Posts Tagged ‘anarchism’

Reformists and revolutionaries never seem to get along.

One side points to the horrendous and damaging things done by the state, and cites this as a reason we should abandon it. The other side showcases the necessary parts of life currently accomplished by means of the state, and declares that, because these things are necessary, the infrastructure currently providing and maintaining them is equally indispensible.

Atheists and secularists, similarly, point out the atrocities committed in the name of religion, as well as the less obvious harm it does to people’s capacity for rational thinking. Apologists highlight the many people inspired to do good things by their faith, and claim that, at worst, religious faith is a useful tool that can be misused.

Too often, one side gets stuck trying to deny the other side’s arguments have any validity at all. Secularists act as if our entire case would fall apart if we admit to a single instance of a Christian doing something nice because Jesus. Some people in my political sphere of engagement seem to fear it’d be a major defeat if they ever had to acknowledge that some people get into politics because they care about the folk around them and want to help.

I think a crucial way to be better at having this discussion is to learn to be more selfish, unreasonable, and idealistic.

We’re always told that we can’t have it all, we have to take the good with the bad, that there’s always going to be a downside and shortcomings to any attempt we make to solve anything. Obvious question, but: why? Why can’t we have the good things without the bad things?

Why are anarchists wrong to think that we should have things like roads, healthcare, firefighters, and other federated national services, but not also have to put up with a government that spies on everyone’s private correspondence, locks up hundreds of thousands of its citizens for non-violent offences, and murders thousands of foreign people with no meaningful accountability?

Why should we have to tacitly endorse all the colossal evil done in the name of religious faith, when people do good things for each other all over the world every day inspired by nothing more than secular humanism?

Why shouldn’t we get to pick and choose the positive bits from existing systems, be they religions or governments or whatever, filter out the negative traits, and make up our own system to just give us the good stuff?

We might never be able to eliminate every undesirable aspect of whatever improved systems we put in place, but when the fallout includes things like 9/11 and the NSA, it seems unconscionably complacent to shrug that off as simply being shit that happens. Maybe when the side effects are quite that bad, we should take this as a sign that the system doesn’t need “fixing”; we deserve a less broken system altogether.

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How To Overthrow The Illuminati is the name of a worthwhile website/pamphlet, about the problems of systemic corruption and inequality in the world, the reasons why many people turn to grandiose and illusory conspiracy theories to explain it all, and how to actually think about correctly identifying the enemy and struggling against the root causes of civilisational inadequacy.

Thanks for the recommendation, The Ex-Worker.

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Sometimes, as I read some new and unsurprisingly depressing political story, I can feel my own tendencies plunging ever further toward the anti-authoritarian left even as the words scroll slowly past my eyes.

I can be minding my own business, catching up on recent events in the worlds of politics and pop culture in my news feed, or watching the latest iteration of the ongoing gender politics nightmare explode across the atheoskeptosphere.

And then a North Carolina Senate Committee chairman perfectly encapsulates the inevitable feeling of superiority that festers in the ones with privilege and power, as well as the accompanying contempt for those lesser wretches who simply exist on a level of society barely worthy of recognition or respect. And he does so in a few neat, elegant phrases:




…aaaaaaaand anarchist.

But don’t blame this guy. His only crime is believing the hype.

Everything about the US political system which elevates people to these positions of authority reinforces the idea that members of elected office are better, more important, more powerful, more consequential, more right, than the unwashed masses from which they ostensibly arose.

And this system, frankly, is unacceptable.

It’s not worthy of us, because it gives us characters like Tommy Tucker, quoted above, who completely lose sight of any desire to serve the public good – charitably assuming that was something which once motivated him – in favour of telling the plebs to pipe down whenever a hint of representative democracy gets in the way of his career.

And it’s not worthy of Tommy Tucker, because he’s a human being like the rest of us, and he deserves better than to have his worst tendencies nurtured at the expense of his humanity, and to be turned into even more of a selfish, despotic, bureaucratic thug than he would have managed on his own.

Individuals like him are not the root problem. We’ve had centuries to find ways to populate our representative democracy with good people who won’t cock it up. If it was going to happen under a system remotely resembling what we have now, we’d have got there ages ago. We should be seriously looking for an alternative to this “if only the right party would win” thinking. Otherwise we’re just going to carry on repeating the same action and expecting different results. (Someone had a word for that, though I suspect it may not actually have been Einstein).

The system is not good enough. We can do better.

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Here’s another of those things where I read something that bugs me and I want to write about, I make a note of it, I completely forget to take down any citation or contextual link or reminder of where it came from, weeks pass, and then I find it again and can’t remember what the hell it was about but I might as well blog about it because I’m here now anyway. People love those, right?

This was the quote I had opinions on:

Anarchists: your utopia will never happen. People are too crap.

I’m still dithering on what label best suits my half-baked collection of political ideas. “Libertarian socialist” I’m pretty comfortable with; “anarchist” I have a lot of sympathies with, but I’m not sure. I’ve read enough about it, though, to pick up some obvious objections to a claim like this.

It’s something anarchists respond to quite a lot, the idea that people’s inherently crap nature is an absolute limit on how lovely and free of authoritarian ruthlessness the world can ever be. (Sometimes it’s couched in more fancy philosophical jargon, but “people are crap” is something everyone can understand.) And it doesn’t take more than a cursory look at the history of human behaviour to see where this claim is coming from. From genocide to that dick on your bus who plays his music too loud, human crapness abounds.

But if this crapness is hindering our positive development as a society, we have to ask: who, exactly, is crap?

Is it you? Or is it those other people, the ones you can pick out and identify as being especially crap? Or is it just everyone?

Are other people so crap that you need to control their lives?

Or are you so crap that you need someone else to control yours?

But for the sake of argument, let’s go with this premise for a while. Yeah, people do kinda suck, in ways that really inconvenience the rest of us. (Or, y’know, in ways that leave innocent millions dead and dying.) So maybe it makes sense to rein in that inherent suckitude, by giving some extra power and authority to the best of us – those with the most wisdom and foresight, the kindest and strongest hearts – so that they can counteract our collective crapness, with their sensible diplomacy and intelligent, benevolent leadership.

That sounds like it’ll make things much nicer.

Either that, or it’ll put George W. Bush1 in charge of everything.

People of Britain, we’re all crap, we could never get by on our own, we’d cock up any attempt at society we tried to put together… so let’s put David Cameron in charge. He’ll delegate the Work and Pensions bit to Iain Duncan Smith. And the hospitals to Jeremy Hunt. And the schools to Gove. Hurrah, we’re saved!

Oh wait.

Anarchy isn’t about abandoning all the rules and letting everyone run amuck and make it all up as they go, totally ad hoc, and just trusting in humanity’s better instincts. Well, probably it is for some people who wave the black flag, but that’s not how it’s seen by those serious enough about this philosophy to have written essays on it. It’s about organising ourselves in ways that don’t allow humanity’s worse instincts to take over and start institutionally harming and destroying us.

Trying to inspire and nurture the best in us should be an obvious course anyway, and some people have decided that this is best achieved by abandoning all hierarchical authority, so that nobody is in a position to abuse it, or to be abused by it, or to use it to gather ever more authority to themselves and start a cycle of tyranny, or to start infringing others’ rights and justifying it as part of their remit to defend the “greater good”, and so on. Perhaps that form of organisation is, inevitably, one that does more harm than good.

I mean, if people are crap, why do you want to keep giving them so much power over you?

If we’re too crap for anarchy, but the best makeshift solution we can come up with is putting a ruling class in charge of everything, then I’m not sure I want to live on this planet any more.

1I use Bush instead of Obama as an example of executive power gone horribly wrong, because I suspect my audience is still largely left-leaning, and so the memory of Dubya with the nuclear launch codes will invoke a more visceral reaction of horror and disgust. It’s still true that Obama’s worse in most of the ways that allegedly matter to his supporters.

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Here’s a thing about anarchism.

Some anarchists claim to reject all political ideology, and to be the one group truly free from such things. Actually, I think it’s clear there is an ideology behind their ideas, but this isn’t necessarily a bad thing. To claim that exerting authority by force over another human being is always wrong, and can never be tolerated, is an ideological position. On some levels, it’s an admirable one.

But as well as admirable, a lot of anarchist discourse and rhetoric seems to imply that this position is also trivially obvious.



I’ve seen a few videos like the above, and read a few essays making claims like “capitalism is wage slavery” and “taxation is theft” to describe the evils of coercion. It seems like it should barely even need to be explained that any authority takes people’s rights away, and so no government or state or individual should never be granted the right to exert such authority over others.

Here’s the problem: even if the moral principle is sound, and the wrongness of the state’s efforts to thwart this principle and impose their authority is trivial and obvious, there’s a good deal that’s not trivial and obvious.

For instance, what the fuck we’re supposed to do instead.

I’m not going to claim there’s no possible alternative to a system of state authority. I’m still hoping to be persuaded. The idea that appeals to me, and which I’d like to be true if it seemed plausible, is that statism has a comparable role in our society to religion: structurally vital to our developing civilisation in the distant past, and a previously necessary part of our species’s capacity to get organised and become great… but something which we can and should abandon once we’re sufficiently sophisticated, and once it’s clearly started doing more harm than good.

Right now, a centralised state is crucial for me to be able to live comfortably in a house I didn’t build myself, eat food for which I personally neither foraged nor hunted, and many other things without which my quality of life would take something of a dip.

Anarchists, of course, propose a system in which society still works together, and all these things can still get done. Assuming they’re sensible enough to see the value of a hierarchically structured society for certain aspects of human history, they nevertheless believe that we can get by just fine without it these days. But it’s not trivially obvious how we can actually make that happen.

Constructing a functional civilisation with no authority or coercion whatsoever is a seriously big ask, and drawing parallels between the government demanding taxes and you coming into my house to steal my stuff doesn’t actually address any of the reasons why most of us tend to assume that interferences like taxes are necessary.

I’m all for finding an alternative. But pointing out the trivially obvious injustice in the current system is only one step on a very long road.

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It’s another anarchistastic day here at Cubik’s Rube.

Here’s an excerpt of a book by a guy called Larken Rose, in which he makes some interesting points about government as a religious belief. Here’s a video in which he argues against the US Constitution.

He makes a case worth considering. Specifically, he sets out to highlight the inherent ridiculousness and injustice of the bit of the Constitution which says that “The Congress shall have Power To lay and collect Taxes“, by comparing it to a document he’s drawn up himself declaring his right to come and take your stuff.

It’s a striking analogy, but what’s frustrating is quite how much stock he seems to place in it. It’s very interesting to look at what his own manufactured documentation has in common with the US constitution. It’s less interesting to just insist “look, they’re exactly the same” and not examine why people might tend to think that one has more validity than the other.

The idea that some guy you don’t know can give himself permission to rob your house and take your stuff, and justify it with some fancy fonts and a few irrelevant signatures, is obviously ludicrous. That’s his whole point. But most people will be able to list what seem, at least superficially, like some pretty compelling reasons why it’s not the same when the government does it. People justify taxation by pointing to all the public services it’s used to pay for, for example.

You might not think any of these justifications hold water; I guess an anarchist would assert that there’s nothing of importance currently done by the government which couldn’t be achieved instead through other, cooperative, voluntary means. But if you have a rebuttal to what most people would consider the obvious place to take the argument next, then let’s focus on that. It might be more useful than simply marvelling at how almost every single person on the planet must be some kind of mindless sheep to believe something so idiotic.

Give the statists a little credit, is my point.

While I’m at it, let’s look at the opposite end of the spectrum of attempted anarchist proselytising.

In my sporadic and episodic reading of An Anarchist FAQ, I’ve waded through a fair few pages of talk about “neo-classicism” and “post-Keynesian economics” and “marginal productivity theory” and the like. Now, I’m certainly glad that someone’s analysing these things from an informed economic view, but for most people starting to feel disillusioned by capitalism, government, or the world in general, these seem like secondary and rather esoteric concerns.

The main, burning question about anarchism for me, which I suspect would be shared by a lot of the uninitiated, and for which I’m still yet to reach an answer, would be something like: “You know, the government does, like, quite a lot of shit, and so, like, if there was no government, then, like, how would any of this shit get done?”

Be honest: something like that is what goes through your mind whenever I start blathering on about this stuff again as if it were remotely practical, right?

If anarchists actually have a coherent plan in response to this obvious line of questioning, I think they should really make that more of a front-line argument. Most people won’t really even consider anarchy as a plausible option, no matter how many texts you publish demonstrating capitalism to be totally fucked up in principle. And if you want to insist that’s because we’ve been brainwashed by the manipulative oligarchs into thinking that things have to be this way, then fine – just be aware that it doesn’t actually change anything, no matter how many times you point that out to us.

Okay? Good. Well, off you go. Back to smashing the system.

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So, you know how Occam’s Razor says that, all other things being equal, you should place more trust in the simpler explanation to some unknown problem?

Atheists often use this to highlight the untenability of the God hypothesis. The origins of God are at least as mysterious and enigmatic as those of the Universe, and his very existence is a massive, unfounded assumption which can just as easily be done away with.

Some theists, however, try to claim that “God did it” is itself the most parsimonious explanation for everything, and therefore the preferred explanation. But just because it can be enunciated in fewer syllables that any grand unifying theory of physics, doesn’t make it simpler in any important sense.

It seems like there’s a corresponding misunderstanding in politics, in this discussion of a group of political protestors opposing the government’s decision “to cut social benefits and slash public payrolls”. The media described these people getting angry at government cuts as “anarchists”.

David Boaz notes an obvious objection:

“Odd anarchists,” I harrumphed, who “object to the state reducing its size, scope, and power.”

His point might seem obvious on the face of it, and I wouldn’t be surprised if the media was being overly casual here in throwing the label around, as it often seems to in the case of any kinds of protests. But I would suggest that there’s a similar misunderstanding going on here as in the case of the “God did it” theists.

A simple explanation for the universe isn’t just a matter of cramming it into as short a sentence as possible, and anarchism isn’t always in favour of stripping away any aspect of government at any given moment.

More than just being opposed to government, anarchists are opposed to authority in all forms, and in particular the oppression of the poor and disenfranchised by the rich and powerful. If the government is going to be there, taxing its citizens and upholding capitalism and the rule of law, then cutting back on the social programs that benefit the poor is not necessarily a step toward decreasing government power and levelling class inequality. It may even make things worse.

Yes, in an ideal system, anarchists would not want these state welfare programmes to exist, because they wouldn’t want there to be a state. But given the system that continues to impose itself, and the lack of other options available to the working classes who are still being taxed and having their state provisions taking away, I don’t think most anarchists would herald these kinds of austerity measures as an important step toward equality. (Or, if they do, I’m decidedly less likely to join them in their political philosophy anytime soon.)

A shorter sentence doesn’t necessarily make for a more parsimonious explanation, and the government doing less to help people doesn’t always mean that the imposition of authority is any less.

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You can add this to the list of things which substantially boost my sympathies toward anarchism, even while I don’t understand the politics well enough to full subscribe to them.

The City Of Westminster Counter Terrorist Focus Desk put out a recent notification containing this important advice on public safety:

Anarchism is a political philosophy which considers the state undesirable, unnecessary, and harmful, and instead promotes a stateless society, or anarchy. Any information relating to anarchists should be reported to your local Police.

Yeah, because that’s definitely relevant to terrorism and won’t waste the police’s time at all. It’s not like you’d expect them to be busy focusing on people who are actually breaking the law in some way, right? Maybe arresting some people who are actually breaking things and causing genuine trouble, who keep getting called anarchists in the media but who probably couldn’t explain the political philosophy behind it without doing more than mumble something about John Lydon?

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I’m still not an anarchist, but I’m still finding the literature interesting. Even outside of the extreme anti-statist stuff, it’s giving me things to think about with regard to democracy, capitalism, and the class structure of society.

Most people aren’t anarchists. Most people reckon there are worthwhile benefits to having a system of elected government representatives taking care of some things.

There’s plenty of disagreement about the role government should play, and the extent to which it should intrude on ordinary citizen’s lives. But at times some people’s ideas of what government is for get completely out of control, beyond anything that can be justified even by non-anarchists.

For example, from a news story about a town in Arkansas:

The City Council adopted an ordinance last week making it illegal to form any kind of group without its permission.

Yep. This is the kind of thing politicians start thinking they can do once you let them take charge. Just start telling everyone else that they’re not allowed to form groups for any reason.

In particular, they passed an ordinance (and overruled the mayor’s veto) which got rid of the existing Citizens Advisory Council in the town. The most damning thing to be said against the advisory council quoted in the article is that it had been “causing confusion and discourse among the citizens”.

So the few in charge decided that the people couldn’t be trusted with discourse, and outlawed the founding of any new organisations “without approval from a majority of the City Council”.

It’s really important that, if we’re going to have elected officials in roles where they get to make executive decisions that affect people’s lives, we don’t forget why they’re there, and why we put up with them making any decisions on our behalf. To think that laying down this kind of fascist and dictatorial rule, seemingly crushing people’s freedoms for the sake of maintaining their own authority, is even close to what the elected officials we deign to tolerate are for, is to have a colossally misguided mindset about the nature of government.

(h/t Reason)

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This blog’s becoming less and less focused over time. And possibly less and less informative.

I suppose most of it still comes under the general heading of “humanism”, be it science or religion or politics or human rights stuff. But maybe I should try to narrow my scope, and specialise a bit more, and try not to talk about everything that interests me all in one place.

You know whenever I finally get a cat I’m going to be flooding this place with pictures though.

Anyway, in this post I’m veering briefly back into my adventures with anarchy. I’m still ploughing through An Anarchist FAQ, trying to understand the philosophy as I decide how useful I think it is.

It’s still interesting, albeit really not written in the format of a particularly helpful introduction to anarchism for the uninitiated – at least, not if you just read it through from the start like I’m doing. Maybe I’d be getting more out of it if I dipped into the different sections as it pleased me, but on the whole it doesn’t really address the basic novice questions in the order they’re likely to arise.

It does have some good ideas, though, even if they do sometimes take some ferreting out. The stuff on capitalist economics is interesting, and ideally I’d try to read up on the same concepts from a different perspective as well, to get a better idea of how well the anarchist critique holds up. But sometimes I can’t tell whether I disagree with their politics, or am simply alienated by the way it’s presented.

For instance. I’ve considered myself, broadly, a supporter of capitalism for some years now. The basic economics books or essays that I’ve read have made pretty clear what it has going for it, and the benefits that come from having a system of open competition driving the markets. It makes a certain sense that companies should have to work hard to provide the most worthwhile service to the consumer, unlike in state socialism where everyone has to queue for hours to have things handed out with some gross approximation of “fairness”.

I’m less convinced these days. I’m becoming jaded about the sustainability of a truly free market, the way it’s supposed to exist, where perfect competition between companies means consumers really will be provided with the best possible service because of their spending power.

But it’s not been the anarchist critique of economics that’s won me over. I’m still not empathising with their antipathy to the basic capitalist principle of workers being paid wages for their labour, instead of owning the direct results of their output themselves.

The part of the FAQ I’ve been reading most recently is making it clear that anarchists really don’t like this idea. But I still don’t see anything obviously unjust about the part of the system where I do work and get paid. I’m not saying there’s nothing objectionable about the hierarchical way things are structured, but I don’t see wages as an inherently offensive concept.

Speaking for myself, I don’t think I especially want to own the output of my labour – which, at present, mostly consists of neatly typed letters and spreadsheets of medical data, which are of no direct use to me whatsoever. But there’s value in the work being done, and I trade my work – even if it’s not a totally free trade – for shelter and food and books, via the useful fiction of money.

Isn’t something similar always going to happen, in any society that isn’t entirely populated with clones of Richard Briers and Felicity Kendal? Under anarchism, would I still get to live in a house that someone else built and eat dinner that someone else has already killed for me?

These might be painfully basic questions which demonstrate how far I’m missing the point, but I can’t tell that from the polemical anti-capitalism of the FAQ I’m reading. And as I think I’ve said before, it’d be a shame if I or others like me don’t manage to figure out that the anarchists are right, just because their rationale sounds like it comes straight out of a revolutionary pamphlet from Russia in 1917 and so doesn’t seem to apply to the society I’m familiar with.

On the other hand, one thing that has bolstered my skepticism of capitalist economics has been the research done into human rationality, and specifically how bad we are at it. Watch Dan Ariely’s TED talk, for instance, or read his book Predictably Irrational, and try telling me there’s any hope that logically consistent human behaviour will save the day.

I really don’t know what the answer is. I’m not totally sure that capitalism can’t be fixed, but I wouldn’t know where to start, and we’re a long way from getting that done now. (And what’s going to fix it? Government? Ugh.)

Maybe I should find somewhere else to discuss this kind of thing, and try getting some answers from people who know what they’re talking about, before I end up just blathering at length here. I think the number of people following this blog who have any knowledge of or interest in anarchy as a political philosophy is very limited, and I don’t want Mel to feel like she has to write a whole new essay for me each time I half-understand a new idea. (Though you’re welcome to try!)

Oh look, there’s a weekend. I wonder if it’ll be friends with me.

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