Ellul: Can Anarchism Work?

Jacques Ellul was a French theologian and Christian anarchist living in the 20th century. His life spreads fairly neatly across the century – he was born in 1912, and died 1994. He wrote a lot about the relationship between humans and technology, and I’ve been wanting to read his book Propaganda for a little while – but today we’re looking at his Anarchy and Christianity, first published in 1988.

Really all I want to do today is go through Ellul’s definition of anarchism. It seems like a term that can mean different things to different people – and it jostles up against other terms as well. In the opening few pages, Ellul compares his anarchist views to those of liberals, socialists, communists, and labour unions, distinguishing his position from each. So we’ll start by just going through the provided definition, and asking the question – does this seem like a good way to organise our society? Especially as it’s been some thirty-five years since the book was published – how do his ideas stack up? Has our cultural context changed how we might receive these ideas today?

Ellul opens by stating that he is not in favour of violent anarchism, both for strategic reasons and for Biblical ones – as a Christian, he considers that love is morally superior to violence. He continues: “If I rule out violent anarchism, there remains pacifist, anti-nationalist, anti-capitalist, moral, and anti-democratic anarchism (ie, that which is hostile to the falsified democracy of bourgeois states).” That’s a definition by way of opposition, I guess – note particularly the slightly startling point about being anti-democratic. He expounds on this idea in the bracketed comment, as well as more later on in this section, but he’s not against democracy in concept. It’s more an issue with how it actually functions in practice – in his words, the “falsified democracy” of the modern day. He’s obviously concerned with how the facets listed above threaten to subvert the democratic enterprise. I don’t think we have to unpack the compromising relationship between money and elections, or even more straightforwardly between money and public policy. It can often feel like the democratic process is undermined by the rich, by the people who control the media, by the people who can afford to hire lobbyists and send them to pester politicians directly. As Ellul says later on, “The state does not respect its own rules. We must distrust all its offerings. We must always remember that when it pays, it calls the tune.” That’s a sentiment that’s certainly become more commonplace since 1988.

Ellul’s positive articulation of anarchism follows shortly after the negative definition: “There remains the anarchism which acts by means of persuasion, by the creation of small groups and networks, denouncing falsehood and oppression, aiming at a true overturning of authorities of all kinds as people at the bottom speak and organise themselves.” His view of anarchism is non-hierarchical, rejecting the bureaucratic structures of society in favour of – I guess loosely associated groups? This is where things get interesting. He clearly thinks society is too far gone to be saved from the inside. He doesn’t think there’s any value to engaging in the political process, arguing that people shouldn’t vote: “we must never forget to what degree the holding of political power corrupts.” The game is rigged, and the only choice is not to play. But I’m not sure Ellul’s example really supports his point – at least, not any more.

As evidence for his argument, Ellul points to the Greens movement, which, he says, exemplifies the failure of trying to change the system from within. In his view (in France in the late ’80s), the Greens movement “has been split into several rival groups, three leaders have declared their hostility publicly, debates about false issues (eg of tactics) have clouded the true aims, money has been spent on electoral campaigns, and nothing has been gained. Indeed, the participation in elections has greatly reduced the influence of the movement.” Now, maybe that was true in 1988 in France – I really couldn’t say. But given where we are now, in 2022 – does that thinking still hold? Have environmentalists really gained nothing by getting into politics? Look – I mean I wouldn’t say that they’ve conquered the world, but at least in my experience here in New Zealand & Australia, they often seem to be flirting with confidence-and-supply deals with the various Labour parties – so they have a seat at the table, and are sometimes even in government. We can haggle about their exact amount of success, but it seems like you’d have to do a lot of work to prove that they’ve gained absolutely nothing.

The other problem is Ellul’s proposed solution. If we cannot make change by engaging in the political process, he says, we must make it by acts of conscientious objection. We must object to bureaucracy: “the enemy today is not the central state but the omnipotence and omnipresence of administration.” We must object to the exercise of state power: “It is essential that we lodge objections to everything, and especially to the police and the deregulation of the judicial process. We must unmask the ideological falsehoods of the many powers, and especially we must show that the famous theory of the rule of law which lulls the democracies is a lie from beginning to end.” This passage leads into the one cited earlier: “The state does not respect its own rules.” Honestly, I think that’s all fairly compelling. Ellul’s concern about bureaucracy and the keeping of records ties in neatly with our modern awareness of being constantly surveilled and analysed for our potential as consumers. We know that we are being reduced to so many data points – our marks at school are recorded, as are our qualifications, and then our medical history, our purchases, our browsing history – all in the name of the capitalist machine. Ellul has more to say on this topic – The Technological Society, 1954 (another book for later) – but in the meantime, we can probably voice some level of general agreement with where he’s coming from.

It’s just – ugh, it’s so hard to agree with this guy in an unqualified way. Here’s how Ellul talks about conscientious objection, when he first brings it up.

“I believe that anarchy first implies conscientious objection – to everything that constitutes our capitalist (or degenerate socialist) and imperialistic society (whether it be bourgeois, communist, white, yellow or black). Conscientious objection is objection not merely to military service but to all the demands and obligations imposed by our society: to taxes, to vaccination, to compulsory schooling.”

Oh boy. All of this is bad. Objecting to military service is probably okay, but it’s a bad time to hate vaccination and school. Over the last few years we’ve all been confronted by the power of the state during a public health crisis, and by and large we’ve all said – yeah, fair enough. We’ve recognised that Covid requires a response organised at the highest levels, where a few people with really specialised knowledge should be allowed to direct our actions to ensure the best possible outcomes. We’ve trusted ourselves to the system, and the system seems to have worked. And with schooling – Ellul writes that he is “naturally” in favour of education, but that he doesn’t think it should be forced on children when they are “obviously not equipped to learn intellectual data.” That sounds like it threatens to be discriminatory – I think at the very least we should be curious about which demographics seem more or less ‘equipped’ to learn. Could there be, for instance, some correlation between kids who perform poorly in school and kids who aren’t properly fed?

Later Ellul expands further on this idea, suggesting that parents ought to resist government-mandated schooling by creating their own educational options: “I have in mind a school which the parents themselves decide to organise, giving instruction in fields in which they are equipped and have authorization to teach … the most effective type [of school] is one that is run by true representatives of the interested parties: the students, the parents, and the teachers.” This – again, it just sounds like a bad idea. I don’t know if this is something that has been particularly exacerbated since 1988, or if Ellul just doesn’t quite get it, but nobody has the time or the money to invent a communal school. In the first instance, I think our communities are so atomized that you’d never get the sort of community spirit needed to establish this sort of thing. Then, even if you did get it going, the risk would be that the plumbers all teach their kids the skills they need for being a plumber, while the lawyers and doctors teach their kids the skills they need for those roles. Because most suburbs have a particular demographic, in terms of income and relative wealth and so on, creating these local parent-driven schools just seems likely to exacerbate the existing issues of class divide. I’m caught a little on the idea of ‘authorization’ as well – in a non-hierarchical anarchist system, who is permitted to authorize another person to teach? Are decisions made school by school, or has Ellul just reinvented the Department of Education?

Much of Ellul’s diagnosis I think still holds true today. I agree that bureaucracy is everywhere, that we are increasingly becoming data files to be administered and managed. But I don’t think that his solutions hold. Despite what everybody says, the government isn’t completely useless. Some governments – some of the more functional ones – actually responded fairly well to the pandemic. And engaging with the system isn’t a pointless enterprise. Again, the Greens maybe haven’t achieved everything they hoped they would, but it feels difficult to say that they were better off outside of the political system. Maybe what’s happened is that in some ways our issues have worsened since Ellul’s book. Where I am currently, I can’t really imagine a system of parents creating their own schools. I don’t think that’s how our social fabric works any more. But maybe there are other options – still in the spirit of Ellul – that offer something in a similar mode. In Will Burns’ 2021 novel The Paper Lantern, there’s a section where the narrator talks about the conversations he’d have down at the pub – how talking about gardening felt like a sort of social levelling. “In the pub our little patches were a shortcut into talk that was both flippant and deeply felt. The status symbols of so much village life – the jobs, the schools, the huge and brutal cars, seemed meaningless when the talk turned to digging and timings and tender plants.” It’s a conversation outside of hierarchy, outside of the alienation forced on us by our separate jobs and roles. It’s not the whole solution, but maybe it’s a start.

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