Anarchy in Action : Chapter 5 - Topless Federations

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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 5 - Topless Federations

Chapter V. Topless Federations

The fascinating secret of a well-functioning social organism seems thus to lie not in its overall unity but in its structure, maintained in health by the life-preserving mechanism of division operating through myriads of cell-splittings and rejuvenations taking place under the smooth skin of an apparently unchanging body. Wherever, because of age or bad design, this rejuvenating process of subdivision gives way to the calcifying process of cell unification, the cells, now growing behind the protection of their hardened frames beyond their divinely allotted limits, begin, as in cancer, to develop those hostile, arrogant great-power complexes which cannot be brought to an end until the infested organism is either devoured, or a forceful operation succeeds in restoring the small-cell pattern.

Leopold Kohr, The Breakdown of Nations </irght>

People used to smile at Kropotkin when he instanced the lifeboat institution as an example of the kind of organization envisaged by anarchists, but he did so simply to illustrate that voluntary and completely non-coercive organizations could provide a complex network of services without the principle of authority intervening. Two other examples which we often use to help people to conceive the federal principle which anarchists see as the way in which local groups and associations could combine for complex functions without any central authority are the postal service and the railways. You can post a letter from here to China or Chili, confident that it will arrive, as a result of freely arrived-at agreements between different national post offices, without there being any central world postal authority at all. Or you can travel across Europe over the lines of a dozen railway systems — capitalist and communist — coordinated by agreement between different railway undertakings, without any kind of central railway authority. The same is true of broadcasting organizations and several other kinds of internationally coordinated activities. Nor is there any reason to suppose that the constituent parts of complex federations could not run efficiently on the basis of voluntary association. (When we have in Britain more than one railway line running scheduled services on time, coordinating with British Rail, and operated by a bunch of amateurs, who dare say that the railwaymen could not operate their services without the aid of the bureaucratic hierarchy?) Even within the structure of capitalist industry there are interesting experiments in organizing work on the basis of small autonomous groups. Industrial militants regard such ventures with suspicion, as well they might, for they are undertaken not with the idea of stimulating workers’ autonomy but with that of increasing productivity. But they are valuable in illustrating our contention that the whole pyramid of hierarchical authority, which has been built up in industry as in every other sphere of life, is a giant confidence trick by which generations of workers have been coerced in the first instance, hoodwinked in the second, and finally brainwashed into accepting.

In territorial terms, the great anarchist advocate of federalism was Proudhon who was thinking not of customs unions like the European Common Market nor of a confederation of states or a world federal government but of a basic principle of human organization:

In his view the federal principle should operate from the simplest level of society. The organization of administration should begin locally and as near the direct control of the people as possible; individuals should start the process by federating into communes and associations. Above that primary level the confederal organization would become less an organ of administration than of coordination between local units. Thus the nation would be replaced by a geographical confederation of regions, and Europe would become a confederation of confederations, in which the interest of the smallest province would have as much expression as that of the largest, and in which all affairs would be settled by mutual agreement, contract, and arbitration. In terms of the evolution of anarchist ideas, Du Principe Federatif (1863) is one of the most important of Proudhon’s books, since it presents the first intensive libertarian development of the idea of federal organization as a practical alternative to political nationalism.[62]

Now without wishing to sing a song of praise for the Swiss political system we can see that, in territorial terms, the twenty-two sovereign cantons of Switzerland are an outstanding example of a successful federation. It is a federation of like units, of small cells, and the cantonal boundaries cut across the linguistic and ethnic boundaries, so that unlike the many examples of unsuccessful political federation, the confederation is not dominated by a single powerful unit, so different in size and scale from the rest that it unbalances the union. The problem of federalism, as Leopold Kohr puts it in his book The Breakdown of Nations, is one of division, not of union. Proudhon foresaw this:

Europe would be too large to form a single confederation; it would have to be a confederation of confederations. This is why I pointed out in my most recent publication (Federation and Unity in Italy) that the first measure of reform to be made in public law is the reestablishment of the Italian, Greek, Batavian (Netherlands), Scandinavian and Danubian confederations as a prelude to the decentralization of the large States, followed by a general disarmament. In these conditions all nations would recover their freedom, and the notion of the balance of power in Europe would become a reality. This has been envisaged by all political writers and statesmen but has remained impossible so long as the great powers are centralized States. It is not surprising that the notion of federation should have been lost amid the splendors of the great States, since it is by nature peaceful and mild and plays a self-effacing role on the political scene.[63]

Peaceful, mild and self-effacing the Swiss may be and we may consider them a rather stodgy and provincial lot, but they have something in their national life which we in the nations which are neither mild nor self-effacing have lost. I was talking to a Swiss citizen (or rather a citizen of Zurich, for strictly speaking that is what he was) about the cutting-back to profitable inter-city routes of the British railway system, and he remarked that it would be inconceivable in a Swiss setting that a chairman in London could decide, as Dr Beeching did in the 1960s, to “write off the railway system of the north of Scotland. He cited Herbert Luethy’s study of his country’s political system in which he explained that:

Every Sunday the inhabitants of scores of communes go to the polling booths to elect their civil servants, ratify such and such an item of expenditure, or decide whether a road or a school should be built; after settling the business of the commune, they deal with cantonal elections and voting on cantonal issues; lastly ... come the decisions on federal issues. In some cantons the sovereign people still meet in Rousseau-like fashion to discuss questions of common interest. It may be thought that this ancient form of assembly is no more than a pious tradition with a certain value as a tourist attraction. If so, it is worth looking at the results of local democracy.

The simplest example is the Swiss railway system, which is the densest network in the world. At great cost and with great trouble it has been made to serve the needs of the smallest localities and most remote valleys, not as a paying proposition but because such was the will of the people. It is the outcome of fierce political struggles. In the nineteenth century the “democratic railway movement” brought the small Swiss communities into conflict with the big towns, which had plans for centralization ...

And if we compare the Swiss system with the French which, with admirable geometrical regularity, is entirely centered on Paris so that the prosperity or the the life or death, of whole regions has depended on the quality of the link with the capital we see the difference between a centralized state and a federal alliance, The railway map is the easiest to read at a glance, but let us now superimpose on it another showing economic activity and the movement of population. The distribution of industrial activity all over Switzerland, even in the outlying areas, accounts for the strength and stability of the social structure of the country and prevented those horrible nineteenth-century concentrations of industry, with their slums and rootless proletariat.[64]

I suspect that times have changed, even in Switzerland, and quote Dr Luethy, not to praise Swiss democracy, but to indicate that the federal principle which is at the center of anarchist theory is worth very much more attention than it is given in the textbooks on political science. Even in the context of ordinary political and economic institutions, its adoptation has a far-reaching effect. If you doubt this, consult an up-to-date map of British Rail.

The federal principle applies to every kind of human organization. You can readily see its application to communications of all kinds: a network of local papers sharing stories, a network of local radio and television stations supported by local listeners (as already happen with a handful of stations in the United States) sharing programs,[65] a network of local telephone services (it already happens in Hull which through some historical anomaly runs its own telephone system and gives its citizens a rather better service than the Post Office gives the rest of us).

It already applies in the world of voluntary associations, unions, and pressure groups, and you will not disagree that the lively and active ones are those where activity and decision-making is initiated at local level, while those that are centrally controlled are ossified and out of touch with their apathetic membership, Those readers who remember the days of CND and the Committee of 100 may recall the episode of the Spies for Peace. A group of people unearthed details of the RSGs or Regional Seats of Government, underground hide-outs to ensure the survival of the ruling elite in the case of nuclear war. It was of course illegal to publish this information, yet all over the country it appeared in little anonymous duplicated pamphlets within a few days, providing an enormously interesting example of ad hoc federal activity through loose networks of active individuals. We later published in Anarchy some reflections on the implications of this:

One lesson to be drawn from “Spies for Peace” is the advantage of ad hoc organization, coming rapidly into being and if necessary disappearing with the same speed, but leaving behind innumerable centers of activity, like ripples and eddies on a pond, after a stone has been thrown into it.

Traditional politics (both “revolutionary” and “reformist”) are based on a central dynamo, with a transmission belt leading outwards. Capture of the dynamo, or its conversion to other purposes, may break the transmission entirely. “Spies for Peace” seems to have operated on an entirely different basis. Messages were passed from mouth to mouth along the route, documents from hand to hand. One group passed a secret to a second, which then set about reprinting it. A caravan became the source of a leaflet, a shopping basket a distribution center. A hundred copies of a pamphlet are distributed in the streets: some are sure to reach the people who will distribute them.

Contacts are built on a face to face basis. One knows the personal limitations of one’s comrades. X is an expert at steering a meeting through procedural shoals, but cannot work as a duplicator. Y can use a small printing press, but is unable to write a leaflet. Z can express himself in public, but cannot sell pamphlets. Every task elects its own workers, and there is no need for an elaborate show of hands. Seekers of personal power and glory get little thrill from the anonymously and skillfully illegal. The prospect of prison breeds out the leader complex. Every member of a group may be called upon to undertake key tasks. And all-round talent is developed in all. The development of small groups for mutual aid could form a basis for an effective resistance movement.

There are important conclusions. Revolution does not need conveyor belt organization. It needs hundreds, thousands, and finally millions of people meeting in groups with informal contacts with each other. It needs mass consciousness. If one group takes an initiative that is valuable, others will take it up. The methods must be tailored to the society we live in. The FLN could use armed warfare, for it had hills and thickets to retreat into. We are faced by the overwhelming physical force of a State better organized and better armed than at any time in its history. We must react accordingly. The many internal contradictions of the State must be skillfully exploited. The Dusseldorf authorities were caught in their own regulations when the disarmers refused to fasten their safety belts. MI5 cannot conceive of subversion that is not master-minded by a sinister Communist agent. It is incapable of dealing with a movement where nobody takes orders from anyone else. Through action, autonomy and revolutionary initiative will be developed still further. To cope with our activities the apparatus of repression will become even more centralized and even more bureaucratic. This will enhance our opportunities rather than lessen them.[66]

This was a federation whose members did not even know each other, but whose constituent cells had an intimate personal understanding. The passport to membership was simply a common involvement in a common task. Innumerable voluntary organizations from the Scouts to the Automobile Association started in the same impromptu way. Their ossification began from the center. Their mistake was a faith in centralism. The anarchist conclusion is that every kind of human activity should begin from what is local and immediate, should link in a network with no center and no directing agency, hiving off new cells as the original ones grow. If there is any human activity that does not appear to fit this pattern our first question should be “Why not?” and our second should be “How can we re-arrange it so as to provide for local autonomy, local responsibility, and the fulfillment of local needs?”

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November 30, 1995 :
Chapter 5 - Topless Federations -- Publication.

July 22, 2019 18:44:48 :
Chapter 5 - Topless Federations -- Added to

January 28, 2020 15:15:26 :
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