Anarchy in the UK?

The conditions that bred Red Brigade terrorism 30 years ago exist here today, says Rupert Cornwell
Click to follow
The Independent Online
IT IS hard to feel very sorry for even a drenched John Prescott. Sure, no one enjoys having a bucket of cold water poured over them, but Deputy Prime Ministers of a certain age, girth and self-importance have no business attending the celebratory romps of rock stars and expecting to be treated like royalty. Glance at the man, too, and you might suspect he's launched the odd tomato or rotten egg from a picket-line in his time. A case, then, you might say, of the eau juste. What caught my attention, however, was his assailant. Not his name, Donbert Nobacon, though that is strange enough, nor his garish dress, but the epithet attached to him. Mr Nobacon calls himself an "anarchist". If he is, anarchism ain't what it used to be.

For once upon a time, it was a serious matter indeed. Not so much in Britain - although Joseph Conrad based his tale of the attempted bombing of Greenwich Observatory in The Secret Agent on a historical event - but in Europe, where in the 19th century anarchism was a small but noble strand in the turmoil of the age. This was not a continent caught up in the celebrity-driven modishness of today's Britannia, where fatuous hyperbole is king, but one struggling against autocracy. Anarchy was a creed of idealists and zealots seeking a better world, who believed government as then constituted was positively harmful, not of pop stars in pursuit of a headline.

The names of its heroes are half-forgotten now. There was the exiled Russian Mikhail Bakunin who wrote that "the passion for destruction is a creative urge" and whose vision was a collectivist utopia: Communism in that word's original and soon-abandoned sense. But destruction also meant the destruction of people, and among Bakunin's disciples was the Italian Enrico Malatesta who believed in the "propaganda of the deed" - what we today call terrorism. Violent anarchism's heyday came in the closing decades of the 19th century. In 1881 the "Will of the People" revolutionary group murdered the reforming Tsar Alexander II. Elizabeth, Empress of Austria followed in 1896, the Spanish prime minister a year later. Finally, in 1900, the emigrant Bresci, sent by an Italian anarchist group in the United States, shot dead King Umberto I.

The anarchist doctrine had other, more peaceful schools, but as the 20th century progressed, it has faded as a coherent movement. Its core belief, that the existing system was rotten, was subsumed into Socialism, while the infinitely more evil beliefs of fascism and Communism would tear the continent apart.

In truth, however, anarchism has never gone away. Its non-coercive strand has been echoed by non-political campaigners from Gandhi to the modern Greens. In the US the ultra-libertarian strand predominates, in the militias of Montana, even the Waco tragedy involving the Branch Davidians, a cult that believed itself beyond the province of ordinary government. In Italy, the violent tradition continued with the terrorists of the Sixties, Seventies and Eighties, disciples of Malatesta all. We used to theorise about the choreographed interplay of the "left-wing" Red Brigades and the even shadowier terrorists of the right. But the assassination of Aldo Moro in 1978 was straight from the textbook of Malatesta: and no deed in modern Italian history has reaped a greater harvest of propaganda. Were the Red Brigades left wing? In a way. But they were first and foremost anarchists.

In France, anarchism's garb is gentler, of street protest rather than assassination, but no less enduring. "L'anarchie, c'est l'ordre" was the watchword 150 years ago among Pierre Joseph Proudhon and his followers. Fast forward to the Sorbonne in 1968, and the slogan of the student protesters who almost brought down De Gaulle: "Soyez realiste, demandez l'impossible!" As they say in those parts, plus ca change.... But an argument can be made: that not only has anarchism never disappeared, it could be poised for a second summer.

For anarchism, whatever its form, is above all a reaction against government, and contrary to appearances that beast is growing. Certainly, by the visible yardstick of public spending's share of GNP, the state - "Big Government" in US parlance - is on the retreat. But in more subtle ways its reach, blurred by the private corporations to which it now fashionably sub-contracts many services, is longer than ever. Never has government possessed so much information about its citizens; never, thanks to technology, has it been so easy to cross-tabulate that information. Unto them, everything about us is known.

Here in Britain, Tsarist autocracy is not the problem. Whatever the objections to Mr Blair's "presidential" aspirations, and for all the meek obedience of his cohorts in the Commons, no one would accuse the Government which Mr Prescott adorns of rank despotism. But you do not have to have anarchical leanings to dislike its preachyness. From beef on the bone to single mothers on welfare, his is a government which knows best and takes great pleasure in promulgating the fact. New Labour's doctrine has been re-written: ownership of the means of production has been replaced by the ownership of virtue. We cannot help you, but we have the untrammelled right to tell you what to do. Now in this isle which has mostly eschewed violence as a means of political expression, protest is unlikely to stretch much beyond ruining a Cabinet minister's suit. But elsewhere?

Take, to start with, the curious similarities of today's political circumstances with those which spawned Italian and German terrorism three decades ago. In Bonn, a "grand coalition" between Christian Democrats and Social Democrats left the country without meaningful parliamentary opposition. Ditto in Italy, where the concept of "converging parallels" was coined for the unspoken entente between Christian Democracy and the most moderate Communist party in Europe. So the radicals pursued their ends by other means. Today we don't have grand left-right alliances, for the simple reason that in practice they already exist. In Germany, Italy and France, the left has grudgingly acknowledged "the triumph of the market" and is shifting towards the centre. In Britain, where Blairism is Thatcherism with a more human face (and there are those who would dispute that distinction), it already has.

Everywhere, ideological distinctions are of nuance, not of principle. Look where he will, the old believer sees nothing but trouble: on one side, an unforgiving market subject to no man's laws; on another, a government which can eavesdrop on his phone calls and track his every footstep; and finally a political system which offers no real outlet for his grievances. No matter whether you edge towards anarchism from the aggrieved left (the European tradition) or right (the American way, via the myriad of militias, cults and semi-sane individuals who see all government as a Satanic conspiracy), you're not short of motives.

Nor is there any shortage of means. The paradox is that although the modern state is hugely powerful, it is also uniquely vulnerable. Indeed, not since Tsarist Russia perhaps has the anarchist, in theory, had such opportunity to wreak disruption. Then that opportunity lay in the sheer concentration of power in the hands of one man; kill the king and you would incapacitate the state. Now it resides in the very reliance of government on the sophisticated systems from which its enhanced power stems. The state that has grown mighty by the information revolution may be brought to its knees by information guerrilla warfare.

In this sense, Ted Kaczynski, that Faberge of the letter-bomb, whose minutely crafted devices killed three people and wounded a score of others, is an irrelevance, a mere dilettante of the species. For him, gratification was the murder and maiming of a few professors and businessmen, but above all publication in the New York Times and Washington Post of a 35,000- word manifesto prophesying that modern industrial society would lead mankind to its doom. However, fascinating criminal though he was, the challenge to the state posed by Kaczynski the Unabomber was minimal. So too was even that of the anarcho-terrorist Timothy McVeigh, who built and planted the bomb that killed 168 people in Oklahoma City.

But not so the threat from the computer chip. That threat per se is nothing new. We know all about viruses and the Millennium bug and it was 15 years ago that Hollywood came up with Wargames, in which a teenage hacker had the Pentagon's computers unleash ICBMs against Moscow. And the kid didn't even mean it. Consider what a real-life computer Kaczynski, who did mean it, could conceivably do with just a laptop, if he could pick his way into government databases.

Such could be the battleground of the next world war. It could also be where the anarchist takes revenge on the system. The literal Greek meaning of anarchy is "absence of government". Not for a century have its practitioners (who do not include Donbert Nobacon) had even as tiny a chance of attaining that goal. As for Mr Prescott, he should be thankful it happened in England, and the weapon of choice was not the AK-47, but dear old H20.

Comments