Sunday, January 31, 2010

In parts one, two and three of this series I began to define what I consider the anarchism that I have held to for many decades. To say the least my ideas have changed over that time, hopefully becoming clearer and more realistic. Some thing, however, have remained the same, but I feel at this time of my life the need to define them more exactly. This series is not meant to be any definitive statement of anarchism in all its variety. it is merely the views of one anarchist who has had a certain amount of experience in the movement. Others are free to agree or disagree as they will, and I doubt that there will be any earth shattering consequences. So, on to part four of this series which I hope will explain my concept of "freedom", a concept very important to anarchism, better than I did in part 2.
In the last part of this series I promised to look into the matter of “freedom to’ and “freedom from” in relation to the often overused (by anarchists) word ‘freedom. I got sidetracked into n extended criticism of both the “left” and the “right” and the way they use this emotionally loaded term. A mistake on my part for sure, but at least very close to the heart of how this term should be used and not misused.

Everybody and his dog is in favour of “freedom”. All too often, however, the word is used a free floating noun with no references, by both the left and the right. The most prevalent misuse of the term in recent times has been by the American (and Canadian) government in reference to a justification for their most salient imperial adventure ie the war in Afghanistan. The US government has long tried to say, for instance, that its opponents “hate us because of our freedom”. Which freedom pray tell is that and how would ‘Ali Blow’ out there herding goats near to Kandahar care about it ? Then, of course, there is the justification that the invading troops in that country are “defending our freedom”. How this actually comes about is, of course, rather mystical given as the opponents make no direct attack on said freedom whatsoever.

The left, and particularly many anarchists also misuse the term, using it a free floating abstract noun signifying something that is assumed to be good, but not stating exactly what that something is. My own opinion is that the word should always be suffixed with either of the prepositions “to” or “from” to make any sense. When looked at this way is may be understandable why various political ideologues want to restrict the term to an abstract feel good piece of rhetoric. It is also, in my opinion, plain, when looked at in this way why any anarchism worthy of the name has to be socialist. Yes, Nicolas I’m finally getting to your point.
When I began thinking of examples of “freedoms” it became evident to me that almost all of “freedom froms” could be equally well expressed by “freedom tos”. Often partisans on either side of the left right divide do their level best to ignore this truism. A simplistic example would be the hoary old gun control matter. Freedom to own a gun presupposes freedom from arbitrary government intrusion on your private property. Yeah, I know, freedoms can be in conflict, and I’ll get to that later.

The matter becomes even more complicated when you realize that many freedom tos and freedom froms depend not just upon their semantic converse but upon often several other freedoms. Our much touted “democratic freedom” to govern ourselves, for instance (much exaggerated by apologists for the present system) depends upon many other freedoms to be as minimally effective as it might be without “changing the rules”. It depends, for instance, on freedom from overwork that prevents the citizen from realistically taking part in public debate. It also depends upon freedom from straightened economic circumstances such that one has the resources to contribute to said debate. It depends upon freedom to access the media available to influence others outside of one’s personal circle, something that is obviously very much governed by one’s economic position. It depends upon the freedom to educate oneself, once more dependent upon economics and freedom from overwork. It depends more closely upon a freedom to connect to a large personal circle in an immediate way, a freedom that may be either expanded or restricted by the manner of living in neighbourhoods, with the freedoms or lack thereof they provide.

Yes, the whole matter can become quite complicated. I have only given a very partial list of a few of the things that may make the “democratic freedom” that our governments claim we have more or less real. Without looking at the full set of such circumstances, with all the freedoms involved things like our “democratic freedom” become empty rhetoric, something like the talk of “freedom” when our governments engage in imperial wars. Anarchists, of course, are very much in favour of “democratic freedom” (within limits-see later), but if it is not to be just rhetoric, like that spewed out by governments it has to take account of all the circumstances and other freedoms that enlarge or diminish such a freedom. This is why I think that any real anarchism has to be socialist because only a socialist society that offers equality and the maximum of access to democratic mechanisms to all its citizens can realize democracy (and many other values as well).

This socialism, however, cannot be the grant on a presumably benevolent ruling class, even one that styles itself as ‘socialist”. Think the social democratic parties, the “liberals” in the USA and the presumably good hearted social welfare bureaucracies, even those who pretend to “empower”(a new fashionable managerial word) others. Such classes will grant certain limited freedoms (though one could hardly imagine social “animators” working consistently towards an absolute equality of income for instance). They will, however, take with one hand what they give with the other. The invariable history of state socialist experiments has proven this over and over. Their grants will fall far short of real equality and therefore far short of real freedom for the majority in whose name they presumably rule. What seems to be a grant of income, for instance, will often be more than balanced by a decrease in income via such things as consumption taxes. What may seem like a freedom to say, live in decent housing, will often be balanced by an decrease in freedom from arbitrary intrusion on ones life by government bureaucrats and the consequent fear and insecurity.

I have only gone into one aspect of freedom above, democratic freedom. There are many others that could be discussed. Freedom of speech, for instance; the freedom to say what you believe and to have freedom from government interference with what you say. But the existence of government always makes this freedom precarious. The right complains, at least here in Canada, about restrictions on this freedom in terms of so-called “hate laws” that favour this or that societal group. This may be true, but it is far overshadowed by the government support of “libel laws” that restrict the freedom of expression of far more people to criticize those with the financial resources to sue. I have little doubt that for every prosecution for “hate speech” there are many more successful lawsuits for libel in our society. Without the support of government such atrocities couldn’t happen, and it is hypocritical in the extreme for a society thatb gives this privilege to its wealthy to claim to have “freedom of speech”. This is yet another example of why a socialist society, where equality is the rule, would be the only truly free society.

In a society that was not equal freedom of speech, restricted by lack of access to financial means and consequent power would be an empty phrase for the majority of the people. Perhaps just as it is today. In the USA ,and to a very less degree elsewhere in the world, there are those who style themselves “anarcho-capitalists” in contradiction to the way that the vast majority of anarchists have always seen themselves as ie socialist. The way that the society that they desire would inevitably lead to a massive restriction on the freedom of the majority of the people is just one of the contradictions of their view, but it is indeed a major one. What they desire is just as absurd, in the end, as the Marxist project of delivering equality and freedom through dictatorship.

One could go on and on about various freedoms, but I think I’ve made my point with the two examples above. Anarchism leads to the maximum of freedom because it takes the whole complexity of social life into account. There is a worm here, however. What about the “rights of the minority” ? What about the restrictions on democracy and the freedom of the majority to make rules that restrict the freedoms of a minority. In my view anarchism is not a complete system for solving this conundrum, and, given that I don’t believe in some sudden revolutionary transition to an anarchist society, I am more than happy to let history work itself out in its particulars in this matter. Just as, of course, it is working itself out in industrial parliamentary societies as we speak. It’s a common misconception that anarchism means a society with no rules. In actual fact the vast majority of human history has been spent under conditions of anarchy ie without a government, and, despite the illusions of romantics, many of these societies were very repressive and inegalitarian. There will indeed be rules in the decentralized communities that would characterize an anarchist society, and, yes, they would be enforced by many different mechanisms, some of them perhaps less desirable than the way our rules are enforced today. One of the advantages of an anarchist society, however, is in its small scale nature. Dissidents would be far freer to leave then they are today (pretty well impossible in most states). Perhaps just as importantly the decentralized nature of an anarchy would mean that, given the inevitable corruption of human nature, when a community “turns sour” it would, at best, have the ability to inflict harm on its near neighbours. The idea of an anarchist society using predator drones to bomb a population on the other side of the world “to give them freedom” is an absurdity.

We can only work with the human material that we are presented with, and, given human nature, there is always the potential for evil in a crowd. Anarchism is no sure fire guarantee against this, and the history of some perversions of the ideal show that it can worm its way close to the heart of anarchism itself. Yet, in the end, the majority of anarchists have always rejected criminality because anarchism also carries within its moral baggage the legacy of tolerance bequeathed to the world by liberalism. The difference is that anarchism wants to make the ideals of liberalism real and not empty words. The struggle to protect the rights of minorities will be an eternal struggle, with many back and forths ,and this struggle will be just as much a part of an anarchist society as it is of our own societies today. What I can say is that, in my view, the decentralized nature of an anarchist society presents a better ground for such a struggle than our statist societies do today.

So that’s how I see the concept of “freedom” and its relation to the type of anarchism that I favour-socialist anarchism. I suppose that there is a lot more to be said on the subject, but I’ll leave that to those more philosophically inclined as I pass on to other matters in this series.
1) Molly's Anarchism Part 1
2)Molly's Anarchism Part 2
3)Molly's Anarchism Part 3


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