Anarchism, state power and social change - an argument to the Green Party

The fundamental idea of anarchism is that as long as a minority make decisions on our behalf then we cannot be free. The decision making and enforcing apparatus this minority uses is the state; in Ireland it is the Dáil, local councils, the judiciary, the police force and a hundred other bodies, some visible, some invisible. While every other political current seeks to become part of the apparatus of decision making, the anarchists suggest something quite different. We want to smash the whole apparatus.

The state apparatus is not separate from the ruling economic class. In fact, most of the time its function is carrying out a crude expression of the wishes of the ruling class. It represents the limited ability of this class to control and plan the economic life of a country. This involvement may be complete, as in the old Soviet Union, or it can be restricted to key sectors like the arms industry, as in the United States. In most countries the level of involvement fluctuates from decade to decade according to the needs of the ruling class and the latest trends in economic academia.

What about the positive features of the state, things like social welfare, healthcare and education? During the industrial revolution in Britain, if you exclude migration, the cities had a negative growth rate; that is, more people died every year than were born. This was due to the incredibly harsh working conditions and extreme poverty of the city workers. The population of the cities was increased by a series of state backed legal changes which drove people off the land and into the cities.

At the outbreak of World War I, Britain found that a huge percentage of the working class had been so exploited that they were unfit for military service. Although this almost unhindered exploitation had been good for individual bosses up to that time, when it came to using the workers to win colonies and markets in the war it turned out to be against the bosses' collective interests.

At the end of the war, revolutions and army mutinies swept across Europe. To defuse the level of class struggle and prepare for the next war, the bosses used the state apparatus to impose collective limitations on themselves and the level of exploitation they could impose.

So in advanced capitalism the state is used to regulate the level of exploitation of the workforce through various labour laws. They also started to use the state to divert part of every worker's wage to form a new social wage which would be used for the education of workers and limited social security.

It's worth remembering that to this day what pays for social welfare is primarily PAYE taxes. Today the state's judiciary and police force serve to protect each boss from their own workers, intervening where necessary to smash strikes, criminalise activists and censor critics.

This is its most direct and obvious intervention, but through its control of the education system and its ability to criminalise social behaviour which goes against the bosses' interests it intervenes into every aspect of our lives.

So the state not only prevents us taking control of our workplaces, it also seeks to limit what music we can listen to, what plants we can grow, what history we can learn; it tries to control every aspect of our lives.

Scapegoats and safe channels

Another function of the state is to divide any potential resistance to the rule of the bosses. By scapegoating single mothers, immigrants or travellers it directs the anger of workers away from the real causes of their poverty. It is hostile to relationships outside its licence (marriage), or non-standard family relations which might challenge the prevalent ones and thus pose an indirect threat. This ensures that much of the care for the sick and the raising of new generations of workers is kept cheap by keeping it in the home.

This is why the state is so opposed to single parent families or families where both parents are of the same sex. The state in modern capitalism also finds ways of limiting dissent. By funding unemployed centres it achieves a political veto on their activities, effectively ensuring concentration on services like the production of CV's - with campaigning limited to minor tinkering with the system.

Through the use of elections it creates a veneer of ordinary people being in control while the decisions are being made elsewhere. By pretending neutrality it can set up and arbitrate on disputes between workers and bosses through the use of bodies like the Labour Court.

All these are methods to defuse and control social unrest. One thing that follows from all of the above is that obtaining state power at the national or local level cannot be used to fundamentally change society. Even the most radical scheme of completely destroying the old state and replacing it with a better or fairer apparatus means the new state becomes the organ of creation of a new ruling class. This essentially is what happened in the years 1917 - 21 in Russia.

This is because with positions in the new state hierarchy come powers over both people and goods. Exercising this power corrupts the best and attracts the worst of people. This would apply to a Green government as much as it did to the Red (Bolshevik) one. Every step towards state power is actually a defeat, every local election won is actually a step back (and not a little step forward) in creating a new society.

But do the anarchists have an alternative? Against the statists we propose decision making at the lowest possible level: election of recallable, mandated delegates for decisions that cannot be made by mass assemblies, and for all delegates to remain part of the workforce where possible. Where this takes them away from their workplaces their positions should be held for short periods only, and without any special privileges. This, a society based on mass democracy, is our alternative to the state.

It's not just our aim to achieve such a society in the long term but also to use such methods now in our struggle for such a society. We argue for these methods in our unions, community and campaigning groups.

Originally written for the Green Party Magazine' An Caorthann' in 1988

WORDS: Andrew Flood (Follow Andrew on Twitter )


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