I had been here three days when I first heard the phrase, jokingly thrown out by my taxi driver as we watched a car full of AK47 wielding youths drive the wrong way up one of the busiest roads in the country. And he was right, Libya and Libyans are free, to paraphrase a 90s dance hit, to do what they want to do after decades of brutal oppression under tyrannical former dictator Muammar Ghaddafi.
Where once there were laws enforced by fear now there is nothing but freedom; absence of authority, governance and leadership. In the days and weeks after the revolution here achieved its military aims the world watched as pictures of jubilant Libyans, free at last from the shackles of State sponsored terror, rejoicing boisterously in the streets were beamed to a global audience. Tales abounded of ordinary folk bonding together to help each other out as the apparatus of Ghaddafi’s regime was either destroyed or taken over by revolutionary fighters.
The now dead former leader had always insisted that his Libya was a utopia of direct, participatory democracy with decisions taken and institutions run by a series of people’s committees. This, much like the Soviet bastardisation of Marxism, was of course very far from the truth indeed.
Here, in the aftermath of a successful uprising, was evidence of a very real and practical spirit of community amongst Ghaddafi’s opponents who, by the end of the revolution, made up the vast majority. Food was shared, support offered as Libyans bathed in the post-revolutionary glow of their success and looked after one another where they could.
It’s moments like this that have meant I have self identified as an ideological Anarchist for as long as I can remember. To clarify, and it’s often necessary given the vast amounts of propaganda and misinformation that surrounds the idea of Anarchism, I am probably not the type of person you imagine when you think of an Anarchist. I am a teacher, I have a degree in English and International Relations. I have travelled widely. I polish my work shoes on a weekly basis and I love Earl Grey tea and Manchester United. Do not confuse Anarchy with chaos or Nihilism. In fact, in many ways, it’s quite the opposite.
Of course, Anarchism is an open term that encompasses several different schools of thought. There’s nothing like extreme and niche politics for causing an ideological split every time someone wears the wrong hat to a meeting or something but broadly I pinned my colours to the black mast because I believe passionately in concepts such as human rights, self determination, meritocracy and reducing social inequality. I believed that rather than pitch individual freedom and social responsibility against each other as the traditional right and left have done for over a century, both could be achieved through the removal of hierarchical power and the violence it has to use to maintain itself. I believed that if people and communities weren’t forced into behaving in a certain way and were instead made to feel like a part of their society they would behave accordingly and with more empathy and consideration than when they are threatened or intimidated by a heavy handed, top down power structure. In some ways Anarchy is one of the most optimistic and democratic lenses through which to view our species.
I read with great wonder the stories of communities which had embraced such an inclusive system and when people told me my ideas were impractical and unrealistic I would counter that they were in truth more logical than the current status quo and I would direct them to the opening pages of Orwell’s famous homage to Catalonia where he describes a powerful feeling of community and camaraderie on the streets of Barcelona at the beginning of the Spanish Civil War. It was a story and an experiment cut short by the complexities of the ongoing war which eventually saw a crushing Fascist victory but one that I felt certain could be recreated if we were only willing to shake off our antiquated notions of control and rule.
Skip to Libya right now, in the early days of 2014. An interim government created in the aftermath of the revolution stands impotently by as rival militias fail to return to civilian life, sometimes through their own refusal and sometimes through the necessity of them continuing to provide essential services. But the political instability and uncertainty in and of itself is understandable, some would argue even predictable in the power vacuum left behind by the fighting. What has become more apparent to me, though, is not the big political game but the details of the small, street level changes.
“ليبيا حرة” and it’s badly translated English equivalent “Libya Free” were slogans of the revolution. They summed up the collective desire of a population pushing their way out of a four decade straight jacket and they served to unite, albeit briefly, a varied and complex citizenry. But having won (and, despite NATO intervention and all the financial and material support the international community funnelled to the rebels through the Qatari government, one should make no mistake; it was a hard fought and bloody victory) I was shocked at how Libya had chosen to use its newfound freedom. As the breakdown of rule of law led not to a lasting communal sense of shared responsibility but to a chaotic free for all, the slogan of the revolution became an ironic jeer, an inside joke that everyone in the country was in on. Kids robbing people at gunpoint in broad daylight? Libya Free. A group of guys smashing up an empty block of flats? Libya Free. A carful of armed youths swerving down the wrong side of the road? Well, my taxi driver nailed it. Libya is in the grip of not only a political catastrophe but a social one too. The yearned-for freedom, now delivered, has not led to any meaningful desire to build a just and equal society but to a Wild West atmosphere of isolating individualism and survival of the fittest style violence.
I accept, of course, the argument that this could be considered a natural reaction, an instinctive backlash from years of restrictions on people’s lives and behaviour but the pattern of events doesn’t fit that paradigm. The conscientious behaviour and social cohesion so abundantly present in the immediate aftermath of the fighting gave way to this increasing sense of fragmentation and violence rather than the other way around. Perhaps these ides of cooperation and communal responsibility only arise in terms of crisis, like Barcelona in 1936, as people grasp on to a model of reciprocal kindness as a means of self preservation, only to abandon it at the first opportunity for personal gain.
Libyans, having earned their freedom, are using it and abusing it to destroy each other.
Of course, it is not just a few months in Libya that have got me to this point. Nearly three years in the Occupied Palestinian Territories not only demonstrated a similar response to any power vacuum but also led me to question the ideal of anti-Statism as I lived amongst a stateless people. For the first time in my life I saw some value in Nationalism, at least in its most benign incarnation. And, happily, I’ve witnessed what is absent here in Libya. I’ve witnessed people collectively take responsibility for each other of their own free will. I’ve seen communities run effectively and democratically on the basis of consensus rather than force. I’ve seen it everywhere from Bolivia to Zambia to Somerset but time and again every example falls into one of two categories – either it is amongst a very small, self selected community or it is defined by its own short-termism. Kindness, cooperation and empathy has a sell by date, apparently. And it’ll turn quicker than milk. On this basis, then, I find myself moving intellectually away from my Anarchist ideals. Not in a sudden fit of rage or by condemning them from my new point of view atop the pile of rubble that used to be Libya but slowly, and with a longing glance backwards. Like a fond goodbye to a friend who you learned a lot from and wish could travel on with you but you find no evidence that this is the case.
So what of Libya now, then? The building of some kind of viable State would at least return some sense of normality to people’s lives here and representative democracy, while still capable of an extreme level of corrupt rule by fear and misinformation, would at a bare minimum offer more reason for optimism than Ghaddafi’s brutalism. The fact that many openly complain that at least under him there was some semblance of order is a measure of how badly those institutions of the State are desired. Until then, though, we remain in this lawless purgatory with all the personal liberty one wants to take and no responsibility or consequences. Until then, it remains: