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The Case for Anarchy

It's time to (sort of) smash the state, says Bakunin biographer Mark Leier.

By Charles Demers 26 Jan 2007 |

Charles Demers last wrote for The Tyee about Tim Hortons and Chapters's Book Slaves.

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SFU prof Mark Leier

Obviously, the writers of political biographies needn't share the politics of their subject -- in fact, if they did have to, then the cottage industry of books about Hitler would be even more disturbing than it already is. Nevertheless, when the biographer's politics do complement those of the life being described, the result can be a particularly passionate and engaging piece of writing. That's certainly the case with anarchist historian and SFU Centre for Labour Studies director Mark Leier's new book about the life of Michael (or Mikhail) Bakunin, Bakunin: The Creative Passion (St. Martin's Press).

Leier, whose previous books have explored either the history of B.C. anarchism (Where the Fraser River Flows, Rebel Life), or else offered an anarchist critique of B.C. history (Red Flags and Red Tape), has here turned his attention to the tale of one of anarchism's philosophical founders and its theoretical roots, and has used that story to launch a compelling case for "rule by no one."

Charles Demers: The other day, I caught an Entertainment Tonight-like segment about the new film, Children of Men, which depicts a fascist near-future in Britain, replete with ubiquitous cops and army, refugee camps and mass deportations. The announcer -- who pronounced tyranny as 'tie-ranny' -- called it 'anarchy.' To what extent are you starting at less than zero in terms of public awareness of your subject matter?

Mark Leier: No question, the word anarchy freaks people. Yet anarchy -- rule by no one -- has always struck me as the same as democracy carried to its logical and reasonable conclusions. Of course those who rule -- bosses and politicians, capital and the state -- cannot imagine that people could rule themselves, for to admit that people can live without authority and rulers pulls out the whole underpinnings of their ideology. Once you admit that people can -- and do, today, in many spheres of their lives -- run things easier, better and more fairly than the corporation and the government can, there's no justification for the boss and the premier. I think most of us realize and understand that, in our guts, but schools, culture, the police, all the authoritarian apparatuses, tell us we need bosses, we need to be controlled "for our own good." It's not for our own good -- it's for the good of the boss, plain and simple.

During the Clinton/Chrétien years, there was a sense that the left wanted a robust state, and the right wanted a bare-bones government. In the post 9-11 era, though, the dynamic has shifted, and the right has embraced an exponential increase in so-called security measures and the strengthening of the state in terms of policing and military capability, and keeps pushing with what Chalmers Johnson has called a program of "military Keynesianism." Does this make the anarchist critique more viable, more relevant today?

First, I think it's misleading to say the left has usually been in favour of a strong state and the right a weak state. The question is, really, what did they want the state to do? To smash poverty, or smash heads? To break up monopolies or break unions? To end poverty or exterminate native people? Much of the left and the right have called for state intervention; the real question is, for what purposes?

The renewed interest in anarchism is directly related to the curtailing of liberty in our day and age. It's also connected to the opportunism of traditional politics, where no one dares talk about real issues and propose real solutions and take real stands. Anarchism is a demand for real freedom and real autonomy, and it's not surprising that when our choices within the system are shrinking, people start questioning the system itself. The evils of the state are being brought home to us every day, sometimes in body bags.

Still, so many of the victories of the left and of working class movements have been measured in terms of legislation and regulations: for instance, the spate of new regulations in the meat-packing industry that followed Upton Sinclair's The Jungle is generally seen as a step forward. But doesn't this mark the tightening of the grip of the state, and its regulatory arms? How does this mesh with an anarchist analysis?

That's an excellent question, and one that has often plagued anarchists. In the 1890s, the anarchist Emma Goldman campaigned against the eight-hour workday, not because she thought people should work longer hours but because she thought that workers should not depend on the state to improve their condition. But at one of her speeches, an old worker came up to her and told her that he agreed with her argument, agreed that workers should reject palliatives and should not have the state act for them. But, he added, he was old -- he wasn't going to see the revolution, and a legislated shorter workday would give him some real liberty right now. Goldman changed her mind about the need for reforms, and concluded that seeking reforms in the here and now was important. So while some anarchists prefer to remain purists and reject any state intervention, many historically have not.

I don't know if it's more naive to think we can use the state to do some good or to insist that nothing good can come from the political process. My instinct is to say, let's do both, in the spirit of the Wobblies and Emma Goldman: take what we can get but never think that it is enough. I don't think this is a very satisfactory answer, by the way, but those kinds of questions perhaps need to be worked out in regard to specific issues and circumstances rather than in theory.

Similarly to the last question, the environmental crisis that we face today seems -- from the writing of folks like George Monbiot -- to be an issue of too much freedom, and the need for strong regulation against polluters, which would seem to me to indicate the need for coercive government powers.

Well, it's a question of whose freedom, and in this case, of course, it's the freedom of capital that is too much. For the rest of us, strong measures against polluters would actually increase our ability to control our lives. And of course the state is among the worst polluters, with its hydroelectric projects and the like. The conundrum is this: can the important environmental measures we need take place within a capitalist economy that is based on constant growth? If not, then shouldn't we be organizing for radical social change -- anarchism -- not just new regulations? Having said that, of course we need to mobilize and organize to force governments to do as much as possible as soon as possible.

But as Edward Abbey put it, the ideology of growth for growth's sake is the ideology of the cancer cell; as long as we have an economy based on growth, whether this is population, GDP, kilowatts, or whatever, we are unlikely to be able to take the actions we need to take to save ourselves. The anarchist alternative of small-scale communities -- sketched by people such as Bakunin, Peter Kropotkin, Murray Bookchin, and many others -- that are as self-sufficient and sustaining as possible, then seems eminently practical, while the "sustainable development" notion seems utopian.

Unlike most utopian theories, anarchism seems not to contain the potential for totalitarianism, and I wonder if this has something to do with the implied assumption that its core demand of rule by no one is essentially unrealizable, but should always be striven for nonetheless, to save politics from atrophy. The best example of this would probably be Noam Chomsky's support of Svend Robinson, a tacit admission of a maximum program (anarchism) and a minimum program (support for real-world, achievable reforms). The philosophy seems to offer a perpetual-motion version of political critique, one that could never be satisfied and essentially shouldn't be.

I think Chomsky's example is rather like that of Emma and the Wobblies: push for what you can, but don't lose sight of the larger goal. Without that larger goal, it is impossible to determine if the reforms are the right ones; abandoning reforms means making life worse for a lot of people in the here and now. So I would agree that one function of anarchism is critique.

But I also remain convinced that something like an anarchist future, a world of no bosses or politicians, one in which people, all people, can live full and meaningful lives, is possible and desirable. We see glimpses of it all around us in our day-to-day lives, as people organize much of their lives without depending on someone to tell them what to do. We see it in that spirit of revolt -- a spirit that is often twisted by anger and despair, but nonetheless shows us that people have not given up. We see it in the political activism, the social lives, the demands for decency and respect and autonomy people put forward, the desire to be individuals while still being part of a community.

No, I don't think bowling leagues are the anarchist utopia, but they, like much of our lives outside of the workplace, are organized without hierarchy and oppression; the most meaningful, truly human parts of our lives already work best when organized on anarchist principles. Yet I also believe that in its function as critique and as a vision of the future -- perhaps the only one that doesn't end in our extinction as a species, or, as Orwell put it, as a jackboot smashing a human face, forever -- anarchism is not only desirable but possible and necessary.