An article i wrote for the recent issue of Organise, magazine of the Anarchist Federation (www.afed.org.uk):
The Government’s Big Society initiative harks back to attitudes popular amongst the ruling class in the Victorian era. Back then the idea of the State looking after the basic needs of working class people would have seemed ridiculous to their top-hatted capitalist employers. It took generations of working class struggle until the “social democratic consensus” emerged after the Second World War, when all political parties became convinced of the need for a welfare state appease the workers movement and ensure the continued existence of capitalism.
Before this, notions of “Self Help” and the “deserving poor” justified the lack of state intervention in working people’s lives. The “respectable” rich would aid the “deserving” (servile) poor through charities, and everyone else would be expected to either achieve some miraculous rags-to-riches transformation or die in a gutter because they were supposedly too lazy to.
What this Liberal economic ideology masks is the fact that volunteers, either in charities or community “self help” projects are effectively aiding the rich, not the poor. Our labour can not be exploited to make profits if we are dead, or too hungry, sick or psychologically and physically exhausted to do so. If “voluntary” associations or the state fulfil the tasks that enable us be fit enough to keep working, then our bosses can pay us less and make more profit. If the state (which is a boss as well) has to pay less people because the voluntary sector has taken on more and more of these functions, then it can spend more on what Liberal economic theory calls its essential functions: propping up big business (like with the bank bailout that caused these cuts in the first place) and “security” (attacking the working class through the militarization of society at home and imperialist war abroad).
This is basically what’s happening now. More and more of us are being expected to perform essential tasks for the running of a capitalist economy without getting paid through the recent reforms to the benefits system, the cuts to the public sector, and the State’s promotion of the voluntary sector. All this amounts to voluntary slavery to a system that exploits, oppresses and murders us as a class.
But if we’re dead from poverty, oppression or overwork we can’t struggle against capitalism either and this is why Class-Struggle Anarchists are not opposed to “volunteering” as such. In fact our vision of the future society we are fighting for is often described as “voluntary communism”- a world in which people collectively fulfil the tasks necessary for the functioning of society not out of coercion by governments or the wage system, but of their own free will. And despite the fact that it is painfully obvious that this society has not yet been achieved, it is generally true that almost all anarchists are involved in “volunteering” work in one form or another.
There are many reasons for this, not all of them related to the class struggle or anarchist ideas in general. Someone may be a revolutionary militant by day and an ordinary seeming helpful neighbour by night, looking after next door’s kids or something. But there is a connection between the revolutionary struggle and certain kinds of voluntary activities in the here-and-now through what we might call “active prefiguration”.
Almost everyone has had thoughts or conversations along the lines of “in an ideal world how would we organise x,y or z?”. It is a human trait to imagine how things might be better than they are now, and for anarchists the question would simply be phrased more precisely: “in a classless stateless society, how would we organise x,y or z?”
This is prefiguration and it is one of the things that make anarchists different from nihilists who believe simply in smashing to pieces the existing system and refuse to suggest better alternatives to it. Despite the annoying fact that we are usually portrayed as exactly the same as nihilists, we are not, and theorising about better alternatives to hierarchy, capitalism and the State has been one of the hallmarks of our movement.
Some of the most important anarchist thinks such even dedicated years of their lives to trying to answer such questions. Peter Kropotkin spent most of his life collecting data on the possibilities of small scale agriculture and industry by travelling the world inspecting farms and workshops for his book “Fields, Factories and Workshops”, trying to prove that a society made up of small productive communes federated together would be able to produce at least as much, or more, than capitalism. Errico Malatesta, in his essay “Lets Destroy… And Then?” went as far as to say that unless anarchists had enough well thought out practical alternatives to the state and capitalism that could be put into effect immediately following a successful insurrection, any revolution would be doomed to failure because society’s needs would not be met.
But we can not come up with successful anarchist communist alternatives to essential social institutions by simply sitting around thinking about them. Wherever possible, we must actually put these ideas into place to see if they really work or not. Of course, under the present system our ability to perform such experiments in post-revolutionary organising is extremely limited. We cannot, for example, take away the police for a day and replace them with people’s militias and see what the effect would be (though the expression on the Home Secretary’s face if we suggested that might be interesting).
There spaces though where limited experimentation with anarchist communist ways of organising is possible though. Many environmentally minded anarchists are involved in “eco village” projects, where in a limited space which has either been occupied illegally or paid for, people try to manage their relationship to their environment and to one another in radically different ways, such as using permaculture to grow food and building structures with sustainable or recycled materials. In many squatting scenes around the country (those that aren’t completely dominated by drug and alcohol abuse) people also experiment with different ways of managing their social relationships, through communal ownership of food and other resources. Many anarchists also try to organise “temporary autonomous zones” where art, music and other activities are organised in radically different ways. In such “anarchist subcultures” there have also been increasing attempts to develop practical alternatives to the police in collectively dealing with issues such as sexual assault and other forms of violence, with differing levels of success.
Interesting as many of these projects may be, they can only play a very small part in genuinely revolutionary struggle, as they only involve an tiny minority of the working class. But prefiguration is also something anarchists apply to our revolutionary activities in general.
All anarchist organisations, such as the Anarchist Federation, make decisions according to structures based on non-hierarchical direct democracy and advocate such methods to others in the struggles we are a part of. We encourage workers in disputes with their bosses make decisions in mass meetings and to resist union bureaucrats’ attempts to take over the struggle. We apply the same logic to community struggles against local councils and corporations, or to mass mobilisations over specific issues such as war or climate change. All this is because in the future society we want everything would be organised according to these principles, so we may as well start now.
A revolution of any kind could not exist without a culture of solidarity and resistance becoming generalised amongst the working class. Part of how we try to achieve these is by creating opportunities for working class people to come together, form links and theorise over our position in society and how we can collectively overcome it. This is done through setting up social events, educational or otherwise, and creating spaces such as social centres or community gardens where these can happen. In these spaces Anarchists also try to apply prefigurative logic: we try to share resources in a communistic fashion and to make decisions non-hierarchically.
Community projects like donation-based kitchens and Free Shops are both means anarchists use to reach out to other working class people by offering them food and other resources they need and are not otherwise able to afford, and real life functioning examples of communistic ways of distributing material goods. People are often much more convinced of the possibility of alternatives to capitalism when they actually get a glimpse of how they might work than when they just read a load of anarchist propaganda that could seem utopian and unrealistic.
Doing all of the above, as well as producing actual propaganda, like leaflets, newsletters and the magazine you’re now reading, takes a lot of hard work. The fact that capitalists are obviously not going to pay us to do this work means that all revolutionary activity amounts to “volunteering” in a sense. But it is voluntary work we do to bring down capitalism, not sustain it, and so diametrically opposed to the vision the government is currently pushing on us.
Against hierarchical society, no matter how “Big”.
For voluntary communism and voluntary revolution.