This is a short post recommending a BBC Four documentary – Accidental Anarchist: Life Without Government.
I agree wholeheartedly with Carne Ross’ mistrust of the state and deeply sceptical view of the structure of international relations. Unlike him, however, I’m less hopeful about of our ability to make any meaningful changes to either.
When I was 17, one of my A-Level politics teachers gave me a slim paperback volume with ominous red script scrawled across the front.
After reading it, I couldn’t think about democracy in the same way again.
From birth, we are, to put it bluntly, indoctrinated into believing in democratic elections as a panacea for all of our ills. So long as we all cast our one vote, the leader chosen by the majority will be the wisest of all possible choices, and we will all have our voices heard and interests represented. Compared with democratic elections, every other system of rule; monarchy, dictatorship, oligarchy, socialist republic etc… are all politically inefficient and morally bankrupt.
Wolff shows, logically from first principles that democratic decision making, unless every result is unanimously agreed upon by all, is in effect nothing more than a dictatorship. Whenever a law is enacted that you didn’t support, or a party elected that you voted against, the political system becomes, for you, simply a dictatorship. It might be more or less benevolent, but if your preference hasn’t been chosen, your voice has been ignored. Your government doesn’t represent you whatsoever to the extent that you disagree with what follows. To support a political decision that you disagree with, for whatever reason, whether the majority voted it, or it was the best compromise that could be made, is to make yourself a slave. It is to give up your autonomy. There might be benefits to doing so; to keep the peace, to enjoy the security and stability that the nation state brings, but don’t believe that you are free. You gave up your freedom. ‘Democracy’ doesn’t solve this.
This is why pluralism is so so important. It is everything else in the democratic process that really leads to citizen participation in decision making. The free press, amendments to bills, MP’s surgeries, local committees, transparency, judicial reviews, conscientious objection, petitions, campaigns, public debate and so on and so on.
It is probably important to note here that the conclusion Wolff reaches, and broadly what Ross appears to be advocating in Accidental Anarchist is Philosophical Anarchism. Wikipedia summarises this as “hold[ing] that the state lacks moral legitimacy while not supporting violence to eliminate it.” Life in a truly anarchic world, without any societal cooperation, is likely to be, in Hobbes’s immortal words, “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.” As I noted above, there might be manifold instrumental reasons to support a stable political territory where a democratic government holds the monopoly on violence. Pragmatically, it might be a worthy trade-off, and democratic institutions might engender communitarian behaviour, unselfish policy-making and wise leadership. But there is no a priori reason, and no moral compulsion, to blindly support the state.
The Experience of Iraq
Carne Ross supplies examples from his work as a British diplomat where the British ‘democratic’ state acted in ways he felt he could no longer support. One of my world politics lecturers at Bristol who also worked on the Iraqi sanctions after the first gulf war and knew the weapons inspection team shared his conclusions. The sanctions killed hundreds of thousands and the baseless war hundreds of thousands more. Saddam didn’t deserve to rule, but the Iraqi people didn’t deserve to suffer so much. Neither they nor us deserved to lose him and his stable state. The single biggest factor driving terrorism in the name of Islam in the US and Europe since 2003 has been the mismanaged removal of Saddam Hussein.
His desire to see whether humans could find a better way of doing things leads Carne to a commune in Spain, Occupy Wall Street and eventually the northeast of Syria where, in a territory resisting Assad and ISIS, some very egalitarian direct democracy is being practised. It’s deeply interesting and presented neatly and without the hyperbolic metanarrative of, say an Adam Curtis documentary. It does, however, end on a strong uptick showcasing the possibilities for utopia in our time (in one perilous corner of war-torn Syria, of all places!) Every story needs a narrative arc, but I’m going to have to take issue with this bright ending.
Opportunities for change
Carne has set up his own NGO – Independent Diplomat – to help emerging states “manoeuvre diplomatically”. He wants fairer international relations, but one of his biggest problems is funding. Just over halfway through he tells us,
I spend a lot of time asking rich people for money to do our work. I met the most extraordinarily brave woman from the occupied Western Sahara which is illegally occupied by Morocco . . . I was about to send an email to Richard Branson’s foundation to ask for money for one of our projects, and in my inbox was an email telling me that Branson’s Virgin organisation had just organised a kite surfing festival in the occupied Western Sahara . . . We are dependant on the very people who are the status quo to change that status quo.
His final conclusion chimed with me. It is the truth.
Just look at his NGO, which he describes as “a group of former diplomats and international lawyers”. To work there, you have to have helped the very structures he’s trying to overthrow. How many years did he serve helping the British state oppress other states and conduct clandestine deals to entrench their power before turning this new leaf? How many years of corporate law, helping the rich get richer and the powerful shirk responsibility do trainees have to put in before they can become human rights lawyers and finally join an organisation like ID?
To what extent is it really just case that talent and resources and avenues for socially recognised human achievement are channelled through structures that enforce precisely this harmful status quo in domestic and international relations? The smartest and most ambitious graduates go to The City. Creative, independent minds focus on entrepreneurship to enrich themselves. Initiatives like Corporate Social Responsibility, rather than providing hope for meaningful change to the harmful practises of corporatism, entrench them even more deeply. Funding becomes tied intimately to supporting the status quo. The apportionment of resources becomes ever more tightly controlled by the corporations themselves; 25% on wages, 15% on buildings, 15% net profit, 0.001% on some futile attempts to bring meaning and humanity to ultimately meaningless and dehumanising activities.
One of my favourite journalists, Helen Lewis of the New Statesman, started her career with five years at the Daily Mail. Fairly diametrically opposed worldviews between those two publications. There’s nothing wrong with that, but knowing what I do about her politics, I can’t imagine The Mail being her ideal first choice. This tokenism does appear to be systemically embedded. Do your time reifying the structures that oppress you. If you still haven’t come round to their way of thinking, as most inexorably do, you can tinker around the edges a bit in your later years. The BBC might even have you on a secondary channel for an hour documentary about it.
Cultivate our garden
Greeted with such futility, I personally turn to Voltaire, and his conclusion at the end of Candide, or Optimism. In the face of all that is uncontrollable in the world; the futility, the arbitrary suffering and the meaninglessness, Candide concludes, “let us cultivate our garden.”
In this sense I applaud Carne and his efforts to cultivate his garden of international diplomacy. But while denying that anything in our social world is fundamentally immutable, it is also important to accept that lasting change is glacial. It will require the active involvement of stakeholders from rich to poor, young to old, weak to powerful. Most of the time they find it impossible to talk directly to one another. Much of the time, even the organisation of a village fete brings out the autocrat in some and the petty moraliser in others. Has Occupy Wall Street led to any change? Without the twin existential threats of ISIS and Assad focusing minds, how long would the anarchic Syrian enclave of Rojava last?
Alternatively, we should think seriously about what Wolff notes at the end of In Defense, that,
in our present society, the relatively few autonomous men are — as it were — parasitic upon the obedient, authority-respecting masses.
And ask ourselves whether or not such a society – such a democracy – can be redeemed only in incremental steps, under the constant supervision of the wealthy and powerful. Perhaps far more radical change is required.