An improvised – I mean, er, impressionistic – review of Peter Marshall‘s Demanding The Impossible.

People who have been oppressed or otherwise maligned often internalise the mockery and hate they’ve experienced. Thus, of course, one sadly notes the history of self-loathing amongst the Jews, homosexuals and fans of prog rock. One can also see this in ideologues whose thoughts have been so marginalised that, like old men regretfully acknowledging the passing of their times, they’ll accept the function of political eccentric. Oh yes, they’re communists, anarchists and libertarians but just for old time’s sake, you know; they’re quite harmless. This ensured that it was even more of a delight to read Peter Marshall’s Demanding the Impossible: a fervent, frank and unapologetic paen to anarchism.

The condescension with which so-called centrists treat less popular opinions is bogus. Anarchists, they’re apt to claim, expect vast, unprecedented things from human beings that defy their very nature. Well, perhaps, but I and many of others have expected vast things from states that defied their very nature. Only difference is that they’d been tried before. And failed. Still, just as the flop that was the difference engine didn’t make scientists give up trying to build a computer, Marshall has to demonstrate why efforts to improve the state are a losing cause; and, of course, why his blueprints are preferable.

It should first be said, however, that Demanding The Impossible is a work of history more than of polemic. It takes an insider to lead one through the tangled growths of anarchistic thought and thinkers and the author is a fair, engaged, illuminating guide. Rather than trying to cram the varied lines of thought into a single narrative he gives distilled biographies of major figures, schools and groups. There are also overviews of the radical politics and spiritualism in which anarchism finds its origins; influential if divergent ideologies and less familiar international struggles. This gives one a feel for the shambolic growth of the idea – Max Stirner rubbing shoulders with Pierre-Joseph Proudhon – while allowing one to trace the development of its thoughts and principles.

Marshall gives a fair hearing to each thinker he introduces. True, his preferences are clear – individualists get no love in his closing words – but his theories keep a humble distance from the history. One can thus appreciate the vast scope of the ideas and activities the notion has inspired. These are too broad for me to summarise but what I felt they’d often return to were concepts of selfhood: of reaching a state where the potential of one’s consciousness can bloom unhindered. This inspired the spiritualism of the Taoists or Tolstoy; the egoism of Max Stirner or the Marquis de Sade; Proudhon’s mutualism; Thoureau or Zerzan’s naturalism. This ensures that far from being a lifeless history of ideas Marshall’s book is richly and urgently human.

What’s that you say? I’m being gratuitously sentimental? Oh, right, a fucking sap. Well bear with me for a second, reader – no, make that a paragraph. Many of today’s struggles for freedom – in the West, at least – are founded on the cold and often tenuous demand that “rights” or “civil liberties” be met: the right to speak; the right to buy; the right to smoke indoors. This, it could be said, is all that’s needed but if the value of freedom – what form it should take; how it allows us to fulfill ourselves – is sidelined what’s inspiring us? Often just a sterile investment in a cause. And if you’re asking to be free the next question is surely “to do what”. The autonomous are saddled with a burden the oppressed are never forced to carry: the responsibility to determine their existence; the ethic they’ll live by; the ambitions they hope to pursue. Demanding liberty without considering one’s freedom is like fighting a parental curfew without stopping to think of a place you’d like to go.

As a defence of anarchism Marshall’s book has two requirements: to make it sound appealing and to make it seem applicable. On the former he succeeds magnificently. On the latter I’m still unconvinced. His case against the state barely needs to be expounded. As one reads the book it becomes painfully clear. From Proudhon to Tolstoy to Noam Chomsky, it’s disturbing to realise how long an institution that’s assumed to safeguard its people has been thrusting them into senseless wars. From the knaves who tried to outlaw Rights of Man and What is Property to the thugs who’ve bullied, banned or butchered anarchists in Russia, China and Japan it’s sinister to think of just how many lives have been oppressed and stifled by “authorities”. Whatever freedom we’ve enjoyed in recent times – rarely shared, compromised and always under threat – it’s obvious that this is neither an inevitable product of society or something we can count upon.

Yet how might we cope without a state? Marshall is aware that it’s a gnarly issue and tries to side-step charges of utopianism, writing that…

Utopian thought is valuable precisely because it has the imagination to visualise a society which is different from our own.

True. But while inventors need imagination to visualise new concepts they’ve also got to put in the cold, hard-headed work of seeing if they’re plausible. The state – as an enforcer and as a provider – has existed for so long it’s hard to know how men would live if it just parched like bindweed that had gripped us. We know that our tribal ancestors were often nasty bastards long before the institution of the state and people who claim that man’s evils are just implanted by it are a little too utopian. That’s rose-tinted glasses time. Marshall doesn’t hold such a belief but seems to quietly indulge it; writing, for example, that…

In the absence of a professional police force, communities are quite capable of maintaining public security for themselves and have done so for centuries.

But have they done so while maintaining devotion to truth; respect for justice and reluctance to exert gratuitous coercion? (No lynch mobs in other words.) I’m not sure they have. And while I’m told that humans can pursue their own desires in harmony; respect their neighbours and quiten the will to power I’m not sure they would.

There’s plenty more to say but I don’t think I’ll slop it over Marshall’s book. It is, after all, an introduction rather than a treatise. And I’m saddled by my ignorance – should that be “unburdened by knowledge”? – to such an extent that trying to form an ideology would be somewhat akin to a craftsman building without tools.  I don’t know man’s nature – if we’d tolerate, cooperate or even just subsist without authorities. I don’t know if states can’t be improved – and, if they can’t, whether a different structure is all that preferable. Yet I can take these questions to the veritable reservoirs of thought that Marshall’s book has introduced me to – and to the world we’re fated to engage with. ‘Til then I feel it’s best to maintain hostile scepticism to the state, the banks, the businesses and all powerful entities. And to nose down avenues of self and social liberation without just presuming that there’s someone else to guide us. No apologies.

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