An Anarchist FAQ - I.7 Won't Libertarian Socialism destroy individuality?

An Anarchist FAQ
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I.7 Won't Libertarian Socialism destroy individuality?

No. Libertarian socialism only suppresses individuality for those who are so shallow that they can't separate their identity from what they own. However, be that as it may, this is an important objection to any form of socialism and, given the example of "socialist" Russia, needs to be discussed more.

The basic assumption behind this question is that capitalism encourages individuality, but this assumption can be faulted on many levels. As Kropotkin noted, "individual freedom [has] remained, both in theory and in practice, more illusory than real" [Ethics, p. 27] and that "the want of development of the personality [leading to herd-psychology] and the lack of individual creative power and initiative are certainly one of the chief defects of our time." [Op. Cit., p. 28] In effect, modern capitalism has reduced individuality to a parody of what it could be (see section I.7.4). As Alfie Kohn points out, "our miserable individuality is screwed to the back of our cars in the form of personalised license plates." Little wonder Emma Goldman argued that:

 

"The oft repeated slogan of our time is . . . that ours is an era of individualism . . . Only those who do probe beneath the surface might be led to entertain this view. Have not the few accumulated the wealth of the world? Are they not the masters, the absolute kings of the situation? Their success, however, is due not to individualism, but the inertia, the cravenness, the utter submission of the mass. The latter wants but to be dominated, to be led, to be coerced. As to individualism, at no time in human history did it have less chance of expression, less opportunity to assert itself in a normal, healthy manner." [Anarchism and Other Essays, pp. 70-1]

So we see a system which is apparently based on "egoism" and "individualism" but whose members are free to expand as standardised individuals, who hardly express their individuality at all. Far from increasing individuality, capitalism standardises it and so restricts it -- that it survives at all is more an expression of the strength of humanity than any benefits of the capitalist system. This impoverishment of individuality is hardly surprising in a society based on hierarchical institutions which are designed to assure obedience and subordination.

So, can we say that libertarian socialism will increase individuality or is this conformity and lack of "individualism" a constant feature of the human race? In order to make some sort of statement on this, we have to look at non-hierarchical societies and organisations. We will discuss tribal cultures as an example of non-hierarchical societies in section I.7.1. Here, however, we indicate how anarchist organisations will protect and increase an individual's sense of self.

Anarchist organisations and tactics are designed to promote individuality. They are decentralised, participatory organisations and so they give those involved the "social space" required to express themselves and develop their abilities and potential in ways restricted under capitalism. As Gaston Leval notes in his book on the anarchist collectives during the Spanish Revolution, "so far as collective life is concerned, the freedom of each is the right to participate spontaneously with one's thought, one's will, one's initiative to the full extent of one's capacities. A negative liberty is not liberty; it is nothingness." [Collectives in the Spanish Revolution, p. 346]

By being able to take part in and manage the decision making processes which directly affect you, your ability to think for yourself is increased and so you are constantly developing your abilities and personality. The spontaneous activity described by Leval has important psychological impacts. As Eric Fromm notes, "[i]n all spontaneous activity, the individual embraces the world. Not only does his [sic] individual self remain intact; it becomes stronger and more solidified. For the self is as strong as it is active." [Escape from Freedom, p. 225]

Therefore, individuality does not atrophy within an anarchist organisation and becomes stronger as it participates and acts within the social organisation. In other words, individuality requires community. As Max Horkheimer once observed, "individuality is impaired when each man decides to fend for himself. . . . The absolutely isolated individual has always been an illusion. The most esteemed personal qualities, such as independence, will to freedom, sympathy, and the sense of justice, are social as well as individual virtues. The fully developed individual is the consummation of a fully developed society." [The Eclipse of Reason, p. 135]

The sovereign, self-sufficient individual is as much a product of a healthy community as it is from individual self-realisation and the fulfilment of desire. Kropotkin, in Mutual Aid, documented the tendency for community to enrich and develop individuality. As he proved, this tendency is seen throughout human history, which suggests that the abstract individualism of capitalism is more the exception than the rule in social life. In other words, history indicates that by working together with others as equals individuality is strengthen far more than in the so-called "individualism" associated with capitalism.

This communal support for individuality is hardly surprising as individuality is a product of the interaction between social forces and individual attributes. The more an individual cuts themselves off from social life, the more likely their individuality will suffer. This can be seen from the 1980's when neo-liberal governments supporting the "radical" individualism associated with free market capitalism were elected in both Britain and the USA. The promotion of market forces lead to social atomisation, social disruption and a more centralised state. As "the law of the jungle" swept across society, the resulting disruption of social life ensured that many individuals became impoverished ethically and culturally as society became increasingly privatised.

In other words, many of the characteristics which we associate with a developed individuality (namely ability to think, to act, to hold ones own opinions and standards and so forth) are (essentially) social skills and are encouraged by a well developed community. Remove that social background and these valued aspects of individuality are undermined by fear, lack of social interaction and atomisation. Taking the case of workplaces, for example, surely it is an obvious truism that a hierarchical working environment will marginalise the individual and ensure that they cannot express their opinions, exercise their thinking capacities to the full or manage their own activity. This will have in impact in all aspects of an individual's life.

Hierarchy in all its forms produces oppression and a crushing of individuality (see section B.1). In such a system, the "business" side of group activities would be "properly carried out" but at the expense of the individuals involved. Anarchists agree with John Stuart Mill when he asks, under such "benevolent dictatorship," "what sort of human beings can be formed under such a regimen? What development can either their thinking or their active faculties attain under it? . . . Their moral capacities are equally stunted. Wherever the sphere of action of human beings is artificially circumscribed, their sentiments are narrowed and dwarfed." [Representative Government, pp. 203-4] Like anarchists, Mill tended his critique of political associations into all forms of associations and stated that if "mankind is to continue to improve" then in the end one form of association will predominate, "not that which can exist between a capitalist as chief, and workpeople without a voice in the management, but the association of labourers themselves on terms of equality, collectively owning the capital with which they carry on their operations, and working under managers elected and removable by themselves." [The Principles of Political Economy, p. 147]

Hence, anarchism will protect and develop individuality by creating the means by which all individuals can participate in the decisions that affect them, in all aspects of their lives. Anarchism is build upon the central assertion that individuals and their institutions cannot be considered in isolation from one another. Authoritarian organisations will create a servile personality, one that feels safest conforming to authority and what is considered normal. A libertarian organisation, one that is based upon participation and self-management will encourage a strong personality, one that knows his or her own mind, thinks for itself and feels confident in his or her own powers.

Therefore, as Bakunin argued, liberty "is not a fact springing from isolation but from reciprocal action, a fact not of exclusion, but, on the contrary, of social interaction -- for freedom of every individual is simply the reflection of his humanity or his human right in the consciousness of all free men, his brothers, his equals." Freedom "is something very positive, very complex, and above all eminently social, since it can be realised only by society and only under conditions of strict equality and solidarity." Hierarchical power, by necessity, kills individual freedom as it is "characteristic of privilege and of every privileged position to kill the minds and hearts of men" and "power and authority corrupt those who exercise them as much as those who are compelled to submit to them." [The Political Philosophy of Bakunin, p. 266, p. 268, p. 269 and p. 249]

A libertarian re-organisation of society will be based upon, and encourage, a self-empowerment and self-liberation of the individual and by participation within self-managed organisations, individuals will educate themselves for the responsibilities and joys of freedom. As Carole Pateman points out, "participation develops and fosters the very qualities necessary for it; the more individuals participate the better able they become to do so." [Participation and Democratic Theory, pp. 42-43]

Such a re-organisation (as we will see in section J) is based upon the tactic of direct action. This tactic also encourages individuality by encouraging the individual to fight directly, by their own self-activity, that which they consider to be wrong. As Voltairine de Cleyre puts it:

 

"Every person who ever thought he had a right to assert, and went boldly and asserted it, himself, or jointly with others that shared his convictions, was a direct actionist . . . Every person who ever had a plan to do anything, and went and did it, or who laid his plan before others, and won their co-operation to do it with him, without going to external authorities to please do the thing for them, was a direct actionist. All co-operative experiments are essentially direct action . . . [direct actions] are the spontaneous retorts of those who feel oppressed by a situation." [Direct Action]

Therefore, anarchist tactics base themselves upon self-assertion and this can only develop individuality. Self-activity can only occur when there is a independent, free-thinking self. As self-management is based upon the principle of direct action ("all co-operative experiments are essentially direct action") we can suggest that individuality will have little to fear from an anarchist society. Indeed, anarchists strongly stress the importance of individuality within a society:

 

"[T]o destroy individuality is to destroy society. For society is only realised and alive in the individual members. Society has no motive that does not issue from its individual members, no end that does not centre in them, no mind that is not there. 'Spirit of the age,' 'public opinion,' 'commonweal or good,' and like phrases have no meaning if they are thought of as features of something that hovers or floats between man and woman. They name what resides in and proceeds from individuals. Individuality and community, therefore, are equally constitutive of out idea of human life." [J. Burns-Gibson quoted by William R. McKercher, Freedom and Authority, p. 31]

Little wonder, then, that anarchism "recognises and values individuality which means character, conduct and the springs of conduct, free initiative, creativeness, spontaneity, autonomy." [J. Burns-Gibson, quoted by William R. McKercher, Op. Cit., p. 31f] As Kropotkin put it, anarchism "seeks the most complete development of individuality combined with the highest development of voluntary association in all its aspects . . . ever changing, ever modified. . ." [Kropotkin's Revolutionary Pamphlets, p. 123]

For anarchists, like Mill, real liberty requires social equality. For "[i]f individuals are to exercise the maximum amount of control over their own lives and environment then authority structures in these areas most be so organised that they can participate in decision making." [Pateman, Op. Cit., p. 43] Hence individuality will be protected, encouraged and developed in an anarchist society far more than in a class ridden, hierarchical society like capitalism. As Kropotkin argued:

 

"[Anarchist] Communism is the best basis for individual development and freedom; not that individualism which drives men to the war of each against all . . . but that which represents the full expansion of man's [and woman's] faculties, the superior development of what is original in him [or her], the greatest fruitfulness of intelligence, feeling and will." [Op. Cit., p. 141]

It is because wonders are so enriching to life, and none is more wonderful than individuality, that anarchists oppose capitalism in the name of socialism -- libertarian socialism, the free association of free individuals.

I.7.1 Do tribal cultures indicate that communalism defends individuality?

Yes. In many tribal cultures (what some people call "primitive"), we find a strong respect for individuals. As Paul Radin points out, "[i]f I were to state . . . what are the outstanding features of aboriginal civilisation, I . . . would have no hesitation in answering that . . . respect for the individual, irrespective of age or sex" is the first one. [The World of Primitive Man, p. 11]

Murray Bookchin comments on Radin's statement as follows, "respect for the individual, which Radin lists first as an aboriginal attribute, deserves to be emphasised, today, in an era that rejects the collective as destructive of individuality on the one hand, and yet, in an orgy of pure egotism, has actually destroyed all the ego boundaries of free-floating, isolated, and atomised individuals on the other. A strong collectivity may be even more supportive of the individual as close studies of certain aboriginal societies reveal, than a 'free market' society with its emphasis on an egoistic, but impoverished, self" [Remaking Society, p. 48]

This individualisation associated with tribal cultures was also noted by Howard Zinn. He quotes Gary Nash describing Iroquois culture (which appears typical of most Native American tribes):

 

"No laws and ordinances, sheriffs and constables, judges and juries, or courts or jails -- the apparatus of authority in European societies -- were to be found in the north-east woodlands prior to European arrival. Yet boundaries of acceptable behaviour were firmly set. Though priding themselves on the autonomous individual, the Iroquois maintained a strict sense of right and wrong . . ." [quoted by Zinn in A People's History of the United States, p. 21]

This respect for individuality existed in a society based on communistic principles. As Zinn notes, in the Iroquois "land was owned in common and worked in common. Hunting was done together, and the catch was divided among the members of the village. Houses were considered common property and were shared by several families. The concept of private ownership of land and homes was foreign to the Iroquois." In this communal society women "were important and respected" and families were matrilineal. Power was shared between the sexes (unlike the European idea of male domination). Similarly, children "while taught the cultural heritage of their people and solidarity with the tribe, were also taught to be independent, not to submit to overbearing authority. They were taught equality of status and the sharing of possessions." [Zinn, Op. Cit., p. 20]

As Zinn stresses, Native American tribes "paid careful attention to the development of personality, intensity of will, independence and flexibility, passion and potency, to their partnership with one another and with nature." [Op. Cit., pp. 21-2]

Thus tribal societies indicate that community defends individuality, with communal living actually encouraging a strong sense of individuality. This is to be expected, as equality is the only condition in which individuals can be free and so in a position to develop their personality to its full. Furthermore, this communal living took place within an anarchist environment:

 

"The foundation principle of Indian government had always been the rejection of government. The freedom of the individual was regarded by practically all Indians north of Mexico as a canon infinitely more precious than the individual's duty to his [or her] community or nation. This anarchistic attitude ruled all behaviour, beginning with the smallest social unity, the family. The Indian parent was constitutionally reluctant to discipline his [or her] children. Their every exhibition of self-will was accepted as a favourable indication of the development of maturing character. . ." [Van Every, quoted by Zinn, Op. Cit., p. 136]

In addition, Native American tribes also indicate that communal living and high standards of living can and do go together. The Cherokees, for example, in the 1870s, "land was held collectively and life was contented and prosperous" with the Department of the Interior recognising that it was "a miracle of progress, with successful production by people living in considerable comfort, a level of education 'equal to that furnished by an ordinary college in the States,' flourishing industry and commerce, an effective constitutional government, a high level of literacy, and a state of 'civilisation and enlightenment' comparable to anything known: 'What required five hundred years for the Britons to accomplish in this direction they have accomplished in one hundred years,' the Department declared in wonder." [Noam Chomsky, Year 501, p. 231]

Senator Henry Dawes of Massachusetts visited "Indian Territory" in 1883 and described what he found in glowing terms:

 

"There was not a pauper in that nation, and the nation did not owe a dollar. It built its own capitol, in which we had this examination, and it built its schools and its hospitals." No family lacked a home. [Cited by Chomsky, Op. Cit., p. 231]

(It must be mentioned that Dawes recommended that the society must be destroyed because "[t]hey have got as far as they can go, because they own their land in common. . .there is no enterprise to make your home any better than that of your neighbours. There is no selfishness, which is the bottom of civilisation. Till this people will consent to give up their lands, and divide them among their citizens so that each can own the land he cultivates, they will not make much more progress." The introduction of capitalism -- as usual by state action -- resulted in poverty and destitution, again showing the link between capitalism and high living standards is not clear cut, regardless of claims otherwise).

Undoubtedly, having access to the means of production ensured that members of such cultures did not have to place themselves in situations which could produce a servile character structure. As they did not have to follow the orders of a boss they did not have to learn to obey others and so could develop their own abilities to govern themselves. This self-government allowed the development of a custom in such tribes called "the principle of non-interference" in anthropology. This is the principle of defending someone's right to express the opposing view and it is a pervasive principle in the tribal world, and it is so much so as to be safely called a "universal".

The principle of non-interference is a powerful principle that extends from the personal to the political, and into every facet of daily life. Most modern people are aghast when they realise the extent to which it is practised, but it has proven itself to be an integral part of living anarchy (as many of these communities can be termed, although they would be considered imperfect anarchist societies in some ways). It means that people simply do not limit the activities of others, period. This in effect makes absolute tolerance a custom, or as the modern would say, a law. But the difference between law and custom is important to point out. Law is dead, and Custom lives (see section I.7.3).

As modern people we have so much baggage that relates to "interfering" with the lives of others that merely visualising the situation that would eliminate this daily pastime for many is impossible. But think about it. First of all, in a society where people do not interfere with each other's behaviour, people tend to feel trusted and empowered by this simple social fact. Their self-esteem is already higher because they are trusted with the responsibility for making learned and aware choices. This is not fiction; individual responsibility is a key aspect of social responsibility.

Therefore, given the strength of individuality documented in tribes with little or no hierarchical structures within them, can we not conclude that anarchism will defend individuality and even develop it in ways blocked by capitalism? At the very least we can say "possibly," and that is enough to allow us to question that dogma that capitalism is the only system based on respect for the individual.

I.7.2 Is this not worshipping the past or the "noble savage"?

No. However, this is a common attack on socialists by supporters of capitalism and on anarchists by Marxists. Both claim that anarchism is "backward looking", opposed to "progress" and desire a society based on inappropriate ideas of freedom. In particular, ideological capitalists maintain that all forms of socialism base themselves on the ideal of the "noble savage" and ignore the need for laws and other authoritarian social institutions to keep people "in check" (see, for example, free market capitalist guru Frederick von Hayek's work, particularly his Fatal Conceit: The Errors of Socialism).

Anarchists are well aware of the limitations of the "primitive communist" societies they have used as example of anarchistic tendencies within history or society. They are also aware of the problems associated with using any historical period as an example of "anarchism in action." Take for example the "free cities" of Medieval Europe, which was used by Kropotkin as an example of the potential of decentralised, confederated communes. He was sometimes accused of being a "Medievalist" (as was William Morris) while all he was doing was indicating that capitalism need not equal progress and that alternative social systems have existed which have encouraged freedom in ways capitalism restricts.

In a similar way, Marxists often accuse Proudhon of being "petty-bourgeois" and looking backward to a pre-industrial society of artisans and peasants. Of course, nothing could be further from the truth. Proudhon came from a area of French which, like many other parts of that country at the time, was essentially pre-industrial and based on peasant and artisan production. He therefore based his socialist ideas on the needs of working people as they required them at the time. Unlike Marx, who argued that industrialisation (i.e. proletarianisation) was the pre-conditions of socialism, Proudhon wanted justice and freedom for working people in the here and now, not some (unspecified) time in the future after capitalism had fully developed. He was "petit-bourgeois" only in so far as the French working class at the time was "petit-bourgeois" and was "proletarian" in so far as his fellow working people were.

When Proudhon did look at large-scale production (such as railways, factories and so on) he proposed co-operative associations to run them. These associations would maintain the dignity of the worker by maintaining the essential feature of artisan and peasant live, namely the control of the work and product by the labourer. Thus he used the experience of the past (artisan production) to inform his analysis of current events (industrialisation) to create a solution to the social problem which built upon and extended a freedom crushed by capitalism (namely workers' self-management in production). Rather than being backward looking and worshipping a past which was disappearing, Proudhon analysed the present and past, drew any positive features he could from both and applied them to the present and the future (see also section H.2.1).

Again it is hardly surprising to find that many supporters of capitalism ignore the insights that can be gained by studying tribal cultures and the questions they raise about capitalism and freedom. Instead, they duck the issues raised by these insights and accuse socialists of idealising "the noble savage." As indicated, nothing could be further from the truth. Indeed, this claim has been directed towards Rousseau (often considered the father of socialist and anarchist "idealisation" of the "noble savage") even though Rousseau expressly rejected any "return to nature." He stated that "must societies be totally abolished? Must meum and tuum be annihilated, and must we return again to the forests to live among bears? This is a deduction in the manner of my adversaries, which I would as soon anticipate as let them have the shame of drawing." [The Social Contract and Discourses, p. 112] Sadly, Rousseau failed to understand that his adversaries, both then and now, seem to know no shame (similarly, Rousseau is often thought of idealising "natural man" but actually wrote that "men in a state of nature, having no moral relations or determinate obligations one with another, could not be either good or bad, virtuous or vicious" [Op. Cit., p. 64]). This also seems to be the case when anarchists look through history, draw libertarian currents from it and are denounced as backward looking utopians.

What libertarians socialists point out from this analysis of history is that the atomised individual associated with capitalist society is not "natural" and that capitalist social relationships help to weaken individuality. All the many attacks on libertarian socialist analysis of past societies is a product of capitalists attempts to deny history and state that "Progress" reaches its final resting place in capitalism. As David Watson argues:

 

"When we consider people living under some of the harshest, most commanding conditions on earth, who can nevertheless do what they like when the notion occurs to them, we should be able to witness the contemporary doubt about civilisation's superiority without growing indignant. Primitivism, after all, reflects not only a glimpse of life before the rise of the state, but also a legitimate response to real conditions of life under civilisation . . . Most people do not live in aboriginal societies, and most tribal peoples themselves now face wholly new contexts which will have to be confronted in new ways if they are to survive as peoples. But their lifeways, their histories, remind us that other modes of being are possible. Reaffirmation of our primal past offers insight into our history -- not the only possible insight, to be sure, but one important, legitimate entry point for a reasoned discussion about (and an impassioned reaction to) this world we must leave behind." [Beyond Bookchin, p. 240]

This essential investigation of history and modern society to see what other ways of living have and do exist is essential. It is too easy to forget that what exists under modern capitalism has not always existed (as neo-classical economics does, to a large degree). It is also useful to remember what many people now consider as "normal" was not always the case. As we discussed in section F.8.6, the first generation of industrial wage slaves hated the system, considering it both tyranny and unnatural. Studying history, previous cultures and the process of hierarchical society and the oppressed resistance to it can enrich our analysis and activity in the here and now and help us to envision an anarchist society, the problems it could face and possible solutions to them.

If the challenge for anarchists is to smash power-relations and domination, it would make sense to get to the root of the problem. Hierarchy, slavery, coercion, patriarchy, and so on far outdate capitalism and it is hardly enough to just analyse the economic system of capitalism, which is merely the current and most insidious form of hierarchical civilisation. Similarly, without looking to cultures and communities that functioned quite well before the rise of the state, hierarchies and classes, anarchists do not really have much solid ground to prove to people that anarchy is desirable or possible. For this reason, historical analysis and the celebration of the positive aspects of tribal and other societies is essential.

Moreover, as George Orwell points out, attacks that reject this critical analysis as worshipping the "noble savage" miss the point:

 

"In the first place he [the defender of modern life] will tell you that it is impossible to 'go back' . . . and will then accuse you of being a medievalist and begin to descant upon the horrors of the Middle Ages . . . As a matter of fact, most attacks upon the Middle Ages and the past generally by apologists of modernity are beside the point, because their essential trick is to project a modern man, with his squeamishness and his high standard of comfort, into an age when such things were unheard of. But notice that in any case this is not an answer. For dislike of the mechanised future does not imply the smallest reverence for any period of the past . . . When one pictures it merely as an objective; there is no need to pretend that it has ever existed in space and time." [The Road to Wigan Pier, p. 183]

We should also note that such attacks on anarchist investigations of past cultures assumes that these cultures have no good aspects at all and so indicates a sort of intellectual "all or nothing" approach to modern life. The idea that past (and current) civilisations may have got some things right and others wrong and should be investigated is rejected for a totally uncritical "love it or leave" approach to modern society. Of course, the well known "free market" capitalist love of 19th century capitalist life and values warrants no such claims of "past worship" by the supporters of the system.

Therefore attacks on anarchists as supporters of the "noble savage" ideal indicate more about the opponents of anarchism and their fear of looking at the implications of the system they support than about anarchist theory.

I.7.3 Is the law required to protect individual rights?

No, far from it. While it is obvious that, as Kropotkin put it, "[n]o society is possible without certain principles of morality generally recognised. If everyone grew accustomed to deceiving his fellow-men; if we never could rely on each other's promise and words; if everyone treated his fellow as an enemy, against whom every means of warfare is justified -- no society could exist." [Kropotkin's Revolutionary Pamphlets, p. 73] this does not mean that a legal system (with its resultant bureaucracy, vested interests and inhumanity) is the best way to protect individual rights within a society.

What anarchists propose instead of the current legal system (or an alternative law system based on religious or "natural" laws) is custom - namely the development of living "rules of thumb" which express what a society considers as right at any given moment.

However, the question arises, if a fixed set of principles are used to determine the just outcome, in what way would this differ from laws?

The difference is that the "order of custom" would prevail rather than the "rule of law". Custom is a body of living institutions that enjoys the support of the body politic, whereas law is a codified (read dead) body of institutions that separates social control from moral force. This, as anyone observing modern Western society can testify, alienates everyone. A just outcome is the predictable, but not necessarily the inevitable outcome of interpersonal conflict because in a traditional anarchistic society people are trusted to do it themselves. Anarchists think people have to grow up in a social environment free from the confusions generated by a fundamental discrepancy between morality, and social control, to fully appreciate the implications. However, the essential ingredient is the investment of trust, by the community, in people to come up with functional solutions to interpersonal conflict. This stands in sharp contrast with the present situation of people being infantilised by the state through a constant bombardment of fixed social structures removing all possibility of people developing their own unique solutions.

Therefore, anarchist recognise that social custom changes with society. What was once considered "normal" or "natural" may become to be seen as oppressive and hateful. This is because the "conception of good or evil varies according to the degree of intelligence or of knowledge acquired. There is nothing unchangeable about it." [Kropotkin, Op. Cit., p. 92] Only by removing the dead hand of the past can society's ethical base develop and grow with the individuals that make it up (see section A.2.19 for a discussion of anarchist ethics).

We should also like to point out here that laws (or "The Law") also restrict the development of an individual's sense of ethics or morality. This is because it relieves them of the responsibility of determining if something is right or wrong. All they need to know is whether it is legal. The morality of the action is irrelevant. This "nationalisation" of ethics is very handy for the would be capitalist, governor or other exploiter. In addition, capitalism also restricts the development of an individual's ethics because it creates the environment where these ethics can be bought. To quote Shakespeare's Richard III:

 

"Second Murderer: Some certain dregs of conscience are yet within me.

First Murderer : Remember our reward, when the deed's done.

Second Murderer : Zounds! He dies. I had forgot the reward.

First Murderer : Where's thy conscience now?

Second Murderer : O, in the Duke of Gloucester's purse."

Therefore, as far as "The Law" defending individual rights, it creates the necessary conditions (such as the de-personalisation of ethics, the existence of concentrations wealth, and so on) for undermining individual ethical behaviour, and so respect for other individual's rights. As English libertarian socialist Edward Carpenter put it, "I think we may fairly make the following general statement, viz., that legal ownership is essentially a negative and anti-social thing, and that unless qualified or antidoted by human relationship, it is pretty certain to be positively harmful. In fact, when a man's chief plea is 'The law allows it,' you may be pretty sure he is up to some mischief!" [quoted by William R. McKercher, Freedom and Authority, p. 48]

The state forces an individual a relationship with a governing body. This means "taking away from the individual his [or her] direct interest in life and in his surroundings . . . blunting his [or her] moral sense . . . teaching that he [or she] must never reply on himself [or herself] . . . [but] upon a small part of men who are elected to do everything . . . [which] destroys to a large extent his [or her] perception of right and wrong." [J. B. Smith, quoted by McKercher, Op. Cit., p. 67f]

Individual rights, for anarchists, are best protected in a social environment based on the self-respect and sympathy. Custom, because it is based on the outcome of numerous individual actions and thought does not have this problem and reflects (and encourages the development of) individual ethical standards and so a generalised respect for others. Thus, "under anarchism all rules and laws will be little more than suggestions for the guidance of juries which will judge not only the facts but the law, the justice of the law, its applicability to the given circumstances, and the penalty or damage to be inflicted because if its infraction . . . under Anarchism the law will be so flexible that it will shape itself to every emergency and need no alteration. And it will be regarded as just in proportion to its flexibility, instead of as now in proportion to its rigidity." [Benjamin Tucker, The Individualist Anarchists, pp. 160-1] Tucker, like other individualist Anarchists, believed that the role of juries had been very substantial in the English common-law tradition and that they had been gradually emasculated by the state. This system of juries, based on common-law/custom could be the means of ensuring justice in a free society.

Tolerance of other individuals depends far more on the attitudes of the society in question that on its system of laws. In other words, even if the law does respect individual rights, if others in society disapprove of an action then they can and will act to stop it (or restrict individual rights). All that the law can do is try to prevent this occurring. Needless to say, governments can (and have) been at the forefront of ignoring individual rights when its suits them.

In addition, the state perverts social customs for its own, and the interests of the economically and socially powerful. As Kropotkin argued, "as society became more and more divided into two hostile classes, one seeking to establish its domination, the other struggling to escape, the strife began. Now the conqueror was in a hurry to secure the results of his actions in a permanent form, he tried to place them beyond question, to make them holy and venerable by every means in his power. Law made its appearance under the sanction of the priest, and the warriors club was placed at its service. Its office was to render immutable such customs as were to the advantage of the dominant minority . . . If law, however, presented nothing but a collection of prescriptions serviceable to rulers, it would find some difficulty in insuring acceptance and obedience. Well, the legislators confounded in one code the two currents of custom . . . , the maxims which represent principles of morality and social union wrought out as a result of life in common, and the mandates which are meant to ensure external existence to inequality. Customs, absolutely essential to the very being of society, are, in the code, cleverly intermingled with usages imposed by the ruling caste, and both claim equal respect from the crowd. . . . Such was the law; and it has maintained its two-fold character to this day." [Kropotkin's Revolutionary Pamphlets, p. 205] In other words, "[t]he law has used Man's social feelings to get passed not only moral precepts which were acceptable to Man, but also orders which were useful only to the minority of exploiters against whom he would have rebelled." [Krotpotkin quoted by Malatesta in Anarchy, pp. 21-22]

Therefore anarchists argue that state institutions are not only unneeded to create a ethical society (i.e. one based on respecting individuality) but activity undermines such a society. That the economically and politically powerful state that a state is a necessary condition for a free society and individual space is hardly surprising. Malatesta put it as follows:

 

"A government cannot maintain itself for long without hiding its true nature behind a pretence of general usefulness . . . it cannot impose acceptances of the privileges of the few if it does not pretend to be the guardian of the rights of all." [Anarchy, p. 21]

Therefore, its important to remember why the state exists and so whatever actions and rights it promotes for the individual it exists to protect the powerful against the powerless. Any human rights recognised by the state are a product of social struggle and exist because of pass victories in the class war and not due to the kindness of ruling elites. In addition, capitalism itself undermines the ethical foundations of any society by encouraging people to grow "accustomed to deceiving his fellow-men" and women and treating "his fellow as an [economic] enemy, against whom every means of warfare is justified." Hence capitalism undermines the basic social context within which individuals develop and need to become fully human and free. Little wonder that a strong state has always been required to introduce a free market - firstly, to protect wealth from the increasingly dispossessed and secondly, to try to hold society together as capitalism destroys the social fabric which makes a society worth living in.

I.7.4 Does capitalism protect individuality?

Given that many people claim that any form of socialism will destroy liberty (and so individuality) it is worthwhile to consider whether capitalism actually does protect individuality. As noted briefly in section I.7 the answer must be no. Capitalism seems to help create a standardisation which helps to distort individuality and the fact that individuality does exist under capitalism says more about the human spirit than capitalist social relationships.

So, why does a system apparently based on the idea of individual profit result in such a deadening of the individual? There are four main reasons:

 

1) capitalism produces a hierarchical system which crushes self-government in many areas of life;

2) there is the lack of community which does not provide the necessary supports for the encouragement of individuality;

3) there is the psychological impact of "individual profit" when it becomes identified purely with monetary gain (as in capitalism);

4) the effects of competition in creating conformity and mindless obedience to authority.

We have discussed point one on many occasions (see sections B.1 and B.4). As Emma Goldman put it, under capitalism, the individual "must sell his [or her] labour" and so their "inclination and judgement are subordinated to the will of a master." This, naturally, represses individual initiative and the skills needed to know and express ones own mind (as she put it, this "condemns millions of people to be mere nonentities, living corpses without originality or power of initiative . . . who pile up mountains of wealth for others and pay for it with a grey, dull and wretched existence for themselves"). "There can be no freedom in the large sense of the word," Goldman stressed, "so long as mercenary and commercial considerations play an important part in the determination of personal conduct." [Red Emma Speaks, p. 36]

Given the social relationships it is based on, capitalism cannot foster individuality but only harm it. As Kropotkin argued, "obedience towards individuals or metaphysical entities . . . lead to depression of initiative and servility of mind." [Kropotkin's Revolutionary Pamphlets, p. 285]

As far as point two goes, we have discussed it already in this section and will not repeat ourselves (see sections I.7 and I.7.1).

The last two points are worth discussing more thoroughly, and we will do so here.

Taking the third point first, when this kind of "greed" becomes the guiding aspect of an individual's life (and the society they live in) they usually end up sacrificing their own ego to it. Instead of the individual dominating their "greed," "greed" dominates them and so they end up being possessed by one aspect of themselves. This "selfishness" hides the poverty of the ego who practices it.

As Erich Fromm argues:

 

"Selfishness if not identical with self-love but with its very opposite. Selfishness is one kind of greediness. Like all greediness, it contains an insatiability, as a consequence of which there is never any real satisfaction. Greed is a bottomless pit which exhausts the person in an endless effort to satisfy the need without ever reaching satisfaction. . . this type of person is basically not fond of himself, but deeply dislikes himself.

"The puzzle in this seeming contradiction is easy to solve. Selfishness is rooted in this very lack of fondness for oneself. . . He does not have the inner security which can exist only on the basis of genuine fondness and affirmation." [The Fear of Freedom, pp. 99-100]

In other words, the "selfish" person allows their greed to dominate their ego and they sacrifice their personality feeding this new "God." This was clearly seen by Max Stirner who denounced this as a "one-sided, unopened, narrow egoism" which leads the ego being "ruled by a passion to which he brings the rest as sacrifices" (see section G.6). Like all "spooks," capitalism results in the self-negation of the individual and so the impoverishment of individuality. Little wonder, then, that a system apparently based upon "egoism" and "individualism" ends up weakening individuality.

The effects of competition on individuality are equally as destructive.

Indeed, a "culture dedicated to creating standardised, specialised, predictable human components could find no better way of grinding them out than by making every possible aspect of life a matter of competition. 'Winning out' in this respect does not make rugged individualists. It shapes conformist robots." [George Leonard, quoted by Alfie Kohn, No Contest: The Case Against Competition, p. 129]

Why is this?

Competition is based upon outdoing others and this can only occur if you are doing the same thing they are. However, individuality is the most unique thing there is and "unique characteristics by definition cannot be ranked and participating in the process of ranking demands essential conformity." [Alfie Kohn, Op. Cit., p. 130] According to Kohn in his extensive research into the effects of competition, the evidence suggests that it in fact "encourages rank conformity" as well as undermining the "substantial and authentic kind of individualism" associated by such free thinkers as Thoreau. [Op. Cit., p. 129]

As well as impoverishing individuality by encouraging conformity, competition also makes us less free thinking and rebellious:

 

"Attitude towards authorities and general conduct do count in the kinds of competitions that take place in the office or classroom. If I want to get the highest grades in class, I will not be likely to challenge the teacher's version of whatever topic is being covered. After a while, I may cease to think critically altogether. . . If people tend to 'go along to get along,' there is even more incentive to go along when the goal is to be number one. In the office or factory where co-workers are rivals, beating out the next person for a promotion means pleasing the boss. Competition acts to extinguish the Promethean fire of rebellion." [Op. Cit., p. 130]

In section I.4.11 ( "If libertarian socialism eliminates the profit motive, won't creativity suffer?") we noted that when an artistic task is turned into a contest, children's work reveal significantly less spontaneity and creativity. In other words, competition reduces creativity and so individuality because creativity is "anti-conformist at its core: it is nothing if not a process of idiosyncratic thinking and risk-taking. Competition inhibits this process." [Op. Cit., p. 130]

Competition, therefore, will result in a narrowing of our lives, a failing to experience new challenges in favour of trying to win and be "successful." It turns "life into a series of contests [and] turns us into cautious, obedient people. We do not sparkle as individuals or embrace collective action when we are in a race." [Op. Cit., p. 131]

So, far from defending individuality, capitalism places a lot of barriers (both physical and mental) in the path of individuals who are trying to express their freedom. Anarchism exists precisely because capitalism has not created the free society it supporters claimed it would during its struggle against the absolutist state.