Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Jacques Ellul on Anarchism

Jacques Ellul was a Christian anarchist--a strange combination to be sure. Here is his explanation of why he was an anarchist, and why the Christian ought to be. I am not wholly convinced of his position, but as much of what he has to say, I find it very persuasive.

"...for most men today the involvement which is most useful, and which best expresses Christian freedom, is involvement in anarchy. I am well aware of all the arguments that can be brought against this. I know that Calvin viewed it as the one orientation which cannot be accepted. I realize that there are texts in the Bible which tell us that authority comes from God. Nevertheless, in my opinion, Calvin's judgment relates to the circumstances of his own time and the passages in the Bible are not contrary to my thinking, paradoxical though it may seem to be.

What reasons drive me to this view? I certainly do not say that it seems to me to be a direct expression of Christian freedom. What leads me in this direction is the constitution and development of the modern state. All specialists agree that we now have to speak of the nation state, i.e., the state which absorbs into itself the entire life of the nation. They also agree that the state is bureaucratic, i.e., abstract and anonymous. It is authoritarian, even when democratic. It is arbitrary, for no state observes rules and constitutions. It is universal. It wants adoration; no state can really govern today without obtaining the adherence of the heart and the emotional support of the masses. It knows neither limit nor humanity.

These characteristics, which have often been analyzed, mean that in certain circumstances--and again I am not trying to lay down what should be an intrinsic or permanent Christian attitude--the state in any country, no matter what may be its form, whether democratic or dictatorial, new or popular, is in fact the chief danger known to man, whether from the material standpoint or from the spiritual standpoint.

The danger is not the absence of authority or even the misuse of authority. Calvin could see it thus because in his place and time, both in France and in Germany, the danger was indeed anarchy, the weakness of authority, and the unleashing of the passions of the mob. In our day the exact opposite is the case. For when the mob gets out of hand and revolts today the final result is always the creation of an even more powerful state.

In this area the only danger known to man in our age is the tendency of the state to become absolute in every field. This is aggravated by the fact that this power which tends to become absolute is set in a technological society, i.e., in a society which provides the state with a fantastic number of means. The state is totalitarian, not because of totalitarian doctrines, but because of the vast array of means, e.g., in planning, economic and administrative management, forecasting, investigation, control, research, inquiry, and psychological action.

Every modern state is totalitarian. It recognizes no limit either factual or legal. This is why I maintain that no state in the modern world is legitimate. No present-day authority can claim to be instituted by God, for all authority is set in the framework of a totalitarian state. This is why I decide for anarchy.

We must be more precise, however, in two respects. The first has to do with the common accusation brought against anarchy. This is that it is too utopian and idealistic. No society can last in conditions of anarchy. This is self-evident, and I am in full agreement. But my aim is not the establishment of an anarchist society or the total destruction of the state. Here I differ from anarchists. I do not believe that it is possible to destroy the modern state. It is pure imagination to think that some day this power will be overthrown. From a pragmatic standpoint there is no chance of success.

Furthermore, I do not believe that anarchist doctrine is the solution to the problem of organization in society and government. I do not think that if anarchism were to succeed we should have a better or more livable society. Hence I am not fighting for the triumph of this doctrine.

On the other hand, it seems to me that an anarchist attitude is the only one that is sufficiently radical in face of a general statist system. For there can be no question of being able to overcome the system by changing it from within. The failure of Lenin, Castro, and others is all too evident. The system absorbs those who think they can utilize it. nor can there be any question of finding a modus vivendi or achieving attenuations. It has been demonstrated how a liberal state becomes an authoritarian state. The course is set and no accommodation will be either lasting or sufficient.

In face of this absolute power, only an absolutely negative position is viable. What we have in mind is the attitude that conscientous objectors take on a specific point, and not without good reason. In the present set-up the anarchist attitude of a total refusal of validity or legitimacy to any authority of any kind seems to me to be the only valid and viable one. The point is not to enforce a particular view of society but to establish a counterbalance, a protest, a sign of cleavage. In face of an absolute power only a total confrontation has any meaning.

When we speak of dialogue with the sovereign, it seems to me that this can be definitely initiated only on the basis of the greatest possible intransigence, for power today is completely alien to any real discussion. It is true that discussion is allowed within the system. But the quarrels between right and left seem to me completely futile, for in every possible way they simply lead to an enhancement of the power of the state.

Democracy is a mere trap with the party system as it is and a bureaucracy that cannot be altered. Discussion may go on about taxes and the improvement of social services. But power is totally deaf to the individual, indifferent to the interests of freedom, and ignorant of the true concerns of the nation. Only a radical opposition, i.e., an attack on the root of the situation, can engage it in authentic dialogue.

The second point that I wish to clarify has to do with concrete organization. What we have in mind is a radically negative attitude to the validity of any undertaking of the modern state. This means on the one side that it is possible but by no means necessary to associate with an anarchist group. This is good if Christians can bring new blood, and useful and serious contacts are possible. On the other hand, it is clear from our first point that the Christian will always be in an ambiguous position in any such group.

It must also be stressed that this is not the only possibility of anarchist action. Links can also be forged with situationist and pacifist groups. The actions entered into can also be of very different kinds, e.g., ideological action, propaganda, direct action, refusal to vote in elections, conscientious objection, refusal to pay taxes, and so forth. This is where each individual must decide for himself. The essential thing is the decision to challenge the modern state, which without this small group of protesters will be checked by neither brake, value, nor reason."

----- The Ethics of Freedom, pages 395-398
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