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Thursday, July 28, 2011

Why I Am Still Not An Anarchist (Or Am I?)

Another post upgraded and adapted from the Moot. Upon discovering that I am trained in nonviolence and teach courses at Cal on violence and nonviolence, libertopian Kent has declared me possibly "halfway to libertarianism" because of my commitment to the "non-initiation of force" which he presumes he shares with me and which he fancies is somehow expressed in his own devotion to the exploitation, violence, fraud, and environmental destruction of "free market" orders.

This is what I had to say to him about that:

If by "libertarian," Kent, you mean "anarcho-capitalist," you couldn't be more wrong. If you mean by it something more like Ian -- who raised the first objections in this thread -- you probably wouldn't be too far wrong.

I'm a sort of democratic socialist, I guess.

The fact is I have no problem with private ownership or well-regulated market exchange, especially the more this ownership and enterprise occurs [1] in the context of equitable access to institutions for the nonviolent adjudication of disputes, [2] in the context of a scene of consent rendered legible by general welfare affording actually informed actually non-duressed consent, and [3] in the context of the socialization of commons and public goods to ameliorate tendencies to the externalization of cost and risk arising from industrial modes of production. Given all that, frankly, it seems to me I might rightly be called an advocate of a democratic organization of capitalist economy, an advocate of a capitalism made to express the non-violence libertopians incredibly claim to discern in it already in its present plutocratic vestigially feudal form.

Be that as it may, I have no doubt my advocacy of single payer healthcare, public education, and basic income in the service of the scene of consent and socialization of key modes of production prone to externalization amounts to democratic socialism in most construals of it, which is also perfectly fine with me.

I do think radical forms of commitments to democracy and non-violence (and I hold both of these myself) end up meaning something close to what many self-identified anarchists mean by "anarchism." Sometimes the words really do seem to get in the way. Given the plasticity of these terms I can easily think of people who would properly see their own politics in mine but think of themselves as the Democratic wing of the Democratic Party, or as radical democrats, or social democrats, democratic socialists, secular democrats, pluralists, multiculturalists, anti-militarists, non-violent activists for social justice, market socialists, environmental justice advocates, Greens, queers, punks, civil libertarians, or, yes, sure, anarchists, too.

And yet I really do think there are problems with too many anarchisms -- and your own, Kent, most of all. Market fundamentalists, market libertarians, anarcho-capitalists, neoliberals too readily disavow the artifice of the so-called natural market as well as the duress, fraud and exploitation that stratifies market transactions you are apt to declare "non-initiation of force" through the facile expedient of pretending "initiation" begins several steps beyond when much of the nasty action actually is taking place.

More generally, I think much that gets declaimed about under the heading of anarchic state-smashing would much better be articulated in more specific and situated ways that end up sounding more like resistance to violence and inequity and unaccountability in existing institutions and practices, and so look to me more as efforts at tinkering, reform, democratization of governance than, you know, Smashing The State.

To be honest, I suspect that in the monolithic characterization conjured up by that very term -- The State -- it may be there is no The State to exist for us to smash any more than there is The God to exist for us to kill. Given regular elections, general enfranchisement, and wide eligibility for office-holding, the separation of powers, the subsidiarity of the federalization of governance, the shifting, competing, co-operating patchwork of jurisdictions, the interplay of private/public/social/cultural/media apparatuses subsumed under and against that heading in any case, it seems a bit of a mystification to pretend a singular concentrated overbearing substance is in play, one to which a monopoly on violence is attributed, a violence that is presumably unaccountable however answerable it actually may turn out to be, however convoluted and ramifying its pathways, a violence which is taken exhaustively to characterize it even if its edicts are backed only in the last instance by such force, and even then hardly always efficaciously and usually only accountably.

If I might be a bit more theoretical about it, I would say, more or less with Arendt, that politics (the encounter with difference) is prior to sociality (sustained association in difference), and that the plurality out of which the political arises is as much about the ineradicable problems of disputation and structural violence as about the real promises of mutual aid and voluntary co-operation, and that this takes us to concerns with the institutionalizations of order before it takes us to the wholesome democratization of government.

And so, all in all, even if it offends my left-anarchist friends sometimes, I still must insist that I do not want to smash the state, but to democratize it.

Why I Am Still Not An Anarchist (Or Am I?) -- Continued

I am not appending to this post, a copy of a second one from a couple days later consisting of reflections continuing on from the first.

I have sometimes thought that my "political orientation" would be better captured with the neologism consensualist, given the centrality of the provision of a substantial scene of consent to my understanding of a democratic and non-violent politics. In our historical moment, however, philosophical neologisms like that render one all too susceptible to the distortions of marketing and self-promotional discourse (advertizing, with all its devastating deception and hyperbole, has come quite close to colonizing public deliberation entirely by now, to the ruin of all), recasting one as another wannabe guru circus-barker with a movement and a manifesto soliciting tax-deductible contributions in exchange for promises of offering a meaning of life package re-conceived as something like the promise of more regular bowel movements and a whiter smile.

Since it is not a substance but a scene, not a faculty but a ritual, there will always be concerns about the profound gameability of consent. The libertopian anarcho-capitalist's whole schtick essentially derives from his pretense that transactions are perfectly consensual and social orders sublimely peaceable even when they are stratified by unequal knowledge and misinformation and driven by what amount in the context of informal and precarious labor to permanent threats of force.

In the typical neoliberal instance, then, I would declare the scene of consent largely vacuous as often as not. But of course there are vulnerabilities on the flip-side as well. I describe a legible scene of consent as one that is both informed and non-duressed, but since "informed" can never arrive at omniscience and since "non-duressed" can never arrive at omnipotence, there will always be a slippage between actual scenes of consent and the ideals at which they might be said logically to aspire, the legibility of the scene will always be a comparative matter. Part of that legibility would have to derive from the susceptibility of the scene of consent itself to interminable re-elaboration by critique. Part of what might be named by "anarchism" is this interminable constitutive dimension of critique to the scene of legible consent, it seems to me.

To the extent that democracy is less an eidos to approximate in our institutions (culminating, presumably, in The Ideal of "direct" democracy, "perfect" consensus, or what have you) than it is an ideal that might wholesomely articulate endlessly many different institutions in endlessly many variations and measures (the notion that people should have a say in the public decisions that affect them, as I would put it, probably does not have one best institutional materialization, given the many contexts in which it might make public life better), then another part of what is named by "anarchism" might be this interminable experimentation with and proliferation of institutionalizations of the democratic notion.

Inasmuch as I believe the key values of democracy are equity and diversity, and these values both depend on one another but are in tension with one another (I refer to equity-in-diversity as a single value, but the hyphens denote a dynamism not a stability), their institutionalization again looks to demand an endless re-elaboration through critique, and again "anarchism" seems to me a good name for this interminable constitutive dimension of critique.

Part of the trouble with a commitment to non-violence is that there is always some measure of dispute as to what violence consists of in the first place, and to circumscribe this dispute is itself to do violence. So, too, the constitution of a vocabulary in which it becomes possible legibly to testify to a violence will often (perhaps always) render testimony to another violence illegible. Brecht's question and quip, which violence is worse, to rob a bank or to found one? is provocative not only because one can easily assume a perspective from which either violence can seem worse, but because there is something about assuming the perspective from which either violence becomes clear that renders the other nearly invisible. Again, "anarchism" might name the interminable critique that permits a traffic among perspectives rendering testimonies to violation provisionally legible (even at the cost of rendering others provisionally illegible) to resist a stabilization that amounts to a violent circumscription of the discourse enabling attention and testament to and hence the institutional address of violences in the first place.

Part of what I would insist on, however, is that whether order names the provisional universalization of equity-in-diversity, whether it names the comparative accomplishment of the scene of informed nonduressed consent, whether it names the provision of ever more people with ever more of a say in the public decisions that affect, whether it names the commitment to nonviolence, this order is always institutionalized, and the work of critique is to expose the measure of slippage between the actual and the aspirational not to rationalize renunciation of the institution but to enable its interminable re-elaboration.

There is a tendency and possibly a permanent temptation in the anarchic imaginary that indulges an exposure that yields so all embracing a transparency it amounts finally to indifference rather than insight, that indulges a rebellion that yields so all embracing a rejection it amounts finally to resignation rather than to resistance. It goes without saying that any more pragmatic commitment to resistance, re-elaboration, and reform is no less prone to complacency, parochialism, exhaustion -- and the restlessness and rigor that might be named by "anarchism" can provide an indispensable re-invigoration to those of us whose pragmatism is directed to the service of the ethics of consent, democracy, non-violence, equity-in-diversity. Any anarchist who helps democratize the institutional terrain that besets us is a friend to me. To me, that comrade is democratizing the state, not smashing it -- but I am content to keep quiet on that quibble if that is all that stands in the way of our mutual education, agitation, and organization to materialize liberty and justice for all.

Postscript: More Anarchy from the Moot

Another amendment arising from the conversation occasioned by the first two.

A regular reader asks:
How can there be such a thing as a "left anarchist"? Isn't anarchy just extreme libertarianism? I've never been able to figure them out. Just what exactly is it that they want? And why do they always appear at ANY progressive protest & behave like meth-crazed agent provocateurs? Their over-the-top violence ALWAYS ends up undermining & discrediting these protests. It's a mystery why they get so much sympathy from the left. I find them to be a pointless nuisance, and I just wish they would just fuck off for good.
Definitely anarchism has a richer pedigree on the left than the right, though perhaps not a longer one. Actually, the right-wing libertopians are (depending on your perspective on them) either exposing a deep problem always already inhering in any left-anarchic positioning or are simply misreading and distorting the left-anarchic ethos in their rather facile fashion. I'd say there was some truth in both of those perspectives, actually, but I incline to the second. (I'm giving you a little latitude in your declaration about anarchists always being disruptive and extreme -- I know where you are coming from, since this whole discussion arises from exchanges some of which are of the kind you are responding to, still I don't doubt you know that your statement is an overgeneralization, and that the many sympathetic anarchists in your company at demonstrations and discussions who are not disruptive have likely not attracted your notice precisely because they have not behaved the way you disapprove.)

You know, one of the pre-eminent figures of left-anarchy in the world today is the great Noam Chomsky, and he has said:
[I]t only makes sense to seek out and identify structures of authority, hierarchy, and domination in every aspect of life and to challenge them. Unless a justification for them can be given, they are illegitimate and should be dismantled to increase the scope of human freedom. That includes political power, ownership, management, relations among men and women, parents and children, our control over the fate of future generations... I have always understood to be the essence of anarchism[,] the conviction that the burden of proof has to be on authority and that it should be dismantled if that burden cannot be met.
I find it very easy to affirm all of this, but since I think many who would not think of themselves as anarchists at all (and with good reasons) but as liberals, democrats, peace workers, and so on would affirm what Chomsky is saying here as much as I would, I can't say that I see why approval of Chomsky's attitude here, then, makes me someone who wants to "Smash The State" in the least, rather than, say, to liberalize it, or to democratize it, or to deploy it in the service of non-violence (through the institutionalization of successions of leadership via regular election, through the maintenance of alternatives for the non-violent adjudication of disputes like courts, through the re-distribution of plutocratic concentrations of wealth via progressive taxation, through the amelioration of susceptibilities to corruption and abuse via separation of powers, subsidiarity of federalization, accountability to a free press, enumerated rights, elections and juries, through the maintenance of a legible scene of informed nonduressed consent via the provision of general welfare, public education, basic healthcare, basic income guarantees -- at the very least minimum wage guarantees -- paid for by means of taxes and fees, through the circumvention of abusive and fraudulent externalization of costs and risks inhering in mass-industrial production via socialization of commons and public goods, and so on).

It is all very well to say assertions of authority bear a burden of proof -- but what standards define that burden? who agrees to them? what about those who do not? just what is the scene in which this justification is offered up and adjudicated? Surely far too many of the questions that would presumably distinguish the anarchist-left from much of the rest of the left (plenty of it quite as radical as the anarchists are) are circumvented rather than addressed in Chomsky's enormously attractive declaration of anti-authoritarian principle.

Given this, how useful is Chomsky's formulation as a specifically anarchist proposal after all? -- I'm afraid I must say I think it is not very helpful finally at all. And, given this, is it typical in this weakness of other efforts at general anarchist formulations in this vein? -- I'm afraid I must say I think it is indeed rather typical of the problem (and, frankly, Chomsky's formulation is among the clearer ones available). Still, I'm far from denying my sympathy with what Chomsky says -- I daresay I am closely allied to Chomsky in this as in many other political positions -- hence the title of the post (Why I Am Still Not An Anarchist -- Or Am I? Part One and Part Two) and the reflections that accompany it.

5 comments:

Lorraine said...

While I consider myself at least an anarchist sympathizer, I find your notion of "scene of consent" far more meaningful than the reductionist (and gameable) "non-coercion."

myst101 said...

How can there be such a thing as a "left anarchist"? Isn't anarchy just extreme libertarianism? I've never been able to figure them out. Just what exactly is it that they want??

And why do they always appear at ANY progressive protest & behave like meth-crazed agent provocateurs? Their over-the-top violence ALWAYS ends up undermining & discrediting these protests.

It's a mystery why they get so much sympathy from the left. I find them to be a pointless nuisance, and I just wish they would just fuck off for good.

Dale Carrico said...

Definitely anarchism has a richer pedigree on the left than the right, though perhaps not a longer one. Actually, the right-wing libertopians are (depending on your perspective on them) either exposing a deep problem always already inhering in any left-anarchic positioning or are simply misreading and distorting the left-anarchic ethos in their rather facile fashion. I'd say there was some truth in both of those perspectives, actually, but I incline to the second.

You know, one of the pre-eminent figures of left-anarchy in the world today is the great Noam Chomsky, and he has said "[I]t only makes sense to seek out and identify structures of authority, hierarchy, and domination in every aspect of life and to challenge them. Unless a justification for them can be given, they are illegitimate and should be dismantled to increase the scope of human freedom. That includes political power, ownership, management, relations among men and women, parents and children, our control over the fate of future generations... I have always understood to be the essence of anarchism[,] the conviction that the burden of proof has to be on authority and that it should be dismantled if that burden cannot be met."

I find it very easy to affirm all of this, but since I think many who would not think of themselves as anarchists at all (and with good reasons) but as liberals, democrats, peace workers, and so on, I can't say that I see why this makes me someone who wants to "Smash The State" rather than to liberalize it, or to democratize it or to deploy it in the service of non-violence.

It is all very well to say assertions of authority bear a burden of proof -- but what standards define that burden? who agrees to them? what about those who do not? just what is the scene in which this justification is offered up and adjudicated?

Surely too many of the questions that would presumably distinguish the anarchist-left from much of the rest of the left (plenty of it quite as radical as the anarchists are) are circumvented rather than addressed in Chomsky's enormously attractive declaration.

Given this, how useful is it as an anarchist proposal after all -- and is it typical in this way of other efforts at general anarchist formulations in this vein? I'm afraid I must say I think it is. Still, I'm far from denying my sympathy with what Chomsky says -- hence the title of the post and the reflections that accompany it.

glen said...

a god may exist in its believers, somewhat in the way a 'state' might exist in its believers...perhaps when the believers die, their beliefs will go with them.

Dale Carrico said...

It's an interesting point. For me the key thing at issue here is that the strong will always prey or be tempted to prey upon the weak, but there is a choice whether the state will be more the vehicle through which that predation is facilitated or through which it is frustrated. The name of the struggle through which that choice is expressed and implemented is, I believe, Democracy.