An introduction to connections with The Simpler Way.
The Simpler Way is essentially an anarchist vision. Unfortunately the terms “anarchy” and “anarchism” are misunderstood, commonly taken to imply chaos and lack of order or rule. The concern here is with a philosophy of government; i.e., a set of ideas about the best way for humans to organise and run a society.
Among anarchists there is a confusing and sometimes conflicting variety of ideas and not all are being endorsed here. The centrally important theme here is the rejection of any notion that people should be ruled by superior or central authorities. No one or agency should have the power to rule over ordinary people. Anarchists believe that people should rule themselves via direct and participatory systems, such as town meetings in which everyone has a vote. They do not believe that we have to give power to experts, politicians and bureaucrats, of to the state. They are pessimistic about what happens when power is given to a few people. Thus anarchists are strongly opposed to having a state, insisting that people can and should control their own collective affairs via local cooperative and participatory democracy.
Anarchists therefore do not accept representative democracy, because it does not involve all people in directly governing themselves. Anarchists are especially opposed to the state, seeing it as extremely powerful, clumsy and inefficient, and dangerous. It can “legally” kill people, demolish your house to build a freeway, and make war. Only the state can afford to build battleships and organise armies, and legitimise the killing of others. More importantly, the state rules over us, and that is in principle not desirable.
When total power to determine what happens is in the hands of a few in a cabinet, or one prime minister, it is easy for powerful interest groups such as corporations or a dominant class, to influence or capture the government. Governments always rule mostly in the interests of the very rich, if only because the rich and powerful have more capacity to influence, bully or buy government (e.g., via election fund contributions, media campaigns...)
Even when well-intentioned, centralised governments cannot provide for the diverse situations and wishes of many different communities. Very different arrangements and rules might be desirable in very different communities, but central governments impose “one size fits all” policies. Then when some resist the centre sees this as disobedience or a threat and cracks down with force to impose uniform obedience. Bureaucrats have to be heartless and rule-bound, or someone will object that they are failing to do their job properly. Often you can’t get decisions reconsidered properly, or challenge rulings without paying high legal fees. Getting anything done takes a long time. By contrast small local communities can deal with issues quickly, flexibly and sympathetically, and agree to overlook anomalies or bend the general rule in special cases. Governments force their decisions through, often against the wishes of 49%, whereas communities are more able to keep discussing towards consensus arrangements which accommodate the wishes of most or all.
Anarchists are optimistic about the capacity of ordinary people to come together cooperatively to organise and run a satisfactory society. They believe that when there is a need for organisation and action, such as after a natural disaster or a revolution, people will quickly work out what needs doing locally, organise and take action without any need for authorities to tell them what to do. They refer to this as “spontaneity”.
Anarchists say that large tasks such as managing a railway system or flood control for a valley can be organised via meetings to which delegates are sent from local communities, without giving any power to a central organisation. Thus they think in terms of "federations" of autonomous small communities. These might hold frequent assemblies of delegates from various communities to handle tasks that overlap borders. Standing committees can be organised for continuing issues, such as the management of a river valley, but anarchists would not set up a superior authority with power over the communities, to handle such problems. The committees might research the options but proposals would be taken back to all the citizen assemblies to be voted on.
It should be clear from the foregoing that anarchism does not mean absence of order, regulation or rules. It means that all citizens directly decide on what the rules should be. There can still be a role for experts, and “bureaucracies which might oversee a railway system or a river catchment for instance.
Anarchist principles are most applicable in situations where there is small scale; i.e., local communities where it is possible for all to be directly involved in their own government. Anarchists are optimistic about the readiness with which people will become involved and contribute to public life spontaneously if they are given the opportunity. There have been historical cases where ordinary people were remarkably able to take the initiative and organise satisfactory local systems, for production and security. (For example during the Spanish Civil War, and in the Paris Commune.)
Relations with Marxism.
Anarchists in general accept Marx's analysis of capitalist society and its undesirability, but they emphatically reject the Marxist's willingness to endorse centralisation and authoritarian practices, e.g., to believe that the state must organise and control society and that leadership by a powerful and ruthless party apparatus is necessary for revolutionary social change. There has been a long and sorry history of sometimes deadly conflict between Marxists and anarchists over this issue.
We are probably entering an era of severe resource and ecological limits. This seems to make anarchism the appropriate social philosophy, both regarding the nature of the good future society and the transition strategy, because the resource limits will make it impossible to run big centralised states and international economies, e.g., involving much trade, or powerful and well-resourced states. The most viable form of social organisation will probably involve small local communities running their own affairs in participatory ways.
The major criticism of anarchism and in favour of the Marxist vision might be that humans are not capable of self government and need to be ruled by strong leaders, and experts.
Marxists and Anarchists seem to have quite similar ideas about the form that society will take in the long term, i.e., a “communism” in which there are no classes, no structured relations of power or privilege, in which things are done cooperatively, all are cared for, and in which there is no “alienation” and all can have a good quality of life. They differ sharply on how to get so such a goal.
Regarding transition, Marxists believe that fundamental social change from capitalism is not possible without the leadership of a strong, centralised and determined revolutionary party, and that it will involve violence because dominant classes never voluntarily give up their privileges. This is a plausible position and perhaps the anarchist view is rightly criticised by the Marxist as being naēve. Anarchists are more inclined to work to build new social systems here and now within the old society, towards the day when we have replaced it. This is called “prefiguring”. (Note that this is not about working within the systems of capitalist society, such as parliament, to reform that system; it is about trying to build an entirely new social system within the old.)
The crucial difference here concerns the Anarchists insistence on the need for widespread acceptance among ordinary people of the new vision, the outlook that will enable the new society...before revolution becomes possible. The anarchist strategy relies on education and example, and assumes that nothing of significance can be achieved without a long period of grass roots awareness raising. After all, their vision is of ordinary people taking the control of their own affairs into their own hands, and this cannot happen unless people understand the desirability of this and want to do it. Thus ideas and values have to be changed before significant structural change in society becomes possible. A powerful illustration of this is given by the success of the Spanish Anarchist collectives in the 1930s, which drew on the widespread understanding of the importance of cooperative self-government which had been built over a long preceding period.
Marxists by contrast see these changes in mass consciousness taking place after the revolutionary party has seized power. They think the only way to get revolutionary change through against entrenched class power and in a situation where most repressed people are apathetic and unaware, and even believe in the existing system, is via a small determined revolutionary party prepared to act ruthlessly to take power from the ruling class. They believe it will then be appropriate to work on raising mass awareness of the need for a new cooperative etc. consciousness
The Anarchist approach offers the possibility of experiencing and enjoying post-revolutionary social systems and relations here and now, whereas the Marxist can only look forward to this in the far distant future after the revolution. Marxists say the anarchist vision of fails to grasp the significance of power and ideology in capitalist society. They see the dominant class as having such an effective hold on power and ideas that it is implausible that simply spreading examples and arguing about the better way will win many people to it…and if we started to make a difference capitalism would easily crush us.
The Anarchist approach also holds open the possibility of a relatively peaceful transition. If most people wanted the transition it could occur quickly and without violence as they simply moved to establish the new cooperative local systems. The capitalist class would try to prevent this but in the coming era of intense resource scarcity it would find it very difficult to eliminate all community gardens, committees, cooperatives etc.
Kropotkin realised that nature doesn’t need organising by any superior or external authority; it is self-regulating, mutually adjusting, flexible and ever-changing, and is about local organisation, local conditions and local organisms. The members of an ecosystem organise themselves; they are not organised from above. Purchase (1994) notes the Western tendency to assume that order has to be imposed from outside by some powerful authority. God was seen as the source of order. Even in recent history nature was seen as wild, chaotic, needing to be tamed by man. Hobbes thought there would be chaos without an all-powerful ruler. We tend to assume that the police, the state, the UN etc. are needed to impose order.
Thus an Anarchist outlook seems most appropriate for thinking about how to organise good society in ecologically sustainable ways. The focus has to be on the local level, not the centre or the global level. Communities need to organise their own affairs to suit their locality, or bioregion. As Kropotkin observed, in nature there is much self-regulation, cooperation and mutual adjustment among the organisms inhabiting an area. Arrangements will be highly diverse depending on situations and conditions. As in chaos theory, the overall order emerges from the many minute relations between minute components of a system, as distinct from being decided in advance by some authority (such as God or the state), and imposed top down.
Localism is likely to develop a sense of dependence on one’s local social and ecological conditions, and thus to bond people to their place and to ensure their readiness to look after their local ecosystem.
Purchase also notes the way localism enables women’s liberation. The intensely local focus of The Simpler Way would involve men and women in sharing that large amount of “work” which will take place within the household and the local community. Domestic and voluntary contributions will be seen to be very important and this will mean women will not be so likely to be left with low status housework etc. while men go off to the “important” work” in offices.
For a more extended discussion of these debates about strategies for change see Chapter 12 of The Transition to a Sustainable and Just World, Envirobook, 2010, Ted Trainer.
See also TSW summaries, Marx; An Introductory Outline, and Capitalism; A brief critical outline.
G. Purchase, Anarchism, and Environmental Survival, Sharp Press, Arizona, 1994. (This book makes some valuable points but is not highly recommended as an introduction or overview.)