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Resisting the nation state - the pacifist and anarchist tradition - Geoffrey Ostergaard Questions the assumption that the nation-state is the norm of modern political organisation and looks at action which have challenged the concept of absolute sovereignty of institutions over individuals and the supposed right of such institutions to coerce individuals to fight in war.

Individuals have to stand up to, and draw the fangs of, those who oppress them, or dominate them, or treat them as less than equal, at the only time and place possible, that is, when and where it occurs. It is far from easy, and many times people falter and fail, but they have to go on trying. Domination takes the form always of a relationship between individuals. It has to be confronted and neutralised on the spot in the particular relationship that is involved. The objection is made again and again, however, that the mere individual is impotent. What, it is asked, can only one person do? The implication seems to be that around the next corner there will be somebody who isn’t only one person. Yet, when evil is afoot, people do not wring their hands, lamenting their impotence as ‘only one person’; they get on with the bad work and do it most efficaciously.
The truth is that ‘only one person’ who is tied to an organisation which exercises a degree of control over his beliefs and responses, is indeed largely crippled for good purposes. Such a person is the power man’s dream. Through a hierarchy of control it is possible to reduce people to paralysed automata. Military conscription, for instance, has hitherto represented the ultimate length to which arbitrary power could go in the total subjugation of free people. Modern technology is beginning to open new vistas. The power to reduce humanity to quantitative digits, computerised data to be fed into machines controlled by the new technocrats, undoubtedly brings the menace of new possibilities for human robotisation.
On the other hand, one person who is not controllable by ‘authority’, who answers not to externally imposed discipline but to the discipline of his or her own conscience, is a very potent threat to those who dominate others, as all those in ‘authority’ are very quick to recognise. It is not simply that ideas spread quickly, good ideas as well as bad ones. The effect of personal example is highly infectious; and it is impossible to exaggerate the long-term effects of the courageous example of the lone dissenter, asking for no power, resorting to no power, asking for no personal benefit but asking everything for justice. Their price is indeed far above rubies.
So when it is asserted that government is necessary, this is true only as a descriptive statement of existing human relations based on an existing psychology. This psychology, however, is not inherent in the psycho-biological constitution of human beings but is the fruit of an inability to achieve complete liberation from the dependence of infancy. To become free, to achieve equality, is far from easy; on the contrary, we must be prepared to meet deep resistances within the emotional life of each one of us; but it is nevertheless possible to attain.
The fact that many people go to the grave without having thrown off the leading strings of parental domination, obeying to the end the unspoken commands to which they were subjected in childhood, without even being aware that they are doing so, does not mean that such unconscious servitude is the fate of all. To wake up may be difficult but it is by no means impossible. Moreover, each measure of success not only automatically changes a person’s relation with at least one other person; it infects others by the example given and witnessed.
Everyone necessarily lives at the centre of a large, interconnected network of relations; change in the quality of a relationship at any one point will gradually produce repercussions in many different directions. Most fundamental relationships are domestic, within the family, but social relations and employment relations emanate from the family ties and react upon each other.
I am myself extremely doubtful whether it is possible for anyone who has not gone a considerable part of the way in reorienting their domestic relations - father-daughter, mother-son, husband-wife - on the basis of equality, to attempt to reorient their social or employment relations according to the same principle. If you occupy, as one almost inevitably must in our culture, a position in a hierarchical chain of command, you may find the courage to resist the ‘authority’ exercised over you; but, unless you have achieved freedom from parental psychic domination, your successful resistance against the domination of a ‘superior’ is bound to be accompanied by a growth in your own appetite for successful ego assertion or power.
In order to achieve freedom from external domination and obedience to the autonomous internal restraints of conscience, viz good ‘anarchy’, it is necessary not only to stand up to power, it is necessary also to have overcome your own appetite for power, to be sure that you are not yourself fulfilling the role vis-a-vis others less powerful than yourself that you resent in those more powerful than yourself.
True strength lies in a fearless powerlessness, that is not assertive but is equally not pliant to another’s will to domination. Indeed, without the crucial element of self-renunciation, resistance to domination will not implausibly appear as yet another example of two parties contending for mastery. My struggle may at this moment be just, but as soon as I am on top, shall I not myself inevitably behave in the manner of others who are on top?
Given this conscious awareness, this degree of self-renunciation, this will to ‘anarchy’ and equality, individuals are in a unique position to bring about positive social change of a wholly beneficial nature. Towards those below them in the hierarchy they will at all times strive to behave with gentleness and humility, to abstain absolutely from taking advantage of their status to impose their will on others who have been falsely taught to believe that it is their normal duty to obey their ‘superiors’. Towards those above them, they will be courteous but firm, that is to say, making the ‘superiors’ feel at all time that their will to power, so far from being their natural right, is resented for the improper and immature impulse that it in fact is.
Every situation is unique, and in the matter of human relations it is impossible to lay down rules regarding conduct in situations whose development can never be foreseen in detail. But ways can often be found of good-humouredly countering the boss’s will to power. This ‘power’ element in human relations is of crucial importance; everyone is at all times aware of it but it is so pervasive, so universally accepted as proper and unquestionable, even when it is felt to be onerous, that people are aware of it without being aware that they are aware of it. That is to say, the rules of power, deference and command govern every nuance and tone of their manner without consciousness of it.
The fact, however, that they are really aware at the unconscious level is quickly manifest if someone acts out of role and ignores or contravenes the status expectations. It is only necessary for the ‘boss’ to go out of the room and the slight tension generated by the ‘power’ presence immediately vanishes, and people relax. It occasionally happens that people with little or no will to power accept with genuine reluctance a hierarchical position of ‘authority’. Their mere acceptance of the position immediately and inevitably affects significantly, even if only slightly, the nature of the relationship they previously enjoyed with people who were then colleagues but are now subordinates.
This situation is a comparatively rare exception; normally the winner in the competition for power is the person who wills it more single-mindedly, passionately and consistently than any rivals do. The rationale for this mode of conducting affairs, accepted as a matter of course by all office holders and aspirants to office, is that ‘someone has got to make the decisions’.
Because this is untrue, to every office-holder and decision-maker there inevitably attaches, however faintly, a slight air of unreality, of pomposity, of presumption, which cries out to be deflated but which all too rarely receives the requisite therapy. In fact, when a collective decision is to be arrived at, the efficiency of the procedure is enormously heightened by the mere withdrawal of the ‘power’ figure. ‘Government’, so far from being necessary, is the greatest single hindrance to the collective development of every individual’s capacity for judgement, confidence and articulation.
But to expect the ‘power’ figures themselves to understand this, is quite hopeless. All that they can perceive is the contract between the smooth arrival at a decision resulting from their tactful and masterly handling of the committee or board or assembly and the ragged, undisciplined, slow, cumbrous, confused procedure that results when their own masterly will is withdrawn. They fail to understand that what is crucial is the development of every individual’s capacity to contribute their own vision, their own notion of where the shoe pinches. The more intimidated, the more inhibited, the more inarticulate they are, the more important is it that patience should be exercised to liberate a brother or sister whose subjugation is the means whereby the ego of the powerful has its will.
If in the short run a price has to be paid in terms of mere administrative efficiency, it is a price that must be paid. I use the term ‘mere’, not because I despise administrative efficiency, but because it must be always kept subordinate to human relations themselves; and when this is observed, it ultimately redounds to the value of administrative efficiency itself. Short-term administrative efficiency is dearly purchased indeed when it is productive of authoritarianism, resentments, arbitrary power, strikes, revolts and so on. Genuinely democratic decision-making, however untidy, however objectively erroneous it may on occasion be, never generates the social disunity and bitterness that is generated by the will to power.
Of course, ‘bosses’ subjected to this novel and wholly unexpected treatment cannot be expected to relish it. Although it will ultimately be good for them, in fact just what they need, a vote of thanks for this diagnosis and therapeutic recommendation can hardly be expected. The ‘boss’ is going to react most assuredly and is very probably going to be difficult: may indeed prove dangerous. Bosses have teeth, and know how to use them. After all, this is striking directly at what they have falsely been taught to consider the essence of their self-respect: namely, power over others, which has constituted the entire meaning of their lives hitherto. Obviously they are not going to yield without a struggle. That is why courage is essential and why it is imperative it should at all times be shown that, while challenging the bosses’ power, those who challenge do not themselves in any way hanker after it. Quite the contrary!
It is also necessary never to provoke by rudeness or bravado. All ‘bosses’ (that is, all power-lovers) are ultimately weak, and crave to be liked, even by those whom they oppress. They are vulnerable to withdrawal of respect, even the respect of the subservient. So, when ‘bosses’ show signs of learning the painful lesson, on even the smallest front, respecting the autonomy and self-respect of others ‘beneath’ them, it is important to show appreciative understanding. But the initiative must come from the physically weaker partner in the enterprise. What that person has to learn to do is not to obey ‘bosses’, still less kill or exile them (as has frequently been attempted in old-style revolutions) but peaceably to re-educate them to equality, anarchy and justice. We have to apprentice ourselves to the art of tactful, courteous insubordination.
It might be thought that such a programme as is here suggested might prove popular and likely to evoke a swift response. What after all is more calculated to appeal to the repressed rebel in most of us, suffering the yoke of ‘authority’? What more natural than to appeal to the employee to rise against the employer, the worker against the boss, the ruled against the ruler, the proletariat against the capitalist? In practice, nothing is more difficult. The reason is only partly to be sought in the fear of the oppressed, the knowledge that those who rule possess powerful sanctions.
The reason is that the ruled fear equality, which they have been deeply conditioned to regard as ‘anarchy’ in the conventional sense. They fear it as much as the rulers themselves. The reason for this is partly, as I suggested above, psychological. People are from earliest infancy reared in the leading strings of parental dominance, and the task of adolescence to throw off the ties of subjection to maternal and paternal rule is only very rarely carried through with relative success. Indeed, it is impossible to accomplish this adolescent task of liberation satisfactorily without analysis in depth, unless the parents themselves enjoyed a mutual relationship based on complete psychic and emotional equality. Such conditions are almost never to be found in existing cultures.
Because children are inadequately loved in their childhood in homes rent by tensions generated by sexual conflict, they grow up finding the meaning of their lives in the will to dominate others. People fear equality because they see in it a condition which threatens to remove that which is the aim of their life striving, namely, a sense of importance deriving from privilege and dominance which will compensate for emotional impoverishment. That is the fundamental reason why the most downtrodden will react with horror to the suggestion of ‘anarchy’. Whatever, they ask, would we do without government?
The other, equally logical, question is never asked. ‘What would happen if suddenly all the ruled refused to be ruled any more?’ The rulers would presumably all have nervous breakdowns. But the question itself is absurd, as everyone readily understands, although they do not so readily appreciate that the question: ‘what would happen if we had no government?’ is equally absurd. These questions are absurd because existing institutions reflect deep-set patterns of human relations. It is this existing pattern that must be undermined and modified; and this can only come about gradually. People who talk of ‘revolution’ in the sense of a swift cataclysmic change fail to grasp the problem.
On the other hand, it is certainly true that when people in a position of traditional power fail to grasp that the attitudes of those ‘beneath’ them are no longer acquiescent, sooner or later a tense confrontation outside the bounds of the law made by the rulers is bound to occur. When such situations arise, it is vital that the ‘under’ ones display the utmost self-discipline, restraint and nonviolence. Those whose power is being undermined are after all undergoing a near-traumatic experience, and full allowance must be made for their possible violent reaction. The teeth have to be drawn, but when this is accompanied by violence, those who attempt to draw them have to some extent failed, and certainly will have to pay a consequent price. But these gradual changes can only be set in motion by reflective, sensitive and brave individuals setting about the difficult task of changing the nature of their own human relations in the family, at work and in their general social ties.
What has to be faced without any disposition to self-deception is that the belief in inequality, notwithstanding pious protestations to the contrary, goes very deep indeed in present-day Britain. Those who enjoy privilege see in equality a threat to their way of life and its meaning. Under conditions of equality, who - they will sometimes ask plaintively under pressure or in an unguarded moment - will do the dirty work, who will fetch and carry? The mere thought that they should be expected to do their own fair share is enough to elicit expressions of incredulity as much as of horror.
Secondly, there is concealed another question: if they are not to devote their life energies to securing their positions of privilege, status and eminence, to what will they devote their energies?
The unprivileged, too, who might be expected a priori to welcome equality as a relief from subordination and exploitation, for the most part in fact reject the belief in equality; partly out of incredulity towards anything which does not actually as yet exist, and is therefore to be placed in the suspect category of ‘ideal’; partly out of fear of displeasing those whom they have been taught to consider as their betters; and partly out of genuine feelings of deeply rooted inferiority. The mere discussion of the question of equality is deeply distasteful to them, since it arouses their own unconscious feelings, going back to their childhood and school-days, of inadequacy, rejection and failure. It is far easier, psychologically speaking, to engage in complaints about the cost of living (which in all conscience is formidable enough), or the behaviour of one’s neighbour, or to seek a quick profit and dream about the possibility of winning the pools or the Bingo stakes or a bet on the Derby, than to face the intolerably painful truth of personal inferiority, inadequacy and anxiety.
Our existing culture is based not on values arising out of respect and consideration for the well-being of the individual worker, but on values based on the worship of wealth and increased productivity. Where the two sorts of values conflict, as they do at virtually every point, it is consideration for the real welfare of the individual that is sacrificed. Indeed, merely to draw attention to the value that is being neglected in society is to brand oneself as an eccentric. Imagine asking an employer in the motor-car industry, for example, if he is concerned as to whether his workers on the factory floor are ‘whole’ people, making full use of the many-sided talents, mental and manual, with which every normal person is potentially endowed.
Yet what could be more stunting or productive of monotony and boredom throughout someone’s working life than extreme specialisation of function, even when the specialised task requires considerable training and skill, let alone the majority of jobs which are unskilled or semi-skilled? Who in their senses, if given the option, would freely choose a monotonous working life devoted to the same endlessly repetitive task, in order to be the owner of more material goods in their leisure? A sense of fulfilment and creativity in labour is clearly indispensable in any sane ‘philosophy’ of life.
Nor are frustration and boredom under the present system by any means confined to the lower echelons. If there is sometimes evidence of demoniac energy at the top, the evidence of chronic boredom and conspicuous consumption is also clear for all to see - the drinking, the smoking, the philandering, the transcontinental jet flights or cruises, the country club, the worry about obesity or heart attack, the threat of retirement, the infinitude of forms taken by the futilities of consumption motivated by considerations of status, the hankering after precedence.
It also needs to be said that the key to the existing divisions in society is the educational system. If the great bastions of industrial power are largely hereditary fiefs disposed of by purely feudal means, the large armies of the lower ranks of the privileged, without whom the system would grind to an immediate halt, are a meritocracy. They are, that is to say, recruited by means of streaming, the 11+, ‘O’ level, 18+, classified Degree, Grand National Steeplechase in which most of the horses fall at the first fence because they were sired and reared by the most heavily handicapped members of the previous generation.
It is not an educational system so much as a series of tests designed to select the numbers appropriate to enter the respective levels of employment determined by the requirements of the national productivity tables. Even under the existing handicaps of large classes and varyingly qualified teachers, approximately twice as many candidates qualify for university education and seek it as there are places available - leaving out of account the unknown number of those who are deterred from applying by the knowledge that their competitive chances of acceptance are poor.
As a result of this 18+ competition, the latter end of many children’s schooldays is poisoned and distorted by a greater sense of anxiety and insecurity than even their early years were. In such a climate, genuine education of necessity is largely sacrificed to the inexorable demands of the competition for university entrance. Thus scores of thousands are denied all access to the higher education for which they are equipped and which they keenly desire, because there are not privileged jobs enough to go round.
Within the framework of extreme specialisation of labour dictated by the national religion of wealth-getting, there is no escape possible from the anguish and unbalanced concentration of the educational maelstrom. But as soon as people liberate themselves from those warped values, escape is both possible and obvious. Instead of devoting the highest educational skills to the forced hot-house growth of the most agile and energetic minds on the principle that to them that have shall be given, much greater attention could be concentrated on overcoming the educational handicaps of those who have been most severely crippled by the excessive social burdens which their parents have been forced to carry. In this way, gradually more and more people will be encouraged to demand what should be their basic right - access to the highest culture that has come down to us and which is freely available to their more fortunate brothers and sisters.
This culture will then automatically cease to be a culture of privilege; it will become a culture of equality and, as a matter of simple logic, will include instruction not only in matters of scholarship and intellectual application but also in matters of manual dexterity and skill. In short, we shall discover that genuine higher education consists of learning a skill to be productive as well, that someone who is solely an intellectual or solely a manual worker is not fully a person, and that we all need to develop both sides of our nature in order to lead a full, creative and balanced life.
Whether they appreciate the fact or not, individuals who are relieved from all responsibility for attending to their own wants, suffer in their humanity and understanding of life quite as much as their sisters or brothers who are condemned to a deprivation of mental culture in order to specialise in the task of producing the material wealth needed by all alike.
The categorisation of someone as an intellectual or as a manual worker is as bad for the individual as the division of people into rulers and ruled, employers and employees, is ruinous for society. Indeed, the latter is simply the institutional pattern resulting from the creation of truncated individuals. It is a system which is unnatural, humanly wasteful, frustrating, unjust; and so sterile and competitive that it leads ultimately to war.
To all of which the sceptic replies simply: ‘Well, but you can’t go back’; and this is said with an air of complete finality. Progress and Productivity seem to be the cornerstones of the religion of the person on the Clapham omnibus. The argument runs something like this: ‘You are asking me to consent of my own free will to a way of life in which you acknowledge that I shall be materially worse off. You are asking me voluntarily to forgo a machine that can move me faster than sound, and revert to the quadruped. You are asking me to forgo a computer and do my own sums, to forgo the benefits of large-scale economy and revert to cottage industry. How absurd! And in any case, impossible!’
George Orwell, who was clear-eyed enough to see something of the dehumanisation implicit in the worship of material progress, wealth and power, and was genuinely dismayed at the prospect for humanity already becoming apparent, was unable to free himself from the thrall of productivity worship. He wrote in The Road to Wigan Pier: ‘In order that one may enjoy primitive methods of travel, it is necessary that no other method should be available. No human being ever wants to do anything in a more cumbrous way than is necessary. Hence the absurdity of that picture of Utopians saving their souls with fretwork. In a world where everything could be done by machinery, everything would be done by machinery.’
While I understand that this is how most people feel about the matter, I fail to perceive the rationality of the argument. Everything surely depends on what a person really wants, what their real values are. If I genuinely enjoy and prefer horse travel to motorcars or aeroplanes, if I genuinely enjoy making something for my own use, even if it is inferior to the mass-produced product, what is there irrational, sham, dilettante, unreal about my expressing and acting out my preferences?
The fact is that most people are deeply conditioned to prefer more for more’s sake, speed for speed’s sake, etc. These seem to represent their real values, from which they are admittedly unlikely to be weaned by mere rational argument. The fact remains that a person’s basic needs are very simple; that wealth is not among those basic needs and is not only unnecessary but harmful to people. What is a fundamental need, besides harmonious relations with our fellow creatures, is the need to do for ourselves the simple strenuous work necessary for our own survival. This in itself provides us with our other fundamental need, variety of work.
Speaking out of his own experience as a draughtsman and craft-worker, Eric Gill put it this way in his Autobiography: ‘I would rather be a workman myself and start my rebellion from that end. I would be a workman and demand a workman’s rights, the rights to design what he made; and a workman’s duties, the duty to make what he designed.’
People are of course at liberty to reject these elemental truths - but not indefinitely. The other way of life - and fundamentally there is only one other way of life - leads logically to war on an ever-growing scale of magnitude and destruction. The belief that this can be converted into a peaceful competition for planetary conquest is a characteristic politicians’ attempt to deceive with mythology. The space race itself, quite independently of its horrifying cost, is an intrinsic part of the contest for military power and strategic advantage, the implications of which do not require to be spelt out to sane people, let alone pacifists.
To sum up, pacifists are people who are able to recognise the gravity of the moral and spiritual implications of being prepared to take the life of a fellow human being, whatever the reasons, however seemingly justifiable. The answer to those who reject such a policy on the pragmatic ground that this involves sacrificing the lives of the morally more mature to those less mature, is that this is a law of the universe which cannot be altered. If ‘X’ will in no circumstances resort to killing, whereas ‘Y’ suffers from no such inhibition, ‘X’s’ body, ‘X’s’ life, must, in the nature of things, always be at the mercy of ‘Y’.
This is why pacifism rests on a true religious understanding of the nature of our relation to the universe. Reverence for life does not mean killing in order to influence a subsequent series of events, which is never within the capacity of any individual to control in any event. Reverence for life means revering life; that is to say, not destroying it. The purpose of life is not to save good people from perishing at the hands of bad people; for one thing, no one can ever be entirely sure how good or how bad someone is. The purpose of life is to exemplify goodness at the expense of badness, and thus to strengthen the force of goodness in the world.
The next step in the argument is to grasp that violence itself is the outcome of the will to power. Chairman Mao was undoubtedly right when he observed that ‘political power flows out of the barrel of a gun’, but he forgot to add the even more important converse of the proposition, namely that the barrel of a gun flows from the will to power. It is this will to power itself which is the source of most of the evils which threaten to overwhelm us.
To abstain, therefore, from the quest for power is logically entailed by an understanding of the evil of violence. To renounce power means abandoning all idea of getting power, of seeking to overthrow the rulers, of bringing about a revolution, of devising blueprints for new institutions. In their stead, anarchists seek to eradicate the evil potentialities in themselves and by so doing to change the nature of their relations with other people. When enough people succeed in doing this, the social institutions, which reflect existing human beliefs and relations, will of necessity begin to change.
People are spiritual animals in a material universe; and they are governed ultimately by the life of the spirit. External power changes reflect the violence of nature and the baser part of a person. Genuine humanly beneficial change can only come about through spiritual change. To this end, it is necessary to substitute for the external coercive restraints of the State the internal restraints of the responsible, individual conscience. As James Anthony Froude wrote: ‘‘Every relief from outward restraint’, says one who was not given to superstition, ‘if it be not attended with increased power of self-command, is simply fatal’.’
Finally, anarchists seek fellowship, not class war (nor any other war), but they will not yield to class domination either. Nor will they acquiesce any longer in the fraudulent shibboleths of parliamentary democracy, which conceal the realities of class rule based on violence. Between parliament (representing the great arsenals of wealth, be it of employers, or financiers or of labour) and socialists, there can be no compromise. Between parliament (resting on arsenals of violence of unimaginable magnitude) and pacifists, still less can there be compromise. In that sense, pacifists seek, it is true, total revolution - one that cannot be negotiated - but one that can only take place within the individual human soul.
The pacifist perceives correctly that the barriers against violence in people are so precarious that nothing less than an absolute veto against the resort to violence and killing will serve as an adequate protection. The anarchist perceives correctly that violence is engendered by the culminating effects of complex struggles for power and predominance between large numbers of individuals and groups.
The weakness of pacifism is that it is hypothetical only, until war actually breaks out, when it has to grapple with inordinately powerful xenophobic and chauvinistic emotions, if not hysteria. The weakness of anarchism lies in the contradiction between its hostility to power on the one hand and its own deeply politically orientated tradition on the other.
The strength of both lies in the sharp cutting edge of their concrete particularism in the present actuality, and their impatience with high-sounding rhetoric which conceals the deceit of the powerful. To those who talk of disarmament, the pacifist says: ‘The credentials of sincerity we look for are of the simplest: throw away your gun! Your continuing to carry it is itself proof of your insincerity.’ To those who talk of equality and justice, the anarchist says: ‘We will believe you as soon as you demonstrate your love of justice and equality by ceasing to strive to obtain power over others in order to govern them. For the power to rule and dispose of wealth is the original source of inequality and injustice.’
In order to abolish war, it is certainly necessary to refuse to take part in it, but it is also necessary to live in a way that is conducive to peace and not to war. The way of life that leads to war is one that is based on competition in wealth-getting in order to secure primacy of power and prestige over others. Anything that enables individuals to affirm their humanity, their equality, their fulfilment in earning the affections of others, is true progress and promotes the peace of humankind. Anything that sacrifices these things for the mechanisation of life, for increased speed, wealth, power, is retrogressive and culminates logically in destruction and suffering. People have to learn to stop competing with one another. It is difficult, but it is by no means impossible.
Freedom from competition and its replacement by mutual affection can only begin in the home; and such homes can only be built by women and men who love one another; which means respecting each other’s individuality on a reciprocal basis for life. Nothing less will serve the needs of children, who - after all - did not ask to be born, and who are entitled to this security. The alternative is the production of more automated and mechanised warriors to service a rocket-propelled civilisation even more maniacal than our own - if that is possible.
The choice has never before been so starkly defined for humanity. It is for us - for all of us, without distinction of person - to choose. The outcome will depend entirely on the efforts which every one of us makes. We must have peace. We shall have peace. But a truly gargantuan struggle lies before us.
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