Thursday, January 07, 2010


This is Part 3 of the continuing series that I have undertaken to describe what I personally mean when I say anarchism and the type of anarchism that I think is most appropriate for our time and place. The time, of course, is now in the early 21st century. The place is one of the many industrially developed countries with a system of parliamentary rule and at least minimal personal freedom. I say "parliamentary rule" because, in my opinion, the practice of electing dictators is hardly worthy of the term 'democracy'. I am also of the opinion that democracy is best practiced on a small scale, and that the nation state is naturally antithetical to real democracy and is also under a continued danger of demagoguery.

I say "minimal personal freedom" because I also believe that the nation state entails what I consider an unwarranted restriction on liberty (ask any taxpayer), but I am fully aware that there is a wide continuum of government intrusiveness when you compare one country to another. As will become plain later in this series I think that such developed "liberal" states are the ones which have the greatest potential to develop the sort of libertarian socialism that I favour. What I have spoken about so far in this series is rather basic, and I think that it applies to other countries that are either less developed or less "liberal". As this series goes on I will be writing about other things that are quite obviously less applicable in other situations. It must be remarked, however, that the economic and political history of the late 20th and early 21st century has been one whereby other countries are gradually approaching the "developed" model originally found in Europe, North America and parts of East Asia.

In Part One of this series I tried to situate at least my own anarchism and that of the vast majority of people who have held to the anarchism tradition in the "socialist" part of the economic spectrum. No doubt small minorities of anarchists in various times and places (especially the USA today) define "their anarchism" as outside of socialism. They're welcome to call what they believe whatever they want, but their own peculiar versions have little relevance to what most anarchists, including myself, believe. I mentioned that this "socialism" is not that which people usually imagine when they hear the name. It is not government ownership with a state employee managerial ruling class. It is a situation of direct democracy whereby workers and citizens collectively decide matters that are presently decided by managers. It depends upon a radical decentralization of what we refer to as "politics" so that the ordinary worker and citizen can actually have a real say in these collective decisions that determine how their lives will be lived. This sort of direct democracy is considerably different and more profound than the idea that people would get to vote in referenda cobbled together by special interest groups.

In Part Two of the series I tried to explain how anarchism is not just a matter of increased equality and democracy, but that it also entails the greatest amount of personal liberty possible, more than any government, no matter what its ideological camouflage, would be able to grant without undercutting its own power. This matter of personal freedom deserves a much deeper examination, particularly in the dual meaning of the term "freedom" ie both "freedom from" and "freedom to". One of the best comments that was elicited by the earlier parts of this series was that "liberty and equality are not opposed but are two sides of the same coin". While I don't think this is 100% true when the two are viewed in all aspects it is quite true to a large degree, and the failure to see this is the great fault of both 'traditional socialism' and its ideological opponents on the right. When looked at from the perspective of the two ways that the word "freedom" can be used, depending upon what preposition follows the verb, this interdependence becomes a lot clearer. So, take a deep breath. Here we go. But first a digression.
Everybody- well almost everybody- is in favour of "freedom". Where people divide politically is the questions of "which freedoms" are most important and "who" should be free. Some are of the opinion that the term freedom can only refer to individual rights. Some extent the concept to include "collective freedom". The classic example of the latter is nationalism, in both its guises, as the assertion that one nation should be "free" from another and also that a given nation (most often the USA in the last half century) should be "free" to impose its will on other nations either for "their own good" or for the interests of the aggressor nation, either real or perceived. On the leftward side of the political spectrum such nationalism has been at least as virulent in the past, and it often takes the form of "displaced patriotism" ie the view, amongst leftists in developed country that some ideological opponent of their own government has a monopoly on truth and virtue. Think the partisans of various communist dictatorships, now mostly consigned to histories trash bin, hopefully never to be recycled. Think also, however, of what has often been referred to as "Third Worldism", the idea that there is some automatic magic of history that assures that any opponents of an imperial country are sui generis candidates for sainthood and that what they will put in place, if they are successful, will automatically be better than what it replaces. This sort of view has survived the collapse of the communist empires, though it has less to feed on these days than it once did. It is also in contradiction to perhaps as many huge numbers of facts as the religious belief in communism was, though the results were never as massively brutal as Marxism in power was.
On the left there are also the proponents of what have been variously called "the new movements", "sectoral politics", "identity politics", amongst other names, not all of them polite. As the dream of state socialism faded these various beliefs more or less became the essential existential stuff of leftism in developed countries. Those who are heavily committed to the importance of such nascent movements also obviously believe that there are groups who can exercise 'freedom' collectively and should indeed do just that. In my more cynical moments I call the collective leftist beliefs which hang together (loosely and without any great ideological glue) in this way "ism-ism". It can be productive of the sort of leftist manifesto that runs down a list of "isms", with sometimes up to ten items that are to be opposed. The authors of such manifestos quite often operate under the delusions that they have pretty well summed up what is wrong with society and that they have laid out some rational plan to correct these problems. The tendency of politics, at least in North America, to be "psychologized" often means that the lack of any sort of programmatic content is never even noticed. To the "psychologized radical" vigorous denunciation of an abstract evil, coupled with demonstrations of either one's purity or one's sinful nature and efforts to overcome it and strenuous efforts to recruit even a tiny number to the belief system- or to make their lives as unpleasant as possible- is "political activity".
The problem with such "evangelical leftism" is that essentially that it has not been, nor is likely to be in the future, anywhere near as successful as right wing variants of exactly the same sort of identity/solidarity politics, variants based on such things as religion, race or ethnicity. The various "identities" that 'ism-ism' appeals to have nowhere near as solid an emotional grip as the more atavistic ones that appear on the right. The main problem is that people, by the very fact that they are social animals have multiple identities. A person who say is a "disabled lesbian feminist" may also be a member of a given social class, a given ethnic group, a given neighbourhood, a given subculture, a given family and so on practically to infinity.
Not that this obvious truism hasn't been recognized. There is today a veritable academic cottage industry revolving around the word "intersectionality", trying to tie the various "isms" together. The problems with this are:
1)The practitioners of this art rarely get anywhere beyond stating what I have expressed above in normal English in their own vernacular of "social science speak". What they are very skilled at, however, is using enough uncommon words and convoluted arguments so that they can drag out what I said above in a few sentences into book length treatises. It's how they make their money and justify their existence.
2)The opacity of their "texts" (to use another fashion word common in such circles) easily blinds not just their readers but usually the writers as well to the fact that they haven't shown any way in which these different identities may tie together in political action, beyond what has become the standard practice of throwing everything into a stew pot because it is presumed (while it is often not the case) that anything that is "oppositional" automatically stands naturally alongside other "oppositions".
3)The idea that maybe, just maybe, all these various "oppositions" don't tie together and cannot in anything but a mythical sense of 'fashion' is a "forbidden thought" to the proponents of this industry. This might be good for an academic career, as it means that you can keep rewriting the same book for decades until retirement without ever having to have any practical proposals that might be falsified by reality. There are, of course, numerous other "forbidden thoughts" on both the left and the right, but the idea that such a concept cannot be entertained in 'good leftist company' is, to me at least, one of the reasons why so much of what the left does seems so futile once you are not in the pressure cooker of leftism.
There is certainly a lot more to be said about "collective freedom", not all of it as negative as the above may appear. To my mind, as I will express later in this series, anarchism goes a long way to 'squaring the circle' of collective freedom and individual freedom because it puts the individual front and centre and refuses to engage in the metaphysical adoption of an identity (whether from right wing or left wing fashion). What anarchism refuses to do is to take an abstraction as a "real existent". It is the precise opposite of Platonic idealism where there is some ideal "table" that all real tables are a pale shadow of. Classical Marxism fell into this idealistic error when it assumed that there were some abstractions (social or economic categories) that were somehow so "real" that they could be used to perform a mental calculus such that what came out at the other end was a 'scientific guide' to how societies evolved in the past, work in the present and will evolve in the future. Reality is considerably more messy than that, and an acceptance of this messiness which sees actual people as the real existents and the various categories as merely logical conveniences goes a long way towards solving the problem that visits the ideologues of "intersectionality" during their hours of the wolf. If the world is messy and you have to constantly refer back to the actual date-real people- then the idea that there just might be no connection between the "isms" doesn't seem so outré. Almost all of the practitioners of present day academic leftism spent their kindergarten as 'baby leftists' under the tutelage of academic Marxists. It is not surprising that, even though the subject matter of their works is remote from Marxism, that they absorbed its habits of thought without even noticing what they were being trained in.
That, of course, is the subject of yet another essay. let's get back on track.
The proponents of 'individual liberty' are a fairly diverse breed themselves. Just like the proponents of "collective liberty" they can be divided into left and right wing camps. The more consistent ones are generally found "on the left", and by this I include the 'classical liberals' whom leftists often stigmatize as "right wingers". True right wing proponents of individual freedom can usually be distinguished by how restrictive their concept of "freedom" is. It is restricted to people who belong to (usually small) groups, and it is very restrictive as to which freedoms are considered good. At its blindest it can extol the virtues of self interest on the part of a boss while desperately searching for excuses to condemn the self interest of workers who unionize to promote their own self interest. Free competition, after all, should indeed be truly free , and one shouldn't draw a line saying that what some other group that you don't like does is not allowed.
That is one of the problems with pretty well all proponents of individual liberty. They almost inevitably draw back in horror from the implications of their proposals, "drawing a line" that is hardly ever justified by principle. More often the line is drawn according to either personal self-interests or personal taste. There is a strain within conservatism, for instance, that is just as contemptuous of ordinary people as the worst communist official who wants to experiment with "the masses". The feeling of 'disgust' that informs the thoughts and proposals that stem from this contempt is as common in high political or corporate office as it is in the most violent of terrorist groups, often with far more grim effect.
But let's leave aside those who pretend to defend "individual liberty" while what they are really defending is the 'liberty' of a small group to restrict the liberty of others for their own benefit. What about "honest defenders" of individual liberty, whether they be the classical civil libertarians or the more consistent 'real libertarians'. Here the problem is not so much drawing a line because of self-interest as it is drawing a line about subject matter. It is here where the dual nature of the word 'freedom' as both 'freedom from' and 'freedom to' becomes most relevant.
Few, if any, anarchists would argue that the efforts of civil libertarians were without value. There is also a wide area of agreement between anarchists and 'real libertarians', much more than there is between them and their frequent allies of convenience, the 'social conservatives'. Where these people fail is that they concentrate pretty exclusively on "freedom from". It is indeed a great thing to be free from arbitrary state coercion (or even not so arbitrary example of same). Take, for instance, the idea of "taxes". Both real libertarians and anarchists would classify the power to tax as a subset of the power to steal. What anarchists say, in contrast to most (not all but a majority) of libertarians is that the reduction of the power of taxation can only come about when people voluntarily cooperate in organizations that can both oppose the power of the state to tax and also replace the useful functions that the state performs with better organizations. By cooperating people acquire the "freedom to" that is a necessary precondition to the "freedom from". To put it another way, an anarchist might say that a libertarian view is both narrow and unrealistic.
Civil liberties are great and wonderful things, and they should be safeguarded and expanded whenever possible. Unlike simple civil libertarians, however, anarchists take what might be termed a 'Long view". As long as the machinery of the state is in place civil liberties are under threat. The state is essentially insatiable in its demands for control, and these demands are the precise opposite of such liberties. The USA, for instance, is a far freer society than my own country of Canada. At least it was until the beginning of its almost decade long 'shadow war' with a 'shadow enemy'. Since then it has put in place a system of domestic surveillance and attempts to create a nation of informers that beggars anything that might be contained in the wildest dreams of our own Conservative government. Its saving grace is that the US government is so incredibly complex and byzantine that one arm of the state either doesn't talk to another or even deliberately undercuts it. This may be bad in terms of catching lone nuts who think they will get 70 virgins by blowing up a plane that they are on. It is, however, good in that the government cannot successfully terrorize the general population itself. Where anarchists are different from simple civil libertarians is that they see the need for a denser organization of civil society outside the state, a civil society that can organize itself and both oppose the state and actually initiate projects without having to wait for legislation.
The state, as I said, is an insatiable machine. One cannot depend upon its 'good graces' for anything other than temporary respite from a social ill, many of which are its own creation. Given crisis or simple political fashion the "gifts" of the state are easily taken back. What anarchists propose is that the state be so weakened that it is impossible for such reversion to occur.
Individual freedom is a precious item, but it is also a fragile item. It cannot be safeguarded by increasing the power of the very thing-the state- that is most likely to exterminate it. It can, however, be safeguarded by weakening the power of its enemy. This enemy often does a 'Little Red Riding Hood', coming disguised in clothing that makes it appear to be the friend of personal freedom (and many other social goods besides). Depending on this wolf to "give" something, whether it be personal liberty or some other social good is essentially making a devil's bargain. It is not just the point that I have made above, that "what the state giveth the state may taketh away"(and is very likely to). It is also the law of unintended consequences. perhaps nothing in life ever works out exactly like you would like it to. This is the essense of the old TANSTAFL saw. This applies in spades to state action where the consequences can be far more disasterous than the problem addressed, which is often "resolved" not at all anyways. But this is obviously the subject of another essay. See you then.
I began this essay with the intention of discussing "freedom to" and "freedom from", but it turned into a criticism of political trends that advocate either collective or individual liberty. The presumed subject matter has been touched on but still not further elaborated. Thus I guess you are doomed to endure yet another ramble on this subject in the future. So, I'll return to the subject soon. My apologies to those who hope to see some "real political meat" here. That I will also get to in time, but the beginning of this long series will be spent in establishing some more basic principles.


Larry Gambone said...

I think Canada has been freer than the US for more than a decade. We do not have the gulag system that the US has had since the Reagan years, for one. (We have abt 30,000 prisoners - if we had the US equivalent we would have 220,000) The Canadian govt is much less likely to use the courts to persecute radicals too, as with the fondness in the US for phony show trials that tie radicals up for years and cost multi $$$ in defense.
The there are the cops - to be assaulted or murdered by a cop happens in Canada, of course, but in the States it is much more common. The Match's column "Who the Police Beat" is an endless compendium of brutal horrors, which I don't see happening to the same degree as here.
Nor do we have the fiendish "at will" clause in work contracts by which you can be fired for any reason - not work related - such as attending a political rally on your free time. This clause annuls democratic freedoms and turns the American worker into a peon.

mollymew said...

You raise an interesting point Larry. I wouldn't be so confident about that point if I was writing the essay today. The Americans certainly talk (and talk and talk and talk) about their 'freedom', more than any other nation on Earth. If their reality was equivalent to their rhetoric then the USA would have a 'freedom quotient' of "anarchism X 10". Of course it doesn't.
Giving it some thought I came up with at least two other ways in which Canada is freer. One is the sentences for drugs offenses. The laws may be about the same (outside of some states such as California where they are far more liberal than Canada, but the penalties are far less draconian up here. The other is 'reproductive rights' ie, to 'de-euphemize it', abortion. Women have a far better access to abortion up here than in the USA.
On the other side you have to weight in not just the obvious gun laws but also the American prohibition against the establishment of religion. I don't know how often the latter is violated in the USa and taxpayers are forced to fund sectarian schools, but is "part of the scenery" up here. Perhaps most importantly there is far more freedom of speech in the USA. I don't just refer to the fairly uncommon cases where religious groups use the Human Rights Tribunals to harrass their opponents. I refer mainly to the libel laws. In Canada, the UK and Australia the defendent has to prove the truth of his or her statement. In the USA it is incumbent on the plaintiff to prove the falsity of the 'libel'. This difference means a lot. The worst offender of the bunch is probably the UK where people from all sorts of countries go what is called "tort shopping" for ridiculously high awards even if very few people in the UK actually know of the claimed 'libel' that occured in another part of the world.
To sum it up I guess it's pretty hard to say whether one country is "freer" than another as oftden arguments can be given for both sides. That doesn't mean that I won't use this little question in one of 'Molly's Polls'. I definitely WILL. I thank you for the inspiration.

Nicolas said...

Let me get back to the equality / freedom argument you are refering too.

[Beware: unconventional anarchist thinking ahead... ;-]

You are talking about taxes & freedom somewhere here. You are right in a way in an absolute sense, but I think you are wrong in a relative sense.

In a way, the taxes I pay make me more free right here, right now in this society. How is that?

I was reading recently a CSN booklet about taxes and redistribution of wealth [there's a great debate over that right now in Quebec]. I found a little gem in there about high Quebec taxes.

Apparently that if you take a regular working family with 2 kids that make 30 000$ / year [poor folks actually, I make this alone] it would cost them 2800 $ more if they lived in Vancouver, 9500 $ in Toronto, 18 500 $ in Philadelphie and nearly 40 000 $ in Boston to get the same basket of services [socialised health care, public education, kindergarden, social security, etc.] then in Quebec.

So... Taxes make them free. Because without the taxes, they would have to work a hell of a lot more [if only to be free from illness]!

This is a concrete exemple of how freedom and equality go hand in hand. Equality, even relative equality like you would find in any modern social democrat state, is a condition of freedom. Redistribution of wealth [collective freedom... ;-] just give you more opportunities. Period.

[Just some food for thought.]

Larry Gambone said...

Just looking at the picture for this posting. Fat Cat Anarchism?

mollymew said...

Each section of this series will be introduced by a cat picture. This is, after all, Molly "Mew's" blog. I guess the fat cat picture might better have been placed on a post about 'anarcho-capitalism'. Ah well. wait to you see the rest of the series.
I don't want to get ahead of myself here. I will no doubt get to economics and the nature of the modern state in future posts. There is little doubt in my mind that the old Marxist canard of the state being the "executive committee of the ruling class" is oversimplified to the point of being a cartoon. There is also no doubt that the state performs probably more beneficial functions in present society than detrimental ones. The big questions are 1)at what cost ? and 2)are there better ways of doing things short of the 'Second Coming of Kropotkin' on a cloud of revolutionary glory ?. The answer to the first varies from case to case. The answer to the second is that I think there are.
I got seriously sidetracked in this essay away from "freedom to" and "freedom from" into criticizing both the left and the right. I hope that the supplement to this, coming soon, will incorpotate more of the "equality as freedom" argument. As for other matters they will have to wait their turn. For all I know they are matters of "books", not just essays.