George Walford: The Competitive Co-Operators

Anarchists commonly claim that their movement relies upon co-operation, but a glance at a few issues of FREEDOM or BLACK FLAG will confirm that they spend much time and energy criticising and opposing each other. This tendency is strong enough to prevent them operating as a united movement and it sometimes provokes the assertion that there is no anarchist movement, only a number of individual people or groups.

At anarchist meetings any formal talk that may be given serves to spark off a knock-down, drag-out argument, in which the speaker receives no more consideration than anybody else. The audience are there not to support the speaker’s ideas but to do their best to demolish them, setting up their own instead. Anarchists approve of argument. They savage each other in their journals and seldom does any article or letter appear suggesting it might be better to seek agreement. Politically and intellectually, wherever ideas are at stake, anarchism is a boiling, bubbling, bounding ferment of disputation, conflict and competition.

But ideas make up only one part of life, and anarchists also behave in a distinctive way in the other part, when dealing with material goods and symbols for them, with money and profits and buying and selling, with economic affairs. Here they do favour co-operation. Most of them incline towards some version of common ownership for the means of production, and even those who support something like Proudhon’s independent workshops do not intend exploitation and a competitive pursuit of individual profit; they too see the common interest as primary.

In economic-material affairs anarchists believe in co-operation, but anybody who expects to find them eagerly working together, spending their spare time in a sustained effort to produce and distribute needed goods, will be disappointed; in this area of activity they tend to do as little as they can get away with, seldom pursuing wealth for themselves, let alone for others. Seeing poverty as the result of a social system they seek to end it by political means. Their ‘co-operation’ in economic-material matters finds expression mainly as passivity and lack of interest.

This pair of attitudes accounts for the low living and high thinking characteristic of anarchist communes. Where the inhabitants of monasteries renounce wealth as a form of self- flagellation, anarchist communes rather live without it because they prefer that to the effort of obtaining it.

Towards the other end of the political / ideological range conservatism presents something close to a mirror image of the anarchist pattern. Rather than disputing with each other on issues of political theory conservatives join in support of a leader, using phrases like ‘Don’t rock the boat.’ At conservative meetings the speaker enjoys respect and support; stand-up ovations are almost routine, and they are well able to function as a united party if not a completely monolithic one. when they find themselves in disagreement they tend to hasten back into conformity. Conservatives do compete, and with enthusiasm, but in commerce and industry, in the world of material goods rather than in that of ideas, in economic matters rather than political.

We can set up a formula. As between conservatism and anarchism, the strength of the commitment to individualism in either of these fields varies directly with that of the commitment to collectivism in the other. Strong economic individualism goes with strong political collectivism, strong political individualism with strong economic collectivism.

In each group, the two tendencies exhibited interact. Our formula leads us to expect strong economic collectivism among anarchists, and indeed we find it there. But in theory rather than practice.It would be going too far to say that anarchists never practice economic collectivism. Anarchist collectives can be found, and there may well be anarchist communes in which members pool all their goods, drawing what they need from a common pool. But anarchists, as a group, do not have their attention focused on these things. Their interest lies in the intellectual / political field, in argument.

Our formula also leads us to expect strong political collectivism among conservatives, and we find it there. But in practice, rather than theory. Conservatives tend to act, in political matters, as a united group, but if we seek the theoretical rationale for this behaviour the pickings are meagre. They have no more interest in theorising about their political collectivism than anarchists have in practising their economic collectivism.

In each case, interest and activity appear mainly in the field in which individualism is exhibited.

[See also: The Competitive Co-Operators from Angles on Anarchism.]

from Ideological Commentary 36, November 1988.