READING LIST [books are listed at their first relevance and only once]


“If we could change our language, that’s to say, the way we think, we’d probably be able to swing the revolution.” — John Cage


Where are the people who have decolonized their minds, who refuse capitalism, who disobey, who put people before property or wealth, who actualise and educate themselves and others?

I would like to meet these people…

ANARCHISM: the organization of society such that domination, exploitation and oppression are made as unrealisable as possible — as well as the education of people in general into becoming self-responsible, self-actualising, human beings who form communities of free association and mutual aid, managing their own desires and needs.

But this “anarchism” is not our goal, no, it is, rather, our means of existence, our habitual practice, our life. It is how we live. And it must be if our lives are to be both resistance to, and refusal of, the domination of capitalism and the authoritarianism that is its political partner. The anarchising revolutionaries and insurrectionists of today and tomorrow, on the other hand, have no “political” ambitions. They don’t want power. They want to make power impossible — because only that will allow people the opportunity to live. They note that the response of the political-financial elite to the current times is increasingly visible paramilitary policing and constant surveillance allied with a totalising propaganda. They see that they are intent on making sure nothing happens to change the status quo which is marked by increasing disasters that are both increasingly out of control and increasingly frequent [whilst being increasingly denied]. And so we find ourselves besieged and oppressed, our hands tied to stop us from dealing with the rolling disasters for ourselves, and in need of a way to live which signals our dissatisfaction with that status quo and our intention to live lives refusing it and combatting it.

Consequently, this book is an insurrectionary document not about how to start an insurrection but about how to be one in the conviction that it is who people are, inseparable from how they act and what beliefs and attitudes they hold, that makes the difference. It is expected that any readers the book attracts will already be, in some sense, an insurrection in themselves anyway but the ideas disseminated here will be such that understanding the insurrection that you are becomes more historicized, more understandable, more focused.

The text below will concentrate on several areas of active concern to the human being in revolt at the violent oppression and exploitation of human beings who seek to dominate and control them and give food for thought on how you become the insurrection. But those looking through these pages expecting plans for how to bomb things or where or who to attack will be out of luck. This book is about something much more intimate than that: how you, in your very own self, ARE the anarchist insurrection and what that might mean for you. If you then want to attack people, disrupt the capitalist world, take care of the vulnerable, organize yourself in opposition to the guiding political dictats of the day and the forces assembled to enforce them or, in fact, engage in any number of other kinds of anarchist action that is up to you. But the anarchist insurrection starts way before it shows itself in such actions and it is that that this book is about. It is about occupying your mind until you yourself live AS the insurrection, a fully self-actualised form of being human as I have already introduced to my readers in my previous book Being Human: A Philosophy of Personal and Political Anarchism, a book this volume cheerfully continues in the footsteps of, both by being a sequel and by essentially being footnotes to it. In that book I argued that being human is living and practising anarchism. In this book I argue that in order to be human we must become anarchy. So let us begin.


Diogenes was seen by Aristippus, who himself lived comfortably by flattering the king. Aristippus said to him: “If you would learn to be subservient to the king you wouldn’t have to live on lentils.” Diogenes replied: “But if you learned to live on lentils then you wouldn’t have to be subservient to the king.”


I begin writing at a frustrating time. Day after day, the problems created by authoritarianism and capitalism compound themselves and pile high. Every day I see pleas for help from online accounts where human beings are asking for the basics of life. The queues at food banks get longer, the cries for housing get more numerous, the raising of money for necessary medical procedures increases. The one thing these things, and others like them, seem to have in common [besides them only becoming more numerous and regular] is that relatively few people [to say “no one” here would be strictly inaccurate] ever do anything about them to resolve them — and that includes the people who talk about politics in a seemingly continuous stream as well. It takes quite some brass neck to be complaining about the world from when you wake up to when you go to sleep but yet without seemingly doing anything at all material about it. Is solving such problems merely someone else’s problem? When you can complain about the fact that people lack the basics of life but you consider it someone else’s problem to have and to solve then you have yourself become a problem too.

One bone of contention I have with people in this book, then, is that they are, in general, people who talk much and do nothing. When you say something is “the government’s problem” are you not, thereby, also saying that its NOT yours? Or, in fact, anybody else’s but the government’s? To my mind this attitude is indicative of a problem itself: the problem is that people have become convinced that problems with other people are not their problems, that someone lacking for something basic is not something that they should get involved with. Its a problem I interpret as indicative of a greater problem, however, one from which it grows. This problem is a basic inauthenticity in the vast majority of people, an inauthenticity the dominating powers of the world thrive on.

This quickly moves me along to thinking about Diogenes the Dog, a man who was not meant to be in this book — as it was originally conceived — but who, when inauthenticity raises its head, is there, snapping and snarling, to call it out. You have probably heard of Diogenes, even if only of the name, and that, in itself, is something of a minor miracle when you realise he was no one conventionally important. Diogenes is known for spitting in his host’s face [because, he claimed, he could find nowhere worse to spit into], masturbating in the street, carrying a lamp around in daylight hours in a busy marketplace claiming to be looking for a human being, and for telling those wishing to buy him as a slave that his talent was “ruling men”. You might gather, then, that Diogenes was not your regular citizen of any society but was a completely self-actualized personality, completely at odds with the very idea of “civilization” and what the idea of civilization necessarily entails.

To get a fresh look at this character whom I have admired across 23 centuries for many years, I decided to read Peter Sloterdijk’s appraisal of him in his book Critique of Cynical Reason. It should be pointed out before diving into this, however, that “cynical” and “cynic”, in its more original Greek sense, does not mean what these words might mean in modern English today. Both words come from the Greek word for “dog”, something which was a nickname given to Diogenes himself by the Greeks of Athens in the Fourth Century BCE. Originally, it was as an insult [dogs not being the most civilised of animals] but it came to be taken up by those now identifying as Cynics [I always capitalise the terms in my writing to differentiate them from the modern English usages], including Diogenes himself, as a positive identification. Thus, where others thought to belittle Diogenes and the later Cynics by calling them dogs, the Cynics themselves turned the epithet back on their civilized accusers, thinking of the name in positive terms.

Sloterdijk gives his portrait of Diogenes in that part of his book in which he wants to introduce a few Cynic figures to what is quite a complex text that functions as a Cynical intellectual critique of reason and culture. His wider arguments and interests need not concern us here, however, as his portrait of Diogenes is, by itself, quite sufficient for my purposes. This portrait starts off by disabusing readers of the notion that the many pithy sayings or stories about Diogenes [which are all the “biography” we have of him] are meant to point to a jovial, comic fellow. Consequently, Diogenes “is not at all an idle dreamer in his tub but a dog that bites when he feels like it.” Sloterdijk is at pains to point out that if Diogenes is a dog then it is one with teeth — and one with teeth that work. So whilst one may find oneself smiling at some of his retorts or reported opinions and exploits one should go beyond that to where one finds his jaws have been clamped around some unsuspecting victim’s thigh or forearm. If Aslan is not a tame lion then neither is Diogenes a fawning pet.

Thus, the “humorous approval” of Diogenes for making a funny retort or the smile at some irony in his words or actions “almost always rests on a belittling misunderstanding” according to Sloterdijk. Diogenes is economical with his words and, if he says something, it has a sharp point to it. Diogenes is a person of high standards who, much like the later Max Stirner and Friedrich Nietzsche, is not impressed by inauthenticity or imitation. His words and his practice were so tightly knit as to be indistinguishable from one another. He is looking for those who have the proactivity to take responsibility for themselves and act with constant deliberation. He wants people who own themselves. And this means that civilization itself must be attacked for civilization it is which breeds inauthenticity, conventionality and a lazy lack of regard for the self into human beings. The way of Diogenes is about virtue and ethics that one creates in oneself as a deliberate and purposeful act which is about living in freedom according to nature. Sloterdijk sees him as “the original father of the idea of self-help” and says that Diogenes does this by distancing himself from the burdens which civilization loads onto people and for which they pay with their freedom. Diogenes is one who links happiness with virtue and a lack of need. But one way to have a lack of need — and the way Diogenes himself epitomises — is to reduce your needs consciously to an absolute minimum. Thus:

“His spectacular poverty is the price of freedom; that must be understood. If he could be well-off without sacrificing his freedom, he would not have objected at all. But no wise man can let himself be made a fool of by so-called needs. Diogenes taught that the wise man too eats cake, but only if he can just as well do without it.”

To put this into perspective, it is as well to know that everything Cynics owned they carried with them. If they could not carry it, they got rid of it. There are even stories of Diogenes dispensing with utensils like a spoon and a cup when he finds even simpler alternatives [his hands instead of a cup, a hunk of bread instead of a spoon]. Why did Cynics like Diogenes live like this? Out of an unstinting commitment to authenticity and freedom. [Their regular belongings may have been as few as a cape, sandals, a bag to carry things, and a staff.] Having nothing, nothing tied them down. Having nothing, no one had any hold over them. Their argument was that civilization was, in effect, a set of “false weights” which value things incorrectly. Cynics lived as simply as they possibly could and saw virtue in this as it did not rely on an artificially inflated set of “needs” such as civilization inevitably creates. A Cynic would never worry about what curtains or carpets to have, what is on TV tonight or which brand of washing powder gets things whiter. These and similar concerns are the concerns of the civilized and their price is your freedom. The Cynic determines to do without not because without is better or recommended in itself but because this is the only way to demonstrate freedom from burdensome comforts and artificially created obligations. Civilization, to the Cynic, is unfree; it is a set of chains, and they are not worth giving up your freedom for.

Sloterdijk views Diogenes as a kind of existentialist and this then has a necessarily individualist focus. But it is not a melancholy existentialism; it is seemingly both joyful and peaceful in finding its purpose in simple freedom and the simple, and natural, pleasures of human existence. A pointed tale here is the one in which Alexander the Great comes upon Diogenes in Corinth one day and asks him if there is anything he can do for him. Diogenes replies only by telling him to get out of the way as he is stealing the sunlight that was falling onto him prior to Alexander’s arrival. This is one of those stories which can seem for comic effect but it has some bite underneath it, not only in that Diogenes disdains the greatest conqueror then recognised in Western history in the retelling, treating him as just another man, but in that of all Alexander could have granted him — every pleasure civilization could then afford — Diogenes wants only to sunbathe — something for which he needs nothing. And that’s how you dismiss the presumptions of civilization in one fell swoop! Sloterdijk argues that this “demonstrates in one stroke what antiquity understands by philosophical wisdom”, this being “not so much a theoretical knowledge but rather an unerring, sovereign spirit”. The Socratic version of this is the oft repeated “Know thyself”. Diogenes very much stands in this line of thinking and acting.

So Diogenes is very much a man of autonomy and he regards this as a matter of appropriate virtue. This contrasts with the “theory” and “custom” of civilization by which “civilized” societies try to force people into regular furrows which are their anointed practices. This autonomy extends to consciously regarding yourself as responsible for your own thinking and education, something seen as a further source of your emancipation. This contrasts, as Sloterdijk puts it, with “the modern intellectual, an accomplice of the powerful”, a person who tries to fit in with his or her society, its thoughts and ways, and is rewarded exactly for fitting in and furthering said civilization’s interests [think Stephen Pinker, Richard Dawkins or Jordan Petersen here]. This is a becoming powerful by sucking up to the powerful which Diogenes refuses in his answer to Alexander. As Sloterdijk has this:

“Diogenes’ answer negates not only the desire for power, but the power of desire as such. It can be interpreted as an abridgement of a theory of social needs. Socialized human beings lost their freedom when their educators succeeded in instilling wishes, projects, and ambitions in them. These latter separate them from their inner time, which knows only the Now, and draw them into expectations and memories.”

Here, then, Sloterdijk shows how Diogenes’ answer to Alexander actually becomes a rejection of civilization, its desires and values, as such, represented, as they are, by the Macedonian.

Diogenes, then, does not wish to be an adjunct to Alexander’s civilized power: he refuses it and keeps the freedom of sunlight instead. This reminds Sloterdijk of the saying of Jesus which reminds us of the birds who do no work yet survive and live their lives. [Jesus also mentions the lilies of the field which get their natural beauty without making a worry out of it either.] Sloterdijk then finds both Diogenes and Jesus “united in their irony directed at social labour that exceeds the necessary measure and merely serves to extend power.” This hits me with the force of the metaphor of the cog in the machine, something which struck me in my teenage years quite instinctively at the thought that I might have to “get a job” and “work for a living”. This, I tell you candidly, always seemed to me like the worst possible idea imaginable and something that I could never understand why anyone actually did it. This is to say that I instinctively always rejected the complex of social relations in which such a thing ever becomes a necessity and, if I understand Sloterdijk’s views of Diogenes and Jesus here, he seems to think that they think the same thing too. [And I agree that they do.] Why, I always asked myself, is my free time less important than my having to earn money for some employer and why, in so very many cases, is people’s time regarded as being worth so very little [either per hour or at all]? Here we hit on the utter artificiality and inauthenticity of civilization, not to mention the way it steals personal freedom and replaces it with obligation, often exploitative obligation, justifying it as an “ought” and a “must” along the way.

The problem, from Diogenes’ point of view, however, is that the generality of people, the civilized, are not really authentically genuine human beings at all. That’s why he got out his lamp in the daytime and started looking for them in the marketplace. Diogenes frequently shows contempt for the civilized and treats them with sarcastic disdain. As Sloterdijk has it:

“He pursues an idea of humanity that he scarcely finds realized in his fellow human beings. If true human beings are those who remain in control of their desires and live rationally in harmony with nature, it is obvious that urbanized, social human beings behave irrationally and inhumanely. They indeed require the philosopher’s light even in daylight to orient themselves in the world.”

Diogenes is then playing the role of “educator of humanity” — and that not necessarily in smooth words and easy lessons but often in sharp witticisms or bites from a dog’s jaws. Diogenes sees the civilized as “social cripples, misinformed, addicted beings who in no way correspond to the image of the autonomous, self-controlled, and free individual according to which the philosopher tries to shape his own life” in Sloterdijk’s words. Diogenes the Cynic, we might say, is cynical [now in the modern, English meaning] about the civilized. He cannot abide in the civilized what Sloterdijk refers to as “the spectacle of false living”, a description which manages to pull into one neat phrase “the society of the spectacle” of Guy Debord and the existential context that Sloterdijk has himself carved out as an interpretation of Diogenes’ life and praxis. Diogenes himself, then, has an earnest attention to the virtue and value of human life as an ongoing activity which does not allow him to look past what he regards as civilization’s abject absurdity and virtuelessness and the imprisoned lives that those within it lead.

This “false living” in fact begins with the notion of being of or from a particular place in itself to begin with. Asked about his own home town, so we are told, Diogenes replies with a single word normally translated into English as “I am a citizen of the world”. But what can be meant here? Diogenes was in fact from what is now called Sinop on the southern coast of the Black Sea in northern Turkey. He was, it seems, ejected from here at some point after shenanigans that involved defacing the local currency, making it worthless [an activity FULL of metaphorical possibilities!]. After this ejection he ends up in Athens and Corinth in southern Greece. His “I am a citizen of the world” can only then be a deliberate choice [which is fitting for the Cynic] and it must have consequences for civilization.

Sloterdijk argues that in such a statement of belonging Diogenes is making reason, reason as he understands it, homeless and separating “true living” from the self-identifying “empirical communities”. Sloterdijk further thinks this move has “Utopian significance”. Seeing political affiliations as matters of “identity”, Sloterdijk argues Diogenes “sacrifices his social identity” for the purposes of saving his “existential and cosmic identity”. What we can say, then, is that he finds more meaning in the concept of a world polity than he does in the concept of a more local, artificially created one. The only true [and therefore valid] order of state Diogenes finds in a polity of all peoples undifferentiated by borders and ethnic classifications [or, indeed, any classifications at all]. To choose such a world polity is not to choose any other kind of polity. This makes Diogenes a subversive in any other kind of polity, one who implicitly rejects any validity it may project. It also allows us to suggest that Diogenes also rejects the epistemologies and classificatory procedures upon which such “lesser”, civilized polities are based. Civilization always wants to classify, always wants to create knowledges by which to artificially coerce the things it deems itself to have power over. Diogenes rejects them all and imagines the cosmopolis, the world-city.

One of the most famous facts about Diogenes, already referred to, is that he lived in either a vat, tub, barrel or cistern of some kind. We cannot know exactly what it was but it doesn’t matter anyway for the important thing is that a man, subsequently venerated as wise, living in the middle of one of the world’s then most advanced cities, Athens, chooses to live there. It was apparently for this reason that Diogenes became known as a dog — for I’m sure we are all familiar with how dogs will themselves curl up in any suitable space and make the best of things, unconcerned by any designation other, more civilized, creatures have given said space in their artificial knowledges of appropriateness. This action of Diogenes is, indeed, a symbolic one, but no less one with practical consequences for him. As Sloterdijk puts it: “he ha[s] freed himself from civilization’s chain of needs” in such an action. As previously, the only way for Diogenes to impugn, subvert and deny civilization’s ways and, indeed, its valuations of things, is to consciously and deliberately live his life against them. It is not that Diogenes finds value in his domesticated hole but that only by living in such a place can he call other, civilized values into question. This is a having as if you did not have, a refusing to calculate in ways civilization does, a flexibility of living which accepts all circumstances just the same. Sloterdijk refers to it as a “rejection of the superstructure” where this “superstructure” is what Sloterdijk calls “what civilization offers by way of comfortable seductions to entice people to serve its ends: ideals, ideas about duty, promises of redemption, hopes for immortality, goals for ambition, constructions of power, careers, arts, riches.” Diogenes rejects all these things, preferring the freedom of the dog instead, as a means to subvert the values, and rejecting the compensations, of civilization whole and entire. In this sense, Cynicism is thought of as “the shorter path to authentic life”, one which rejects the imposed needs and circuitous customs of civilization.

Consequently, Diogenes prunes needs from his own lifestyle in order to subvert that of civilization. It is said that he would say “it is divine not to need anything, and semi-divine to only need little” and this is the measure of the man. Diogenes does not place his contentedness in the hands of civilization’s values and so puts himself outside of being judged by, but, more importantly, being inhabited by, them. This is the necessity of being a self-actualized person and taking responsibility for who you shall be upon yourself, not merely as a means of resistance to civilization’s disabling, assimilating values, but as a means to be the kind of person who can live and think for oneself to begin with [for these things are habits which can be encouraged or discouraged by our practices]. Numerous discussions of Cynics in classical Greek context will point out that one of the characteristic qualities of the Cynics is autarkeia — self-sufficiency. It begins in taking responsibility for yourself, your life, your thinking, your values, as a habitual praxis.

Two further characteristic qualities of the Cynic are “shamelessness” and “bold speech” and they help to constitute what Sloterdijk calls the Cynic’s “existential anti-politics”. This disregarded a civilization-generated “system of needs”, saw life’s praxis as ethical in every respect and “regarded only embodiment [of practices] as valid”. The Cynic must attack shame head on in this respect. As Sloterdijk himself notes, “What a person really has to be ashamed of is by no means settled by social conventions, especially because society itself is suspected of being based on perversions and irrationalities.” [One thinks here of all those people civilization leaves starving in doorways — at least, the ones it hasn’t covered in spikes so that people must find somewhere else to sleep, cold and hungry.] Cynics are, consequently, people of nature as opposed to custom. Their own reason and nature together direct their path rather than all the wrong reasons which civilization has created and then imposed until they have become irrational and ugly practices, demonstrations of their greed, unfairness, cruelty, vanity, prejudice, blindness and grasping possession. This is why Diogenes masturbates in public, shits where he will, pisses like a dog. Ask him why he does this and he will only reply that the urge to do these things came upon him there and then and so he satisfied the urge as nature intended, there and then, too. Such behaviour literally outrages the civilized, however, in their wish to domesticate the world. Yet here we see most clearly how that domestication deviates from more natural imperatives and nature’s lack of such valuations until said civilization becomes an imperative of civilized oppression in its promulgation of itself.

Diogenes, then, as the proto-Cynic, must reject civilization’s version of shame. Shame motivates social conformism and it is exactly this Diogenes wishes to discredit. As Sloterdijk says, “If wise persons are emancipated beings, they must have dissolved the internal instances of oppression in themselves.” This is very important and serves to show how external practices help create and actualise our internal mentalities. So, as Sloterdijk continues, “With his public masturbation, Diogenes committed a shamelessness by means of which he set himself in opposition to the political training in virtue of all systems. It was a frontal attack on all politics of the family, the core of all conservatism.” Sloterdijk, thus, thinks Diogenes sees public masturbation as cultural progress rather than as a regression to the animalistic which any defender of civilization as “superior” would be minded to see it as. But such a civilization is inauthenticity writ large, inscribed upon every human heart, and made the criterion of the civilized. Diogenes, in Sloterdijk’s interpretation, is then the “political animal” — but where this is never seen as a bad thing. It is a serene, joyful and entirely natural thing. It is an authentic, genuine thing. As Sloterdijk goes on to say, “Diogenes, the political animal, raises existential presence of mind to a principle.” This “presence of mind then becomes the secret of survival”, the ultimate flexibility to circumstances in a life attuned to natural, not artificial, imperatives. Needing little, it turns out, is the best way of coping with life in an uncertain world which may turn harsh at any moment. In choosing this way, Diogenes, and the Cynics who came after him, rejected civilization’s way which was, and still is, an attempt to coerce, domesticate and control the world into an artificial pattern of its own making, an activity still subject to nature [however much it seeks to turn the tables on it] and which is doomed to spectacularly fail, not least due to the very inauthenticity which is both its foundation stone and inherent to it.

But so much for the history lesson — even though it reminds me that, for a while now, I have seen myself as my very own Diogenes with a metropolitan “Athens” all around me. The things civilization seems to value — the attention-seeking superficiality of corporate and social media, the empty spectacle of corporate entertainment whilst, outside, people are literally starving to death, the attempted provision of a corporate product for every imaginable [and often falsely created] human need without thought for its environmental cost, the veneration of authority, property and commerce — both sickens and disgusts me. I feel as a stranger in such a world. The corporate metropolis has long since kicked ethics — a Cynic concern — to the kerb along with the roadkill and those human beings it has discarded there and now wilfully ignores, a warning to the rest of human society not to risk becoming like them. Primarily what is sick about the metropolis here is how it has gone about inculcating its values into successive generations of people with military purpose and precision. I choose this metaphor deliberately for such inculcation has been a matter of violence and domination. Civilization absolutely does not say that each one of us living in it will be successful. But it wants us to imagine we can be and, crucially, it wants to get to define what success is, to define how it is achieved, to make the rules, to police both it and you. Oppression always starts with values and if you have been forced to accept someone else’s then its almost certainly not to your advantage and definitely not to everyone’s. Civilization then works by making you feel guilty for not being a success on its terms if you aren’t and by making you think yourself better than those who aren’t if you are.

So I find myself in “Athens”, wandering about the marketplace, looking for a human being. Like Diogenes, I struggle to see any. Its just a consistent stream of inauthentic person after inauthentic person, meatpuppets worked from the inside by a civilization they haven’t even accepted as normal — because it never occurred to them to think about it at all. Success is thought of in terms of acquisition and possession — a home, a car, foreign holidays, a house full of things, a nice phone that is always renewed once a new model is available. People can be, and are, judged by what they do and don’t own. People with a mansion or five and an ocean-going yacht are imagined to have really won at the game of civilization. Being famous becomes a goal because said fame might bring you riches and possessions. This is civilization and its all total shit. Such civilization relies on you being prepared to sell your authenticity and your freedom for its own empty trinkets and a place in its own hierarchy of value. And as you take part in it so the whole contextualises and coerces everyone else to play too. Civilization is a mass delusion and the more people unthinkingly accept it the harder it becomes for others to resist it. One by one, we all become more and more unfree, colonized by values that incarcerate us in a prison of the civilized.

Now I am an anarchist and I am one who happens to believe that the Cynicism Diogenes inaugurated is itself an early form of what later people would term anarchism. I have argued at more length for that linkage elsewhere but what matters to me today, as I sit in my own tub contemplating the unethical metropolis which follows people on social media famous for having a big bum in their millions whilst, not a mile or two down the road, other human beings starve, is how we can take the tenets of anarchism, individual as well as social, and subvert this civilization so that it becomes a more ethical anarchy. I take it as read that this subversion, something I denominated an anarchist value in itself in a previous book, is absolutely necessary for, in my intellectual analysis of the situation, it is civilization or anarchy; one or the other for one must drive out the other. They cannot occupy the same space [although, in some sense, they always both exist at the same time as possibilities].

In that other book, my own take on anarchism I called Being Human [since even then the Cynic narrative was prominent in my mind], I made a kind of twofold case for an anarchist anti-civilizationalism and I did so by pointing out that this was a matter of both the internal and the external, our thinking and our acting. It can, in fact, be no other for, by now, civilization is not just a way of organizing people but a set of destructive values implicit in human existence. It is something within each one of us who are born to civilization and which we must cast out or divest ourselves of in order to function in other, better ways. The first six chapters of Being Human were attempts to show how thought is itself a fictional, constructed thing and not unavoidable or necessities it is impossible to sidestep. The second half of the book was then largely examples of people with practices who contradicted the verities of civilization in their very habits and impulses. It will be noted by readers of the book that the examples I chose there — Jesus of Nazareth, John Cage, Alan Moore and Emma Goldman — are all very different. But that is because anarchism is not a new imperative you must fall in line with but a set of values you can interpret as you may. In anarchy the prevalent value is freedom, social as well as personal. In civilization it is control. All four of my examples have so shaped their minds that their actions cannot but lead in directions subversive of civilization and insurrectional against it.

The anarchist, then, is one who comes to view civilization as a cage in much the same way as the Cynic Diogenes did. The anarchist seeks social organization, economy, ecology, which leads to more freedom for more people and not less. The anarchist has an ethics of freedom, an ethics which values freedom more highly than it values conformity, an ethics which values autonomy more highly than it values control. Where civilization wants possession, acquisition and coercion, anarchy wants sharing, cooperation and solidarity. Anarchism is not only a new way to organise the world, one hopeful of screening out exploitation, oppression and domination, it is a completely different way to think and to value as well. This being so, IT CANNOT RESULT IN THE SAME WORLD BY DIFFERENT MEANS. The first thing the anarchist [or anyone else] must realise is that the world anarchism creates is not the world of civilization. Anarchism must deconstruct this world; it must annihilate and obliterate it; its thinking and values must make it subsequently impossible even to contemplate. Anarchism is civilization’s kryptonite. [Other takes on “civilization” are available and will be presented below in my ecology chapter, specifically in relation to the views of Davids Graeber and Wengrow.]

The question then becomes how we get there and in Being Human I only hinted at this in my final chapter, subsequently filling this out a little more in a pamphlet I wrote together with Lara Nasir entitled Building Communities and Defeating Capitalism, a pamphlet about the need for an anarchism of mutual aid as an alternative to the hierarchical, oppressive means of interaction a capitalist civilization has to offer. What this book is to be about is filling out much more of those ways and the values that are important in motivating them. Make no mistake here though: I do not underestimate my task for, like Diogenes, I perceive that there are few people indeed who are in a position to receive them, such is the consistently destructive and violent work civilization has done colonizing people’s minds and filling them with poisonous dross that clouds the vision and fogs the mind. You will not have to look far even today to find self-styled “left radicals” who think civilization can be reformed to make it more benign and less oppressive. The first assertion of this book, then, is to refute this and say that it cannot. It is a matter of civilization’s controlling, domesticating inauthenticity or anarchy’s liberatory, autonomous authenticity. You must choose. In this book I choose the destination of anarchy by means of the path of anarchism and, in what follows, I intend to set out both the how and the why of that.



My previous full length book on the subject of anarchism was called Being Human, as mentioned in my brief foreword, and, in coming now to the subject of something called “postanarchism”, I was surprised to be reminded of it on beginning to read the postanarchist works of the UK-based, Australian scholar, Saul Newman, a leading theorist of postanarchism. Newman was one of several names suggested to me by my research when the idea of postanarchism came up and was the one I ended up “getting along with” in the various tomes I read on the subject. Particularly interesting to me in this respect was something he referred to as “ontological anarchy” which was separate from a more classical, historical understanding of anarchy [something Newman also provides and critiques in his work]. The reason for this, strange to say, was my own independent thinking as represented in Being Human. To explain, I will need to briefly revisit this previous book of mine for a moment.

In Being Human, specifically in chapter 7, I try to define anarchy/anarchism but I find that I need not one but two variously interconnected definitions to do it. As we will come to see in this chapter, these definitions also hold out the possibility of an intriguing relationship with what Saul Newman has to say about postanarchy too. I called my two definitions “type 1” and “type 2” anarchy/anarchism [I didn’t distinguish anarchy and anarchism at this point because I wasn’t exactly sure how to]. The first type, I said, “essentially equates anarchy with the universe, with all that exists, as it is, right now. You might also then call anarchy ‘reality’. Under this understanding, anarchism is then the action of the universe in its manner of operation. How the universe works is anarchism.” This had the further corollary that it was nothing to do with either what humans want or any action of theirs at all [except in the sense that their action is automatically a part of it, i.e. the universe, anyway]. My type 2 definition, by the by, was then “the more political definition of these things, the one in which anarchy is the state of existence people called anarchists want to create. Anarchism is then something such human beings do to create anarchy, perhaps along lines anarchists have previously written or spoken about and agreed by consensus beforehand. This is the anarchy/anarchism of political actors in the present and recent past.”

I would now, subsequently, call type 1 here “anarchy” and type 2 “anarchism” since the second is a human action and the first is not [since it is just “the universe” going about its business] but I have no concept of either being a destination or a goal [as Newman wouldn’t either as we shall soon see]. I still find them in creative and active tension with one another as I first did in Being Human, however [since anarchists exist in the universe and are subject to its conditions regardless of what they might want to make of it]. More interesting for me at this juncture, though, is how they relate to what Saul Newman has to say about “ontological” anarchy [which sounds very “type 1” to me!] and postanarchy in general. This is, to be simplistic about it, a classical, type 2, understanding of anarchism brought into relationship with broadly poststructuralist or even postmodern thought and is, thus, quite an academic conversation. I do not regard this as being in its favour, however, as it rather restricts both its audience and the likelihood of its insights [or pitfalls] being disseminated to the general public. Anarchism, I am convinced, is for everyone and so cannot be shut up in academic ivory towers where academics chat amongst themselves using often highly technical jargons [poststructuralism and postmodernism are often both guilty of this as subjects]. But, nevertheless, the reason you are finding a chapter on Saul Newman’s understanding of postanarchism in this book is that, when I read about it, it occurred to me it paralleled many of my own thoughts already made in other vocabularies in Being Human. And I found that both intriguing and worth exploring.

I am going to interact with the work of Newman on postanarchism in two of his books, 2010’s The Politics of Postanarchism and 2016’s Postanarchism. I shall concentrate on the second much more than the first here, the first, in fact, only being of use in setting out Newman’s understanding of what he, and we, may term “classical anarchism”, a collection of names and ideas which give us what we come to know as a traditional and historical understanding of anarchism today. [Newman basically uses Godwin, Proudhon, Bakunin and Kropotkin to flesh this out in the chapter from The Politics of Postanarchism I shall focus on.] Having appraised classical anarchism as Newman describes it, we shall move to his second book to work through what he means by postanarchism in order to bring it into dialogue with my own, not totally dissimilar [and not knowingly postanarchist!], conceptions in Being Human. At the end of this process we may hopefully gain some greater understanding of what it means to be an anarchist and how this involves being a living insurrection into the bargain, our anarchy now sufficiently “ontological” as a result.

The first chapter of Newman’s The Politics of Postanarchism is a “reconsideration” of what Newman calls “classical anarchism”, something he does not necessarily define with reference to a specific time period [say 1870–1940 which is something several observers might do] but ideologically with reference to characteristic ideas. But, even here, there is more going on than a simple recitation of the “greatest hits” of anarchism. Starting with reference to Gerrard Winstanley and the Diggers [or True Levellers] of English history, and mentioning such people as the Anabaptists of Munster, the Taborites of Bohemia, the sailors of Kronstadt in 1921 and the Zapatistas and “anti-capitalists of our time”, Newman regards anarchism as being “a politics of insurrection in which is asserted a desire for total emancipation from political authority”. He further regards it as “a political heresy” in its implications and this is perhaps why his chapter is titled “The Euthanasia of Government”. Anarchism exists, we might then imagine, to put government and politics out of our misery.

As we continue reading, we find anarchism in the classical vein labelled “anti-authoritarianism”, something which is more than a marriage of liberalism with socialism even though, we may say, it is actualising implications of both of them. “Individual autonomy” enters the picture as well and, in this respect, neither liberalism nor socialism seem fit to give any guarantees where this is concerned. This is problematic but it is then unsurprising that Newman wants to suggest that anarchism is not simply more than these things but “the ultimate horizon of all forms of radical politics”; he thinks that “because anarchism combines liberty and equality to the greatest possible degree, it serves as an end point or limit condition for the politics of emancipation.”

Here is where we get the first intimations that Newman may have things to say which are of interest to someone like me who has themselves understood anarchy in two different ways. Newman thinks of anarchism:

“first, as a certain political and theoretical tradition — not a doctrine or dogma, because it is too diverse and heterogeneous for that, but a body of thought and praxis which is united by certain principles, which has its key thinkers and activists, which has a unique history, which has its debates and controversies and which makes certain political, philosophical and ethical claims.”

In my understanding of anarchism in Being Human this would have been my “type 2” definition. But Saul Newman seems to have something like my “type 1” definition too when, in his second definition, he speaks of

“a broader and more transcendent reading of anarchism — an anarchy-beyond- anarchism if you like. This will be not so much an alternative theory of radical politics, but rather a kind of interrogation of anarchism itself, a deconstruction of its discursive limits and an investigation of its ontological foundations.”

For Newman this is both a reading [or interpretation] of anarchism with “ontological” implications [ontology being the philosophical study of being and becoming] and also a claim that, as postanarchism, anarchism becomes “a universal horizon of emancipation which all forms of radical politics must necessarily speak to if they are to remain radical.” Now, as I read this, thinking of my “type 1” definition of anarchy [the universe is anarchy, anarchy is the universe — perhaps itself an idea with ontological implications], I see both of these ideas as coming into useful dialogue. What could be more of a “universal horizon” than the universe itself? I see this, in fact, as a kind of ultimate contextualisation for anarchy of any kind, not least including the type 2 or classical kinds of anarchism that Newman and I both speak about in our own ways and vocabularies. The point to remember here however — in both cases — is that there is both a “political and theoretical” anarchist tradition and a higher case, more ontologically conceived, version of anarchism here, whether Newman’s or my own.

From here Newman wants to reel off some characteristics of his classical anarchism. He defines it basically as what he terms “equal-liberty”, “the idea that liberty and equality are inextricably linked” and “a proposition through which all forms of domination and hierarchy come under interrogation.” This is backed up with the following quote from Mikhail Bakunin:

“I am free only when all human beings surrounding me — men and women alike — are equally free. The freedom of others, far from limiting or negating my liberty, is on the contrary its necessary condition and confirmation. I become free in the true sense only by virtue of the liberty of others, so much so that the greater the number of free people surrounding me the deeper and greater and more extensive their liberty, the deeper and larger becomes my liberty.”

This is the basic position that no one is free unless we are all free and I speak to this myself in chapter 7 of Being Human. A “freedom of equals” is then a touchstone for the understanding of classical anarchism for both Newman and myself as well as being something which helps it stand out from more liberal or socialist understandings of freedom prey, as they are, to their own moments of compulsion in either the State or vanguards or other coercive forces. Anarchism is the belief that people do not need their freedom to be coerced into them but that, left alone, they can work it out for themselves. It insists, as Newman reminds us, that liberty AND equality are both just as necessary and help reinforce each other. These are not narrowly defined and oppressively policed, as the liberal State would wish to, but broadly defined in social and economic terms. Crucially, they are also imagined free of a capitalist market [which must necessarily introduce inequality]. Liberalism, says Newman, “always presupposes a state” and, as such, it can never be the guarantor of an “equal-liberty” as Newman calls it. Anarchism presupposes no one looking over our shoulder to make sure we “do the right thing” and much less does it envision anyone making us do anything in particular to bring about equality and liberty unless that be to leave us alone to realise these things for ourselves in our own way. This, indeed, is the sense of Errico Malatesta’s claim that “We anarchists do not want to emancipate the people; we want the people to emancipate themselves.”

As such, Newman thinks that:

“anarchism provides the fullest development and the most radical expression of equal- liberty, one that transcends both the socialist and liberal traditions: for anarchists, quite simply, equality and liberty cannot be fully implemented or even logically conceived within the framework of the state and political sovereignty. This is not only because the state violates and impinges upon individual liberty — through all sorts of laws and coercive and violent measures — but also because it violates equality, creating a concentrated monopoly on power, claiming sole legitimacy and authority, as well as supporting unequal class hierarchies, inequalities of wealth and economically exploitative practices. Political authority, therefore, denies both liberty and equality.”

As Newman himself then seems to paraphrase the thinking of Malatesta, “That is why anarchists want to see not simply a society of egalitarian economic and social arrangements, but also to see these arrangements achieved by the people themselves, without coercion and without the need for centralised political authority.”

This, of course, then leads into the anarchist critique of even the very idea of “government” and is where Newman brings “William Godwin, Pierre-Joseph Proudhon, Mikhail Bakunin and Peter Kropotkin” to bear as intellectual founders of a classical anarchist political theory of no government or, as Newman puts this, “the rejection of the idea of government and the contention that life can function perfectly well without it”. Newman regards this as “the most radical claim that anarchists make” which might just be true if your audience is liberal political theorists who assume both states and governments, that is, who assume that things like liberty and equality need police to enforce them [and even that they ever could]. These are then those who are, in some sense, “theorists of sovereignty”, those who think that “without government… society would fall apart”.

Anarchists, to the contrary, are those who think that “society has no need of government: government is an encumbrance upon society, regulating the lives of people excessively, exploiting and oppressing them, stealing their resources, limiting their freedom, and disrupting communal practices, arrangements and ways of life that they have fostered organically.” As such, “We cannot hope to arrive at a more virtuous existence unless we can make our own decisions freely on the basis of our own moral and rational judgement. This — and not any external compulsion — should be the only thing that determines our actions and that can legitimately impose obligations upon the individual.” [Newman is here exegeting William Godwin.] Similarly, in exegeting Bakunin, Newman points out his view that “external laws” are necessarily “despotic laws” because “For anarchists, the very principle of political authority violates that of individual freedom and must, therefore, be abolished: liberty can be realised only when the individual is no longer governed by external political institutions.”

Such classical anarchism then establishes three bogeymen: the state, capitalism and private property. The former demands authority and enforces it by exercising it through government; the second distorts society, making it unequal as well as proceeding by means [necessarily] of exploitation; the final one sets in stone a hierarchy of inequality. As Newman puts this:

“for anarchists, not only do the state and centralised government suppress or prevent the emergence of autonomous self-organised communities — the state cannot tolerate even the slightest challenge to its sovereignty — but they also have a distorting effect on social relations, generating and actively sustaining hierarchical social structures. The unequal relationships entailed by capitalism and the reign of private property — the tyranny of the capitalist over the worker, the tyranny of the rich over the poor, the domination of the principle of capitalist accumulation and modern technology over the natural environment — can survive only with the active support and intervention of the state. The ‘free market’ is not self-regulating, as the right-wing libertarians contend — this is simply an illusion. Rather, the market is of necessity constantly propped up by the state”

This comes to mean that, quoting Bakunin once more, “the State is like a vast slaughterhouse and an enormous cemetery, where under the shadow and the pretext of this abstraction (the common good) all the best aspirations, all the living forces of a country, are sanctimoniously immolated and interred.” It is the classical anarchist conclusion, according to Newman, therefore, that government is not only itself oppressive [something it must be in order to be exactly government] but that it likewise interferes with more mutual, more sociable, community relations which those such as Kropotkin thought were implicit in nature to begin with. How much worse this then becomes when, according to Newman, “anarchists claim that government has been violently imposed upon us through conquest, or through various kinds of trickery, deceit and political fraud.” The state, then, “embodies a certain structure and logic of domination regardless of the form it takes” — and it must. For that is what states do and is how states are states.

Newman brings this out further in another discussion about democracy and the state. If equality and liberty together are characteristic classical anarchist concerns then it can easily be seen that “universal suffrage and elected representation” do not guarantee such things. In fact, we may say they are illusions which mask “the absolute gulf between the people and power”. What is more, as is perhaps best seen in the Republicans and Democrats of the USA or the Conservative Party and the Blairite Labour Party of the UK, modern “democracies” [I certainly use such a descriptor in this case with huge irony] are, as Newman says, “effectively one-party states” in which none of the parties remotely close to power are even a smidgeon apart when it comes to matters of economics or security. Often the other politics are barely any different either and boil down to presentational differences. It would be an interesting, if frustrating, task for some politically interested person to see how many of the policies Trump had, and which Biden criticized as a presidential candidate, he has, nonetheless, seen fit to continue with — if not even expand upon. Is this really a political choice? [Compare the politics of the EU.]

In such a situation, as Newman extrapolates upon, democracy is a word or an idea being used as cover for something very different. Newman calls it “a mechanism through which collective movements and struggles are co-opted into the structures of the state through the category of citizenship.” Voting is a means to putting the blame on you for things you never had any power [using strictly political means] to affect in the first place — since all the priorities had already been decided by the monied capturing of politics to begin with. Such “democracy”, Newman tells us, “is a system that both disguises and legitimises power” — but its not your power. Representative democracy then, in Newman’s words, “binds democracy to the state”, it channels the will of the people into state structures and is what Proudhon called “perpetual abuse of power for the profit of the reigning cast and the interests of the representatives, against the interests of the represented.” Electoral, representative democracy is now barely democracy at all; it is sham democracy, a word waved above the heads of the people at large as a flag [and it is often literally a flag — a symbol for the symbol-minded] to distract them from their capture by the forces of politics and the state and their incarceration in structures they neither control nor were they ever meant to. “Politics” and especially “democracy” are then plays performed to entertain the proles whilst, behind the scenes, as the UK government has been amply demonstrating during the Coronavirus Pandemic, the real business of politics takes place in private emails and mysteriously lost Whatsapp messages with party donors. Democracy is bought and sold, is perpetually for sale, but its nothing at all to do with how you voted or even what you want.

So there can be neither equality nor even liberty under the current conditions of capitalism, the state, governments or private property. Democracy, if it be the ragged, degraded, mortally wounded, thing that passes under that description today, is not what the anarchists of classical heritage seek. In fact, as Newman himself suggests, it might even be that “anarchists do not seek a democracy but, rather, an aristocracy of all, where the liberty and autonomy of each is fully and equally respected.” You can be sure that a Nietzschean like me [see Being Human, chapter 2, for a demonstration of this] is certainly mightily intrigued by such a suggestion. Anarchists seek consensus and respect individuality. Anarchist democracy is not at the expense of individual integrity but, in the spirit of a Newmanian “equal-liberty”, regards such individual liberty and the right to dissent as equally democratic. It is not the democracy of a state [and so which forcibly binds you to it] or the justification for a government but the radical acceptance that no community proceeds except by the expressed will and desires of its own members themselves.

Newman further adds in a compact discussion here of “property and equality”. It begins with the correct assertion that equality for the classical anarchist was a matter of a full social and economic equality — and so was necessarily something which both capitalism and private property impede if not full on oppose. This is to say that private property, and the inequality it must necessarily lock in, instantiates and maintains a relationship of political domination and economic exploitation between the haves and the have nots, this classification being something it creates by its very existence. Furthermore, such a situation then necessarily requires a strong state in order to maintain such property relations since if people could just ignore the “private” aspect of private property then it wouldn’t really be private at all. Thus, we see necessitated in one fell swoop police, courts, jails and laws — the apparatus of enforcing “this is mine and this is not yours” onto everybody in general. In this respect Newman refers to William Godwin who, he relays, “had no doubt about the artificiality of property and inequality: in other words, the way that it was actually propped up and supported through the intervention of political institutions, without which it would collapse.” [Here some would argue Liberalism was actually invented so a ruling and possessing class could keep what it already had anyway.] Such artificial inequality, theorists such as Godwin and Newman see, can only sow “seeds of social division” and so are detrimental to society in general in their opinion. Inevitably, the classical anarchist view of private property as “artificial” finds its appropriate slogan in Proudhon’s well known “Property is theft!”. Proudhon, according to Newman, was “opposed to large accumulations of wealth, claiming that these were precisely what endangered security, equality and liberty.” [Nietzsche, of all people, seemingly agrees with this in The Wanderer and His Shadow.] As a result, “Anarchists… want to see the limitation of private property, and the transformation of property relations so that they are no longer exploitative.” Various ways of doing this were proposed by classical anarchists from mutualism to collectivism to communism.

Having dealt with the state and government, capitalism and private property under a guiding classical anarchist ethos of “equal-liberty”, Newman now finishes his chapter with more generalised commentary. Here he sees classical anarchism “as a critique of the relationship of domination generally”. It becomes now “a revolt of society against the state, a revolt of the ‘social principle’ against the political principle of power.” From this point of view, classical anarchism sees that “there is a division between a kind of organic natural order — which is fundamental to society — and an artificial political order — the order of power, political institutions, laws and so on — that is alien and hostile to society.” From this point of view, classical anarchism imagines that “political power distorts and stultifies what would otherwise be free human relations.” Therefore, to the degree that this is a correct analysis, “the anarchists were different because they sought the total abolition of politics.” But, we might reasonably ask, “What now?” if anarchists clear everything off the table — leaving only a blank table. What is to be done next? Newman replies that anarchists have always been wary of laying down a blueprint or writing out a script for what comes next. They are not those who want to pre-determine social relationships ahead of time since, not unreasonably, being anarchists, it is not really for anyone in particular to say. Of course, ideas have been bandied about [workers’ collectives, communes, federations of local communities, etc.,] but never with the stamp of “thus it is written and thus it shall be done” about them. Yet we might often say that what anarchists had to offer instead is what Newman refers to as “spontaneous human action and the urge to rebel”. It is a matter of values being self-actualised in the moment rather than a plan being forcibly imposed upon people, an anarchist dictator having been swapped for a statist or capitalist or propertarian one. Some, of course, may see this as a weakness: classical anarchists saw it as a strength.


So that is a concise summarisation of Newman’s appraisal of classical anarchism which I was also referring to in my own book Being Human as “type 2 anarchism”. I do not substantially disagree with his appraisal of these things which, when one is summarising them, must inevitably involve cutting some corners and smoothing out things which, in historical reality, may not have been as smooth as presented. Yet, if some text must stand in for an understanding of what one is discussing, then in Newman’s description of classical anarchism, I find something which I would identify with that phenomenon myself. On such a basis, we can then move forward to an appraisal of Newman’s own postanarchism as presented in his own book, mentioned above, from 2016.

When we look at this book we immediately find it set [not unsurprisingly] in a much more contemporary context, one of Occupy actions, Antifa and anti-capitalist action, anti-racism actions and climate breakdown activism — things which may be said, in Newman’s words, to be matters of “an autonomous insurrection” that turns their gaze away from “the empty spectacle of sovereign politics” and asks after what they can do if they simply dissent and ignore the powers that be, setting their own agenda instead. It turns out that autonomy, as far as Saul Newman’s interpretation of postanarchism goes, is a very important component of it. In this interpretation this new taste for autonomy is due to a crisis of liberal political representation which, at least in the most radical responses, entails a rejection of representation at all [such as I suggested in Being Human] and a burning desire to speak and act for oneself. This leads to “networked and rhizomatic forms of political life” and “subterranean movements of resistance spreading spontaneously” as well as “the invention of alternative autonomous political spaces and practices” and “the desire for autonomous and sustainable life which no longer bears the imprint of the state.” Although they are definitely not anarchists, groups such as Extinction Rebellion or Black Lives Matter would also fall under the auspices of such ideas blowing in the wind to the extent that they also acknowledge that the powers that be are a political dead end and must now be subverted instead.

Yet besides a realisation in some that politics has done all it can, or all it ever could, to deliver on its phantom promises of equality, liberty and justice — turning into the capitalist’s policeman instead and resulting in a loss of confidence in the state — there is also a companion issue for those who would do something about it. This is that the once revolutionary idea of simply taking over the state and running it on better lines [i.e. in a Marxist, Marxist-Leninist or even just a broadly communist revolutionary way] today seems more unrealistic than ever too. Indeed, Newman himself goes further when he states that “the fantasy of seizing control of the state, as though it were a benign instrument to be commanded by a revolutionary will, is no longer plausible, if indeed it ever was. Radical movements today turn their backs on the state rather than seeking to command it, and they reject centralized structures of leadership and party discipline.” Here Newman both makes an observation — which may be true or not — but also offers a preference for “an anarchistic ethos in which autonomy and self-organization are the key elements”. Stated simply and repeatedly, implicitly and explicitly throughout the book, this is a reasoned preference for insurrectionary existence over revolutionary goal.

But what does “postanarchism” have to do with this? What even is “postanarchism”? I’m glad you asked for I’m about to explain. Newman describes postanarchism as “an anarchism of the here and now, unencumbered by th[e] revolutionary narrative” — by which he means the formerly revolutionary narrative of those 100–150 years before when his chosen classical anarchists were alive who wanted a revolution to overthrow the government and run things themselves. This idea is an example of what is known as a “metanarrative” [a story inside which all the other stories fit — Christianity or evolution would be examples of others] and postanarchism, being, as it is, anarchism as interpreted by poststructuralist or postmodernist thought, does not like metanarratives [since they tend to act as static authorities]. In fact, in the words of one of the primary postmodernism explainers, Jean-Francois Lyotard, it has “incredulity towards metanarratives” — it finds them unbelievable and implausible. So, for the postanarchist, the very idea of a revolution being the guiding story inside which we understand everything we do is just too hard to swallow. Thus, with this incredulity towards metanarratives, it necessitates some rethinking on the part of the postanarchist and I am discussing it here because I believe that in many [but not all] respects this is instructive for the contemporary anarchist too.

Here metanarratives Newman takes on, for example, include the idea of a human subject — currently being split apart and utterly fragmented in contemporary thought as ever greater numbers of gender and sex expressions are created and lived out which dissipate not only authoritarian ideas of these things but make irrelevant class politics and identity politics too. If there is no human subject then how can it be ordered and arranged in certain ways with any authenticity or credibility? Such fracturing dissolves any authority over the subject that now seems not to exist as a result. The aforementioned idea of a revolution is also tackled head on and found hard to believe in by Newman. Here he suggests that instead of wanting to be the power we should simply ignore the power by becoming autonomous. Newman also wants to interrogate power [a pre-eminent poststructuralist concern] and ask after how power seems to attract our own self-abrogation [that is, how we will our own coercion]. Newman describes postanarchism as a result as “a politics and ethics of indifference to power”. Here the key to this, thanks to the poststructuralist undermining which Newman engages in, is that we are always already free and that “the secret of power is its own non-existence”. You will, no doubt, want me to explain these things too so here goes.

In his final chapter of Postanarchism Saul Newman states that “To the extent that postanarchism is still a form of anarchism, it is an anarchism understood not as a certain set of social arrangements, or even as a particular revolutionary project, but rather as a sensibility, a certain ethos or way of living and seeing the world which is impelled by the realization of the freedom that one already has.” I find this instructive for it is basically what I was saying in Being Human in which I offered an anarchism of values, virtues and ethics to my reader, not for a single second realising that this might be compatible with something called “postanarchism”. Neither did I there particularly draw out the insurrectionary rather than the revolutionary consequences of this although I did, I think, emphasize that the anarchism I was putting forward was a matter of “who we are” changing the world rather than it being a matter of certain, pre-ordained actions being carried out according to a pre-determined plan and then all putting our feet up, anarchy achieved, once it had been carried out. Such a conception of possible future events always instinctively struck me as thoroughly implausible which is why, in Being Human, I wrote against the idea of anarchisms of a place or plan and in favour of an anarchism of values and virtues, a who we are changing the world from our insides out.

What Saul Newman does to this idea of mine in Postanarchism is explain it and make sense of it. Substituting the idea of insurrection for revolution [the latter being a metanarrative, the former not], he argues that anarchism [as postanarchism] then becomes “a form of self-transformation and the assertion of one’s indifference to power.” This is a matter of one’s autonomy, one’s self-actualisation [the latter a favourite expression of mine], one’s ownness [for Newman does indeed rely on the thought of Max Stirner quite a lot in explaining this]. As Newman also says in his final chapter, “If one were to ask what postanarchism wants, the only answer that can be given is autonomy.” Autonomy Newman understands broadly as “self-government”, a postanarchist interpretation of the classical anarchist anti-authoritarian impulse. It is as if to say we answer the narrative of classical anarchism, and its consequences, by coming to the conclusion that autonomy or self-government are the values we hold dear instead.

But let’s tackle this point about metanarratives at this point head on. It is Newman’s suggestion that anarchism, certainly in its classical period, “has been shaped by the Enlightenment narratives of emancipation, progress and rationalism; it was at once a revolutionary programme and a science of social relations.” This is to say that it took the grand narratives of liberalism and, essentially, just swapped out liberalism’s values [and means] for its own — but without changing the overall story. It was, thus, still about “a universalizing metanarrative of human freedom” or a “social revolution” which affected everyone equally. The totality of all human relations would be affected by it as we, in theory, went from liberal world to anarchist world. This was all very rational, scientific and positivist and, in more recent times, the thinking of someone like Murray Bookchin could have been a representative of it too.

But is this actually very realistic — or even desirable? Should we all be thinking the same, want the same things or the same outcomes, live in a universal world of universally acknowledged truths and values? Should there be “one dominant, coherent understanding of society”? Is the idea of one universally shared consciousness a truth or a lie — even if its an “anarchist” one? Aren’t there, in fact, other truths — such as contingency, indeterminacy, plurality, diversity — which show this “one size fits all” conception of human existence to be a lie? And, if that is so, wouldn’t the more authentically anarchist way be to honour these truths and leave the metanarrative of a constructed unity to those who believe in such fairy stories? If there is no one truth — and postanarchism insists on this most strongly — then shouldn’t we be living lives, and organising ourselves as those who live lives, that are, intellectually speaking, “groundless and without predetermined ends”?

Newman asserts that we should and informs us that the postanarchist mode of being is “a form of action and thought in the present moment rather than a specific revolutionary project”. So, taking on board a postanarchist cast of thought, we are not trying to instigate a revolution which instantiates our own values upon the world. That, in fact, is what the capitalists and authoritarians [today’s representatives of the liberal Enlightenment] are trying to do and so why should we have ever thought we should be acting or thinking like them? I have always tried to emphasise and re-emphasise that anarchists do not think or act like their non-anarchist fellow human beings: they have their own, quite specific, ethos instead. So, consequently, it just seems bizarre to me that anyone would ever think an entirely different ethos results in the same actions, patterns of thought or results. If you have different values, as Nietzsche tried to explain in his own eventual project of a “transvaluation of all values”, then everything will be different and you will not end up living the same lives by other means. You will have changed life itself. So in a postanarchist interpretation of anarchism there can be no “project of projects” which is our aim for the world. We do not, and should not, want “an anarchist revolution”. Saul Newman puts it like this:

“rather than thinking of anarchism as a distinct project, I find it more useful today to see it in terms of a certain mode of thought and action through which relations of domination, in their specificity, are interrogated, contested and, where possible, overturned. What is central for me in anarchism is the idea of autonomous thinking and acting which transforms contemporary social spaces in the present sense, but which is at the same time contingent and indeterminate in the sense of not being subject to predetermined logics and goals. This does not mean that anarchism should not have ethical principles or be impassioned by certain ideals — but, rather, that it should not, and perhaps any longer cannot, see itself as a specific programme of revolution and political organization. This does not mean, of course, that all projects should be abandoned, but rather that there is no Project of projects that determines all the others.”

I think this is exactly right as well as being honest to the spirit, if not always the thought worlds, of the classical anarchists too. So, in short, imposing an anarchist revolution on the world — assuming we ever could — is not an anarchist thing to want to do. What anarchists [hopefully] want to do is express their autonomy and engage in self-government — in all the freely associational ways anarchists have previously and currently dreamed of, set apart from a metanarrative to which they are all bound. In fact, it is only thinking in this way which leads to the contingent, indeterminate, plural and diverse world the anarchist imagines in the first place. You can’t get there via a one size fits all revolution, a plan to which all the anarchists are working [even if they may often, quite spontaneously, find that they want the same things and so cooperate in their achieving]. You can only leave them alone to work out their own values in their own lives and situations as they see fit. It is this that is anarchism.

Here an important thing to understand is what Newman describes as postanarchism’s beginning with anarchy rather than having it as the end goal. This, in my terms, is a beginning with type 1 anarchy to which type 2 anarchy is the appropriate response rather than starting with nothing and aiming to get a type 2 anarchy as a result of your own action. Newman himself thinks of this as something to do with our ontology [our being, who we are] and he regards such anarchy as “a form of autonomous thinking and acting”: we, in fact, are or become the anarchy and, from this position, live out the anarchy that we become in the world. This is a very important difference with more classical conceptions of anarchy labouring under the weight of the revolutionary metanarrative. It starts with the recognition that we are already free beings onto whom is projected an authoritarian and inauthentic narrative of our control, subservience and coercion. Most important to this view is the recognition that we are free and that, in my terms, anarchy already exists. What may not yet exist is our living according to anarchist values and virtues but our “autonomous thinking and acting” is how we instantiate this in the world as a result.

In order to do this we have a lot of rethinking to do for, to put it bluntly, all of the ways of thinking we have received as a result of the liberal Enlightenment have mindfucked us by making us subjects for its consumption and exploitation. [For myself I would think of anarchism pure and simple as fundamentally an activity of necessary rethinking. Anarchism is not new values from old ideas but new ideas mandating new values. As a result, it becomes impossible to think in the old ways any more and everything becomes rethought.] One area where this is especially necessary is in thinking of the human subject itself and, consequently, Newman pays this some attention in Postanarchism. This is a vital area to discuss in relation to anarchism because who you think you are, and what you think of yourself as, is vitally important for what you can then do with it. For example, if you think all people are born slaves then it makes a big difference as opposed to if you think of them as born free instead. Millions of people in our human history were, in fact, enslaved exactly because white Europeans [amongst others] thought of them as ontologically [that is, in their own being] different from themselves, people who were literally born slaves. Our world today, held in the sway of various guiding mentalities, subjectivises people all the time, classifying them this way and that and putting them into domesticated boxes by which to better control them. In Being Human I objected to this and I intend to carry on doing so here as well via Newman’s postanarchist thinking.

Rather than subjectivities, for reasons that will hopefully soon become apparent, Saul Newman wants to talk about “singularities” instead. Now it should not be lost on the science-interested of my readers that a singularity is a black hole. This you may find to be a useful metaphor as we move forward — especially given the imagined physical characteristics of black holes. We are, of course, now moving, as postanarchists, in post-revolutionary waters in which there are no more proles to be saved and no bourgeoisie to overcome. We are now, in Newman’s terms, about “ontological anarchy”, an anarchy of our being or becoming and we expressly START from this position rather than having it as our end or revolutionary goal. As a result, “there is no essential identity or universally recognized subject destined for emancipation.” This makes “the condition of life — insofar as it cannot be said to have any predetermined identity, pattern or telos — … in its very essence ungovernable.” [This is unfortunate, if understandable, language for, as Newman would himself immediately concede, we postanarchists are not essentialists; we do not think that there are essences which are the central identities of things. There is nothing essential which makes you a man, woman, gay, trans, black, anarchist, catboi, fembot or anything else. There are only linguistic constructions and their associated ideas and the ways in which these interconnect to, and interrelate with, one another.] It is this Newman thinks of, instead, as a “singularity” and he glosses this idea as “self-creating subjects without fixed identity or calling.” This, in turn, results in more than a little contemporary interest, if this sort of thinking be taken as indicative of the times, in anonymity [see the hacker group Anonymous as an example of this], fluidity and various forms of subjective undecidability or indeterminacy. The point here is to reject classification, or being otherwise pinned down, in an act of creative self-actualisation.

This is because, under the guiding liberal epistemology [an epistemology is a form of knowledge or guiding mode of thought], to be a subject, classified this way and that, “is at the same time to be subjected.” Here “The operation of power, combined with regimes of knowledge and truth — formations which are historically contingent — has the effect of producing different modes of subjectification, different ways we have of seeing ourselves.” It is by these means that we are then governed, i.e. through domesticating classifications which, to be blunt, we are not but which, nevertheless, we have been designated by others [most particularly by authority] to be in any case. This acts as a kind of discipline upon us as “the disciplinary effects of modern power operate on individual bodies and behaviours, while its biopolitical effects regulate and secure life at the broader level of the population.” Through classificatory practices the liberal state operates [by subjecting the individual in a double sense] in order to govern. What postanarchism does as a response, according to Newman, is then not simply refuse the government of the state but also refuse the subjectivity the state also wishes to impose in order to be able to govern in the first place. By talking about singularity instead of subjectivity, Newman hopes to encourage us to “life in excess of such [liberal] categories [of subjectivity].” This is because “we are inserted into an apparatus which seeks to capture every facet of existence and desire within its circuits — of consumption, communication, spectacle, hyper-visibility, idiotic enjoyment, endless and meaningless work, debt and constant insecurity — creating an unlimited dependency.” Neoliberalism, in which we are currently immersed, wants us dependent and controlled. As singularities, we begin to refuse its classificatory domestication and become autonomous, [and perhaps even anonymous] self-governing beings. We assert, in Newman’s terms, our ontological anarchy.

This is, then, a practice of eluding a totalising control that is a metanarrative of subjectivity. Newman thinks of this as “the refusal of any kind of representable identity” or a “dis-identification.” This is a practice of, as Newman quotes Michel Foucault, “to refuse who we are,” i.e. what the guiding epistemology has designated us to be. We are, thus, Neo in The Matrix insisting to Agent Smith that our name is not Mr Anderson at all. We, autonomous, self-governing entities that we are, will decide for ourselves what we will be and, as singularities not subjectivities, refuse all outside designations or even their very possibility. We ignore power in this respect for we are our own power, our own being. We seek fluidity, we hunt indeterminacy, we embrace invisibility — anything to avoid the domesticating gaze of authority which wants to bag and tag us. We engage with the Void and, indeed, become it for this is the condition of our greatest freedom — just as, in fact, inside the matrix Neo can be anything. A singularity, then, is “a form of subjectivity which eschews strictly defined identities and creates for itself, in association with others, an autonomous space of existence” which, hopefully, goes on to become “a sort of open, amorphous community without identity or borders.” This envisions, in the words of Giorgio Agamben, which Newman makes use of for his cause, “a struggle between the State and the non-State (humanity), an insurmountable disjunction between whatever singularity and the State organization.”

Once again postanarchism, perhaps of all anarchisms, urges upon the anarchist the imperative to “Rethink! Rethink! Rethink!” for anarchism, if it is anything, is the practice of rethinking the world. It must, thus, undo or rupture the world as previously conceived for its world is not that world.

Such a world, as we should now expect, will not only refuse the identifications and subjectivities of the one it leaves behind but will also refuse to calculate in the same way or ways. It will be “a community of non-essence, non-immanence, defined not by any particular identity but by its own openness and finitude.” It won’t have a particular goal or end. It will simply be a community of open relations which leaves the idea of sovereign identities behind. To this extent, it won’t be the project, often seen being pursued by those discriminated against, of trying to get included in the list of acceptable subjectivities. If subjectivity itself, in a liberal way of thinking, is thought illegitimate in itself then it is made no more legitimate by designating yourself trans or pansexual or anything else. Postanarchistic thinking does away with the very idea of such essentialistic, sovereign identities, trans as well as cis, pan as well as heterosexual, and, in fact, “makes impossible closure or totality of any kind.” Much like liberal feminism is faulty in thinking that if we get female bosses we have solved some feminist problem, it is equally faulty to imagine that if our particular subjectivity gets “accepted” that we have, thereby, invented any sort of genuine equality, or made any kind of progress, at all. In fact, we have only extended the domesticating subjection of subjectivities.

Enter Max Stirner. Stirner was a radical anti-essentialist who was horrified by the idea of being inhabited by variously invented “spooks” and abstractions such as “Man,” “Humanity,” “Society”, etc. We may, in some respects, think of Stirner as a Nietzsche before Nietzsche for, like this more illustrious philosophical thinker, Stirner is a theorist of the decline and deconstruction of metanarratives and their correspondingly imagined authority. He particularly does not wish to see God destroyed only to be reinvented as Man. Stirner is an anti-humanist who exposes liberalism and humanism as reinventions of the Divine and decries such a religion of Humanity. Where such liberal humanists look and see a whole host of abstractions which haunt them — ideals which articulate their existence — Stirner sees only “emptiness”. Stirner does not think that people can be examples of abstractions such as “Man” and, more to the point, he does not think they should want to be. Stirner, like Foucault as mentioned above, is about “refusing who we are” too. He is against fictional commonalities which are subsequently easily domesticated and institutionalized. Stirner thinks of himself, and others, not as abstractions, examples of an invented spook or class, but as concrete personalities, examples of themselves, egos, unique. [Hence the title of his only major work, normally rendered The Ego and Its Own in English, but equally valid when translated as The Unique and Its Property.]

As Newman himself explains, “in taking the ego as the only ontological reality, [Stirner] is seeking to undermine the authority of transcendental concepts and their hold over us and inviting people to affirm themselves, in their uniqueness and singularity, as their only cause. Stirner’s philosophy of egoism is a programme of autonomy, or what he calls ‘ownness’.” This, however, is not “individualism” which is a liberal, subjective category of thinking. Here what is important, as Newman extrapolates, is that “this singular ego is not an essence of any kind — it is not an individual with a set of properties and interests; rather, it is a kind of nothingness, what Stirner calls a ‘creative nothing’, in a constant state of flux and becoming, consuming itself and creating itself anew.” It is in this sense that Stirner says of his own idea that “no concept expresses me, nothing that is designated as my essence exhausts me; they are only names.” This means, as Saul Newman concludes, that “To be singular is to be undefinable, and, as I have suggested above, to be undefinable, or unrepresentable, is to be ungovernable.”

By now we find ourselves deep into Saul Newman’s postanarchist construction and, breaking from the organisation he has pursued in his own book, I want to harness the rest of my comments about it under the heading of “insurrection”, the title he gives to the third chapter of Postanarchism. This, it will soon be seen, is both a call back to Diogenes’ own insurrection against Greek society in my first chapter and a foreshadowing of what is to come in my third, itself about insurrection. This is partly because I find what Newman has to say uneven and partly because what he has to say about insurrection I find enticing, so enticing, in fact, that it draws anything else of value he has to say to it. In this way, in fact, it seems to me that Newman’s specific postanarchist mentality can best be represented as a postanarchist indifference to power that is resistance to subjectification but is not the revolutionary seizure of power either. In fact, the postanarchist insurrection is “the struggle for autonomous life”.

First let me return to the contemporary incredulity towards the revolutionary metanarrative, however, for this certainly plays its part. I don’t know if the figures from a classical anarchist past genuinely imagined governmental overthrow was a realistic possibility but, being bitingly honest with myself, it doesn’t seem remotely likely or possible to me. This is not an admission of defeat. Perhaps in 1917 in Russia or in 1936 in Spain people allowed themselves to dream but, as we now know, both dreams turned to nightmares and we later anarchists must, necessarily, be chastened as a result. But more than the possibility of revolution, which itself seems vanishingly small, there is the question of the desirability of revolution.

This is where the postanarchist, such as Saul Newman, notes that “the revolution always aims at the founding of a new political order, a new state, and, as the anarchists argued, it [i]s naïve in the extreme to believe that this would simply ‘wither away’ of its own accord once the immediate aims of the revolution had been achieved.” This is to say that the idea of revolution, as anarchists have conceived it, is itself a fantasy devoid of real world consequences and connotations. You don’t have a revolution and then everything is better. There will never be a day, or a time period, when the world changes from bad to good or oppressive to cooperative. You create a real and, in many senses, unknown world as a result of a revolution in which all you really know is that its guaranteed not everyone will want what you want. The problem with revolution, in fact, is that the thought of it is itself not revolutionary. It imagines an anarchist world only as an anarchist version of a non-anarchist world, a liberal or neoliberal world. And that won’t do at all.

The classical anarchists, however, were not totally blind to this. They wanted “the total abolition of politics”. They were interested in “genuinely autonomous, decentralized and participatory mass organizations.” It is in this respect that Newman concedes that maybe these classical anarchists carried with them a notion of insurrection as “an autonomous form of political mobilization and practice which sets itself apart from the state — which does not seek state power for itself but actually embodies its dissolution.” This, however, is not just a matter of rejecting the old [in terms of material apparatus and organisation as well as in terms of its thinking] but of also embracing the new — of thinking and acting differently. To this extent, the postanarchist disavows “revolutionary dogmatism” and institutes an insurrection which “relies on informal groups of anarchists, organized on the basis of affinity, who intervene in specific situations without these actions being overdetermined by the idea of the immanent revolution — in other words, without the expectation that such actions will lead to the social revolution.”

This is a major shift of emphasis if “classical anarchism” is deemed to be possessed in any way by the spook of “revolution”. Yet it is a shift that came before the vast majority of classical anarchists, if this is so, since Newman links it back to Stirner in The Ego and Its Own in 1844, as the following quotation suggests:

“Revolution and insurrection must not be looked upon as synonymous. The former consists in an overturning of conditions, of the established condition or status, the state or society, and is accordingly a political or social act; the latter has indeed for its unavoidable consequence a transformation of circumstances, yet does not start from it but from men’s discontent with themselves, is not an armed rising but a rising of individuals, a getting up without regard to the arrangements that spring from it. The Revolution aimed at new arrangements; insurrection leads us no longer to let ourselves be arranged, but to arrange ourselves, and sets no glittering hopes on ‘institutions’. It is not a fight against the established, since, if it prospers, the established collapses of itself; it is only a working forth of me out of the established.”

About this, Newman has the following to say:

“The revolution works to transform external social and political conditions and institutions — in this sense, there is little difference between the Marxist ‘political’ revolution and anarchist ‘social’ revolution. The insurrection, by contrast, is aimed at one’s own self-transformation (it starts ‘from men’s discontent with themselves’); it involves placing oneself above external conditions and constraints, whereupon these constraints simply disintegrate. It starts from the affirmation of the self, and the political consequences flow from this.”

This, in the postanarchist vocabulary, is recognisably a form of what I myself was saying in Being Human when I spoke about values and virtues and it starting with our own self-actualisation which is itself a self-transformation. So what I didn’t know at the time I wrote my last book was that, in Stirner and Newman’s terms, I was actually talking about personal insurrection, about being the insurrection in this act of self-actualisation according to identifiably anarchist values and virtues. For, in both cases, my own work and Newman’s postanarchism here, such activity “eschews the idea of an overarching project of emancipation or social transformation; freedom is not the end goal of the insurrection but, rather, its starting point.” We might not all be free until everyone is free but the lesson here is that the freedom begins when you free yourself. It is, as Newman states, “the affirmation of self over… conditions, as if to say: power exists but it is not my concern; I refuse to let it constrain me or have any effect on me; I refuse power’s power over me.” This, rather than leading to the political quietism of which Marx and Engels subsequently accused Stirner, is a refusal of self-abdication in the face of power to which many succumb, being dominated and coerced as they are supposed [from the position of authority] to be and, instead, a recognition that power doesn’t actually exist except as a relationship. As Newman adds here, “we need to understand power not as a substance or a thing, but as a relationship which we forge and renew everyday through our actions and our relations with others.” We can destroy power by creating new relationships [which, as I argue in my monograph on the historical Jesus of Nazareth, Yeshua The Jewish Anarchist, is exactly what he was doing in becoming a destitute beggar, with others, on purpose] and, so Newman suggests, if we create “alternative and more autonomous relations” for ourselves then the result just might be “the disintegration of state power.” In fact, I pretty much argued this myself in my pamphlet with Lara Nasir titled Building Communities and Defeating Capitalism in which I said that if we lived according to the principles of mutual aid, rather than capitalist finance, then we would change the world [because we have changed the relationships].

So, in this respect, “the insurrection signifies a withdrawal from the game of power and counter-power altogether — indeed, an indifference to power. Its focus is on the transformation of the self and its immediate relation to others, and on the development of autonomous ways of living which seek to avoid the trap that power has laid for us.” There is, as I already forewarned in coming to this section of my chapter, an obvious, and already mentioned, example of this in this book in the person of Diogenes. It is an interesting [and, as far as I am aware, unanswerable] question what Diogenes and his Cynic colleagues thought they were doing being conspicuously poor and outspoken in public in the Hellenistic world. Did they, for example, imagine that the denizens of Athens, Corinth and the like would all become Cynics like them? Was their goal comrades and a mass movement? If so, they were SPECTACULARLY unsuccessful as a result for almost nobody was an active Cynic. Others suggest that the Cynics were public educators, perhaps also the conscience of their societies, and there is certainly historical scope to see this as realistic. But how about interpreting Diogenes, instead, as an example of anarchist insurrection in a Hellenistic milieu? If it is true, as Newman intimates, that “The insurrection is a withdrawal not only from the political field — that is to say, the formal field of political institutions and systems of power — but also from the

economic field” then Diogenes and the Cynics certainly seem to fit the bill, given what we know about them. They exhibited “a refusal of the life of debt, consumption and financial control”; they imposed “the life of necessity and survival” upon the political realm of their day. Diogenes himself refused the political institutions, mocked the cultural festivals and even devalued the currency, so we are told.

Of course, there is a poststructuralist reading of Diogenes and it comes from Michel Foucault and Newman uses it to argue that Diogenes was “an example of the genuine philosophical life, in which the courage of truth and the ethics of existence were embodied in every gesture and act, in one’s daily life and activities... Th[is] ethical life was also a militant life in the sense that it pitted itself against the norms, mores and institutions of existing society and sought to break radically with them…The lesson of Diogenes, then, may be that, to do politics differently, we must learn to live differently and embody politics in life and life in politics.” I myself, as an amateur student of Diogenes in particular, find this to be an authentic reading of the Dog but it points up in its consequences, as Newman goes on to say in the context of a postanarchist insurrection, that “The only way that we can free ourselves ultimately from the economic system that enslaves us — through debt and endless, meaningless work — is if we come to no longer desire it, if we refuse the fetishism of commodities and disinvest our desires from the capitalist way of life and from the psychic economy of guilt that arises with constant indebtedness.” We are not taught that anyone taught Diogenes to be the way he was [the unclear connection to Antisthenes aside] and so we must assume that it was something about his interpretation of life itself which led to his manifestation as a deliberately destitute critic of politics, economy and culture living his own insurrection whilst on full public display.

Diogenes, as such, manifested his own “autonomous life of self-government”. Yet, coming back to Max Stirner, we need to ask what an autonomous life of freedom and insurrection might actually be. The problem with freedom, as Stirner had already suggested, is that it is itself an abstraction whilst also only ever being someone’s particular version of freedom that can be instantiated, becoming, in effect, “a new domination”. Therefore, as Newman ascertains from Stirner:

“freedom must be left to the ‘unique one’ to determine for him or herself. It should be seen as ongoing elaboration of individual autonomy rather than a general political and social goal — freedom as a singular practice, unique to the individual, rather than a universally proclaimed ideal and aspiration. Freedom, in other words, must be divested of its abstractions and brought down to the level of the unique one.”

This kind of freedom is then self-ownership, self-mastery or, as I have already indicated I prefer, self-actualisation. Stirner’s own preference was to talk of “ownness” where “Ownness is a way of restoring to the individual his or her capacity for freedom, of reminding the individual that s/he is already free in an ontological sense, rather than seeing freedom as a universal goal to be attained for humanity.” My freedom, in other words, and as an insurrection, must be my own. It must be an autonomy.

A further part of this insurrectionary actualisation of the self is in what Newman labels “voluntary inservitude”. This begins with the idea, posited by Étienne de la Boétie in his book Discourse on Voluntary Servitude, that, to quote Newman, “all forms of power [a]re essentially sustained, indeed created, by our voluntary submission.” This evolves into an argument that material power exists essentially because we submit to it, cooperate with it, etc., and that without this it would struggle to exist at all. Such an argument might also be seen to support the view that, in some sense, we will our own domination or, perhaps, have been educated, habituated, into willing it. The consequence of this is that power would struggle to express itself so deliberately and purposefully without our [coerced] cooperation or even desired acquiescence. Newman develops this line of thinking into an analysis of culture in general when he says:

“in thinking about freedom today and its centrality to any politics of emancipation, we seem to arrive at a dead end. Not only is freedom an increasingly opaque and ambiguous concept — which is why I have suggested that ‘ownness’ might be a more useful category — but it is not at all clear that people actually want it. On the contrary, the most superficial glance at our contemporary world seems to reveal a desire not for freedom but for authority, for a new Master. How else does one explain the electoral success of all kinds of reactionary, authoritarian and even fascist political movements or the return of the most noxious fundamentalisms and reactionary ideologies? Is there not a clamouring for more police powers, more punitive law and order measures, tougher action against ‘illegal’ migrants and certain minorities, more restrictive regimes of border control, more intensive surveillance, and so on?

This would be what Deleuze and Guattari in A Thousand Plateaus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia called ‘micro-fascism’: a kind of authoritarianism and desire for one’s own repression that permeates the social body, infiltrating everyday habits, behaviours and practices, and inhabiting the politics of both the right and the left. Indeed, historical fascism itself is something which might in large part be explained by this phenomenon of voluntary servitude.”

Newman puts this another way when he goes on to say:

“In other words, such regimes are conditional upon a particular form of obedience — not one generated primarily by fear or coercion but, rather, by freedom. We obey freely through our everyday patterns and rituals of behaviour and consumption — shopping, voting, communicating and enjoying in normalized ways, and even in ‘abnormal’ ways. It is through the continuous repetition of these habits and behaviours that power is sustained.”

This essentially means that, in such ways, we no longer need tyrants threatening our lives to physically coerce our pained collusion with the interests of power. Instead, we have been schooled into willing them for ourselves, canonised, as they are, as “normal” or “a quiet life” or “minding your own business” or “not getting involved”. And so “at least in formally democratic societies — there is no longer any figure of the tyrant who might otherwise serve as a cover or excuse for our cowering submission to neoliberal forms of economic and political power.” This is what is called our “voluntary servitude” but it is a problem for those with the ideas of a classical anarchism in their head, as Newman explains, because:

“Anarchism above all is a philosophy of human freedom and emancipation based on an essentially optimistic view of human capacities for rational and moral action. Once power was destroyed, freedom would reign. Yet, this narrative of emancipation, like many others, encounters the central deadlock of human desire — the voluntary servitude and love of submission which thwarts these revolutionary aspirations.”

Thus, we find ourselves with a question: how can we be the insurrection if we all too easily will our own submission, having become habituated to it?

Newman decides to read La Boétie’s text, with its possibly pessimistic conclusions for human beings, in an emancipatory way. He says that “If we have freely chosen servitude, if we willingly participate in our own domination without the need for coercion, then this means that all power, even if it appears to bear down upon us, is essentially an illusion, one of our own making. If, in other words, we have created the tyrant in our act of submission to him, this means that the tyrant has no real power.” The conclusion Newman then comes to is that “All power is only our power” and that “domination is only possible through our continuing submission, the continual offering of ourselves to power.” We must, in other words, “emancipate ourselves from our own servitude” and Newman sees this as something compatible with his earlier thoughts about insurrection [as opposed to the revolution] in that it “does not launch an assault on power but is simply an affirmation of oneself over power.” By refusing to acknowledge power [something Leo Tolstoy credits to Jesus of Nazareth in his teaching about turning the other cheek or going the extra mile in Matthew’s Gospel, chapter 5], we destabilise its very existence. We refuse to be dominated.

Indeed, according to Newman, both Stirner and de la Boétie may be read as concluding that “power does not exist”. This, of course, is not to say that it cannot have real or material effects. It means that power has no power over us if we refuse to let it have any. We can, as it were, stand unbowed, unclaimed, unclassified and undomesticated by it. Power, in fact, is only a relation, one we can acquiesce in the face of or refuse. And so “we should think of power not in terms of mastery or domination but, rather, as an unstable, impermanent set of relations and interactions.” This is then to say that we always already in fact have our own freedom and that, in keeping it, we refuse the relation of domination by power. Our “voluntary inservitude”, our insurrection, is then in refusing to give up our freedom, refusing to be dominated and exploited by authority, and choosing to be self-governing and autonomous. We display what Stirner calls “ownness” and I call our self-actualisation. Here we make our own values rather than being coerced into the games of others where power, money, sensuality and an obsession with trinkets and other external objects can be used to control us. In this, “The important point… is that freedom is our ever-present possibility and, indeed, our ontological condition, our point of departure” rather than something we are trying to achieve. We begin as free people who own our own beings and then, in a refusal of submission to power or authorities, we, as Nietzsche says, “become who we are.” This is our insurrection in every sense of the term.


It is in this sense that, to begin rounding up my appraisal of Newman’s postanarchism, this is anarchism in that “it is an anarchism understood not as a certain set of social arrangements, or even as a particular revolutionary project, but rather as a sensibility, a certain ethos or way of living and seeing the world which is impelled by the realization of the freedom that one already has.” This is very much compatible with my understanding of anarchism, expressed paradigmatically in my book Being Human, which is about who you are and who you are becoming as a person possessed of an existential freedom, the ability to self-educate, and the virtues and values that you hold dear in a process I describe as self-actualisation. This has perhaps all sounded rather individualistic but it is not and a social context for this is always assumed as opposed to a bunker where one hides oneself away to self-actualise. In fact, such processes and practices can only take place in a social world in which one actualises oneself in tandem and interaction with others. If the guiding metaphors of a postanarchism are the rhizome and the network then this implies intercourse with other nodes on the net in an ongoing way and the necessity of such interaction for the operation of the whole. I, personally, very much believe this to be the case in a context in which the freedom of all supports and maintains the freedom of the one.

But, as I hope my discussion of postanarchism guided by Saul Newman has shown, none of this can take place if we are not each in possession of our own “autonomy”. It is in each of us acting in our own freedom, something we already possess if only we will realise it, that a social freedom becomes possible. Here Saul Newman gives us a warning in that “if we think of autonomy as something that is granted to us by the state, then it can be very easily taken out of our hands.” Instead, as ungovernable singularities rather than “governable identities”, we must insist that we govern ourselves and practice such self-government. As Newman explains, involving Stirner in his explanation once more:

“’I am my own only when I am master of myself, instead of being mastered either by sensuality or by anything else (God, man, authority, law, state, church)’. We should note here that, for Stirner, whether the threat to one’s autonomy is internal (sensuality) or external (institutions like law, state and church), the danger is the same: institutions can become internalized compulsions, fixed ideas, whose submission to which we come to desire; and internalized passions and desires are always in danger of materializing into external systems of domination which threaten to engulf us.”

Thus is seen that “autonomy”, “self-government”, “singularity”, “insurrection” and “voluntary inservitude” are all important, and interconnecting, concepts/practices engaged in this action of what Newman calls “self-constitution”, an essential start point for any society or community that would ever wish to become “anarchist”, anti-authoritarian in the classical tradition of anarchism or self-sustaining. It begins, necessarily, with who you are, with what you are becoming, and, as Newman suggests:

“We should understand this in properly poststructuralist terms: the self is not an essence but a series of becomings, an ongoing project of self-constitution without any clear end or telos. From this perspective autonomy should be seen not as a state one reaches, such that one is truly and finally autonomous — for what could this be but the very end of subjectivity itself? — but, rather, as a series of agonistic practices carried out in the context of constraints and limitations, both external and internal.”

This can sound very simplistic — as in when Newman comments that “freedom is simply a matter of willing differently”. Hopefully, having read the several pages of this chapter before this, you can see why Saul Newman would now say that. Yet we must hold at the forefront of our minds Newman’s ontological point here just as I previously insisted, in Being Human, that there is more context to our anarchism than the fact of our desire to live free of the encumbrances and coercions of state, property and capital. My own greater context was not expressed as our ever-present ontological freedom, as it is with Newman, but as the fact of a universe which exists, as a kind of harmony, yet completely uncoerced. I think that, in our own ways, Newman and I are not so far apart. I accept Newman’s “ontological freedom” as a poststructuralist explanation of my more existential idea. Both are ways of describing the human condition [and conditioning], if using differing vocabularies. Both involve setting our freedom to be free in wider contexts and carving out autonomous spaces by engaging in practices likely to increase and actualise our own autonomy and further the project [but not the project of projects!] of an “aristocracy of all”. As Newman suggests, in this project “ethical self-discipline and practices of ownness are key themes here” as we travel on the way to “rhizomatic associations” and “autonomous relations” in a universe beyond coercing.



Let us start this chapter by defining terms. As you will have read in the previous chapter, there is a distinction to be made between “insurrection” — which is what this book is about — and “revolution” — which it is not. [Unfortunately, in many other places insurrection and revolution are regarded as synonyms or used interchangeably. I want to suggest most strongly that they are not and shouldn’t be.] But this does not mean that I have no interest in revolution or, indeed, in changing the world. It means, as Saul Newman proposed in the last chapter, that thinking in terms of a narrative of revolution and overthrow and having this as a goal is now seen as unrealistic and unhelpful. So “insurrection” is not “revolution” but that does not mean that insurrection cannot lead to revolution. Perhaps it does — but insurrection does not set out with any end goal in mind [which is actually part of its insurrectionary nature and appeal]. Think of it like this: a revolution is a project in which a definitive endpoint is mapped out in advance; you only know you have had a revolution because this endpoint has been achieved and, without it being achieved, what you have is a failed revolution because the endpoint itself [which is a matter of material circumstances alone] was the ultimate point of it.

Insurrection, however, has no endpoint, has no destination, has no goal. It is simply the present refusal of current conditions, more especially the authorities and power relations of the moment. It is an actualisation of self [and conceivably also of community or communities, each in their own ways] in defiance of current power structures and with the acknowledgement of a freedom you are already in possession of. It is the declaration of autonomy and self-government and the determination to make this the basis of your habitual existence. Put bluntly, the government might never change but you could still be living an insurrectionary existence. In an insurrection, as I am understanding it here, you ARE the insurrection. Or, at least, you become it. So insurrection is not about having a plan — although it may involve putting plans into action as part of your insurrectionary existence. Insurrection is about you and what you are, how you live. I hope this is clear. But the question is how we then effect this and what is involved. I aim to say a few words about that here.

Being an insurrection is about becoming, and remaining, ungovernable. But how does one become ungovernable? [Becoming it is much harder than remaining it once you have become it.] Perhaps by identifying that which wishes to govern you and rebelling against it? These things, it must fundamentally be understood, are not just the material symbols of coercion and control such as cops and courts and jails and parliaments and congress buildings. The war for control of you began long before these things ever existed for you and it was a war that took place in your mind, in the realm of ideas, concepts, beliefs and attitudes. The insurrection begins within, as it must, because your mind is a colonised space, a place occupied by your enemies, and every single one of them must be rooted out. You become ungovernable, and institute your insurrection, by kicking out the governors which are the thoughts and ideas other people gave you and told you to obey. They are modes of thought, concepts, ideas, things you would perhaps never even think to question. But to actualise yourself, to be the insurrection, that’s exactly what you have to do.

But thoughts and ideas about what? Certainly, as Eric Hazan and the “group of anonymous French revolutionaries” who call themselves Kamo say in their book First Measures of the Coming Insurrection, “democratic capitalism”. As these people present this concept [in which democratic is an adjective modifying capitalism], democracy is imagined as “a system of government that helps the rest of the world to join in by various means.” That is to say, I think, that it is being used as a coercion — which doesn’t sound very “democratic”. [We should all, by now, be wise to the fact that the global north exists by forcing the global south to accept its dictats and its ways, “democracy” being chief among them.] Democracy, in fact, as I have had reason to note before, becomes a slippery, plastic type of word, a word which is a lie to hide the truth that democracy is, in fact, being taken away from you rather than extended to you. It is a pretend liberty and then, as these French writers contend, “is incontestable because it is the regime of liberty, which an insidious shift then identifies with liberal values, free trade, free competition and neoliberalism.” This is of relevance when it can be said that “Democratic capitalism has imposed itself as the ultimate, definitive form of social existence, not only in the ideology of the ruling class but even in the popular imagination.” Never mind that this “democracy” is, in fact, a con in order to take away your ability to determine your own life at both personal and national levels.

But the insurrection about which I am speaking here is not even primarily a matter of political or economic ideologies, however obsessed with them some people might be. It is about the nuclear family, about schooling, sexuality and sexual expression, gender, how you present yourself to the world and what role you play in interacting with other people, bosses and the very idea of an employer, landlords and the owning of property or land, money and currency and what is of value [and how and why it is of value], right and wrong. It is, to be blunt, about rethinking your entire existence and the concatenation of relationships which it involves. But besides these quite intimate and everyday things it can also be about the big questions such as “What is civilization — and is it any good for us?” As I have already been unable to stop myself from saying in previous chapters of this book, anarchism, and the anarchist insurrection, as I understand it, is a process of RETHINKING, a matter of self-education. And that means rethinking everything for yourself as a process of self-actualisation as a means to instantiating your autonomy and self-government.

Perhaps an example will suffice to get us into such a conversation? I provide one with reference to The Invisible Committee’s book The Coming Insurrection and their brief discussion of “work” [their “third circle”]. No doubt you are familiar with this “work” concept and you should be because we have arranged for ourselves [especially in the global north] a world where, without it, you might not survive. [This does not seem very smart.] The Invisible Committee are, as with Eric Hazan and Kamo, French — and so they speak in relation to a French mentality and context but I’m sure you will get the point.

How do the French think about work? According to The Invisible Committee:

“In France, we get down on all fours to climb the ladders of hierarchy, but privately flatter ourselves that we don’t really give a shit. We stay at work until ten o’clock in the evening when we’re swamped, but we’ve never had any scruples about stealing office supplies here and there, or carting off the inventory in order to resell it later. We hate bosses, but we want to be employed at any cost. To have a job is an honour, yet working is a sign of servility. In short: the perfect clinical illustration of hysteria. We love while hating, we hate while loving. And we all know the stupor and confusion that strike the hysteric when he loses his victim — his master. More often than not, he doesn’t get over it.”

What might we say about this as insurrectionists? That you surely need to survive but that you equally as surely don’t need “a job” or “work” to do it? Governments scramble to assure us, with massaged figures, that everybody has a job [because everyone SHOULD have a job] but no one really wants one whilst those who don’t are regarded as parasites on the back of society. Yet work, in fact, is a fiction. No one HAS to live like this. No society HAS to be organised like this. So it is then understandable when The Invisible Committee write that “We accept the necessity of finding money, by whatever means, because it is currently impossible to do without it, but we reject the necessity of working. Besides, we don’t work anymore: we do our time. Business is not a place where we exist, it’s a place we pass through. We aren’t cynical, we are just unwilling to be deceived.” Thus, because of work’s lack of necessity but its imposition nevertheless, an imposition which induces our own inauthenticity towards others and ourselves, “The disaster has already occurred: it resides in everything that had to be destroyed, in all those who had to be uprooted, in order for work to end up as the only way of existing.”

Thus, I agree with The Invisible Committee’s analysis of work as a whole, that “The horror of work is less in the work itself than in the methodical ravaging, for centuries, of all that

isn’t work: the familiarities of one’s neighbourhood and trade, of one’s village, of struggle, of kinship, our attachment to places, to beings, to the seasons, to ways of doing and speaking.” Of course, we would never know this now. Our minds were colonised by the workerist fiction long ago. Not having a job became a cause of shame, even a disgrace, a long time ago now. The desire for work, the prestige of having a job, any job, was implanted in us as the cancer we could not do without. But have you ever noticed that

“work has totally triumphed over all other ways of existing, at the same time as workers have become superfluous [?]. Gains in productivity, outsourcing, mechanization, automated and digital production have so progressed that they have almost reduced to zero the quantity of living labour necessary in the manufacture of any product. We are living the paradox of a society of workers without work, where entertainment, consumption and leisure only underscore the lack from which they are supposed to distract us.”

But its about more than this. Jobs are divided into important tasks — which pay highly and are relatively few — and menial tasks which, potentially, anyone can do and require either little skill or mindless repetition according to a script or both. For temporary workers or those who don’t [but SHOULD] have a job, being available for work can even become a sort of job in itself — especially under the Stasi-like gaze of the bureaucrats of democratic capitalism who force you to prove you are obeying their rules in order to receive paltry benefits. Meanwhile, for the rarefied few in highly paid jobs, work never stops as their lives become work. As The Invisible Committee here comment, “They and their work are effectively bound in one anxious embrace. Managers, scientists, lobbyists, researchers, programmers, developers, consultants and engineers, literally never stop working. Even their sex lives serve to augment productivity” — as in the fantasy I’ve sometimes played out [in novels] of a 45 year old female executive in some company who literally fucks every client to cement the working relationship and provide “added value” to the customer.

But, in this dualistic scheme of the valued few and the despised many, the spectre of the superfluity of most people hangs over work. If you are essentially performing a task that anyone could do then what is the value in you specifically? Our apparent valuelessness requires our coercion to continue participating lest idle hands find better things to do — like destroying the machines. This gives rise to what David Graeber famously called “bullshit jobs”, the doing of anything so long as its “work”, no matter how meaningless or pointless it actually is. The Invisible Committee comment:

“The burgeoning slave trade in ‘personal services’ must continue: cleaning, catering, massage, domestic nursing, prostitution, tutoring, therapy, psychological aid, etc. This is accompanied by a continual raising of the standards of security, hygiene, control, and culture, and by an accelerated recycling of fashions, all of which establish the need for such services. In Rouen, we now have ‘human parking meters:’ people who wait around on the street and deliver you your parking slip, and, if it’s raining, will even rent you an umbrella.”

But here’s where it becomes of relevance to the insurrectionist who is impelled to RETHINK, to self-educate, to self-actualise, to chase the spooks out of their minds: “The order of work [i]s the order of a world.” As a result:

“The evidence of its ruin is paralysing to those who dread what will come after. Today work is tied less to the economic necessity of producing goods than to the political necessity of producing producers and consumers, and of preserving by any means necessary the order of work. Producing oneself is becoming the dominant occupation of a society where production no longer has an object: like a carpenter who’s been evicted from his shop and in desperation sets about hammering and sawing himself. All these young people smiling for their job interviews, who have their teeth whitened to give them an edge, who go to nightclubs to boost their company spirit, who learn English to advance their careers, who get divorced or married to move up the ladder, who take courses in leadership or practice “self-improvement” in order to better “manage conflicts”-“the most intimate ‘self-improvement’,” says one guru, “will lead to increased emotional stability, to smoother and more open relationships, to sharper intellectual focus, and therefore to a better economic performance. This swarming little crowd that waits impatiently to be hired while doing whatever it can to seem natural is the result of an attempt to rescue the order of work through an ethos of mobility. To be mobilized is to relate to work not as an activity but as a possibility. If the unemployed person removes his piercings, goes to the barber and keeps himself busy with “projects,” if he really works on his “employability,” as they say, it’s because this is how he demonstrates his mobility. Mobility is this slight detachment from the self, this minimal disconnection from what constitutes us, this condition of strangeness whereby the self can now be taken up as an object of work, and it now becomes possible to sell oneself rather than one’s labour power, to be remunerated not for what one does but for what one is, for our exquisite mastery of social codes, for our relational talents, for our smile and our way of presenting ourselves. This is the new standard of socialization. Mobility brings about a fusion of the two contradictory poles of work: here we participate in our own exploitation, and all participation IS exploited. Ideally, you are yourself a little business, your own boss, your own product. Whether one is working or not, it’s a question of generating contacts, abilities, networking, in short: “human capital.” The planetary injunction to mobilize at the slightest pretext — cancer, “terrorism,” an earthquake, the homeless — sums up the reigning powers’ determination to maintain the reign of work beyond its physical disappearance.”

Perhaps you never realised all this was going on. But The Invisible Committee did. Notice how they describe the attitude to work. Notice what it makes us — “workers”. Are we “workers” or are we human beings? Are we “workers” or are we free? A “worker” is not free. To be a “worker” is to engage not in voluntary inservitude, as Saul Newman suggested in the last chapter we do, but to be pressed into involuntary servitude. “Work” is enslaving yourself to ideas about how society should function and what life is all about. Shouldn’t the anarchist insurrectionist RETHINK this whole proposition?

If one example is not enough, then consider the insights of the anthropologist and anarchist activist, David Graeber, a man whose great intellectual talent was joining the dots in imaginative ways. This talent for joining the dots was, in fact, itself a demonstration of a skill that is sorely needed if one is going to be the insurrection for it is a skill which enables one to step outside of the imposed narratives and accustomed thoughts to actually do what is most needful: to see things differently. [Compare the inference of the first line of the sacred Buddhist text, The Dhammapada, which reads: “All that we are is the result of what we have thought: it is founded on our thoughts, it is made up of our thoughts.” The first pair of verses of this 423 verse text imply that we suffer or benefit from the thoughts — and so the thinking — that we have accordingly in order to point up that the discipline of the mind is the most vital battle of all.] This, in fact, is also the entire basis of the graphic novel V for Vendetta by Alan Moore and David Lloyd where it is Evey’s ability to see with new eyes for the first time, an activity coerced by V after his own coercion in a detention camp which resulted in his own new vision of things, which convinces Evey of the necessity of V’s vision of a future anarchist society of “do as you please” and the need to destroy Norsefire, society’s current fascist overlords. This need to “see with new eyes” is something that the prolific writer Alan Moore has continued in his own life as he has chosen to become a magician and an occultist, activities which, amongst other things, he claims enable him to see things without the blinkers of the world upon his eyes. Indeed, Moore draws parallels between magic and anarchism which I referred to more explicitly in a chapter of Being Human.

But back to David Graeber. In his essay “Practical Utopian’s Guide to the Coming Collapse”, an essay published in The Baffler which also found its way into his 2014 book The Democracy Project: A History, A Crisis, A Movement, Graeber begins by asking “What is a revolution?” The answer is not as you might imagine for, even in the days when “revolutionaries” imagined armies storming the capital and taking over the government, this is not usually what actually happened. Revolutions, Graeber insists, are more often than not direct actions which linger on in their after effects. As a result, he suggests that “contemporary revolutionaries rarely think they can bring [revolutions] into being by some modern-day equivalent of storming the Bastille.” Instead, his essay focuses on what he terms “planetwide transformations of political common sense.” It is about changing what people can think and what they find acceptable to think. He illustrates this with a paragraph summarising the thoughts of the historian Immanuel Wallerstein accordingly which is worth repeating:

“Already by the time of the French Revolution, Wallerstein notes, there was a single world market, and increasingly a single world political system as well, dominated by the huge colonial empires. As a result, the storming of the Bastille in Paris could well end up having effects on Denmark, or even Egypt, just as profound as on France itself—in some cases, even more so. Hence he speaks of the “world revolution of 1789,” followed by the “world revolution of 1848,” which saw revolutions break out almost simultaneously in fifty countries, from Wallachia to Brazil. In no case did the revolutionaries succeed in taking power, but afterward, institutions inspired by the French Revolution—notably, universal systems of primary education—were put in place pretty much everywhere. Similarly, the Russian Revolution of 1917 was a world revolution ultimately responsible for the New Deal and European welfare states as much as for Soviet communism. The last in the series was the world revolution of 1968—which, much like 1848, broke out almost everywhere, from China to Mexico, seized power nowhere, but nonetheless changed everything. This was a revolution against state bureaucracies, and for the inseparability of personal and political liberation, whose most lasting legacy will likely be the birth of modern feminism.”

Physical revolutions, what we might better call “direct actions” and which I will have much more to say about in a chapter about anarchism and organisation below, do then have their effects and even if they fail [which they often do]. The effect they have is of changing how we think and what we think is acceptable. This is indicative of shifting attitudes in those who already think differently, who are the insurrection, because, as Graeber says of the “cultural revolution” of 1968: “in most cases, the rebels didn’t even try to take over the apparatus of state; they saw that apparatus as itself the problem.” Even then, as Newman suggested in the last chapter, the “revolutionary metanarrative” was losing its force as a way of conceptualising the problem and its solution. But it must nevertheless be said that direct actions, whether imagined revolutions or not, especially get the attention of those in charge who accommodate themselves to the new expectations and their respective social movements as a result. Graeber consequently talks of their “pre-emptive attitudes” towards such movements and it is once again worth quoting Graeber at length on this:

“The pre-emptive attitude toward social movements is clearly a part of it; under no conditions can alternatives, or anyone proposing alternatives, be seen to experience success. This helps explain the almost unimaginable investment in ‘security systems’ of one sort or another: the fact that the United States, which lacks any major rival, spends more on its military and intelligence than it did during the Cold War, along with the almost dazzling accumulation of private security agencies, intelligence agencies, militarized police, guards, and mercenaries. Then there are the propaganda organs, including a massive media industry that did not even exist before the sixties, celebrating police. Mostly these systems do not so much attack dissidents directly as contribute to a pervasive climate of fear, jingoistic conformity, life insecurity, and simple despair that makes any thought of changing the world seem an idle fantasy. Yet these security systems are also extremely expensive. Some economists estimate that a quarter of the American population is now engaged in ‘guard labor’ of one sort or another—defending property, supervising work, or otherwise keeping their fellow Americans in line. Economically, most of this disciplinary apparatus is pure dead weight.”

Graeber, then, conjures up the notion of governments going out of their way to make sure alternative ideas, alternative arrangements, people sorting things out for themselves, or even just “new thinking” that wasn’t theirs, never gets any foothold at all in the public consciousness. Once again, this reminds me of V for Vendetta where holding the public gaze and dominating the intellectual landscape was all important for Norsefire [who, already at the beginning of the story, had carted off all the “free thinkers” and people with “alternative lifestyles” to the detention camps lest they influence others and were propagandizing the populace through the “Voice of Fate”]. Changing people’s minds or getting them to see differently — fundamentally giving people the opportunity to see and think for themselves — was what mattered to V and what the ethos of the book itself was all about.

What Graeber does here, in fact, is show us that Moore’s fiction was entirely on point in regard to the actual material world of modern day politics where “controlling the conversation” is seen as the place where the actual war is really taking place. [Your watching of the TV news or your listening to the talk radio station or your reading the online newspaper should now not remotely be seen as a benign activity. It is where war is made upon you.] Graeber references this too in his essay when he refers to “a relentless campaign against the human imagination. Or, to be more precise: imagination, desire, individual creativity, all those things that were to be liberated in the last great world revolution”. These are now wrapped up in 24/7 news commentary and attacked by the media — and social media — organs of multi-billionaires who want to trap and distract us “in the domain of consumerism, or perhaps the virtual realities of the Internet.” Graeber makes plain what he thinks about this when he states that “We are talking about the murdering of dreams, the imposition of an apparatus of hopelessness, designed to squelch any sense of an alternative future.” The way you do such a thing, of course, is by creating people unable to imagine, or without any time left to imagine, such a future at all. [So now you know why Mark Zuckerberg created Meta.]

Here Graeber shows, then, that it is often really as simple as making “a revolution in common sense” impossible — by which is meant the ability to freely rethink things for yourself, to say “the way we have been going about things is dangerous and destructive as well as unfree. We should stop doing things this way and, instead, do them another.” This is why even such a commonsensical idea as free thought is now an insurrectionary act. Thought itself has been captured and new thought, thought destructive and deconstructive of the reigning power, is everywhere under attack. Even mild socialists and not even really socialists like Bernie Sanders and Jeremy Corbyn, folks who were far from wanting to dismantle the entire apparatus of democratic capitalism, have to be pilloried, slandered and have their reputations publicly destroyed lest their ideas [such as free Internet in Corbyn’s case] catch on. [This idea was branded “communism” in the UK billionaire press when it was mooted before the 2019 UK General Election but now, in 2021, the USA’s imperialist oppression of Cuba seems set to apparently involve providing Cuba with free, and, I assume, non-communist Internet!] Power, you see, is terrified of other people having ideas or thinking for themselves. The thinker, the intellectual, is a threat exactly because they think things through rather than accepting the given narrative or facts. Intellectual autonomy is a threat to power, any power.

Thus, Graeber describes the issue at hand well when he goes on to say that, thinking for ourselves, engaging in insurrectionary free thought, “We might be forced to conclude that the real business of human life is not contributing toward something called “the economy” (a concept that didn’t even exist three hundred years ago), but the fact that we are all, and have always been, projects of mutual creation.” He has thoughts of rethinking the very idea of labour [or, in his American English, “labor”] too when he adds that “it’s only when we reject the idea that... labor is virtuous in itself [which it isn’t] that we can start to ask what is virtuous about labor. To which the answer is obvious. Labor is virtuous if it helps others.” But that “labor is virtuous if it helps others” is not an idea any democratic capitalist would have — or that they would want you to have. It is an example of insurrectionary rethinking which deconstructs the way the world is being organised and suggests a new, insurrectionary form of organisation — one in which labour ONLY exists to help others.

Thus, it is important, as Graeber closes out his essay, that he notes that “The morality of debt and the morality of work are the most powerful ideological weapons in the hands of those running the current system.” [Graeber has himself written books — Debt: The First 5,000 Years and Bullshit Jobs — deconstructing them both.] These are both, obviously, ways of thinking which coerce and dominate how people are made to behave. This is exactly why HOW WE THINK, a process of insurrectionary rethinking, is so vitally important. Its why punk collectives and anarcho-advertisers who produce fake adverts which make pointed statements about political realities which they then post in bus shelters, advertising spaces and public transportation systems matter. Graeber again makes this point when he says “if we are going to have any chance of heading off... catastrophes, we’re going to have to change our accustomed ways of thinking.” And this is because “the moment any significant number of people simultaneously shake off the shackles that have been placed on that collective imagination, even our most deeply inculcated assumptions about what is and is not politically possible have been known to crumble overnight.” Never underestimate how you think or even that you think. It is literally everything. It is vital and it is vital, as a consequence, that you take all responsibility in educating first yourself and then others.


This is just a couple of examples from The Invisible Committee and David Graeber but lots of others could be given. Consider the nuclear family, just one culturally-based idea of what a family is, and how it is disseminated and propagandised through TV, film and culture generally. You might be from Rangoon, Shanghai or Nairobi but if you see anything American the nuclear family will be put forward as what a family is. And who hasn’t, as a child, experienced their first experience of authority in the instruction to do what their parents tell them — without question? A parent becomes a school teacher becomes a boss becomes a cop in a chain of authorities and learning to do as you are commanded to do. This all counts as cultural programming being drilled into your mind and to which you steadily habituate yourself, ceding your agency as you do, making you less insurrectionary, less liable to thinking for yourself, with each pacifying thought which settles in your mind. I want to look at a few more examples of this in this section of this chapter.

Let’s start with sex and sexuality which are always seemingly subjects near the forefront of our minds — and no less so since a pipeline called the Internet was invented which could put sex under our noses on ubiquitous devices at the touch of a button. The question before us in this chapter is about our thinking and it is, indeed, endlessly fascinating to think about how we think about sex. This involves lots of fictions, if not itself being a grand fiction [to do with reproduction] in itself. Some of these fictions include that sex is an act performed by two people [preferably a man and a woman — I will come to these respective fictions shortly], that it should be something to do with “love”, that it is a matter of some pre-designated “sexuality” you are said to have or even be, and that it should be performed in certain ways and not others. I have, of course, begun here with fairly conservative assumptions about sex but there are others. For example, should you alight upon a site displaying pornography, which I have already obliquely referred to, you might be led to believe that sex is about having power over people [I mean mainly cis women but the way pornography treats trans performers is also instructive] and coercing sex from them as part of the sexual enjoyment. Here sex would become an opportunist thing and seemingly the supreme human appetite, something everybody wants all the time even if this is not immediately obvious, something you watch, perhaps obsessively, without actually doing it yourself.

But what happens if we start to rethink this, possessed of an insurrectionary, ethically anarchist, mind? We start to realise, perhaps, that sex is not just something for two people, or one, special intimate partnership set apart from all others and which requires exclusivity [Emma Goldman, as just one example, did not believe this in her advocacy of “free love”]; we have to question the idea that “sexualities” exist and are real rather than fictions we have been led to believe in and which are now, as a result, hard to displace [i.e. to come to a position where we realise that we could have sex with anybody if we wanted to and that only our concepts of ourselves are stopping us — in other words that no one ontologically “is” any particular sexuality at all]; to accept that sex does not exist merely for reproductive purposes and that, throughout nature, sex seemingly takes place for pleasure and for the purposes of expediting social relationships as well [and that this is not unimportant]; that the display of bodies, and even public sexuality, are not things to be ashamed of; that tastes vary and that, consequently, there are not, in general, right and wrong ways to have sex. Being Cynic about sex [and Diogenes was the guy who masturbated in public], we might say that sex is just another human act rather than some fetishized activity that must be separated out from the rest of life and put on a pedestal.

Associated with sex and sexuality are ideas about gender, a subject which generates a lot of heat at the moment as something which has [unfortunately] become a marker, for some, in where you stand in various [entirely artificial] culture wars. I discussed this, to some degree, in the third chapter of Being Human in a biological context but it is noticeable that one strategy taken towards gender is to act as if it somehow doesn’t exist or is “unimportant” [which is a value judgment] because your biological sex [which is another matter of interpretation or classification] is “more important” or ultimately determinative in what social role you “should” play. Genders are, in fact, social roles or the performance of various kinds of relationship whereas biological sex is a matter of bodies and what they are, or are not, capable of [which doesn’t necessarily have to mean anything more than that at all].

Genders, then, being insurrectionary about it, make no sense by themselves or in the abstract [when they would be nothing but examples of Max Stirner’s spooks and so things to be shooed away] but are constitutively social. They say something about your relations to and with other people and what roles you play in a social world. They are not something you have or are [for we are not essentialists about things]. For this same reason we do not fall into the trap of arguing from or for an authority above human conversation which can become a reified arbiter in relation to gender and this is equally as illegitimate if done by a defender of crude, gender critical views or by a defender of trans rights. This is to acknowledge that any side in what becomes a political argument can rely on customary views or unquestioned cultural assumptions [such as that people somehow “are” simply sexes or genders or sexualities — that it is something innate or essential about their materiality]. But the insurrectionary mode of thinking always questions cultural assumptions [whoever makes them] because it wants to undermine any thought pursued simply because it has become a foundational thought. The insurrectionary mind is subterranean and Nietzschean about thought, it starts from the position that “there are no facts, only interpretations” and that “facts” are discursive entities which fit into interpretations and so, consequently, never stand alone.

This is true, also, if we look at another assumption of modern society [really a set of intersecting assumptions]: money. Have you ever asked yourself why money exists or what we need it for? Have you ever considered the possibility that debts aren’t real? Have you ever thought of ways society could live without money? As I already indicated earlier in this chapter with reference to David Graeber [who has written a lot about money and economics — his book Debt: The First 5,000 Years should be regarded as required reading of insurrectionary thinking], assumptions about money — and particularly about debt — are founding myths and most important weapons in our current capitalist oppression. Thinking about money — which is itself a fiction of an idea — can literally make us feel as if we are “in debt” to someone or, worse, to some faceless corporation to whom, so we can be made to imagine, we should feel guilty if we borrowed something from them but never gave it back.

What this reveals is that money, and economics more widely conceived, is nothing other than a means of describing relationships between people or organising exchanges between them. But it is an arbitrary way for money surely does not HAVE to exist [or have the fictional value we ascribe to it] and its not beyond the wit of human beings to imagine other ways to have relationships and exchange goods [for example, mutual aid, gifts or the idea of “the commons”]. Granted that people might need things other people have and they don’t, or which others can make for them, we are only here talking about how people negotiate or arrange such exchanges. None of this absolutely mandates debt or money or bank accounts or ordering people in society according to wealth or those with more being treated as privileged whilst those without are treated as a shame and a disgrace. The insurrectionary, subterranean thinker burrows underneath the customary assumptions of society to expose and deconstruct everything, such as these things, which have the appearance of being natural when they are nothing more than cultural preferences or practices imposed and maintained from above. Money does not have to exist and is always based in numerous fictions of human relationship and exchange when it does. That people never think otherwise is proof only of the murder of imagination that David Graeber mentioned earlier.

A similar thing is true if we move to talking about the environment for, for the capitalist, the environment is simply resources to be used up before moving onto the next resource [much as the capitalist thinks of human beings in the same way. None of us are really important in ourselves to the capitalist but only as an example of “human resources” — which might now make you think twice about Human Resources departments and their role in business]. Once the capitalist thinks of the environment as “resources”, however, it does not promote the idea of the environment being a good thing in itself or for what it is as an ecological reality. Instead, it is instrumentalised and its value is in what it can do for the company and, eventually, for a balance sheet and a company dividend and a CEO’s salary. One does not imagine Elon Musk, for example, valuing cobalt as cobalt. He imagines it as something he needs to make expensive luxury items that will make him a few billions more. This is not to pick on Musk alone for the entire world bears the open wounds of rapacious, capitalist exploitation of the earth which has touched every continent, killing plant and animal life as it goes, degrading the environment generally such that now to talk of “rewilding”, a process of leaving nature to be what it will be, is to seem like some ass backwards loony.

Sad to say, the human beings who [mostly unreflectively] created this civilization spent the vast majority of their time thinking how they could coerce the earth to their grand designs. They didn’t think nearly so much about the cost or the consequences. Consequently, the earth, and the life on it, is now mostly thought of as resources to use up rather than as an environment to be in balance with — for our own good as much as that of anything else. Can anyone honestly suggest that how we think about the earth in general will not have effects for us one day? As The Dhammapada suggested, it seems highly likely that we will either suffer or benefit as a result of what we think and how we conceive of things. And so this is hardly unimportant. An insurrectionary thinking is a rethinking the customary thought of our society and where this is a matter of capitalism it is a recognition of its exploitation, consumption, creed of ownership and acquisition, and of private profits in a world where we judge people according to wealth, all things, in their own way, entirely artificial and arbitrary that need to be rethought by the ethical anarchist insurrectionist who is taking responsibility for the discipline of their own mind.


So what I have been asking you to do in this chapter is consider that the battle before us is not just a material battle in the streets but, perhaps even more importantly, a battle for our minds. This is where the insurrection first takes place. This is how YOU BECOME the insurrection — by occupying your mind. This is why the example of Diogenes was given in the first chapter and a postanarchism of autonomy was foregrounded in the second: you must insist on your autonomy — not as a “right” you must justify but as something you simply refuse to give up. And so, as The Invisible Committee suggest, “When all is said and done, it’s with an entire anthropology that we are at war. With the very idea of man.” This is exactly how radical the task of insurrection is as well as being the implicit implication of even being the insurrection. Abandoning the status quo, impugning it, deconstructing it, pointing out its terrible flaws and inherent exploitation, its very fictionality, is an act of war — but only as a response to the war that was already instituted against you by those with wealth and power and a desire to keep it, and its ability to control, at any and all costs.

Here autonomy, autonomy that is an insurrection in its very manifestation and habituation, is both key and the point. This autonomy, this insurrection, takes place in the context of an argument about what “makes sense”, what constitutes “understanding”. It is, conceived in one way, an argument about epistemology. But epistemology, as the philosophers Richard Rorty and Friedrich Nietzsche knew all too well, is, in the end, only really a petty squabble about who is in charge and who gets to say what is what. If the issue be discussed in these terms then we should refuse these terms for that way leads only to an inauthentic authoritarianism which can only, in the end, be forced upon us. What is true becomes what some authoritative person says is true. But that’s NOT true. That is precisely false and truth is not based on or in authority. Instead, we take the path of the hermeneuticists, the conversationalists, the communalists, the pragmatists, who all say that we should communicate with each other, discuss what is important to us, and come to our own conclusions. Truth is in our autonomy, something which is not our irrational right to believe in whatever we like, but our desire to insist that freedom and truth must go together.

This book is not about telling you what to do. If anything, it is more about telling you that you should be doing, that ANARCHISM IS DOING, that the insurrection is a being that is seen in its doing. This brings us to the difference between political action and direct action that is historical to the tradition of anarchism yet always necessary to be reasserted again as politics attempts to cajole and coerce people into its system for things always staying the same. This is a another matter where our insurrectionary RETHINKING is involved for you will be taught and told that if you want something done then you must engage in political processes carried out by political institutions. This is how the machinations of power entangle you in their sticky web from which you will find it difficult to escape. The customary thinking of democratic capitalism is that, if you want something doing, you should turn to a politician or, more especially, work through and under the auspices of political institutions. Please vote, they implore, as nothing changes.

But this is not the anarchist heritage nor the insurrectional thought. This, instead, is an anti-politics, a refusal of political contamination or interference, an espousal of DIRECT ACTION which holds the notions of autonomy and self-government front and centre. But what is direct action? The American anarchist, Voltairine de Cleyre, put it like this in her essay of the same name:

“Every person who ever thought he had a right to assert something, and went boldly and asserted it, himself, or jointly with others that shared his convictions, was a direct actionist… Every person who ever had a plan to do anything, and went and did it, or who laid his plan before others, and won their co-operation to do it with him, without going to external authorities to please do the thing for them, was a direct actionist… Every person who ever in his life had a difference with anyone to settle, and went straight to the other persons involved to settle it, either by a peaceable plan or otherwise, was a direct actionist.”

In her distinction of political action and direct action de Cleyre takes a stance on which comes first when she states “political action is never taken, nor even contemplated, until slumbering minds have first been aroused by direct acts of protest against existing conditions.” Later on in the same essay, this becomes a more general observation that:

“It is by and because of the direct acts of the forerunners of social change, whether they be of peaceful or warlike nature, that the Human Conscience, the conscience of the mass, becomes aroused to the need for change. It would be very stupid to say that no good results are ever brought about by political action; sometimes good things do come about that way. But never until individual rebellion, followed by mass rebellion, has forced it. Direct action is always the clamourer, the initiator, through which the great sum of indifferentists become aware that oppression is getting intolerable.”

Her colleague, Emma Goldman, on the other hand, states, in her typically forthright way in “Anarchism: What It Really Stands For”, that:

“Man has as much liberty as he is willing to take. Anarchism therefore stands for direct action, the open defiance of, and resistance to, all laws and restrictions, economic, social and moral. But defiance and resistance are illegal. Therein lies the salvation of man. Everything illegal necessitates integrity, self-reliance, and courage. In short, it calls for free, independent spirits, for men who are men, and who have a bone in their back which you cannot pass your hand through.”

This pitches anarchism, directly and succinctly, as exactly a thing of autonomy, self-government and insurrection and is why, elsewhere in the corpus of her surviving texts, Goldman is found berating and bemoaning those who give their autonomy away so cheaply by chasing after political influence and representation. Politics, you see, collaborates with a system of interests that are about exploitation, capital and control. It is the manipulation of others for the benefit of those running the system. It is a matter of a particular ethos and one that requires that people in general give up their autonomy to political processes and institutions and persons.

Direct action, on the other hand, insists that you keep your autonomy and tells you that, if you want something done, you should get on and do it, addressing anyone involved in such activity directly and [if possible] to their mutual satisfaction. It is absolutely and completely about achieving our goals through our own joint activity rather than through reliance on others [much less after requiring their approval or permission]. Direct action is then any action which preserves our autonomy in contravention of the common wisdom that we need the agreement of institutions or bodies that exist to permit us to do things or not. Direct action is that action taken in the belief that there is nothing stopping us from creating and living our own lives and that we have a moral and ethical mandate to do so. Direct action, in fact, is what shows that an anarchist society is possible since it is almost entirely what it is based on in regard to its activity. It is to say that human beings, in general, need no bureaucrats, mediators or arbiters and can sort things out for themselves. More than this, however, it is the habitual declaration of a person’s willingness to control their own life and govern themselves in an act of overarching self-responsibility.

Direct action, once again, is then thinking derivative of a process of rethinking which demonstrates an insurrection of thought, a thinking [and acting] for oneself. This does not mean it is selfish or individualistic. Indeed, it does not even mean it is carried out alone. It is a matter of taking responsibility for the self and for your community and of not simply accepting the common or imposed customs of thought or habits of action. I shall have much more to say about direct action when I discuss anarchist organisation, below, but, for now, what matters is that it is based on an insurrection of thought which stands for the expression of self-government.

An example of this is provided in the thinking of The Invisible Committee, to which I have already referred, in their book The Coming Insurrection which, so the frontispiece informs readers, was “the principal piece of evidence in an anti-terrorism case in France directed against nine individuals who were arrested on November 11, 2008, mostly in the village of Tarnac.” The then French Interior Minister, moreover, “publicly associated them with the emergent threat of an ‘ultra-left’ movement, taking care to single out this book, described as a ‘manual for terrorism’.” [The text refers to “communism” several times suggesting where their sympathies lie.]

One notable thing about this text in general is, in fact, its preference for direct action as a demonstration of its insurrectionary occupying of its own mind. Its analysis is of a political situation which is about “crisis management” in which any political institution — or even any politically interested organisation [“organizations are obstacles to organizing ourselves”] — is little other than a stop on insurrectionary fervour. It talks of attachment to the state as “a pathology that is difficult to undo” and as “a fiction that no longer knows how to carry on”. Instead of making the status quo work for everyone [a fantasy, to be sure], it wants “the sketching out of a completely other composition, an other side of reality”. It wants to forge a path in which “there is no gap between what we are, what we do, and what we are becoming.” It says that “to materially organize for survival is to materially organize for attack” and preaches that “Everywhere, a new idea of communism is to be elaborated. In the shadows of bar rooms, in print shops, squats, farms, occupied gymnasiums, new complicities are to be born.” This mentality is not one of imposed uniformity or resigned acquiescence to the norm but vibrant and diverse autonomy.

To be sure, here we are talking about thinking AND doing — or even thinking that is indistinct from doing as The Invisible Committee suggest themselves. And, as they further make clear in a preface commenting on their own position, they have not been pursued by the French State merely for writing a book — but because THEY MIGHT CARRY OUT THE THINGS IT SAYS. This reminds us of what David Graeber said earlier when he remarked that those with other ideas about organising society must not be allowed any measure of success — such as showing that another way to live actually works. This, for example, is why the US government decided that the Black Panthers had to be destroyed — because all their various social programs were working, were showing their democratic capitalism-undermining ways were working and could provide an alternative construction of society. As The Invisible Committee then say in The Coming Insurrection of thinking and acting going together, this “is rarely treated with leniency”.

This is where we find the bite of insurrectionary rethinking for “behind every thought [is] the act that it calls for” — the direct act, the act that you take as a being possessed of autonomous freedom and self-government. The Invisible Committee suggest that “from this rift” between political and direct action, between the handing over of our autonomy and our insurgent possession of it, “we must make a trench”. This is not about having an overarching plan. It is about “keeping the initiative”. It is to ask “How do we subsist?” or “How do we find each other?” apart from civilization and democratic capitalism. “We have to get organized” during “the war in progress”. Here, crucially, we find more warnings about “organizations” and, instead, the mentality is very much one of “do it of yourself and for yourselves”. This is not about reacting to the news of the day. Neither is it about waiting [for what? There will never be a “right time”]. As The Invisible Committee say, “The catastrophe is not coming, it is here. We are already situated within the collapse of a civilization.” We must choose sides and we must do it NOW.

The Invisible Committee describe this refusal to wait any longer as “in one way or another, to enter into the logic of insurrection.” It is as if continuing to wait is to remain with your life left in others’ hands but to stop waiting is to take your life in your own hands — and the anarchist, properly conceived, is a person who takes their life in their own hands, who has a vision big enough to want to realise that freedom and a courage big enough to act upon it. The Invisible Committee manifest this belief too in their injunction to “find each other” — by which they mean like-minded people to yourself. They locate this impulse in an authenticity nurtured by personal truth but with a recognition that “in reality, everything involves everything else.” Yet it is our truth, our autonomous truth, that binds us to this reality. As The Invisible Committee suggest: “A truth isn’t a view on the world but what binds us to it in an irreducible way. A truth isn’t something we hold but something that carries us. It makes and unmakes me, constitutes and undoes me as an individual; it distances me from many and brings me closer to those who also experience it.” They go on to suggest that those authentic to this truth will surely find others like them whilst acknowledging that “every insurrectional process starts from a truth that we refuse to give up.” Autonomy, truth, freedom — all things we always already have, all things which can attract others, all things which can create an insurrection. It is as if, in being our authentic selves, in manifesting our will to autonomy, we have all we need. And so: “We have the whole of social space in which to find each other. We have everyday insubordination for showing our numbers and unmasking cowards. We have our hostility to this civilization for drawing lines of solidarity and of battle on a global scale.”

As The Invisible Committee continue with their own insurrectionary logic, the authenticity and possibility of success in such insurrections lies in keeping ourselves autonomous. The Coming Insurrection is loaded with warnings about organizations who will steal or dowse your fire. It warns, too, about the danger of “social milieus” and particularly of becoming one, or part of one, yourself. Being the insurrection is not a matter of becoming tame or a Twitter account that publishes revolutionary slogans every half an hour; it is not lifestylism or an aesthetic. It is also not a matter of starting projects, organizations or movements that will simply settle for their own survival and little else. Such things often quickly become pointless and ineffective and more concerned with policing points of view and memberships than being an actual insurrection. We should not be concerned with, as The Invisible Committee put it, “the preservation of [our] sad comfort.” It is to this end that they urge the setting up of communes. They want people to actively live lives contrary to society based on naturally forming bonds of affinity from those who choose to walk a common path. They conceive of these communes “everywhere”- commune schools, commune workplaces, communes in every street, village, factory. These communes are what they choose to be and they accept what they are and that other communes may be different. They “organize themselves for the material and moral survival of each of their members and… all of those around them who remain adrift.” These communes are people “rely[ing] only on themselves.” In fact, “Every commune seeks to be its own base. It seeks to dissolve the question of needs. It seeks to break all economic dependency and all political subjugation.”

This is insurrectionary thinking. This is rethinking the values of society and deciding what they will be, and how they will work out, for yourself. “Plunder, cultivate, fabricate”, The Invisible Committee advise us, and “Get organized in order to no longer have to work.” They inculcate radical disobedience of the law and the practice of mutually beneficial criminality and they do it because insurrection that is rethinking is not simply instantiation of the old ways on a new basis: it is the old way’s destruction and a willed ignorance of its shibboleths. “Private property” is a fiction, natural resources do not “belong” to corporations or governments or those a piece of paper says they do. We do not put fictions of law and property above the throbbing reality of life. This is self-organization not carrying the yoke of the State on our backs. Stealing is not wrong simply because it is stealing; if it services the furtherance of life or the relief from oppression it can, in fact, be well justified. The insurrectionist rethinker seeks to not only remap the intellectual and ethical landscape but to remap the material territory too for this is not the State’s land or private land — it is just land. But here, as The Invisible Committee say, “We don’t want to occupy the territory, we want to be the territory.” This is a matter of local self-organization “superimpos[ing] its own geography over the state cartography.” The land is not what the State says it is — it is how we who use it make it to be. And never forget to use sabotage in whatever ways you can without taking undue risk. Protect and value your anonymity as a space from which you can act because the State and capital would love to name you, tell you who you are, dominate you by classification and all the power it gives them. Refuse to comply in any way you can. Disobey, obstruct, destroy, interfere.

I could go on but, by now, you get the point. Being the insurrection is an act of rethinking EVERYTHING from who you are to how you will live. It is the destruction of the status quo [and its classifications of things] in you and the creation of autonomous, self-governing forms of life that manifest new values whilst contradicting the old. It takes a lot of work because we have been programmed in non-insurrectional ways for our whole lives. But the good news is its never too late to start. And we should. RIGHT NOW.



This book was originally inspired by a short online conversation I had with someone in regard to the idea of “jubilee”. [Thank you for that “Tolstoy Polloi”.] This is not the sort of jubilee which kings or queens have — and which people in the UK are lately more than used to since their monarch has refused to die for almost 70 years now. [Although, ironically, there may be some link as kings and queens, not least in the Ancient Near East, upon coming to power, used to grant favours to their “subjects”. It is suggested by some that this is where the idea of “jubilee” originally comes from.] Instead, it is based on the Jewish, scriptural idea of jubilee, particularly as is found in the Jewish Torah, the sacred “instruction” that is at the heart of Jewish religious culture, and otherwise known as “the books of Moses” [as he is traditionally thought to have written them] or [more academically] as the Pentateuch. Should we get more specific, we are talking about the jubilee laid out in Leviticus 25 and related there to the similar idea of “the sabbath”. In order to now make sense of the rest of this book in the context of this idea of “jubilee”, and the concept of a specifically anarchist jubilee I intend to go forward with as a guiding metaphor, it will be necessary to do some work explaining jubilee in the context of Jewish biblical history in order to see how it functions and so how, when recontextualised in an anarchist context, it can help move us from civilization that is breaking down towards anarchy. And so we turn to the Torah.

As already stated, the primary reference to the idea of jubilee is given in Leviticus 25. The core of this idea is given at Leviticus 25:8–12 and reads as follows according to the new Jewish Publication Society translation of the English text:

“You shall count off seven weeks of years—seven times seven years—so that the period of seven weeks of years gives you a total of forty-nine years. Then you shall sound the horn loud; in the seventh month, on the tenth day of the month—the Day of Atonement—you shall have the horn sounded throughout your land and you shall hallow the fiftieth year. You shall proclaim release throughout the land for all its inhabitants. It shall be a jubilee for you: each of you shall return to his holding and each of you shall return to his family. That fiftieth year shall be a jubilee for you: you shall not sow, neither shall you reap the aftergrowth or harvest the untrimmed vines, for it is a jubilee. It shall be holy to you: you may only eat the growth direct from the field.”

For those not up to speed with the imagined context of the Torah in general, these words are given as part of a speech it is imagined the Jewish god spoke to Moses as part of a whole raft of legislation for how the Jewish people should live in ancient times. It does not matter for my purposes here whether you take any of this seriously as history or theology or not. The point here, as far as I am concerned, is the ideas and, in this case, the idea of jubilee specifically. We can see from the verses quoted that the jubilee is imagined as an especially sacred period of time [which links to the the idea of “the sabbath” which is a similar sacred period of time] which occurs every fiftieth year [after “seven weeks of years”, i.e. 7x7 = 49 years] and in which “You shall proclaim release throughout the land for all its inhabitants.” The word translated “release” there is in some texts translated as “liberty”. Essentially, then, this text is proclaiming a legislative understanding of economic relationships in which the economic connections of possible debt and obligation that have built up between people over almost half a century are annulled in the fiftieth year. As this is given as part of a legislative understanding of these things, it is imagined as part of the law of the land and so as an habitual practice to be carried out according to a legislatively understood calendar. Much of the rest of Leviticus 25 is, in fact, taken up with working out how this understanding of economics and time will be practically worked out such that a jubilee [or a “sabbath” which was something similar which happened every seventh year — see Leviticus 25:2b-7] didn’t ruin everybody in the process.

This legislative understanding of economics and time is found in other places in the Torah and related to the same ideas of sabbath and jubilee. For example, in Exodus 23:10–12 we find:

“Six years you shall sow your land and gather in its yield; but in the seventh you shall let it rest and lie fallow. Let the needy among your people eat of it, and what they leave let the wild beasts eat. You shall do the same with your vineyards and your olive groves. Six days you shall do your work, but on the seventh day you shall cease from labour, in order that your ox and your ass may rest, and that your bondman and the stranger may be refreshed.”

Obviously here there is some concern not to simply work either land, animals or people [by which, yes, we do sometimes mean slaves] into the ground. Whatever else the Torah is [and the ethics and history of this in general is beyond the scope of this book], it is not a text in which anything goes or people are left to run things as they each see fit. The Torah in general is a history of a relationship, imagined and invented or not, between an imagined people, Israel, and their god. They have a covenant [essentially a contract] between them which has stipulations and responsibilities on both sides. Part of that is all the legislation [and legislative understandings of things] we see in the Torah such as the ideas of sabbath and jubilee. We might legitimately say that these concerns here are something to do with some sort of justice understood as a matter of an ongoing relationship which [especially in Leviticus] expresses holiness [which means separateness]. Such practices were to differentiate God’s people from all other people in regard to practices and certain ethics of behaviour.

A further example of the legislative understanding of economics and time, sticking with the related ideas of sabbath and jubilee, is found in Deuteronomy 15. This, for example, is Deuteronomy 15:1–3:

“Every seventh year you shall practice remission of debts. This shall be the nature of the remission: every creditor shall remit the due that he claims from his fellow; he shall not dun his fellow or kinsman, for the remission proclaimed is of the L. You may dun the foreigner; but you must remit whatever is due you from your kinsmen.”

But it is worth reminding ourselves here that these legislative understandings, as we know of our own legislation and laws in the places and times where we live, can be subject to avoidance or abuse. So compare also Deuteronomy 15:9:

“Beware lest you harbour the base thought, “The seventh year, the year of remission, is approaching,” so that you are mean to your needy kinsman and give him nothing. He will cry out to the L against you, and you will incur guilt.”

Clearly, there were those who were looking to scam the system, who worked out ahead of time what was to be gained or lost and started to modify their behaviour accordingly so that the economics of the situation fell to their advantage. The text makes clear that this was not meant to be the purpose of the legislation.

Let us move from the Torah to another section of the Tanakh [the Jewish scriptures], that concerned with “prophets” [as opposed to “profits”]. [The designation refers to books which also read as history so these are not just books named after a figure imagined themselves to be a prophet.] We move from an imagined situation of Mosaic legislation for people living in a settled land to a time of potential war and even exile in the 34th chapter of the book of Jeremiah. Here King Zedekiah is facing the military might of the Babylonians. In verses 8–10 of this chapter King Zedekiah “made a covenant with all the people in Jerusalem to proclaim a release [or liberty] among them — that everyone should set free his Hebrew slaves, both male and female, and that no one should keep his fellow Judean enslaved [34:8–9] but, later on, in verse 11 “they turned about and brought back the men and women they had set free, and forced them into slavery again.” This causes Jeremiah, in verses 13 and 14, to say “Thus said the LORD, the God of Israel: I made a covenant with your fathers when I brought them out of the land of Egypt, the house of bondage, saying: ‘In the seventh year each of you must let go any fellow Hebrew who may be sold to you; when he has served you six years, you must set him free.’ But your fathers would not obey Me or give ear.” This is interesting because it seems to be referring to the sorts of practices we are concerned with here, the habitual [at a given time period] giving of “release” or “liberty” to people. As a result of Zedekiah’s failure to do so [a “breaking of the covenant” between the people and their god], Jeremiah prophesies the destruction of Jerusalem which happened in 586 BCE.

A further use of the sabbath or jubilee understanding of times of special favour is found at the beginning of Isaiah 61 which the Jewish Study Bible refers to in its commentary as “Jubilee for Jerusalem”. We are now talking about a time after the defeat of Zedekiah that is 50 years [!} later when the exile of Judeans that took place was about to end and they would be allowed to return to their homeland. Thus, the prophet says:

“The spirit of the Lord GOD is upon me, Because the LORD has anointed me; He has sent me as a herald of joy to the humble, To bind up the wounded of heart, To proclaim release to the captives, Liberation to the imprisoned; To proclaim a year of the Lord’s favour And a day of vindication by ourGod; To comfort all who mourn-” [Isaiah 61:1–2]

Here, quite clearly, it can be seen that the formerly legislative idea, discussed in the Torah in legislative terms, has become a metaphorical motif of the poetic prophecy of Isaiah. This is not an actual jubilee — for it is nothing to do with the legislation of the people or their practices — but is now an idea that can be applied metaphorically as appropriate. “Jubilee” now takes on a life of its own, the idea of “release” or “liberation” or “a year of the Lord’s favour” more generally speaking.

This is of importance, in turn, when we move from the Jewish scriptures to the Christian gospels. Specifically, we are concerned with a section of Luke’s gospel, Luke 4:16–30. This depicts a scene in which Jesus comes to Nazareth, his home town, and enters the synagogue, the place of religious worship, at the beginning of what the gospel reports as his “ministry”. In other gospels that parallel this incident Jesus speaks but — exclusively in Luke — he reads from the Jewish scriptures. What he reads is reported as the following:

“The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favour… Then he began to say to them, ‘Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.’” [Luke 4:18–19, 21]

As I have made clear in my extensive monograph, Yeshua The Jewish Anarchist, a book which makes the case that Jesus was plausibly a kind of Jewish anarchist in much the same way as Diogenes might be seen as an ancient Greek one, I do not think Jesus ever uttered these words [because the high probability is that he could neither read nor write like way over 90% of the people of the time]. But that is not the point. The point is that the unknown writer of Luke’s gospel has, as the Jewish scholarly compilers of The Annotated Jewish New Testament confirm, made reference to “the jubilee tradition of Leviticus 25”. In fact, Luke has had Jesus quote the metaphorical reference from Isaiah 61 and then apply it to his own work and person. This opens up a whole new realm of understanding of the idea of jubilee [there is, as an aside, no historical evidence that jubilee was ever habitually practised by the historical Jews who lived in Palestine even if we can see that the idea did take on a life of its own in a Jewish thought world], one which now becomes entwined, thanks to Luke, with what is also imagined of Jesus. Luke, of course, imagined Jesus to be a messianic figure of eschatological significance. But Jews, such as those at Qumran who wrote the Dead Sea Scrolls, did similar things in some of their writings with Isaiah 61 too. We shall return to this in a while.


Biblical scholar Gary North has made it part of his life’s work to provide “economic commentaries” of all of the biblical texts, both Jewish and Christian. His commentary on Leviticus makes startling reading when it comes to the matter of “jubilee”. I am not here concerned with any of North’s Christian concerns, naturally enough, but his economic understandings of the biblical text and their consequences. He notes, of course, that “jubilee” itself is an idea with which biblical scholars have become fascinated and describes this as a “very curious phenomenon”. This is essentially because he thinks of the jubilee laws as tied very specifically to a time, place and people rather than of them as general principles [something, as we have seen, neither Jewish nor Christian scriptures themselves necessarily adhere to in their more metaphorical uses]. Thus, North makes reference to exegetes of the political right and left who take the text about jubilee and extrapolate it in their favour accordingly, resulting in either a belief in some kind of general debt limit or in the idea that “the modern State should legislate a massive, compulsory redistribution of capital from the wealthy to the poor.” North then suggests that such readings have more to do with contemporary political agendas than ancient understandings of either history or economics.

Here North is particularly scathing of social democratic interpreters [what he terms “left-wing analysis”] who extrapolate the text in favour of wealth redistribution or debt relief generally when he, bitingly, points out that “the jubilee law rested legally on God’s mandate that Israel invade Canaan and wipe out all of its inhabitants. That is to say, the jubilee law rested on genocide.” Quite. North, therefore, goes on to make the reasonable point that this legislative stipulation had [has] nothing to do with modern government or generalised wealth redistribution. It was, in fact, a way for people who had stolen land through conquest to make sure their families kept hold of it in historical and literary context. Thus, with this understanding, jubilee is “not statist wealth redistribution; rather, it was the judicial defense of original title: a defense of private property.”

Gary North’s own exegesis of the meaning and historical, economic point of the jubilee is equally fascinating — and not least because he is one of relatively few [Christian] biblical scholars who sets out to take the text of the Torah seriously as a legal and legislative document. [This is to say that he asks the basic and fundamental question: “How is it envisaged this law actually worked?”.] One economic context in which jubilee is set is that:

“a multiplying population leads to ever-shrinking land holdings. As time passed and the population grew, each family plot in Israel would shrink to the point of near-invisibility. Given the fact that the average family allotment at the time of the conquest was under eleven acres, a population that doubled every quarter century (3 percent growth per annum) could not remain an agricultural society for very long. Every 24 years, the average family’s share of the farm would shrink by half. The average allotment would have been down to a little over an acre within a century with a population growth rate of 3 percent a year.”

North then gives five historical reasons for what jubilee was actually about:

1. “it was a law that decentralized politics: every heir of a family of the conquest could identify his citizenship in a particular tribe because every family had an inheritance in the land. Ownership stayed inside the tribes.”

2. “it restricted the accumulation of rural land holdings by the Levites [the priestly clan of Israel], who could never buy up the land. This geographically dispersed urban tribe would remain dispersed.”

3. “it kept the State from extending its land holdings on a permanent basis.”

4. “it kept foreigners from buying permanent residences outside of walled cities where homes were not under the jubilee law.”

5. “it pressured the nation to move into walled cities or emigrate out of Israel when population growth had its effect on farm size.”

Furthermore, North suggests that there is an overall economic principle at work here, that being that “those outside the covenants — civil, familial, and ecclesiastical — should be kept economically and numerically subordinate to those inside the covenants.”

Now I’ve reproduced all this not because I imagine I have a large and enthusiastic following of Torah scholars or students of economics in the Ancient Near East but simply to show that in the understanding of at least one economic interpreter of Leviticus 25 a relatively simple law such as jubilee had numerous consequential effects in its own time, place and situation. It was not given as a general ethic meant to apply to 21st century governments or multi-national corporations. It was there to apply to Jews several millennia ago, a way of economically ordering their society and, seemingly, doing so in favour of certain people and not others. We also need to remember the theological context of covenant to all this even though it may not be to our modern tastes. Jubilee existed in a context in which all the people, whether Jewish or not, could be evicted from Israel because, sad to say, God himself was envisaged as the landlord and so the owner of all the land. And he would kick you out if you broke the contract. The economic context here is, thus, inheritance and disinheritance, citizenship and the risk of losing citizenship — or even of becoming a slave. It exists in the context of the “kinsman-redeemer”, one who could buy back land [or family members] lost due to debt. Why is this important? Because, as Gary North himself can’t help mentioning:

“Every true prophet of Israel came before the nation to bring a covenant lawsuit. This reminded them of the ethical basis of liberty. Israel’s final prophet would bring Israel’s final covenant lawsuit. He would declare liberty for the enslaved and slavery for the rebellious slave masters. He would serve as the final ‘go’el’: the kinsman-redeemer and the blood avenger. He would adopt many and disinherit others. He would bring sanctions. He would announce the final jubilee year: “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he hath anointed me to preach the gospel to the poor; he hath sent me to heal the brokenhearted, to preach deliverance to the captives, and recovering of sight to the blind, to set at liberty them that are bruised, To preach the acceptable year of the Lord” (Luke 4:18–19).”


North, of course, is neither the first nor the last Christian person to see Jesus in what Christians, somewhat disparagingly, call the “Old Testament”. Luke himself does it too as we have already seen. But North’s exegesis, as well as Luke’s, leads us to another issue with which jubilee and Leviticus 25 were also fundamentally concerned: the Jewish theological appreciation of time. We see this too in a Jewish book, written about two centuries before Jesus, that’s actually called Jubilees because it takes the idea of a sacred year and parcels out time accordingly in the organisation of its own content. Jubilees is about interpreting parts of the book of Genesis and making them relevant to an audience in the second century BCE but in using the idea of jubilee to organise its understanding of time it shows that the idea could still be found relevant even whilst separated from its historical, political and economic intent.

Partly, this is because religious Jews who wrote books around 2,000 years ago often had an interest in time as something their god was in control of. They could speak of a “day of the Lord”, a time to come when their god would reorder the political world and rule over it directly [the Jewish god was thought of as a king and so political rule is appropriate to him] or, often in literary works designated as “apocalyptic” [here best thought of as a literary genre], time could be described in terms of ages or periods designated by this god [i.e. “the present age” and “the age to come”]. For example, we know from the Dead Sea Scrolls, works written by Jewish sectarians who existed as an isolated and self-reliant community in the desert near the Dead Sea for over 100 years, that a more original name for Jubilees was “The book of the divisions of the times according to their jubilees and their weeks”. This title is appropriate to Jubilees since its author clearly believed that there was a theological value inherent in certain special times. This is hardly strange to the Jewish context, as we have seen, since the original ideas of the sabbath and the jubilee themselves are based on the notion of sacred times and profane times.

This is also the motif that Luke’s gospel takes up when it depicts the scene found at Luke 4:16–30. Here the theme of jubilee, put onto Jesus’ lips by Luke [I shall refer to this unknown author as Luke for ease of reference], is intermingling with messianic and eschatological beliefs that the rest of the book of Luke clearly hold in relation to Jesus. Strictly speaking, Luke has fused these together so that now beliefs about a coming blessed age which Jesus, as messiah, is imagined to inaugurate are also imagined as a sacred time of jubilee as well. This will be good news for the poor, release [or liberty] for the captives, freedom for the oppressed. It doesn’t matter, at this point, whether this is what Jesus himself thought or not — or, in fact, if this scene ever happened as depicted. This is, at the very least, Luke’s Christian depiction of Jesus and his meaning using the Jewish understanding of time in general and jubilee in particular.

This understanding is verified in one of the Dead Sea Scrolls itself, specifically that one cryptically referenced as 11Q13 [the scrolls are designated according to a cataloguing system based on which cave at Qumran they were found in]. This literary fragment, which is all most of the scrolls are, begins by quoting parts of Leviticus 25, Deuteronomy 15 and Isaiah 61 [all references I made above] before referencing an eschatologically conceived future time, its own messiah figure [here it is the Jewish figure of Melchizedek, a priest-king we first find mentioned in Genesis 14 and about whom Jewish legends arose] and speaks of time in terms of “jubilees”, thought of as both periods of sacred time but also as means to count up to more or less propitious events. For example, “at the end of the tenth Jubilee” is here imagined to be especially significant. I mention the content of this scroll only to point out that what Luke is doing in Luke 4 is now not so unusual as you might first imagine. He is, in fact, playing his own part in a particularly normal and relevant type of Jewish understanding of time and use of its sacred texts. He is saying that the advent of Jesus denotes a special, sacred time.


Using “jubilee” in an eschatological sense [“eschatology” is the study of the last days, a matter of the ending of old realities and the inauguration of new ones] is, therefore, hardly novel. I have given examples of it in Jewish and Christian scripture and from inter-testamental literature written by sectarian Jews. But what does any of this have to do with anarchism or with insurrection as I have been talking about it? You may, at first, think that “eschatology”, or an eschatologically-conceived jubilee, has very little to do with anarchism, a sane, sober and political kind of action undertaken in thought worlds far removed from Jewish eschatology and ideas of blessed ages to come. But would you be right to think that in a world in which, even as I am writing this, scrolling through my Twitter I find tweets such as “You gotta stop relying on the system to save you from the system”, “Everyone wants a revolution but no one wants to go first” and “I feel like I’m waiting for the shit to hit the fan but I don’t have the guts to start it”? As we saw when discussing the postanarchism of Saul Newman, the revolutionary theory of anarchist action is a successionary type of thinking, the present age of capitalism, with a kick up the backside from anarchist action, becomes the future revolutionary age of anarchy, a time of blessing and a complete break with the past. This, it seems to me, is a pretty eschatological way to think about it, one that we might even argue Alan Moore uses in V for Vendetta, albeit if there the “future age” is posited on people waking up to new, anarchist realities by opening up their minds and consciousnesses.

Yet we have already had cause to question such a revolutionary metanarrative and dismiss such an overarching narrative of time. We have substituted a personal insurrection for a metanarrative revolution. So how can the idea of jubilee be fitted into an understanding of that? I want to argue, and bear with me on this, that Jesus himself is an appropriate model. This is not the Jesus that Luke talks about using a fairly standard Jewish metanarrative of time with Jesus in the appropriate role of messiah, the inaugurator of the jubilee. Instead, it is the anarchist Jesus I have written about in previous books, including in a chapter of Being Human titled “The Social Anarchism of Jesus of Nazareth”. Eschatology itself, you see, need not simply be understood as a matter of linear time periods in a metanarrative of time. Instead, it can be understood as a living out, in the present, of an imagined future state. This is called realising or, better, actualising the eschatological ideas in the present. This is something, in the past, I have argued applies to both Diogenes and Jesus [as something I called “Cynic eschatology” because their values, when lived out, “ended the world”] as ways to understand their historical activities and, to me, it sounds plausibly like the idea of insurrection that I have been working with thus far in this book — as well as sounding like the “prefiguration” many theorists of anarchism talk about as necessary to a present practice of anarchism as well. All that being so, let’s examine this idea a little more.

First let me say that my chapter “The Social Anarchism of Jesus of Nazareth” in Being Human is, taken altogether, an excellent example of what I am talking about here. It sets out, in concise form, how Jesus aims to change human relationships — and so politics — by actually living out the new relationships he envisions and embodies in the present. This, in a nutshell, is precisely the point: this is the insurrection or, in the terms of this chapter, the jubilee. It is a present response to, and practice of, new realities in the present time as opposed to a waiting for an imagined future event or definitive change in world history. It is the jubilee practised and recognised even if the world in general does not do so. It is your own instantiation of realities and ethics you hold dear as an example and an encouragement to the world. From one point of view, it is simply education. But it is a change, a difference, a separation — it is living life differently and according to changed values. “The age to come” cannot be exactly the same as “the present age” otherwise what would be the point of it?

What are some of the ways that Jesus, in his priorities and practices, demonstrates this difference? Even skimming through my chapter on Jesus in Being Human we find reference to Jesus’ message regarding the incompatibility of wealth and poverty and a consequent dehabituating of people to economic activity as a result [for Jesus has himself chosen the side of destitution and so disdained the very idea of wealth or the requirement for currency within his own, consciously created, community]. We see Jesus engaged in culture-changing activities such as engaging in open commensality which cuts across social boundaries of acceptability in various meals he engages in besides engaging in mutual aid and encouraging the giving away of things as gifts. He favours a more horizontal understanding of human relationships and seeks to deconstruct relationships of domination. Moreover, Jesus’ own practices, in being consciously different to the social, cultural and political values of his time and place, can then only be seen to threaten, impugn and condemn them. That is, as with Diogenes’ practices, they are received as a biting critique. Jesus, in fact, is engaging in what I previously referred to as a new “political economy of human being”. In fact, as I say on page 272 of Being Human:

“This lifestyle Jesus has recommended is not about winning a popularity contest in the eyes of the world. It is about forming new relationships and living a different way of life which, as we must expect, changes the political economy of human living completely. Jesus’ thinking is a matter of a reversal of fortunes where “the last shall be first and the first shall be last” [Matthew 20:16]. It is about being “passersby” [Thomas 42 — which indicates being the wandering ptochos not the well settled and exploitative plusios]. Its not concerned with the authorities of society, which it pretty much ignores... but with one’s own attitude and response to others in relationship with them in general. The attitude seems to be, ‘I am like this and this will be my ethical standard regardless of the world.’… members of Jesus’ community take responsibility for themselves and are to exhibit an anarchist consciousness which is about personal virtue and socially articulated values.”

Jesus, in fact, is staging his own, very present, and very self-actualised insurrection in his time and place and explicitly instituting a new form of community marked by a new economy and a new understanding of human relationships demonstrated in, and distinguished by, that community’s ethics and practices. Jesus can even tell parables about how he sees this community in relation to the old one when he talks about mustard plants that “ruin” a field and invite in unwelcome birds or yeast [thought of as unwelcome mould in Jesus’ culture] that gets baked into a batch of dough. There is no doubt, if these be genuine reminiscences of Jesus, that he saw his own activity as an insurrectionary eruption of something new that was being actualised — and of eschatological significance [to do with the age to come rather than the present age] — in the present world of his experience.

It is, perhaps, then significant — if for different, Christian reasons — that Luke applies the idea of jubilee to his activities. But we anarchists can make use of this idea too because what is anarchism if not an offering of “liberty” or “release” to people in general, an opportunity to live according to different values that are demonstrated by, and constituted in, a new understanding of human relationships and, consequently, a new organisation of human community about liberation not domination, about release from exploitation as opposed to the practice of coercion? The way that Jesus is envisaged as both a jubilee-inaugurating figure but also a figure of eschatological significance — yet in an actualised way which is all about ethics and practices right now in the world of our present experience — is exactly of relevance to the insurrectionary anarchist who, in some respects, sees their own activity in very similar ways. The insurrectionary anarchist is, in fact, saying that they are the embodiment of the jubilee, a jubilee which, even historically, was only about engaging in certain practices which instantiated a certain ethically demonstrated ethos and community by resetting human relationships.

Perhaps something I said in my monograph Yeshua The Jewish Anarchist is then here relevant:

“anarchism is a form of cultural critique which observes and takes note of human relations but does so very much from the point of view of its own set of values. For example, it critiques the notion of private property from the point of view of how that instantiates and maintains power and it notes how such a thing serves the interests of the few to the exclusion of the many. Such a system can be said to have ‘no mercy’, as [British academic of anarchism Ruth] Kinna reports an interpreter of Pierre-Joseph Proudhon [the writer of What is Property?] to have put it. Then again, there is the anarchist concern with the people ‘emancipating themselves’ best articulated by the Italian anarchist, Errico Malatesta, who was keen to observe that anarchists wanted the self-emancipation of people as opposed to their emancipation by others. This was also a concern shared by some involved with the International Working Men’s Association [the ‘First International’], an early socialist/anarchist organisation, but best articulated after its break up in the position taken by Mikhail Bakunin [as opposed to that of his intellectual enemy, Karl Marx] that those emancipating themselves should not seek to do so by means of the pre-eminent channels of power but outside of them [one thing which distinguished the anarchist Bakunin from the state socialist Marx]. We can say, then, that ‘The goal of anarchist activism was non-domination, and direct action — active liberation — was the only possible means of its achievement.’ Put another way, as the much more recent anarchist-feminist, Valerie Solnas, did, anarchism is ‘out to destroy the system, not attain certain rights within it.’” [Yeshua The Jewish Anarchist , page 561]

The point here is that new values must actualise themselves in the present situation of the old values. It is, thus, different from the historical understanding of jubilee [as a legislative reality embedded into a calendar] and even of a traditional future eschatology [the present age followed by the age to come in which the latter is then, somehow, the achievement of some utopian existence]. For the historical Jesus, the historical Diogenes and for the insurrectionary anarchist the jubilee, the eschatology, is realised and actualised in the present in their very being, their relations, their beliefs and practices, and in any community they together create as a result of them. Its about being different, living differently, RIGHT NOW.

Sad to say, however, this is not a message that often seems to get across very well — albeit it that this fact in itself then gives an opportunity to set out clear blue water in regard to the anarchist difference. For example, as I write there is a social media kerfuffle about the activities of one Hasan Piker, variously described as an American “socialist” or “left-wing” political commentator depending on who you talk to. There has been discussion about Piker because he is recently said to have purchased a $2.7 million home in Los Angeles and there are those who ask after the ethics or values of such an activity in one of Piker’s description. What this has revealed in the social media discussion about it is that there are a lot of self-described left-leaning people who see nothing wrong in amassing wealth and purchasing multi-million dollar houses whilst talking about “leftist values” on Twitch streams. Being popular and, thus, rich, living what some would certainly describe as an ostentatious lifestyle, is then questioned in regard to the values it is imagined people with Piker’s political views would [or should] have.

Now I do not know of Hasan Piker. I had never heard of him before social media messages about him started appearing in my feed. In fact, the issue is not even one of Mr Piker himself. It is, in fact, the issue of values that really matters here and how behaviour reveals what they are. It is to ask the question of if you are a self-actualised manifestation of ideas like jubilee in your beliefs and behaviour or if you are just a person living an ostensibly capitalist lifestyle salted with a few left-leaning talking points. One of these is insurrectionary and one of these is not. Hasan Piker, in fact, even doing basic research on him, seems someone entirely embedded in democratic capitalism. He works with electoral politicians and commercial broadcast media as well as basing his current popularity off of appearances on websites such as Twitch and You Tube. It is hard to find anything insurrectionary or even more traditionally revolutionary about him or his views and so the fact that he is identified as “left-leaning” or “socialist” doesn’t really mean very much. Its just an empty label existing in an American context where even regular millionaire politicians who support corporatism can be regarded as “socialist” or “communist” when, in actual fact, they are nothing of the sort.

So, is Hasan Piker modelling new values, living life a different way to “the system” that is a critique of that system, something which impugns and threatens it? No. Definitively and absolutely no. He is no Diogenes. He is no anarchist Jesus. He is no insurrectionary anarchist. There is no jubilee [“release”, “liberty”] here, no actualised eschatological thinking which instantiates a new vision and new values and new behavioural practices in a world it wants to see the back of. There is just a man playing at media personality entirely within a capitalist understanding of things. Hasan Piker is more of the same rather than something different. And so are all his supporters who opine that people who buy multi-million dollar houses could still be donating cash behind the scenes [as if this solved the problem others have diagnosed]. Yet, as I have already written in Building Communities and Defeating Capitalism, this isn’t what its about at all. Instead “What we need is an alternative, one that provides a new economics not based on the exploitation of many by a few or of one person by another.” In Building Communities and Defeating Capitalism I defined this using the broad sense of “mutual aid” and I exampled how several anarchists and anarchist groups understood this term. My point in using it was that it was meant to be A REPLACEMENT FOR CAPITALISM, AN ALTERNATIVE WAY TO ORGANISE ECONOMIC RELATIONSHIPS. It was not meant to be a nice idea to talk about whilst you carried on your own life without any change whatsoever.

There is a story about Jesus, in fact, which illustrates this point, one of my favourite stories about him which features prominently in Yeshua The Jewish Anarchist. Its taken from Mark 10:17–22 and is the story of a rich and pious Jew who comes to Jesus asking what he needs to do to find his way into the age to come [the gospels are entirely eschatological documents]. Jesus replies by referring to the Jewish commandments by which he means to suggest following the Torah instruction or law I referenced in the beginning of this chapter, the way the covenant between the Jewish god and Israel was legally set out to result in a people marked out as separate and so “holy”. The man replies to Jesus that he has habitually been doing this since his youth and Jesus, it is remarked, has some positive feeling towards the man because of this. Perhaps, we may imagine, Jesus recognises that here is someone who is at least taking his responsibilities seriously. The problem is, however, that this is not enough. Jesus tells him he lacks something and must go and sell EVERYTHING he owns and give the money raised away to the destitute [often “destitute” is rendered “poor” here in English but “destitute” is the much better translation and is what Jesus was himself] and then join Jesus’ community of homeless wanderers. The man, pious and right thinking as he was, is then described as “shocked” and “grieving” because he was very rich and, seemingly, could not bring himself to do this.

And that is what a self-actualised eschatological jubilee looks like! It’s a complete break with the old system of wealth and possessions, a reliance on accumulated valuables, and a turn to mutual dependency in a community of those who are horizontally related to each other rather than vertically. Its not enough here to be the most pious man the status quo can imagine. Only actually instantiating and living according to new, more liberatory, more equal, values which destroy the status quo will do. Even if it costs you everything! That is what is called an anarchist insurrection. The ethical context of such an insurrection is not a matter of doing the best you can within the now but of actually modelling the imagined future in the now. This, I hope, is why people are criticising Hasan Piker because, whatever else he does, he is not an insurrection. He is not even a revolution. He is simply more of “no change”.

My intention in using Hasan Piker as an example is not to single him out but simply to show that the debate about his house purchase reveals very different attitudes about social change and the ethics of social change. In this book I am taking a very particular view on that, an insurrectionary one about self-actualisation understood within a recognisably anarchist tradition. As I set this out in the terms of Building Communities and Defeating Capitalism:

“The problem is that capitalism made this world. But what capitalism made is not something anti-capitalism [i.e. an anarchism of mutual aid] can maintain. These must be different, they must have different outcomes, and they must have different means. Living your life by means of an anarchism of mutual aid will not be the same, you will not have the same values or outcomes. If you do, it means something is wrong for capitalism and anti-capitalism are entirely opposed and operate according to different values and ideologies. Or rather, they should.”

And it is here that we need a slap in the face and a dose of reality. We need to stop engaging in the anarchist fantasy of a future imaginary utopia like something out of an Ursula K. Le Guin novel. We must, for all intents and purposes, come to the conclusion that “the revolution” NEVER HAPPENS, that the utopia is so completely unrealistic as to be dangerous and deceptive to actually envisage. Such a revolution, I am convinced, is not only extremely unlikely and impossible to imagine in the realistic circumstances of its creation but also actively harmful to our manifestation of anarchist insurrection in the present. Having such a goal leads every day to depression in many activists exactly because it seems so hard to imagine in a realistic way, the difference between their experience of daily life and the goal they have set in their heads being so far apart. This is not to say, of course, that we stop imagining things can be different. We must in fact do that in order not to fall into a paralysing nihilism but, as has now already been said multiple times, the having of a utopian goal, a “revolution” or future revolutionary state of existence, is not a help but a hindrance here. Put bluntly, I would state that “the revolution” is a fantasy that never happens [much, in fact, like the ancient apocalypses that Jews and some Christians wrote] and so I would suggest that insurrection — as I understand it in this book — is all that can ever actually happen. Perhaps enough insurrection makes a revolution but we should not set out with a linear understanding of revolution in mind for that is to take your eye off the ball which is the instantiation and maintenance of our own insurrection in revolt against all the capitalism, authoritarianism and exploitation of human beings and natural resources that the human beings in this world engage in.

In this chapter I suggest that we can think of this activity under the rubric of “jubilee”, a historic practice of release or liberty from certain burdensome or ultimately detrimental economic relations that applied in an imaginary ancient version of Palestine amongst the post-exodus Jewish people who lived there. Who, indeed, is offering release or liberty — in economic as well as other terms — if not the anarchists? I further suggest we can understand this in terms of a self-actualised eschatology, an imaginary in which the imagined conditions of an altered future state are manifested right here, right now, in our present world in the ways in which we insurrectionary anarchists live and organise ourselves. [This is yet another way to turn revolution into insurrection in the terms of this book.] But we should be sure to realise in reading this that this is an activity I am talking about and not a belief. Its something we do and which can only be done. Its not a theory in a book or an idea floating in the ether. Think of Diogenes. Think of Jesus. Think of anarchists like Emma Goldman inciting starving workers to doorstep the rich in their homes and steal bread [for which she was sent to prison in 1893]. Think of people like my friend with whom I co-wrote Building Communities and Defeating Capitalism, who herself has been a houseless person, who spends a portion of her day mobilizing for mutual aid amongst the houseless people of Portland, Oregon. What we are talking about here when we talk about “insurrection” or “jubilee” or “anarchism” or “mutual aid” is ACTUAL ACTIVITY. Nothing else cuts it and nothing else matters for nothing else changes anything. You are either changing the world by your activities and practices or you are not changing it.

So who are you and what are you doing? What can be done? That’s what Part B of this book is about.


“From a certain point onward, there is no turning back. That is the point that must be reached.” — Franz Kafka



This book, in one description I have conceived of it in the writing of it, is about helping people to reconceptualise themselves, their relationships to and with others, and the organisation of human relations — and the things they have to do with — in the world. Under such a description this is clearly something to do with ethics and it must be said that often I simply conceive of anarchism as a particular ethic too. Considering that I wrote about anarchism in Being Human as “virtues and values”, it should surprise no one that I take an especially ethical view of anarchism or think of anarchism as how a human being might respond ethically to the world and to the fact of their existence in it.

Yet, as is also the case in my earlier researches if you investigate the contents of my page where you found this book, I also wrote a book in my There is Nothing to Stick to series subtitled “The Fiction of Morality”. This subtitle [as well as the contents of the book!] were not some solipsistic attempt to imagine that morals or ethics do not exist but, instead, an exploratory attempt, more often than not guided by Friedrich Nietzsche’s copious and fertile discussions on morality, to make sense of morality or ethics [which clearly do exist] but without succumbing to the invidious notion that such things are somehow hardwired into anything or in any way obligatory in any specifics. In other words, to say that “ethics exist” is not to say that any specific ethics are relevant or binding. We must act towards people and things in some way but not necessarily in a particular way. Ethics is then perhaps the discussion revolving around the ‘how,’ ‘why’ and ‘what for’ regarding this.

In an article called “Insurrectionary Anarchy: Organising for Attack!” some anonymous authors begin by saying:

“For us anarchists the questions of how to act and how to organise are intimately linked. And it is these two questions, not the question of the desired form of a future society, that provide us with the most useful method for understanding the various forms of anarchism that exist.”

This present-centred approach seems to make good sense to me besides recognising that organising [which I shall discuss later] and ethics [which I’m discussing now] are things which actually need to fit together in anarchist thinking. [For example, in my historical researches into Jesus of Nazareth one could almost say, it seems to me, that the ethics were the organisation. “Do to others as you would be done by”, “Love your neighbour as yourself”, etc.] All that said, however, I intend to take my own idiosyncratic approach to discussing anarchist ethics in this chapter. The primary reason for this is that, in researching this chapter, I, naturally enough, searched for literature relevant to the topic that I could read and interact with in coming to my own point of view. But, in this case, I found myself feeling very irritable, uneasy and basically inauthentic about such a generalised and “at arms’ length” procedure. Not only, in fact, did I struggle to find too many generalised books about “anarchist ethics” but what I did find seemed beside the point and basically contrary to the very idea of anarchism, something, in my own mind, as Being Human laid out, about virtues and values rather than a plan or a place. So is it for anarchists to set out what “anarchist ethics” actually are as if this was some objective set of things that could be listed or detailed? This is not really the path I have followed previously, preferring instead to set the way markers of an anarchist path instead and leaving the rest up to those who would want to orientate their lives towards something they identify as anarchist. I am still very much committed to the idea of anarchism as consisting in what is essentially a matrix of virtues and values [related to an identifiable historical tradition] and so I will want to come back to that below.

But the process of doing this begins with me reflecting on how I come to be inhabited by the ethics [and especially the anarchist ethic] I have today. This, perhaps inevitably, leads to a list of influences, people whose thought has influenced me, that is, as opposed to real life people of my acquaintance. This list would certainly include Diogenes, Jesus of Nazareth, Friedrich Nietzsche and Emma Goldman [all thought of as anarchists of their own sort] as names which jump immediately to mind in regard to people whose thought I have read about and even obsessively studied repeated times over a number of years. [In fact, in each case I have written either repeated pieces about them or whole books based on them and their thought.] Besides this, I have also found myself coming back to the Daoist trident of texts, the Daodejing, the Zhuangzi, and the Liezi. [All of these were addressed by me over the four books of the series There is Nothing to Stick to in the context of a “spiritual and political” anarchy which was work I did prior to writing Being Human.] In more recent times three other figures of anarchist relevance come to mind in Alan Moore, Max Stirner and Émile Armand. Here the latter, particularly, stands out to me as a person of obvious and very deliberate ethics, a person for whom his anarchist identity was profoundly a matter of an ethical basis for living in which the ethic he tried to set out was absolutely one which he thought was both necessary and liveable. [Here we should note that there are numerous anarchist essays one could read which purport to set out “anarchist ways to live” but many of them end up being stream of consciousness fantasies without any actual attention to their liveability, or even their possible achievement, being given at all. I hope this book doesn’t end up being another of those].

This is, necessarily, an autobiographical tale. No two people interact with the same things in the same way. We describe this fact as a matter of our individuality, as a matter of our difference and ability to make different choices, in regard to other people with whom we share a species. So I am going to make very personal choices in describing anarchist ethics as I see them in this chapter using the resources that the living of my own life has furnished me with. You, my reader, will, necessarily, have a different set of resources available to you that have been the roots in which you grew as a person. That’s perfectly fine and well understood. Therefore, its in the interaction between us that something useful and beneficial will be found. I’m going to start by giving an appraisal of the aforementioned French anarchist, Émile Armand’s, approach to anarchist ethics.


Émile Armand was a nudist and a polyamorist. How’s that for a start?! I’m sure there must be at least one or two people who have read this and immediately found objection with either nudism or having more than one sexual partner or both. Consequently, making Armand seem like the kind of guy we should pay attention to has now been made more difficult in regard to such people. But why are you so bothered by Monsieur Armand’s liking for nudity and a particular sexuality [which, by the by, hasn’t even been properly described or contextualised yet]? This is certainly something for such people to consider.

Whilst you are doing that you should also keep in mind that if the period of “classical anarchism” be thought of as around 1870 — 1940 then Armand’s life both spanned and outlasted it. Born in Paris to a participant in the Paris Commune in March 1872, Émile Armand [this was not his given name, he was born Ernest Lucien Juin but one of his later rebellions would be to refuse his naming by others and create his own name instead] would embrace Christianity in the form of the Salvation Army in his early years. But then, always a curious person who thought through the consequences of things, he rejected this, becoming an atheist. Then he studied the writings of Leo Tolstoy and became an adherent of his Christian anarchism [which also includes a pacifist element]. Thereafter, he studied anarcho-communism but, by 1911, he would reject this too becoming a confirmed individualist anarchist instead. He would remain this for the rest of his life until his death in early 1963. Whatever Armand was doing with his life, it clearly wasn’t affecting his health too much. Perhaps it was all that sex and nudity which kept him going?

I am being somewhat sarcastic, of course. But that is only as a response to the sometimes reactionary responses to matters of sexuality and nudity that some people seem to exhibit. Yet Émile Armand was about much more than this as we shall see. Fortunately, for later appreciators of his oeuvre, Armand was a writer who edited at least three separate anarchist journals during the course of his life, submitting many articles to those of others as well. Thus, we have a fairly good idea about his thinking. We may start discussing this, in the context of this specific book, by noting that Armand did not think an anarchist had to wait for the revolution [to which most anarchism during his lifetime was entirely orientated] in order to change one’s life. Rather, Armand’s attitude was that one had to live one’s “revolution” right here and right now as an expression of one’s anarchism rather than in some distant future, the result of social and political action, which might never actually come. For Armand, it was precisely the point that one’s revolution be a revolution of your daily life here and now and he could not envisage something as anarchist that did not have such an outworking. So Armand’s anarchism was definitely not about the construction of future imaginary utopias. In tandem with this, we may comment on Armand’s ideas that they were never meant to be turned into dogmas. Being later influenced by Stirner and Nietzsche, Armand thought, like them, that such thinking was only a matter of stirring people to their own thought and convictions. In this, Armand was convinced that a properly anarchist education is not a matter of making people think like you but, rather, encouraging them to be people who think for themselves. Armand’s anarchist ethic, then, is very much about creating and encouraging AUTONOMY.

In later life, taking his cue from Max Stirner’s idea of “the unique” — and so a society “without coercion” — Armand could consequently say:

“Individualists of our kind recognize every society as a ‘Society without Coercion’ in which the State and any other aggressive power is eliminated, in which there is no longer any domination of man over man or over a sphere of society (and vice versa) and in which an exploitation of man by man or of man through social institutions (and vice versa) is impossible.”

The document this is found in, “Our Demands As Individualist Anarchists”, from 1945 then goes on to list 18 “full and unrestricted rights” to various things Armand thinks an individualist anarchism requires, including one specific to “women and mothers” [the right to decide when, or if, they shall get pregnant and of responsibility in deciding the child’s future] and another which applies specifically to children [to whom Armand gave the right to ask for a change of wardship or to ask for a community of others to grant the child full adulthood so they could take charge of their own affairs]. In such stipulations it will be seen that Armand’s individualism is a strong individualism, a true belief in personal autonomy. Armand wants to create a community of strong individuals both willing and capable of orchestrating their own lives and expressing their own wishes. We see this, for example, in the first stipulation of this document which reads:

“FULL AND UNRESTRICTED RIGHT to decide for oneself in all respects.

This means that every unit in society moves according to its own discretion, develops itself, gathers experiences in accordance with its own preferences, corresponding to its talents, reasoning and personal resolutions.

In short, the individual is responsible only to himself (or to those to whom he has obliged himself) for all his actions. This freedom finds its limits where the equal freedom of others begins and the danger arises that others are harmed.”

Besides autonomy, Armand was likewise a strong believer in free association [one thinks here of Stirner’s “union of egoists”] as, for example, stipulation 3 suggests: “FULL AND UNRESTRICTED RIGHT to join any association that has definite and predetermined purposes or any other association of any kind.” To this we should add stipulation 11 as well: “FULL AND UNRESTRICTED RIGHT to decide for oneself to join any association or league whose libertarian aims embrace any kind of human activity or search for knowledge. This applies to associations for any economic, intellectual, ethical, emotional, recreational or other purpose and, especially for all spheres of production, consumption, trade, communication, insurance against all possible risks, educational methods and systems, to the utilization of scientific discoveries and of naturally or artificially produced energies.”

But, being free association, this must also include the ability to freely disassociate as well [it cannot be a matter of “free” association or of autonomy if such associations become binding] and so stipulation 12 also applies: “FULL AND UNRESTRICTED RIGHT to secede from any kind of association, but in accordance with the principles and clauses agreed upon when it was established.” The “but” here is a warning that Armand’s understanding of anarchist individualism is not a laissez-faire free for all in which people can just arbitrarily decide things on a whim and to hell with the consequences [not least for others who may have invested in certain associations]. Armand likewise conceded that harm to others was not a side issue in people’s relations and associations with each other. As stipulation 1 already suggested, “freedom finds its limits where the equal freedom of others begins and the danger arises that others are harmed.” Although Armand very strongly insisted that he was an individualist anarchist, it can be seen that this was also a very social view with explicit social consequences. Autonomy and free association [a necessarily social thing] very much went together for Armand who was, thus, not preaching anarchist hermeticism or an anarchist solipsism.

Yet how did Armand himself conceive of the anarchist? His “Mini-Manual of Individualist Anarchism” from 1911 gives some large hints. He begins:

“To be an anarchist is to deny authority and reject its economic corollary: exploitation — and that in all the domains where human activity is exerted. The anarchist wishes to live without gods or masters; without patrons or directors; a-legal, without laws as without prejudices; amoral, without obligations as without collective morals. He wants to live freely, to live his own idea of life. In his interior conscience, he is always asocial, a refractory, an outsider, marginal, an exception, a misfit. And obliged as he is to live in a society the constitution of which is repugnant to his temperament, it is in a foreign land that he is camped. If he grants to his environment unavoidable concessions — always with the intention of taking them back — in order to avoid risking or sacrificing his life foolishly or uselessly, it is because he considers them as weapons of personal defence in the struggle for existence. The anarchist wishes to live his life, as much as possible, morally, intellectually, economically, without occupying himself with the rest of the world, exploiters or exploited; without wanting to dominate or to exploit others, but ready to respond by all means against whoever would intervene in his life or would prevent him from expressing his thought by the pen or by speech.”

Armand develops this thinking in his second paragraph in which he writes things not so different from what Emma Goldman was writing and saying at the same time across the Atlantic Ocean:

“The anarchist has for enemy the State and all its institutions which tend to maintain or to perpetuate its stranglehold on the individual. There is no possibility of conciliation between the anarchist and any form whatever of society resting on authority, whether it emanates from an autocrat, from an aristocracy, or from a democracy. No common ground between the anarchist and any environment regulated by the decisions of a majority or the wishes of an elite. The anarchist combats for the same reason the teaching furnished by the State and that dispensed by the Church. He is the adversary of monopolies and of privileges, whether they are of the intellectual, moral or economic order. In a word, he is the irreconcilable antagonist of every regime, of every social system, of every state of things that implies the domination of man or the environment over the individual and the exploitation of the individual by another or by the group.”

Yet it is the third paragraph of this document where I think we find the beating heart of Armand’s individualist anarchist mentality:

“The work of the anarchist is above all a work of critique. The anarchist goes, sowing revolt against that which oppresses, obstructs, opposes itself to the free expansion of the individual being. He agrees first to rid brains of preconceived ideas, to put at liberty temperaments enchained by fear, to give rise to mindsets free from popular opinion and social conventions; it is thus that the anarchist will push all comers to make route with him to rebel practically against the determinism of the social environment, to affirm themselves individually, to sculpt his internal statue, to render themselves, as much as possible, independent of the moral, intellectual and economic environment. He will urge the ignorant to instruct himself, the nonchalant to react, the feeble to become strong, the bent to straighten. He will push the poorly endowed and less apt to pull from themselves all the resources possible and not to rely on others.”

This is an anarchism of the internal and the external. It is an anarchist insurrection of right here and right now against idealisms and materialisms which press in upon each one of us in our contemporary societies. It is an anarchism of autonomy but it is not, thereby, an isolationist anarchism or an antisocial anarchism. Indeed, we might even say that Armand seems to want a community of individualist anarchists here — as each person decides for themselves to make common cause for such a thing. This seems to encompass recognitions of decentralisation and diversity besides the already acknowledged affinities for autonomy and free association. Armand knows very well that people cannot, and should not, all just exist alone in their own little worlds, a million anarchist individuals in their cells like Egyptian hermits at Scetis. Social interaction is necessary and, if only for that reason alone, desirable. But Armand does not see why coercion must therefore enter into it.

But here Armand sees another danger too, the enforced collectivity, the communist or Marxist danger. And so:

“The individualist anarchist loses interest in a violent revolution having for aim a transformation of the mode of distribution of products in the collectivist or communist sense, which would hardly bring about a change in the general mentality and which would not provoke at all the emancipation of the individual being. In a communist regime that one would be as subordinated as presently to the good will of the environment: he would find himself as poor, as miserable as now; instead of being under the thumb of the small capitalist minority of the present, he would be dominated by the economic ensemble. Nothing would properly belong to him. He would be a producer, a consumer, put a little or take some from the heap, but he would never be autonomous.”

Here we see as clearly as anywhere else that Armand’s line in the sand is the amount of autonomy a particular social situation provides. Autonomy, in fact, is his ethic, those arrangements which enable people to take responsibility for themselves in as meaningful a sense as possible is his desire. For example, in the “Mini Manual” he later states:

“The individualist-anarchist is never the slave of a formula-type or of a received text. He admits only opinions. He proposes only theses. He does not impose an end on himself. If he adopts one method of life on one point of detail, it is in order to assure more liberty, more happiness, more well-being, but not at all in order to sacrifice himself. And he modifies it, and transforms it when it appears to him that to continue to remain faithful to it would diminish his autonomy. He does not want to let himself be dominated by principles established a priori; it is a posteriori, on his experiences, that he bases his rule of conduct, nevertheless definitive, always subject to the modifications and to the transformations that the recording of new experiences can register, and the necessity of acquisition of new weapons in his struggle against the environment — without making an absolute of the a priori.”

Here we see a recognition of a necessary flexibility in the organisation of life so as not to bind the human being to a path they may subsequently wish to excuse themselves from. “Liberty” is understood as being able to decide one’s path, subject to the obligations one has put oneself under and the freedom of others, for oneself. The individual is not in this mentality merely the adjunct of some social body, neither subservient to some institutional or hierarchical authority. Such a person prescribes for themselves neither morality nor a specific form of material existence, seeking to avoid violence and constraint in equal measure. As such, we see the insurrectionist impulse in this form of anarchism, Armand’s final paragraph here being instructive:

“The individualist-anarchist will interest himself in the associations formed by certain comrades with an eye to tearing themselves from obsession with a milieu which disgusts them. The refusal of military service, or of paying taxes, will have all his sympathy; free unions, single or plural, as a protestation against ordinary morals; illegalism as the violent rupture (and with certain reservations) of an economic contract imposed by force; abstention from every action, from every labour, from every function involving the maintenance or consolidation of the imposed intellectual, ethical or economic regime; the exchange of vital products between individualist-anarchist possessors of the necessary engines of production, apart from every capitalist intermediary; etc., are acts of revolt agreeing essentially with the character of individualist-anarchism.”

This, then, is anarchism in revolt against current capitalist and authoritarian circumstances and the insistence that free human beings will express that freedom, which no one can either grant or take away from them, in the formation of their own lives, communities and freely associational exchanges.

This, in turn, suggests the subject of “authenticity”. Armand addresses this, for example, in a 1925 piece entitled “What is an Anarchist?”. In it he riffs on a theme that he will engage in numerous times, the subject of people in general striving after appearances rather than living their own authentic lives. In Stirner’s terms here we are talking about people inhabited and animated by spooks rather than taking responsibility for themselves and deciding, even though all the world disagree with them, who they shall be. And so it makes sense that Armand would refer to “This mania, this passion, this race for appearances, for what can procure them, [which] devours both the rich man and the vagabond, the most erudite and the illiterate.” He complains that:

“The worker who curses his foreman wishes to become one in turn; the merchant who evaluates his commercial honour to be of an unequalled price doesn’t hesitate to carry out dishonourable deals; the small shop owner, member of patriotic and nationalist electoral committees, hastens to transmit his orders to foreign manufacturers as soon as he finds this profitable. The socialist lawyer, advocate of the poverty-stricken proletariat herded into the malodorous parts of the city, passes his vacations in a chateaux or resides in the wealthy neighbourhoods of the city, where fresh air is abundant. The free thinker still willingly marries in church, and often has his children baptized there. The religious man doesn’t dare express his ideas, since ridiculing religion is the done thing.”

Here the basic problem [which Nietzsche also refers to at the beginning of book 3 of his Daybreak] is individual inauthenticity, people who do not own themselves and are not in charge of their own lives, possessed, as they surely are, by values not their own implanted there by a society of such materiality and ideology that inhabits them and has them dancing like puppets on a string. This morality is exactly the thing Armand wants to liberate people from, not just simple material conditions [whether capitalist or communist or whatever] but the ventriloquist ideologies which work people from the inside, making them traitors to themselves, inauthentic people who live according to ideas they have never seen fit to question. Here it is not a matter of “seeming” or “appearing” to the world in ways which it approves of [as if it were up to society to authorise our very being] but, as Armand puts it, “to establish the responsibility of the individual”. But here, once again, Armand asserts that he is not for waiting. He is, in the terms of this book, the insurrection. Moreover, he does not write for everyone. He does not want to wait until “the mass” are ready to be revolutionary. Rather:

“We answer honestly that we don’t intend to write for all the beings who make up society. Let us be understood: we address ourselves to those who think or are in the process of thinking, to those who have grown impatient from waiting for the mass, who can’t or won’t think; to those who can’t adapt to appearances and who the current stage of society doesn’t satisfy. We write for the curious, for thinkers, for the critical — for those who aren’t content with formulas or empty solutions.”

The problem, in fact, is exactly society as it is, a world which constrains, constricts and coerces those who have come to a point of desiring their autonomy from it. The situation is that “the spirit that reflects and attentively considers men and things encounters in the complex of things we call society a nearly insurmountable barrier to truly free, independent, individual life. This is enough for him to qualify it as evil, and for him to wish for its disappearance.” Armand conceives of individualist anarchism as then an ethic of revolt and insurrection, an autonomous rebellion.

But this is not simply a material question — as some might suggest. We have already seen, in fact, that morality was just as much Armand’s target as was material organisation of human relationships [about which he says a lot more than I can include here. Armand was concerned to write to what he saw as a workable system of human relationships, economic as much as anything else]. In “Without Amoralization, No Anarchization” we see this fact pushed further still. In this essay Armand begins by taking issue with Peter Kropotkin [as an advocate of “traditional anarchism”] who, so Armand imagines, wants to argue that nature itself tends towards an ethical existence. He names books such as Kropotkin’s Mutual Aid and his Ethics which indeed do appear to argue that nature done right “tend[s] to the establishment of a social system of morals”. Kropotkin’s aim, so Armand comes to realise, is to establish an anarcho-communism as the correct carrying out of human relationships according to a strictly moral nature — something he disdains in passing as “taking pure phantoms for beings of flesh and bone” in an expression requisitely Stirnerite. However, Armand insists:

“As an anarchist individualist, an anarchist associationist, I understand that we make use of our own sensibilities to create a line of individual conduct; I understand that we associate with individuals endowed with approximately similar sensibilities, that we then act according to a group’s guidelines. But to set up the manner of behaving of one individual or group as a universal, absolute morality, that is what does not appear anarchist to me, that is what I rise against.”

Armand consequently thinks of Kropotkin’s anarcho-communism as anarchism “petrified”, as no longer anarchism at all if it be a fixed system to be imposed upon others as a model or template:

“Indeed, the day when it is accepted that there is only one single anarchist moral system, only one unique line of anarchist conduct, it will follow that anyone who decides against or places themselves outside these guidelines or this moral system could no longer be considered anarchist. At that moment, Anarchism would have no reason to envy Church and State: it would have its moral system, one and indivisible, its sacrosanct, stagnant morality.”

Armand’s conception of anarchism and its ethics, then [or even as a ethic in itself], is of something that must stay vital, flexible, malleable, transformative according to circumstances — or even just according to individual tastes or will. As Armand continues:

“In order for Anarchism not to be transformed into a tool for social or moral conservation, it is obviously necessary that all the ethics, all the anti-authoritarian means of living life, compete within it. In anarchy, there are as many ‘moralities’ as there are anarchists, taken individually, or groups or associations of anarchists. Thus, in anarchy, one is amoral, or put another way: every moral system presented as anarchist is only so relative to the unity of the group that proposes or practices it. There is no absolute anarchist morality, so no one can logically say that it summarizes or incorporates the demands, the desiderata, the relations of all the anarchists. The anarchist work cannot consist of moralizing anarchism, but of amoralizing it, of destroying among the anarchists the final remnants of exclusivism and statism, which can still lie dormant in the spirit of their relations between individualities or associations.”

Here, it seems to me, Armand sets out a rhizomatic and diverse understanding of ethics and, indeed, of anarchism as an ethic in itself. It is not about telling people what to do, imposing a better, because anarchist, morality. Anarchism, to be anarchism, must stay anarchist, it must resist the authoritarian impulse or moment to the utmost. So we must never come to the point of imposing an idea on another for we must always recognise that imposition is not the anarchist way. The insurrection never stops and will continue even against other anarchists if they forget what they are and the ethical course of anti-authoritarianism and a freedom of equals that they have decided to embark upon. People become masters of their own destiny here and can live their lives, subject to obligations they have freely taken on and not causing harm to others, as they see fit. Autonomy and a lack of coercion [even from other anarchists] are equally vital elements of this mindset which, if left to organise itself, tends towards a rhizomatic, self-organising diverse construction which forms bonds of affinity, or not, exactly as those within it see fit. Here no one is coerced to a particular morality but each decide for themselves. So there is no “anarchist morality” but only anarchists acting with their own sense of moral responsibility, a moral responsibility they take seriously because it is in the ethical nature of anarchism both to be moral and to take responsibility. Therefore:

“Unconsciously, a new basis for ethical relations between isolated individuals and associates appears: it is the unity or association that sets out the rule of conduct to be maintained in order to reach the maximum of sociability, a sociability that in no way answers to a moral conception of good and evil, to a transcendent a priori, but is based on the self-interested observation that no one is, can, or wants to be an object of consumption for me except to the extent that I am or can or want to be such for them.”

Armand, in passing, blames the “petit-bourgeois” for infecting anarchism with notions of artificial anarchist [and universally applicable] morals and, indeed, we can even see today how essentialist and absolutist ideas still infect those claiming to be anarchist who, at the same time, try to impose their moral ideas on others. Such people bring across their essentialism, and other bourgeois philosophical traits, from the liberal and neoliberal societies they are inhabited by. Armand, on the other hand, takes a different, relativist view that people freely associating with each other can make up their own rules of conduct without reference to some imaginary anarchist Bible which sets out how they are to behave. The anarchism, in other words, just keeps on anarchising for Armand; the ethic of no leaders, an autonomy, an association of free equals, does not stop or come to an end in an “anarchist morality”. Armand was very clearly a “no gods, no masters” kind of guy and he meant it. Anarchism does not for him lead to more of the same but now with new, anarchist moral justifications. It leads to amorality [as distinguished from immorality which, in a context of amorality, would cease to exist.] We have, as anarchists, transvalued our values. Only by “amoralization and immoralization” [from the point of view of the current mentality] can the “advent” of anarchism even be seen according to Armand.

An example of this attitude of Armand’s might be seen in his advocacy of “revolutionary nudism”, also the title of a short written piece of his from 1934. Nudism, thinks Armand, “is, individually and collectively, among the most potent means of emancipation.” Indeed, he describes it in this short piece as a “revolutionary demand”. He conceives of nudism as a personal ability “to proclaim one’s casual indifference to conventions, morals, religious commandments, and social laws that, under various pretexts, keep humans from disposing the different parts of their bodily being as they see fit” and calls it “one of the most profound and conscious manifestations of individual freedom.” Armand does not see any hierarchy of body parts in operation and consequently, in a way very Cynic [but not cynical] in its nature, protests the “dogma” which instantiates such things. It is not properly and self-responsibly moral to regard some body parts as shameful nor is it similarly self-responsible to fall in line with imposed customs or laws either. Armand thus despises such social notions of decency accordingly. He even argues that clothing designates people within social hierarchies and so that nudity equalises us all when he says:

“Let us imagine the general, the bishop, the ambassador, the academic, the prison guard, the warden — naked. What would be left of their prestige, of the authority delegated to them? The rulers know this well, and this is not the least of the motives for their hostility to nudism.”

He also argues that a naked friend is a better friend when he says:

“We will go farther. We maintain, taking up the perspective of sociability, that the practice of getting naked is a factor in better camaraderie, a less narrow camaraderie.

There is no denying that for us a less distant, more intimate, more trusting comrade is the one who reveals her or himself to us not only without intellectual or ethical ulterior motives, but also without hiding their body.”

Armand adds to this that an authentic nudity that one wills makes for a more honest person and more honest human relationships — even where nudity may lead to sexual arousal or “erotic desire”, something he does not deny even though it is not always the case. Armand would rather there were honest human relationships than bourgeois appearances and constant artifice, part of an anarchist agenda he had under the rubric of “anarchist individualism and amorous comradeship”, also the title of one of his books. But then Armand himself came from a bourgeois family and, as his activities show, no doubt wanted to escape it [and its ideology] whilst being keenly aware of it faults. He himself rebelled against his own name, Ernest Lucien Juin, and so against a family institution. Then he rebelled against the Catholic creed of his family, against moral obligation. After that he rebelled against his wife and marriage, against social condemnation for his later polyamory and nudism. Émile Armand’s whole life was one of constantly ongoing insurrection. He described “the social ambiance” of the life of his experience, for example, in the following way:

“An informal and anonymous mass, rich and poor, slaves of secular and hereditary prejudice — some because they draw advantage from those prejudices, and others still because they are submerged in the most crass ignorance and lack the will to escape. A money-worshipping mass, that has for its supreme ideal the rich man; a people made brutish by prejudices, by authoritarian teaching methods, by an artificial existence, by alcohol abuse, by adulterated and cheaply produced foods, a plague of degenerates from above and below, without any profound aspirations, with no other goal besides ‘making it’ or living tranquilly.”

He saw things little different in the world of work either:

“In those vast factories and workshops I see no more than flocks of slaves, executing monotonously, as if they were religious rites, the same gestures in front of the same machines, slaves who have lost all initiative and whose individual energy is decreased more and more every day, and every day it seems less and less true to me that these risks are part of the necessary conditions of human existence. From top to bottom, in the administrative hierarchies, only one watchword can be heard — drown individual initiative.”

No wonder, then, that he would come to oppose, in every decision of his will, every desire of his heart and every activity of his doing, outside coercion and the imposition of authorities material or ideological. The autonomous individual, the anarchist, could do no other and must live “without the locks of ‘moralityism’ or the dams of ‘traditionalism’ troubling or miring their course” — as he put it in his essay “On Sexual Liberty” from 1916. Sex, in fact, in closing this brief appraisal of Armand’s thought, may act as a perfect example of Armand’s approach to life. In this essay Armand states:

“When we call for ‘sexual liberty’ — what do we mean? Do we mean ‘freedom to rape’ or debauchery? Do we desire the annihilation of sentiment in the love-life, the disappearance of attachment, tenderness and affection? Do we glorify unthinking promiscuity or animalistic sexual satisfaction, at any time and place? Not at all. In calling for sexual liberty, we simply demand the possibility for every individual to dispose, as they wish and in all the circumstances of their sexual life — according to the qualifications of temperament, sentiment, and reason which are peculiar to them.

Thus we do not demand the liberty to ‘rape.’ Attention: their sexual life — that does not imply the sexual life of another. Neither do we demand a liberty of the sexual life which would precede any sexual education. On the contrary, we believe that, gradually, in the period preceding puberty, the human being should be left ignorant of nothing that concerns sexual life, — that is, the inevitable attraction of the sexes — whether that sexual life is considered from the sentimental, emotional or physiological point of view. We believe that advanced minds should have taken it to heart to recommend and propagate that education, to never let an occasion escape to engage in it; we think that from the moment that we have just indicated, not only should the human being know what delights — sentimental, emotional, and physical — the sexual life hold, but also what responsibilities it leads to. Both sexes should be lead to understand, for example, that it is up to the woman to choose the hour of conception. And neither sex should be ignorant of the means of contraception. Following my thought to its logical conclusions, I would say that in a society which had not made it possible for its female constituents to refuse or avert an undesired pregnancy, those constituents would be perfectly justified in leaving their progeny to the care of the collectivity.

We do not separate the ‘liberty of the sexual life’ from ‘sexual education’.”

This attitude certainly seems a lot more “moral” than that of many current societies or communities [even the ones that go out of their way to publicise their “morality”] towards the practice of sexuality. It encompasses education, responsibility, freedom to decide for oneself what activities one shall engage in and concern for a sexual partner’s own autonomy [regardless of their gender] as well as the natural and obvious possible consequences of sexual intercourse itself. Extrapolate this to life in general and you reasonably have a summation of Émile Armand’s attitude towards the ethics of anarchism.


If we are to answer the question “What is an anarchist ethics?” according to the life and thinking of Émile Armand then it seems to me that the answer is along the lines of “One that we self-responsibly and authentically choose for ourselves without ever once thinking to impose it on anyone else.” This strikes me as a good start but it also leads me to wonder what sort of person would come to such conclusions and so about what kind of thinking it can be based on. It is here, thinking back to that section on Émile Armand where he opposed a priori thinking to a posteriori thinking that a distinction suggests itself to me. This is to regard “morality” as an a priori, something which exists before action and so acts as an authority, something which requires obedience to it, and to regard “ethics” as an a posteriori kind of thinking, a rationale or reasoning for actions undertaken. Understood this way, morality and ethics are not the same thing at all and neither do they serve the same functions. Needless to say, as with Armand, I favour the latter over the former here. But, more than this, following Nietzsche — whose thought on morality I explored in a preliminary but much more thorough way in There is Nothing to Stick to: Part 2: The Fiction of Morality — morality is, in fact, a fictional authority, an invention created by human thinking in order to require obedience to an authority from human beings using a human thought and language predisposed to authority as fixity as a means to its ends. This is unfortunately a more complex subject to deal with for a general book on anarchism such as this so I shall confine myself to a few salient comments in order to make my points here in regard to an anarchist ethics in lieu of the reader checking out the fuller exploration in The Fiction of Morality.

One of the characteristics of the thought of Friedrich Nietzsche is that it is definitively not systematic. He writes aphoristically and seemingly wherever his thinking leads meaning that often one aphorism may seem in some dubious connection with others ostensibly close by or apparently meant to be on the same subject. This matter of style is actually intimately related to the content, however, for given the sorts of things Nietzsche actually says it becomes impossible for him to then give a systematic answer to any of the questions about morality, truth, knowledge or the human being that he actually takes on. The only conclusion we can draw from this literary activity is that being systematic and attempting to give definitive or final answers to such questions — the kinds of answers which might be called “understanding” or “making sense of” such things or that might act as authorities — is entirely inappropriate to the subjects concerned. Nietzsche’s comment on this in Twilight of the Idols “I distrust all systematizers and stay out of their way. The will to a system is a lack of integrity” makes this point very well [as it does that “integrity” matters more than “systems” to Nietzsche].

What we have here, in fact, is a philosophical argument that has been raging between thinkers over millennia. Two main kinds of thinkers are here imagined [which we might also map to the morality/ethics disparity just suggested], the “authoritarian” thinkers who imagine a reality of fixity and objective, unchanging truth, something that our imagined rational faculties are able to turn into something valued as “knowledge”, something that can arbitrate for itself — and the “anarchist” or “interpretive” thinkers who, instead, perceive a universe of movement and change, a universe we can only interpret according to our needs with the purposes that we have, a universe we more properly simply relate to and use; this kind of universe can be arbitrating too but only ever as a thesis about the universe, something which might be questioned, something which can be discussed and updated or changed as is found necessary. Here we must set our own course, however, rather than having it imposed upon us. Nietzsche is one of the latter kinds of thinkers and so is Armand too — as, in fact, am I as well.

Nietzsche himself develops a thorough and ongoing critique, throughout his entire corpus of books, of the “authoritarian” position whilst simultaneously seeming to hasten the arrival of the “anarchist” or “interpretive” one. Some of his most destructive undermining of the first position happens in a short essay Nietzsche didn’t even bother to publish during his own lifetime called “On Truth and Lying in An Extra-Moral Sense”. In this essay Nietzsche turns truth into a matter of truths which are in turn a matter of the pragmatic manipulations of human language and so of human thought — something that we have evolved to carry out by means of language. Later on, in books like Human, All Too Human, Daybreak and The Gay Science, Nietzsche continues undermining authoritarian senses of reality, morality, truth and knowledge [things that might be thought of as an epistemological view of life] substituting for them an interpretive one. This position then becomes the deliberate self-creation of Thus Spoke Zarathustra, Nietzsche’s favourite book of his own, in which human beings are encouraged to create the person they would willingly be over and over again in unending lives of what Nietzsche termed “eternal recurrence” — not itself a theory of the material universe [he was not saying we live innumerable lives] but a metaphor instructing readers about how to live right now in the one life they assuredly have. Nietzsche thought human beings should free themselves from the shackles of authoritarian thinking which invents authorities for them to prostrate themselves before and become masters of who they themselves are and will become. To this extent, at least, he is an anarchist of thought, a promoter of creating and living your own life, in favour of ethics but against morality.

This life, then, rather than being arbitrated by strange philosophical gods called truth, knowledge, morality or even reality, is, instead, a matter of interpretation. Nietzsche’s book Twilight of the Idols is, in fact, a book about how things such as these have fallen just as his book The Gay Science, in its 125th section, recounts the famous “death of God” scene. The meaning of Nietzsche’s statement there “God is dead and we have killed him” [in a scene which recalls Diogenes running through the marketplace looking for a human being — Nietzsche was a classicist and knew his Greek texts] is exactly his assertion that human beings — self-creative human beings, human beings who own themselves, are unique [in Stirner’s terms] and who live the life they would putatively live forever — lay death blows upon all divinity itself. This is not just a matter of deities but of any idea or concept which would likewise imagine to deify itself and take up the position or function of a God [not least in matters of its authority]. Truth, knowledge, reality, morality are all such candidates and so, for Nietzsche, they must go the same way too.

Of course, another subject that pretends to such a position is the idea of the human being itself which, during the course of the liberal Enlightenment up to that point, had been progressing nicely as the natural successor to God, the one who was become the measure of all things. Nietzsche turns such a “Man” into the measure of no things and deconstructs him unceremoniously, stripping him of any divinity [such as “rationality” which could arbitrate “truth”] he pretended to possess in the process. In doing so Nietzsche uses the language of “becoming” as opposed to that of “being”, the two sides of the authoritarian versus anarchist or moral versus ethical philosophical debate once more restated in other terms. It was Nietzsche’s view, as the philosopher Babette Babich puts it, that interpretation is “ubiquitous” and this is a conclusion that must be followed through to the end, to the utter annihilation of the “authoritarian” position in Church, in philosophical thinking and, ultimately, in the State and government [so the anarchists think]. Nietzsche himself was not too enamoured of socialists and anarchists in his own day, perhaps thinking of them as having a “herd mentality” he, with more aristocratic thinking, despised and deprecated. Nietzsche, instead, had his own, more egoist, project of emancipation from the shackles of authoritarian thought and the living of individual, self-actualised lives set free from it. In defending Nietzsche’s project, Emma Goldman, who was a fan [but not in all respects], even suggested that all anarchists are also aristocratic thinkers of this type too.

Nietzsche’s argument, to short circuit it at the risk of doing it violence [see The Fiction of Morality for more in depth argumentation and quotation], is that linguistic beings such as we are do not have the intellectual apparatus to be able to set anything in stone. We cannot be what we imagine gods to be and so, even if puffed up by the inspiration of cognitive powers, we cannot talk about absolutes. Yet here our language does exactly that, every “is” predicating something and saying its just so and no other way. Language itself, and so the human thought which understands or interprets by means of it, is an apparatus for talking about fixed, static things. Language predicates and posits, it is not a matter of doubt or maybes or movement. And this comes, naturally enough, if only by means of habit, to make reality seem like something fixed and solid, something unchanging and unmoving, something set on firm, authoritative foundations. But what, thinks Nietzsche, if language [and so all of our thinking] is itself a lie? What if language did not evolve to tell us “what is” but only to have the function of allowing us to make use of our experiences of the world, to manipulate the reality we inhabit? Such a function would not require any objective rightness or any actual knowledge. It would only ever require as much accuracy or repeatability as was required to perform the task we want to perform for the reasons we have in performing it in a reliable way. This is to say that our thinking might be useful to us but that doesn’t entail that we have any “knowledge”, so conceived, of the world [and so any authority we must fall before].

Such thoughts lead to the view that everything is interpretation and that all human thought is ultimately pragmatic or hermeneutical rather than epistemological. [We don’t have any actual knowledge of a “real world” but neither do we actually need any — but then its not as if we could ever know that we really know something anyway. We cannot step outside ourselves to check. There is no “God’s eye view” nor even really any other view but ours.] Thus, amongst Nietzsche’s unused notes we find things like this: “Linguistic means of expression are useless for expressing ‘becoming’; it accords with our inevitable need to preserve ourselves, to posit a crude world of stability, of ‘things’, etc.” Nietzsche, in much of his work, is trying to understand how human beings work, how they think, how they interact with the rest of the world of their experience. This does not seem to him to be a matter of “being”, of fixity, but of “becoming”, of change, of movement, of interpretation, in ways some have argued are more reminiscent of Eastern philosophies such as forms of Buddhism or Daoism than of the more statically conceived Western philosophy. So, in his thinking, he tends towards a view in which reality, for want of a better term, is not playing an authoritative, arbitrating role because it can’t. It is in a state of flux and becoming and not a fixed thing. What this means, as I say in The Fiction of Morality, is that:

“’Reality’, thus used, is entirely an imposition upon the flux of events, the flux of becoming. So there is no totality, no ‘metaphysical world’, and so no valuation that can be made or given in regard to such non-existent things, an interpretation which puts necessity, causality and purpose in a completely different light as well and which questions an epistemology of morality — or anything else — at a fundamental level.”

The point here is that if you undo an arbitrating reality then you undo everything that relies on it too. God is dead and the power is then taken not only from God but from all his servants as well. Authority itself has been toppled, in fact. The consequence of this, as I again say in The Fiction of Morality, is that:

“Nietzsche dissolves a totalising valuation of the world based in a world of being which is, perhaps, ‘mere appearance’. In comparison, the world of becoming, a world which ‘does not aim at a final state’, cannot be valued as a totality, such a totality being lacking. In terms of interpretation, this is to pull the legs out from under many traditional conceptions of it which were, necessarily, about matching up to a totality Nietzsche has now pronounced inauthentic and illusory. Where interpretation has been a matter of such totalising valuations, Nietzsche now pronounces it invalid. Indeed, is he not here even hinting at the invalidity of predication, and so of being, itself — not as a procedure, which may remain pragmatically necessary, but as a value? Being is ‘world-defamation’ rather than a recognition or infusion of its (inherent) value. In fact, here value is not inherent at all for such a value is only something that something with being could have, a being that defames that which becomes.”

Nietzsche is, thus, the philosopher of interpretation and of value who interrogates our interpretations of things [not least to discover their uses] and questions our valuations [which all become useful fictions]. He is also the destroyer of gods and would be gods, of authority and morality. Indeed, his entire intellectual project was speeding towards a so-called “transvaluation of all values” — as he had decided the ones we have are deceptive and illusory — before he succumbed to illness which cut short his productive life and left him sick and unable to function for his last decade. His view, to summarise it by excerpting his own words from his notebooks, was that “the essential thing in the life process is precisely the tremendous shaping, form-creating force working from within which utilizes and exploits ‘external circumstances’”. This is never done with an end in view but, to quote myself from The Fiction of Morality again:

“This could be a very pragmatic description of the process of interpretation. But what is its character? I take two words from Nietzsche and add one of my own: it is a utilizing, an exploiting, a manipulation. These, to be sure, are not particularly moral words and, valued according to conventional morals, they may seem to be lacking a necessary moral credibility. Yet it is not my task here to argue that interpretation, life or even anything is — or needs to be — moral. Instead, following Nietzsche, I have argued for a concatenation of interpreting and fictionalising drives which seek to master, to exercise and extend their power, to grow, to glory in the feeling of their vitality. This, it seems to me, gives interpretation, in its physiological context, the character of a utilizing, an exploitation, a manipulation, of their ‘external circumstances’ which exhibits and exerts its own, physiological morality. At the start of all interpretation is a need to experience the displeasure of that which it is not and to overcome it, make it useful, to digest it, extracting value and meaning here, rejecting and excreting waste there. The text, that which it interacts with in the exchange that is interpretation, is powerless to resist what is made of it even as a cake or a sandwich cannot resist the digestive action of a stomach. This is the fictionalisation that is interpretation. It is not a matter of “what is there”. It is a matter of what it is made into, of what use it is. As a fundamentally physiological and biological process, interpretation is definitively functional and pragmatic.”

I realise I am assuming a lot in my readers here for this quotation is taken from page 184 of the book it is in and a lot has been explained there that I haven’t here. Perhaps the most notable thing to explain here is that just as Nietzsche has deconstructed the authoritative arbitrating gods of reality, knowledge, truth and morality, so he has also deconstructed the human subject too. There is, so he says, no “I” that actually thinks, for example. This is just a linguistic figure or prejudice required to make linguistic sense of the processes involved in thinking, a shorthand but something ultimately deceptive if taken at face value. What I substitute for that, led on by the Nietzschean text I survey in the previous book, is the “concatenation of drives” that go to make up the human being. Human beings are organisms and lots of autonomic processes take place which it cannot be said any “rationality” controls.

Thus, the idea of human beings as “rational” beings [a staple of liberal Enlightenment thinking and necessary, not least, for Western understandings of jurisprudence] should be put in doubt on many grounds. Yet this is not to say that human beings cannot come up with reasons for things [my understanding of ethics in fact requires that they must be able to] but it is to say that they are not rational machines where the rational element controls everything else or corresponds to some metaphysical “rationality” existing somewhere, everywhere, “out there”. The fact is, the human being is much more complicated than that — as anyone who has ever lashed out or done something without knowing why will quickly corroborate. The point of the quoted paragraph is then to say that human beings are interpreting beings who create fictions which is how they navigate their lives and their experiences. None of this has anything to do with authorities from above [such as morality] because its all coming from within [if tutored by our social experiences and interactions which help us form habits of action and belief] in our individual contexts and circumstances as we create our lives and supply our actions and attitudes with rationales. Here the key thought for this discussion is that morality is then a fictional imposition, a false authority to order behaviour, whereas an ethic becomes a rationalisation of behaviour undertaken or proposed. One is an authority, the other is a reason. As anarchists, we are in favour of reasons but against authorities. I hope from this it is possible to see how we might bridge from this Nietzschean sort of thinking to that of someone like the individualist Émile Armand.


The conclusion I came to earlier in regard to what an anarchist ethics is, “One that we self-responsibly and authentically choose for ourselves without ever once thinking to impose it on anyone else”, I would then like to continue running with as I now seek to refer back to, and update, my list of values and virtues from chapter seven of Being Human. There I previously gave nine values and virtues. In this book I want to update that to a baker’s dozen of thirteen — having had a little more time to ruminate and consider and ask myself what I missed before. All of the nine values I previously spoke to are still to be found here [with a tiny change regarding values 3 and 4] but, in adding four more, I’m adding some new direction to the list overall. In referring back to Being Human here I will let all that I said there stand but I want to say more in this book about the values and virtues I am adding, both in the light of the previous values and in the light of the text of this book so far — not least as regards an insurrectionary anarchism.

The new list of values and virtues looks like this:

1. People not property. This is a putting of people above things in our priorities.

2. A freedom of equals. This is freedom thought of as a relation, the freedom that we do not have unless everyone else has it too.

3. Solidarity. Solidarity is the recognition that, in social struggles or simply social life, more can be achieved together than alone and includes the willingness to achieve it by seeing each other as stronger together as allies.

4. Cooperation. The willingness and ability to work together on common goals or the practice of mutuality.

5. Subversion. The active will and intent to act against the interests of things, people and systems which enslave or oppress human beings or restrict human freedoms.

6. Anarchist economy. An anarchist economy is one based on open commensality, mutual aid and the gift as I wrote about at much more length in Being Human and also in Building Communities and Defeating Capitalism. It also includes “the commons”.

7. Democracy. In anarchist context, democracy is the irrevocable and non-transferable characteristic of the absolute political equality of every human being on earth. Such a definition rules out any notion of representatives, proxies or electoralism whilst maintaining a suspicion of all institutions generally.

8. Education. Education is a vital and necessary thing for anarchists, a matter of freeing your spirit and will and, on many occasions, a self-education, an open curiosity and a vital resource to protect and prosper both yourself and your community. Anarchists are enthusiastic and involved educators.

9. Responsibility. Put simply, anarchists take responsibility for political and social problems that are identified as well as for their own lives.

That being the reconfigured list of the first nine values and virtues in my updated list, I now turn to introducing the four additional ones I am adding in this book.

10. Decentralization. Decentralization is the practical outworking of an ethos of anti-authoritarianism and anti-hierarchicalism. Therefore, it is not only a matter of carrying through an anarchist ethos with consistency but also of strategy and organisation [see the next chapter] as well. A decentralized structure is less able to be compromised in one go and more resilient against threats to its material existence. A decentralized arrangement also gives the individual elements room to breathe and expand as they see fit [being normally based in affinity] and requires no “top down” hierarchical structure in order to engage in activity. A network or rhizomatic selection of communes would be an understandable and decentralized collection of anarchist communities able to engage in autonomous actions without having to follow a chain of command in order to even do anything. Decentralization, in other words, is taking seriously the idea that people can organise things for themselves whilst also taking other people into account. [Therefore, decentralization is not solipsism.]

11. Diversity. Seeing diversity as a value for the anarchist is a matter of making a positive choice to be diverse and in favour of diversity. This, again, might be seen as an anti-authoritarian choice in as much as authorities always seem to have their favourites or preferences and so those things which they are prejudiced against following a “divide and rule” mentality. Not so here. The anarchist welcomes all comers without dwelling on differences whilst, nevertheless, acknowledging their existence. The aim is a kaleidoscope of differences all free to intermingle and interact with each other within a unity of all. The ideal anarchist context is one of uncontroversial diversity that encompasses all possible human experience and expression without making anyone feel unwelcome or uncomfortable for not conforming to some social expectation.

Seeing diversity as a virtue, on the other hand, is simply a matter of good common sense since the diverse will outlast the monoform or the monotonous. We see this, for example, in nature where those species with a more diverse gene pool have the ability to survive things the less diverse don’t. But, besides this, diversity adds richness and superfluity to any community, educating those within it into an acceptance of many differing forms of human existence.

12. Free association. Free association should be pretty simple to understand: its the principle that people should be free to associate — or not associate — with whomsoever they like for whatever reasons they may have. It can be seen, then, that it is in some ways consequent on various senses of freedom [as in Émile Armand’s description of himself as an autonomist and a free associationist] which it pairs up with quite naturally. Free association in practice means that anarchists are not in favour of coercing people into unions or associations to which those involved do not consent and indicates somewhat of an anti-institutional bent in the anarchist in general [as did “democracy” at point 7].

13. Autonomy. On reflection, I’m surprised this wasn’t already included in my list in Being Human but there it will be seen that I chose to define freedom as a “freedom of equals” which is a relational understanding of freedom. In the end, however, I feel this must be set alongside the autonomist sense of freedom as well. Put together we then have a socially-derived conception of freedom as well as a more egoist conception. In truth, I see merits in both of them for where the first has concern for the social environment and human relationships, the second is a realization that there is an inside as well as an outside and that freedom is not merely a matter of relationships, you must also be free in, and as, yourself as well. You could also argue that a “freedom of equals” that does not lead to a “freedom of autonomy” is somewhat of a hollow achievement. One must pay heed, I think, to the personal and the political as Emma Goldman tried to have it in her own anarchist thinking [see chapter 11 of Being Human].

Now the idea here is that an anarchist ethics that is “One that we self-responsibly and authentically choose for ourselves without ever once thinking to impose it on anyone else” is simultaneously an anarchist ethics that is filled out in its detail by an application of the values and virtues I have listed above. This is not an arbitrary process. It is not for me, following the very values and virtues I find important as characteristics of anarchism, to say that this means this and that means that. It is, and, to my mind, will always remain, a matter for anarchist individuals and communities to decide for themselves how they actualise these things. Indeed, on the understanding of anarchism I am giving throughout this book, it couldn’t be anything else. You may even find your own lists of values and virtues more convincing and that is understood by me as I lay out my own for this book is about getting readers to think about such issues rather than telling them what to think. It is a conversation not a command. It is a place to start from rather than your intended destination. Here, authenticity is truth.

Of course, here I still remain committed, as I was in Being Human, to the anarchism of values and virtues — that is, an ethical, a posteriori understanding of anarchism — rather than the anarchism of places or plans, of a destination or an objective. As stated previously, this outlook — which is strengthened all the more by a focus on anarchism as an insurrection of the type discussed in the first part of this book — does not mean that anarchists cannot make plans or even have places that take on an anarchist character or orientate themselves by anarchist practices. It simply means we are focused on being an insurrection in our very selves rather than on achieving a pre-determined revolutionary goal as if that was the be all and end all. Thus stated, the anarchism of Émile Armand, the anti-authoritarian philosophy of Friedrich Nietzsche and the anarchism of values and virtues “that we self-responsibly and authentically choose for ourselves without ever once thinking to impose [them] on anyone else” should all be seen to line up like ducks in a row in regard to the instantiation of an insurrectional existence. Here, anarchist authenticity is truth.


So when I talk about anarchism itself being an “ethic”, then, I mean that I regard it as a set of values that lead to a rationale for action, or as the reasoning in regard to certain kinds of human organisation or behaviour. But I also mean what Cindy Milstein means when she says in the prologue to her book Anarchism and Its Aspirations that “I firmly believe in the expansive ethical sensibility that has marked anarchism as a tradition.” This, of course, is also a matter of interpretation for “traditions” do not just mean things of themselves [if we go back to our Nietzsche we will be reminded of this and of the ubiquity of interpretation once again]. So, as an interpretive matter, it is a matter of thinking [which here at least means “meaning-making”] for oneself and embodying the meaning you find in this tradition, giving it life and expression in current circumstances, living out your authentic truth. This is also something Cindy Milstein has done in Anarchism and Its Aspirations which I’d like to focus on a little more now given its focus on an anarchism of ethics.

Notable here is that Milstein thinks of anarchism as “a spirit” and “one that cries out against all that’s wrong with present-day society, and boldly proclaims all that could be right under alternate forms of social organization”. Such language is interesting and can, at one and the same time, bring to mind Stirner’s spooks or, equally, Nietzsche’s “free spirits”. It is, in fact, a matter of if one imagines being “inspired” [a very spiritual word] by anarchism or whether one becomes this spirit itself and is then the spirit of anarchism inspiring others. Here Milstein speaks, in her opening at least, about “aspirations” and “sensibilities” as [immaterial but not inconsequential] things she wants to get across to her audience. These are “the ethics—the values pertaining to how humans conduct themselves—that knit anarchism together as a distinct political sensibility.” In this respect, Milstein thinks of anarchism as a “philosophy of freedom”.

Milstein, as an interpreter of anarchism, is a disciple of Murray Bookchin and, as such, you may find it surprising that I’m including her in this book as one who has criticised and, to be honest, largely discarded the thoughts of Bookchin in essays I have previously written [in The Anarchist Arrow, for example]. But, just as Emma Goldman described her close relationship to Peter Kropotkin yet seemed to offer a different vision when she spoke for herself, so Milstein is not exactly a carbon copy of Bookchin — and, in fact, she must be allowed to stand on her own two feet in any case. I mention this only because the following footnoted aside in regard to anarchist ethics seems couched in terms of Bookchin’s rationalism yet only in order to set out Milstein’s own thoughts:

“Ethics within anarchism are not about accepting god-given values, for instance, or any values that are imposed or blindly followed because of tradition. Instead, anarchism advocates a thought-filled ethics, where people voluntarily come to a shared set of overarching values, which they also continually (re)evaluate in relation to human practices and behaviors. Ethics within anarchism thus entail actively thinking through and trying to implement notions of goodness and badness, rightness and wrongness—even as people remain open to discovering new forms of goodness and badness.”

Notice that, in distinction to an obvious example such as Armand, this seems a much more communal process. Values here are “shared” even if they are “thought-filled” and “voluntarily come to”. In offering Milstein’s clearly differing vision alongside Armand’s I am making a point and I hope you, my reader, are inquisitive enough to figure out what that point is — especially as I do not expect you to choose between them. A further footnote of Milstein’s might be instructive here: “There are probably as many ways of defining anarchism as there are anarchists, given the openness of this ‘ism’… At its best, the openness within anarchism implies both a dynamism and inclusiveness, grounded in a profoundly egalitarian sensibility.” Milstein describes anarchism “in a nutshell” as a matter of “a free society of free individuals” so surely an ethic here would be that people must not be forced to certain views of anarchist ethics? But what can that mean? Perhaps that you should think for yourself!

In seeking to give a historical narrative explaining the emergence and function of anarchism as a means of organising human living, Milstein gives the following analysis which is not completely unlike Emma Goldman’s views on the necessity for individual and social requirements of any anarchism when she states:

“Anarchism understood that any egalitarian form of social organization, especially one seeking a thoroughgoing eradication of domination, had to be premised on both individual and collective freedom—no one is free unless everyone is free, and everyone can only be free if each person can individuate or actualize themselves in the most expansive of senses. Anarchism also recognized, if only intuitively, that such a task is both a constant balancing act and the stuff of real life. One person’s freedom necessarily infringes on another’s, or even on the good of all. No common good can meet everyone’s needs and desires. This doesn’t mean throwing up one’s hands and going the route of liberalism or communism, propping up one side of the equation—ultimately artificially—in hopes of resolving this ongoing tension. From the start, anarchism asked the much more difficult though ultimately pragmatic question: Acknowledging this self-society juggling act as part of the human condition, how can people collectively self-determine their lives to become who they want to be and simultaneously create communities that are all they could be as well?”

This sounds a little idealistic [communities can be what they want to be, surely?] but Milstein is surely right, continuing her point, to say that “Self-organization necessitates everyone’s participation” which is where she and Armand would agree. From the point of view of anarchism and its rationale, there is no freedom to be found in letting someone else organise you: you must actively take up the reigns of your own life.

Further to this, Milstein’s historical analysis of anarchism, her looking back to see where it has come from in order to orientate what it can be described as today, is as something fundamentally ethical. It is a matter of “values” as in when she notes that “from the outset, anarchism grounded itself in a set of shared values. These revolved around interconnected notions such as liberty and freedom, solidarity and internationalism, voluntary association and federation, education, spontaneity and harmony, and mutual aid.” She adds that “Anarchist principles affirmed humanity’s potential to meet everyone’s needs and desires, via forms of non-hierarchical, cooperative and collective arrangements.” This being a relevant description of anarchism in its classical or traditional formulation, I hope it can be seen that my own list of “anarchist values” overlaps with this to a large extent — if with expected personalised emphases. Here an ethical notable is that deeply personal integrations of anarchist ethics are not only to be expected but are expressly mandated by the anarchist ethic itself. In anarchism, agreements material or intellectual are always voluntary agreements. They are meetings of minds rather than coerced acquiescences. In this respect, Milstein is very on point when she says that:

“adding the prefix ‘self-’ to words that other socialists generally fail to interrogate embodies the grounding ethical project of creating fully articulated social selves, who strive with others for a society of, for, and by everyone. The early anarchists thus began our ongoing efforts to bring forth self-determination and self-organization, self-management and self-governance, as the basis for a new society.”

Not forgetting “self-actualisation” and “self-education”, of course.

When Milstein leaves the past behind and comes into the present, even thinking of moving forward from it, she states that “First and foremost, anarchism is a revolutionary political philosophy”, adding that “anarchism is thoroughly radical in the true sense of the word: to get at the root or origin of phenomena, and from there to make dramatic changes in the existing conditions.” This all sounds very nice written in the eirenic, measured prose of someone trying to be sane and sensible about things but it strikes me that quite a lot of the people who describe their ethic as “radical” [and I point no fingers at Cindy Milstein in distinction to anyone else here] don’t seem to have views of life, in the present or some imagined ethically altered future, that are very much different to now. Don’t revolutions change things? Isn’t having a “radical” view a matter of having one that completely alters how things look or even how they materially exist thereafter? Saying that anarchism “is a thoroughgoing critique aimed at a thoroughgoing reimagining and restructuring of society” is all well and good but if such an ethic is to maintain any authenticity then it must be practised and, being practised, it must be experienced as a radicality. When it comes to anarchist ethics and anarchism as an ethic, experiencing something and existing within such a context is the only kind of authenticity that matters.

Cindy Milstein regards “anarchism’s challenge” as a matter of “What’s the right thing to do?” but, from authenticity’s point of view, I’m not sure this hits the spot. She says that for anarchists “ethics shape how people pragmatically struggle for social change” but she also talks about “its ideals” whilst maintaining the notion that anarchists are those who have made a choice to put ethics above pragmatism [unlike some other political ideologies]. She thinks of this as offering “directionality” to political involvement even as her “communalism” asserts itself again in an ethic of “cooperative concert” changing each others’ lives. Thus, for Milstein, anarchism “tries to practice the good society, with others, within the shell of the not-so-good society. The goal of anarchism isn’t to turn everyone into anarchists. It’s to encourage people to think and act for themselves, but to do both from a set of emancipatory values.” I am now wondering for myself, however, how like Emma Goldman’s “beautiful ideal” this sounds. In her essay of the same name Goldman states that:

“the first tendency of anarchism is to make good the dignity of the individual human being by freeing him from every kind of arbitrary restraint—economic, political, social.

In so doing anarchism proposes to make apparent, in their true force, the social bonds which always have and always will knit men together and which are the actual basis of a real normal and sane society. The means of doing this rests with each man’s latent qualities and his opportunities.”

She goes on to add that:

“Anarchism holds that the simplest human life, it given opportunity and scope, is infinitely more important to society than all the scientific regulation and adjusting of social arrangements.

“For, in proportion as that simple life grows into a conscious, intelligent, well-rounded factor, recognizing its true relation to its fellow, regulations and forms will take care of themselves.”

Goldman, of course, was certainly more individualist than Cindy Milstein. For example, when attending the 1907 International Anarchist Congress in Amsterdam [attended by Errico Malatesta as well as others] she could say in a debate on “organisation” that “The essential principle of anarchy is individual autonomy” in a way that no genuine disciple of Murray Bookchin probably ever could [but in a way that would delight someone like Émile Armand]. [Consequently, Bookchin himself, in his cantankerous way, sometimes sleights Goldman as intellectually less able or as a rhetorician rather than a person of ideas, someone who champions individualist fancies rather than meaningful social change.] Thus, Goldman would not habitually describe anarchism as practising “the good society” but rather as that means which best achieved the end of an individual free to express themselves in the most liberatory ways possible. For Goldman “comradeship and brotherhood” lead to the social conditions most propitious for individual liberty which is the actual goal in sight whereas, for Milstein, its more a matter of “an underlying humanism and lived efforts at humaneness”. The vocabularies are clearly sometimes different but, in both cases, values and ideals [accompanied by and modelled in virtuous behaviours] are what count. In fact, Milstein sees anarchism as a matter of its being “an ethical compass”, stating that “’Ethics’ isn’t some fixed entity but rather the continual questioning of what it means to be a good person in a good society. In a world that feels—that is—increasingly wrong, anarchism’s ethical compass acts as an antidote. That alone is an enormous contribution.”

We now hit that section of Milstein’s book in which she wants to detail what she describes as “the ethical content” of anarchism, that is, the values that function as anarchism’s “ethical compass”. Here not the least important thing Milstein says is that “anarchists share a set of generalized (and generalizable) ethics, and strive to make those values tangible, even if they apply them in different ways. In fact, a plurality of applications is precisely an anarchist value, or what could be called ‘unity in ethics’.” Also notable is that Milstein calls this a “communal anarchist ethic” and calls such ethics “aspirations that unify anarchists” — as ethical ideas if not necessarily in their applications. For myself, I find this a most important ethic to focus on, a rationale of any anarchist action at all. It is, in its operation, a matter of noting the genetic relation between anarchists through their values without having to suggest at the same time that, to be an anarchist, all anarchists must act the same way or apply their values similarly. This has never been the case from the start and should not be taken to be so now either. If we think of this as a matter of unity in diversity [Milstein regards this as an anarchist value later on] we are being appropriately anarchist about it, in fact.

In the discussion of her first value, “liberation and freedom” — something she thinks a matter of “freedom from” and “freedom to” — Cindy Milstein reveals that her anarchist project is likely something utopian when she talks about “that same juggling act of approximating an increasingly differentiated yet more harmonious world.” Here this is not seemingly a matter of innumerable local issues each dealt with by those concerned in ways that join up just however they happen to join up but, instead, a matter of creating a world in which the same emancipatory conditions apply or that, to be crude about it, has been “won for anarchism”. I have already written, in Part A, about what is wrong with this illusory idea but it does seem that Milstein thinks this way. In fact, her section after her “ethical content” is called “Gesturing toward Utopia” [and her epilogue is “Paths toward Utopia”] which seems to confirm the suspicion her language implies. Yet she does this whilst, with her second value — the “equality of unequals” — saying that “humans must be free to figure out what makes the most sense for each person and situation.” But how can they do that if the aim is a “more harmonious world” [i.e. a world project]? This second value, in fact, is a recognition that people aren’t the same and neither do they want the same things and Milstein contrasts anarchism’s awareness of this with liberal democracy’s “blind[ness] to the uniqueness of each person and the specificity of their circumstances.” But when she gives an example here, saying

“ethical health care would not be a cookie-cutter list of services, as if people’s bodies are all alike. Nor would it be apportioned in meager, exacting amounts. It would instead be tailored toward each individual’s specific wellness as an always-available social good, in as much abundance as possible”

it comes off sounding a bit “the world as it is now but [somehow] along anarchist lines” in a way that is not very convincing. Recognising that people are different and want different things is fine but, to be blunt, at least Émile Armand’s vision seemed genuinely different. Milstein’s writing seems all a bit too bourgeois and “we can do better people!” in a very middle class kind of way. The challenge here, I think, is to actually take people like Stirner, Nietzsche, Goldman and Armand seriously in their advocacy of the self-creative project and to trust, as Emma Goldman did, that “regulations and forms will take care of themselves”. We must take the figure of the rhizome or the network to heart and trust that people, being a freedom of equals in terms of my second value, and autonomous, as in my thirteenth, can work out the “harmonious world” along the way.

Milstein’s “communalism” [my term for what I’m regarding as her ethos and not necessarily meant to suggest any affiliation with the formal ideas of Murray Bookchin, although she has taught at the institute in Vermont he founded] is shown further in her next anarchist value which is “from each according to their abilities and passions, to each according to their needs and desires”, an avowedly anarchist modification of a communist ideal in Milstein’s mind. She thinks of this ethic as a matter of contributing to your community in more than just economic ways. This is a more rhizomatic idea and shows that Milstein is, in fact, resistant to my attempts to characterise her as something she is not. Her anarchism is one of a social kind where both the idea of a “world project”, but also the mechanics of lots of local things going on as free people follow their “passions” and “desires”, is the case. So she is, in her own way [as we must allow], combining socialist and individualist ideas in her understanding of anarchism. Milstein sees this “from each… to each” ethic going in the following way:

“Without coercion, without the need to have a ‘job’ to get what one needs and wants, many employments would disappear—the whole bureaucracy of insurance companies, for instance. People would do almost everything that communities need or want to get done, since people would freely choose what they love to do, such as tidying up, growing food and cooking, writing and painting, fighting fires, and developing software. Individuals and groups would take on multiple tasks. Whatever no one wants to do—say, staff a sewage system—would be shared by everyone, or at least by those who are physically able to do so. This isn’t a pipe dream, nor it is just an ethic; it is about applying ethics to social organization. Anyone who has ever been involved in a voluntary collective project knows that people can manage to get things done in ways that account for differences in talents, proclivities, and the common good. They can do this without force, equivalency, unhappiness, or the state. To the contrary, such experiments viscerally point to a sense of personal and social satisfaction that far outstrips systems of ‘from each according to what they are forced to do, to each according to their financial means, and otherwise people go without’.”

What Milstein shows here most of all is how social and individual anarchisms might work together — and how, in fact, they need to if anything like contemporary societal conditions are to be maintained. This, as she shows, is a matter of shared values — an ethic — and the desire to work together for a common good no one person could achieve by themselves in a way that Emma Goldman perceived as the space which allows for personal freedom which is the goal [in her mind] of an anarchist social organisation.

Building on this, Milstein’s next ethic is “mutual aid”, in some ways actually a formalisation of the previous ethic and — notably — not something easily associated with the ethical stance set out by Armand. I have written about this myself as a part of my ideas about “anarchist economy” [my sixth value] and in the pamphlet [with Lara Nasir] Building Communities and Defeating Capitalism — a pamphlet actually about an anarchism of mutual aid. I have no doubt I shall be talking about it again, below, in my chapter about anarchist economy as it is a total and absolute alternative to capitalism, a way to embed non-dominating, egalitarian relations into human communities on an “economic” basis. Ideally, it entirely replaces capitalism [and currencies of all kinds] and becomes how human beings organise their relationships and exchanges completely. As Milstein imagines what she calls this “daily sensibility”:

“Competition simplifies. When humans compete, only a few of them win out. This makes sense and can even be fun in the context of games; in the context of a society, where everyone should ‘win’ a better world, competition is thoroughly detrimental. This is particularly true when it becomes naturalized as the key value within the economy, pitting all against all. Anarchists have long held up forms of mutualism as the basis for a non-capitalist economy, where cooperation would link all to all.”

The point of this anarchist ethic, as Milstein herself recognises, is then changing human social relations. Mutual aid, as Milstein says, “stresses reciprocal relations” and so instantiates, by your actual practice, the things you want to see repeated in others. This is a different approach to social relationships than that taken by Armand who, although he didn’t tell you not to engage in mutual aid, didn’t tell you to engage in it either. For him human relationships are much more focused on autonomy and free association than they are on more social conceptions of human relationships such as mutual aid. This, in itself, indicates a different focus between the individual anarchists and the social ones.

Milstein’s next value is to claim that anarchism has an “ecological orientation” which is something to be expected of one with ties to Murray Bookchin. To be fair, it is something that has often been missing from my own previous discussions of anarchism but is also something I hope to set right in a later chapter of this book since the aspect of “holism” involved in an ecological view of things is undeniable when one considers that there is no anarchism of human beings if they no longer have a habitable planet on which to even exist. Milstein summarises her own views about this in the following way:

An ecological perspective within anarchism… is not only about the relation of humanity to the non-human world, or a harmonizing of both. It sees the world holistically, thinking through phenomena in nuanced ways, attempting to follow the developmental logic of potentialities in the present in order to anticipate how they might unfold, in terms of forms of both freedom and domination. An ecological outlook translates into the very openness that characterizes anarchism. By being able to critically explore possibilities in the here and now, anarchism beckons toward a brighter future, yet only if it remains open to what’s outside the given.”

Milstein’s next anarchist value is “voluntary association and accountability” which sounds like Armand’s [or my] “free association” but in Milstein’s explanation once more tends towards the communal obligation [as the addition of “and accountability” might have implied]. It is best to state her understanding of this first:

“Voluntary association doesn’t mean that individuals will always get their own way, or that people will like each task or every person in a project. They might even feel tired at the end of the day. Yet overall, it does mean joining together with others not due to force or compulsion but because everyone has freely chosen to do so. Free choice, though, involves promises to each other. It entails interconnections and caring, in the same way that friends are bound together—not “until death do us part” but rather until it doesn’t make good sense to associate, after careful and honest consideration. It’s about doing things because overall it feels satisfying in a variety of ways, because it meets personal and community needs and desires, and because people aren’t compelled to engage but want to do so.”

Yet is it just me who feels like this “because everyone has feely chosen to do so” is about “force or compulsion” in the suggestion of “community needs and desires”. Is what my community desires [expressed how?] a consideration for Milstein? Is it something that should have argumentative force? Why, following the thinking of Armand, do we necessarily even have “a community” apart from his reasoning that in various spheres it might be necessary and so desirable to form certain associations? His conception of “free association” seems more autonomous than Milstein’s conception of “voluntary association and accountability”. [Indeed, I haven’t noticed Milstein speaking about autonomy at all where it was a primary concern for Armand and is a word that can also be used by Goldman.] Granted that “solidarity” and “responsibility” comes into it — as both I and Armand agree with Milstein — the mentioning of “accountability” brings something new to the table. Here, however, Milstein does set this up as a matter for those involved themselves and so this also concurs with the thoughts of Armand about free association I mentioned earlier. What seems important to remind ourselves of then is, as Milstein notes, that “anarchists take both association and disassociation seriously, because they take inclusive processes and how people treat each other seriously.” You will recall here that even the “autonomist associationist” Armand had suggested that people could only back out of their obligations according to the stipulations of those obligations that they had freely agreed to. So, once more, perhaps this is a difference of language or emphasis and not so much one of substance. Yet, a word of warning here, I do not think we should imagine that even deliberately ethical people such as anarchists are without their faults or that they would never get into disputes or arguments. Anarchists are not angels — they are human beings.

Milstein conceives of such interactions as “the core problematic of anarchism” which is “how to encourage a world where individuals and society are simultaneously free”. Thus she talks about “simply showing up and pitching in” or “having to attend a certain number of meetings before being allowed to participate in decision making.” Further, “Anarchists also concern themselves with humane ways of breaking their associations, from spelled-out processes of dialogue to clear standards of accountability that one has to meet to stay involved.” But why might such processes and procedures be necessary? Because it is easily imaginable that there might be singular or ongoing projects that require some level of commitment in order for them to meaningfully proceed. On such projects, which would not be viable if people could just walk away from them, even starting such things would make no sense without a taking responsibility for what one was volunteering to help out with. Even Armand the autonomist seemingly understood this in his stipulations regarding what people have freely obliged themselves to in making free associations. Thus, this idea, as both Milstein and Armand agree, is not a trivial or laissez-faire one but a serious matter of taking responsibility in regard to community associations, a deliberate ethical stance.

Continuing on, Milstein’s next ethic is “joy and spontaneity” and, I admit, I don’t take it very seriously. Where is the revolutionary or the insurrectionary in this? Yet, reading her brief comments about it such as “Like all anarchist ethics, this isn’t something to put off until ‘the revolution,’ meanwhile allowing most of humanity to live miserably or wallow in depression. It means bringing pleasure and play, kindness and compassion, into all that people do” I can see a sort of point in it. Anarchism is meant to be something that improves people’s lives, or so anarchists might hope that you think, and so this must be something to do with a life that is enjoyed and enjoyable, a life in which you can pursue having fun without worrying some kind of a cop will come along to stop you. It is about a life set free from oppression and drudgery, about the uncoerced life, and so, at its best, it must be a happy life. What happens if you ally this thought to those of insurrection as discussed earlier or prefiguration — the idea that we must live now how we wish the future to become? I think that means attempting, at the very least, to live joyful and spontaneous lives right now, or as much as we can, and pursuing the creation of the conditions to make that possible in the very present in which we are living. So this ethic is, in fact, not so empty as it may first seem!

And so we come to Milstein’s final explicit value which is “unity in diversity”. Once again this is for her a matter of “Anarchists attempt[ing] to find harmony in dissonance, like instruments in an orchestra.” Milstein sees the possibility for lots of naturally occurring differences or dissonances in the actuality of an anarchist situation but is convinced that, ethically speaking, anarchists are those people determined to find ways which make such things work. She states that “Much of what anarchists do in practice involves crafting relationships, processes, and agreements, personally and within self-organized institutions, that are precisely about finding the balance of a unity in diversity.” Milstein thinks of this ethic as one which is “mak[ing] room for people with divergent ideas and tactics” as well as being an “interconnected pluralism”. Thus, it makes sense for Milstein to finish her list of ethics in such a way as one who has been constantly concerned with balancing individual differences out within the imagined creation of a social harmony.

It will easily be seen, I’m sure, that Cindy Milstein has different emphases within her ethics of anarchism as opposed to someone like Émile Armand. Milstein is always coming from the social towards the necessary solving of individual problems whereas Armand seems to be more about individual autonomy which acquiesces to the necessity of social interactions formulated as “free associations”. Yet both do, formally realise that both the individual and the social must be catered for in one’s ethics of anarchism as, in fact, does someone like Goldman who, in Being Human, I have characterised as someone for whom the necessity of paying attention to both interests was necessary. Indeed, it seems to me that there is barely an anarchist for whom this is not the case [although exceptions will always exist]. Go too far one way and you become a simple libertarian [or even a Randian “rugged individualist”], concerned only with yourself and no one else. Go too far the other way, and you become a collectivist to whom individuals are but things to be bent to a constructed collective will. Anarchists, and anarchist ethics, I would charge, sit between these two as means to relating individuals — possessed of their own freedom of autonomy and free association — with social communities — and a freedom that is not free unless everyone is equally free. But I imagine you never imagined anarchists were some kind of centrists, did you?!


The previous four sections of this chapter have been an attempt to discuss the values of an anarchist ethics via a discussion of a couple of ethically interested anarchists, an underminer of authoritarian thought and an updating of my own explicit values and virtues as waymarkers of an anarchist ethic. In doing it this way I hoped to show, if nothing else, that an anarchist ethics involves a number of things, not the least of which is personal interpretation and application of even things as basic as values or virtues. There is no getting around this responsibility for interpretation. “Solidarity”, for example, is a word we can discuss and agree on the meaning of in the course of a conversation — but that doesn’t mean we would apply it as an ethic in exactly the same way. It doesn’t, for example, tell us who to have solidarity with and under what circumstances. What this should tell us is that negotiation, agreement, conversation, the formation of ad hoc relationships on more or less permanent terms, will always be relevant to an anarchist ethic. Everything is always up for renegotiation here on terms to be decided in the present. There is no association the anarchist is obligated to although the anarchist may have obligated themselves to certain relationships on certain terms which they take seriously until the terms of freely agreed disassociation have been met. My ninth value of taking responsibility here always applies as does the very particular understanding of democracy put forward in my seventh value.

In these next sections of this chapter, however, I want to move to discussing the actual ethics of anarchists [people I think of as anarchist anyway] in various situations. This is both to show the mechanics of ethics in operation but also to show how these people take seriously the responsibility to be ethical people [that is, in the terms I described above, people who take seriously the need for providing a rationale for their explicit behaviour]. Here I will discuss the ethics involved in some situations in the book V for Vendetta [written by Alan Moore together with David Lloyd who was the illustrator], the ethics of Jesus of Nazareth as someone who created a community of deliberate poverty, and the ethics of Emma Goldman, particularly in her relation to sexuality and women’s rights before 1900 [her first anarchist decade]. I begin with V for Vendetta.


It is hard to know how well known the actual story of V for Vendetta is. People in general perhaps know best the Guy Fawkes mask worn by protestors of various types and co-opted by the subversive group Anonymous. But do they know this mask was chosen because it was used in an English comic book from the 1980s or that Guy Fawkes, whom it is meant to represent, was a seminal member of the so-called “Gunpowder Plot” to blow up the English Parliament in 1605? Do they know it was then used by the antagonist of V for Vendetta, known only as V or “Codename V” in the story, as a means to keep their identity a secret because, having no identity, their message would then simply be an idea and, as V then notes, “Ideas are bulletproof”? This character V who wears this mask has a very particular ethic of their own [I will use they/their/them to refer to them since there’s no way of knowing if V was a man, a woman or, indeed, something else of their choosing]. It includes murder, destruction and psychological torture in pursuance of their cause. In some respects this reminds me of the sixth and seventh stipulations of Sergey Nechayev’s “Revolutionary Catechism” which read:

“Tyrannical toward himself, he must be tyrannical toward others. All the gentle and enervating sentiments of kinship, love, friendship, gratitude, and even honour, must be suppressed in him and give place to the cold and single-minded passion for revolution. For him, there exists only one pleasure, one consolation, one reward, one satisfaction — the success of the revolution. Night and day he must have but one thought, one aim — merciless destruction. Striving cold-bloodedly and indefatigably toward this end, he must be prepared to destroy himself and to destroy with his own hands everything that stands in the path of the revolution.

The nature of the true revolutionary excludes all sentimentality, romanticism, infatuation, and exaltation. All private hatred and revenge must also be excluded. Revolutionary passion, practised at every moment of the day until it becomes a habit, is to be employed with cold calculation. At all times, and in all places, the revolutionary must obey not his personal impulses, but only those which serve the cause of the revolution.”

V, like Nechayev, is a committed person and the commitment to anarchism for them includes material consequences for property but especially human beings, even if their attachments to music, art and culture [not forgetting “revenge”!] in general are still made plain as in the interests of anarchism and contrary to the dictates of the fascism they oppose. The story, which is ostensibly about how someone detained in a detention camp by the new fascist rulers of England after a war becomes their nemesis, simultaneously bringing them down in the cause of offering the alternative of anarchy to the people instead, is presented as a matter of phases. The original V [spoiler alert!] who dies in the third act to be replaced by Evey Hammond, a teenage girl they rescue from “Fingermen” [police] in the opening scene, is presented as a more destructive figure who must inflict violence in order to disturb and disrupt the material apparatus of power. Evey herself, who chooses to take over V’s role after their death, is then presented as the more creative figure, the one who “builds on the ruins”, as it is put in the book.

Regardless of this split, however, what we see is that although destruction and violence is ultimately ruled out as appropriate to a period after destruction or awakening [by Evey who, as the next V, refuses to engage in it — although a dying V also seems to agree with her decision and reasoning], it is seemingly ruled in in regard to that very same “revolutionary” period. Alan Moore, in the past, has discussed this as a discussion in the book being had about the appropriateness of violence throughout the story, one that comes down in favour of non-violence. But that’s not quite the whole story for V’s revolutionary violence, if we may call it that, is never really excused or apologised for — especially at the time it takes place. Rather, its seen as something that was necessary, if only temporary. Which is not quite the same thing. Furthermore, this violence includes the very planned out murders of people involved in V’s former incarceration, torture and the experimentation performed upon them against their will. It is not certain in what way V sees this activity as related to their wider goal. Is it enough that they were agents of fascism involved in violence against innocent others? Is it a case of the perpetrators of such fascist acts having to be removed necessarily? Evey, who is herself involved in the murder of a child-molesting bishop, being used as bait by V without realising V intended to kill him, seems able to get past these violent actions — more especially once she herself has committed herself to V’s goals and comes to see as he does.

This refers to the second act in the book in which V incarcerates Evey in a “vicious cabaret” which is an elaborate attempt to make Evey think she has been imprisoned and interrogated by the State in order to either break her so that she becomes a collaborator and willing subject of the State, or that she totally refuses, commits to opposition to all it stands for, and faces her death sentence with resolve. Evey chooses the latter — at which point V ends the subterfuge and declares Evey “free” once she has now become prepared to accept death rather than renounce her truth. Evey, now realising she is really freed from this “cabaret”, however, is at first utterly appalled that V could have tortured her this way [which included shaving her head and locking her up]. V, for their part, only replies to her despairing questions as to why they did it that they did it because they love her [i.e. love her so much they are prepared to go to extraordinary lengths to reveal the truth to her that is their truth]. In a subsequent scene to this, however, Evey has a “moment of clarity” — whilst tended to in her broken state — which then transfigures Evey into someone who has come to a point of realisation. Moore, in his writing of this story, seems to conceive of this point as a point people need to come to in order to see through all the authoritarianism and fascism that has been stuffed into their heads from birth such that only being pushed to some extreme, as V did with Evey, can bring them to this realisation. Thus, V’s perhaps extreme actions are seen as ethically justified as a result. It is not just a matter of what V did but also of why V did it and in what context. Yet it does ask the question of the reader: how far should you go to show someone the truth?

Most of V’s “anarchist” actions, whether regarding those they kill, their destruction of buildings and violence against the fascist state, or their extreme measures in regard to Evey [who, by the way, they intend to succeed them as V — perhaps imagining that at some point their activities are bound to get them killed], can still be perceived as somewhat arbitrary, however. V, as the scene with Evey’s transfiguration shows, is clearly possessed of some particular consciousness which motivates all their actions. [This is told in flashbacks to V’s time as an inmate at the Larkhill Detention Camp where, amongst other things, they are experimented on by a doctor there.] Is this consciousness, which is presented as a desire to destroy fascism and replace it with anarchism, enough? The logic of the story as told seems to suggest so. Indeed, a now transfigured Evey, taking up the mantle of V and appearing before the public, issues the following speech, inspired by V’s life and actions as she now understands them:

“Good evening, London. I would introduce myself, but truth to tell, I do not have a name. You can call me ‘V’. Since Mankind’s dawn, a handful of oppressors have accepted the responsibility over our lives that we should have accepted for ourselves. By doing so, they took our power. By doing nothing, we gave it away. We’ve seen where their way leads, through camps and wars, towards the slaughterhouse. In anarchy, there is another way. With anarchy, from rubble comes new life, hope reinstated. They say anarchy’s dead, but see… reports of my death were… exaggerated. Tomorrow, Downing Street will be destroyed, The Head reduced to ruins, an end to what has gone before. Tonight, you must choose what comes next. Lives of your own, or a return to chains. Choose carefully. And so, adieu.”

So at the end of the story what is offered to the people at large is either the ethical responsibility for their own lives or a refusal of that responsibility. All that came before, death, destruction, extreme measures, comes down to this and was, we must assume, in order to make the people at large this uncoerced offer. And Evey receives a new guest in the Shadow Gallery [V’s home], presumably to begin his own journey of transfiguration. What happens next, who can say? Ethically, at some point, the choice is yours.


I have already written extensively on the subject of Jesus of Nazareth as an anarchist, both in an extended monograph on the subject making the case for seeing him as a Jewish kind of anarchist in Yeshua The Jewish Anarchist, and in a chapter of my previous book Being Human to which I have already referred earlier. Here my special focus is on Jesus’ apparent attitude [we can only work with the material we have and ask after its historical meaning. If Jesus turns out to be a historical fiction it still retains the power of fiction to make a point — exactly as in the many teaching parables Jesus is himself said to have told] towards poverty and money as an example of his ethical praxis. This, it can be said, is something very interesting about him in the literary sources which is of socio-political significance [and of anarchist relevance] but, of course, it is not unique to him and the person with whom I started this book, Diogenes, is yet another example of a similar phenomenon. But let’s look at some source material to establish what I’m talking about before we comment on this in ethical context a little further.

Let’s begin in the Gospel of Thomas, a gospel not in the New Testament but found in the Egyptian desert by someone looking for naturally occurring fertilizer in 1945. Said person happened to find an ancient jar buried in the ground where he was digging stuffed with ancient texts, known and unknown, and one of them was an almost complete version of this text [written in Coptic but clearly translated from Greek] known previously only due to fragments found elsewhere in Egypt among the various rubbish dumps and other places mostly British colonials were ransacking for artefacts. Thomas itself is 114 sayings [without any narrative connections] accredited to Jesus, about half of which are also found in the gospels of the New Testament [something useful for cross referencing]. In Thomas we find sayings such as the following:

Thomas 4: Jesus said, “A person old in days will not hesitate to ask a little child seven days old about the place of life, and the person will live. For many of the first will be last and become a single one.”

Thomas 8: And he said, “Humankind is like a wise fisherman who cast his net into the sea and drew it up from the sea full of little fish. Among the fish he found a fine large fish. He threw all the little fish back into the sea and easily chose the large fish. Whoever has ears to hear should hear.”

Thomas 22: Jesus saw some babies nursing. He said to his students, “These nursing babies are like those who enter the kingdom.”

Thomas 42: Jesus said, “Be wanderers.”

Thomas 54: Jesus said, “Blessings to the destitute, for yours is the kingdom of heaven.”

Thomas 63: Jesus said, “There was a rich person who was very wealthy. He said, ‘I shall invest my money so I may sow, reap, plant, and fill my storehouses with produce. Then I shall lack nothing.’ This is what he was thinking in his heart, but that very night he died. Whoever has ears should hear.”

Thomas 64: Jesus said, “A person was receiving guests. When he prepared the dinner he sent his servant to invite the guests. The servant went to the first and said, ‘My master invites you.’ That person said, ‘Some merchants owe me money. They are coming tonight. I must go and give them instructions. Please excuse me from dinner.’ The servant went to another and said, ‘My master invites you.’ He said to the servant, ‘I have bought a house and I’ve been called away for a day. I have no time.’ The servant went to another and said, ‘My master invites you.’ He said to the servant, ‘My friend is to be married and I am to arrange the banquet. I can’t come. Please excuse me from dinner.’ The servant went to another and said, ‘My master invites you.’ He said to the servant, ‘I have bought an estate and I am going to collect rent. I shall not be able to come. Please excuse me.’ The servant returned and said to his master, ‘Those you invited to dinner have asked to be excused.’ The master said to his servant, ‘Go out into the streets and invite whomever you find for the dinner. Buyers and merchants will not enter the places of my father.’”

Thomas 76: Jesus said, “The father’s kingdom is like a merchant who owned a supply of merchandise and found a pearl. The merchant was prudent. He sold his goods and bought the single pearl for himself. So with you. Seek his treasure that is unfailing and enduring, where no moth comes to devour and no worm destroys.”

Thomas 78: Jesus said, “Why have you come out to the countryside? To see a reed shaken by the wind? Or to see a person dressed in soft clothes like your rulers and your people of power? They are dressed in soft clothes and cannot understand truth.”

Thomas 81: Jesus said, “Let a person of wealth rule, and a person of power renounce it.”

Thomas 86: Jesus said, “Foxes have their dens and birds have their nests, but the human being has no place to lay their head and rest.”

Thomas 95: Jesus said, “If you have money, do not lend it at interest, but give it to someone from whom you will not get it back.”

Thomas 110: Jesus said, “You who have found the world and become wealthy, renounce the world.”

Of these thirteen sayings reproduced from the Gospel of Thomas, ten of them are also found in the New Testament gospels as well [part of 4 and all of 42, 81 and 110 are the anomalies here] but what unites them thematically is a very particular economic situation and interpretation. This, to be brief, is a preference for an uneconomically productive existence [actually, the correct word would be “destitute” as Jesus and his closest followers were beggars — hence my translation of Thomas 54 as “Blessings to the destitute”]. We see this here in Jesus telling people to prefer destitution, that they are blessed if they are destitute, that they should give any money they have away to people who cannot repay it [i.e. the destitute], and to in fact become destitute themselves. In addition, those with wealth [typically called merchants in Thomas] are painted as consumed with money and the accumulation of wealth [Thomas 64 is a good example here since all the excuses are business ones] but, consequently, as those who miss out on the real benefits. Thomas 8 and Thomas 76 give parables in which people engaged in business of various kinds essentially give up their business ways for something thought of as a greater prize [but which, in so doing, would also ruin them as businessmen]. In the praise of children, as in Thomas 4 and 22, the economically unproductive are lauded as the ideal for “entering the kingdom”, Jesus’ Jewish way of describing what he offers in theological terms. Rich people [or “people in soft clothes” as Thomas 78 calls them] are identified in that their riches blind them to greater truths.

Inside the New Testament such ideas as these are filled out even further. There is a mission speech of Jesus reproduced in the gospels of Matthew, Mark and Luke in which he sends people out to spread the word regarding his movement [e.g. Mark 6:8] in which he instructs such people to carry no money, for example. So how are they meant to survive? By staying — for one night only — with sympathetic people, healing any who are sick in the process, in a version of what today we would call mutual aid. These people are not intended to become burdens but to move around so that no one is especially inconvenienced by the house guests. In a story in Mark, already referred to earlier in this book [Mark 10:17–22], Jesus informs a pious Jew of longstanding who has followed the instructions of his religion that what he needs on top is to disperse all of his wealth to the destitute, a stipulation he apparently cannot bring himself to comply with. Meanwhile, in a story found in Luke 12:22ff, Jesus compares his companions to birds or flowers [in a speech traditionally regarded as having Cynic overtones] and tells them to worry about neither food nor clothing and gives the impression that life is not about engaging in economic activity for the sake of such things. In fact, so he seems to say, nature [he says God but its the same thing in context] provides these things quite naturally. [This does indeed sound very like Diogenes.]

Later, in Luke 16, Jesus utters the words “You cannot serve God and wealth” — implying a very strict separation of the two and a choice to be made. His traditional gospel enemies in the New Testament, the Pharisees, are said right after this to be “lovers of money” — which you can be sure is not meant to be a good thing. Jesus then states that “what is prized by human beings is an abomination in the sight of God” [Luke 16:15] which should, as all the references I am giving here, be read economically against a background of those who were themselves destitute, people with nothing working out a new ethic of human relationships which could allow such people to survive. Yes, this is often explained in theological terms but all the theology [not just of Jesus but of Jews generally in this historical period] has political consequences. This, in fact, is why some try to trap Jesus when presenting him with a Roman coin and asking if taxes should be paid to Rome [i.e. Mark 12:13–17].

Money, in the teaching and practice of Jesus, is seen to be an ethically corrupting thing, something to be avoided, if still with its uses. The beginning of Luke 8, for example, suggests Jesus was not averse to the acceptance of donations from wealthier supporters but the clear message here — one actually followed through in the practice of a lifestyle — was to not base one’s life on money or economic activity at all. Thus, Jesus, in some places, calls people out from their homes and families [he, of course, is described as deliberately leaving his own] which were the basic units of economic survival in the ancient world. This, naturally enough, had a price, but it seems one Jesus was prepared to pay and part of its resolution was to form new kinship bonds based on affinity [e.g. Mark 3:33–35]. What we need to understand about Jesus historically from an economic perspective is that his entire activity was one of destroying economic dependencies by creating communities who relied on each other for their needs and built up human relationships based on things other than money or wealth. Statements such as variations on “the first shall be last and the last shall be first” [Matthew 20:16] make this rhetorically explicit as do statements such as Luke 12:15 which reads, “Take care! Be on your guard against all kinds of greed; for one’s life does not consist in the abundance of possessions.” A paradigmatic parable in this regard is the story of the rich man and Lazarus from Luke 16:19–31 which reads as follows:

“There was a rich man who was dressed in purple and fine linen and who feasted sumptuously every day. And at his gate lay a poor man named Lazarus, covered with sores, who longed to satisfy his hunger with what fell from the rich man’s table; even the dogs would come and lick his sores. The poor man died and was carried away by the angels to be with Abraham. The rich man also died and was buried. In Hades, where he was being tormented, he looked up and saw Abraham far away with Lazarus by his side. He called out, ‘Father Abraham, have mercy on me, and send Lazarus to dip the tip of his finger in water and cool my tongue; for I am in agony in these flames.’ But Abraham said, ‘Child, remember that during your lifetime you received your good things, and Lazarus in like manner evil things; but now he is comforted here, and you are in agony. Besides all this, between you and us a great chasm has been fixed, so that those who might want to pass from here to you cannot do so, and no one can cross from there to us.’ He said, ‘Then, father, I beg you to send him to my father’s house— for I have five brothers—that he may warn them, so that they will not also come into this place of torment.’ Abraham replied, ‘They have Moses and the prophets; they should listen to them.’ He said, ‘No, father Abraham; but if someone goes to them from the dead, they will repent.’ He said to him, ‘If they do not listen to Moses and the prophets, neither will they be convinced even if someone rises from the dead.’”

The most startling thing about this story, from the ethical and economic perspective I am coming here, is that “the rich man” doesn’t even get a name — and all we know about him, his entire identification, is that he is rich. This, of course, must be read against the socio-economic, political and theological backgrounds of Jesus’ time and place, but, in a world of wealthy landowners and destitute day labourers struggling for a day’s work in any crummy menial task they could find, the identification here speaks powerfully.


Emma Goldman was, at one time, arguably the best known anarchist in the world. She is, almost without doubt, the most well known anarchist WOMAN in the world, someone governments feared — and tracked — in her various movements between the USA [where she made her home as a 16 year old immigrant in 1885] and Europe [which she visited only sparingly the more famous she became since the US government became motivated to not let her back in again]. Eventually, of course, Goldman, and her lifelong companion, Alexander “Sasha” Berkman, were deported permanently from the USA at the end of 1919 [as foreign-born anarchists — something which had increasingly become a crime in the USA ever since Leon Czolgosz had shot and killed President McKinley on September 6th 1901]. In her American years [which ended up spanning practically half her life] she gave speeches and held rallies on many subjects, first being imprisoned [on one of several occasions] in 1893 after what the courts decided was an “incitement to riot” when she told hungry workers in New York over several days to doorstep the rich in their homes for food and, if they did not get it, to take bread by force.

But another subject forcefully at the front of Goldman’s mind during her time in the USA was the issue of women and women’s rights. This extended not just to women’s social situation in society but matters of sexuality, marriage and birth control as well. For one having a biographical interest in Goldman, such as myself, these interests can be seen as outgrowths of her own experience of life with an overbearing father whose ambition for his daughter Emma was only that she should be married off to become a brood mare as soon as possible. To escape such a fate is, in fact, part of the reason why Goldman wound up on a ship sailing into New York harbour one day in 1885. Goldman herself, although married three times to two different men [but never to anyone she loved, the first two occasions were youthful mistakes with the same man whilst under familial pressure from which she eventually and finally rebelled, being kicked out of her family home as a result; the final occasion was to a British citizen in 1925 in order to gain a British passport to make international travel easier for her after her US deportation], never had children and in her speeches about the situation of women in the societies she lived in it is perhaps understandable why.

We see Goldman’s attitude towards women in society first in a short essay called “Anarchy and the Sex Question” from 1896. Note here that anarchy is integral to her ethical analysis of the situation which speaks of both rich and poor whilst concentrating more particularly on the plight of the poor [naturally enough]. Here the situation of poor women is that “the workingman… marries only to have a wife and housekeeper” [echoes of her own potential fate can be heard here]. Women, in fact, Goldman sees as prey to “the outrageous system that has crushed her and so many of her sisters”. Women, according to Goldman, are essentially forced into marriages, often with little love or only with love which soon dissipates under the conditions of capitalist existence, which they cannot leave due to the shame and destitution which would follow such a decision. Her own view of marriage, which she held to very consistently throughout her life, was that:

“All unnatural unions which are not hallowed by love are prostitution, whether sanctioned by the Church and society or not. Such unions cannot have other than a degrading influence both upon the morals and health of society.”

This is to say that Goldman herself [who, at this time, had a lover, Ed Brady, who, so it turned out, wanted her to become a mother — something which she could not go along with] agreed with marriage ONLY where it was a matter of love [and then never as a matter that had anything to do with the State, the Church or society in general]. Goldman regarded prostitution as exploitation of poor women and the regarding of them as sex objects. But she thought exactly the same of marriage, where love was not involved, too. The problem, as she sets out in “Anarchy and the Sex Question”, was the system:

“The system which forces women to sell their womanhood and independence to the highest bidder is a branch of the same evil system which gives to a few the right to live on the wealth produced by their fellow-men, 99 percent of whom must toil and slave early and late for barely enough to keep soul and body together, while the fruits of their labour are absorbed by a few idle vampires who are surrounded by every luxury wealth can purchase.”

Just as working class people are exploited in general by the rich [Goldman here uses “the 99%” over a century before modern anti-capitalist protestors like David Graeber would], so women also become an exploited sex on the basis of the same system. Notice here that “selling womanhood and independence to the highest bidder” would apply equally to wives and to prostitutes. This “prostitution” is the fault of “society itself” for Goldman and will exist “as long as the system exists which breeds it”. What Goldman wanted instead, however, was that “woman will be self-supporting and independent”.

Thus, it is no surprise that in a feature-length interview in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch in October 1897, when asked what anarchism held out for women [the article’s title was “What is There in Anarchy for Women?”], Goldman can immediately reply “More to woman than to anyone else—everything which she has not—freedom and equality.” When asked if she believes in marriage, Goldman replies:

“I do not. I believe that when two people love each other that no judge, minister, or court, or body of people, have anything to do with it. They themselves are the ones to determine the relations which they shall hold with one another. When that relation becomes irksome to either party, or one of the parties, then it can be as quietly terminated as it was formed… The alliance should be formed not as it is now, to give the woman a support and home, but because the love is there, and that state of affairs can only be brought about by an internal revolution, in short, Anarchy.”

When asked by the interviewer if woman is not already “free” and so not in need of “Anarchy” Goldman retorts:

“Free! She is the slave of her husband and her children. She should take her part in the business world the same as the man; she should be his equal before the world, as she is in the reality. She is as capable as he, but when she labours she gets less wages. Why? Because she wears skirts instead of trousers.”

But in this interview, perhaps due to the changed circumstances of a conversation as opposed to a more prepared piece one can weigh up and edit many times if so desired, other themes start to come out as well — such as when the interviewer asks Goldman about a married woman’s home life:

“The woman, instead of being the household queen, told about in story books, is the servant, the mistress, and the slave of both husband and children. She loses her own individuality entirely, even her name she is not allowed to keep. She is the mistress of John Brown or the mistress of Tom Jones; she is that and nothing else. That is the way I think of her.”

Notable here is that Goldman imagines women as people who are “individuals”, people who might [heaven forbid] have their own ideas about life and their own interests within it. Consequently, further on in the interview, Goldman espouses a theory of communal childcare, leaving such mothers as wish to free to pursue their financial or other types of independence rather than being domestic servants. This, Goldman suggests, “would give those women who desire something broader, a chance to attain any height they desired. With no poor, and no capitalists, and one common purse, this earth will afford the heaven that the Christians are looking for in another world.”

From here she goes on to espouse a theory of “free love”, an activity now somewhat outmoded in modern circumstances where marriage in general is less revered in the global north than it ever has been for many hundreds of years and sexual assignations are much more accepted. However, in Goldman’s time, sex was much more a matter either for the marriage bed or the brothel and so the idea of multiple sexual partners was an often scandalous one. Goldman, consequently, is asked if “a person can love more than one at a time” and replies:

“I don’t see why not—if they find the same lovable qualities in several persons. What should prevent one loving the same things in all of them? If we cease to love the man or woman and find some one else, as I said before, we talk it over and quietly change the mode of living. The private affairs of the family need not then be talked over in the courts and become public property. No one can control the affections, therefore there should be no jealousies.”

Then asked if she intended to marry herself [she was, in fact, married at the time, a result of her hasty and quickly regretted teen marriage to one Jacob Kershner whom she had never officially divorced after leaving him for the second time] and replies:

“No; I don’t believe in marriage for others, and I certainly should not preach one thing and practice another.”

Goldman herself, in fact, never married for love, as already stated — although she certainly did have loves, and great, passionate, loves in her life. One imagines this is because she thought such things entirely a private matter and not things that needed either State or Church sanction.

In an address Goldman gave “before the Liberal Progressive Society, of Providence, Rhode Island” in 1898 she goes on to discuss “The bible story of woman’s inequality and inferiority… based on the declaration of her being created from the rib of man”. She clearly thinks this teaching of the Church [an institution she truly despised as a policeman of the mind] as a source of woman’s position in society and preaches with fire when she states that:

“Woman is bred to be seen and for outside show, and hence the sham in society. Her only mission is to marry and to be a wife and mother, and to cater to a husband who for this will support her. She thus degrades herself.”

In this talk, called “The New Woman”, Goldman is clearly once more concerned with a woman’s independence — not only from marriage but from the need for men in general in order to survive. She declares women the equal of men “even in the productive field” and wishes for women who do not need men’s “protection”. All this gets absorbed into an anarchist analysis of society again, however, when Goldman proclaims that “Motherhood and its beauty, of which poets have sung and written, is a farce, and cannot be otherwise until we have freedom—economically.” But Goldman’s favour for the individual also resurfaces when she adds, “Woman, to be free, must be the mutual friend and mate of man. The individual is the ideal liberty.” Thus:

“We owe no duty to anyone, save ourselves. When universal woman once comprehends this ideal, then all protective laws, intended for protection, which is indeed her weakness, will disappear, and this adulterous system goes, and with it charity and all its attendant ills. In short, the new woman movement demands an equal advancement by the modern man.”

Goldman’s ethic here is one of free equals, whether man or woman and without differentiation, as well as one of free union, as exampled in her essay simply entitled “Marriage” [dated 18th July 1897] in which she begins:

“Marriage. How much sorrow, misery, humiliation; how many tears and curses; what agony and suffering has this word brought to humanity. From its very birth, up to our present day, men and women grown under the iron yoke of our marriage institution, and there seems to be no relief, no way out of it. At all times, and in all ages, have the suppressed striven to break the chains of mental and physical slavery. After thousands of noble lives have been sacrificed at the stake and on the gallows, and others have perished in prisons, or at the merciless hands of inquisitions, have the ideas of those brave heroes been accomplished. Thus have religious dogmas, feudalism and black slavery been abolished, and new ideas, more progressive, broader and clearer, have come to the front, and again we see poor down trodden humanity fighting for its rights and independence. But the crudest, most tyrannical of all institutions — marriage, stands firm as ever, and woe unto those who dare to even doubt its sacredness.”

Perhaps now you see why Goldman never married for love? In this essay Goldman describes marriage as “the foundation of private property, ergo, the foundation of our cruel and inhuman system” and also describes marriage as “objectionable, hurtful and degrading” in that “It always gives the man the right and power over his wife, not only over her body, but also over her actions, her wishes; in fact, over her whole life.” This she sees as only built upon the whole history of relations between men and women in which “Two young people come together, but their relation is largely determined by causes over which they have no control. They know little of each other, society has kept both sexes apart, the boy and the girl have been brought up along different lines.” When it comes to women particularly “The subject of sex is a sealed book to the girl, because she has been given to understand that it is impure, immoral and indecent to even mention the sex question.” [Such beliefs would later motivate Goldman to openly discuss birth control as a means for women to control their own sexuality, something for which she would be imprisoned in 1916 after she refused to pay her $100 fine.] Goldman, in fact, sees men and women as being treated differently in regard to marriage since:

“Both, the man and the girl, marry for the same purpose, with the only exception that the man is not expected to give up his individuality, his name, his independence, whereas, the girl has to sell herself, body and soul, for the pleasure of being someone’s wife; hence they do not stand on equal terms, and where there is no equality there can be no harmony.”

The connection between a wife and a prostitute is once again explored as well in relation to poor women of no means but their husband’s in this remarkable passage:

“The poor woman has to consider her little ones; she is less fortunate than her rich sister, and yet the woman who remains in bondage is called respectable: never mind if her whole life is a long chain of lies, deceit and treachery, she yet dares to look down with disgust upon her sisters who have been forced by society to sell their charms and affections on the street. No matter how poor, how miserable a married woman may be, she will yet think herself above the other, whom she calls a prostitute, who is an outcast, hated and despised by everyone, even those who do not hesitate to buy her embrace, look upon the poor wretch as a necessary evil, and some goody goody people even suggest to confine this evil to one district in New York, in order to ‘purify’ all other districts of the city. What a farce! The reformers might as well demand that all the married inhabitants of New York be driven out because they certainly do not stand morally higher than the street woman. The sole difference between her and the married woman is, that the one has sold herself into chattel slavery during life, for a home or a title, and the other one sells herself for the length of time she desires; she has the right to choose the man she bestows her affections upon, whereas the married woman has no right whatsoever; she must submit to the embrace of her lord, no matter how loathsome this embrace may be to her, she must obey his commands; she has to bear him children, even at the cost of her own strength and health; in a word, she prostitutes herself every hour, every day of her life. I can find no other name for the horrid, humiliating and degrading condition of my married sisters than prostitution of the worst kind, with the only exception that the one is legal, the other illegal.”

Goldman concludes:

“But whether legal or illegal, prostitution in any form is unnatural, hurtful and despicable, and I know only too well that the conditions cannot be changed until this infernal system is abolished, but I also know that it is not only the economic dependence of women which has caused her enslavement, but also her ignorance and prejudice, and I also know that many of my sisters could be made free even now, were it not for our marriage institutions which keep them in ignorance, stupidity and prejudice… I demand the independence of woman; her right to support herself; to live for herself; to love whomever she pleases, or as many as she pleases. I demand freedom for both sexes, freedom of action, freedom in love and freedom in motherhood.”

It is true to say here that, ethically, Goldman sees the position of women as dependent on the coercive and exploitative capitalist system itself but, as already noted, it is not just a matter of material circumstances or enculturated human relations. Goldman is also effusive about the morality [and especially the Church which propagates it] which hovers over people ready to condemn them for their actions and which, indeed, exists as an immaterial coercion to certain relationships and not others. Goldman, in fact, will attack both equally throughout her American career, exhorting women to their independence, an independence which would see her denounce middle class women who wanted the vote as much as American moralists who would not allow women to learn about how to manage their own sexual lives. Goldman’s ethic, then, was independence and individuality, freedom to choose one’s relationships and behaviour for oneself as a means to greater harmony, in both material and ideological terms.

So this was my discussion of anarchist ethics. It was not intended to be a conversation ending piece for, as I hope this chapter showed in its mentions of interpretation, the conversation never ends and there is no alternative to negotiation, making the best of a situation to the mutual benefit of those involved or just plain and simple talking things out. I make the point again, however, that I see this as about ethics, providing rationales for behaviour guided by values and virtues in specific situations, rather than morals, which I conceive of as static arbiters of behaviour that couldn’t care less what the situation actually is because “the moral is all”. We, as anarchists, are not in the business of providing rules which tell people what to do but of providing workable solutions that allow people, as many people as possible, to have mutually beneficial relationships with each other in as much harmony and peace as we can possibly manage without the use of exploitation or domination.



When it comes to organisation, there are two basic views of it in regard to anarchists. One of these views has it that anarchism basically is organisation since, when analysed, anarchism is really the matter of how a society — which is really just made up of human relationships — can be better organised such that its effects on the environment are mitigated and the relationships involved are not authoritarian or based on hierarchy which leads to exploitation and coercion of some by others. The second view on organisation from an imagined anarchist point of view is that anarchism makes organisation impossible since it is against authoritarianism and disdains leaders therefore, so this line of thinking goes, making any organisation basically inadmissible. The first view here is stereotypically held by some social anarchists whereas the latter is stereotypically found in individualist anarchists trying to understand the consequences of anarchism as a liveable ideology [although, in neither case, is this exclusively so].

Needless to say, I have some sympathy with both points of view here but, in thinking about how best to organise human relationships, this does raise a number of issues and how those relationships are in fact to be organised leads to multiple anarchist views which can vary from a belief in free association and not much more [as we saw in the last chapter with Émile Armand] to the majority-voting institutionalism of Murray Bookchin which can even bind people to accept its decisions — a wide spectrum of views!

But there are other questions here too such as “What is it the anarchist even imagines they are organising?” It is, for example, one thing to say that one wants to organise a local group for the purposes of mutual aid but another to organise a revolutionary commune which engages in insurgent acts against enemy targets — or even to decide that what you want to organise is an entire society. Depending on what relationships are being organised — and to what end — can here easily be seen to make a huge difference.

Traditionally, numerous anarchists [mostly very social ones — and necessarily so], going right back into the mists of anarchist time in the mid 19th century, have spoken about local communities of anarchists which federate and end up in confederations of anarchists [how the general population have been persuaded to all muck in with anarchism is seemingly never explained here] basically conceived of as “anarchist countries” but this description of it perhaps relays my scepticism in regard to it for doesn’t this seem to you like more of the anarchist utopianism coming through, an adaptation of something like now in which everything just happens to turn out fine? Obviously, such organisation has never happened before in the history of the world [i.e. where previously non-anarchist and relatively modern people have, en masse, decided to become anarchists and live according to anarchist principles] and this organisational wishful thinking is, thus, entirely imaginary [Spain 1936, Rojava and Chiapas being set to one side since, in each case, this was a group of anarchists or pseudo-anarchists of various sorts rather than the whole population]. Could it work? Well, first of all you’d have to be in this highly imaginative position to even find out — but how it is imagined we get to that is anyone’s guess. Murray Bookchin has argued for at least imaginable [if unrealistic] circumstances in regard to how we get from current electoral circumstances to his ideas of municipal institutionalism [by taking part in voting until we win, basically, advancing city hall by city hall] but most of the rest of the anarchist blue sky thinking about this seems more a wish or a dream than hard-nosed pragmatism or reality.

Thus, it seems intuitive to me to begin with the possible and go from there when it comes to organisation and this means starting small and with people you know, perhaps due to ties of work or affinity or something like that. But, of course, even such a position as this imagines that “anarchist organisation” is necessary. But, one wonders at this early stage in the discussion, is it necessary? Might not those individualist anarchists thinking anarchism through as they consider it have a point? If anarchism can be described — in some sense — as something to do with autonomy, then how does one organise that? Doesn’t this make organisation all the more unlikely when even the convinced anarchists reserve the right not to be convinced by your great plans for our communal, anarchist future and may consequently refuse to take part? Yes and no. What it means is that organisation cannot be assumed and it definitely can’t be imposed. Free association demands that any organisational practices must come from below and will always require common consent — whilst always also being things you can disassociate from too. In any sort of anarchist organising this must then be regarded as basic. And with that we probably wave goodbye to Murray Bookchin.

Yet we also have to take note of the fact, signposted early on in my discussion of anarchist ethics, that in anarchism ethics and organisation are very closely related things. One might even suggest they should be seamless. Since anarchism is an ethic, that ethic must be operative for anarchism to be taking place, and so anarchist organising must be a primary place where this ethic is both seen and carried out. Failing here would be like a horse falling at the first fence, in fact. So when we talk about anarchist organising we cannot just be talking about any old organising for anarchism is to be prefigurative of a wider state of affairs it imagines the future becoming [Spain, Rojava and Chiapas are here possible examples]. If anarchism is imagined as a jubilee then the jubilee is the practices it instantiates and propagates amongst others. But, as we will see, this never narrows it down to one thing and, being anarchism, its hard to imagine how it could.

What this means in practice is that how you conceive of anarchist organising is all of a piece with what kind of anarchist you actually are. Peter Gelderloos, for example, seems to suggest this in an essay from 2007 titled “Insurrection vs Organization” which focuses on two [seemingly partisan] tendencies in Greek anarchism, the insurrectionist and the organisational, something Gelderloos refers to as a “pointless schism”, remarking that:

“In this and most other controversies I see anarchists becoming embroiled in, there seems to be a lingering affinity for certain Western values that are at the heart of the state and capitalism: a worldview based on dichotomies, and a logical structure that is startlingly monotheistic. For example, when there are two different strategies for revolution, many of us do not see this as two paths for different groups of people to walk, taking their own while also trying to understand the path of the Other, but as evidence that somebody must be Wrong (and it is almost certainly the Other).”

Here Gelderloos [who adds that these anarchist partisanships aren’t unique to Greece] utters regret that “we [i.e. anarchists] still haven’t absorbed the emphasis on pluralism taught by the Magonistas and indigenous anarchists” whilst pursuing a critique in which no one has all the answers and neither is any one way to be an anarchist the only way. I think this is basically right and in what follows, whatever I end up preferring personally, it should not in any way be taken as a recommendation for everyone. As one who prefers metaphors of networks and rhizomes, I think that there is very much a place for multiple forms of organisation [or even none] and, in fact, multiple anarchisms, each with their own interests, activities and autonomies which link up in multifarious ways.

It is probably true to say that I see this as a matter of following through the ethos of anarchism [represented in the values and virtues I detailed in the last chapter] right to the end without compromise. In reality and in practice this almost certainly means “you do your thing and we [or I] will do ours”. For what is the alternative? Becoming the anarchist police? That can never happen and we should have enough anarchist consciousness about us to realise people have different interests and different skills. The last thing we should be after is what Gelderloos calls a “monotheistic” approach which forces all people to fit into the same mould. Not only is this itself an authoritarian approach [although “calling people out” — which is really calling them to live up to the responsibilities their own beliefs imply — is certainly allowed] but, from a functional point of view, its an unnecessarily limiting approach. There are many things anarchists could organise for and surely some would be better suited to some things than others. Good sense means utilising all your resources to their best advantage rather than artificially forcing them into one arbitrary organisation. Here the idea of “federation”, an idea that goes as far back as Proudhon, surely makes the most sense if groups set up for various purposes would have any interaction at all [and in saying this I’m not conceding that they have to]. This means each can retain their own autonomy of thought and action whilst maintaining relations with others interested in other things — yet whilst also acknowledging that they are travelling in a similar direction.

But the question remains “What are we organising for?” and this is not necessarily easy to answer — although what answer you give will shape the organising you then do thereafter. This is a question which itself bears on the history of anarchism where “social anarchists” were those who encouraged social involvement in revolutionary movements [think Bakunin, Kropotkin or Malatesta influenced anarchists here], syndicalists were focused on workplace organising and union activity [examples would be Rudolf Rocker and his wife Milly Witkop] whilst individualist anarchists concentrated on free associations. It is not so clear these days, in my opinion, that these fairly well defined differences still apply in what is often now a much more fragmented landscape.

In this chapter I am going to focus particularly on small scale organising focused on group activities as I think this is the most realistic for the vast majority of people likely to read this book. That is to say that I imagine the groups I will talk about to be people who have come together to take action or actions that flow from their common anarchist thinking. So these are not merely discussion groups or social clubs [although there would be nothing wrong with that]. Such groups will have several possible foci for action from mutual aid, propagandizing and consciousness-raising to protesting, various forms of targeted attacks on the powerful and acquiring resources for community use [which may or may not be illegal]. Once more let me point out that I am not here saying that any or every group must be set up to fulfill any or all of these functions. If you want to set up a group with others then what you do will be up to you. What I am saying is that these groups could be groups which take part in any or all of these activities since they could all play a part in a conceivable anarchist strategy. When it comes to breaking the law in this regard, which is again something quite conceivable, it will be up to you to decide if this is a boundary you want to cross. I neither tell you to do it nor to not do it. Each person or group will surely be bright enough to realise this might sometimes be necessary and to decide if that is a bridge they want to cross for themselves or as a group [although you might find the police decide you are breaking the law even if you thought you weren’t which is another, but related, matter entirely]. This is something to keep in mind.

All that said, the groups and their organisation I am talking about here will be matters of DIRECT ACTION. Direct action is action for political purposes but action that explicitly does not use established political channels. Instead, it confronts political powers [and sometimes others] directly. It works in this way because it views the political channels [which includes both politically sanctioned processes and institutions] as irredeemably compromised by the forces of the status quo and as a means to the pacification of people in general. Direct actionists, something anarchists have been since they first started using the term of themselves in social groups, are those who insist on confronting the powerful directly in order to resolve problems, live the lives they see fit to live, or protest the impositions of power upon them which coerce their lives. Thus, direct action is a taking responsibility for oneself and one’s community in the most direct ways possible. Before looking at historical forms of organisation in the history of anarchism as a context for looking at more contemporary approaches to this from around the world, its worth looking at this direct action, and understanding its importance, a little more. I will do this via David Graeber’s 2009 book Direct Action: An Ethnography.


The fifth chapter of Graeber’s book, which is largely involved with collating insights from North American anti-capitalist actions in the late twentieth and early twenty first centuries in which he was also involved, addresses more directly what direct action is, its anarchist heritage and some issues in its practice from the 1960s onwards. Graeber begins this chapter with some quotes from others and my favourite of these, understandably enough, is one he takes from Emma Goldman which I have no hesitation at all in repeating again:

“Man has as much liberty as he is willing to take. Anarchism therefore stands for direct action, the open defiance of, and resistance to, all laws and restrictions, economic, social and moral. But defiance and resistance are illegal. Therein lies the salvation of man. Everything illegal necessitates integrity, self-reliance, and courage. In short, it calls for free, independent spirits, for men who are men, and who have a bone in their back which you cannot pass your hand through.” — Emma Goldman, “Anarchism: What It Really Stands For”

Goldman’s quote here emphasises at least one thing I will want to come back to later: that organising yourself and acting directly to do so is essentially what anarchism actually is. In acting to organise yourself you are living out the whole point and purpose of anarchism.

In parsing the meanings of the quotations he makes, including this one from Goldman, Graeber himself brings this point out nicely and further extrapolates the point that Goldman makes herself. Direct action is, according to Graeber, “the insistence, when faced with structures of unjust authority, on acting as if one is already free. One does not solicit the state. One does not even necessarily make a grand gesture of defiance. Insofar as one is capable, one proceeds as if the state does not exist.” But Graeber is also keen to make the point that direct action of the type envisaged is not the same as civil disobedience. It goes further. As he notes:

“The direct actionist does not just refuse to pay taxes to support a militarized school system, she combines with others to try to create a new school system that operates on different principles. She proceeds as she would if the state did not exist and leaves it to the state’s representatives to decide whether to try to send armed men to stop her.”

Implicit in this [as well as in the quote from Goldman] is the understanding that direct action is quite likely to get you into trouble with the authorities or bring you into confrontation with them should your action be discovered or you get captured. [Ideally, the direct actionist is looking to avoid either outcome whatever it is they have decided to do.] This might not be because you were throwing a Molotov at the police station but perhaps even only because you were sharing food with homeless people. [Governments and their willing stooges, the police, have strange ideas about what activities they do not want you to carry out and an absolute belief in their singular authority to violently coerce you not to do so.] In this sense, direct action can become “any form of political resistance that is overt, militant, and confrontational, but that falls short of outright military insurrection” and “can mean anything from insisting on one’s right to sit at a segregated lunch counter to setting fire to one, from placing oneself in the way of bulldozers in an old-growth forest to spiking trees so that loggers who disregard warnings not to cut in certain areas risk killing themselves.” Here what you do is up to you but that you do it directly and in confrontation of the powers that be, as if they did not exist to coerce your behaviour, is the point. In practical terms this can be the difference between doing things that are likely to get you arrested [and accepting that fact] and things that aren’t. [In this respect, as Graeber notes, direct actionists often see the police not as “the authorities” — for their right to that authority is denied — but as simply a very well armed and organised street gang.]

The history of this might be directly drawn back to the originally much more militant labour unions of the 19th century [when such unions were not the tame and under control organisations that they mostly are today and in which pitched battles with cops were a regular occurrence]. In such times strikes were a regular tool of the workforce, machines could be smashed, factories occupied, picket lines stopped anyone from entering buildings; in short, workers took the defence of their livelihoods much more seriously, and in a much more direct way, without going to someone else with some political role to implore them to act on their behalf. [The key point in direct action is that one acts as if one is already free.] This also links direct action to anarchist “propaganda by the deed” from a similar era as well. Although this was often violent [and I am writing this on September 6th 2021, the 120th anniversary of the shooting, by the self-proclaimed anarchist Leon Czolgosz, of US President, William McKinley], it wasn’t always so, even if it did take seriously the desire to act on one’s own behalf in what one thought were one’s best interests. Such actions, however, were not just about achieving some material outcome but also about setting an example to others. [There are numerous examples throughout history of actions carried out with the hope that others might become copy cats of them and, as Graeber also notes, “To see oppressed communities rise up and join you is, in a way, the whole point”.]

A non-violent example we can take from Graeber’s research in this respect is the following one in which during “a strike by transit workers in Melbourne [in] the 1980s” these workers “rather than walking off their jobs,... stayed on, but stopped collecting fares—effectively making mass transportation free until the action was over.” This is an example of directly organising yourself and acting contrary to authority and with disregard to the established procedures in order to produce a desired outcome. This action is also one that anyone working in jobs that require the collection of money for higher ups or bosses could also very easily copy. [Imagine if supermarket workers simply allowed you to walk in, fill your trolley, and walk out again.] In fact, on a big enough scale, it could easily be envisaged to encourage a crisis of capitalism which, as can be seen here, requires our willing acquiescence in order for it to work.

Direct action, then, is, or can stereotypically become, “a [mobilized] community of people in a form of self-organization which provides a living alternative to the existing structure of authority” that might very conceivably involve “consensus-based, decentralized direct democracy”. Put another way:

“direct action represents a certain ideal—in its purest form, probably unattainable. It is a form of action in which means and ends become, effectively, indistinguishable; a way of actively engaging with the world to bring about change, in which the form of the action—or at least, the organization of the action—is itself a model for the change one wishes to bring about. At its most basic, it reflects a very simple anarchist insight: that one cannot create a free society through military discipline, a democratic society by giving orders, or a happy one through joyless self-sacrifice. At its most elaborate, the structure of one’s own act becomes a kind of micro-utopia, a concrete model for one’s vision of a free society.”

Here I would like to stop a moment to breathe and think about what this means in relation to anarchism [which is actually what Graeber does next in his book, too]. The thing to note about this, in relation to this chapter I am writing ostensibly about “anarchist organisation”, is that self-organisation of the type that “direct action” manifestly is is exactly the point of anarchism at all. Such self-organisation, such direct action, actually is the practice of anarchism for it is the refusal of authority and the taking up of one’s self-conscious responsibility for one’s own life and the life of one’s own community in tandem with others. If you want practical definitions of what anarchism is — and if, as I have already been asking, you want to know “what we are organising for” — then here is your answer. We are organising ourselves and engaging in direct action because that is exactly what anarchism is.

Yet Graeber finishes his section on direct action in the fifth chapter of this book by issuing a warning to those who think that, as a result, anarchism and anarchist organising are just matters of the apparent excitement of direct actions and possible confrontations with the powers that be. He does so using a word that may strike fear into the hearts of some anarchists when he states that:

“A revolutionary strategy based on direct action can only succeed if the principles of direct action become institutionalized. Temporary bubbles of autonomy must gradually turn into permanent, free communities. However, in order to do so, those communities cannot exist in total isolation; neither can they have a purely confrontational relation with everyone around them. They have to have some way to engage with larger economic, social, or political systems that surround them.”

What Graeber is saying here in his own academic way is that you can’t run around smashing windows, ambushing cops, engaging in speed raids of department stores to collect supplies to distribute to houseless people or materially protest corporate actions forever. At some point the idea is that what was once a survival activity becomes a normal and permanent way of life. The problem is that, as Graeber himself acknowledges, these activities aren’t really the same thing and so those attracted to them, and the practices and relationships required to carry them out, are very different — so different, in fact, that it has proven historically difficult to transition from one to the other. Here anarchism — in its values and virtues — is itself an issue for “most anarchists, for example, do not see themselves as a vanguard whose historical role is to ‘organize’ other communities, but rather as one community setting an example others can imitate” — as Graeber puts it. So anarchists don’t tell other anarchists what to do [and so how to organise] so much as they encourage people to take responsibility for themselves, educate themselves and organise themselves. Malatesta’s words “We don’t want to emancipate the people; we want the people to emancipate themselves” ring as true here as ever they did. As Graeber puts this, moving from direct action to its basis in anarchism:

“anarchism [is] an ethical discourse about revolutionary practice. The basic principles of anarchism—self-organization, voluntary association, mutual aid, the opposition to all forms of coercive authority—are essentially moral and organizational.”

In this context, Graeber sees anarchists as those who discuss the organisational implications of an ethical life rather than those [such as Marxists] who impose a theory or analysis [which they regard as appropriately “scientific”] upon society. Consequently, they tend to sort themselves out according to theories of organisation or in terms of what practices they do or do not want to engage in. Graeber suggests that “one can see ‘anarchism’ either as a vision, as an attitude, or as a set of practices” but “in no sense as a doctrine”. Thus, “Its a movement, a relationship, a process of purification, inspiration, and experiment.” We need to take seriously, then, the idea that anarchist organisation is SELF-ORGANISATION when done utilising certain agreed values or virtues identified as “anarchist” rather than ways set out for you to follow or a template imposed that you must adhere to. Anarchism is self-organisation, direct action pursued in your own best interests or in the interests of those with whom you have voluntarily made common cause. And, of course, this, by the by, is also exactly the reason WHY we are organising at all in the first place — whether that be in “video collectives, Food Not Bombs chapters, community gardens, prisoner-support networks, feminist groups, bicycle campaigns, squats, cooperative bookstores, anti-war campaigns, campaigns for the rights of immigrants, housing rights, copwatch programs, cooperatives, anarchist infoshops, clinic defense groups, Anarchist Black Cross prisoner collectives, pirate radio collectives, and chapters of Anti-Racist Action.” [Add your own groups, or ideas for groups, here accordingly.]

But, of course, here the problem comes in that, when two or three [or more] are gathered together, you create the possibility of disagreement. Graeber comments on this, from his own experience of such groups and his further research into others, in the following important paragraph which addresses whether to engage in violent or non-violent action:

“Activists who have been on the scene even only as long as two or three years tend to complain about the need to constantly reinvent the wheel in such matters. Every time there’s a major action, everyone has to go through exactly the same debates. Some will argue that confrontational tactics or property destruction will only make activists look bad in the eyes of the public. Others will argue that the corporate media wouldn’t make us look good whatever we do. Some will argue that if you smash a Starbucks window, that will be the only story on the news, effectively freezing out any consideration of issues; others will reply that if there’s no property destruction, there won’t be any story at all. Some will claim confrontational tactics deprive activists of the moral high ground; others will accuse those people of being elitist, and insist that the violence of the system is so overwhelming that to refuse to confront it effectively is itself acquiescence to violence. Some will argue that militant tactics endanger non-violent protesters; others will insist that unless one creates some sort of peace police to physically threaten anyone who spraypaints or breaks a window, some will probably do so, and if so, coordinating with the militants rather than isolating them is much safer for all concerned. In the end, one almost invariably ends up with the same resolution: that as long as no one is actually attacking another human being, the important thing is to maintain solidarity. The last thing you want is to end up in a situation like Seattle [in 1999], where you actually had pacifists physically assaulting anarchists trying to break windows, or turning them in to the police. Many remark that the conclusion is so inevitable that one wishes it was possible to simply fast-forward the debate, but, as many will resignedly remark, it seems each time a major action rolls along, those newly brought into the movement have to work all these things out for themselves.”

And — as far as I’m concerned — I see nothing wrong with this. If anarchism is “self-organisation” then people must be free to organise themselves — regardless of how many times the same discussions are had over and over again — until people are happy and at peace with one another. The alternative is rules which become authorities or theories which become unquestionable — and that’s an unpalatable alternative.

Thus, as Graeber notes further on:

“The real point of fracture comes, precisely, when it comes to issues of solidarity. To take a consistently non-violent position, one would have to, for example, tell the Zapatistas in Chiapas that they shouldn’t really have conducted an armed insurrection—however brief—or the Black Panthers that a bunch of middle-class white anarchists had more authority to tell them what sort of tactics to employ than they did. This dichotomy—between community-building (in which anarchists have everything in common with pacifists) and solidarity with oppressed groups—is a constant dilemma that will come up throughout this book.”

So, in the end, it would seem that there is really little alternative to discussion and negotiation in such circumstances and that, consequently, anarchists, in regard to organisation, must be confirmed and committed conversationalists and communicators.


The words of Malatesta, quoted above, might equally be matched, in regard to anarchist organising, by some words from Mikhail Bakunin when, in his “Letter to the Comrades of the Jura Federation” from 1873, he stated, “What counts above all else today is the organization of the forces of the proletariat. But such organization must be the doing of the proletariat itself.” French anarchist Emile Pouget had a similar idea when he simply stated in Le Pere Peinard that “Only our biceps can set us free.” The Russian Platformists of the mid-1920s, instilling this belief with a little more military [or perhaps, in the words of Nestor Makhno, merely “revolutionary”] discipline, would also state that “Anarchism is not some beautiful dream, some philosophical abstraction, but a social movement of the toiling masses. For that very reason, it has to garner its forces into one broad organization constantly acting as reality and the strategy of the social class struggle require.” Meanwhile, The Groupe Kronstadt in 1971 would say that “A revolutionary organization is first and foremost a means of effective action by the proletariat in its process of liberation, and cannot ever represent an end in itself. It is a catalyst radicalizing the struggles waged, a living laboratory of experiences and analyses, a forum for comparisons, information, liaison and coordination. Its essential role is to echo, centralize and make exemplary all the militant work achieved by its members.” The organisational impulses here are not always the same but they do all concede that some form of organising is necessary to the achievement of social and political goals in a conception of anarchism here more oriented towards “revolution” in a political sense than to anything else.

In this section of this chapter, as you might have already guessed, we are going to engage in some historical investigations in relation to the thoughts of anarchists of the past about organisation. Here we will be forced to go beyond Emma Goldman’s observation, during a discussion on organisation at the 1907 International Anarchist Congress in Amsterdam, that “The essential principle of anarchy is individual autonomy.” It is statements such as this, in fact, that would make institutionalists like the later Murray Bookchin put her to one side [to put it as politely as possible] even though people like David Graeber might basically acknowledge the truth of Goldman’s assertion. The issue here is that acknowledging such a thing is fine but “organisation”, by very definition, only comes into the discussion at the point that there is more than one autonomous individual to organise! Whilst Goldman’s assertion can therefore not be doubted [unless you are Murray Bookchin, it would seem], it doesn’t get us very far.

Let us take note of some salient points in the history of anarchism, then, as this relates to its machinations in regard to “organisation”. When one researches this, in fact, as I have naturally done in order to compile my thoughts here, one starts to get the idea that arguments about how to organise were actually pretty common in anarchism’s heyday [i.e. 1870–1940]. Indeed, some might say that anarchism only really begins as a practical, organisational idea with the dispute between Karl Marx and Mikhail Bakunin which resulted in the latter’s expulsion from the International Working Men’s Association [IWMA], a dispute to which matters of organisation are not irrelevant [as a description of that dispute as being about authoritarian versus libertarian socialism might suggest]. Consequently, books exist which catalogue anarchism’s various organisational ideas and the twists and turns of various disputes or arguments about how to organise [and what for]. I shall follow Alexandre Skirda’s Facing The Enemy: A History of Anarchist Organization from Proudhon to May 1968 in compiling this section of the chapter, which is one of these books, as a consequence.

Skirda’s book has a French bias, widening out to a European focus at salient points, but is informative in regard to the currents abroad in the anarchist thought at the time it covers. Immediately we see a twofold focus in the organisational thought of historical anarchists: first, what the revolution would look like and, second, how anarchists must organise themselves to best achieve it [with this as the explicit purpose of their own organisation]. Anarchism itself, as a means of organisation that attempts to protect the notion of individual autonomy in its organising, is perhaps here seen by Skirda to emerge from European socialist and revolutionary currents [beginning in 1789, naturally enough], but he notes that “there was a certain confusion surrounding the very notion of revolution. Socialist ideologues took it as synonymous sometimes with the ‘right to work’ (1848), sometimes with the worker’s right to the full product of his labour, then with mere rational organization of a society of producers, or even, first and foremost, prior conquest of the power of the state.” In this, economic conditions were very important [see, for example, the economic analysis that lays at the heart of the Marxist project] but Skirda argues that “Anarchism alone has been the exception to this, since it has instead taken the circumstances of the individual as its revolutionary project’s point of departure and arrival. According to the anarchist viewpoint, the individual is more than just a producer and a consumer: he is also a human being endowed with a critical awareness and aspiring to social harmony through the interplay of individual autonomies.” As a result, Skirda can state, before his history has even really begun, that:

“the anarchists or libertarian communists… have always called for the direct assumption by the exploited of control of their fates, quite independently of any party or state tutelage. Along with the abolition of private and state capitalism alike, as well as elimination of all forms of political domination, so that these may be replaced by an economic and social arrangement wherein the production of consumer goods and human relationships would be directly related to the real needs and wishes of men and women, banded together into freely federated autonomous communes.”

So here, right at the beginning of Skirda’s historical survey, we can already see a semi-familiar notion of a possible anarchist revolutionary future utopia.

We might then imagine that an account with a French bias begins with Proudhon — and it does — but with the addition of Max Stirner too. Interesting here is that Skirda can see Proudhon and Stirner uniting [in their differing ways] against common foes. Thus:

“Anarchist ideas surfaced during the 1840s, by way of a backlash against the socialist and communist professions of faith that had recently come into vogue. Let us note the paradox: the latter were conceived in opposition to ‘bourgeois’ individualism, and they sought the good of the ‘greatest number.’ In turn , anarchism made a stand against the societal pretension to overrule the individual and called for him to be freed from the constraints of the mass-state. In the estimations of Stirner and Proudhon who best expressed that backlash at the time, the individual is a flesh and blood being, the basic unit of society, a nonpareil, having nothing in common with the abstract ‘complete’ man of historical or religious evolution”

This helps us, in some measure, to contextualise Stirner as hardly being opposed to other anarchists and their ideas whilst realising that one has to understand what Stirner was keen to oppose as much as to promote. Marx would not later violently take against him for nothing [and observing those Marx does take against — which also included Proudhon — might actually be a good criterion of their anarchist and libertarian good sense, in fact].

Stirner, however, does not conceive of people as a “labour force” or as mere units of economic production. His stereotypical understanding of organisation is the “union of egoists” and free association has a lot to do with it as each human being seeks to “free itself from the tutelage of society” as Skirda puts it. Proudhon, however:

“espoused the line that the individual is, above all, the producer who is dispossessed of his product by the bourgeoisie, the ruling class. Proudhon believes in the validity of the association and federation of men, who, after having built up with one another their producers’ and consumers’ groupings, in accordance with their needs and wishes, represent a collective strength inimical to the state and the proprietors. Once these latter have been stripped of their privileges, their power will be exhausted and the exploitation of man will give way to a society cleansed of all government: Anarchy.”

Thus, Proudhon states, in his Justice in the Revolution and The Church from 1858, that:

“It should not be thought, as the contemporary communists or socialists do, that man has value only thanks to society, that he is the product thereof, that it confers a function, a specialization upon him, that he is indebted to it for everything and that it owes him nothing. That arrangement leads on to the demise of the personality... It enslaves the individual, so that the mass may be free. That is tyranny, not association. No example exists of a community which, having been founded in enthusiasm, has not ended in imbecility.”

So, both Stirner and Proudhon have interests in facilitating association and both Stirner and Proudhon have avoiding “the enslavement of the individual” on their agendas in the achievement of such a thing. Indeed, shortly before his death, Proudhon would sum up his ideas about this by saying “All my economic ideas, elaborated over a period of twenty-five years, can be summed up in these three words: agricultural-industrial federation; all of my political views can be stripped down to a similar formula: political federation or decentralization.” The federation [or association] which protected individuality was, then, the idea that Stirner and Proudhon had in common [whilst preserving their own, divergent takes on this]. The societal context for this was one of a rising tide of rejection of authority that is best described by Anselme Bellegarrigue in his 1850 “Manifesto of Anarchy” which stated, very much in the vein of Etienne de la Boétie as was mentioned in a previous chapter, that: “Up to this very day, you thought that there were such things as tyrants! Well, you were mistaken; there are only slaves: where none obeys, none commands.” Yet we should, of course, remember here that Stirner, at the very least, drew a distinction between what he thought of as “revolution” and a more personally-focused “revolt” [i.e. “insurrection” in my terms in this book]. We visited this in Part A of this book in quite some detail when discussing Postanarchism but it is nonetheless worth noting, as Stirner himself said in the context of organisation, that:

“The revolution has as its object new institutions, but revolt induces us to no longer countenance being organized, but to look instead to self-organization and invest no glowing hopes in ‘institutions’.”

We should keep this in mind as we progress through the rest of this organisational discussion.

And so we come to Bakunin, a man beloved of “secret organisations”, according to Skirda, in a time when being openly revolutionary was liable to immediate state repression. Bakunin, even before he becomes of anarchist significance, had already been sentenced to death, imprisoned, and escaped exile in Siberia by getting across the Pacific Ocean before finding his way back to Europe. Bakunin is a man both fervently atheist yet also very socialist in a collectivist sense of this term. He approves of the autonomy of the people but conceives of fundamentally socialist ways in which revolution can be achieved and freedom from coercion assured. Bakunin was engaged in a number of necessarily “secret” organisations in the 1860s in which his revolutionary ideas were expressed. One passage from 1864, at a time when Bakunin was engaged with Italian anarchists, strikes Skirda as relevant to “the anarchist conception of social and political organisation”:

“He [the revolutionary] should be federalist like us, both within his country and without. He should understand that the advent of liberty is incompatible with the existence of states. Consequently, he should desire the destruction of all states and at the same time that of all religious, political and social institutions: such as formal churches, standing armies, centralized authorities, governments, unitary parliaments, state universities and banks, as well as aristocratic and bourgeois monopolies. So that upon the ruins of them all there may be erected the free society of men, which will no longer be organized, as is presently the case, from the top down and from centre to circumference, along lines of enforced unity and concentration, but rather upon a basis of the free individual, free association and the autonomous commune, from the ground up and from circumference to centre, along lines of free federation. In theory as well as in practice, and in the fullness of its consequences, he must embrace this principle: every individual, every association, every commune, every province, every region and every nation enjoys an absolute right of self-determination, of association or non-association, of allying itself with whomsoever it may choose and of breaking off its alliances without any regard for so-called historical rights, or the convenience of its neighbours; and let him be firm in his conviction that only when they are formed by the omnipotence of their inherent attractions and needs, natural and consecrated by freedom, will new federations of communes, provinces, regions and nations become truly strong, fecund and indissoluble.”

In another section of the same document Bakunin also adds that “no one has the right to impose his dress, his customs, his language, his opinions and his laws upon him; each should be absolutely free in his home.” But, and this shall later prove important in our history of anarchist organisation, “As labour is the sole producer of society’s wealth, anyone who enjoys it without working is an exploiter of another man’s labour, a thief, and as labour is the fundamental basis of human dignity, the only means whereby man truly wins and creates his freedom, all political and social rights should henceforth belong to workers only.” In this we can begin to see the seed from which what is later to be called “syndicalism” will spring, that being a revolutionary workers’ movement based in trade unionism. This would come, in time, to be differentiated from socialist or communist forms of anarchism and more individualist forms respectively.

Bakunin, as Skirda tells his tale, was someone who did a lot of work in drawing up the administrative means for functional organisation of various anarchist associations and groups. In talking about the desired coming revolution, for example, he could say:

“Even as it takes root everywhere, the revolution will of necessity assume a federalist character. Immediately following the overthrow of the established government, communes will have to reorganize themselves along revolutionary lines, equipping themselves with leaders, an administration and courts that are revolutionary, built upon universal suffrage and upon the real accountability of all officials to the people. In order to defend the revolution, their volunteers will at the same time serve as a communal militia.”

This sounds very like a reorganisation of institutions in my ears and it would, no doubt, have triggered Stirner [who, fortunately for him, by this time was dead] a great deal. This is a matter of “delegates and deputies” where “there is no organisation without a degree of regulation”. But, worse than this, it seems to include specially chosen people there, seemingly, to make sure things go “according to plan” [Bakunin’s plan, we must assume]. Thus, Skirda starts a chapter of his book on “Bakuninist Organization” with the following paragraph:

“Bakuninist organization was designed only to embrace around a hundred international brethren, plus a variable number of national brethren in each of the countries of Europe, at most two or three hundred for the largest one. These were profiled as ‘committed, energetic, intelligent individuals and above all sincere friends of the people, and not ambitious or vain types, persons capable of serving as intermediaries between the revolutionary idea and popular instincts’.”

Unfortunately, in the documents of the Alliance in which this is found, Bakunin refers to this as a “collective dictatorship” — something not calculated to sound good in anyone’s ears today although Skirda grants him good intentions in so doing. What seems clear is that, in his machinations, Bakunin and his closest allies [such as James Guillaume] were conceiving of a revolution which they were at the centre of and so wanted to direct along lines of their choosing. Skirda presents this as not as controlling as it might sound, thinking of it as more of a matter of coordination than control. The idea was always to arouse the revolutionary feelings of the proletariat [to use a very outdated word] and to instill in them the necessary revolutionary ideas and moral fibre, as when Bakunin, in a letter, says to the reckless Russian dissident, Sergey Nechayev, that “we have to organize this community of revolutionaries and moralize it”. As a consequence, “Capitalizing upon the disastrous situation that makes them virtuous in spite of themselves, we should then arouse, educate and bolster that virtue in them, making it impassioned and conscious by

dint of constant propaganda and by force of organization.”

Thus, Bakunin defines “revolutionary organisation” as “to assist the people’s self-determination on a basis of absolute equality, and full and multifarious human freedom, without the slightest interference from any authority, even should it be provisional or transitional, which is to say, without the mediation of any state.” However, the mentality involved here still seems “organisational”, if one can put it like that. It involved “joint and fraternal monitoring of each by all” and had committees that required unanimous agreement in order to be elected to them. Moreover, such “monitoring” was envisaged as going on past the point of revolution, seemingly to keep the revolutionary direction society had taken. Skirda describes this as a matter of “an unseen general staff” and we might think of it as those charged with maintaining revolutionary impetus. Skirda, I think, hits the nail on the head when he describes all this as an “anti-authoritarian socialism” [in distinction to Marx’s authoritarian kind] yet collectivity clearly has a lot to do with it and there are people watching to see if things are going “as they should”.

Nevertheless, at the St Imier Congress convened after Bakunin and Guillaume had been expelled from the IWMA, a resolution could still be made to the effect that:

“the proletariat’s aspirations cannot have as their object anything other than the establishment of an absolutely free organization and economic federation founded upon the labour and equality of all and absolutely independent of all political government, and… that organization and that federation cannot be other than the product of the proletariat’s own spontaneous action, [the action] of its trades bodies and autonomous communes.”

This same Bakuninite Congress also declared that “the destruction of all political power is the premier duty of the proletariat.” Yet a problem was hoving into view over the horizon for anarchist organisation generally [of which Marx and his more authoritarian approaches were only an obvious example] in that one had to work out how to balance a stated desire for autonomy with that of organisational impulses — or even requirements. Here the desire of political or police authorities to undermine and destroy revolutionary cells was a clear and present danger and organisation could play a role in mitigating it since, if everyone was just under a central committee, for example, then nobbling this committee in effect destroyed the whole organisation. A widely used police tactic at this time was infiltration and agent provocateurism in order to get people to out themselves or in order to ambush them and so, in this regard, autonomy of individuals or groups was as much a security measure as a principled form of organisation. But then there was also a class issue as well as some workers saw in the educated intellectuals setting out plans to organise them class enemies. Distrust of people and their motives was, at this time, not a hard thing to find. Bakunin, however, in his closing years, was clear that “The priority today above everything else is the organization of the forces of the proletariat. But that organization should be the handiwork of the proletariat itself.” Self-determination was still the most important thing.

By the time of Bakunin’s death in 1876, and on into the early 1880s, some principles had, thus, been established. As Skirda expresses this in the terms of the Jura Federation congresses around this time [in which Peter Kropotkin played a major part], “anarchist communism was espoused as their ultimate goal and collectivism described as a transitional form of society. The corollary of these objectives was the abolition of all forms of government and the free federation of producer and consumer groups.” A meeting of anarchists in Switzerland in 1880, which Kropotkin and Elisee Reclus both attended, puts further meat on these bones in that they agreed to the following programme:

1. Utter destruction of existing institutions by force.

2. Every possible effort must be made to spread the revolutionary idea and the spirit of revolt through deeds.

3. Desert the legal terrain in order to focus action upon the terrain of illegality, which is the only road leading on to revolution.

4. Technical and chemical sciences having already rendered services to the revolutionary cause, we should urge upon our organizations and the individuals belonging to these groups that they place great store by the study and applications of these sciences as a means of attack and defence.

5. The autonomy of groups and individuals is acceptable, but in order to retain unity of action, each group is entitled to enter into direct correspondence with the others, and in order to facilitate such relations, a central international information office is to be set up.

Here we can see that agreement to more violent and extreme revolutionary means has been accepted and that an attempt to balance autonomy [of principle but also of security] with coordinated and concerted action is maintained. One can frankly not imagine what was hoped to be achieved by this [save that spook “the revolution”] but we can note that organisation concerned entering into this so that people could act in ways both of their choosing and for their own protection. Such organisation was also to be revolutionary in intent and purpose since no one here was thinking about a discussion group to discuss their various societal philosophies. Propaganda, in fact, came to the fore in this age as a primary motive for organised action and it was in this context that the French anarchist, Jean Grave, wrote the following in 1890:

“Individuals belonging simultaneously to several groups based on different acts of propaganda ... once their aim has been achieved, and the propaganda act been accomplished, the group dissolves, reforming on a new basis, those persons not accepting this new outlook breaking off and others being recruited and propaganda thus being carried out by groups continually undergoing transformations along these lines, accustoming individuals to bestir themselves, to act, without being bogged down in routine and immobility, thereby preparing the groupings of the society to come, by forcing individuals to act for themselves, to seek out one another on the basis of their inclinations, their affinities”

Skirda here makes the note that “The option for propaganda by deed, to the exclusion of every other tactic or stratagem, inevitably led to a divorce from the workers’ everyday pre-occupations” and it is true to say that people running around engaging in their acts of propaganda of the deed is not the stuff of the workplace and securing the means of production. This, in fact, is a more individualist, more societally-aimed, activity which aims to rouse others to sympathy with the aims of the activity and to embolden others to join in. Yet it doesn’t take a genius to figure out that such action, which ostensibly could be carried out by anyone without any other “authorisation” or organisation whatever, could easily go off the rails. Thus, the next chapter Skirda regales us with is about “Anti-organisationists and Bombers”.

It is the 1880s which are described as the age of “Individual initiative, free agreement, free communism, propaganda by deed, spontaneity of revolutionary action, such were the keynote ideas of anarchism’s ideological profile… and they all harked back to the autonomous individual as the agent of social transformation.” In distinction to the ideas of Bakunin barely 10 years before, a socialist collectivism as we may describe it, this time was, instead, one lacking either federation or even liaison. At one anarchist trial of the time the meetings of anarchists were described as little more than “rendezvous where friends come together each week to discuss with one another matters of interest to them.” According to this testimony, nothing was planned, no great organisational ideas were either suggested or put in place. People were left to decide for themselves what they would do and how. Skirda notes that “As a result, the anarchist group was wide open, implying no duty or obligation upon participants, nor did it require them to reveal names or occupations, nor to commit themselves to any activity of any sort.” This was partly based on an increasing principle, however, that “in the name of the principles of individual autonomy and freedom of initiative, every stable organizational tie was repudiated as being ‘authoritarian’ and thus anti-anarchist.” The idea here seems then to have been “the requisite awakening of the peasant masses” by assaulting authority by means of euphemistically termed “technical and chemical sciences” [i.e. dynamite].

The 1880s, in fact, were the time in which Russians managed to assassinate the Tsar in 1881 and at the Haymarket in Chicago in 1886 another famous bomb-throwing incident [although by who its likely no one will ever know — it seems not to have been any of the accused] literally ignited anarchist — and anti-anarchist — fervour in the United States. Here, then, is the period which gives birth to the image of the anarchist as the violent [and perhaps organisationally bereft] bomb thrower out to cause violence and mayhem. And, we must add, there clearly were people of this mentality with revolutionary aims at this time whatever later re-writings of history may attempt to get us to accept. It was though perhaps not the best organisational tactic, as Kropotkin could reminisce about, writing in 1891:

“that was where anarchists went wrong in 1881. When the Russian revolutionaries had killed the tsar .... European anarchists imagined that henceforth a handful of zealous revolutionaries, armed with a few bombs, would be enough to make the social revolution .... An edifice built upon centuries of history cannot be destroyed by a few kilos of explosives.”

We must agree with Kropotkin at this point — both in terms of activity and of organisation — yet this points out the dichotomy a belief finds itself in when based on both autonomy and cooperation. How does one respect the need for both at the same time?

In fact, what was happening [and this can perhaps only be seen in retrospect] was that several entirely separate means of carrying out what was regarded as a revolutionary agenda were being developed, each with incongruous relations to the other. By this time it was clear that collectivist [federated, associative] conceptions were in play [if not always enthusiastically or even visibly practised] and individual actions and associations were always possible [and hardly stoppable since there was no “anarchist organisation” over all the anarchists nor anyone to whom anarchists should report or seek permission from as should be very obvious]. At this point the syndicalist mentality also comes to the fore to make three distinct means to a revolutionary future. The syndicalist way, in fact, based in unionism and workplaces, might be seen as a means to unifying the concerns of the individual with the necessary requirement of communal action in order to achieve anything lasting and meaningful. This is perhaps hinted at by Jean Grave when he says:

“every time the human being seeks to accomplish something, he finds himself obliged to join his endeavours to the efforts of other like-minded beings, in order to afford his action the widest possible scope and all of the impact that they can bring to it. And, whatever they may say, that is what those who deny the usefulness of association are compelled to do. But the efforts brought jointly to bear, with an eye to deriving the greatest possible advantage from them, must, if their goal is to be achieved, be coordinated into collective action, with each individual taking up the part to which he is best suited, or which strikes him as most apt in his sphere of activity. Some may call that organization, some may prefer the description of contract, but what matter the name, provided the thing be accomplished.”

Grave delineates a perhaps necessary pragmatism here in a debate which, in some cases, got quickly bogged down in absolute principles or ideas that could not be overcome in practice. Skirda, in fact, notes that “The fear of ‘regimentation’ still held sway” and that “The Marx syndrome was still doing damage and cast a long shadow over minds as soon as organization was mentioned.” Here “The Marx syndrome” was very much Marx’s insistence on authoritarian control of the revolution by the appropriately chosen delegates rather than by the people themselves. This, at the very least, was seemingly a minimum requirement among anarchists of the time. This could often then induce anarchists to equate organisation in almost any form with authority — with a rejection of both as a result. But such an attitude has consequences, obviously, in relation to cohesion and solidarity [at least, if one is thinking in terms of “an organisation of anarchists”]. But should one be doing this? Jean Grave, at least, saw benefits to a wide diversity:

“A unity of views is unrealisable: then again, it would be harmful, because it would spell immobility. It is because we do not agree upon certain ideas that we discuss them, and that in discussing them we will discover others which we did not even suspect. A huge diversity of ideas, views, aptitudes is necessary for the organization of a harmonious social condition.”

Grave also favoured lack of organisation, incidently, because it stopped anarchist groups being infiltrated by the police. A person who kept their own counsel could not [or not nearly as easily] be infiltrated to begin with. Such constant police attention could also act to disrupt groups or scare people off which was the last thing you needed when you might be relying on absolute trust in people to carry out various actions. Fernand Pelloutier, a union man, could note the downside to such individualism, however, when, in 1899, he wrote: “Thus far we anarchists have conducted what I shall term practical propaganda ... without the shade of a unity of views. Most of us have flitted from method to method, without great deliberation aforethought, and with no spirit of consistency, at the whim of circumstances.” How does one get across a consistent message, in fact, if one is leaving it to the whims of scattered individuals acting without organisation in a reactionary way? This is exactly why syndicalists like Pelloutier and another notable anarchist of the time, Emile Pouget, concentrated on the workplace in which “the emancipation of the workers will be the workers’ own doing”, a motivation which went right back to the IWMA.

Such syndicalism had the great advantages of obvious aims [freedom from wage slavery, the abolition of all employers] and easily to hand examples of direct action that could be carried out [the strike, the boycott, sabotage of machinery, go slows or “poor work for poor pay” as Pouget put it]. Basically the idea was to make employing people such a burden for the employer as they either gave up or conceded to the syndicalists’ demands. In any case, such syndicalists were not going to settle into the wage slavery they thought was being expected of them and the power of a collectivity to rival that of the employer was here to be flexed and used to whatever advantage could be attained. Syndicalism didn’t appeal to everybody though [individualists most naturally of all] — and especially where its point became the maintenance of a union with its structures rather than the revolution proper itself [Malatesta was one who criticised this]. In the wider world outside the workplace [and consequent on translations of things like Stirner’s The Ego and Its Own appearing from country to country] anarchism was itself becoming what Skirda calls “a philosophy and the art of a ‘lifestyle’.” Such people became more the insurrectionists I described earlier than people seeking world political revolution. These people, according to Skirda:

“While standing by their advocacy of libertarian communism,... had no wish to postpone their emancipation to some far-off tomorrow and took the line that a start had to be made by regenerating individuals one at a time, by making a ‘revolution of minds,’ and freeing them from the noxious influence of the established society, so as to lay the foundations of an anarchist society right now. Thus, for the most active of them, new fields of activity were opened up: education, not restricted to children but targeting adults also, by means of evening classes: the question of birth control and neo-Malthusianism, including eugenics and abortion: vegetarianism — veganism, for the most radical, with no eggs or dairy products acceptable: anarchist colonies and so-called ‘free space’ where an attempt was made to live in as anarchistic a fashion as possible: finally, anti-patriotic and anti-militarist activities on more systematic lines than hitherto… In the view of the individualists, the anarchist should not be moulded by his environment, but should instead be the one who moulded it.”

For one who has read the earlier chapters of this book, this will now clearly be seen as the ground in which this particular seed is being planted. In other cases in the historical period of the time it manifested itself sometimes in various forms of illegalism [essentially living by means of criminality such as house breaking, fencing stolen goods, pimping and sex work or counterfeiting] or by any means of “getting by” in whatever ways one could. This, of course, was not necessarily the securist of lifestyles, often attracted police attention, and did not always attract those who used their proceeds to alleviate the conditions of people more generally. While some saw this activity as liberatory, others saw it as bourgeois, profligate and puerile, a dangerous utopia that seemingly only led to the court of assizes.

We are now up to around the time of the International Anarchist Congress held in Amsterdam in 1907, probably only the second genuinely international congress anarchists had yet held up until that time [the first being held in 1881 in London when “technical and chemical sciences” were promoted with much fervour, much to Kropotkin’s chagrin]. Various forms of organisation have, by this time, been proposed from socialist collectivisms and anarcho-communisms [perhaps necessarily federated] to individualist conceptions based more in free association, syndicalism and illegalism. The main issue, we may say, was how to safely and usably unite people in a coherent way [not least to produce coherent and consistent propaganda] whilst having need for individual autonomy as something that was in the nature of anarchism but also deployed as a necessary security measure.

Yet other conceptions were also to come along in order to solve this problem, not least from Russian dissidents still engaged in anti-Tsarist revolution such as Daniil Novomirsky. There were several dissident Russians around Europe at this time and others still in Russia. Novomirsky consequently wanted to create a “political organization in the best sense of the term, for it must seek to become the political force necessary to break the organized violence for which the state stands.” He thus thought that “anti-authoritarian socialists should unite into a Workers’ Anarchist Party [then] the next step would be the formation of a vast union of all revolutionary elements under the black flag of the International Workers’ Anarchist Party. Only then will anarchists represent sufficient strength to struggle against reactionaries, overt or covert.”

Novomirsky thought of this party as “combining the actions of its members” rather than simply being a consciousness-raising exercise. But he wanted a “theoretical platform” [in a premonitionary echo of Makhno’s later thinking I will come to shortly] because he thought it “impossible to achieve unity of action” without such a thing. Writing about this proposed party Novomirsky said:

“[This] Anarchist Party is the only revolutionary party, unlike the conservative parties which seek to preserve the established political and economic order, and the progressive parties which seek to reform the state in one way or another, so as to reform the corresponding economic relations, for anarchists aim to destroy the state, in order to do away with the established economic order and reconstruct it upon new principles.

This anarchist organization has nothing to do with Lenin’s concept whereby the Party depends chiefly upon statutory constraints and where its members become mere functionaries. Nor has it anything in common with the Social Democratic notion, whereby organizing means establishing a Central Committee above individuals. The anarchist organization is the free union of individuals struggling for a common goal.”

This was an anarcho-syndicalist party [the first use of the term “anarcho-syndicalist” in fact] which was about action and not just ideas in pursuance of workers’ freedom. The action was to take place using “all means available, to wit: replying with revolutionary terror to the government’s terror, targeting both their henchmen and those behind the repression, the capitalists and the big landowners. Expropriations of banks and state establishments would supply the requisite funds.” Skirda highlights the four main points of Novomirsky’s program thus:

1. It is essential that we devise a clear program and tactics, and, on the basis of these general principles and tactics, unite all the wholesome elements of Russian anarchism into a single federation: the Workers’ Anarchist Party.

2. It is vital that it differentiate itself organizationally and theoretically from all the questionable elements which peddle and practice the theory of theft as “a means of struggling for anarchism.”

3. We need to make participation in the revolutionary syndicalist movement the central objective of our work, so that we can make that movement anarchist.

4. Our practical watchword: an extended boycott of all state establishments, particularly the army and parliament, and the proclamation in villages and towns of workers’ communes with soviets of workers’ deputies, acting as industrial committees, at their head.

As Skirda explains this example of Russian syndicalist activity, “Syndicalism, turning itself into the ‘Party of Labour’ [to borrow from Pouget’s pamphlet of the same name], announced that it was quite capable of conducting the class struggle unaided upon its chosen terrain, that is the economic terrain, at a remove from all the influences of politicians or ideologues, and was therefore sufficient unto itself.” Novomirsky, as can be seen in his four points, was keen to distinguish this from non-revolutionary, illegalist actions but he was not averse to acting illegally for revolutionary purposes. His was a revolutionary anarcho-syndicalism arranged around theoretical agreements in order to produce groups of people on the same page and acting with some cohesion.

And so we come to the Internation Anarchist Congress in Amsterdam itself. This congress was held 26 years after the previous one in London at which “propaganda by the deed” had been so enthusiastically embraced. This congress, at least in Skirda’s analysis, had to deal with the consequences of this decision, a decision not all had welcomed to begin with and which others had since recanted from. The agenda of the congress gives us an idea as to what was exercising prominent anarchist minds [Emma Goldman, Errico Malatesta and Luigi Fabbri attended, amongst others] at the time:

1. Anarchism and syndicalism.

2. General strike and political strike.

3. Anarchism and organization

4. Anti-militarism as a tactic of anarchism.

5. Integral education of children.

6. Productive association and anarchism.

7. The revolution in Russia.

8. Alcoholism and anarchism.

9. Modern literature and anarchism.

10. Libertarians and a world language.

11. Anarchism and religion.

12. Anarchism as individual living and activity.

In addition, in two non-public sessions, the following four items were up for consideration:

1. Organization of the Libertarian International.

2. Drafting of a statement of anarchist-communist principles.

3. Creation of an international bulletin, an information organ.

4. The goal of the new International.

I have already previously mentioned here that, at the organisational discussion, Emma Goldman had stood up to say she regarded individual autonomy as the heart of anarchism [but not in a way that made it inimical to collective action]. This was said in the course of a back and forth between those critical of everyone who regarded the slightest amount of organisation as “authoritarian” — such that concerted action of any kind became almost impossible — and who despaired of any kind of collective action ever being agreed upon, and those who clung to autonomy as the basis of [or the opposite of!] any sort of organisation or organising. But it was not the same everywhere and, in places like France which had developed a revolutionary workers’ movement operating on syndicalist lines, the argument had moved on from one about autonomy or collectivity. There was also the question of what the anarchists were for. Weren’t they supposed to be rousing the proletariat by their activities, by their very existence? Weren’t they, perhaps, even to be drawing nearer to the proletariat rather than expecting the proletariat to draw near to them? The French syndicalist, Amedee Dunois, made the point that:

“The social revolution can only be the handiwork of the masses. But every revolution is of necessity attended by acts which, by their very nature — technically, so to speak — can only be the work of a tiny few, of the boldest and most enlightened fraction of the proletariat on the move. In every district, so every region, in times of revolution, our groups would form many little fighting organizations designed to carry out delicate specialist measures for which the broad masses are most often unsuited.”

This interestingly combines the idea that its not just the anarchists’ revolution [for it is the proletariat’s as a whole, that is the point of it] but that it is also necessary that the revolutionaries be divided into groups with tasks of their own; it is not a case of everybody doing everything, something which, indeed, would be stupid to even imagine. Thus, as Skirda explains, “What Dunois was getting at was that affinity groups, wherein the members are well-known to each other and trust one another, are better suited to carrying off daring and decisive operations which the masses cannot possibly accomplish spontaneously. Not that there should be any substitution for the wishes of the latter.” In addition, Dunois “also nominated anarchist propaganda as the essential, ongoing object of the group’s activities, theoretically as well as practically.” All this spoke of “concerted, coordinated action” that had a common revolutionary purpose and rallying around a program of practical action that made anarchism more than the random beliefs of even more random people who acted randomly. Alexandre Skirda, in his commentary on this, sees it as appropriately Bakuninist [by which he means organisationally serious].

But not all attendees agreed with Dunois and there were disagreements about even whether to vote on his proposals — with others, of strongly autonomous views, arguing that organisation of any kind was an unconscionable idea. It is here that Skirda reports Emma Goldman’s intervention, saying that, “Emma Goldman pronounced herself ‘in favour of organization, in principle’ but had misgivings about a possible ‘exclusivism’ and insisted that the autonomy of the individual, the essential principle of anarchy, be respected. She would countenance organization on one condition only: that it be ‘founded upon absolute respect for all individual initiatives and place no obstacle in the way of their interplay or evolution’.” We can see, then, that Goldman wants to preserve autonomy [“ALL individual initiatives”] without thereby making organisation impossible.

Malatesta, on the other hand, arguing the apparent differences between people’s views were mostly “semantic”, argued for an anarchist individuality made complete in association when he stated that “what allows [a human being] to develop all his faculties, is not solitude but association.” He was thus arguing for organisation as the true means of asserting our own individuality in a conception very much like the “freedom of equals” idea I mentioned previously in Being Human, this being that our own freedom is only activated in tandem with that of everyone else in our association. Thus, he tried to tie individual action and organisation together.

Dunois’ motion, with some addenda, was then put to the congress and passed with only one dissenter. It reads as follows:

“The anarchists assembled in Amsterdam, August 27, 1907.

Considering that the ideas of anarchy and organization, far from being incompatible, as has sometimes been claimed, are mutually complementary and illuminate one another, the very precept of anarchy residing in the free organization of the producers;

That individual action, important though it may be, could not make good the absence of collective action, of concerted movement: ‘any more than collective action could make good the absence of individual initiative;’ [Emma Goldman’s addendum]

That organization of militant forces would assure propaganda of fresh wings and could not but hasten the penetration of the ideas of federalism and revolution into the working class;

That labour organization, founded upon identity of interests, does not exclude an organization founded upon identity of aspirations and ideas;

Are of the opinion that the comrades of every land should place on their agenda the creation of anarchist groups and the federation of existing groups.

The anarchist federation is an association of groups and individuals, wherein no one may impose his will, nor diminish the initiative of another. Vis-a-vis the current society, it has as its goal the alteration of all moral and economic conditions and, to that end, it supports struggle by all appropriate means. [The Vobryzek-Malatesta addendum]”

At the time, this was seen by anarchists as a significant achievement, one which slew the dragon of “anarchist individualism” or the idea, touted by especially social democratic political opponents, that “anarchists couldn’t organise a piss up in a brewery”. Anarchists could, so it was now asserted, organise themselves and it was no longer a matter of dislocated, random elements ineffectually rambling through life. Some political and social organisation could, they now thought, be brought to bear.

But this is not to say that there was no “jockeying for position” going on at the congress. The syndicalists there made a strong play for the power of the union to be the thing which was the revolutionary force in people’s lives, the actual movement for change. Others, however [such as Malatesta], were keen to make sure that it was being “revolutionary” and not just serving itself. He urged that it required more than unions for the anarchist revolution to occur, it required general insurrection. Malatesta wanted to remind the syndicalists that Anarchy was the end they were working for rather than the more minimalist worker-controlled paradise he seems to fear the syndicalists hoped for instead, something that was the mere consolidation of their position in society. This “jockeying” is also shown in that Emma Goldman also moved a resolution in favour of “acts of revolt by individual and whole mass alike.” This, of course, is open to a number of interpretations — as an endorsement of individual or terrorist attentats, for example, or indeed, insurrectionist movements [which is to say, that damaging old propaganda by the deed which Goldman and Berkman had themselves carried out]. This motion was passed unanimously by the congress without a debate as the congress attendees were becoming pushed for time. Yet it shows that, in their discussions about “organisation”, seemingly random acts of almost any kind by whoever felt motivated to carry them out — individual or self-made grouping — was not something that was so beyond the pail that it could not just be waved through due to a need to finish the congress program on time.

We now move forward from this international congress of anarchists about two decades. The year is 1926 and two Ukrainians in exile, Nestor Makhno and Piotr Arshinov, have been joined by some other “Russians in exile” [the exile was largely in Paris and was, of course, a result of the Bolshevik revolution headed by Lenin] in writing what they regard as a necessarily “organizational platform” for all anarchists everywhere [their Platform includes a requirement for a “General Union of Anarchists”]. They did this as part of a grouping called “Dyelo Truda” — [“The Cause of Labour”] which, in the course of its existence, produced many interesting studies and analyses of the political and social situation of the time with an emphasis on what needed to be done about it, organisationally speaking, of which the Platform was the crowning achievement and actually, as Skirda himself notes, something of a watershed moment — a point of decision — in anarchist thinking in that original, classical period of anarchist organising [or lack of it]. This Platform, regardless of your attitude towards its contents, was actually light years ahead of the ideas expressed at the congress almost 20 years previously and required organisation as a necessity as opposed to the wishy-washy, amended text of Dunois’ motion. Makhno, Arshinov and their comrades were serious about organisation [naturally enough, being veterans of fighting actual Bolsheviks in their homeland in a real war before they had to flee for their lives] and there was to be no concession to “individualism”.

We may speculate, as indeed Errico Malatesta would when he, now under house arrest in Italy by Benito Mussolini’s fascist forces, heard about the Platform, that the comrades behind it had [naturally enough] become obsessed with fighting Bolshevism and, being in “war mode”, conceived of themselves as their own revolutionary army and so wished to organise the anarchists as an army too. Certainly here there is nothing about individual expression or free association. One, in fact, might almost imagine these, in this context, as the bourgeois concerns of non-revolutionary people. But the Platformists, as they would come to be known, were revolutionary people and actual political revolution was the whole point of their organising. Skirda tells us that “The novelty in the approach of the Dyelo Truda group lay in its aspiration to ‘organize the ideological influence of anarchism over the masses, not as a weak and intermittent factor, but as a constant in the workers’ social revolutionary struggle’.” They would, in fact, go on to conceive of a “Libertarian Communist Party”, something Skirda explains in this way:

“the authors of the Platform started from the fact of the multiplicity of contradictory tendencies in anarchism, not in order to set themselves the task of blending them all into one, which is absolutely impossible, but in order to make an ideological and political selection of anarchism’s homogeneous forces and at the same time differentiate themselves from anarchism’s chaotic, petit-bourgeois (liberal) and rootless elements. That selection, as well as the differentiation, could only be effected through the union of all theoretically homogeneous anarchists into one revolutionary political collective, in a General Union of Anarchists, or, to be more specific, in a Libertarian Communist Party which, as we see it, amounts to the same thing.”

Skirda is using some words from Arshinov there, a man previously commissioned by Makhno to write a history of anarchism and who acted as the secretary of the group Dyelo Truda. It is his signature on the opening section of the Platform which led many to think of it as his for a time. We can see from the quote of Skirda utilising the ideas of Arshinov that the Platformists saw themselves as those sorting out the organisational wheat from the individualist chaff, conceiving of their proposed grouping as those who were actually serious about anarchist action in a revolutionary direction which could free the working masses. They saw anarchism distinctively as an ideology of the working classes and its purpose, necessarily, as a revolutionary practice which would liberate them — something, in their thinking, anarchists were actually supposed to be active in the pursuit of. In addition, again utilising Skirda’s analysis, their thinking was that “The chief reason for the anarchist movement’s lack of success was the ‘absence of firm principles and consistent organizational practice.’ Anarchism had to ‘marshall its forces into an active general organization, as required by reality and the strategy of the social struggle of the classes,’ which was in tune with the Bakuninist tradition and the wishes of Kropotkin.”

Thus, we can see the direction the Platform was taking in regard to anarchist organising and this was later set out at a meeting held in Paris for international anarchists [it was cut short by a police raid indicating there was possibly a snitch in the ranks] at which the following 5 points were put forward in a proposal:

1. Recognise the class struggle as the most important facet of the anarchist idea;

2. Recognise Anarchist-Communism as the basis of the movement;

3. Recognise syndicalism as a principal method of struggle;

4. Recognise the need for a ‘General Union of Anarchists’ based on ideological and tactical unity and collective responsibility;

5. Recognise the need for a positive programme to realise the social revolution.

The police raid foiled these ideas being adopted [and led to the threat of Makhno being deported from France] and, thereafter, the Platform itself would fail to be adopted internationally as its backers had hoped, various anarchists, in turn, picking various faults with it and doubting its truly anarchist credentials. One sticking point of note was its emphasis on ideological and collective unity which was regarded as a requirement rather than merely something hoped for or desired. However, it did go on to become a reference document for anarchists not just of “Russian” extraction nor merely even in France. Even today, in fact, the Platform itself, as a document, is regarded by various anarchist groupings as a reference point since it is, in many ways, the high water mark of classical anarchist organisational thought. Here, as Skirda notes:

“the authors of the Platform themselves stated that they had invented nothing new, and [had] merely taken on board the movement’s accumulated ideas and real-life experiences. We ourselves have seen that Bakunin had already dreamt of a specific organization with ‘unity of thought and action,’ which is to say, a collective method of action, and ‘ongoing fraternal supervision of each by all,’ equivalent to the Platform’s notion of ‘collective responsibility.‘ For anyone with sufficient knowledge of the movement’s history, the kinship between the Platform and Bakunin’s Brotherhoods ought to have been obvious and beyond discussion.”

The “Organisational Platform of the General Union of Anarchists” [to give the document its full title] actually begins in the following way:

“It is very significant that, in spite of the strength and incontestably positive character of libertarian ideas, and in spite of the forthrightness and integrity of anarchist positions in the facing up to the social revolution, and finally the heroism and innumerable sacrifices borne by the anarchists in the struggle for libertarian communism, the anarchist movement remains weak despite everything, and has appeared, very often, in the history of working class struggles as a small event, an episode, and not an important factor.

This contradiction between the positive and incontestable substance of libertarian ideas, and the miserable state in which the anarchist movement vegetates, has its explanation in a number of causes, of which the most important, the principal, is the absence of organisational principles and practices in the anarchist movement.”

We can see, then, that even in its opening paragraphs the document takes aim at a perceived weakness in anarchism thought of as an overarching movement and diagnoses “organisational principles and practices” as the cure. From there, in its “general section”, it goes on to argue that “there is no one single humanity” but that the class differentiation of “proletarian” and “bourgeoisie” is baked into “capitalist society”. The anarchism of the document is, therefore, a class struggle anarchism and, due to the situation of these classes in regard to each other, this necessitates “a violent social revolution”. This, in fact, is “the only way to transform capitalist society into a society of free workers”. It is at this point that the authors wish to make it clear that anarchism itself is not the bright idea of one or more enlightened thinkers, an intellectual gift they bestow on the masses, but that anarchism actually comes from the workers’ struggle itself. As they say:

“The class struggle created by the enslavement of workers and their aspirations to liberty gave birth, in the oppression, to the idea of anarchism: the idea of the total negation of a social system based on the principles of classes and the State, and its replacement by a free non-statist society of workers under self-management. So anarchism does not derive from the abstract reflections of an intellectual or a philosopher, but from the direct struggle of workers against capitalism, from the needs and necessities of the workers, from their aspirations to liberty and equality, aspirations which become particularly alive in the best heroic period of the life and struggle of the working masses. The outstanding anarchist thinkers, Bakunin, Kropotkin and others, did not invent the idea of anarchism, but, having discovered it in the masses, simply helped by the strength of their thought and knowledge to specify and spread it.”

A further line is emphatic in this regard: “Anarchism is not the result of personal efforts nor the object of individual researches.” This can only be received as a slap down of all those who imagined that such a thing as anarchism can be carried on in private or with a personal point of reference. The guiding mentality here is “collective” as in when, later on, the document says “Action by anarchists can be divided into two periods, that before the revolution, and that during the revolution. In both, anarchists can only fulfil their role as an organised force if they have a clear conception of the objectives of their struggle and the roads leading to the realisation of these objectives.” Anarchists are here thought of as “an organised force” and certainly not as autonomists with powers of free association [as someone like Armand might have thought of them]. The Platformists imagine “the rigorous principles of class struggle” and seem a whole lot more theoretically interested than some anarchists would be. They talk of anarchism as a “theoretical driving force” in a way analogous [inevitably] to Marxism and so it comes to seem, reading the document, as if it is a [class] war of ideologies that is envisaged. “The theoretical and practical duties of th[e] collective are considerable at the time of the revolution”, they declare. This, in fact, is the “anarchism of a plan” that I have spoken against before in Being Human and so readers should not imagine that, for all its salient points, it is something that I ultimately support myself. No one, in fact, who has read that book — or even this book up to this point — would imagine that the anarchism I speak in favour of is about things such as the following, taken from the Platform:

“in view of the necessities imposed by military strategy and also the strategy of the counter-revolution the armed forces of the revolution should inevitably be based on a general revolutionary army with a common command and plan of operations. The following principles form the basis of this army.’ 1. the class character of the army; 2. voluntary service (all coercion will be completely excluded from the work of defending the revolution); 3. free revolutionary discipline (self-discipline) (voluntary service and revolutionary self-discipline are perfectly compatible, and give the revolutionary army greater morale than any army of the state); 4. the total submission of the revolutionary army to the masses of the workers and peasants as represented by the worker and peasant organisations common throughout the country, established by the masses in the controlling sectors of economic and social life.”

We can see here that the writers of the Platform are expending great effort to make all this seem as “voluntary” and “without coercion” as possible but they have already made it abundantly clear throughout the Platform what all this is about and it isn’t personal autonomy and free association — nor even differing analyses of the situation or alternative ideas about how to approach it. Whereas someone like Goldman at the Anarchist Congress in Amsterdam had wanted to secure an amendment putting individual action on a par with the collective, there is absolutely no thought of that here. The Platform both defines the context of the struggle and what actions are legitimate in pursuance of it. When one imagines the ideological situation as a war in which your side [referred to as “the revolutionary forces of anarchism”] either wins or loses, it automatically shapes the debate in ways which freeze out other ways of conceiving of it. Thus, we see in the Platform’s “organisational section” that the key items of the proposed “General Union of Anarchists” [later to also be referred to as the “Libertarian Communist Party”] are “Theoretical Unity”, “Tactical Unity or the Collective Method of Action”, “Collective Responsibility” and “Federalism”. It is not hard to see in this a military arrangement. Individual or personal responsibility is, in fact, expressly denied under this arrangement under the third rubric when the document states that “The practice of acting on one’s personal responsibility should be decisively condemned and rejected in the ranks of the anarchist movement. The areas of revolutionary life, social and political, are above all profoundly collective by nature. Social revolutionary activity in these areas cannot be based on the personal responsibility of individual militants.” This would become a huge bone of contention with the document’s critics.

Skirda, however, suggests: “That was what the Platform was about. An organization united on its theory and tactics (a party) would deliver our movement from all glaring contradictions, (internal and external alike), which put the workers off, demonstrate the potency of libertarian communism’s ideas and tactics and, without question, rally around itself the revolutionary element of the peasantry and working class. Finally, those who did not see eye to eye with this approach and thinking could come up with their own, so that the alternative might be made known.” Skirda, in fact, clearly a pro-organisationalist himself in his analysis, argues that the Platform: “argued for the elaboration of a coherent theory and resultant cohesion in action: that necessarily involved the devising of a libertarian communist program and a consistent policy line. All of that should have been a collective undertaking and not the handiwork of a few recognized leaders or chiefs. In fact, it amounted to a reversion to the Bakuninist traditions of the Alliance and the Brotherhoods, illuminated by the first hand militant historical experiences of the document’s authors.” Skirda suggests that its detractors were then suffering from more “Marx Syndrome” if not, in this case, “Lenin Syndrome”, although it is a reasonable criticism of the Platform that the apparent success of Bolshevism — sometimes to the detriment of anarchist forces such as those of Makhno in Ukraine and the sailors of Kronstadt — is an obvious motivation for its existence and a constant presence in the text. But did this push the text’s authors too far away from what others thought of as anarchism to begin with? Some certainly thought so.

One of these, as mentioned briefly already, was Errico Malatesta. In letters he exchanged with Makhno [at large intervals due to the need for translation and Malatesta’s own house arrest which included a monitoring of his communications] he praised the Platform’s “intentions” but, at the same time, described organisation as “cooperation and solidarity in practice”, something, in his mind, required of all people in society anyway. He goes on to call anarchism something whose “basic principle” is “free organisation”, something “set up and run according to the free agreement of its members without any kind of authority”. Whilst acknowledging that some anarchists dispute the necessity of organisation at all, he goes on to argue that even when such people as these need to do something requiring more than their own manpower they themselves find ways to work with others as well. Thus, the issue for Malatesta is not organisation as an idea in itself but the “means” to achieving it. But what is Malatesta’s own criterion in regard to this? It is:

“that in order to achieve their ends, anarchist organisations must, in their constitution and operation, remain in harmony with the principles of anarchism; that is, they must know how to blend the free action of individuals with the necessity and the joy of cooperation which serve to develop the awareness and initiative of their members and a means of education for the environment in which they operate and of a moral and material preparation for the future we desire.”

Does Malatesta think that the Platform meets this criterion? No, he does not. Thus he says, “Instead of arousing in anarchists a greater desire for organisation, it seems deliberately designed to reinforce the prejudice of those comrades who believe that to organise means to submit to leaders and belong to an authoritarian, centralising body that suffocates any attempt at free initiative.” Malatesta, crucially, disputes the idea that all anarchists should necessarily belong to one “general union” or party. He goes on to say that “Anarchist truth cannot and must not become the monopoly of one individual or committee; nor can it depend on the decisions of real or fictitious majorities. All that is necessary — and sufficient — is for everyone to have and to exercise the widest freedom of criticism and for each one of us to maintain their own ideas and choose for themselves their own comrades. In the last resort the facts will decide who was right.” He goes on to call the organisation the Platform calls for “a government and a Church” in which “the tendency remains authoritarian” and its educational effect is “anti-anarchist”. Without “individual independence” and “freedom of initiative and action” Malatesta does not seem to be able to conceive of the Platform as anarchist in character. Freedom and spontaneity are missing, it seems to him, and so, ultimately, the formation of such a union of anarchists, and any imagined victory in a material war it might win, would not be victories for anarchy in his thinking.

In a subsequent letter, after Makhno has replied as a man with the experience of fighting in war who argues that without collective responsibility and action any actual progress is impossible, Malatesta replies by saying “For my part, I wonder what that notion of collective responsibility can ever mean from the lips of an anarchist.” This, in fact, seems to be the heart of the difference of opinion. The Platform might work, it might be advisable in a battle, but, in the end, is it anarchism that would have won? Malatesta, in this second reply, speaks to his understanding of anarchism by saying: “What matters most is that the people, men and women, lose the sheeplike instincts and habits which thousands of years of slavery have instilled in them, and learn to think and act freely.” In his second reply, Makhno seems to despair that this kind of understanding can actually achieve anything. On one side there is the concern that whatever be propagated be an anarchism which includes free initiative whilst, on the other, is the spectre of a disabling “local individualism” which “inspire[s] no hope of any sort of practical achievement.” We have, of course, seen this divide in the anarchist history being delineated here before if, in fact, it is not actually becoming its repetitive theme. On one side organisationalists insist on cohesion for the sake of coherence and progress whilst, on the other, there are anarchists who keep insisting that anarchy without autonomy is not really anarchy at all.

The problematic of trying to triangulate anarchist principles into anarchist strategies and organisational practices on the ground is continued into the last historical episode I wish to discuss in this section of the chapter: the Spanish Civil War of 1936–1939. The immediately complicating factor here is that this was not simply a case of anarchists of any particular persuasion fighting for their own material freedom from a state but was essentially a war of fascist forces against anti-fascist forces in which anarchists of various kinds — primarily those of the anarcho-syndicalist union, the CNT, and the anarchist federation, the FAI — became implicated on the anti-fascist side. They were, however, never fighting alone as singular anarchists but had various shades of socialists, communists and others to contend with as imagined allies besides the small matter of government forces who were, nominally, on their side as well. So these anarchists were actually fighting with and for the government against the militarist fascists and nationalists, a very strange and particular situation to be in.

Inevitably, it created problems. One was that in order to be considered an anarchist militant one had to really belong to the anarcho-syndicalist CNT-FAI [especially during the war] otherwise one’s claim to be an anarchist was not taken seriously and one was not admitted into any decision-making processes. This was, then, a collective idea in these circumstances based on formal affiliation. The CNT union itself, according to Alexandre Skirda, had “around two million members” by 1936 and was an acknowledged anarchist union with the FAI, again according to Skirda, playing the Bakunin-like role of a watchman to make sure it stayed heading in the right direction. A further issue is what ideas were current with the movers and shakers of these organisations. Figures such as Buenaventura Durruti and Francisco Ascaso — who would lead an anarchist force into Barcelona at the start of the war before promptly being killed in action [in Ascaso’s case the very next day] — were those who had met Makhno earlier in their lives and you would expect men such as these to be at least interested in a document like the Platform. However, it seems that they merely noted it whilst having intentions to divert from it as evidence from another CNT-FAI official, Garcia Oliver, suggests that:

“upon the seizure of political, administrative and economic power, with the aid of its own trade unions... organizing production and distribution in the new libertarian society, [the CNT-FAI] would therefore be an insurgent non-statist power of the trade union type, operating from the periphery towards the centre and comprising of a range of federated revolutionary committees, in a sort of democratic ‘dictatorship of the proletariat,’ silencing the forces of the right, the former proprietors, the Church, etc. As a transitional authority guaranteeing revolutionary order, it would not imply a dictatorship in the ordinary sense of the word: guided by libertarian ideology (and not by Marxism, a dogmatic teaching devoid of humanistic content) it would elevate popular liberty, the initiative of the masses, and would invite other leftist organizations to cooperate in its work of regeneration.”

This activity seems to have further included “a ‘revolutionary army,’” and “ a ‘centralized trade union militia, endowed with a respected national command’” and so we can see that such intentions go some way even beyond those of the Platform.

But the story of the war, the circumstances leading up to it and the decisions made within it, are a complicated story I will have no time to go into in any detail here in a context of organisation alone. What can be said, however, is that:

“it was the rank and file, the rabble, the people, the humble folk, the dregs, whatever one prefers to call the peasants and workers of Catalonia, Levante, Aragon, Andalusia, Castile and elsewhere, that saved anarchism’s honour by taking their fate into their own hands, by organizing fantastic collectives, when even those who had never heard tell of, or were hostile to, libertarian communism, put it enthusiastically into effect here and there.”

This is the bit of the anarchist organising that those who know anything about the war are most eager to talk about, that time when those of anarchist mentality actually created something like an anarchist context for human lives [as Makhno and his Makhnovists had earlier, but less famously, attempted to do in Ukraine as well before the Bolsheviks destroyed it and chased them off]. But this is only a fragmentary view of but a few brief years, like a drawing made on a window pane quickly washed away again by a heavy downpour. Skirda notes that:

“According to Gaston Leval, there were around 1600 collectives, more or less. Each one, like each one of the little townships organized along communal lines, would deserve a book to itself... All these creative activities, these ventures, the changes to human relationships, amounted to a ‘miraculous blossoming.’ It is ‘fully cognizant of the meaning of words, without hyperbole, and with no demagogic intent that I say again: Never in the history of the world as we know it to date was a comparable social undertaking ever carried out.’ And in a few months at that, if not a few weeks or even a few days, depending upon the example.”

This, then, is the social plus of the war, the fact that anarchists actually attempted to translate anarchist ideas of human relationships into actual human living. But their context was a war of not always compatible allies against fascists and they were on the side of the government. In fact, they [i.e. the CNT-FAI leadership] actually decided to join the Spanish government in late 1936, a course of action some anarchists recoiled at in horror [i.e. Emma Goldman who, at this time, was actually working with the Spanish anarchists] but which others justified out of pragmatic necessity. Thus, even at the beginning, in anarchist strongholds such as Catalonia:

“Most of the CNT leaders opted for collaboration, that is, participation in the autonomous Catalan government. Diego Abad de Santillan, the main advocate of that option, was to explain later that his main consideration had been to procure arms, hard currency and raw materials for industry and, in order to do that, they had to withdraw their ‘backing for people’s power’.”

Such leaders opted for a “policy of anti-fascist unity” but Skirda, commenting on further events, says that:

“Like the frog who jumped into the water to escape from the rain, the CNT-FAI leaders, or at least most of them, were afraid to make the revolution, arguing that they were more concerned with winning the war first, and moved from retreat to evasion, from compromise to capitulation. The slippery slope came to its inevitable end: dissolution of the Barcelona-based Central Militias Committee, militarization of the militias, growing Stalinist influence, elimination of the POUM, dissolution of the Council of Aragon, destruction of the collectives, the May Events of 1937 in Barcelona (when the CNT leadership robbed the insurgents of their victory over the Stalinist provocateurs).”

As the war continued, the CNT-FAI leaders seemed to forget their anarchism more and more, seeing victory in the war as the important thing and regardless of means, in contravention of ideas such as those with which Malatesta had replied to Makhno regarding the Platform. In 1938, for example, Garcia Oliver:

“proposed the establishment of an Executive Committee which ‘would wield full authority, over-seeing and directing everything: the press, the confederation’s troops, the economy’.”

Further commissions were also suggested and Skirda makes no bones about calling such ideas straightforward “Bolshevism”. The same year, Horacio Prieto, General Secretary of the CNT, put off “libertarian communism” to a more opportune time, and this may be summed up by stating that:

“Libertarian communism could not be anything other than a distant objective, an aspiration, and anarchism a moral code and a philosophy. In order to arrive at that communism, a lengthy period of transition was necessary, during which libertarian achievements were possible, though not in any systematic way. We had to display opportunism, suppleness and have no hesitation about participating in government, in all high offices of state and even in Parliament with the intention of taking power. We had to engage permanently in politics rather than circumstantially as hitherto: revolutionary apoliticism was a dead duck.”

The supposed anarchists had become politicians and were more concerned with winning wars and pacifying allies than a revolutionary anarchism. Crucially, they did not seem to see living as anarchists as a way to win the war but fell back into other habits. Skirda refers to the “organizational and practical frailty of the anarchists” as something not now new to us with the recitation of this history. The war, of course, was lost and the anarchists who were left, especially if they were known figures, fled abroad to wherever they could find a new bolt hole, anarchists being the least likely Spanish refugees to find a safe haven somewhere else due to their imagined political views.


After this recitation of an overview of some salient points in the history of anarchism and its organisation it is now necessary to look at a few more modern, even contemporary, examples. It has been necessary to take this route because in order to talk about anarchism and organisation we need to make at least some survey [and, yes, such surveys will always be partial and inadequate] in order to ask how other people calling themselves anarchists have gone [or not gone] about it. In these days of the Internet and the vast proliferation of information, data and opinion on subjects of all kinds, it is not difficult to immediately find texts on anarchist organisation — from essays and pamphlets all the way up to books — online where organisational ideas are described and freely shared. I am going to look at some of these, with both a critical mind and bearing what’s already been discussed in mind as well, in this section of the chapter.

I begin with Daniel Baryon’s essay “Constructing the Revolution” [dated to September 2020] which also functions as the script of a You Tube video since Baryon is also known as the You Tuber “Anark”. Baryon disseminates anarchist education and propaganda through this channel and, in discussion with me on social media, has described himself as an anarchist organizer in his native USA of 10 years standing. I should also add at this point that Baryon has also described himself in conversations as “the most organisational anarchist you are likely to find”. Such organisational credentials are certainly demonstrated when we read this essay for, even in its preamble, Baryon talks about providing “a strategic overview”, “a concrete and actionable understanding”, creating “structures” and providing “a plan of how we will go about constructing the revolution”. Those aware of my own anarchist commitments and descriptions will no doubt now feel their Spidey senses beginning to tingle in what already seems like a plan-based attitude towards anarchism.

Baryon, however, as I have done earlier in this chapter already, does ask the “what are we organising for?” question in his “Build what?” section before he lays out his concrete ideas. Baryon’s plan is in the context of prefiguration and the ideas of “dual power” and “building the new in the shell of the old”, by now almost anarchist descriptive cliches you often see in modern anarchist texts with any pretence to coherence or academic seriousness, are further contexts for this. Baryon sees prefiguration as a project in itself and a necessary precursor to any revolution — revolution being the overarching context of the essay and the point of anarchism in Baryon’s mind.

But, in answering the “what for?” question, Baryon gives the answer “institutions”, quoting Malatesta and Makhno in support of this idea and wielding the danger of hierarchy as a spook that might inhabit the void left by any “disorganization” or the rejection of “concrete programs” in one’s practice of anarchism. Baryon offers four things that need to be built within this understanding, starting with “Councils” [which is the most important] and leading on to “Economics”, “Defense” and “Intelligence”. Here Baryon enhances his Makhnovist credentials in this section of the essay when he states that “if there is no aspect of community control, whatever is created in the other categories [that is, besides the “councils” Baryon recommends] is going to be neutralized or destroyed.” So, already, Baryon has spoken of the necessity of “institutions” and the need for “control” whilst quoting the Platformist Makhno as a context for such an understanding. He also quotes the Malatesta who warns of people popping up to take control of aimless groups in the absence of organisation — but he does not quote the Malatesta who criticized Makhno for creating — in his mind, at least — an organisational “Church and government” or the one who warned Makhno of the need to retain individual initiative in order to retain an anarchist character to one’s organising. We shall see this becomes relevant later.

So what does Baryon mean by a “council”? To avoid being accused of an inaccurate description, I shall quote him directly:

“When I use the word council I am referring to a horizontal, freely associated, directly-democratic body, which is composed of the people from some particular region, interest, identity, or profession. In these councils, all proposals are created and brought to a vote by the members, not some narrow leadership, and if the council needs to delegate someone to carry out a task, that delegation is temporary and able to be revoked by a simple majority vote at any time.”

In order to enhance the anarchist credentials of this grouping Baryon adds that the decisions of these councils “should only pass… with unanimous approval.” Baryon goes on to pronounce consensus “superior” but adds “so long as it can be used” without describing situations in which it couldn’t be used. He thinks of people organising councils in various communities [suggesting some bigger organisational plan is already present in his mind] and, consequently, argues that those wanting to set up such bodies should be modelling such a thing themselves first. He thinks of this as a kind of prefigurative group which he calls a “catalyst group” and he thinks of the councils generally as “minimum entities” that are necessary so that people can begin ordering the communities they are in. Baryon takes care here to note that these councils are not vanguards and neither are they affinity groups of like-minded people for he insists that they should, at least initially, be seen as genuine community groups of the people, regardless of politics or inclination, who actually inhabit such places — until or unless people show their distaste for, or disinterest in, such an idea, at least. The purpose of these councils, however, is to organise people towards a particular prefigurative and revolutionary end and so — in the end — you work with those who want to work towards that end if you have to — and leave the rest to go about their business.

Baryon moves on to his next section which covers “economics” and, to my mind, this is his strongest idea. After briefly discussing, and dismissing, unions as those who “negotiate with capital” — but often without the necessary revolutionary purpose in doing so — he goes on to discuss creating the actual anarchist economy we need [here “workplace cooperatives” are mentioned]. But these cooperatives are to be “held accountable to the councils” in a description which clearly inhibits the very idea of individual initiative or personal autonomy in one’s economic activity. Baryon very much conceives of a directed economy, if not exactly a controlled one, in that he imagines everyone working together to common purpose [over-producing cooperatives funnel their surplus into “existing mutual aid networks”, for example] in a structure which is, in every sense, an “organisation” or a structured society. Mutual aid is seen to have a lot to do with this [as I myself have argued in my pamphlet with Lara Nasir — Building Communities and Defeating Capitalism] and is regarded as “an increasingly real model of communism” in a way that I would strongly agree with. Yet the spectre of accountability or control hangs over it in Baryon’s description, a description which, as with the councils, is put forward rather naively as something which, seemingly, is just imagined will work and automatically progress.

Yet if councils and economic ideas such as Baryon has so far put forward were all that he had offered it would not, perhaps, be so bad, as these ideas, in themselves, are hardly extreme or bedevilled with obvious problems [for all their seeming context of someone watching over you]. But now, with “Defense”, Baryon lurches off into what some — not all — will regard as controversial territory [the ghost of the previously quoted Makhno lurking in the background?] when he advises the formation of “defense organizations” or “community defense” or “direct action security” or even “militias”. Now I don’t know the prevalence of “militias” in Baryon’s native Oklahoma [I imagine its far in advance of their existence in the UK, my own current context] but should I, or anyone else but the government, in the UK attempt to form such a thing then they will quickly find themselves doing ten year prison sentences upon discovery. This, of course, doesn’t mean they shouldn’t do this [for anarchists do not take the law as their master] but it does mean contexts are different and what can be done in Oklahoma might be somewhat more difficult in London or Stockholm or Berlin or in any other number of imaginable places. If you arm yourself, so some would legitimately say, you make yourself the target and invite unwelcome intervention. Baryon, not unreasonably, argues that the collective needs defending. He also argues they need protecting before the revolution when he says “they are also a means to keep our communities safe in the meantime”. But he needs to remind himself, in my view, that situations are different and so tactics and approaches should be as well. An armed force is not the only way to protect oneself [or even to succeed politically — as Gandhi proved for a time].

But one would not get this impression from reading this section of Baryon’s essay where “militias, as revolutionary bodies in waiting, will need to be armed and educated on the principles of military conflict, and should therefore read about military tactics and strategy, drill small unit tactics, and educate the community on its place in the larger revolutionary schema.” Baryon continues: “a truly effective revolutionary militia becomes clandestine, largely hidden away from the view of the public and planning actions of a seditious nature” before adding that “In order for the militias to carry out these necessary tasks, however, they must be able to model a structure of discipline while simultaneously avoiding the hierarchies of coercion and rejecting the cult-like brainwashing seen in standing armies.”

How one has a structure of military discipline whilst maintaining what Baryon would regard as a proper anarchist accountability is something he struggles with here and, yes, it is true to say that Baryon thinks of some defensive organisations that may not even need to be armed. But I concentrate on this particularly because, in his “Defense” section, Baryon does too. Baryon talks of militias with codes of conduct, chains of command and even “confederations of militias” in what seems to me — in all honesty — like some Oklahoman conception of a Makhnovist army. But the Makhnovists only existed because the Bolsheviks seized power and attempted to seize control of Ukraine [eventually doing so]. Baryon has confirmed to me in social media conversation that he doesn’t intend to lead an army against the US military [seemingly finding the idea bizarre to imagine] and so I’m left wondering what all this is really about apart from it being an idealist exercise in order to publish some plan for people to look at so that Baryon can be seen as an appropriately “organisational” anarchist. But questions are left begging. When is all this “defensive” activity meant to take place or to exist or to be active? If here we are talking about “prefiguration” then what exactly are “militias” prefiguring? An anarchist standing army? It may come as news to Baryon that far from every anarchist has signed up to be at permanent war — neither do they imagine anarchism to consist in a permanent state of arms or as anarchists having their own military [rightly or wrongly].

The last pillar of what Baryon imagines as “a fully functioning revolutionary confederation” is “Intelligence” — and I’m tempted to say at this point, certainly facetiously, that intelligence would be a good idea. But the intelligence Baryon means is a network of anarchist spies and intelligence gatherers in what we might, somewhat sarcastically, regard as an “Anarchist CIA”. [This is not as extreme a suggestion as it sounds when Baryon himself recommends reading US military and counterinsurgency handbooks of various kinds in his text.] Baryon imagines this cadre of people as those who pass information to both the militias and the councils as operatives of the anarchist collective and speaks of “handler, analyst, and asset” in doing so as any aficionado of Jason Bourne movies would. Such people must, once again, be “held accountable” to the councils but, by now, I’m finding it very hard to take Baryon’s proposals remotely seriously [although his mentioning that “the Makhnovists in Ukraine used an intelligence structure” confirms all the suspicions in my head]. But then, to my mind at least, he goes and completely undermines himself when he mentions Anonymous, the hacking group, and Wikileaks, known for publishing information governments don’t want them to publish. He does this when, in an offhand description, he describes them as “much less structured and accountable compared to what we lay out here”.

The thing is, as I think about all this, these latter groups are actually operating now and, within their own terms, with some successes [as are various mutual aid groups to my knowledge] — yet precisely without all the organisation [and the kind of organisation] Baryon insists is necessary [and recalling that he regards “councils” as logically prior to the rest and pre-eminent in his thinking]. So why do we need what, for all intents and purposes, we might agree with Malatesta [in his description of Makhno’s Platform] is “a Church and government”? Between a democratic council of local individuals known to each other, a mutual aid group, a militia with military command or an intelligence agency with handlers, analysts and assets there are HUGE divides. These are not remotely the same things and their combination — which Baryon has argued is required for a structure of prefigurative anarchism — is, at a minimum, a quite complex entity. It is my intuition [but I have never asked Baryon directly to confirm] that Makhno’s conception of things is here playing a considerable background role. Whatever Baryon’s protests — and I’m sure there would be many — it seems he has gone way beyond “institutions” [which, to my mind, would be bad enough] or “organisations” here. We have people with military missions within chains of command and others with secretive intelligence tasks. It sounds very like a… State. Baryon will, of course, refer to all the mentions of democracy, consensus and accountability he has made sure to build into his text to lend it the sheen of anarchism but this doesn’t wash with me — especially when we have seen in the previous history of anarchism how autonomy and cooperative organisation were exactly the things at odds and the point of critique and decision.

Indeed, I think I am right in saying that the only mention of “autonomy” in the entirety of Baryon’s essay here is one in the context of collective — not individual — autonomy [“all of us together must take back the autonomy”]. Yet this is exactly the issue Emma Goldman raised at the International Anarchist Congress in Amsterdam in 1907 and its also the one Malatesta held over Makhno and the Platform 20 years later. Their common charge was that if you don’t allow room for individual initiative then, whatever happens, anarchism will not, because cannot, win. Does Baryon’s building of four pillars constitute an anarchist construction, then? I judge not — exactly because its about “accountability” and “control” more than its about the freedom of personal initiative [much less individual autonomy or even self-organisation — which might be regarded as the same thing]. I suggest that our praxis and our context must be anarchistic in every respect rather than regarding organisation as anarchism just because we imagine it was made using anarchistic principles and for anarchistic purposes.

So, as Malatesta rejected Makhno’s ideas, so then I reject Baryon’s — and for much the same reasons. As Malatesta, in my view rightly, points out to Makhno in his second letter about the Platform: “We are anarchists because we believe that government [any government] is an evil, and that it is not possible to gain liberty, solidarity and justice without liberty. We cannot therefore aspire to government and we must do everything possible to prevent others — classes, parties or individuals — from taking power and becoming governments” [italics mine]. Malatesta ends this same letter by saying “What matters most is that the people, men and women, lose the sheeplike instincts and habits which thousands of years of slavery have instilled in them, and learn to think and act freely.” This is what I think is missing throughout the entirety of Baryon’s certainly organisational essay, the willingness to put trust in people “thinking and acting freely” — and leaving it at that. Isn’t that what anarchism actually is? Malatesta seems to think so in the face of Makhno’s “organisational platform” and I regard this as a more authentic guide than Baryon’s misplaced, if certainly well-intentioned, organisationalism.

I turn now to Scotsman Ian McKay’s short piece “Anarchist Organisation and the Organisation of Anarchists” which is self-described as “An article from the early 1990s on ideas how the Glasgow Anarchist Group should organise itself. Rejecting both synthesis and platformist organisation, it suggests what is often called a class struggle anarchist group in the UK.” [McKay himself often publishes under the name “Anarcho” and is better known as the main author behind the Anarchist FAQ. He has been a frequent writer on anarchist subjects on both sides of the Atlantic for 2 or 3 decades.] McKay also begins with a quote from Malatesta — as Baryon had done — but this quote sees organisation as the cure for authority rather than as an example of it: “Organisation, far from creating authority, is the only cure for it and the only means whereby each of us will get used to taking an active and conscious part in collective work, and cease being passive instruments in the hands of leaders.” Added to this is a further quote from Murray Bookchin, apparent inspiration of highly lauded projects such as Rojava in NE Syria, who thinks “Contemporary anarcho-communism cannot remain a mere mood or tendency” and that it must, thus, be “well organized” and have “coherent theory”. Needless to say, Bookchin, as with Makhno in the case of Daniel Baryon, would be another figure open to the charge of restricting individual initiative but we must see how McKay takes this forward.

Under the heading “Anarchy and Organisation” McKay tells us that “Anarchism is based upon organisation. Without organisation, anarchism would remain a dream and social life would be impossible. Therefore, anarchists are only against authoritarian forms of organisation, not organisation as such.” He goes on to say that “Anarchist organisation is about empowering all, to develop ‘integral’ or whole individuals and a community that encourages individuality (not ‘individualism’) and solidarity.” This is seen as a way that “the initiative and power of the few (government) is replaced by the initiative and empowerment of all (anarchy).” In terms of a local grouping of anarchists [which seems in this case to be an affinity group of self-chosen members of people with self-admitted anarchist interests], McKay wants such a group “To consciously develop the group along (collectively) agreed lines, i.e. defining what we stand for in aims and principles, defining our ideas (in more detail) and our strategy in a programme and creating an effective anarchist group.” McKay then returns to Malatesta once again for further anarchist direction when he quotes the following:

“The anarchist organisation must, in their constitution and operation, be in harmony with the principles of anarchism, that is, they must in no way be polluted by the spirit of authoritarianism; they must be able to reconcile the free action of individuals with the need and pleasure of co-operation and help to develop the awareness and initiative of their members.”

So far, it seems to me that McKay is balancing the individual and the collective with more purpose than Baryon did in the previous example. It helps, of course, that McKay has mentioned individuals and sees them as part of the purpose of an anarchist organisation, something Baryon gave little hint of. In the situation of this Glasgow group that McKay refers to, he sees the issue as “to reconcile free action with co-operation” and this, it seems to me, is both exactly the point and something Baryon seems to have either overlooked or simply ignored. McKay, in fact, insists that “There is little point in uniting with people who do not share a common idea” whilst adding that “communities are always created by common struggle and action”. I would dispute neither of these things whilst acknowledging that McKay’s approach, in comparison with Baryon’s, gives me more assurance that members are not just subsumed under collective responsibilities in his understanding — and this even when he goes on to introduce formal “Aims and Principles”, “formalise the way the group works” and introduce “delegates and office bearers”. [McKay, significantly, thinks that individuals in the group can “pursue whatever action/propaganda/etc., they desire... as long as it d[oes] not contradict the A&Ps”.] Here it is not that any of these things are either good or bad but that how you understand these things, and what context you set them in, can make all the difference in the world between the free action of people voluntarily coming together and those on whom collective responsibilities are seemingly almost imposed. This, I think, is why we can draw differences between the organisational ideas of Malatesta and Goldman, on the one hand, and Makhno and Bookchin, on the other.

McKay’s context for his grouping is that of a group seeking working class influence in order to fan class struggle into open revolution. He thinks “a programme” is necessary for this — but in the organisational sense rather than as a dogma or doctrine. This seems mainly to be about giving some direction and movement to the group’s existence rather than allowing it to become a group that doesn’t really do anything within itself, let alone beyond itself. So its about application of ideas, resolutions of action to be undertaken, discussion of past anarchist history to learn its lessons and generating written self-descriptions of the group’s beliefs, aims and purposes. McKay here utilises the slogan “Educate, organise and liberate” and regards it as applying to both the group and the working class.

We can see here, I think, that McKay’s organisational ideas are much less complex than Baryon’s were. Baryon had wanted to create an entire apparatus whereas McKay just wants to give purpose and direction to the meetings of people who call themselves anarchists. Both here see “revolution” as their destination but one is being much more determinative about how that should be done than the other is. In addition, McKay expressly mentions on multiple occasions that group members are not limited by the decisions of the group. Minorities can defer from the decisions of majorities and individuals are free to initiate their own actions [subject to the group’s self-understandings as set out by them]. Baryon gives no hint this is possible in his understanding so this is a major difference of approach. McKay, in fact, states openly that “Diversity is strength, not a weakness” and we cannot imagine Baryon saying that.

When I was discussing mutual aid [which, incidentally, should be a major focus of anarchist organising as I stated in Building Communities and Defeating Capitalism and is an area in which I would agree with Daniel Baryon], I made mention of the Curious George Brigade and the part of their zine titled “Insurrectionary Mutual Aid”. This is quite a short document yet it says some interesting things about organisation as an activity [and what else is organisation if not an activity?]. One of these is that in a context after the Seattle [largely anti-capitalist] mobilizations of 1999 “insurrectional mutual aid” is now a valid “next phase of our resistance”. As they state in regard to such a context:

“The real strength of these mobilizations was actually in the organizing: the ability to awaken many people to the possibility of resistance to global capitalism, as well as providing a catalyst for regional and international networks. At no point did these mobilizations actually threaten to end world capitalism or seriously challenge State power or even liberate any socio-geographical territory. As anarchists, now is not the time to mourn the death of ‘anti-globe’ mobilizations, but move to the next phase of our resistance — Insurrectionary Mutual Aid.”

The Curious George Brigade define “insurrection” as “an organized rebellion” and this hints at the fact that “organisation” in such a context is really only a means of joining up the actions of multiple people — in order to multiply their effectiveness, we might quite reasonably surmise. They point out, as others have, that it is only by doing that you actually learn to do: “waiting only teaches waiting; in acting, one learns to act.” So, as McKay and Baryon, the Curious George Brigade imagine that anarchism is a matter of activity and that organisation plays its part in making this activity a reality as well as effective. They see the importance of this activity not in what authoritarian response it can stimulate but in what “paralysis of normality” it can generate and here we might bear in mind that anarchism is both the ending of the old and the replacing with the new. Any effective anarchist activity is then going to have to deal with both as Baryon rightly suggested in referring to building the new in the shell of the old. The Curious George Brigade emphasise that the State is big and lumbering and set in its ways. It fears insurrection for its ability to disrupt normality, making it seem less safe or reliable, but also for its novelty which risks waking people up to new ways of doing things. This is where mutual aid comes in as I referenced in my earlier pamphlet Building Communities and Defeating Capitalism.

Here I focus not on the mutual aid, for which see the text of the already referenced pamphlet or the chapter below on economics, but on the organisational aspects. The Curious George Brigade here emphasise the “greater need for self-sufficiency” in carrying out this activity and so its worth noting that in talking about mutual aid and organisation, as I did in that previous work, we really are talking about building communities. Communities, of course, are based on forming human relationships and this is vital to any anarchist organising, something I think of as more about such relationships than it actually is about any structures or institutions or voting procedures. Anarchists need to build links with other anarchists and with the wider communities of people [as Baryon suggested] if any progress is to be made. If they can do this then the activities they engage in, it seems to me, will quite naturally attract others to them, especially in a context of mutual aid which is directly taking on the responsibility for providing for people’s direct needs. Yet, as the Curious George Brigade warn:

“Real solidarity requires commitment, risk and preparedness. Mutual aid is a direct challenge to the government and the associated NGOs and religious institutions that monopolize ‘helping people.’ Mutual aid by necessity promotes an egalitarian relationship between individuals and groups, where charity and government aid have buttressed hierarchical relationships of dependence (at best) and oppression (more often). Through the solidarity of mutual aid, we can show our commitment to those excluded by the government emergency managers and truly reclaim the tactic of Propaganda by the Deed.”

Understood in the appropriate anarchist way, then, mutual aid is not “helping people” as liberals, governments or NGOs might imagine it. It is forming human relationships with them, relationships that go beyond the matter of an event like giving them something they need. It is a philosophy of community which anarchists must model. This takes organisation to achieve and maintain but that organisation itself begins in relationships between those prepared to work together towards a common goal. The rest is merely procedure and definitively subject to the relationships required to even imagine such a situation to begin with. These relationships are not organised procedurally so much as developed organically. Such relationships, in fact, I would argue as the basis of any anarchism, organisational or otherwise, something I will have more to say about in my next chapter covering economics.

In the context of black communities, the former Black Panther Lorenzo Kom’boa Ervin wrote his book Anarchism and the Black Revolution in part as a book about how black communities could organise on anarchist lines. Parts of this work have been taken and applied to other situations as in the case of “Community Control of the Poor Community” which is actually excerpted sections of Ervin’s book made by Zabalaza Books and applied to their own South African situation. [“Zabalaza” is isiZulu and isiXhosa for “struggle” and is the name taken by the Zabalaza Anarchist Communist Front in Johannesburg, South Africa. Zabalaza Books is part of their organisation.] Kom’boa Ervin writes here [in his original version] about the need to:

“create a dual power structure as a counter to the government, under conditions that exist now. In fact, we Anarchists believe the first step toward self-determination and the Social Revolution is black control of the black community. This means that black people must form and unify their own organisations of struggle, take control of the existing communities and all the institutions within them, and conduct a consistent fight to overcome every form of economic, political, and cultural servitude, and any system of racial and class inequality which is the product of this racist Capitalist society.”

Kom’boa Ervin begins this section of his book — titled “The Commune: Community Control of the Black Community” — with a quote from George Jackson’s Blood in My Eye which talks of “slowly provid[ing] the people with the incentive to fight by allowing them to create programs that will meet all their social, political, and economic needs”. This quotation goes on to say that “We must build a subsistence economy and a socio-political infrastructure so that we can become an example for all revolutionary people.” Kom’boa Ervin himself further suggests that “There is tremendous fighting power in the Black community, but it is not organised in a structured revolutionary way to effectively struggle and take what is due.” This is important because “Capitalism will not give up without a fight; it will be necessary to economically and politically cripple Capitalist America.” Kom’boa Ervin then suggests that “Black people should refuse to pay taxes to the government, should boycott the Capitalist corporations, should lead a Black General Strike all over the country, and should engage in an insurrection to drive the police out and win a liberated zone.” Clearly such organisation in this context is imagined as a rousing of the general populace to action to win freedom from oppressions as David Graeber had himself earlier suggested as well in this chapter.

This is thought of by Kom’boa Ervin as a “mass commune” and “The idea behind a mass commune is to create a dual power structure as a counter to the government under conditions which exist now.” We have seen this “dual power” idea before, of course, and it was also some of the logic behind what the Black Panthers did themselves beginning in the mid to late 1960s. Kom’boa Ervin thinks that “The realization of this aim means that we can build inner-city Communes, which will be centers of Black counter-power and social revolutionary culture against the white political power structures in the principal cities of the United States.” Thus, he sees the commune as “a staging ground for Black revolutionary struggle.” But Kom’boa Ervin does not simply reference the external apparatus of White power which oppresses the Black human being here; he also makes reference to the structure of thought by which the oppressor controls the oppressed from within too. So he says:

“we have also got to realize that Africans in America are not simply oppressed by force of arms, but that part of the moral authority of the state comes from the mind of the oppressed that consent to the right to be governed. As long as Black people believe that some moral or political authority of the white government has legitimacy in their lives, that they owe a duty to this nation as citizens, or even that they are responsible for their own oppression, then they cannot effectively fight back. They must free their minds of the ideas of American patriotism and begin to see themselves as a new people. This can only be accomplished under dual power, where the patriotism of the people for the state is replaced with love and support for the new Black commune. We do that by making the Commune a real thing in the day-to-day lives of ordinary people.”

In such a way, the organising of people in certain ways is actually a means to exampling alternative thinking and making it real in people’s eyes. It is easy to discuss ideas in the abstract and win a game of logic but it is a whole other thing to actually turn ideas into practices — and habitual practices, the very means of living life, at that. Kom’boa Ervin sees making ideas of liberation real in such organisational ways as essential to the task of liberation. We see him example this dual power further when he goes on to say that:

“We should establish community councils to make policy decisions and administer the affairs of the Black community. These councils would be democratic neighborhood assemblies composed of representatives elected by Black workers in various community institutions — factories, hospitals, schools — as well as delegates elected on a block basis. We must reject Black Mayors and other politicians, or government bureaucrats, as a substitute for community power. We must therefore have community control of all the institutions of the Black community instead of just letting the State decide what is good for us. Not just jobs and housing, but also full control over schools, hospitals, welfare cents, libraries, etc., must turned over to that community, because only the residents of a community have a true understanding of its needs and desires.”

It is hard to argue with such logic which, stated like this, seems both manifestly obvious and quite organic in its conception. Kom’boa Ervin has the following to say about how it would work:

“Here is an example of how it would work: we would elect a community council to supervise all schools in the Black community. We would encourage parents, students, teachers, and the community at large to work cooperatively in every phase of school administration, rather than have an authority figure like a principal and his/her uncaring bureaucratic administration run things as are done at present. The whole Black community will have to engage in a militant struggle to take over the public schools and turn them into centers of Black culture and learning. We cannot continue to depend on the racist or Black puppet school boards to do this for us.

The local council would then be federated, or joined together, on a local level to create a citywide group of councils who would run affairs in that community. The councils and other neighborhoods collectives organized for a variety of reasons would make a mass commune. This commune would be in turn federated at the regional and national level the aim being to create a national federation of Black communes, which would meet periodically in one or a number of mass assembly meetings. This federation would be composed of elected or appointed delegates representing their local commune or council. Such a national federal of communes would allow community councils from all over North America to work out common policies and speak with one voice on all matters affecting their communities or regions. It would thus have far more power than any single community council could. However, to prevent this national federation from bureaucratic usurpation of power by political factions or opportunistic leaders, elections should be held regularly and delegates would be subject to recall at any time for misconduct, so that they remain under the control of the local communities they represent.

The Black community councils are really a type of grassroots movement made up of all the social formations of our people, the block and neighborhood committees, Labor, student and youth groups, (even the church, to a limited degree), social activist groups, and others to unite the various protest actions around a common program of struggle for this period. The campaigns for this period must utilize the tactics of direct mass action, as it is very important that the people themselves must realize a sense of their organized power. These grassroots associations will provide to the usually mass spontaneous actions, a form of organization whose social base is of the Black working class, instead of the usual Black middle class mis-leadership.”

This is now a fairly standard script on how such things might work which I commonly hear or read about from black and other anarchist organisations in regard to an imagined future anarchist situation in America. [For example, Black Socialists in America, a prominent black revolutionary organisation, essentially say similar things.] We might call this, then, the current “anarchist common sense” — at least if these anarchists are of the socialist or communist type in the USA. Such communities not only provide for the needs of those within them along non-authoritarian and non-capitalist lines but they also do service as places of counterculture. As Kom’boa Ervin says in his context: “It is the new lifestyle in microcosm, which contains the new Black social values and the new communal organizations, and institutions, which will become the sociopolitical infrastructure of the free society.”

If Kom’boa Ervin’s comments refer to a new form of social and political organisation coming from out of the old, a seed planted in the decay of what is passing away to form new growth, then the Black Flag Catalyst Revolt Guide [a book referenced and recommended by Baryon in his essay and one that clearly influences his own thinking] is more a collection of ideas about “protest”, “street medicine”, “militant tactics”, “organizing direct action” [including mutual aid], “organizer tactics”, the mental health of those engaged in anti-authoritarian and anti-capitalist actions and “protest democracy”. In an appendix it also includes examples of documentation which can serve as codes of conduct or “social contracts” for how those involved in such actions might organise their relationships with one another and decide on how things shall go between them and because of them. This very much follows on from the sections of the book on protest democracy which offer strong and weak consensus models based on the recognition that “The state has become very good at suppressing leaders and infiltrating hierarchical structures. It is much harder, however, for the state to infiltrate flatter and more democratic bodies.” Here we find reference to the “councils” of which Daniel Baryon became so fond as well as to other kinds of “assemblies” and “tribunals”. But the introduction to this collection of resources, especially when explicitly compared with Baryon’s essay and its language and tone, is instructive:

“The following resource is intended to be a guide for those who wish to carry out concerted political action and includes tactics for both militant and pacifistic direct action, organizing, creating assemblies, and even some introductory aspects of being a street medic. The goal of this guide is to compile the knowledge from the various insurrections across the planet and turn them into a single resource which can be given to anyone and to inform that person on their place in the broader schema.

For this reason, we will include both peaceful and non-peaceful tactics within this guide. If we are to learn from the successful movements of the past, we can see that all successful pressure has been the collusion of the peaceful and non-peaceful aspects of the movement, such that the peaceful party can lobby the state to concede, saying to them “now see? Wouldn’t you rather deal with me than them? Sit down and make some concessions to those suffering people.” Meanwhile, the non-peaceful protesters escalate the aggression of their actions such as to put a clock on the state. Direct action should therefore not be seen as a chaotic by-product to be avoided. It should instead be seen as a necessity to extract outcomes for the movement. Ultimately, if the demands of the protests are not met, revolution should be the threat. In this way, we are to transform the state to our whims, not vice versa. And if it does not concede, we will have built the bodies of prefiguration that will be prepared to replace it.”

The Black Flag catalyst group immediately seem to stand out as more accepting of pacifist means than Baryon had done in his essay. From an organisational aspect this is important for if we are to be those who respect individual autonomy then we have to realise — for good or ill — that there will probably always be those who don’t want to use violence. Black Flag catalyst group here seem to suggest there is a place for the activities of such people within the whole that will be “the anarchists” in a way that Baryon, as a minimum, de-emphasized. It also seems to me that this document is offered as resources to be taken up and used, or modified, as you find necessary in your own situation. It is not a programme to be imposed nor even a dogma to be slavishly followed. Most of the advice is practical and even the bureaucratic information towards the end of the book and in the appendix is “recommendation” rather than doctrine. A key part of this, however, as Baryon also emphasized, is the aspect of prefiguration. Black Flag recognise, as Baryon had too, that we must model what would come after now in the present if we would see that future actually begin to occur. This includes all the procedural and membership information this book also includes which even goes into detail about how meetings of group members should be held, what the group is for, voting procedures, grievance procedures and a “social contract” for membership of any autonomous zone formed. This section also gets into the “security” concerns with which Baryon was earlier so interested. From my perspective this is all useful to have and to take in but nothing about any of it should be set in stone. Anarchist organisation is self-organisation.

The final document I’m considering here is Social Anarchism and Organisation, a document prepared by the Federação Anarquista do Rio de Janeiro [FARJ] which was “approved at the 1st FARJ Congress, held on 30th and 31st of August 2008.” This was the result of five years of “debate” within this Brazilian organisation which “reflects the conclusions realised after five years of practical application of anarchism in the social struggles of our people.” As such, the document goes into the context of anarchists in Brazil, its context in class struggle and a socio-political context, capitalism and the State, what they refer to as the “Specific Anarchist Organisation [SAO]” which is an organisation of anarchists which “gives anarchists the chance to put themselves at the... service” of “exploited classes” and which they go into in various aspects of necessary behaviour and, finally, “Especifismo”, an originally Uruguayan anarchist concept which FARJ say “refers to a conception of anarchist organisation that has two fundamental axes: organisation and social work/insertion.” It is worth unpacking all this a little more, especially as this is done quite holistically by FARJ and not in any random or ad hoc way.

First, it is worth saying that this document is perhaps one of the best set out documents in regard to anarchist organisation, not only in Latin America but in the world. Whether you agree with its contents or not [and its hard to disagree with its principles and ideas in general even if they are not to your taste] I would recommend that you read it for an example of organisational anarchism set out clearly, concisely and with some intellectual weight. Although thoroughly modern and very specific to one anarchist grouping and its own deliberations, the document grounds itself and the practices it recommends completely in the thought of anarchist forebears such as Proudhon, Bakunin, Kropotkin, Malatesta, Fabbri, Ricardo Flores Magon and others. This is no randomly thrown together document but the product of multiple years of thought, completely situated in a history of anarchist organising and then applied to a particular place and time.

The document itself “advocates a conception of anarchism that divides anarchist activity into two levels of activity — the social (social or ‘mass’ movement) and political (specific anarchist organisation) — arguing that this dual-organisationalist approach to anarchist organisation is consistent with, and can be traced back to the ideas and practices of, Bakunin himself in the Alliance of Socialist Democracy” — as the English translator of an originally Portuguese text puts it [and which we saw above when covering Alexandre Skirda’s appraisal of Bakunin]. Thereafter, “the FARJ advocates the need for a specific anarchist organisation — tightly organised, comprising highly committed militants sharing high levels of theoretical and strategic unity — that, through participating in and supporting popular movements and struggles against exploitation and domination, seeks to influence these movements with anarchist principles and in a revolutionary and libertarian direction.” Here the FARJ is “seeking to increase the social influence of anarchism [and so] re-asserts the need for anarchism to come increasingly into contact with the exploited classes, thus identifying the class struggle as the most important and fertile terrain in which to attempt to spread anarchist principles and practices.”

This, as suggested by the FARJ themselves, Is something with the particular flavour of a Bakuninite anarchist organisation in that it perceives the need for mass engagement and organisation together with more concerted actions by a political grouping at the political level [we might also compare the thoughts of Amedee Dunois discussed in relation to the International Anarchist Congress in Amsterdam above in this respect]. Here the FARJ’s understanding of anarchism is pertinent:

“Anarchism is, for us, an ideology; this being a set of ideas, motivations, aspirations, values, a structure or system of concepts that has a direct connection with action — that which we call political practice. Ideology requires the formulation of final objectives (long term, future perspectives), the interpretation of the reality in which we live and a more or less approximate prognosis about the transformation of this reality. From this analysis ideology is not a set of abstract values and ideas, dissociated from practice with a purely reflective character, but rather a system of concepts that exist in the way in which it is conceived together with practice and returns to it. Thus, ideology requires voluntary and conscious action with the objective of imprinting the desire for social transformation on society.”

Noticeable here is how the FARJ link “ideology” and “action” in which there is “direct connection” between the two. It is, thus, no surprise when we read the following shortly after this:

“For us social anarchism is a type of anarchism that, as an ideology, seeks to be a tool of social movements and the popular organisation with the objective of overthrowing capitalism and the state and of building libertarian socialism — self- managed and federalist. To this end it promotes the organised return of anarchists to the class struggle, with the goal of recapturing what we call the social vector of anarchism. We believe that it is among the exploited classes — the main victims of capitalism — that anarchism is able to flourish.”

For the FARJ, then, it is not simply a matter of an anarchist elite pursuing their anarchism regardless of anybody else. It is also [and non-negotiably] a matter of “the exploited classes” and inspiring their own emancipation in a “class struggle” conception of anarchism. Here the “social vector of anarchism” which “began at the beginning of the 1890s, driven by a growth in the social insertion of anarchism in the unions” plays a large part in their thinking and this “social vector” is something they look to recover. This social vector need not be anarchist itself, however, as they go on to further explain:

“We call the social vector of anarchism those popular movements that have a significant anarchist influence — primarily with regard to their practical aspects — irrespective of the sectors in which they occur. These mobilisations, fruits of the class struggle, are not anarchist as they are organised around questions of specific demands. For example, in a union, the workers struggle for better salaries; in a homeless movement, they struggle for housing; in an unemployed movement, they struggle for work, etc. However, they are spaces for the social insertion of anarchism that, by means of its influence, confers on the most combative and autonomous practical movements with the use of direct action and direct democracy, aiming at social transformation. The mobilisations constituted in the social vector of anarchism are made within the social movements, considered by us as preferred spaces for social work and accumulation, and not as a mass to be directed.”

This might then be seen as anarchists “poking their nose in” to various naturally occurring social disputes or situations to influence them through anarchist ideas in order to come to anarchist conclusions. In this way, so it is thought, anarchists can be involved in real social issues in social situations and so take part in the world as it actually is — to imagined anarchist effect. [The anarchists go to the exploited classes rather than expecting the exploited classes to come to them.] As the FARJ later say in the text, in partial justification of their approach, “Malatesta argued for the need for two levels of activity: one politically anarchist, and the other social, within the union, which would be the means of insertion.” The FARJ, in fact, define themselves as a militant organisation and see militancy [i.e. acting with revolutionary purpose] as the very reason for their existence. Thus, they say that “All of our actual reflection aims to think of a strategic model of organisation that enables a recovery of the social vector, in that this points to our objective of overcoming capitalism, the state and for the establishment of libertarian socialism. What we seek, in this context, is only a station in the struggle: as we emphasised at our foundation: ‘Here we present the FARJ, without asking for anything other than a fighting station, lest righteous and profoundly beautiful dreams die’.” Consequently, the FARJ’s material enemies they see as the State and capitalism, which are, for them, “the foundations of our society of domination and exploitation, constituting ‘for all the countries of the civilised world, a single universal problem’” [quoting Bakunin].

In this, if we ask what the FARJ want [our important “what are we organising for?” question] the FARJ are ready with their answer: “we affirm two objectives that we understand as final: the social revolution and libertarian socialism. The objective of the social revolution is to destroy the society of exploitation and domination. Libertarian socialism is that which gives constructive meaning to the social revolution. Together, the destruction — as a concept of negation — and the construction — as a concept of proposition — constitute the possible and effective social transformation we propose.” So we can see that their goals are wide and all-encompassing for they seek to eventually change society completely, this, in turn, consequent on destroying what came before, their current capitalist and statist circumstances. This “social revolution is accomplished by the people of the cities and countryside who bring the class struggle and its correlation of forces with capitalism and the state to the limit, by means of popular organisation.” The construction of such a popular organisation “will develop the spirit of struggle and organisation in the exploited classes, seeking the accumulation of social force and incorporating within it the means to struggle in accordance with the society that we wish to build.”

Here, however, we see a need for education to be going on for “A culture of self-management and federalism should already be well developed in the class struggles so that the people, at the revolutionary moment, do not allow themselves to be oppressed by authoritarian opportunists; and this will be through class-based practices of autonomy, combativeness, direct action and direct democracy. The more these values exist in the popular organisation, the less will be the possibility for constituting new tyrannies.” This sounds like education of the anarchist group into authentically anarchist ways but also their dissemination to the exploited classes as well in order that, should a point of revolution be reached, they are educated enough to realise what is being offered to them instead of the status quo. This, however, is to be strongly contrasted with a Marxist conception of things based on state direction. And so:

“When we treat our conception of social revolution, or even when we think of a possible future society, we want to make clear that we do not seek to determine beforehand, absolutely, how the revolutionary process or even libertarian socialism will occur. We know that there is no way to predict when this transformation will take place, and therefore any reflections must always consider this aspect of strategic projection of future possibilities from the point of possibilities, of references, and not of absolute certainties. The characteristics of the revolutionary process depend on when and where it occurs.”

This, however, does not mean that the FARJ eschew having specific ideas. For example, in an economic context, “Councils are social bodies, vehicles through which the people express their political and economic preferences and exercise self-management and federalism. In them daily political and economic activities are decided and carried out.” Further, they maintain that: “The goal in libertarian socialist remuneration is that it be guided by the communist principle ‘from each according to their ability, to each according to their need’. However, we understand that to implement this principle libertarian socialism should already be in full function, with production in abundance. Until this is possible, remuneration can be done according to work, or effort — this being understood as personal sacrifice for the collective benefit.”

In talking about organisation the FARJ are answering the question “how do we think we can leave where we are and arrive where we want to be?”. On this they say:

“For us, the social transformation we want to take place passes, necessarily, through the construction of the popular organisation, through the progressive increase in its social force until the moment at which it would be possible to overthrow capitalism and the state with social revolution and open the way to libertarian socialism. Furthermore, we argue that the popular organisation must be accompanied by a parallel development of the specific anarchist organisation, which should influence it, giving to it the desired character.”

Explicitly necessary for this is “organisation” and “the progressive growth of social force”. In fact, the FARJ argue this in the text as one leading to the other in that “in order to attain our objectives we advocate active and articulated resistance which seeks in organisation the permanent increase of social force.” What’s more, so they say:

“We can say that ‘whoever doesn’t organise themselves, who doesn’t seek the cooperation of others and does not offer theirs under conditions of reciprocity and solidarity, puts themselves necessarily in a state of inferiority and remains an unconscious gear in the social mechanism that others operate in their way, and to their advantage’ [Malatesta]. Disorganisation, poor organisation and isolation, in fact, end up supporting capitalism and the state — seeing as though they do not allow for the construction of the necessary social force. By not taking part, in an appropriate manner, in the relation of force or the permanent conflict of society you end up reproducing ‘order’. Thus, if we do not seek well articulated organisation and association we will end up not managing to exercise any influence in struggles, and consequently in today’s society.”

As much as this text is an argument for specific forms of organisation, then, it is, perhaps even more so, an argument for organisation at all as the only realistic means to social and political achievements of anarchist meaning and worth. As they quote Malatesta further on this: “the age-old oppression of the masses by a small number of privileged people has always been the consequence of the inability of most individuals to put themselves in agreement and organise themselves with other workers for the production, enjoyment and eventual defence against those that want to exploit and oppress them.” Thus: “to be able to carry out our project of social transformation association is fundamental because it is through it, and only through it, that we will be able to accumulate the social force necessary to overthrow capitalism and the state” and “it will be the permanent increase of the social force of the organisation of the exploited classes that will be able to provide the desired social transformation,” or, “In other words, the whole category of the exploited classes must be mobilised in this model of organisation.” The FARJ do not set themselves small tasks!

What they also have besides these tasks, however, is strategic beliefs. One of these is that social movements should not be ideologically based. Therefore:

“We do not believe in anarchist, Marxist or social-democratic social movements, or those of any other specific ideology. Therefore, people from the most diverse ideologies must ‘fit’ in the social movements that we are prepared to create or develop. For us, an anarchist social movement, or one of any other ideology, would only tend to split the class of the exploited, or even those that are interested in struggling for a particular cause. That is, the force that must drive the creation and the development of social movements is necessity, and not ideology.”

But that does not mean we leave anarchism out of such matters entirely because “Although we believe that social movements should not [be made to] fit within anarchism, we think that anarchism must, as far as possible, be spread within social movements.” Further to this point, the FARJ take the view that, even though various anarchists may have strongly anti-clericalist or anti-church views, those of religious beliefs should not be dissuaded from joining in. It has, in fact, been noted many times that those of indigenous backgrounds, as well as many in the exploited classes, may hold religious beliefs of various kinds. The FARJ’s strategy here is to leave them be to continue to hold them rather than making their disavowal a criterion of social action. The struggle, so they seem to think, needs all the social force it can get and arbitrarily disallowing some from contributing due to their religious beliefs would be an own goal. Therefore:

“Many people in the exploited classes hold religious beliefs and it is possible to work with this question within the movements, without impeding these people from struggling. There are many progressive religious groups in the social movements, which are part of the broad camp of the left and with which there is a possibility to work. Social movements ‘must seek a common basis, a series of simple principles on which all workers, whatever may be [their political and religious choices], being at least serious workers, that is, severely exploited and suffered men, are and must be in agreement’ [quoting Bakunin].”

In the struggle the FARJ think of “autonomy” as an organisational thing rather than as the absence of organisation. Indeed, conceiving autonomy as in opposition to organisation they see as a means to allowing new leaders and their oppressions in by the back door. Organisation, then, they see in the same sense as Malatesta who thought of organisation as the means to making domination and exploitation impossible rather than as new versions of the same. Thus, “In this way social movements do not entrust their action to politicians but perform it on their own accord [autonomy and organisation going together], putting into practice the motto of the IWMA that ‘the emancipation of the workers will be the task of the workers themselves’.” It is this understanding of organisation as self-organisation which in fact allows the ideas of autonomy and organisation to be combined to begin with. Direct action and direct democracy are then both ways of carrying out this organisation understood [and practised] as self-organisation.

A few words now about the FARJ conception of the “special anarchist organisation”. This is:

“the grouping of anarchist individuals who, through their own will and free agreement, work together with well-defined objectives. For this it uses forms and means in order that these objectives are achieved, or that, at least, it proceeds towards them. Thus, we can consider the anarchist organisation as ‘[...] the set of individuals who have a common objective and strive to achieve it; it is natural that they understand each other, join their forces, share the work and take all measures suitable for this task’ [quoting Malatesta]. Through the anarchist organisation anarchists articulate themselves at the political and ideological level, in order to put into practice revolutionary politics and to devise the means — the way of working — that should point to the final objectives: social revolution and libertarian socialism.”

Such a group then “performs social work in the midst of the class struggle, seeking social insertion which takes shape from the moment that the anarchist organisation manages to influence the social movements with which it works.” In fact, the FARJ define this further, listing the special anarchist organisation’s tasks as:

Social Work and Insertion

Production and Reproduction of Theory

Anarchist Propaganda

Political Education

Conception and Implementation of Strategy

Social and Political Relations

Resource Management

However, there is necessary context to this in that:

“The specific anarchist organisation, understood as a political expression of the interests of the exploited classes, does not act on their behalf and never places itself above them. It does not replace the organisation of the exploited classes, but gives anarchists the chance to put themselves at their service. In this political practice of placing itself at the service of the exploited classes the anarchist organisation is guided by a Charter of Principles. The principles are the ethical propositions and notions, both non-negotiable, that guide all political practice, providing models for anarchist action. ‘The assumption of consistency with these principles is what determines ideological authenticity pertaining to anarchism’. In our case, the Charter of Principles of 2003 defines nine principles: freedom, ethics and values, federalism, self-management, internationalism, direct action, class struggle, political practice and social insertion, and mutual aid.”

These values can be seen in much the same way as the values I have posited first in Being Human and then updated in the ethics chapter of this book in that they are values anarchists self-reflectively come to value as expressions of their anarchist principles. As should naturally be the case, they are also seen as motivating factors by the FARJ in the actions and strategy they then choose to carry out. This is carried out, however, in the context of a desired social transformation [as already mentioned above] and so:

“It is essential that the specific anarchist organisation works with a strategy. We can define strategy from the formulation of answers to three questions: 1.) Where are we? 2.) Where do we want to go? 3.) How do we think we can leave where we are and arrive at where we want to be? Strategy is, then, the theoretical formulation of a diagnosis of the present situation, the conception of the situation one wants to reach and a set of actions that will aim to transform the present situation, causing it to reach the desired situation. We can also say that ‘we understand strategy as a set of elements, united in a systematic and coherent way that points towards great final objectives [... and] unites the final objectives with the specific historical reality’.

Devising our strategy of social transformation is what we are trying to accomplish in this text. Firstly, reflecting on the first question and mapping capitalism and the state, which give body to the society of domination and exploitation, then; reflecting on the second question, trying to conceive our final objectives of social revolution and libertarian socialism. Finally, reflecting on the third question and proposing a social transformation that takes places through social movements, constituted into the popular organisation, in constant interaction with the specific anarchist organisation. All this while considering as priority the interests of the exploited classes.”

There is much more I could say about this text but due to limitations of space — in what is already a long but as yet unfinished chapter — I shall have to leave it there. I can only add to what I have already written about it by way of description that you should seek out and read this text for yourself as a modern and coherent example of anarchism and organisation understood together as a means to engage with society in a revolutionary way and with revolutionary aims. As an example of that, it is outstanding.


In the preceding sections of this chapter I have tried to cover as much as I could in relation to anarchism and organisation without simply turning this into a book about that subject alone. Whilst it may seem that this has generated a lot of text, it has, in fact, barely scratched the surface. One can make the case for anarchism primarily being about several things [I myself would probably argue for it as about a particular kind of ethics expressed through relationships] but it is probably the case that if one were going to do that then “organisation” would be very near the top of the list. This is because if we imagine anarchism is about mitigating authority in human societies then how those same societies are organised is going to be one of the primary ways to achieve it.

I am myself very open to this understanding of anarchist organisation, one which takes seriously Malatesta’s idea that we change our societies for the better by means of their organisation. Indeed, I would go further and say that anarchist organisation is for the purpose of negating relationships of authoritarianism and replacing them with relationships of cooperation as part of an understanding of what anarchism does and what it is. But this understanding itself reveals what I think anarchist organisation should really be about: RELATIONSHIPS. This is to say that I do not think anarchist organisation is primarily about plans or institutions or processes or social contracts or anything of that order. Anarchist organisation, as I have come to understand it, is about relationships between people. If we take seriously the view expressed above, as I do, that anarchist ethics and anarchist organisation are really all of a piece, then those relationships can only be ones in which the values I outlined in my chapter on anarchist ethics are instantiated and exampled. This, I don’t think, is a strict matter of how people are organised — although I agree [for it is only common sense] that some ways of doing that will be better than others. [Multiple examples have been given in my previous sections of this chapter.] Rather, it is those values working themselves out in their expression through the construction of human relationships which only then leads to the plans and institutions and strategies and all the rest. Before we can do we have to become — albeit, and without any argument from me, we can only become by the doing.

A key thing here is that, for the anarchist, organisation is always SELF-ORGANISATION. Such a notion is at the very heart of the anarchist idea and of its operation as a means to removing domination and exploitation from society as it is constituted in relationships based on authority. So anarchist organising is not more of people with authority or power doing things for you or them directing you to do things for them. There aren’t, and can never be, any anarchist bosses — not even ones chosen by direct democracy or a 100% consensus. As Emma Goldman said, and as I hold as the irreducible minimum of any anarchy, individual autonomy is its basis, its heart and its centrepiece. So, bearing this in mind, anarchist organisation can only ever be self-organisation — us organising ourselves — for nothing else could ever respect this fact. Such self-organisation is then naturally organisation from below, most probably based on affinity, common cause, common need, etc. It seems to me that it must begin in like-minded people who want to come together to act in a horizontal understanding of their relationships and so who naturally and organically form their own communities or micro-communities — albeit that those with talents for certain things will naturally orient themselves towards the tasks that suit them best. In saying this, however, I do not mean to disparage or disdain any of the organisational ideas or strategies that I have detailed above. In fact, I recommend them all to you — both in my truncated descriptions and in their fuller descriptions in the literature from which they came. How you want to organise any grouping you decide to form — and for what purpose — will be entirely up to you — and there are plenty of ideas out there about that for you to look into. [Mutual aid groups, for example, seem most obvious as do groups for the production and dissemination of anarchist propaganda.] My point here is simply that its a matter of self-organisation and the building of relationships based on anarchist values and virtues such as I have laid out previously. In order to make the new society, you must become the new society — and do it to the end.

So anarchist organisation, I think, is in fact about “materialising” those anarchist values and virtues we cherish and hold dear. It is not, I think, about turning them into some static plan to any great extent. There is no one way to instantiate values and, in fact, part of their instantiation must always be applying them to the very specific circumstances of the time and place which, by very definition, cannot ever be precisely known in advance. This is why I view all the ideas I’ve described above as good to take note of but in no sense as dogma or doctrine. Remember: its self-organisation, we organise ourselves for good or ill. We act, as David Graeber said right back at the beginning of this chapter, as if we are already free and by means of direct action, a demonstration of the freedom we claim even as our self-organisation is too. This is the anarchist way, the way Emma Goldman talked about when she spoke of “the open defiance of, and resistance to, all laws and restrictions, economic, social and moral” which requires “integrity, self-reliance, and courage.” In short, we must build anarchist relationships of “free, independent spirits” and it is that, not this way of organising or that, which will matter in the end. Only people who are already certain kinds of people could ever be able to organise in anarchist ways which make authority impossible to begin with anyway.

To my mind, the kind of self-organised, relational organisation that I am talking about here lends itself best to small communities or affinity groups. I say this out of no doctrinal belief nor based on anthropological or other evidence. In terms of the FARJ this might be the SAO or Special Anarchist Organisation they conceive of. In terms of The Invisible Committee from an earlier chapter it might be a commune. But whatever its called it will be a group of people dedicated to living their anarchism and organising themselves to educate and propagandise for it. Self-organisation, self-education and self-responsibility is the essence of what this understanding of anarchism really is and so it can only really be authenticated in its practice as both rebellion against material and immaterial authority and the practice of a new kind of human relationships. Others may call this “dual power” or “building the new in the shell of the old” but its the same thing: its building a network of new, non-authoritarian human relationships. None of this, by the way, is anything to do with any “revolution” for, in this understanding, it is not conceded that any revolution is inevitable or that it will even ever happen. This anarchism I speak to here is an ethic that must be practised and so that shows itself materially in organisation, the two going together like hand in glove regardless of the outcome.

In this, then, we must not assume the world as it is as if that is all it could ever be. Such groups will see themselves as a possible bridge from what it is to what it could become. As Buenaventura Durruti is claimed to have said, “We carry a new world in our hearts.” Yet it must also be true that we realise that no such group, nor even a network or federation of such groups, could take all the world’s problems on its back. We cannot solve everything, change everything or even address everything in the hellscape that we see before us. Even as I write now, for example, in the UK the Metropolitan Police [which cover the Greater London area, one of the biggest cities in the world] are deluged with problems to do with how they have habitually operated over many years. They have had Nazi officers, have employed rapists and murderers and have pursued policies to entrap women in sexual relationships that lasted years in order to gather intelligence about their political activities. This is besides the random killings and thuggery of which all police are regularly guilty. Various groups, and not even always overtly anarchist ones, have stepped up to combat this increasing police violence and corruption. Copwatch programmes are now being initiated and the public are becoming more informed about the danger that the police themselves present. But even in this one single area it takes a huge amount of effort to do this. Meanwhile, people are homeless, they rely on foodbanks to eat, they worry about fuel bills and, in the UK at least, the self-inflicted wound of Brexit makes their lives more difficult to carry on with any normality. So one could, in fact, never run out of things for an anarchist group to focus on and act in regard to and the problems will always be greater than those there to resolve them.

But I then wonder if we are coming at this correctly. Is it the job of “the anarchists” to, if I may put it this way, “force their beliefs onto everybody else”? Some would see it this way. And, of course, that isn’t the job of the anarchists. But what then is “the job of the anarchists”? We are here asking the “what are we organising for?” question. I have already said, and stand by, the idea that any anarchist organisation will decide the answer to it for themselves — exactly as it is right and proper a grouping based on self-organisation should. But taking from what I have spoken about in terms of anarchist history and practice in the previous two sections of this chapter, I can say for myself that this has to be something to do with what I perceive of as a metaphor of a tree in a forest.

In an essay from my “novel” A Change of Consciousness titled “Plants / Science / Apocalypse” I referred to the phenomenon of “the intelligent plant” which was a reference to an essay in The New Yorker magazine from 2013. This essay discussed the science of plants and particularly arguments that they, in their own way, are more complex organisms [actually networks of organisms] than we might first imagine. This essay, in fact, went into discussion of the ways plants sense things, whether they have a particular “plant vocabulary” or not and what, in fact, they are doing which the unobservant human eye is not noticing about them. Such discussions finally end up discussing the proposal of “plant intelligence”, a potentially networked phenomenon. As I state in my own essay about these things, “There are, it seems, ways to define plants as exhibiting intelligent behaviour, memory and perhaps even something analogous to consciousness.” This is where my metaphor comes in for as part of that discussion is the observation that plants have chemical and biological ways of communicating with each other and even sharing resources between themselves. As I described in that previous essay:

“‘trees in a forest [are] organizing themselves into far-flung networks, using the underground web of mycorrhizal fungi which connects their roots to exchange information and even goods. This ‘wood-wide web,’ as the title of one paper put it, allows scores of trees in a forest to convey warnings of insect attacks, and also to deliver carbon, nitrogen, and water to trees in need.’ This network, which was studied, was found to have trees which ‘traded nutrients’ and could recognise ‘kin’. The study essentially argued the trees in the network were cooperating to ensure their common survival.”

Now my metaphor, of course, is that we are the trees and society is our forest. This is then, however, not about offering people the opportunity to become anarchists in some partisan way as if that alone would make a difference. What this is, in fact, is the practice of anarchism as being the good neighbour like the tree in the forest that senses need and does what it can to provide for it. Surely not every tree, or even small group of trees, will be sufficient for every possible need — each can only do so much — but it acts in whatever ways it can in a local context to support its fellows. This in a nutshell, is my answer to the huge range of problems which could easily overwhelm us. It is, it seems to me, a matter of remaining local, concerning ourselves with the communities we are in and, through the organised application of our values in action, making the difference we can make rather than worrying about the differences we can’t make. Once more, then, its about forming, and making use of, our natural, local relationships.

You see here I have the intuition, entirely down to my reading of Daoist texts, especially the Zhuangzi, that “anarchy” is not actually about our human deliberation. Looked at from this point of view even anarchist deliberation falls into the trap of wanting to gerrymander the world. Anarchism itself, looked at this way, is a coercion. And Daoism, especially in the Zhuangzi, tells us that trying to bend the world this way and that is the problem. It is that, according to this understanding, which turns the world on its head. In my recent metaphor of the tree in the forest, for example, the trees and the fungi are not interfering with each other when they act as they do; they are just being their natural selves. They do not want things to be this way and that; they just fulfil their functions and become what they are. But the question is: how could we apply such an understanding to human beings and what would it mean for organisation?

I think it means that DISorganisation has its own part to play and its why that I by no means counsel that every anarchist there ever will be MUST form themselves into some organisation, be that in a group or that they link up with federated others. [Thus, I agree with Max Stirner earlier in the chapter that we should put no deliberative hope in institutions.] The naturalistic understanding of anarchism Daoism imparts is not about dogma. Nature does not have a doctrine. What works, works, and what doesn’t, doesn’t — and often it takes trial and error to find out what that is. Trees can grow alone and trees can grow together; similarly, some animals exist in groups whilst others wander alone. Both find ways to survive. Nature has no prejudices about this and we should not have any about organisation or, indeed, anarchism either. The whole, what I call anarchy, is the happy co-existence of all these things, whatever they are, anyway. So there is no room for dogmatism or insistence that things must be so and so. There is no overall plan and I would be very dubious of the anarchist that had, or thought we needed, such a thing. Overdeterminism of our anarchist organisation can very easily slide into authoritarian areas again under the guise of “discipline” or “collectivity” neither of which are necessarily appropriate to a properly anarchist mentality of horizontalism and consent which always comes from an autonomous below. As Malatesta tried to remind Makhno, there is no point in “winning” if it isn’t anarchism that wins in the end.

And so I end this chapter by saying as I said before: you must model the values of anarchism and you must do it to the end. What else can an anarchist do? Take seriously the idea that the anarchist wins by not winning at all.


“Anarchism is not, as some may suppose, a theory of the future to be realized through divine inspiration. It is a living force in the affairs of our life, constantly creating new conditions. The methods of Anarchism therefore do not comprise an iron-clad program to be carried out under all circumstances. Methods must grow out of the economic needs of each place and clime, and of the intellectual and temperamental requirements of the individual.” — Emma Goldman

This chapter is really continuing on with the last even as that one did the one before it. This is because these things really seem to flow together so that one runs into the other. This, in turn, is because, as I see it, economics is the organising of human relationships — perhaps primarily of exchange or material interaction — and so is naturally something to do with how anarchists organise themselves and how they see people more widely doing so as well in order to facilitate such things. This, however, and in turn, must inevitably be connected to, and flow from, the ethics for which they all stand or with which they can come to terms. So ethics-organisation-economics could really be conceived of as a tightly knit block of interests and economics as part of the discussion about organisation which is a discussion about ethics in practice. Economics, however, is necessarily about more than what anarchists might do amongst themselves and must address how wider society might exist in terms of its relationships as a whole. This is further complicated by some anarchists’ focus on a future, post-revolutionary age which has not yet [and may never] come which they imagine will be characterised by a certain economic character seen in and through its relationships. So there is both the current circumstances — and how to act now — and an imaginable future to consider. This is what I intend to discuss in this chapter.


To begin this discussion, however, I want to start by discussing Gerrard Winstanley, leader and co-founder of a group that were called the “True Levellers” by the people themselves [as opposed to the simple “Levellers” of the English Civil War period] but who were referred to by others in the mid-1600s as the Diggers — due to their primary means of direct action which was taking to common land or waste ground and beginning to live on it and grow food on it for their common consumption. Winstanley’s idea, something he carried forward with a genuinely religious fervour, was that with no poor, and no capitalists, and one common purse, this earth would afford the heaven that some Christians were looking for in another world. Winstanley, then, who we may legitimately think of as a millenarian type of Christian, was trying to build heaven on earth.

The English Civil War of 1642–1651 was actually a series of conflicts between supporters of the monarchy and supporters of parliament and was to do with issues of governance but also religious freedoms. [There were numerous religious groups at this time with variously millenarian or apocalyptic visions of which the “Fifth Monarchists” of the same period as Winstanley were another example.] The parliamentarians would eventually win out in these conflicts, Charles I being executed and his son, Charles II, being exiled, whilst, in 1653, Oliver Cromwell, who had been the commander-in-chief of the parliamentarians, would take power for a few years as “Lord Protector” of what was now dubbed a “commonwealth”. Winstanley, naturally enough, was on the parliamentarian side of that conflict but he had ideas [inspired very strongly by his religious beliefs] which went much further than that. We see, for example, in his publication “The New Law of Righteousness”, published before he began his digging activity, in which direction his thoughts were going. Here he says that “everyone that gets an authority into his hands tyrannizes over others”. Such people can become “like oppressing Lords over those that are under them.” Winstanley, however, conceives of “a common treasury” [a phrase commonly used in his written manifestos and treatises of the time] in which “a man shall have his meat and drink and clothes by his labour in freedom.” Thus, Winstanley can say in “The New Law of Righteousness” that:

“When a man hath meat and drink and clothes he hath enough, and all shall cheerfully put to their hands to make these things that are needful, one helping another; there shall be none Lord over others, but every one shall be a Lord of himself, subject to the law of righteousness, reason and equity, which shall dwell and rule in him, which is the Lord.”

Such an ideal has yet further consequences for Winstanley in that “truly the whole earth of trading is generally become the neat art of thieving and oppressing fellow creatures, and so lies burdens upon the Creation, but when the earth becomes a common treasury this burden will be taken off.” Later on, Winstanley can consequently pose this question:

“Was the earth made for to preserve a few covetous, proud men, to live at ease, and for them to bag and barn up the treasures of the earth from others, that they might beg or starve in a fruitful land, or was it made to preserve all her children?”

Consequently [and copiously annotated with biblical references and quotations throughout], this document looks forward to a time in which the earth [but more particularly the England of Winstanley’s own experience] is lifted up from “the bondage of self-interest” and he imagines a community which “work[s] together” and “eat[s] bread together” based upon a conception of self-actualised people in which Reason [which Winstanley thought of as God and was his name for the same] was manifested within you. Winstanley, in fact, says in “The New Law of Righteousness” that “the first shall be last and the last first”, a quotation of the Gospel of Matthew 20:16. If we don’t want to be overly anachronistic then we will not say such ideas are anarchism but they are clearly anarchist adjacent — if definitively motivated by religious beliefs.

Winstanley published “The New Law of Righteousness” on 26th January 1649 and just over two months later, on April 1st of that year, Winstanley and some colleagues occupied St George’s Hill [referred to as George’s Hill by the Diggers as they did not accept the saints for religious reasons], at that time vacant common land, and began to cultivate it, building dwellings upon it at the same time. Winstanley clearly hoped others would join in with similar schemes and other colonies did appear in 2 or 3 places as well. Their action was to cultivate the land and distribute food without charge to any who would join them in the work. Essentially, they had engaged in communal living. In “The True Levellers’ Standard Advanced”, alternatively titled “The State of Community Opened, and Presented to the Sons of Men”, which was published barely three weeks after the commune was begun, Winstanley — who was clearly the writer of the work although it is signed by a number of co-signatories — presents this document as:

“A declaration to the powers of England and to all the powers of the world, showing the cause why the common people of England have begun and gives consent to dig up, manure and sow corn upon George Hill in Surrey; by those that have subscribed, and thousands more that give consent.”

This is the first document published by Winstanley after the commune had been begun and so is his first opportunity to explain and justify what he and his colleagues are doing. It is then notable that he begins like this:

“In the beginning of time, the great creator Reason made the earth to be a common treasury, to preserve beasts, birds, fishes and man, the lord that was to govern this creation; for man had domination given to him, over the beasts, birds and fishes; but not one word was spoken in the beginning, that one branch of mankind should rule over another.

And the reason is this, every single man, male and female, is a perfect creature of himself; and the same spirit that made the globe dwells in man to govern the globe; so that the flesh of man being subject to reason, his maker, hath him to be his teacher and ruler within himself, therefore needs not run abroad after any teacher and ruler without

him; for he needs not that any man should teach him, for the same anointing that ruled in the Son of Man teaches him all things.”

Here, straightaway, we find the key ideas of the “common treasury”, that one man should not rule over another, and that each person, possessing their own reason, is their own master. But the problem is that this very “common treasury” was not kept this way by the people of the earth. Some came along and chopped it up into private possessions; a common treasury was “hedged into enclosures by the teachers and rulers” and people “were made servants and slaves”. Thus, that which could be a “common storehouse for all” is, instead, “bought and sold and kept in the hands of a few.” For Winstanley this not only derails what he imagines is God’s plan but it treats human beings as if they should be “respecters of persons”, those who treat some as more than equal to others, something Winstanley does not believe to be the case.

From here Winstanley, who is quite a sophisticated biblical exegete and cultural critic, divines conflict between people as a matter of fighting over property [rights, or lack of rights, to property being his key theme almost 200 years before Pierre-Joseph Proudhon would regard it as a key issue as well]. Why do people try to destroy each other? It is “only to uphold civil property of honour, dominion and riches one over another.” Winstanley, however, imagines a common treasury which is a time when “all must be made of one heart and mind.” More than examples of individual communes, then, we might even say that the millenarian Winstanley imagines a world commune. Consequently, this is a matter of “Do as you would have others do to you; and love your enemies, not in words but in actions.” Yet this is also a matter of authenticity for Winstanley in a religious argument which contrasts the first Adam of Genesis with the “second Adam” that is Jesus Christ [or, in a similar metaphor, the brother Esau, who despised his birthright in the story from Genesis, with his brother Jacob — later renamed Israel — who demonstrated the desire to receive it]. In wanting a master, Winstanley suggests, human beings are inauthentic towards themselves. They must grasp the spirit of self-responsibility and self-reliance which he regards as appropriate to the human condition.

Yet Gerrard Winstanley and the Diggers [or True Levellers] do not intend to do this by force of arms [as so many had done at the time in England] — for they are pacifists. And so:

“we shall not do this by force of arms, we abhor it, for that is the work of the Midianites, to kill one another; but by obeying the Lord of Hosts, who hath revealed himself in us and to us, by labouring the earth in righteousness together, to eat our bread with the sweat of our brows, neither giving hire nor taking hire but working together and eating together as one man or as one house of Israel restored from bondage. And so by the power of reason, the law of righteousness in us, we endeavour to lift up the creation from that bondage of civil property which it groans under.”

Besides the avowed pacifism here and the commitment to working together to produce food for all taking part, we also once more see the idea that “civil property” is a “bondage” which is illegitimate. In fact, on this issue Winstanley can go further as in when he later says “And that this civil property is the curse is manifest thus: those that buy and sell land, and are landlords, have got it either by oppression or murder or theft; and all landlords live in breach of the seventh and eighth commandments, Thou shalt not steal nor kill.” And so, in explaining their activities formally, Winstanley states that:

“The work we are going about is this, to dig up George Hill and the waste ground thereabouts and to sow corn, and to eat our bread together by the sweat of our brows… that we may work in righteousness and lay the foundation of making the earth a common treasury for all, both rich and poor, that everyone that is born in the land may be fed by the earth, his mother that brought him forth... Not enclosing any part into any particular hand, but all as one man working together and feeding together as sons of one father, members of one family; not one lording over another, but all looking upon each other as equals in the creation”

In historical context here, then, the issue for Winstanley and his fellow Diggers is that the spirit of rebellion against a monarch and the “levelling” of the laws that was meant to be going on was not, in fact, going far enough for them. This is why they called themselves “True Levellers” for they also wanted an economic levelling, one which addressed the fundamental issue of property. And so, in advancing their standard, Winstanley writes:

“Take notice that England is not a free people till the poor that have no land have a free allowance to dig and labour the commons, and so live as comfortably as the landlords that live in their enclosures. For the people have not laid out their monies and shed their blood that their landlords, the Norman power, should still have its liberty and freedom

to rule in tyranny in his lords, landlords, judges, justices, bailiffs and state servants; but that the oppressed might be set free, prison doors opened, and the poor people’s hearts comforted by a universal consent of making the earth a common treasury, that they may live together as one house of Israel, united in brotherly love into one spirit; and having a comfortable livelihood in the community of one earth, their mother.”

This is an economic, political, organisational and ethical argument all wrapped up into one and is summed up in the stated proposal that “all the commons and waste ground in

England and in the whole world shall be taken in by the people in righteousness, not owning any property; but taking the earth to be a common treasury.” Winstanley, in fact, sloganises this as “Work together, eat bread together, declare this all abroad” clearly showing that he intends this to be an economic means of common human survival. This is not about hiring people to do the work for you, however; it is about working together with others yourselves to your own common benefit. Winstanley sees this as breeding solidarity for “wheresoever there is a people thus united by common community of livelihood into oneness, it will become the strongest land in the world.” This is the opposite of the “pleading for property and single interest” which “divides the people of a land and the whole world into parties, and is the cause of all wars and bloodshed and contention everywhere.” Winstanley’s argument seems then to be that if no one owned anything [and if all worked side by side for their own common good] then there would be no reason to argue and fight with one another as their would be nothing to fight for possession of.

But this requires a reorganisation of human relationships [as various differing economic systems do], not least in that people must then refuse to be hired to work for others or to hire anyone themselves. This is Winstanley’s critique of economic relationships and the consequences they have in terms of the status of one person to another [Winstanley had already stated several times in “The New Law of Righteousness” that the ideal was “equity”]. Economic relationships of the type “employer and employee”, however, only instantiate tyrants and tyranny for Winstanley. Those that “work and eat together” cannot become subject to economic tyrannies or create their own such tyrannies. There is no place in Winstanley’s scheme for economic forms of bondage such as waged labour. “He that works for another, either for wages or to pay him rent, works unrighteously” as Gerrard Winstanley has it. Those working and eating together, making the earth a common treasury, are actually working to remove such tyrannies in his mind. Winstanley wants an equality of work and so status, characterised by eating around the common table — the fruits of communal labours — which removes beggary and poverty from the scene entirely. This, in a religious metaphor taken from one of the parables of Jesus, is the “pearl” Winstanley sees in the fields, the prospect of “universal liberty” and freedom from “the horrible cheating that is buying and selling.” Winstanley wants to end “the bond of particular property”, to “disown this oppressing murder, oppressing and thievery of buying and selling of land”, to end the “owning of landlords and paying of rents” and to instantiate the common treasury of the earth.

Such thinking continues barely a couple of months later when Winstanley addresses “Lords of Manors through this nation” as some local to St George’s Hill had begun chopping down trees [wanting both to make use of the wood for themselves and to deprive the Diggers of this same resource]. In this document, “A Declaration from the Poor Oppressed People of England,” Winstanley writes against critics of his project [which had caused local upset and produced official interest in what was going on] and particularly against those who would be rulers in place of the now executed King Charles as part of the social fabric of England since the Norman Conquest in 1066. Since then land in particular had been in the ownership and control of various socially connected people and thus was out of the control of the vast majority [something which, in turn, goes a long way to explain Winstanley’s own complaints and the economic project of “true levelling”]. So, in this document, it is Winstanley’s key point that “the earth was not made purposely for you to be lords of it, and we to be your slaves, servants and beggars; but it was made to be a common livelihood to all, without respect of persons.” Winstanley, as before, in fact, sees land ownership as the inevitable result of “war… murder and theft”. Similarly, “the power of enclosing land and owning property was brought into the creation by your ancestors by the sword which first did murder their fellow creatures, men, and after plunder or steal away their land.”

Winstanley pushes his economic arguments further here, though, saying:

“we must neither buy nor sell; money must not any longer (after our work of the earth’s community is advanced) be the great god that hedges in some, and hedges out others. For money is but part of the earth: and surely, the righteous creator, who is King, did never ordain that unless some of mankind do bring that mineral (silver and gold) in their hands to others of their own kind, that they should neither be fed, nor be clothed. No surely, for this was the project of tyrant-flesh (which landlords are branches of) to set his image upon money. And they make this unrighteous law, that none should buy or sell, eat or be clothed or have any comfortable livelihood among men, unless they did bring his image stamped upon gold or silver in their hands.”

But if “we must neither buy nor sell” then, of course, this means we have no use for money either and so Winstanley is imagining a community at large without money, the ideal being that “we are made to hinder no man of his privileges given him in his creation” [when we were born all equal in our naked helplessness without so much as a coin to our name]. Winstanley, pushing himself economically further forward in his ideas in regard to money here also does so politically as well in this document when he says:

“the power of the murdering and thieving sword, formerly as well as now of late years, hath set up a government and maintains that government; for what are prisons, and putting others to death, but the power of the sword to enforce people to that government which was got by conquest and sword and cannot stand of itself, but by the same murdering power? That government, that is got over people by the sword and kept by the sword, is not set up by the King of righteousness to be his law, but by covetousness, the great god of the world; who hath been permitted to reign for a time, times and dividing of time, and his government draws to the period of the last term of his allotted time.”

So here Winstanley [fully in accord with later anarchists] sees government as the project of violence based upon the acquisition and ownership of property. This, as we have already seen, is only the same activity carried on by other means when it comes to commerce [which is “buying and selling the earth”]; its all about locking up the earth’s common treasury “from them to whom it belongs”.

Against this, Gerrard Winstanley and his fellow Diggers intend to revolt for:

“we are resolved to be cheated no longer, nor be held under the slavish fear of you no longer, seeing the earth was made for us as well as for you. And if the common land

belongs to us who are the poor oppressed, surely the woods that grow upon the commons belong to us likewise? Therefore we are resolved to try the uttermost in the light of reason to know whether we shall be free men or slaves.”

Note how Winstanley phrases this here in the context of an openly economic and political argument: what is at stake for him is people’s freedom or slavery so understood. Thus: “we require and we resolve to take both common land and common woods to be a livelihood for us, and look upon you as equal with us, not above us, knowing very well that England, the land of our nativity, is to be a common treasury of livelihood to all, without respect of persons.” Winstanley essentially makes the same point barely a month later when, facing further local harassment, he appeals directly to the House of Commons of the English Parliament complaining about the Lords of the Manor and closing his appeal with “Set the land free from oppression, and righteousness will be the laws, government and strength of that people.” Winstanley conceives of his problem, and that of the “people of England” more widely, as their economic servitude and obligation to those who claim to own “particular property”, possessions they obtained or inherited, in his mind, through violence alone.

Winstanley’s project, and the Diggers generally, failed rather quickly, however. Local landowners were always against the whole idea of it [naturally enough] and within a year hired armed men were sent in to destroy the colony and wreck the crops. Winstanley fled elsewhere but continued to hold to the view that the ideal basis for society was one where property and wages were abolished whilst people worked on common land, holding everything in common without need for financial transactions or even currency. We see this right back in “The New Law of Righteousness”, in fact, where perhaps his favourite biblical reference is Acts 4:32: “Now the whole group of those who believed were of one heart and soul, and no one claimed private ownership of any possessions, but everything they owned was held in common” — which is an early summary of how the post-resurrection followers of Jesus lived from the New Testament. As Winstanley would state in his post-digging pamphlet “Fire in the Bush” [the metaphor being that of Moses before the burning bush from Exodus], he wanted “true community” and to “destroy murdering property” and so “making every one to seek the preservation and peace of others as of themselves.” His last major work, “The Law of Freedom in a Platform” would be a treatise addressed to the soon to be Lord Protector, Oliver Cromwell himself, wherein Winstanley attempts to show Cromwell what “commonwealth’s government” should be all about. Within the first paragraph here Winstanley is once more talking about “the free possession of the land” already.


Anarchism, Marxism and other forms of socialism were all born out of industrial capitalism in the 19th century but, as is clear, Gerrard Winstanley was responding to a time prior to this, an agrarian time. Yet, as Marxist historian Ellen Meiksins Wood suggests in her book The Origin of Capitalism, the seeds of capitalism were actually planted in such an agrarian time. It was in the use of land and the ownership of property — both immediate concerns Winstanley addressed in his philosophy — where capitalism began. This required what Wood describes as “a complete transformation in the most basic human relations and practices, a rupture in age-old patterns of human interaction with nature.”

It is, of course, uncontroversial that human beings had worked the land to provide for material needs for millennia. Yet, as Winstanley’s activities show, at least in England the impetus towards capitalism was found in changing human relationships and particularly what Wood describes as “particular property relations between producers and appropriators.” Here Wood notes that modern capitalism, the fully grown post-industrial and technological plant from the original agrarian seed, is a matter of propertyless “direct producers” and a class of capitalist appropriators. Capitalists can appropriate the workers’ [producers’] surplus labour here because the workers own nothing [and only have their time and labour to sell] whereas the capitalist appropriators own the means of production. This is where “markets” come in that mediate as a mechanism of exchange or distribution and, as Wood notes, “both capital and labour are utterly dependent on the market for the most basic conditions of their own reproduction.” But, as Wood also notes:

“This unique system of market dependence has specific systemic requirements and compulsions shared by no other mode of production: the imperatives of competition, accumulation, and profit-maximization, and hence a constant systemic need to develop the productive forces. These imperatives, in turn, mean that capitalism can and must constantly expand in ways and degrees unlike any other social form. It can and must constantly accumulate, constantly search out new markets, constantly impose its imperatives on new territories and new spheres of life, on all human beings and the natural environment.”

In Winstanley’s agrarian context this was very important and Wood notes that the situation in England at that time was quite specific when she points out that, “Land in England had for a long time been unusually concentrated, with big landlords holding an unusually large proportion, in conditions that enabled them to use their property in new ways. What they lacked in ‘extra-economic’ powers of surplus extraction they more than made up for with increasing ‘economic’ powers.” Here land was the key thing which could be exploited [along with tenant farmers and wage labourers that worked it — compare Winstanley’s critiques on these points for they are all there] and so “advantage in access to the land itself would go to those who could produce competitively and pay good rents by increasing their own productivity. This meant that success would breed success, and competitive farmers would have increasing access to even more land, while others lost access altogether.” It was a fight for land — and those who could make the most of or “improve” it were those most likely to gain access to such economic advantages.

Accompanying this development, of course, we would not expect any Marxist commentator — such as Wood is — to overlook the class implications. About this Wood has this to say:

“there can be little doubt that in comparison with other European peasantries, the English variety was a rare and endangered species, and market imperatives certainly accelerated the polarization of English rural society into larger landowners and a growing propertyless multitude. The famous triad of landlord, capitalist tenant, and wage labourer was the result, and with the growth of wage labour the pressures to improve labour productivity also increased. The same process created a highly

productive agriculture capable of sustaining a large population not engaged in agricultural production, but also an increasing propertyless mass that would constitute both a large wage-labour force and a domestic market for cheap consumer goods — a type of market with no historical precedent. This is the background to the formation of English industrial capitalism.”

Its at this point that it should not pass us by what Winstanley was often complaining about. He critiqued the very idea of property, the existence of waged labour — even the existence of money or its usefulness itself. Put these together and we can see in Winstanley a general critique of the very idea of exploitation of one person by another, in fact [also represented in his desire for human equity]. Yet when we read Wood’s history of the period we begin to understand this as a clash of values between the likes of a “communist” Winstanley, on the one hand, and an economically exploitative or appropriative class [here to be represented by the English philosopher John Locke] on the other. If you have been following my work as I went along you will know that John Locke already appears in it in my chapter on racism and eugenics in Being Human where he made an appearance as one of the architects of English slavery in the Carolinas. Now coming to discuss his economic opinions we realise that his penchant for justifying slavery all makes sense. Locke was one of what Wood describes as a class of “improvers” in the English 17th century. Wood, in fact, describes the etymology of the word “improve” as “to do something for monetary profit” coming from the old French for “into profit”. Applied to land, the major possession in England of the day, the notion of “improvement” or of being an “improver” of land [i.e. one who produced more and more profit from it] referred “to someone who rendered land productive and profitable, especially by enclosing it or reclaiming waste.” [As Wood notes here, we might like to ponder the idea that “improving” something is etymologically linked to making monetary profit from it.]

The problem here, however, was that merry olde England was at this time not ideally set up for capitalist exploitation. As Wood explains:

“Peasants have since time immemorial employed various means of regulating land use in the interests of the village community. They have restricted certain practices and granted certain rights, not in order to enhance the wealth of landlords or states but in

order to preserve the peasant community itself, perhaps to conserve the land or to distribute its fruits more equitably, and often to provide for the community’s less fortunate members. Even private ownership of property has been typically conditioned by such customary practices, giving non-owners certain use rights to property owned by someone else. In England, there were many such practices and customs. There existed common lands, on which members of the community might have grazing rights or the right to collect firewood, and there were various other kinds of use rights on private land, such as the right to collect the leavings of the harvest during specified periods of the year.”

So this, of course, would not do if you wanted to “improve” the land and a response of the landed classes in multiple periods of English history was thus enclosure [note Winstanley’s complaints yet again in regard to such enclosure]. The consequences of enclosure Wood makes plain when she notes that “Enclosure is often thought of as simply the fencing in of common land, or of the ‘open fields’ that characterized certain parts of the English countryside. But enclosure meant not simply a physical fencing of land but the extinction of common and customary use rights on which many people depended for their livelihood.” These, of course, were rights that Winstanley was directly claiming for himself — along with his rights to use common land for the purposes of sustaining his community [which, naturally enough, he hoped others would join in with]. Yet it is clear to see that such a mentality fundamentally clashes with the idea of “improvement” which is based on [exclusive] land ownership and the maximisation of profit as the explicit goal [whereas Winstanley wanted the practical abolition of even simple currency making such ideas impossible]. Landowners, however, wanted land to grow crops or to farm sheep in as undisturbed a manner as possible. If this meant sequestrating the common land for such purposes then it was in their economic interests to do so. Such agrarian capitalism was then acquisitive and controlling and was based on the very idea of exclusively private property.

And so we come to John Locke whom Wood wants to interrogate in terms of his “theory of property”. What strikes me about it is not only how necessary it is to what we today know as capitalism but how its also a perfect fit for an acquisitive imperialism and colonialism of which, of course, he was one of the major philosophical architects as I mentioned in Being Human. Yet, as already suggested here, in order to better enable a practical application of agrarian capitalism in England the nature of what property was — getting rid of things like common use rights or notions of looking after the community on the basis of the land itself — had to be changed in the capitalist’s favour. This is where Locke’s theory of property comes in. Locke thought that “private, individual property” was “a God-given right” [readers of Being Human will remember such language justified slavery as well] yet Locke, at least according to Wood, also argued that “a natural right of property is established when a man ‘mixes his labour’ with something, when, that is, by means of his labour he removes it from its natural state or changes its natural condition.” This is because, as Locke thought, that men own their own labour. So if you mix this labour with something else [i.e. land] then you must own that too.

In Locke’s mind this gets tangled up with the 17th century idea of “improvement” which becomes the idea that unoccupied land can simply be taken and regarded as the [exclusive] property of the potential “improver” since he intends to make it [quite literally] profitable [which is seen as a good thing]. This is, of course, a useful idea if you happen to be either a capitalist or a colonialist. As Wood explains: “The theme running throughout his discussion is that the earth is there to be made productive and profitable, and that this is why private property, which emanates from labour, trumps common possession. Locke repeatedly insists that most of the value inherent in land comes not from nature but from labour and improvement.” This, as can plainly be seen, is not actually much more than a justification for theft of the commons [which is a charge Winstanley directly makes] with the ownership issue glossed over. Yet we can extrapolate the ideas behind this further as Wood does in the following paragraph:

“Locke also makes it clear that the value he has in mind is not simply use value but exchange value. Money and commerce are the motivation for improvement; and an acre of land in unimproved America, which may be as naturally fertile as an acre in England, is not worth 1/1000 of the English acre, if we calculate ‘all the Profit an Indian received from it were it valued and sold here’ [quoting Locke]. Locke’s point, which not coincidentally drips with colonialist contempt, is that unimproved land is waste, so that any man who takes it out of common ownership and appropriates it to himself — he who removes land from the common and encloses it — in order to improve it has given something to humanity, not taken it away.”

This is, then, an appropriator’s charter with the justification being profit — the essence of what we know today as capitalism but something which we must note organises human relationships in a particular economic way. It emphasises the creation of exchange value besides the idea that something exists to be monetarily, financially, economically profited from. Such a justification essentially justifies expropriating anything if you can claim to be able to make profit from it where someone else is not. On this understanding “profit” is a good that we should want to make and which it would be irrational to want to pass over or deny. With such ideas people like John Locke [as well as actual John Locke himself] could justify stealing the commons at home and expropriating indigenous lands abroad. The poor of England and the natives abroad could, in fact, both be painted as indigent wasters using such motives as these and so it would seem to be only right and proper that land be took into exclusively private hands for the means of generating profit, an ethos entirely at odds with that which Gerrard Winstanley had proposed.

Thus it is that Locke can write, following such a mentality, that, “the Grass my Horse has bit; the Turfs my Servant has cut; and the Ore I have digg’d in any place where I have a right to them in common with others, become my property” [from Locke’s Second Treatise of Government]. The consequences of such a statement Wood exegetes as follows:

“This means not only that I, the master, have appropriated the labour of my servant, but also that this appropriation is in principle no different from the servant’s labouring activity itself. My own digging is, for all intents and purposes, the same as my appropriating the fruits of my servant’s cutting. But Locke is not interested in simply passive appropriation. The point is rather that the landlord who puts his land to productive use, who improves it, even if by means of someone else’s labour, is being industrious, no less — and perhaps more — than the labouring servant.”

It is on the basis of this excellent point, crucial to understand, that Wood then notes that, in the contemporary world, “When the financial pages of the daily newspaper speak of ‘producers’, they do not normally mean workers. In fact, they are likely to talk about conflicts, for example, between automobile ‘producers’ and auto workers or their unions. The employers of labour, in other words, are being credited with ‘production’.” And isn’t it most perverse that they are when the company folks themselves, the CEOs, CFOs and COOs, are doing NOTHING physical to produce anything but are merely herding [if not straight up coercing or exploiting] others to do the producing for them — for much less, if any, of the profit? Wood’s point here is that we can see the embryo of this in Locke’s appropriator’s charter in the context of an emergent agrarian capitalism in the 17th century. Its important, then, that she notes explicitly that “the kind of appropriation that can be called ‘productive’ is distinctly capitalist. It implies that property is used actively, not for conspicuous consumption but for investment and increasing profit.” Labour thus becomes conflated with the production of profit in this way and that is a capitalist move. But it takes a specific theory of property to get there so it is no wonder that people like Gerrard Winstanley and John Locke, each with their own motivations, wanted to set out what was at stake in the issue of property and the economic relationships it then motivated. Where Winstanley wanted communes to spring up on common land Locke wanted land expropriated into private hands so it could be exploited by imagined “producers” for profit.


David Graeber’s analysis of this period of emergent capitalism in his book Debt: The First 5,000 Years takes in a more global perspective. What he calls the “age of the great capitalist empires” stretches from 1450–1971 and it is not there coincidental that “capitalist” and “empires” are found together for, just as in the previous section we find John Locke, previously to be found justifying slavery, justifying appropriation of land for the purposes of profit, so here in Graeber’s narrative on this subject we find that the rise of capitalism is in an era of rapacious empire and acquisition that seems to follow from some particular philosophical propositions. Yet here Graeber also notes “peasants’ visions of communistic brotherhood” which “did not come out of nowhere. They were rooted in real daily experience: of the maintenance of common fields and forests, of everyday cooperation and neighbourly solidarity.” We know, however, that they were not destined to last. Graeber makes an interesting historical comment here though when he says that “Society was rooted above all in the ‘love and amity’ of friends and kin, and it found expression in all those forms of everyday communism (helping neighbours with chores, providing milk or cheese for old widows) that were seen to flow from it. Markets were not seen as contradicting this ethos of mutual aid.” Graeber adds, quoting Jean Bodin, that “’Amity and friendship… are the foundation of all human and civil society’—they constitute that ‘true, natural justice’ on which the whole legal structure of contracts, courts, and even government must necessarily be built. Similarly, when economic thinkers reflected on the origins of the money, they spoke of ‘trusting, exchanging, and trading.’ It was simply assumed that human relations came first.”

But this was not to continue being the case and it might best be exampled in Thomas Hobbes’ Leviathan [published in 1651, i.e. at the same time as Winstanley was writing about “a common treasury” and his particularly anarcho-communist form of heaven on earth]. Hobbes, as Graeber suggests:

“might be considered the opening salvo of the new moral perspective, and it was a devastating one. When Leviathan came out, it’s not clear what scandalized its readers more: its relentless materialism (Hobbes insisted that humans were basically machines whose actions could be understood by one single principle: that they tended to move toward the prospect of pleasure and away from the prospect of pain), or its resultant cynicism (if love, amity, and trust are such powerful forces, Hobbes asked, why is it that even within our families, we lock our most valuable possessions in strongboxes?) Still, Hobbes’ ultimate argument—that humans, being driven by self-interest, cannot be trusted to treat each other justly of their own accord, and therefore that society only emerges when they come to realize that it is to their long-term advantage to give up a portion of their liberties and accept the absolute power of the King—differed little from arguments that theologians like Martin Luther had been making a century earlier. Hobbes simply substituted scientific language for biblical references.”

What we can see in the philosophies of Hobbes and Locke, then [these being two English stalwarts of philosophical orthodoxy], is that ideas — swiftly followed by practices — are changing in this period of [at least for the colonial empires] vast economic acquisition. As Graeber has this:

“The story of the origins of capitalism, then, is not the story of the gradual destruction of traditional communities by the impersonal power of the market. It is, rather, the story of how an economy of credit was converted into an economy of interest; of the gradual transformation of moral networks by the intrusion of the impersonal—and often vindictive—power of the state.”

Graeber himself tells a sort of story in which debt is quite a natural [almost unavoidable] feature of communal society in that if people are going to use or borrow things that other people have and they don’t [which seems quite normal] then a way needs to be found to accommodate this. But what happens if society then becomes a place where debt might be criminalised? What happens if the relationships between people change as I have already been hinting earlier on in this chapter? Communal solidarity could easily be shattered as society becomes much more an unequal economic affair where what’s mine is mine and not in any way yours. It could even be seen, as it was in the last section of this chapter, that your labour gets added to my property. Here I find it interesting that Graeber can highlight the necessary element of mutual aid in pre-capitalist markets [it makes sense for me to help you and you to help me for, in doing so, we all get along] but that, in contrast, capitalism itself requires violence to instantiate. A competitive, self-interested market in which profit for me is all that matters is, after all, one in which I have to do my neighbour down in order for me to prosper. In one sense, then, debt, a morally neutral concept, might simply be a fact of communal life. Yet, in another context, it can be something that instead needs to be punished or taken advantage of.

In philosophical terms, of course, the age we are talking about here was also one of increasing materialism [we have already noted the fetish with property, for example]. But what if an obsession with property is taken too far and becomes simple greed? How does one then control this where it could easily be seen to be damaging to an imagined previous situation of bucolic harmony? As Graeber says of Hobbes on this subject:

“Even, he argued, if we are all rational enough to understand that it’s in our long-term interest to live in peace and security, our short-term interests are often such that killing and plundering are the most obviously profitable courses to take, and all it takes is a few to cast aside their scruples to create utter insecurity and chaos. This was why he felt that markets could only exist under the aegis of an absolutist state, which would force us to keep our promises and respect one another’s property.”

So here we have the state as the guarantor of communal peace and security but this was not simultaneously a state which meant that the previously imagined state of communistic mutual aid prospered too. The state existed to make sure no one interfered with people’s private property; but it did not necessarily exist to keep things in common.

So, in the words of David Graeber, this is the situation we find round about 1700, 50 years after Winstanley and Hobbes were writing and about the same time as John Locke was:

“Starting from our baseline date of 1700, then, what we see at the dawn of modern capitalism is a gigantic financial apparatus of credit and debt that operates—in practical effect—to pump more and more labour out of just about everyone with whom it comes into contact, and as a result produces an endlessly expanding volume of material goods. It does so not just by moral compulsion, but above all by using moral compulsion to mobilize physical force. At every point, the familiar but peculiarly European entanglement of war and commerce reappears—often in startling new forms. The first stock markets in Holland and Britain were based mainly in trading shares of the East and West India companies, which were both military and trading ventures. For a century, one such private, profit-seeking corporation governed India. The national debts of England, France, and the others were based in money borrowed not to dig canals and erect bridges, but to acquire the gunpowder needed to bombard cities and to construct the camps required for the holding of prisoners and the training of recruits. Almost all the bubbles of the eighteenth century involved some fantastic scheme to use the proceeds of colonial ventures to pay for European wars. Paper money was debt money, and debt money was war money, and this has always remained the case. Those who financed Europe’s endless military conflicts also employed the government’s police and prisons to extract ever-increasing productivity from the rest of the population.”

And so, of course, this was not unconnected to the copious empire-building that was simultaneously taking place, as Graeber also goes on to add that:

“the Atlantic slave trade can be imagined as a giant chain of debt-obligations, stretching from Bristol to Calabar to the headwaters of the Cross River, where the Aro traders sponsored their secret societies; just as in the Indian Ocean trade, similar chains connected Utrecht to Capetown to Jakarta to the Kingdom of Gelgel, where Balinese kings arranged their cockfights to lure subjects to gamble their freedom away. In either case, the end product was the same: human beings so entirely ripped from their contexts, and hence so thoroughly dehumanized, that they were placed outside the realm of debt entirely.”

Much of this, of course, was simply a matter of power relations in which the powerful [economically and politically] would exploit the powerless. Any historical book on the history of any of the various European empires should detail this. Graeber himself gives an example from as late as the early 20th century in which “a British rubber company operating in the Peruvian rainforest” engaged in a catalogue of horrors. One explanation for this was the following one:

“The root of the whole evil was the so called patron or ‘peonage’ system—a variety of what used to be called in England the ‘truck system’—by which the employee, forced to buy all his supplies at the employer’s store, is kept hopelessly in debt, while by law he is unable to leave his employment until his debt is paid … The peon is thus, as often as not, a de facto slave; and since in the remoter regions of the vast continent there is no effective government, he is wholly at the mercy of his master.”

Although such systems assuredly did exist throughout the various colonial empires, in this case it was not the debt of workers that was to blame. Rather, it was the agents and overseers sent from overseas who had the debts and, finding that the locals did not want the things they had offered in payment for their work, the means to the payment of their own debts, they had simply resorted to forcing them to accept their own loans at gunpoint. When the workers tried to run away, naturally enough, the overseers set to exterminating them.

In Graeber’s mind this reveals a hidden secret about capitalism: “It is the secret scandal of capitalism that at no point has it been organized primarily around free labour.” This is a point I have already raised myself, in fact, in that capitalism seems to require coercion and is a matter of exploitation [actually of both people and things — both now re-categorised as “resources”]. This can take the form of simple slavery [and for a while it did], debt peonage [keeping people constantly in debts they can never escape is a very effective form of control, especially if you can make it seem as if the debtor has some moral obligation towards those to whom they are indebted], indentured service [contract work in which the workers are obligated to work for a length of time to pay back money they receive in advance] and, of course, wage labour [of which Graeber notes, “There is, and has always been, a curious affinity between wage labour and slavery”]. Here what we need to take note of is that the very particular set of relationships set up by capitalism and its necessary philosophical premises [private property, profit, materialism, a loss of communality and a consequent emphasis on the individual, the value of money and the penalty of debt] act to create and, indeed, emphasize an apparent inequality [economic and political] which Winstanley was aware of and wanting to eradicate in the mid 1600s. Something Graeber notes, comparing slavery and wage labour, points this up as well:

“both the relation between master and slave, and between employer and employee, are in principle impersonal: whether you’ve been sold or you’ve simply rented yourself out, the moment money changes hands, who you are is supposed to be unimportant; all that’s important is that you are capable of understanding orders and doing what you’re told.”

Capitalist relations, then, are ones of obligation; in engaging in capitalism, you obligate yourself and those to whom you obligate yourself are more than likely to want their “pound of flesh” in return — for capitalism is all about profit and return. This is why, as we can see, the one who is obligated almost always appears to be owned by those to whom the obligation is due — until any obligation is worked off, that is, [and assuming it can be].


This brings us to the morality of economics although, us living in a capitalist world, as we do, we might wonder what morality even has to do with economics since capitalism has one simple goal — profit — and all other considerations are to the side of that. Seems pretty simple and free of ethical angst, doesn’t it? Capitalist companies, in fact, even have departments for dealing with their workers, although these, rather disturbingly, are called “Human Resources” departments — as if human beings, people, were just another resource necessary to the important stuff which is the business being carried out. [In passing here we might ask what capitalist companies do with “resources”? The answer is ruthlessly exploit them until they are exhausted at which point they move onto other ones and exhaust them, etc.] One here wonders, however, if there are HR departments in sub-Saharan Africa where children as young as 6 are digging cobalt out of the ground with their bare hands to make technological wonders for American-based James Bond supervillains dubbed, in the mediaspeak of our times, “entrepreneurs”? One suspects not. In recent years various court cases have established that a number of American companies feel free to exploit foreign workers that are beyond the reach of the justice of American courts in ways that they cannot exploit workers at home. It seems that capitalist people worked out that one way to exploit people, even after the imagined formal death of slavery, was to simply exploit them beyond your borders instead, a tactic also employed by the US military and intelligence services in black ops sites worldwide.

This leads us to that chapter of David Graeber’s Debt entitled “A Brief Treatise On The Moral Grounds of Economic Relations” by which we might hope to at least imagine the moralities by which people have attempted to formulate and practice economic relationships [simple uncaring exploitation aside]. We don’t get off to a good start here, though, as Graeber begins by noting that “the language of the marketplace has come to pervade every aspect of human life—even to provide the terminology for the moral and religious voices raised against it.” An example here is when morality itself might be regarded as some kind of debt as if, in doing wrong, we “owe” someone something as a result and are put in a relationship of indebtedness to someone or something. Here we are observing some kind of “moral logic of exchange”, as Graeber phrases it, and so some principles, wherever they came from, are being brought to bear in our interactions.

A first notable point from Graeber’s ruminations on this subject is his conclusion that “if one examines matters closely, one finds that all human relations are based on some variation on reciprocity.” This sees life as a kind of exchange, a kind of “do unto others as you would have them do unto you” but where the doing unto others is expected because you did unto them first. Reciprocity imagines that things are never consistently one-sided, not even, in fact, where the giving of gifts is an imagined practice as Graeber has elsewhere discussed at length due to his interest in Marcel Mauss’s much lauded study, The Gift. As Graeber explains, the point in these gift-giving societies is that it can almost become a competition to see who can give the most away as a demonstration of what is regarded as the virtue of such a system. But its not the case that one side gives all the gifts and the other gives none. Reciprocity is expected. Yet things cannot be as simple [or as universal] as this and so Graeber splits the understanding of economic relationships into three using the headings “communism”, “exchange” and “hierarchy” as a result.

Graeber discusses communism under the principle of “from each according to their abilities, to each according to their needs”. Right off the bat here I would admit that Gerrard Winstanley’s proposals were a sort of communism [so much so that Lenin himself recognised them as such] and also that my own economic proposals found at point 6 of my “values and virtues” in chapter 7 of Being Human were a kind of communism as well [there described as “open commensality, mutual aid and the gift”]. It is, further, the unspoken assumption of my pamphlet Building Communities and Defeating Capitalism that the mutual aid recommended there is a form of communism [hence the communities recommended to be built]. But what is “communism” [and here I mean neither the Fox News definition of the term nor that imagined to be practiced by regimes such as the former USSR which, as Graeber himself notes, described themselves more as socialist than communist]? To start off here we must recognise that this is communism not as a political dogma but rather as a description of economic relationships.

Here Graeber takes the approach to communism, as he did to anarchism in his brief essay “Are You An Anarchist? The Answer May Surprise You!” that most of us are, at least some of the time, being communist [or anarchist] in numerous small, yet significant, ways anyway. Thus, Graeber argues that “all social systems, even economic systems like capitalism, have always been built on top of a bedrock of actually-existing communism.” This, for Graeber, is a matter of “who has access to what sorts of things and under what conditions” and Graeber is talking, in the end, about a basic need for cooperation, even solidarity, in the performance of necessarily communal tasks which go some way to actually instantiating a community of people who, by their mutual and reciprocal efforts, can survive and maintain themselves [necessarily by such communal action, of course]. This is to recognise that even in the most capitalistic of spaces a communal approach works best and it is simply most efficient to work together. But Graeber wants to push this past mere cooperation. Graeber says that “communism is the foundation of all human sociability” [italics his] citing the examples of disasters where people “revert… to a rough-and-ready communism” in defence of this point as those who now no longer have time for the “luxury” of hierarchies and/or markets. Graeber states that such a basic communism “is what makes society possible” not “the market” or “competition” or “profit”. Instead, in basic terms, people get along by doing what they have an aptitude for and receiving what they need to perform their necessarily communal duties each in turn. This is “communism”, a form of relationship rather than a political dogma.

David Graeber was, of course, an anthropologist and so he is always ready with an anecdote regarding how some people from a location unfamiliar to many in the West are an example of the thing he is talking about. In this case he mentions the “Nuer, Nilotic pastoralists in southern Sudan” who have a penchant for giving the wrong directions to strangers [who, not unreasonably, might be spies or enemies] yet who also “find themselves unable, when dealing with someone they have accepted as a member of their camp, to refuse a request for almost any item of common consumption.” This, in turn, develops into the general assertions that “The obligation to share food, and whatever else is considered a basic necessity, tends to become the basis of everyday morality in a society whose members see themselves as equals” and that “There is a certain communism of the senses at the root of most things we consider fun.” Most of all, however, in communist situations “not only are no accounts taken, but it would be considered offensive, or simply bizarre, to even consider doing so.” This is something I also mentioned previously in Being Human — although not explicitly labelling it “communism” at the time. Yet now, drawing the distinction between a political dogma and an economic understanding of relationships, its easy to see that it is.

So Graeber suggests that “Baseline communism might be considered the raw material of

sociality, a recognition of our ultimate interdependence that is the ultimate substance of social peace.” But this is not some imaginary universal brotherhood and Graeber simultaneously recognises that even in the case of such a “baseline” it is still the case that, as with the Nuer, “one always behaves in a spirit of solidarity more with some people than with others.” This would appear to be only natural — as well as the “in-groups” and “out-groups” that go along with it and to whom people would regard themselves as having different moral obligations. Important here is Graeber’s assertion that in such communistic understandings a certain eternity of community [the in-group] is imagined which acts as a context for the relationships within it. As seems to make sense, if you are going to be in relationship with a group of people indeterminately, even eternally, then you need to make your peace with this fact and act in ways which don’t make that group’s prosperous continuance difficult, even impossible. Graeber then gives the example of the Iroquois people of North America who split themselves into two halves [living in two adjacent places] and make “arrangements in which members of one side can only marry someone from the other side, or only eat food grown on the other side; such rules are explicitly designed to make each side dependent on the other for some basic necessity of life.” These obligations even extended historically to the other side being responsible for burying your dead and you burying theirs. The point here is that the social arrangement of the people encouraged a responsibility in the context of an indeterminately long relationship and so “what is equal on both sides is the knowledge that that other [side] would do the same for you, not that they necessarily will.” Communism is not a relationship of accounting and strict equivalency but one of common responsibility, each to their own.

In this regard, as I mentioned in my own tentative description of economic relationships in Being Human utilising the concept of “open commensality” and table fellowship, “the difference between friends and enemies [in this communist context] is... often articulated through food—and often the most commonplace, humble, domestic sorts of food: as in the familiar principle, common in both Europe and the Middle East, that those who have shared bread and salt must never harm one another. In fact, those things that exist above all to be shared often become those things one cannot share with enemies.” The point here, then, is to forget communism as the dogma of 20th century political argument and sensationalist media portrayal and imagine it instead as a basic means of human relationship or even, as Graeber says, “as a principle of morality”. If we do that then we find it undergirds almost every kind of human relationship we can imagine, creating in-groups and out-groups as we go, a means to community and relationship.

Graeber’s next heading is “exchange”, something fundamentally about “equivalence” whereas communism was about a kind of mutuality as a morality of relationship. A further difference is that, unlike in communism, with exchange one can notionally end the relationship because there is always the sense of “keeping accounts” about exchange. Here it is not that what is exchanged is exactly equivalent [good luck ever creating a mechanism to accurately, correctly and minutely account for what is “exactly equivalent”] but that there is “a constant process of interaction tending toward equivalence.” Exchange, moreover is, and perhaps should be, an impersonal thing. It can, thus, be carried out between almost anybody because who you are doesn’t necessarily need to matter so long as you are prepared to enter into an exchange. Under the principle of exchange one can be friends for the duration of the transaction but, thereafter, its unimportant what you think about the other party concerned. This can in some places give rise to rituals or forms of haggling which establish such relationships as part of the process of exchange itself.

Exchange, then, can be a means of temporary economic relationship since, in making the exchange, we are debt-free with our exchange partner and, since all is regarded as even after the exchange is made, the relationship can [but doesn’t have to] quite legitimately end. However, exchange can be a means to continual relationship too but this then begins to suggest some kind of reciprocity in that, if someone brings things for exchange but you bring nothing regarded as equivalent, you then get a reputation as an exploiter or a parasite. Graeber here, for example, gives examples of Nigerian women who exchange things of never quite the same value which necessitate others bringing more things in turn, again not quite the same value, and so the cycle continues on. Here the key seems to be that things are close to equivalence in value and never either of too much or too little value that the exchange partner might take offence. Graeber sees this as a kind of “tit-for-tat gift exchange” and we can see it played out in societies of our own experience when, for example, I buy you a beer and then you buy me one. It might never be vocally expressed, but an account is being kept somewhere in our heads and we both know who has had what from whom and who “owes” what to whom.

Such behaviour, of course, can and does become customary and the feeling that you owe someone for something is palpable — if strictly unexplainable in uniquely economic terms. This, I think, hints at the natural sociability of the human animal and their need, even desire, to want to get along, here by means of the exchange of gifts, something which necessarily lubricates the social experience. But, as with communism, it seems to make a difference here that the parties to the exchange see themselves as themselves roughly equivalent or equal. What would it mean for the exchange, for example, if some king or potentate — or even just one of our growing number of billionaires — came and gave you a gift you could not possibly reciprocate? Would you imagine that you were expected to reciprocate in kind when it was obviously known that this was something you couldn’t do? As Graeber suggests, you’d likely imagine you were getting something for nothing instead to get yourself out of this situation since the alternative would be stressful to imagine. In this context, Graeber relates indigenous stories about those who give gifts on purpose to humiliate, either ones that can’t possibly be returned, or those so small as to shame the one who gave the gift that it was known in advance couldn’t be returned. Status, then, comes into it when one is talking about exchange and it is always the case that insult or injury can be around the corner if one has not thought in advance about what it is prudent to bring for exchange or how its to be reciprocated.

Yet the key differentiator here, in comparison with communism, is that exchange can come to an end whereas communism is imagined to be of ongoing and indeterminate length. This clearly makes a difference in terms of the relationships then imagined. For example, as Graeber notes:

“In exchange, the objects being traded are seen as equivalent. Therefore, by implication, so are the people: at least, at the moment when gift is met with counter-gift, or money changes hands; when there is no further debt or obligation and each of the two parties is equally free to walk away. This in turn implies autonomy. Both principles sit uncomfortably with monarchs, which is the reason that kings generally dislike getting themselves entangled in any sort of exchange. But within that overhanging prospect of potential cancellation, of ultimate equivalence, we find endless variations, endless games one can play. One can demand something from another person, knowing that by doing so, one is giving the other the right to demand something of equivalent value in return. In some contexts, even praising another’s possession might be interpreted as a demand of this sort. In eighteenth-century New Zealand, English settlers soon learned that it was not a good idea to admire, say, a particularly beautiful jade pendant worn around the neck of a Maori warrior; the latter would inevitably insist on giving it, not take no for an answer, and then, after a discreet interval, return to praise the settler’s coat or gun. The only way to head this off was to quickly give him a gift before he could ask for one. Sometimes gifts are offered in order for the giver to be able to make such a demand: if one accepts the present, one is tacitly agreeing to allow the giver to claim whatever he deems equivalent.”

Important to note here, however, is that “within communities, there is almost always a reluctance… to allow things to cancel out” and so exchange could often be a means of relationships carried out with “strangers” or “others” as opposed to those with whom you have to do every day. Exchange and a basic communism could sit side by side depending on who you were dealing with. [Graeber deals with “shifting between modalities” later in his chapter and I will address this further below as a consequence.]

But if both these former modalities of economic relationship have required or imagined some kind of equity or near equity of those concerned, Graeber’s third modality, hierarchy, does not. It will not surprise readers to learn that, as a consequence, no measure of reciprocity is required here at all. This is not to say, however, as Graeber notes, that it might not be presented as if reciprocity were a guiding ideal [as in the case of peasants providing food for lords who then provide their protection — Graeber’s example]. But, regardless of its presentation, reciprocity simply tends not to be the case in practice. As Graeber then suggests:

“Whenever the lines of superiority and inferiority are clearly drawn and accepted by all parties as the framework of a relationship, and relations are sufficiently ongoing that we are no longer simply dealing with arbitrary force, then relations will be seen as being regulated by a web of habit or custom. Sometimes the situation is assumed to have originated in some founding act of conquest. Or it might be seen as ancestral custom for which there is no need of explanation. But this introduces another complication to the problem of giving gifts to kings, or to any superior: there is always the danger that it will be treated as a precedent, added to the web of custom, and therefore considered obligatory thereafter.”

This is just one of the problems with relationships of hierarchy in that, due to the power disparity, what occurred once and was perhaps only ever meant to occur once, can be summarily imposed on the inferior by the superior forever thereafter. A gift sent to someone as a means of friendship or respect can then eventually become a requirement of tribute, for example. Graeber notes here, most interestingly, that matters of class, caste and identity are supremely important in hierarchical relations. Who and what you are identified as can result in you having to play a particular economic role as a consequence. In this case the scourge of essentialism is part of the intellectual apparatus of such a mentality’s operation since one actually has to be imagined to be the thing whose appropriate economic role one is then expected to play. So this is not a scheme in which one is imagined to be roughly the same — as in communism or exchange relationships — but one that absolutely relies on an essentialist understanding of difference that has material consequences. As a result, such relations seem not to be about squaring accounts but about performing roles or acting according to established [i.e. imposed] customs. And so:

“We can describe a simple formula here: a certain action, repeated, becomes customary; as a result, it comes to define the actor’s essential nature. Alternately, a person’s nature may be defined by how others have acted toward him in the past. To be an aristocrat is largely to insist that, in the past, others have treated you as an aristocrat (since aristocrats don’t really do anything in particular: most spend their time simply existing in some sort of putatively superior state) and therefore should continue to do so. Much of the art of being such a person is that of treating oneself in such a manner that it conveys how you expect others to treat you: in the case of actual kings, covering oneself with gold so as to suggest that others do likewise. On the other end of the scale, this is also how abuse becomes self-legitimating. As a former student of mine, Sarah Stillman, pointed out: in the United States, if a middle-class thirteen-year-old girl is kidnapped, raped, and killed, it is considered an agonizing national crisis that everyone with a television is expected to follow for several weeks. If a thirteen-year-old girl is turned out as a child prostitute, raped systematically for years, and ultimately killed, all this is considered unremarkable—really just the sort of thing one can expect to end up happening to someone like that.”

So here the essential relationship between the people concerned is always one of superiority and inferiority as a matter of social status and any transactions taking place between these positions are not quantifiable nor, in fact, do they seem to have any effect on what actually matters in such a social situation — the status of those concerned. This might be reinforced as in when rich people obsequiously — and very publicly — distribute their conspicuous wealth “to show how generous they are” but the point there is not to maintain a relationship so much as to demonstrate a social status. Thus, Graeber suggests that in economic hierarchies “the key principle seems to be that the sorts of things given on each side should be considered fundamentally different in quality, their relative value impossible to quantify—the result being that there is no way to even conceive of a squaring of accounts.” Here it is the reinforcement and demonstration of social statuses that is important rather than the calculating of the value of any exchanges or any ability to quantify them. Since the inequality is assumed, the need for any pretence of equality is wholly disposed with.

In making these three distinctions of communist, exchange and hierarchy Graeber does not intend to suggest that we are talking about “different types of society” here [a distinction which he describes as “dubious” to begin with]. Rather, we are talking about “moral principles that always coexist everywhere” and perhaps according to who we meet or are dealing with and where we meet them. Graeber refers to this as “moral accounting” which is a surprising notion when one might be preoccupied with the idea that it is actual accounting that is taking place. Thus, it is good to notice, in fact, that moral ideas, moral principles, have been underpinning this economic activity, this performance of relationships for economic purposes, all along anyway. When we engage in economic relationships, then, ethics and morality are [even if unseen or unrecognised] playing their part. Graeber’s explanation here, by the way, has been taking place in the context of our main way of understanding the morality of economics as a matter of reciprocity in order to make these relationships, in some way, matters of justice. We want to be able to think that our economic practices are fair [even if, in fact, they are not fair]. Thus, when we think about societies in the abstract we might be tempted to think, as Graeber points out many do, that “everyone plays their part” in some abstract accounting in which reciprocity means all ends up equal and just. This can even apply to the abstract understanding of hierarchies [even if it falls down when picked apart in detail].

Yet reality, of course, is always more complicated and the idea of something like a “market” is just one more abstract fiction [imagined by economists] utilised to “make sense of things” and bring some fictional mode of operation to bear [which we should never take too seriously] in order to bring order to an otherwise imagined chaos. However, “The problem comes when it enables some (often these same economists) to declare that anyone who ignores the dictates of the market shall surely be punished—or that since we live in a market system, everything (except government interference) is based on principles of justice: that our economic system is one vast network of reciprocal relations in which, in the end, the accounts balance and all debts are paid.” Of course, we probably need these fictions, in some sense, in order to build functioning communities — whether these be markets, communes, hierarchies or blood brotherhoods — but, in each case, we are talking about the ordering of relationships for the functioning, in some way, of communities. This is what economics functionally is and this is why they need their moralities in order to so function.


Let’s turn now to explicitly anarchist understandings of economics for the first time, having done some background work in the previous sections of this chapter. I begin here with Peter Gelderloos’ book, Anarchy Works, which we might describe as an introductory text in regard to anarchism that sets out some key understandings about it. The third chapter of this book expressly addresses “Economy” in an anarchist context and so is a good starting point. Gelderloos begins here by saying that “Anarchism is opposed to capitalism and to private ownership of the tools, infrastructure, and resources everyone requires for sustenance” and opposes to that “models… based on the principles of working together to fulfill common needs… rejecting hierarchy of all kinds.” As I have put this in the past, this is a refusal of privatised, profiteering, exploitative and authoritarian capitalism and a welcoming of a mutual aid which values things in common.

Yet a difference here is that Gelderloos [presumably for reasons to do with the purpose and aims of his book] is utilizing “in the anarchist future after the revolution” kind of thinking which I simply quite often reject. Gelderloos all through his chapter is contrasting how things are done now within capitalist understandings and how alternative [and imagined future] anarchist understandings would be different. This is somewhat strange when his own chapter is replete with multiple examples of alternatives to capitalism that are either happening now or have in the past. My point here, taking on board the “now but not yet” that many anarchists can get themselves sucked into, hypnotized by “revolution” as many become, is that we only ever actually have the present to act in. Dreams of future anarchist situations are all well and good but we have to resist becoming distracted or more simply inhabited by them and turning into harmless idealists forever talking about a future that never appears — like Evangelicals obsessed with the Rapture. As anarchists, I suggest, our actual focus should be wherever we are right now and, as good insurrectionists, subvert the present in its ideology, beliefs and practices by replacing them with our own, better ones. We change the future, economically as in any other way, by changing now.

Given Gelderloos’ approach, however, we must make some accommodation to the way he has chosen to write about economics in an anarchist sense as a better [future] alternative to capitalism [with which I, of course, agree]. Yet this does affect how he sets this prospective economics out. His first sub-heading, for example, is to ask, “Without wages, what is the incentive to work?”, a question which attenuates a similar question I have asked in online and offline discussions with others about some imagined tectonic shift from capitalist ways to “anarchist ways”. [Of course, following Alan Moore’s understanding of things I have set out multiple times in the past, I don’t accept this disjuncture either simply or at all. Its easy to see “anarchy” as what we have right now and the actual fight to be about what ethics and organisation shall predominate in it.] This, however, is a reasonable question to ask and, with a little bit of thinking about the answer, it should inform those asking it that a less capitalist or even non-capitalist situation would have different values and so end up with different results. There are any number of tasks people do now because they have been co-opted into a system of needs, desires and wants that capitalism itself sustains and generates. Yet, if we stepped outside of that system or it was dismantled, these things wouldn’t be the same anymore. This is to say that part of the operation of capitalism is the generation of desire so that capitalism can then step in and supply the thing desired it had itself suggested. [What do you think advertising is for?] All this requires money, of course, which is why people need jobs — in order to “keep up with the Joneses” and ride the wave of the next thing you’re told you’ve got to have according to the peer pressure of capitalist consumerism.

Capitalism, then, even for each individual, is a system of needs and their satisfaction that coerces people to take part in the system — regardless of how unhappy it makes us or how much extra we then need to make to satisfy the desires the system has generated in us. [For example, to be “a regular member of capitalist society” — and assuming you already have the expenses of your own dwelling to deal with — its quite foreseeable that you would need a car, TV, Internet connection, multiple electronic devices which connect to the Internet, subscriptions to entertainment channels, a mobile phone and subscription, etc. All these things have to be paid for, many on a rolling contract basis or with ongoing costs attached, which must be provided for as well.] This is to say that even being a member of capitalist society comes with a base level of costs that the system induces you to take on if you want to be seen as “normal” or not fall into a dangerously vulnerable underclass [and this is not even to take medical costs or emergencies into account either which all add to that baseline cost].

But all this then begs the question that Gelderloos asks under the guise of “if we abolish capitalism and wage labor” will anyone go to work tomorrow? It seems to me that the obvious answer here is “some will and some won’t” but I think it would be a very patchy picture because surely it would in large measure depend on how people feel about their jobs but it would also be affected by supply chains and the like crumbling and falling apart where people just didn’t turn up anymore. It would be hard to be a shopworker, for example, if what your shop sells suddenly isn’t being made anymore. Here Gelderloos is surely right to point out that “With the abolition of wage labor, only the kind of work that no one can justify to himself as useful would disappear.” In other words, socially necessary or useful tasks would survive [albeit in some necessarily new form of organisation in Gelderloos’ imaginary future scenario] simply because there are some basic things people need to have happening in order to exist. So work would not disappear but many examples of particular jobs would because such an imagined change would simply and necessarily produce new priorities and new forms of organisation to handle them.

The point to grasp here in answering this question, however [as I’ve attempted several times myself now in previous writings], is the change of ethos that would occur. This would be from capitalist exploitation of people and resources to “the logic… of mutual aid.” All those desires I’ve just talked about are desires generated by a very particular capitalist situation. But they are not anywhere near to universal even in the world we actually live in now. Not everyone has a car. Not everyone has subscriptions to online entertainment channels. Not everyone [and here I hold my own hand up] has a mobile phone [or wants one]. Capitalism encourages you to want things and to spend money in what, from a distance, is revealed to be a grand scheme constructed to drag wealth from the poorest towards the richest like a big magnet whilst simultaneously keeping them hooked up to the system and so caged within it. But its all an illusion of wants and desires. You don’t have to want what it tells you that you should want and, in fact, there are people everywhere who have broken the spell and who live differently, more simply, more authentically. Gelderloos himself, in fact, talks in Anarchy Works of his time in a Barcelona squatters network as one who “has survived for much of that time on less than one euro a day” as part of a greater “autonomous movement”. I myself can also testify to experience of similar things in two other European countries as well. [A later chapter of this book was written in tandem with people known to me in a squat.] As Gelderloos describes this situation:

“the great amount of activity they carry out within the autonomous movement is completely unwaged. But they do not need wages: they work for themselves. They occupy abandoned buildings left to rot by speculators, as a protest against gentrification and as anti-capitalist direct action to provide themselves with housing. Teaching themselves the skills they need along the way, they fix up their new houses, cleaning, patching roofs, installing windows, toilets, showers, light, kitchens, and anything else they need. They often pirate electricity, water, and internet, and much of their food comes from dumpster-diving, stealing, and squatted gardens.”

The point here is NOT to take capitalism as the standard of “how life should be” and then to measure any alternative against that standard — for that thinking already implicitly accepts that capitalism provides a standard of life we should all accept [which necessarily includes what it materially costs for it to be so]. The point, rather, is to ask after the cost and consequences of your lifestyle, of our community lifestyle, and to act accordingly as anarchists. It is then that a life modelled on mutual aid thinking [where this is the community mutual aid I describe in Building Communities and Defeating Capitalism rather than the parody of mutual aid as one of gifts of charity that helps an individual that I often see on social media] comes to trump the life of slavish capitalist consumerism that is exploitation for pleasure whilst half the world starves unseen. This, in turn, reminds us that “economics” — from the Greek oikonomia meaning “home management” — is about making sure that our communities are self-supporting entities rather than things that exist by exploiting unknown strangers somewhere else on the planet.

Oikonomia, in fact, is SELF-ORGANISATION as of its very essence and so self-responsibility as well. We would do well to learn this lesson now in order not to be deceived into thinking that an anarchist situation is like now when, for most of us, its very much not going to be. Its about creating a new, different kind of community that runs on anarchist values and so goes on to value things other than consumer goods and privatised luxuries produced by enslaved and coerced armies of wage labour across the globe. Thinking back to those squatters again, Gelderloos adds that “the squatters never stop to question activities that don’t put money in their pockets. It is evident that they have created a new form of wealth, and sharing what they make themselves clearly makes them richer.” This is because, as the squatters do things themselves and provide for their own needs, it becomes possible to provide for a community as well — and in more immediate and helpful ways than any capitalist system ever could. As such, they demonstrate that capitalism is a system held in place by force and that freer, more community-based alternatives are available for those who will reach out to grasp them.

Thinking of economics as “home management” helps us to reorientate the discussion about what good economics would be. This is important when focusing on Gelderloos’ next subject, the need [or lack of need] for “bosses and experts”. Of course, the more technologized a society becomes, the more experts it needs who know how the technology works. At least, it does if you want to carry on using that technology [and who, a priori, says you would?]. We need to remember here that an anarchist situation is not a capitalist situation so its by no means certain we’d want to carry on in the same way. Anarchism, as a set of ethics and organisational ideas, has no preference either for or against technology. In an anarchist situation, then, the motives for doing things have changed which is presumably why Gelderloos talks about dissolving the need for individuals with expertise in favour of communities with expertise. This not only avoids a professionalization of tasks but spreads the skills the community needs around so as not to rely on this person or that person too much. Here values such as solidarity and cooperation fully play their part in that, in an anarchist situation, its about working together to provide for common needs — and that’s all its about! Here ideas about small scale organisation [Gelderloos mentions the “Rule of 150” which posits that this is an upper limit on the number of people we can regularly work together and communicate with] and self-organisation come to the fore in terms of the “management of the home”, i.e. economics.

The point here, in fact, is expressly that we do organise our own communities and that we do take direct responsibility for them. As Gelderloos mentions under the sub-heading “Who will take out the trash?”, “in a localized, anti-capitalist economy, we could not externalize, or hide, the costs of our lifestyle by paying someone else to clean up after us. We would have to pay for the consequences of all our own actions — rather than paying China to take our toxic waste, for example.” In this context, such “unpleasant” tasks as taking out the trash would be communally shared out amongst everyone and this can even extend to other activities [which I don’t mean to necessarily describe as “unpleasant”] such as care of the sick, the elderly and children. The key to all of these would be communities which take care of themselves, take responsibility for themselves and organise themselves to cope with their needs. This, after all, is what REAL mutual aid actually means. It is a matter of creating community with genuine and authentic bonds of responsibility between each of its members such that activities which could be seen as “chores” are seen as vital to the community’s existence and continuation and as things that we must take responsibility for ourselves. Here we can see that we have definitively moved from a context of privatised life into one of necessary and responsible community. Areas such as healthcare and education are then obvious areas where this mentality would apply in that any expertise available to the community would have to be shared out amongst those who make it up so that the community would not be reliant on “the doctor” or “the teacher”. No longer things being operated for profit, they could become community endeavours in themselves that answer felt need rather than commercial or authoritarian demands. Anarchists have for decades now actually operated their own first aid and medical services in various times and locations and set up a number of schools. So none of this is impossible.

At this point Gelderloos wants to directly address the subject of technology [noting, by the by, that our societies have in recent centuries progressed from agrarian, through industrial, to a now technological phase]. Technology, however, is often something created to track and control us [even under the guise of connecting us with our friends or allowing us our own personal expression — so long as we don’t transgress the terms of service]. In terms of an economics of home management, Gelderloos seems right to say here that “we will have to physically disassemble much of the world we live in and build it anew.” This disassembling activity, it seems to me, would extend to everything from doorbell cameras which the cops can pull the footage from to economic supply chains which ensure that you can have your favourite food flown in from New Zealand to social media networks which collate and sell everything you self-report on for profit. Most of this shit is, frankly, stuff we could easily do without [the smartphone, as one example, is not even 20 years old as I write and life surely carried on before it] and which, in its use and function, is only actually coercing us to imprison ourselves in a capitalistic cocoon.

What we probably need instead, in fact, is communities that are less centralised, less controlled and less coercive as a whole [technology, more often than not, acts to centralise and control as part of its purpose]. The “stateless, anti-capitalist society” that Gelderloos refers to throughout his economics chapter will become a more equitable place as a consequence without a centralised reliance on technology and with a renewed focus on local relationships. Here talk about “gift economies” and “barter networks” and “free stores” [where stuff is collected together by the community and then people just come and take what they need with no questions asked] are only actually greater expansions of the squatters networks that already exist where, you’ve guessed it, people organise themselves to fulfill demonstrated needs. All this really takes, right here and right now in cities anywhere in the world, is people prepared to work together to make it so. The capitalist world is a place of huge waste and every day millions and millions of perfectly serviceable things are simply discarded or thrown away because their user has either got bored with it or a newer model has been announced. The same is true of basics like food and clothing which only need to be collected and shared out to provide for genuine needs. What is needed here is simply to get into the habit of living in an anarchist way — with anarchist values — instead of a capitalist way — with capitalist values. What needs to be created is a world in which “people have to take responsibility for all the costs of their own actions” which “removes the pathological insulation from consequences” which makes it easier to slip into capitalist ways than take up the responsibility of anarchist ones. The anarchist ideal is living a life your community can itself bear the costs of and so is one which motivates responsibility, organisation and counting the cost.

This brings us to “How will cities work?”, also a question I aim to tackle in my next chapter on anarchist ecology. Here, however, we are focusing on organisational things which promote the “home management” that is an economy. Gelderloos notes here that “Anarchists have some experience maintaining large cities; the solution seems to lie in maintenance workers taking over the organization of the infrastructure for which they are responsible, and neighborhoods forming assemblies so that nearly all other decisions can be made at a local level, where everyone can participate.” Yet, for all his talk of activists engaging in experiments in building protest neighbourhoods at various mobilizations organised around the meetings of the world’s industrial or financial powers, there does seem a measure of speculation to Gelderloos’ comments here as he falls too easily into the trap of imagining the future in an idealistic way. I must insist, however, that we have no idea what the future will be and neither do we have any idea as to what might happen to bring it about. The customary “anarchist revolution” which has miraculously rendered the entire earth anti-capitalist and destroyed all governments everywhere notwithstanding, it seems much more realistic to address current circumstances and stick to things we can do now to live in anti-capitalist ways more reminiscent of ideas of mutual aid.

Thus, it is more on point when Gelderloos discusses the fact of various shantytowns which exist, particularly in the global south, where “In addition to mutual aid, the anarchist objectives of decentralization, voluntary association, hands-on production rather than professionalization of skills and services, and direct democracy are guiding principles.” In this section of his chapter I particularly like the testimony he offers of people forced by circumstances in South Africa to become squatters in Capetown. Here some unknown person says of this experience that “The community is strong and we made it strong, living and working together, but we didn’t know each other when we first came here. This year and a half made us all a big family.” Human beings are very adaptable creatures [which is why they have inhabited almost every earthly habitat where many other creatures have not] and a spirit of togetherness and a will to survive — together — is not the least valuable resource in a such a circumstance. Such people can organise themselves in any way they choose [resulting in multiple ways to live] provided they are left alone to make their own economic and organisational choices.

What is then important in this respect is what Gelderloos calls “Meeting our needs without keeping count”, something David Graeber has also referred to multiple times as the “refusal to calculate” of various cultures. Capitalism, particularly as a culture of debt, something Graeber interrogates in great detail in his book of the same name, is almost entirely based on calculating, and subsequently ranking people as a result. These calculations act to order and hierarchicalise people in a society. It is also by such means that wealth, measured according to numbers, can be calculated and hoarded. Such a mentality produces a society which judges people based on how much they have got with more always being better. It encourages parasites and disincentivises community and solidarity. This, in turn, only then acts to alienate people from the imagined social order of things since the vast majority simply cannot take part or are cast as “losers” in the very same system. Such people have a “lack of control over [their] relationship with the world.” Capitalism, in fact, separates work from other human activities, as Gelderloos notes, and often judges people on if they have it or not and, if they do, in what way or circumstance. All this acts to individualise people and circumstances so that one becomes the enemy — or competitor — of the other in a battle for resources or oneupmanship or both. If Gelderloos’ ideas have suggested anything, however, it is that we must work together, perhaps in local communities of between 100–200, to organise our own affairs and take our own responsibility for our own lives. It is this to which capitalism stands opposed, wanting centralised control of the minutiae of our lives by means of waged jobs and consumerist ideals. Gelderloos’ contributions, in fact, highlight the choice he gave us right at the beginning of his chapter: capitalism or anarchism, helping each other or helping yourself.


It is ironic, then, that this next section of this chapter on economics is to be about “helping yourself” — that which is otherwise known as crime or, in more romantic terms from anarchism’s past, “illegalism”. Any police officers or intelligence agents reading now should note that, as throughout this book, I am no more recommending such a practice than I was recommending acting like the Sudanese Nuer from Graeber’s book or with regard to Émile Armand’s revolutionary nudism in a previous chapter. Anarchists make their own decisions and that is as true here as it is anywhere else so, all other considerations aside, its not even my place to tell people how to proceed with their own lives. And so I don’t; I just write about options and ideas and trust people will come to their own conclusions. I hope that’s clear, Officer Dibble!

That said, as we saw in my previous chapter on organisation, illegalism has a history in the story of anarchism — albeit that some wish it didn’t and others, historically and contemporaneously, try to argue that such people “aren’t really anarchists at all.” The American writer and journalist Paul Z. Simons — who was an illegalist anarchist of many years standing in his various activities around the world, including in Paris, Athens and Rojava — would not have agreed. In “Illegalist Praxis: Notes on a Decade of Crime” he talks about his “time in the worlds of the lawless” [with appropriate regard to any statutes of limitations. It is never very smart as an anarchist of any sort to start recounting in public the things you might be doing that are illegal and any anarchist smart enough to possess a modicum of self-preservation knows very well not to freely volunteer information that snitches, law enforcement agencies or simply disreputable people might take advantage of. In other words, realise that people are always watching, know who to trust and, more importantly, who not to trust].

Simons states in this brief recitation of his illegalist past that he never knowingly harmed anyone, something to be differentiated from harming property or other material harm. [Also a personal choice. Others would no doubt, and have, declared some people “legitimate targets” but their justifications must be their own and they must take responsibility for them. There’s no algorithm to set anything in stone here.] Simons also claims the majority of his illegality was driven by survival, sometimes desperation, and that he only reflected on their wider “political ramifications” at a later point. Thus, Simons seems to suggest that he was not criminal by conviction but out of necessity. He states between the lines that committing crime by confronting people was not the preferred option. Outsmarting people to subvert the system was much more preferable to him than outright confrontation — with all the latter’s potential for going wrong and ending up in person on person violence. Burglary, then, is preferable to robbery, acting out of the sight of prying eyes better than stealing in broad daylight with people around. Stealing what you directly need is OK but stealing money of course means that you can exchange it for anything as and when you need it. Simons claims to have stolen as much as $5,000 in one burglary and as little as $300 in another. As Simons has it, illegalism is about using your smarts to survive, exploiting the exploitation which is capitalism. He ends his brief recitation [of what turns out to be 1990s crime] with, “In my mind crime functions as a resonance between politics, desperation and fun. And what better way to triangulate insurrection? Many Happy Escapes.”

Yet Simons has also offered a wider view on illegalism in his article from the journal Modern Slavery [where he also went by the name El Errante and often contributed articles in the years before his sudden death in 2018] entitled “Illegalism: Why Pay for a Revolution on the Installment Plan…When You Can Steal One?” which is a brief and particular history of illegalism in anarchism. Here Simons begins with the origins of illegalism, Western Europe in the twenty years either side of the beginning of the twentieth century [i.e. 1880–1920] and particularly in Italy and France, noting that, for the illegalists, “crime became an accepted activity” of some significance for:

“Passage into the illegalist milieu portended a commitment that encompassed the condemnation of all law, all morality, a rejection of both virtue and vice. It established a terrain of activity that by definition was beyond the purview of all social institutions and accepted relationships — the landscape of the illegalist was a place where the insurrection had already been fought and won.”

Simons also notes, however, that illegalism — crime — is of particular significance for anarchists because it tickles several anarchist G spots. It is, for example, perhaps the most individualist of activities, both in the doing but in the desire to do. It needs no permission from others and neither would such illegalists seek it [a complaint we briefly referred to earlier in the organisational chapter]. Yet such illegalists were also highly communicative and bonded with others of their milieu since you need to know who to trust. Simons also points out that, since illegalism is a matter of putting your neck on the line every time you do it, it demonstrates to the anarchist that freedom, all of anarchism’s aims, in fact, are not going to fall from the sky, having been delivered by the stork, but are material matters of physical action carried out by real people. [As Emma Goldman earlier said in this book, then, direct action of this sort shows who has a backbone and who does not.]

But, at the same time, illegalism is a matter of great controversy within anarchism since anarchists, who I have tried to argue at length myself are naturally ethical people [anarchism itself being an ethical thing], are bound to have views on its ethicality — or not. There are, in fact, multiple examples throughout history of one kind of anarchist snitching on another kind because something they were doing tweaked their ethical nipples in the wrong way. Illegalism is one such activity which can presage that in more squeamish others. Thus, back in historical context, Simons says that “the Left, which has always asserted a monopoly on morality, was as outraged as the politicians and the press of the dominant society when anarchists started cracking safes and shooting bank tellers.” In a brief but very insightful analysis, Simons argues that the “illegalist versus the rest” anarchist history has been repeated multiple times whether the other side was the syndicalists, anarcho-communists, Bookchinite social anarchists of the 1990s — or to be found in arguments about the various “occupations” of the fledgling 21st century and what actions are thought appropriate or inappropriate [particularly where violence is concerned]. There are seemingly always anarchists whose vision of anarchism does not include running around stealing stuff or more furtively relieving various organisations of their inventory — as David Graeber also referenced in my discussion about direct action above.

Simons, however, intimates that illegalism goes more to the heart of anarchism than some, perhaps even many, anarchists would like to admit. It is, of course, a definitive disjuncture with wider society and, as such, makes things a bit too real for all those people for whom anarchism is a nice fluffy [and, unfortunately, largely inconsequential] utopia to settle down into. As already noted, illegalism demonstrates the implicit consequentiality of anarchist praxis, the very fact that it is actions done in the real world which change things. Illegalism acts as a beacon pointing out that, in fact, to act as an anarchist will necessarily at some point become illegal [for no government is going to stand by, unresisting, as you take its power away or redistribute wealth] and so illegality is, in fact, a Rubicon every anarchist must ultimately have to face crossing. Perhaps some cannot make that crossing and suddenly their anarchism is revealed as a pleasant dream they don’t have the material stomach for. But, either way, illegalism wakes up the anarchist dreamer to the consequences of the dream.

An excellent example here is the French illegalist, a man who bombed a Paris cafe in 1894 killing one and injuring twenty, Émile Henry. His five page “defence” of his actions before his execution, thankfully preserved for all time in written form in various places, is a concise, emotional and fundamentally logical explanation for a crime many would at least regard as distasteful. Today, of course, Henry would be a simple terrorist, the scum of the earth. But his reasoning tells another story. Primary here is that Henry does not seek to escape blame for his crime. He admits it and owns it. He says that his attack was not on individuals but on “society”. Yet he refuses the right of others to judge him for “I acknowledge only one tribunal — myself, and the verdict of any other is meaningless to me.” Henry, when he committed the crime, had not been an anarchist for long — barely 3 years — yet in that time he had had his eyes opened — according to his own testimony:

“teachers in the present generation too often forget one thing; it is that life, with its struggles and defeats, its injustices and iniquities, takes upon itself indiscreetly to open the eyes of the ignorant to reality. This happened to me, as it happens to everyone. I had been told that life was easy, that it was wide open to those who were intelligent and energetic; experience showed me that only the cynical and the servile were able to secure good seats at the banquet. I had been told that our social institutions were founded on justice and equality; I observed all around me nothing but lies and impostures.

Each day I shed an illusion. Everywhere I went, I witnessed the same miseries among some, and the same joys among others. I was not slow to understand that the grand words I had been taught to venerate: honour, devotion, duty, were only the mask that concealed the most shameful basenesses.

The manufacturer who created a colossal fortune out of the toil of workers who lacked everything was an honest gentleman. The deputy and the minister, their hands ever open for bribes, were devoted to the public good. The officer who experimented with a new type of rifle on children of seven had done his duty, and, openly in parliament, the president of the council congratulated him! Everything I saw revolted me, and my intelligence was attracted by criticism of the existing social organization. Such criticism has been made too often for me to repeat it. It is enough to say that I became the enemy of a society that I judged to be criminal.”

Henry at first became a socialist but soon saw through socialists as people who simply wanted to be at the top of the rotting pile of society instead of those who already were. Then he met some anarchists and these were comrades much more to his taste. Having the stamp of personal authenticity, he was hooked and became an anarchist. Of this, he says:

“I brought with me into the struggle a profound hatred which every day was renewed by the spectacle of this society where everything is base, everything is equivocal, everything is ugly, where everything is an impediment to the outflow of human passions, to the generous impulses of the heart, to the free flight of thought. I wanted to strike as strongly and as justly as I could.”

And so he began his bombing career. He struck against those he considered exploiters or collaborators [which means, of course, that Henry developed a philosophy of legitimate targets]. He says: “I wanted to show the bourgeoisie that henceforward their pleasures would not be untouched, that their insolent triumphs would be disturbed, that their golden calf would rock violently on its pedestal until the final shock that would cast it down among filth and blood.” Henry came to see that “The whole of the bourgeoisie lives by the exploitation of the unfortunate, and should expiate its crimes together.” His cafe bomb was his second and Henry speaks of it in the following terms:

“The bomb in the Cafe Terminus is the answer to all your violations of freedom, to your arrests, to your searches, to your laws against the Press, to your mass deportations, to your guillotining. But why, you ask, attack those peaceful cafe guests, who sat listening to music and who, no doubt, were neither judges nor deputies nor bureaucrats? Why? It is very simple. The bourgeoisie did not distinguish among the anarchists. Vaillant, [another anarchist bomber] a man on his own, threw a bomb; nine-tenths of the comrades did not even know him. But that meant nothing; the persecution was a mass one, and anyone with the slightest anarchist links was hunted down. And since you hold a whole party responsible for the actions of a single man, and strike indiscriminately, we also strike indiscriminately.”

Henry continues with his reasoning of the crime in the following terms:

“Perhaps we should attack only the deputies who make laws against us, the judges who apply those laws, the police who arrest us? I do not agree. These men are only instruments. They do not act in their own name. Their functions were instituted by the bourgeoisie for its own defence. They are no more guilty than the rest of you. Those good bourgeois who hold no office but who reap their dividends and live idly on the profits of the workers’ toil, they also must take their share in the reprisals. And not only they, but all those who are satisfied with the existing order, who applaud the acts of government and so become its accomplices, those clerks earning three or five hundred francs a month who hate the people even more violently than the rich, that stupid and pretentious mass of folk who always choose the strongest side — in other words, the daily clientele of Terminus and the other great cafes!”

Thus, Émile Henry took very seriously the commitments that ordinary men and women had made in simply living their lives and he determined to make people responsible for them even where they, most likely, had never even given it serious thought themselves. Henry believed that people were responsible for their choices, their lives and lifestyle, and the material consequences they had. It was a strike of desperation, to be sure, but one in which no one could claim innocence and in which the chains of consequence are revealed. People, by the ways they either knowingly or not knowing live, create the circumstances for millions of other lives. Should there be no reckoning for this, no responsibility? Should people just imagine the world becomes as it is by itself, divorced from human actions? Henry clearly thought not. Henry confronted the people at large with his actions and his words when he states: “At least have the courage of your crimes, gentlemen of the bourgeoisie, and grant that our reprisals are completely legitimate.”

In this, Henry did not really expect to be understood yet he did what he did and he justified it with this statement that he gave before his execution. I mention it now not because it has some great economic lesson to teach us, but because it gives a glimpse into the motives of the illegalist, persons who have entirely thrown off the very idea of a “social contract” and who see around them exploiters and their collaborators, the latter a much greater group than the former but one, at least in the judgment of Émile Henry, who were no less guilty and so no less culpable. It was for this reason that other illegalists, ones who fancied themselves brigands or bank robbers, would shoot and kill cops and bank tellers alike.

Thus, as Simons points out, illegalists were those who had determined that the insurrection had come and they were going to actualise it in their very own actions. Of this, Simons says:

“they were not very interested in propaganda by the deed, rather they wereconvinced that the deed itself, the robbery, the assassination, was the insurrection. The point was not to educate the masses towards the social revolution, but to realize their insurrection here, now and for no one else but the individual, and possibly the union of egoists that she surrounds herself with — the herd, the collaborators — be damned.”

But not all illegalists were like this, of course. In what can tend to be a quite individualistic branch of anarchism the illegalists would set their own terms of service, as it were. For example, Simons talks of one Marius Jacob who, together with some others described as “alienated from the world of work”, banded together to form a group they dubbed the “Workers of the Night”. As Simons describes this group, Jacob:

“used the term ‘pacifistic illegalism’ to describe this new twist on anarchist activities. Jacob and his band evolved a simple though powerful set of guidelines, one does not kill except to protect one’s life and freedom from the police, one steals only from social parasites like bankers, bosses, judges, soldiers, the clergy, and not from useful members of society like doctors, artists or architects. Finally, a percentage of the proceeds were to be donated to anarchist causes, depending on the choice and tastes of the illegalist doing the stealing and the giving. Jacob and his gang proved to be cunning and successful burglars.”

This will hopefully seem to my readers somewhat more economically based than the activities of Henry but Marius Jacob and his colleagues were really only doing the same thing as Henry, if with more precise stipulations in regard to targets and purposes. Jacob, like Henry, however, came to realise that it was a losing game and the forces ranged against the illegalist were likely to catch up to them in the end. But, in committing their various acts, they both saw them as justified as individual anarchist acts of either expropriation [in Jacob’s case] or reprisal [in Henry’s]. Simons tells us that in general, and not merely in regard to these two specific examples, “The illegalists… were less interested in social revolution than they were in living in a state of rebellion.” Those who used violence or stealth for the acquisition of funds, “viewed their crimes as a means to an end, as a way to pay the rent and also as bringing the social revolution that much closer to fruition by supporting anarchist causes.” In a similar way today we might argue that such thought accrues to all the millions of employees who avail themselves of their company’s inventory for private gain or the furtherance of political ideas. Simons quotes Max Stirner in this regard [Stirner being a not inconsiderable influence on the illegalists when The Ego and Its Own was translated into French] when he says:

“If people reach the point where they lose respect for property, then everyone will have property, as all slaves become free people as soon as they no longer respect the master as master.”

Émile Pouget’s journal Père Peinard was a further influence at this time [Simons calls it “the most widely read working class anarchist periodical”] and it was described contemporaneously as:

“play[ing] upon the appetites, prejudices, and rancours of the proletariat. Without reserve or disguise, it incited theft, counterfeiting, the repudiation of taxes and rents, killing and arson. It counselled the immediate assassination of deputies, senators, judges, priests and army officers. It urged … farm labourers and vineyard workers to take possession of the farm and vineyards, and to turn the landlords and vineyard owners into fertilizing phosphates … it recounted the exploits of olden-time brigands and outlaws and exhorted contemporaries to follow their example.”

A fine set of examples for economic survival, I’m sure readers will agree. Yet there is the sense here, as Victor Kibalchich [later Victor Serge] would write as a contributor to the French anarchist publication l’Anarchie, that: “The anarchist is always illegal — theoretically. The sole word ’anarchist’ means rebellion in every sense.”

I shall skip over Simons’ recitation of the various activities of the perhaps most famous of all the illegalists in France — the Bonnot Gang — to concentrate on the more economic points here. Being an illegalist does not necessarily mean blowing up random cafe goers or holding up the bank with some pantyhose or a balaclava over your face and a pistol in your hand. In fact, if you are smart [and clearly not all the illegalists were or are] you should be trying to get away with your ill-gotten gains with as little human interaction as possible. Shoplifting is a very common form of illegalism practiced worldwide and, if its for essentials like food or clothing, can even elicit a measure of general public sympathy. Squatting or pirating things — from electricity to the Internet — are also obviously illegal yet can be practiced without interference for some length of time without discovery if you have the guts to try. The point is that acting against the law is one means of economic survival in a world that demands payment. It may not be a complete solution [and it surely attracts attention sooner or later as the constant police raids on places like squatters in Berlin demonstrate] but it is another tool in the arsenal for the anarchist, a means of survival that requires some measure of bravery [which is self-actualisation and self-responsibility] and makes your anarchist existence both real and of consequence.

But it also has something to say, as an economic strategy, about organisation as well — as Simons points out towards the end of his article. Here we note:

“the turning on its very head of the question of organization, which usually begins with the question, ‘what type of structure shall we create?’ The illegalists, however, in the example provided by their activity began with the question what shall we do, what activity is required for the successful realization of this project? Then based upon what it is that a group is seeking to accomplish, the structure required to realize the activity comes into being. Each of these solutions then is also tempered by the principle of its ability to realize the needs and desires of the individual, to safeguard her autonomy against the ever present likelihood that organizations will tend to blunt and ultimately deny the sovereignty of individual in favour of the growing power of the collective, especially with the passage of time.”

Illegalism, then, is an example of a type of anarchism which is not focused on the creation of an organisation — and keeping it intact at all costs — but on activity-focused organisation which might come together to achieve something — like a theft or a burglary — but then immediately dissolve upon completion of that task, the people who came together to achieve it then at arm’s length from each other, nodes on a network, perhaps, but never people joined at the hip, an organisation that can be undermined simply by getting at the organisational body in some way. Here we can recall the earlier chapter on organisation where infiltration was a real threat and now see how organisation by activity is inherently safer and limits the interaction to certain activities rather than making people inseparable or tied to an organisation. The Invisible Committee, in an even earlier chapter of this book, were paranoid and obsessive about the dangers of the organisation that only exists to further itself and, in illegalism, this is revealed as both a genuine concern and an operational weakness. The “discipline of indiscipline” — as Buenaventura Durruti called it — can have its advantages and not the least of these is the minimisation of administration and oversight. The illegalists, then, focused on TASKS as a means of economic organisation and we should take this under advisement.


I want to move this chapter towards its conclusion now with some reflections on the thoughts of a man who most certainly was not in favour of illegalism, however. That man is Peter Kropotkin. But don’t imagine for a second that this means Kropotkin was a man who was against “expropriation” for things are not quite as simple as that. For example, take his January 1887 piece “Act for Yourselves” from the UK’s Freedom newspaper, a publication he helped to set up and which is still going today. The piece is written around the question, which he claims anarchists are often asked, ““How will you organise the future society on Anarchist principles?” Kropotkin’s answer is as follows:

“if there is among the working classes a strong minority of men who understand that no government ― however dictatorial its powers ― is able to expropriate the owners of capital, and this minority acquires sufficient influence to induce the workmen to avail themselves of the first opportunity of taking possession of land and mines, of railways and factories ― without paying much heed to the talking at Westminster ― then we may expect that some new kind of organisation will arise for the benefit of the commonwealth.

That is precisely the task we impose upon ourselves. To bring workmen and workmen’s friends to the conviction that they must rely on themselves to get rid of the oppression of Capital, without expecting that the same thing can be done for them by anybody else. The emancipation of the workmen must be the act of the workmen themselves.”

Just in case readers haven’t understood what Kropotkin thinks is required he repeats it again later on in the piece when he says, “The first conviction to acquire is that nothing short of expropriation on a vast scale, carried out by the workmen themselves, can be the first step towards a reorganisation of our production on Socialist principles.” And then he does it again, saying, “no government will be able ever to undertake the reorganisation of industry, unless the People begin themselves to do it by taking possession of the mines and factories, of the land and the houses, ― in short, of all those riches which are the produce of their own labour.” Then he talks about “dispossessing the owners of land and Capital” before closing his piece with a recitation of the French Revolution which made a difference, not the one of 1871 and the Communards, not the one of 1848, but the one of 1789 in which, says Kropotkin, the self-liberating French peasants “took possession of the enclosed lands and began to till them.” From Kropotkin’s point of view in this piece, then, his economic suggestion seems to be quite straightforward: working people should rise up and take possession of their workplaces, whether fields, factories or mines, and retain the wealth of their labour for themselves [regardless of laws and Parliaments].

Such views as these have become the standard narrative for social anarchists or anarcho-communists — and Kropotkin, who always loved a good metanarrative of human history, is largely to blame for that [although Bakunin and Malatesta would have major roles to play too]. Yet if much that Kropotkin wrote has since become a “standard narrative” herein, I think, lies the danger for, it seems to me, anarchism must ever remake itself anew in the lives and experiences of those to whom it makes sense who must then take it and remake it in their own image. In this respect, it further seems to me, Kropotkin can come across as naive and bookish, too confident in what he regards as “science and history” — which in his mind leads to the inevitable victory of Anarchy. He tends to lay down a general plan, one to which all seemingly must find their way, for this, so it seems, is just what he imagines the culmination of history to be. If we get things right, so Kropotkin seems to say, then anarchism will be the natural outcome [perhaps, reading his book Mutual Aid, because this is the natural tendency or outcome of evolution]. The problem with this, of course, is that things aren’t as simple as that.

Take Kropotkin’s piece from an edition of Freedom from 1890 entitled “The Permanence of Society After the Revolution.” Set aside, of course, that its “the revolution” — imagined as a wholesale change in the nature of society everywhere — that’s the aim here. Kropotkin is surely right to begin by suggesting that, “The only way in which a state of Anarchy can be obtained is for each man who is oppressed to act as if he were at liberty, in defiance of all authority to the contrary, and evading or overcoming by force all force by which he is opposed or pursued. The liberty of each is created by his taking it.” But he then goes on, in one of his metanarratives of human history, to argue that the “original condition” of humanity was “communistic” and that the eventual overcoming of the State, which “has never been anything else but a machine for robbery, except a machine for, in addition, arbitrary suppression of free thought, speech and action”, will result in a condition of Anarchy from which society can never be rolled back [i.e. we only actually need one revolution once]. Here Kropotkin’s faith in human evolution [mirrored in his Ethics and Mutual Aid] is made plain in that, “We see no reason, therefore, to suspect that either the old state of things or any other that is similarly injurious will arise when once the institutions that now oppress humanity are made a clean sweep of, but, on the contrary we see reason to believe that the accomplishment of the Revolution will mark the dawn of a new epoch in human progress.” Humanity is always moving forward, it seems, and apparently altogether at that, according to Kropotkin.

I cannot claim to share Kropotkin’s optimism. Its over 130 years since Kropotkin wrote these two pieces and, his suggestion that freedom and anarchy were just around the corner, the natural outcome of human progress, set aside, things now could hardly be said to be any better than when he was alive and writing. More to the point, metanarratives — such as his anarchism clearly was a part of — have fallen out of favour and become almost completely unbelievable. [Nietzsche was writing at almost exactly the same time as these pieces were being written and telling us that God is dead — and we can include the idol called “human progress” in that as well.] So, being appropriately oriented in the shadow of a postmodernism which did away with such things after Nietzsche, I say “So they should be!” But if the revolution as the glorious ending to an overarching story about human evolution is now old hat, what about the mechanisms which Kropotkin spoke of as the means to it and its prosperous continuance thereafter?

Kropotkin, as is probably well known in anarchist circles, did more than most to argue an economic case for the anarchistic existence of the masses. Put together Kropotkin’s Mutual Aid, Fields, Factories and Workshops and The Conquest of Bread and you have it before your eyes. Put together a natural and necessary helping of one another with “the combined interests of science and industry, and consider both as a means for raising humanity to a higher level” and we would create a natural economy which was an example of the very “human progress” he imagined anarchism to embody. The second of those three books in fact, Fields, Factories and Workshops, aims to show, in Kropotkin’s scientific way, how “the greatest sum total of well-being can be obtained when a variety of agricultural, industrial and intellectual pursuits are combined in each community; and that man shows his best when he is in a position to apply his usually-varied capacities to several pursuits in the farm, the workshop, the factory, the study or the studio, instead of being riveted for life to one of these pursuits only.” It is interested in “the economy of energy required for the satisfaction of human needs” and “the advantages which civilised societies could derive from a combination of industrial pursuits with intensive agriculture, and of brain work with manual work.” Here, in the face of a capitalism increasingly addressing a world market [which has only ever increased since Kropotkin first wrote] “To return to a state of affairs where corn is grown, and manufactured goods are fabricated, for the use of those very people who grow and produce them — such will be, no doubt, the problem to be solved during the next coming years of European history. Each region will become its own producer and its own consumer of manufactured goods”, but, further to this, “it will be its own producer and consumer of agricultural produce” as well.


“Supposing, then, that each inhabitant of Great Britain were compelled to live on the produce of his own land, all he would have to do would be, first, to consider the land of this country as a common inheritance, which must be disposed of to the best advantage of each and all — this is, evidently, an absolutely necessary condition. And next, he would have to cultivate his soil, not in some extravagant way, but no better than land is already cultivated upon thousands and thousands of acres in Europe and America. He would not be bound to invent some new methods, but could simply generalise and widely apply those which have stood the test of experience. He can do it; and in so doing he would save an immense quantity of the work which is now given for buying his food abroad, and for paying all the intermediaries who live upon this trade. Under a rational culture, those necessaries and those luxuries which must be obtained from the soil, undoubtedly can be obtained with much less work than is required now for buying these commodities.”

Should we switch from Fields, Factories and Workshops to The Conquest of Bread we find that “Every society, on abolishing private property will be forced, we maintain, to organize itself on the lines of communistic anarchy. Anarchy leads to communism, and communism to anarchy, both alike being expressions of the predominant tendency in modern societies, the pursuit of equality.” Here we see again Kropotkin’s [scientific] optimism; the conclusions are argued on the basis of a logic he would like to convince you is irresistible — even when its not. This logic is the logic of an inevitable anarchist communism, such that “we find in all modern history a tendency, on the one hand to retain all that remains of the partial communism of antiquity, and, on the other, to establish the communist principle in the thousand developments of modern life.” Therefore, “when business is conducted on communist principles, when labour, having recovered its place of honour in society, produces much more than is necessary to all — how can we doubt that this force (already so powerful) will enlarge its sphere of action till it becomes the ruling principle of social life?” Thus, economically, if for no other reason, “we are convinced that our first obligation, when the revolution shall have broken the power upholding the present system, will be to realize communism without delay.”

But note, as I hope you have been doing, that when Kropotkin talks about “communism” he is talking about a general practice of such a thing. His language is most normally about a kind of universal communism. He talks about countries taking up communistic organisational economies not individuals, small groups or isolated communities. This is the import of the idea with which this all begins, the revolution, that working people seize the workplaces and the land and the houses and begin orientating their labour towards their own communities in the practice of communism. This is to say that the only “illegalism” Kropotkin seems to find necessary is that kind which arbitrarily possesses the means of production and reorientates it towards the survival and maintenance of the people at large in every place where this revolutionary change occurs. His solution to the question “How shall we live as an anarchist society?” is to answer by saying that we shall simply divert all those things which already exist — farms, factories, workshops and all — to supporting the people on the basis of a philosophy other than capitalism, i.e. anarcho-communism. And so he writes his Ethics and his Mutual Aid more to justify the spirit or philosophy in which this more practical idea should take place than as ends in themselves. Kropotkin regards the ethics of mutual aid as a matter of a community working together [economically as much as in any other way] and not as the disjointed begging for individual needs which it manifests as on many occasions today. Kropotkin’s point is that whole societies become communist and provide for themselves via the already existing means of production — appropriately reorganised and redirected — and so no one is in want anymore. This is simply to say that people should create communal and communist economies to which the whole contributes — and from which it also benefits as a whole as well.


With this idea we sort of come full circle and end up back with Gerrard Winstanley and the Diggers for what Kropotkin and Winstanley have in common is doing things in common, doing things communally. And so it is with various ideas of “commonism” that I want to end this specifically economic discussion. This, to take up the ideas put forward by Jeff Shantz in his book Commonist Tendencies: Mutual Aid Beyond Communism, is about creating “infrastructures of resistance” or “the common building of real world alternatives” [to exploitative capitalism]. This, of course, is not a fair fight. There will always be rich exploiters ready to donate proportions of their vast, extorted fortunes to the effort of making sure the world stays as it is [whether its from Bill Gates or surviving Koch brothers or someone else] — and that without mentioning the governments already doing that anyway. We, in comparison, mostly have only ourselves. The point here, however, is that we need to be constructive [metaphorically and actually]; we need to “intervene within relations of production” as Shantz puts it. We need to produce alternatively and create economic movements which can actually support the lives of real people. This is what my pamphlet Building Communities and Defeating Capitalism was in fact all about and the mutual aid it discussed — knowingly in the context of Kropotkin’s understanding of this and insisting that mutual aid is COMMUNITY BUILDING, the creation of lasting communal relations — was the point. Here Gerrard Winstanley’s idea of a “common treasury” and the corresponding English post Civil War idea of a “common wealth” are very much ideas in play that are taken seriously.

Of note here is that it is the “commonism” [something to be regarded as distinct from communism] which is the factor in focus. It is not coincidental, for instance, that the Diggers occupied common land nor that their philosophy was one of a “common treasury”. Similarly, with the ideas of Kropotkin, his philosophy of an anarchist communism at large is based on holding a society’s resources in common. Mutual aid, even more to the point, is the commonism of establishing or instituting common relationships between people such that society as a whole is reconstituted. Such anarchism, economically speaking, is the eradication of the private or centrally controlled in favour of the common. Here, as Shantz points out:

“The reference to the commons means the collective lands and resources to which all have had access in meeting human social needs for almost all of human history on the planet. It speaks to the rootedness of humans as part of nature—an ecological as well as social consciousness. For commonists, the reference means even more specifically the common lands and resources that sustained peasant life in England in Western Europe historically, but which were stolen through violent (and legalized) practices of enclosure—in processes which Marx calls primitive accumulation—running from the late middle ages up through the present”

There are, in fact, all kinds of commons to which we could appeal and many of them are hidden from us simply because, in a privatised, capitalist world, we are increasingly unaccustomed to the idea that they could even be things in common. How about water, the atmosphere, fisheries and forests, for example? These do not belong to anyone [or, at least, shouldn’t] but we know that companies like Nestle have campaigned for years against the idea that something as basic as water is a human right, a natural resource no one can own or regard as private property. Instead, they want to steal it from us and sell it back to us for their private profit. Yet, further to this, there are imaginable commons of food, welfare, health, education, communications [both in terms of transport and networked communications of telephone and Internet] which are also easily imaginable. The very basis of life and health could be within our grasp on a commonist basis if only we worked to that end, including things like free communal transport and free telecommunications networks [including free public broadband]. Why does this make sense? Well, not least because these things are regularly provided by collective human labour and/or involve collective human care of the things concerned. So why shouldn’t they be regarded as commons, things which it is in all our interests to preserve and share out amongst us, as Gerrard Winstanley would have put it, “without respect of persons”?

Of course, we should not be naive here. The wise anarchist knows very well, as the likes of Kropotkin, Malatesta and Goldman did too, that that which has become possessed under a logic of private possession will not just be handed over. This is one reason why so many of the international anarchists held in high esteem utter variations on the theme of people “emancipating themselves” from their material circumstances. This has, of course, also continued up until the present day so that Jeff Shantz can realistically point out that:

“Struggles over common lands and other common resources remain at the heart of vicious struggles waged in the twenty-first century. Contemporary neoliberalism operates according to a logic of new enclosures. The model of privatization of public services and institutions and the dismantling of social services pursues the enclosure of public resources—a portion of the surplus value produced by proletarians. It is an offensive against the para-commons, those collective resources wrestled from capital as part of previous rounds of social struggles and institutionalized (and controlled) within the auspices of the planner state. Neoliberalism seeks an extension of commodification into all spheres of social and ecological life.”

The capitalist task here [which we must, as anarchist insurrectionists, seek to resist] is the commodification and private ownership of EVERYTHING — the entire eradication of the commons. So just as I suggested in Building Communities and Defeating Capitalism that mutual aid is the kryptonite of capitalism — in that it destroys and destructs the relationships it seeks to maintain — so here, in this context, it is joined by the idea of a commons that is the kryptonite of private acquisition and private ownership, a refusal to parcel out the stuff of life either to private individuals or corporations or into the hands of any privatised or centralised control. This is a recognition that life itself exists “in common” and that erecting privatised barriers to this exerts an authoritarian influence over the interplay of life itself. In this we see why Gerrard Winstanley, in his writing, linked the idea of life lived together on common land with the idea that the Bible, in its primordial myth, never gave people authoritarian rights over other people. The earth, for Winstanley, the recognition and realisation of heaven on earth, was to be a common treasury without respect of persons. Commonality requires equality as well and the extinction of both private property and authoritarianism. These are the types of community — for ethical, organisational and economic reasons — which we must try to create following similar logic to that which Winstanley himself employed.

Here, using appropriately anarchist vocabulary, we are not talking about “privatization”; we are not talking about “commodities” or “property” — as if things were defined by ownership of them. We are not in the business, in the commons, of having things for sale or creating a market — much less seeking any profit for our efforts. Instead, we are seeking to create functional networks that consist fundamentally of human relationships based on the ideas of mutual aid and the commons [where accounting doesn’t really take place]. Indeed, as Shantz notes, “commonism” as an idea is the idea of “multiplication of commons”, that is, things held in common. At base, then, what we seek is a change in practice based on a changed set of values, an idea which itself is something you have consistently heard from me before and something wholly in sync with the idea that ethics, organisation and economy all flow together for the anarchist. What I am saying here is that we should create the networks of relationships that orientate themselves by means of these values and then we will be able to build the material networks that make them physical realities. Some call this “dual power” but whatever you call it its still not really much more than building human arrangements to satisfy the needs of human communities based on the economic values of mutual aid and the commons.

This, in fact, is how communities fundamentally at odds with the ideas of authoritarianism and capitalism move beyond one off protests or insurrectionary attacks to creating longer term entities which challenge the hegemony of these things on an ongoing basis. If genuinely anarchist communities [not just in terms of identity claims but in terms of actual praxis] will survive then they must do so by living out their anarchism as the material basis of their existence [as, for example, squatters do]. Mutual aid and commonism as a whole should be major planks in the construction of that effort and the commune — however it is configured by those who constitute it — should be the place where this happens. This effort, then, cannot be anything other than something which changes the whole of your life and which requires complete dedication. This is “an insurrection of subjectivities at the level of the common” that breaks “conventional relations of political belonging”. An anarchism of mutual aid and the commons [something which, coincidentally, does not forget my earlier categories of “the gift” and “open commensality” in Being Human but fully incorporates them] is an entirely other conception of social and economic existence to that which has been taught most of us in lives submerged in authoritarianism and capitalism.

A social economy of mutual aid and the commons is about unity in diversity and autonomy, solidarity and cooperation; it “develop[s] new infrastructures for shared social life, seeking a commons together.” You might call this a “solidarity economy” or a “mutual aid economy” but readers should be in no doubt that ideas as seemingly simple as mutual aid and the commons are being seriously put forward as the basis of a workable shared common life — without becoming unnecessarily structured or institutional about it. Indeed, were I David Graeber, I’d probably now already be telling you about the millions of people who already practise commonist and mutual aid ideas in their lives as a matter of course in various enterprises based on cooperative labour and gift exchanges. One only has to think of emergencies right in the heart of authoritarian and capitalist spaces, for example, to see the willingness of people to give things away according to need rather than greed, to take no account rather than to make an accounting. I myself witnessed and took part in this in the earliest stages of the Covid outbreaks in Europe, as did many other quite ordinary people of political conviction and of none.

Yet in many respects this recognition of the need for an ethic of mutual aid and the realisation of the multiplication of the commons is a struggle to overcome our induced alienation to such ideas. Both authoritarianism [seen in leaders but also in the idea of private property] and capitalism [the idea, amongst other things, that we should always be calculating profit and loss] set up and instantiate a certain set of human relationships which we will need to reconfigure and create anew according to our own anarchist values if we wish to materialise them in the world. Yet first we need to realise that we may have become alienated from sharing, from cooperating, from working together in solidarity with one another or from regarding the results of cooperative human labour or the natural world as what Winstanley called a “common treasury”. These might not be small matters to overcome and we should not underestimate the conditioning effect which human fictions can have over us. If you’ve been taught all your life to have a leader, that economic exchanges are about profit and loss and that everything has, and should have, a monetary worth, then you are, quite logically, very much likely to think so too and will need good reasons to abandon such ideas.

The anarchist, of course, thinks she can provide just such good reasons but changing your life from one economy to another, with all its incumbent ideas and practices, is not necessarily an easy thing to do. Movements themselves, however, are also the creation of a sort of commons and this is why forming communities of like-minded people — however closely or loosely connected is up to those concerned — is the way to go. Consistently throughout this book I have argued that direct action — a kind of action with definite anarchist pedigree — is what we need to instantiate in order to progress our anarchist insurrection. It is no less true in the economic sphere where we must directly act to set up our own economies and to spread their logic throughout the communities we inhabit starting from the ones we create in the relationships that we form. Anarchists, in fact, due to their values, should be uniquely positioned to bring spontaneous economic order of a kind that is closely correlated with needs to bear on multiple kinds of situation. After all, it needs no special apparatus or conditions but merely a will to mutual aid and to the idea of the commons. In such ways we realise Kropotkin’s intentions for mutual aid, that it “would represent an interwoven network, composed of an infinite variety of groups and federations of all sizes and degrees… temporary or more or less permanent… for all possible purposes.”

As Jeff Shantz then has this, commenting on Kropotkin’s idea of mutual aid in a commonist context:

“This highlights a crucial feature of commonist approaches. Commonism is not about the drawing up of social blueprints for the future. Similarly anarchists, to this day, have been quite reluctant to describe the ‘anarchist society.’ Instead, anarchists have tried mainly to identify and understand social trends or tendencies, even countervailing ones, by which social relations can be sustained over time outside of states and capital. The focus is resolutely on manifestations of the future, post-statist, post-capitalist community, in the present.”

This, in fact, is exactly what mutual aid is supposed to be, the creation of a community, consisting of networks of human relationships, which provides for each others’ material needs. The point here is not simply that this creates a possible new future but that it can and does do so as a present insurrection against the economic circumstances forced upon us. It is how we fight back. This, of course, goes further in the direction of all the anarchist verities about direct action and having to emancipate yourselves about which we have already spoken. It is not about the creation of arbitrary bodies or institutions of oversight. It is not about helping an individual but doing nothing about the circumstances which create such individuals to begin with. At least, in my vision here its not. This is why I have very much wanted to focus on the creation of human relationships rather than institutions or individuals. Relationships, it seems to me, are both more flexible and less inclined to authoritarianism than such things. We would do well to remember Malatesta’s warning to Makhno that there is no point in succeeding if its not something of genuinely anarchist character that succeeds. What is of anarchist character is an anarchist community of relationships and that seems like a good and achievable aim, one in which people come together, work together and survive together.

Thus, I see no reason why we should necessarily be forming economic institutions when economic human relationships — matters of fitting into a mutual aid network or some kind of cooperative effort that provides for material needs — will do just as well and are perhaps more suitable and responsive to the many situations of capitalist fracture and oppression that we inhabit today. I seek to find a balance, then, between so-called social anarchist ways and more individualist ways based in entirely free and voluntary association perhaps better modelled by the illegalists who came together to complete a task but did not then consider themselves joined at the hip with those they’d worked together with. If we have an ever-expanding mutual support network of relationships made up of people possessed of anarchist values, a community of people committed to doing what they can, where they can, for some agreed common purpose — a mutual aid form of commonism — then we can forego more formal connections and each can find their place within the network of relationships itself whilst simultaneously taking note of the needs, experiences and desires of the community concerned. This will not necessarily be a matter of just being self-supporting, however, but will also reach out to help others generally as accords with the idea that a new way of living for everybody is being born. We should seek to incarnate anarchism, and anarchist values, wherever we are in the world just like Winstanley did with his ideas but we should do it for ourselves whether anybody else joins us or not. We should thus fully accept the idea that “we protect us” but we should also look to make the “us” concerned as wide and inclusive as possible.

As in Building Communities and Defeating Capitalism, my model for this is still my friend Lara Nasir. In the time I have known her she has gone from being a houseless person herself to someone who daily receives parcels and packages of all sorts of supplies she has openly canvassed for on social media in order to meet local needs in her community. I have also lately seen her talking about growing her own food in a community garden and she regularly encourages people to steal things for community good. In the same time period I’ve noticed her networking with an ever greater number of people to coordinate such services-by-relationship, regularly putting out requests for a bigger vehicle so she can do more and storage space where supplies can be kept safe. She has also built genuine relationships with all the people this regularly brings her into contact with as a result, giving the growing mutual aid network a wider reach as a result. I give the example of Lara here, as before, not because I say “this is how it should be done” but to show that it can be done and that all it really needs is the will to act, to coordinate, to take responsibility and take part. This, in fact, is what I have been saying throughout this chapter that an economy is: a set of human relationships where we choose to materially support one another to our common benefit and organise ourselves so to do.


“We are projects of collective self-creation.” — David Graeber and David Wengrow in The Dawn of Everything


What is anarchist ecology? The question, on first appraisal, seems strange and bizarre to me; I doubt that there might even be such a thing. Ecology? Yes, this certainly appears to be a thing. But what would make ecology “anarchist”? What about an “anarchist ecology” would make it any more ecological than a “regular” ecology? Would simple ecology be lacking and require an anarchist extra to be more acceptable, either to anarchists or anybody else?

These are interesting questions to ask in a chapter following on from one that took major inspiration from Gerrard Winstanley’s idea of “the earth as a common treasury”. This idea seems to hit the right ecological tone in that it all seems very integrated, harmonious, holistic. But such ideals, utopian or otherwise, cannot but invite comparison with the situation of our own time and place where the earth is anything but “a common treasury”; instead, it is disputed territory, privatised, enclosed land, natural resources being bled dry, being squeezed until the pips squeak. Go to the supermarket today and you’ll more than likely find tasteless fruit and veg, hormone-injected meat and any number of foods artificially bulked up with water or containing the exploitative cash crop, palm oil. Industrialised farming, in the opinion of many, has totally ruined our food [and, increasingly, the environment its grown in], the part capitalism has to play in this being unavoidable. Indeed, it is capitalism as exploitation that an anarchist analysis of the environment might point to as the number one ecological issue. Where politicians and a tame media try to spin constant capitalist growth as the panacea to all problems [yes, even with things like “green technologies” or “green growth”], others say that growth and a healthy ecology are simply incompatible and something has to give.

When I turned to thinking about the subject of “ecology” in order to write this chapter at first I thought about the few “environmental” things I’d written before. It has not been one of my major topics of interest [some might well say “more’s the pity” there as they would about the attitude of most people in the world to the same subject] over the years but it is something I have occasionally felt the need to comment on. When doing such commenting its usually been in the realm of ideas. An example here is “Is it right to eat meat?” to which I have usually answered “yes” because, from a philosophical perspective, I cannot find good enough reasons to say anything else. Yet, as I’m sure vegans and vegetarians would be quick to point out, eating meat has a huge ecological effect when done on the scale, and in the way, that it is today. It is significantly contributing to our climate problems. Meat-eating is not simply [or even] an abstract philosophical question. It has both global climate consequences and consequences for the millions of animals involved which are treated as mere objects of industrial production. In these contexts, answering the abstract philosophical questions only is to avoid responsibility for the material consequences.

In thinking about what I might say here, then, I had to own up to the fact that, in the past, I’ve only really addressed some issues and not others — perhaps as if abstract philosophical musings settled all the practical questions. Clearly, this was wrong, my own personal form of cop out. Consequently, I simply have to get my hands a little more dirty here. But, at the same time, I want to continue steering a course that is about values and ideas rather than one that tells people they should be doing this and that. That is to say that I want to leave the “what should I be doing?” to you, the reader, which, according to my anarchist values, is exactly where it should be left. So I’m not going to tell you to become vegan, become a caveman [or cavewoman], construct an eco-friendly toilet system for your house or live in a bunker [which all might be things that you yourself decide are very good things to do]. Instead, I want to stick with asking relatively big questions as a framework for your own thought and action. The question at hand is “what is anarchist ecology?” and so it seems best to answer it intellectually but also in ways that some kind of appropriate practice can flow from.

So, as I say, when I started thinking about “ecology” for this chapter I thought back to things that I had said before and, doing this, I pretty soon got to the idea of “civilization”, something which, I must be honest, it seems to me impossible to ignore if one wants to have any thoughts about ecology. It is, I suggest, the elephant in the room, something with which ecology of any sort must reckon. But it then struck me that civilization does not have a very good reputation in the things I write about it [not least because of the sources I have, so far, read on the subject] and a good example of that is the latest example of that [before this one], the essay from The Anarchist Arrow I wrote using the pen name “Eco Anarchistus” that was titled “An Anarchist Must Say What Only Anarchists Could Say: Civilization Sucks!”. As this was the most recent thing I’d written on the subject of civilization I read it back to myself to see where I’d been in my thinking when I wrote it. And, I must be honest, I shocked myself, reading it back, due to its negativity.

When you come to consider civilization, even what it is is a disputed subject. The essay I refer to starts off not by defining what civilization is but by asking random people on Twitter if “civilization is a good idea”. Over two thirds of my correspondents said no which suggests to me that, whatever else many other people think civilization is, they don’t think its a good thing. The essay then goes on to address what civilization might in effect be — both for general intellectual sense and in order to perhaps explain why people have a downer on it. One correspondent to my poll here, for example, describes it as “the concept of people gathering together and forming communities.” Other references I call up — from the fields of “green anarchy”, “anti-civilizationists” and “post-civilizationists” — include “the logic, institutions, and physical apparatus of domestication, control, and domination”, “a way of life based around growing urbanization and the social relationships that result”, and as something “unsustainable” which “probably cannot be salvaged, and what’s more, it would be undesirable to do so” which is about “the entirety of the modern world’s organizational structures and approaches to culture.”

Saura Agni, meanwhile, describes civilization as “The internalized systems of domestication: morals, rules, laws, orders encoded into our psyche by parents, schools, religions, social norms, and spectacular illusions”, something which is “the history of conquest, murder, rape, robbery, lies and wholesale destruction” whereas Wolfi Landstreicher says that “the characteristics shared by all civilizations [are]… domination, genocide and environmental devastation to name a few.” Margaret Killjoy is even more specific when she says that “Civilization has been defined in all sorts of ways, but none of them actually make it sound very good when you think much about it.” I could have easily found 50 other people, in broadly green anarchist or anti-civilizational sources, to say pretty much the same things without referring to prophets of anti-civilizational extremity such as Derrick Jensen or John Zerzan [about whom more will inevitably follow].

In such an essay as that, then, with sources like that, it is no surprise that I described myself as a “post-civilizationalist” [as opposed to an anti-civilizationalist — you cannot go back to the beginning, you can only go beyond where you now find yourself]. I even said [and in regard to which I now blush in my ignorance] that “if you look at civilization as an anarchist then you behold something that an anarchist could not remotely justify.” This now seems to me to be far too harsh and unfocused. This is not because I now think civilization is great. It is because I have developed my understanding of “civilization” since I wrote that sentence and that essay. I do say some pertinent things in that essay that I would stick to my guns in regard to [primary amongst these is that in calculating the value and worth of “civilization” one has to count its costs — what it takes to create, maintain and sustain it — as well as its imagined benefits] but, at the end of the day, I also make a fatal error in not giving due weight to the fact that “civilization” is not a monolithic thing [however we choose to describe the general idea] and it has had multiple examples in earth’s lived history. There are civilizations and not simply just a one-size-fits-all civilization. On reflection, my hit piece on civilization and why we need to get rid of it was a quite legitimate attack on our Western, capitalist, authoritarian civilization which I foolishly thought did away with the concept of civilization tout court. But it didn’t.

Enter Davids Graeber and Wengrow who, over the years, have had quite a lot to say about civilization and civilizations, both separately in their own works and latterly together in what might turn out to be their joint magnum opus, The Dawn of Everything: A New History of Humanity [about which more later on]. If, as a random example, we look at Graeber’s preface to Abdullah Öcalan’s Civilization: The Age of Masked Gods and Disguised Kings [volume one of a project called “Manifesto for a Democratic Civilization”] we find a couple of “myths” about civilization that can be told. The first is the one about naive and egalitarian hunter/gatherers, “innocent of power and dominance”, who become corrupted by agriculture and the invention of cities [civilization, so Graeber says here, “in the literal sense” simply meaning “people living in cities”] which is about “violent inequalities as the price of human progress”. This is a myth which Graeber and Wengrow are seeking to overturn in The Dawn of Everything. The second myth is “the Myth of Aryan invaders” which is a tale of a matriarchal civilization “across the Fertile Crescent and beyond”. In this second myth cities are less problematic and it is not insignificant that it is because it is imagined women played a huge role in shaping such civilization that this is the case. Graeber points to the prevalence of feminine artworks [without masculine equivalents] as here of note. Into such matriarchal positivity the entry [or “incursion”] of Aryan patriarchalism can only bring disaster. The second myth is the one developed by Abdullah Öcalan in his own book.

When we come to David Wengrow we find some measure of positivity about “civilization” — at least if we take his online essay “A History of true civilisation is not one of monuments” — published in 2018 — as a fair summary of his views. Here Wengrow, who also brings Syria into the argument as Graeber did, naturally enough, in commenting on Öcalan [Wengrow has an academic history in archaeological study of the Ancient Near East], first refers to the French anthropologist, Marcel Mauss [also a favourite of Graeber’s] who “thought that civilisation should not be reduced to a list of technical or aesthetic achievements. Nor should it represent a particular stage of cultural development (‘civilisation’ versus ‘barbarism’, and so on). Civilisation could be found in material things, but above all it referred to a potential in human societies.” Seemingly taking Mauss as the example which sets his own direction, he continues that, for Mauss, “civilisation is what happens when discrete societies share morally and materially across boundaries, forming durable relationships that transcend differences.”

Developing this understanding of civilization for himself, Wengrow passes through stereotypical understandings of “early civilization” as “deeply stratified societies, held together mostly by authoritarian government, violence and the radical subordination of women. Sacrifice is the shadow lurking behind this concept of civilisation” and argues that “’civilis’ [the Latin from which we get ‘civilization’] meant those qualities of political wisdom and mutual aid that permit societies to organise themselves through voluntary coalition.” This ends up in his own suggestion that “mutual aid, social cooperation, civic activism, hospitality or simply caring for others: these are the kind of things that actually go to make civilisations.” Wengrow then goes on to say that “small prehistoric communities formed civilisations in the true sense of extended moral communities” and this notion of civilizations as “extended moral communities” is a fruitful idea we will have to consider more of as we go along in this chapter. [Linking up with Öcalan and Graeber, Wengrow also says that “women, their work, their concerns and innovations are at the core of this more accurate understanding of civilisation” but investigating that more will have to wait until later on in this chapter too.] Wengrow’s ideas of “civilization” are more to do with an emotional, intellectual, cultural and practical moral togetherness than they are to do with the apparatus of domination and exploitation. And that should give us pause for thought as the disputed nature of “civilization” is brought to light.


It should, in fact, give us so much pause for thought that we go on to interrogate at greater length this idea “civilization” for it seems to me of primary importance in an ecological debate to ask the question “Ecology of what?”. The answer that I come up with to that question is “the ecology of a civilization or civilizations” and so we need to understand what this is before we can talk about its ecology. Since we are with Wengrow at the moment this seems as good a place as any to start and not least when we can look at his book entitled What Makes Civilization? [which, coincidentally, Wengrow confirmed to me in a Twitter conversation was the book that began his joint work with David Graeber when Graeber himself read it, liked it, and contacted the author thereafter, initiating their consequent collaboration] which seems like a book set to provide an answer. So let us interrogate Wengrow’s book in this regard and see where it takes us.

What Makes Civilization? is not a long book but, using the examples of Mesopotamia and Egypt in the 3rd century BCE, it gives a fairly straightforward and clearly set out definition of what Wengrow regards “civilization” as being. Noting that these places hosted “the first really large-scale political entities to emerge in human history”, Wengrow wants his book, amongst other things, to be “a reflection… on the concept of ‘civilization’ itself.” Thus, he begins with observations and questions when he says:

“Civilizations, we are often told, are entities of vast scale and long duration, operating over and above individual nation-states. But it is nation-states that undertake wars in the name of civilization, and routinely demand sacrifices so that a familiar form of civilization—our way of life—will continue, and not be consigned to history. In the turmoil of such conflicts, it is difficult if not impossible to step away from the immediacy of our own circumstances and reflect upon what it is that is being defended. Are we talking about abstract values, such as freedom and democracy, or concrete realities, such as the way we present and clothe our bodies in everyday life, or the manner in which we cope with death?”

Here Wengrow sets up the opposition between “abstract concepts” and “concrete practices — ways of making and doing things” which seem involved in the idea of “civilization” and even in his preface he makes it clear that a major focus of his filling out of the notion of civilization will be the idea of interaction between peoples as opposed to their previously imagined isolation. Here he states that, “Civilization, if we are to retain that term, should then refer to the historical outcomes of exchanges and borrowings between societies, rather than to processes or attributes that set one society apart from another.” Interaction makes civilization anything but isolated autonomy. Yet here Wengrow can also link civilization to:

“the desire for universal history; a history that transcends written records, extending back in time to the origins of our species, outwards in space to encompass the full range of contemporary human diversity, and—at least in its early formulations—onwards into some improved future condition.”

Interrogating the concept of civilization historically, however, Wengrow suggests that, “In origin… civilization was a profoundly optimistic concept, whose adherents believed fervently in the natural tendency of human history towards a synthesis of scientific reason and moral progress.” He seems to agree that Europeans tended to think of history as a “civilizing process” — although this seems based on the early European colonials imagining themselves as those engaging in a “transformation of a barbarian periphery” [“civilization” then always seems to need its binary and other, the uncivilized]. This became based, as I suggested in Being Human when talking about racism and eugenics in chapter six, on comparing non-Europeans being “discovered” with the Europeans themselves. And the more like them you were [so they thought] the better. This could be regarded as a cultural measure of “civilization” [we are civilized — so we think — and you are too if you’re like us] yet, as Wengrow goes on to say:

“At the height of nineteenth- and early twentieth-century imperialism, the idea of civilization as a quantity that can be identified to a greater or lesser extent in all human societies achieved the status of scientifically verifiable fact. Racial type—measured and classified on the basis of phenotypical features such as skin colour and skull form—came to be regarded as an accurate indicator of a population or individual’s place within the spectrum of ‘civilized’ and ‘non-civilized’ peoples. The status of the ancient Near East as a ‘cradle’ or ‘birthplace’ of civilization was paradoxical in this regard. It reserved an exalted role for this region in the making of the modern world. But it also implied that civilization had since moved on, from ancient Near East to modern West.”

Wengrow then offers, in passing, two definitions on “civilization” from two other academics, the first, from Harvard professor Samuel Huntington, argues that civilization is “a cultural entity… the highest cultural grouping of people and the broadest cultural identity people have short of that which distinguishes humans from other species” whilst the second, from French anthropologist Marcel Mauss, says that “The history of civilization, from the point of view that concerns us, is the history of the circulation between societies of the various goods and achievements of each.... Societies live by borrowing from each other, but they define themselves rather by the refusal of borrowing than by its acceptance.” Wengrow is firmly in favour of that definition which regards civilization as a Maussian “circulation” rather than a culture’s isolated difference and his book is then an attempted demonstration of how the historical civilizations of the Euphrates and the Nile demonstrate this by and through their interactions with those round about them — including each other. His conclusion returns to the Maussian theme, however, in two quotes I take from there. The first emphasizes identity and that interaction need not mean homogenization:

“Certain basic notions of how the world should be made and ordered—by keeping the house beautiful or the body pure—remained constant (and constantly distinct) in these two regions for thousands of years, despite the interactions between them, and despite changes in almost every other field of life.”

The second is a purely historical conclusion:

“Civilizations, from the perspective of history, are shown to be the outcome of mixtures and borrowings, often of quite arbitrary things, but always on a prodigious scale.”

Yet Wengrow leaves us with a conundrum [which The Dawn of Everything — written together with Graeber — might be intended to answer]:

“by elevating civilizations to the pinnacle of human achievement, or seeking to orientate our future around an idealized image of what they might become, are we not simply raising up new gods where old ones have fallen?”

If civilization becomes a standard or a judge is that necessarily a good thing?


We move along now to the French anarchist and geographer Elisée Reclus, a man who, in his own multi-volume scholarship at the end of the nineteenth century and the beginning of the twentieth, waxed lyrical on the subject of human beings and the world at some length, gaining a somewhat ecological reputation [not least among some later anarchists] for doing so. Here I particularly want to take note of some of his comments on cities taken from his last major work L’Homme et la Terre [Humanity and the Earth], another multi-volume text which showcases his geographical, ecological and political concerns in the most integrated text of his life.

Reclus, in his scholarship, demonstrated a tendency to see both the good and the bad in things and it is also the case here in his appraisal of cities originally found in volume 5 of L’Homme et la Terre. He notes that:

“All the railing against cities by their critics is justified, as are all the encomiums of those who glorify them. How much lifeblood has gone to waste or even been destroyed by hatred, in these cities of foul air, deadly contagion, and chaotic struggle! But is it not also out of these confluences of humanity that new ideas have burst forth, new works have been born, and the revolutions that have delivered humanity from its gangrenous senility have erupted?”

But, by the same token, we must also ask [not least after Gerrard Winstanley in the last chapter], “Who put an end to the commons? Who reduced and then abolished entirely the rights of usufruct? Who clear-cut the forests and the moors, depriving the peasant of the fuel he needed? Who built walls around property to mark well the establishment of a landed aristocracy?” Reclus, in general, however, refuses to be forced into either a “cities are uniformly good” or “cities are uniformly bad” cast of thought. Thus, on the one hand, he can note that, “Growing by the day or even by the hour, like octopuses extending their long tentacles into the countryside, these cities indeed seem to be monsters, gigantic vampires draining the blood from men. But every phenomenon is complex.” On the other hand, however, he says that, “the chariot of civilization continues to move forward through the ages... When cities grow, humanity progresses, and when they shrink, the social body is threatened with regression into barbarism.” We may note here that Reclus, in this latter comment, equates cities with civilization and also contrasts them with “barbarism” as former colonials might have and as Wengrow earlier suggested Mauss did not.

Reclus is keen to see cities as thriving hubs of human life and, as such, he regards each as having their own “personality”. Consider, for example, the following:

“Each city has its unique individuality, its own life, its own countenance, tragic and sorrowful in some cases, joyful and lively in others. Successive generations have left each with its distinctive character. And each constitutes a collective personality whose impression on each separate person may be good or bad, hostile or benevolent. But the city is also a very complex individual, and each of its various neighborhoods is distinguished from the others by its own particular nature.”

Reclus thinks this means cities can be judged “as individuals” [their “historical development” and “private and public architecture” being quite unique] and this allows him the liberty to give the following commentary:

“One can note the dominant elements in a city’s character and judge the extent to which its influence has on the whole been either useful or detrimental to the progress of the populace that lives within its sphere of activity. Many cities are quite obviously devoted to work, but some of these differ markedly from others, according to whether local businesses operate in a normal or a pathological manner: whether they develop in conditions of peace, relative equality, and mutual tolerance, or whether they are instead carried away by the turmoil of furious competition, chaotic speculation, and brutal exploitation of the working class. Some cities can be seen immediately to be banal, bourgeois, routine, lacking in originality, and lifeless. Others are clearly designed for domination and overwhelm the surrounding countryside. They are tools of conquest and oppression, and on seeing them one experiences feelings of spontaneous horror and dread. Other cities seem completely antiquated even in their modern sections. They are places of shadow, mystery, and fear, where one feels overcome by feelings of another age. On the other hand, some cities seem eternally young. They inspire joy, their humblest structure has originality, the homes are cheerful, and the inhabitants have a poetic air and contribute to humanity their own, unique way of life. Finally, there are all the cities that have many faces, in which each social class is found in distinct neighborhoods that reflect its condition, and where attitudes and language change only slowly over the centuries.”

This appraisal seems to validate Reclus’ earlier suggestion that cities can be for good or ill and have both positive and negative effects — also not forgetting, of course, that, “Geography is not an unchanging thing, but rather something that makes and remakes itself constantly. It is continually modified by the actions of men.” Yet the city may also be viewed as a biological organism as in the following commentary:

“every new city immediately constitutes, by its configuration of dwellings, a collective organism. Each cell seeks to develop in perfect health, as is necessary for the health of the whole. History demonstrates that sickness is no respecter of persons; the palace is in danger when the plague rages through the slums. No municipality can ignore the importance of the thorough rehabilitation of the city through street cleaning; the establishment of parks with lawns, flowers, and large shade trees; the rapid disposal of all refuse; and the supply of an abundance of pure water to every house in every neighborhood.”

Therefore, it follows that, “We must learn how to sustain the life of the city and endow it with perfect health and utility, in the same way that loving hands restore the well-being of a sick person.” But this as not easy as the city, by its simple existence, generates waste and filth. So, “Unfortunately, we are far from having found effective and standardized methods for the disposal of sewage and household garbage, and for the purification of sewage water, either by chemical treatment or by its rational use in agriculture, and too many municipalities seem not even to be concerned with such questions. The adoption of road surfaces that produce neither dust nor mud, and, in general, the efficient organization of transportation, also have an important influence on public health.” The commentary about sewage hits home particularly in the case of UK people where, currently, it has been made public that, throughout England at the very least, privately owned water companies have regularly been discharging raw sewage into most if not all major rivers and along coasts as a virtually habitual practice due to an ageing sewerage system of Victorian origin. Such practice is illegal but seemingly tolerated whilst the companies pay their shareholders billions in dividends in a spectacular example of the opposite of what Reclus was eager to suggest.

Reclus is himself somewhat more idealistic than corporate polluters, however, as his next comment shows:

“To judge things correctly, we must recognize that every question of municipal governance is inseparable from the social question itself. Will we see the day when all people without exception can breathe fresh air, enjoy the full sunlight, delight in the pleasant shade, savour the fragrance of roses, and generously provide for their families without fearing that they cannot put food on the table? When this day comes, and only then, cities will be able to realize their ideal and transform themselves in a manner that corresponds exactly to the needs and desires of all. They will finally become perfectly healthy and beautiful organic bodies.”

This positions cities as entities of social good in a holistic sense, an evaluation which chimes perfectly with Reclus’ stated attitude to world geography more generally throughout his scholarly work. This is almost eulogised, in fact, in the following commentary which, once again, riffs on the downside of cities but brings this into dialogue with the apparent human need for close and regular social contact:

“It is quite natural that many should react against the awful swallowing up of people, the wholesale degradation of character, and the widespread corruption of the naïve souls who brew in the ‘infernal vat.’ Accordingly, some reformers call for the destruction of cities and the voluntary return of the entire population to the countryside. In an enlightened society that resolutely wills a renaissance of humanity by means of a life in the open country, such a revolution, the likes of which have never been seen before, would surely be a real possibility. If we estimate the area of the habitable lands that are pleasant and healthy at only one hundred million square kilometres, then two houses per square kilometre, with seven or eight occupants in each, would be adequate to house all of humanity. However, human nature, whose first law is sociability, would never adapt to such a dispersion. Certainly, we need the rustling of trees and the babbling of brooks, but we also require association with other people and, indeed, with all people. The entire globe becomes for humanity a great city that alone can satisfy us.”

This brings a “cosmopolitan” idea to mind in a way reminiscent of that “world citizen” with which I began this book, Diogenes. He, of course, was equally at home in city or country and treated both imposters, if I may phrase it this way, just the same. Reclus consequently ends his commentary on cities in prophetic guise, arguing that “urban agglomerations of ten to twenty million inhabitants” will become “a normal part of our social life”. He has been proved right but I wonder if he imagined that the vast majority of the world’s biggest cities would end up in the global south, as is today overwhelmingly the case? Given Reclus’ tendency towards biologistic metaphors for the city, one must then naturally ask after the health of such places and, indeed, the health of the world in general.


Another person who would have been in sympathy with the idea that “every question of municipal governance is inseparable from the social question itself” would have been Murray Bookchin. Bookchin grew up in communist circles, being a child of Russian Jewish parents in New York. By his late thirties, and having studied Marxism [a lingering influence on his ideas] and been involved in workplace activism, he would come to think of himself as an anarchist. In the 1960s he was amongst the first to publicly take on ecological and environmental issues, blending them with political commentary in what would go on to become his dual agendas of social ecology and libertarian municipalism. Bookchin had a complicated relationship to existing schools of thought, however, finding throughout his life that none of the revolutionary theoretical approaches of the left could hold his ideas. For most of the active years of his discursive life being some kind of social, eco or communist anarchist, he would, for the last seven years of his life, describe himself as a Communalist in an attempt to differentiate his thought from both communist and anarchist forebears which were historically revolutionary traditions he ultimately found fault with. What is important to note here, however, is that, whatever Bookchin might be discussing in the over 20 books he would end up publishing, he was still, in his own mind at least, talking about the same subject. Bookchin could in fact go from discussing the history of civilization to philosophy to political theory to anthropology to ecology to distinguishing between good and bad types of anarchism — but his vision was holistic and so it was all meant to fit together into one grand story in his mind somehow.

Bookchin, in fact, is probably the ideal person to discuss in the context of civilization and ecology since much of his concern was bringing the two together theoretically in order to imagine a future synthesis of benefit to humanity but which didn’t destroy nature in the process. In terms of his thought and approach, he stands in a tradition of scholarly revolutionary thought that would find Kropotkin and Reclus also amongst its numbers in that all three wanted to combine revolutionary ideas with solid rational science. Rationality, in fact, was one credit that Bookchin actively sought for both his own work and for human societies in general. In later life, he became very dismissive and critical of anarchist currents [which he often insulted as individualist or irrational] which he saw as indulgently primitivist or mystical or technophobic. [His mid 1990s book Re-Enchanting Humanity is his open attack on these and other traits he does not like such as “postmodern nihilism”.] Bookchin had a confidence in humanity and humanity’s rationality to solve its own problems which makes him a genuine utopian in a way that seems, to this writer at least, somewhat naive. Bookchin, it is worth pointing out at this point, would have found the kind of book I am writing here — and the interpretation of insurrectionist anarchism I am putting forward — childish and inadequate. So it is also worth noting here that when Bookchin finally abandoned anarchism he took the view that it had, in some respects, been faultily attached to some forms of individualism all along [even though he continued to argue that his own Communalism was actually the outgrowth of such historically revolutionary traditions as communism and anarchism — which his views are actually his own synthesis of].

When we come to look at Bookchin’s ideas specifically we find his suggestion is that the solutions to the enormous social and ecological problems we face today fundamentally lie in the formation of a new citizenry, its empowerment through new political institutions, and a new political culture. “Communalism” [the capital “C” is important since its distinguishes Bookchin’s views from other “communalist” ideas] is Bookchin’s attempt to formalise a coherent body of ideas and, in my conception at least, heads in the direction of the “let’s make a plan” type of thinking that I have rejected as too rigid in the past. Bookchin’s ideas also include the formation of institutions in his “municipalist” ideas, Bookchin conceiving that the city is that entity best placed to be the site in which revolution can foment itself and take root. Bookchin conceives that the problem with our politics to date has been hierarchy and in his political ideas he proposes to exchange this for participatory democracy in a decentralised confederation of cities composed of participatory and democratically-minded people. These ideas themselves, however, are in turn formulated within a philosophy Bookchin called “dialectical naturalism” [the political and philosophical debts to Marx, and his forebear Hegel, are here explicit] in that Bookchin imagined nature and human society engaging in a dialectic which Bookchin hoped could be synthesized in an evolutionary way leading to his imagined political and ecological utopia if only things like hierarchy and a destructive capitalism could be neutralised and replaced.

In this respect, Bookchin divined ecological and political problems as facets of the same problem and he argued that the problems must be resolved together in a synthetic way. This, in turn, is just one reason why the Bookchin of the 1990s became increasingly grumpy with an anarchist tradition in general which he saw as distracted by individualist and “lifestyle” concerns which failed to address [in his mind at least] the overarching ecological and political issues of the day, things Bookchin himself imagined could only be resolved by social movements in communal context. His ideas for new municipal political arrangements, for example, were an institutional approach to replace the political systems we have now with new city-level bodies which, eventually, would become so popular that they stood as standing challenges to the political arrangements of the status quo. He thought that “The current ecological crisis is also a social one, and we must redefine humanity’s relationship to the natural world by remaking the basic social institutions and advancing a new ecological humanism, in order to make science, technology, and the human intellect serve both social development and a natural evolution guided by reason” — as his interpreter Eirik Eiglad puts it in the introduction to Bookchin’s last book, Social Ecology and Communalism, published in 2006, the year of his death.

But if the “libertarian municipalism” part of Bookchin’s thought is described by his proposed formation of new democratic institutions which come to replace current political arrangements [Bookchin was always evolutionary about this and imagined — almost certainly naively, in my view — that, given the political will, the status quo would give way to the new] then what of his “social ecology”, something that, by its name alone, would seem entirely pertinent to the discussion I have set up here? As already hinted at, Bookchin conceived that ecological problems were ultimately social [and so political] problems. Consider, for example, his opening to the essay “What is Social Ecology?”:

“Social ecology is based on the conviction that nearly all of our present ecological problems originate in deep-seated social problems. It follows, from this view, that these ecological problems cannot be understood, let alone solved, without a careful understanding of our existing society and the irrationalities that dominate it. To make this point more concrete: economic, ethnic, cultural, and gender conflicts, among many others, lie at the core of the most serious ecological dislocations we face today — apart, to be sure, from those that are produced by natural catastrophes.

If this approach seems a bit too sociological for those environmentalists who identify the primary ecological problem as being the preservation of wildlife or wilderness, or more broadly as attending to ‘Gaia’ to achieve planetary ‘oneness,’ they might wish

to consider certain recent developments. The massive oil spills that have occurred over the past two decades, the extensive deforestation of tropical forest and magnificent ancient trees in temperate areas, and vast hydroelectric projects that flood places where people live, to cite only a few problems, are sobering reminders that the real

battleground on which the ecological future of the planet will be decided is clearly a social one, particularly between corporate power and the long-range interests of humanity as a whole.”

Thus, we can see clearly here how Bookchin formulates the problem around certain social and political conditions which predominate and which, therefore, require certain political and social solutions. In passing, of course, Bookchin manages to get a jab in at those with more spiritual or mystical vocabularies or who perhaps think that civilization is the problem to be got rid of. Bookchin’s view is that “the way human beings deal with each other as social beings is crucial to addressing the ecological crisis.” The political is then the ecological for “the hierarchical mentality and class relationships that so thoroughly permeate society are what has given rise to the very idea of dominating the natural world.” Yet capitalism itself is also fundamentally implicated for:

“Unless we realize that the present market society, structured around the brutally competitive imperative of ‘grow or die’, is a thoroughly impersonal, self-operating mechanism, we will falsely tend to blame other phenomena — such as technology or population growth — for growing environmental dislocations. We will ignore their root causes, such as trade for profit, industrial expansion for its own sake, and the identification of progress with corporate self-interest. In short, we will tend to focus on the symptoms of a grim social pathology rather than on the pathology itself, and our efforts will be directed toward limited goals whose attainment is more cosmetic than curative.”

In criticising things like hierarchy, class and capitalism Bookchin is, of course, also criticising them as value systems and not just in their ecological effects. Bookchin was always a thinker who could operate on multiple levels at once [and often his critique of others amounts to pointing out their inability to do so]. For example, in 1965, at the beginning of his formulation of social ecological thinking, he had said that “The cast of mind that today organizes differences among human and other life-forms along hierarchical lines of ‘supremacy or ‘inferiority’ will give way to an outlook that deals with diversity in an ecological manner — that is, according to an ethics of complementarity.” This clearly opposes diversity and complementarity to hierarchy and its focus on control — and on the environment as a thing to be controlled for human purposes. Here Bookchin favours “collective action and... major social movements that challenge the social sources of the ecological crisis, not simply... personalistic forms of consumption and investment that often go under the oxymoronic rubric of ‘green capitalism’” in order to resolve such problems, problems he sees explicitly as matters of ethics and values which become politically articulated things.

It is here, however, where Bookchin walks a fine line. Not simply concerned to solve problems, Bookchin also wants to direct thinking. One area in which he wants to do this is in humanity’s relationship to nature [or nature to human society] in which he sees numerous pitfalls [such as “biocentrism” or “anthropocentrism” or various mystical spiritualisms] to be avoided. Bookchin conceives of the natural world as “a developmental process” and “as an evolving process, as the totality, in fact, of its evolution.” Human beings fit into this as part of “a significant evolutionary trend toward intellectuality, self-awareness, will, intentionality, and expressiveness, be it in verbal or in body language.” Humans are, therefore, not set over against nature but they “emerge” [not diverge] from it. Human beings can then do what they do because of nature and because of their specific nature. Bookchin sees their facility for rationality as a fundamental part of this process. In fact, “the emergence and development of human society has been a continual process of shedding instinctive behavioural traits and of clearing a new terrain for potentially rational behaviour.”

This is the basis of Bookchin’s distinction between “first nature” [“biological evolutionary history”] and “second nature” [humans’ “social nature of their own”, i.e. society]. Second nature emerges from first nature in Bookchin’s view, a process which validates human society rather than, in some views [which I will come to shortly], which see it as the problem to be removed [anti or post-civilizationalists, primitivists, etc.]. Bookchin argues that “If ‘true’ evolution embodies itself simply in creatures like grizzly bears, wolves, and whales — generally, animals that people find aesthetically pleasing or relatively intelligent — then human beings are de-natured.” Bookchin sees this view of his as both organic and evolutionary thinking and thus argues that we human beings require:

“a way of thinking that recognizes that ‘what is,’ as it seems to lie before our eyes, is always developing into ‘what is not,’ that it is engaged in a continual self-organizing process in which past and present, along a richly differentiated but shared continuum, give rise to a new potentiality for an ever-richer degree of wholeness. Life, clearly in its human form, becomes open-endedly innovative and transcends its relatively narrow capacity to adapt only to a pre-given set of environmental conditions.”

Here the social issues naturally from the biological — setting nature and human society in dialogue. The question for Bookchin is whether that dialogue will be for the good of them both or to one’s detriment [which also leads to the possible destruction of the other as well]. Thus, were we to summarise this understanding, we could quote the following:

“Social ecology calls upon us to see that the natural world and the social are interlinked by evolution into one nature that consists of two differentiations: first or biotic nature, and second or social nature. Social nature and biotic nature share an evolutionary potential for greater subjectivity and flexibility. Second nature is the way in which human beings, as flexible, highly intelligent primates, inhabit and alter the natural world. That is to say, people create an environment that is most suitable for their mode of existence. In this respect, second nature is no different from the environment that every animal, depending upon its abilities, partially creates as well as primarily adapts to — the biophysical circumstances or ecocommunity in which it must live. In principle, on this very simple level, human beings are doing nothing that differs from the survival activities of nonhuman beings, be it building beaver dams or digging gopher holes.”

But whilst Bookchin argues for this dialectic of the natural and the societal in human existence his explanations do tend to set up their own questions. For example, in this same programmatic essay that I have been quoting from, he says that “Nonhuman beings generally live in ecological niches, their behaviour guided primarily by instinctive drives and conditioned reflexes. Human societies are ‘bonded’ together by institutions that change radically over centuries.” But the question surely is how this has then gone, relatively speaking, for these two types of existence. “Nonhuman beings” may not carry the human burdens of care and concern that higher brain function brings with it but that same higher brain function might then be argued only to have brought the centralisation of control to bear upon the human and the nonhuman population. Put another way, we might ask why a necessarily institutional approach is giving human beings better lives than their nonhuman counterparts. This question wields force specifically because of the arguments Bookchin makes which sees human evolution as creatures which value rationality as something to shout about and which seeks their rational salvation in institutional solutions. Is “rationality” here better than being “instinctive”? It probably is if you make rationality the marker of the human and value it highly as a feature and a goal of human societies. What, thinking back to previous parts of this book, would Nietzsche [a bogeyman for Bookchin, one of many] have to say about the consequent denigration of “instinctive drives”? Bookchin, in his arguments, puts all the emphasis on human beings’ “naturally endowed intelligence, powers of communication, capacity for institutional organization, and relative freedom from instinctive behavior.” But is this right? At one moment arguing we are doing the same things as beavers and gophers, in the next it is what makes us different from them that is the key.

Consider, then, the following, which is from later on in the same essay:

“Nature, in the sense of the biotic environment from which humans take the simple things they need for survival, often has no meaning to preliterate peoples as a general concept. Immersed in it as they are, even celebrating animistic rituals in an environment they view as a nexus of life, often imputing their own social institutions to the behavior of nonhuman species, as in the case of beaver ‘lodges’ and humanlike spirits, the concept of ‘nature’ as such eludes them. Words that express our conventional notions of nature are not easy to find, if they exist at all, in the languages of aboriginal peoples.”

To some people, this would strike them as the ideal form of life. Some people, in fact, actively wish to get back to it [whilst others resist their being dragged from it]. But that would be anti-rational to Bookchin, a refusal of what makes us human and a denial of our inevitable evolution which, apart from being considered in other ways, is also scientific and technological. It is not clear, however, when “hierarchy” comes into the human story, whether this is part of the evolution or a mistake that needs to be corrected. Bookchin speaks of “the creation of a society without those class and hierarchical structures that make for rule and obedience in private as well as public life, and the objectifications of reality as mere materials for exploitation” but that makes it sound like “evolution” also needs the occasional “revolution” as if evolution could evolve in the wrong direction [which, being a blind process, of course, it can’t]. This, for Bookchin, is a matter of “attitudes” and “values” but all he has to offer in response is “institutions”. Consider, for example, the following:

“new ecological attitudes and values will remain vaporous if they are not given substance and solidity through real and objective institutions (the structures by which humans concretely interact with each other) and through the tangible realities of everyday life from childrearing to work and play. Until human beings cease to live in societies that are structured around hierarchies as well as economic classes, we shall never be free of domination, however much we try to dispel it with rituals, incantations, ecotheologies, and the adoption of seemingly ‘natural’ lifeways.”

What Bookchin’s analysis lacks, then, is an adequate study of not just hierarchy and class as detrimental structures of domination but of institutions themselves as those things which also tend to coercion and control. Bookchin’s specific proposals here offer no comfort since they are majoritarian and, as far as I’m concerned, in some senses coercive. [If you have to be organised by a body to which you yourself do not consent or with which you do not agree then what else can that be called? Is the anarchist a believer in free association or not?] Here it does not matter how “democratic” Bookchin insists his particular instituions of decentralised confederalism would be. The issue at hand is the ability of people to ignore them — a fundamental anarchist concern and one which would apply to any political body imaginable. One suspects, however, that it is attitudes like the one I am now displaying which led Bookchin himself away from anarchism [chuntering about its latent individualism under his breath as he went] and into the creation of Communalism. Bookchin speaks in this essay about “dominating nature” and correctly identifies domination and hierarchy as issues to be resolved but he doesn’t sufficiently critique the idea in regard to institutions in general in any of his writing that I have laid eyes on. This is an oversight. Blinded by the idea that rational people can create things that work, he goes about inventing just such structures and never really understands [apart from insulting people as “irrational”, “bohemian” or “mystical”] why anybody would ever dissent from them when the obvious answer is right there before him: because they can and because they want to!

Yet it seems clear from Bookchin’s own analysis of human society that destructive cultures can come to manifest themselves in various sets of relationships in which hierarchy, domination and even exploitation play their part. Consider, for example, the following:

“In social ecology it is crucially important to recognize that industrial growth did not and does not result from changes in cultural outlook alone — least of all from the impact of scientific and technological rationality on society. Growth occurs above all from harshly objective factors churned up by the expansion of the market itself, factors that are largely impervious to moral considerations and efforts at ethical persuasion. Indeed, despite the close association between capitalist development and technological innovation, the most driving imperative of any enterprise in the harshly capitalist marketplace, given the savagely dehumanizing competition that prevails there, is the need of an enterprise to grow in order to avoid perishing at the hands of its savage rivals. Important as even greed may be as a motivating force, sheer survival requires that the entrepreneur must expand his or her productive apparatus in order to remain ahead of others. Each capitalist, in short, must try to devour his or her rivals — or else be devoured by them. The key to this law of life — to survival — is expansion, and the quest for ever-greater profits, to be invested, in turn, in still further expansion. Indeed, the notion of progress, once regarded as faith in the evolution of greater human cooperation and care, is now identified with ever greater competition and reckless economic growth.”

Bookchin criticises capitalism as a “structure” [like he did hierarchy and class] but his own answer to these problems in social and political terms is itself a structure. For instance, he says of capitalism that “modern capitalism is structurally amoral and hence impervious to moral appeals.” But is it being capitalism that makes it “impervious” or being a structure or perhaps even both? Would a Bookchinite democratic institution be equally “impervious” in its majoritarian nature? He says of the capitalist structure of relationships that “It is grossly misleading to think that we can divest this harsh, indeed mechanistic world of its objective characteristics by means of ethical appeals” yet is it only to this structure that ethical appeals fall on deaf ears? Whilst acknowledging that different structures may embody differing values, it is simultaneously difficult not to also concede that structures themselves, simply by being structures, have their imperatives. Thus, while Bookchin may state openly that “Social ecology is an appeal not only for moral regeneration but, and above all, for social reconstruction along ecological lines” — and to do so explicitly not only by means of simply destroying the old, dominating structures but by creating new ones with their own authoritarian moments [in my opinion] — has he solved the issue of “impervious structures” or merely posited that some structures are better than others [but then why?]?

In the end, Bookchin argues that “Social ecology, in effect, recognizes that — like it or not — the future of life on this planet pivots on the future of society” but, even if we see the sense of this, that is a dubious statement in itself even if, in raising such doubts, one risks the Bookchinite accusation of being “misanthropic”. He suggests that:

“We must go beyond both the natural and the social toward a new synthesis that contains the best of both. Such a synthesis must transcend both first and second nature in the form of a creative, self-conscious, and therefore ‘free nature,’ in which human beings intervene in natural evolution with their best capacities — their ethical sense, their unequalled capacity for conceptual thought, and their remarkable powers and range of communication.”

Bookchin calls for “a movement” to coalesce around such an objective but, even by his own admission in his lifetime, his plans never really attracted much attention, let alone the active support of social groups. The one exception to that is the Kurds of north-east Syria and south-eastern Turkey who, under the guidance of Abdullah Öcalan, who began reading Bookchin’s works in a Turkish prison, adapted it to their own eventual situation of an autonomous state in Syria known simply as “Rojava”. This was, perhaps, the best thing that ever happened to Bookchin’s ideas since it demonstrated, on the ground, the “decentralization of cities into confederally united communities sensitively tailored to the natural areas in which they are located.”

But this is a long way from demonstrating those ideas as a “one size fits all” solution such as Bookchin himself seemed to suggest. Further to this, this community was born out of decades long war and not the imagined peace in which libertarian municipalism, and the institutions it hopes to invent, rise organically out of human communities to replace what was already there before with more democratic and more ecological alternatives where capitalism and hierarchy are swept away. It is not, then, that Bookchin had bad ideas or that his analysis was faulty. It is, to my mind, at least, that he claimed too much for them, was unrealistically utopian about their possibility and was exclusive in his proposing of them. I thus well understand why he exited from anarchism for, in the end, his conception of freedom as more social and institutional than individual and freely associational weighted too much in the direction of the former and against the latter.


If Murray Bookchin thought that the resolution of human social and ecological problems lay in the synthesis of nature and human civilization then, for John Zerzan, the problem and its solution is rather more simple to describe: the problem is human civilization itself and the solution is getting rid of it. This, in a view the polar opposite of Bookchin’s [and which Bookchin excoriated numerous times himself as thoroughly backward], means that civilization is something to be vilified and destroyed rather than to be seen as the means to our rationally worked out salvation. John Zerzan, then, is “anti-civilization” — although he is often referred to as perhaps the primary “primitivist” alive today, a man who has argued vigorously against civilization for decades. Consider, for example, the opening two paragraphs of his book of largely historical essays entitled A People’s History of Civilization published in 2018. The opening essay, “Agriculture/Domestication: Cornerstone of Civilization”, begins like this:

“The move from forager to farmer, the move to domestication of plants and animals — and ourselves — was the most deeply qualitative shift in the history of our species. It changed everything and continues to do so. Control emerged as the defining principle, the inner logic that links farming to nanotechnology, genetic engineering, and total surveillance. Domestication and agriculture bring ruin to every civilization, including our now global version.

Agriculture is the birth of production, complete with its essential features and deformation of life and consciousness. The land itself becomes an instrument of production and the planet’s species its objects. Wild or tame, weeds or crops speak of that duality that cripples the soul of our being, ushering in, relatively quickly, the despotism, war, and impoverishment that is high civilization over the great length of that earlier oneness with nature.”

This is a familiar tale for readers of Zerzan, a basic narrative which can be summed up as “domesticating agriculture came along and then everything went to shit.” [I will comment on Graeber and Wengrow’s thoughts about this below when I interact with their thoughts on this in The Dawn of Everything.] The inference, of course, is that before human beings started cultivating nature and ordering the biosphere about — and inevitably each other as well — things were somewhat better for us in many ways. Zerzan’s “people’s history”, in fact, is a collection of 15 essays which detail how various historical periods have basically charted the inevitably civilized descent of humanity. Here, in the essay titles alone, it is suggested that “Civilization is Patriarchy”, that “The City” is a place of “Inmates”, that civilization is a place of “Decadence and the Machine” and that civilization has a “Pathological Endgame”. You may or may not choose to sign on to Zerzan’s interpretation of civilization but its a thesis he consistently sticks to.

The interesting thing about this interpretation of history, anthropology and even human culture generally is that, whether its substantially true or not, it does have its own kind of persuasive power — especially if, like perhaps many people, you find human civilization alienating. Some, of course, would suggest [Zerzan among them] that human civilization is alienating. In fact, it alienates all life it comes into contact with. Zerzan taps heavily into this sense of alienation in his writing. Consider, for example, this from the fifteenth essay in A People’s History of Civilization which is titled “Civilization’s Pathological Endgame”:

“Somewhere Georg Simmel noted that in the history of philosophy there are only extremely rare references to the story of human suffering. Even more strikingly, history itself also avoids such references. Can this continue to be the case?

There now exists only one civilization, a single global domestication machine. Modernity’s continuing efforts to disenchant and instrumentalize the non-cultural natural world have produced a reality in which there is virtually nothing left outside the system. This trajectory was already visible by the time of the first urbanites. Since those neolithic times we have moved ever closer to the complete de-realization of nature, culminating in a state of world emergency today. Approaching ruin is the commonplace vista, our obvious non-future.

Its hardly necessary to point out that none of the claims of modernity/Enlightenment [regarding freedom, reason, the individual] are valid. Modernity is inherently globalizing, massifying, standardizing. The self-evident conclusion that an indefinite expansion of productive forces will be fatal deals the final blow to belief in progress. As China’s and India’s industrialization efforts go into hyper-drive, the environmental, social and psychological ill effects make near daily headlines.”

There. Don’t you feel more alienated already?

Zerzan, then, is operating with a grand narrative which can basically be equated with “civilization is bad for you”. In his book Why Hope? The Stand Against Civilization this story is repeated again [it is seemingly repeated wherever Zerzan writes or speaks] but with a continuation into the present and the imagined future which is the inevitable collapse of civilization as human culture is revealed as impotent to the task of stopping this. Zerzan notes here that “The Holocaust alone, in the most cultured country (philosophy, music uppermost), revealed culture’s impotence.” We should note here also that Zerzan, in this case mentioning the Mesopotamia and Egypt that so attracted Wengrow, equates civilization specifically with domestication. But it is a depressing equation: “We have a better idea of what civilization is than we do of what collapse would mean. It’s the standard notion: domestication, soon followed by the early, major civilizations of Mesopotamia and Egypt. Domestication, the ground and thrust of civilization per se: the ethos of ever-progressing domination of nature and control in general.” If you thought civilization was summed up in the notion of a domesticating control then why would you want it to survive?

It cannot be doubted however, whatever Mesopotamians and Egyptians we’ll never meet may have thought, that “Modern civilization believes it commands the historical process with technological power” as Zerzan says in Why Hope? Perhaps societies in possession of some novel industrial or technological process or facility have always done so. Perhaps this is also to once more attenuate humanity’s very specific blindspot usually articulated in the observation that people become so obsessed with the ability to do something that they overlook whether or not they should, in fact, be doing it to begin with. History is replete with multiple examples of “I did it because I could” and often to disastrous effect. As Zerzan observes Jared Diamond saying, then, “All of our current problems are unintended consequences of our existing technology” — which is to say of the process of civilizing. This helps Zerzan to further articulate his own favourite subject: how civilization has failed in every possible conceivable way. This is ultimately what Zerzan means by civilization’s collapse.

Doom and gloom about humanity’s terrible turn at the signpost labelled “agriculture” is one thing. But what about the prospects for escape from the destructive grasp this path has put us within for everything living on earth? Zerzan is both blunt and to the point that “it seems self-evident that either we will overcome the domestication/civilization paradigm or we won’t” yet in a final two page title piece to Why Hope? Zerzan insists that, even though many seem to have thrown in the towel, the game is not up:

“Civilization will persist. It’s time to give up on ‘unwinnable battles.’ In this way the misery of burnout and disillusionment will be avoided and we’ll all be a lot happier (!) The Mexican Unabomber-type group, Individualidades Teniendo a lo Salvaje (ITS), also firmly asserts that there’ll be no winning. ‘We do not believe this is possible,’ they proclaim repeatedly.

But it is possible. Our overcoming the disease of civilization is in no way guaranteed, obviously, but clearly it is possible. I prefer what Kierkegaard said of hope: It is ‘the passion for the possible.’ More boldly, whatever became of “Demand the Impossible”?

When victory is refused are we not at Game Over?”

Zerzan sees in this defeatism in the face of a monolithic civilization “the definitive triumph of consumerist unfreedom” and here he highlights something I have been equally keen to emphasize: we are in occupied territory but, more than that, we are ourselves occupied territory in our minds which, as a consequence, constantly have to be flushed out of polluting ideas, concepts and attitudes. If pollution is threatening to extinguish our external world it is no less the case that it can poison or disable the inner one too. Here Zerzan emphasizes that a people defeated within will win no battles out there in the world and that health and recovery from illness are not aided by hopelessness and despair but by their opposites. Interestingly, Zerzan recommends “Diogenes and the Cynics in the West and Chuang-Tzu [Zhuangzi] and some of the Taoists in the East” as mental palliatives here. Readers will know that I began this very book with a short appraisal of Diogenes and if you hang around for the rest of this chapter the Daoists will be along presently! What these examples do, however, is reveal Zerzan to be a person self-admittedly prepared to live with almost nothing if it means our ecological environment can have an unpolluted existence guaranteed into the far future. This may mean a much simpler human existence without pretty much every consumer good a capitalist ever invented but Zerzan thinks that is a choice worth making.

John Zerzan, then, is not a person who is not making sense. In fact, I’d argue his problem is mostly that he is making too much sense [for those who only ever knew or lived in capitalism]. The simple logic of his equation that a controlling civilization [and not just capitalism which is only a relatively recent modern development of it] ends in planetary disaster, that human beings become caught up in their own creation, destroying both themselves and it with them, is a hard logic to resist when you‘re writing a chapter such as this one as the COP26 climate conference is ongoing [which is when I’m writing this] and you simultaneously live in a country [the UK] where its recently been disclosed that the numerous privatised water utility companies that go to make up the water supply facilities here are routinely dumping millions of gallons of raw sewage into all the major rivers and coastal waters. Said companies are able to cash out dividends to shareholders in the tens of billions but apparently find it similarly appropriate, in the face of supine regulators and political oversight, to simply flush their work down the drain. Thus we come to Zerzan’s question from Future Primitive Revisited and specifically the chapter on “Happiness”: “IS HAPPINESS REALLY POSSIBLE in a time of ruin? Can we somehow flourish, have complete lives? Is joy any longer compatible with the life of today?” How long must we stay in this prison made of concrete, technology and ideas and is planetary suicide/murder our only hope of escape?

A fellow anti-civilizationalist traveller with John Zerzan, although careful to set out his own agenda, is Derrick Jensen. His two volume endgame has become an instant classic of the “civilization is killing us” genre of literature, a book sure to radicalize anyone open-minded enough to want to read it. The book begins with 20 premises and, for sake of reference, I will quote them here as part of my own discussion about civilization and ecology:

PREMISE ONE: Civilization is not and can never be sustainable. This is especially true for industrial civilization.

PREMISE TWO: Traditional communities do not often voluntarily give up or sell the resources on which their communities are based until their communities have been destroyed. They also do not willingly allow their landbases to be damaged so that other resources—gold, oil, and so on—can be extracted. It follows that those who want the resources will do what they can to destroy traditional communities.

PREMISE THREE: Our way of living—industrial civilization—is based on, requires, and would collapse very quickly without, persistent and widespread violence.

PREMISE FOUR: Civilization is based on a clearly defined and widely accepted yet often unarticulated hierarchy. Violence done by those higher on the hierarchy to those lower is nearly always invisible, that is, unnoticed. When it is noticed, it is fully rationalized. Violence done by those lower on the hierarchy to those higher is unthinkable, and when it does occur is regarded with shock, horror, and the fetishization of the victims.

PREMISE FIVE: The property of those higher on the hierarchy is more valuable than the lives of those below. It is acceptable for those above to increase the amount of property they control—in everyday language, to make money—by destroying or taking the lives of those below. This is called production. If those below damage the property of those above, those above may kill or otherwise destroy the lives of those below. This is called justice.

PREMISE SIX: Civilization is not redeemable. This culture will not undergo any sort of voluntary transformation to a sane and sustainable way of living. If we do not put a halt to it, civilization will continue to immiserate the vast majority of humans and to degrade the planet until it (civilization, and probably the planet) collapses. The effects of this degradation will continue to harm humans and nonhumans for a very long time.

PREMISE SEVEN: The longer we wait for civilization to crash—or the longer we wait before we ourselves bring it down—the messier the crash will be, and the worse things will be for those humans and nonhumans who live during it, and for those who come after.

PREMISE EIGHT: The needs of the natural world are more important than the needs of the economic system. Another way to put Premise Eight: Any economic or social system that does not benefit the natural communities on which it is based is unsustainable, immoral, and stupid. Sustainability, morality, and intelligence (as well as justice) require the dismantling of any such economic or social system, or at the very least disallowing it from damaging your landbase.

PREMISE NINE: Although there will clearly someday be far fewer humans than there are at present, there are many ways this reduction in population may occur (or be achieved, depending on the passivity or activity with which we choose to approach this transformation). Some will be characterized by extreme violence and privation: nuclear Armageddon, for example, would reduce both population and consumption, yet do so horrifically; the same would be true for a continuation of overshoot, followed by a crash. Other ways could be characterized by less violence. Given the current levels of violence by this culture against both humans and the natural world, however, it’s not possible to speak of reductions in population and consumption that do not involve violence and privation, not because the reductions themselves would necessarily involve violence, but because violence and privation have become the default of our culture. Yet some ways of reducing population and consumption, while still violent, would consist of decreasing the current levels of violence—required and caused by the (often forced) movement of resources from the poor to the rich—and would of course be marked by a reduction in current violence against the natural world. Personally and collectively we may be able to both reduce the amount and soften the character of violence that occurs during this ongoing and perhaps long-term shift. Or we may not. But this much is certain: if we do not approach it actively—if we do not talk about our predicament and what we are going to do about it—the violence will almost undoubtedly be far more severe, the privation more extreme.

PREMISE TEN: The culture as a whole and most of its members are insane. The culture is driven by a death urge, an urge to destroy life.

PREMISE ELEVEN: From the beginning, this culture—civilization—has been a culture of occupation.

PREMISE TWELVE: There are no rich people in the world, and there are no poor people. There are just people. The rich may have lots of pieces of green paper that many pretend are worth something—or their presumed riches may be even more abstract: numbers on hard drives at banks—and the poor may not. These “rich” claim they own land, and the “poor” are often denied the right to make that same claim. A primary purpose of the police is to enforce the delusions of those with lots of pieces of green paper. Those without the green papers generally buy into these delusions almost as quickly and completely as those with. These delusions carry with them extreme consequences in the real world.

PREMISE THIRTEEN: Those in power rule by force, and the sooner we break ourselves of illusions to the contrary, the sooner we can at least begin to make reasonable decisions about whether, when, and how we are going to resist.

PREMISE FOURTEEN: From birth on—and probably from conception, but I’m not sure how I’d make the case—we are individually and collectively enculturated to hate life, hate the natural world, hate the wild, hate wild animals, hate women, hate children, hate our bodies, hate and fear our emotions, hate ourselves. If we did not hate the world, we could not allow it to be destroyed before our eyes. If we did not hate ourselves, we could not allow our homes—and our bodies—to be poisoned.

PREMISE FIFTEEN: Love does not imply pacifism.

PREMISE SIXTEEN: The material world is primary. This does not mean that the spirit does not exist, nor that the material world is all there is. It means that spirit mixes with flesh. It means also that real world actions have real world consequences. It means we cannot rely on Jesus, Santa Claus, the Great Mother, or even the Easter Bunny to get us out of this mess. It means this mess really is a mess, and not just the movement of God’s eyebrows. It means we have to face this mess ourselves. It means that for the time we are here on Earth—whether or not we end up somewhere else after we die, and whether we are condemned or privileged to live here—the Earth is the point. It is primary. It is our home. It is everything. It is silly to think or act or be as though this world is not real and primary. It is silly and pathetic to not live our lives as though our lives are real.

PREMISE SEVENTEEN: It is a mistake (or more likely, denial) to base our decisions on whether actions arising from them will or won’t frighten fence-sitters, or the mass of Americans [and, of course, non-Americans Derrick!].

PREMISE EIGHTEEN: Our current sense of self is no more sustainable than our current use of energy or technology.

PREMISE NINETEEN: The culture’s problem lies above all in the belief that controlling and abusing the natural world is justifiable.

PREMISE TWENTY: Within this culture, economics—not community well-being, not morals, not ethics, not justice, not life itself—drives social decisions.

Modification of Premise Twenty: Social decisions are determined primarily (and often exclusively) on the basis of whether these decisions will increase the monetary fortunes of the decision-makers and those they serve.

Re-modification of Premise Twenty: Social decisions are determined primarily (and often exclusively) on the basis of whether these decisions will increase the power of the decision-makers and those they serve.

Re-modification of Premise Twenty: Social decisions are founded primarily (and often exclusively) on the almost entirely unexamined belief that the decision-makers and those they serve are entitled to magnify their power and/or financial fortunes at the expense of those below.

Re-modification of Premise Twenty: If you dig to the heart of it—if there is any heart left—you will find that social decisions are determined primarily on the basis of how well these decisions serve the ends of controlling or destroying wild nature.

Clearly, in these premises, Jensen sets up a problematic in which civilization is a violently acquisitive phenomenon that is fundamentally opposed to the natural world. I believe this analysis is functionally correct in that the violence and acquisition and exploitation that come along with civilization — and explicitly now capitalist civilization — have this effect. But this, of course, should not be news even though, when put so starkly, it brings us up short and, for a split second, reacquaints us with the shock and horror of realising that our way of life — what we have always been told is both normal and inevitable — is killing life on earth. Jensen’s book endgame, especially its first volume detailing “the problem of civilization”, is full of the ways this is so and is a catalogue of the ways explicitly civilized people have found to exploit and kill things. Jensen defines civilization in general as “a culture—that is, a complex of stories, institutions, and artifacts—that both leads to and emerges from the growth of cities… with cities being defined—so as to distinguish them from camps, villages, and so on—as people living more or less permanently in one place in densities high enough to require the routine importation of food and other necessities of life.” Thus, Jensen describes the problem of civilization when he says that “The story of any civilization is the story of the rise of city-states, which means it is the story of the funnelling of resources toward these centers (in order to sustain them and cause them to grow), which means it is the story of an increasing region of unsustainability surrounded by an increasingly exploited countryside.”

Jensen is not shy about pointing any of this out in endgame. Often pointing out that civilization has numerous legions ready to issue propaganda in its defence, he perhaps sees himself as needing to address the balance in as stark and straightforward a way as possible. Thus, there are chapters such as “THE CIVILIZED WILL SMILE AS THEY TEAR YOU LIMB FROM LIMB” from the first volume of his book which opens by informing us [using figures relevant to 2006 at the latest] that “IN THE LAST 24 HOURS, OVER 200,000 ACRES OF RAINFOREST WERE destroyed. Thirteen million tons of toxic chemicals were released. Forty-five thousand people died of starvation, thirty-eight thousand of them children. More than one hundred plant or animal species went extinct because of civilized humans. All of this in one day.” Having given us the stats, his opening statement of the chapter is, “I don’t think most people care, and I don’t think most people will ever care.” So what world does Jensen live in writing this book? A section from this chapter informs us:

“Most rapes are committed not by burly strangers breaking into women’s homes, nor by pasty-faced perverts lurking outside schools and in internet chat rooms, but instead by fathers, brothers, uncles, husbands, lovers, friends, counselors, pastors: those who purport to love the women (or men) they hurt. Similarly, most children are not abused by thugs who kidnap them and force them to act in porn films, but by their caretakers, those, once again, who purport to love them, who are supposed to help them learn how to be human beings. And of course these caretakers are taking care to teach these children how to be civilized human beings: teaching them that the physically powerful exploit and do violence against the less physically powerful; teaching them that exploiters routinely label themselves—and probably believe themselves—caretakers as they destroy those under their care; teaching them that under this awful system that’s the job of caretakers; teaching them that life has no value (for of course we are all born with the knowledge that life has value, a knowledge that must be beaten, raped, and schooled out of us).

Those doing the raping, beating, schooling, are not only some group of strange ‘others’: ‘trailer trash,’ ‘foreigners,’ ‘the poor.’ They include respected members of this society. Within this culture, they’re normal people. Their behavior has been normalized.”

This all might seem disturbingly beside the point in a book about ecological issues but Jensen’s point — and mine by including the quotation in my chapter here — is that its not. Its showcasing the stamp and character of civilization; its mirroring back to you what it is: violent, insatiable coercion that will not stop until, or unless, people with a mind to stop it do so — or it completely collapses and stops itself, taking most of what’s around at the time with it. This, for Jensen, is the inevitable logic of civilization and I’m convinced he is not wrong in any fundamentals of that assessment. This agreement of mine with Jensen continues when, in the second volume of his book, subtitled “Resistance”, he says, “You and I both know that the threat of the end of much life on this planet will not cause those in power to sufficiently change what they are doing, and we both know that this threat will not cause most people in this culture to care sufficiently to act.” But he continues: “But we also know that there are those who will. And these people are going to succeed. They are, with the planet’s help, going to win. Civilization needs to be brought down now.”

Considering how much I agree with Jensen on this it is unfortunate to have to report that after writing endgame Jensen went on the co-write another book called Deep Green Resistance , also the name of an environmental group he started with the radical feminist Lierre Keith amongst others, on the basis of this text. Jensen and Keith then revealed themselves to be, in the views of close observers of their group’s activities, controlling and narcissistic in regard to the group they had founded, most particularly evidenced in their apparent dislike for, and denial of, trans people. The website of DGR, in fact, a group still active today, claims to want to completely disassemble the notion of “gender” — whilst simultaneously apparently regarding gender as a concept as violence against [cis] women even by its very existence. All this is very unseemly [and in their justifications often confused and ideological obfuscation in my opinion] and Jensen, although not very forthcoming about it himself, has not sought to back away from the views espoused either by DGR publicly on their website [which are often taken from his own writings] or the transphobic views expressed by the co-founder of DGR, Lierre Keith. [This has so affected DGR that a section of their FAQ to this day is handed over to answering “Why are some people accusing DGR of transphobia?”] Needless to say, in speaking to Jensen’s anti-civilizational views in his book endgame — which was written well before such developments — I do not mean to indicate I support Jensen more widely or the group DGR which he subsequently co-created. It does, however, give me an opportunity to point out that those who complain about the ubiquity of civilization’s “violence” may themselves succumb to the tendency to punch down on the vulnerable if they are not too careful. In this respect, the fact that Jensen has also criticised anarchism as well more than once in his DGR period is indicative of the fact that being anti-civilizational does not in itself infer anarchist beliefs or allegiances either. Wanting to destroy one hierarchy does not preclude wanting to set up another of your own creation.


And so we come to David Graeber and David Wengrow and their The Dawn of Everything which is also subtitled A New History of Humanity. This book is touted, and promoted, as being a book which wants to aver from modern myths simply repeated [although the authors are clear that there’s nothing wrong with myths — they may just need updating from time to time]. In this respect, one of the myths often repeated [and foundation of ideologies such as those of John Zerzan but also those violently anti-Zerzan] is the one where people took up agriculture and all the rest is [civilized] history. But in the pages of The Dawn of Everything this idea hits turbulence:

“the first farmers were reluctant farmers who seem to have understood the logistical implications of agriculture and avoided any major commitment to it. Their upland neighbours, also living settled lives in areas with diverse wild resources, had even less incentive to tie their existence to a narrow range of crops and livestock.

If the situation in just one cradle of early farming was that complicated, then surely it no longer makes sense to ask, ‘what were the social implications of the transition to farming?’ — as if there was necessarily just one transition, and one set of implications. Certainly, it’s wrong to assume that planting seeds or tending sheep means one is necessarily obliged to accept more unequal social arrangements, simply to avert a ‘tragedy of the commons’.”

The problem is, of course, that “Most general works on the course of human history do actually assume something like this” and that even though Graeber and Wengrow then site multiple examples to the contrary. They conclude [or, rather, write down as the premise to be supported] that: “In short, there is simply no reason to assume that the adoption of agriculture in more remote periods also meant the inception of private land ownership, territoriality, or an irreversible departure from forager egalitarianism. It may have happened that way sometimes, but this can no longer be treated as a default assumption.” This then seems in line with the overall direction of the book that outcomes are not matters of predetermination in life. People can make choices, can affect and shape their own lives, which are not then things which must inevitably go this way or that or have this consequence or that.

Graeber and Wengrow argue for this conclusion specifically in regard to farming, already hinted at above, and also in regard to the creation of the first cities. In regard to farming, Graeber and Wengrow further add that, “Food production did not always present itself to foragers, fishers and hunters as an obviously beneficial thing. Historians painting with a broad brush sometimes write as if it did, or as if the only barriers to the ‘spread of farming’ were natural ones, such as climate and topography. This sets up something of a paradox, because even foragers living in highly suitable environments, and clearly aware of the possibilities of cereal-farming, often chose not to adopt it.” The point here is to reject a “one size fits all” argument, a monolithic metanarrative about the imagined obviousness of the supremacy of farming over hunter-gathering and so the historical conclusion [or is that assumption?] that no hunter-gatherer worth his salt would reject farming as a better alternative in a decision that becomes but one proposition in a narrative which is about the inevitable march of “civilization”. But, as Graeber and Wengrow make clear in relation to what is now California:

“there’s every reason to believe that farming ‘reached’ California just as soon as it reached anywhere else in North America. It’s just that (despite a work ethic that valorized strenuous labour, and a regional exchange system that would have allowed information about innovations to spread rapidly) people there rejected the practice as definitively as they did slavery.”

Graeber and Wengrow put the top on this by then commenting on the spread of agriculture generally before the era of Western European colonial empires by saying, “the story of agricultural expansion before the sixteenth century is very far from being a one-way street; in fact, it is full of false starts, hiccups and reversals.”

In the context of their story about “the dawn of everything” [although, even for them, this appears to primarily be about the dawn of human civilizations], Graeber and Wengrow note the linkage of human activity with ecological conditions. The post-glacial world of what geologists refer to as the Holocene was, so they say, a set of perfect conditions for hunter-gatherers or, as they also refer to them, foragers. Here mention of Marshall Sahlins’ essay “The Original Affluent Society” is noteworthy. Sahlins, who was Graeber’s anthropological teacher and mentor, notes in this essay that, “Wants may be ‘easily satisfied’ either by producing much or by desiring little”, further noting that “a people can enjoy an unparalleled material plenty — with a low standard of living.” Sahlins thinks this describes the hunter-gatherers well [hence he refers to them as “affluent”]; they had plenty of what they wanted even if, in materialistic terms, they had virtually nothing at all. It is for the latter reason, however, that modern, thoroughly capitalistic, commentators regard hunter-gatherer societies as being composed of little more than prehistoric tramps who needed to be succeeded by farming brethren to set us on the road to civilization, capitalism and material wealth. Graeber and Wengrow are not quite so certain they needed anything though, as sections of their book like this suggest:

“The most vigorous expansion of foraging populations was in coastal environments, freshly exposed by glacial retreat. Such locations offered a bonanza of wild resources. Saltwater fish and sea birds, whales and dolphins, seals and otters, crabs, shrimps, oysters, periwinkles and more besides. Freshwater rivers and lagoons, fed by mountain glaciers, now teemed with pike and bream, attracting migratory waterfowl. Around estuaries, deltas and lake margins, annual rounds of fishing and foraging took place at increasingly close range, leading to sustained patterns of human aggregation quite unlike those of the glacial period, when long seasonal migrations of mammoth and other large game structured much of social life.”

Our academic twosome make the forager life sound like an “all you can eat” buffet with such descriptions yet they do suggest that, in a world of plenty with few needs [as Sahlins had also suggested], this is a matter of relative affluence. So one wonders why such people, living in such an ecological paradise, then needed to become farmers or invent civilization. What Graeber and Wengrow want to do in their account, however, [in a term they acknowledge is borrowed from Murray Bookchin] is to talk about an “ecology of freedom” as being important to prehistoric peoples. Talking about “play farming” they say:

“The ecology of freedom describes the proclivity of human societies to move (freely) in and out of farming; to farm without fully becoming farmers; raise crops and animals without surrendering too much of one’s existence to the logistical rigours of agriculture; and retain a food web sufficiently broad as to prevent cultivation from becoming a matter of life and death. It is just this sort of ecological flexibility that tends to be excluded from conventional narratives of world history, which present the planting of a single seed as a point of no return.”

Of course, being academic researchers they can give ancient examples of this [in Central Europe, Africa, Oceania and the tropical lowlands of South America] and they go on to add that:

“Moving freely in and out of farming in this way, or hovering on its threshold, turns out to be something our species has done successfully for a large part of its past. Such fluid ecological arrangements — combining garden cultivation, flood-retreat farming on the margins of lakes or springs, small-scale landscape management (e.g. by burning, pruning and terracing) and the corralling or keeping of animals in semi-wild states, combined with a spectrum of hunting, fishing and collecting activities — were once typical of human societies in many parts of the world.”

That sounds like quite a diverse form of living to me and is certainly not describing a monoform type of life in which everyone everywhere conformed to the same ideas [much less an overarching narrative]. Such themes, in fact, repeat throughout The Dawn of Everything from the indigenous Kandiaronk’s criticisms of North American colonisers in the seventeenth century to the ancient practices of “seasonality” that some ancient peoples undertook [living in one way during one part of the year but then living under other arrangements during another part of it]. Even the practice of what Graeber has referred to before as “cultural refusal” [where one society seems to model itself in knowing distinction to observed others, such as its near neighbours, creating distinct forms of art, writing, architecture, or even political organisation] gets in on this recognition of an apparent cultural diversity that becomes hidden when modern interpreters, with their knowledge of how things turned out and their valuation that this obviously must mean this is better and so was always meant to be, get in on the act.

The upshot of Graeber and Wengrow’s book, however, is that this was not always meant to be and, in fact, it could be another way. The history of human activity is not the history of this civilization’s inevitable hegemony nor of its apparent superiority. We see this, for example, in their account of the emergence of cities. Their chapter addressing this is, tellingly, called “Imaginary Cities” and, in its strap line, purports to describe “Eurasia’s first urbanites — in Mesopotamia, the Indus valley, Ukraine and China — and how they built cities without kings.” Cities without kings? Surely these ancient places had bosses? How else could they have been built and run without them? Once more, however, Graeber and Wengrow tell a tale, they think one backed up by the latest evidence, of diversity. And, as they tell the tale, it seems as though our preconceptions about such things might be reliant on faulty thinking:

“In the standard, textbook version of human history, scale is crucial. The tiny bands of foragers in which humans were thought to have spent most of their evolutionary history could be relatively democratic and egalitarian precisely because they were small. It’s common to assume — and is often stated as self-evident fact — that our social sensibilities, even our capacity to keep track of names and faces, are largely determined by the fact that we spent 95 per cent of our evolutionary history in tiny groups of at best a few dozen individuals. We’re designed to work in small teams. As a result, large agglomerations of people are often treated as if they were by definition somewhat unnatural, and humans as psychologically ill equipped to handle life inside them. This is the reason, the argument often goes, that we require such elaborate ‘scaffolding’ to make larger communities work: such things as urban planners, social workers, tax auditors and police.

If so, it would make perfect sense that the appearance of the first cities, the first truly large concentrations of people permanently settled in one place, would also correspond to the rise of states. For a long time, the archaeological evidence — from Egypt, Mesopotamia, China, Central America and elsewhere — did appear to confirm this. If you put enough people in one place, the evidence seemed to show, they would almost inevitably develop writing or something like it, together with administrators, storage and redistribution facilities, workshops and overseers. Before long, they would also start dividing themselves into social classes. ‘Civilization’ came as a package. It meant misery and suffering for some (since some would inevitably be reduced to serfs, slaves or debt peons), but also allowed for the possibility of philosophy, art and the accumulation of scientific knowledge.

The evidence no longer suggests anything of the sort. In fact, much of what we have come to learn in the last forty or fifty years has thrown conventional wisdom into disarray. In some regions, we now know, cities governed themselves for centuries without any sign of the temples and palaces that would only emerge later; in others, temples and palaces never emerged at all. In many early cities, there is simply no evidence of either a class of administrators or any other sort of ruling stratum. In others, centralized power seems to appear and then disappear. It would seem that the mere fact of urban life does not, necessarily, imply any particular form of political organization, and never did.

This has all sorts of important implications: for one thing, it suggests a much less pessimistic assessment of human possibilities, since the mere fact that much of the world’s population now live in cities may not determine how we live, to anything like the extent you might assume.”

The italics in that last quote are mine but they make a point, a historical, anthropological point and, once again, its a point in favour of the diversity of human living. As Graeber and Wengrow also say about these earliest cities then:

“Settlements inhabited by tens of thousands of people make their first appearance in human history around 6000 years ago, on almost every continent, at first in isolation. Then they multiply. One of the things that makes it so difficult to fit what we now know about them into an old-fashioned evolutionary sequence, where cities, states, bureaucracies and social classes all emerge together, is just how different these cities are. It’s not just that some early cities lack class divisions, wealth monopolies, or hierarchies of administration. They exhibit such extreme variability as to imply, from the very beginning, a conscious experimentation in urban form.”

This seems to mean that, for these real people in real situations, it wasn’t automatically obvious that one way to live was better than another [which, actually, seems a sensible conclusion to draw from reading the whole of The Dawn of Everything]. Yet this seems an odd thought in a time and location such as ours where the thought “Who is the boss?” or “Who were the few authoritative people telling everybody else what to do?” come so easily and unbidden to our minds. Could there have been a time before such ideas were even normal? Could there have been places where things didn’t happen how we now unreflectively expect them to? Or, as Graeber and Wengrow ask themselves, “why do we assume that people who have figured out a way for a large population to govern and support itself without temples, palaces and military fortifications — that is, without overt displays of arrogance, self-abasement and cruelty — are somehow less complex than those who have not?” We imagine that to have bosses and cops and governments is superior and more complex [which means “better”]… but why do we when we can see the deleterious effects of all of these things around us every day?

Describing ancient Ukrainian archaeological “mega-sites”, for example, [i.e. early Ukrainian cities, sometimes of over 10,000 people], Graeber and Wengrow have this to say:

“We should also consider if the inhabitants of the mega-sites consciously managed their ecosystem to avoid large-scale deforestation. This is consistent with archaeological studies of their economy, which suggest a pattern of small-scale gardening, often taking place within the bounds of the settlement, combined with the keeping of livestock, cultivation of orchards, and a wide spectrum of hunting and foraging activities. The diversity is actually remarkable, as is its sustainability. As well as wheat, barley and pulses, the citizens’ plant diet included apples, pears, cherries, sloes, acorns, hazelnuts and apricots. Mega-site dwellers were hunters of red deer, roe deer and wild boar as well as farmers and foresters. It was ‘play farming’ on a grand scale: an urban populus supporting itself through small-scale cultivation and herding, combined with an extraordinary array of wild foods.

This way of life was by no means ‘simple’. As well as managing orchards, gardens, livestock and woodlands, the inhabitants of these cities imported salt in bulk from springs in the eastern Carpathians and the Black Sea littoral. Flint extraction by the ton took place in the Dniestr valley, furnishing material for tools. A household potting industry flourished, its products considered among the finest ceramics of the prehistoric world; and regular supplies of copper flowed in from the Balkans. There is no firm consensus among archaeologists about what sort of social arrangements all this required, but most would agree the logistical challenges were daunting. A surplus was definitely produced, and with it ample potential for some to seize control of the stocks and supplies, to lord it over others or battle for the spoils; but over eight centuries we find little evidence for warfare or the rise of social elites. The true complexity of the mega-sites lies in the strategies they adopted to prevent such things.”

Not only, then, do we slander such ancient places and their inhabitants as “simple” when, at least in the informed view of Graeber and Wengrow, they were anything but, but we also insist on the inferiority of such arrangements even though the obvious poisonous consequences of our own imagined “superiority” [of arrangements and their provisions] are all around us. But it was not ancient Ukrainians whose societies threatened a mass extinction event. It wasn’t hunter-gatherers whose “affluent” way of life began melting ice sheets and released trapped carbon dioxide from Siberian land masses, increasing the feedback effect of global heating. So why are arrangements such as these derided as simple or primitive when they, in their own way, imagined to have community and society, culture and commensality, without creating a ticking time bomb? Surely what is inferior is creating a grand narrative of what is “superior” and living by means of enforcing that narrative upon everybody else when its negation is all around you in the poisoned collapse of the world’s ecological reality?

In their text, Graeber and Wengrow provide several examples of ancient urban societies which, in their words, show signs of “the absence of monarchs or any evidence of a warrior elite, and the corresponding likelihood that each had instead developed institutions of communal self-governance.” They add that, from their researches:

“A self-conscious ethos of egalitarianism, at any point in history, might take either of two diametrically opposing forms. We can insist that everyone is, or should be, precisely the same (at least in the ways that we consider important); or alternatively, we can insist that everyone is so utterly different from each other that there are simply no criteria for comparison (for example, we are all unique individuals, and so there is no basis upon which any one of us can be considered better than another). Real-life egalitarianism will normally tend to involve a bit of both.”

This sounds to me like “Real-life egalitarianism” — in these historical examples, at least — is about community and diversity and, indeed, reading through their actual examples [which are far too detailed to quote or even to gloss here — you will have to read their book for that] this does indeed seem to be the case. Graeber and Wengrow can in fact even conclude that “archaeological research has shifted the burden of proof onto those theorists who claim causal connections between the origins of cities and the rise of stratified states, and whose claims now look increasingly hollow.” So confident are they about this that they can suggest that cities should not automatically be tied to ideas of rigid stratification, authoritarianism and control. They go on in a further chapter to say that “it is possible to have monarchs, aristocracies, slavery and extreme forms of patriarchal domination, even without a state...; and... it’s equally possible to maintain complex irrigation systems, or develop science and abstract philosophy without a state” and this, in turn, leads them then to ask “what do we actually learn about human history by establishing that one political entity is what we would like to describe as a ‘state’ and another isn’t?”

In the end, if I may be allowed here to give a general appraisal of Graeber and Wengrow’s The Dawn of Everything: A New History of Humanity, it seems to turn on the fact that people have an overarching need to make myths. On the one hand the attempt to collate substantive enough evidence to argue that old stories about the human past now seem false, on the other Graeber and Wengrow’s book is evidence that people come to believe things they then become culturally or even politically committed to defending even when the slightest evidence for it has disappeared. For example, take one of my subjects in this chapter, civilization. Of this they say:

“One problem is that we’ve come to assume that ‘civilization’ refers, in origin, simply to the habit of living in cities. Cities, in turn, were thought to imply states. But as we’ve seen, that is not the case historically, or even etymologically. The word ‘civilization’ derives from Latin civilis, which actually refers to those qualities of political wisdom and mutual aid that permit societies to organize themselves through voluntary coalition. In other words, it originally meant the type of qualities exhibited by Andean ayllu associations or Basque villages, rather than Inca courtiers or Shang dynasts. If mutual aid, social co-operation, civic activism, hospitality or simply caring for others are the kind of things that really go to make civilizations, then this true history of civilization is only just starting to be written.”

They then go on to add:

“As we’ve seen, physical evidence left behind by common forms of domestic life, ritual and hospitality shows us this deep history of civilization. In some ways it’s much more inspiring than monuments. Arguably, the most important findings of modern archaeology are precisely these vibrant and far-flung networks of kinship and commerce, where those who rely largely on speculation have expected to find only backward and isolated ‘tribes’.

As we’ve been showing throughout this book, in all parts of the world small communities formed civilizations in that true sense of extended moral communities. Without permanent kings, bureaucrats or standing armies they fostered the growth of mathematical and calendrical knowledge. In some regions they pioneered metallurgy, the cultivation of olives, vines and date palms, or the invention of leavened bread and wheat beer; in others they domesticated maize and learned to extract poisons, medicines and mind-altering substances from plants. Civilizations, in this true sense, developed the major textile technologies applied to fabrics and basketry, the potter’s wheel, stone industries and beadwork, the sail and maritime navigation, and so on.”

This reminds us both of what I reported of Wengrow’s views earlier in this chapter [even to the extent of talking about those same “extended moral communities”] and of Graeber’s known anarchist commitments to participatory and cooperative forms of democracy. In many respects, their book is a detailed working through of both in a great many detailed and diverse historical examples. It could, I think fairly, be said that they are about creating a new myth of our human history on this planet [where “myth” is simply a story that acts to explain a whole] and, if they are, that’s fair enough by me. But, in this case, its a demythologising myth [!] for the aim of their book is to point out how other, widely believed, myths [such as the need for authority, coercion and violence] are often based on almost nothing at all. In this respect, their story of historical diversity and the absence of any “original society” is a myth of the reality and necessity of human agency and that is a much better myth, in my view, than the one that says civilization, in particular this monolithic, authoritarian, corporate and capitalist civilization we have, is superior to all previous forms of civilization and the inevitable result of history. People can organise themselves in diverse ways and meet diverse needs. All they have to do is organise themselves appropriately to achieve it.


In what I have written about so far in this chapter, then, views of “civilization” have been something of a mixed bag. Zerzan and Jensen saw it as a resounding evil and regarded its removal as a simple survival issue [civilization OR ecology]. Others, such as Bookchin and probably Reclus, thought there was the possibility of a viable synthesis of human and ecological concerns [and also environments]. Graeber and Wengrow were concerned to tell us that civilization doesn’t have to be one thing and it doesn’t have to entail static outcomes or components. All would probably agree, however, that this particular civilization, the monolithic one that now practically encompasses the whole globe, is a clear and present danger to life on earth. Only the methods required to neutralize such a civilization — and where to go from there — might differentiate such commentators.

Of course, it would all have been so simple if human beings had never evolved, become self-aware, and started deciding that they know best [a proposition that must, by now, at least be questionable]. But they did and here we are facing the risk of total collapse, on the edge of an abyss. Of course, life will go on in some form. Its probably an overestimation of human powers to imagine that we could kill everything or destroy the entire planet. But we can certainly do enough damage that its effects are felt and can probably inflict significant harm if left to ourselves. In fact, we have been doing so for several hundred years in the current iteration of “civilization” which is a post-colonial, capitalist homogenisation, a hierarchy of wealth and power. In this world the biggest polluters and the wealthiest countries with the biggest armies [such as the US military which The Ecologist tells me is likely a bigger polluter than up to 140 countries out of the around 200 countries we have today] are the main culprits and former colonies, the poorest of us, will always be the ones least able to fight the effects of our collective “civilizing”.

This, in fact, is what this chapter has been about: how civilizing changes the world. I see some good, some pertinence to the topic, in all of those I have mentioned above — even though several of them might threaten fist fights with some of the others about their approaches. Some want the abrupt ceasing of “civilized” life; others want civilization and nature brought into rational synthesis [and they assume this is even possible in so doing]; yet others agree that the power to do so is in our collective hands [and only our collective hands: individual actions are here all but insignificant] but only if we can discipline and organise ourselves correctly. I think what all of them would actually agree on, and as it seems to me is the case, is that linking human social, political and cultural organisation and activity to ecological outcomes is a factual and necessary thing to do. “How you live affects where you live” should be a proposition all but the most blind, greedy and wilfully stubborn capitalist can accept. This makes it all the more concerning that this obvious piece of logic is so routinely ignored. As ecological protesters are fond of saying, “There is no planet B.”

One of the books I located when searching for research material for this chapter is called Spiritual Ecology: The Cry of the Earth. I do not imagine it would be a book Murray Bookchin would have got along with very well. But, since I am more open to spiritual expression and, indeed, spiritual subjects as a whole, I decided to give the book a chance as I clicked through its pages. One evening, doing this, I alighted on a chapter by Satish Kumar titled “Three Dimensions of Ecology: Soil, Soul, Society”. Writing about an “ecology of the soil”, Kumar says the following:

“Soil comes first. It represents nature and sustains the entire world. Everything comes from the soil and returns to the soil. Food which sustains life comes from the soil. Water which nourishes life is held by the soil and so is fire. The sun, the moon and the stars are all related to the soil. For me the soil is a metaphor for the entire natural system. If we take care of the soil, the soil will take care of us all. Through the soil we are all related and interconnected. We depend on the soil. All living beings depend on the soil.”

This is the kind of thing that some have often noted more spiritual, indigenous peoples would be likely to express. Yet talking about the importance of soil is also something the British environmental commentator and activist George Monbiot [who is not given to spiritual expression or flights of fancy] also does several times a year, noting how precious and necessary a resource it is in so doing. Kumar, to go back to his essay, knows where to lay the blame for ecological crisis, however:

“Unfortunately the sciences, technology, economics and philosophy in the past few centuries have developed in such a way that we have elevated humankind to the ruling position and given humans higher status. We have developed a worldview which dictates that the human species is superior to all other species. Animals, forests, rivers and oceans must serve and fulfil not only the needs of humankind but also its greed and desires. This way of thinking has been called species-ism which means that one species, the human species, is the superior species above all others.

This arrogant worldview has led to the demise of reciprocal, mutual, respectful, reverential and spiritual relationships between humans and the rest of nature. In fact humans have come to believe that they are separate from nature and above nature. Nature is out there—the forests, the rivers, the birds and other wildlife—and we humans are here enclosed in our homes, palaces, castles, apartments, offices, cars, trains and airplanes.”

Kumar is here, in his own way, talking about the alienation of human beings from the rest of the natural world [through the creation of a hierarchy]. Becoming more and more alienated from it, we care less and less about our effects upon it. Its only a forest; its only an animal; its only a river; its only a coastline; its only the air. In this way we devise vast supply chains [hello Mr Bezos!] that are hugely destructive to supply both necessary and coerced wants to as many people as possible for profit. [Or, in the case of the US military, in order to secure a global empire and control of resources. The strongest will also always be able to survive the coming ecological troubles better than the rest.] It is hard to quantify how much of the world human activity has poisoned or destroyed but its an increasing amount, it is not set to stop anytime soon and its effects are now becoming so obvious [and dangerous] that they are hard for anyone to ignore in public [although the worst offenders will keep trying]. Here the most capitalist of us are also the worst offenders even as they will also be the most able to neutralise its effects upon their own lives for as long as possible.

For Satish Kumar, with an ecological trinity of soil, soul and society, this looks like a capitalist, civilizational war upon nature:

“In the recent past there have been philosophers and scientists who have considered it right for humanity to go on a mission of conquering nature through technology, science, industry and trade. Humanity has been at war against nature during this industrial and technological age: poisoning the land with chemicals and pesticides in the name of increasing food production. We have put birds and animals in coops and cages and treated them cruelly so that greater and greater profit can be made through increased sale of animal protein. Relentless destruction of rain forest as well as deciduous forest has been justified to increase areas of arable land for agribusiness. The industrial scale of fishing which depletes and destroys the natural balance of the oceans and rivers is another example of our acts of war against nature. Little do we realize that even if we were to win this war we would find ourselves on the losing side.”

That last sentence, I think, is the key: EVEN IF THIS WAY OF LIFE WINS, WE LOSE. And Kumar is further correct in saying that “This war against nature is driven by our conviction that the function of nature is to drive the engine of economy.” But, I’m bound to think, having Graeber and Wengrow’s massive text still fresh in my mind, human beings have realistically lived in many different ways over the tens of thousands of years of their history. These ways have been violent and peaceful, cooperative and isolationist, foraging and farming, urban and rural, and much else besides. Yet only one of these ways, the authoritarian capitalist one of our current world, has threatened to devastate the earth. All the previous commentators, professors and activists I called upon to give their commentary on civilization [including the ones in my previous negative essay that I began with] were right then, in one respect: THIS PARTICULAR CIVILIZATION HAS TO STOP. This particular political and economic arrangement of human relationships has to be fatally disrupted before it fatally disrupts us entirely. That is not just a political and economic conclusion: its an ecological conclusion too. It turns out, as people like Zerzan and Jensen, but also Bookchin and Reclus, have said, that THIS civilization very much is bad for you. We must, then, become post-civilizational about this particular civilization.

But how do we do this? Satish Kumar says the following:

“the challenge for humankind, in the twenty-first century, is to find humility and overcome duality and disconnection with nature. Nature is not just out there, we are nature too. Natal, nativity, native and nature all come from the same root. The word nature means: whatever is born and will die. Since we, humans, are also born and will die we are nature too. Thus nature and humans are one. Therefore we need to understand that what we do to nature we do to ourselves. We are all related; we live in an interdependent world.”

I must admit myself amenable such talk — although the Bookchins of the world will find it instinctive and so irrational. But the issue there is that what alienates me is our civilization, not nature, and the idea that I am a part of nature and so are you, all together living things, appeals to me intensely. So, I must admit to you, I find more meaning in my regular [naked] walks across a stretch of wooded fields in a local park or wilderness than I do in the inventions of modern technology. I find more meaning, I think, because I feel an instinctive connection to the grass, the trees, the earth, in a way that’s impossible with some technological thing that has exploited life in its making in order to be sold for some few people’s profit [and at the expense of others]. Yes, you may rightly point out that I’m typing this up on a Chinese-made laptop computer and so I wouldn’t be able to share these thoughts with you without exactly this technology, the product of this civilization I’m now so keen to criticise. But if none of this existed, a wager I would happily take, I’d probably simply be thinking and sharing with people by word of mouth instead. As Graeber and Wengrow show in ample examples, people didn’t need this civilization to be complex and interesting people, full of things to say and express. They had their own and there is no reason in the world it has to be like ours.

It seems to be a matter of how people think and where it leads them — and of people’s values and virtues in doing so — a conclusion [fortunately, but hopefully not too fortunately!] that’s synchronous with my own thoughts in this book about anarchists and anarchism. Consider, for example, the pre-Columbian indigenous peoples of what is now called “North America” but which some still refer to as “Turtle Island” [a description related to ancient myths about its creation]. Dawn E. Bastian and Judy K. Mitchell tell us in their Handbook of Native American Mythology that:

“Native American people believe that time is cyclical and dynamic, and that this cyclical time functions not only in the spiritual realm, but in the day-to-day existence of all living things. One Hopi scholar has called this relationship ‘mythic reality.’ In other words, the truth of this present, physical world exists simultaneously with that of the mythic, spiritual world.”

Bastian and Mitchell add that “This is a difficult concept to accept for many people with Western philosophical and scientific backgrounds” and that it “necessitates the suspension of former beliefs in order to fully comprehend the Native view of the land, the environment, family, and the past, present, and future.” But is this anymore “mythical” than the idea that the earth [and other people and animals] are resources to be exploited for profit or that meaning in this world is found in wealth? I beg to suggest that it isn’t at all. We all have our myths but not always the same ones. For instance, consider the following story which Bastian and Mitchell relay in their text:

“Sweet Medicine, the Cheyenne hero, after being banished from his village, travelled to a sacred mountain. There he received instruction from a group of elders (actually spirits) who taught him about the Four Sacred Arrows and numerous other rules and ceremonies. He spent four years there learning all of these things, and then the Old Ones sent him home with the sacred arrow bundle. He was welcomed back at his village and the people gladly accepted the new teachings. Sweet Medicine continued to live a very long life, but when the time drew near for him to die, the people carried him to the sacred mountain. They built a shelter for him at the base of the mountain and then withdrew a few miles away. The Cheyenne continued to observe all that Sweet Medicine had taught them and to this day consider Devil’s Tower in Wyoming to be a sacred mountain.”

We would probably find this story about a geological landmark in Wyoming perhaps best known to us from its appearance in Steven Spielberg’s film Close Encounters of the Third Kind to be quaint but not immediately meaningful to us. But so what? It is meaningful to the Cheyenne and it does no one else any harm that it is. But, more than this, the Cheyenne concept of sacred space that this inculcates [which is the context in which the authors discuss it] is something that we all, in our own ways, may be able to appreciate and is something I would say I feel simply in connection with my walking across land. Incidentally, as I go about my walking I, from time to time, pick up pebbles or stones — entirely worthless items in monetary terms — which I feel a strange, inexpressible, connection to. I have a growing collection of these things to which I have a tangible emotional attachment.

This perhaps sounds strange, even weird or sentimental, to you. [I do not like sentimentality in others and wouldn’t often like to think of myself as sentimental either — but there you have it.] But should it? Is it so strange that people should feel such an attachment to the natural world [even just in terms of land or terrain and not even discussing animals] yet be left cold by that one covered in concrete and artificially coerced in pain and exploitation from nature itself?

I promised earlier to bring in the Daoists to this chapter and we have reached that point now. To do this I will focus on James Miller’s essay from The Oxford Handbook of Religion and Ecology simply titled “Daoism and Nature”. In his opening, Miller says:

“Ecologists have heightened our consciousness as to the the place of human life within the contexts of multiple interdependent ecosystems. Environmental science is demonstrating the deep and perhaps irreversible impact of human economic culture on the planetary biosphere, which nourishes the amazing diversity of species with whom we make our home. These three inter-related sciences are together compelling a fundamental rethinking of our worldview, that is, our location in the time and space of the cosmos, and our existential orientation and moral obligations within it. Put simply, the anthropocentric humanism of the European enlightenment mentality is beginning to clash profoundly with the findings of contemporary holistic sciences.”

The problem delineated here is worldview clashing with material reality — and particularly in a context in which worldview is, somehow, imagined or expected to triumph over, or bring under control, material reality. Hopefully, such an idea appears immediately ridiculous to you — but that is the worldview that inhabits many of the most influential people in the world today; it is the worldview that is destroying the world today. What Miller intends to discuss in his essay, however, is “the ways in which the religious and philosophical thinking of Daoism intersects more fruitfully than monotheistic religion or liberal secular humanism with the sciences of evolution, ecology and environment.” I have myself for several years now had a keen and growing interest in Daoism, particularly in classic texts of its philosophy such as the Daodejing [or Laozi after its imagined author], the Zhuangzi and the Liezi [you will find references to, and discussions of, these texts throughout my four volume anthology of ideas generally titled There is Nothing to Stick to] and so I don’t at all seek to hide its influence upon me. Indeed, I hope in what follows to demonstrate its relevance to matters of civilization, ecology and anarchism much as Miller, in his essay, hopes to show that Daoism “demonstrates the possibility for a radically alternative worldview that can help human beings symbolize their time, place and obligations in a way that accords more closely with science and can help nurture a sustainable future.” So, in discussing Daoism, I consider myself as broadly wanting what Reclus, Bookchin, Zerzan, Jensen, Graeber and Wengrow all, each in their own way, also want: a peace treaty between human society and its natural environment.

In discussing Daoism and its relationship to nature, Miller is keen to rightly point out that its own history is a constantly evolving one. Daoism has no Bible as such, no singular creative act, no arbitrating deity. It is simply a tradition that arose in ancient China and has had periods of revitalisation from that point up until today. This is not of little significance when we come to discuss the substance [this is an in-joke for “The Way” I am about to discuss is not a substance] of Daoism itself. Daoism is based on the idea of “the Dao”, Dao meaning “way” or “path”. As I have written elsewhere before, then, Daoists are “Wayists”. James Miller then fills out this concept in his own words:

“The Way is not the product of a divine creative act, nor is it a divine agent. Rather, the Way is the emergent process of creativity by which the cosmos becomes what it becomes. The cosmological premise of one of the earliest Daoist texts, the Way and Its Power (Daodejing) is that the natural world is not a collection of interacting objects set in motion by a divine being but rather a dynamic system of vital processes whose basic character is that of self-transformation. The universe was not created by any external creative act, but rather subsists as a complex of “ways” that are wholly spontaneous or self-generating.”

He continues:

“The Way and Its Power (ch. 25) summarizes this view rather cryptically in the phrase ‘Dao fa zi ran,’ which may be translated as ‘ways take as their model their own capacity for self-generation.’ The principle that this Daoist maxim enshrines, therefore, is the capacity of life to shape itself independent of any external impetus or teleology. Things simply come into being of their own accord; they are not enacted by divine fiat according to some mythic metanarrative or with any external purpose. Nor are they the consequence of some all-encompassing karmic logic of cause and effect.”

You might then want to think of this as play, an underappreciated facet of the universe, but I am only myself being playful here in suggesting it. And what we are talking about here is only one of several [fictional] ways to help us connect things together via linguistically-formulated ideas, after all. Chapter 42 of the Daodejing, Miller informs us, then says:

Dao gives birth to one

One gives birth to two

Two gives birth to three

Three gives birth to ten thousand things

As Miller describes this:

“This cosmogony is different from the Neo-Platonic account of creation, which sees differentiation as the fundamental cosmogonic process. In that account, the multiplicity and diversity of the universe arises out of the splitting up or differentiation of some primordial unity. The Daoist account, however, is quite different. One does not divide into two, nor two into four. Rather the one becomes, as it were, pregnant with itself and gives birth to two; two becomes pregnant with itself and gives birth to three.”

In Miller’s view, this then imagines “the ‘ways’ of our universe as a sort of recursive, fractal-like complexity in which life takes up itself into itself and emerges into a yet more complex form. The result of this ongoing creative process is the ten thousand, or myriad,

things, the complex imbrication of life-processes that together constitute the self-organizing collectivity of life.” It should then, I hope, be quite easy to see how all life on our planet is implicated in this imagined complex of constant self-transformation. Rather like how people imagine things holistically when they think about “the butterfly effect”, this Daoist mentality imagines that everything is part of the same system which is engaged in a constant process of transforming itself. Imagining this system, Daoists are not interested in creating objects and subjects regarded as entirely separate from each other [keep in mind here that the foremost Daoist symbol is the yin/yang, a symbol which pictorially represents the entailment of yin in yang and yang in yin] because, as far as they are concerned, they aren’t entirely separate from each other — and, indeed, their imaginary separation wouldn’t, in this view, be a better thing to imagine anyway. Such a view is much more ecologically useful than its separating, objectivising alternative.

And then, of course, you have to bear in mind that such a conception of existence is neither teleological in some religious, eschatological sense and nor does it involve secular notions of “progress” which are imposed upon a society held under the sway of humanistic or capitalist imperatives. [As I read Graeber and Wengrow’s huge tome for research on this chapter, and read of dozens of ancient societies and their ways of life, I found myself constantly challenged as to this notion of “progress” and the regular assumption that some of the world glued to screens for most of their existence — whilst a further great swathe of the world is in despair or poverty or both — is somehow “better” than, say, lives of hunter-gatherer “affluence”. As we will see, Daoists have something to say about this too.] Daoist ideas looked to achieve a radical simplicity which both recognised and lived in harmony with “the complex transformative power of nature” — as Miller phrases this. But this implies that such people thought that it was not for them to then interfere with it. If you want to imagine this in a more scientific vocabulary, think of the universe in terms of the transformation of forms of energy — which is not the least helpful way to think about it anyway. More especially religious and not simply philosophical Daoists did this too, and held to various conceptions of such things in their mythologies which they applied to alchemic, medicinal and healing modes of thought.

This emphasis on the constant self-transformation of a whole, a mythological view which can unite Daoist spiritual philosophy and contemporary science, leads us to something I think of vital importance ecologically. It also happens to be one of the anarchist values and virtues I spoke about earlier: diversity. We have seen diversity in various contexts going right back to the beginning of Being Human, in fact, when I spoke about the diversifying life of replicants like Roy Batty as opposed to the humans who want to control, and occasionally snuff out, their diversity. This theme then continued through the biological discussions I engaged in when talking about life on earth [where biological diversity is actually the best means of survival] and the discussions I had about race and eugenics where, yet again, some people possessed of a superiority complex imagined they had both the knowledge and the right to start deciding who was worthy of life and who was not. In both the biological and the racial cases we find [often the same!] people who think that simple diversity is a bad thing. We may observe that one of the things Graeber and Wengrow are saying in their book is that there are any number of ways to live, and that our species has lived, and so it is somewhat obtuse to imagine that the one we now happen to live was either the inevitable one or the one to which human life was always oriented or which was bound to win out in the end.

Daoism does not hold to such an obtuse view either. Since it holds that all things are a product of self-transformation — and so of everything being implied in everything else — it holds that diversity is “primordial” [as Miller describes it] in the Daoist conception of the universe. Here, “Diversity is explained not by a god who creates and names specifically different things but by assuming as fundamental the process of transformation within the universe, namely the Dao or Way. All the things that exist within nature exist not because each was separately created (as in the Genesis story) but because nature transformed differently.” This makes diversity co-extensive with the universe itself, part of its very fabric, baked in at the most primordial level imaginable. We might even say that diversity is the universe and the universe is simply diverse. But its a diversity in unity because here, under a Daoist mode of thought, diversity is not the opposite of unity — its what constitutes it. The whole is not a unity until its unity in diversity is recognised. Readers might want to meditate on how such an idea interacts with the Western scientific idea of evolution in this respect. Of this, James Miller says:

“If we understand evolution as the non-teleological emergence of a self-organizing complex of life processes, there is a startling overlap with the Daoist conception of the natural self-organizing spontaneity (ziran) of the universe. In Daoist terms, nature is natural because it is self-generating, not because it is a ‘creation’ that follows divinely-ordained ‘natural laws.’”

Seeing the natural world as something “self-organizing” in this way leads the Daoist into ethical thought. But this ethical thought is not now based on “laws” that must be obeyed and which lead to some teleological goal. Important in this, as John Cage knew and to which I referred in chapter 9 of Being Human where I discussed Cage and his views, is nature’s manner of operation. As James Miller describes this:

“In the Daoist view, value does not consist in the achievement of some teleological goal or conformity to some transcendental ideal. Rather, the value of a thing consists in the process of transformation that is inherent in its own process of being. Accordingly, the core value espoused by Daoists, namely, spontaneity or the capacity for autonomous self-transformation (ziran) derives directly from the Daoist understanding of nature. Nature is both a description of the universe and a value to be espoused by humankind.”

That is to say that Daoists look at nature as a system — an ecosystem — and they see in it an ethical model. They see nature as a value. This is in stark contrast to human beings after the European “enlightenment” who have strongly taken the view that human beings are masters of nature, set apart from it, the ones who are in a battle with nature in order to control and domesticate it entirely, the ones who decide, and who will decide, whether it has a value and what that value will be. Nature, in that view, is the willing or unwilling servant of humanity — and it doesn’t really matter which. The difference in mentality is revolutionary, however, when one comes to realise that the “capacity of autonomous self-transformation” that Daoists see nature as being imbued with, its Dao or Way, “is actualized through adherence to an ethic not of action, but of ‘non-action.’ By practicing an ethic of non-action, Daoists value the capacity for self-transformation that is inherent within things and generally do not seek to exert influence through external creative acts.”

This is something very, very hard for modern people to grasp, the idea not that we should interfere in the world but that, often, we should simply leave it alone. It involves accepting that the earth has a natural balance and that in fact, it doesn’t, and never did, need people to make sure it turns out alright. Such a view, of course, is fundamentally at odds with authoritarian and capitalist mentalities in which deliberate, purposive human activity is all. But it is not, I think, necessarily at odds with an anarchist mentality — even if only on the grounds that “my enemy’s enemy is my friend.” Imagine if, instead of building vast empires, capitalist temples to greed and exploitation, and egotistical personal and corporate fortunes, people had lived in simplicity, tending to their simple biological and other human needs, and little more, allowing the earth and nature to be what that will be and become what they will become. Imagine if human beings did not seek meaning in control but in co-existence. Imagine if, rather than imagining they were the natural bosses, human beings realised they were part of a self-transforming whole. It paints our relationship to ecology in a whole new light and mandates a completely different kind of human action — or rather non-action.

This mentality involves accepting, as Miller describes it, “that the various processes of the cosmos inherently possess the capacity for harmonious self-transformation and that the correct mode of action is the type of action that seeks to co-ordinate and enable the spontaneous creative capacities of these various processes, rather than force them to conform to some external norm.” In the sense of “external norm” used here, there are no external norms. Scientific laws are, rather, rules for action, observed regularities we choose to trust, not propositions the universe is somehow required to obey. In this Daoist mentality man is not the measure nor, in any eternal or permanent sense, is it humanity’s job to be measurers. Rather, it is about responding to nature’s natural harmony, its sense of balance as a self-transforming system full of diversity and more interactions in a moment than we could possibly ever account for, and partaking in its natural homeostasis — to use a medical term very dear to the sense of Daoist medicine which also operates with such an imperative. The view here is that such systems as nature or the body seek to find their own balance, their own peaceful co-existence, which is, in fact, why they ever existed [even in evolutionary senses] in the first place. Things which only act in violent agitation with each other do not long survive, they destroy themselves [see human beings, set on their current course, and the rest of life on earth at present]. The Daoist insight, then, is that nature, this world, the cosmos, exist because there is some natural harmony that tends towards their relatively peaceful co-existence and continuation, a balance which enables them to survive without tearing themselves apart. Only a fool, so these Daoists think, would then act to disturb that balance or subvert such spontaneity. Doing so would not be a matter of knowledge or control but abject, hubristic stupidity.

Daoist thinkers often think of the human body and the cosmos at large in similar ways in this regard. Both are thought of in terms of a circulation of energies which, if we think of an electrical circuit, is a matter of positive and negative forces. Both are needed for an electrical charge and so for energy to flow. This can be seen, symbolically, to map to the pattern of yin and yang which, in Daoist symbology, can have all kinds of meanings and resonances but which always comes back to this idea of energy transforming itself and of a constant flow of one thing entailing the other. Yin and yang, as with the Dao, are not real things, they do not have substance. They are metaphorical ideas used to help express an understanding of energy and its constant transformation, a philosophy of movement, constant interaction and inter-relation. In Chinese, Daoists refer to energy as “Qi”. Miller sets out this understanding of energy, of Qi, in the following paragraph:

“Nature, then, is unitary in that it is comprised ultimately of one energy-matter, Qi. It has a binary characteristic, however, in that in terms of its positive and a negative charges. This duality leads energy to flow in a circuit. When it flows in a circuit it achieves a state of balance or homeostasis. This simple pattern, readily understood by analogy to energy, Daoists take to be the fundamental pattern of nature. Everything can be explained in terms of positive and negative forces which produce a circular flow and tend towards a systemic balance. Viewing the body, and by extension nature, as a dynamic system that tends towards an overall equilibrium is a further point of agreement between classical Daoist philosophy and contemporary systems thinking.

This holistic, systemic view of the body and the cosmos leads Daoists to view nature in terms of the correlations between its various dimensions and not in terms of the sequential cause and effect that is a characteristic of Indian theories of karma and classical scientific views of logic.”

I hope that this perhaps foreign thinking makes sense to you. My argument is not that this is right where other theories are wrong but that this is more useful, in an ecological context, than theories which posit humanity as lords of nature or the inevitable exploiter of it thought of as “resources”. Much as Graeber and Wengrow have done with their book about the history of human civilizations and pre-civilizations, so here I want to point out that the view we take towards ecology, and human civilization in relation to ecology and the natural world, does not have to be the way it is. Everyone can see that the way that has been imposed upon us is a disastrously exploitative way that cannot survive its own existence and so sensible people would then suggest that there must, in fact, be other ways to view the world and its ecology, and other ways to view and organise ourselves, which result in a better, much more sustainable interaction of the two. I offer the Daoist way, with its spontaneity, unity in diversity and focus on keeping a homeostatic balance, only because it is one known to me and which finds favour with me. But I don’t suggest its the only way or that there might not be others. [Bookchin, in fact, suggested another above.]

If one goes into the Daoist cosmological philosophy even further one finds it arranged as a system of balance achieved by seasonal movement, a mythology of life itself. In this understanding balance is achieved by being in harmony with nature and its system of seasonality, something which Graeber and Wengrow report in The Dawn of Everything is actually how some past versions of ourselves [who were not in this case in ancient China] also lived, at one part of the year living in one way, and in another part of the year living another. This also recalls to mind for those of a biblical education [such as I] that “there is a time for everything” — as the book of Ecclesiastes [in Hebrew, Qohelet] reminds us. I see in this constant movement a tendency towards diversity and flexibility which is anti-authoritarian and anti-egotistical in the sense that, given this systems understanding, human beings go with the flow of life and fit into a greater whole in harmony. Nature’s balance here includes human balance with nature, a thing our current ways of life are clearly upsetting, if not destroying. Have human beings got the humility to recognise they are a small part of a greater whole? Lives certainly depend upon it.

One thing that does distinguish Daoist ways from modern, scientific ways, however, is the fact that Daoists derive values from nature as they observe it. If you read much of John Cage, who I mentioned earlier and whom I write about in Being Human, it will not miss your attention how often he talks about nature “in her manner of operation”. This is the Daoist move of deriving values from nature’s way of being and becoming, how it fits together and seems to work [which one could reasonably argue is a kind of “science” itself since science is only the making of reliable observations from nature]. James Miller highlights the consequences of this when he says:

“What distinguishes Daoists from most modern scientists, however, is their desire to derive values from the facts of nature. Just as Daoists view nature as spontaneous and therefore value spontaneity, so also Daoists view balance and systemic equilibrium as a virtue. In this Daoist worldview, balance or harmony in fact can be regarded as a supreme virtue, not in the sense of some abstract ideal of goodness or justice, but rather as the natural process of balancing out of the diversity of forces so as to attain an equilibrium that proves beneficial for the whole. This value encourages a type of systems thinking that recognizes irreducible diversity and dissuades thinking in the dualistic terms of good versus evil. This is not to suggest that Daoists are amoral. Rather it is to suggest that Daoists view morality in medical terms: goodness consists of the optimal health of a system comprised of various interdependent subsystems. This medical concept of virtue can certainly be useful in constructing an ecological ethics, one that recognizes that humans cannot act for their own good without considering the overall health of the ecosystems in which they are embedded.”

I cannot but think that modern capitalists, obsessed with exploiting more and more of the planet and its inhabitants in a futile pursuit of constant growth and never declining profits, need a bit of such re-education. The shallow philosophy of profit and exploitation is dooming us and, consequently, anarchists must be active and engaged anti-capitalists for the first requirement of any anarchism is that there is a planet to be anarchistic about. What’s more, people in general, in my view, need to absorb some of that Daoist insistence on “maintaining an equilibrium between the body and its environment” — as James Miller phrases it — which is actually not so different from Bookchin’s idea of a synthesis of ecology and civilization.

Clearly, if humanity is to survive, some accommodation of nature and human society must occur. We must find ways to live which do not rely on destroying other life or exploiting it as a resource. Somewhere in the Zhuangzi, as I have written about elsewhere, there is the sentiment expressed that wise people live their lives in quiet simplicity without even wondering what other people are doing across the border. This speaks to a simplicity and humility of life without hubris, ambition or self-regarding grandeur but also to a life lived from local resources without requiring mass exploitation of the surroundings. This appeals to me and seems a wise course of action. People, as Diogenes himself would have suggested since αὐτάρκεια or “self-sufficiency” was a primary Cynic virtue, should be able to look after themselves and their needs in ways which don’t involve mass exploitation of either other people or things. This would be both organisationally sensible and ecologically sensible. But, as with many other things in this book, it is fundamentally at odds with the alienated selves that we have become in this present moment. It will require huge acts of rethinking who we are and how we fit in with the world around us if we are ever to achieve it.

One last thing before this chapter must end. James Miller talks about the Daoist understanding of nature and society, ecology and civilisation, and its necessary harmony and fluidity, using the following, once again bodily, metaphor:

“The most basic procedure for maintaining… harmony [between body and environment] is breathing. Thus many Daoist meditative techniques pay close attention to regulating breath, that is the passage of Qi as air or breath from outside to inside our bodies and back again. Each time we exchange a breath we are exchanging aspects of our physical environment and our internal physiology. Since breath is the basis of life, we can define life in the basic Daoist sense as the continuous exchange of energy between environment and body. When this exchange ceases, then life ceases.”

I can’t think of any better way of showing that human beings are not separate from the environment than this. Its very existence is, in fact, humanity’s life support system and, in a very consequentialist sense, we are not separate from our environment at all. We need to come to recognise and cherish this insight and to view nature as fluid rather than as a set of distinct material substances. Notable, then, is that perhaps the pre-eminent Daoist metaphor is that of water, something which itself transforms [as steam or ice] and whose very fluidity is the point. The Daodejing chapter 22 says: “Highest good is like water. Because water excels in benefiting the myriad creatures without contending with them and settles where none would like to be, it comes close to the way.” Miller comments that:

“Here water is… employed as a metaphor for goodness. Good is defined as being like water in the sense that water benefits creatures without contending with them and in that it chooses the lowest place. To be good thus means to be of benefit to others and to be humble… To be alive, to be one of the myriad creatures, is only achievable through water. Thus in Daoist and ecological terms, life is a water-based proposition.”

It would be good to think on these things ethically, organisationally and ecologically, I think, becoming humble and of benefit to others in the process.


“The most violent element in society is ignorance.” — Emma Goldman


The most important task, if life is a matter of tasks, for the anarchist today is EDUCATION. Why is this? Because without education you can stick your “revolution”, or even simple worthwhile political change, where the sun don’t shine. When Lucy Parsons said, many years ago now, that “Anarchists know that a long period of education must precede any great fundamental change in society, hence they do not believe in vote begging, nor political campaigns, but rather in the development of self-thinking individuals” she was telling people that an actual revolution — as opposed to the imaginary ones people on social media carry around in their heads — is based solidly on the notion of people being inhabited by the beliefs, attitudes and values which require one, which make one inevitable, in fact. This idea of education is solidly linked to the idea of values and, if you want to know a society’s values, then look at what that society allows to occur. From that you will then also be able to infer the state of its education. Clearly Emma Goldman, who spent her life in the business of education, was of similar mind when she uttered the quotation with which I head this chapter. But when we talk about “education” here, as Goldman’s career clearly shows, we are not talking about a set of values laid out on one piece of paper which is exchanged for another set of values on another sheet of paper. That process could, in certain circumstances, simply be called dogmatic or propagandistic. [This is what newspapers and TV channels and social media accounts engage in.] Education, on the other hand, is teaching the skills and the interpretive sensitivity to consequences and context which enable people to make the necessary switches from one set of values to another for themselves. This is not purely an objective thing nor simply an intellectual thing. It is as much about being socially-minded and concerned about more than yourself as it is about being smart or clever. The aim of anarchist education, then, as both Parsons and Goldman would have agreed, is the creation of “self-thinking people”, a development of critical skills one relies on for oneself rather than simply believing a set of propositions. As I described this in earlier chapters, this is education in and as the process of SELF-ACTUALISATION.

It is, in fact, with Emma Goldman that I will begin this chapter as an example of an anarchist educator or, more specifically, as an example of what anarchist education means. Readers may, on the one hand, find it strange that Goldman, a childless woman who, one gets the impression, actively resisted motherhood all her life in the cause of her “beautiful ideal” [and despite the pleas of some of her lovers], would take an interest in such a subject, most usually and naturally applied to children. Yet Goldman, in fact, had a strong interest in education and learning more generally [something she occasionally got flak for from other anarchists who thought she was straying from the more simple message of “workers’ emancipation” that animated them]. She wrote a book, published in 1914, about drama and its “social significance”, would speak to more middle class audiences quite regularly about subjects like the importance of Nietzsche’s philosophy for modern times [these talks seem to have been lost due to her later arrest by the FBI in 1917 and that is a great shame as what she had to say, in interaction with Nietzsche, would have been very interesting] and was involved in the creation of New York’s “Ferrer School” in 1911 [later called a “Modern School”].

In addition to this, we should not fail to mention her monthly periodical, Mother Earth, which existed from March 1906 until that same arrest in 1917 and which was intended to educate readers [and not simply anarchists] about politics and culture. In the second edition we find a piece written by Goldman entitled “The Child and Its Enemies” and this sets us on the road of Emma Goldman’s educational thought. This is so, in fact, right from the opening sentence: “Is the child to be considered as an individuality, or as an object to be moulded according to the whims and fancies of those about it?” This, it will be seen, is exactly the heart of the issue for Goldman [as it will be for others too] as she notes that “Every sensitive being abhors the idea of being treated as a mere machine or as a mere parrot of conventionality and respectability, the human being craves recognition of his kind.” Goldman seems to think of children and adults together as similarly human beings here and further notes that “it is through the channel of the child that the development of the mature man must go.” But, immediately, there is a problem:

“Every institution of our day, the family, the State, our moral codes, sees in every strong, beautiful, uncompromising personality a deadly enemy; therefore every effort is being made to cramp human emotion and originality of thought in the individual into a straight-jacket from its earliest infancy; or to shape every human being according to one pattern; not into a well-rounded individuality, but into a patient work slave, professional automaton, tax-paying citizen, or righteous moralist.”

What, then, is the educational ideal here which Goldman sees being disrupted? It is one “who has freed himself from the fetters of the thoughtlessness and stupidity of the commonplace; he who can stand without moral crutches, without the approval of public opinion” or one who “may well intone a high and voluminous song of independence and freedom.” Goldman is not here talking about a person who has been given a certain set of facts or a certain configuration of knowledge from their education but the creation of a certain type of person, one who won’t be the “work slave”, the “automaton” or the “moralist”.

Speaking of a child growing up as she continues her short essay, Goldman goes on to note that, “The child shows its individual tendencies in its plays, in its questions, in its association with people and things. But it has to struggle with everlasting external interference in its world of thought and emotion. It must not express itself in harmony with its nature, with its growing personality. It must become a thing, an object.” It is obvious here that the problem for Goldman is that she sees individuality being frustrated by parents and schooling — which is something of her own experience in life too. Goldman did not herself have much schooling [although clearly being and remaining an intellectually interested person] due to her domineering father who sent her out to earn money instead and this fact doesn’t seem inconsequential to her general commentary. Later in her essay she talks about “the conspiracy entered into by civilization against the growth and making of character” and she likely felt this in her own case. But she speaks not just from her own experience, or about herself, but more generally, saying that since “every effort of our educational life seems to be directed toward making of the child a being foreign to itself” this must then necessarily issue in “individuals foreign to one another, and in everlasting antagonism with each other.”

Goldman’s charge, then, is that, “The ideal of the average pedagogist is not a complete, well-rounded, original being; rather does he seek that the result of his art of pedagogy shall be automatons of flesh and blood, to best fit into the treadmill of society and the emptiness and dullness of our lives.” Note there, once again, the reference to an “original” being. The comparison Goldman is using throughout here is between robots produced to order and autonomous individuals. Goldman had, amongst other things, read her Stirner and Nietzsche — and not without some measure of approval — and they can only have acted to confirm her own feelings towards autonomy of thought and action. [This is to say that Goldman was not herself convinced towards autonomy in these things by intellectual arguments but that it rose up naturally from her own life and spirit — something in which she then educated herself further.] Goldman also contrasts “Every home, school, college and university [which] stands for dry, cold utilitarianism, overflooding the brain of the pupil with a tremendous amount of ideas, handed down from generations past” with “awakening spontaneity of character” which seems very like contrasting people made in an image of “our” past with people capable of creating their own image of themselves and so also a new future.

Indeed, as the essay continues, this becomes the comparison between “predigested food” [which is what Goldman thinks the information children receive is] and “their own personalities and their original sense of judgment” or “an independent mental development of the child.” And Goldman, who had her own bitter experience of this, was in no doubt where the problems began: “parents are the first to destroy the inner riches of their children.” She goes on to say that “They tenaciously cling to the idea that the child is merely part of themselves — an idea as false as it is injurious, and which only increases the misunderstanding of the soul of the child, of the necessary consequences of enslavement and subordination thereof.” But what then of the child? “Soon enough it is confronted with the painful reality that it is here only to serve as inanimate matter for parents and guardians, whose authority alone gives it shape and form.” Children, of course, especially when young, have no power. They are the ultimate example of powerless people. Thus, not least in the family, “the child is ever compelled to battle against the internal and external use of force.” This is a big problem for Goldman who wishes that children would “ever grow up into independent, self-reliant spirits.” [One here hears echoes of an Emersonian “self-reliance” which we know Goldman was also acquainted with. Goldman seems to have regarded men like Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau as home grown American anarchists.]

For Goldman, then, beginning from parents and extending into the officialdom of schooling, education is a matter of being deliberately stunted by a society that wants to keep its offspring under control. There is no possibility of “the silvery song of… individual growth, of the beauty of character, of the strength of love and human relation, which alone make life worth living.” Goldman insists that:

“education of children is not synonymous with herd-like drilling and training. If education should really mean anything at all, it must insist upon the free growth and development of the innate forces and tendencies of the child. In this way alone can we hope for the free individual and eventually also for a free community, which shall make interference and coercion of human growth impossible.”

At this point, for sake of reference, its perhaps worth asking what Emma Goldman’s actual reference point for a fully formed, engaged “independent” human being might have been around this time. In 1909 she composed “A New Declaration of Independence” for a newspaper which subsequently refused to publish it. Instead, it appeared in her own Mother Earth. It reads as follows:

“When, in the course of human development, existing institutions prove inadequate to the needs of man, when they serve merely to enslave, rob, and oppress mankind, the people have the eternal right to rebel against, and overthrow, these institutions.

The mere fact that these forces — inimical to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness — are legalized by statute laws, sanctified by divine rights, and enforced by political power, in no way justifies their continued existence.

We hold these truths to be self-evident: that all human beings, irrespective of race, color, or sex, are born with the equal right to share at the table of life; that to secure this right, there must be established among men economic, social, and political freedom; we hold further that government exists but to maintain special privilege and property rights; that it coerces man into submission and therefore robs him of dignity, self-respect, and life.

The history of the American kings of capital and authority is the history of repeated crimes, injustice, oppression, outrage, and abuse, all aiming at the suppression of individual liberties and the exploitation of the people. A vast country, rich enough to supply all her children with all possible comforts, and insure well-being to all, is in the hands of a few, while the nameless millions are at the mercy of ruthless wealth gatherers, unscrupulous lawmakers, and corrupt politicians. Sturdy sons of America are forced to tramp the country in a fruitless search for bread, and many of her daughters are driven into the street, while thousands of tender children are daily sacrificed on the altar of Mammon. The reign of these kings is holding mankind in slavery, perpetuating poverty and disease, maintaining crime and corruption; it is fettering the spirit of liberty, throttling the voice of justice, and degrading and oppressing humanity. It is engaged in

continual war and slaughter, devastating the country and destroying the best and finest qualities of man; it nurtures superstition and ignorance, sows prejudice and strife, and turns the human family into a camp of Ishmaelites.

We, therefore, the liberty-loving men and women, realizing the great injustice and brutality of this state of affairs, earnestly and boldly do hereby declare, that each and every individual is and ought to be free to own himself and to enjoy the full fruit of his labor; that man is absolved from all allegiance to the kings of authority and capital; that he has, by the very fact of his being, free access to the land and all means of production, and entire liberty of disposing of the fruits of his efforts; that each and every individual has the unquestionable and unabridgable right of free and voluntary association with other equally sovereign individuals for economic, political, social, and all other purposes, and that to achieve this end man must emancipate himself from the sacredness of property, the respect for man-made law, the fear of the Church, the cowardice of public opinion, the stupid arrogance of national, racial, religious, and sex superiority, and from the narrow puritanical conception of human life. And for the support of this Declaration, and with a firm reliance on the harmonious blending of man’s social and individual tendencies, the lovers of liberty joyfully consecrate their uncompromising devotion, their energy and intelligence, their solidarity and their lives.”

The reason I quote this is because, as written, if intended to be read by adults, it doesn’t actually say anything that different to what Goldman had said previously in addressing the education of children. Goldman wants people IN GENERAL to be “liberty-loving” and “free to own himself” and not just children — but, that being the case, this must then begin with children where these young human beings are taught, from the family environment onwards, about who they shall be. We see this further in Goldman’s essay “The Social Importance of the Modern School” where Goldman contrasts the oppressive social environment of contemporary schooling with “develop[ing] the individual through knowledge and the free play of characteristic traits, so that he may become a social being, because he has learned to know himself, to know his relation to his fellow-men, and to realize himself in a harmonious blending with society.” Here, “enslaving the masses” is compared to “personal liberty and originality of thought”. Goldman wishes to educate for the latter and eradicate the former for “Naturally, the method of breaking man’s will must begin at a very early age; that is, with the child, because at that time the human mind is most pliable.” Goldman definitely links schooling to the state of society more widely in this essay in that she also further adds:

“our present system of economic and political dependence is maintained not so much by wealth and courts as it is by an inert mass of humanity, drilled and pounded into absolute uniformity, and... the school today represents the most efficient medium to accomplish that end.”

To such machine education, then, the factory for producing societal clones, good workers stamped with the values of authoritarian society where what is needed is compliance not independence, Goldman contrasts “The Modern School”. She discusses this saying that:

“The underlying principle of the Modern School is this: education is a process of drawing out, not of driving in; it aims at the possibility that the child should be left free to develop spontaneously, directing his own efforts and choosing the branches of knowledge which he desires to study. That, therefore, the teacher, instead of opposing, or presenting as authoritative his own opinions, predilections, or beliefs should be a sensitive instrument responding to the needs of the child as they are at any time manifested; a channel through which the child may attain so much of the ordered knowledge of the world, as he shows himself ready to receive and assimilate. Scientific, demonstrable facts in the Modern School will be presented as facts, but no interpretation of theory — social, political, or religious — will be presented as having in itself such sanction, or intellectual sovereignty, as precludes the right to criticize or disbelieve.

The Modern School, then, must be libertarian. Each pupil must be left free to his true self.”

This, we might say, is treating children like human beings who have agency to direct their own learning. But this, as some might critique such a situation, is not simply a matter of mere autonomy for Goldman also points out that, “The social purpose of the Modern School is to develop the individual through knowledge and the free play of characteristic traits, so that he may become a social being, because he has learned to know himself, to know his relation to his fellow-men, and to realize himself in a harmonious blending with society” as I have already previously highlighted. The difference in the Modern School, so called, is that children are encouraged to find their own way in this whereas, in other schools, they are directed down a path regardless of if they choose it or not in classic authoritarian fashion [where authority always knows best]. Such education then develops individual initiative and the child’s various judging and critical apparatuses which leads to them becoming “an independent factor” in what Goldman calls “the social struggle”. In fact, the Modern School, a system of education most often associated with the Catalan Francisco Ferrer, a radical freethinker, anarchist, and educationalist behind a network of secular, private, libertarian schools in and around Barcelona which he set up in opposition to the dogmatic schooling of the Catholic Church [and to which they were always bitterly opposed, eventually leading to Ferrer’s unjust execution], aims:

“to make impossible the mere instructionist: the instructionist blinded by his paltry specialty to the full life it is meant to serve; the narrow-minded worshipper of uniformity; the small, soured reactionary who cries for ‘more spelling and arithmetic and less life’; the self-sufficient apostle of consolation, who in his worship of what has been fails to see what is and what ought to be; the stupid adherent of a decaying age who makes war upon the fresh vigor that is sprouting from the soil — all these the Modern School aims to replace by life, the true interpreter of education.”

Of special issue here is the matter of sex education, something Goldman was always in favour of and which she was even imprisoned for in the case of teaching women methods of contraception, something which, as far back as the 1890s, she had complained women and girls were kept in ignorance of, thus disabling them from even being knowledgeable enough to make decisions about their own bodies. Already in “The Child and Its Enemies” Goldman had complained that “social morality” [by which she most probably means the Church — which she despised] was leading adolescents into ignorance and an inability to have independence in the matter of their own lives. She writes that: “The cravings of love and sex are met with absolute ignorance by the majority of parents, who consider it as something indecent and improper, something disgraceful, almost criminal, to be suppressed and fought like some terrible disease.” In “The Social Importance of the Modern School” Goldman discusses this further, adding that: “An educational system which refuses to see in the young budding and sprouting personality independence of mind and wholesomeness of a freely developed body will certainly not admit the necessity of recognizing the phase of sex in the child.” This is surely a tricky subject still very much overladen with ignorant moral certitudes. Goldman herself squarely puts “Puritans and moralists” in the frame for destroying youthful urges and stripping them of their innocence or free [i.e. uncoerced] development. Goldman is not one who imagines that keeping people in ignorance and forbidding things as if they were “tendencies to crime” will ever be the answer. The authoritarian moralism which imagines it can banish things by fiat is both evil and sinister to Goldman.

Like Émile Armand, then, to whom I referred earlier on a similar matter, Goldman thought that children should be taught frankly and straightforwardly about sex and its consequences. This was both so that people could understand the activities and consequences of their own bodies but also to encourage an honest and knowledgeable understanding of the inevitable interactions that come from sexuality in adolescent youth. Goldman herself in fact knew of at least one teenage girl, Becky Edelsohn, who became part of her circle in New York and who lived at her communal apartment, helping out with Mother Earth along with others, who had a sexual relationship. Edelsohn, aged 15, had a sexual relationship with Goldman’s own former lover and lifelong friend, Alexander Berkman — who was at the time 37. [You can read more about this in my essay “Sex, Love and Agency” in The Anarchist Arrow where you found this book.] Goldman, who seems to have never found the sexual relationship between Edelsohn and Berkman noteworthy — save in the fact of her own disappointment that it was not with her that Berkman was seeking sexual satisfaction — thought that “If in childhood both man and woman were taught a beautiful comradeship, it would neutralize the oversexed condition of both and would help woman’s emancipation much more than all the laws upon the statute books and her right to vote.” It seems reasonable to suggest then that, in the case of Edelsohn and Berkman, Goldman believed in letting people make their own decisions. Goldman ends “The Social Importance of the Modern School” by saying:

“The advocates of puritanism, of morality, of the present system of education, only succeed in making life smaller, meaner, and more contemptible — and what fine personalities can tolerate such an outrage? It is therefore a human proposition to exterminate the system and all those who are engaged in so-called education. The best education of the child is to leave it alone and bring to it understanding and sympathy.”

We must assume Emma Goldman was entirely sincere in such a sentiment and conclude that, for her, anarchist education is nothing more or less than the practice of anarchism towards one another. If you can’t act with anarchist ethics and values towards those who have no power [i.e. children] then why would we think you could towards anyone else?


Max Stirner, at least before he published The Ego and Its Own in 1844, was actually a schoolteacher himself. [He resigned from his post prior to its publication as he was expecting that it would cause a fuss.] This meant he naturally had an interest in education and its purpose when, as a man in his mid 30s, he submitted his essay “The False Principle of Our Education” to the short-lived Rheinische Zeitung newspaper in 1842 [which, at the time, had a rather unknown editor by the name of Karl Marx!]. His immediate concern in writing the essay was as a response to a treatise by Otto Friedrich Theodor Heinsius [a German professor who produced grammars, dictionaries and histories of German literature] which discussed the relationship of schooling and life in the context of the then current intellectual traditions of humanism and realism. [We must always remember, when reading Stirner, that he, of all people, was not writing abstractly in a vacuum but often responding to present intellectual currents of his time and place.]

Stirner begins his essay by asking of the education of his time and place if it “cultivate[s] our predisposition to become creators” or if, instead, it “simply permits training”, adding, “Be something excellent and you will bring about something excellent: be ‘each one perfect in himself,’ then your society, your social life, will also be perfect.” Stirner refers to childhood here as “the time of our plasticity”, agreeing that “the school question is a life question.” For Stirner, the Enlightenment introduced a new principle behind education to challenge the classical humanist principle which taught a history of the “Western Canon” to the children of the elite or privileged. Where, previously, education had taught the few “to talk about everything”, the Enlightenment saw the rise of the realist “demand for a practical finishing education”. Stirner saw educational theory in his time and place as basically a battlefield between these two parties—humanists, grasping the past; and realists, seizing the present. Yet he criticised both as seeking power over the “transitory” or as viewing education as a “struggle towards mastery in the handling of material”. Stirner supported the realist criticism that the humanists were seeking knowledge for its own sake but he also asks whether the realists do any better — because the realists merely supplied the individual with the tools to achieve their will and nothing more.

But Stirner expects more from education than this. Conceiving that “knowledge itself must die in order to blossom forth again in death” [Stirner here gives a couple of gospel references to where Jesus is said to tell his disciples that those who lose their life will gain it], he argues that “knowledge is not brought to completion and perspicuity... it remains a material and formal, a positive thing, without rising to the absolute... it loads us down like a burden. Like the ancients, one must wish for forgetfulness, must drink from the blessed Lethe: otherwise one does not come to one’s senses. Everything great must know how to die and transfigure itself through its death.” “Proper knowledge,” in fact, “perfects itself when it stops being knowledge and becomes a simple human drive once again, the will.” Thus, Stirner goes on to talk about an education which is described as “the flame of ethical will.” In this spirit Stirner argues that “knowledge perfects itself to will when it desensualizes itself and creates itself as a spirit ‘which builds its own body.’”

This is dense and, perhaps, meaningless talk to those of us not in the know when it comes to the history of European philosophy or, indeed, Hegelianism — since Stirner is known as a post-Hegelian philosopher. The nuances, I’m sure, will be lost on nearly all of us yet there are sections where Stirner seems to speak more transparently — as in the following excerpt:

“If it is the drive of our time, after freedom of thought is won, to pursue it to that perfection through which it changes to freedom of the will in order to realize the latter as the principle of a new era, then the final goal of education can no longer be knowledge, but the will born out of knowledge, and the spoken expression of that for which it has to strive is: the personal or free man. Truth itself consists in nothing other than man’s revelation of himself, and thereto belongs the discovery of himself, the liberation from all that is alien, the uttermost abstraction or release from all authority, the re-won naturalness.”

Here we start to discern a theme not ultimately that different to the one which Emma Goldman would later have — education into personal freedom or autonomy which Stirner himself would go on, in The Ego and Its Own, to call a person’s “ownness” — something which is itself basically their autonomy over themselves. Stirner adds, in fact, that “knowledge… which has not become personal furnishes a poor preparation for life.” In this context, Stirner can then make complaints similar to those we heard from Goldman, such as the following:

“In the pedagogical as in certain other spheres freedom is not allowed to erupt, the power of the opposition is not allowed to put a word in edgewise: they want submissiveness. Only a formal and material training is being aimed at and only scholars come out of the menageries of the humanists, only ‘useful citizens’ out of those of the realists, both of whom are indeed nothing but subservient people.”

Stirner’s education is not one into the creation of “subservient people” but one for those who would be free human beings, masters of themselves. He says that the result of his contemporaneous school life is “philistinism” and of “subservience which has been cultivated” yet he wants to know where a “creative person” shall be educated or where “the free man count[s] as a goal”. And he does this not in the cause of “civilization” but rather in the cause of “self-application”. And so is brought to this subject the idea once again of “self-thinking people” which I quoted from the pen of Lucy Parsons earlier. In this connection, Stirner writes:

“If man puts his honour first in relying upon himself, knowing himself and applying himself, thus in self-reliance, self-assertion, and freedom, he then strives to rid himself of the ignorance which makes out of the strange impenetrable object a barrier and hindrance to his self-knowledge. If one awakens in men the idea of freedom then the free men will incessantly go on to free themselves; if, on the contrary, one only educates them, then they will at all times accommodate themselves to circumstances in the most highly educated and elegant manner and degenerate into subservient cringing souls. What are our gifted and educated subjects for the most part? Scornful, smiling slave-owners and themselves slaves.”

An education that does not teach human beings to be free, then, is not a proper or adequate education for Stirner. It is no good to teach a canonised history or teach about imagined great figures from the past in whose line we are imagined to stand as the natural heirs, it is no good to teach technical proficiency in daily life which merely gives people tools to pursue their wants. What matters is that people be taught to be free. “People of principles” are not enough for all that teaches is “legal minds, not free ones.” Stirner wants people who create themselves. And so:

“Every education, however, must be personal and stemming from knowledge, it must continuously keep the essence of knowledge in mind, namely this, that it must never be a possession, but rather the ego itself. In a word, it is not knowledge that should be taught, rather, the individual should come to self-development; pedagogy should not proceed any further towards civilizing, but toward the development of free men, sovereign characters; and therefore, the will which up to this time has been so strongly suppressed, may no longer be weakened.”

Stirner can add to this that “If a child does not learn self-awareness, then [it] plainly does not learn that which is most important” and that “school is to be life and there, as outside of it, the self-revelation of the individual is to be the task. The universal education of school is to be an education for freedom, not for subservience: to be free, that is true life.” In a further addition which manages to also include a pattern for society in its description, Stirner says, “We are not yet everything when we move as useful members of society; we are much more able to perfect this only if we are free people, self-creating (creating ourselves) people.” This is pretty much exactly the same as Emma Goldman, in her own words, said too [although whether Goldman, who had read Stirner, was herself being influenced by Stirner in her own words is a moot point]. The point here is that Stirner conceives of “free people” [as opposed to subservient, if technically gifted or “well educated”, people] being people who are not just better in themselves but who also make for a better society as well. Educating people into freedom is then seen as a societal good in general. Later on, near the end of his essay, Stirner will also add that “only freedom is equality” meaning that the education of free people is, in his conception, a step on the road to a more equal society of free people in itself. And so: “the ‘vigorous desire of the nation, that the school might be more closely allied with life’ will only be fulfilled if one finds real life in full personality, independence and freedom.” Stirner concludes his essay with the thought that “knowledge must die and rise again as will and create itself anew each day as the free person” in an ode to the education of free personhood which would become the guiding theme of his major tome, yet still two years away from publication itself when he published this.


Roughly intermediate between Max Stirner and Emma Goldman, chronologically speaking, is Friedrich Nietzsche, a man who himself became a university teacher [and, concurrently, a school teacher, a task related to his university post] at a young age [having been a precocious and favoured student at a school of repute — Schulpforta] although, due to the illness that would eventually completely disable him for the last decade of his life, his duties as a professor of philology at the University of Basel were carried out sporadically at best. Once pensioned off from this life, however, to live a life seeking the climate best suited to dealing with his ailments [which mainly proved to be the Mediterranean Riviera or the Swiss mountains], he became a prolific writer about any number of subjects but not the least of which was the human being itself and the various contexts of its existence. Although Nietzsche’s explicit content about education is also sporadic at best, the general scope of much of his writing directly bears on the concept of education in more general terms because it deals with the fact of what human beings are, or have become, and what they should, in his opinion, choose to be instead. When we interrogate this material we find something at once idiosyncratically Nietzschean but also rather familiar, given the narrative I have so far been pursuing in this chapter.

We must treat Nietzsche, however, not as a man of the masses but as an exemplar, an eccentric, a man who becomes for others a mirror showing them themselves. I, in fact, see Nietzsche in his writings as very much a Diogenean type of man [see chapter 0]. One of his most famous pieces of writing is actually a re-writing of the story of Diogenes going through the marketplace in the daylight with a lamp “looking for a human being.” In Nietzsche’s retelling, in section 125 of The Gay Science, it is “the madman” who seeks God. But God is dead and it is human beings who have killed him, the churches now standing as silent “sepulchres” to his death. Nietzsche, then, does not have a lot to say about methods of teaching [and this is probably less interesting than his more prominent ideas anyway] and this is for the very good reason that his philosophy as a whole touches quite often on how one educates oneself. See, for example, how he originally ended his book The Gay Science, introducing his most famous creation [and narrator of his next book] Zarathustra in the process — and so combining the ideas of self-education and example to others in the same piece:

“Incipit tragoedia. — When Zarathustra was thirty years old, he left his homeland and Lake Urmi and went into the mountains. There he enjoyed his spirit and solitude, and did not tire of that for ten years. But at last his heart changed — and one morning he arose with rosy dawn, stepped before the sun, and spoke to it thus: ‘You great heavenly body! What would your happiness be if you did not have those for whom you shine! For ten years you have climbed up to my cave; without me, my eagle, and my snake, you would have become tired of your light and of this road; but we awaited you every morning, relieved you of your overabundance, and blessed you for it. Behold, I am sick of my wisdom, like a bee that has collected too much honey; I need outstretched hands; I would like to give away and distribute until the wise among humans once again enjoy their folly and the poor once again their riches. For that I must step into the depths, as you do in the evening when you go behind the sea and bring light even to the underworld, you over-rich heavenly body! Like you I must go under, as it is called by the human beings to whom I want to descend. So bless me then, you calm eye that can look without envy upon all-too-great happiness! Bless the cup that wants to overflow in order that the water may flow golden from it and everywhere carry the reflection of your bliss! Behold, this cup wants to become empty again, and Zarathustra wants to become human again.’ Thus began Zarathustra’s going under.”

This text, mostly repeated at the beginning of the text of Thus Spoke Zarathustra itself, inaugurates the career of one who, as the next section of Zarathustra after its prologue tells us, loves Mankind [i.e. “I love Mankind” in section 2]. This should act to deter the suggestion in readers that the reputation Nietzsche has earned for haughty disdain of “the masses” is a simplistic, superficial reading of Nietzsche’s general intent. Consider, for example, Diogenes in this respect. Was Diogenes disdainful of the masses when he insulted their culture and disregarded their politics? History has, in fact, tended to regard The Dog as his society’s public educator, a man of virtue, no less, even as he spat in faces, masturbated in public and pissed on those mocking him. Nietzsche, who did none of these things, certainly puts forward an aristocratic philosophy. He finds no favour or honour in the unthinking actions or practices of those locked up in tradition or custom [as neither did Diogenes either]. He wants — as he begins to write in books from Human, All Too Human through to The Gay Science — to write for those who are free spirits, a description which, with the meanings that come from its original German context, means so much more than it does translated into English. [The word for spirit, for example, in German, Geist, can also mean “mind”.] But Nietzsche never sets a limit of how many “free spirits” there might, or should, be. His, I submit, is an aristocracy for all who can raise themselves to such a challenge, a challenge for all spirits that want to be free.

Nietzsche’s philosophy also has very specific and personal contexts, however. Nietzsche seemingly did not expect that everybody was going to be in the position to “get” what he was saying. This is an existential context for his work which was not simply about intellectual appreciation or understanding but an [or maybe your] experience of life [something, of itself, an existentially and personally experienced thing]. Nietzsche did pretty much all of his writing in a personal context of illness. [We do not know exactly what the illness was but it was clearly serious as it would occasionally incapacitate him entirely, sometimes for weeks, and it led, eventually, to a breakdown, complete insensibility and even paralysis in his final years.] This, I think, explains Nietzsche’s focus on life in his writing, the context of struggle which he often brings up [finding it of benefit rather than the opposite — that which does not kill us making us stronger being only one thought from this line of thinking] and the excessive personalistic reflection [both a method of sorts and an imperative for one who has to suffer and inevitably wonders what is happening and why]. Nietzsche, we may say, studies the human condition in much of his work, a subject applicable to absolutely everybody, but his perspective is always his own and issuing from his own matrix of circumstances.

I want to dwell on this for a while by looking at his “autobiographical” book Ecce Homo, itself a noteworthy title in that it clearly references John’s Gospel where it refers to Jesus of Nazareth, a person to which Nietzsche compared himself, not least in his book The Antichrist from the same year of 1888. [Nietzsche did not actually have that negative a view of Jesus himself; it was the Christianity propagated in his name that was the real enemy — much as it was for both Goldman and Stirner too]. An important marker of intent here from the foreword to Ecce Homo is “The last thing I would promise would be to ‘improve’ mankind. I erect no new idols; let the old idols learn to have legs of clay.” He then continues:

“To overthrow idols [my word for ideals] — that rather is my business. Reality has been deprived of its values, its meaning, its veracity to the same degree as an ideal world has been fabricated… The ‘real world’ and the ‘apparent world’ — in plain terms: the fabricated world and reality… The lie of the ideal has hitherto been the curse on reality, through it mankind itself has become mendacious and false down to its deepest instincts — to the point of worshipping the inverse values to those which alone could guarantee it prosperity, future, the exalted right to a future.”

This is one place where Nietzsche describes the problematic of his later career which is to issue in a proposed “revaluation of all values”… which never comes due to his subsequent breakdown. But it is a very public problem since “values” are very public things. They do not exist, nor are they created, in any vacuum; the only sense they make is social sense. So whilst Nietzsche’s reflections might be personally inspired they are not merely personal matters. Yet this, in turn, does not mean that our struggle to come to such values is not a personal one. In the next section of the foreword to Ecce Homo Nietzsche paints the picture of such a struggle as a dangerous journey through the mountains [a terrain Nietzsche personally knew well] which can be a matter of “solitude”. This comes across as one necessarily having to battle along the way with oneself in order to come to one’s own accommodation with the things of life. This is a matter of a spirit bearing and daring, of “courage”, even “severity towards oneself”. Later, in a chapter titled “Why I Am So Wise”, Nietzsche speaks of the need to “make oneself healthy” and how, for something basically healthy, “sickness can actually be an energetic stimulus to life” and “to being more alive”. Nietzsche states that “I created my philosophy from out of my will to health” and this seems to stand out as an example, as much as anything else, in a very Diogenean sense. The character of this might be described further on in this chapter when Nietzsche says, “To accept yourself as a fate, not to want to ‘change’ yourself” making this a guiding logic and reason of existence much as he does throughout his favourite book of his own, Thus Spoke Zarathustra, where this idea of what he calls “eternal recurrence” is most widely aired. This is the idea that one creates oneself so as to live the life that one would willingly live over and over again and so very much is a matter of one’s character and values, being a you that you can be happy to be forever. “How one becomes what one is” is very much a theme of the later Nietzsche [and is in fact the subtitle to Ecce Homo].

An educational principle here is exampled in the eighth section of the following chapter entitled “Why I Am So Clever” in which the principle of a disengaged freedom of thought is promoted in comparison to a social situation in which one is reduced to constantly reacting to things. Here Nietzsche tells a parable about a scholar who simply reads books all the time but never thinks for themselves [thinking not remotely being the same thing as reading]. Nietzsche argues that if all you do is read or socially interact without ever having thought for yourself then all you do is simply habituate yourself to reaction — you make yourself into a reactionary. Only actual thinking for yourself [not even in relation to something you happened to read, for instance] promotes that independence of spirit and unique, original character which he finds value in. Only this, in fact, promotes an independence and originality which is one’s own — which is something that Max Stirner could have got behind as an educational ideal. If “self-thinking people” is our anarchist ideal then here is the Nietzschean prescription for it. We must cultivate our own mind and values, our own personhood and character, not as a constant stream of unthinking reactions to others but from our own initiative and in order to become who we are. In this respect, Nietzsche says that he has always “suffered from the multitude” but not from solitude.

Nietzsche’s conception of that type of human being which he values oscillates over time from the “free spirit” who is a willing critic of the culture that is all around them to the “philosopher of the future” which is a more “untimely” figure who points the way to new values and a different future. [Note that the madman who aped Diogenes in section 125 of The Gay Science was, subsequently, a figure who realised he had come too soon for the people in general to appreciate.] Both of these images are of value for an anarchist education since the anarchist is imagined to both demonstrate what is wrong with our current situation and to provide the value and basis for a different future. The latter Nietzsche calls “experimenters” [although the German Versucher can also mean “tempter”] in Beyond Good and Evil and this gives the right anarchistic sense of a future not known, much less set out in advance by some inflexible plan, which, armed with our newly formed values, we are determined to inhabit and make sense of [i.e. give value to]. Here we might usefully combine this with Nietzsche’s praise of play in Ecce Homo as “an essential precondition” for great tasks, an educational verity that seems to have great pedigree and which is constantly referred to in general.

It is worth reminding ourselves at this point, however, that Nietzsche was not a tame lion. European culture, Nietzsche argued at the time, had reached a crisis which it had not yet recognised: a loss of value and meaning whose consequences would be experienced in coming centuries. He uses the word ‘nihilism’ for this development. At the time this was used primarily to designate a political radicalism that supposedly threatened public safety and social order throughout Europe, having been imported from Russia [where the Russian Tsar had been assassinated in 1881, for example, by ‘nihilists’]. Nietzsche is, thus, being deliberately provocative when he identifies nihilism as an inescapable prospect for European culture throughout his own work, and even more when he describes himself as a ‘complete nihilist’ — as he does. In today’s world he would have a similar effect using the word ‘terrorist’ which, strangely enough, is a label many often want to pin on the anarchist. Nietzsche was, then, very much an intellectual terrorist, one teaching people to create themselves as the people they are in defiance of either public morals or public intellectuality, rationality and values. If Nietzsche is to have a characteristic question, in fact, it could be argued that this is “What is the VALUE of things?” — the implication in the question being that it is not what it is imagined to be and so that the entirety of culture is based on nothing. That cannot but be undermining of the entirety of thought and culture, a fundamentally anarchist activity.

This, in fact, leads into the heart of the Nietzschean intellectual project [which, if based only on his example, is something those of “free spirit” should be pursuing for themselves] which is a critique of “Western values” as they present themselves. Such values are things like the conception of “knowledge” or “truth”. To question such things and find them lacking would hold out the prospect that people inhabited by such values have, in fact, only really been telling themselves a story about what they have been doing all their lives — but this is in fact basically what Nietzsche says anyway. In such a way Nietzsche turns imagined intellectual foundations into what now look like arbitrary assertions. Yet, in case you wonder why this should matter to anarchists, stick with it for I am coming to that now. It basically concerns the entire basis on which we claim to know things, ascribe value or meaning to anything, talk about “truth” [which can be seen as a value], and decide what behaviours are virtues and what behaviours are vices.

The best formulation of the anarchistic Nietzschean idea which sends the project of “Western values” tumbling down a rabbit hole is found in his extant notebooks — which Walter Kaufmann [an eminent post WW2 Nietzsche scholar who did much to rehabilitate his reputation after its illegitimate attachment to Nazism] collected together under the title The Will to Power — which had, at one time, been the prospective title of a future book Nietzsche intended to write before his breakdown. This book, then, is not an official book written by Nietzsche as it contains only notes he wrote down for further use or reflection. Some scholars would claim use of his notes is entirely illegitimate since they are, after all, only notes and not polished ideas. I take another view, however, since, whether he would go on to use such ideas later or not [sometimes he did and sometimes he didn’t as Kaufmann makes plain in his edition], all of these ideas were things he thought of enough import to write down to begin with and so at least have the warrant of his so doing. Besides, readers also have all his officially published works to read in order to decide if an idea fits with the aphoristic and unsystematic Nietzsche’s thinking or not. And we do not know if he would have used such notes later on or not either for that matter so judgment there is premature in any case.

One note clearly of relevance to his published ideas, though, is found in section 481 of Kaufmann’s edition of The Will to Power where Nietzsche’s overall heading for his notes in this section is “Principles of A New Evaluation” as part of the project he was working on before his breakdown on the revaluation of all values. Although the precise formulation of the idea is only put like this in his notes [and can only be dated to some time between 1883–1888], its consequences, as Kaufmann himself notes, are found in later works such as Beyond Good and Evil and Twilight of the Idols. The idea, as it is in Nietzsche’s notes, is as follows:

“Against positivism, which halts at phenomena — ‘There are only facts’ — I would say: No, facts is precisely what there is not, only interpretations. We cannot establish any fact ‘in itself’: perhaps it is folly to want to do such a thing.

‘Everything is subjective,’ you say; but even this is interpretation. The ‘subject’ is not something given, it is something added and invented and projected behind what there is.- Finally, is it necessary to posit an interpreter behind the interpretation? Even this is invention, hypothesis.

In so far as the word ‘knowledge’ has any meaning, the world is knowable; but it is interpretable otherwise, it has no meaning behind it, but countless meanings.- ‘Perspectivism.’

It is our needs that interpret the world; our drives and their For and Against. Every drive is a kind of lust to rule; each one has its perspective that it would like to compel all the other drives to accept as a norm.”

What I want to particularly note about this quotation — about which whole books could be written by itself — is the very consequential “facts is precisely what there is not, only interpretations”. This, as Nietzsche scholar Babette Babich has it in her essay “Nietzsche and the Ubiquity of Hermeneutics” [“hermeneutics” is just a fancy word for interpretation], is an example of why, when it comes to Nietzsche, “it is essential to speak in Nietzsche’s case of the ubiquity, as it were, of hermeneutics.” How far down this rabbit hole does Nietzsche go — remembering here that Babich is commenting on his entire output and not just this one quotation from his notebooks? Well, she says:

“Nietzsche… deploys hermeneutics as part and parcel and even as the motor of his philosophy, claiming that everything is interpretation, by which ‘everything’ Nietzsche means everything: and he means the claim in its most logically articulated or consequent sense: to say that everything is interpretation entails that everything is interpreted and, to the extent that Nietzsche speaks against the fiction of the subject as a phantom of grammar..., Nietzsche also makes the object ontological claim that everything [including the text itself] is an interpreter. In this sense, the world itself, nature, the entire cosmos as such is for Nietzsche hermeneutic through and through.”

Let me now explain the consequences of this in another way, a way I have myself used to explain the consequences of this which even recently had me labelled “an extreme constructivist” by a Cambridge scholar: EVERYTHING IS A FICTION. And, like Nietzsche, when I say “everything”, I mean everything. The consequences of this kicks in as one begins to think about it and to realise that things constructed of thoughts that are made with language cannot but be “interpretation” or “fiction” — or what the American philosopher Richard Rorty called “uses” of the world by means of language. [Nietzsche had himself already basically reached this position by 1873 when he wrote in an unpublished essay that “truths are illusions of which we have forgotten that they are illusions”. Later, in The Gay Science, he tells us that “it will do to consider science as an attempt to humanize things as faithfully as possible” — which is the same thought.]

I see the consequences of this insight which, in case you were in doubt, is also only itself an interpretation or a fiction — as Nietzsche himself concurred in relation to his own ideas [which are not then the claim other ideas are interpretation where his are not] — very much along the lines that David Graeber and David Wengrow saw the consequences of their history in The Dawn of Everything earlier: things don’t have to be what authorities tell us they are; just as these things were created so we, too, can create and recreate, telling new stories with new values as we go because nothing is set in stone here, nothing is compulsory or mandatory. We are, and can be, our own masters. It is probably because of the utility of this idea for anarchists — where anarchists want to remake the world with their own values and where Nietzsche’s philosophy says that’s what you can do and what people have always been doing — that I find myself an anarchist at all. This is, in some respects, a vital anti-authoritarian thought in the intellectual realm, one that undermines the pretensions to edifices of knowledge and citadels of truth in one simple word: interpretation. The human mind and human inquiry is then engaged in “world-interpretation, not world-explanation” — as Nietzsche himself says. And we must live with the consequences of that.

Perhaps my earlier mention of creating the self and a life you would live over and over again in Nietzsche’s work now makes more sense? The educative point here from Nietzsche is that, in a world of pure interpretation, creating yourself [and, in anarchist context, your community] seems all that you can do as the imposed meanings and consequences of a “God interpretation” that Nietzsche’s “come too soon” madman has pronounced dead are fading away. And we must equally ask ourselves today what meaning the world and its fictional, invented ways has for us in a world of money, capitalism, drudgery, superficial celebrity, spectacle, 24/7 rolling news coverage, screens in our hands that are never turned off, deliberate destruction of the natural environment, unthinking partisanship, etc. Nietzsche predicted nihilism and was he wrong? He was not wrong. He correctly predicted the void where people live aimless lives of distraction until they themselves fade away, populated by meaningless values that only constitute their own chains, their own lack of free spirit.

Nietzsche, by contrast, offers us the possibility of the free spirit become philosopher of the future — yet one should not deceive oneself here about its prospects as one engaged in the inevitable task of self-actualisation. Consider, for example, this from Human, All Too Human [subtitled “A Book for Free Spirits”]: “Life as the yield of life. — No matter how far a man may extend himself with his knowledge, no matter how objectively he may come to view himself, in the end it can yield to him nothing but his own biography.” All we get is a story, a [hopefully but not certainly] meaningful history of our events. A narrative. An interpretation. A fiction of self. This is what our life shall be. The thought is also repeated in Thus Spoke Zarathustra [subtitled “A Book for Everyone and No One”] along with one of Nietzsche’s favourite images, that of “the wanderer”: “I am a wanderer and a mountain climber, he said to his heart. I do not like the plains and it seems I cannot sit still for long. And whatever may come to me now as destiny and experience — it will involve wandering and mountain climbing: ultimately one experiences only oneself.” All this is perhaps best expressed in a section itself called “The Wanderer” that was the final section of the original version of Human, All Too Human which reads as a sort of intellectual prescription for those minded to be of free spirit:

“The Wanderer. — He who has attained to only some degree of freedom of mind cannot feel other than as a wanderer on the earth — though not as a traveller to a final destination: for this destination does not exist. But he will watch and observe and keep his eyes open to see what is really going on in the world; for this reason he may not let his heart adhere too firmly to any individual thing; within him too there must be something wandering that takes pleasure in change and transience. Such a man will, to be sure, experience bad nights, when he is tired and finds the gate of the town that should offer him rest closed against him; perhaps in addition the desert will, as in the Orient, reach right up to the gate, beasts of prey howl now farther off, now closer to, a strong wind arise, robbers depart with his beasts of burden. Then dreadful night may sink down upon the desert like a second desert, and his heart grow weary of wandering. When the morning sun then rises, burning like a god of wrath, and the gate of the town opens to him, perhaps he will behold in the faces of those who dwell there even more desert, dirt, deception, insecurity than lie outside the gate — and the day will be almost worse than the night. Thus it may be that the wanderer shall fare; but then, as recompense, there will come the joyful mornings of other days and climes, when he shall see, even before the light has broken, the Muses come dancing by him in the mist of the mountains, when afterwards, if he relaxes quietly beneath the trees in the equanimity of his soul at morning, good and bright things will be thrown down to him from their tops and leafy hiding-places, the gifts of all those free spirits who are at home in mountain, wood and solitude and who, like him, are, in their now joyful, now thoughtful way, wanderers and philosophers. Born out of the mysteries of dawn, they ponder on how, between the tenth and the twelfth stroke of the clock, the day could present a face so pure, so light-filled, so cheerful and transfigured: — they seek the philosophy of the morning.” [Nietzsche’s next book was then called Daybreak.]

Such a wandering lifestyle [intellectual and not simply physical] is motivated by the occasional unexplored and unexplained aphorisms Nietzsche sometimes throws out without warning. For example, in Beyond Good and Evil we suddenly come across “There is no such thing as moral phenomena, but only a moral interpretation of phenomena…” without any further explanation or exegesis in its context. Its simply a maxim [if one explained by the interpretation that all is interpretation]. The original quotation that I started this interpretational section of my discussion of Nietzsche with then finds something of an echo in section 34 of Beyond Good and Evil too where Nietzsche, really discussing intellectual honesty and the dishonest consequences of our morality of knowledge, says:

“We should admit at least this much: there would be no life at all if not on the basis of perspectivist assessments and appearances [i.e. interpretations]; and if one wanted to do away with the ‘apparent world’ entirely, as some valiantly enthusiastic and foolish philosophers want to do, well then, assuming that people like you could do that — then at the very least there would be nothing left of your ‘truth’, either! Really, why should we be forced to assume that there is an essential difference between ‘true’ and ‘false’ in the first place? Isn’t it enough to assume that there are degrees of apparency and, so to speak, lighter and darker shadows and hues of appearance — different valeurs to use the language of painters? Why should the world that is relevant to us not be a fiction? And if someone asks, ‘But mustn’t a fiction have an author?’ shouldn’t we answer him bluntly, ‘Why? ‘ Mustn’t this ‘mustn’t’ be part of the fiction, too, perhaps? Aren’t we allowed to be a little bit ironic, not only about predicates and objects, but also about subjects? Shouldn’t the philosopher be able to rise above a faith in grammar? My respects to governesses, but isn’t it about time that philosophers renounced the religion of governesses?”

Once again, the charge here is of imposed apparatuses of knowledge coercing the way we think, things which, of course, in turn determine what it is even possible for us to think. The idea that everything is a fiction is of no small consequence [which is why people like Pinker, Peterson and Dawkins, for example, spend so much of their time on culture wars defending their own favourite salvatory fiction: “Western rationality”]. And, lest we wish to resist the magnetic pull of Nietzsche’s assertion and so our exile on an infinite sea of interpretation, Nietzsche can make clear that the idea “everything is interpretation” does apply not only to soft things like creative literature but even to “hard” or “factual” things like science too. For example, in criticising Herbert Spencer in section 373 of The Gay Science Nietzsche says:

“What makes… the pedantic Englishman Herbert Spencer rave in his own way and makes him draw a line of hope, a horizon which defines what is desirable; that definitive reconciliation of ‘egoism and altruism’ about which he spins fables — this almost nauseates the likes of us: a human race that adopts as its ultimate perspective such a Spencerian perspective would strike us as deserving of contempt, of annihilation! But that he had to view as his highest hope what to others count and should count only as a disgusting possibility is a question mark that Spencer would have been unable to foresee. So, too, it is with the faith with which so many materialistic natural scientists rest content: the faith in a world that is supposed to have its equivalent and measure in human thought, in human valuations — a ‘world of truth’ that can be grasped entirely with the help of our four-cornered little human reason — What? Do we really want to demote existence in this way to an exercise in arithmetic and an indoor diversion for mathematicians? Above all, one shouldn’t want to strip it of its ambiguous character: that, gentlemen, is what good taste demands — above all, the taste of reverence for everything that lies beyond your horizon! That the only rightful interpretation of the world should be one to which you have a right; one by which one can do research and go on scientifically in your sense of the term (you really mean mechanistically?) — one that permits counting, calculating, weighing, seeing, grasping, and nothing else — that is a crudity and naivete, assuming it is not a mental illness, an idiocy.”

Here “good taste” is ambiguity — another word for the infinity of interpretation Nietzsche himself interprets in the world. This is brought out, too, earlier in The Gay Science when Nietzsche warns of the danger of regarding human beings as contemplative or as mere spectators of the reality going on around them when we are, in his view, “poets” or “authors” of life itself. This, after all, is another consequence of everything being interpretation: we become interpreters, those who must interpret, who make, in an intellectual as well as other senses, the world we inhabit. Interpretation is here coterminous with life itself. Nietzsche puts it like this in section 301 of The Gay Science:

“a delusion remains his constant companion: he thinks himself placed as spectator and listener before the great visual and acoustic play that is life; he calls his nature contemplative and thereby overlooks the fact that he is also the actual poet and ongoing author of life — that, to be sure, he differs greatly from the actor of this drama, the so-called man of action, but even more so from a mere spectator and festival visitor in front of the stage. As the poet, he certainly possesses vis contemplativa [contemplative power] and a retrospective view of his work; but at the same time and above all vis creativa [creative power], which the man of action lacks, whatever appearances and universal belief may say. It is we, the thinking-sensing ones, who really and continually make something that is not yet there: the whole perpetually growing world of valuations, colours, weights, perspectives, scales, affirmations, and negations. This poem that we have invented is constantly internalized, drilled, translated into flesh and reality, indeed, into the commonplace, by the so-called practical human beings (our actors). Whatever has value in the present world has it not in itself, according to its nature — nature is always value-less — but has rather been given, granted value, and we were the givers and granters! Only we have created the world that concerns human beings!”

Here we might further note a psychological interpretation that Nietzsche slips in at the beginning of Twilight of the Idols: “If you have your ‘why?’ of life, you can put up with almost any ‘how?’”, an insight that suggests that an interpretation of life itself is actually of necessity for human living and one that chimes mightily with the anarchist for whom lived existence itself takes on an ethical character which nourishes through times of hardship, giving direction and purpose as it does. Given the previous judgment of an increasing nihilism in European culture, however, this judgment can then only be further seen as the inauguration of a crisis, one the anarchist, in fact, was perhaps tending to as well in more directly political ways in regards to its material effects. I will finish this interpretation of a Nietzschean point of view, however, by quoting once more from Twilight of the Idols [the intellectual idols of Western culture, that is] in regard to the thesis “everything is interpretation” and its consequences:

“What is the only teaching we can have? — That no one gives people their qualities, not God or society, parents or ancestors, not even people themselves [this final bit of nonsense was circulated by Kant — and maybe even by Plato — under the rubric of ‘intelligible freedom’]. Nobody is responsible for people existing in the first place, or for the state or circumstances or environment they are in. The fatality of human existence cannot be extricated from the fatality of everything that was and will be. People are not the products of some special design, will, or purpose, they do not represent an attempt to achieve an ‘ideal of humanity’, ‘ideal of happiness’, or ‘ideal of morality’, — it is absurd to want to devolve human existence onto some purpose or another. We have invented the concept of ‘purpose’: there are no purposes in reality… A person is necessary, a person is a piece of fate, a person belongs to the whole, a person only is in the context of the whole, — there is nothing that can judge, measure, compare, or condemn our being, because that would mean judging, measuring, comparing, and condemning the whole… But there is nothing outside the whole! — The fact that nobody is held responsible anymore, that being is not the sort of thing that can be traced back to a causa prima [first cause], that the world is not unified as either a sensorium or a ‘spirit’, only this can constitute the great liberation, — only this begins to restore the innocence of becoming… The concept of ‘God’ has been the biggest objection to existence so far… We reject God, we reject the responsibility in God: this is how we begin to redeem the world.”

How do we “redeem the world”? By stopping being God-like about it in any and every possible respect. What anarchist could argue with this Nietzschean lesson?


This recitation of the ideas of Goldman, Stirner and Nietzsche brings us to a crossroads. Granted that the freedom and autonomy of self creation and self-actualisation as social individuals is an idea clearly in sight, how exactly are we meant to encourage the “self-thinking people” all seem to concur is the point of education — and the prelude to a more anarchist society? I can here clearly think of more formal solutions such as “anarchist schools”, formal centres of learning such as those set up in Barcelona by Francisco Ferrer or in New York by Emma Goldman and others. I would not discourage the setting up of such schools — although I would neither vociferously encourage them either. The point here is that such projects, as all anarchist projects, are the projects of those for whom they seem like good ideas. As I have said many times in Being Human and also now previously in this book, there is no plan — not even in outline. The anarchist, at least as I have have been discussing her, promotes a set of values, an ethic. A “self-thinking person” — or a community of “self-thinking people” — can conceivably be created by several means [some deliberate and some not] but surely the most anarchist means would be those that are the least coerced? Goldman, Stirner and Nietzsche all had experience of schools yet I doubt any of them would have ascribed their developing character and ideas to the fact that they were schooled into them. Rather, it was a matter of their personality and character as it developed simply through living their lives — educated in more and less formal ways along the way to be sure — that produced the people they became and the values that they increasingly came to see as necessary to promote in the world.

I take this as a very serious insight rather than as inconsequential detritus and so instead of recalling the history of anarchist schools or pedagogic techniques — as books such as Judith Suissa’s Anarchism and Education: A Philosophical Perspective or the Robert H. Haworth edited Anarchist Pedagogies: Collective Actions, Theories, and Critical Reflections on Education do very well — I’m going to suggest the following:

“Begin by routinely smoking weed outside a placid cafe or tavern. Wait for people to join you until everyone is doing every drug imaginable. Then begin to have public sex in nearby fields or parks. Also start covering this area with as much graffiti as possible, with an occasional window broken. Establish public urination areas. Re-establish the practice of burning everything on hand in communal bonfires. Always manifest fire. It is the most potent element for our purposes. Waste as many resources as possible, especially the most opulent ones, such as champagne. Steal from every store and share it all. Encourage a collective shame for not stealing, for hoarding, and for being nervous while committing a crime. Brazenness in everything. Start yelling in quiet areas. Laugh as loudly as possible. Pull people into collective moments of insanity. Abandon the private nest, lose control on a busy street corner, and advocate extreme mental instability in all nearby persons. This is an incomplete description of ending the psychological slavery and inverted-desire caused by submission to capitalist law. Follow these guidelines as closely as possible or be prepared to suffer moments of extreme boredom, isolation, existential horror, and defeat.

Defend everyone from the police without exception. After successfully creating uncontrollable areas, defend them with your body, your words, and whatever else is at hand. Do not make reasonable arguments. People break out of slavery through collective insanity and rage, not through logic or reason. Spit venom and throw bricks at parking enforcement, police, repo-men, and every other stooge physically enforcing capitalist law. Destroy all parking meters, traffic lights, and roads. Stop paying taxes and create an aura of utter guilt and shame around people who continue to feed the vampire of the city. Collectively commandeer trains and buses, encourage complete non-payment of fares. Disrupt all local government meetings, police press-conferences, community meetings, etc. Respond to all police violence with unreasonable emotion, rage, fierceness, and unrelenting attack. Sweep up everyone in what, in the end, amounts to magic but is most often simply dismissed as frenzy.”

Have you got that? How do you feel about it? Wait, there’s more:

“Take over every building, stop paying rent, steal all water and electricity, encourage the abandonment of the city. Highlight contradictions of civilization. Empty supermarkets, eat everything, then remind people that food is grown and harvested, not purchased. Collectively reclaim space, close roads, erect new structures, have orgiastic frenzies, act as if there is one final party, an epic feast, or a farewell dinner preceding the destruction of the old world. Bring on the cold sweats of chaotic fever in everyone. Act as antibodies, do not let people die of their fever, instead be there when they awaken from their endless party and point them out of the ruined and desolate metropolis. Leave on all lights, air conditioning, and water. Trash the city, empty it of its treasures, enjoy those treasures, savor them, burn them, eat them, and vampirize the vampire without becoming one. This is possible and quite insane. Enjoy.”

Is THIS what you expected from an anarchist education? Well that’s certainly what anarchism would mean, isn’t it — the complete abandonment of the State, government, law enforcement, the authoritarian imposition of do’s and don’ts on people, the presumption to control PUBLIC space as if it were PRIVATE space, the end of rules imposed by others and the idea that anyone privately and exclusively owns anything? And, if that is anarchism, well then, you better get used to it as soon as possible!

The words in those three prior paragraphs are not mine [in case this is being read out in court as evidence against me] but those of a book called, and by, “Anarchist International”. Judging by their spelling [American English] they seem to be North American in origin but since they claim to be international maybe that doesn’t really matter so much. Anarchism, after all, is not a nationalism or about nationalism. Its scope is worldwide and international — cosmopolitan as Diogenes might have said. What do Anarchist International then say about themselves? Well, they begin their book by saying:

“We are the Anarchist International. Our existence has been kept a secret from you for over a century, although it is almost certain that you have been able to discern our actions when they have taken place. Some would like to argue that the Anarchist International came into being in 1872 when the anarchists were expelled from the First International, but this is certainly incorrect. The Anarchist International came into being when the first wandering nomads from across the various kingdoms and empires met in smoke-filled rooms or desert oases and began to conspire on how to live freely.”

For those in the know about the history of anarchism its fairly clear what is going on here. Anarchist International see themselves as but the latest iteration of something they identify as “the history of anarchism” and, indeed, this paragraph is taken from the “Foundational Statement of the Anarchist International” which opens their book. The three prior paragraphs I quoted are then part of their “Three Unifying Tactics of the Anarchist International” [the third of three, in fact, which are about undermining all authority]. The first two are about ignoring state or national boundaries [see, I told you anarchism was international] and building and maintaining “antagonistic infrastructure” — which is what some others call building an apparatus of dual power. Here the Anarchist International are quite clear that “Infrastructure cannot be antagonistic unless its very existence challenges the laws, morals, and equilibrium of the world capitalist system.” They are also adamant that “Antagonistic infrastructure must also provide everything that it offers for free. All plans for creating infrastructure must factor in the cost of providing free resources to everyone before being created.” The point is “To break, push back, and eradicate all law” and is done according to Emma Goldman’s logic that the fact this will be a struggle and requires guts and courage will show who has a backbone for the fight and who does not. Anarchism, and being a genuine anarchist, is not a game or an act of cosplay. It has real consequences and effects. At least, it does if your anarchism is genuine. How many times have you been arrested? If you’re actually an anarchist and its zero then it probably won’t be for long. And shouldn’t be.

But what’s this got to do with “anarchist education”? Well, Anarchist International have the answer:

“struggling to create something that is free from law, that is fully self-realized, and that is achieved through struggle is something that is impossible in the minds of many people. Transcending the law is an experience few people go through, but once they do, they become thirsty for more. The taste of impossible freedom is infectious: This is not a slogan. Other than death and imprisonment, comfort is the primary neutralizer of the practice of freedom.”

The answer is action — what you might often see online anarchists calling “praxis”, an English word from a Greek word that means exactly that. Anarchism, as I’ve said before, is primarily a matter of doing not theorising [let’s skip over the fact I’ve so far written over 500 pages here about something that isn’t primarily theoretical!] and so if you want to learn anarchism YOU LEARN BY DOING IT. In fact, I was gratified to find, when I asked an online community of people how you might educate for anarchism, that their answers were all like this. They said that anarchists needed to be mobilised, engaged in their communities, taking on problems and providing solutions to current issues. They needed to be visible and able to articulate that they were taking responsibility for things and for people in their every day lives. They didn’t, in fact, even need to mention the words “anarchism” or “anarchy” in doing it because what matters is the human relationships formed and how people are organised for new, common purposes. So its not about “team this” or “team that”; its about making people’s local experience of life better, about doing things authority wouldn’t do and helping those they wouldn’t help. Its teaching by doing and learning by example. Its the pedagogy of values by demonstrating the values and that you live by them and are serious about them. Perhaps the best example here, mentioned by several of my correspondents, is mutual aid and setting up a mutual aid network. Remember what I just said a moment ago: anarchism is not cosplay. This is serious shit and serious business. It will demand your time, your effort and maybe even your arrest if you get in the wrong faces. We aren’t chatting on Twitter about theory anymore. We are through the looking glass and into reality. As one person replied to me, “Demonstrably living anarchically in society offers tangible lessons in Anarchy.”

Here we have to, if even only for one brief, unforgettable moment, grasp the infinity and impossibility of what anarchy really is. It is leaving home because home is anywhere we make it. It is leaving family because family is anyone who shares our values or with whom we can get along. It leaves country because passports and nationalities are obvious fictions that no sane human being would put above the similarities of being and need that draw us together. It leaves authoritarian order because freedom wants to be free. Anarchy is no imposed boundaries and anarchism is the conscious act of working towards that, of changing the minds and values of everyone, everywhere, of re-inventing the Commons everywhere. It is the destruction of the present and the creation of the future.

An imaginary [you either get it or you don’t]:

“In Athens, there are numerous stray dogs wandering the dirty streets of the eternal city. Some of them have a very distinct and clear territory. For example, there has recently been a small brown dog who sits in front of the Kallithea metro station. Occasionally, the small brown dog follows random people, sometimes even walking onto the station platform or across the street and into the school. But this dog stays within its territory and seems to enjoy the constant presence of the metro passengers boarding and exiting the train, sometimes feeding the dog, sometimes not.

There are also currently three dogs almost always lingering around the Panepistimio metro, always travelling together, never straying too far. The majority of the stray dogs

in central Athens have their basic needs met. There are more than enough scraps to eat, people are generally very kind to animals, and there is even a government service to give the dogs name tags that indicate they do not have diseases such as rabies (although junkies often steal these to tie up their upper arms). Because their basic needs are met, the dogs have no real reason to move other than to find food. Most dogs spend their days asleep in the shade, having nothing better to do. The city keeps them alive and the dogs wander its eternal streets, bored, tired, and full.”

Now let’s talk about tactics [which are different to plans in that tactics are local and temporary, about the performance of a contextual task, rather than metanarratival, overarching, an overall purpose]. Anarchists are ACTIVE; they have ethics and ideas; they prefer some outcomes to others and they feel responsible to help people [not even just anarchist people]. The Anarchist International offer six tactics for anarchist education which I shall repeat [and occasionally modify] here:

  1. Assess community needs and take responsibility for doing something about them.

  2. Explain the point and values of anarchism to anyone interested enough to listen.

  3. Establish lines of communication and ways to transmit information [about demos, protests, other types of action, mutual aid actions, safety notices, things that people need to know have happened, etc.].

  4. Create infrastructure that can be defended but don’t get too attached to it because nothing lasts forever. Flexibility and a solidarity of human relationships matters more than an impossible permanence.

  5. Spread — and be aware that natural conflicts between different groups of people [usually formed based on affinity or who you get to know] will naturally occur. These do not need to be turned into personal battles for the soul of the movement, however. Cells divide — so let people go their own way and do their own thing as they want to.

  6. Take down the monuments to authority in your neighbourhood. You will decide what they are.

What does this mean? It means GET ORGANISED [see chapter 2]. It means if you’re an anarchist you’ve taken a road with no going back. You are now committed to this forever, to the max. Your life is now an example, your every practice a model, your every utterance a demonstration. You are Diogenes and you exist as an educator of your fellow human beings, your family, friends, neighbours, work colleagues and co-dwellers in the place that you exist. What are your values? How do you stand out? Do you even stand out at all? You better! You are what’s going to make a difference! How will you make this difference? I have already given you my ideas:

People not property

A freedom of equals




Anarchist economy






Free association


But The Invisible Committee have some ideas too: Block the economy, but measure... blocking power by your level of self-organization:

“At the end of June 2006 in the State of Oaxaca, the occupations of city halls multiply, and insurgents occupy public buildings. In certain communes, mayors are kicked out, official vehicles are requisitioned. A month later, access is cut off to certain hotels and tourist compounds. Mexico’s Minister of Tourism speaks of a disaster ‘comparable to hurricane Wilma.’ A few years earlier, blockades had become the main form of action of the revolt in Argentina, with different local groups helping each other by blocking this or that major road, and continually threatening, through their joint action, to paralyse the entire country if their demands were not met. For years such threats have been a powerful lever for railway workers, truck drivers, and electrical and gas supply workers. The movement against the CPE in France did not hesitate to block train stations, ring roads, factories, highways, supermarkets and even airports. In Rennes, only three hundred people were needed to shut down the main access road to the town for hours and cause a 40-kilometer long traffic jam.

Jam everything — this will be the first reflex of all those who rebel against the present order. In a delocalized economy where companies function according to ‘just-in-time’ production, where value derives from connectedness to the network, where the highways are links in the chain of dematerialized production which moves from sub-contractor to sub-contractor and from there to another factory for assembly, to block circulation is to block production as well.”

What does this have to do with anarchist education? IT IS ANARCHIST EDUCATION! Disrupting the status quo is anarchist educating. It is teaching you about what’s wrong and teaching you to act against it. Its teaching you that values mean something more than a list you can write on a piece of paper. Its teaching you about consequences. Its teaching you that you are the anarchy, the only way that such anarchistic values can ever be manifested in human relationships. An anarchist insurrection is a declaration that the status quo is illegitimate, corrupt, exploitative, dominating and fundamentally to be opposed. In its political aspect, anarchism is a war to defend the values which cause anarchism to arise in societies in all parts of the globe every time anyone presumes to control a people, a territory, or even a social practice. Your anarchist education is in picking this up as you go along, forming yourself, forming relationships, forming a community of people committed to each other and to common cause. The only way you can learn this is by doing it. The only way to become “self-thinking people” is by being self-thinking people, thinking for yourself [yourselves] and actualising your own life and your own circumstances. Become the insurrection. Become anarchist. All you need is you.



This chapter takes the form of an interview based on a discussion the author had during the writing of this book. The interviewer [which was actually more than one person] will be symbolised with [I] and the author with [AG]. The discussion was had during time spent at an anarchist commune which exists at a squat in the north of England.

[I]: If you could pick out one thing to focus on and change in regard to the political state of things right now, what would it be?

[AG]: It wouldn’t be a political thing. The problem, as I conceive of it, is not the politics people have, the political systems they are entangled in, or even the crummy politicians they elect — and, let me be clear, those things are all very, very bad. People choose between nationalism or fascism, with capitalism never off the table, using political systems that are increasingly and openly rigged in order to elect monstrous clowns who are the absolute worst of us. But the issue, for me at least, is that, by the time you get to the politics and all the rest, you’ve already missed the point. All these things are consequent upon, and subsequent to, the thing I would focus on, the most vital thing in the world, in fact, which is THE WAY PEOPLE THINK. The capitalists cottoned on to this long ago when the first modern mass media — newspapers — were invented. Newspapers were invented, naturally enough, by people who were already rich who figured out that if you could be the conduit for people’s information then you could begin to control the people at large. The modern versions of such people today, figures like Rupert Murdoch, are courted by presidents and prime ministers exactly because they can influence how people think. In fact, numerous billionaires own newspapers, TV channels, film companies, magazines or social media services for exactly this reason. They get to decide what you are told and so control the discussion about what people will think.

[I]: You would say that’s more important than capitalism or authoritarian government or the increasingly aggressive policing of the population in numerous countries around the world or even something like poverty?

[AG]: Yes, absolutely I would, because all those things only exist because they are put, in some way, within the bounds of public acceptability by our everyday thinking. Capitalism, for example, doesn’t simply exist because it oppresses, exploits and crushes people. It also exists because there is something in it that attracts people. Its the shiny thing that ends up being bad for you but if it wasn’t shiny — or seen as shiny — then no one would want it. If capitalism had absolutely no imagined upside — if it was unremittingly and obviously terrible to absolutely everybody — then it never would have stood a chance of making its way into the heart of our communal existence in the first place. Its like drugs. Lots of people will tell you they are bad and, in many cases, drugs can do bad things to you if taken to excess. But if that’s all drugs were then no one would ever take them to begin with. Yet — obviously — they do because “drugs are terrible” is not the whole story.

So if there was one thing I could say to people right now it would be to pay attention to what, how and why you think. This is born in on me every time I look at social media where the vast majority of people are being led by the nose by trends or news reports or things influencers have said or done and things of this nature. In each case someone’s money is directing their thinking, someone whose interests are almost certainly not theirs and neither are they the public’s. Here its not even the case that the ultimate money men behind whatever is being thrust in front of you for your consumption necessarily care if you end up agreeing with them or not. The point is that they got you to think about and discuss something in terms they set for you. Its not just about getting everyone to believe the same dumb thing. Its also about setting the terms of the debate, deciding what is and isn’t acceptable, making thoughts that they don’t want you to have impossible to hold in public. In fact, this is probably the most dangerous and pernicious thing such media do. We are in a quickly escalating situation of climate breakdown which is causing fires and extreme weather events of increasing alarm yet still, not least in board rooms and government offices and newsrooms, this is a matter of debate. Why? Because there are rich people spending money to control and direct that debate — as with so many others. Such people don’t want you to make your own mind up: they want to make it up for you. They want you habituated to their outlets as a source of information so they set the terms of debate in your head.

So point one for me, the source of everything, the wellspring of your whole life, is what and how you think and, most importantly, that you do it for yourself. That you set your own agenda. Far, far too many people are just drones grazing information provided to them by people who are actually only interested in controlling them. And so the drones become clones too. This is true of people on the left just as much as the right. I see “socialists” and “anarchists” and “communists” doing exactly the same thing as the centrists and conservatives who are usually the ones setting the agendas as well. We have to break this notion that a newspaper or a TV channel or a social media company are setting the agenda for what is important, for how people live, for what matters. In many ways the idea of “The Matrix” is, and remains, the most pertinent one here because it very much is a matter of “unplugging” ourselves from this system of disinformation and control we have been plugged into. It all starts in our minds by delineating the parameters of our lives and if you control that then you have people in your pocket — you control how they will think. Authoritarian capitalism controls us with police and laws, yes, but it controlled us with newspapers, TV and social media long before we ever saw our first cop. And the best thing about it is that quite a lot of these people being controlled this way don’t even recognise that they are being controlled. Exactly like “The Matrix”.

[I]: Do you think of what “the media” do, then, as like what happens in The Matrix in that people are fed a lie in order to keep them docile, controllable, exploitable?

[AG]: Yes, that’s exactly it. But its not just at the level of narratives or metanarratives, telling us stories about the world and how it should be run [there should be leaders, there should be private property, their should be capital and profit, etc.,] or that sort of thing — although that’s vitally important to the control aspect of it. More fundamentally, its about our values, its about meaning, its about these things which affect us unconsciously and that we rarely, if ever, think to question. Many of us never even realise it but we’ve all been programmed with values and meanings from birth, perhaps even from before birth, from when our biological forms could begin to experience sensation or perceive in general. We are biological information gathering and interpretation organisms. That’s how we survive: we have senses which gather information and turn it into something meaningful, something of and with value, so that we can develop habits which enable us to survive. Now if you could have a monopoly on that, if you could start to control it, habituate it to certain things, set the terms in which that system worked, how much power over people would that give you? That’s the basic idea behind the matrix in the film of the same name. Feed people a lie, determine their thinking, set their values and hey presto: a slumbering source of power for yourself. Our societies today essentially work on the same basis and if we object “But we are free! We can do what we want!” Well, don’t you think all those people in The Matrix did too?

[I]: So if that’s the problem, if its all really about how we think, then what’s the solution? Where does political anarchism fit into this?

[AG]: “Political anarchism”, as you put it, is a wake up call. Its Neo being told to “follow the white rabbit” to keep the metaphor of The Matrix going. But it is itself also prey to a moment of conservatism or becoming fossilised or canonised into particular forms. Yet if anarchism is truly “no leaders” then surely its people thinking for themselves and doing whatever the fuck they want? A leaderless place is not a place that just all agrees to do one thing thereafter; I mean, it might in some wide-eyed anarchist’s fantasy but its not bound to. And its not “bound to” because anarchism is not, or should not, be about binding anything. This is why I’m extremely dubious about anarchist fantasies of future confederations of local communities and even more dubious about institutional ideas such as those touted by Bookchin and his disciples. These are both ideas of a “like now, only different” type of thinking; to be honest, they seem to me like reformism. But what if I don’t want things to be “like now” or, more to the point, I don’t see why they have to be? The most startling anarchist visionaries I can think of are not the Proudhons, Bakunins, Kropotkins, Malatestas, Bookchins, etc. It is not even someone like Emma Goldman — who I respect the hell out of and who attracts me like a moth to a flame. Instead, its the ancient Chinese Daoists in the Zhuangzi; its Diogenes and his fellow Cynics; its Jesus of Nazareth, whether a fictional character or not, living a life of deliberate poverty and, seemingly, saying “Fuck your system of wealth and privilege! We will live our own way, a way that rejects every value you have because we have made our own, and we will not just survive, we will thrive!” That is new thinking. That is how you cut through the constant bullshit. You take charge of your own life and values. You create new meaning. You instantiate new forms of social existence outside “the rules” or boundaries and you leave them to grow organically. Compared to this, every “anarchist” idea a “traditional anarchist” has ever had is just reorganising the deck chairs on the beach depending on which view you would most like to have. But if we want to revolutionise our thinking and be an insurrection then we must not let even other anarchists set boundaries around us and we must take slogans like “No gods, no masters” entirely to heart and follow them through to the end.

[I]: What, then, is a properly “anarchist” revolution for you? Does it have anything to do with how that word is usually used politically at all?

[AG]: Well, I’ve stopped using the word “revolution” really. It seems to have become a word that’s a bit cheap and worthless at the moment. Its only ever used to mean one thing — a political revolution — and, as many thinking people have had the guts to realise, such revolutions never really happen or, ultimately, don’t turn out the way they were planned. So people are left touting a thing that’s an empty, pointless, even dangerous, thing to want — and especially in anarchist terms. I don’t mean to trivialise people’s hopes for what they think of as a political kind of freedom but I just think the issues are much more important than this. I also think its important that anarchists think differently — as I’ve already been saying as well — rather than just in the same ways, if with a bit of reorganisation to make it look “anarchist”.

I mean, think about the examples I preferred in my last answer. Were any of these people “revolutionaries” in the modern, political sense? No, they weren’t. They weren’t people who went out looking for that kind of fight. Others of their time and place did. But not them; they knew it was pointless. These people were, if I can put it like this, more “philosophical” people who took a more rounded view of things. They were those who, like the individualist anarchist Émile Armand, weren’t prepared to wait for everyone to catch up with where they were in their heads. If freedom is meant to wait until people are ready for it then no one will ever be free. What Armand saw, as with my earlier examples, is that freedom is a habit and you have to start living that habit in whatever way you can right in this very moment otherwise that flame will get stubbed out again due to disillusionment, disappointment, etc. This freedom is then more of an insurrection than a revolution and in my thinking I’m trying to put some clear blue water between those words. An insurrection is an eruption of something in the midst of whatever is around it. An insurrection does not care if anyone joins it or follows it or not because it is an example of an existence that must become in that moment and that must deny the values of the dominant system as a consequence of its own existence. An insurrection is the scream of existence in opposition to the prevailing conditions of existence. Its not just a wish for new background conditions of existence — its a making of your own conditions and a refusal to settle for anything less. And that, to me at least, makes anarchist insurrection much more realistic than anarchist revolution in most cases.

[I]: Do you think of this as a politically anarchist thing or as something more philosophical, more existential?

[AG]: Its both. We need to realise that a political anarchism running along a Proudhon — Bakunin — Kropotkin type track is not the be all and end all. Figures like this lit a fire in a particular historical moment, a torch others then carried as well, in fact, and they had some good ideas and expressed some useful sentiments, but they are not the guardians of the anarchist flame or the keepers of the anarchist keys or anything like that. We do not have to measure our desire for anarchist insurrection against any rules or regulations they, or anyone else, have stipulated. This is why people like Stirner, Nietzsche, Goldman and Armand will always be important too for, besides their recognitions of necessary social interactions, they realise that personal existence, personal existence as who you uniquely are, is hardly an unimportant thing either. They see that providing for safe and secure social relations and social organisation is pointless if individual freedom and expression, to be the person that I am, is not also achieved in the process. So political anarchism — of all kinds — plays its part in informing this but its not everything and its certainly not a boundary to stay within. There is the politics of it, yes, but there is also the personal of it — and neither are negotiable.

But there is also still more than this as well. Anarchism, as I have, I think, always said as long as I have attached myself to the word, is more than something certain human beings have historically wanted. It is, as Alan Moore puts it in an interview with Margaret Killjoy, “the state of affairs that usually pertains” and “the only political position that is actually possible” when he describes the world in general as “a basic state of anarchy” from which all other political positions and power bases then come. Moore’s point of view here is useful for more than one reason as well. First, it tells us that anarchy doesn’t look like what most people writing books about it think it does. It looks much more like what we see every day than some political anarchist’s, or some fiction writer’s, Utopia. Its a messy place full of lots of people doing very different things not lots of people all doing the same thing because they all now magically agree. But the second thing its useful for is busting the artificial boundaries of both of those types of people. Its Moore’s “Land of Do As You Please” from the third book of V for Vendetta more than its Bookchin’s municipal institutionalism. So its an existential conception and not just a political one but its also something about the world or existence in general too. Its something to do with how the world is itself and with thinking itself — thinking for yourself — and not just more artificial — but this time “anarchist” — things to contain people within. As I keep saying: anarchism is anarchy and it must be followed through to the end. That is what an insurrection is: following anarchy through to the end and refusing to let other people’s boundaries of possibility be