Anarchist FAQ/Why do anarchists oppose the current system?/1.6

From Wikibooks, open books for an open world
Jump to navigation Jump to search

B.1.6 Can hierarchy be ended?[edit | edit source]

Faced with the fact that hierarchy, in its many distinctive forms, has been with us such a long time and so negatively shapes those subject to it, some may conclude that the anarchist hope of ending it, or even reducing it, is little more than a utopian dream. Surely, it will be argued, as anarchists acknowledge that those subject to a hierarchy adapt to it this automatically excludes the creation of people able to free themselves from it?

Anarchists disagree. Hierarchy can be ended, both in specific forms and in general. A quick look at the history of the human species shows that this is the case. People who have been subject to monarchy have ended it, creating republics where before absolutism reigned. Slavery and serfdom have been abolished. Alexander Berkman simply stated the obvious when he pointed out that "many ideas, once held to be true, have come to be regarded as wrong and evil. Thus the ideas of divine right of kings, of slavery and serfdom. There was a time when the whole world believed those institutions to be right, just, and unchangeable." However, they became "discredited and lost their hold upon the people, and finally the institutions that incorporated those ideas were abolished" as "they were useful only to the master class" and "were done away with by popular uprisings and revolutions." [1] It is unlikely, therefore, that current forms of hierarchy are exceptions to this process.

Today, we can see that this is the case. Malatesta's comments of over one hundred years ago are still valid: "the oppressed masses . . . have never completely resigned themselves to oppression and poverty . . . [and] show themselves thirsting for justice, freedom and wellbeing." [2] Those at the bottom are constantly resisting both hierarchy and its the negative effects and, equally important, creating non-hierarchical ways of living and fighting. This constant process of self-activity and self-liberation can be seen from the labour, women's and other movements—in which, to some degree, people create their own alternatives based upon their own dreams and hopes. Anarchism is based upon, and grew out of, this process of resistance, hope and direct action. In other words, the libertarian elements that the oppressed continually produce in their struggles within and against hierarchical systems are extrapolated and generalised into what is called anarchism. It is these struggles and the anarchistic elements they produce which make the end of all forms of hierarchy not only desirable, but possible.

So while the negative impact of hierarchy is not surprising, neither is the resistance to it. This is because the individual "is not a blank sheet of paper on which culture can write its text; he [or she] is an entity charged with energy and structured in specific ways, which, while adapting itself, reacts in specific and ascertainable ways to external conditions." In this "process of adaptation," people develop "definite mental and emotional reactions which follow from specific properties" of our nature.[3] For example:

"Man can adapt himself to slavery, but he reacts to it by lowering his intellectual and moral qualities . . . Man can adapt himself to cultural conditions which demand the repression of sexual strivings, but in achieving this adaptation he develops . . . neurotic symptoms. He can adapt to almost any culture pattern, but in so far as these are contradictory to his nature he develops mental and emotional disturbances which force him eventually change these conditions since he cannot change his nature. . . . If . . . man could adapt himself to all conditions without fighting those which are against his nature, he would have no history. Human evolution is rooted in man's adaptability and in certain indestructible qualities of his nature which compel him to search for conditions better adjusted to his intrinsic needs."


So as well as adaptation to hierarchy, there is resistance. This means that modern society (capitalism), like any hierarchical society, faces a direct contradiction. On the one hand, such systems divide society into a narrow stratum of order givers and the vast majority of the population who are (officially) excluded from decision making, who are reduced to carrying out (executing) the decisions made by the few. As a result, most people suffer feelings of alienation and unhappiness. However, in practice, people try and overcome this position of powerlessness and so hierarchy produces a struggle against itself by those subjected to it. This process goes on all the time, to a greater or lesser degree, and is an essential aspect in creating the possibility of political consciousness, social change and revolution. People refuse to be treated like objects (as required by hierarchical society) and by so doing hierarchy creates the possibility for its own destruction.

For the inequality in wealth and power produced by hierarchies, between the powerful and the powerless, between the rich and the poor, has not been ordained by god, nature or some other superhuman force. It has been created by a specific social system, its institutions and workings -- a system based upon authoritarian social relationships which effect us both physically and mentally. So there is hope. Just as authoritarian traits are learned, so can they be unlearned. As Carole Pateman summarises, the evidence supports the argument "that we do learn to participate by participating" and that a participatory environment "might also be effective in diminishing tendencies toward non-democratic attitudes in the individual." [5] So oppression reproduces resistance and the seeds of its own destruction.

It is for this reason anarchists stress the importance of self-liberation (see section A.2.7) and "support all struggles for partial freedom, because we are convinced that one learns through struggle, and that once one begins to enjoy a little freedom one ends by wanting it all." [6] By means of direct action (see section J.2), people exert themselves and stand up for themselves. This breaks the conditioning of hierarchy, breaks the submissiveness which hierarchical social relationships both need and produce. Thus the daily struggles against oppression "serve as a training camp to develop" a person's "understanding of [their] proper role in life, to cultivate [their] self-reliance and independence, teach him [or her] mutual help and co-operation, and make him [or her] conscious of [their] responsibility. [They] will learn to decide and act on [their] own behalf, not leaving it to leaders or politicians to attend to [their] affairs and look out for [their] welfare. It will be [them] who will determine, together with [their] fellows . . . , what they want and what methods will best serve their aims." [7]

In other words, struggle encourages all the traits hierarchy erodes and, consequently, develop the abilities not only to question and resist authority but, ultimately, end it once and for all. This means that any struggle changes those who take part in it, politicising them and transforming their personalities by shaking off the servile traits produced and required by hierarchy. As an example, after the sit-down strikes in Flint, Michigan, in 1937 one eye-witness saw how "the auto worker became a different human being. The women that had participated actively became a different type of women . . . They carried themselves with a different walk, their heads were high, and they had confidence in themselves." [8] Such changes happen in all struggles (also see section J.4.2). Anarchists are not surprised for, as discussed in section J.1 and J.2.1, we have long recognised the liberating aspects of social struggle and the key role it plays in creating free people and the other preconditions for needed for an anarchist society (like the initial social structure -- see section I.2.3).

Needless to say, a hierarchical system like capitalism cannot survive with a non-submissive working class and the bosses spend a considerable amount of time, energy and resources trying to break the spirits of the working class so they will submit to authority (either unwillingly, by fear of being fired, or willingly, by fooling them into believing that hierarchy is natural or by rewarding subservient behaviour). Unsurprisingly, this never completely succeeds and so capitalism is marked by constant struggles between the oppressed and oppressor. Some of these struggles succeed, some do not. Some are defensive, some are not. Some, like strikes, are visible, other less so (such a working slowly and less efficiently than management desires). And these struggles are waged by both sides of the hierarchical divide. Those subject to hierarchy fight to limit it and increase their autonomy and those who exercise authority fight to increase their power over others. Who wins varies. The 1960s and 1970s saw a marked increase in victories for the oppressed all throughout capitalism but, unfortunately, since the 1980s, as we discuss in section C.8.3, there has been a relentless class war conducted by the powerful which has succeeded in inflicting a series of defeats on working class people. Unsurprisingly, the rich have got richer and more powerful since.

So anarchists take part in the on-going social struggle in society in an attempt to end it in the only way possible, the victory of the oppressed. A key part of this is to fight for partial freedoms, for minor or major reforms, as this strengthens the spirit of revolt and starts the process towards the final end of hierarchy. In such struggles we stress the autonomy of those involved and see them not only as the means of getting more justice and freedom in the current unfree system but also as a means of ending the hierarchies they are fighting once and for all. Thus, for example, in the class struggle we argue for "[o]rganisation from the bottom up, beginning with the shop and factory, on the foundation of the joint interests of the workers everywhere, irrespective of trade, race, or country." [9] Such an organisation, as we discuss in section J.5.2, would be run via workplace assemblies and would be the ideal means of replacing capitalist hierarchy in industry by genuine economic freedom, i.e. worker's self-management of production (see section I.3). Similarly, in the community we argue for popular assemblies (see section J.5.1) as a means of not only combating the power of the state but also replaced it with by free, self-managed, communities (see section I.5).

Thus the current struggle itself creates the bridge between what is and what could be:

"Assembly and community must arise from within the revolutionary process itself; indeed, the revolutionary process must be the formation of assembly and community, and with it, the destruction of power. Assembly and community must become 'fighting words,' not distant panaceas. They must be created as modes of struggle against the existing society, not as theoretical or programmatic abstractions."


This is not all. As well as fighting the state and capitalism, we also need fight all other forms of oppression. This means that anarchists argue that we need to combat social hierarchies like racism and sexism as well as workplace hierarchy and economic class, that we need to oppose homophobia and religious hatred as well as the political state. Such oppressions and struggles are not diversions from the struggle against class oppression or capitalism but part and parcel of the struggle for human freedom and cannot be ignored without fatally harming it.

As part of that process, anarchists encourage and support all sections of the population to stand up for their humanity and individuality by resisting racist, sexist and anti-gay activity and challenging such views in their everyday lives, everywhere (as Carole Pateman points out, "sexual domination structures the workplace as well as the conjugal home" [11]). It means a struggle of all working class people against the internal and external tyrannies we face—we must fight against own our prejudices while supporting those in struggle against our common enemies, no matter their sex, skin colour or sexuality. Lorenzo Kom'boa Ervin words on fighting racism are applicable to all forms of oppression:

"Racism must be fought vigorously wherever it is found, even if in our own ranks, and even in ones own breast. Accordingly, we must end the system of white skin privilege which the bosses use to split the class, and subject racially oppressed workers to super-exploitation. White workers, especially those in the Western world, must resist the attempt to use one section of the working class to help them advance, while holding back the gains of another segment based on race or nationality. This kind of class opportunism and capitulationism on the part of white labour must be directly challenged and defeated. There can be no workers unity until the system of super-exploitation and world White Supremacy is brought to an end."


Progress towards equality can and has been made. While it is still true that (in the words of Emma Goldman) "[n]owhere is woman treated according to the merit of her work, but rather as a sex" [13] and that education is still patriarchal, with young women still often steered away from traditionally "male" courses of study and work (which teaches children that men and women are assigned different roles in society and sets them up to accept these limitations as they grow up) it is also true that the position of women, like that of blacks and gays, has improved. This is due to the various self-organised, self-liberation movements that have continually developed throughout history and these are the key to fighting oppression in the short term (and creating the potential for the long term solution of dismantling capitalism and the state).

Emma Goldman argued that emancipation begins "in [a] woman's soul." Only by a process of internal emancipation, in which the oppressed get to know their own value, respect themselves and their culture, can they be in a position to effectively combat (and overcome) external oppression and attitudes. Only when you respect yourself can you be in a position to get others to respect you. Those men, whites and heterosexuals who are opposed to bigotry, inequality and injustice, must support oppressed groups and refuse to condone racist, sexist or homophobic attitudes and actions by others or themselves. For anarchists, "not a single member of the Labour movement may with impunity be discriminated against, suppressed or ignored. . . Labour [and other] organisations must be built on the principle of equal liberty of all its members. This equality means that only if each worker is a free and independent unit, co-operating with the others from his or her mutual interests, can the whole labour organisation work successfully and become powerful." [14]

We must all treat people as equals, while at the same time respecting their differences. Diversity is a strength and a source of joy, and anarchists reject the idea that equality means conformity. By these methods, of internal self-liberation and solidarity against external oppression, we can fight against bigotry. Racism, sexism and homophobia can be reduced, perhaps almost eliminated, before a social revolution has occurred by those subject to them organising themselves, fighting back autonomously and refusing to be subjected to racial, sexual or anti-gay abuse or to allowing others to get away with it (which plays an essential role in making others aware of their own attitudes and actions, attitudes they may even be blind to!).

The example of the Mujeres Libres (Free Women) in Spain during the 1930s shows what is possible. Women anarchists involved in the C.N.T. and F.A.I. organised themselves autonomously to raise the issue of sexism in the wider libertarian movement, to increase women's involvement in libertarian organisations and help the process of women's self-liberation against male oppression. Along the way they also had to combat the (all too common) sexist attitudes of their "revolutionary" male fellow anarchists. Martha A. Ackelsberg's book Free Women of Spain is an excellent account of this movement and the issues it raises for all people concerned about freedom. Decades latter, the women's movement of the 1960s and 1970s did much the same thing, aiming to challenge the traditional sexism and patriarchy of capitalist society. They, too, formed their own organisations to fight for their own needs as a group. Individuals worked together and drew strength for their own personal battles in the home and in wider society.

Another essential part of this process is for such autonomous groups to actively support others in struggle (including members of the dominant race/sex/sexuality). Such practical solidarity and communication can, when combined with the radicalising effects of the struggle itself on those involved, help break down prejudice and bigotry, undermining the social hierarchies that oppress us all. For example, gay and lesbian groups supporting the 1984/5 UK miners' strike resulted in such groups being given pride of place in many miners' marches. Another example is the great strike by Jewish immigrant workers in 1912 in London which occurred at the same time as a big London Dock Strike. "The common struggle brought Jewish and non-Jewish workers together. Joint strike meetings were held, and the same speakers spoke at huge joint demonstrations." The Jewish strike was a success, dealing a "death-blow to the sweatshop system. The English workers looked at the Jewish workers with quite different eyes after this victory." Yet the London dock strike continued and many dockers' families were suffering real wants. The successful Jewish strikers started a campaign "to take some of the dockers' children into their homes." This practical support "did a great deal to strengthen the friendship between Jewish and non-Jewish workers." [15] This solidarity was repaid in October 1936, when the dockers were at the forefront in stopping Mosley's fascist blackshirts marching through Jewish areas (the famous battle of Cable street).

For whites, males and heterosexuals, the only anarchistic approach is to support others in struggle, refuse to tolerate bigotry in others and to root out their own fears and prejudices (while refusing to be uncritical of self-liberation struggles—solidarity does not imply switching your brain off!). This obviously involves taking the issue of social oppression into all working class organisations and activity, ensuring that no oppressed group is marginalised within them.

Only in this way can the hold of these social diseases be weakened and a better, non-hierarchical system be created. An injury to one is an injury to all.

References[edit | edit source]

  1. What is Anarchism?, p. 178
  2. Anarchy, p. 33
  3. Eric Fromm, Man for Himself, p. 23 and p. 22
  4. Op. Cit., pp. 22-23
  5. Participaton and Democratic Theory, p. 105
  6. Malatesta, Errico Malatesta: His Life and Ideas, p. 195
  7. Berkman, Op. Cit., p. 206
  8. Genora (Johnson) Dollinger, contained in Voices of a People's History of the United States, Howard Zinn and Anthony Arnove (eds.), p. 349
  9. Alexander Berkman, Op. Cit., p. 207
  10. Murray Bookchin, Post-Scarcity Anarchism, p. 104
  11. The Sexual Contract, p. 142
  12. Anarchism and the Black Revolution, p. 128
  13. Red Emma Speaks, p. 177
  14. Lorenzo Kom'boa Ervin, Op. Cit., pp. 127-8
  15. Rudolf Rocker, London Years, p. 129 and p. 131