For most of the last 40 years it has been quite simple making anarchist arguments against the political system. There has barely been a cigarette paper’s difference between the main parties as both rushed to embrace the neo-liberal consensus that sees the role of the State as guaranteeing good conditions for business. And always taking the side of capital over labour in any dispute. Even people far removed from any sort of anarchist or communist politics make the same observation.
Jeremy Corbyn’s election as leader of the Labour Party and subsequent reinforcement as leader after the General Election has changed that. I am personally sceptical that he can deliver very much of what he has promised, but I am not alone in finding it refreshing that a now mainstream political figure has addressed issues that I hold dear, such as housing and workers’ rights. To use a phrase from Chomsky, Corbyn has committed to “widening the floor of the cage.” The experience of Syriza in Greece ought to make Corbyn’s cheerleaders take pause, though to their credit, Corbyn and McDonnell do seem to have thought about this quite a lot. Nor is there any getting away from the fact that there is an awful lot wrong with our society.
But none of this is an anarchist response. What do we say now that the easy “they’re all the same” line is not possible? It’s quite tempting to either fall back on the usual refusal to engage with politicians or be swept up in the momentum of a mild, fairly principled socialist leader suddenly being very popular — at least among certain parts of the country. Neither actually help. We need to revisit what is distinct about anarchism: we are opposed to Capital and the State. We should be talking about our problems with power in all its forms — and it will be interesting if Corbyn ever succeeds in his aim of devolving some powers away from Westminster, likely to be anathema to a centralising Labour Party.
Nationalisation is seen as a panacea by the left. While it is a logical step to try and bring some sense to our fragmented railways and cash-cow utilities, the idea that it is somehow a good thing independent of how it is operated is ridiculous. At no point have any of its cheerleaders suggested the idea of nationalisation under workers’ control.
Who will be in charge of a nationalised utility or railway? The government. Who has kept public sector workers’ pay frozen for eight years? The government. The Birmingham refuse strike was about a local council, Labour-run, trying to force through a significant pay cut. It was not alone — teaching assistants in Labour-run Durham have been fighting a long campaign against massive cuts in pay. This sort of thing seemed to get a lot more traffic when it was being done by the Greens in Brighton, I wonder why?
The Left imagines that the State can be captured and used to overturn the policies of the last 40 years, that all it takes is different personnel at the top. This ignores the class nature of the bureaucracy. Once senior managers in public services are in position, they always bring in reorganisations and new ways of working and usually leave shortly after. This does not just fall from the sky — bureaucrats are motivated by career opportunities and nothing burnishes a CV like a successful reorganisation.
Anyone new coming to this, without the experiences that have formed other bureaucrats, will inevitably look to what their colleagues suggest so as to fit in. The “good” people get captured by the system, which would tend to support a classical anarchist view that it is the system itself which is the problem.
This article first appeared in the Winter 2017 issue of Freedom Anarchist Journal