Colin Ward, RIP

First Howard Zinn, now Colin Ward.  Zinn was a giant of radical historical scholarship who also happened to be an anarchist;  Ward was a giant of anarchist thought.  His most famous book, Anarchy in Action, was a survey of all the kind of anarchy that already exist, in one area of life after another.  As Roderick Long put it, the theme of the book is “that spontaneous, voluntary, non-hierarchical cooperation is all around us, in the interstices of statist society, routing around authority to get things done.”

Ward was at his best as a historian of ordinary people and their self-organized institutions.  His book Talking Houses is a detailed history of the unconventional, self-built housing — frequently built on land of dubious title and more often than not illegal — that the working poor created throughout the twentieth century.  It was very much of a kind with the housing built by second- and third-generation favela inhabitants in Latin America, and the shantytowns in the near-future America of Cory Doctorow’s Makers.

Social Policy:  An Anarchist Response deserves a place alongside Kropotkin, E.P. Thompson and David Beito as a scholarly account of the working class’s self-organized welfare state, and the war of suppression that both employers and state often fought against it.

Once again, I’m handing the rest of this column over to the recently departed.  Here’s Colin Ward….

* On the anarchist society we live in: …[A]n anarchist society, a society which organises itself without authority, is always in existence, like a seed beneath the snow, buried under the weight of the state and its bureaucracy, capitalism and its waste, privilege and its injustices, nationalism and its suicidal loyalties, religious differences and their superstitious separatism.

. . . [F]ar from being a speculative vision of a future society, it is a description of a
mode of human organisation, rooted in the experience of everyday life, which operates side by side with, and in spite of, the dominant authoritarian trends of our society. This is not a new version of anarchism. Gustav Landauer saw it, not as the founding of something new, ‘but as the actualisation and reconstitution of something that has always been present, which exists alongside the state, albeit buried and laid waste’. And a modern anarchist, Paul Goodman, declared that: ‘A free society cannot be the substitution of a “new order” for the old order; it is the extension of spheres of free action until they make up most of social life.’

* On the working class’s self-organized welfare state: …[I]n the nineteenth century the newly-created British working class built up from nothing a vast network of social and economic initiatives based on self-help and mutual aid.

* * *

When we compare the Victorian antecedents of our public institutions with the organs of working-class mutual aid in the same period the very names speak volumes. On the one side the Workhouse, the Poor Law Infirmary, the National Society for the Education of the Poor in Accordance with the Principles of the Established Church; and, on the other, the Friendly Society, the Sick Club, the Cooperative Society, the Trade Union. One represents the tradition of fraternal and autonomous association springing up from below, the other that of authoritarian institutions directed from above.

* On state-imposed barriers to cheap, comfortable subsistence: What in fact those Pitsea-Laindon dwellers had was the ability to turn their labour into capital over time, just like the Latin American squatters. The poor in the third-world cities—with some obvious exceptions—have a freedom that the poor in the rich world have lost . . . .

You might observe of course that some of the New Town and developing towns have—more than most local authorities have—provided sites and encouragement to selfbuild housing societies. But a self-build housing association has to provide a fully finished product right from the start, otherwise no consent under the building regulations, no planning consent, no loan. No-one takes into account the growth and improvement and enlargement of the building over time, so that people can invest out of income and out of their own time, in the structure.

* On liberatory technology: The very technological developments which, in the hands of people with statist, centralising, authoritarian habits of mind . . . demand greater concentration of industry, are also those which could make possible a local, intimate, decentralised society. When tractors were first made, they were giants, suitable only for prairie-farming. Now you can get them scaled down to a Rotivator for a small-holding. Power tools, which were going to make all industry one big Dagenham, are commonplace for every do-it-yourself enthusiast.

* On work versus employment: The only way to banish the spectre of unemployment is to break free from our enslavement to the idea of employment . . .

The first distinction we have to make then is between work and employment. The world is certainly short of jobs, but it has never been, and never will be, short of work. . . .

The second distinction is between the regular, formal, visible and official economy, and the economy of work which is not employment . . . .

. . . Victor Keegan remarks that ‘the most seductive theory of all is that what we are
experiencing now is nothing less than a movement back towards an informal economy after a brief flirtation of 200 years or so with a formal one’.

We are talking about the movement of work back into the domestic economy . . . .

Anarchy and Democracy
Fighting Fascism
Markets Not Capitalism
The Anatomy of Escape
Organization Theory