Continuing John Kinsella interviewed by Tracy Ryan (State Library WA, 2004)
I want to pick up on that idea you just mentioned – at that phase of your wanting everything to be sort of gone, destroyed, whatever. The anarchist writer, Colin Ward, whose book you have already mentioned, suggests that the people who most readily attack the ideology of non-violence are those with little experience of the ugliness, squalor, and arbitrary nature of violence, so he’s saying those who say that non-violence doesn’t work are the ones who really haven’t had much to do with violence. Could you comment on how your witnessing or experiencing of violence may have influenced your vegan, anarchist, pacifist beliefs? I’m thinking of poems of yours like “Shootings”, in which you write about early experiences with animal death on farms, but also of any other experiences that you felt were crucial.
I was pretty aggressive. I had a major substance and alcohol problem for a long time and I was an aggressive person, and I tried to deal with things very directly, and very ineffectually, in the long run – I certainly learnt that. I suppose having a sense of aggression about you makes you think about it generally, but more than that, I grew up shooting everything. I had guns, and on the farm – when I sent and spent time there – it was considered to be what you did; you literally went out and collected trophies, and that kind of trophyism was a very big part of my life up to age sixteen. I shot everything that walked, crawled and flew – that’s what I was. I shot the things I liked the most, I loved “twenty-eight” parrots, they were beautiful; I shot them because they were there, and what was disturbing about this was that I actually understood what I was doing. I wasn’t some kid who was conditioned to this; I pursued it as an art form because it struck me that it was a kind of masculine thing that someone who was very directly non-masculine as a kid could do.
It struck me as a way of kind of identifying with that part of the culture I was invited into, so it was that kind of violence, and I stopped this because of two incidents – one when I saw an animal chew off its forepaw because it was entrapped and it chewed off its entire limb trying to escape; and the second was when I hit a ram driving past a ute on this gravel road near the farm. I was actually eighteen when that happened – I was farm-minding at the time. I shouldn’t have been driving, but that’s another issue – I hit a ram that ran out and fell over a fence and ran just in front of the vehicle, and it had a broken neck, and I was terribly distraught, as I didn’t know what to do with this animal, and I shot it in the head and killed it, and pretty well everything changed for me from that period on. It took a while before I became a vegan, but that kind of event really stood out.
Also as someone involved in that kind of lifestyle of drugs and alcohol, I saw a lot of violence, a lot of serious violence, and it used to repulse me. So my activity against violence, my pacifism has come from experience rather than from just a concept. I have experienced a lot of violence as an addict, but also since cleaning up my act — as a pacifist being physically challenged for being a pacifist. Being tested. People are so affronted by non-violence, it’s even a far more effective device than violence anyway, and if you want to bring change, you can bring it most effectively by not biting back. So my non-violence is something that’s come through a kind of fire if you like, and there are many other things I’ve seen over the years that confirm that, especially in other countries – that I won’t go into, but I’ve been involved in the middle of things on a number of occasions where people have been literally fighting with guns and stuff. I found myself in the middle of battle in the mid-‘80s and saw people shot. It changes you.
Your veganism connects you in other ways to the environment. We heard Mar [Bucknell] say earlier (in an introduction to this interview) how anarchists recently have been involved with the tuarts at Ludlow (actions to protest against the sand-mining of an area of rare and endangered tuart forest near Busselton in south-west Australia); we also heard, in a previous lecture in this series, about your concerns for the environment, in the forest lecture. Is an anarchist necessarily an environmentalist, and what forms of action then, or attitude, might that take?
I’ve not met any anarchist who is not an environmentalist, but as Colin Ward points out, they are most often environmentalists of the urban. Certainly in the London anarchist groups, as you would expect, in the British anarchist groups, they are very urban-centred, big populations in urban places, and Colin Ward talks about the urban environment as someone who is concerned about how people are housed; it’s a very important thing to him. I have an interest in that, but I am very much what you would call a ecological environmentalist. After I gave the forest lecture I went down to the tuart forest, and it’s the most horrific thing I’ve ever seen; this is a set-up, it’s not even owned incidentally by Cable Sands, it’s owned by a different mob altogether, manipulation of legalities, the crossing of boundaries and the violation of measurement; it makes it actually illegal within Australian government terms as well.
We’ve got the anarchist activists in the forest, and we need them, and that’s good, but my argument to them, when I was talking to them, people I feel deeply akin to who are pacifists as well, but they were doing a lot of locking-on to machinery and I said that’s a very pacifist resistance, but it’s a very finite effectiveness once you’re locked up. You’ve been locked up a few times, you are disempowered, the state will get you, believe you me, it does. And then the defence is gone, then the trees get knocked over, and as I was talking a tree was going down. I think the solution to a lot of these problems is one in which we use our mutual aid and work together. We live in a world that is not anarchist, unfortunately, and we must work with people who aren’t anarchists and may have very different views, and I don’t have a problem with that. I’m very pragmatic in that way: I’m quite happy to work with people for a cause and work together and have a number of different approaches to a situation, because I think if we get very monolithic in the way we view a problem, then we are really serving our own interests, and our own emotions, rather than the actual cause of say, saving the forest. I’m not suggesting these people are serving anything but the cause of the forest, I’m saying there has to be a more interactive approach to preservation of environment because you can save something for six months, but then six months later…
We went up to the Avon Valley National Park, not far from Perth, a beautiful park where the Avon River runs through. You only get to see it basically when the Avon Descent is on and people go and watch them going down the rapids, but Boral, the large mining conglomerate that mines stone, their mining operations are based on the edge of the park, possibly going into the park, that’s an issue, as well, I’d like to find out about. The government doesn’t survey its own wrong; it surveys your wrong according to itself, and that’s a truism. It strikes me that one of the most effective pacifist ways of dealing with governments is to kind of legally dismantle them from within, as with defending the tuart forest, get a few really good lawyers down there and get those boundary lines checked out where they have violated the lease and get them, and gradually the process of decomposition takes place. So I’m into very practical solutions.
You more or less absorbed my next question there, which is good, but I’ll just add one aspect of it. It was to do with Maletesta having said that “we have to find ways of living among non-anarchists as anarchistically as possible, because history is always a result of all the forces acting in society”. So is it really feasible? You’ve just been talking about ways in which we might live as anarchistically as possible under that umbrella, even when we differ from it. Is it really feasible; are we inevitably going to get drawn into complicity with the State?
I actually have such a negative view of the State, that it’s so oppressive I don’t think we could ever be complicit with it, because it’s always going to get us in some way or another. The welfare state is obviously set up in a paternalistic way to protect people, theoretically, but the further you move away from who is actually doing the governing, the process of representation, the less you are going to be represented. Democracy for me is not a free society; it’s the opposite because you’re abdicating your responsibility and your right to have a say in how you live. My local government member for York for the region – he doesn’t know me and I don’t know him – we might meet socially, but the point is I’ve abdicated the responsibility to him.
Democracy is not about giving you your rights and freedom. It’s about working through a totally delayed and distracted and deferred system of response to needs, where responsibility is in essence entirely removed. The more welfare-state it is, the more paternalistic it becomes, of course. On the other hand, thinking about Ward... Thatcherite individualism, for example, yields right-wing selfishness. Ward notes certain things that were in some senses more anarchistic than the Labour government that followed, and that’s not to say he supported Thatcher – he loathed Thatcher and his whole life was campaigning against Thatcher, but the idea for example, the example he gives is when council houses were sold at very cheap rates to the occupants because basically the Thatcher government did not want to spend any money on the upgrade and the upkeep of these houses, so the houses were sold for £30,000 – half their price – to the occupants. So suddenly a group of relatively underprivileged people had property, and unwittingly what the government did was empower “working class people” through property ownership which they normally wouldn’t achieve under the rigours of wealth-marginalisation, for want of a better expression. Ward picks up on the point that governments actually don’t understand what they are doing when they are working in other directions and the Thatcher point is a very good one, there, in every way.
As regards individualism in America, of course, historically, there is a whole thread of right-wing anarchism, individualist and liberal anarchism that is very much packed into the “what’s good for me is best, and bugger everyone else” school of thought. But it’s a lot more complex than this. The American dream of doing pretty well what you want without government strictures, at least from the “Feds”, or without interference, is so much tied up with property – a kind of liberty through the rights of property accumulation.
Umbrella anarchism is a co-existence but not an approval of the state. Anarchism on a “micro-level” can bring change in quite dramatic ways. “Umbrella” both protects and deflects (literally, from rain). The anarchist is protected from the physical abuses of the state’s legal and military apparatus by “co-existence” on the least directly compromising levels (purchasing food, use of water and hospitals, and so on), but is also deflecting its intrusions by making use of facilities and means outside the state’s control (and corporate-state capitalist control) as much as possible (not banking, exchanging and bartering where possible, growing one’s own food, capturing one’s own water, refusing to vote, being involved in public and private protest, deschooling – I am thinking of Ivan Illich here – and so on).
I’ve got a couple of things which relate to what you are saying. Malatesta again: “The real being is man, the individual... in the age-long struggle between liberty and authority, or in other words between socialism and a class state, the question is not really one of changing the relationships between society and the individual; nor is it a question of increasing the independence of the individual at the expense of social interference or vice versa. But rather is it a question of preventing some individuals from oppressing others; of giving all individuals the same rights and the same means of action; and of replacing the initiative of the few, which inevitably results in the oppression of everybody else.”
I think a lot of people who aren’t anarchists have problems with the individual and how it’s balanced against society. Do you want to comment a little more on that, on your notion of what individualism is, for you?
...You have two functional notions of the individual, we have the individual that we know, where what we think and what we feel are very much connected to this physical body we have, and that’s a very observable state. It is also the individualism that comes in how we interact with other people, within a social situation – say five or six of us might get together and watch a television, and we have very individual views regarding what we should watch – regarding the matter of ‘choice’... all arguing what is good for us is good for others because... and so on. Struggling towards consensus, creating a comparatively egalitarian and acceptable pattern of watching. So there are two issues there – one of consensus where we have agreed to actually do something together, and one of actually having an individual view within that consensus (and a desire to have our own way).
In a non-centralised world, it seems essential that property is held in common, and pretty well most anarchists would agree on that – there is not individual ownership to the point where people can have actually more than someone else, because we are sharing in a distribution of wealth. But it is a kind of wrong thinking for me, an illogical thinking, in that property as such, as a definition, shouldn’t exist at all, as far as I’m concerned. The problem is in the emotion of ownership. The desire to fetishise the object and exclude others having a right to it. To invest it with a personal spirit that makes it exclusive. The existence of property would be contingent on rights of access: to have access to the things that are required/needed at a particular time; so I might have this book, but you have access to it if you need it, only if it becomes “relevant” on a basis of need. I might have made this book, I might have sat down and made my own paper, written it up and have it in my own possession, but it is something anyone can have. Same applies to a shovel or bedding or any other “possession”. Some “property” would need to be used constantly, and this is factored in: clothing, eating utensils, health items...
It’s a kind of public moment, you are not hiding it away and keeping it for your personal edification alone; there are different levels of possession and materiality depending on need. I think that there are very literal and very obvious and pragmatic solutions to these issues of ownership or not. Things are not only in common – obviously they are in common – but I think we have access. So if someone’s got a rake, then I will use it and then so on. It is a very feasible thing. For me it’s not a matter of what you own; it’s a matter of what you share.
I’m thinking in terms of how that’s organised in a wider context, with your ideas about international regionalism, which you’ve talked about in relation to poetry and landscape – you’ve written about it as well. This is the sort of wide picture rather than person to person, because the world, so we say, is very global now... Would you just like to talk about the idea of international regionalism, how it relates to anarchism for you and to your views of environment and pacifism as well?
International regionalism, in a nutshell, is basically interacting with communities outside one’s own, respecting others’ regional integrity, and confirming your own identity. So it might be applied to a social group, it might be a geographical region. Obviously the integrity of tribal or nomadic social groups that have a differing “definition” of region, that cross lines of other community identities, is respected. Respecting that, and at the same time opening communication between those groups where communication might be desirable, or allowing communications. Or silences.
So in this regional philosophy the possibility of lines of communication (visual, verbal, exchange – a variety of modes of interaction) is key. I developed this idea in dealing with poetry, in writing a very physical, a very regional poetry – I write a very specific area – and being very involved in international discussion on how things might change or what we might do. So this kind of theory evolved out of a necessity.
Within this philosophy, people sometimes ask, what about identity groups, indigenous identity groups or migrant identity groups, and so on?
Well, this isn’t an issue of identity-as-hierarchy, but identity-as-choice against state hegemony. “Identity” is completely respected and surely it is logical that ethnicity and social groupings or beliefs connected to land are enough to generate a kind of social structure, rather than having a government tell you what to do? And that is a very interesting differentiation. Bakunin thought that everything problematical began with the concept of God, that we immediately start with the hierarchy. The point is being made that there is a hierarchy for relationship in the way we worship. Now, I am not suggesting that people should suddenly not worship, but what it means is that the power structure dictates how one worships or how one believes or how one has faith. I’m not serving anyone, they are serving themselves – it’s a matter of allowing people to recognize that the “church”, for example, whatever religion we are talking about, is dictating to you how you will believe. You are quite capable of discovering how to believe yourself. Through your experience socially and otherwise, there are a lot of other directions available to you. I think it’s a good point.
Go to Part Three