Posts tagged Social Memory Complex

U.S. out of Las Vegas!

One of the things that I said in my speech about ALL to the Libertarian Party of Clark County, which was deliberately provocative and carefully worded, was I am here today to bring you two messages. So let me cut to the chase and deliver both of them right now. They are the point of this entire talk, and I can put them both in ten words or fewer. Here’s the first: Las Vegas will be free soil in our own lifetimes. And the second is: We are all going to make it happen. That may seem ridiculously optimistic, given the immensity, the scope, the pervasiveness, and the ruthlessness of the many-headed monster we call the modern State. I try to discuss a bit in my speech why it is not overly optimistic, focusing on the second claim — that we all, meaning not ALL or the Libertarian Party, but just about everybody in Las Vegas — can and will take part, if those of us who care about these things play our cards right, through the use of populist organizing, coalition building, direct action, and counter-economics.

But another thing that I didn’t focus on much, which I’d like to mention, is the importance of the first thing I said, when I said Las Vegas will be free soil. I said that, and not something else (the U.S. will be free soil; the word will be free soil) because I think that’s an achievable goal. It’s not that I don’t want the whole U.S., or indeed the entire earth to be free soil; it’s not even that I think either couldn’t be free soil in the forseeable future. They could; I hope they will; if I can help, I will. But Las Vegas is where I live, and where Southern Nevada ALL intends to act, and I think it’s immensely important to begin there, and not to sell yourself on the idea that action has to be directed against the largest possible targets, or, more importantly at trying to strike some decisive blow at those targets that will somehow defeat Power everywhere and forever. Real empires almost never fall that way, unless they are conquered by some outside force, usually another rising empire, and for anarchists that’s not an acceptable option. So we need to think about getting the empire to crumble, not to implode, and to help it along by chiseling wherever and as hard as we can. If we win, it will crumble in some places faster than it will crumble in others. The basic problem is that a central aim of the imperial State has always been to get people to forget, effectively, about their neighborhood, their friends, their family, and everything else actually around them, and to understand their homeland in strictly political terms, in terms of a flag and a set of lines on the map and a capital hundreds or thousands of miles away. If anarchists ever want to get anywhere, we’re going to need to break that link, to pry people’s notion of home from out the talons of the State and its notion of political citizenship. Which strategic point brings me to a really excellent recent post by Jeremy at Social Memory Complex (2008-06-13), which is working towards some of the analysis that goes along with:

Or does our whole approach to this dissonant national endeavor need retooling?

I think it does. Is the lobbyist-driven agenda of corporations, special interests, and political culture really any less distant than U.S. foreign policy? Do we have any authentic control over the decisions in our society that affect us? Or are we just treated as fungible units of polity that have only to be deftly mobilized by public relations wizards in pursuit of an agenda fundamentally alien to us? What, in other words, is the difference between our powerlessness within the borders of the U.S. and the powerlessness endured by the residents of Iraq and Afghanistan?

Instead of contrasting our experience under our government with that of its foreign victims, we might do well to compare the experiences. We’ve been taught from a very young age to distinguish American citizenship from that enjoyed by citizens of other countries, chiefly by virtue of our unique institutions of governance. But it is these same institutions that are being built in Iraq: a democratic, constitutional government with corporate control and obedience to international capital, with an established U.S. military presence to ensure stability in the region. These features are proving just as confounding to their freedom as their American counterparts are for us.

Through overwhelming military force, claims of moral privilege, and alleged threats - not unlike the P.R. which allowed the U.S. to conquer the west and the south in the 19th century and frame it as liberation - the U.S. government is imposing a democratic government and a market economy on an unwilling people. Meanwhile, the U.S. government is also continuing to ratchet up the police state at home even as it practices martial law in Iraq. Just as there were Tories and other people loyal to the crown during the American Revolution, the federal government finds plenty of lackeys in the fifty states, Iraq, Afghanistan, and indeed throughout the world to do their dirty military or paramilitary (law enforcement) work. Legislative creep and sheer audacity constantly expand the scope of lawful authority, defining down the degree of liberty an individual can expect to enjoy. Participation in the decisions that affect us is framed as a set of predetermined choices provided by the establishment rather than a direct say at the local level. And all of these features bring more and more of the world under direct control of Washington - both the world within U.S. borders and the world outside them.

For it is into Washington, in the District of Columbia, that all the spoils of these policies flow. The D.C. metro area is among the fastest growing in the nation, despite having no productive civilian industry to speak of (except perhaps I.T., but no more than any other city if you discount government contracting). Not only is it the seat of governance for the country, it is the clearing house for the international policy of most nations. By enticing Americans to “work within the system” to influence policy, citizens legitimate the process by which power and authority are steadily concentrated. An entire lobbying industry has sprung up from the need to have some say in this process; doing business in the empire has a high cost of entry, and once you get a seat at the table it’s plunder or be plundered. As more people see D.C. as the place where decisions are made, rather than local governments or foreign capitals, the amount of money and people pouring into the city will continue to grow, while localities and other countries become bureaucratic appendages of D.C. policy.

. . .

But it’s not just that Washingtonians rule over an overseas empire; it’s that domestic U.S. territory is increasingly treated as part of the conquered territory, rather than as the source of state legitimacy. Sure, we have elected representatives we send to D.C. from all over the country, but experience shows that only in the rarest of occasions do they not adopt the Beltway outlook of going along to get along with the system. Instead, they play the game to bring home as much of the spoils of empire (taxation and government contracts for further imperialism) as possible. In the process, they cease to represent their constituents in D.C., preferring to represent the Washingtonian agenda in their respective localities. They become little Paul Brehmers, advocating policies that promote the more effective rule of the domestic and foreign empire. They measure success in terms of how they can coax or coerce the locals into compliance with necessarily foreign interests.

If it is policies in Washington, D.C. that are changing this country into an empire, it is inaccurate to label the empire American. Clearly, the vast majority of Americans are not participating in it, but are merely preferred subjects in territory as occupied as that in Iraq and Afghanistan. . . . If the decision-making bureaucracy, military might, and economic clout are all based in Washington, doesn’t it make sense to call this system the Washingtonian empire, rather than conflating it with the disenfranchised subjects in the fifty states? It’s no more an American empire than it is an Iraqi or Afghan one.

The Washingtonian Empire is the largest, richest, most powerful, most hierarchically distributed, and most subtly maintained in history. It is so successful that it has even managed to proceed with its agenda without much notice as to its true nature. We should stop trying to get people to take responsibility for the decisions of a foreign city-state, because this only encourages the conflation of their American identity with an alien one.

By drawing on our revolutionary, anti-colonial legacy, we can frame the American political experience as one of historically consistent subjugation. We can then find common ground with other victims of American imperialism while articulating an authentically decentralist agenda.

— Social Memory Complex (2008-06-13): The empire is not American, but Washingtonian

Make sure you read the whole thing, especially Jeremy’s very salient discussion of the impact of this kind of analysis on strategy.

Let me just add that one of the most important dimensions in which to emphasize the nature of America as occupied territories is the connection with the daily lives of the most thoroughly oppressed and exploited people under the bootheels of the United States government and its praetors and proconsuls: especially black people, brown people, poor people, immigrants, people labeled crazy, women (especially the women most marginalized and criminalized by the government and civil society), etc. etc. etc. During the 1960s, the Black Panthers, the Young Lords, and many other New Left liberation groups explicitly linked the conditions and struggles of people in the brutally police-occupied, white-controlled ghettoes of the U.S. — which were founded in slavery, lynch law, apartheid, and immiserating land grabs, which were treated politically as presumptively criminal, unruly elements of the body politic, to be reformed, contained, or eradicated; which were regimented and patrolled on every street corner by the occupying paramilitary forces of the white government — with the conditions and struggles of colonized peoples throughout the so-called Third World, recognizing that just because the lines on the map separated Harlem and Watts from Johannesburg and Nairobi, the people in each had far more in common with each other than any of them had with the handful of white men sitting in the halls of power in D.C., in London, and elsewhere. The false dignity of a morally and practically meaningless imperial citizenship was dismissed; in its place was offered self-understanding for people facing the violence of colonization and solidarity with people rising up against Power in their own homelands throughout the world. In the 1970s, Detroit feminists elaborated the thought by pointing out that, in an important sense, women throughout the world constituted a Fourth World, which faced subjugation and colonization at the hands of petty patriarchs and male States, whether those sites of colonization were located in the capitals of First, Second or Third World regimes. Anarchists can and should learn these lessons well, and take the thoughts to their logical completion, by showing how the State, just as such, always and everywhere, operates as a colonizing force, against all its subjects, and for the profit of the handful of beneficiaries who constitute the ruling class. (Of course, the fact that it operates like this against us all does not mean that it operates this way against all of us to an equal degree. The point here is not cheap sympathy; it’s solidarity, especially with those who are the most trodden upon by this monster State.)

While the legacy of 1776 is worth understanding and learning from, and an important weapon to turn against the power in Washington; but so are many other things, and I think it is vital for the Libertarian Left to take up and learn from this tradition in articulating our anti-imperial theory and practice.

See also:

10,000 ways to lose your freedom

You talk of simplification. But if you can simplify in one point, you can simplify in all. Instead of a million laws, a single law will suffice. What shall this law be? Do not to others what you would not they should do to you: do to others as you would they should do to you. That is the law and the prophets.

But it is evident that this is not a law; it is the elementary formula of justice, the rule of all transactions. Legislative simplification then leads us to the idea of contract, and consequently to the denial of authority. In fact, if there is but a single law, if it solves all the contradictions of society, if it is admitted and acceptedby everybody, it is sufficient for the social contract. In promulgating it you announce the end of government. What prevents you then from making this simplification at once?

— Pierre-Joseph Proudhon (1851), General Idea of the Revolution in the Nineteenth Century, Fourth Study, The Principle of Authority, § 2.2 ¶¶ 9–10.

Over at newsrack, lefty Thomas Nephew kindly took notice of GT 2008-05-16: Women and the Invisible Fist. Nephew wrote:

Via Jim Henley, who seems lately to be about metamorphosing your father’s (and/or mother’s) libertarianism into something more honest, multifaceted, and interesting. See also in this respect Henley’s Art of the Possible post, and the site as a whole: Liberals and libertarians on common ground… and otherwise. Henley says that the challenge is to correct spontaneous malign orders without the tool of state violence. I’m not sure that circle can be squared — some countervailing force is needed against spontaneous malign orders, and that force will need some agreed on norms of justice and enforcement. But I’m interested that libertarians are thinking about the challenge.

— Thomas Nephew (2008-05-24): Worth reading

That lead to some interesting discussion in the comments thread. I replied:


Thank you for the kind mention, and for the thoughtful comments.

You write: “Henley says that the challenge is to ‘correct spontaneous malign orders without the tool of state violence.’ I’m not sure that circle can be squared — some countervailing force is needed against spontaneous malign orders, and that force will need some agreed on norms of justice and enforcement”

There are a couple of different kinds of malign spontaneous orders that need to be differentiated here.

The first are malign undesigned orders that emerge, in part, from diffuse forms of violence — what I called “invisible fist” processes, as with the socio-cultural ripple effects of stranger-rape and other prevalent forms of violence against women.

The second are malign orders that don’t emerge from diffuse forms of violence, but rather from voluntary interactions. Unlike some libertarians, I believe that there are plenty of examples of these, too (for example, certain kinds of widespread credentialism and elitism that have emerged over the past century, and which have a big effect on education and on the workplace). These malign undesigned orders are often intimately connected with social orders that have coercive elements (for example, I’d say that certain pernicious forms of credentialism and managerialism, which contribute to classism and to the exploitation of working folks, have an awful lot to do with consistent government intervention on behalf of the managerial class and against the deskilled proletariat over the past century — cf. for examples my essay Scratching By at or Kevin Carson’s Mutualist Blog at — but, while intimately connected, are not identical with them (it’s likely that even without that government intervention they might live on through institutionalized cultural prejudices, unless deliberately confronted and undermined).

Libertarians and anarchists can consistently endorse the use of physical force as part of the response to the former (violent) sort of undesigned order; they can’t consistently endorse the use of physical force as part of the response to the latter (non-violent, but still ugly) sort of undesigned order.

In the second case, though, I ought to stress that not abandoning the use of force doesn’t mean abandoning the use of confrontation or hardball tactics—they just have to be carried out through tactics and institutions outside the political arena, the legal arena, or the regulatory bureaucracy. (On what should be done instead, I’m really an old Leftist at heart: I think people should form fighting unions and community organizations, build counter-institutions and mutual aid societies, use targeted and general strikes, boycotts, work-to-rule, hardball forms of social ostracism, stage sit-ins, etc. etc. etc. Forget about the government; we can do this ourselves.)

In the first case, the use of countervailing physical force in defense of self or others is defense, not aggression, so it need not offend any libertarian or anarchist sensibilities (unless one is a principled pacifist—which I’m not, and which most libertarians and anarchists aren’t either). You worry that that force will need some agreed on norms of justice and enforcement. I’m inclined to agree with that (although we might disagree on what the importance of agreement is here). But supposing that we do agree, I don’t think it tells against Jim’s point. Agreed-upon norms of justice and enforcement aren’t in and of themselves a problem for anarchism or libertarianism. The question is how the agreement on those norms is brought about: whether the agreement comes about by general acquiescence to privileged demands, or whether it comes about by means of a broad consensus among equals.

Government ensures agreement upon these norms by erecting privileged institutions which are legally empowered to force everyone else to acquiesce to the norms they propound and act on.

Anarchy, on the other hand, doesn’t mean chaos or the break-up of any agreed-upon norms of justice or enforcement. (At least, that’s not what anarchy means in the mouths of anarchists who use the term.) What it does mean is that any agreement upon those norms should be brought about through the free interactions among equals and by the emergence of a broad social consensus.

Further, anarchists generally believe that that kind of consensus can rightfully be acted on by any free association that puts reasonable norms for justice and enforcement into practice — rather than being limited to a privileged class of government-approved cops, judges, etc. The idea here being that the justice of judgments and the righteousness of enforcement are things that ought to be assessed on the merits of the conduct itself, not according to the identity or the political status of the judge or the enforcer. That is to say, that it should be considered as a matter to be resolved by appeals to the content of the norms, rather than to the political status and prerogatives of the body propounding them.

So the ideal here is not to abolish any general norms of justice or enforcement, but rather to keep the ideal of consensus on norms while detaching the crafting of the consensus from the imposition of exclusive government-granted prerogatives.

Does that help clarify, or does it muddify?

— Rad Geek (2008-06-01): Comments on Worth reading

Thomas replied with some comments on professionalization and specialization in the law, which are the main thing that I want to focus on today. In part because the issue is interesting and important in itself; in part also because the way that police forces and the legal system operate today is, in many different ways, ideologically dependent on the idea that we need to turn a great deal of our lives and freedom over to a cadre of trained, specialized legal professionals for our own protection and in order to ensure justice and social peace. He wrote:

Thank you very much for your comment — it’s really an excellent post in its own right. I think I understand what you’re driving at; I’m trying to decide what I think about it, and that takes me longer than maybe it should. My thoughts so far:

  1. I suppose I have a sneaking agreement that there’s too much that’s privileged and mysterious about judges, lawyers, and law enforcement. But I also think there’s specialization and craft in these pursuits, just as there is in, say, cabinetmaking or watchmaking. Those are pursuits I leave to others; maybe so is law enforcement or judging. Even just a policeman has to master tons of information and training — knowing the law, when to wait, when to intervene, how to gather evidence, how to avoid violating rights while pushing back against spontaneous malign orders.

  2. But I also see the difficulty with that analogy: unlike with the cabinet or watchmaking trades, I recognize I have a citizen’s responsibility in understanding my political system and helping point it in the right direction, to the best of my puny abilities.

— Thomas Nephew (2008-06-02): Comments on Worth reading

By way of reply, I argued that the need for specialized expertise and training (1) isn’t an argument for monopoly, and also (2) is itself a function of the expansiveness and authoritarianism of the State:


Thank you for your kind words.

You write: “But I also think there’s specialization and craft in these pursuits, just as there is in, say, cabinetmaking or watchmaking.”

Probably so, although I’m inclined to think that there is, or ought to be, much LESS specialization and craft than the professionalized government enforcers and judges would have you believe. To be sure, the government laws that are on the books today are tremendously complicated and require years of specialized training and practice to even begin to get a good grip on a relatively small specialty. But I think that that’s precisely because the people who make and use the laws have a political and a professional interest in making those laws extremely complicated, and in having them cover an extremely wide and not very well defined scope of human affairs. Libertarians and anarchists believe that regularized enforcement should cover a much more precisely delimited and a much, much smaller field than it currently does, so to some extent the problem vanishes along with the laws that libertarians and anarchists believe ought to be abolished.

For example, labor relations law as it presently exists is extremely complicated — it requires making a lot of very fine distinctions, balancing many different prerogatives granted to and regulatory limitations imposed upon unions, individual employees, and employers, etc. etc. etc. It takes a lot to even understand the basics of the situation, and the tricky details of a concrete case often can’t even be resolved without hashing out the issues in bureaucratic negotiations through the NLRB or in federal court. But the complexity of the legal situation is clearly a function of its being channeled through the federal regulatory bureaucracy. That situation clearly benefits NLRB bureaucrats and professional labor lawyers; it’s much less clear that it benefits the rank-and-file workers for whose benefit this sort of thing was supposedly constructed, but who are substantially deprived of any real control over the process by putting so much of it into the hands of professional legal experts. If agreed-upon norms of justice and enforcement were (as anarchists believe that they should be) limited only to the issue of protecting innocent people from being attacked by physical force, or vindicating their rights after the fact if they should be attacked — with all the rest to be handled by free contracts between the individual parties, unregimented by a government bureaucracy, and by whatever forms of nonviolent leverage and activism that the creativity of organized workers and a fighting union might devise — then it’s much less clear what need for specialization or professionalization there would be. (There might still be a lot of need for impartial arbitrators; but impartiality is distinct from technical expertise, and is something you can get by finding any third party of good will and good sense for the duration of the arbitration; it doesn’t require a distinct class of professional arbitrators.)

Generalizing from that case, I agree with Lysander Spooner that if the realm of enforcement were strictly limited to questions of interpersonal justice, then, quote:

No objection can be made to these voluntary associations upon the ground that they would lack that knowledge of justice, as a science, which would be necessary to enable them to maintain justice, and themselves avoid doing injustice. Honesty, justice, natural law, is usually a very plain and simple matter, easily understood by common minds. Those who desire to know what it is, in any particular case, seldom have to go far to find it. It is true, it must be learned, like any other science. But it is also true that it is very easily learned. Although as illimitable in its applications as the infinite relations and dealings of men with each other, it is, nevertheless, made up of a few simple elementary principles, of the truth and justice of which every ordinary mind has an almost intuitive perception. And almost all men have the same perceptions of what constitutes justice, or of what justice requires, when they understand alike the facts from which their inferences are to be drawn.

Men living in contact with each other, and having intercourse together, CANNOT AVOID learning natural law to a very great extent, even if they would. The dealing of men with men, their separate possessions and their individual wants, and the disposition of every man to demand, and insist upon, whatever he believes to be his due, and to resent and resist all invasions of what he believes to be his rights, are continually forcing upon their minds the questions, Is this act just? or is it unjust? Is this thing mine? or is it his? And these are questions of natural law; questions which, in regard to the great mass of cases, are answered alike by the human mind everywhere.”

— Lysander Spooner (1882), Natural Law, or the Science of Justice, section 4.

And I would follow up your second point by urging that it is dangerous, and to some degree irresponsible, to adopt large-scale systems of law and practice that practically require ordinary citizens to abandon the questions of political and interpersonal justice to a privileged, insular, and easily corrupted class of specialists.

But, secondly, I would also argue, further, that even if the requirements of justice ARE complicated enough in some particular case that it requires some specialized training and expertise to sort them out, or where correctly applying and implementing them requires specialized training and expertise in something else (e.g., for enforcers, training and expertise in de-escalating potentially violent situations may be a form of specialization well worth having), that seems to me like an argument for leaving the field open to many specialists, who can offer their services to anyone who is interested in retaining them (e.g. many private associations for arbitration and/or defense, which people go to on the basis of choice rather than being forced to go to one in particular on the basis of fixed territorial monopolies). Not so much an argument for limiting the field to a single fixed, institutionalized class of specialists (e.g. a government court or a government police force with rigidly and exclusively defined territorial or topical jurisdictions).

The first (non-monopolistic) solution really would make the business of law a skilled trade or profession, much like watchmaking or medicine, where people go to acknowledged experts freely, but aren’t forced to choose one particular expert on the basis of political status, and can choose another, on the basis of their own considered judgment and comfort levels, or for that matter can still choose none at all, if they decide to hazard the risks and trouble of doing it for themselves.

The second, monopolistic solution doesn’t make the business of law so much like skilled trades and professions, but rather like a feudal or command economy, in which people are assigned particular experts and forced to turn matters over to that particular expert rather than another, on the basis of the political status of the experts rather than on the basis of broadly and consensually acknowledged expertise. It’s that which, as an anarchist, I really object to.

Does that help? What do you think?

— Rad Geek (2008-06-02): Comments on Worth reading

In reply, Thomas raised some fairly common counter-objections and worries, especially about the dangers supposedly posed by the devolution of policing from public control to private defense — or, to spin it another way, from government to civil society.

But the complexity of the legal situation is clearly a function of its being channeled through the federal regulatory bureaucracy. That situation clearly benefits NLRB bureaucrats and professional labor lawyers; it’s much less clear that it benefits the rank-and-file workers for whose benefit this sort of thing was supposedly constructed, but who are substantially deprived of any real control over the process by putting so much of it into the hands of professional legal experts.

This seems like blaming the chickens for the fox’s raid on the chicken coop. At least lately, the situation you refer to clearly benefits management in most NLRB disputes. I’d put down most of what’s wrong with NLRB to its being an easily subverted agency, most of the blame for that to corporations achieving via the back door of a compliant board what they couldn’t via the statutes authorizing the NRLB in the first place … and most of what’s wrong with those statutes to earlier corporate influence in making things like unionization far too difficult in the first place. Rightly administered and empowered, NLRB ought to be a counterweight to moneyed and propertied interests that have no interest in worker’s rights. The fact that it isn’t rightly administered and empowered seems to me a measure of the strength of the forces arrayed against it, not of the weakness of the idea of an NLRB itself.

The first (non-monopolistic) solution really would make the business of law a skilled trade or profession, much like watchmaking or medicine, where people go to acknowledged experts freely, but aren’t forced to choose one particular expert on the basis of political status, and can choose another, on the basis of their own considered judgment and comfort levels, or for that matter can still choose none at all, if they decide to hazard the risks and trouble of doing it for themselves.

At least for legal representation, that — in theory — is already the case, isn’t it? The problem is when the innocent can’t afford a Clarence Darrow, a Johnny Cochrane, or an F Lee Bailey to get them off but the guilty can.

I don’t see how to bid out for police functions, though, without that turning into yet another part of society baldly favoring the rich and privileged over the poor and disenfranchised. While that may be too much the case even with a police force as public monopoly, I think it would surely be worse in a “Deadwood“-type services-to-the-highest-bidder world. But maybe I’m misunderstanding you in how police functions ideally ought to work.

— Thomas Nephew (2008-06-02): Comments on Worth reading

To which I made some counter-counter-objections, and raised what I think ought to be some obvious questions:


You write: “This seems like blaming the chickens for the fox’s raid on the chicken coop.”

I’m not sure what you mean. I don’t blame rank-and-file workers for the way the NLRB functions. I blame the politicos, the “Progressive” bosses, and the conservative union bosses who pushed to create the system. (Radical unions, like the I.W.W., rightly opposed the system as an effort to promote conservative unionism and to capture and domesticate unions through a combination of government patronage and government regulation.)

You write: “Rightly administered and empowered, NLRB ought to be a counterweight to moneyed and propertied interests that have no interest in worker’s rights.”

Two things.

First, I have no confidence in anyone’s ability to craft a regulatory agency that successfully resists being substantially captured by the interests that it regulates. I can’t think of any example in the history of American regulatory bodies where this has been pulled off for any length of time, and I don’t think it should be particularly surprising that, since political entities respond to political incentives, they will tend to be administered in a way that systematically benefits the wealthiest and most politically-connected people.

Second, even if the NLRB were ideally administered, the system is designed from the ground up as a means of constraining union demands and restricting unions to the most conservative and least effectual methods. (Thus, the Taft-Hartley bans on secondary strikes, secondary boycotts, union hiring halls, wildcat strikes, etc. etc. etc.; thus the emphasis on a heavily regulated process of collective bargaining, controlled by very elaborate legal requirements that are often next to impossible for rank-and-file workers to understand, in place of extremely effective and very simple to understand tactics, like work-to-rule and other forms of direct action in the workplace.)

You write: “At least for legal representation, that — in theory — is already the case, isn’t it?”

Well, not entirely — you can choose one lawyer rather than another, as long as you can afford their fees, but you can’t choose anyone as your advocate except those who have been officially approved for membership in the government-created and government-regulated lawyer’s guild. But lawyers weren’t the “experts” I was referring to; I was referring to the fact that the government forces people to take legal disputes before specific judges (with jurisdiction fixed by the issue in dispute and by accidents of geography), and excludes other no-less qualified and impartial experts from taking up the dispute simply because the privileged judge has a particular political status and the other would-be arbitrator doesn’t. If we are really talking about a form of specialized expertise here, like that of the watchmaker or of the doctor, then anyone should be able to take the case, not just a judge deemed to have that topic and that location within his bailiwick by the government.

You write: “I don’t see how to bid out for police functions, though, without that turning into yet another part of society baldly favoring the rich and privileged over the poor and disenfranchised.”

Well, I don’t know. Isn’t that already how government policing works?

Tax funding doesn’t prevent government cops from treating poor people pretty shitty, or from acting as an instrument of class power. In fact, the fact that poor neighborhoods have no real control over who provides policing in their neighborhoods, and no way of cutting off their portion of the funding for neglectful or abusive police forces, is part and parcel of the problem.

Anyway, I’m not sure what you mean by bid out for police functions. If you mean the government outsourcing policing to private security corporations (Wackenhut, Blackwater, whatever), I’m not for that, and I don’t consider it an example of free market self-defense. I think that all government involvement in policing (whether in-sourced or out-sourced) should be abolished.

If you mean individual people choosing to cover the costs of policing, and having a choice about who, if anyone, they get police services from, then I don’t think there’s any guarantee that the result will be (even more) plutocratic policing. It’s true that, if all policing were based on free association and not on government monopoly, there might well be some policing that is done by private goon squads for hire, and those might have an incentive to favor the rich over the poor. But (1) again, I’m not convinced that they’d have more of an incentive to do so than government cops already have; and (2) there are lots of other ways of using free association to get self-defense and neighborhood defense done. For example, the Black Panthers and the Young Lords organized historically oppressed people to arm themselves, and to patrol and defend their own neighborhoods (including defending them from the predation of abusive white cops). In any case, where there are many, competing and countervailing associations that serve defensive functions, if one association becomes especially neglectful, or, worse, predatory, against marginalized people, other associations can move in to compete, or new associations can be formed, to check the first. But when policing is monopolized by a single institution, there is no real reason for them to try to please anybody outside of their firmest base of support (in the case of political monopolies, that means the ruling class—as is confirmed by how police departments already operate today). If they don’t please marginalized people, why would they care? They stay paid anyway, and there’s no countervailing force to hold them to account for their abusiveness.

My own view is that the need for any form of professional policing at all would be dramatically less in a free society than it is in the present day. (For example, in a free society there would be no drug laws, vice laws, or border laws, and thus no narcs, no vice cops, and no La Migra. There would also be much less entrenched urban poverty, because — for reasons I discuss in the Freeman article — ghettoized urban poverty as we know it is largely a function of interlocking government interventions against poor people’s survival strategies and attemtps to flourish through creative hustling; hence much less economically motivated crime, and also much less of certain kinds of antisocial behavior. So, again, this is, to a great extent, a problem that vanishes along with the needless government laws and endless government “wars” on consensual behavior, which I already favor abolishing. But, even if the demand for specialized policing were to remain just as high as it is today, I still think that it is far, far better to have a situation in which people are free to withdraw their support from abusive agencies, and where there are many acknowledged experts to keep each other in check, than a situation in which people are forced to pay for their own abuse, and in which cops are never held to account for wrongdoing by any means other than “handling it internally” and issuing the occasional “Oops, our bad”.

— Rad Geek (2008-06-01): Comments on Worth reading

It’s a fairly wide-ranging discussion, and you ought to read the whole thing if you want to follow up on some of the sub-threads about, for example, organizing, class, tactics, immigration, and so on. For now, I want to highlight the discussion about specialization and professionalization in policing. On that note, I want to stress that it’s precisely those ideals in lawyering and law enforcement that lead directly to things like this, and this, and this. And, less directly but very quickly, gets us from those to this and this. And that from there it doesn’t take a very slippery slope to get down to this and this and this.

And the perceived need for specialization, professionalization, and expertise is a need which only exists because of the very system of law and enforcement it is invoked to justify. On a related note, consider this video (thanks to Jeremy at Social Memory Complex 2008-06-04: Don’t talk to the police), which provides both excellent legal advice, from the standpoint of simple self-interest, and some solid analysis of our present predicament how ordinary folks like you and me ought to relate to government cops under these conditions.

Without that system, without its politically-fabricated complexity, and without the tremendous latitude deliberately created by that complexity for government police to exercise arbitrary power in stopping, detaining, fining, and arresting suspect people — the 10,000 or more crimes that government law has fabricated, the crimes so numerous that not even the government itself can count them all anymore, and so potentially ruinous for anyone in trouble with the law that you have little choice but to regard anyone threatening to exercise their specialization and craft in the law as little more than a dangerous soldier in a hostile, occupying force — without all that, I say, there would be no basis, no need, and no call for that complexity or that arbitrary authority, or for the privileged, professionalized retinue of lawyers and enforcers who are expected today to go around navigating that complexity and exercising that arbitrary authority, in order to solve the very problems that the same complexity and arbitrary authority created in the first place.

Further reading:

What’s really wrong with relativism?

Over in the comments on GT 2006-04-09: Freedom Movement Celebrity Deathmatch, Jeremy (of Social Memory Complex) asks the following question, referring back to an exchange I had with Lady Aster (1, 2), and an exchange that Jeremy and I had at his blog (1 et seq.):

In your reply to Aster you spoke of the danger of relativism. Is it possible for you to expand on this concept? Can you be more descriptive and perhaps specific about the danger you see in a relativist view of the morality? Or perhaps you have written about this elsewhere and can direct me to your existing writing. I only ask because we’ve recently discussed this and I’m interested in your argument here.

I initially posted this reply as a very long comment; after thinking about it, I decided that it would be of general enough interest, even though it’s a fairly sketchy overview, to make it a post of its own.

Jeremy, I think that the best reply partly depends on what sort of dangers you’re interested in.

I have philosophical reasons for believing that moral relativism is theoretically flawed. If relativism is intended to be a description of the logic behind people’s actual use of moral terms, then it’s not an accurate description; it’s not really a theory of morality at all, but rather a theory of something else — etiquette, taste, or, in its crudest forms, conventional wisdom or personal pleasure. If, on the other hand, it’s intended to be a normative theory about the criteria that people ought to use in making certain kinds of judgments — by, say, abandoning the morality-game’s requirements for certain kinds of consistency across differences of culture or personal psychology, and adopting some other, relativistic set of requirements — then I think that that theory is undermotivated, false, and, at least in most versions, logically incoherent. If it’s intended as a meta-ethical theory, which takes for granted the rules of the morality-game as they are, and doesn’t specifically counsel abandoning those rules, but which claims that those rules either don’t express factual claims at all, or else express factual claims that presuppose something false, then what you’ve got is not really relativism exactly, but either non-cognitivism or an error theory (respectively). I have my own logical and philosophical problems with each of those, which we can discuss at more length if you want.

I also have reasons for thinking that relativism is a moral danger, in the sense that I believe that, under many circumstances, indulging in relativistic argument is in fact a moral vice, and that it tends to encourage other kinds of moral vice. Basically because on any form of relativism (cultural relativism, agent relativism, speaker relativism, etc.) you necessarily, in order to remain a relativist, must fail to hold some people to moral standards that it’s appropriate to hold them to, and to hold some other people to moral standards that it’s inappropriate to hold them to. It amounts to either excuse-making or bigotry, depending on the case. (For example, consider the very common, implicitly culturally-relativist claim that contemporary writers shouldn’t judge George Washington harshly for enslaving hundreds of his fellow human beings if most of his contemporaries, or at least most of the minority faction of his contemporaries whose opinions he cared about — the white and propertied ones — believed that slavery was O.K. and if Washington’s methods weren’t especially harsh by their standards. I don’t think there is any possible way to make this kind of claim without, thereby, expressing a really massive callousness toward the well-being, dignity, and rights of the hundreds of people that George Washington enslaved. Not only do I regard it as being philosophically mistaken, but the callousness itself is wrong. And if you live the kind of life that that kind of immorality accords with, well, that’s a problem with your life, not a problem with morality.)

I also have reasons for thinking that libertarians should regard relativism in general, and relativism about the duty to respect other people’s rights in particular, as a political danger. If justice is thought of as something that’s less than universally and categorically binding, which individual people or cultures of people can take or leave as it pleases them, then I don’t think it is very surprising that what will soon follow is a whole host of reasons or excuses for leaving it in favor of some putative benefit to be got through coercion. Politically speaking, I’m not just interested in theories which proclaim my reasons for not beating, burning, and bombing innocent people; I wouldn’t do that anyway, and just about nobody would support me or make excuses on my behalf if I did. I’m much more concerned with theories which proclaim George W. Bush’s or Dick Cheney’s reasons for not beating, burning, and bombing innocent people, because the problem in this case is precisely those who don’t believe that they have any personal reason not to do that.

Of course, I could instead adopt a moral theory on which it’s O.K. for them to act like that, but also O.K. for me to try to resist them, and a sociological theory which predicts that if I stick to my values and they convert to similar values, it’ll lead to a better outcome for the both of us than if we each stick to our values, or if I convert to Bush’s and Cheney’s. (Maybe that’s what Max Stirner believed.)

But, again, in addition to the theoretical and the moral problems that I’ve already mentioned, I also think that this kind of theory is unlikely to get you much political traction, because it underplays your dialectical hand. (I think that binding moral claims are really much stronger, rhetorically and dialectically, than most people seem to believe they are. Lots of people very often rule out a stark moral arguments—say against slavery, or imprisoning nonviolent drug users, or forced pregnancy, or the war on Iraq—in favor of some much more complicated technical argument, or a pseudo-conciliatory hand-wringing argument, because they dismiss the moral argument as somehow impractical, even though it would be perfectly convincing to them, and even though they would find complicated or hand-wringing argument confusing, unfocused, or worse, if they were the ones listening to the argument. The problem in these cases is often not with the moral argument but rather with the arguer underestimating her audience.) I also think that these kind of approaches very often involve a mistake about the best target for your argument; sometimes it makes sense to try to persuade aggressors to stop being aggressive by argument, but it’s much more often the case that the smarter goal would be to try to convince other victims of aggression to resist, or at least stop collaborating with, the aggressor, and stark moral arguments against the legitimacy of the aggression are very often going to be the most effective way to inspire comrades and shame collaborators.

But, setting aside political strategy, I think the most important reasons are the moral and logical ones. The fact that relativism and relativistic arguments are dangerous to the political prospects for liberty, if that is a fact, is just a secondary reason to more strongly dislike it. The primary reason to oppose it is that the position is false, the arguments are fallacious, and the vision of human life and moral discourse that it presents — one in which people are just so many bigots and partisans, divided in our basically irreconcilable values by personal temperament or, worse, cultural or parochial loyalties, whose normative discourse consists of battering their own preferences against other people, to whom those preferences are ultimately alien, in the hope that their opponents will eventually be remade in their own image and their own preferences will triumph, through means explicitly other than rational conviction, which of course has been ruled out from the get-go by the relativist premise — is a narrow and mean and miserable thing compared to the vision on which we are, each of us, fellow citizens of a cosmopolis of all rational creatures, open to each other’s reasons and concerns, and in both amenable to, and hopefully guided by, reason, when it comes to the things that are most important to each of our individual lives. The highest form of flourishing is one in which I neither regard myself as made for the use of others, nor regard others as made for my own use, but rather see my taste and idiosyncratic projects, other people’s taste and idiosyncratic projects, and the common tastes and projects which we may agree to cultivate cooperatively, as all existing within the scope of shared and universally intelligible norms of respect, consent, humanity, and rational discourse. Relativism often advances itself as if it promoted that form of flourishing, under the veneer of a phony tolerance, but in fact to the extent that it attacks the sharedness and universal intelligibility of those norms, it is attacking that form of flourishing, and attempting to claim that tolerance means my right to make you tolerate whatever I want you to (or vice versa), since (after all) the relativistic version of tolerance can in principle include tolerance of absolutely any value, including values for coercion, aggression, parasitism, and sadism.

I should note before I conclude that I don’t think that the argument of Aster’s which I was originally responding to is at all guilty of relativism. I think that’s a danger implicit in the kind of language she recommends, but there are other, related dangers of authoritarianism which are implicit in the kind of language that she criticizes; whichever kind of language you choose, there’s dialectical work to be done in making clear what you want to make clear while avoiding the error that the language might suggest in careless hands. And if she does at some point fall into a relativistic error about the status of rights — which as far as I know she doesn’t, and which I certainly don’t mean to attribute to her —then I’m quite certain, based on what she’s written here and elsewhere, that it’s not for some of the reasons (e.g. underestimating her audience or confusion about the appropriate audience) that I discuss here. I think all forms of relativism involve at least some of these confusions, but only some forms involve all of them.

Anyway, I hope this helps somewhat in explaining, but I think that I probably haven’t covered what you wanted me to cover in the detail that you wanted. But I think there are a lot of different points to cover, and to cover any given point more deeply and more illustratively, I’d need to know a bit more about what specific kind of dangers, and in what context of discourse, you’re interested in my views on. A conversation that I’d be happy to have in comments, for those that are interested.

Further reading: