Anarchy in Action : Chapter 2 - The Theory of Spontaneous Order

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(1924 - 2010) ~ British Anarchist Writer and Social Historian : ...lived with the title of Britain's most famous anarchist for nearly half a ­century, bemused by this ambivalent sobriquet. In Anarchy in Action (1973), he set out his belief that an anarchist society was not an end goal. (From : Guardian Obituary.)
• "...the bombs you are worried about are not the bombs which cartoonists attribute to the anarchists, but the bombs which governments have perfected, at your expense." (From : "Anarchism as a Theory of Organization," by Colin ....)
• "It is, after all, the principle of authority which ensures that people will work for someone else for the greater part of their lives, not because they enjoy it or have any control over their work, but because they see it as their only means of livelihood." (From : "Anarchism as a Theory of Organization," by Colin ....)
• "The anarchists, who have always distinguished between the state and society, adhere to the social principle, which can be seen where-ever men link themselves in an association based on a common need or a common interest." (From : "Anarchism as a Theory of Organization," by Colin ....)


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Chapter 2 - The Theory of Spontaneous Order

Chapter II. The Theory of Spontaneous Order

In every block of houses, in every street, in every town ward, groups of volunteers will have been organized, and these commissariat volunteers will find it easy to work in unison and keep in touch with each other ... if only the self-styled “scientific” theorists do not thrust themselves in ... Or rather let them expound their muddle-headed theories as much as they like, provided they have no authority, no power! And that admirable spirit of organization inherent in the people ... but which they have so seldom been allowed to exercise, will initiate, even in so huge a city as Paris, and in the midst of a revolution, an immense guild of free workers, ready to furnish to each and all the necessary food.

Give the people a free hand, and in ten days the food service will be conducted with admirable regularity. Only those who have never seen the people hard at work, only those who have passed their lives buried among documents, can doubt it. Speak of the organizing genius of the “Great Misunderstood”, the people, to those who have seen it in Paris in the days of the barricades, or in London during the great dock strike, when half a million of starving folk had to be fed, and they will tell you how superior it is to the official ineptness of Bumbledom.

Peter Kropotkin, The Conquest of Bread

An important component of the anarchist approach to organization is what we might call the theory of spontaneous order: the theory that, given a common need, a collection of people will, by trial and error, by improvization and experiment, evolve order out of the situation — this order being more durable and more closely related to their needs than any kind of externally imposed authority could provide. Kropotkin derived his version of this theory from his observations of the history of human society as well as from the study of the events of the French Revolution in its early stages and from the Paris Commune of 1871, and it has been witnessed in most revolutionary situations, in the ad hoc organizations that spring up after natural disasters, or in any activity where there are no existing organizational forms or hierarchical authority. The principle of authority is so built in to every aspect of our society that it is only in revolutions, emergencies and “happenings” that the principle of spontaneous order emerges. But it does provide a glimpse of the kind of human behavior that the anarchist regards as “normal” and the authoritarian sees as unusual.

You could have seen it in, for example, the first Aldermaston March or in the widespread occupation of army camps by squatters in the summer of 1946, described in Chapter VII. Between June and October of that year 40,000 homeless people in England and Wales, acting on their own initiative, occupied over 1,000 army camps. They organized every kind of communal service in the attempt to make these bleak huts more like home — communal cooking, laundering and nursery facilities, for instance. They also federated into a Squatters’ Protection Society. One feature of these squatter communities was that they were formed from people who had very little in common beyond their homelessness — they included tinkers and university dons. It could be seen in spite of commercial exploitation in the pop festivals of the late 1960s, in a way which is not apparent to the reader of newspaper headlines. From “A cross-section of informed opinion” in an appendix to a report to the government, a local authority representative mentions “an atmosphere of peace and contentment which seems to be dominant among the participants” and a church representative mentions “a general atmosphere of considerable relaxation, friendliness and a great willingness to share”.[19] The same kind of comments were made about the instant city of the Woodstock Festival in the United States: “Woodstock, if permanent, would have become one of America’s major cities in size alone, and certainly a unique one in the principles by which its citizens conducted themselves.”[20]

An interesting and deliberate example of the theory of spontaneous organization in operation was provided by the Pioneer Health Center at Peckham in South London. This was started in the decade before the Second World War by a group of physicians and biologists who wanted to study the nature of health and of healthy behavior instead of studying ill-health like the rest of the medical profession. They decided that the way to do this was to start a social club whose members joined as families and could use a variety of facilities in return for a family membership subscription and for agreeing to periodic medical examinations. In order to be able to draw valid conclusions the Peckham biologists thought it necessary that they should be able to observe human beings who were free — free to act as they wished and to give expression to their desires. There were consequently no rules, no regulations, no leaders. “I was the only person with authority,” said Dr Scott Williamson, the founder, “and I used it to stop anyone exerting any authority.” For the first eight months there was chaos. “With the first member-families”, says one observer, “there arrived a horde of undisciplined children who used the whole building as they might have used one vast London street. Screaming and running like hooligans through all the rooms, breaking equipment and furniture,” they made life intolerable for everyone. Scott Williamson, however, “insisted that peace should be restored only by the response of the children to the variety of stimulus that was placed in their way”. This faith was rewarded: “In less than a year the chaos was reduced to an order in which groups of children could daily be seen swimming, skating, riding bicycles, using the gymnasium or playing some game, occasionally reading a book in the library ... the running and screaming were things of the past.”

In one of the several valuable reports on the Peckham experiment, John Comerford draws the conclusion that “A society, therefore, if left to itself in suitable circumstances to express itself spontaneously works out its own salvation and achieves a harmony of actions which superimposed leadership cannot emulate.”[21] This is the same inference as was drawn by Edward Allsworth Ross from his study of the true (as opposed to the legendary) evolution of “frontier” societies in nineteenth-century America.[22]

Equally dramatic examples of the same kind of phenomenon are reported by those people who have been brave enough, or self-confident enough, to institute self-governing, non-punitive communities of “delinquent” youngsters — August Aichhorn, Homer Lane and David Wills are examples. Homer Lane was the man who, years in advance of his time, started a community of boys and girls, sent to him by the courts, called the Little Commonwealth. He used to declare that “Freedom cannot be given. It is taken by the child in discovery and invention.” True to this principle, says Howard Jones, “he refused to impose upon the children a system of government copied from the institutions of the adult world. The self-governing structure of the Little Commonwealth was evolved by the children themselves, slowly and painfully, to satisfy their own needs.”[23] Aichhorn was an equally bold man of the same generation who ran a home for maladjusted children in Vienna. He gives this description of one particularly aggressive group: “Their aggressive acts became more frequent and more violent until practically all the furniture in the building was destroyed, the window panes broken, the doors nearly kicked to pieces. It happened once that a boy sprang through a double window ignoring his injuries from the broken glass. The dinner table was finally deserted because each one sought out a corner in the playroom where he crouched to devour his food. Screams and howls could be heard from afar!”[24]

Aichhorn and his colleagues maintained what one can only call a superhuman restraint and faith in their method, protecting their charges from the wrath of the neighbors, the police and the city authorities, and “Eventually patience brought its reward. Not only did the children settle down, but they developed a strong attachment to those who were working with them ... This attachment was now to be used as the foundation of a process of reeducation. The children were at last to be brought up against the limitations imposed upon them by the real world.”[25]

Time and again those rare people who have themselves been free enough and have had the moral strength and the endless patience and forbearance that this method demands, have been similarly rewarded. In ordinary life the fact that one is not dealing (theoretically at least,) with such deeply disturbed characters should make the experience less drastic, but in ordinary life, outside the deliberately protected environment, we interact with others with the aim of getting some common task done, and the apparent aimlessness and time-consuming tedium of the period of waiting for spontaneous order to appear brings the danger of some lover of order intervening with an attempt to impose authority and method, just to get something accomplished. But you have only to watch parents with their children to see that the threshold of tolerance for disorder in this context varies enormously from one individual to another. We usually conclude that the punitive, interfering lover of order is usually so because of his own unfreedom and insecurity. The tolerant condoner of disorder is a recognizably different kind of character, and the reader will have no doubt which of the two is easier to live with.

On an altogether different plane is the spontaneous order that emerges in those rare moments in human society when a popular revolution has withdrawn support, and consequently power, from the forces of “law-and-order”. I once spoke to a Scandinavian journalist back from a visit to South Africa, whose strongest impression of that country was that the White South Africans barked at each other. They were, he thought, so much in the habit of shouting orders or admonitions to their servants that it affected their manner of speech to each other as well. “Nobody there is gentle any more.” he said. What brought his remark back to my mind was its reverse. In a broadcast on the anniversary of the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia a speaker looked back to the summer of 1968 in Prague as one in which, as she put it, “Everyone had become more gentle, more considerate. Crime and violence diminished. We all seemed to be making a special effort to make life tolerable, just because it had been so intolerable before.”

Now that the Prague Spring and the Czechoslovak long hot summer have retreated into history, we tend to forget — though the Czechs will not forget — the change in the quality of ordinary life, while the historians, busy with the politicians floating on the surface of events, or this or that memorandum from a Central Committee or a Presidium, tell us nothing about what it felt like for people in the streets. At the time John Berger wrote of the immense impression made on him by the transformation of values: “Workers in many places spontaneously offered to work for nothing on Saturdays in order to contribute to the national fund. Those for whom, a few months before, the highest ideal was a consumer society, offered money and gold to help save the national economy. (Economically a naive gesture but ideologically a significant one.) I saw crowds of workers in the streets of Prague, their faces lit by an evident sense of opportunity and achievement. Such an atmosphere was bound to be temporary. But it was an unforgettable indication of the previously unused potential of a people: of the speed with which demoralization may be overcome.”[26] And Harry Schwartz of the New York Times reminds us that “Gay, spontaneous, informal and relaxed were the words foreign correspondents used to describe the vast outpouring of merry Prague citizens.”[27] What was Dubcek doing at the time? “He was trying to set limits on the spontaneous revolution that had been set in motion and to curb it. No doubt he hoped to honor the promises he had given at Dresden that he would impose order on what more and more conservative Communists were calling ‘anarchy’”.[28] When the Soviet tanks rolled in to impose their order, the spontaneous revolution gave way to a spontaneous resistance. Of Prague, Kamil Winter declared, “I must confess to you that nothing was organized at all. Everything went on spontaneously ...”[29] And of the second day of the invasion in Bratislava, Ladislav Mňačko wrote: “Nobody had given any order. Nobody was giving any orders at all. People knew of their own accord what ought to be done. Each and every one of them was his own government, with its orders and regulations, while the government itself was somewhere very far away, probably in Moscow. Everything the occupation forces tried to paralyze went on working and even worked better than in normal times; by the evening the people had even managed to deal with the bread situation”.[30]

In November, when the students staged a sit-in in the universities, “the sympathy of the population with the students was shown by the dozens of trucks sent from the factories to bring them food free of charge,”[31] and “Prague’s railway workers threatened to strike if the government took reprisal measures against the students. Workers of various state organizations supplied them with food. The buses of the urban transport workers were placed at the strikers’ disposal ... Postal workers established certain free telephone communications between university towns.”[32]

The same brief honeymoon with anarchy was observed twelve years earlier in Poland and Hungary. The economist Peter Wiles (who was in Poznan at the time of the bread riots and who went to Hungary in the period when the Austrian frontier was open) noted what he called an “astonishing moral purity” and he explained:

Poland had less chance to show this than Hungary, where for weeks there was no authority. In a frenzy of anarchist self-discipline the people, including the criminals, stole nothing, beat no Jews, and never got drunk. They went so far as to lynch only security policemen (AVH) leaving other Communists untouched ... The moral achievement is perhaps unparalleled in revolutionary history ... It was indeed intellectuals of some sort that began both movements, with the industrial workers following them. The peasants had of course never ceased to resist since 1945, but from the nature of things, in a dispersed and passive manner. Peasants stop things, they don’t start them. Their sole initiative was the astonishing and deeply moving dispatch of free food to Budapest after the first Soviet attack had been beaten.[33]

A Hungarian eyewitness of the same events declared:

May I tell you one thing about this common sense of the street, during these first days of the revolution? Just, for example, many hours standing in queues for bread and even under such circumstances not a single fight. One day we were standing in a queue and then a truck came with two young boys with machine guns and they were asking us to give them any money we could spare to buy bread for the fighters. All the queue was collecting half a truck-full of bread. It is just an example. Afterwards somebody beside me asked us to hold his place for him because he gave all his money and he had to go home to get some. In this case the whole queue gave him all the money he wanted. Another example: naturally all the shop windows broke in the first day, but not a single thing inside was touched by anybody. You could have seen broken-in shop windows and candy stores, and even the little children didn’t touch anything in it. Not even camera shops, opticians or jewelers. Not a single thing was touched for two or three days. And in the streets on the third and fourth day, shop windows were empty, but it was written there that, “The caretaker has taken it away”, or “Everything from here is in this or that fiat.” And in these first days it was a custom to put big boxes on street corners or on crossings where more streets met, and just a script over them “This is for the wounded, for the casualties or for the families of the dead,” and they were set out in the morning and by noon they were full of money...[34]

In Havana, when the general strike brought down the Batista regime and before Castro’s army entered the city, a dispatch from Robert Lyon, Executive Secretary of the New England office of the American Friends Service Committee reported that “There are no police anywhere in the country, but the crime rate is lower than it has been in years,[35] and the BBC’s correspondent reported that “The city for days had been without police of any sort, an experience delightful to everyone. Motorists — and considering that they were Cubans this was miraculous — behaved in an orderly manner. Industrial workers, with points to make, demonstrated in small groups, dispersed and went home; bars closed when the customers had had enough and no one seemed more than normally merry. Havana, heaving up after years under a vicious and corrupt police control, smiled in the hot sunshine.”[36]

In all these instances, the new regime has built up its machinery of repression, announcing the necessity of maintaining order and avoiding counter-revolution: “The Presidium of the Central Committee of the CPC, the Government and the National Front unequivocally rejected the appeals of the statement of Two Thousand Words, which induce to anarchist acts, to violating the constitutional character of our political reform.”[37] And so on, in a variety of languages. No doubt people will cherish the interregnum of elation and spontaneity merely as a memory of a time when, as George Orwell said of revolutionary Barcelona, there was “a feeling of having suddenly emerged into an era of equality and freedom when human beings were trying to behave like human beings and not as cogs in the capitalist machine,”[38] or when, as Andy Anderson wrote of Hungary in 1956, “In the society they were glimpsing through the dust and smoke of the battle in the streets, there would be no Prime Minister, no government of professional politicians, and no officials or bosses ordering them about.”[39]

Now you might think that in the study of human behavior and social relations these moments when society is held together by the cement of human solidarity alone, without the dead weight of power and authority, would have been studied and analyzed with the aim of discovering what kind of preconditions exist for an increase in social spontaneity, “participation” and freedom. The moments when there aren’t even any police would surely be of immense interest, if only for criminologists. Yet you don’t find them discussed in the texts of social psychology and you don’t find them written about by the historians. You have to dig around for them among the personal impressions of people who just happened to be there.

If you want to know why the historians neglect or traduce these moments of revolutionary spontaneity, you should read Noam Chomsky’s essay “Objectivity and Liberal Scholarship”[40] The example he uses is one of the greatest importance for anarchists, the Spanish revolution of 1936, whose history, he remarks, is yet to be written. In looking at the work in this field of the professional historians, he writes: “It seems to me that there is more than enough evidence to show that a deep bias against social revolution and a commitment to the values and social order of liberal bourgeois democracy has led the author to misrepresent crucial events and to overlook major historical currents.” But this is not his main point. “At least this much is plain,” he says, “there are dangerous tendencies in the ideology of the welfare state intelligentsia who claim to possess the technique and understanding required to manage our ‘post-industrial society” and to organize an international society dominated by American superpower. Many of these dangers are revealed, at a purely ideological level, in the study of the counter-revolutionary subordination of scholarship. The dangers exist both insofar as the claim to knowledge is real and insofar as it is fraudulent. Insofar as the technique of management and control exists, it can be used to diminish spontaneous and free experimentation with new social forms, as it can limit the possibilities for reconstruction of society in the interests of those who are now, to a greater or lesser extent dispossessed. Where the techniques fail, they will be supplemented by all of the methods of coercion that modern technology provides, to preserve order and stability.”

As a final example of what he calls spontaneous and free experimentation with new social forms, let me quote from the account he cites of the revolution in the Spanish village of Membrilla:

“In its miserable huts live the poor inhabitants of a poor province; eight thousand people, but the streets are not paved, the town has no newspaper, no cinema, neither a café nor a library. On the other hand, it has many churches that have been burned.” Immediately after the Franco insurrection, the land was expropriated and village life collectivized. “Food, clothing, and tools were distributed equitably to the whole population. Money was abolished, work collectivized, all goods passed to the community, consumption was socialized. It was, however, not a socialization of wealth but of poverty.” Work continued as before. An elected council appointed committees to organize the life of the commune and its relations to the outside world. The necessities of life were distributed freely, insofar as they were available. A large number of refugees were accommodated. A small library was established, and a small school of design. The document closes with these words: “The whole population lived as in a large family; functionaries, delegates, the secretary of the syndicates, the members of the municipal council, all elected, acted as heads of a family. But they were controlled, because special privilege or corruption would not be tolerated. Membrilla, is perhaps the poorest village of Spain, but it is the most just”.[41]

And Chomsky comments: “An account such as this, with its concern for human relations and the ideal of a just society, must appear very strange to the consciousness of the sophisticated intellectual, and it is therefore treated with scorn, or taken to be naive or primitive or otherwise irrational. Only when such prejudice is abandoned will it be possible for historians to undertake a serious study of the popular movement that transformed Republican Spain in one of the most remarkable social revolutions that history records.” There is an order imposed by terror, there is an order enforced by bureaucracy (with the policeman in the corridor) and there is an order which evolves spontaneously from the fact that we are gregarious animals capable of shaping our own destiny. When the first two are absent, the third, as infinitely more human and humane form of order has an opportunity to emerge. Liberty, as Proudhon said, is the mother, not the daughter of order.

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November 30, 1995 :
Chapter 2 - The Theory of Spontaneous Order -- Publication.

July 22, 2019 18:43:28 :
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March 04, 2020 14:46:31 :
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