George Walford: Why So Few?

Anarchism offers a society in which everybody will be able to do what they want, provided only that they don’t interfere with the freedom of others. Yet most people do not support it. Anarchism claims to fight for the free spirit of humanity against oppression and coercion, but it remains a small movement of protest, its voice barely audible against the roar of the state.

Anarchists protesting that most people have never heard the ideas properly put have a point but not a solution to the problem, for most of those hearing a good account have turned away, and we have no reason for expecting the others to respond differently. Another standard answer tells us that the propaganda and miseducation put out by the state prevent people from seeing where their true interests lie. That also fails; if the state did possess this power to control thinking nobody at all would accept anarchism. We have to dig deeper.

Anarchist thinking commonly denies any significant difference between, for example, conservatives and communists; it lumps non-anarchists all in together as supporters, whether they know it or not, of government and coercion. One can see why; all the other political movements accept the state which anarchism repudiates. But they don’t all take the same attitude towards it, and the differences point towards an explanation for the rarity of anarchists.

A great many non-anarchists don’t set out either to support or to oppose the state. Focusing their attention upon personal and family affairs they take government as a fact of life like gravity and the weather, reaching the best compromise they can between its demands and their own preferences. Not committed to tradition, liberalisation, reform, revolution or any other political principle, disinclined to look far ahead, persistently choosing what seems to be the least troublesome route, they do in effect support the state but less from deliberate choice than because compliance usually comes easier than resistance. They manage as best they can under the circumstances in which they find themselves, they act expediently. We all use this method in trivial affairs; those who belong to this group distinguish themselves by doing so in political life as well, and I shall call them the expedient group.

Others support the state out of set intent, and these include not just the ones who want to do the governing but also those who believe they need a government over them, the people who say things like: “You have to have somebody to tell people what to do.” In British party terms this group extends over the range from conservative through liberal, social-democrat and labour-socialist to communist, and I will call it the government group; we just have to remember that it includes not only the rulers and would-be rulers but also those who believe they ought to be ruled.

Repeated revolutions have left government firmly in control, Cromwell following the English one, Napoleon the French, Stalin the Russian, Mao the Chinese and Castro the Cuban. After each upheaval the rulers return with little but the names and faces changed, and this does not happen because they possess a mysterious ability to impose themselves. It happens because one of our two groups favours government while the other usually finds it less troublesome to submit than to resist. Between them they ensure its continuing presence.

Adding in the anarchists gives three political groups, with pretty well everybody belonging to one or another of them. They do not correspond either with the classes of Marxism or with the status-groups of sociology. Each of them includes rich and poor, educated and uneducated, workers and capitalists, and if you want to talk about a middle class then each group includes members of that, too. Each of them displays a number of distinguishing features, but here I speak only of their respective attitudes towards government. The expedient group feels more comfortable accepting it, the government group supports it on principle (though many of them want to change a “capitalist” government for a “socialist” or “communist” one), and the anarchists oppose it. The lack of sharpness about these divisions does not entitle us to ignore them; no clear separation appears between male and female, but few would think the difference unimportant.

The degree of influence exercised by a political group depends mainly upon its size. I haven’t counted the number of people in each of these three groups, I don’t know of anybody who has, and I’m inclined to think the task impossible; it often takes prolonged observation to decide where a given individual belongs, and in the meantime others change their positions. But we can recognise an elephant as bigger than an apple without counting the number of atoms in each of them; we need to know only the relative sizes of our groups, and election figures offer one useful guide.

Many voters go this way in one election, another way at the next, as they think will best serve their interests at the time; one recent study found that in 1987 no less than 20 per cent of British voters even changed their intention during the campaign, not voting in June for the party they had said they preferred in March. This constitutes expedient voting, and so many adopt this approach that when most of them vote the same way it produces “swings” and “landslides” that swamp the regular party-supporters.

We have not yet reached the full size of the expedient group. At each British general election this century there have been around 20 to 25 per cent of non-voters; in 1987, 24.6 per cent. Apart from anarchists, and perhaps a few even smaller groups debarred by their principles from taking part, these also belong to the expedient group; they find it easier not to vote than to do so. Putting them together with the floating voters makes this, beyond reasonable doubt, much the largest group of the three. The decisive power this group possesses as a result of its size, and the difficulty of predicting its preference, go far to account for the air of sporting excitement that surrounds elections.

Our second group appears as those who vote the same way in election after election. Each party can rely on a solid core of these, and by supporting would-be rulers they show themselves to belong to the government group. Less numerous than the first group, these still greatly outnumber the anarchists.

Now the next question: How did these groups come about? In order to answer that, we have to go back to the time when human beings first appeared, at least 40,000 years ago and perhaps much longer. These first human communities, each comprising up to about 50 people, knew nothing of government, taxes, employment, priests, social hierarchy or organised warfare. One or another person might take the lead for a time, depending on what the group was doing, but they had nothing corresponding to what we mean by a chief. Anthropologists sometimes term such communities “acephalic” – headless.

This leads many anarchists to claim them as predecessors, but that view carries consequences its supporters seem not to have considered. This way of life was followed by the almost world-wide spread of the state; unless we see this as a gift from God, or brought by those little green men from Mars or Venus or wherever, we have to accept that it developed out of the headless communities. If we call these anarchist, it follows that anarchism produced the state.

These first communities did not have government, but neither did they offer the individual freedom that anarchists demand. Although no institution imposed any rules the people themselves enforced conformity, using scorn and withdrawal against deviants and, when these proved insufficient, sometimes killing the offenders. Far from enjoying anarchistic freedom they allowed themselves even less latitude than appears in the societies under government. No state, whatever its intentions, can maintain the closeness of inspection arising automatically in these small face-to-face groups.

No considered principle underlay these practices; they arose because compliance requires less effort than resistance, they expressed the expedient tendency. From the beginnings of humanity until about ten thousand years ago, when government first appeared, everybody acted in this way; under the early rulers and on through the empires most people continued to do so, and in our computerised, automated, space-traveling, post-industrial society, with its mighty coercive institutions, this still ranks as the most common form of behaviour; the expedient group remains the biggest of the three.

Now we move on to the other non-anarchists, the government group. This appeared when farming, herding and established rulers came in, more or less together, somewhere around 8,000 BC. A lot of other things also began about that time: work, organised warfare, hierarchy, institutional religion and education. Once government appeared it spread over most of the world, but in doing so it did not eliminate expedience. The change did not go from expedience to government, but from a community living by expedience alone to a society that displayed both government and expedience. Eventually, very much later (hardly appearing as a social movement before the end of the 18th Century) there emerged our third group, the anarchists.

For the student of anarchism the history of society falls into three main periods: first, expedience; second, expedience with government; third, expedience with government and anarchism. Each attitude persists as the next one appears; we now have all three of them, and no indication that the earlier ones will vanish or even lose much of their influence. These successive types of society have not been imposed from without; people formed the expedient communities for themselves, and out of these all later society has developed. Each novelty has emerged from the previous condition without extraneous addition, and that process has a name: evolution. Society has evolved.

Society does not float in a vacuum; it comes as the outcome of an evolutionary process that begins with the inorganic and moves through the organic to the human. At least, so the standard account goes, but this gives only a one-sided, inadequate picture. We now have not just humanity and human society but also the organic and the inorganic. Each order of existence has persisted after the next one appeared. We have no reason to think that any of them have ceased to evolve, but social evolution moves so much faster that by comparison biological evolution tends to appear as a stable background (and inorganic development still more so). In their bodily structure human beings today hardly differ from the later foragers; their society, on the other hand, has changed almost beyond recognition.

Now we can set out the main stages of the total evolutionary process.

  • First: the inorganic;
  • Second: the inorganic with the organic;
  • Third: the inorganic with the organic and the expedient human communities;
  • Fourth: the inorganic with the organic and the expedient and government;
  • Fifth: the inorganic with the organic and the expedient and government and anarchism.

And there, of course, we stand today. Anarchism has arisen in the course of the universal process of evolution.

From the beginning of things each new level of organisation has contained fewer units than its predecessor. Through the whole range of natural developments – fundamental particles, atoms, cells and multi-cellular creatures – numbers consistently decrease, and the same holds good for social evolution. In the order: expedient people, intentional supporters of government, anarchists, each group consists of fewer members than the previous one.

This does not, of course, prove that anarchists will remain eternally in the minority; some new factor may appear that changes the whole set-up. But although 40,000 years of experience, or even 4 million years, do not prove anything about the future, we cannot sensibly disregard them. In the absence of equally strong evidence to the contrary, we do have to accept the past as a pointer towards the probable future. We have no better guide. If anybody wants to believe that future development will follow a different course, that’ s their privilege; but if they want to put their belief forward as a reasonable one then the onus falls on them to provide support for it.

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.