J.5.16 Are there any historical examples of collective self-help?

Yes, in all societies we see working people joining together to practice mutual aid and solidarity. These take many forms, such as trade and industrial unions, credit unions and friendly societies, co-operatives and so on, but the natural response of working class people to the injustices of capitalism was to practice collective “self-help” in order to improve their lives and protect their friends, communities and fellow workers.

Unfortunately, this “great tradition of working class self-help and mutual aid was written off, not just as irrelevant, but as an actual impediment, by the political and professional architects of the welfare state. . . The contribution that the recipients had to make to all this theoretical bounty was ignored as a mere embarrassment – apart, of course, for paying for it. . . The socialist ideal was rewritten as a world in which everyone was entitled to everything, but where nobody except the providers had any actual say about anything. We have been learning for years, in the anti-welfare backlash, what a vulnerable utopia that was.” [Colin Ward, Social Policy: an anarchist response, p. 3]

Ward terms this self-help (and self-managed) working class activity the “welfare road we failed to take.”

Indeed, anarchists would argue that self-help is the natural side effect of freedom. There is no possibility of radical social change unless people are free to decide for themselves what their problems are, where their interests lie and are free to organise for themselves what they want to do about them. Self-help is a natural expression of people taking control of their own lives and acting for themselves. Anyone who urges state action on behalf of people is no socialist and any one arguing against self-help as “bourgeois” is no anti-capitalist. It is somewhat ironic that it is the right who have monopolised the rhetoric of “self-help” and turned it into yet another ideological weapon against working class direct action and self-liberation (although, saying that, the right generally likes individualised self-help — given a strike or squatting or any other form of collective self-help movement they will be the first to denounce it):

“The political Left has, over the years, committed an enormous psychological error in allowing this king of language [“self-help”, “mutual aid”, “standing on your own two feet” and so on] to be appropriated by the political Right. If you look at the exhibitions of trade union banners from the last century, you will see slogans like Self Help embroidered all over them. It was those clever Fabians and academic Marxists who ridiculed out of existence the values by which ordinary citizens govern their own lives in favour of bureaucratic paternalising, leaving those values around to be picked up by their political opponents.” [Colin Ward, Talking Houses, p. 58]

We cannot be expected to provide an extensive list of working class collective self-help and social welfare activity here, all we can do is present an overview. For a discussion of working class self-help and co-operation through the centuries we can suggest no better source than Kropotkin’s Mutual Aid. Here we will (using other sources than Mutual Aid) indicate a few examples of collective welfare in action.

In the case of Britain, we find that the “newly created working class built up from nothing a vast network of social and economic initiatives based on self-help and mutual aid. The list is endless: friendly societies, building societies, sick clubs, coffin clubs, clothing clubs, up to enormous federated enterprises like the trade union movement and the Co-operative movement.” [Colin Ward, Social Policy: an anarchist response, p. 2]

The historian E.P. Thompson confirms this picture of a wide network of working class self-help organisations:

“Small tradesmen, artisans, labourers – all sought to insure themselves against sickness, unemployment, or funeral expenses through membership of . . . friendly societies.” These were “authentic evidence of independent working-class culture and institutions . . . out of which . . . trade unions grew, and in which trade union officers were trained.” Friendly societies “did not ‘proceed from’ an idea: both the ideas and institutions arose from a certain common experience . . . In the simple cellular structure of the friendly society, with its workaday ethos of mutual aid, we see many features which were reproduced in more sophisticated and complex form in trade unions, co-operatives, Hampden clubs, Political Unions, and Chartist lodges. . . Every kind of witness in the first half of the nineteenth century – clergymen, factory inspectors, Radical publicists – remarked upon the extent of mutual aid in the poorest districts. In times of emergency, unemployment, strikes, sickness, childbirth, then it was the poor who ‘helped every one his neighbour.'” [The Making of the English Working Class, p. 458, pp. 460-1, p. 462]

Taking the United States, Sam Dolgoff presents an excellent summary of similar self-help activities by the American working class:

“Long before the labour movement got corrupted and the state stepped in, the workers organised a network of co-operative institutions of all kinds: schools, summer camps for children and adults, homes for the aged, health and cultural centres, credit associations, fire, life, and health insurance, technical education, housing, etc.” [The American Labour Movement: A New Beginning, p. 74]

Dolgoff, like all anarchists, urges workers to “finance the establishment of independent co-operative societies of all types, which will respond adequately to their needs” and that such a movement “could constitute a realistic alternative to the horrendous abuses of the ‘establishment’ at a fraction of the cost.” [Op. Cit., p. 74, pp. 74-75]

In this way a network of self-managed, communal, welfare associations and co-operatives could be built — paid for, run by and run for working class people. Such a network could be initially build upon, and be an aspect of, the struggles of claimants, patients, tenants, and other users of the current welfare state (see last section).

The creation of such a co-operative, community-based, welfare system will not occur over night. Nor will it be easy. But it is possible, as history shows. And, of course, it will have its problems, but as Colin Ward notes, that “the standard argument against a localist and decentralised point of view, is that of universalism: an equal service to all citizens, which it is thought that central control achieves. The short answer to this is that it doesn’t!” [Colin Ward, Op. Cit., p. 6] He notes that richer areas generally get a better service from the welfare state than poorer ones, thus violating the claims of equal service. And a centralised system (be it state or private) will most likely allocate resources which reflect the interests and (lack of) knowledge of bureaucrats and experts, not on where they are best used or the needs of the users.

Anarchists are sure that a confederal network of mutual aid organisations and co-operatives, based upon local input and control, can overcome problems of localism far better than a centralised one — which, due to its lack of local input and participation will more likely encourage parochialism and indifference than a wider vision and solidarity. If you have no real say in what affects you, why should you be concerned with what affects others? Centralisation leads to disempowerment, which in turn leads to indifference, not solidarity. Rudolf Rocker reminds us of the evil effects of centralism when he writes:

“For the state centralisation is the appropriate form of organisation, since it aims at the greatest possible uniformity in social life for the maintenance of political and social equilibrium. But for a movement whose very existence depends on prompt action at any favourable moment and on the independent thought and action of its supporters, centralism could but be a curse by weakening its power of decision and systematically repressing all immediate action. If, for example, as was the case in Germany, every local strike had first to be approved by the Central, which was often hundreds of miles away and was not usually in a position to pass a correct judgement on the local conditions, one cannot wonder that the inertia of the apparatus of organisation renders a quick attack quite impossible, and there thus arises a state of affairs where the energetic and intellectually alert groups no longer serve as patterns for the less active, but are condemned by these to inactivity, inevitably bringing the whole movement to stagnation. Organisation is, after all, only a means to an end. When it becomes an end in itself, it kills the spirit and the vital initiative of its members and sets up that domination by mediocrity which is the characteristic of all bureaucracies.” [Anarcho-Syndicalism, p. 54]

And, as an example, he notes that while the highly centralised German labour movement “did not raise a finger to avert the catastrophe” of Hitler’s seizing power and “which in a few months beat their organisation completely to pieces” the exact opposite happened in Spain (“where Anarcho-Syndicalism had maintained its hold upon organised labour from the days of the First International”). There the anarcho-syndicalist C.N.T. “frustrated the criminal plans of Franco” and “by their heroic example spurred the Spanish workers and peasants to the battle.” Without the heroic resistance of the Anarcho-Syndicalist labour unions the Fascist reaction would have dominated the whole country in a matter of weeks. [Op. Cit., p. 53]

This is unsurprising, for what else is global action other than the product of thousands of local actions? Solidarity within our class is the flower that grows from the soil of our local self-activity, direct action and self-organisation. Unless we act and organise locally, any wider organisation and action will be hollow. Thus local organisation and empowerment is essential to create and maintain wider organisations and mutual aid.

To take another example of the benefits of a self-managed welfare system, we find that it “was a continual complaint of the authorities [in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth century] that friendly societies allowed members to withdraw funds when on strike.” [E.P. Thompson, Op. Cit., p. 461f] The same complaints were voiced in Britain about the welfare state allowing strikers to claim benefit will on strike. The Conservative Government of the 1980s changed that by passing a law barring those in industrial dispute to claim benefits — and so removing a potential support for those in struggle. Such a restriction would have been far harder (if not impossible) to impose on a network of self-managed mutual aid co-operatives. And such institutions would have not become the plaything of central government financial policy as the welfare state and the taxes working class people have to pay have become.

All this means that anarchists reject totally the phoney choice between private and state capitalism we are usually offered. We reject both privatisation and nationalisation, both right and left wings (of capitalism). Neither state nor private health care are user-controlled — one is subject to the requirements of politics and the other places profits before people. As we have discussed the welfare state in the last section, it is worthwhile to quickly discuss privatised welfare and why most anarchists reject this option even more than state welfare.

Firstly, all forms of private healthcare/welfare has to pay dividends to capitalists, fund advertising, reduce costs to maximise profits by standardising the “caring” process – i.e. McDonaldisation – and so on, all of which inflates prices and produces substandard service across the industry as a whole. According to Alfie Kohn, the “[m]ore hospitals and clinics are being run by for-profit corporations; many institutions, forced to battle for ‘customers,’ seem to value a skilled director of marketing more highly than a skilled caregiver. As in any other economic sector, the race for profits translates into pressure to reduce costs, and the easiest way to do it here is to cut back on services to unprofitable patients, that is, those who are more sick than rich . . .” “The result: hospital costs are actually higher in areas where there is more competition for patients.” [Alfie Kohn, No Contest, p. 240] In the UK, attempts to introduce “market forces” into the National Health Service also lead to increased costs as well as inflating the services bureaucracy.

Looking at Chile, hyped by those who desire to privatise Social Security, we find similar disappointing results (well, disappointing for the working class at least, as we will see). Seemingly, Chile’s private system has achieved impressive average returns on investment. However, once commissions are factored in, the real return for individual workers is considerably lower. For example, although the average rate of return on funds from 1982 through 1986 was 15.9 percent, the real return after commissions was a mere 0.3 percent! Between 1991 and 1995, the pre-commission return was 12.9 percent, but with commissions it fell to 2.1 percent. According to Doug Henwood, the “competing mutual funds have vast sales forces, and the portfolio managers all have their vast fees. All in all, administrative costs . . . are almost 30% of revenues, compared to well under 1% for the U.S. Social Security system.” [Wall Street, p. 305] Although market competition was supposed to lower commissions in Chile, the private pension fund market is dominated by a handful of companies. These, according to economists Peter Diamond and Salvador Valdes-Prieto, form a “monopolistic competitive market” rather than a truly competitive one. A similar process seems to be taking place in Argentina, where commissions have remained around 3.5 percent of taxable salary. As argued in section C.4, such oligopolistic tendencies are inherent in capitalism and so this development is not unexpected.

Even if commission costs were lowered (perhaps by regulation), the impressive returns on capital seen between 1982 and 1995 (when the real annual return on investment averaged 12.7 percent) are likely not to be sustained. These average returns coincided with boom years in Chile, complemented by government’s high borrowing costs. Because of the debt crisis of the 1980s, Latin governments were paying double-digit real interest rates on their bonds — the main investment vehicle of social security funds. In effect, government was subsidising the “private” system by paying astronomical rates on government bonds.

Another failing of the system is that only a little over half of Chilean workers make regular social security contributions. While many believe that a private system would reduce evasion because workers have a greater incentive to contribute to their own personal retirement accounts, 43.4 percent of those affiliated with the new system in June of 1995 did not contribute regularly (see Stephen J. Kay, “The Chile Con: Privatizing Social Security in South America,” The American Prospect no. 33, July-August 1997, pp. 48-52 for details).

All in all, privatisation seems to be beneficial only to middle-men and capitalists, if Chile is anything to go by. As Henwood argues, while the “infusion of money” resulting from privatising social security “has done wonders for the Chilean stock market” “projections are that as many as half of future retirees will draw a poverty-level pension.” [Op. Cit., pp. 304-5]

So, anarchists reject private welfare as a con (and an even bigger one than state welfare). Instead we try to create real alternatives to hierarchy, be it state or capitalist, in the here and now which reflect our ideas of a free and just society. For, when it boils down to it, freedom cannot be given, only taken and this process of self-liberation is reflected in the alternatives we build to help win the class war.

The struggle against capitalism and statism requires that we build for the future (“the urge to destroy is a creative urge” – Bakunin) and, moreover, we should remember that “he who has no confidence in the creative capacity of the masses and in their capability to revolt doesn’t belong in the revolutionary movement. He should go to a monastery and get on his knees and start praying. Because he is no revolutionist. He is a son of a bitch.” [Sam Dolgoff, quoted by Ulrike Heider, Anarchism: left, right, and green, p. 12]


December 15, 2009 - Posted by | kooperatifler vb modeller, ozyonetim, sistem karsitligi, somuru / tahakkum

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