George Walford: The Two-Sided Anarchist (47)

This is not intended as propaganda either for anarchism or against it. It’s about freedom, using anarchism as a test-case because this movement is usually believed, by anarchists and others, to stand for unlimited freedom, in every sense, for everybody.

One would expect anarchism to be among the biggest movements, for how can anybody reject an opportunity to do as they like? In fact it’s one of the smallest, and I have to suggest that this is because anarchism stands for something more complex than simple freedom, something more difficult, more strenuous and a lot less popular. Something making demands so great that only a few are willing to meet them.

It’s easy to talk about a society in which everybody would be completely free, but when you try to envisage it in any concrete way the difficulties begin. You can’t have a number of people, who live together, all exercising unlimited freedom. By their actions they affect each other, and to be affected by anybody else is to have your freedom limited.

Anarchists recognise this and they have an answer: For all to be free, each must refrain from interfering with the freedom of others. They are not the only ones to say this, but where other movements would also have government, police, laws and so on, anarchists wouldn’t; they would have this as the only restriction on freedom. Already things are beginning to look more complicated; anarchy would not be a society simply of freedom but one that combined freedom with self-limitation.

At present we have limitations set by the state, with a legal system, police and prisons to enforce them. How effective is all this apparatus? The answer given by a great many people appeared in the way they took up the phrase “Big Brother is Watching You.” They believe Orwell’s nightmare to be almost upon us, with the state keeping track of everybody and jumping on any disobedience. But it isn’t so.

We speak of the state machine, but the phrase is unfair to machines. The state is better seen as a clumsy giant, immensely powerful but unable to perform any detailed task. To see that it is quite incapable of watching each of its citizens all the time you have only to look at the crime figures. Of the crimes reported to the police only about one in five gets solved, and it is accepted that much more remains unreported; just how much, nobody knows.

No doubt the state would like to impose rigorous controls on all its citizens, but it just can’t do it. It has been unable to stop theft, burglary, vandalism, mugging, drug-addiction, terrorism, tax-evasion, freethought, atheism, blasphemy and sex outside marriage. It can’t stop illegal parking. It can’t even stop kids playing truant. The control the state exercises is loose, sloppy, ineffective. Control by external authority never can be complete, because no organisation can watch everybody all the time.

The control operating in an anarchist society would not be limited in this way, for it would be imposed by the people on themselves, and when you impose control on yourself it can be complete. In an anarchist society all the people would be under constant, never-failing inspection – self-inspection. In restraining themselves so they did not interfere with the freedom of others the members of an anarchist society would be imposing closer inspection, and more rigorous control, than any state has ever been able to inflict on its citizens.

But would even this be enough to ensure full freedom for everybody? Is it in fact possible for people to avoid interference with the freedom of others? By talking I interfere with your freedom to enjoy silence, by sitting in a chair I limit your freedom to occupy it, by breathing I prevent you using that parcel of air, and if I stop breathing my dead body will still limit your freedom to occupy that space. Merely by existing, even dead, I impose limitations on your freedom. And you do the same to me.

Freedom from exploitation depends upon limitation of the freedom to exploit. Freedom from jail depends upon limitation of the freedom to put people in jail. Freedom from war, insecurity, oppression, coercion, unemployment and domination becomes greater as limitation of the freedom to impose these things becomes more severe, and freedom from them can only be complete if freedom to impose them is completely limited.

It is not possible for two people to live in the same world without interfering, to some extent, with each other’s freedom and in the world we know, where there are thousands of millions of us, we are constantly imposing limitations on each other.

Some anarchists speak of choice instead of freedom, but it comes to the same thing, for to make a choice is to impose a limitation. By choosing to move I impose upon myself the limitation of not, at that moment, remaining stationary. By choosing to live I impose upon everybody else the limitation that they cannot live in a world that does not contain me – and I’ve known people who felt that as a serious imposition.

It makes no difference how you exercise your freedom. Coming, going or standing still, limitation gets you every time. We are free, yes. Free to select our limitations.

Freedom and limitation come together like action and reaction. A rocket moves forward by ejecting matter backwards, and we gain freedom by imposing limitation. Action and reaction are equal and opposite; so are freedom and limitation. The greater the limitation the greater the freedom.

One answer sometimes given to all this is that in a fully-developed anarchist society things would be different. Disagreements would be calmly discussed and a rational solution reached. No two people would ever persist in conflicting courses of action.

I can’t prove that this would not happen, for no fully anarchist society has ever existed. We can only speculate about it, with no direct evidence either for or against anything we may choose to imagine. Speculation is good fun, and it can sometimes be useful. But if we are going in for it let us go the whole hog and posit a society without illness, old age, bad temper, indigestion or personal dislikes, a society where the babies’ nappies are always clean and the dogs bark in tune.

But remember one thing. Even if it be true that in a fully anarchist society people would be able to live together with no friction at all, this would not mean that everybody was completely free. On the contrary; each person would be peacefully submitting to all the limitations imposed by all the others.

Anarchists usually accept that anti-social behaviour would still occur and methods of dealing with it would be needed. At one anarchist meeting a few months ago, people were discussing how an anarchist society would deal with muggers, and it was agreed that they would have to be restrained. The purpose would be to ensure the freedom of potential victims, but this does not make any less real the limitation placed upon the freedom of the mugger. Freedom and limitation come together; greater freedom for potential victims with greater limitations upon potential muggers.

When you examine freedom you invariably find it to be joined to limitation. These two are not optional alternatives, of which you can choose one and reject the other. They are more like two sides of a coin; whichever one you pick up the other comes with it, and if your preferred side is big, then so is the other. Freedom from mugging becomes more complete as limitation of the freedom to mug becomes more severe. Freedom and limitation are equal, opposite – and inseparable.

If so, then by imposing limitations the state must also be securing freedoms. And indeed it does. In saying this I am not denying the anarchist charge that the state produces horrors. But it also does other things.

There were human communities before the state appeared, and although accounts of these small, face-to-face communities certainly give the impression that their people led contented lives they also show that they enjoyed very little freedom. Some of them survived until quite recently, and people who have studied them report that they exercise close control over their members. The individual members cannot escape because there is usually nowhere for them to escape to, and the result is that praise and blame, affection and withdrawal, act as powerful sanctions. There is no personal ruler and no distinct institution of government, but custom and tradition exercise a domination more complete, and more unquestioned, than any monarch or tyrant ever wielded. In these communities it is not the state or the society that imposes the limits, for there is no state and no imposed organisation. It is the people themselves, acting directly upon each other, who do it.

In the headless foraging communities specialised occupations were almost unknown. Each person, or at least each family group, did everything for themselves, and this meant they could not choose their way of life. There were of course differences between men and women and between young and old, but those are not choices. For each sex and age-group there was only one way to live. Far from being anarchistic, these were the most un-anarchistic societies that have ever existed, and it was only when the beginnings of the state first appeared that this began to change. When the state began to impose limitations on the part played by custom there appeared the beginnings of social freedom. In the rulers that came with the state the first individuals with an enforceable claim to autonomy in political and intellectual affairs began to appear, and although they doubtless intended nothing of the sort, one effect was to open the way for the rest.

The state comes with coercive force, institutional religion, agriculture and commerce. These open up a range of specialised trades and occupations, and as industry and capitalism develop there appear all the endless distinctions to be found in a modern society. Every one of these imposes limitations and exclusions, but every one also offers a choice not present before. On top of the original combination, of natural freedoms and natural limitations, the state imposed a new set of social ones, the limitations more onerous than are found in nature and the freedoms correspondingly greater. A two-sided development.

Modern civilised people don’t enjoy the freedom the first human beings had, of wandering where they liked with no police or immigration officials to stop them. But – let me use an Americanism here – when you take the total movement-situation of the modern citizen, and compare it with that of the members of the first communities, the modern people have the greater freedom. Few can go where they like, and a great many can’t travel at all, but millions of ordinary people are able occasionally to cover thousands of miles in a few hours, and this is a freedom never known before.

The fundamental freedom, the one that gives all others their meaning, is the freedom to live, and under the modern state far more people enjoy this freedom than ever did so before. After all the wars, famines, murders, poisonings, epidemics, massacres, accidents and disasters the amount of human life on the planet has increased. Under the modern state and profit system, for all their killing, people have flourished as never before.

If population continues to increase at the present rate it will soon become insupportable, but that is just another example of the connection between freedom and limitation. The freedom to increase our numbers brings us up against the limitations imposed by the capacity of the planet.

The modern state secures for its members greater freedoms than have ever been known before, but anarchists fmd these insufficient and work to extend them. There is only one way they can do this: new and greater freedoms can be won only by imposing new and greater limitations. Anarchists already accept this in their practice; they seek to stop the local authorities keeping houses empty, to stop the government increasing taxes on the poor, to stop the police interfering with demonstrations. They try to stop the state using coercive force Each of these changes would be a limitation – upon the local authorities, the police, the government, or the state. And, let us not forget, indirectly upon the individual people who form these institutions.

When we look at what anarchism actually does, we find it trying to win freedom by imposing limitations. It is a two-sided movement, and it would be astonishing if it were not, for everything real has at least two sides. The things with only one dimension, points with position but no extension, lines with length but no breadth, rockets that move forward without impelling something backward, these exist only as bare ideas, and an anarchism that sought freedom without limitation would belong with them. As a title for this talk I chose THE TWO-SIDED ANARCHIST, and here we have the reason for that. All anarchists support both freedom and limitation. All of them are two-sided; the distinction lies between those who recognise this and those who don’t.

So long as you think of anarchism as offering simply freedom, it is impossible to understand why most people reject it. But when you see that freedom can only be won by imposing limitations, then the smallness of the anarchist movement becomes easy to understand. We are speaking here of great freedoms and correspondingly great limitations. Imposing these upon oneself is hard work. Anarchism makes greater demands than any other movement and that, I suggest, is why it has found so few supporters.

(Abridgement of a talk delivered to the South Place Ethical Society 30 January 1990)

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IC46 CREDITED Ike Benjamin with the remark that social development consists largely of turning luxuries into necessities; he writes in to say he got it from Lord Raglan. The passage runs:

Man’s more complex needs are not the cause but the result of culture. We often speak of savages as doing without clothes, forks, beds, and other things which we regard as necessities, but this is a misuse of terms. They are without these things, whereas we have learnt to do with them. The most civilized people are those who regard as necessities the largest number of luxuries. (Raglan, Lord, 1939. How Came Civilization? London: Methuen, 2-3).

See also: The Two-Sided Anarchist from Angles on Anarchism (1991).

from Ideological Commentary 47, September 1990.