What Could the Social Structure of Anarchy Look Like?

I.5 What could the social structure of anarchy look like?

The social and political structure of anarchy is similar to that of the economic structure, i.e., it is based on a voluntary federation of decentralised, directly democratic policy-making bodies. These are the neighbourhood and community assemblies and their confederations. In these grassroots political units, the concept of “self-management” becomes that of “self-government”, a form of municipal organisation in which people take back control of their living places from the bureaucratic state and the capitalist class whose interests it serves. Bakunin’s comments are very applicable here:

“[A] truly popular organisation begins from below, from the association, from the commune. Thus starting out with the organisation of the lowest nucleus and proceeding upward, federalism becomes a political institution of socialism, the free and spontaneous organisation of popular life.” [The Political Philosophy of Bakunin, pp. 273-4]

“A new economic phase demands a new political phase,” argued Kropotkin, “A revolution as profound as that dreamed of by the socialists cannot accept the mould of an out-dated political life. A new society based on equality of condition, on the collective possession of the instruments of work, cannot tolerate for a week . . . the representative system . . . if we want the social revolution, we must seek a form of political organisation that will correspond to the new method of economic organisation . . . The future belongs to the free groupings of interests and not to governmental centralisation; it belongs to freedom and not to authority.” [Words of a Rebel, pp. 143-4]

Thus the social structure of an anarchist society will be the opposite of the current system. Instead of being centralised and top-down as in the state, it will be decentralised and organised from the bottom up. As Kropotkin argued, “socialism must become more popular, more communalistic, and less dependent upon indirect government through elected representatives. It must become more self-governing. [Anarchism, p. 185] In this, Kropotkin (like Bakunin) followed Proudhon who argued that “[u]nless democracy is a fraud, and the sovereignty of the People a joke, it must be admitted that each citizen in the sphere of his [or her] industry, each municipal, district or provincial council within its own territory, is the only natural and legitimate representative of the Sovereign, and that therefore each locality should act direct and by itself in administering the interests which it includes, and should exercise full sovereignty in relation to them.” [Propert is Theft!, p. 595] While anarchists have various different conceptions of how this communal system would be constituted (as we will see), there is total agreement on these basic visions and principles.

The aim is “to found an order of things wherein the principle of the sovereignty of the people, of man and of the citizen, would be implemented to the letter” and “where every member” of a society “retaining his independence and continuing to act as sovereign, would be self-governing” and any social organisation “would concern itself solely with collective matters; where as a consequence, there would be certain common matters but no centralisation.” This means that the “federative, mutualist republican sentiment” (as summarised these days by the expression self-management) will “bring about the victory of Labour Democracy right around the world.” [Proudhon, Op. Cit., p. 574 and p. 763]

This empowerment of ordinary citizens through decentralisation and direct democracy will eliminate the alienation and apathy that are now rampant in the modern city and town, and (as always happens when people are free) unleash a flood of innovation in dealing with the social breakdown now afflicting our urban wastelands. The gigantic metropolis with its hierarchical and impersonal administration, its atomised and isolated “residents,” will be transformed into a network of humanly scaled participatory communities (usually called “communes”), each with its own unique character and forms of self-government, which will be co-operatively linked through federation with other communities at several levels, from the municipal through the bioregional to the global.

This means that the social perspective of libertarian socialism is as distinctive as its economic vision. While mainstream socialism is marked by support for centralised states, anarchists stay true to socialism as equality and argue that means decentralisation. Thus socialism “wears two distinct faces. When it is said that a man is a Socialist, it is implied that he regards the monopoly of private property in the means of production as the cause of the existing unequal distribution of wealth and its attendant ills . . . Socialists are divided into the centralising and decentralising parties, the party of the State and the party of the federatic commune.” [Charlotte M. Wilson, Anarchist Essays, p. 37] Only such a federal, bottom-up, system can ensure people can manage their own fates and ensure genuine freedom and equality through mass participation and self-management.

Of course, it can (and has) been argued that people are just not interested in “politics.” Further, some claim that this disinterest is why governments exist — people delegate their responsibilities and power to others because they have better things to do. Such an argument, however, is flawed on empirical grounds. As we indicated in section B.2.6, centralisation of power in both the French and American revolutions occurred because working people were taking too much interest in politics and social issues, not the reverse (“To attack the central power, to strip it of its prerogatives, to decentralise, to dissolve authority, would have been to abandon to the people the control of its affairs, to run the risk of a truly popular revolution. That is why the bourgeoisie sought to reinforce the central government even more. . .” [Kropotkin, Words of a Rebel, p. 143]).

Simply put, the state is centralised to facilitate minority rule by excluding the mass of people from taking part in the decision making processes within society. This is to be expected as social structures do not evolve by chance — rather they develop to meet specific needs and requirements. The specific need of the ruling class is to rule and that means marginalising the bulk of the population. Its requirement is for minority power and this is transformed into the structure of the state.

Even if we ignore the historical evidence on this issue, anarchists do not draw this conclusion from the current apathy that surrounds us. In fact, we argue that this apathy is not the cause of government but its result. Government is an inherently hierarchical system in which ordinary people are deliberately marginalised. The powerlessness people feel due to the workings of the system ensure that they are apathetic about it, thus guaranteeing that wealthy and powerful elites govern society without hindrance from the oppressed and exploited majority.

Moreover, government usually sticks its nose into areas that most people have no real interest in. Some things, as in the regulation of industry or workers’ safety and rights, a free society could leave to those affected to make their own decisions (we doubt that workers would subject themselves to unsafe working conditions, for example). In others, such as the question of personal morality and acts, a free people would have no interest in (unless it harmed others, of course). This, again, would reduce the number of issues that would be discussed in a free commune.

Also, via decentralisation, a free people would be mainly discussing local issues, so reducing the complexity of many questions and solutions. Wider issues would, of course, be discussed but these would be on specific issues and so more focused in their nature than those raised in the legislative bodies of the state. So, a combination of centralisation and an irrational desire to discuss every and all questions also helps make “politics” seem boring and irrelevant.

As noted above, this result is not an accident and the marginalisation of “ordinary” people is actually celebrated in bourgeois “democratic” theory. As Noam Chomsky notes:

“Twentieth century democratic theorists advise that ‘The public must be put in its place,’ so that the ‘responsible men’ may ‘live free of the trampling and roar of a bewildered herd,’ ‘ignorant and meddlesome outsiders’ whose ‘function’ is to be ‘interested spectators of action,’ not participants, lending their weight periodically to one or another of the leadership class (elections), then returning to their private concerns. (Walter Lippman). The great mass of the population, ‘ignorant and mentally deficient,’ must be kept in their place for the common good, fed with ‘necessary illusion’ and ’emotionally potent oversimplifications’ (Wilson’s Secretary of State Robert Lansing, Reinhold Niebuhr). Their ‘conservative’ counterparts are only more extreme in their adulation of the Wise Men who are the rightful rulers — in the service of the rich and powerful, a minor footnote regularly forgotten.” [Year 501, p. 18]

This marginalisation of the public from political life ensures that the wealthy can be “left alone” to use their power as they see fit. In other words, such marginalisation is a necessary part of a fully functioning capitalist society. Hence, under capitalism, libertarian social structures have to be discouraged. Or as Chomsky puts it, the “rabble must be instructed in the values of subordination and a narrow quest for personal gain within the parameters set by the institutions of the masters; meaningful democracy, with popular association and action, is a threat to be overcome.” [Op. Cit., p. 18] This philosophy can be seen in the statement of a US Banker in Venezuela under the murderous Jimenez dictatorship:

“You have the freedom here to do whatever you want to do with your money, and to me, that is worth all the political freedom in the world.” [quoted by Chomsky, Op. Cit., p. 99]

Deterring libertarian alternatives to statism is a common feature of our current system. By marginalising and disempowering people, the ability of individuals to manage their own social activities is undermined and weakened. They develop a “fear of freedom” and embrace authoritarian institutions and “strong leaders”, which in turn reinforces their marginalisation.

This consequence is hardly surprising. Anarchists maintain that the desire to participate and the ability to participate are in a symbiotic relationship: participation builds on itself. By creating the social structures that allow participation, participation will increase. As people increasingly take control of their lives, so their ability to do so also increases. The challenge of having to take responsibility for decisions that make a difference is at the same time an opportunity for personal development. To begin to feel power, having previously felt powerless, to win access to the resources required for effective participation and learn how to use them, is a liberating experience. Once people become active subjects, making things happen in one aspect of their lives, they are less likely to remain passive objects, allowing things to happen to them, in other aspects.

All in all, “politics” is far too important a subject to leave to politicians, the wealthy and bureaucrats. After all, it is (or, at least, it should be) what affects, your friends, community, and, ultimately, the planet you live on. Such issues cannot be left to anyone but you.

Hence a meaningful communal life based on self-empowered individuals is a distinct possibility (indeed, it has repeatedly appeared throughout history). It is the hierarchical structures in statism and capitalism, marginalising and disempowering the majority, which are at the root of the current wide scale apathy in the face of increasing social and ecological disruption. Libertarian socialists therefore call for a radically new form of political system to replace the centralised nation-state, a form that would be based around confederations of self-governing communities. In other words, in anarchism [s]ociety is a society of societies; a league of leagues of leagues; a commonwealth of commonwealths of commonwealths; a republic of republics of republics. Only there is freedom and order, only there is spirit, a spirit which is self-sufficiency and community, unity and independence.” [Gustav Landauer, For Socialism, pp. 125-126]

To create such a system would require dismantling the nation-state and reconstituting relations between communities on the basis of self-determination and free and equal confederation from below. In the following subsections we will examine in more detail why this new system is needed and what it might look like. As we have stressed repeatedly, these are just suggestions of possible anarchist solutions to social organisation. Most anarchists recognise that anarchist communities will co-exist with non-anarchist ones after the destruction of the existing state. As we are anarchists we are discussing anarchist visions. We will leave it up to non-anarchists to paint their own pictures of a possible future.


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