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Updated: September 18, 2012 02:36 IST

Another chance for anarchism

Arvind Sivaramakrishnan
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Book Review Column: Title: Anarchism. Author: Daniel guerin, introduction by Noam Chomsky.
Book Review Column: Title: Anarchism. Author: Daniel guerin, introduction by Noam Chomsky.

The world’s dominant political economy has crashed; neoliberalism — an ideological smokescreen for financialisation, cartelisation, and monopolisation — is so discredited that even its own advocates remain silent. Finance capital for its part is now concentrated in so few hands that over $21 trillion — more than the combined GDP of the United States and Japan — is held in secretive tax havens. Much of the money has come from drug-running, arms smuggling, tax evasion, and tax avoidance. It is used not for generating legitimate productive work but only for making paper money. Wealth does not trickle down; it floods upwards.

Meanwhile, particularly in the Anglophone world, more evidence emerges almost daily of rampant criminality in every area of high finance. Far from regulating finance, let alone using the feeble criminal law available, governments terrified of financiers and also of the public instead confine themselves to passing progressively more vicious public-order legislation on the assumption that all people are terrorists.

As yet, comparatively little mass resistance seems to have developed to the processes whereby globalisation has become globalised oppression, though since the Occupy movement emerged in the United States in 2011 ordinary people have moved $ 4 billion out of established banks and into bodies like mutual societies. In the U.K., the Co-op Bank reports unprecedented interest from people who have learnt to distrust the high-street banks.

Critiques of capital abound, most comprehensively in the works of Marx and Hilferding, whose opponents seem to have no response beyond citing the record of the Soviet Union. That response neglects the fact that the historical record cannot exhaust the possibilities in any set of ideas — but the incoherence of allegedly liberal democracy is also neglected. It follows that the Bolsheviks’ brutal elimination of a strong left-anarchist movement before and after the Russian revolution has all but disappeared from history, as has the destruction of anarchist groups even by Spanish Republicans.

The anarchists, inspired by the Popular Front’s election win in February 1936, achieved huge successes in, for example, Catalonia, but the surge of self-management by peasants and industrial workers was too much for Franco — and for the United States, Britain, and the Soviet Union. Those who hold established power seem unable to accept the anarchist principle that such power needs to be justified, especially in view of the horrors that it, whether public or private, has inflicted on us. Anarchism, therefore, combines its searching critique of capital with a deep suspicion of the evils of power misused, and Daniel Guérin’s commanding overview of the major themes in anarchism sets them in historical and political context.

Revolution from below

For anarchists, power must be publicly constituted, legitimated, and accounted for. Above all, it needs to be limited by public process and public consent. It follows that anarchists are socialists who see revolutions as coming from below after a long time in preparation, in what Bakunin calls the ‘instinctive consciousness of the masses’; then what might seem a trivial matter causes the explosion. This makes the role of the intellectual or a vanguard party highly problematic, and in general anarchists see revolutionary parties as midwives to revolutions, not leaders thereof. For Bakunin, this is part of individual freedom, which he nevertheless considers attainable only in the context of human interdependence and a society structured to nurture human capacities.

That in turn means the economic or productive system must be left neither to the market nor to the state, even though Proudhon, for example, is clear that there is no going back to small-scale production. Instead, production would be self-managed by workers; trade unions, as an integral part of the system, would have the crucial task of sharing knowledge and resources as well as coordinating the work of productive bodies or units. It is not clear if these latter were intended to compete with private enterprises or even with one another, and in practice even the largest attempt to introduce anarchist economic organisation had to be limited by its political context, namely the period preceding the Spanish civil war. The strongest anarchist trade union federation was indeed the Spanish Confederación Nacional del Trabajo, founded in 1910 and still committed to its original principles. It is also worth noting that few anarchists oppose markets; most, however, are clear that markets can only work in respect of certain consumer goods, and only when tightly regulated and controlled.

Politically, a federalist state is the only one compatible with anarchist thought, though here anarchists have faced another enemy, namely statist social democrats — who are themselves now demoralised by their own capitulation to neoliberalism. So the current prospect of global economic and environmental catastrophe, together with increasingly obvious evidence that ordinary people have seen through the current orthodoxies, may well mean that anarchism now has perhaps its best opportunity ever. So timely is this book that few would guess its first edition was in 1970.

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