Saturday, 30 July 2016

Review of Anarchist Voices by Les May

Les May
THE current issue of Anarchist Voices was published last Summer,
and the review below was published on the 16th, September 2015.
In the light of recent violent events at Freedom Press we believe it is
worth re-reading.  Particularly in view of the light Harriet Ward sheds
on the views of Colin Ward's idea of what it means to be an anarchist.
IN his forward to the 1993 reprint of  George Sturt's The Wheelright's Shop E.P. Thompson wrote that the theme of his final contribution to the Socialist League's journal Commonweal in 1889 was unlikely to commend itself to 'the excitable anarchists who were then taking over the Socialist League'.

At different times Sturt referred to himself as a 'Revolutionary Socialist', an 'Anarchist' and a 'Communist'.  He earned his living as the owner of a wheelrights workshop employing eight skilled tradesmen and apprentices.  Such is the gulf between political dreams and the daily reality of earning a living.

Few of the essays in the Summer/Autumn 2015 Anarchist Voices are likely to commend themselves to the more 'excitable' brand of anarchist.   With a sub-title of 'A Journal of Evolutionary Anarchism' this is hardly a surprise.

Most of the eight essays are by people who knew Colin Ward or have written about his ideas, so together they form a memoir of Ward who died at the age of 85 in 2010.

Harriet, Colin's wife, paints a picture of someone completely lacking in affectation and whose chosen occupation meant he had to work very hard to make a living.  No wonder her piece is titled 'Colin Ward:  A Resourceful Man'.  As their visit to Orkney was some forty years ago I'll forgive her saying that the Neolithic settlement at Skara Brae was Pictish.

A long article by David Goodway discusses some of the sources which influenced Ward's thinking and includes extracts from some of them and from Ward's own writings.  One of these dealing with the rejection of 'perfectionism, utopian fantasy, conspiratorial romanticism and revolutionary optimism' demonstrates why Ward's ideas will find a such a warm home amongst less excitable anarchists.

Jonathan Simcock's editorial notes that many people would consider anarchist ideas 'extreme, foolish, impractical and ill thought out'.  So how do you get people to listen?  Christopher Draper essay offers one possible solution to this problem and starts from a recognition that most people are not interested in politics and are likely to be put off by an 'in your face' approach. 

'The Mud Girls' is a fascinating essay by Larry Gambone about a group  of Canadian women who construct buildings and walls from 'cob', an old but entirely practical technique of mixing subsoil, straw or other fibrous organic material and water, which is then laid in courses on a high foundation wall. Fascinating it may be but it also points to some of the limitations of Ward's ideas as I shall argue later.

At this point I had better come clean and explain that I get a mention in one of the pieces because the author used an example from my own experience to draw attention to questions about some of Ward's assumptions.  Entitled 'Dig where we stand' the essay by Brian Bamford is a critique rather than outright criticism of Ward's ideas though it does take a swipe at 'excitable' anarchists!

His examples include a ban on growing raspberries on allotments or 'the billy goat problem' and are unexciting, even mundane.  He doesn't use buzz  words like collective or empowerment, but the questions he raises are nonetheless very pertinent to the question of how Ward's ideas work in practice.

By this time I was starting to mildly sympathise with the 'excitable' anarchists and their complaint of Ward's ideas 'reeking of allotments' especially when I spotted the illustrations for the late Rory Bowskill's article 'All in the mind'.  As in 'Dig where we stand' this includes a deceptively simple question 'Can you imagine and describe what you would like to see replace the nation state?'.

And that is the problem.  Having read these essays I could not discern the 'shape', or what birdwatchers would call the 'jizz', of the Wardian world.  I can picture a world full of argumentative syndicalists and a brutish individualist world, but a comprehensive understanding of the Wardian world eludes me.  Is it really just about allotments and womens' collectives?  Are we back in the world of George Sturt's wheelwrights shop?

How do Ward's ideas scale?  What would a Wardian NHS be like (please don't refer me to 'The Peckham Experiment'), a Wardian railway system or a Wardian response to global warming?

I look forward to reviewing a collection of essays attempting to answer questions like these.  If you cannot imagine it you cannot live it.
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Harriet Ward said...

When I first met Colin in the mid-1960s I asked him what an 'ideal' anarchist society would look like, since I, like the general public, had little more than the mental picture of 'chaos' as a synonym for anarchy (though I had just about heard of historical figures such as Kropotkin who supposedly represented a more systematic version of it). Colin suggested I should think more in terms of anarchism as 'libertarianism': that in every social situation or problem to be solved, there is a choice between an authoritarian or a libertarian solution, and that an anarchist would always choose the latter. After living with Colin for 45 years and proof-reading most of his writings, I still find this a useful rule of thumb to describe political events and to apply to daily life.
Harriet Ward

John Desmond said...

At the end of his review, Les asks ‘What would a Wardian NHS be like’?

Colin discussed the NHS on pages 13 to 15 of his 1996 book ‘Social Policy’ published by Freedom Press. He returned to the subject on pages 27 to 29 in his 2004 book ‘Anarchism’. This book was his contribution to the ‘Very Short Introductions’ series published by Oxford University Press. In both books, Colin rejected the NHS. Colin did not write anything remotely similar to the assertion by Jeff Cloves, his obituarist, on page 9 of the 13th March 2010 issue of ‘Freedom’ (71 [4]) that ‘There can be no finer expression of mutuality than the NHS ….’

On page 15 of ‘Social Policy’, after discussing the Tredegar Medical Aid Society, Colin asked the question: ‘Why didn’t the whole country become, not one big Tredegar, but a network of Tredegars?’ On page 28 of ‘Anarchism’, again after discussing the Tredegar Medical Aid Society, Colin expanded upon his question by observing: ‘Anarchists cite this little, local example of an alternative approach to the provision of health care to indicate that a different style of social organization could have evolved.’

Paddy French echoed Colin’s observation in his little gem of an article ‘Raiders of the Lost Ark’ about the Tredegar Medical Aid Society on page 37 of the April/May 1999 (134: 35-39) issue of ‘Planet The Welsh Internationalist’:

‘The society has … watched as local influence on the [NHS] withered away. In five decades more and more of Tredegar’s medical services are provided further and further away from the town while control becomes ever more remote.’

Les May said...

A few weeks ago someone I had known in the early sixties died. I had read a recent article by him and smiled that he was still the unrepentant Marxist I had known fifty odd years ago. It was simply an article of faith to him that Marxism was the best political system yet devised. I don't think that any amount of empirical evidence to the contrary would ever have made him doubt it.

If we search for evidence that libertarian solutions are better than authoritarian solutions, can we find it? Or is it just an article of faith that they are simply 'better'?

My experience is mixed. They seem to work best when they are spontaneous, have a definite aim and a limited life span. They attract the 'do-ers' not the 'be-ers'. I have been involved with two of these, one in 1988 and the other in 1995. One succeeded in its aims, the other didn't.

The Tredegar Medical Aid Society was clearly not a small undertaking if it really did cater for the (then) medical needs of some 20,000 people. The present population is 15,000 so that figure might be an exaggeration. That is about the size of town I lived in during the 1960s. It had a cottage hospital at that time.

Other than the fact that it was not state run and the NHS is, what advantages did TMAS have for the users? In addition it was not inclusive in that the individual had to join. My mother was illiterate and poor. I ask myself would she have joined?

Will this solution 'scale'? I don't mean 'economies of scale' but does this solution still work when the problem gets larger? I live in a town of about 95,000. If I add in the two adjacent towns which are administratively included the total is about 200,000. What might it look like here? What would a network look like? Would it provide better health care than the NHS model?

Would an organisation like TMAS be able to adapt to our era of 'Big Medicine'?

In the 1930s doctors had a very limited range of drugs at their disposal. Until the advent of sulphonamides, and later antibiotics, there were very few if any antibacterials available. The surgical procedures which were possible were limited.

My brother has had a number of PET scans (Positron Emission Tomography). My sister and two of my friends have had replacement hips, my brother in law has had a replacement knee... I'll stop there! Would a network of TMAS be able to provide this?

So far as I am concerned the 'anarchist' answer to health lies in the hands of each of us; don't smoke, don't drink too much, don't do drugs, don't eat too much and don't sit on your backside all day.

Tell people this and they will complain 'nanny state', but still expect 'nanny' to make them better when they get sick.

Can anyone suggest what a 'libertarian' waste disposal solution would look like for a town like Rochdale? If it got the unrecyclable waste bin emptied every two weeks not every three weeks it would make 'libertarian' solutions very popular in the town.

Les May said...

I have been an enthusiastic supporter of using wind turbines to generate electricity for many years and shown I was ready to, 'put my money where my mouth is', by buying shares in the Baywind Energy Co-operative. I have a friend who tells me that anarchists support wind powered generators provided they are 'local'. We have never quite got round to talking about what this actually means.

In the early 1960s I did come across one very local scheme in the Mendip hills. It used a windmill, as we called it then, to drive a car dynamo to charge a couple of car batteries. My recollection is that we spent a lot of time using candles.

So what do you need to make a 'local' scheme viable?
Robin Hood Energy set up by Nottingham city council is the first local authority owned energy company run on a not-for-profit basis since the market was nationalised in 1948.
The minimum pre-requisites for a viable local scheme seem to be; standardisation of supply voltages and gas pressures etc, a single contact point for emergencies caused by gas leakage etc and a market economy to ensure continuity of supply.