General Idea of the Revolution in the Twenty-First Century

Humanity has had to live, and civilization to develop, for six thousand years, under this inexorable system, of which the first term is Despair and the last Death. What secret power has sustained it? What force has enabled it to survive? What principles, what ideas, renewed the blood that flowed forth under the poniard of authority, ecclesiastic and secular?

The mystery is now explained.

Beneath the governmental machinery, in the shadow of political institutions, out of the sight of statesmen and priests, society is producing its own organism, slowly and silently; and constructing a new order, the expression of its vitality and autonomy, and the denial of the old politics, as well as of the old religion.

 – Pierre-Joseph Proudhon, General Idea of the Revolution in the Nineteenth Century (1851)

We have begun to see the weakness of hierarchies, their brittle rigidities cracked and crumbled by networks of voluntarily engaging individuals. The acuity of Proudhon’s words, the seemingly fathomless insights contained within them, have become more salient than ever, speaking directly to movements like Occupy, Anonymous and the Arab Spring. The revolution, at least in its incipient form, is already well underway, and whether it carries on apace or languishes will turn in large part on the dynamism of the radical message of freedom.

Indeed, if that message is to appeal to the 99%, to almost everyone in society, we must demonstrate the vitality of anarchism as an animate, growing and mixed movement made up of real people with very different tastes, interests and inclinations. As goes the common phrase, “Some of us like olives, and some of us don’t.”

It will become increasingly important to juxtapose the (presently hypothetical) economies to be born as an alloy of those different inclinations with the corporate economy of the present. That latter one, artificial in the sense of being both manufactured and imposed by violence, is a leech on the true social organism and profoundly hostile to its development.

To mature properly, though, escaping the atrophies of malnutrition, each community must, in the words of Jeff Shantz, “forge an organic connection with other communities.” The strength of the state — and accordingly that of the ruling class — depends critically on dividing from one another those whose material interests are in fact aligned, and relatedly fostering among the productive classes a fondness or affection for elites.

As dramatically rendered by Orwell in 1984, this was the phenomenon of the people of Oceania genuinely loving Big Brother, regarding him far more highly even their own kin. Family and community relationships were seen — quite as they are in our own society, though perhaps less obviously so — as threatening to undermine the power of the Party.

During the Progressive Era movement toward a more centralized government education system, parochial schools were similarly maligned as hotbeds of “alien” thinking, as subversive to “the American way.” Early twentieth century attempts to make matriculation in a government school mandatory (thus rendering other school obsolete) are today mostly forgotten. Any and all alternatives to the central current, any pathways existing outside of the stem or nerve center of state-corporate hierarchy, have been attacked tooth and nail by public policy.

Those attacks, of course, have always emerged under the banner of public safety, styled as protecting an unassuming public from the quackery of “marginal” methods or practices. Favored instead have been those “best practices” prescribed by our watchful guardians and formulated in partnerships of our business and government rulers. Any endeavor within the political necessarily strengthens such ironclad partnerships, further cementing in place the “proper channels” we’re meant to genuflect before. The way forward, then, rather than embracing the state’s pretense of democracy, is to assemble, expand and repair what Shantz styles “[p]re-existing revolutionary infrastructures.”

The theory and practice of anarchism, which have too often seemed to reach out for one another unavailingly, are meeting and marrying in the midst of social evolution and a burgeoning class-consciousness. The protests of the moment take issue not with any one piece of legislation, or war, or injustice, but with an entire social and economic paradigm — however vaguely defined the protestors’ issues with it are.

Without necessarily counseling any one program or ideology, solution or way forward, the social organism is beginning to feel its power, readying itself to surface from beneath the burden of authority. But amidst the temptations to hasten the moment of quickening, we should remember, in the words of Wordsworth Donisthorpe, that “[f]reedom is a slow development. It must be worked out on the present lines without any breach of continuity or artificial cataclysm.”

Violent revolution, Donisthorpe understood, was no revolution at all and could only delay “the final outcome of social evolution.” Not only is violence impractical and contrary to the goal of total freedom, it is also quite unnecessary to the achievement of that goal.

Sociologist Manuel Castells has described “a crisis of political legitimacy” currently germinating in the world, rooted in “horizontal networks of communication.” These networks threaten those “vertical” communication relationships that heretofore have dominated prevailing social and economic systems. Where language itself could once be contained — and thus dictated — by a small group of cultural opinion-makers in government and academia, the Information Age has heralded a genuinely “flat world” (which, incidentally, is nothing at all like the brutal, neocolonialism of global capitalism, rhapsodized over by Tom Friedman).

This “new world” (if you’ll forgive the expression) is one in which concentrated decision-making power simply doesn’t work; it never did, of course, but because of new technologies and the now indomitable percolations of information, the state’s thin façade of legitimacy has chipped and tarnished.

The methods of activists have reflected the general trend toward what anthropologist Jeffrey S. Juris calls “the cultural logic of networking,” something he regards as inextricably intertwined with anarchism and its history. Juris has identified at least four concretizations of this “logic” or tendency: “(1) building horizontal ties among diverse, autonomous elements, (2) the free and open circulation of information, (3) collaboration through decentralized coordination and consensus decision-making, and (4) self-directed networking.”

The four phenomena Juris enumerates correspond closely with the observations of other scholars of network culture such as, for instance, Siva Vaidhyanathan and the Center for a Stateless Society’s own Kevin A. Carson. The economic model consonant with the young century’s cultural logic, the one that represents a genuinely radical departure from capitalism, is the philosophy of equal freedom advocated by the individualists of the nineteenth century.

The strength of a freed market is that, unlike contemporary capitalism, it is categorically hostile to hierarchies, to the wagedom and stagnant, monolithic bureaucracies that are currently falsely associated with “the free market.” Free, mutually-beneficial exchange, carried out in an environment absent coercive, institutionally-maintained bargaining power disparities, is an egalitarian force, engendering an economic equivalent to osmotic equilibrium.

For wealth to collect in the hands of a powerful few, trade must be limited rather than emancipated, the free movement of people and goods tied down within deliberate structures. Consideration of genuine free markets in this way — as a means of unyoking the laboring class from the ruling class — is not even unique to avowedly socialist free marketers like Benjamin Tucker.

UC Berkeley historian Annelien De Dijn, an expert on “changing meanings of the concept of freedom,” has written extensively on French radicals (e.g., Charles Comte and Charles Dunoyer) who saw free markets as part of a “levelled society.” Their free market was inhospitable to the idle rich who profited from labor’s toil, a tumultuous and fluid welter of activity that would constantly undercut attempts to exploit or to monopolize. Comte himself reliably railed against the “idle and rapacious class,” setting it in sharp contrast to “the industrious class.” This was a time when the consistent and principled defense of voluntary exchange and legitimate property were considered perfectly compatible with a spirited populism and respect for labor.

Indeed, the extent to which visions of “the industrial society,” one based on rewarding only productive activity, influenced and cultivated what would become French socialism have been amply documented. And just as the French liberals had employed libertarian ideas to condemn the theft of the old nobility, American individuals engaged the free market to strike at the so-called laissez faire capitalism of the 19th century United States. Only later was capitalism confusingly recast as synonymous with, rather than antithetical to, true free markets.

As Professor Christopher Newfield wrote in The Emerson Effect: Individualism and Submission in America:

The free market is not capitalist in itself; locally or self-regulated transactions are compatible with many different patterns of ownership and economic relations. The market under capitalism must do more than exchange, however, for it must form capital through a well known process of accumulation. The capitalist market must extract value in circulation, must prevent it from circulating endlessly (emphasis added).

All people who sincerely wish to see the scope of human freedom expand — who take the libertarian undertaking to be something real and capable of thoroughgoing societal transformation — are obliged eventually to abandon their own aesthetic tastes regarding what a free society will be.

This is not to argue that we don’t have control over what it will be, but rather to suggest that, insofar as our principles represent a radical departure from those that now rule the day, the result of the application of those principles may not be what we expect or predict.

Further, all anarchists should take great care to remember that any and all principles touching upon, for example, individual rights or property systems are merely attempts to carry underlying concerns about human autonomy and sovereignty into practical reality. Certainly notions of agreement, harmony and mutual respect should precede the construction of discrete systems of something like property — as against subjecting those fundamental principles to inflexible blueprints for some fixed libertarian model.

Networks facilitated by technology have given new meaning to direct action, expanding the possibilities of a more free future and opening minds to the potential of consensus as a governing organization (and thus as an alternative to the state). Discussing “the functional role that consensus plays in producing collective action,” anarchist Uri Gordon has stressed the power of the Internet to “allow[] for more nearly equal participation” in the growth of social movements.

The proximate result has been to remove complex social questions from the exclusive control of elites and the inertia of their core set of interests. Society is asserting itself, undeterred by the violent convulsions of a indisposed cluster of tyrants; this century is ours, not theirs. Their rule and its exploitative systems will be a relic of a time when they could keep information bottled in — when they could keep class-consciousness from flourishing. The momentum is with freedom, and the revolution is ours to treasure or neglect.

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