We put the “Arch” in “Anarchy”
Here's a pretty old post from the blog archives of Geekery Today; it was written about 17 years ago, in 2006, on the World Wide Web.
ANARCHISM … the name given to a principle or theory of life and conduct under which society is conceived without government — harmony in such a society being obtained, not by submission to law, or by obedience to any authority, but by free agreements concluded between the various groups, territorial and professional, freely constituted for the sake of production and consumption, as also for the satisfaction of the infinite variety of needs and aspirations of a civilized being.
— P. A. Kropotkin, Anarchism, for the Encyclopedia Brittanica (1905). Emphasis mine.
From the Left today, Scott at Angry White Kid comes out for
fair government elections:
It is already hypocritical enough for Israel and the U.S. to claim to supportdemocracyin Palestine while the U.S. monetarily favors one party and Israel to tries to block voting in East Jerusalem. Assuming they are fair, the world must respect the results of the elections.
— Angry White Kid (2006-01-25): The So-CalledPalestinian Elections. Emphasis mine.
Meanwhile on the Right, non-voting LewRockwell.com contributor William L. Anderson is shocked! shocked! to discover that,
… people like Fitzgerald do not give a rat’s behind about Constitutional rights.
And demands to know,
For that matter, how in the world can Sarbanes-Oxley even be Constitutional?
— William L. Anderson, LewRockwell.com Blog (2006-01-18): Sarbanes-Oxley and Patrick Fitzgerald. Emphasis mine.
I am an anarchist. I don’t respect the results of any government elections, and I don’t give a rat’s ass about Constitutional rights, either. That’s part of what being an anarchist means: government elections don’t permit anything, and government Constitutions don’t forbid anything, because they have no legitimate authority over anyone at all. I take it that this is part of what being an anarchist means: if you take seriously an election’s or a Constitutional convention’s claim over the lives of its subjects, then you are accepting the legitimacy of a form of government. Anarchists don’t.
This isn’t to offer a brief against voting, or against mentioning the Constitution in some argumentative contexts. It’s perfectly reasonable to look at voting, or appealing to the text of the Constitution, as a low-cost, if often ineffective, tactic of self-defense. It may even be worthwhile to try to use appeals to majoritarian popular sovereignty or to the Constitution as dialectical starting points, to try to get your conversation partner away from galloping Caesarism towards trotting Caesarism, and closer to the point where they will stop caring about The Will of The People and Constitutional Rights, and start caring about the will of people and human rights instead (although I’ll have more to say on dialectical strategies sometime soon…). That’s all fine. But it is one thing to use these arguments in the right contexts, and quite another thing to take them seriously and treat them like we ought to care at the end of the day.
A little more Socratic irony, please.
I tend to think of the US Constitution as a death pact. Creating the ideologically unstable idea of government to secure individual liberty.
It’s so tainted the discourse that proponents of “America” and the constitution quickly have their hearts won over by a vague sense of Anarchist morality, and then spend the rest of their lives internally battling the fact that the state is actually diametrically opposed to anything but complete fascism.
What’s good for the state is, by definition, bad for the individuals it needs to subjugate to survive.
So, in the sense that it’s accomplished good things and kept even the nastiest of US programs away from conscious fascism, it’s a good thing. And I can respect/admire the Constitution as such. I’d rather fight a state that is in some way sworn to fight itself than a state that knows perfectly well who its enemies are.
…Not that it really works. But state-suicide is a fun fantasy. And anyway things could be much, much worse.
Otto Kerner /#
But surely there is a difference here. Scott AWK appears to be arguing that we should positively respect (although I’m not totally sure I know what that means) these election results, even if the results are unsavoury, just because they are election results. Anderson is using the Constitution as an additional argument against Sarbanes-Oxley — well, I don’t really know what that is, but I assume it’s something that libertarians oppose on its own merits.
(I’m going to look kind of dumb if that is proven not to be so.)
Rad Geek /#
I don’t think that the United States Constitution swears the government to fight itself; and I think it does comprehend perfectly well who its effectual enemies are:
The Constitution clearly asserts its supreme authority, permits a federal crime of Treason against the enemies of that authority, and guarantees each of the states that it will keep the local order in place at bayonet-point. (This is especially noxious when you consider that what it meant toreferred mainly to the guarantee of federal forces for killing Indians and suppressing slave revolts.) There were, of course, lots of revolutionaries around at the time it was passed; but a great many of them (rightly, as it turns out) distrusted or actively opposed the new, centralizing Constitution as a likely road to a more stable tyranny.
You might claim that provisions such as the Bill of Rights, the smaller bill of rights contained in Article I, Section 9, the limitations on charges of Treason, etc. amount to an oath by the government to fight with one hand tied behind its back. But I don’t think this is so: because the past 200+ years of Constitutional jurisprudence have ensured that the politically effective meaning of the Constitution carefully excludes any potentially effective enemies of the Constitution (whether Black slaves, Indians, foreigners, dissenters in times of war, etc.) from the charmed circle of its protections. People complain about Bush trampling on the plain meaning of the Constitution today, but of course the courts have spent years insisting on the doctrine that Constitutional protections just don’t apply at all to foreigners, can be severely curtailed under principles of inherent authority during wartime, etc., explicitly on the argument thatThose judicial doctrines, of course, aren’t justified by much of anything in the plain text of the document, so you might think that the solution is to discover the Lost Constitution in your attic and return us to the ipsissima verba; but I think the lesson to take is the one that Spooner took after the Civil War: that if the Constitution doesn’t permit such abuses, then it has been powerless to stop them, and ought to be abandoned on the grounds of uselessness if not on the grounds of inherent tyranny.
In any case, I think that neither the history nor the present reality of the federal Constitution merit the admiration or respect of rational people.
Sarbanes-Oxley is a law that gives the feds the power to demand some onerous accounting and financial reporting measures from publicly-traded companies. It was passed in the wake of the Enron and related corporate scandals. The background for the post is that Norman Singleton pointed out that federal prosecutors may have used a provision of Sarbanes-Oxley to coerce media companies into turning over confidential documents relating to the Valerie Plame affair, and rightly pointed out that Anderson then took this perfectly sensible point and converted it into a diatribe about how Fitzgerald et al. don’t care about The Constitution.
I think that both posters are trying to make a valid point but getting tripped up by the mythology of majoritarian popular sovereignty (as is popular on the Left) and Constitutionalism (as is popular on the Right). From conversation with Scott (and general experience) I think he was caught between the idea that the World Powers shouldn’t be using unsavory election outcomes as a grounds for attacking the Occupied Territories in order totheir political regime (which is true), and the idea that the outcomes of elections deserve some kind of special respect or deference in their own right. Similarly, judging from the argumentative context (and general experience) I think Anderson was caught between the ideas that SarbOx is noxious statist rubbish and that federal prosecutors shouldn’t have the power to stomp all over civil liberties in order to get convictions (which is true), with the idea that the federal Constitution deserves some kind of special respect or deference in its own right.
My suggestion to both is that they cut out the mythological part of their argument in favor of the real part. Or if they are going to appeal to mythology in order to force true believers into choosing between their commitment to popular soveriegnty or Constitutionalism, and their commitment to galloping statism, then they ought to make the appeal with a bit more ironic distance.
You’re talking about how it’s been formally used in the legal system and on-the-ground effects. I’m talking about the ideals that it culturally codified.
The constitution doesn’t legally fight the existence of the state because it’s the founding certification of the state! Upon creation, like all other power, the US promptly fought its individual constituents because their freedom would have dissolved the state. And it was more than willing to abandon the bill o’ rights and occasionally oppress the people with BOTH hands.
The state is a spook. Ultimately “its” actions stem from the individuals (and their psychological structures). The constitution was very important not because of the blah-dity-blah of all the standard provisions of government, but because of the ostensible ideals it latched onto american nationalism.
Government that existed, “In order to secure the blessings of liberty.” Craziness, I know. But the important things people soak up from the constitution aren’t the details but the overarching ideal of government as a contract to secure individual freedom.
Granted, most of the signatories didn’t agree with this interpretation at all. Some people were, of course, considered more individual than others–some only 3/5ths. And the authors weren’t exactly pure-minded utopians.
But a relatively huge chunk of anarchist morality still seeped into the damn thing and thus was the very document that justified the US government tied to the search for liberty.
That’s a very big subversion. And the nice thing about a constitution is that despite massive turnovers in just who had power, they all remained caught in some small way on a consistently anti-fascist sentiments roused by a document the state was enshrined in.
Politicians in power can fight off the treasonous hippies, but they have a very hard time fighting off both them AND the flag-waving patriots who’ve grown up worshipping the constitution as an excuse to not truly think about freedom. They have to spend a lot of time and money tiptoeing around the issue and using Orwellian speak to “justify” their actions. Doesn’t stop them from doing a hella lot of damage. But it does get folks like FDR who, despite being statists-through-and-through, somehow refused to take the next logical steps and embrace full-on fascism. Because they feel a certain moral duty to the concept of individual freedom. As PART of their duty to the state. Crazy, I know. But still, it makes things a little bit easier for the rest of us because they haven’t completely surrendered to the mental death of fascism/statism/nihilism/nationalism etc.
And, if they were to actually follow the spirit of individual liberty associated with the constitution (although not perhaps birthed all too purely from the original, actual words of the constitution), they’d eventually be faced with the fundamental issue of government to secure liberty. And one of those terms is placed at a grammatical advantage.
If the tool and the desired product can’t exist side by side, then screw the tool.
I highly doubt the Supreme Court and the rest of the government is going to look at the constitution one day, have a fit of sanity, and declare the state absolved. But it’s a pretty thought. And it’s a pretty document.
Rad Geek /#
Right, which is one of the reasons that I think it is so limiting to refer to it rhetorically or dialectically, and why I think that, as far as its cultural position goes, you’re much better off referring to the Declaration of Independence. If you’re riffing on the cultural position of a document that contains some libertarian elements, why not go for the (radically libertarian) Declaration, which abolished a government in light of universal principles of justice (which the Declaration only declared, or recognized), rather than the (moderately libertarian even at its best) Constitution, which claimed to establish a government and which people usually take to have created (rather than merely recognizing) limitations on governmental powers? (Garrison asked the same question, although it was even more pointed in his day, since the Constitution was, at the time, one of the main bulwarks used in arguments by advocates of chattel slavery, and by nationalists who claimed not to like slavery but didn’t care to do anything about it.)
Well, O.K., but I think you have to evaluate these things in context. Culturally and politically speaking, I think the adoption of the federal Constitution was a significant and obvious back-slide from the standpoint of anarchist theory, from the period of the Revolution, the Declaration of Independence, and (to a somewhat lesser extent; I’m not as much of a fan of them as some of my fellow decentralists) the Articles of Confederation. Nock mentions something about this in Our Enemy the State (1935):
And as Garrison would tell you, one of the leading political functions of the vouchsafing chattel slavery with federal artillery and the U.S. marines.right up until the Civil War was to provide nationalists and the Slave Power with a rhetorical basis for
I’d have to say that the high-points of the public reception of the Constitution were the Lochner era (which nevertheless included atrocities such as Buck v. Bell and Schenck v. United States), and the Warren and Burger courts (which nevertheless included atrocities such as Bowers v. Hardwick, Gregg v. Georgia, etc.). (And in terms of broad cultural understanding outside the courts and legal culture, I think probably only the Warren and Burger courts.) It’s worth noting, though, that the times when the liberatory parts of the Constitution were getting the most emphasis just so happen to be the times when the actual text of the Constitution was least regarded as important, and the ideas of some kind of the implicit requirements of some kind of general animating spirit were the most ascendent (the popular cant of quasi-libertarian constitutional fundamentalists notwithstanding). But if you have to skip over the literal reading of the damn thing in order to appeal to some kind of foundational animating , why not just skip the text in favor of the spirit, and when you have to take a text, take as your text some other traditionally-enshrined document that actually does spell it out in clear terms, such as the Declaration?
Broadly speaking, it just seems to me that there are much more fruitful opportunities for investing your time and rhetorical energy than in rhetorical appeals to the Constitution.
I don’t actually think that an honest review of the historical evidence (corporatistprograms, systematic state co-optation of labor unions, escalation to a draft and a permanent war footing, eager political co-operation with hard Right pseudo-populist racists in the South, total war with overt plans of domination of the world political order, belligerent racism against the enemy, imprisoning of political prisoners, total government control over the economy in wartime, overt and implicit censorship, widespread creation of new spying agencies, the shredding of convention limits on personal control over the Executive branch with an unprecedented four-term Presidency and repeated threats against the other branches of government, and internment of a completely innocent population of civilians based on their racial status, just to begin the list) can support the conclusion that the Roosevelt administration avoided full-on fascism. It was a fascist administration. Admittedly one that remained in the authoritarian phase (think Italy in the 1920s rather than Germany in the 1940s) — and that is an important difference to note — but nevertheless one which clearly bared the fangs of the fascist State, over and over again.
As I said before, my argument is not regarding the validity or respectability of elections in the theoretical sense of what things like voting and representation mean, but in the practical sense of there are elections, here’s the context for them, and here’s what I think should happen.
You took one sentence of my post and ran with it, giving it a different significance, and complaining it’s not anarchistically pure enough.
All us anarchists can get together, close our eyes and stick our fingers in our ears and say, “lalala…this election contravenes anarchist theory…pay no attention to it.” But that doesn’t help anyone. Regardless of what we think, as individuals or as a movement, about elections and voting in general, doesn’t change the fact that they happen, loads of people do put stock in them, and there will be a significant world reaction to their outcome. Millions of people will be effected by it, regardless of your personal feelings on the matter.
I know going in to work this morning, I had to deal with the issue of Hamas’ victory. What should I have said – “Sorry, I’m an anarchist, I don’t respect it.”? What does that achieve except alienating people and widing the gap between the applicability of anarchism and actual reality?
“What does that achieve except alienating people and widening the gap between the applicability of anarchism and actual reality?”
I agree. It’s important to stay vigilant ourselves and keep from idolizing stuff like the constitution. But that doesn’t mean pridefully refusing to partake in the common political discourse about stuff like elections.
It’s one thing to sit on the sidelines and loudly dismiss every goddamn thing in this world as deriving from statism. And another to get down and dirty mucking around, trying to decide levels of awfulness.
The former may give one the pleasure of self-righteous purity, but it’s based in an arrogant dismissal of the surrounding world. Once upon a time this was the majority view. But Emma’s generation widely came to the conclusion that their are degrees statism.
ie Nazi Germany being clearly worse than the US.
Open democracy in Palestine better than a foriegn controlled one.
Mucking about in these sort of waters opens yourself up to making all kind of mistakes. But it can be really useful.
I focus on the Constitution because it’s a Living document. The Declaration is a boring ol’ dead document. It’s great. But the American statists don’t go turning to their cultural impression of it when they are deciding government policy. They turn to the constitution. Rarely the actual text of the constitution, because again, that’s boring. But the generalized concept of government in pursuit of liberty.
It’s a popular sentiment (even when not explicitly stated). And I think it’d be bullheaded to think that our historical leaders weren’t in some way influenced by it.
Even if FDR’s mind and the politics of the time may have twisted American ethics until they bled near-fascism, it’s important to understand that he didn’t go all the way. He wasn’t worshipping structure and power for its own sake. At least, not entirely.
The Constitution has created an entire country filled with people who think in terms of liberty as a universal ideal rather than a disgusting concept. That’s IMPORTANT.
(Also, and this is a completely different subject, but I think FDR’s end game intent for federalist world domination would have been an improvement over competing nation-states because such competition breeds us-v-them team mindedness which is a greater boon to fascism than the libertarian ideal of a market of governments is a detraction)
Otto Kerner /#
Well, Scott, I’m curious as to what you did actually say when you got to work and had to address the issue of the Hamas victory? This is a serious question: I really want to know, although if your answer is that you supported it, I’m afraid I don’t see that as a reputable answer for a reputable person. A reasonable answer might be something like, “I’m glad Fatah lost, but I’m sorry Hamas won,” but, considering those were the options, that doesn’t seem very far from “Sorry, I’m an anarchist, I don’t respect it.”
Just for the sake of making this discussions somewhat clearer, I’d like to point a couple aspects of the terminology people are using.
The word “Government” in the sense Kropotkin uses it in the passage you quoted does not have the same meaning that’s usually attributed to the word in modern Political Science, however, is often used colloquially to refer to a number of things.
The definition of Government that’s used in most modern contexts that I’m aware of is “the management of human affairs.” All human affairs are managed in some way (whether it’s agknowledged or not, because all human affairs are social in nature. In that sense of the word “government”, then, a society without government is a logical impossibility, an anarchist society would be one with an anti-authoritarian government.
Definitions get even trickier when we start talking about “States”. I find it funny how often people talk about States as though the meaning is obvious when the word is commonly used to refer to different context.
The word “state” generally refers to a specific set of institutions, but it should be remembered that no state government, or the institutions within it are a monolith, and calling them one thing is a sort of polite fiction. In reality, States are controlled by the competing interests of a myriad of elites (and occasionally even influenced by popular opinion).
Often, people refer to the “Westphalian State” as being what a State is, that is a State with complete sovereignty within it’s borders. Even immediately after the conference of Westphalia, this “complete sovereignty” didn’t exist in reality. Others use a Marxian conception of the State, as a central force that has the power to direct a society. Still others simply define a state as being a political unit that has a “monopoly on the legal use of force”. This definition is particularily useless, given how arbitrary calling something “legal” is in so many parts of the world. Some people even use “State” simply to refer to any organised political unit of people. Using this definition an “Anarchist State” isn’t even a contradiction.
Given the convoluted nature of even defining a “State” or “Government”, I think it’s far more useful, as anarchists, for us to think axiomatically, and adress the social relations that make up the state, rather than focusing on something as vague as “anti-statism”. Anti-statism should be about attacking those aspects of the State which are coercive, not laws designed to restrain state power (however innefective).
Somewhat more on-topic: Elections do actually allow the public a measure of participation in political decisions taken by States, and, particularily in those places where other options are closed, should not be assumed to be as meaningless as North American Election. Voting in and of itself is not particularily what’s wrong with liberal democracy. It isn’t a perfect idea, for sure, but it’s certainly better than many. The real problem is the waves of misinformation, propaganda and outright buying of votes before the ballots are even printed, combined with the lack of any other ways for the public to make decisions.
Right now, an elected Government is one of Palestine’s only options. They need some specific group of people to represent them to Isreal and the West because their lives are at risk and they are prisoners in their own homeland because of a giant wall, and given that situation, I think an imperfectly chosen representative is better than none at all. Should western radicals sit on our hands regarding Palestine until Palestinians decide to defend themselves against state terrorism through free associations without asserting nationhood?
PS- I really don’t see how Sarbanes Oxley could be a bad thing, but y’know, seeing as I don’t own any publicly traded companies, because I’m an anarchist, I don’t think it affects me. In general, I’m not really too offended by the State reigning in abuses of power by Capitalists, since neither ought to exist.
Rad Geek /#
Scott, the issue isn’t just theoretical consistency (although I think that’s more important than the popular attitude of waving dismissive hands atsuggests). As I suggested in the comments on your post, I think there are important questions of practical policy involved, and that urging widespread for the elections may be endorsing policies that are actively harmful if we’re not careful about what that means and what it doesn’t. (Actually the best thing to do, I think, is just drop the language of for processes entirely in favor of the language of anti-war arguments. Because if that’s the point, why not make that point directly?)
I’m sorry if you feel that I’ve misinterpreted your post or taken something out of context. What I mean to suggest here is the same thing that I meant to suggest in the comments: that you seem to be equivocating between two different notions, one of them useful, the other harmful, and that your rhetorical reliance on the mythology of electoral legitimacy may be part of the reason (just as Anderson’s post makes a similar mistake by leaning on the mythology of Constitutional legitimacy). In which case I’d encourage you to drop the mythology in favor of your underlying point, which is more convincing and more widely applicable than your rhetoric gives it credit for.
As for what you should say to your co-workers, I think Kerner’s “reasonable answer” is pretty reasonable. However, I can’t say that I’m all that convinced that answers that alienate people in the short run are necessarily bad things to make. Lots of radicals throughout history (William Lloyd Garrison and John Brown and the radical feminists of the late 1960s and early 1970s, to pick a few of examples off the top of my head) changed the world through agitation that, at first, alienated practically everybody. Partly because distancing themselves from the political mainstream and just speaking the truth, harshly if necessary, allowed them to avoid a lot of the dead-end political games (organizing anti-slavery electoral parties, pushing for state legislatures to pass the ERA, etc.) that routinely trap reformers. I think there’s a lesson to be learned in that.
I don’t advocate withdrawing from any discussion about elections. What I advocate is not talking about elections in a way that buys into the myth that the results of government elections deserve any special deference or respect in their own right. If that’s presupposed by the conversation in some way that you can’t avoid without alienating people, well, then the conversation is stupid and the more distance you can put between yourself and it, the better.
Who cares about the state of FDR’s soul? I’m interested in his actions. And as far as understanding our current political predicament goes, I think that a serious and hostile questioning of FDR’s record is, at this point, somewhat more important than a serious and hostile questioning of Adolf Hitler’s record, which is pretty universally acknowledged to have been a rotten thing, or some kind of comparative evaluation of FDR’s regime as against the even more ravenous monster-States stalking the world at the time.
Liberty that’s universal except for foreigners, suspected criminals, suspected terrorists, harmless drug users, Michael Moore, and the ACLU. Oops.
Of course, not everyone thinks like the amateur and professional blowhards of the hard Right, thank God; in fact most people don’t. But constitutionalist liberals often end up acting like their goal is to convince the hard Right of something using these sorts of appeals. I’d like to suggest that they rethink this strategy.
I’m not interested in convincing the people whoto be less statist.
As for everybody else, I don’t think that there’s much evidence that the Constitution has any special grip over hearts and minds that is both (1) particularly greater than the appeal of the Declaration, and (2) beyond the reach of rational argument. (And if there were such evidence, then the primary focus should be on undoing that.)
“What I advocate is not talking about elections in a way that buys into the myth that the results of government elections deserve any special deference or respect in their own right.”
Certainly. But that doesn’t mean we can’t talk of some statist concepts being more desirable than others.
“I think that a serious and hostile questioning of FDR’s record is, at this point, somewhat more important than a serious and hostile questioning of Adolf Hitler’s record”
Okay, but that shouldn’t mean refusing to acknowledge differences in degree (or color) of eviltude. Those differences, I feel, are due to a national cultural attitude that has been bolstered by the Constitution’s constant presence in our system.
“I’m not interested in convincing the people who decide government policy to be less statist.”
Forgive me, by ‘decide government policy’ I meant to cover the almost universal nature of political debate in this country (ie everyone who thinks of themselves as concerned with how the government should be run, rather than whether it should exist in the first place).
And I find it very obvious that Americans respect and refer to the constitution far more than the declaration. The declaration is a history piece for academics. The constitution affects them and consequently they are highly aware of it. That is to say they are highly aware of certain broad “securing liberty” concepts that they then seize onto.
That’s hella important.
And I also think it very clear that such behavior is not just projected but also due in some significant measure to those ideological intents of the founders that seeped in.
Obviously no one should worship the damn thing. But one can still appreciate it as a helping hand on the road away from power structures like the state.
Without it, the US would have grown far more powerful, far faster. Maybe this might have helped clear the waters and promoted another revolution. But probably not.
I told my coworkers that I though the defeat of Fatah was significant in its repudiation of the “status quo” and the path Fatah, being the lapdog of the US and Israel, was taking the Palestinian people down.
Also, that the election of Hamas was in general not a good thing domestically or internationally, but that in the end it was the US and Israel that got Hamas elected.
I feel like I’ve said pretty all I can to communicate my thinking on this issue. I see where you’re coming from, Rad Geek, but I think that, especially in terms of the “Palestinian election” to grapple with the ramifications of the elections as if they were a significant event.
People are so mis/uninformed about what’s going on over there that my post was an attempt to meet them where they’re at, as opposed to say, an election here in the US where making such a critique is much easier since people have a better grasp of at least the basics of the situation.
But I do appreciate everyone’s thoughts on all of this.