Theories of society develop out of social conditions and are shaped by cultural influences. They have been expressed in varying forms of action, by which in turn, they have been modified. William Godwin wrote in 1793 that governments have no more than two legitimate purposes: the suppression of injustice against the individuals within the community, and the common defense against external invasion. Freedom is not something to be decreed and protected by laws and states. It is something you shape for yourself and share with your fellow men. We should refuse to be ruled by the dead hand of the past. We cannot use experience in the present to plan for a future where conditions may be quite different. If we demand freedom of choice we must expect a similar demand from our successors. We can only seek to remove the injustices we know.1
Bakunin believed that political freedom without economic equality is a pretense – a fraud, a lie. He believed that real freedom was possible only when economic and social equality existed. Freedom is a product of connection, not isolation. Bakunin insisted it is society which creates individual freedom through social interaction. Equality means social equality such as quality of condition, or equal opportunity. Men deprived of freedom to decide their own future, means they lose the sense of purpose in their life. Some – the economic elite – are cushioned by wealth and privilege from feeling the direct impact of this process, though they too are affected in insidious ways, but the poor and marginalized experience the imposition of the minimal state in a very direct way.2 The desire for liberation from the dead hand of tradition, can be traced as far back as the Middle Ages.
The Peasants’ Revolt was a major uprising across England in 1381 triggered by the Poll Tax under Richard II which was considered unfair and angered the people as the poor had to pay the same tax as the wealthy. For over 20 years prior to the uprising John Ball was preacher wandering the country-side denouncing the rich and their exploitation of the poor calling for freedom and equality: “For what reason have they, whom we call lords, got the best of us? How do they deserve it? Why do they keep us in bondage?… Except perhaps that they make us work and produce for them to spend!” The King’s army set about systematically identifying the ringleaders from each village that had participated in the uprising and executed them, including John Ball. Past promises made by the King were repudiated and the common people of England learnt how unwise it was to trust their rulers.3
The 17th century English Revolution saw an interlude of republican rule during the 1640s. During the Commonwealth a cluster of radical groups emerged that included the Diggers. Gerrard Winstanley, the Diggers’ leader, decided that it was his mission to speak up for the disinherited, for the common people who had been very little helped by Cromwell’s victory. In 1649 Winstanley published a pamphlet called The New Law of Righteousness which denounced authority of his day, “Everyone that gets an authority into his hands tyrannizes over the others.” Living in an agrarian age he saw the main problem as ownership of land. In the spring of 1649 he led a company of his men to squat on unused (common) land in the south of England and to cultivate it for their own sustenance. The Diggers were harassed by legal actions and mob violence, and by the end of March 1650 their colony was dispersed.4
In 1762, Rousseau published the Social Contract in which he defined the ideal social contract, describing how man could be free and live together in a community. By ‘equality’ Rousseau did not mean that everyone should be exactly the same, but differences in wealth should not imbalance the state, as massive material inequality can put liberty up for sale. The poor would be willing to sell their freedom, and the rich would be capable of buying it. Both the very rich and the very poor would value money more than liberty. Thus, Rousseau asserts, that some level of material equality is necessary to ensure that liberty comes before profit. The celebration of Rousseau in the French Revolution came from the fact his work argued society was formed from the general will of its people. It provided a justification for the abolishment of a government, if it had breached the social contract and ceased to reflect the people’s will. Rousseau’s critics regarded him as mainly responsible for the deification of the State which emerged in the French Revolution, and in all subsequent revolutions.
Claude Henri de Saint-Simon (1760-1825), a liberal French aristocrat, took part in the French Revolution under the Directory. Saint-Simon believed that in a previous stage of historical development, kings, nobles and priests served a necessary role. It was only now, under new conditions, that they had become socially useless. The aristocracy was now an anachronism and served as an obstacle to the new social order which Saint-Simon saw emerging around him. While a defender of laisse-faire capitalism he became more and more concerned of the dangers of uncontrolled individualism. His fascination with technology and innovation lead him to support technocrats, saying, “We must replace the government of men by the administration of things”.5 By 1830, five years after his death, his followers split into several factions. Those heading in a socialist direction built upon his rejection of individualist selfishness and rationalism and his concern for social solidarity and interdependent responsibility. They popularized Saint-Simon’s ideas and tried to make them more attractive to the working classes.
A key contribution of Saint-Simon and the Saint-Simonians was to link socialism solidly with the notion of progress through industrialization. Marx observed that all social systems have a small minority of powerful elites. For Marx all history is class struggle; exploitation is hidden by the political institutions that exist, and the state is a reflection of the most powerful economic classes. Because of Marx’s view of the dominance of the economic factor in the exploitation of one man by another, his followers were inclined to ignore the lethal characteristics of other forms of power. In the early 20th century Lenin adapted Marx’s ideas to support the Russian revolution run by a minority. Lenin installed a top-down control system (called communism) in the USSR. When Stalin finally pushed Trotsky aside and took over power in 1928, he used this system to suppress the populace and industrialize the country.
Hegel claims individuals are in various states of alienation – the tension created between the way things are and the way they ought to be. Once the potentialities of a particular society had been realized in the creation of a certain mode of life, its historical role was over; its members became aware of its inadequacies, and the laws and institutions they had previously accepted unquestioningly in the past were now experienced as fetters, inhibiting further development and no longer reflecting their deepest aspirations. Thus, each phase of the historical process could be said to contain the seeds of its own destruction and to “negate” itself; the consequence was the emergence of a fresh society, representing another stage in a progression whose final outcome was the formation of a rationally ordered community with which each citizen could consciously identify himself and in which there would therefore no longer exist any sense of alienation or constraint.
With feudalism in decline unfair taxes triggered the Peasants Revolt in the 14th century England – rulers could no longer afford to ignore the feelings of the common people. The difficulty with the version of social contract posited by Rousseau was that the contract ultimately bound the individual in one way or another to the state, claimed Proudhon, obligating him in various instances to lay aside his own particular will or desires to abide by the general rules of the sovereign power that regulates everyone. The followers of Marx failed to understand the importance of government format in delivering economic models. The increasing economic inequality over the past 30 years indicates unquestionably that the ‘trickle-down’ system has become socially useless. Proudhon claims that the pursuit of equality of conditions is the true principle of right and of government.
We should not expect the future to be determined by the past. Like Saint-Simon before us, we observe that inadequacies of the existing social conditions are inhibiting further development for many. Let us analyze needs through the lens of the poor: food, shelter and clothing. The first requirement is a minimal world-wide tax to counter the efforts of corporations in manipulating the system in order to avoid paying taxes. This will secure funds to keep state debt under control and provide for safety nets to ensure equality of conditions for individuals to participate in society. The second change is regulation of banks to prevent the manipulation of real estate, specifically, money laundering (30% hidden in real estate) and the off shore “investors” driving up prices. The third change is to introduce the necessary processes and regulation to reduce food wastage from farm to fork. These actions should address many of the injustices we know.
references: The Anarchist Reader (1977), edited by George Woodcock, Fontana/Collin 1 page 15 3 page 29 4 page 30 5 page 24 and
2 Part 1 of 2: The Rise of the New Anarchists (29 Sept 2014) http://questioningandskepticism.com/part-of-2-the-rise-of-the-new-anarchists/