On the Tories being back in office

First things first, I’ve posted a new article on Kropotkin entitled “Kropotkin, Woodcock and Les Temps Nouveaux” which is due to be published (in a slightly revised form) in the new Anarchist Studies. It can be considered a follow-up to my “Sages and Movements: An Incomplete Peter Kropotkin Bibliography” which appeared in a previous Anarchist Studies. I’ve also posted a review of the short but lovely Two Cheers for Anarchism.

The Kropotkin article challenges the notion – all too common – that Kropotkin became reformist from the 1890s onwards. It shows – by looking at his writings in Les Temps Nouveaux – that this is an invention by George Woodcock driven by changes in his own politics than by anything in Kropotkin’s writings. I guess that because he looked like Santa people cannot believe he was a revolutionary… or consider Mutual Aid as an anarchist work when, as I’ve discussed in a pamphlet, it is a work of popular science written by an anarchist. It is – as Kropotkin stressed – a deliberately one-sided work and while it does not ignore class struggle it is not its main focus – unlike his actual anarchist writings.

So, in terms of British politics – well, the initial shock has worn off. Sad to say, the feeling I indicated in my last blog – that the Tories would remain in office – has come to pass. The narrative being spun is interesting – with the unexpected result being proclaimed as an overwhelming endorsement of the Tories and their flailed austerity agenda.

Yet what have the Tories achieved in reality? A slim working majority – a landslide as per 1983 (or 1997) it is not. Obviously the right have an interest in proclaiming a massive mandate – on 24% of the electorate! – but it is being echoed on what passes for “the Left” as well. Presumably because those who parrot this nonsense want to become fully Tory-lite.

The Labour hierarchy will, in all probability, conclude that what we need is Blair-2 – as if the rout in Scotland was not due to Blair-1’s Tory-lite approach. Particularly given that the election was primarily driven by a revulsion against those who work with the Tories. The LibDems were punished by those who used to vote for them to keep the Tories out (my local MP was putting “labour cannot win here, vote LibDem” leaflets throughout the five years they were in coalition – he is now looking for a new job) while Labour worked with the Tories during the referendum campaign (and earned the not so surprising – not helped by their Austerity-lite policies – label “red Tories” as a result).

Sure, there were unintended consequences (in the form of an empowered Tory government), but that does not change the reason for the LibDem implosion (predictable and, of course, predicted back in 2010!) and the rise of the SNP. After all, in 2010 the parties forming the coalition government had nearly 60% of the vote but now, after the impact of Austerity, that is down to 45%. Perhaps this is unsurprising as before the election the LibDems were anti-austerity and had built a reputation under Charles Kennedy of being a left-wing party (talking of which, somewhat sad to hear of his death as he seemed a sincere and honest man who made the right calls on Iraq and the Coalition. I viewed his election loss as collateral damage in the Scottish elections and it was a shame that he had to see his party go from 62 MPs under him to just 8 now).

In understanding what is going on, we first need to ignore Scotland – the deserved wipe-out of Labour there skews the results. Labour increased its vote in England by 3.6%, the Greens by 3.2%. The Tories by just 1.4% -- the collapse of the Lib-Dems (-16%) is the key factor and the Tories were those who primarily benefited in terms of MPs. So in terms of Labour being “too left-wing” and so alienated voters, well, not quite – they did not get an increase in the right places, of course.

Overall Labour lost 26 seats – yet 40 of those where in Scotland and cannot be put down to not being Tory enough. So Labour gained 14 seats in England and Wales (15 in the former, lost one in Wales) while the Tories gained 21 in England and 3 in Wales – mostly at the expense of the LibDems. Labour lost 91 seats in 2010, after all, on a -6.2% swing (compared to +1.4% in 2015) which reflected the fact the global economic crisis had happened when they were in office.

So this is hardly an example of a massive defeat for “the left” – particularly when the Tory gains were at the expense of the LibDems who were paying the price for working with the Tories and imposing Austerity. This suggests we need to challenge the narrative that has turned a surprise victory for the Tories into a vindication of their ideology and conclude “the left” needs to move to the right. As for the UKIP vote, well, I doubt that many ex-Labour voters in the North of England would back the more Thatcherite aspects of its policies – assuming that they were aware of them. The fact that they considered this a protest vote is a worry, though.

So we need to challenge the narrative of “the left” (Labour!) losing massively and the right making massive gains – ignoring Scotland (where the “Labour was too left-wing” narrative is obviously nonsense), Labour increased its share of the votes by many times that of the Tories while the Lib-Dems were wiped out because they worked with the Tories (the SNP vote can also be explained, in part, by Labour working with the Tories in the “no” campaign last year). The implosion of the Lib-Dems favoured the Tories as those who voted tactically to keep the Tories out saw little point in it. As for Clegg, clearly enough Tories voted to keep him in - he took long enough to resign as leader though (obviously waiting to see if the Tories had need for him again but their slight majority put paid to that - although it does put Cameron at the mercy of a few rabid right MPs so his surprise victory may come back to haunt him).

Why bother about elections and Labour Party leadership contests? Well, it reflects – however distortedly – discussions and thoughts elsewhere in “the left” and that includes anarchism. The wing of the movement which is warmed-up radical liberalism will undoubtedly be bolstered by this “defeat” of “radical left-wing” ideas and will seek to undermine genuine anarchism – proclaiming us as believing in “nineteenth century” Marxist class struggle (which would mean we would be standing for election!). Ignoring the shocking lack of knowledge about anarchism and its history (they seem to want, say, a Freedom which Kropotkin would not be welcomed in – published, at best, with a heavy heart and a sense of embarrassment), the strange fact is that just as the class war has been intensified and we need a clear class understanding of what is going on and how to fight it, the liberals proclaim it is not needed – or even counter-productive!

(as a complete aside, the usefulness of class analysis cannot be underestimated – as long as it does not blind you to other forms of hierarchy and oppression as it often did for Marxists. One slightly trivial example: I was watching a programme on fashion and the presenter noted that in from the Elizabethan Times to the end of the nineteenth century, the rich preferred to be pale – literally painting themselves white in some eras. This changed and by the early twentieth century the rich preferred to look tanned. The presenter could not explain this development when, surely, it was obvious – the changing nature of work. Until the nineteenth century most people worked outdoors as agricultural labourers and being pale showed you did not work. As factory/office work became dominant, a tan – being out in the sun lazing around – showed that you did not work. Lacking a class perspective caused the host to miss an obvious explanation)

So what do we do? The same thing we would have done if Labour had somehow got in – build a serious anti-parliamentarian social movement. Whether you vote or not, whether you think politicians can be of use, the fact is that it is only outside pressure that makes them do the right thing – or at least not the worst thing (I quote Malatesta on this in my review of Two Cheers for Anarchism)

This is particularly the case as the right are in full “elected dictatorship” mode – you have been allowed to vote, now shut-up, do what you are told and let your betters and masters get on with it. Immediately from the get-go the Tories and their press (e.g., Daily Mail) are running with the elected dictatorship position – we have had an election, that was democracy, shut up and do what you are told. Thus it is “undemocratic” to protest – see the nonsense that resulted from Charlotte Church attending an anti-austerity demo (the horror – a non-poor person being opposed to cuts that will harm the poor! Is being a “hypocrite” better or worse than expressing “the politics of envy” which dismiss working class protest?)

So if you are poor, then your protest is dismissed as “envy”. If you are wealthy, then your protest is dismissed as “hypocrisy”. If you are a worker, then you are dismissed as “greedy”. Then there is the logic of voting:

  • if you don’t vote, you have no right to protest as you did not take part in the election and so have nothing to complain about;
  • if you voted for the losing party, you have no right to protest as your party did not win;
  • if you voted for the winning party, you have no right to protest because your party won and you can vote for another in the next election.

Repeat as required. The key thing is that people vote as this legitimises the whole process – not voting and pointing to “the elephant in the room” gets you demonised, as Russell Brand can testify.

Why? Because they know direct action is effective. There is an anti-austerity demo on the 20th of June which would be a good place to get our ideas across – hopefully be selling Black Flag at it. Hopefully other anarchists will be taking the time to think about getting the positive ideas of anarchism across to other rather than keeping to themselves in their self-imposed ghetto.

Talking of which, we are getting the next Black Flag ready. With Freedom sadly gone (although is now a Freedom News freesheet!), the movement needs a physical presence and I guess Black Flag will have to be it. We are currently annual (aiming for the London anarchist bookfair) but we want to do better – but we need help. If you are interested in contributing to a class struggle anarchist journal then email cllv13[at]yahoo.com.

In term of direct action, it is noticeable that the Tories are seeking to make it even harder to strike. So we have a Thatcherite Business Secretary twittering on about the need for deregulation while increasing the regulations on labour! This is no paradox – but the hypocrisy is staggering. Not least because the Tories are now wielding the whip hand on 24% of the national vote and most of their MPs would not be in Parliament if their proposed new anti-union rules were applied to general election results.

As noted, this is no paradox – the neo-liberal agenda has never been “anti-state”. Quite the reverse – it was always about using the state to pursue a social engineering agenda (as happened at the dawn of capitalism too). I was glancing through a book on the Thatcher “revolution” (pro-evil witch) and it noted in passing the “paradox” of how her “liberalism” involved centralising housing policy and so undermined the traditional support for decentralisation. Yet this is no paradox – neo-liberalism is all about using – and increasing – state power for social engineering purposes. Just the isolated individual against the might of the central state (political power) and capital (economic power). The book talked of going over the “local barons” (i.e., democratically elected local government) to allow the individual to buy their own council house.

This was considered a great success – as the next three decades have shown, it is but only if you are a landlord. Needless to say, the Tories wish to continue this flawed policy with the added bonus of using the state to order private institutions – housing associations – to sell off their property! We can only imagine the howls of anger from the right if Labour were to take up Proudhon’s scheme to turn rent into a means of socialising housing!

But, then, the rhetoric always forgets that unions are democratic organisations (although distorted by bureaucracy). Union “bosses” do not call strikes – workers do and the Tory anti-union laws helped undermine workplace votes in favour of paper ballots (isolated individuals putting a cross on a bit of paper). And they are not “bosses” as they are elected – indeed, the term boss seems more likely to be used to describe an elected union official than an actual (never elected) boss – “leader” seems the preferred term or “wealth creator”.

For all the nonsense of “wealth creation” the cries of horror at the RMT’s recent rail strike announcements show the reality (and if the Tories are concerned that a strike will affect others, perhaps they should instruct the bosses to pay up to save others the inconvenience?). If “wealth” were created by the elite few then the rail strike would have had no impact on the economy for these people rarely take public transport. Yet, for some amazing reason, the impact of the strike on the economy was proclaimed significant enough for some self-proclaimed champions of freedom and rolling back the state to proclaim the need to make such strikes illegal. Still, labour must be regulated and taxed while capital must be backed by the state (Prem Sikka: “A kind of reverse socialism has been created where the state transfers wealth to the well-off and punishes ordinary people. The following examples provide some evidence for the above thesis”)

A particularly clueless article in the Evening Boris (sorry, London’s Evening Standard) defended the elite by suggesting that they employed more people now compared to a few years back so justifying their rising wealth. Except, of course, wealth accumulates under capitalism because workers are exploited by their employers -- they produce more than they receive back in wages. As such, rising wealth of the few would be reflected in rising numbers of wage-slaves for the more workers employed the more surplus value they can produce which can then be monopolised by capital. Hence the need to tame the ability of said workers to organise to keep more of the wealth they (we!) produce in their own hands. And let us never forget that the UK workers’ share of the GDP has declined to 50.5% from 65.1% in 1976. This is the lowest ever recorded – thanks, in great part, to state regulation of workers’ self-organisation.

So the illiberalism of the neo-liberals should come as no surprise if you have been paying attention – and know the history of liberalism and capitalism. Thus Cameron proclaiming that “[f]or too long we have been a passively tolerant society, saying to our citizens so long as you obey the law we will leave you alone” is simply not that surprising – similarly with the increased powers being granted to the secret state, centralisation of education (under the term “free schools” – and we can be sure that said schools will almost certainly have an authoritarian internal regime), localism bills bolstering the ability for central take-over, etc.

I should also note that I disagree with those who consider anarchism as a mixture of liberalism and socialism (Kropotkin did not quite suggest that in his essay Anarchist-Communism, although he is often viewed as doing so. Rocker certainly held that position in Anarcho-Syndicalism and Chomsky repeats him at times). First, classical liberalism is simply not that bothered about freedom – it is primarily concerned about property and justifying the hierarchies that produces. Second, Proudhon was very much part of the French revolutionary tradition and so Rousseau was the central thinker. As such, anarchism can be considered as a Rousseau-inspired critique of Rousseau. This is particularly relevant given the current elected dictatorship position being uttered. To quote a particularly relevant point:

“The people of England regards itself as free; but it is grossly mistaken; it is free only during the election of members of parliament. As soon as they are elected, slavery overtakes it, and it is nothing.” (Jean-Jacques Rousseau, The Social Contract)

Liberalism is all about justifying submission to hierarchies (especially private ones) rather than freedom. Free labour, for it, is wage-labour – workers selling their liberty and labour to the boss (to use Proudhon’s phrase) – rather than associated labour and workers’ self-management. Similarly, Locke’s position that labour is a workers’ property is primarily used to justify the boss taking the fruit of another’s labour rather than to secure the worker control over it. As for his notion of “just appropriation”, well, that was used to justify slaughtering Native Americans and stealing the land they used but had not “transformed” by their own labour. Governmental contract theory, again, is used to justify obedience to the state (almost always viewed as being made up exclusively of property owners rather than all people in a given area). This, incidentally, explains the obvious self-contradictions in “anarcho”-capitalism which make a mockery of its pretentions of claiming to be anarchist or libertarian.

(Here I should mention David Ellerman – who is aware of Proudhon – and Carole Pateman – who was in an anarchist group at university – as important modern thinkers in this tradition. I quote both in An Anarchist FAQ and Pateman’s The Problem of Political Obligation has an excellent discussion on Rousseau while her The Sexual Contract extends this discussion into feminism. Both reach similar conclusions by different means – Pateman in The Sexual Contract quotes Ellerman’s “The Libertarian Case for Slavery” as an example of the authoritarianism implicit in liberal ideology: which is understandable as it is a very good piece of satire which builds upon what many propertarians themselves conclude!)

I should also note that the election was an example of our descent into a post-truth era. The Tories proclaimed themselves as economically competent, that their “long term economic plan” was working when, in reality, they have failed their own tests and changed their plans (as discussed here). For example, in June 2010 the plan was for the deficit in 2014-15 to be 2.1% of GDP, down from 11% in 2009-10. They expect it to be 5.0% and suggest that being more than double what they had proclaimed should be considered a massive success! The hypocrisy of saying the UK is doing better than Europe when that is suffering from a far more vigorous imposing of Austerity is staggering – particularly when the recent growth in the UK is hardly spectacular – it is in-line with pre-2008 growth trends rather than, in most recessions, higher as the economy rebounds. We must also remember that real GDP per capita in Britain is still lower than what it was before the crisis in 2008 and the period of recovery is the slowest on record (and the record goes back at least to the nineteenth century).

So it is a case of the dismal record for the UK economy

This post-truth world can be seen when Ed Miliband was pillared for stating the truth that Labour had not overspent. The deficit was caused by having to bail out the banks as part of a global economic crisis with its roots in the finance system – not because Labour did not send single-mothers to the workhouse! This should be obvious, but it is not and worth repeating. Economist Simon Wren-Lewis makes the point well: Recognising the success of macroeconomic myths

A particularly Orwellian example of our post-truth world was the Sun proclaiming that Osbourne was going to make a profit from selling RBS. In 2008, New Labour pumped £45bn into RBS stop its bankruptcy and this investment is now valued at £32bn. So selling the shares will mean losing £13 billion – planned benefits cuts amount to £12 billion. A £13 billion Gift for the City (getting their expected reward for funding the Tories) – and best not mention that Universal Credit is estimated to come in at over £12 billion too. And that is being generous: Senior figures doubt Osborne claim that taxpayers will profit from bank bailouts.

In other news, the economy seems to be slowing down (don’t worry, just as better growth shows the need for more austerity – the medicine is working! – slowing growth shows the need for more austerity!). Still, the election is over and the hope is that the impact of austerity will, as before, be over by the time of the next election. And new evidence in (Growth, what growth? Thatcherism fails to produce the goods) confirms that, as An Anarchist FAQ noted, neo-liberalism has not been as successful as the post-war period economically – GDP and productivity grew faster before 1979.

Which brings me to my last point. David Graeber has a new book out (where does he manage to find the time?) entitled The Utopia of Rules: On Technology, Stupidity and the Secret Joys of Bureaucracy. A colleague in work has given me a copy and I have some bits of it – what I have read I’ve enjoyed (although if Graeber insists in using SF and Fantasy references he should at least get them right – the Ferengi appeared in Star Trek: The Next Generation long before the Borg appeared – series 1 verses series 2). John Gray – ex-Thatcherite, now neo-liberal critic – reviewed it in The Guardian and now I will review that review.

“At the start of this unusual and interesting book, which is subtitled ‘On Technology, Stupidity, and the Secret Joys of Bureaucracy’, David Graeber states what he calls the iron law of liberalism: any market reform, any government initiative intended to reduce red tape and promote market forces will have the ultimate effect of increasing the total number of regulations, the total amount of paperwork and the total number of bureaucrats the government employs.”

How true – and no paradox either. Capitalism is wage-labour, hiring workers who give up their liberty and the product of their labour in return for a wage. In order to ensure that works the boss needs to monitor the worker and the state – which represents the class interests of the boss – needs to do likewise. This applies on the level of the economy as a whole for privatised services need to be monitored as it is in the interests of the company to maximise its profits and so cut-back on services provided. The state needs to monitor against that – although, obviously, this is the elephant in the room in terms of privatisation in the first place – firms will aim to rip-off their consumers to increase their profits just as much as they will underpay their workers.

“An American anthropologist who is currently professor of anthropology at LSE, Graeber begins his inquiry with an angry and moving account of the horrendous form-filling he endured when he had to place his aged mother in a nursing home after she had a stroke. Much of the red tape he came up against surrounded the American Medicare system, which he uses to show how a regime of rules can promote a condition of helpless stupidity in those who deliver the services and those who use them. In effect, such a regime defeats the purposes of the institution it is meant to regulate. This is what happens, Graeber believes, when governments insist on market solutions to every social problem: ‘a nightmare fusion of the worst elements of bureaucracy and the worst elements of capitalism’”.

“With this diagnosis in mind, it is surprising that Graeber doesn’t explore recent British experience, which has seen successive Conservative and Labour governments attempting to import an American model of market-driven competition into public services.”

Not too surprising given that Graeber – while now based in Britain – is American and concentrates on his own experiences. Sure, we may bemoan his lack of wider vision in this instance but it is not really that surprising.

“The upshot has been a compelling demonstration of his iron law in action. No doubt the NHS as it existed a generation ago was far from perfect. But it wasn’t a monument to wasteful and dysfunctional management, and even in narrow economic terms it operated far more efficiently than the elephantine bureaucracy it has since become. The vast managerial class that stands between the medical profession and patients today didn’t exist then, any more than did armies of low-paid contract workers.”

“The old-style NHS was like many of our public services. Established as part of the 1945 postwar settlement, they were creations of a strong state, but they were not distracted from their true functions by intrusive monitoring and shifting targets set by governments. In contrast, since the injection of market mechanisms into public institutions, life in Britain has become more invasively regulated than it has ever been. The cult of the market has produced a society throttled by bureaucracy.”

Yes, the “internal market” has brought bureaucracy, inefficiency, etc. in its wake. But, then, the changes were driven by ideology and so we can expect this: “every society declines the moment it falls into the hands of the ideologists” (Proudhon)

 “Though it provides strong support for one part of his argument, there may be a certain logic in Graeber overlooking this experience. An activist in the Occupy movement and a theorist of “anarchist anthropology”, he ascribes most of the evils of society to oppressive state structures. In his book Debt: The First 5,000 Years (2011), he argued that the centrality of debt in social exchange came about only with the rise of imperial government. The book was rightly celebrated as offering a fresh perspective on the financial crisis.”

“But there is nothing novel in Graeber’s overall scheme of ideas. As he has acknowledged, his account of the role of the state in suppressing spontaneous human cooperation has much in common with the Russian anarchist Peter Kropotkin’s account in Mutual Aid (1902). What Graeber fails to recognise is that the view of the state he advances also has something in common with that of neoliberals, who, like him, see state power as the root of all social ills.”

Anarchists have never, ever seen the “state power as the root of all social ills” – we have always critiqued other sources of power, like the economic power associated with private property. This can be seen from the first book in which someone proclaimed themselves an anarchist – it is not called What is the State? but rather What is Property?. The state is only “the root of all social ills” insofar as defends all the root causes of the rest – most obviously, to end the root causes of all the social ills caused by private property we need to expropriate private property but the state defends that, so we need to abolish the state at the same time as property.

Do neoliberals seek to end the state? No, they are more than happy to take state power, wield it to their own ends and, when appropriate, increase it. Do neoliberals see “state power as the root of all social ills”? No, they are more than happy to see it increased.

While the left has, in general, been happy to proclaim with the neoliberals that neoliberalism is anti-state the fact is it is anything but. It seeks to redirect state power from capital to labour – hence it reduces regulation on business but increases it on unions.

The Utopia of Rules is packed with provocative observations and left-field scholarship. Ranging from witty analysis of comic-book narratives to penetrating discussion of world-changing technologies that haven’t actually appeared, it demystifies some of the ruling shibboleths of our time. Modern bureaucracy embodies a view of the world as being essentially rational, but the roots of this vision, Graeber astutely observes, go all the way back to the ancient Pythagoreans, who believed that mathematics, music and the motions of the planets all obeyed the same principles. The Enlightenment is supposed to have broken with such ways of thinking, but this is a myth: ‘The appeal to rationality in Descartes and his successors remains a fundamentally spiritual, even mystical commitment, that the mathematical or math-like abstractions that are assumed to be the essence of thought, are also the ordering principles that regulate nature – and this remained true whether they were identified with God, or seen as the ultimate proof of God’s non-existence.’”

However, capitalism needs to assume that everything is essentially rational too – the need to measure, account, etc. is essential to making money. The need for bosses to disempower their workers, to monopolise knowledge and power to maximise profits, drives rationalisation (Taylorism anyone?). This continues to this day – Software workers will know of ITIL and its Taylorist agenda of extracting knowledge from workers and placing it into the hands of management (i.e., the bureaucray). This was admitted in passing by my trainer when I went on an ITIL course a few years back – he clearly had no class analysis!

So the notion that data can become information can become knowledge (and easily so) is at the root of both private and public bureaucracies. Hence the imposition of private sector positions into the public sector…

“Over time, this vision of a world ruled by rational principles evolved into an ideal of a society governed by rules. It was bureaucratic utopianism that undid the great revolutions of the last century. Graeber cites Lenin, just months before the Russian revolution, declaring he would organise ‘the whole national economy on the lines of the postal service’. If the Bolshevik leader hadn’t been possessed by utopian dreams of bureaucratic order, Graeber seems to be saying, the Soviet experiment could have turned out so much more happily than it did.”

This point and the next, namely “impos[ing] an unworkable economic system”, are not as unrelated as Gray is suggesting here. Lenin pointed to the postal service for good (Marxist) reasons – as a Marxist, he saw socialism springing from capitalism and its structures rather than, as anarchists do, in conflict with them (see the relevant bits of section H.3 of An Anarchist FAQ)

Sure, it could be argued that this is a misreading of Marx based on the limited resources available to social democracy but the point is that the works Marx and Engels published in their lifetimes were those they considered as must important. If you have to hunt down an obscure comment in an obscure unpublished – even unfinished – work by Marx to show that the “real” Marx wanted then the obvious question is why he did not publish this important point in a public forum and flag it as important!

“It is an entertaining fancy, but it wasn’t the sinister appeal of the German post office that made the Soviet system so tyrannical. It was the Bolsheviks’ attempt to impose an unworkable economic system on Russia, together with their fear – entirely realistic – that, if they were given the chance, enemies of the revolution would overthrow the new regime and liquidate its leaders. Lenin grasped an iron law of revolution: whatever they believe or desire, revolutionaries will survive if, and only if, they construct and deploy an apparatus of repression more far-reaching and more ruthless than that of the regime they have overthrown. As he famously put it: ‘Who, whom?’ Who will kill and who will die?”

Yet the “unworkable economic system” (and it was always going to be in the sense of producing socialism even if it could muddle through for a few decades) was given some credence because of developments in capitalism – hence Lenin’s examples. As for the “iron law of revolution” – what about the American revolution? Or the end of Stalinism? Yes, those dispossessed of power will seek to get it back (hence anarchist aware of having to defend a revolution) but it did not need to be in Lenin’s model – which was driven far more by loss of popular support and alienation caused by the Bolshevik fetish for centralisation than the external counter-revolution (see section H.6 of An Anarchist FAQ) – and then there is the natural elitism of vanguardism which privileges the party over the class and cannot help but justify authoritarianism (see section H.5 of An Anarchist FAQ).

So, yes, there is always a danger of a revolution degenerating but that also applies to capitalist democracy, too.

“Graeber likes to imagine that future revolutions can be made by means of non-violent civil disobedience, not in a single upheaval but through a succession of ‘insurrectionary moments’. But it doesn’t matter how revolution occurs, or whether revolutionaries spurn violence. If they pose any genuine threat to the prevailing structures of power or to rival revolutionary movements, the insurrectionists will be repressed and liquidated anyway. Revolution isn’t a walk through Zuccotti Park, but a life-and-death struggle to gain and keep power.”

“If anyone doubts this fact they should consider what became of the followers of the kindly, deluded Kropotkin once the Bolsheviks were fully in control.”

Ah, Kropotkin was “deluded” so enough said… actually, no. In what way was he “deluded”? Huxley’s “nature red in tooth and claw” perspective was deluded as it failed to take into account the awkward fact that co-operation is just – if not more – a fact of nature. Kropotkin, myths notwithstanding, never ignored the nasty side of nature (human or otherwise) – he just pointed out that there was more than that. Similarly, he was well aware of the exploitative and oppressive aspects of humanity as well as capitalism – he wanted to end them! Was he “deluded” in noting the state was an instrument of class rule, used to keep the many in their place so that the few can enjoy themselves on the fruit of the toil of the many?

“In Graeber’s neo-anarchist view, the state is a demonic force thwarting human freedom. This seems to me a simple-minded philosophy,”

Well, over the course of human history the state has been a force thwarting human freedom - by imposing the will of an unelected ruling minority. It is simple-minded to deny that. Equally, anarchists have never argued that it was the only force thwarting human freedom -- other forms of hierarchy are opposed to, including those associated with property and wealth (hence Proudhon's What is Property?). Are there conflicts between the state and other elements of the ruling class (like capitalists)? Of course. So in terms of an analysis of the state, anarchists have a complex view on it which reflects reality. It is not metaphyisical like the Marxists who limit it to an instrument of the economically dominant class but rather rooted in a analysis of its history and role -- see Kropotkin's The State: Its Historic Role. The notion of the state as an instrument of the people is a relatively recent perspective -- one which, all things considered, is pretty simple-minded given that significant inequalities remained even in the social-democratic post-war period. Yes, the wage-slaves may have been better off and been able to strike and so inequality was less, but human freedom was still restricted in many ways. That neo-liberalism has restricted it more does not change this.

“but perhaps it explains why he says so little about the public services that were created as part of the postwar settlement in Britain. Not entangled in government directives as almost every public body is at the present time, these were genuinely autonomous institutions. Regulated by those who worked in them, they weren’t burdened by the bloated bureaucracy that strangles them today. But they were able to enjoy this freedom only because a public space had been created for it by the use of state power.”

So Gray is arguing that the state created “a public space” which basically meant that it did not interfere in the workings of the NHS but latter started to interfere by creating an artificial market with a corresponding increase in bureaucracy. And this is a refutation of Graeber’s point? The notion that the state can be a force for good because it can create a sphere in which the state does not interfere is a strange one. It is also one which does not seem to last long – just look at the fate of the NHS.

“Why is the state such a durable institution? One reason may be that most human beings grasp a truth not acknowledged by anarchist anthropologists: violent social conflict is every bit as spontaneous and natural for humans as social cooperation.”

If Gray had bothered to read “deluded” Kropotkin he would have soon seen that old Peter did grasp and acknowledge this “truth” – in Mutual Aid he explicitly stated it was one-sided for the advocates of individual competition and struggle had already written extensively on the subject. Moreover, Kropotkin extensively about the “violent social conflict” of capitalism and its repression of popular revolts and strikes. The recognition that class society was based on “violent social conflict” was the reason he wanted to end it!

So this comment by Gray is truly puerile – particularly as much “violent social conflict” has been caused by the state repressing its population in the interests of itself and the economically dominant!

“Might this not be why so many have turned to state power for protection from evils such as organised crime? No doubt Graeber is right in thinking states are themselves always implicated in crime (though this hasn’t prevented them from enjoying high levels of popular support). But does it follow that state power is always and only repressive? Can’t it sometimes also be liberating? Turning away from these awkward questions to a fantasy of unfettered freedom, Graeber joins hands with the neoliberals he scorns.”

Are the neoliberals anti-state? Well, one of the first acts of the new Tory – neoliberal – government is to plan more anti-union laws, to increase state regulation of working people. This on the back of Thatcher’s “reforms” which saw Britain have the most repressive labour laws of any democracy in the world.

And what is the state? Is it not just the legacy of “organised crime” in the distant pass? Is the royal family not the descants of those who most successfully imposed themselves on others? Are republics not an attempt to bring the absolutist state of these criminals into some form of popular control? Do they have “high levels of popular support”? Yes, thanks to education funded by the state, media supported by the wealthy protected by the state, etc.

Is state power “always and only repressive”? Perhaps not but it always defends the economically dominant class and its own position. It can – when forced to by popular pressure – not stand in the way of increased freedom but it will never be used to end privilege and the restrictions in freedom needed to keep it in place. Gray ignores this awkward fact – states are only tamed by its subjects and their willingness to defend and extend their freedom. It is never given, it is won.

Do anarchists have “a fantasy of unfettered freedom”? No, we generally are well aware of the social links between people which undermine illusions of freedom being a product of isolation. We are aware – unlike liberals or Engels – that freedom is an expression of social interaction. What we aim for is voluntary self-managed associations. So workplaces would be run by their workers, communities by their inhabitants. These would federate to make decisions about joint activities and interests. Nothing here is utopian – some of it already happens. Rather than engage with anarchists ideas as they really are, he dismisses them based on listening to, what, Sex Pistols songs?

Anyway, I’ve started Graeber’s book now and, as you would expect, it is very good. He is an excellent writer (I need to re-read Debt in its new and revised edition). One point, though. In terms of producing a left-wing critique of bureaucracy – is he really unaware of the work of Cornelius Castoriadis in the 1950s to 1970s? Solidarity in the UK over the same period?

Until I blog again, be seeing you...


Thanks for the nice review of

Thanks for the nice review of reviewer. Grey seemed to be more critiquing the very idea of anarchism than me, since almost none of the positions he ascribed to me were mentioned in the book - even those I do hold.
BTW, I am quite well aware of Castoriadis, Situationists, Solidarity, and the rest. I even have a frontispiece highlighting the '60s critique of bureaucracy. My point was (I thought my point was) that the left-wing critique of '50s and '60s bureaucracy is really a critique of corporatism that is no longer relevant since the '70s, even though the right has developed a caricature version of it. Did that not get through? I guess I should have made the point more strongly. Or do you just think I should have cited them all by name?

Grey seemed to be more

Grey seemed to be more critiquing the very idea of anarchism than me, since almost none of the positions he ascribed to me were mentioned in the book - even those I do hold.

Yes, I got that impression too. In fact the review seemed more like a warning sign ("do not read!") than an actual review. As you state, he is critiquing his own version of what he thinks anarchism is rather than what it actuall it -- or what the book is about!

BTW, I am quite well aware of Castoriadis, Situationists, Solidarity, and the rest.

I was wondering! I guess I expecting, as you suggest, a mention by name -- Having read enough 19th century anarchist thinkers, I know that we cannot take thinks for granted. Assuming people will know what/who you mean does not make it so... particularly when time passes

I even have a frontispiece highlighting the '60s critique of bureaucracy. My point was (I thought my point was) that the left-wing critique of '50s and '60s bureaucracy is really a critique of corporatism that is no longer relevant since the '70s, even though the right has developed a caricature version of it. Did that not get through?

I think that the '60s critique is wider than that , although the rise of corporate bureaucracy and its links with the state played a big part in it. Did it get through? Well, I'm not finished yet (work on an article for Anarchist Studies called "Proudhon and the Myth of Labour Notes" has got in the way) but as I said I guess I expected an explicit naming of thinkers and organisations. So more context would have been nice.

btw, when we did a panel talk on "anarchist economics" a few years back I asked about you doing an interview for "Black Flag". We had to take a break for a while, but we are back. If you are still interested, could you email me at cllv13[at]yahoo.com ? Thanks

Also, if any class struggle revolutionary anarchists reading this comment are interested in writing for "Black Flag", please do drop us a line.


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