the UK National Health Service in one such organisation in a Welsh mining town that operated a user-controlled, self-funded set of health-care and social services accessible to all members of the community. In his radical challenge to the familiar social history narrative of inadequate and inconsistent welfare before the intervention of the state, Ward points to the Tredegar Medical Aid Society, founded in 1870 in South Wales. Through voluntary levy, the society provided medical and hospital care for local miners and steelworkers and their dependents, irrespective of contribution or employment status.”
How much more resilient would a decentralised, locally owned and governed NHS have been against privatisation and state mismanagement?
Now that the state has largely internalised neoliberal values (not that the state and capitalism were ever anything but allies born of the same colonialist mindset), and the capitalists are using crisis and welfare infrastructure to increase their profits, our paternalistic society is largely under equipped to defend itself from the unfolding and deepening collective troubles we now face. It doesn’t take a genius to realise that neoliberalism has brought us full circle to a place where Victorian values once again prevail, and that only “the tradition of fraternal and autonomous associations springing up from below” have the capacity to protect vulnerable, dispossessed communities. If we want to defend our communities from the coming storm, we are going to have to look to ourselves to do so. For decades the state has proved itself unwilling and unable to give the support our communities truly need. And, to be frank, I think we could do a better job without them anyway. As the old Napoleon Bonaparte true but whiny quote goes: “If you want a thing done well, DO IT YOURSELF.”
DIY culture, of course, has long been a crucial aspect of anarchist principles and practice. Before lockdown, I had hoped to document many of the amazing DIY, bottom-up, anarchy-friendly initiatives around the country. The Covid Crisis put pay to this, but it also saw a rise of interest in mutual aid and alternatives to the status quo. This, in turn, led to the creation of more DIY grassroots community solutions, and the linking up of various groups. Over the last few months, particularly in response to the European leg of the Zapatistas’ ”Journey for Life” tour, a few like-minded individuals and groups across the north have been coming together to celebrate and develop the kind of grassroots, DIY, community-based organising which, consciously or not, adhere to an anarchist worldview and the key principles of Zaptismo. We are, I believe, witnessing a crucial escalation of commitment, awareness, organisational ability and skills necessary for building a widespread movement of practical, autonomous solutions to the attacks on our communities. In other words, we are seeing a rise in what Colin Ward would invariably call anarchy in action.
Not that this is a new thing, it is only the scale which differs. As part of the research for this piece and the development of what we are currently calling the DIY Alliance, we visited Bolton Diggers, who have been flying the flag for DIY activism almost as long as their namesake… or at least since 2014. Their message is simple: “Bolton Diggers believe that the earth is our common treasury. There for everybody’s benefit, not simply for the profit of the rich.” Their work is important. Their plot is amazing.
One thing which struck us on our visit, and when visiting most grassroots, DIY projects, is how welcoming these places are. With the working class, the first point of business is kettle on, have a cuppa. We went on a Monday, which also happens to be the regular open day for Bolton Diggers, so we were also met with hearty, healthy, largely home-grown vegan food. This particular Monday was damp and dreary, but at least the welcome was warm.
This is almost never the case for top-down, hierarchical organisations, particularly state institutions. An artist friend of mine told me that during a recent hailstorm she jumped into a doorway and found a young homeless Romanian who asked where they could get a shower. She took the youth to a place she knew, whom she assumed would help. They asked the youth whether they had an appointment?!? Needless to say, no help was given.
The bureaucracy and assumptions of hierarchical institutions are also a major problem. Bentley, the former mining town north of Doncaster where Bentley Urban Farm (BUF) is based, used to have the third largest uptake for food banks in the borough, but the forms which people are now being asked to fill in are so prying and personal that parents feel like they might have their children taken away from them if they engage. Consequently only 16 people sought the help of the local food bank during the second lockdown. Whereas the food network BUF was involved with fed 50 people a day at the height of its use because it didn’t ask people to prove that they were ‘deserving’. The inevitable question from those with an authoritarian mindset was “What if people take advantage?” Our reply, “They get fed.” Which is, of course, a similar principle to that of the Tredegar Medical Aid Society, where all get help regardless of contribution or employment status.
Only smaller, decentralised, non-hierarchical solutions offer the humanity and flexibility needed to absorb the actions of a tiny minority who might seek to ‘take advantage’. And, having faith in people, we anarchists know that even these people can change. Hoarders, opportunists, freeloaders and thieves benefit from an environment of scarcity and dog-eat-dog relationships. They’re generally suffering from some kind of pathology. Unfortunately they also currently run the world. An anarchist relationship negates the need for desperate, childish, anally retentive hoarding, and so both the global oligarchs and the local wanksters (wannabe gangsters) are left looking stupid when they try to take advantage of that which is freely given. Change the relationship, change the world. Capitalism and the nation state will never change their toxic relationship with the vast majority of human and non-human life. So if we want to see that change, we’ll have to do it ourselves.
I’ll be writing more about Bolton Diggers in a forthcoming piece about DIY community food organising, and in a piece which more precisely documents the newly emerging DIY Alliance. In the meantime I’d just like to say “Get yer sen to Bolton Diggers for a decent cuppa and a slice of anarchy in action.” And if you or your group are interested in getting involved with the DIY Alliance please contact me via Freedom.