George Walford: Which Freedom?

The Trades Description Act says, more or less, that dealers must not tell lies about their goods. When it was going through Parliament one MP asked whether it would apply to politicians’ promises, and the House dissolved in laughter. Yet the temptation to accept the politicians’ words at their own valuation has to be resisted; although individual people of any persuasion may tell lies, statements repeated over generations, and supported by social movements, express real beliefs. When Mrs. Thatcher speaks enthusiastically of the freedom conservatism brings she means it. When anarchists, liberals and democrats claim their movements would bring freedom, they also believe what they say.

They don’t, of course, all mean the same thing, but it is not possible to show that one movement speaks truth while the others stumble in error. Each of them works for a particular sort of freedom, and each of them, the anarchist movement included, proposes to secure it by imposing limitations.

Towards one end of the political-ideological range conservatism would reduce government interference in economic activities, returning the nationalised industries to private ownership and leaving rich poor alike to retain their possessions, win more or lose what they have, according to their ability, industry or avarice (This movement does not apply its principles with rigorous consistency; the public safety-nets which keep the losers from dying in the streets are not being done away with).

The drive for greater freedom of economic action finds its balancing counterpart in political and intellectual life. Newspapers inclined to critise the government have been alarmed by the proposed revision of the Official Secrets Act, a uniform curriculum has been imposed on the schools, and the universities are not only having their funds cut back but are also being encouraged to favour subjects offering short-term practical returns rather than the more speculative ones. Governmental control is being transferred from the economic field to political and intellectual life.

Towards the other end of the range anarchism reverses these tendencies. The (A-)SPGB declare the need of ownership and control of the means of production by the whole community, and the anarchist groups that advocate individual enterprise in this field turn out, on enquiry, to be taking it for granted that competition would not be carried to lengths damaging to the community; they also put the common interest first. In political-intellectual matters, on the other hand, anarchists advocate unrestricted freedom of individual action. In an anarchist society freedom to publish and assemble, to speak publicly, to discuss, agitate and persuade, would be unrestrained.

One can see good practical reasons for the limitations the two sides would respectively impose. A conservative society, with industry in private hands and a highly-developed economic hierarchy, could hardly function if the minority opposed to such a structure were free to agitate as they might wish; for its own survival it would have to limit freedom of political / intellectual action. An anarchist society, on the other hand, would be unable to maintain its political-intellectual freedom if individuals could get control of the media; for its own survival it would have to limit the freedom to accumulate economic power. Freedom and limitation come together like action and reaction; like those, they are equal, opposite – and inseparable.

from Ideological Commentary 39, May 1989.