Monday, May 31, 2010

Can Medicine be Libertarian?

A differently formatted and illustrated version of this article appears in
Black Flag, Issue 231, Mid 2010, pp.20-23, under the title 
‘The war for control of our health. Overview: Libertarian approaches to medicine.’ 

Those who argue that anarchism would never work sometimes cite the practice of medicine as an example of the type of situation where a libertarian outlook would create insuperable problems and have disastrous consequences. Medicine is one of the areas which are sometimes said to be necessarily authoritarian and hierarchical, beyond the scope of a self-managed society based on workers’ control because of its complexities and the specialised knowledge required. Yet critiques of established or orthodox medicine, in theory and  practice over many centuries, have perhaps more often than not taken a markedly libertarian turn, whether from people who tried to find ways of helping and with luck healing themselves and each other, or from reformers within the profession who were ready to demystify and democratise their subject. Some of these have been consciously radical and even revolutionary in intention, seeing collective efforts at mutual aid as pointing a path towards a different organisation of society.


Traditional histories of ‘western’ medicine usually pointed out a path of progress, overall, towards ‘scientific’ remedies, and in Britain the supposedly universal access to a health service provided by a benevolent state. Writers who were often doctors themselves paid homage to the great men, ‘fathers’ of this and that advance or specialism – a history riddled with paternity suits, as someone said. By the later 20th century this view was being challenged from various perspectives, including feminist ones; the work of medical historians, notably Roy Porter, transformed the subject, and the debates continue.

Radical Thinkers

In Britain the later 18th century was a time of widespread satire and scepticism about medical practice and the power of doctors. John Moore, himself a Glasgow physician and surgeon, wrote in Medical Sketches, 1786: ‘The difference between a good physician and a bad one is certainly very great, but the difference between a good physician and no physician at all, in many cases, is very little.’ He advocated the ‘healing power of nature’ as against ‘being teased to swallow drugs... a species of distress to which the rich are more exposed than the poor, provided the latter keep out of hospitals.’ 

Saturday, May 22, 2010

Colin Ward : the anarchist of everyday life :

Wednesday 9 June at 8pm

The Postmen's Office at the North London Community House,
22 Moorefield Road, London, N17.[The old Post Office]
The venue is just around the corner from Bruce Grove British Rail Station, where Bruce Grove meets the High Road in Tottenham. Any High Road bus is OK. Wheelchair accessible.

Glyn Harries introduces us to the anarchist and social theorist, author of nearly 30 books on a wide range of questions, who died in February of this year. We would like to celebrate his life.
(Selections from the DVD Colin Ward in conversation with Roger Deakin will also be shown.)

Colin Ward was the editor of the newspaper Freedom for a number of years,and was also the founding editor of the influential journal Anarchy from 1961 to 1970, which was described as the most original political/intellectual monthly journal being published at that time.

He became influenced by anarchist ideas after being conscripted into the army and ended up in Glasgow where he saw many of the local anarchist orators in action. In 1945 he was summoned as a witness to the trial of the editors of Freedom who were being prosecuted by the government for 'incitement to disaffection' with the publication of War Commentary. Ward, an avid reader of these anarchist publications, had been found with these in his possession and had to appear at the Old Bailey.

In 1973 his most famous book was published: Anarchy in Action, a work that has been translated into many languages. In this Colin Ward presents an alternative view of anarchism, he says: 'The argument of this book is that an anarchist society, a society which organises itself without authority, is always in existence, like a seed beneath the snow buried under the weight of the state and its bureaucracy....Of the many possible interpretations of anarchism the one presented here suggests that, far from being a speculative vision of a future society, it is a description of a mode of human organisation, rooted in the experience of everyday life....'

This idea is perhaps his most distinctive contribution. He elaborated it in his approach to the welfare state, calling the voluntary, non state option the path not taken, and returned to the theme of social policy several times over the years.

His published books cover a range of topics with perceptive criticisms of the social world and its problems and possible practical anarchist solutions to them. Colin Ward saw his body of work as integral from an anarchist point of view. The topics covered included town planning, housing, vandalism, education, child care, the politics of water etc. He was an acknowledged expert on tenants and housing. He also wrote histories on squatting, self-help housing of the working class, allotments and self-built holiday camps. His prolific writing resulted from what he saw his role as being: essentially that of an anarchist propagandist.

In the 2003 book Talking Anarchy Colin Ward is interviewed by David Goodway in what is an interesting and thought provoking biographical work. His influences from Kropotkin, Landauer and Goodman are clearly shown, as well as how he chose the topics that he wrote about.

The meeting will discuss the ideas and writings of Colin Ward, his achievements and how these can be used by anarchists and libertarians, now and in the future.

Freedom obituary of Colin Ward

Guardian obituary of Colin Ward

Monday, May 3, 2010


Meeting on the role of elections in the strategy of the libertarian left and the changing of society at the North London Community House. 22 Moorefield Road, London N17 [The old Post Office  Sorting Office] at 8pm Wednesday 5 May. All welcome.                 

See previous blogs for material on this plus the different views offered by Dale Evans and PastTense.

In the meantime below are a few thoughts on voting, parties, parliaments and democracy.

"In many countries workers nominally have a more or less important say in the election of the government. It is a concession made by the bourgeoisie, both to avail itself of the popular support in its struggle against the monarchical and aristocratic power as well as to dissuade the people from thinking of emancipation by giving them the illusion of sovereignty."

Errico Malatesta (Anarchy p23)

"What is called democracy and is alleged to be government of the people by the people for the people is in fact the government of the people by elected rulers and would be called 'consenting oligarchy'"

Nicolas Walter (About Anarchism p32)

"...essentially the power is in the hands of capital, whether there are voting qualifications or some other rights or not, or whether the republic is democratic or not - in fact the more democratic it is the cruder and more cynical is the rule of capitalism."

V I Lenin ( The State p20)

"' Do you go to the polls? do you vote? Again, it depends on whether there is a choice worth making, whether the effect of voting is significant enough so it is worth the time and effort. On local issues I almost always vote.'"

Noam Chomsky (On Anarchism p241)

"Social life as a whole keeps up its democratic facade (with political parties, trade unions etc.) But these organisations, as well as the state, politics and public life in general are profoundly bureaucrastised. Any active participation by individuals in the life of political or trade union organisations can have, properly speaking, no meaning at all."

Paul Cardan (Modern Capitalism and Revolution p70)

"A party is not as classical doctrine (or Edmund Burke) would have us believe,  a group of men who intend to promote public welfare 'upon some principle on which they are all agreed'. This rationalization is so dangerous because it is so tempting. For all parties will of course at any given time provide themselves with a stock of principles or planks and these principles or planks may be as characteristic of the party that adopts them and is as important for its success as the brands of goods a department store sells are characteristic of it and important for its success. But the department store cannot be defined in terms of its brands and a party cannot be defined in terms of its principles. A party is a group whose members propose to act in concert in the competitive struggle for political power. If that were not so it would be impossible for different parties to adopt exactly or almost exactly the same program"

Joseph Schumpeter (Capitalism, Socialism and Democracy p251)

Past Tense Reply - No Parliamentary Elections in any circumstances

Apologies for the lateness of this reply… The author of the past tense leaflet was away when Dale post went up, and since then has been busy with work and childcare… Finally here is our respsonse. We have dealt with some of the points, one by one, so sorry if it seems slightly disjointed.

Past tense doesnt call itself anarchist, though some of us have spent time in the anarchist scene over the years… Some useful ideas come from various traditions, including those that label themselves, communist, anarchist, socialist or feminist ; we are unhappy with some elements of these strands of thought, and are open to other influences. As well as evolving our own ideas, shock horror.