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Friday, August 26, 2016

My Problem With Anarchist/Libertarian Politics -- Right and "Left" -- Is That They Aren't Even Political

Teaching has resumed and since I've got three courses underway, undergraduate and graduate, intimate and thronged, on both sides of Bay, I'm a bit swamped for the moment. So, here is a post upgraded and expanded from an exchange in the Moot with my friend Jim in which I trotted out some of my usual political boilerplate...
I was at a diner this past Saturday with some of the New York Skeptics, and (even though "politics" is an officially-banned topic), libertarianism came up. And I trotted out the usual dismissal -- that in my experience, "libertarianism" usually means somebody who takes the attitude "I've got mine, screw you." or "As soon as I **get** mine, screw you." And a staunch defender of libertarianism (and long-time Ayn Rand admirer -- her "philosophy", you understand, not necessarily the lady herself ;-> ) and, ironically enough, the usual wielder of the "no politics!" ban-hammer, remonstrated vociferously with me. "No, Jim, that is **not** what libertarianism is. That is a straw man, a vicious distortion. Libertarianism is simply the principle that altruism must always be an act of free will, it must never be **extorted** from people using government force."[*] And then he went on to describe acts of voluntary altruism he had witnessed. I'm afraid neither of us managed to convince the other of much of anything, "rational discussion" notwithstanding. ;-> 
[*] In a way, that's a charming fantasy -- the idea that people could be taught to "do the right thing" without anybody ever having to be **forced** to do so. It reminds me of B. F. Skinner's fantasy that the whole world might be run on "positive reinforcement" without either "negative reinforcement" or "punishment" ever having to be used. Only in (some people's idea of) Heaven, I'm afraid. And with libertarianism, some pretty nasty characters get to hide behind that fantasy.
Oh, how I find myself wishing I were there to put my two cents in!

As if it would be a person of the liberal left who would be oblivious to the good works done through charitable giving! As if the libertarian utopia of private contracts, duressed by unequal and mis-information, crony corruption, and the threat of starvation in a world without ongoing tax-supported public investments in education, consumer and worker protection, equal recourse to law, safety regulation, unemployment insurance and social security, nutritional assistance, and the rest would be in any real sense "voluntary""non-coercive" or "free"! The very concept of "extortion" applied by your libertarian colleague to taxes, depends for its legibility and force on the working context of laws, institutions, professional practices, all of which depend on educations, buildings, professionals supported by.... wait for it... taxes.

Of course, taxes aren't extorted charitable giving, but the price we the people pay for the public investments that maintain the material (energy, transportation, education, healthcare, police, ecosystem support) and normative (accountable and equitable recourse to law, rights culture, assembly and protest, predictable prices, credentialed professionalism) infrastructure alone within which voluntary and contractual relations can proceed in the informed, nonduressed consensual way libertarians claim to prioritize. (For a more concise yet elaborated formulation see my Ten Theses on Taxes and Democracy.)

Lots of people who have more or expect to have more (in your phrase, the "I've got mine" crowd) like to think they acquired and maintained it all on their own, when in fact they are extraordinary beneficiaries of a collective inheritance and shared maintained world of values that precede and exceed them. Your interlocutor decided to treat your recognition of this basic fact as an ad hominem attack and the conversation was probably already over before it began. It's rather like trying to talk about the impacts of structural racism with someone who thinks this must mean you are accusing them of racist animus.

It's funny, but I can't even say the fantasy that everybody could "do the right thing" without some feeling pressured or "forced" in some measure at least some of the time to do so (because of the enforcement of laws, peer pressure, material limits, all of which are, remember, artifactual and contingent) seems to me charming even as a daydream, really, since it tends to be premised on the idea that there is just one right thing to do in the first place, when the point of departure for politics properly so-called is the recognition that people who share the world are different from one another, see things differently, want different things from life, and so on.

I think the very same denial or possibly incomprehension of this pluralist point of departure for the political drives the endless  libertarian daydreams of spontaneous orders -- whether fantasies of an optimally efficient and ethical "market" hampered in its mechanisms by violent government interference or of a mutualist, generous, nonviolent human nature hampered in its free expressions by social or more specifically plutocratic artifice -- "spontaneous orders," sometimes described as such explicitly and sometimes instead implied by anarchic faiths, both right and left (and as you know, I perhaps controversially contend that "left" anarchisms often and even inevitably conduce to the right in spite of themselves).

The denial (via "natural law" and the usual kinda-sorta-evolutionary or fetishitically-mathematical reductionisms, and so on) of the artificiality of normative affordances -- equity, consent, freedom, dignity -- and the ineradicability of stakeholder plurality (via faith in no "rational" conflicts of interest, utilitarian optimality, market efficiencies, righteous moralism, and so on) enables libertarian/anarchic formulations, it seems to me, and one finds oneself trying to talk "politics" with people who haven't even grasped what defines the domain of the political in the first place. Needless to say, those are hard conversations to have.


jimf said...

I came across an autobiographical essay in my Olaf Stapledon
collection containing a passage that, I suspect, would be calculated
to make a few libertechbrotarians' heads explode. ;->

"Fields Within Fields" (early 1940s, during the German bombardment)
from _An Olaf Stapledon Reader_
Robert Crossley, ed.

There is a field called Simon's Field. Who Simon was, and why
the field was his, nobody knows. His life is now only a fibre
indistinguishable in the matted felt of the past. All that is left
of him is this field's name in a few local minds; and on our
letter paper, for with money-power we seized an acre in the middle
of the field and built our house on it. And now the name of
the field is the name of the house. . .

Within the boundaries of the field our acre, a field within a field,
is an unfulfilled garden, occupied mostly by the original grass;
for at the time of our coming the whole field was pasture. Today
our infant hedges divide the brown field from the green acre with
its incipient brown vegetable plots. For slowly, foot by foot,
our bright spades are biting into the sod and turning the acre
into garden, to produce food, we say, for this beleaguered island
of Britain.

How well this sounds, as though we were pioneers at grips with the
jungle! But in fact our power lies not in stout hearts and iron
sinews. Our power is money. Money-power, passively acquired, won
this acre for us, built this house, and has persuaded a gardener
to work on our behalf. Without him our spare-time spades would
be defeated. Digging our way too slowly through the acre, we
should see the hard-won tilth steadily re-conquered by the wild.
But money has secured extra muscle and much-needed skill.

I must here at the outset face up to this matter of our money-power.
I have money. I have, that is, the legal right to direct the labour
of others for my own advantage. This right I mainly inherited from
my father, who bequeathed me stocks and shares, mostly in shipping.
This means that to give me money-power men have toiled and sweated
long hours in stokeholds in the Red Sea. Some have been so driven
to distraction that they have jumped overboard. It means, too,
that men have shivered in crow's-nests in the Pacific when deep
valances of ice hung from the rigging. All this they did for a wage
that I would scorn, having no need of it. And by doing all this
they gave me the legal and the moral right to say to other men,
"In exchange for a fraction of my money-power, make me a coat, or
bread, or a house; or educate my children in the best way yet
devised; or take me and my family for a holiday beside the Lake of
Annecy, where we can climb the alpine pastures and crags and hear
the cow-bells, or sit in the open-air cafés watching the people and
trying to follow their French talk; or take us through Sweden in an
electric train, northward, till we pass the line of white stones
labeled 'Polarcirkel,' and on beyond the iron mountains and mines of
Kiruna to the great cold lake of Torneträsk, to see the Lapp camps,
and the lemmings that swarm in the tundra, and to follow the reindeer
over the bleak mountains called Tsasinaskatchoko and Nissanjaro, that
are piebald with snow." Those who won for me this power were
travellers themselves, but how differently they fared in their
stoke-holds and crows'-nests. This flagrant discrepancy has produced
in me a boringly familiar guilt and shame, like an old corn.
But I have taken no serious measures to remove it.

jimf said...

By what right could I do this? There was a time when I determined
to have no truck whatever with inherited money-power. I would be a
coal-miner or an ordinary seaman and so earn my living, and use
whatever energy and time was to spare for exercising the superior
talents which I wishfully believed were mine. But having those talents,
it seemed a sin to waste them burrowing underground or freezing
in crows'-nests. And so little by little I persuaded myself that I
must use the God-sent gift of money-power to enable me to pursue my
true work fully and freely. And so, after many strange antics,
here I am in Simon's Field, with more than half a century behind me.
And what **really** is there to show for it all?

My father bought those stocks and shares. He won the power to buy
them by hard work, intelligence and responsibility in service of his
shipping company. He was nothing of a drone. He was a worker, but
a human worker, not a worker-ant; for he knew what he was working
**for**, however indirectly, namely for the well-being of human
individuals and the clarification of human culture. He knew about
ships and he cared painstakingly for the men in them. And they loved
him, because he understood them and respected them, and because he
did not spare himself. But the seamen and stokers worked in their
manner no less hard than he worked. Their homes, which they so seldom
visited, were cramped and mean, and not at all like his home. Their
children were taught in over-crowded schools, and not in the best way
yet devised. And while they were still children they were cast into
the economic cauldron, not sent to the university to be assiduously
tended. My father was a good man in a bad system. He had ability and
he was loyal, but also he had luck. The system, through the person of
his father, gave him a good start, which it denied to others no less
able. And I was given an even better start; unless, indeed, in all
this careful cultivation of the young there is some hidden error, some
emasculating poison. . .

Bizarro Freedom said...

I feel like this comment was made simply so i could reply to it but of course i am overstating it and inflating my own ego but Hey somehow I must get my egofix in the morning.

I agree with you that one must understand the complexities and so on an forth that is hidden underneath the ridiculous notion of "beyond right and left". But since all you complain specifically (wrongly) about the "left" anarchist is simply repeating nonsense that is not something apart of larger movement or ideas such as natural way of life. Of course from the "left" I am excluding the meaninglessness that is the "post-left" anarchist crowd that either is truly more right wing than not or just idiots repeating in more verbose and obtuse language socialist positions of more than a century of tradition. But this is actually not why I want to comment.

I feel there needs to be an important distinction between between what kind of definition of politics one is using. I mean after all Martin Buber defined politics as almost exclusively as statecraft and felt that what was needed was social movements that tried to change society by changing institutions, structures and processes opposed to just changing "political" institutions which he saw as authoritarian and reactionary. I mean you use the arendtian definition that is taken from Aristotle all the time but the past 2000 years and until the modern era politics was defined many times as statecraft and was exclusionary practices that opposed peoples own self organisations. What I saying is yes we must be against those who hide behind the "nonpolitical" label to purpatuate a simplistic and reductionist view of the world but we also cannot reduce politics to only one definition without being aware of the multiplicity of uses of it. When Herbert Read talked about Politics of the nonpolitical what he meant by it was to showcase all those excluded from the decision making and power in society and political processes. his term of nonpolitical is far from reductionist and embarces the complexity of life by pointing out how not all of it can be under statecraft. But this for me also comes from a massive confusion about political spectrums that either follows the dumb and idiotic horseshow theory that postulates that "far" left and "far" right winds up in the same place that avoid all complexities of political movements, ideas and totalitarianism or just the equally simplistic of a essentially a bench that reaches from left to right. Neither of these actually explain political and social movements, theories or philosophies but rather hide and disguise real peoples ideas in favor of simplistic describtions such as "far" right movements.

I find it unsuprising that the biggest purpetuaters of the "beyond left or right" idea is american libertarians (propertarians in my opinion) since their entire outlook is simplistic and based on a variety of catchphrases (multiple of which the stole from Marx and socialism), I mean how the fuck is a poor person forced to live on wellfare a parasite while a business executive makes millions while doing nothing of utility or value to society. That for me showcases a level of self delusions not seen since Stalinists.

Dale Carrico said...

I can't tell what it is exactly that we are supposed to be disagreeing about, except that you don't seem to think right-wing anarchists should call themselves anarchists because you don't like them, whereas I can see why they call themselves that even though I don't like them either.

Bizarro Freedom said...

We're not disagreeing more like I wanted to elucidate that many theorists and thinkers have used the term politics to mean different things therefore there is a danger of reductionism if in the discussion of simplicity as in the weird statement "beyond left and right" one does not acknowledge that people have defined politics as statecraft compared to the arendtian definition. Whereby my example of Martin Buber. Sorry for my bad joke in the beginning though.

But since you brought it up. For me I understand completely why right wing anarchists call themselves anarchists, it is the exact same reason that made Nazi call themselves National Socialism and Italian fascism for National Syndicalism. My objection is that right wing anarachists are not anarchists from any intellectual perspective that I can see. Simply because they call themselves antistatist and is against the current state does not mean they are anarchists because the reasons they are against the current state is radically different from anarchism. For them they are against the state due to the fact that it according to their ideology prevents "free trade" and "free markets" yet they seems utterly unaware how the state and governmental structures are actually enabling and making sure free trade and free markets are achieved and maintained. One group is agains the state due to its authoritarianism and due to it purpetuating an oppressive and exploitative socioeconomic system adn the other is against it because it provides a couple of (in this current socioeconomic system)vital welfare functions. They are only anarchist if one ignores anarchist theories, philosophies, ideas, history and social movements but I am not surprised by it since it seems to be the standard procedur of minimising, excluding and mystifying political theories. It is the same thing that happened to certain forms of marxism and a variety of socialisms and other movements. Like how feminism is described almost completely by its neoliberal crowd rather than its broader more radical theorists and actiists. This is not to say I feel that modern anrachist nor historical anarchists cannot be criticised or that they have no flaws, they do but I object to a false equalivance between them and a right wing protofascist movement that glorifies what the other group is against. It is pretty much like claiming that Nazi Germany and Fascist Italy was socialist but they both had names that was similar to socialist movements and made some arguments against the current state and socioeconomic system.

But like I said my comment on this critique was more related to elaborating the more nuanced complexity of politics and pointing out how just because some is "antipolitical" does not mean one agrees with the ideas of "beyond left or right". But again it is mostly when analysing and looking to past theorists one is up against this problem. in the end I just like bashing right wing libertarians for their simplicity and authoritarianism.

Dale Carrico said...

Since you have repeated the point many times, you can rest assured that I know already that you disagree with me that right-wing anarchists are anarchists but that you agree with me that right-wing anarchists are assholes. I also agree with you that there are more ways to be anti-political than the way libertarians are. My post was merely observing that libertarians rarely seem to grasp what seem to me quite basic points of departure of political thinking (that people who share the world are different from one another in ways that will always require actually difficult compromises, that consent is an historically contingent artifact only maintained through public investment, among other things) and yet seem to fancy themselves masters of political thinking. I regard this as a lamentable but also ridiculous state of affairs, as probably you do as well.

Bizarro Freedom said...

Yes, their simplicity in not understanding the contingency of consent is ridiculous, I have also seens debates about sexual and gender norms with them playing out in hilarious ways for people who claim to be in favor of "liberty". And I will in the future stop bothering you about anarchism and comment more positively instead of making it seems like I am nitpicking you.

Dale Carrico said...

It's not a problem, I've got my hobby horses too -- you might say they're my whole blog. I do think it is important to remember that we seem to agree on much more than we disagree about, otherwise it's easy for me to start to feel needlessly embattled which gets rather exhausting. I do appreciate our conversations, after all.