Thinking about anarchism


It is often said that there are two types of liberty, positive liberty and negative liberty, or, roughly, 'freedom to...' and 'freedom from...' This, I believe, is a false and meaningless dichotomy. Liberty is a word that does not describe two things; it describes one singular thing, one single state of being. Liberty, like every word in every language, is a word that has developed out of the need for people to communicate. It is an idea that is in essence interpersonal, social. As Mikhail Bakunin, one of the founding fathers of modern anarchism, wrote "Man in isolation can have no liberty. Being free for man means being acknowledged considered and treated as such by another man, and by all the men around him. Liberty is therefore not a feature of isolation, not of exclusion but rather of connection."

This may at first seem to say nothing new to us about liberty; it doesn't us give a definition of liberty that will be true and valid for all eternity and it doesn't get us any closer to such a definition. However it does remind us of a few things. It reminds us that, contrary to what many people say, liberty is not a matter of being free from people, nor is it a matter of being free to do whatever you wish regardless of the effect that it might have on other people. Liberty is only meaningful when we are free with people. Liberty only makes sense when the freedom of one person does not encroach upon the other but rather re-enforces it. Liberty is not like a cake with only so many slices to go around. It is a human, living thing that only exists in society as we create it; it is a social creation.

Liberty only exists between equal human beings. Inequality implies the hierarchical positioning of one human over another and, as such, implies the subjugation of one to the other. Inequality creates slavery; it is only in a society of equals that true liberty can breathe.

Capital's ideologues

Contrary to what many say, there is no conflict between liberty and equality. The existence of one implies the necessary co-existence of the other. It would only be possible to think otherwise if equality was confused with equation or if it was thought that liberty referred not to the whole human but only to aspects of him/her. Both these mistakes are commonly made by Capital's ideologues. They believe that equality only means either the equal subjugation of all to the State or to Capital. As such, they find any autonomous expression of individuality or difference a major threat to equality. Many then believe themselves to be the great defenders of liberty by opposing equality in favour of liberty!! But their understanding of liberty is shallow and meaningless. Capitalist 'liberty' restricts and suppresses the free unfettered self-development of the individual, the free autonomous self-management of one's own affairs and the freedom that comes with removing fear, state-violence and war from the world. Capitalist 'liberty' does not include the free interaction of individuals associating, federalising, networking and socialising, free from hierarchy and free from the ever present fear of unemployment that so many working class people feel.

No, capitalist 'liberty' refers simply to the freedom to own, to buy and to sell property, people, labour, whatever. It demands the existence of the State-machine to defend capitalist's property and their right to do with it whatever they will. Their 'liberty' refers only to the economic; it does not refer to the human as he/she exists in society.

Liberty & Society

We, on the other hand, as revolutionary libertarian socialists, believe that humans cannot be divorced from society. Humans can only be free in society. Far from fettering liberty, it is people's sociality that sets them free.

Under capitalism, the social co-operation of humanity has set much of humanity free from disease, famine and malnutrition. But it is ironic that it is this same system that prevents this liberation from being made universal. Capitalism has shown us that we can free ourselves of the shackles that nature has put on us. It is high time that we free ourselves from the shackles of capitalism.

by Oisin Mac Giollamoir

Further reading

Thinking about anarchism

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This edition is No85 published in March 2005

Workers Solidarity 85