George Walford: The Competitive Co-operators

A glance at Freedom, Black Flag, Our Generation, the Bulletin of Anarchist Research, or almost any other anarchist journal, will confirm that the groups and people who make up this movement spend much energy on criticising and opposing each other. This tendency, strong enough to prevent them consistently working together, sometimes provokes the assertion that there is no anarchist movement, only a number of independent people or groups.

Anarchists approve of argument. Any formal talk delivered at their meetings commonly serves to spark off a knock-down, drag-out disputation in which the speaker of the evening receives no more consideration than anybody else. The audience do their best to demolish the ideas put forward, setting up their own instead. Anarchists savage each other in their journals, and the rare letter or article recommending compromise for the sake of joint action brings little response. Politically and intellectually anarchism presents a boiling ferment of disputation, conflict and competition.

A writer in an anarchist journal reports on the Anarchist Book Fair of 1989: “The notorious sectarianism of the anarchist movement did not appear to be transcended… by any obvious sense of bonhomie, mutual interest or collaboration.” [1] George Woodcock speaks of William Morris “holding the anarchist dreams of building harmony on the ruins of authority,” but he describes the actuality of Morris’s anarchism as “the acrimonious debates that were wrecking the Socialist League.” [2] Another anarchist writer goes for the superlative: “The worst enemies of anarchists have been other anarchists and libertarians. Divided we fell.” [3]

Politics, ideas and arguments make up only one part of social life. Anarchists also behave in a distinctive way when dealing with material goods, but here they go in the opposite direction, favouring co-operation. Most of them incline towards free access and some form of common control for the means of production, and even those who advocate the retention of money and a market system, or something like Proudhon’s independent workshops, seldom intend exploitation or a competitive pursuit of individual profit; they too see the common interest as primary.

In economic-material affairs anarchists refrain from asserting their individual interests, favouring collectivism. They stress the common interest, proclaiming that nobody need go short any longer, but any who expect to find them devoting their spare time to production of needed goods will be disappointed; seeing poverty as the result of a social system, they seek to end it by political rather than economic means. For themselves and for others they aim at a sufficiency that will permit intellectual, personal, moral and political development, rather than a high standard of living. They have little to say about any wealth the anarchist society may offer but look forward eagerly to shorter working hours. They support cooperation in economic-material affairs largely because they have only limited interest in this side of life and this method seems likely to make smaller demands on them.

Individualistic activity in political and intellectual affairs on the one hand, with restraint and collectivism in economic matters on the other; this pair of attitudes accounts for the high thinking and low living predicted of the anarchist society and characteristic now of anarchist communes. Where the inhabitants of monasteries commit themselves to material poverty almost as a form of sacrifice, anarchist communes choose to live without wealth rather than divert energy to the effort of obtaining it.

Towards the other end of the political / ideological range conservatism offers a mirror-image of the anarchist pattern. Rather than disputing with each other on political issues conservatives join in support of a leader, stressing the value of loyalty and using phrases like “Don’t rock the boat.” (Any boat launched by one anarchist group is pretty sure to be sunk by another). At conservative meetings the speaker can expect respectful support and has a good chance of a stand-up ovation, something unknown among anarchists. Conservatives finding themselves in disagreement tend to hasten back into conformity, functioning as a united if not completely monolithic party. In 1990 two Tory ministers were reported in dispute, but they disagreed only over tactics and a senior commented: “It’s time Maggie knocked their heads together to make them see sense.” [4] A Tory whip says his own party is run like the Praetorian Guard: “If the chief whip says ‘jump out of the window’ we form an orderly line and out we go.” [5]

Conservatism prides itself on holding firmly to old traditions, it values character above intelligence, and does not protest with any great vigour when opponents entitle it the stupid party; although some of the most respected conservatives undertake intellectual work they do this, almost invariably, in fields such as law and narrative history, where independent critical thinking plays a minor part. Conservatism seeks less to assert itself as a distinct movement than to merge with the collectivity; it claims not to represent this or that group or interest but to speak for the nation. As far as I know the Conservative Party has never used the slogan Don’t be political, vote Conservative, but it often seems not far away.

This account of conservative behaviour applies only in the sphere of politics and ideas. In the world of money and material goods willing co-operation disappears and independent individualism governs their activities. This does not mean that all conservatives engage in a rapacious struggle for riches. The people who do act in this way tend to be closer politically to conservatism than to anarchism, but they provide only a small part of the numerical support that enables conservative principles to dominate social and political life even when the party is not in power. Most conservatives do not try very hard to raise their income much above its customary level, accepting their place in the established hierarchy and worrying less about the extent of their ownership than about the risk of its ceasing to be private. The economic individualism distinguishing them from anarchists (and, less sharply, also from communists and socialists) they display not merely by living in this way (few of us have any choice about that) but also by maintaining, when the question arises, that people ought to place high value upon the principle of individual possession. The prospect of free access, even to the overflowing wealth that a hi-tech society can produce, ranks low beside the private ownership, limited though it be, that they now enjoy.

Anarchists, urging the value of autonomy in spiritual, moral and intellectual life, asserting themselves both individually and as a movement against the oppressive mass of existing society, take little interest in material wealth or even in the production of necessities. As they see it, the problem of production has been solved and it’s time to move on to more important things.

Conservatives, feeling themselves both as individuals and as a movement (they would say, as a nation) surrounded by a hostile environment both natural and social, continue preoccupied with maintaining the degree of material security so far attained. Our traditional way of life has provided all that we have, let us not risk it by chasing after the perfectionist fantasies of the intellectuals.

Both in intellectual-political matters and in the field of material goods, enthusiasm and activity go with individualism, becoming competitive upon encountering other individuals acting in the same way. Passivity and absence of keen interest, on the other hand, lead towards co-operation.

If this analysis does nothing more, it at least helps to account for the difficulty the anarchist and conservative movements have in communicating with each other. In two of the main fields of social activity they hold contrasting values. What one prizes the other condemns, words reverse their emotional tone in going from one to the other, and they recognize no common ground.

[1] Karen Goaman in Bulletin of Anarchist Research No.19.
[2] Woodcock G., 1962 Anarchism; a history of libertarian ideas and movements. Harmondsworth: Penguin Books.
[3] Peter Cadogan in Bulletin of Anarchist Research July 1990.
[4] Sunday Times 12 August 1990.
[5] Sunday Times 8 July 1990.

Continue reading Angles on Anarchism by George Walford (1991):
Class Politics; an Exhausted Myth | Anarchy Renamed | Why So Few? | Gnostics as Anarchists of Old | The Two-Sided Anarchist | The Higher the Fewer | The Anarchist Police Force | Even Worse | In the Beginning | The Competitive Co-operators | I. Q. Against Anarchism | Anarchism in Series | Friendly Reason | Anarchist Research | Are They Not Anarchists? | The Trouble With Success | Of Governments and Gardens | The Poll Tax Lesson | Healthy Freedoms | The Conventional Artist | Underground Activity | The Cretan Egoist.