George Walford: The Market in Ideology

A talk delivered to a meeting organised by the Libertarian Alliance, on 25th June. By George Walford. (The version given here has been lightly edited in the transition from speech to writing).

People who write books about doing talks offer several approved ways of beginning. You can start off with a BANG! to grip your audience right from the start. Or you can ease into it gently, get everybody nicely relaxed and gradually work them up. Or you can start off with some jokes. The one thing you must not do is to start off with some clapped-out old banger of an opening that everybody’s heard a thousand times before. Yet that’s just what I find myself obliged to do this evening: A funny thing happened to me on the way to the meeting.

I’m sorry about that, but it really did. I found myself wondering what was going on here tonight. This meeting has been organised by the Libertarian Alliance. They believe in the value of the market – as I do myself – but they’re not behaving at all in a market sort of way. They are giving me an opportunity to put some ideas before you and not charging anything for the privilege. This is a funny way for supporters of the market to behave. Funny, but also significant. It illustrates one of the main points I shall be making this evening: that the market is only one part of life. We don’t live entirely by market principles, and there’s no good reason for thinking we ever will do so.

Most of us here this evening believe in the market; we believe it to be the most effective method yet invented for finding out what is needed and distributing what is produced. But some people have other ideas. They want to set up a society without the market. For a century and more they’ve been trying to do away with it, but without much success. Recently it has been spreading more widely and growing stronger. It doesn’t look as if the market will disappear.

But it doesn’t look as if the movement against; the market is going to disappear, either. It has just had another defeat in Britain, its apparent victory in Russia turns out to have been hollow, and it seems to be weakening in China. Some of the communist parties have disbanded, journalists write about the end of socialism, the end of communism, but the socialist and communist movements are still very much with us.

And there’s a third group, too: the people who don’t think about markets, or the state, or socialism, or the way a society ought to operate; the ones who just get on with their personal lives. We have three large groups, each with a distinct attitude towards the market.

This is so familiar that we usually just accept it, but it really presents quite a problem. Why should there be these different groups? This is what I’d like to discuss this evening. How it comes about that we have a number of different political movements, attitudes and theories, and what this has to do with the Libertarian Alliance and the market. I shall be explaining these differences as ideological features. People favour the market, or oppose it, or take it for granted, or take some other position, according to their ideology.

This word often gets used in a limited sense. Marx and Engels were among the first to use it in anything like its modern meaning, and many people still use it in much the same way as they did. They think of an ideology as something harmful that their opponents suffer from, a perversion of the intellect. They use the concept of ideology as a weapon, and that means they don’t get full value out of it. It’s like hitting somebody with a computer. You can do it, but it’s not the best way of using the thing.

I shall be giving the word a more extended meaning. What I have to say tonight comes from a theory known as systematic ideology, and in this theory an ideology is not the result of class position, or personality type either. It isn’t something people develop in order to support their ideas or help them get what they want. It’s rather the reason why they have those ideas, why they want those things and not others. It arises from the interaction between a human being and his or her total environment. An ideology is not a feature that some people develop and others don’t, it is universal, a normal part of life. I don’t claim that this way of using the word is correct and all others wrong, just that this is the most productive meaning. By using it in this way we are able to explain things about social behaviour that can’t be equally well explained otherwise.

Our ideology affects the things we do when acting with purpose. It is often described as a set of ideas, and it is partly that. But it also comprises something else, and this makes the difference between an ideology on the one hand and a philosophy, or a science, or a theory on the other. These are all sets of ideas, but they are not the same as an ideology. An ideology has the peculiar feature that it can affect what we do without us realising what is happening, and this comes about because an important part of it usually remains unrecognised by the person holding it. Here we are in an upstairs room, comfortable and relaxed, thinking about ideology and the market. By staying here we imply that the floor is strong enough to support our combined weight, but this hardly ranks as an idea. We haven’t been aware of it, and it doesn’t make good sense to speak of having an idea that you’re not aware of. Neither can it very well be called knowledge, because we haven’t tested the floor. At least, I haven’t, and I’ll be surprised if anybody else has.

But we do, somehow, have it in our minds that the floor is strong enough to support us. Otherwise we wouldn’t stay up here. The best way of expressing this is to say we assume the floor to be strong enough. We make this assumption without thinking about it, without even knowing that we are doing so, but it none the less affects what we do. A great part of every ideology is made up of assumptions. We usually make these without knowing that we are doing so, they often affect our actions, and they commonly do this without our knowing it. Each one of us has ideas, up on top where we know about them, and assumptions down below. An ideology is like an iceberg; much of it remains below the surface, down out of sight.

Each of us has ideas about the world outside us. These are what we mostly think about, and these ideas are different from everybody else’s. They have to be, if only because no two of us occupy the same space at the same time. We all see the material world from different angles so we inevitably have different ideas about it. But there is at least one assumption on which we don’t differ, one assumption that we all make. We all assume that there is a real world of some sort out there. Even the philosopher does this, the one who spends his life proving that matter is not real. Even he assumes that the illusion resembling a chair is real enough to support his weight; you can see him doing this every time he sits down. He has no choice about it, and neither do we. We have to assume the presence of a real world; we can’t live otherwise.
This is a universal assumption. There are others held by a number of people but not by everybody, and when a number of people making the same assumption come together on that basis, they form an ideological group. People who assume the market to be on the whole a good thing form one group, people who assume it to be on the whole a bad thing form another group. The presence of one or the other assumption is often indicated by actions, without formulation of any idea on the subject.

There is an indefinite number of ideological groups, and which ones are important depends on what you’re trying to do. Tonight I am using ideology to account for different attitudes towards the market, and for that purpose there are six groups we specially need to pay attention to. Some of these are bigger than others, and when you arrange them in order of size, the bigger ones below and the smaller ones above, you get this diagram.


This is not to scale. The lower groups are really bigger, and the upper ones smaller, than this suggests. But if it were drawn to scale, on paper this size, the top groups would be too small to see.

Set out like this it all looks very neat and tidy, very settled and fixed, while in fact these groups are constantly interacting, sometimes working together, sometimes opposing each other, and people are constantly moving from one to another. When you get down to details there aren’t really any sharp lines between the levels.

Each of these groups appears in politics as a body of opinion, with the more active part of it forming a movement, and usually also a party. Give each of them its familiar party colour and we get this:


This pyramid is a different shape from the previous one, and there will be yet another shape coming up in a minute. If you feel it would have been simpler to have just one diagram, I fully agree. But we are dealing with something more subtle and complex than any diagram can properly show, and using different ones helps to indicate this.

This big patch at the bottom, the grey one, represents the non-political people. That name doesn’t mean they never take any part in politics, only that they are not committed to any set of political principles. Many of them don’t vote, and those that do tend to vote one way this time and another way next time. The way this group behaves does a lot to account for the swings and landslides that sometimes decide elections.

Next comes conservatism, then liberalism (including the social democrats). Then socialism or labour-socialism, the socialists in the Labour Party. We can’t simply identify socialism with this party because most Labour people, most trade unionists for example, are very much not socialists. Next comes communism, or revolutionary socialism; that includes Militant and the Trotskyists. And up here, this little black group at the top, the anarchists. That group, by the way, includes our old friends in the (A)SPGB. What about the market, and the Libertarian Alliance? Not just yet. That’s what all this is leading up to, but we haven’t quite got there.

This pyramid is what you get when you arrange these groups in order of size, but size is not the only reason for arranging them in this way. Starting at the bottom, this is also the historical order in which these ideologies appeared. In the first human communities, among the foragers, the only one to appear was the grey. People lived in little groups, seldom of more than 50 members, and these had no political divisions, no movements, no parties. Everybody lived in this way for at least forty thousand years, perhaps a lot longer. Then, somewhere roughly around 8,000 BC, there came what Gordon Childe called the Neolithic Revolution. This brought the beginnings of agriculture, the beginnings of social economic activity, and also the beginnings of government. At first only personal leaders appeared, the ones anthropologists call big-men or headmen. Later came the chiefs; later still, the kings and emperors. Agriculture also developed, coming to support a far greater population. The blue ideology, the one now expressed in British politics mainly by the conservative party, provided the general assumptions underlying social activity during the period from the beginnings of government up to the appearance of world-wide empires, and from the beginnings of agriculture up to the time when machinery and chemicals began to take over.

The next ideology, starting to take effect in the later part of this period, was the yellow, the ideology of precision underlying liberalism. This appeared first in the religious field, as a demand for a tightening-up of the lax practices being followed by the Church, and later – around the Civil War period – in British politics. It brought the beginnings of science and mechanised industry, the beginnings of mass manufacture, and a sharp increase in economic activity. It also included the assumption of political equality (eventually producing what we know as parliamentary democracy with universal franchise). This strengthened the state by giving it a broader base and, partly as a result of this, government now began to exercise more control over industry and commerce.

These three ideologies appeared one after the other, and each of them has produced enduring effects. Each of them now forms a working part of the social structure, both in political and in economic life.

The pink got started in the early 19th Century, with Robert Owen and others. Around the middle of the 19th Century came the red, communism, quickly followed by anarchism as Bakunin fought it out with Marx in the First International. These last three, the ideologies of socialism, communism and anarchism, have also produced effects, but mainly in theory. It would be going too far to say they have made no practical difference at all, but they haven’t been built solidly into the economic structure like the first three.

All that is familiar enough, but there’s a side to it that is usually overlooked. Although the ideologies and movements developed in this order, the early ones have not passed away, and they still show no intention of doing so. These six, the major ideologies, now form a structure, each of them resting on the one before it. But they don’t all have the same amount of influence. In social and political affairs influence depends mainly on numbers, and as you move up, from the nonpoliticals towards anarchism, numbers fall away.

One thing I must emphasise, because it is easily misunderstood. ‘Higher’ is often read to mean ‘better,’ but it does not have to mean that. A high window is not better to fall out of than a low one, and when we describe a statement as ‘the height of absurdity’ we don’t mean that we think particularly well of it. In this diagram the movements near the top are not, in any general sense, better than the lower ones; they are not more valuable, or more intelligent, or more correct. In climbing a mountain you do come to see things that were hidden from below, but you also lose sight of a lot that you could see from down there. And the upper levels don’t rule or control the lower ones; the big groups down near the bottom produce the biggest effects. It is because of the grey ideology that we have a society at all, because of the blue one that it is orderly, and because of the yellow that it is democratic. These more basic ideologies set the social framework within which the upper ones operate. The next diagram shows this more clearly; it was suggested by Adrian Williams, and it presents the ideologies as nested, one inside the other. It brings out the way each of them supports the next, providing the conditions that enable it to operate.


Now, with this sketch of the ideological structure to refer to, we can turn to the Libertarian Alliance and the market. I have written one or two articles about the Alliance, and what I have to say this evening will contradict parts of them. It is what is said here that counts. Preparing to talk about the Alliance and its aims to members of it, getting ready to meet public criticism from them, this has forced me to think about these things more thoroughly, and I have come to understand them better than before. At least, I think that has happened. Whether it has or not, we shall doubtless find out during the discussion later.

The Alliance has expressed opinions on many subjects, and so has each of the parties we’ve mentioned. I am going to take just the theme that mainly concerns the Alliance: the market. (Although I shall sometimes use other phrases for it: ‘commerce and industry,’ or ‘economic activity’).

Members and supporters of the Alliance all have their own ideas about this, but they tend to divide into two groups. On the one hand those who want less government control, the minimalists or minarchists. On the other, those who want to do away with the centralised state, calling themselves anarcho-capitalists, or freemarket anarchists. Let’s look at these first.

To begin with, are they anarchists in the ordinary sense?. Do they belong to the tiny black group right up at the top of our diagrams? I don’t think they do, but the reason for saying that may surprise you. While the anarcho-capitalists do want freedom of economic activity, the ordinary anarchists don’t. The oldest anarchist journal is called Freedom, and if you ask members of this group – let’s call them the black anarchists – if you ask them to say in three words what anarchism means, they are likely to reply: ‘Freedom, freedom, freedom.’ But they don’t advocate freedom for the market. Here they would impose stricter control than any other movement. This is from an editorial in Freedom, the anarchist journal: “It seems so obvious to a thinking layman, observing the capitalist free-for-all jungle, that unless drastic steps are taken, that is, controls, compared with which the Labour Party’s proposals will seem almost modest, the situation must continue to deteriorate.” [1] That was no momentary aberration. A few weeks later this appeared in a letter: ‘So the real question is: how do we control capitalism so as to ensure it serves the general interest rather than its own?’ In spite of their claim to stand for freedom, the black anarchists want stricter control of economic activity than any other movement.

In the society they favour there would be no government to do this, but it would not be needed; the people would do it themselves. Many of these anarchists favour common ownership of the means of production, so that what was produced would automatically belong to everybody. That would mean no market. Others want a peasant way of life – three acres and a cow sort of thing. Pretty well all of them are against wages and employment, and the thorough-going ones – the (A-)SPGB for example – would do away with money. This is not what the anarcho-capitalists want. They favour private ownership, buying and selling, freedom to make profits and losses. In that way their ideology is substantially different from this black one. In fact, almost the opposite of it.

There is also another big difference. The black anarchists are against government and the state, but not only that. They declare themselves against coercion of any sort. In the society they want there would not only be no government and no state, but also no laws, no police, no armies, no jails.

The anarcho-capitalists don’t agree with this, either. In their favoured society there would be police – and laws, jails and armies too. Private ones. They don’t want to do away with coercion, they want to privatise it. David Friedman’s book, The Machinery of Freedom, goes into this in some detail. So does the paper by Brian Micklethwait, issued by the other branch of the Libertarian Alliance. He entitles it: “Why I Call Myself a Free Market Anarchist and Why I am One,” and it advocates private armies, with a free market in law and order, freemarket defence and freemarket money. He goes on to say that he doesn’t expect ever to get rid of the state, and in fact he doesn’t seem to want to. What he wants is not no state at all, but one that operates on freemarket principles: ‘a world in which states and state institutions relate to each other and to the world more in the manner of commercial enterprises than in the bossy manner of states nowadays.’ People who want a freemarket state are not expressing the ideology of the ordinary anarchists. We have to say that the anarcho-capitalists and freemarket anarchists are not using the word ‘anarchist’ in its usual sense. They are giving it a new meaning.

There’s nothing wrong about this; we are all entitled to use words in any way we choose; if I decide to call myself an elephant nobody is entitled to stop me doing so. But if I am to communicate sensibly I have to explain that when I say ‘elephant’ I don’t mean a big, clumsy-looking animal with a long nose. I mean a man, with peculiar ideas and a little white beard, who keeps rabbiting on about ideology. If we use words in unusual senses, and don’t explain what we are doing, we produce confusion.

I am going to keep using this word ‘anarchist’ in the ordinary sense, and in that sense we have to say that the people who call themselves anarcho-capitalists and freemarket anarchists do not hold the anarchist ideology; they don’t belong with this little black group up at the top here. It’s in the lower part of the diagram, among the big, influential groups, that freedom for economic activity meets with approval, so it’s around here we shall find the anarcho-capitalists.

Going back to our diagram and taking it historically, total freedom of economic activity appears with the grey ideology, among the hunter-gatherers. Here each person, or at least each family, lives independently of all others. There’s often a bit of reciprocal giftgiving, a bit of barter, but people don’t depend on this. In the main, what they want they take. They take it from what is growing around them, without paying for it, without giving anything in exchange, without asking permission, without complying with any regulations. They enjoy total freedom from any social restrictions. But they don’t have the market. You can’t have a market where people are free to take what they want without paying for it. The anarcho-capitalists don’t belong in the grey area.

In this next stage, the blue (strictly the grey and blue since a major ideology once established persists), food is no longer free for the taking. A lot of work goes into producing it, and people won’t go on doing that unless they are pretty sure of getting something in return. This may be wages rather than the crop itself, and if they are slaves it may be no more than their daily rations, but whatever it is they have to be reasonably sure it will not be taken from them. Respect for private property makes production possible, it increases the area of economic activity. But it also imposes a limitation on it. There is now a big NO; you may no longer take whatever you want, you have to earn it, or buy it. Here the market makes its appearance. But the grey ideology persists, and with it the tendency towards simply taking. This has to be repressed if the market is to function and, universally, the method used was the installation of an overriding power, at first local and tribal, developing over many centuries into the centralised state. Perhaps it could have been done in other ways, but that is how it was done.

Until near the end of the blue period the state remains under the control of a minority, usually an aristocracy, and seldom becomes much more than one contender among others, liable to be overthrown, or at least taken over, by a combination among its rivals. At this stage the state organisation consists mainly of the king’s household. Apart from imposing taxes, and those often irregular and uncertain, it doesn’t interfere much with economic activity. We hear about the Elizabethan Poor Law, but we also hear about Elizabethan concern over the numbers of sturdy vagabonds, showing the Poor Law to have fallen short of full effectiveness. In this stage the state has little coercive force at its direct disposal and relies largely on maintaining a group of supporters who between them exercise enough power to keep it going. Perhaps the most familiar example of this condition is the feudal state, with the king entitled to call upon his vassals. Anything much smaller or weaker would cease to be a state at all; what we have here, in fact, is pretty close to the minimal state.

This began to change during the Elizabethan and early Stuart periods, and around the mid-1600s the yellow ideology began to demand what we have since come to call democracy. It does so in the name of freedom, but this is not freedom from the state; rather freedom for the state, freedom from arbitrary or self-interested control of it by an absolute monarch or a small class of aristocrats. A democratic state, supported by a large part of the population, is not weaker than an aristocratic state but stronger. Resting on a broader base it enjoys greater security.

The democratic state can act independently of powerful individuals, whether these be firms, institutions or persons; enjoying majority support, it uses this’ power to impose a measure of restraint on powerful and successful individuals in the economic field. The Factory Acts of the 19th Century, protecting the employees against the employers, were imposed either by liberal governments or under liberal influence, and similarly with unemployment insurance. A liberal government under Lloyd George first imposed death duties, limiting the power of the rich to transmit their wealth. A liberal, Sir. William Beveridge, designed the National Health Service. As the yellow ideology gains influence we find attempts at carefully calculated state management of the economy, Keynesianism being perhaps the outstanding example. Keynes was a Liberal. The liberals have shown themselves to favour tighter control of economic activity than the conservatives would impose.

This sounds strange. After all, surely the Liberal Party must be in favour of freedom, mustn’t it? One feels entitled to think so, but that word ‘liberal’ is an example of something we were talking about earlier. It is a word used in a special sense without explanation, and it tends to create confusion. It suggests that the liberals are in favour of liberty, but – at least in economic affairs – they really favour less liberty and more control than the Tories.

One phrase the liberals use, or used to use, is that the government should ‘keep the ring.’ This expression implies that competitors would be left free to fight it out, but the fighting done inside a ring is not free fighting at all. It is neither all-out war nor even a free-for-all of fisticuffs. It’s restricted, restrained, controlled. It is limited by a code of precise rules imposed by a governing body more powerful than either of the fighters.

In his book The Climax of Liberal Politics (1987) Michael Bentley likens a liberal economy to a cricket match and cricketers, too, perform under an elaborate system of rules imposed by unquestionable authority. Bentley recognises that for the liberal version of the economic game to take place exploitation, monopoly, unfairadvantage, corruption and bigotry must be suppressed. He condemns these practices as artificial and likens their suppression to clearing the pitch. This puts things the wrong way round, for it is the cleared pitch that is the artificial condition, this that requires the greater control and interference.

When the state has not taken preventive action economic power has tended to become concentrated for the most part in a few hands; this happened through the blue period, with the feudal lords coming to dominate. The record shows that wherever you have production and industry without an overriding centralized state some other superior power emerges, and liberalism sets out to use strong government for the suppression of other forms of domination.

The Alliance seems to feel that liberalism comes closer to full freedom for commerce and industry than conservatism does, but there are grounds for holding that this feeling has been produced by special conditions. Every party sincerely promises freedom, but while they are out of office it’s hard to tell what they mean by this highly elastic word. The liberals have been out of office for seventy-five years. If and when they, have to grapple with the task of government then, the record indicates, we will find them imposing tighter restrictions than the conservatives; the freedom they value, in economic matters, consists largely of freedom of action for the state. It’s rather the conservatives who believe in freedom of economic action for individuals, demanding only that it be conducted in a decent, honest and responsible way. Now, turning to the Labour Party. This is influenced by the pink ideology, and when it was in power in Britain, on and off through the late 1940’s and later, government control was increased even beyond what the liberals wanted, with nationalisation being imposed.

Under the red ideology, in countries where the communists managed to seize power, control increased farther still, with the state taking direct ownership and management of nearly all commerce and industry. Housing was allocated, travel controlled, and there was a lot of forced labour. And the anarchists, as we have seen, would come close to doing away with economic activity, suppressing this freedom completely.

In the upper part of the pyramid control of economic activity increases, until with the black anarchists it becomes almost total. So we can’t locate the freemarket anarchists in the black, red or pink, and we have already seen that their belief in the market excludes them from the grey. They belong around the blue and yellow area.

The position of the other part of the Libertarian Alliance, the minimalists or minarchists, is more straightforward. They don’t demand that government control be done away with, they just want less of it. We still have some socialistic controls left over from the Labour governments and they want to do away with these; that locates them, too, around the blue or yellow.

A single person, organisation or movement seldom expresses a major ideology accurately. (The pure chemical elements rarely appear under natural conditions). With the Libertarian Alliance (a complex organisation, as its title shows) this absence of exact correspondence increases to the point where, as far as I can see, it cannot be firmly linked with either the blue or the yellow but has to be accepted as extending over the two. Should the ideas of the Alliance be brought to the test of practice I would expect the resulting tensions to resolve it into its component parts, one section gravitating towards the blue, the other towards the yellow, but that has not happened yet.

At present the Alliance seems to want a part of each. It wants minimal government interference in economic life, and that is a blue feature; the present government shows this by undertaking privatisation and lowering income tax. It also wants, if I understand aright, a society in which none of the individuals, firms or people, engaged in commerce and the market are powerful enough to dominate the others. In Friedman’s book, for example, he assumes that the various private firms, security services and legal systems he speaks of meet one another on equal terms, no one of them able to override the others. That conception belongs rather to the yellow ideology, and so does the effort to achieve a scientific approach, manifested in the concern of many Alliance members with the work of Hayek and von Mises.

It seems to me that Alliance thinking extends over the blue and yellow ideologies, but with its main weight in the yellow. This does not mean that members of the Alliance, or most of them, are liberals; if they were, there would be no place for a distinct organisation. The yellow ideology, like each of the others, has at its base a set of general assumptions, and these can be expressed in different ways. Lloyd George, Asquith, David Steel, Jeremy Thorpe and Jo Grimond each had their own version of liberalism, and so did Mr. Gladstone. I suggest that the Libertarian Alliance is putting forward, for the most part, yet another version of the yellow ideology, another variation on this theme.

Now, having said all this, having tentatively and approximately located the Alliance in the ideological structure, what’s the point of it? What does it tell us? Mainly, that the market and its supporters exist and function within an ideological system. A system in which each part affects the others and, while both supporting and opposing them, also depends on them. The Alliance is able to be what it is, and to do what it does, because it operates in a society in which the other ideologies also play their parts. Sometimes it looks as though this is ceasing to be so, but a glance at the context is usually enough to dispel the illusion.

For some twenty years now the market has been coming to play a greater part in Britain, and during the past few years it has been doing so in Russia and elsewhere. It may look as though we can reasonably expect this to continue, until society operates entirely by market principles. But twenty years is only a short time in history, and thirty years ago things were going the other way. In Britain we had nationalisation spreading, it looked as if we might be in for a socialist society, and communism – or at least communist control – was spreading in the rest of the world. The market was on the retreat. Even now, the spread of market methods in Britain is taking place with state approval and under state control, while what we see in Russia is largely a reaction against seventy years of attempts to eliminate the market.

I hope it is clear I’m not claiming that society can never change. It has been changing since it first appeared, and I don’t know of any reason why it should stop doing so. If it changes in ways that substantially affect the ideological structure then our diagrams will have to be altered, and so will a lot of more important things. But do we have to expect this to happen? All we can do towards answering that question is to look at what has happened in the past and is happening now, and see what it suggests for.the future. This does not tell us what will happen but it enables us to work out what we can reasonably expect.

It’s the black anarchists who want the biggest change. They don’t aim at improvement, or reform, or even revolution; they want to do away with what we now have and set up something quite different. If they were to get an overwhelming majority this would change a lot more than just our diagram, and we cannot dismiss the possibility.

But they have been at work for well over a century now – two centuries if you accept William Godwin as an anarchist – and they are still a tiny minority. They have remained a tiny minority through boom and slump, war and peace, revolution, reaction and spreading automation. Aircraft have replaced stagecoaches; cars, telephones, radio, television and fax machines have appeared, computers and space-ships. The world population has multiplied. We now have general literacy and universal franchise, satellites, the hydrogen bomb and the intercontinental ballistic missile to deliver it. And still anarchists remain a tiny minority. When none of these changes have altered their position it becomes hard to think of anything that can reasonably be expected to do so. Similarly for each of the other groups, including the blue and yellow. If it hasn’t displaced its competitors up till now, why should we expect it to do so in future?

Whatever may be possible in an abstract sense, for practical social purposes we have to deal with an established ideological system, one which has so far proven well able to maintain itself. Apart from any less obvious factors, its mere existence tends to secure its continuance. Just because there are so few anarchists a great many people, perhaps most people, don’t come into contact with anarchism while everybody meets conservatism every week, almost every day. Newspapers and television are constantly presenting it (not always by name) and this goes far to ensure that there continue to be more conservatives than anarchists.

Even opponents of the present system find themselves forced to recognise this stabilising factor. Another quotation from Freedom:

In present circumstances the Conservatives nearly always win and their opponents – Liberal or Labour – nearly always lose. Anyone who expects the Liberal Party or Labour Party to do well should take account of the historical record – in the score of general elections during the 75 years since the First World War, the former has never won and the latter has won under only two leaders – Clement Attlee and Harold Wilson. Even if Labour had won under Gaitskill or Callaghan or Foot or Kinnock, or do win under Smith or Gould or some other future leader, they would lose, because a parliamentary government on its own can’t beat the rest of the establishment. [3]

Although Freedom doesn’t say so, that applies even more to the anarchists. In this respect they face worse problems than Liberals and Labour.

But stability has two sides. It is true that the Conservatives nearly always win, but it is also true that their opponents still survive. The liberals haven’t won an election since 1910, but they are still in there punching, and it’s not only the conservatives who continue to produce effects even when out of office. All the other parties, movements and ideologies also do this. We’ve just seen it happening with the resistance to Poll Tax.

As I’ve said before, anything can happen. I don’t have a crystal ball and I’m not speaking as a fortune-teller; I don’t claim to know the future. But nobody else knows it, either. The best we can do, when thinking about the future, is to trace the curve that has been followed up to the present and continue it forward. That tells us what we can most reasonably expect.

The overall result of social development, from the time humanity first appeared up till the evening of Thursday the 25th of June, 1992, has been the establishment of this structure of ideologies, finding expression through these groups and movements and parties, and in other ways that we haven’t time to go into tonight. I suggest that the reasonable expectation is for this, or something like it, to continue. Doubtless with new developments in addition, things none of us have ever imagined, but building on what we now have. Modifying, not eliminating it.

Is this a bad thing? Do we really want to get rid of what we have and exchange it for something untried? Since modern industry and commerce appeared, many millions of people are better off than they have ever been. They live longer, and at a higher standard; they have a wider range of choice. One member of the Alliance, David McDonagh, has expressed this by calling the market: ‘the discipline that for three hundred years and more has made the luxuries of one generation the household goods of the next,’ and it’s not only advocates of freedom for industry and commerce who talk like that. Anarchists are bitterly critical of modern industry, yet this next quotation also comes from their journal, Freedom: ‘The Western industrialized world has been purged of smallpox, malaria, tuberculosis and leprosy; its crop fertility has been quadrupled within this century; our urban poor rarely die of hunger.’ [4] These are great achievements, and they have been brought about while the market has enjoyed more freedom than the socialists, communists or anarchists would allow it.

But here we have to throw in a qualifier; we cannot sensibly say that it has done these things by itself. The market has worked within a society that also had the state, and it has produced its greatest benefits within the last century, while working together with the strong, centralised state. This does not show that a freemarket society, with a minimal state or no state at all, cannot work. It might work better than what we have, we won’t know unless we try it. It means that what has been accomplished so far cannot sensibly be credited to the market alone. It has been achieved by the market and the state together. Sometimes co-operating, sometimes opposing each other, but together since they first appeared.

To listen to some of its critics, you would think this combination of state and market had failed. But it hasn’t. It has done some terrible things (mostly when one ideology has escaped, locally and for a time, from the modifying influence of the others); it has presented us with horrible problems and frightening threats, but it hasn’t failed. Just the opposite. The trouble is that it has succeeded beyond all expectation; our worst social difficulties today come from unbounded, unbalanced, uncontrolled success. Modern society disposes of powers so great that if used without restraint they are likely to destroy us all, and this is where these other ideologies come in. The pink, red and black.

Whenever these groups have engaged in production or distribution they have been unable to meet the standards set by systems in which the blue and yellow predominate. Russia provides the biggest example, but there are plenty of smaller ones. The results of nationalisation in Britain have discouraged even the Labour Party from proposing a return to it, and anarchist communities usually collapse. These ideologies are of little use for producing or distributing. But for restraining economic activity, for imposing controls and slowing things down, they are just the job. And the way things are going, that is what we need. Industry and the market, supported by the state, have been too successful for this little planet. They need restraining, and that’s where these other ideologies come in. But I’m not here to talk about that tonight.

Tonight the point is that whatever else may happen in future we can reasonably expect to have the state and the market still with us, still working for us. And, going by the record, I suggest we have to accept this as a good thing. A very good thing.

[1] Freedom 2 May, emphasis in original.
[2] Ibid 27 June, emphasis added.
[3] Ibid 2 May 92
[4] Ibid 2 May 92.

from Ideological Commentary 57, August 1992.