George Walford: The Two-Sided Anarchist

Anarchy means freedom. The phrase comes easily to the tongue, but when you try to envisage how it would work out in social life the difficulties begin to appear. You can’t have a number of people, who live together, all exercising unlimited freedom. By their actions they affect each other, and if you affect anybody you limit their freedom. Anarchists recognise this and they have an answer: For all to enjoy freedom each must refrain from interfering with the freedom of others. Already things begin to look more complicated; anarchy would not offer pure or simple freedom but a combination of freedom with self-limitation.

At present we have limitations set by the state, with police and prisons to enforce them. How well does this apparatus work? A great many people gave their answer by the way they took up the phrase “Big Brother is Watching You.” They see Orwell’s nightmare almost upon us, with the state keeping track of everybody and jumping on any disobedience. Their fears or their hopes mislead them, for it doesn’t work like that.

We speak of the state machine, but the phrase is unfair to machines. The state behaves more like a clumsy giant, immensely powerful but unable to perform any detailed task. For evidence of its inability to watch each of its citizens all the time, look at the crime figures. Of reported crimes only around one in five gets solved, and how many remain unreported nobody knows. No doubt the state would like to enforce rigorous and universal control but its best efforts fail. 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 it exercises remains loose, sloppy, ineffective. No organisation can watch everybody all the time, and the state cannot fully control even its own servants. Long ago a Roman asked who would guard the guards, and recent experience with the police shows the problem still with us.

The control operating in an anarchist society would not suffer this limitation, for the people would impose it on themselves and self-control can cover everything anybody does with intent. But would even this ensure complete freedom? Can we ever avoid all 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 upon limitation of the freedom to imprison. Freedom from war, insecurity, oppression, coercion, unemployment and domination becomes greater as limitation of the freedom to impose these things becomes more severe; it approaches totality as freedom to impose them disappears. Two people cannot live in the same world without some degree of reciprocal limitation and on the planet we know, with thousands of millions interacting, we constantly impose limitations on each other.

Some anarchists speak of choice instead of freedom, but it comes to the same thing, for every choice imposes 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 have freedom, yes. Freedom 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 restrictions. Action and reaction are equal and opposite; so are freedom and limitation. The greater the limitation the greater the freedom; the greater the freedom the greater the limitation.

This sometimes meets the answer that in a fully-developed anarchist society things would work differently, people calmly discussing their differences to reach solutions all could accept. No two people would ever persist in conflicting courses of action. Perhaps so; in the absence of any such society we have freedom to speculate, so let us do the job thoroughly, positing a society without illness, old age, bad temper, indigestion or personal dislikes, where the babies’ nappies stay always clean and the dogs bark in tune. But remember one thing: even if the people in a fully anarchist world managed to live together with no friction at all, this would still not mean that each of them enjoyed complete freedom. On the contrary; it would show each person peacefully submitting to all the limitations imposed by all the others.

Examination of freedom invariably reveals it joined with limitation. These two do not come as optional alternatives, of which you can choose one and reject the other, they behave more like two sides of a coin; if you choose a big head-side you get a big tail-side with it. Freedom and limitation are opposite, equal – and inseparable.

If so, then when the state imposes limitations it must also secure freedoms, and indeed it does. The idea that it has deprived us of a free life formerly enjoyed does not survive examination.

For much the greater part of its existence the human race lived in stateless foraging communities, and in some parts of the world this way of life continued well into the present century. To anarchists the absence of government suggests freedom for the individual, but these communities work in a different way and here we can call on a well-known anarchist writer for support. George Woodcock rejects the standard anarchist view of the primitive or medieval folk community as individualistic; most commonly, he says, it inclined just the other way, “towards a traditional pattern in which conformity is expected and the exceptional resented.” [1] The anthropologists who have lived with foragers support Woodcock’s account; they report them enjoying contented lives, far removed from Hobbes’s nightmare of miserable deprivation, but they also show them displaying only a narrow range of individuality, all the members of a community thinking in much the same way and holding much the same beliefs. At this stage of social development the autonomous individual has hardly begun to appear. The identity of the person remains merged in that of the community, with custom and tradition exercising a domination more complete, and more unquestioned, than any tyrant ever wielded. Coercive institutions do not appear because they would serve no purpose; on the rare occasion when suppression becomes necessary the people do it themselves. The powerful sanctions of praise and blame, affection and withdrawal usually prove sufficient to deal with any failure in conformity, and a deviant resisting these is likely to be killed. Far from living anarchistic lives, the people in these communities displayed a higher degree of conformity than those of any more sophisticated society, and only with the beginnings of the state did this start to change.

When the state (appearing first in its larval form as headmen, big-men and chiefs) began to impose explicit restrictions it also raised the issue of freedom; once controls cease to be wholly inherent this happens inescapably, for the presence of deliberate support for a custom raises the option of resistance to it. In the first rulers there appeared the first individuals able to enforce a claim to autonomy, and although they doubtless intended nothing of the sort their success opened the way for the rest. By taking over the power inherent in the community, by centralising it, they limited it. By claiming a monopoly of force, and of the right to interfere in people’ s lives, the state protects the nonconformists from those around, thereby increasing their freedom, for however hard it may try it can never achieve the unbroken supervision arising automatically in the almost totally public life of the foraging community.

The modern democratic state provides its members with greater freedoms than any previous society has enjoyed, and it does so by imposing more severe limitations. The police, for example, have for their main function suppression of activities threatening the security of the state (more often phrased as “maintenance of law and order”). In achieving this they partly suppress some forms of personal liberty, among them the liberty of thugs to attack anarchists. Although this doubtless forms no part of their intention they thereby secure for anarchists a degree of freedom to meet, discuss and plan their anti-state activities without fear of disruption.

Anarchists find these freedoms insufficient. They work to extend them and they have only one way of doing this: by imposing new and greater limitations. Denying this in their theory they already accept it in their practice. They seek to stop the government increasing taxes on the poor, the local authorities keeping houses empty, the police interfering with demonstrations. They try to stop the state using coercive force. Each of these changes would constitute an additional limitation – upon the government, the local authorities, the police or the state. And, let us not forget, also 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. Anarchism 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 matter backward, these exist only as bare, unrealised ideas, and an anarchism that sought freedom without limitation would belong with them. 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.

We are speaking here of great freedoms and correspondingly great limitations. Imposing these, upon oneself or upon society, requires harder work than any other movement demands of its supporters and this goes far to explain the unpopularity of anarchism.

[1] Woodcock G. 1963. Anarchism; a history of libertarian ideas and movements. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 40

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.