Breaking the shell: Anarchist counter-power

When we talk about Anarchy, the focus is often on how we would expect a future anarchist society to function, which has the unintended effect of neglecting the present. There’s so much writing dedicated to what our ideal world would look like, that there’s very little reflection on how we intend to get there. One could easily forgive someone for reading ‘The Conquest of Bread’ and assuming that an anarchist society will establish itself through a spontaneous revolution – a revolution we just need to wait long enough to see happen. This is a rather naive view of revolutions, which throughout history have been symptomatic of wider societal evolution. Revolution is itself just an acceleration of this societal evolution, it can even be defined as “more evolution”. So what can we do to accelerate this evolution? This is where anarchist counter-power comes into play to “build a new world in the shell of the old.”

The state, a centralized organization that holds a monopoly on violence over a territory, has existed in some form for over 5,000 years. It seems an insurmountable task to overthrow such an all-consuming leviathan, a society without a state seems incomprehensible or even impossible to some. But nevertheless, anarchists of all colours struggle against it, constructing alternatives that provide communities with the freedom to run themselves.

One proposed solution is municipalism, the reclamation of popular power by directly democratic assemblies. These start at the local level, neighbors coming together to discuss problems that affect them and deciding what to do about it. These neighborhood assemblies also come together, creating a confederation of autonomous municipalities. If, for any reason, a decision cannot be made at the local level, only then will it be passed up the confederation – from the local level, to its surrounding area, to the greater region. Under municipalism the majority of political power is held at the local level and higher bodies only hold as much power as is explicitly delegated to them by the assemblies. Decision making is fundamentally decentralized and organized from the bottom-up, unlike the centralized top-down decision making of statist bodies. This decentralization of power ensures that no single force dictates what communities can or can’t do in their own self-direction. Communities are truly free to make the decisions that are best for them. We can see municipalism today in the Rojava Revolution of northern and eastern Syria, as well as the indigeneous resistance movements of southern Mexico and the democratic experiments in Catalunya.

All the organs of the state are too replaced from the bottom-up. Healthcare is performed by decentralized health committees, as part of a local community assembly, where doctors, nurses and patients hold democratic control over the healthcare they provide and receive. Protection is performed by communal defense committees, a rotated body of people that provide defense for their community and teach other community members how to defend themselves. Justice is performed by conciliation committees, who look at injustices on a case-by-case basis and work to both restore justice to the victims and transform the situation that caused this injustice in the first place. Education is provided by education committees, democratic bodies of both teachers and students that decide together what will be taught and how. Organs can even be formed to fulfil functions that the state is entirely absent from; women, LGBT+, disabled and neurodivergent people can form their own committees from which they themselves can tackle the injustices that their communities face.

But the state is not the only instrument of domination that needs to be replaced. What municipalism can do to help us transform society, we must also seek means to transform the economy. We live under capitalism, an economic system where the means of production are held in private hands, profiteers steal labour value from their workers and commodities are produced for production’s sake. So what can we do to take down this system from within? We need to find a way for the workers themselves to take control of the means of production. This can come from one of two ways.

One of these ways is Mutualism, taking direct control of the economy by way of the creation of workers’ cooperatives – businesses owned and managed by the workers themselves. In 2001, Argentina was in an economic crisis, sales were slipping, debts were increasing and workers’ wages were dropping. Factory owners all over the country began closing up shop and moving production to more stable economies, where the price of labour was cheaper. One day, dozens of women assembled outside their textiles factory, asking simply for the money required to travel to work each day. But when night came and the owners still had not shown their faces, these working women took action. They occupied the factory and transformed it into a workers’ cooperative, a workplace run democratically by the workers. No longer worrying about paying salaries for bosses and managers, the workers easily managed to pay off the company’s debts and start earning steady salaries for themselves. These women ignited a mass movement that spread across Argentina, with workers constantly identifying empty factories to occupy and use. To this day Argentina has one of the largest co-operative sectors in the world, with nearly 20 million people employed by a co-operative.

Co-operative economies are proving themselves as an extremely efficient economic model for the 21st century; 40% of France’s farms are run collectively, the Zapatistas of Chiapas coordinate a global supply chain for their co-operatively produced coffee, moreover Mutual Credit Unions (a co-operative approach to banking) were relatively insulated from the 2008 financial crisis.

However, immediate co-operativization of businesses may not always be possible. As such, workers need a way to organize themselves so that they can fight for short term gains, such as better working conditions, as well as the long-term goal of complete workers’ control of the economy. This is where Syndicalism, the horizontal organization of revolutionary industrial unions, comes into play. The idea is that a union of workers, in their workplaces, trades and industries respectively, organize along the lines of the future society that they hope to bring about.

Syndicalism reached its height during the Spanish Revolution of 1936, when the CNT union declared a general strike in response to a fascist coup d’etat. During the general strike, workers organized militias to fight back against the fascist army, they abolished the wage system (in some places, money was abolished entirely) and in a matter of months three quarters of the economy in Catalunya was collectivized and run as a federation of worker co-operatives. However, the Revolution was first co-opted by the Spanish government and then was crushed by Stalinists, who revived the capitalist system. Finally the revolution was defeated by the fascists who went on to rule the Iberian peninsular for decades.

Since the end of World War II, syndicalism experienced a slow revival, a revival which began to accelerate once again in the 21st century. Syndicalist unions and federations operate today in dozens of countries, where they provide a revolutionary alternative to the petty reforms of mainstream trade unionism. The IWW and IWGB in Britain have made massive inroads into the organization of delivery couriers, a sector thought un-organizable by mainstream trade unions. The CGT in Spain recently organized a strike of workers in Amazon, a company notorious for its fierce union-busting activities. In the California Bay Area, the IWW have completely taken over some businesses, transforming them into horizontal co-operatives known as ‘Wobbly shops’.

These are all roads we can follow towards an anarchist society, organizing ourselves in our communities and workplaces as a means to an end. But they’re not enough by themselves. Social revolution and individual evolution come hand in hand, so counter-power organization means nothing without cultivating an attitude of ungovernability. We must ensure that even if we organize society in a way that makes the existence of rulers impossible, we still will not allow ourselves as individuals to be ruled. After all, the world we build may not be enough, people in future may still see flaws in our method of organization, still see hierarchy and rulers where we did not. Even if a spontaneous revolution were to come, there is still the day after. There is always more evolution, more revolution.

“You cannot buy the revolution. You cannot make the revolution. You can only be the revolution. It is in your spirit, or it is nowhere.” – Ursula K. LeGuin