B.0 Section B Introduction

Section B - Why do anarchists oppose the current system?

This section of the FAQ presents an analysis of the basic social relationships of modern society and the structures which create them, particularly those aspects of society that anarchists want to change.

Anarchism is, essentially, a revolt against capitalism. As a political theory it was born at the same time as capitalism and in opposition to it. As a social movement it grew in strength and influence as capitalism colonised more and more parts of society. Rather than simply express opposition to the state, as some so-called experts assert, anarchism has always been opposed to other forms of authority and the oppression they create, in particular capitalism and its particular form of private property. It is no coincidence that Proudhon, the first person to declare themselves an anarchist, did so in a book entitled What is Property? (and gave the answer "It is theft!"). From Proudhon onwards, anarchism has opposed both the state and capitalism (indeed, it is the one thing such diverse thinkers as Benjamin Tucker and Peter Kropotkin both agreed on). Needless to say, since Proudhon anarchism has extended its critique of authority beyond these two social evils. Other forms of social hierarchy, such as sexism, racism and homophobia, have been rejected as limitations of freedom and equality. So this section of the FAQ summarises the key ideas behind anarchism's rejection of the current system we live under.

This, of course, does not mean that anarchistic ideas have not existed within society before the dawn of capitalism. Far from it. Thinkers whose ideas can be classified as anarchist go back thousands of years and are found many diverse cultures and places. Indeed, it would be no exaggeration to say that anarchism was born the moment the state and private property were created. However, as Kropotkin noted, while "from all times there have been Anarchists and Statists" in our times "Anarchy was brought forth by the same critical and revolutionary protest that gave rise to Socialism in general." However, unlike other socialists, anarchists have not stopped at the "negation of Capitalism and of society based on the subjection of labour to capital" and went further to "declare themselves against what constitutes the real strength of Capitalism: the State and its principle supports -- centralisation of authority, law, always made by a minority for its own profit, and a form of justice whose chief aim is to protect Authority and Capitalism." So anarchism was "not only against Capitalism, but also against these pillars of Capitalism: Law, Authority, and the State." [Evolution and Environment, p. 16 and p. 19]

In other words, anarchism as it exists today, as a social movement with a long history of struggle and with a political theory and set of ideas, is the product of the transformation of society which accompanied the creation of the modern (nation-) state and capital and (far more importantly) the reaction, resistance and opposition of those subject to these new social relationships and institutions. As such, the analysis and critique presented in this section of the FAQ will concentrate on modern, capitalist, society.

Anarchists realise that the power of governments and other forms of hierarchy depends upon the agreement of the governed. Fear is not the whole answer, it is far more "because they [the oppressed] subscribe to the same values as their governors. Rulers and ruled alike believe in the principle of authority, of hierarchy, of power." [Colin Ward, Anarchy in Action, p. 15] With this in mind, we present in this section of the FAQ our arguments to challenge this "consensus," to present the case why we should become anarchists, why authoritarian social relationships and organisations are not in our interests.

Needless to say, this task is not easy. No ruling class could survive unless the institutions which empower it are generally accepted by those subject to them. This is achieved by various means -- by propaganda, the so-called education system, by tradition, by the media, by the general cultural assumptions of a society. In this way the dominant ideas in society are those of the dominant elite. This means that any social movement needs to combat these ideas before trying to end them:

"People often do not even recognise the existence of systems of oppression and domination. They have to try to struggle to gain their rights within the systems in which they live before they even perceive that there is repression. Take a look at the women's movement. One of the first steps in the development of the women's movement was so-called 'consciousness raising efforts.' Try to get women to perceive that it is not the natural state of the world for them to be dominated and controlled. My grandmother couldn't join the women's movement, since she didn't feel any oppression, in some sense. That's just the way life was, like the sun rises in the morning. Until people can realise that it is not like the sun rising, that it can be changed, that you don't have to follow orders, that you don't have to be beaten, until people can perceive that there is something wrong with that, until that is overcome, you can't go on. And one of the ways to do that is to try to press reforms within the existing systems of repression, and sooner or later you find that you will have to change them." [Noam Chomsky, Anarchism Interview]

This means, as Malatesta stressed, that anarchists "first task therefore must be to persuade people." This means that we "must make people aware of the misfortunes they suffer and of their chances to destroy them . . . To those who are cold and hungry we will demonstrate how possible and easy it would be to assure everybody their material needs. To those who are oppressed and despised we shall show how it is possible to live happily in a world of people who are free and equal . . . And when we will have succeeded in arousing the sentiment of rebellion in the minds of men [and women] against the avoidable and unjust evils from which we suffer in society today, and in getting them to understand how they are caused and how it depends on human will to rid ourselves of them" then we will be able to unite and change them for the better. [Errico Malatesta: His Life and Ideas, pp. 185-6]

So we must explain why we want to change the system. From this discussion, it will become apparent why anarchists are dissatisfied with the very limited amount of freedom in modern society and why they want to create a truly free society. In the words of Noam Chomsky, the anarchist critique of modern society means:

"to seek out and identify structures of authority, hierarchy, and domination in every aspect of life, and to challenge them; unless a justification for them can be given, they are illegitimate, and should be dismantled, to increase the scope of human freedom. That includes political power, ownership and management, relations among men and women, parents and children, our control over the fate of future generations (the basic moral imperative behind the environmental movement. . .), and much else. Naturally this means a challenge to the huge institutions of coercion and control: the state, the unaccountable private tyrannies that control most of the domestic and international economy [i.e. capitalist corporations and companies], and so on. But not only these." [Marxism, Anarchism, and Alternative Futures, p. 775]

This task is made easier by the fact that the "dominating class" has not "succeeded in reducing all its subjects to passive and unconscious instruments of its interests." This means that where there is oppression and exploitation there is also resistance -- and hope. Even when those oppressed by hierarchical social relations generally accept it, those institutions cannot put out the spark of freedom totally. Indeed, they help produce the spirit of revolt by their very operation as people finally say enough is enough and stand up for their rights. Thus hierarchical societies "contain organic contradictions and [these] are like the germs of death" from which "the possibility of progress" springs. [Malatesta, Op. Cit., pp. 186-7]

Anarchists, therefore, combine their critique of existing society with active participation in the on-going struggles which exist in any hierarchical struggle. As we discuss in section J, we urge people to take direct action to fight oppression. Such struggles change those who take part in them, breaking the social conditioning which keeps hierarchical society going and making people aware of other possibilities, aware that other worlds are possible and that we do not have to live like this. Thus struggle is the practical school of anarchism, the means by which the preconditions of an anarchist society are created. Anarchists seek to learn from such struggles while, at the same time, propagating our ideas within them and encouraging them to develop into a general struggle for social liberation and change.

Thus the natural resistance of the oppressed to their oppression encourages this process of justification Chomsky (and anarchism) calls for, this critical evaluation of authority and domination, this undermining of what previously was considered "natural" or "common-sense" until we started to question it. As noted above, an essential part of this process is to encourage direct action by the oppressed against their oppressors as well as encouraging the anarchistic tendencies and awareness that exist (to a greater or lesser degree) in any hierarchical society. The task of anarchists is to encourage such struggles and the questioning their produce of society and the way it works. We aim to encourage people to look at the root causes of the social problems they are fighting, to seek to change the underlying social institutions and relationships which produce them. We seek to create an awareness that oppression can not only be fought, but ended, and that the struggle against an unjust system creates the seeds of the society that will replace it. In other words, we seek to encourage hope and a positive vision of a better world.

However, this section of the FAQ is concerned directly with the critical or "negative" aspect of anarchism, the exposing of the evil inherent in all authority, be it from state, property or whatever and why, consequently, anarchists seek "the destruction of power, property, hierarchy and exploitation." [Murray Bookchin, Post-Scarcity Anarchism, p. 11] Later sections will indicate how, after analysing the world, anarchists plan to change it constructively, but some of the constructive core of anarchism will be seen even in this section. After this broad critique of the current system, we move onto more specific areas. Section C explains the anarchist critique of the economics of capitalism. Section D discusses how the social relationships and institutions described in this section impact on society as a whole. Section E discusses the causes (and some suggested solutions) to the ecological problems we face.

  


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