Liberty, Anarchy, Property, Democracy and Power by Andrew Gavin Marshall

by Andrew Gavin Marshall
Featured Writer
Dandelion Salad
February 7, 2012

I have had a number of debates and discussions recently, largely through various social media networks and similar avenues, on some issues that are of major concern to those who seek to confront the challenges of the present and construct a better path for the future. So I thought I would take this opportunity, with ideas fresh in my mind, to simply share some thoughts on these subjects and issues. There is also a relevance between these thoughts and The People’s Book Project, for it is the research for the book which has shaped the conclusions and/or directions of these ideas, and which will be supported with historical facts throughout the book(s).

As the title indicates, the subject of this article is: Liberty, Anarchy, Property, Democracy and Power. What are these concepts? What are their historical and present manifestations? How do they interact, inter-twine, counteract, or confront each other? Is it possible to ground these concepts in a wider understanding?

Let’s start with Power. What is power? Power, I would suggest, can be defined as an authority which is imposed over or through an entity or entities, the authority and right to define and direct existence and action. Exercised through individuals, ideas, and institutions, Power can amount to a person’s right and ability to determine the course of their own life, to exercise free thought, establish their own opinions, ideas and make their own decisions, which inform their actions. This, perhaps, could be explained as ‘Personal Power,’ which I would argue is an absolute necessity and is synonymous with autonomy and independence, individuality and freedom. In this sense, “Personal Power” is Freedom. Other forms of power, exercised through ideas and institutions, can give support to Personal Power (through knowledge, action, information, and inspiration), or, alternatively, can oppress and destroy personal power for the benefit of Institutional Power (or centralized/hierarchical power). The power of an idea has the duality of being able to support Personal Power or Institutional Power, or otherwise undermine and oppose them.

So what is Liberty? Many define liberty as that which allows for the free actions and decisions of one individual to determine their own lives so long as it does not infringe upon the liberty of another. Some view liberty as an individual right, and others as a collective necessity. I do not think, however, that the individual is antithetical to the collective. For an individual to thrive, grow, prosper, discover, understand, decide and live free and with their Personal Power to determine the course and content of their own individual life, I think it is an inherent necessity or pre-requisite that collective liberty and solidarity co-exist with individual liberty.

Freedom for one requires freedom for all. Why is this so? If freedom for one individual exists without the freedom of all, their personal liberty (or Personal Power) exists in a vacuum outside and around the collective human experience. One may then be free to decide their own course in life, so long as that course requires no interaction or involvement of others, as those others would not be free, and thus, the interaction would be based upon the concept of one person’s liberty being derived from the deprivation of another person’s liberty, or in other words: tyranny. Further, the notion of “individual liberty” without “collective liberty” and “collective cooperation” in fact, unknowingly deprives the “individual” of the actual freedom, justice, knowledge, interaction, personal growth, prosperity, development, and humanity that comes through social interaction with others. That social interaction is strengthened if the collective (whether we refer to a small community or the collective of all humanity) is itself free and liberated. In this sense, the freedom of others and the interaction and mutual support (cooperation) of the collective strengthens the liberty of the individual: it gives her or him support, protection, Power, growth, knowledge, interaction, information, insight, understanding, material support, inspiration, humility, and love.

To elaborate on this concept, I must admit that such a situation has never existed in history, and that is the point! One may point to a pocket of freedom or liberty here and there, even examine a small isolated island’s experiment with absolute liberty (or Anarchy), and see how such a society collapsed, thus concluding that such a circumstance is unsustainable, unobtainable, undesirable, and ultimately, impossible. Just as no man is an island, no island is even an island, for beneath the surface of the water, it connects with the landmass of the earth below, which connects with all other landmass, all the oceans are connected, and all the people are connected through our mutual co-existence on this planet, whether we interact personally with one another or not.

One need only look at the Haitian Revolution of 1791-1804 to understand how potential liberation becomes absolute tyranny. Once the most profitable colony in the world, Haiti’s slaves (approx. half a million) revolted against the slave-owning class and established the first black republic in history. Almost immediately Haiti’s government became a military dictatorship, designed to protect the newly-liberated country from the foreign imperial powers of France, Great Britain, Spain, and the United States. It’s history has been scarred by revolution, rebellion, invasion, occupation, civil war, coups, corruption, despotism, and poverty. Yet, even in the revolutionary period, a large percentage of the population desired the ability to have a small piece of land with which they could grow their own food for subsistence and live in liberty. Such a situation would have been impossible if the domestic dictatorships were not constructed, as foreign powers repeatedly attempted to invade and restore slavery; thus, it was deemed necessary to maintain a strong national military. However, that military returned the people to plantation labour under conditions which could compare with the brutality of colonial slavery. So what were they liberated from? Surely, an idyllic free island nation of peasants would not have been possible without the military to protect it from foreign empires; but then, the military itself destroyed liberty in order to secure its own institution and provide economic growth in order to protect the nation from those foreign empires. All the while, the people were thrown back and forth, repressed, controlled, and left to the ravages of an historical contradiction: freedom could not exist without the state, which was required to protect the free from those who would enslave the people; nor could freedom exist with the state, which enslaved people to its will to protect its own survival from those who would destroy it and again enslave the population.

So, freedom could not exist without the state, nor could it exist with it. How do we understand this contradiction, how do we remedy this paradox?

If at the same time that Haiti experienced its revolution, freeing itself from all forms of slavery and domination, and giving liberty to the population, imagine, then, what course of history could have been taken had the liberation struggle taken place simultaneously in all the colonies of the Mediterranean, Latin America, and the world; or, for that matter, had true liberation struggles taken place in the imperial nations themselves. If all people, everywhere, threw off the shackles of domination, control, and hierarchical power simultaneously, in solidarity, and in cooperation; what foreign power then would exist to crush the revolution of a tiny island? What state structure would be built without the justification of “protection of those freedoms” through the destruction of those freedoms? Could states at all justify their existence?

It is in this context that I argue that the freedom of one requires the freedom of all, that, inevitably, individual liberty cannot exist without collective liberty. To add to this, absolute freedom and liberty (also known as philosophical Anarchism) is not to be confused with “chaos”, a word often mistakenly interchanged with that of ‘Anarchy.’ Anarchy is not chaos, as an anarchist society is a highly organized and functioning society, requiring cooperation, collective support and effort and interaction based upon the understanding that individual liberty requires collective cooperation. The organization of an anarchistic society is simply not organized on the basis of hierarchical institutions, which deprive others of liberty and freedom, and impose centralized (institutional) power from above. Instead, anarchistic organization requires cooperatives, collective groupings of free-associations of individuals, working together, discussing together, deciding together (as free individuals, not as an organized ‘mob’), and acting in mutual support. When workers take over a factory and run it themselves, collectively making decisions, sharing responsibilities, and taking action, that is Anarchism. It is not libertarianism, or free-market capitalism, because it rejects the concept of the factory being the “private property” of the ‘owner’, and it’s not socialism because the state has no involvement whatsoever. It is the manifestation of workers realizing that they can work, produce, profit, and prosper without the ownership class.

Just this week in Greece, where the State colludes with foreign imperial powers, bankers, multinational corporations, international institutions, the systems of debt and interest and domination, workers have taken control of a hospital in light of the government’s austerity measures to cut health care spending. They are reaching out to the community for support, and make decisions through a workers’ assembly. The hospital workers recognize that the services of health care are essential for the benefit of the people, and regardless of the decisions or excuses of the state, the banks, the IMF, the EU, or any other hierarchical institution of power, its services are needed, and those that provide the services are the workers at the hospital, not its managers, owners, financiers (whether public or private). So the workers take control, and reach out to the community for direct support, as the community will receive the benefits of the health care. They simply remove the elites from the picture. No doubt such efforts will be trampled, destroyed, opposed, oppressed, and erased from history. Nothing is more dangerous to elites than the threat of a good example. Even though many of these experiments have and likely will have failures, flaws, problems, or be crushed, the examples should be noted and the attempts continued to be made. For as more take notice, as more take action, more examples arise, spreading out like ripples from a drop of water into a puddle, and in time, people everywhere may be attempting the same or similar actions, perfecting (or at least bettering) the specifics, addressing the flaws, learning from the mistakes, improving the effects, including wider communities in the actions, generating international solidarity and support… and, through time, struggle, and effort, all hierarchical power structures everywhere would be struggling against the widening wave of people working together in making elite dominated structures irrelevant.

This is not a process that can be accomplished simply through workers taking control of their own work places, however. It will no doubt be a long, arduous, conflicting, challenging, and painful process, marked by flaws, failures, but driven by persistence, possibility, necessity, and humanity. In this sense, and elaborating on the earlier example of Haiti in explaining my understanding of ‘liberty’ (requiring the freedom of all for the freedom of one), I must also acknowledge that never before has this been possible on a global scale.

Today, and in the course of this century, however, it is possible. We are already globally becoming more interconnected through communication, information, and interaction, largely as a result of the Internet, which allows people in most places of the world to interact with others around the world on a person-to-person basis, not through a lens of power. Previously, unless you had the ability to travel everywhere in the world, one in North America could only view others in Africa, for example, through a lens of power: through the media, the government, educational institutions, industry, popular culture, and through ideas which ‘trickle down’ from hierarchical institutions. Now, however, we have the ability to communicate directly with those around the world who have the same means of communication, to talk to them directly, see them on camera, to listen to their knowledge and learn from it. Indeed, this is of the utmost necessity.

Many critical thinkers, activists, alternative media, and people’s movements in the West operate on the assumption that we have the answers to the problems of the world, and we simply need to spread “our” message to the rest (first to the rest of our domestic society and then the rest of the world) in order to obtain our concept of “liberation” and “freedom.” These activists, intellectuals, critics, and others alike are missing a critical component, however (and that is to say, not ALL of them are missing this, but rather as a general observation): as we are just now grumbling awake from our long consumer-imposed slumber of consent to the system of domination over us, largely galvanized by information exposed to us through the Internet and social media, we should, in fact, consult, discuss, and most importantly – LISTEN – to those who have been aware of the domination of the world, who have been subjected to the brutal blunt force of empire, oppression, and control for hundreds of years. It is of the absolute necessity that for us in the Western industrial nations to be able to move forward and build a new vision of society, we must first interact with, listen to, and learn from those who have been living under (and SURVIVING through!) the brutality and ruthless oppression of the empires that emanate from our comfortable living conditions. These are the other 6 billion people on earth. Without their voices being heard, listened to, understood, contemplated, and EMPOWERED, all action will be without informed understanding.

On a simple historical note, we also owe it to the peoples of Africa, Asia, the Middle East, Latin America and elsewhere to give them voice as we speak and discover our own, to listen to them as we speak for others, to learn from them as we educate ourselves. We owe it to the rest of the world, for, without our misplaced consent to our nations and the ignorance of our true ruling systems and structures that we have for so long submitted to, the oppression, domination, destruction, impoverishment, murder, genocide, and dehumanization of the other people on this planet would not have been possible. Yes, we were and are lied to. But that does not absolve us of the responsibility to remedy the lies through seeking new truths. If we push ahead without moving alongside those we have – knowingly or unknowingly – pushed down and kept back, we move forward in a superficial sense. If we propose revolution for ourselves, but leave the rest out of our understanding, ideas, and actions, we doom our own revolutions (whether ideological, philosophical, or physical) to absolute failure. Importantly, our interactions with the colonized peoples of the world cannot consist of dictating TO, but learning FROM. We can begin in our own nations, where our displaced indigenous populations have been subjected to 500 years of domination, empire, genocide, and oppression… and yet, they survive, move forward; they act and seek change, they generate ideas and support each other. This has been the source of their strength in solidarity with one another. And while it is a long way to reach a better place, as most of these communities suffer currently a greater deprivation than most people in our modern societies, imagine the prospects and possibilities not only for them, but for everyone, if the population as a whole started to speak to, listen to, learn from, and act with indigenous communities, poor communities, disenfranchised peoples, and other oppressed and dominated and segregated people the world over.

Until we begin to remedy the flaws in our own social existence, which have been constructed around us and with our tacit if not apathetic participation and acquiescence, flaws that support segregation, isolation, division, exclusion, and domination, we will not move forward in any true, honest, and hopeful way. There is a fundamental and logical idea about segregation which is often overlooked without a thought: that the segregation of one individual or group from the rest, automatically entails the segregation of all. When issues of segregation are discussed, it often points to the community being “segregated” – whether it is a specific race, gender, the disabled, “mentally ill”, “criminals”, etc. – and presents them, alone, as being “segregated.” However, this passes over the notion that the wider community is itself segregated from whatever group is being excluded. Thus, apartheid was as much about keeping the black South Africans excluded from society as it was about keeping the whites excluded from the black population. Thus, the whites do not benefit from the knowledge, growth, development, inspiration, understanding, and existence that comes with interaction from the wider segments of society; just as the blacks were deprived of the benefits of the rest of society (to a much more oppressive degree, I might add). Physical separation augments this process of segregation, whether it exists with prisons, mental hospitals, ghettos, slums, in  schools, or with walls, fences, roads, etc. Thus, the segregation or exclusion of one – whether an individual or group – automatically entails the segregation and exclusion of all.

To move forward in any meaningful way, we must address this issue, this fact of our social existence, and begin to deconstruct it in order to achieve a greater inclusion, expand the collective community, and thus, expand collective knowledge, understanding, and experience, which in turn, will inform collective action. This long, painful, and challenging process is what is required, however, to achieve a global philosophical revolution, which would make irrelevant any immediate, narrow, and isolated concept of a “physical revolution” in usurping power, which simply turns into another form of tyranny. A philosophical revolution, however, should be the goal for people – individually and collectively, one which cannot be imposed from above, but which must build and grow from below, like a seedling in dirt, sprouting upwards and outwards into the sunlight and slowly growing tall and proud and into a strong, sturdy tree, which in turn blossoms flowers and seeds for future growth. The philosophical revolution will establish the collective understanding that is required to inform action and to create a new society.

In this sense, we are not yet ready for firm “solutions” in terms of stating flatly: this policy, this law, this structure, this system, this constitution, this state, this idea WILL work. There will be trial and error, but we already have a long human history to learn from and move forward with. It is this history, not simply of our narrow society or nation (itself being a false historical construct), but of the collective human history and experience, which can inform our present understanding, and which will come to inform our future ideas and actions as our collective interaction grows and develops into something more concrete and inclusive. And before my own hypocrisy is pointed out, in saying that I have already advocated Anarchism as a “solution” and then say that we cannot advocate solid “solutions” at present, Anarchism is more a process than a product. There have been anarchist movements and experiments in history, most of which were brutally crushed. During the Russian Revolution, there was not simply the Bolsheviks (Communists) and the liberal-tsarist supporters (Whites), but there were also anarchist communities, which were crushed by both the other factions. The Spanish Civil War saw perhaps the largest explosion of anarchism in modern history, which was collectively crushed by Communists, Fascists, and Democratic State-Capitalist societies, all seeking their own interests. Anarchism does not abide by a strict set of “rules” or “regiments” or constructs for what such a society would entail, look like, or how it would manifest itself. It is an incredibly diverse philosophical realm based upon an opposition to hierarchical authority, upon the principle that centralized-institutionalized power cannot be assumed as just, but must justify itself, and if it cannot, it must be abolished; that people flourish best when free. A common term often interchanged with anarchism is: “libertarian socialism,” which may seem a contradiction, but, as explained by anarchist philosopher, Mikhail Bakunin: “We are convinced that freedom without Socialism is privilege and injustice, and that Socialism without freedom is slavery and brutality.”

In this sense, I think anarchism gets to the root ideals of both socialism and libertarianism. Socialism seeks the benefit for the many, libertarianism seeks liberty for the individual. As separate ideologies, they are opposed to one another, engaged in a constant struggle for identity and superiority. In the realm of anarchism, what was once oppositional ideas becomes mutually supporting: to link the collective good with individual liberty, and to suggest that individual good requires collective liberty. Thus, socialism without the state, libertarianism without private property. After all, how could state socialism benefit the majority if it functions through the centralization of authority? If it functions for a time, how long until the weaknesses inherent in institutional power destroy the ideals upon which it justifies itself (namely, that it attracts the wrong type of people to it, those who want to wield power, and who are more likely to rise through institutionalized power simply because they will do anything to do so)?

When it comes to libertarian philosophy, where a small state is desired, and a “free market” economy is favoured, where private property is sacrosanct and individual liberty is the ideal; how can such a society exist within the context of a state, within the context of corporations, which are themselves constructs of the state? Corporations will exist, grow, dominate, and naturally seek to infuse themselves with the State, support its growth, which then will support their growth (as it does today in our State Capitalist societies), and at the expense of everyone else. Thus, we are left with corporate tyranny, or State Capitalism, the very thing we have today in Western societies. The principle of private property, elevated to holy and untouchable heights by libertarians (who refuse to even QUESTION private property), is viewed as a central foundation and necessity for a libertarian society. In their version of history, private property was viewed as the means to liberty from historical monarchical and feudal societies, where the state dominated land and property. Indeed, this change took place, where the “rights” of private property were guaranteed. However, they served the narrow interests of the new capitalist class that developed at the time. What was defined AS private property, also changed through history, and continues to. At one time, humans were considered private property: this was called slavery. Today, our very genes, cell structures, biology, life force, environment, atmosphere, and all material existence is increasingly being defined as “private property” so that corporation may come to OWN the RIGHTS to life, itself.

An early anarchist thinker once declared, “Property is theft.” Indeed, the concept of private property in libertarian thinking can lay the basis for a free society, as, in principle, it allows for individuals to own their own individual property, free from the control of outside forces, specifically, the state. Unfortunately, this is not the world we live in. As private property became a “right” for the emerging capitalist classes hundreds of years ago, the wider populations did not receive the benefits. In fact, where once they worked and laboured on the lands of the state and king, they then worked on the lands of the private businesses and industries. In time, they became property, and were bought and sold. Eventually, formal slavery transformed into wage-slavery, where workers “leased” their labour for hourly pay, and continued to struggle in a much-deprived existence, while those who OWN the industries and land, whether private or public, profit at the expense of the people. The “principle” of private property liberated in as much as it liberated an emerging elite from an old elite; it did, however, continue to deprive the many, who could own or simply exist on and make use of land and resources collectively, not for short-term profit, nor for the State’s reaffirmation of control, but for the wider benefit of all people, individually and collectively, and as such, the land and resources would be used wisely and with a long-term approach to not plundering the earth upon which all communities and peoples depend: something that neither states nor private enterprise is capable of.

Thus, I view anarchism – or libertarian socialism – not as a “single” idea of a “solution”, a society-to-be, but rather an approach to moving forward which removes the barriers that currently exist between people: institutional power, hierarchical authority, segregation, exploitation, exclusion, domination and oppression. Whatever society results would come through trial and error, experience, effort, small successes and large failure, collective action informed by collective understanding; growth not separately, but together, collectively. I cannot even imagine the structure or form of such a future society, though there are many possibilities, many ideas, many suggestions, but ultimately, it is unknown, unstructured, undefined. In this sense, anarchy is, I would argue, the best means of an approach to moving forward, for it is a uniting force for the people (such as finding the common ground between libertarians and socialists), from which knowledge and growth can occur, without which a true global change cannot take place. As such, anarchy is the only true, direct and intrinsic form of democracy, where it would truly be a society “of the people, by the people, and for the people.” What results, is for posterity to determine, but far from imposing a single idea of what we should replace our current society with, it instead sets out a method of discovering that process for ourselves, collectively and individually.

Anarchists, then, can also be seen as highly pragmatic, as has been the case historically. For example, all anarchist thought generally rejects the legitimacy of the State; however, some strands of anarchist thought accepted the necessity of ‘national liberation’ struggles as a stepping stone to a larger global liberation struggle. Anarchists have been known to modify tactics, ideas, approach, and understanding as the circumstances demand. It is a philosophy of patience, but persistence. It holds to ideals, questions, and particular understandings regarding hierarchy, institutions, and power; but allows for actions to maneuver within the existing present circumstances, knowing that all cannot come at once, but that things will come and go in stages, that the march to progress is slow and hard, and that we should support others who march, whether or not we endorse their specific philosophy (say, for example, nationalism).

Many critical American activists, alternative media, politicians and others make up what some refer to as the “American Awakening,” opposing the government, corporate tyranny, empire and other similar facets of the modern society. But a large degree of these individuals and groups espouse highly nationalistic rhetoric, firmly attach themselves to libertarianism (to the degree that is becomes a blind faith situation), and endorse popular myths of the national history: that America was once a great beacon of freedom, and then outside or other forces turned it into what it is today. America is where it is today because of where it was when it was created. A person gets sick because their immune system is weak. America became the most powerful and oppressive empire in the world because of the weaknesses inherent in its form, structures, institutions, and ideologies throughout its history. If we do not reconcile with our own histories, we do not move forward, but try to jump back to a myth of a time that never actually existed in reality.

We see the factions of the American Awakening in the Tea Party and the Occupy Movement, one generally representing the right, libertarian-leaning faction, and the other the left-leaning more socialist faction (admittedly a very wide generalization, considering the immense diversity that exists within the movements, especially the Occupy movement). They become opposed to one another, struggle against the interests of one another, and demonize each other. As they fight and divide, institutional and hierarchical power centralizes and grows. As they fight one another, they weaken one another; as they weaken each other, the power over top grows and strengthens, and it may more easily co-opt, control, or destroy the resistance movements. These are symptoms of a growing awakening, yes, but they are not the “answers.” As we mature and move forward, we must find common ground to unite the factions against common challenges.

The Tea Party and the Occupy Movement both have a distrust of state and corporate power as it exists and functions in today’s context. It is, rather, their solutions and interpretations of power that divide them. But as anarchism has shown, there is mutual ground to stand upon. Thus, anarchism provides a stronger foundation upon which people may come together and move forward collectively, but this requires the willingness and ability of all parties, whether right, left, middle, socialist, communist, libertarian, or staunch anarchist, to allow for practical and strategic capitulations, in both ideology and action. Through finding common ground to stand on and work together in moving forward, there will be immense opportunities and indeed, inevitability of learning and growing and evolving – philosophically and otherwise – through such cooperation and mutual capitulation, for such an experience would inevitably lead to important lessons and understandings that all parties involved would not be privy to otherwise, had they remained fractured, factionalized, segregated from one another.

It is through this process that people may discover their true power, Personal and Collective. In doing so, they will inevitably deprive institutional forms of power from their own positions and hierarchies. Ultimately, I think this process will be one of the major features of the 21st century, stretching well into this century, if not to the end of it. Just as in all things, there is a perpetual search for and attainment of some sort of balancing force in the world: on the one hand, people will have to come together and create a global philosophical revolution as a precondition for and resulting from the struggle of global liberation and absolute freedom for all peoples on earth from all forms of domination; and, on the other hand, institutional and hierarchical power is seeking to globalize and centralize and dominate on a truly global scale as never before seen, more removed from the many, more controlled by the few, and more dehumanizing than any and every form of tyranny before. Indeed, it may be that it will only be this process of the globalization of power and domination which provides the collective experience necessary to spur on a global philosophical revolution. The interesting fact is that never before in human history have either of these processes been truly possible until today: global domination or global liberation. Both, moreover, are advanced by the same socially transformative process: the Technological Revolution. This is the modern form of the historical human revolutions which brought about the Stone Age and organized human society. In this context, humanity is now emerging from its historical adolescence, where we have always had, and to some degree required, some form of authority telling us how to think, what to do, how to act, who to be; but now, it is time to become an adult: to become autonomous, free, independent, and liberated.

It must be freedom for all, or freedom for none.

Andrew Gavin Marshall is an independent researcher and writer based in Montreal, Canada, writing on a number of social, political, economic, and historical issues. He is also Project Manager of The People’s Book Project. He is also the host of a podcast show, “Empire, Power, and People” in cooperation with Boiling Frogs Post.

from the archives:

Is Chomsky an Anarchist?

Noam Chomsky: Libertarian Socialism + The Relevance of Anarcho-syndicalism (1976)