Imagine society as a giant open air prison. You shouldn’t find it very hard to do in a capitalist world that’s been artificially chopped up into arbitrary territories called “countries” whose borders we may not legally cross without appropriately administered documentation which identifies and tracks each one of us. These countries are more than likely also sub-divided down into states, counties, cities or towns, each with their own bureaucracies of control. Going even more microscopic still, many people will work for employers who maintain their own little kingdoms which observe how much work you do or don’t do and order and control your movements according to their economic dictates and advantages. Yes, society, especially in the most capitalist-controlled parts of it, is a giant open air prison that has police both official, with badges and probably guns and other weaponry, and not so official. Society functions based on authority and doing as you’re told. But more than this, if that wasn’t bad enough, it functions as a tightly knit system that doesn’t enable you to function in any other way but by taking part in it. One requires money to buy things, one must adhere to an idea of property as possession that is ultimately guaranteed by the force of government, one must accept living in a society that has been imposed upon you and for which your approval or agreement was never even sought.
There is more to it than this, of course, but this prison that I am talking about I often refer to in shorthand as “authoritarian capitalism”. The term is the confluence of two ideas; the first idea is that of authoritarianism, primarily a political concept, the idea that political leaders rule based on an authority they imagine to have, or to have gained, perhaps by some political process by which they justify it but perhaps not; the second is capitalism itself, an exploitative economic set of relationships by which resources are exploited and coerced for private profit and a few rich are inevitably created to the detriment of the mass who are also exploited and coerced to create the wealth of this few. Inevitably the rich few and the politically authoritative flow together, their interests aligned, and then you have the reason behind the giant open air prison we are all in because you best believe that the rich and the powerful don’t want to give such advantages up [regardless of what happens to you].
Some have noted however, as I have increasingly myself been made aware of as I learned of the ideas of these people, that this “giant open air prison” actually relies on the cooperation of the mass to keep it going. The rich and powerful, after all, are relatively few, tiny even, in comparison to that mass. Even if you add in their police [for they are surely not ours or about real public service], they are still a drop in the ocean compared to that mass. Why, if that mass ever for even a single second realised the power they had in their united action — let alone acted upon that power and realisation — then the myth of leaders, of a powerful few, and of their control, would disappear so quickly that one would wonder how it could ever have taken hold in the first place. But how did it take hold in the first place? People, over centuries, came to accept ideas that were injurious to their interests, they were lulled into social, political and economic formations which became viewed as “normal” and which they lazily accepted until they found themselves trapped. The prison had been built around them and now they found themselves in it, propagandised into its necessity minute by minute. No way out. Caged.
As I muse on this metaphor of the prison [which is a material fact of human relationships nevertheless], it occurs to me it can be fleshed out somewhat. It is not hard to work out who the warden is or who the guards are. But what about the prisoners? There are several kinds. There are those who never think about their situation in the prison and just accept things and get on with the life that’s been assigned to them. There are those prisoners who try to get on with the guards and do the best they can, maybe to their advantage, maybe just to “make the best” of it. There are those who resent being in prison but don’t really ever do much about it except occasionally grumble or have a generally grumpy attitude to their prison life. But then there are the more passionate and extreme. There are the willing collaborators who get friendly with the guards, hope to be friends with the warden and willingly inform for both to enforce the prison regime even among the relationships of the prisoners themselves. Who knows why they do it? Perhaps they hope for personal salvation or special favours. Perhaps they are just naturally vindictive or spineless. Perhaps they don’t know any better and have not the imagination for anything else. But in this prison there are also the rebels, the insurrectionists, the people who, seeing themselves in prison, want to get out. And they make plans to get out. They try to get out. They can imagine life beyond prison walls and views that are not framed by prison bars. All these kinds of people and more can be found in the prison and all these kinds of people [bar one or two] keep that prison ecosystem going for, of course, if they all just rioted then many of them would probably escape and the prison would be left a burning ruin, the warden and his guards decimated. [Which, of course, is also part of the prison propaganda: if you destroy the prison you’ll be on your own with nothing! You need us and you need the prison!]
The prison, of course, is the prison of authoritarian capitalism and many are those within it who apparently see it as so inevitable that they keep turning up to work in jobs they hate and which help to destroy this planet, and propagate human misery, a little more each day. They are the ones who keep authoritarian capitalism going by their obedience, freely given or coerced doesn’t really matter. If you acquiesce to the prison guards and their threats of violence [authoritarian capitalism is, of course, inherently and naturally violent] that’s all they really care about. We could even say, then, that this prison is both self-inflicted in its acceptance and self-maintained in the obedience of those who keep showing up for work. Such, at least, is the theory of those who, in the past, have talked about “voluntary servitude”. Such voluntary servitude is not only bad for you of course, in that you simply give your obedience away, but it is also bad for everybody else for the more who simply obey, the harder it is for anyone else to disobey — since they will stand alone. This is exactly what the warden and the guards want, naturally enough, for isolated refuseniks can easily be dealt with one by one. The more obedient and subservient the mass are, the harder it is for anyone to revolt at all. If you’ve seen any shallow Hollywood film about a rag tag band of rebel heroes you already know this, right? [And remember, real life ISN’T Hollywood: “the good guys” — whatever that actually means — don’t inevitably win or necessarily even win at all.]
The post-anarchist take on all this, coming after an interpretation of Max Stirner’s idea of “The Unique” and aligned with the core values of anarchism which eschews [and has always eschewed] the legitimacy of states and their laws, is that we should not give authoritarian capitalism our servitude, voluntarily or otherwise, at all. Finding ourselves in the prison, anarchists should be at the forefront of those who rebel, make plans, and fully intend to break out, instigating an insurrection against the guards and the warden as they do. They value their autonomy and agency almost as the founding ideas of their very beings and they despise the very idea that they should be living incarcerated lives of “do as you are told” in forced associations they have no control over. Rather than inflicting incarceration on themselves by their voluntary servitude, they insist on forming relationships of free association in an emancipated outside. This, in fact, is the point they think every other prisoner has to reach — intellectually, socially, morally, politically — a point of no return in which only their emancipation from the prison, only freedom beyond its walls, will ever do. To get there these people realise they will have to embrace the illegal, the insurrectionary, the point of a deliberate and purposeful disrespect for all authority, the very rejection of it as an idea in itself. They must become those who invent and nurture a habit of civil and political disobedience all the better to make obedience increasingly impossible. They must become enthusiastic bandits and willing vagabonds, saboteurs of the prison system that seeks to keep all within it.
They do this largely from themselves for this is a matter of self-education, self-actualisation, self-realisation. They do it because they must, because that “point of no return” is reached as they observe the conditions under which they are coerced to exist and egoistically reject them. Yet they also know that, rebelling against the prison conditions into which they, and everybody else, have been forced, it will surely benefit more than merely them if the cell doors are opened, the guards defeated and the walls breached. They welcome this but it isn’t their motivation. If one must be free, if one must be emancipated from forced and arbitrary conditions which oppress, exploit and coerce, then one must be free regardless of if anyone else feels the same way too. One finds associates and accomplices where one can but one does not rely on them. One is also concerned not to find false friends, fake allies and straight up collaborators for the status quo [which will always be many]. One knows that one must primarily rely on oneself and that real accomplices will only emerge as they themselves demonstrate that they too are powered by the eternal flame of emancipation which serves as fuel for a never-ending rebellion against every authoritarian, whatever they call themselves and wherever they might be found. Such people are those who work to banish the very concept of “servitude” from their vocabulary, replacing it with passion for freedom and love for those who love it just as much as they do. They want accomplices and they want lovers in the fight for personal autonomy and free association but they let these things come to them and they don’t force them. Anarchy is what happens when you go about your business uncoerced, they reflect, and so they go about their business which is sabotaging the prison’s regular functioning and hatching their escape plan to get, and remain, outside its walls.
Leaving the metaphor behind, what does this mean? It means ACTUALLY EXITING CAPITALISM if we say we are anarchists. It means an end to excuses for why we must keep turning up to work. It means if anarchists won’t show the way to anarchy THEN WHO WILL? It means BEING ILLEGAL if that’s what we must be. It means BEING AN INSURRECTION, moral, social, political, economic, intellectual. It means FORGING NEW RELATIONSHIPS that aren’t merely reproductions of the authoritarian capitalist ones of the prison but that are ones of emancipated love. It means BEING SERIOUS about breaking down prison walls and escaping prison confines. But it doesn’t mean any of this will be easy. Of course it doesn’t. Yet the ease of our passage from one set of circumstances to another is only a condition of our activity; it is not a reason to give up everything an anarchist has ever stood for. It is not a reason to abandon anarchist values of autonomy, agency, free association or decentralised living. It is about reaching that point of no return at which the very idea of SERVITUDE is definitively rejected and, becoming aware of that, setting course for a place, beyond good and evil, beyond law and state, beyond coercion and government, where servitude for anyone must be made absolutely beyond the pail.
ANARQXISTA GOLDMAN X