Mutual Aid vs the State
The only thing most people know about anarchists, apart from that we sometimes dress in black and get involved in riots (which by the way is only a tiny percentage of what we actually do), is that we don’t believe in the State.
Right now the State happens to be run by neoliberals, who also claim that they don’t like the State, and claim to want to reduce it’s role in all of our lives. People who don’t know much about anarchists other than that we’re anti-state might think that we’d be happy with this.
They might therefore be confused as to why many of the people who seem most angry about the cuts to the welfare state are anarchists. The mainstream press has made this clear in it’s coverage of anti-cuts demonstrations by publishing the pictures of Anarchist red and black flags amongst crowds of masked protesters and circled A signs graffittied next to smashed windows, as well as by constantly using the word “Anarchist” as if it were merely another word for “rioter”.
The answer to all this confusion lies in the fact that Anarchism is not just about being against the State, but also in being for certain positive values, of which perhaps the most important is mutual aid. We believe that relationships based on mutual aid are all we need to run society and the economy, because people can be incredibly creative, productive and efficient when they work together, and working together is a natural human thing to do. This is why we are against government, not just because we don’t like it but because we don’t think we need it.
The welfare state can be thought of as flawed example of mutual aid in practice. It is flawed because it is not based on voluntary cooperation, but on force: you have to pay taxes and national insurance or else you get punished by the State. But nonetheless, it is an example of mutual aid in that millions of people contribute money, and often lots of voluntary work, so that other people can get the help they need in order to survive and try to lead a happy life.
So we’re not against the idea of universal free healthcare, education or support for the disabled or financially misfortunate. We are passionately for all these things, unlike the neoliberals in the Tory, Libdem and Labour parties. We just think they would work better if they were run by organisations based on voluntary labour and voluntary contributions, instead of by the State.
The current attacks on the welfare state are quite obviously not being accompanied by the creation of these kinds of organisations. David Cameron might like to pretend they are, with his Big Society rhetoric, but really the Big Society is just an excuse for the State to control the existing voluntary sector more tightly, and reorganise it along business-friendly lines, along with everything else.
Neoliberals do not actually want to get rid of the State, they just want to get rid of the “nice” parts of it, and actually want to massively increase the “nasty” parts: the military, police force, prisons, border controls and other “security” functions. Needless to say, it is these parts of the State which Anarchists are most opposed to, and which we don’t think should exist at all.
We do not see them as really being about the security of ordinary people at all, just about the “security” of capitalism. This is really what the neoliberal attacks on the welfare state are about, just making more opportunities for capitalism to grow, in other words for a small minority of people to be able to make profits from controlling resources and exploiting workers.
Neoliberals love capitalism, their whole ideology was basically invented by capitalists to justify their actions, and they think the State should just be about: protecting the property of capitalists; waging wars so that they can control more resources; and controlling the working population.
Needless to say Anarchists do not love capitalism, we hate it and want to destroy it, and so we are completely against these attacks to the welfare state, both because they are a step forward for capitalism, and a step backwards for mutual aid.
Direct Action vs bureaucratic mediation
So given that we want to stop these cuts from happening, how are we going to try and do it? There are many organisations that are supposedly already “fighting the cuts” that anarchists fundamentally object to because they also believe that the growth of capitalism is a good thing and really just want “less cuts” not “no cuts”.
In some cases they just want to be the ones making the cuts instead of the Tories. These include the Trades Union leaders, the Labour Party, and many smaller left wing parties. Anarchists will not support what they do or work within their structures, in fact we will publicly criticise them and do whatever we can to make sure they don’t lead the anti-cuts movement on a wild goose chase for their own advantage.
There are also many smaller grassroots local anti-cuts campaigns which are not necessarily anarchist either but are “neutral” as far as we are concerned, so we will participate in them. When we participate in these, or even start them up, we will try to make sure that no-one, not even ourselves, dominates them, especially not the organisations mentioned above.
Perhaps this seems a very negative or sectarian approach, to attack the Left wing politicians who claim to be against the cuts, but again, the reason for why we are against them lies in what we are for. We are for Direct Action on a mass scale, and we think that this is the only way that the cuts are going to be stopped.
Direct Action is a broad term that can cover all kinds of tactics, but in this case what it comes down to is the people who are against the cuts doing something themselves to stop them, rather than putting faith in someone else to do it. A good example is a wildcat strike in a workplace when workers don’t just hope their union leaders will negotiate better conditions for them, they physically do something themselves to force the bosses to accept their demands.
This example is especially relevant now, since the laws about unions brought in under Thatcher are full of red tape that makes it incredibly hard for unions to legally authorise the kind of tactics that actually force bosses to change what they are doing. In any case the union leaders tend to be people who don’t really want to upset the bosses too much. Union leaders are often rich professional managers who have a lot more in common with the people they are supposed to be fighting than those they are supposed to be representing.
So if workers in the public sector facing the sack want to take action to protect their jobs, like occupying their workplaces and refusing to leave until management meets their demands, they are going to have to do it for themselves, not rely on their unions.
When these kind of actions happen, like in 2009 when workers at Visteon and Vestas factories occupied to get better redundancy packages, the unions usually try to stop them. They try to convince them to stop occupying or striking and just let the union leaders negotiate with the bosses, which usually leads to them getting a much worse deal in the end than they could have. This is why it’s so important to argue publicly against the union leadership and for workers to take direct action for themselves.
It’s not just the workers at these public services who can take direct action to save them, but the users too. Over the past two years many small communities have managed to save their local schools from closing down by occupying them and forcing the local authorities to change their minds, and occupation has also become a standard tactic for university students to fight for their interests.
Direct actions such as occupations and wildcat strikes can only be successful if there are a lot of other people playing supporting roles on the outside: raising funds; organising solidarity demonstrations; providing legal support; and spreading awareness. So don’t think you have to be some kind of reckless street fighter to play a role in anarchist tactics. Anyone can help in some way and the more diverse tactics that are used, the more likely we will be to defeat the cuts.
Towards a culture of self-organised resistance
Direct action has already stopped and limited many small scale attacks on public services. But to stop the whole program of cuts on the national level means that direct action will have to be on a mass scale across the whole country. Instead of just forcing an individual boss to change their mind by disrupting the normal activity of the workplace, we have to force the government to change it’s mind by disrupting the normal activity of the entire country. This means strikes, occupations and other forms of disruption not just of public sector workplaces, but also of the essential industries like transport and energy. This is what we call a “general social strike”, not just of workers, but of everyone in society.
We are starting almost from scratch, as the only sectors of society that are already involved in these kinds of things are students and a few community campaigns scattered around the country. We need to spread it to a situation where millions of people being directly involved in anti-cuts actions, and coordinating their activities outside of the structures of the Trades Unions and Left political parties, who will naturally resent this and try to stop it.
Therefore new structures have to be built, where decisions are made directly by the people taking action themselves, and these structures have to expand, multiply and mobilise more and more people to take action themselves.
Anarchists have always advocated these kinds of structures, where decisions are made first in small groups of people taking action together (affinity groups), and then at meetings where delegates from those different groups talk about how to coordinate their activities. This is called federalism, and it is how the Anarchist Federation itself is organised, not from the top-down or centre-outward, but from the bottom up, or outside-inward. It means no-one in the organisation is forced to do anything they don’t want to do, but instead we talk things through and come up with plans we all feel good about.
Not only is this the only real form of democracy in our opinion, it is also the best way to empower people to take direct action, not by giving them orders about what they should be doing and how, but just talking it through with them and letting them have the final say. Most people would be put off by any other way of doing things, which is part of why authoritarian socialist groups are so unpopular. Examples that would be especially useful for the anti cuts movement are workplace assemblies, neighbourhood assemblies, and assemblies of users of particular services.
What we need is a widespread culture of self-organised resistance, where millions of people incorporate direct action and bottom-up decision making into their daily lives. It’s the only way to build a movement big and forceful enough to defeat the cuts. It is also the only way that we can ever hope to abolish capitalism and the State once and for all, which is why Anarchists will keep trying to build this culture whatever the outcome of the anti-cuts movement, as we have been doing for hundreds of years. Even if you don’t agree with us that the State and Capitalism need to be destroyed, we hope to have convinced you that the anarchist approach is the only one that will defeat these cuts. If so, we hope you will assist us in trying to spread the culture of self organised resistance, through conversations with your neighbours, friends and co-workers; through art and media; through public meetings; and most importantly, through setting an example by taking action yourself.