Spirals of Hope

Winter Oak Press have just brought out a series of free mini-booklets called Winter Oak Branches of Knowledge. The fourth of these is adapted from the final chapter of my new book The Stifled Soul of Humankind and is called Spirals of Hope. Here is the text, reposted from the Winter Oak site:

Deep anxiety is a common personal reaction to the world stripped of meaning and authenticity in which we find ourselves today. One solution proposed for this crisis of the spirit is to “live in the Now” and thus put into some kind of distant perspective the nagging confusions of our contemporary society, to root oneself in the physical reality of each moment, finding a firm foundation in the sensations of looking, listening, breathing, walking, eating.

But, while an obsessive nostalgia for the past is clearly unhealthy for any individual, so is the addiction to the present moment that results from living excessively in the Now. It encourages a drifting and passive kind of experience. Despite the intention of shedding the ambitious and anxious ego, the Now personality can become selfish, glorying in the irresponsible spontaneity of its own eternally present tense. It may manage to avoid anxiety in this way, but only by ignoring the fact that anxiety is a symptom. The root causes of the problem are simply ignored and any real remedial action indefinitely postponed.

What applies to the individual also applies to the macrocosm of society. Collectively we are also tempted to retreat into living purely in the Now, in the face of the disorientating storm of anxieties swirling around us. Living perpetually in the present tense of the News, we simply respond intuitively to the stimuli it offers, find ourselves carried along from one issue to the next. Attempts to reach a deeper long-term understanding of our collective predicament are made virtually impossible by the constant white noise generated by accounts of history serving the interests of the status quo. Sometimes it’s merely the sheer amount of irrelevant detail that makes it difficult to make out any real shape to what’s been happening to humankind, but often these accounts are deliberately misleading. 

Los Amigos de Ludd write that capitalism imposes its own reality by “reducing History to a succession of stages in the fulfilment of its own dogma, and the past to a skeleton of concepts and abstractions”. Michael Löwy argues that reality has been obscured by a modern mindset which “sees the movement of history as a continuum of constant improvements, of irreversible evolution, of growing accumulation, of beneficial modernisation for which scientific and technological progress provides the motor”.

In contrast to this official story of Progress are visions such as Walter Benjamin’s famous imagining of the angel of history, as inspired by Paul Klee’s painting Angelus Novus. “His face is turned towards the past,” explains Benjamin. “Where we perceive a chain of events, he sees one single catastrophe which keeps piling wreckage upon wreckage and hurls it in front of his feet. The angel would like to stay, awaken the dead, and make whole what has been smashed. But a storm is blowing from Paradise; it has got caught in his wings with such violence that the angel can no longer close them. This storm irresistibly propels him into the future to which his back is turned, while the pile of debris before him grows skyward. This storm is what we call progress”.

Like Benjamin, we need to be able to step back from the frantic ever-changing detail of the Now and see that it is part of a much broader and more significant scenario. What we will see is a humanity dispossessed, a society in which freedom, autonomy, creativity, culture, and the spirit of collective solidarity have been deliberately suffocated by a ruthlessly violent and exploitative elite hiding behind the masks of Authority, Property, Law, Progress and God.

Such enslavement of humankind should be enough to incite the desire for change, but there is, in addition to all this, another factor: this capitalist industrial civilization is also killing the planet. The situation could hardly be more urgent and yet our culture barely responds, shows no sign of changing. The core problem is perhaps that our society is no longer alive and you can’t expect much in the way of response from a corpse! Our so-called democracy is a sham, the people disempowered and cowed into submission by Authority and there is therefore no obvious way that the majority can influence the direction society takes, even on detailed points, let alone issues of fundamental importance.

However, it is important to remember that this sensation of powerlessness is all part of the psychological trickery used by the authorities to ensure our compliance with the continuing status quo. Living collectively in the Now, we are blinded not only to the past, but to the future. More specifically, we have become convinced that just as Progress has inevitably brought us to where we are today, so it must continue to take us to wherever it must lead. We are taught that the future is essentially pre-determined, according to the historical laws which we are told have shaped our world, and there is nothing we can do about it. This lie has even come to be accepted by radical opponents of industrial capitalism, who insist that the best we can do is to adapt to the grim future that will inevitably be delivered to us by the system.

In truth, there was nothing inevitable about the way our society has turned out. It has taken centuries of repression to impose the will of a sociopathic elite on the population. That repression continues today, along with the possibility that it will fail to hold us down. Seen from our enemies’ point of view, there is nothing inevitable about the continuation of their system at all. They live in constant fear of losing control, of being overwhelmed by the sheer numbers of the lawless mob. That is why they devote so much time and energy to feeding us lies, locking us up, acting out the theatre of Authority, sending in riot cops and armies to put down any signs of resistance to their global slave-labour system.

“Now is the moment for us to explode the ultimate lie with which we have been brainwashed – that we are powerless”

We are living in an age when many of the illusions of Authority are falling away and many millions of people across the world are seeing the truth behind the false constructs which prop it up. Cynicism is rife but we seem to have stopped there, balanced on the point of no longer believing in the system but unwilling to go any further, to take the final step into outright resistance. Now is the moment for us to explode the ultimate lie with which we have been brainwashed – that we are powerless.

The first step is to understand how it is that we have been duped, how we have been reduced to a state of psychological submission. Then we have to rediscover within ourselves the vital spirit that makes us strong, the sense of collective belonging and empowerment that so frightens those who would keep us and our descendants as their slaves. It barely matters what we term this power within, so long as we do not allow it to be overshadowed by the myth of a power outside or above us – there can be no authority, no god, but ourselves.

From this perspective, the situation of the human race looks quite different. It seems impossible that it could ever bow its head in slavery or stand idly by while its mother, the Earth, is destroyed in the name of short-term greed. It seems unthinkable that people could ever have forgotten that the desire for freedom lies at the heart of their very being. Reconnected with the long-forbidden knowledge of its own power, a people will naturally be propelled towards its innate and eternal needs. Like the green shoots of a plant seeking out the sunlight, humanity will always have a natural tendency to fulfil its inner organic potential.

Peter Kropotkin could be describing our own times when he argues that “there are periods in the life of human society when revolution becomes an imperative necessity, when it proclaims itself as inevitable”. But, of course, revolution is only inevitable, or indeed possible, if we take whatever action is necessary to bring it about.

It is here that we must again confront the comfortable habit of perpetually living in the Now and with it the whole concept of time as something that sweeps us along like small twigs in a surging river. This is Time regarded as Authority, as an obstacle to our power to shape our own reality, to become the people we want to be. 

We are not bound to travel to any particular future, there is nothing inevitable about any outcome, no matter how likely it may look from our present vantage point. While we recognise the existence of circumstances that stand in the way of the future we would like to see, there is no reason why we must therefore accept that their influence will be decisive. It is, as Ernst Bloch says, always possible to replace the fatalism of a “because” with the determination of a “despite everything”.

“We have to reintroduce ourselves to history, not as observers but as participants. The power that we can rediscover in ourselves is, among other things, the power to create the future”

We have to reintroduce ourselves to history, not as observers but as participants. The power that we can rediscover in ourselves is, among other things, the power to create the future. We have to create our own narrative – the narrative of revolution. Like the prophesies of rebels past, our narrative can become self-fulfilling. There is a self-feeding circular momentum that we need to get started. The understanding of the need for revolution, the dream of revolution, the hope of revolution, the belief in the possibility of revolution – all of these must be fostered in turn before revolution can ever take place.

For this task we need a powerful collective vision and determination that can inspire, that can transform, that can regenerate, that can sweep aside seemingly immovable obstacles and turn remote possibilities into hard realities. Humankind needs new generations of idealistic young revolutionaries, heretics, inspirés with a burning sense of purpose and destiny, with the unquenchable energy to will into existence the new world of which they dream. We need, as Kropotkin insists, “intrepid souls who know that is necessary to dare in order to succeed”.

We won’t get them by sticking to dry dispassionate analysis of history, by being bogged down in detail, by being waylaid into dead ends of pointless abstraction or pedantry. We won’t get them by shying away from the truth, by compromising with the system, by regarding passionate polemic as an embarrassment. We won’t get them by trying to regulate and repress the spirit of our own revolt, by pouring cold water on others’ attempts to bring about change, by sneering at hope itself.

There are those who reject hope as unrealistic and those who reject it as being passive, as being reliant on factors outside our own control. But both positions fail to see that hope is in fact a vital factor in our ability to change reality and that, far from playing a passive role, it is the key to inspiring active participation. “Let us remember that if exasperation often drives men to revolt, it is always hope, the hope of victory, which makes revolutions”, says Kropotkin and he argues that the action it inspires will itself feed back into the positive energies of the revolutionary spirit: “Courage, devotion, the spirit of sacrifice, are as contagious as cowardice, submission, and panic”. 

Prophecy brings hope, hope brings courage, courage brings action, action brings inspiration, inspiration brings more determination, renewed hope, deepened courage. Once this magical spiral of revolt has started spinning, it takes on a life of its own and becomes, in Kropotkin’s phrase, “a revolutionary whirlwind”.

The authentic urge to revolution can be destructive, but never negative, and behind it there be must always be a vision born from the heart of humanity. There is something therefore much deeper behind the will to genuine revolution, to anarchy, than mere opinion. It rises from the depths of our collective soul and thus, by extension, from the natural world of which we are part. It is the vehicle of an intangible organic need for things to be made right, for humankind and the planet it dominates to once again exist in harmony with the Tao. 

This restoration of the state of nature, of the Golden Age, is demanded by natural laws next to which our artificial human laws look feeble and ephemeral. Once unleashed, the mighty strength of a global uprising summoned by the life-force itself will have no difficulty in sweeping away for ever the violent machineries of a tyranny which has stifled humankind for far too long.


“Prophecy brings hope, hope brings courage, courage brings action, action brings inspiration, inspiration brings more determination, renewed hope, deepened courage. Once this magical spiral of revolt has started spinning, it takes on a life of its own”

The nature of anarchism

I was recently enjoying the wise words of some like-minded political thinkers from the beginning of the 20th century, when it suddenly struck me that what we had in common was a belief in something you could term “natural anarchism”.

Then, twice as suddenly, I realised that this label was meaningless. All anarchism is natural. That’s the whole point. The state is an artificial imposition on humanity, which prevents it from self-organising in an organic and co-operative manner. If we remove the state, there won’t be chaos, as opponents of anarchism claim, but a harmony born of mutual aid and grassroots communal cohesion, as Peter Kropotkin (pictured here) famously set out.

Attaching any adjective to the word “anarchism” is problematic, as I’ve pointed out here previously.

If the adjective concerned, such as “natural”, does indeed fit anarchism, then it’s a tautology to have repeated it. Talking about “natural anarchism” or, for instance, “egalitarian anarchism” is like talking about “wet water” or “cold ice”.

Anarchism is much more than a political programme or particular point of view, such as could be neatly written down in the form of a manifesto. It is a vast and multi-faceted philosophy with the innate quality of embracing a disparity of perspectives within its overall unity.

You could argue that by applying a specific label to one kind of anarchism, you are merely identifying one of these many aspects within the whole. However, at the same time you are implying that there are other kinds of anarchism to which your particular label does not apply, which is where the problem lies. If I say that I espouse “natural anarchism” I am necessarily proposing that there could be such a thing as “unnatural anarchism”.

If adjectives that do reflect the anarchist Weltanschauung are thus not only superfluous but misleading, what about adjectives that represent a point of view beyond anarchism?

These are just as unacceptable, since they automatically represent logical impossibilities. Neither “nationalist anarchism” nor “capitalist anarchism” can exist, because anarchism is intrinsically internationalist and anti-capitalist.

Whichever angle we approach it from, we find that qualifying adjectives always seem inappropriate for anarchism.

In practice, the way people often get round this is to use “anarchist” or the prefix “anarcho-”- as the adjective to some other term. There can’t really be such a thing as “communist anarchism” because all anarchism is “communist” in the pure meaning of the word, but there can be such a thing as “anarcho-communism” because all communism is far from being anarchist in nature!

So how about “anarcho-capitalism” as a concept? It still doesn’t really work, in fact, because the necessary anti-capitalist implications of the term “anarcho” conflict so badly with the main part of the noun.

When people deploy “anarcho” or “anarchic” in that kind of way, they usually mean something more like “libertarian”. I am greatly suspicious of this word, and not just because it is often used by right-wing capitalists, particularly in the USA. It suggests a vague attraction to “liberty”, while shying away from the total rejection of the state which is inherent in anarchism.

Even the use in English of a Latin, rather than Anglo-Saxon, root word seems to me to reflect an unconscious avoidance of the authentic emotional commitment to freedom that flows proudly in the blood of every anarchist.

The natural laws of freedom

Below is an excerpt from The Anarchist Revelation. It’s taken from the chapter called Anarchy is Life. Pictured here, from left, are anarchist thinkers Peter Kropotkin, Michael Bakunin, Emma Goldman, Gustav Landauer and Pierre-Joseph Proudhon.

For an anarchist, the tender green shoot of each new-born child, the precious potential of each wonderfully unique and beautiful human being, is blocked, crushed, destroyed by the steel toe-capped boots of capitalism.

Emma Goldman says that the health of society could be measured by a person’s “individuality and the extent to which it is free to have its being, to grow and expand unhindered by invasive and coercive authority”, and Gustav Landauer writes that “anarchism’s lone objective is to end the fight of men against men and to unite humanity so that each individual can unfold his natural potential without obstruction”.

This, ultimately, is what anarchists mean by freedom. The freedom to be what we are meant to be, to become what we were born and destined by nature to become, if our ontogeny had not been thwarted and distorted.

Left to our own devices, freed from the control of the slave-masters, we individuals would co-operate and combine in the way that we were intended to, in the same way as our fellow creatures, plants, insects, fungi and microbes.

This is the basis of Peter Kropotkin’s classic argument for a society free of state, the harmonious natural order of which humans – and their relations with each other – form part: “The mutual-aid tendency in man has so remote an origin, and is so deeply interwoven with all the past evolution of the human race, that it has been maintained by mankind up to the present time, notwithstanding all vicissitudes of history”.

As Michael Bakunin says: “Nature, notwithstanding the inexhaustible wealth and variety of beings of which it is constituted, does not by any means present chaos, but instead a magnificently organized world wherein every part is logically correlated to all the other parts”.

Natural laws – these are the basis of the anarchist vision of a proper society and the reason why we reject the man-made variety as imposters and destroyers of all that is good and true and real.

Bakunin, that fiery messiah of disobedience, explains how these natural laws are of a kind he has no hesitation in bowing to: “Yes, we are unconditionally the slaves of these laws. But in such slavery there is no humiliation, or rather it is not slavery at all. For slavery presupposes the existence of an external master, a legislator standing above those whom he commands, while those laws are not extrinsic in relation to us: they are inherent in us, they constitute our nature, our whole being, physically, intellectually and morally. And it is only through those laws that we live, breathe, act, think and will. Without them we would be nothing, we simply would not exist”.

Natural laws are the interwoven and infinitely complex limbs of a living community, a vital entity that is the only form of “authority” that anarchists can respect, with the difference between a governmental society and an anarchic society being, as George Woodcock says, “the difference between a structure and an organism”.

Rejecting the pitiful idea that we come into this world devoid of purpose and principle, helplessly amoral blank sheets of living paper on which the state, in its wisdom, must write down the rules by which it demands we should live, anarchists know that inherent laws have already laid down a sense of justice in our souls.

“An integral part of the collective existence, man feels his dignity at the same time in himself and in others, and thus carries in his heart the principle of a morality superior to himself,” writes Pierre-Joseph Proudhon.

“This principle does not come to him from outside; it is secreted within him, it is immanent. It constitutes his essence, the essence of society itself. It is the true form of the human spirit, a form which takes shape and grows towards perfection only by the relationship that every day gives birth to social life. Justice, in other words, exists in us like love, like notions of beauty, of utility, of truth, like all our powers and faculties”.

It is precisely because we already know true justice – in our blood, in our bones, in our guts, in our dreams – that anarchists are so revolted by the sick parody that is served up to us by the bigwigs of the state. Our innate sense of right and wrong is mortally offended and the pressure of a true justice re-pressed, of a natural authority denied, of inherent laws smothered, builds up in our spirits – individually and en masse, consciously and unconsciously – and becomes the force behind the need for revolution.

This force becomes a living entity itself – not the passive, patient entity that would animate human societies in times when all was going as it should, but an active, dynamic entity that has formed itself with the one purpose of breaking through the obstruction to life that it finds blocking nature’s path.

For Landauer, this revolutionary entity becomes a source of cohesion, purpose and love – “a spiritual pool” – for a humanity stranded in a desolate and despotic age: “It is in revolution’s fire, in its enthusiasm, its brotherhood, its aggressiveness that the image and the feeling of positive unification awakens; a unification that comes through a connecting quality: love as force”.

(References can be found in the book itself and are also available on request)