Wendy S. Duke: A Dumpster Review of Angles on Anarchism

reprinted from Dumpster Times.

Would it surprise you to know that someone is paying attention to the anarchist movement? George Walford, editor and publisher of ldeological Commentary, an independent quarterly of systematic ideology, has put together a collection of his essays which I thoroughly commend as both thought-provoking and essential anarchist reading. Walford is not an anarchist – I’m pretty sure of that. Whether he can be labeled is something I’m not sure of! He is a proponent of ‘Systematic Ideology,’ which examines the major ideologies and their historical development. By looking at his ideological pyramid and descriptive chart readers may get some sense of his theory. We see that Expediency, the only universal ideology according to Walford, provides the base for his pyramid. Piled up in ascending order we find Principle (Conservatism), Precision (Liberalism), Reform (Holism and Greenism), Revolution (Marxism) and finally, Repudiation (Anarchism). It is important to note that this pyramid is not to scale, as it exaggerates the size and influence of the upper levels and understates those of the lower ones. As Walford puts it:

These ideologies, with the groups attached to them, form a hierarchy, but one of’ development, not of value, validity or influence; the anarchists, although at the top of the pyramid, neither exercise social domination nor seek to do so. Power is possessed and exercised mainly by the big numbers towards the foot.

So we see that although anarchism may be viewed as ‘tops’ in terms of  ideological development, its influence appears as minuscule. Walford’s essays are full of questions which may provide some insight into the inescapable fact that the anarchist movement is far from being a popular one. In fact, he has so many questions to ask (and to which he provides answers, some which you might agree with and some not) that I am not going to be able to respond to as many as I’d like in this review. And I might add, that I know that I don’t have all the answers! But maybe you do, so I am including a list featuring a number of questions at the end of this review, with a request for written responses from Dumpster readers. No grades will be given, no prizes or rewards, but I will publish your responses in upcoming issues! Some of these questions are Walford’s and some are questions which occurred to me while reading his book.

Normally, when I write a review, I try to keep myself out of it! I prefer to focus on the author’s point of view and include extensive quotes, so that readers can get some idea of what the book is all about. This time, I’ve found it practically impossible to not write of my own experiences. Angles on Anarchism elicits this kind of response. So be prepared for some personal testimony, but never fear; I have included quotes! This book is highly readable, clearly written and ought to speak directly to your deepest concerns if you consider yourself an anarchist. On the back cover we find a list of commonly held assumptions about anarchism. Here’s one of them: ‘Anarchy means cooperation. Then why are anarchists now divided into conflicting groups?’ Inside, we find a chapter entitled ‘Competitive Cooperators‘ which opens with the following:

A glance at Freedom, Black Flag, Our Generation, The Bulletin of Anarchist Research, or almost any other anarchist journal, will confirm that the groups and people who make up this movement spend much energy on criticizing and opposing each other. This tendency, strong enough to prevent them consistently working together, sometimes provokes the assertion that there is no anarchist movement, only a number of independent people or groups.

He states that anarchists approve of argument, and seem to thrive on conflict and competitiveness when it comes to the realm of ideas and personal expression. But when focusing on the material aspects of life, they urge cooperation. This, he points out, is just the opposite of the conservative agenda, which stresses loyalty and cooperation in politics, but in economic affairs is decidedly competitive. But we have just seen in this country [USA], how quickly the conservatives lost followers by insisting upon loyalty to a ‘Family Values’ platform and even more so by taking competitiveness to the extreme with a decade full of looting. And we are also seeing the anarchist movement in this country including more and more non-collectivist types. Thinking in terms of ideologies can be limiting, I think. Because, like an old suit, we often try to put people in them when they no longer fit.

As to the conflicts among anarcho-communists, -capitalists, -socialists, -syndicalists, -primitivists, -feminists, -masculinists, -individualists, and so on, I do not see these conflicting views as necessarily precluding cooperation. Thinking about anarchism as a philosophy which repudiates force while promoting individual liberty we can hardly expect that all anarchists will conform to one particular group’s idea of how to live the anarchist life. Indeed, if we deny the use of force, then we must allow the concept of multiplicity. I am quite comfortable with the thought of anarcho-primitivists running about naked in the wild, foraging for their dinner, etc., even though I have no inclination for such an existence, far preferring the comforts of urban cooperative living. I would object to and resist any attempts at being forced to live like a shaman in the wilderness. Likewise, the split between individualists and communitarians can be understood as a difference in temperament. Who would want to force a loner type into a living situation which would drive her/him mad? And who would deny those social types who find pleasure and growth in community living the right to do so?

[Paragraph on anarcho-capitalism]

This leads to a question of my own: if anarchists are opposed to force, how do we deal with those people who are not? We can easily justify violent actions for self-defense. Does this mean we have the right to demand that no one may possess property or wealth of whatever kind in excess of everybody else? And who would decide what amount of wealth is OK and what amount is oppressive? If we truly feel that those who accumulate do so at our expense, how do we convince these people to act otherwise? We anarchists will not create armies of enforcers to uphold laws and inflict punishments. The only force which we have at our command is the force of popular opinion. And as Walford points out, anarchist views are not popular:

When you ask why most of the people who have to earn a living don’t in fact support anarchism (or communism or socialism), the standard answer blames the influence of the rich and powerful. They, the argument goes, make sure the people learn to respect the monarchy, the establishment and the church, to work for their bosses and to obey the government and the police. They convince the people that they ought to act in these ways, they impose false beliefs.  And they keep anarchism from getting a fair hearing.

Walford thinks that this answer is simply untrue. The media, for example, does not deliberately filter out positive references to anarchism, it merely gives the people what they want to read. And the people are not interested in anarchism. The typical anarchist response (if there is such a thing as a typical anarchist response!) is that the powers-that-be have prevented people from knowing what anarchism is really all about. Walford doesn’t think this is the case:

That argument does not stand up; those who have become anarchists provide a living refutation of it, showing that ownership of the media by the capitalists does not prevent people taking up anarchism. In Hyde Park at weekends you can see that numbers of people do get to hear anarchist ideas put forward by anarchists, and you can also see their response. Occasionally one will listen, accept it, and go on from there, but most laugh and tum away, satisfied that they know better.

I think that Walford is giving short shrift to the blackout which surrounds public recognition of anarchist thought. My own experience here in 20th century midwestern U$A went like this: in 12 years of public schooling and 4 years of state university, never once was I exposed to the theory of anarchism, nor did I meet up with any of the names of the great anarchists of the past. I never watched a movie or a television program or read a book which mentioned anarchy in any way except as a term which meant violent chaos. In fact, it was punk music that led me to the public library where I finally discovered books that dealt with this subject. Now books in a public library may indicate to some that anarchism is available for anyone who may be interested. But to gain an interest, one must have some knowledge that such a theory exists.

When I talk with non-anarchists, I find that they do not have any knowledge of anarchism. I find it easy to pique their interest and also to raise the usual objections. I do the best I can at opening their minds so that perhaps I may plant some tiny seed of doubt about the advisability of accepting the way things are as the way they must always be. But no, I have not achieved vast numbers of conversions and to be quite honest, my expectations don’t go that far. Achieving some kind of understanding is my main goal.

So why is anarchism so difficult to spread about? A friend of mine once suggested to me that practicing anarchy requires far too much mental effort and emotional control and that the vast majority of people are just too lazy to care much about libertarian principles. Walford would undoubtedly agree with my friend. He points out that ‘Expediency’ is the one ideology which all humans have in common:

A great many non-anarchists don’t set out either to support or to oppose the state. Focusing their attention upon personal and family affairs they take government as a fact of life like gravity and the weather, reaching the best compromise they can between its demands and their own preferences. Not committed to tradition, liberalisation, reform, revolution, or any other political principle, disinclined to look far ahead, persistently choosing what seems to be the least troublesome route, they do in effect support the state but less from deliberate choice than because compliance usually comes easier than resistance. They manage as best they can under they circumstances in which they find themselves, they act expediently.

Walford is quick to point out that in terms of sheer numbers, those who rule comprise a tiny minority, that when governments impose unpopular restrictions the majority will defy them. He puts power in the hands of ‘the people,’ as in: ‘The army, like the police, draws its strength from the people.’ It is interesting to note that Walford consistently points to all the ‘freedom’ we enjoy under governments, the freedom to disobey and get away with things.  But while Walford looks at those who succeed in thwarting the system, I find myself thinking about those who don’t and who end up incarcerated. In all fairness, I must point out that I happen to live in the country with the highest proportion of jailed persons to non-jailed. Here, although plenty of us manage to avoid the force of the Drug Warriors, we still cannot live and breathe freely or dare to relax while the purge of drug users continues.

Walford tends to bring up the positive aspects of living in a modern capitalistic democracy:

Under capitalism people die in wars they did not want and in accidents they did not cause; each year millions die from lack of nourishment. But if we control our emotional responses and think about what is happening, it draws us to the question: How many survive? Far more survive under capitalism than were able to do so without it. The profit system is a killer but also, and far more, it is a life-bringer… during this capitalist century the number of living people has grown, from under two thousand million to over five, an increase of human life never known before.

He goes on to make the point that the trouble with capitalism is its success. Technological achievements in public health and food production have encouraged over-population, and at the same time provided us with the continuing nightmare of global extinction from nuclear war and other environmental disasters. The education system prepares us for a life of fitting into a hierarchy, whether that of the government or the corporation. Yet Walford refuses to grant power to those who ride at the top of the hierarchies:

Anarchists who blame the rulers, the rich or the bosses for the persistence of the state, or for its actions, are misdirecting their attention; it survives, achieves what it achieves, and commits the horrors it does, because most of the ordinary people accept or support it.

Thinking about the ruler/subject relationship, I can’t help thinking of dear old England, home of my ancestors, and still crazy about its royalty after all these years… The only difference between Clinton and the Queen is that she got hers through circumstances of birth, and Clinton got his through a lot of pandering. And Walford is right in that both are where they are because the majority of their subjects either support the concept of being ruled or find it more convenient not to revolt.

… Television offers us endless portraits of rich and powerful people leading exciting lives full of material ease and sexual conquest. The ratings prove the adage, that the television industry is only providing what the people want to see… Are these fantasies inherently a part of human psychology, or have they been carefully planted and nourished by those who stand to profit by them?

Walford does not provide any answers here. However, he does encourage anarchist research, proposing that it would be most helpful to study the behavior of non-anarchists as it is this massive group of people who are preventing it from happening. He takes a look at some anthropological studies of early foraging communities, which are sometimes cited by a number of anarchists as examples of an inherent anarchistic tendency within the human species, which has subsequently been snuffed out by the advent of ‘civilization’ or capitalism and so on. He points out that these early communities may appear to have been egalitarian, operating as they did without formal governing apparatus, but that the force of custom and habit dictated outcome just as surely as would a present-day judge and jury. He quotes George Woodcock: ‘The anarchist historiographers fall into the error of assuming that the primitive or medieval folk community, based on mutual aid and roughly egalitarian by nature, is also individualistic; most frequently, of course, it is the reverse, inclined towards a traditional pattern in which conformity is expected and the exceptional resented.’ (Woodcock G. Anarchism, a History of Libertarian Ideas and Movements. Penguin 1963 p. 40)

It is somewhat the fashion these days to long for some forgotten garden of Eden-like existence, and then mutter darkly of how far we have fallen from our superior hominid gathering and hunting way of life. But as Walford points out, if our researches do ultimately reveal that anarchism is not an inherent inclination, then possible answer as to why it is still so unacceptable to most of species: ‘their political the human and social thinking has not developed to that point.’ From this perspective, we can free ourselves of the old biblical myth of having fallen from grace, and realize that anarchism is ‘a recent innovation with its life still before it.’ But Walford is quick to caution his readers: ‘… to jump to the conclusion that because some have turned towards anarchism therefore all or most will eventually do so would be to fall into the Mount Everest fallacy. We are not entitled to argue that because some have now climbed the mountain therefore all, or most, will eventually do so.’ A fair enough statement, I think, which may serve as a cautionary note. For there are dangers in thinking of ourselves as a new breed of superior beings, an accusation I have heard a number of times. For this particular anarchist, reading I don’t find myself reacting to him as I would to a typical authoritarian, so I guess I perceive him as hanging out somewhere on the sidelines, binoculars eagerly trained on this rare breed called anarchists.

Angles on Anarchism has had the peculiar effect of both casting doubt upon and confirming my deepest convictions. I have discovered some possible answers to a number of frustrating questions, while opening the door for many more questions to engage my mind. And I feel more like an anarchist than ever! So I’d like to thank George Walford for taking notice, and hope that he continues to concern himself with the problems and pitfalls of achieving anarchism. As I stated in the beginning, it is difficult to figure out where Walford stands – probably somewhere out there in a land where labels (ideologies) are examined and applied to other people’s theories. His own theory, Systematic Ideology, is appealing to look at with the nifty pyramid and the relentlessly-marching-onward chart of historical development. It makes a great deal of sense, and yet I am left wondering how he applies this ‘ideology of ideologies‘ to his own life. Does he fit himself in anywhere on the pyramid, or does he float, ‘god-like,’ over the rest of us, appraising and categorizing?

I don’t find myself reacting to him as I would to a typical authoritarian, so I guess I perceive him as hanging out somewhere on the sidelines, binoculars eagerly trained on this rare breed called anarchists. He’s not exactly cheering us on, but he is calling out a number of warnings which might be of use to us. George Walford deserves a listen.

1. Is anarchism a movement of the working class, of the poor and oppressed?
2. Do anarchists favour feeling, emotion and direct response, condemning logic as part of the power syndrome that supports the state?
3. Does anarchism try to win freedom by imposing limitations?
4. Did the behaviour of the Spanish anarchist movement stand closer to republicanism, anti-fascism or liberalism than to anarchism as the international movement calls itself?
5. Do passivity and absence of deep interest lead toward cooperation, and can cooperation be achieved by enthusiastically active individualists?
6. When it comes to material things, such as food, housing, clothing, transport and the means of production, does anarchism favour, not freedom of action, but rather rigorous control?
7. With the absence of government, would custom, conformity and tradition exert an oppressive form of control?
8. Is anarchism an inherent trait, which developed in the early foraging communities and has been consequently suppressed throughout the historical statist eras; or is it a recent development, indicating that the reason most people cannot support anarchism is that they have not yet reached that point of social and political development?

COMMENT
Any author would be pleased with such a review. May I make a few brief points to carry on the discussion:

In asserting her approval of a variety of ways of living Wendy speaks only for those who think like herself; s.i. recognises that the minority towards the upper levels think like this, but draws attention to the continuing presence of greater numbers tending towards conformity themselves and prepared to use authority, sometimes force, in imposing it upon the recalcitrant minority. If Clinton’s method of winning the presidency can be described as pandering, we do well to note that he pandered not only to his party bosses and major contributors but also to the many many millions of ordinary people who voted for him.

People who have not met a proper account of anarchism are most unlikely to become anarchists; this is agreed, but the real difficulty anarchism faces appears with the observation that of those who have encountered it only a tiny minority respond favourably. We have no good reason for expecting the others, if and when they do meet anarchism, to respond differently. Ideologies beyond expediency function mainly as social influences, having little effect on personal life; one would often have to observe a person or a small group for extended periods before being able to tell from anything they did (as distinct from the ideas they expressed) their ideological attachments. And libertarian principles are not the only thing worth caring about.

Having reached the top of the pyramid where does one go from there? Holding to the metaphor, the only place to go is down again, but this time knowing that one is on a pyramid and that success in reaching the topmost level brings only greater ineffectiveness. This can lead to a withdrawal from interest in public affairs, but it can also lead to a search for understanding of the pyramid and its consequences, of the limitations it imposes and the opportunities it offers.

from ldeological Commentary Number 61, August 1993

continue reading Angles on Anarchism by George Walford (1991):
Class Politics; an Exhausted Myth | Anarchy Renamed | Why So Few? | Gnostics as Anarchists of Old | The Two-Sided Anarchist | The Higher the Fewer | The Anarchist Police Force | Even Worse | In the Beginning | The Competitive Co-operators | I. Q. Against Anarchism | Anarchism in Series | Friendly Reason | Anarchist Research | Are They Not Anarchists? | The Trouble With Success | Of Governments and Gardens | The Poll Tax Lesson | Healthy Freedoms | The Conventional Artist | Underground Activity | The Cretan Egoist

Angles on Anarchism now available on the Kindle.