Barack Obama: Deep cover Anarchist?
Here's a pretty old post from the blog archives of Geekery Today; it was written about 13 years ago, in 2010, on the World Wide Web.
Has the current occupant of the White House been sneaking reads of Equality: The Unknown Ideal, and, convinced by Roderick’s argument, spent the last few years quietly advocating the Anarchistic doctrine that principles of individual freedom, carried to their fullest extent, logically entail freedom from any and all forms of government? Selective quotation and convenient ellipses would seem to indicate that he has!
We consider these rights to be universal, a codification of liberty’s meaning, constraining all levels of government …. Moreover, we recognize that the very idea of these universal rights presupposes the equal worth of every individual. … We also understand that a declaration is not a government; … [T]here [are] seeds of anarchy in the idea of individual freedom, an intoxicating danger in the idea of equality… [F]or if everyone is truly free, without the constraints of birth or rank and an inherited social order, how can we ever hope to form a society that coheres?
–Barack Obama (2006), The Audacity of Hope, 86-87.
we can’t. Which is fine. Of course, you’re free to go around cohering as much as you want on your own time; but what I want is a peaceful, consensual society. One where people come together where they want to, and aren’t forced into lockstep where they don’t want to be. Obama is of course right that the principles of individual liberty and equality produce declarations, not governments, and that that soil is sown with the seeds of Anarchy. He’s right to see that when you let those seeds grow and come into bloom, it means that everybody is truly free, and that they overwhelm any political scheme of rigid rows, of constraints of birth and rank, of
social orders imposed from above (whether by the self-selected, or the majority-elected). Which is exactly why Anarchy is something to be desired and cultivated. The solution to the problem of incipient Anarchy is to realize that there isn’t a problem. Political
coherence is not required. Freedom, peace and equality are more than enough.
(Via Francois Tremblay 2008-12-03, via Noor Mehta, via Facebook.)
Discussed at topsy.com /#
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Darian W /#
I’m such an anarchist that it took me a few reads to understand that “without the constraints of birth or rank and an inherited social order” is supposed to be a bad thing.
You’re right from an Augustinian perspective. But from a Wittgensteinian perspective?
I wonder how a favorable word on Anarchy plays within the language-game of politics? Isn’t it off-limits? Wouldn’t it be like introducing a knight into a game of checkers?
If meaning is use, then Obama’s use of ‘Anarchy’ would be equivalent to most people’s use of ‘chaos’. His use of ‘truly free’ would be equivalent to most people’s use of ‘without logic’ or ‘incoherent’. ‘…[W]ithout the constraints of birth or rank and an inherited social order’ would be equivalent to most people’s use of ‘an economic system without a feedback loop to keep track of Quality’.
Does that mean he’s against ‘anarchy’ and ‘true freedom’, while he’s for ‘the constraints of birth or rank and an inherited social order’? Well sure, as long as you understand the way he’s using those phrases. What the hell would be coherent about a clear endorsement of natural law followed by complete doubt about its presence.
By ‘Anarchy’ do you think he means anything so specific as ‘the kind of social structure rooted in free-markets, equality, and solidarity’?
Yes and no. Yes, because he really does mean that, and no, because his notions of what that would look like are dominated by magical thinking about the need for the Almighty Nanny to make everyone be nice to each other. His thinking on the matter is as muddled as any of the other well-meaning fools who’ve inhabited his office in the last few decades, which may possibly be even more muddled than the thinking of the huddled asses who elect these clowns. As an aside, it’s an error to take Obama’s rhetorical style as a sign of intelligence and thoughtfulness, just as it’s an error to take, say, John McCain’s rhetorical style as a sign of forthrightness and honesty.
Anyway, if we started giving out points for meaning well in some broad contextless sense that abstracts away the actual individuals that particular well-meaning fools shovel around, grind under foot, or just blow up, we’d have to start giving out points to everyone.
JOR, you don’t have to believe in the long-run necessity of the State to believe that it’s necessary in the short-run.
Speaking of, I still haven’t heard a response to Chomsky’s charge that throwing off the State under present conditions is self-defeating. You want to give that a shot?
Maybe, maybe not, but if we’re seriously considering the possibility that Obama doubts the long-run necessity (why people use “necessity” as a synonym for “desirability” or “convenience” escapes me, but I find it irritating) of the state, well, I have some radical healthcare reform to sell you. . .
To answer the challenge, whether a means is self-defeating depends on what goals are in question. If an one’s goal is to make every single square inch of land under a particular state’s rule immediately more libertarian and less tyrannical (however thickly or thinly conceived) forever and ever, then any possible course of action is likely self-defeating, including throwing off the state.
With more realistic goals (non-consequentialist opposition to aggression, or making things more libertarian generally, or whatever), we’re left with substantive questions, like: Does the state benefit, generally, more libertarian and less authoritarian relationships and habits than consensual society does?
Part of the answer might be to figure out whether much of the more oppressive apparatus of the “private sector” might more accurately be seen as arms of the state. On my view, asking if it would be self-defeating to abolish the congress and presidency and all the rest of it (what Chomsky likely means by “the state”) while leaving, say, the military-industrial complex intact is a lot like asking if it would be self-defeating to abolish the legislature while leaving the executive intact. It may well be, but that, to me, is not “throwing off the state”; it’s just a rearrangement (not even necessarily a reduction) of the state, perhaps removing convenient checks and balances in the process.
As to ‘necessity’ vs. ‘desirability’: point taken.
10,000 community health centers isn’t radical? If the State creates something that sabotages the State’s own usefulness, then doesn’t that count as ‘radical’?
Maybe I don’t understand how you apply the word ‘State’. Would you apply it to something within an individual’s belief system — like the belief that war is desirable? Is that an instance of the State imprinted in someone, or something like that?
I would define the state as a coalition of gangs and directly enabling institutions that hold a territorial monopoly on ultimately deciding what is done, what is permitted, who authority is delegated to, etc. in a grographical region that they do not own by fairly strict hard Lockean standards (or rather, who hold that they have a right to such a thing and who attempt to enforce it with sufficient frequency). So if the courts, police, etc. were abolished and immediately replaced by “private” mercenary gangs and their accounting bureaucracy, logistics apparatus, PR department, etc. who acted the same way, it’d still be a state. And even with an “official” state, many “private” institutions serve direct roles in those various arms of state activity (even the primary arm – the mercenary, i.e. police/military arm). Or in other words, we don’t have to fear the One Big Corporation taking over in the absence of the state, because we already have the One Big Corporation. Getting rid of it just is getting rid of the state.
Now it’s true that just cutting taxes, or doing away with all the alphabet soup agencies, or collapsing the legislature and judiciary into the executive (Hoppean monarchy), or even doing away with the Official Government altogether – all the things that one might normally think of as “throwing off the state” – might make things worse from an anarchist perspective. But I don’t think it would amount to ending what it is about the state that anarchists (at least the ones most like myself) find objectionable. It wouldn’t amount to getting rid of what we mean when we talk about the state. It may well not even amount to reducing the state in any meaningful way.
To answer your other question, I don’t think someone who believes war is desirable has the state imprinted in him or anything like that. Depending on what you mean by war, he almost certainly holds some incorrect (and likely very perversely wrong) moral beliefs, and favors some kind of aggressive violence, but someone can favor or even engage in aggressive violence without being a state or a statist. Chances are that he is also a statist, though. I don’t know if desiring the existence of a state qualifies as having the state imprinted in him.
Do you believe that no legislation could help throw off the One Big Corporation? Or do you think that — even if some legislation could throw it off — it’s an immoral means?
To radically understate, I don’t think the state is likely to legislate itself out of existence (on purpose). But it wouldn’t be immoral for it to do so, anymore than it would be immoral for a gang of bandits to get together and decide to stop robbing people.
Do you think the 10,000 community health centers to be created by law in 2017 will make the state-corporate medical system more or less useful?
Assuming the 10,000 community health centers don’t go the way of budget estimates and the like I don’t think it will weaken state-corporate control of the medical system.
You have reasons?
Rad Geek /#
To be fair to Obama, his solution to theis not to insist on the constraints of birth or rank and an inherited social order. He makes clear later in that part of the book that his solution (which he takes to be the Founder’s solution) is to get rid of all that but replace it with democratic government (which he wrongly believes to be without constraints of rank) — that is, to replace aristocratic constraints with majoritarian constraints.
Well, on questions like this I tend to take things from a Socratic perspective. It’s clear enough that Obama does not have the same thing in mind when he utters the wordthat I have in mind. And it’s clear enough that for many people the usage of the word has more to do with riot and chaos than it has to do with a society based on individual liberty and free association. But I would argue that the common usage (including what Barack is cooking in this passage) reflects a deep philosophical confusion embedded within ordinary language — a confusion which has to be confronted in order to be exposed and eliminated. When Socrates argues that justice requires doing good by your enemies and benefiting the wicked, he certainly didn’t mean to suggest that Polemarchus had that in mind when he said But he wasn’t just changing the topic, either.) In this case, the confusion to be confronted is the pervasive but deeply confused notion that social order requires social control — so that, in the absence or breakdown of command and control, you have nothing left but riot and disorder. The fact that Obama has chaos in mind when he writes is not just a neutral fact about lexical differences between me and him; it’s the expression of a basic conceptual problem that folks like him have. A fly-bottle, if you will. The way to show them out of it is by means of dialectic, and part of the dialectic may be to show how might sensibly be taken to mean, or at least to include,
I don’t think that his position is that it’s self-defeating. I think his position is that under present conditions it’s impossible. Hence he sees the politically relevant choice as a choice between limiting the state (while it remains in existence), keeping the state at its present size and power, and expanding it. Of those options, he prefers the last, because he thinks that of those three options, it’s the best way to restrain the power of corporate capitalism. I happen assess the relative values of those three options differently than Chomsky does, for a couple of different reasons, but my deeper disagreements with him are that I don’t think it’s impossible to get rid of the state. I think it’s eminently possible, if you’re working with the right strategy, and I think that Chomsky’s major problem here is that he has very little real conception of strategy at all, and defaults to a fairly standard mishmash of syndicalist and insurrectionary models of revolution.
It’s unclear to me what you mean here. Of course, there are many things that government could do to help people get out from under corporate capitalism. But the things it could do are typically removing existing forms of state privilege and rigged markets (like, say, by not forcing people to pay thousands of dollars a year to corporate insurance providers). If you mean invading people’s property rights or freedom of exchange or freedom of association in order tothem, somehow, then I think (1) such invasions against liberty in the name of socioeconomic equality are almost universally counterproductive (the Wagner labor relations system, for example, has been worse than useless in advancing the interests of rank-and-file laborers, and has effectively domesticated the leadership of the labor movement); but, yes, I also believe (2) that even if such invasive legislation did realize its stated aims, it would still be immoral to realize those aims by such coercive means.
I think that’s pretty small potatoes and 2017 is a long-ass time to wait for it. All embedded within a bill the primary effect of which will be to make the state-corporate medical system massively more bureaucratic, monopolistic and exploitative. In fact, this sounds like exactly the kind of booby prize that I would expect fromgovernment. As for the likely systemic effects, I’d point out that there have been government-controlled community clinics for quite a while now (there was a big uptick of them in the 1970s, basically as a direct response to the grassroots community free clinic movement, which the state was in the process of coopting and destroying). I think that the latter had some hope of changing things, before the state licensing boards went on the assault. The former is just another set of opportunities for government social-service agencies and the nonprofit-industrial complex.
you gotta be careful w/having too simplistic a reading of wittgenstein. meaning doesn’t just straight up = use. he was illustrating what is conventional. words mean more than one thing depending on context etc etc as you say politicians have their own games. but yeah that anarchy is generally used to mean either chaos or a society w/o law (which would be chaos!) is a problem as noted.
I think Obama (and his inner circle) are logical positivists — more in the Stevenson mold than Ayer. They treat moral judgments as attitudes ?@c3;a0; la Ayer while recognizing those judgment’s capacity to — when shaped by reason — represent reality ?@c3;a0; la Stevenson. I’m sure you would agree that a word like ‘anarchy’ has a tendency to light-up attitude structures rather than a network of facts.
If I’m right, then they’re not confused. They deliberately misrepresent the non-conventional meaning of certain words. They do so to avoid lighting-up the attitude structures that would shut-down any real possibility for serious dialectic.
And he says if it did happen, under present conditions, “it’s just a gift to the corporate-state power sector.”
I would agree that if the stated aims were achievable without coercive means, then any coercive means would disqualify the stated aims.
100 people inhabit an island with no outside contact. One of the 100 is wealthy. The other 99 are on the brink of starvation. The wealthy man states that he does not care about the 99 dying — even though he has plenty to feed everyone. He will not consent to provide food. How is his passivity not a form of aggression? Doesn’t that passivity require the 99 to take from the wealthy man? In what sense would you consider that ‘theft’?
Rad Geek /#
Maybe. Certainly, positivism has had some historical influence on the broader intellectual culture. And these days you often see that influence more in political and legal circles than in philosophy departments. But if this is true, well, so what? I think logical positivism is wrong, as a theory of language (and in other areas). Hence, it tends not to have much impact how I think about how to use terms.
Don’t be so sure. I don’t even know what this means. On the surface, it sounds like it might be a bad metaphor for how the brain is supposed to work, and one which depends on both a confusion of brain states with language-use, and also a confusion about the relationship between mental attitudes and the recognition of facts. But I’d have to hear more before I know exactly what to say.
In any case, if you’re asking whether the wordmakes people react passionately, sometimes at the expense of reason, that’s true. But I think that passionate reactions, even mistaken reactions, are often an aid to dialectic rather than a stumbling-block, when there is a deep confusion in need of being exposed and confronted. There’s a reason that people think of bombs and Mad Max when they think of anarchy. Not because that’s what means (in their mouths or in mine), but because they’ve habitualized a fallacious inference from the breakdown of social control to the breakdown of social order. My purpose is to invite that confusion in order to make it obvious, and thus to disabuse people of it. When I call myself an Anarchist and say that I want anarchy, the reaction is, often, to ask me how I can believe in anything so violent and crazy. But of course that means that the conversation starts right where it needs to start — with a discussion of the difference between social order and social control, and how anarchy intends to achieve the former without the latter, by means of consensual order and spontaneous harmonization.
Well, whatever. I’d need some evidence to be convinced of this claim about their motivations, but even if true, showing that they are liars rather than merely being confused doesn’t much change my attitude towards them, or towards the need to expose the problems in the way that they use language.
Well, OK, but that’s not what I said. I said that the coercive means as such disqualify the stated aims, regardless of the presence or absence of consensual alternatives. Of course, most people would prefer, ceteris paribus, consensual to coercive means, where both alternatives are available. My point is that even if ceteris is not paribus — even if, in fact, there is no way to realize a goal except through coercive means — then it is still immoral to realize it through those coercive means. There are very few things in this world that are worth trying to achieve by any means necessary.
I don’t know what justifies your rhetorical question here. Certainly not an argument that you’ve given. If we can presume (although you don’t specify it) that the wealthy man in your example came by his wealth honestly and consensually in a free market, without robbing anyone else, then what he’s doing in your made-up thought experiment is not a form of aggression because he’s not doing anything that commandeers any other individual’s person or property. In fact, I think it’s obviously the case that merely withholding consent can’t be aggressive; that’s just not what the wordmeans. There may be ways to violate rights without committing aggression. I think there are a few — in particular, through fraud or other actionable forms of deception, or through negligence. Other people, who don’t accept libertarian theories of justice, often think that there are many more ways of violating rights — because they believe, among other things, in a set of positive individual or collective rights that I don’t believe in. Maybe you believe in such rights; but you’d have to give me some reason to believe in it, too, if you expect me to go along with this kind of argumentative maneuver.
In any case, to return to the imaginary situation, as you’ve described it, what the rich man on the island is doing is certainly vicious. But I hold that it’s vicious on grounds other than a charge of aggression or injustice. Justice isn’t the only virtue.
All that said, what does that have to do with the quote you were responding to? It doesn’t have much connection either with the real world (where the relationships between rich and poor are radically different in causes, structure, and effects than on your imaginary free-market island), or with the claims that are typically made by gradualists (which hardly ever have anything to do with localized cases of emergency, and have everything to do with recommendations for large-scale, medium-term policy, intended to affect millions of people regardless of local situation and to last for years or even decades). To try and apply a thought experiment like this to my comments about thick libertarianism and gradualism would seem to require auxiliary premises which would make for both a much less empirically plausible form of thick libertarianism, and also a much weaker form of gradualism than what most gradualists want to advocate.
I think it’s wrong too. I agree with Popper that, in trying to kill metaphysics, the positivists overplay their hand and end up unable to separate metaphysics from epistemology. But I do think their take on ethics is correct (at least Stevenson’s). Maybe 0.1% of the time moral propositions are shaped entirely by reason. Usually they’re founded in an attitude or a cultural disposition.
So what? Well, that means that you set yourself a virtually impossible task by trying to directly confront something that’s pre-conscious (at least in politics). The more logical approach would be to short-circuit the knee-jerk reaction through metaphor or jokes or unconventional situations.
It’s actually a reference to the positivist way of viewing the world — specifically the kind of statements that Wittgenstein wants to discard by the end of The Tractatus. The world is all that is the case is like saying that only the lights on this grid which are lit-up are relevant. It’s a reference to relevant activity more than to brain states.
Well, outside of politics, that makes sense.
Would you say that the wealthy man on free-market island is negligent? And that his negligence violates the rights of the other 99? If so, why isn’t avoiding negligence intrinsic to justice?
Rad Geek /#
Well, O.K. I don’t. (In fact, I think their take on ethics is substantially worse than their programmatic critique of metaphysics, which I think is misguided, but often interesting and offering many points of genuine insight. Insofar as it hits rocky shoals, many of those just are the failure of the critique to offer a sensible account of ethical utterances.)
I don’t know whether or not I agree with that, but I’m pretty sure that’s not the positivists’ stance on ethics. The positivist position has to do with the meaning (or linguistic character) of ethical utterances. Not with the psychological or sociological question of how they are formed.
If ethical utterances are genuinely cognitive (which is what the positivists usually denied), then whether or not they are formed by means of reason, they can be criticized by means of reason, and revised in light of considerations of reason. You shouldn’t confuse an account of how statements are formed with an account of what they mean; and you also shouldn’t confuse an account of how they are formed with an account of what sorts of considerations might later affect them. Beliefs which weren’t formed reasonably are nevertheless beliefs that may be abandoned or revised when put to the challenge of rational criticism.
Well, whatever. That’s a question of rhetoric, not a question of logic. But I’m pretty sure I’ve used a metaphor here and there and told a joke or two. My proposal for outreach isn’t just to go around sayingand leave it at that. There’s a larger approach within which the self-identification is embedded.
Bydo you mean If so, I think the fact that my strategy works better outside electoral politics (or the broader stupid shouting match of attached to it), than it does inside that stupid shouting match, is a significant point in its favor. My goal isn’t to that kind of ; it’s to encourage people to abandon it for another, more fruitful kind of conversation.
No. When I mentioned negligence, I didn’t mean to suggest that I did consider this negligent; that’s just another category of rights-violation, which doesn’t come under conventional uses of the term
In this particular case, negligence requires some specific kinds of positive actions by the person said to be negligent, and specific direct harms caused by the failure to discharge basic minimal cares. It’s not something you can do just by sitting in your study doing nothing, nor is it some kind of free-floating obligation to save people from certain kinds of harm. You’d have to tell me what the island tycoon is actually doing to create the situation of negligence, and at least so far, your imaginary scenario hasn’t included any of that.
My view, thus far, is that as you’ve specified it, the tycoon is being immoral — specifically, the tycoon is being uncharitable, flinty, or callous — but not yet violating anybody’s rights.
That’s true of the generic positivists. But as I read Stevenson, he doesn’t regard ethics as senseless like he does metaphysics. He thinks ethical utterances are attitudes rooted in belief. The ethicist then is someone engaged in re-directing attitudes by falsifying beliefs. The attitudes themselves can’t be subject to critique (they’re not falsifiable) — only the beliefs that cause them are.
Do you disagree with that?
Say that they work for him. Not because he employs them. They just do it because they think they’re supposed to (maybe one of the 99 convinced the others that he was god). They freely bring him the product of their labor, leaving nothing for themselves. He just sits there.
Assuming that he understands the concept of rights, does he not have the responsibility to educate them as to what rights are? Or at least to educate them as to the self-defeating nature of 100% short-run sacrifice?
Rad Geek /#
I’m a cognitivist, not a non-cognitivist, about ethics (and value broadly), and I don’t think that Stevenson’s stuff onor reflects how human beings actually deliberate; it seems a lot more like trying to force ethical discourse into a theory of how propositions ought to work than fitting your theory to the discourse it is supposed to explain. Maybe you disagree, but I’d have to hear some arguments as to why you disagree.
Then he’s not violating anybody’s rights.
Probably he has a moral responsibility. But I don’t think he has an enforceable responsibility of justice to educate anyone about anything. (I.E., I don’t think that it would be just to force him to disabuse the other islanders of their confusions, if he didn’t create the situation and he isn’t doing anything coercive or fraudulent to sustain it.) Do you disagree? If so, why?
Anyway. You’re changing the hypothetical rather radically now, and I don’t know to what argumentative point. Is this still supposed to have some application to government forcing people to buy corporate health insurance? If so, how?
I see it as a disjunctive. Some ethical views are cognitive (yours for instance). Some aren’t. And I don’t want to say that “non-cognitive ethical views are not ethical views.” I think you lose explanatory power that way. “Only Americans have natural rights,” is not just false. I mean, there’s a sense in which it’s just “rabble rabble rabble.” I want to preserve that framing for certain “ethical” propositions.
I don’t know if you’ve seen any of this but Julian Sanchez has a great series on “epistemic closure.” (Not in the sense Dretske or Nozick used it, but similar)
Anyway, I think this kind of phenomena is a perfect example of ethics as attitude. But again, I see it as a disjunctive. Not all ethical propositions are mere attitudes. Those subject to epistemic openness are actual ethical proposition.
Do you think it’s fraudulent for the man to just sit there — implicitly confirming their belief?