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Interview: anarchism and the meaning of freedom

Jeremy was interviewed by Daisy, a high-school student from Blacktown, in July 2014.

"Hi Daisy, I've done my best to answer your questions properly, but briefly. It was very difficult! You've asked lots of interesting and challenging questions which we anarchists think deserve thorough consideration. In fact, that's exactly why we at Jura run a bookshop and library filled with thousands of books dealing with these questions and issues! I hope you will come in and check them out – you'll find much more thorough answers than the ones I've given below.

"By way of background, I've been an anarchist for 16 years and a member of the Jura Collective for the last 9 years. I'm also involved in wider social movements, including workers, tenants and environmental movements and organisations."

 

1. Why are you an anarchist?

The world is in crisis. Many people just accept this crisis as a way of life. Here in Sydney, the rich live their luxurious lives with their boats and waterfront mansions over in Vaucluse, while in Blacktown (where my sister lives and you go to school) workers struggle to pay the bills, and people without jobs struggle to survive. Across Australia, Aborigines continue to suffer because of stolen land, stolen children and stolen wages. Women live in fear of male violence. A bit further away (but not much really) refugees are fleeing wars made by our government and then being locked up and tortured by that same government. Meanwhile climate change threatens the existence of all civilisations on the planet. Everyone has constant feelings of anxiety, fear and alienation – an understandable response to living within this stupid system of capitalism, patriarchy, government and corporate media.

Any person with their eyes open can see that this world needs big change. The question is: how do we make that change? How do we solve those massive problems?

I'm an anarchist because I believe the change we need can only be made by the people, from below. If you look at history, things have only changed for the better when people have organised and taken action in social movements. Workers won the weekend and the 8 hour day through being organised in unions. Women and Aborigines won many rights by forming movements like the Suffragettes and the Aboriginal Tent Embassy. These struggles still have a long way to go to achieve true justice, but they show us what is possible.

Politicians, political parties and parliamentary politics don't make positive change. At best they are a distraction and at worst they are parasites on social movements. Some individual politicians are good people, but they either become corrupted by power or are prevented from making real change by the nature of the whole system. We don't need new leaders; we need to take the lead ourselves. The Australian Labor Party came out of the workers movement, but it is now a hopeless millstone around our necks, with policies almost indistinguishable from those of the Liberal Party: anti-worker and pro-business. I predict that the Greens will either be similarly corrupted by the dirty game of parliamentary politics, or be crushed by it. The Bolsheviks in Russia and the Communist Party in China appointed themselves the leaders of people's revolutions; they soon became oppressive governments that exploited and oppressed the people. I think it's clear that neither parliamentary parties, nor revolutionary parties are able to solve the world's problems. Voting once every few years, or blindly obeying 'revolutionary' leaders will never fix the mess we're in.

Instead, we need everyday people to get together, make real democracy, and take direct action. Anarchism is a guide to how that might happen.

 

2. What does ‘freedom’ mean for you?

For me, freedom means the ability to realise our potential – as individual human beings and as a society. It means being free from irrational constraints such as prison walls, artificial scarcity or ignorance. (By 'artificial scarcity' I mean an unnatural lack in things – for example food. There is more than enough food to feed everyone in our world, but our absurd economic system makes it scarce for some people.)

Freedom means having the capacity and the resources to make good decisions and live a good life. Those resources might include material things (food, shelter, health) and more abstract social things (such as education, friendship, respect).

So freedom, as I understand it, can only be realised together with other people. For me, every person's freedom is directly related to everyone else's freedom. I can never be truly free while there are other people in jail or starving. Equally, one person's freedom ends where another person's begins. A person who sees it as their 'freedom' to hurt or exploit another is wrong – they have mistaken freedom for privilege. The first person hasn't taking into account the second person's right to be free from harm and exploitation. The first person has claimed an unfair entitlement, not true freedom. This is why anarchists see freedom and equality as fundamentally connected. Both are necessary. Hence the famous quote by anarchist Mikhail Bakunin:
'Freedom without socialism is privilege and injustice;
socialism without freedom is slavery and brutality.'

There is no way of knowing how beautiful each of us could be or how wonderful our society could be if we were able to realise our potential free from irrational constraints and properly use all the resources that are currently wasted. For me, expanding our freedom is the path to that beautiful world.

 

3. What are you currently restricted by?

You and I are restricted by all sorts of things. Some of them are more illogical, unnecessary and dangerous than others. For example, the capitalist system forces most of us to work for more than 8 hours a day doing silly tasks like filling in forms, learning irrelevant information, or making plastic rubbish in a factory, so we can get enough money to pay bills. Some workers die on the job due to poor safety or too much pressure. Most of us have to pay rent or mortgage payments to a person or bank who owns our house but didn't build it. Many of us walk in fear at night that we'll be attacked or robbed by someone who is so desperate and poor or has such ignorant ideas that they're willing to hurt people just like them. These are all unnecessary and illogical restrictions on our freedom.

However these restrictions are also quite useful for some people – the rich and powerful – and the system as a whole. The work we do and the rent we pay makes a nice profit for our bosses and landlords. It makes their lives easier. The fear women feel, benefits and empowers men.

The artificial idea of private property allows some people to get rich just because they own something, while other people do the work. Anarchists see private property as an anathema to freedom. If things like land, houses, factories etc were commonly owned, we would be free to do useful work and pursue our own interests, instead of being restricted to working for the owners and bosses.

Of course you and I are also 'restricted' by other, more natural constraints. For example, the laws of physics. Gravity means we can't jump up and fly. The nature of our bodies mean that we will grow old and die. These 'restrictions' may be frustrating; philosophers will always ponder them, and scientists will work on interesting ways to defy them. But as an anarchist I'm not too worried about them. Instead I'm outraged and opposed to the aforementioned, unnecessary and destructive constraints which our social system creates and recreates. It would be absolutely possible for everyone on the planet to work only 6 hours a day, have enough food and shelter, and stop destroying the climate, if we had a rationally-organised, anarchist or libertarian socialist economic system.

 

4. What emotion would you connect to freedom and why?

Hope. An expansive feeling, optimistically open to possibilities and liberation.

 

5. Is it better to be happy or free? (In relation to Brave New World by Aldous Huxley)

Well, I don't see happiness and freedom as mutually exclusive, but rather connected. I think freedom for all is a necessary ingredient for real happiness. I think the sort of ghastly 'happiness' described in Brave New World is one based on brain-washing, drugs, and authoritarian hierarchy. Certainly there are some similarities with the way people in our society accept ignorance and obedience, and use alcohol and other drugs to cover-up their problems. But I wouldn't call that true happiness. Similarly, people who have the sort of 'freedom' which I've referred to already as 'privilege', and which exists separately to other people's lack of freedom, are often miserable. So what I'm saying is that we all need to be free, if we want to be a truly happy society.

While we're talking about dystopian fiction, I recommend George Orwell's 1984 if you haven't already read it. It captures other aspects that exist in our unfree society – the more violent, 'hard' power of the police and military for example. Orwell was sympathetic to anarchism and fought alongside the anarchists during the Spanish Revolution. He also wrote an excellent memoir of this time, Homage to Catalonia, which I also recommend to you.

 

6. Do you believe there are negative aspects of freedom?

As I said earlier, when someone uses the idea of 'freedom' to justify their privilege or violence that is indeed a problem. I don't think freedom means 'do what you want and stuff the consequences' – that's just selfishness. Many privileged groups in our society are guilty of using this corrupted, selfish notion of freedom. For example, when capitalists and bosses talk about the 'free' market, and 'freedom to enter into contracts' they really mean very unfair markets and very unfair contracts which can only exist because the State protects them with the threat of violence against anyone who disagrees. When a mining company comes along and asserts their 'freedom' to dig up coal seam gas, and pollute the water supply, they are ignoring the freedom of the community to live safe and healthy lives. Luckily, sometimes the community is able to stand up to that and assert their own freedom, solidarity and equality – as happened recently at the Bentley Blockade in Northern NSW.

 

7. Is conformity dangerous?

Yes.

Of course there's nothing wrong with doing some things in the same way that other people do them (in fact it's quite sensible to learn from others), but the notion of 'conformity' tends to imply a mindless obedience to the crowd or to some authority figure. This is never a good idea. Some of the worst atrocities are perpetrated by ordinary people 'just following orders' or 'doing what everyone else was doing'.

The extreme version of the conformist way of thinking is fascism. The Nazis were fascist, as you probably know. Unfortunately, fascism still exists in our world today; in Australia, the Australia First Party is one group that is pretty openly fascist. They recently held an anti-immigrant, anti-refugee meeting in Doonside. We anarchists and other radicals were there to protest. Anarchists have always been strong opponents of fascism and nationalism (which usually go together). Fascism must always be opposed. Unfortunately, many mainstream Australian politicians have also used racist, nationalist and fascist ideas to mislead people.

We should always question authority, discuss things with a range of people, and think critically about 'common sense' and other socially accepted values. Sometimes we might accept that an authority is justified – for example a parent stopping their child running into the road, or a teacher explaining something they know more about to their students. We might decide that the current hipster fashion of skinny jeans, ironic tops, thick- rimmed glasses, reading classics and riding a bike is totally cool (and harmless). We might accept the commonly held belief that caring for other people is a noble activity. On the other hand, if someone commands us to hate and kill someone else because of their race or religion, we should reject that order, even if many of our friends are doing it! Authority and the crowd mentality should always be evaluated critically, and can be very dangerous indeed.

 

8. Where did your desire to rebel against social constructs or circumstantial destiny derive from? (E.g. The legal system and authorities in Australia)

Hmmm, this is a few questions in one. First of all I think the desire to rebel against the sort of arbitrary, irrational constraints that I've been talking about is a very natural human desire. It makes sense that people want to live good lives, without interference by others who would dominate, control and exploit us. On the other hand, the desire to conform has to be drummed into us from an early age through systems of discipline and punishment at home and at school that I'm sure you're familiar with.

As for social constructs, well I think they have to be critically evaluated in the same way as I talked about authority above. Some 'social constructs' are undeniably useful and I would have no wish to rebel against them (and most anarchists would agree with me) – for example language, and music, and useful inventions like the bicycle or solar power. Other social constructs are not useful, except to serve the rich and powerful. For example the atom bomb, private property and the construction of gender as a hierarchy where women are inferior and have to do more work than men. We should destroy those social constructs.

The legal system is a complex beast. In our society it generally serves the rich and powerful. It protects their 'freedom' to exploit us much better than it protects our right to be free of exploitation. However social movements have been able to force some changes on the legal system and win some rights – such as the right to be free from discrimination based on race, gender, sexuality, disability, age or religion. In some ways the legal system reflects broader social values, although it is usually decades or more behind people's real feelings. I think the legal system is a tool (perhaps you could compare it to a knife) which could be used for useful purposes, but is often abused in the hands of the powerful. In a better world I would still want some sort of system of justice, but it would be so different to today's legal system as to be almost unrecognisable. I would want it to be truly fair and to genuinely protect the rights and freedoms of all, especially the most vulnerable. (I talk a bit more about anarchist notions of justice in Question 10 below.)

I'm not sure exactly what you mean by circumstantial destiny, but I'll take it as the idea that our circumstances exert some sort of determining force on our lives. Well, it's quite a philosophical question, and I usually focus on everyday politics, but I'll do my best. Clearly there are some things that shape who we are and are beyond our control: where and when we're born, how wealthy our family is, the sort of education we have, our genetics, quantum physics etc. These things have an undeniable impact on our lives. But I do not think they are all-determining. I also don't believe in any mystical/magical forces of 'destiny' or 'fate'. I think most people would agree that we have some level of control over how we react to our circumstances and the choices we make about our lives. I believe that we have some agency. There is an interplay between agency and structure, and I feel that we have some room to move. We certainly can't control everything in our lives, but we can take small actions that may ultimately produce large effects. These actions can be multiplied if many people do them together. We can look for the cracks and slip through them, to open up unlikely possibilities. And to return to your question, and where the desire to rebel in this way might come from, well, I guess I would return to the idea of hope. I have hope that if we take action, if we resist the negative forces that try to control and limit us, if we slip through the cracks, we might be able to open up a new world on the other side.

 

9. How would hysteria and fear be resolved in a free society and other human needs such as safety and belonging?

Well, first of all, anarchists usually make the point that we don't have a blueprint for the future free society. We can't say how people in a free future will meet all the various human needs that exist (which may well be somewhat different to the needs which exist now). We argue that the people of that society should make their own decisions about the workings of their own society – not only is that an anarchist principle, but we're also sure they would be much better equipped to make these decisions than we are! However, we can suggest that in a free, anarchist society, decisions about how to meet human needs will be based on certain fundamental principles. Among others, these principles would include:

  • recognition of both the value of the individual and the collective;
  • recognition of minorities and vulnerable groups;
  • solidarity and mutual aid (which basically mean looking out for each other and helping each other)
  • direct democracy.

There are also anarchists who are trying to put some of these principles into practice today – even in our unfree society. So for example, (and here I'm going to approach the notions of fear and 'hysteria' that you raised as mental health issues) anarchists have set up co-counselling groups, and other forms of radical therapy organised by ourselves, for ourselves. These models break away from traditional, authoritarian models of mental health, and instead enact the principle of mutual aid in order to deal with human needs. See for example The Icarus Project.

In relation to safety and belonging, I hope you'll agree that the sort of freedom I've been describing (bound up as it is with mutual aid) would actually make us all feel a greater sense of safety and belonging than exists in our current authoritarian society. Like other human needs, I think the need for safety and belonging would be best met through mutual care, rather than for profit as often is the case in our capitalist society.

 

10. Would punishment exist in a free society if someone were interfering with another’s freedom? (E.g. murder or rape)

Again, anarchists support the principle that people should work out this sort of question for themselves in their own communities. In general, we hope that there would be dramatically less violence in an anarchist society. Once every person was properly cared for, sheltered, and educated, we believe there would be far fewer acts of violence between people.

In relation to rape, most anarchists would argue that rape is an act of violence that is a product of our authoritarian patriarchal society. We hope when society becomes properly equal and pro-feminist, women and men will respect each other and share power as equals, and far fewer men would commit rape than today.

However, that said, we recognise that this is a fairly utopian vision, and that in the here and now we need to deal with rape and other acts of violence. Our approach at Jura Books has been similar to that of other anarchist collectives. First of all we try to create a Safer Space. This means a space in which women and other oppressed people in particular, are empowered and do not have to fear violence. In order to do this we have regular discussions about what it means to be pro-feminist and be a safer space; we have a written policy; and we try to explain and promote this policy to people who use our space. We have a survivor-centred approach to dealing with cases of sexual violence. Unfortunately, there have been a few instances of rape within the anarchist community. (Since we live in a patriarchal society, unfortunately there is no community where women are completely safe.) We have tried to respond to these instances of violence and rape in a pro-feminist and survivor-centred way. This means that we do not interrogate or put the burden of proof on the rape survivor (as often happens in mainstream media and law courts). Instead we expect the rape perpetrator to show that he has recognised the act he committed, and has gone through a lengthy and extensive process of change (usually including getting counselling and making amends in some way). If he is not willing or able to show that he has fully changed, or if the survivor is not happy with his progress, then he is not welcome at Jura. To my knowledge, in the last five years, two men have been banned from anarchist spaces in Sydney, and have been publicly shamed, because of their actions. This is a form of punishment. We also support the right of the survivor to take her case to the police, although in general we do not think the police or the State offer good solutions to these problems.

As a rule, anarchists are opposed to prisons and the other forms of punishment common in our society. We believe that prisons are places of torture and extermination which disproportionately target poor people and Aborigines. If you look at the data from the Australian Bureau of Statistics, you'll see that the majority of prisoners are locked up for relatively minor crimes relating to property or drugs, not violence. And Aborigines represent 3% of the total population in Australia, but more than 28% of Australia’s prison population are Aboriginal. This is unacceptable. Prisons are not places which help people. They are places where already disadvantaged people are further brutalised. Prisons are part of the problem, not the solution to the violence in our society.

 

11. Control can be used in other ways apart from politics, for example moral control. In a free society could jailed ways of thinking, in relation to stereotypes and gender roles be demolished or is it impossible to remove them because they are apart of human nature?

You're right that 'control' can refer to many things. One fundamental distinction I would make is between self-control based on your own choices and ethics, and control imposed from outside (usually by a violent, illogical authority like the State). I'm totally in favour of the former – where a person develops her or his own ethics and exerts self-control over herself or himself; it's a great part of being human that we have the capacity to do this.

I think we should base our beliefs on logic, reason and ethical principles which have been worked out, debated, tested and agreed upon with a wide range of other people in our community. I support people's freedom to work out their own beliefs, and to have different beliefs to other people – up to the point where those beliefs lead to oppression of others. So for example, I support a person's right to freely choose to believe in God, or a Goddess, or many gods for that matter, even though I don't believe in those things. However I do not support any person or Church who tries to impose these beliefs on other people, or oppress people who think differently.

I also don't support beliefs which are inherently oppressive to others, or 'jailed ways of thinking' as you put it nicely, such as racism, sexism, homophobia etc. I hope that in a better world, where everyone has enough to eat and is fully educated about history, science and all the rest of human knowledge, people would reach more logical, ethical views by themselves. I hope that people would realise that certain ideas are wrong and oppressive. Already, many educated people are rejecting stupid ideas such as gender stereotypes, or the belief that one religion or bible contains the absolute truth.

'Human nature' is another big topic. The short answer is that anarchists usually see 'human nature' as a broad and changeable thing – a suite of possibilities rather than one defined rule. As humans we clearly have the capacity to be kind or cruel, generous or stingy, cooperative or competitive. In certain contexts, our good qualities come out more easily – for example parents' love of their children. In other contexts, the bad parts of human nature come out – for example soldiers killing each other at war, or high school students competing ruthlessly with each other for a small number of university places. As anarchists we are working towards a society where the whole system will bring out people's capacity for mutual aid and support, instead of competition and violence.

 

12. Human instinct and human nature also have their own physical and mental limitations. Is absolute freedom an illusion?

I think I covered some of this in Question 3 above. Certainly there are physical and mental limits to what we can achieve as humans. However it's equally certain that we
haven't reached those limits yet. Most of the barriers to reaching our potential are imposed upon us by the authoritarian systems of capitalism, patriarchy, racism etc. Once we do away with those barriers, I feel sure that the freedom that we have will be extremely fulfilling and powerful, and that the natural barriers which exist will seem more like acceptable parts of life, or perhaps fun challenges, rather than unfair and oppressive restrictions.

 

13. According to Anarchy, humans are born free. Do you believe we possess free will or are all human actions determined by external causes (i.e. Determinism)?

See question 8.

 

14. How would social order be created in a free society?

You probably won't be surprised to hear that I believe that anarchism is highest form of social order. You might be more surprised to learn that the famous symbol of anarchy – the A with the circle around it, is used by anarchists to refer to Pierre Joseph Proudhon's aphorism: 'Anarchy is Order'. I think other forms of 'social order', for example those imposed from above like fascism, are pretty terrible. At best they are inefficient: like in a workplace where a boss gives orders which are usually either obvious or illogical. At worst, those systems of 'social order' are horrific and violent: the whole point of the army is to create a system in which a soldier will obey an order to kill another boy just like him, without even thinking about it (this point is made eloquently in Ursula LeGuin's anarchist sci-fi classic The Dispossessed, which is one of my favourite anarchist books).

A much better form of social order is one that is based on free agreements between free people or groups, for mutual benefit. That's what anarchism is about. There are some examples which might help to illustrate how this sort of anarchistic social order might work. One is the international postal system: it works by agreement and for mutual benefit – there is no-one in charge but everyone collaborates because it makes sense to do so. Another more everyday example is a dinner party at your house where your friends come round and share cooking and cleaning up and take turns talking and listening to each other. No-one needs to order your friends to behave; they work it out for themselves. A final example can be found in the many co-operatives that exist in the world. These are organisations where people choose to come together to get things done. They share the risks and the rewards equally and there isn't one boss in control. Workers co-operatives can produce things that their community really needs, rather than things which make a profit for the owner. There's an organic food co-operative in Enmore called Alfalfa House, where I sometimes volunteer. There's also the Earthworker Cooperative based in Victoria. They have a worker-owned factory in Morwell which manufactures high-quality solar hot water systems. All of these examples are very ordered, and also free. In fact I would argue that they are much more orderly, efficient and natural than the sort of inefficient, corrupt, hierarchical 'order' imposed by the State or the army. Wikipedia is another, newer form of organisation that has some anarchistic elements to how it works to create an ordered, useful information resource.