Posts Tagged ‘anarchy’

This is your not-often-enough reminder that you should all be following Charles Davis. He writes about important stuff, in a way that’s both easy to read and alarmingly effective at slapping you directly in the face with the fucked-up-ness of what he’s describing.

His latest advice is: Don’t pay your taxes.

The revolution can’t come soon enough.

And while I’m at it, Broadsnark is someone else I need in my life, because, well, sometimes I forget to be angry. And then she tells me about how many people get locked up for years without a trial in the US, and then I’m pissed off in a very focused manner all over again. Which is the only sane way to be, really.

Today I may have lived up to my screenname for the first time all month. I plan to have a go at being much more diligent once distractions like moving house have settled down. Until then, please bear with me while I continue to fail at creative discipline.

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The system is fucked. When it’s working well, it fucks people over with maximal efficiency. We need something wholly different, not just to patch some things over in a way that’ll hopefully suck a bit less.

A caution: While you’re burning the system to the ground, be careful of the people inside it, propping it up. They’re not the enemy. In a way, they’re a victim of it just as much as you are.

Classroom discussion questions

1. In no more than twenty words, what would an acceptable replacement to the current system look like and how can it be achieved?

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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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The premise of this article is that intellectual property shouldn’t be considered a “right” in the way that it commonly is, and that the current legal arrangement of IP “rights” is not a good solution to the problems they purport to address.

I find myself drawn towards ambivalence on this. It seems both highly persuasive, and simultaneously strangely unsatisfying in a way that’s hard to pin down.

Once I dig a bit deeper, though, it seems like the part of me performing a rational assessment is the part which follows the logic of the article and agrees entirely. The part that’s reacting against it seems to be coming from a place of “this is new and unfamiliar and significantly different from the world I feel I understand, and is therefore unimaginable, impossible, and ridiculous”.

I haven’t excised the latter part from my day-to-day assessment of the world yet, not by a long shot. Which is fine. I’m aware it’s there and sometimes know to look out for it, which is a start.

It’s a difficult idea to take on, that intellectual property is simply not fit for purpose, and it’s very easy to come up with a number of instinctive, knee-jerk objections. Even while I see how much sense it makes, and how much it lines up with my ideas of what a more fair, egalitarian, just, productive, and universally beneficial society should look like, part of my mind just isn’t happy with it. And I think this has something to do with a tendency to consider things individually, rather than as part of a more general set of changes.

It might be our natural inclination, on reading about an idea like this, to imagine making just one stand-alone alteration, to the particular part of the world most familiar to us, and imagine that the result represents the full extent of any possible development in that direction. This means that numerous obvious problems spring up, and they seem all-encompassing.

“No intellectual property? How will writers and artists and musicians get paid for anything? What will motivate people to research new technologies, if everyone else will be able to profit from them? Why wouldn’t everyone just steal each other’s ideas and content and creative output willy-nilly, even more carelessly than they do now, in this modern age of torrents and pirate bays and get off my lawn you damn kids!”

But sometimes, even if making a single change in isolation wouldn’t have a great outcome, that change can be a part of something beneficial.

Kicking out the crutches from under someone with broken legs might in no way make things better – but working toward a situation where those crutches aren’t there can still be a good thing.

Or, if you tried eating flour straight out of the bag, you might conclude that you’d prefer to go hungry, but that’s not a good reason to decide that flour always makes things worse. (You clearly haven’t been eating all the breads and cakes and scones that Kirsty’s been constantly baking for me for weeks.)

So, sure. Throwing out IP but leaving the rest of our international infrastructure completely intact might not be an immediate recipe for a productivity revolution or an upsurge in everyone’s liberty and quality of life. But, just because the immediate consequences would be problematic if we did that, we shouldn’t ignore the problems that the current system creates, exacerbates, and allows to persist.

The problems with the present system should be more than enough to make us take seriously the question of whether doing things vastly differently from the status quo might not be a huge improvement. At best, the tangle of intellectual property laws we have at the moment can claim to weakly staunch some of the systemic problems arising from a monopolistic government providing constant and ubiquitous support to an equally monopolistic corpocracy.

The standard objections for why we need patents, intellectual property laws, and so forth, are always framed as if change could only ever be applied in one narrow, restricted way. They warn of legitimate problems, but act as if the best defence against them is already in place, and ignore the flaws in the system that already exists.

Oddly enough, I don’t want to see artists unable to achieve recognition for their work and starving in the streets either. I want everyone to have the time and opportunity to explore their creative interests and put their art out into the world, as much or as little as they want, in whatever medium most interests them, and gain recognition among consumers with similar interests by letting their work be experienced as widely as possible. And if that work is Harry Potter fanfic, or Star Trek slash, or a cruel parody of the novel I might eventually get around to finishing, the currently popular methods of cracking down serve to stifle far more art than they protect.

This all goes for patents on inventions, too. Patents are ostensibly offered to encourage companies to put time and resources into exploring new technologies and ideas, which wouldn’t be profitable if they couldn’t maintain some kind of proprietary rights over those ideas afterwards. But that very fact – that shared breakthroughs are considered less desirable than those which are legally prohibited to all but a single group – is already an artefact of the badly flawed way we fund research.

And perhaps if the one thing you were to change about the world was to scrap patent law, the doomsayers might have a reason to be worried. But this doesn’t mean we should be content with the present system and assume any change will be for the worse. It means that there’s much, much more that needs to change as well. Otherwise we’ll still be acting as if corporate profit margins were indicative of the benefits available to humanity.

I want to see everyone have the chance to do creative, inventive, imaginative, potentially ground-breaking work. The present system of IP law says that we’d have no motivation to do so, if we don’t drastically hobble everyone else’s ability to join in, compete, or enjoy the fruits of each other’s labour. I disagree.

Intellectual property supports a state of affairs largely antithetical to that vision. Moving past it won’t be a single sweeping change which will make everything better; it’s one of many necessary ingredients to building a world worthy of everybody in it.

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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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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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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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Let’s talk anarchy again.

I’ve still got plenty to read, and while it’s mostly been interesting ploughing through lengthy discussions of what the various factions within anarchism believe, I’m still hoping there’s a part coming up soon which explains just how the heck a society totally without authority is supposed to work.

But I’m sure I’ll get to that. Right now, I have a complaint about the way anarchism seems to sell its ideas.

One thing the FAQ is emphatic on is that people need to be persuaded to abandon authoritarian structures before anything can get done. You can’t impose anarchy on anyone, practically by definition, and if our authoritarian society collapsed tomorrow, another one not unlike it would arise in short order, because that’s just how most people still think the world needs to work.

Terrorism and violence are entirely antithetical to the anarchist cause for precisely this reason. As the title of a pamphlet once declared, you can’t blow up a social relationship.

So the thing to do to get people on your side, anarchists are told, is to spread the word. Partly by direct action – get involved in the kind of independent, voluntary, non-hierarchical organisations they’d like to see everywhere, or create some for yourselves – and partly by inspiring other people to think along similar lines. An anarchist society is only possible once a sizeable majority of the population want to do things that way.

The problem is, this often seems to involve a certain type of apologist rhetoric. I’ve complained before about hyperbolic capitalism-bashing, but the reasons we should support anarchy are often just as unconvincing.

Although anarchism in all forms is keen to distance itself from Marxism and communism, a lot of the same language is used which I’m familiar with from communist tracts. In either case, it’s asserted that I can never be free, as a worker, until I “own the means of production”, and can freely exchange the “product of my labour”.

But… I’m not sure I want to own the means of production. And I’m not sure I’d know what to do with the means of production if someone dropped them in my lap. I think I’d actually enjoy having someone take a lot of that stuff off my hands and let me focus on what actually interests me.

Possibly such things could be delegated (if that’s not too hierarchical a term) within an anarchist system, so that I can avoid getting bogged down in a load of administrative stuff without giving up my autonomy. But that’s not obvious from the way that the liberation of the common man is heralded as the most glorious and self-evidently desirable ideal.

I’m coming at this from the point of view of someone who doesn’t feel much like an oppressed proletarian being crushed underfoot by a tyrannical bourgeois capitalist elite. The spirit of revolution that so energised thousands of people in 1930s Spain seems unlikely to have the same effect on many reasonably well-off Westerners today. And it’d be a shame if I’d have to be suffering truly back-breaking oppression before I could be convinced that anarchy was a desirable alternative.

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One extra thought that I didn’t fit into yesterday’s post.

If a centralised state is going to impose its authority on the general populace (as they tend to do), it has the responsibility to justify its existence, and provide ample reason why it should get to do that.

In other words, you don’t get to tell me what to do unless you have a damn good reason, whoever you are. And pointing out that you’re here and you’re bigger than me isn’t going to cut it.

Now, the main way that most states tend to justify their existence – at least in the modern democratic world – is that some sort of centralised national infrastructure is necessary to provide essential public services and their upkeep: hospitals, roads, police, that kind of thing.

And you don’t need me to explain that this is a very persuasive argument. It could even be correct. As I said yesterday, I’m still in the middle of reading through one anarchistic counter-argument; currently, the obvious idea that some kind of centralised government body is needed to get stuff done is still very compelling to me.

But it’s worth remembering that anyone in favour of the state does need to make this argument. People exerting authority over other people cannot be called a good thing in itself. It needs to be justified by producing sufficiently positive and important results.

If a system without hierarchical authority could provide everything that a state system is relied upon to provide, such as the services listed above, then by definition the system without authority would be preferable.

If you’re not an anarchist, your implicit claim is that a state authority is a necessary evil. And that’s okay; I’m not attacking that claim in this post, just clarifying that it’s there.

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