To Leave or not to leave? That is not the question

Well, I’ve posted a review of Social Democracy & Anarchism in the International Workers’ Association 1864-1877 by René Berthier. It is, in general, a very good book -- I only disagree with his position that revolutionary anarchism (communist-anarchism) marked a break with Bakunin’s ideas. Needless to say, I agree with his analysis of Bakunin’s ideas, the general tendencies in the IWA and that Marx and Engels were social democrats. The notion that syndicalism represents some sort of influence of Marxism is just nonsense.

I have been somewhat busy, although I’ve not managed to organise my free time quite right yet. So I’ve not done as much as I would like. I have, however, suggested to AK Press that we produce a translation of the complete 1913 edition of Kropotkin’s Modern Science and Anarchism. This was Kropotkin’s last book (or at least the final book published in his lifetime). Around 15% of it has never been translated and what has been is abridged (or the French edition expanded). Some has never been published in book form. I assume an English-language version may have been planned, as “The Modern State” was in the process of being serialised in Freedom in 1914 (extracts in Direct Struggle Against Capital) but, obviously, Kropotkin’s pro-Allies position put an end to that. Given that the French edition included two chapters on “War” (published as a pamphlet in French in 1912 and in English in 1914), his position during World War I is particularly strange. Anyway, more details will appear come confirmation from AK Press.

One interesting thing to note is that the 1913 French edition is entitled La Science Moderne et L’Anarchie, that is Modern Science and Anarchy. The 1903 and 1908 American versions were translated as Modern Science and Anarchism, as was the 1912 British version (which included several new chapters on “Anarchism”, or “Anarchie” in the French edition). It also seems to be the case elsewhere -- and the translators seem to consistently translate it as anarchism elsewhere as well.

So should I go for “anarchy” (which seems a wider concept than “anarchism”) or should I keep it consistent with previous translators? In short, Modern Science and Anarchy or Modern Science and Anarchism? Any opinions? I am tending towards the former – particularly as I am revising the previously translated sections (most of which seem to be abridged or have sections which need work to bring them in line with the later French edition – or the original text).

A large section of the book is about the State (it includes both The State: Its Historic Role and The Modern State), I should note that recent events have more than confirmed Kropotkin’s position that the state cannot be seized and used by socialists or “the people”. Look at Greece, where Greek MPs approve toughest austerity measures yet amid rioting. If you remember, Greece’s leftist-led coalition was elected to fight austerity and has done the opposite – as anarchist theory predicted. So the people are fighting back with riots and general strikes -- maybe it is time to start seizing workplaces, building, etc.?

Which is, I have to say, the basic point Kropotkin was making by linking anarchism with science – or, more correctly, the scientific method. The anarchist must study the world, analyse its trends and tendencies, and base their political ideas on that analysis. In other words, a political theory rooted in facts rather than wishful thinking – hence Marxism is wishful thinking because of its theory of the state (which postulates, with no real basis, that a state can be used by the people – in short, it is metaphysical rather than evolutionary) as was Huxley’s Social Darwinist speculation on the origins of human society. Sadly, both these evidence free notions seem to gain more traction than the anarchist position… but that is another issue.

Yet more evidence for the anarchist analysis of the state can be seen in France where a similar struggle is taking place between the streets and a leftist government. The so-called socialist Prime Minister of France has been quite Thatcherite of late:

 “We’ve got the French people too used to the feeling that reform is impossible and that it’s enough to contest it in the street for reform not to happen. But reform is possible. It’s a question of political will and a state of mind.”

In the UK, people tend to feel “reform” is impossible because the government will ignore people protesting but in France the problem is that the government cannot “reform” as it likes because people have the notion they can stop it by direct action! Ah, to have such problems here....

Reminds me of an exchange in (if I remember correctly) Michael Moore’s Sicko (ot the DVD extras) when a US ex-pat in Paris notes that in American the people are scared of the government but in France the government is scared of the people... Valls wants to change that, obviously, so that the French people will know their place just like the British people do. Valls continues:

 “What’s all this about we can’t reform this country? It is possible to reform France, and to do it while preserving our social model [of social security and welfare protections] at the same time – even if we need to reform the social model as well.”

Nothing like top-down dictate (after all, a “rebellion by a number of Socialist MPs meant the labour reforms had to be pushed through by decree – which increased public scepticism.”) to put people off “reform” -- if it were a good idea, people would not be protesting it. And I’m sure that the right are in support of these “reforms” -- the right are still hoping for their “man on a horse”, sorry, their Thatcher to impose what they think is best for the people...

Reform, like so many words (like socialism, communism, libertarian) seems to have changed -- from what people used to impose on governments to make their lives better but now what government’s impose on people to make their lives worse...

Of course, as per Thatcher, Valls is invoking “democracy”:

 “At the end of the day, there is the question of how we reform in this country. Can a minority organisation just block a country and force the failure of a reform? What’s at stake is not just me, or François Hollande’s presidency, it goes further than that. If we back down, if we withdraw the text, then tomorrow reform in this country will either be blockaded or passed through very brutally by force.”

Okay, this is the second Valls Government and consists of 15 ministers from the Socialist Party (PS) and 2 from the Radical Party of the Left (PRG). That is 17 people so definitely a minority -- a very small minority compared to both the population of France and the numbers on the street. Apparently democracy equals putting a cross on a bit of paper every few years and then giving the government complete power to do what it likes for that time... Not that the majority of the National Assembly was elected by a majority for  the Socialist Party got 48.53% (29.35%) on a turnout of 57.23%, a record low. Not that the National Assembly results actually matter, for the Valls government -- facing a rebellion by a number of Socialist MPs -- pushed through by decree these labour reforms.

So a group of 17 people imposing its will on a nation is not considered a “minority organisation”! And people wonder why we are anarchists...

As I’ve asked many a time, when did the word “reform” come to mean “make things worse” rather than “make things better”?

Talking of which, here in the UK we are suffering through a referendum over membership of the EU. Watching the Tories rip each other apart is funny -- Osborne has went from being the key person to secure our economy to being an idiot we never meet any of his (self-imposed) targets and increased our debt more than any other government, combined... all true, shame they did not note these facts before the last election.

Then there is the gall of Tories using Tory policies to argue their case. The example of the recent crisis in the steel industry is a case in point – the Brexit Tories proclaiming leaving the UK would allow us to protect the Steel industry when, as they well knew, it was the British Tory government which vetoed EU-wide protection measures.

Then there was VAT and the sight of Tories proclaiming that VAT on bills hits the poorest hardest and that leaving the EU will allow ministers to bin the “unfair and damaging” £2 billion a year tax on gas and electricity prices. They argued:

“And fuel bills will [may would be more honest!] be lower for everyone.

“In 1993, VAT on household energy bills was imposed. This makes gas and electricity much more expensive. EU rules mean we cannot take VAT off those bills.

“The least wealthy are hit particularly hard. The poorest households spend three times more of their income on household energy bills than the richest households spend.

“As long as we are in the EU, we are not allowed to cut this tax.

“When we Vote Leave, we will be able to scrap this unfair and damaging tax.”

And who was in power in 1993 and introduced that terrible tax? Oh, right, the party these people are members of…

Osborne, when launched his predictive – and counter-productive in terms on impact in the campaign –  “punishment” emergency post-Brexit budget said  “[n]o Conservatives want to raise taxes, least of all me” (although he also pointed out that Tory MPs voted to raise VAT in 2010). Yet this is a myth – one of Geoffrey Howe’s first acts as Chancellor was to raise VAT from 8% to 15%. Norman Lamont raised VAT again, from 15% to 17.5% in 1992. And in 2010 Osborne raised VAT once again from 17.5% to 20% in 2010/11 (so if he did try to impose an “emergency” budget along the same lines it would have the same effect of making things worse as per 2010-2013).

In short, the Tories do want to “raise taxes” – as long they are indirect ones, ones which hit the least wealthy “particularly hard” and as “unfair and damaging.” Needless to say, none of these increases were included in the Conservative Party’s manifestos and denied during the respective election campaigns. And, perhaps equally needless to say, those Tories now proclaiming the awfulness of VAT on fuel supported its introduction at 8% before trying to hike it to 17.5% a year later (stopped, it has to be said, after Labour MPs helped lead a revolt).

Of course, these kind of promises are just that, promises. To implement them, the Leave campaign would have to become the government. Given their track record on VAT, it is doubtful that they would implement it. The gall is quick amazing, though, as is their new-found concern for the poorest amongst us (whose number they have increased along with their poverty!)

So it seems to me that the Brexit vote is rooted in an awareness that the Thatcherite “economic miracle” has not worked as advertised (“property owning democracy” and all that sales rhetoric). People are feeling ripped-off -- in spite of the Tories being in power for the bulk of the time and Tory-lite the rest. So rather than admit that the Tory economic and social agenda is state-imposed social engineering to secure the wealth and power of the few, the Brexit people look for a “fly in the ointment” and have come up with immigration and the EU.

You can understand the Tory press seeking scapegoats -- but now they seem to have cut off their nose to spite their faces. Which raises some interesting issues – if they get their way, after Brexit those scapegoats will no longer be. What will they blame their woes – produced by four decades of getting the policies they wanted implemented – on?

As for “take back our country”? Seriously? We have never been in charge of “our” country! The UK has an unelected head of state, an unelected central bank, an unelected civil service and the most bloated unelected legislative chamber in the entire world (the 800+ member House of Lords). We have no say in our workplaces. We have a centralised, top-down economic and political regime – made much more so by the very people seeking Brexit. Those tendencies will accelerate once they are in office.

So leaving the EU does not mean giving power to the people or even a reforming democratic government -- quite the reverse, as it will empower the far-right of the Tory party to increase its social engineering (and corresponding centralisation of power, privatisation, etc.).

In terms of regulations, well if companies want to sell their products in the EU then they will have to meet EU laws and regulations. So no reduction there. However, a Tory government would be well-placed to abolished “regulations” related to how these products were made -- in other words, laws and regulations which are there to protect workers and their conditions. Yes, I know that having a law means little on the ground -- bosses will ignore whatever they like as long as they think they can get away with it. However, if workers are organised then they may be able to utilise those laws and regulations to defend working conditions and pay. So the aim will be to skew the situation even more in favour of the bosses.

Does that mean we should vote to stay? Hardly much of a choice -- yes, the EU is centralised, bureaucratic and undemocratic but so is the UK state! It boils down to which section of the ruling class is least repulsive – hardly much of a choice.

Particularly when both sides are rubbish (although the Exit crowd are far worse). Take these comments:

But Dawkins’s words gave me solace. He said: “It is an outrage that people as ignorant as me are being asked to vote. This is a complicated matter of economics, politics, history, and we live in a representative democracy not a plebiscite democracy. You could make a case for having plebiscites on certain issues – I could imagine somebody arguing for one on fox hunting, for example – but not on something as involved as the European Union. This should be a matter for parliament.”

Has either of David Mitchell or Richard Dawkins looked at Parliament or the Government? As the latest crop of politicians who fain to rule us indicate, you do get a bunch of incompetent, lying scum in charge -- on, let us not forget, a 24% vote (37% of those who bothered to vote). So a minority of flawed, imperfect people voted to give power to a handful of flawed, imperfect people – but, apparently, the former cannot be trusted to make the decisions the later can.

This kind of elitist nonsense empowers right-wing populism. And anyway, as Malatesta put it in Anarchy, who are these people who are considered too thick to be able to make decisions on their own lives but apparently have the intellect to pick for their rulers the best people?

The level of discussion is shockingly low – but, then again, it is in the interests of the few to have the many dumbed down. Ultimately, this is a case of chickens coming to roost -- after decades of marginalising working class people, depowering them, accumulating the wealth we produce into the hands of the few, while feeding us with a jingoist, anti-immigrant narrative to “explain” why their promised Thatcherite neo-liberal utopia is not as good as advertised, now people have the chance to stick their two-fingers up to “the elite”.

Unfortunately this ignores the fact that leave-campaign are just as much part of “the elite” as the remain-campaign -- and, worse, even more neo-liberal than the EU. It would be an irony if the net result of the failures of neo-liberalism results in more neo-liberalism (but then again it happened in 2008…).

Then there is the whole “people against the experts” thing. Sure, bourgeois economics is flawed (as discussed in section C of An Anarchist FAQ) and any of the claims of neo-classical economists must be taken with a large pinch of salt. However, some are better than others – and even the “bastard” Keynesians have a better grasp of reality than the neo-liberal kind. However, the Tory party has a record of being smug as regards what it does (“common-sense economics”) and the predictions of “the experts”. Two examples are worth noting:

  • The letter of 364 economists on the 1981 budget
  • The impact of Austerity in 2010 onwards

In both cases, the economy eventually picked up so allowing the Tories to proclaim “the experts” wrong. Yet, in both cases, the impact of the budgets were both negative for a substantial period so delaying any upturn and, moreover, making both recoveries relatively weak compared to the trend – as discussed by one of the better economists in The politicisation of truth and, for recent experiment on Austerity, by my good self in Boomtime in Poundland? (the “poundland” in question refers to both the budget shop in which everything is one pound which so many of us in the UK now turn out of necessity and a more accurate alternative to the “Sterling Zone” some people contrasted to the “Eurozone”).

So in both cases “the experts” were proven correct but the myth within the Tory party (and wider Tory media) was to the opposite. As Kropotkin suggested in Modern Science and Anarchy, the question comes down to whether the facts support what the “experts” claim – and the facts do in these cases. We use the methods of science to debunk the “experts” (see my Mutual Aid: An Introduction and Evaluation for some discussion on this – I quote Stephen Jay Gould on this as he echoes Kropotkin’s position). So in terms of the economic impact of Brexit, the consensus of economists on its negative impact should be taken seriously in spite of the limitations of bourgeois economics (precisely because we know what they are and so can judge the comments!) – but the Brexit Tories cannot do this for many reasons, not least their skewed vision of the glory years under Thatcher.

The right has become increasingly anti-science over the last few decades – this dismissing of “the experts” in terms of the economic impact of Brexit reminds me of the dismissing of climate scientists and their equally strong consensus on climate change – down to the same conspiracy theories (both seeking to keep or increase their funding – unlike those altruist multinational corporations and the so-called “think tanks” they support). This may be unsurprising --- as I’m sure Kropotkin would have said “the facts have a well-known libertarian bias”! Which, fundamentally, was the thrust of Modern Science and Anarchy.

Now that anti-science perspective has come back to bite the mainstream (but still far-right!) Tories (and the majority of the ruling class they represent) in the bum… as has decades of demonising “immigrants” (up from “bogus” asylum seekers of earlier years) in order to secure votes (indeed, promising this referendum was a clear case of putting the party first to secure votes against the threat of UKIP).

It is all very unpleasant – particularly as the leave campaign is actually “Project Fear” with its focus on immigration. This will have consequences. A major concern for me is the fate of EU citizens in the UK after leave -- given that “immigration” is the main issue for Brexiters and the narrative is that UK is already “too full” I doubt that a emboldened far-far-right Tory government will just seek to control new entrants: the Tory media would seek to reduce numbers already here and a general purge will be started (easily done, given the decades of distorted reporting that has so twisted public perspectives). I’m don’t think police agents kicking people out of the country has much to do with “small state” notions --  but, then, neither do Tory anti-union laws and a whole raft of other oppressive and centralising legislation they have imposed. But the logic of the discourse is clear – and worrying.

As for the undercutting of workers’ wages -- immigrants do not do that, bosses do. Bosses control who gets which job, at what rate. And thanks to Tory anti-union laws, the ability of workers to organise and resist the decisions of our masters is low. There are major problems with health, housing, etc. but these are due to Tory policies rather than “immigrants”. As usual, the bosses and their representatives are getting us to fight between ourselves over a few crumbs rather than asking why we are left with crumbs when we create the whole loaf.

And talking of “immigrants”, this referendum excludes them from a say in the fate of the country they live in (often for decades). When it appeared non-British people were getting polling cards, Brexiters proclaimed that the British public “will be as shocked as we are to discover that the integrity of the franchise for this long-awaited referendum with profound consequences for the future of our nation is being protected in such a lax manner”. As a member of “the British public” I am shocked that people who live in “our nation” and who will be impacted by this decision are being excluded from the vote. As Proudhon once put it:

“There will no longer be nationality, no longer fatherland, in the political sense of the words: they will mean only places of birth. Whatever a man’s race or colour, he is really a native of the universe; he has citizen’s rights everywhere.” (Property is Theft!, 597)

If you live somewhere, you should have a say in its future – and, as I recently discussed, this is the case with the workplace too. This kind of genuine democracy is very alien to the Leave campaign.

So this is the UK’s Trump moment in many ways – the unintended consequences of decades of neo-liberalism and right-wing populism.

Neither side inspires. However, Brexit is lying far more than the other side (as shown by Boris ‘opportunist’ Johnson’s “making it up as goes along” nonsense – as exemplified by his comments on bananas – or the deeply dishonest £350 a week million claim). Many people seeking to leave will regret empowering those seeking to take office post-referendum – those suffering from neo-liberalism will get to experience the ideologues who think the EU is not neo-liberal enough.

Unfortunately, there is no way to vote to ensure that both sides lose: this is why the referendum question is beside the point. Regardless of the outcome, whether we remain or leave, the task is still the same: organise a power in our workplaces and communities that politicians, bosses, and bureaucrats cannot ignore – whether in Whitehall or in Brussels.

While doing that, what do we do on the day?

Voting to leave, while understandable on many levels, would be counterproductive. It would empower the neo-liberal right (the far-far right of the Tories, UKIP, etc.) and they would be the ones doing the negotiations and reshaping the UK in its vision. It would also vindicate a terrible campaign and show the worse of us. There would also be an economic impact and while the elite-backers of Exit would be fine, the rest of us would not be – particularly given the neo-liberal policies being implemented by the far-right Tories. Also, to vote would give tacit consent to the notion our many problems are solely due to the EU and immigrants – which is not true, our many problems lie with capitalism, statism, hierarchy and made worse by the Thatcherite policies which have dominated UK politics since 1980.

Abstaining is always an option – but would that not seem to tolerate the Leave campaign’s Projects Fear and Lie?

Voting to remain seems the least bad option. Yes, faint praise indeed. As indicated above, the boils down to which section of the ruling class you find least objectionable. And the Leave campaign is very objectionable – they make Cameron and Osborne seem competent and trustworthy. We are not talking about a popular revolt here but rather a reshuffling of neo-liberal politicians, of the elite, and the bringing to the fore those who think the EU is not neo-liberal enough and is holding them back. Not nice at all – and we will soon see all the spending and other promises disappear (I would not be surprised if they end up agreeing to free movement of people in exchange for access to the EU single-market – as per Norway – and the ability to ignore any pro-worker EU regulations).

Oh, and those on the revolutionary left who are urging a leave vote to "Exit the EU Bosses' club" and hope to see the end of Cameron as the Tories implode, well, all I can say is that in 1979 they also chanted "Callaghan out! out! out!" - they got their wish but I do not think Thatcher was what they had in mind... yes, the EU is a bosses' club but so is the British state. As for Cameron, he will go if there is a Leave vote but he will almost certainly be replaced by a more Thatcherite numpty. And if do get a general election, I am sure that voters will be reminded constantly that Labour was "so out of touch with its base it argued to stay in the EU"... In short, be careful what you wish for (particularly if you are in no real position to influence the outcome -- unlike the CNT in the 1930s).

Lastly, numerous personal factors make me think I will vote to remain – not because the EU is wonderful (it is not!) but because the Leave campaign’s “Project Fear” and “Project Lie” are disgraceful and will, if implemented, have seriously negative consequences for working class people living in the UK – whether they are “British” or not.

Until I blog again, be seeing you!

  


Like what you are reading?  Get a notification whenever we post a new article to

Anarchist Writers via Facebook or Twitter

where you can also like and comment on our articles