Anarchy is no longer fashionable

I did part of my Masters thesis on Anarchy and during this time I researched quite a bit on the history of this philosophy. Whether we should call it a social movement, an economic system or a view on the world, I am not quite sure. One thing is undeniable: in the 1800s it was still a genuine alternative that people spoke about. Today it isn’t making its way into any sort of serious conversation. At least not as such.

Perhaps the association with 1970s punks and the scribbled “circle A’s” on our city walls de-legitimized it in the minds of many people. The use of the word “anarchic” to describe any violent, anti-order, disorganized confusion had the same effect. Why indeed would anyone use the word “anarchy” in a serious discussion? The matter would already be shut down before it was considered.

“So what do you want? People breaking stuff and pillaging and shit? I can just take your stuff when I want?” The typical “on-the-spot” reaction to a misunderstood concept.

As I myself understand it, “real” anarchy has less to do with anti-politics than it has to do with an alternative way of viewing private property. The traditional leftists want a similar political structure as the one we have now, with a very strong interest given to the means of production or private property. Instead of individual owners of businesses, they would have the State own everything. Capitalists puts a strong emphasis on the privatization of businesses and rather sees the role of the State as a sort of banker.

Anarchists stem from a philosophy that asks the question who should own things and what are the consequences of owning objects. In simple terms, what should a person have the right to own? Whereas a capitalist would find natural to own 100 factories, an anarchist would question the legitimacy of such a situation. They would ask why “own” anything? Why not start an idea of a factory, associate with different workers and run a factory together as a cooperative?

It sounds idyllic and we are quick to throw in the reminder that “we can’t trust people” and that it would never work. And yet in the physical world we run many activities in the way of a traditional anarchist. Music bands are an example of such an organization. None of the members “own” the bands or its name, the songs are usually a co-ownership, and members freely participate in the project according to their abilities. The Beatles were an anarchy. To the anarchist, it would be just as absurd to own 100 factories as it would to own 100 bands.

Other examples would be the works of the Greek philosophers, religions, any sort of human gathering that aims to reach a purpose, shared vegetable allotments, local fruit & veg markets, amateur sports teams…and the countless inventions that were made my married couples or Sunday scientists.

Anarchists are not anti-property. Just as long as the owner actually uses the property themselves. If a farmer owns all the land in an area and rents it out to other farmers, there is a loss of freedom for the majority which benefits the one. The anarchist way is to use what you need and leave the rest for other people. It remains yours so long as you use it. This is the reasoning behind Proudhon’s “Property is theft”. While you have it, no one else can have it. And too bad if I was here first because now you can never have it. Following this logic, the “owner” is indeed stealing from what another person could also have. It’s already stolen before they could have a chance to have it.

Naturally, the capitalist might say that this is precisely the purpose of the game. To have as much as we can. They might say that the person who doesn’t yet have is at an equal chance of having as the person who already does. That is until we speak of the fact that wealth is known to compound like a snowball. Which means that if you have a lot, people will never be able to catch up. A farmer with 7 fields has much more chance of owning 10 than the person who starts at zero. By the time the second farmer buys a field, there might be no more fields to buy to get a second. And there’s only a limited number of fields anyway. Then of course, there’s the fact that if I own 10 fields I probably have social and political influence to maintain the status quo.

The capitalist will put forth some arguments following which this train of thought is not reasonable and for this precise reason, I used the word “idea” or “philosophy” when describing Anarchy. Many of the principles we follow during our time on this planet are ideas which we hold as true. They structure our mind and guide our decisions. There are inherited ideas which are shared by a culture, and individual ideas. They might be the fact that art galleries are “posh”, that eating as a family is important, that Autumn is romantic or that after we die we go to another world. And in this case they might be that everything has to be owned by someone.

Without taking sides for one or the other, I would say that group work as an anarchy somehow carries a natural appeal. Think for yourself at these two simple scenarios and decide which might be the most satisfactory. In scenario A, a group of volunteers are picking up the trash by the side of the road and all get their picture taken for the local paper. In scenario B, the same group picks up the trash but only the owner of the group gets his picture taken. (He says “he” picked up the trash because he owns the group)

If we followed a similar experiment of showing two pictures: one of a group of individuals happy loading hay onto a truck in the sunshine and one of office workers in their little cubicles, which is the most appealing? We could say that the nature of the work influences the experiment. So what of there were no cubicles and everyone was sharing the work and happily collaborating as a shared business? And what if there was an overseer in the field telling people to hurry up and load that hay?

I entitled this blog post “Anarchy is no longer fashionable” because it well and truly isn’t. Whether the word “anarchy” is dead, we can have little doubt. Whether the practice of anarchy is dead is another matter. We are seeing an internet-driven economy that makes it possible for the individual worker to set up shop in the virtual space and opt not to work for a minority-owned company. It is a form of cyber-anarchy that promises the full realization of the self as well as keeping all the profits of the business venture. This very website was built on the principle of the open-source program in which people contribute freely but no one owns it. Anarchy, in other words.

With the internet economy also comes a degree of self-reflection that was not possible in large work structures. (“What do I want from life” is not the first question we ask when applying to a job at IBM or General Motors.) However nowadays, each individual talent or interest may well turn into a business idea. The virtual farmers that we all are no longer have the same need to ask for work from the local land owner. We can ask ourselves “Which aspect of farming do I enjoy?” and proceed to sell that specialized service.

Whereas traditional Anarchy approached inequality with slogans, banners, speeches and black flags, I feel that the cyber-anarchy is leading to the same result minus two things: there isn’t the conflictual frame of mind (1), and it rather stems from a positive creative effort which innocently seeks to contribute to society (2). This new anarchy is unpolitical and carries no flags. It is born from the natural need to contribute, to explore, to enjoy a meaningful life. Instead of “let’s take this back and do things differently” it is more along the lines of “let’s just give”.

Only time will tell how many farmers are left standing alone in their empty fields while workers around them happily contribute to a prosperous economy. The virtual will have changed the physical. All done in good faith, and without the slightest desire to do harm. How exciting !

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