The above is said by V, the twisted superhero of V for Vendetta. I almost called him an anti-hero, but he’s not that. An anti-hero doesn’t want to be a hero. V most certainly does. Only, as most of V’s supporters would agree, V is also a terrorist. V’s self-assigned mission is to bring down a government that does not, in his view, act in the best interests of the people. The State has chosen Security. V chooses, on behalf of everyone, Liberty. Alas… the eternal struggle.
Pyotr Kropotkin, too, has much to say about government gone awry. In the book I’m using as my introduction to anarchism, The Conquest Of Bread, Kropotkin contends that it is the State that creates a lower class to be exploited by the fat cats, the State “having reduced the masses to a point at which they have not the means of subsistence for a month or even a week in advance.” This constant condition of anxiety breeds in the people a culture of fear. And, as Paul Atreides might say, Fear is the mind killer. Fear makes citizens docile and obedient and leads, according to Kropotkin, to “a depression of initiative and servility of mind.”
V also recognizes that Fear is the black heart beating at the center of modern times. From V’s perspective: yes, the State is culpable for the current situation, but he does not hesitate to blame also we-the-people. He understands that it is Fear which causes men to accept their modern-styled serfdom. Lack of fear, on the other hand, would enable them to break their chains. As he tells Evey, his largely involuntary protégé, after she emerges from the tortuous re-education he inflicts upon her: “You have no fear anymore. You’re completely free.”
For the vast majority, however, a life condemned to wage slavery is the common fate. For Kropotkin, this slavery is symbolized by the uniforms and badges [and now-days, I could add name-tags]– symbols that Kropotkin calls “those outward signs of authority and servitude.”
[ If you like this post so far, you might also want to read my posts on Revolutionary Anarchist, Mikhail Bakunin, starting with: Anarchism Is Not Disorder . ]
In V for Vendetta Stephen Fry’s character is painfully aware of his own fear-based servitude to authority. In his case, he is afraid to be who he really is, and so he has worn, for his entire life, the mask of someone else, someone the State and Society can approve of. But as he admits to Evey, this has come at the highest cost of all— a subversion of personality so extreme that the complete loss of Selfhood is a real possibility. As he puts it so eloquently, “you wear a mask for so long, you forget who you were beneath it.”
Both V and Kropotkin believe that human society does not have to be all against all, but instead is naturally more of a community affair. Both share the view that we’re all in this together; we’re all on the same team. For V, this is more of a message of encouragement to revolution than an economic argument— a way to combat the reasonable fear that an individual experiences at the thought of standing up against the State alone and exposed. V’s strategy for revolution is to create the conditions that will cause the people to rise up en masse, as one unconquerable creature; otherwise, rising one by one, the people would stand no chance.
For Kropotkin, the idea that we are all on the same team is at the very center of his approach to anarchism and his desire for revolution. Kropotkin agrees with the overlooked true meaning of Proudhon’s oft-quoted three words, “property is theft.” Neither Kropotkin nor Proudhon think that people should not have possessions; what they believe is that the fat cats who claim the right to exclusive ownership of immense tracts of property or numerous and gigantic factories or entire subdivisions of houses— they believe these fat cats are improperly snatching the value created by thousands, even millions, of workers.
For Kropotkin, fat cats not only stand indebted to their current economic team members, but they also owe much to generations past who have, by their intelligence and toil, bestowed upon us-the-living a common inheritance of fantastical wealth. The community as a whole has, over decades and even centuries, “cleared the land, dried the marshes, hewn down forests, made roads, pierced mountains.” Kropotkin reminds us that our nourishment comes from the domesticated crops of today that “have been transformed by generations of culture into succulent vegetables or trees covered with delicious fruits,” and that we can thank the generations before us that the coasts have been surveyed and made safe, that rivers have been made navigable, that artificial harbors have been dug and offer protection for ships against the sea’s mighty fury.
And obviously, we have past generations to thank for far more than changes in the landscape. Says Kropotkin: “Every machine has the same history—a long record of sleepless nights and of poverty, of disillusions and of joys, of partial improvements discovered by several generations of nameless workers.” For each and every contemporary invention, Kropotkin credits “thousands of inventors, known and unknown, who have died in poverty” and laid the groundwork for today’s most recent tweaking of ideas and machines. For Kropotkin, we are all standing on the shoulders of giants, and “every new invention is a synthesis, the resultant of innumerable inventions which have preceded it.”
Kropotkin goes deeper still, saying… “Thousands of writers, of poets, of scholars, have labored to increase knowledge, to dissipate error, and to create that atmosphere of scientific thought, without which the marvels of our century could never have happened. And these thousands of philosophers, of poets, of scholars, of inventors, have themselves been supported by the labor of past centuries. They have been upheld and nourished through life, both physically and mentally, by legions of workers and craftsmen of all sorts.”
He had me at “property is theft.” But wait. There’s more. That’s just the trans-generational debt we owe. There is also the current team that Society is fielding…
All this wealth and merchandise and machinery that the fat cat thinks is his affair alone (and he honestly does think this!) has to be transported every day by sea and land or else the factories would be useless and the stores empty and the buildings uncompleted and unmaintained. Kropotkin points out that, although a fat cat may own vast acreage of the most fertile land, if he wants to exploit the property for agricultural or other purposes –and yet he have no one to tend it for him– “he might as well possess property on the moon.”
As for city property, much the same. A valuable lot in the city owes most of its value to its location in the midst of “paved streets, bridges, quays, and fine public buildings” and also to the fact that inhabitants have access to “a thousand comforts and conveniences” and so desire to live there even at a high rent. A city can be “the work of twenty or thirty generations,” says Kropotkin, who have worked centuries to make it “habitable, healthy, and beautiful.”
And let’s not forget about the average taxpayer, Kropotkin says, whose heavy burden of taxation supports all these never ceasing wars and security operations around the globe that keep this current system in place.
One of my favorite lines from V for Vendetta is when V tells Evey: “A revolution without dancing is a revolution not worth having.”
That the outcome of the revolution should be joy and fulfillment for all classes is crucial also for Kropotkin. He frets in several passages in The Conquest Of Bread over the lack of opportunity the average worker has to fulfill himself artistically. People’s outlet for their creative needs vary widely, he says, “but the artistic needs exist in all.” Kropotkin states plainly the aims of the revolution: “It is in order to obtain for all of us joys that are now reserved to a few –in order to give leisure and the possibility of developing everyone’s intellectual capacities– that the social revolution must guarantee daily bread to all. After bread has been secured, leisure is the supreme aim.”
Did you find the aim of “leisure” jarring? Most of us would in today’s world. We, like most slaves, have adopted the slave-holders value system. It has been drilled into us from every side of our lives that leisure is the most immoral of activities.
Kropotkin surveys the scene and sees that most people have little chance of substantial self-development or discovery: “We see that the worker, compelled to struggle painfully for bare existence, is reduced to ignore the higher delights –the highest within man’s reach; of science, and especially of scientific discovery; of art, and especially of artistic creation.” He goes on to add that the person who has worked all day “has not the time, and still less the means, to give himself the high delights of science and art, nor even to prepare himself to appreciate them. He must be content with the crumbs from the table of privileged persons.”
It pains Kropotkin to see employees going to work each day “like machines blindly obeying an impetus given, to lead this life of misery without hope.” “What interest in fact,” he asks, “can this depressing work have for the worker, when he knows that the fate awaiting him from the cradle to the grave will be to live in mediocrity, poverty, and insecurity?”
For Kropotkin, the revolution will usher in a new economy in which work will lose much of its onerous nature. In fact, work, itself, will become a source of personal fulfillment. Sounding like an economist shoring up his argument, he makes the claim that “the satisfaction of physical, artistic, and moral needs has always been the most powerful stimulant to work,” and that “a free worker, who sees ease and luxury increasing for him and for others in proportion to his efforts, spends infinitely far more energy and intelligence [on his work] and obtains first-class products in a far greater abundance.”
Kropotkin believes that the vast majority of the so-called “lazy” are simply “people gone astray in a direction that does not answer to their temperament nor to their capacities.” He describes reading the biographies of numerous great men who “were lazy so long as they had not found the right path; afterward, they became laborous to excess.” For Kropotkin, an “idler” is usually just “a man to whom it is repugnant to spend all his life making the eighteenth part of a pin, or the hundredth part of a watch, while he feels he has exuberant energy which he would like to expend elsewhere. Often too, he is a rebel who cannot submit to being fixed all his life to a workbench in order to procure a thousand pleasures for his employer, while knowing himself to be far the less stupid of the two.”
Adam Smith, the father of classical economics, did not, in Kropotkin’s opinion, consider the full repercussions of his unreserved enthusiasm for labor specialization. Kropotkin believes Smith did not think of the poor worker “condemned for life to make the heads of nails,” or that this worker would, of course, lose all interest in his work.
V in V for Vendetta puts personal responsibility more to the forefront than Kropotkin does in The Conquest of Bread. For V, we all share some responsibility for how the world is today. In this, he agrees with many critics of society, from Camus to –dare I say it—Osama Bin Laden. It was one of the Existentialists who said that each one of us is mankind, and what I am is mankind. When V predicts the imminent arrival of the revolution, he talks not about the evil government, but only of his own responsibility and the personal responsibility of other individuals: “This world, the world that I’m a part of, helped shape, will end tonight. And tomorrow a different world will begin that different people will shape.” No whining about The Man holding us all down.
Lastly, I suppose the fact that I’m writing about Kropotkin’s philosophy nearly a hundred years after his death offers some proof of V’s contention that “ideas are bullet proof.”