2000s >> 2008 >> no-1243-march-2008

Book Reviews

Anarchists against democracy

Anarchy Alive! Anti-Authoritarian Politics from Practice to Theory.
By Uri Gordon. Pluto Press

There are many currents of anarchism; some, often called anarcho-communist, hold political ideas not so different from our own. The course of the twentieth century, however, saw these currents fade, and by far the most common ‘anarchist’ today is the individualist or libertarian.

Because they start from the premise that individuals exist independently of society and that the freedom of the individual ego is the most important thing in the world, these anarchists have always had a problem with democracy. They have never been able to see why anybody should be bound by a majority decision; the individual must be free to ignore or even defy such a decision if he or she wants to, otherwise they would be being oppressed. That would be “the tyranny of the majority”. Some anarchists have been able to overcome this prejudice and try to practise democratic forms of organisation: but not Gordon, who launches a head-on attack on the whole concept of democratic control and accountability.

Democratic discourse assumes without exception that the political process results, at some point, in collectively binding decisions. That these decisions can be the result of free and open debate by all those affected does not change the fact that the outcome is seen to have a mandatory nature. Saying that something is collectively binding makes no sense if each person is to make up their own mind over whether they are bound by it. Binding means enforceable, and enforceability is a background assumption of democracy. But the outcomes of anarchist process are inherently impossible to enforce. That is why the process is not ‘democratic’ at all, since in democracy the point of equal participation in determining decisions is that this is what legitimates these decisions’ subsequent enforcement – or simply sweetens the pill. Anarchism, then, represents not the most radical form of democracy, but an altogether different paradigm of collective action”.

Socialism, on the other hand, does represent the most radical form of democracy. The socialist justification for accepting majority decision-making is that people are not isolated individuals but only exist in and through society, and that when there is a genuine community (either society as a whole or some collectivity within society) the best method of deciding what it should do, on matters of common interest to it as a community, is by a vote of its members after a full and free discussion. Of course the field of community activity has its limits and some decisions should be left to the individual (what to wear and eat, for instance), but we are talking about matters which concern the community as a community with a common interest.

Capitalism resolves the problem by leaving common goods (basically, the means of production) in minority hands, so there is no popular debate about their use; socialism holds these goods in common, under democratic control; the anarchist trend is to minimise these common goods by wanting them small scale and being anti-technology, which as we can now see is more to do with a failure to resolve the democratic issue than a particular dislike of technology per se. Why do these anarchists like laptops but hate computer factories? The answer is a dislike of democracy.

Gordon’s book is an attempt to give some theoretical coherence to the tactics and ideas of the anti-authority wing of the amorphous anti-capitalist and anti-globalisation movement. He openly admits they do not function democratically and is proud of it. They come together loosely – organise wouldn’t be the right word – in networks which do hold meetings with each other from time to time to discuss some activity. But those attending are not mandated delegates from their group, and no group is bound by any decision that might be reached; they are free to take it or leave it. Some do, some don’t. At demonstrations some will give out leaflets to the general public arguing a case, others will throw stones at the police. Hence the “pluralism” which Gordon celebrates but which is really a cop-out

Gordon goes further and argues that no individual anarchist or group of anarchists should be held accountable to anyone for what they do; they are quite free to take any action they like and that is how it should be. In answer to Jo Freeman’s important 1970 pamphlet The Tyranny of Structurelessness in which she argued that the absence of formal, democratic structures leads to domination by informal elites, Gordon says “Freeman’s proposals run against the grain of anarchist priorities”. He sees nothing wrong with some informal group of anarchists taking the initiative, it being up to others to decide whether or not to go along with it. The latter seem suspiciously like followers to us but in Gordon’s eyes they are merely showing “solidarity” with the unaccountable group. He doesn’t seem to realise that the same might be said of those who vote for some capitalist politician or party.

Gordon also discusses other matters such as the attitude of anarchists towards violence, technology and nationalism, which are just as confused – or “pluralist” – as over decision-making. But his book is well-written and can be read on a know-your-opponent basis.


Marx and the BBC
A Socialist Critique of the BBC, Albert Einstein, Amartya Sen and Muhammed Yunus.
By Binay Sarkar, Avenel Press, 2007, 80 Rupees

Don’t be put off by the title; when you read it – as you should – it all makes sense. In 1999 Karl Marx was voted the “Greatest Thinker of the Millennium” in a BBC online poll. Then in 2005 he was voted the “Greatest Philosopher” in a BBC poll. And yet the BBC has always had a problem in dealing with such a great thinker and philosopher, perhaps because he didn’t win a Nobel Prize. In the philosopher contest they invited Francis Wheen on to a BBC radio programme to explain Marx’s theories but he said they were a form of economic determinism, in that economic relations determined all other features of society, including ideas.

It’s a popular misinterpretation, one which Albert Einstein didn’t repeat when he declared to the world that he was a socialist in an article entitled Why Socialism? in 1949 (available online at www.monthlyreview.org/598einst.htm). Einstein’s analysis of capitalism is still broadly acceptable today even if his conception of socialism is not, being essentially a form of state capitalism. Amartya Sen, a professional economist, also has a state capitalist view of socialism but his understanding of present-day capitalism looks muddled when compared with the analysis of the Nobel Prize-winning physicist Einstein.

Sen won the 1998 “Bank of Sweden Prize in Economic Sciences in Memory of Alfred Nobel” (not to be confused with the Nobel Prize, which is awarded by the Nobel Foundation) for his contribution to “welfare economics.” Sen correctly saw that famines were caused by poverty and not an inability to feed starving people. However, he put forward a set of “market entitlements” which were meant to combat poverty; but as this left the class monopoly of the means of life untouched it should not be surprising that this could not reduce poverty or famines.

Binay Sarkar exposes these and other reformist illusions, along with Muhammed Yunus’s plans for “Banking for Peace.” Yunus was awarded the 2006 “Nobel Peace Prize” (given by the Norwegian parliament, not the Nobel Foundation) for his “commitment to the Grameen cause.” This envisaged fighting poverty by lending money, mainly to women, to facilitate self-employment projects and promote women empowerment. But as Adam Buick points out in his Introduction to this book, banking “is an integral part of the capitalist system of production for profit which is the cause of modern wars.” Despite the excessive use of quotations, this book deserves to be in every socialist’s collection.


Guys and Toys

The Real Toy Story. By Eric Clark. Black Swan. £8.99.

It is probably not very surprising to learn that the toy industry is very competitive, is driven by marketing considerations and is threatened by children’s growing interest in computers. However, Eric Clark does add some interesting further considerations.

The US toy and doll industry is a $22 billion business and is by far the world’s largest. Two big manufacturing companies (Mattel and Hasbro) and three big retailers dominate the industry, independent manufacturers and toyshops having mostly gone bankrupt or been taken over. The big retailers include Toys R Us and Wal-Mart, the supermarket chain that sells masses of toys as a way of getting kids and their parents inside the shops. Manufacturers are desperate for Toys R Us to survive, since without it Wal-Mart would be so powerful it would drive down even further the prices it paid to the toy companies.

Toys and dolls are also used to entice families into fast-food restaurants; McDonald’s is now the world’s biggest distributor of toys. Girls are apparently less keen on fast food than boys, hence the emphasis on toys aimed at girls being given out with meals for kids.

Toys are relatively resistant to ups and downs in the economy, as parents are reluctant to cut back on buying for their children. A rising divorce rate helps sales too, as both parents will be buying separately. Yet the toy industry has one great fear: KGOY, kids getting older younger and so losing interest in toys. This has been the case, for instance, with Barbie, the doll that now falls out of favour by the age of six or seven. A rival, Bratz, is aimed at pre-teens and features ever-skimpier clothes. As Clark says, this ‘is all part of the sexualizing of younger target groups for marketing reasons’.

Games are mostly made in the US and Europe, since their manufacture is highly automated. But toy production overwhelmingly takes place in China. This is partly because labour power there is cheap, of course: in the case of one electric toy that retailed in the US at $45, just 81 cents were paid in direct labour costs. But it also means that the suppliers, not the US-based toy companies, have to undertake the investment in factories and equipment and bear the risk of idle capacity at quiet periods. All this has backfired recently, however, with reports of toys made in China being dangerous and having to be removed from retail shelves.

Clark also observes that toys nowadays tend to ‘do everything’ and leave less and less to the child’s imagination and creativity. Under capitalism the innocence of childhood takes second place to the demands of marketing and profit-making.


Peasant revolt
Symond Newell and Kett’s Rebellion, By Peter E Newell. Past Tense (c/o 56a Info Shop, 56 Crampton Street, London, SE17). 2007

Mostly family history is a rather tedious collection of meaningless names and dates, occasionally however genealogical research can provide one with a true insight, a personal link to historical events, thus demonstrating the reality of what would otherwise be just a story. Thus it is with Peter Newell’s excellently researched pamphlet. The essentially economic causes, the rather alarming course of events in and around what was then England’s second city, Norwich, and outcome (none too good) of this peasants’ rebellion are clearly illustrated. All in all this is an interesting and informative account of a little known incident in English history.


Leave a Reply