Sunday, July 6, 2014

Colin Ward's "Anarchism: A Very Short Introduction": Book Review

Given his reputation as a veteran activist and architect, who puts his ideals into practice, English anarchist Colin Ward appears to be an wisely chosen author for this Oxford series. He lives rather than merely studies the subject. Some of this Very Short Introduction's best moments come when he narrates the Green applications and environmental dimensions of a left (necessary to preface this as some capitalists have taken this term)-libertarian, small c-communist (as in controlling a common means of ownership for resources shared by all) version. This is, however, one among many versions of living without coercion under a leader or ruler.

This derivation of anarchism contrasts with the popular version, as well as mythologized black-bloc style which may admit violent means to advance the difficult pair of goals, freedom without socialist imposition of top-down power, and liberty without the liberalism which bows to the capitalist and the State as its masters. Ward's chapters move rapidly if unevenly past main themes. He defines the theory and shows its lineage. He looks to its revolutionary phase from the late 19-early 20c, which for many has soured its appeal up through the anti-austerity and Occupy protests of the present, and which with Bolshevism weakened its clout among some who had cheered it on a century ago. He looks at the post-socialist situation and how anarchy may offer alternatives. He counters the nationalist and fundamentalist drives to undermine progress by secular movements and by those seeking a more equitable society.

Here, although the book came out but a decade ago, attacks on the growing menace of the U.S. Christian Right already feel dated, if familiar as to any contemporary reader. But making anarchism fit today's contexts cannot be gainsaid, for this is the purpose Ward seeks. Avi Shlaim is cited as arguing against the nationalist tendencies towards xenophobia and extremism, "towards self-righteousness on the one hand and demonising the enemy on the other" as history is falsified or fabricated. Certainly, anarchists assert, this is relevant no matter who we elect, or is it those who are presented before us for election?

I found the chapter on prisons worthwhile for its excoriation of the industrial penal system, and likewise that on education offered stimulating ideas. How to break free of places where mass inculcation shuts down creativity and insight remains no easy question in an era of correction rather than rehabilitation and of teaching to the test instead of fostering cooperative, enjoyable learning. Both sections, all the same, lurched about a bit in pace and focus, and ended their treatments suddenly; others in this book show a similar unevenness. Ward knows the subject by living it. But it can be a challenge here and there even in a brief book to figure out why he digresses where he does, given the need to cover so much. This may be rectified by Ziga Vodavic's "The Living Spirit of Revolt: the Infrapolitics of Anarchism" (see my review) or a book anyone interested in anarchism will eventually tackle, the magisterial history by Peter Marshall, "Demanding the Impossible," reprinted in 2010 with an update.

This book's precepts may seem utopian, naturally or inevitably, to many skeptics, but I aver even critics of Ward might find useful suggestions (if they ever read such a book) for reform in both schools and the prison-industrial complex. Like that of the military, these regimens dominate our horizons today, and as Ward shows, small-scale efforts for alternative ownership of the way we make a living, teach each other, care for those who lack a way to care for themselves, and break up the centralized power we live and labor under provide worthwhile points for discussion. The anarchist articulation of individual effort and satisfying work and play, allied to the little workshops and craft endeavors a few among us try to sustain, show that progress can be made. Many of those among the New Left may have defected to the New Age (my phrase) but one can sense within Ward's judgment of the counterculture an admission that such advances come at a slow, difficult pace for those who follow in their wake 50 years on.

Ward suggests federalism, as in the Swiss cantons or regionalism supported as a counter to the EU, as ways that devolved administration of one's work and life may go forward. I cite Ward's quote of Gustav Landauer as indicative of this direction. "The state is not something which can be destroyed by a revolution, but is a condition, a certain relationship among human beings, a mode of human behaviour; we destroy it by contracting other relationships, by behaving differently." (qtd. loc. 160) As Paul Goodman tells us in these pages, the key goal is not freedom per se, for once freed, oppressed people do not know what to do next. Instead, encouraging autonomy, as some do now by passive resistance to coercion and decisions made not by them but for them, seems more sensible. This sort of advice, for many, may better address the need for personal and political change: "the ability to initiate a task and do it in one's own way." (qtd. loc. 847). I hope this helps you evaluate this book's merits yourself. (5-6-14 to Amazon US)

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