When artists become advocates
The audience become activists
I wouldn’t call myself an artist, but this message captures the best of what my writing can achieve. Worth remembering when it feels like pissing in the wind.
George’s line reminds me of how George Orwell explains his motivation in his 1946 essay Why I Write:
My starting point is always a feeling of partisanship, a sense of injustice. When I sit down to write a book, I do not say to myself, ‘I am going to produce a work of art’. I write it because there is some lie that I want to expose, some fact to which I want to draw attention, and my initial concern is to get a hearing. But I could not do the work of writing a book, or even a long magazine article, if it were not also an aesthetic experience.
Three years later, Nineteen Eighty-Four was published. Art is at its best when it motivates action.
I am an anarchist. Now I’m not that interested in whether you know what anarchists do or what anarchism is – you can look that up (Clue: It is nothing to do with petrol bombs and masked violence), but here I’ll address a much more interesting question: Why am I an anarchist? Or, more precisely, why was it inevitable that I and thousands of others like me should become anarchists AND why will millions of people like you join us?
It starts with a little history…
Why did I become an anarchist? (A short history, 1971-2011)
The story of my inevitable progression towards anarchism begins in 1971, some 11 years before I was born, when Ronald Reagan made the unilateral decision to move the US dollar off the gold standard. From then on, money would no longer be real. This has had serious consequences, not least that banks and other lenders could now create money out of thin air in the form of credit or loans.
And the story ends in 2011, when, like the rest of the world, I watched on as the Middle East erupted into revolution, and then joined hundreds of thousands of people in creating horizontal public spaces under the banner of the Occupy movement.
So why was this progression inevitable?
I spent my childhood living under the rule of Margaret Thatcher (1979-1992). I started going to secondary school, where politics started to trickle into my consciousness, under the government of John Major. The country was struggling to recover from the recession of the early nineties and I remember well the chaos of constant scandals of that long discredited Conservative regime.
And so it was with a euphoric feeling of relief and excitement that I stayed up all night to listen to the election results of 1997. Labour, under Tony Blair, had won a landslide, with a mandate to do anything they could possibly dream of. A number of policies did indeed emerge to check the shocking growth of inequality under the destructive decades of Conservatism: the minimum wage being the leading example.
But then, shortly after Tony Blair’s re-election in 2001, two planes hit the World Trade Center in New York. This appeared to change everything. It is probable that Tony Blair had always intended to intensify his pro-business and anti-human policies, but 9/11 gave him every excuse.
By this time, I was at university and not remotely political. I had my beliefs and disillusions, but I made no attempt to participate in my democracy and I knew no one who did.
That changed in 2003. I joined over three quarters of a million people marching through the streets of London to protest the invasion of Iraq. This was the biggest protest ever organised in the UK – and organised is the word. Unions, students and pained lefties were mobilised by a hierarchical coalition known as Stop The War. It was extraordinarily successful and we were jubilant. But we were ignored.
Demoralised at my first failure of political action, I continued to speak out against the war, but no more. Then the 2008 recession hit and I, like others I’m sure, felt a certain schadenfreude as I watched the stock market plummet. We’d had it coming, with laissez-faire financial policies that encouraged reckless speculation and remuneration packages that rewarded bankers and lawyers disproportionate to their value to society.
Then I watched as the opportunity to restore equality to our society was missed; the banks were bailed out; homeowners and tax payers hung out to dry. Inequality soared.
Still I did nothing.
Then, at the end of 2009, I joined a political movement, completely by accident. I wanted to travel to Gaza, to see for myself the country that I had written about for my masters in Middle Eastern history. Independent travel to Gaza is almost impossible, so I found a group going to commemorate the one year anniversary of the Israeli massacre in Gaza in December 2008.
The whole trip was a farce, involving the Egyptian dictator Mubarak’s wife and a job lot of roses. However, it was led by a feminist group called Code Pink and, while in Cairo, I learnt the principles of consensus decision making and direct democracy. Without really meaning to, I had my first encounter with anarchism.
Finally, in October 2011, I joined the Occupy movement at St Paul’s in London. Here I saw up close how anarchism can bring people together to create a community from nothing more than a few tents and a lot of goodwill.
I saw anarchism create the very society that our new leader David Cameron was begging us for: The Big Society. The only problem for Cameron was that Occupy didn’t look right, he wasn’t in charge and most of the people involved hated him and his policies.
As a society sleepwalks towards greater and greater inequality, the bulk of the population will seek a politics that is based on radical equality, a politics that is based, not on a vertical hierarchy, but on horizontal power structures. That is why I and so many other people are turning to anarchism to address the problems in society.
Hierarchy and anarchism
“Anarchy” means “without rulers”. I have worked in all kinds of organisations, from warehouses to offices, from film sets to human rights organisations. I have ended up hating every single one of them. Why? Hierarchy. I could not subsume my individual existence as a human being to another human being. It bred in me hatred, paranoia and outright rebellion.
This sort of hierarchy is found throughout our society, most insidiously within our own homes. The ubiquitous system of private housing and landlords is a form of hierarchy. Every decision you make for your rented flat is at the mercy of an overlord.
After six months of living in London under a landlord, I wanted to kill myself. And it would have been a small mercy: I was working 37.5 hours in one of the aforementioned office jobs for the sole purpose of paying my landlord usurious rates of rent. I was working for someone else at my place of work, and the money I exchanged for my freedom there went directly to my master of my own home.
No wonder I was depressed. Hierarchy dogged me at home and at work. Now I live in a housing cooperative run by members, with no landlord and no hierarchy. I am empowered to make decisions for myself and for my home.
Why you should be an anarchist too
If you’re still wondering why you should join us, then consider this: Maybe you are already an anarchist.
Think about it. In your favourite relationships, where is the hierarchy? With your partner, who is the boss? With your family, who is the boss? With your friends, who is the boss?
Wouldn’t you rather make all of your relationships, at home and at work, based on true equality? This is the aim of anarchism and it is possible, cooperatives are just one example.
But isn’t hierarchy only natural?
The most common counter-argument to the idea of anarchism is that hierarchy is natural. Some people will always be stronger, faster, more capable than others and these people will naturally become leaders.
This is, of course, idealised nonsense.
Think about it among your friends. There are some things that you are the best at, say cooking Mexican food. You are the best cook out of all of your friends. When you all get together, everyone wants you to cook because you make the best meals. But you still wouldn’t dream of shutting them out of the process. No. You would encourage them to give it a go, to get involved. You would want them to cook because then they’ll get good enough that you won’t have to cook every time. You understand that sometimes you let them cook, so they can improve their skills. And you understand that this is better for the group as a whole. And what happens when everyone fancies Vietnamese food? Are you still the best cook?
But a hierarchy generally comes about when one person or group puts themselves at the top and says: We’re better at everything than you – and we’re not even going to let you try because then you’ll improve your skills and eventually want to take our place at the top of the hierarchy and we can’t let that happen!
I suppose it all comes down to a simple question: What kind of relationship do you want to have with the rest of humanity? One based on inequality, superiority and dominance or one based on equality, respect and partnership?