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Posts tagged Thaddeus Russell

Toward A Really Social Safety Net

These are consolidated from a pair of comments that I made in a thread back around last November on Thaddeus Russell’s Facebook wall. The thread was originally about some silly noise that comes up about once every four years, but it branched out into some interesting discussions about the left, individualist and libertarian perspectives, and so on. My interlocutor’s questions unfortunately seem to have disappeared from the thread, and I hate leaving writing locked up in a web silo, especially in the middle of a big, gradually composting discussion thread, so I’ve tried to condense it into a post here.

I’ve often been asked — by friendly-but-skeptical leftists, and even sometimes by fellow anti-capitalist anarchists — why market libertarians — who may be opposed to the government war machine, police, prisons, and all the other obviously destructive and repressive and regressive things done by the state, for fairly obvious reasons — are also so opposed to, and so hard on, social programs, like TANF, food stamps, WIC, Medicaid, Social Security, etcetera. (The question is usually posed in terms of contrasting government programs that hurt and kill people with government programs that, at least in principle, are supposed to be helping people.) And there are different ways to think about this. To a great extent, left-wing market anarchists don’t spend a lot of time focusing on social programs, and generally insist on prioritizing the core state violence and primary interventions of war, police, prisons, prohibitions, borders, and bail-outs as categorically more important than, say, opposing Medicaid or complaining about government spending on food stamps. And as a matter of strategic priorities, I agree — opposing the crowbars will always be more important to my idea of liberation than imposing the crutches. But I don’t think that means that there is nothing to say about problems that are inherent to the welfare state and government social programs, or that they ought to be considered as neutral or benign. Left-wing market anarchists have important reasons to oppose them — reasons to oppose governmental social programs, not from the economic Right, but from the radical Left.

So when I am asked, what I can say is that this doesn’t have all of the reasons, but it does have some of them:

. . . The key to an understanding of relief-giving is in the functions it serves for the larger economic and political order, for relief is a secondary and supportive institution. Historical evidence suggests that relief arrangements are initiated or expanded during the occasional outbreaks of civil disorder produced by mass unemployment, and are then abolished or contracted when political stability is restored. We shall argue that expansive relief policies are designed to mute civil disorder, and restrictive ones to reinforce work norms. In other words, relief policies are cyclical–liberal or restrictive depending on the problems of regulation in the larger society with which government must contend. Since this view clearly belies the popular supposition that government social policies, including relief policies, are becoming progressively more responsible, humane, and generous, a few words about this popular supposition and its applicability to relief are in order.

There is no gainsaying that the role of government has expanded in those domestic matters called social welfare. One has only to look at the steadily increasing expenditures by local, state, and national governments for programs in housing, health care, education, and the like. . . . But most such social welfare activity has not greatly aided the poor, precisely because the poor ordinarily have little influence on government. Indeed, social welfare programs designed for other groups frequently ride roughshod over the poor, as when New Deal agricultural subsidies resulted in the displacement of great numbers of tenant farmers and sharecroppers, or when urban renewal schemes deprived blacks of their urban neighborhoods. . . . As for relief programs themselves, the historical pattern is clearly not one of progressive liberalization; it is rather a record of periodically expanding and contracting relief rolls as the system performs its two main functions: maintaining civil order and enforcing work. . . . But much more should be understood of this mechanism than merely that it reinforces work norms. It also goes far toward defining and enforcing the terms on which different classes of people are made to do different kinds of work; relief arrangements, in other words, have a great deal to do with maintaining social and economic inequities. The indignities and cruelties of the dole are no deterrent to indolence among the rich; but for the poor person, the specter of ending up on the welfare or in the poorhouse makes any job at any wage a preferable alternative. And so the issue is not the relative merit of work itself; it is rather how some people are made to do the harshest work for the least reward.

–Francis Fox Piven & Richard A. Clower (1970)
Introduction to Regulating the Poor: The Functions of Public Welfare

The left-wing market anarchist addition to this leftist analysis is, first, to point out the extent to which the forms of structural poverty, deprivation, marginalization, concentrations of wealth and ultimately the desperation and civil unrest that social programs are designed to mute, are not simple or inevitable offshoots of market profit-taking, but rather themselves manufactured by the political entrenchment of capitalism and constantly reinforced and sustained through precisely the core state violence and primary interventions — the war, police, prisons, prohibitions, borders, bail-outs, military-industrial complex, monopolies, and other regressive and repressive functions of government — that we prioritize. (On which, see Markets Not Capitalism, etc.) And, second, to insist on the essential importance of positive grassroots, community-based alternatives rather than trying to save or liberalize institutionalized government programs.

Social programs administered by government are a weak and alienating substitute for the grassroots, working-class institutions of mutual aid, labor solidarity and fighting unions that they were largely designed to crowd out, replace, or domesticate. Grassroots social movements aimed to provide relief and person-to-person solidarity by creating alternative institutions that would be in the hands of workers themselves, so that they could better take control of the conditions of their own lives and labor. Government social programs have systematically aimed to monopolize the relief while abandoning any effort at worker control, instead transferring power into the hands of a politically appointed bureaucracy, and largely leaving working folks’ interests at the mercy of party politics. See, for examples, David Beito’s From Mutual Aid to the Welfare State and Paul Buhle’s Taking Care of Business, or, more recently, scott crow’s Black Flags and Windmills or Occupy Sandy, etc.

So (as a left-wing market anarchist) I am all for social programs and a social safety net — but I should like them to be really genuinely social, rather than governmental. So in my view, a libertarian view on markets needn’t, and shouldn’t, have anything to do with economic Rightism or corporate power; it can just as easily mean advocating militant industrial unions, strikes, sit-ins, Food Not Bombs, neighborhood mutual aid, lodge practice contracts, Panther breakfasts, women’s self-help clinics, Common Ground, Occupy Sandy, etc. as models of grassroots social change. And — holding that these are models that are preferable to the politically-controlled, professional-class-dominated and highly paternalistic bureaucracies — OSHA, TANF, WIC, EEOC, Medicare, PPACA, FEMA, etc. — that political progressives are too often inclined to treat as the non-negotiable defining commitments of the economic Left.

* * *

In the original conversation that inspired this note, a friendly-but-skeptical progressive said that she appreciated the focus on grassroots, community-based forms of mutual aid, labor solidarity, and participatory safety nets; but wanted to know whether government programs might have a role to play given that grassroots organizing is always going to demand a very high level of social participation, and sometimes people might be looking for institutions that can handle some problems without everyone in the community constantly having to be constantly involved in everything that anyone might need. It was a good question, and I definitely understand the desire to be able to take a step back in some cases. (It’s certainly something I’ve often felt, as I’m sure anyone who’s ever done a lot of participating in a community effort or an activist project eventually does feel.) But what I’d want to say is that the important thing about grassroots, non-governmental group is not so much the fact of constant participation (I sure hope I don’t have to do that!) as the constant possibility of participation. And the possibility of withdrawal is if anything just as important (so if the local Food Not Bombs or Common Ground clinic becomes completely dysfunctional you can always leave and start devoting your efforts to something else more worthwhile. But if a county social-services office becomes completely dysfunctional, they typically stay paid regardless, since you don’t have any way to redirect how your personal tax dollars are allocated. That’s controlled by a political process and a fairly elaborate set of rules for evaluating civil-service performance, which are an awful lot of degrees removed from the people most aware of and directly affected by the dysfunction.)

In any case, as far as participation goes, sometimes you want to take a step back and let others do a lot of the work, and of course that can happen. (The lodges had officers and divided up organizational work among the members, Panther breakfasts and FNBs and free clinics served a lot of people in the community, some of whom volunteered to help out, lots of whom didn’t, and lots of whom would spend some time on and some time off.) But all of this is an important difference from the politically controlled programs, where there’s no opportunity to step up and take a participatory role, even if you want to; where if they are seriously underserving or misserving or treating their clients in manipulative or exploitative ways, there isn’t any real remedy because they hold all the power in the relationship and the only voice you have in the proceedings, if any at all, are the incredibly attenuated processes of trying to vote in different political parties, etc.

I don’t know how much that answered the question, in the end; but I hope it at least points in a fruitful direction for thinking about what an answer would look like.


Your General Assembly will always be Incomplete.

Last month there was a research report from Ruth Milkman, Stephanie Luce and Penny Lewis on the economic background of people who participated in some #OWS events in New York City. The New York Times and other press outlets picked up on one of the report’s findings — that More than a third of the people who participated in Occupy Wall Street protests in New York lived in households with annual incomes of $100,000 or more … and more than two-thirds had professional jobs. Over on Facebook, Thaddeus Russell’s quick commentary on the story was:

New York Times: In Occupy, Well-Educated Professionals Far Outnumbered Jobless, Study Finds

Thaddeus Russell: There has never been a political movement in the United States in which this wasn’t the case.

— Thaddeus Russell, near Los Angeles, CA., on Facebook (January 28, 2013)

Now as it happens, the authors of the study have complained about how corporate news media have reported on their findings.[1] So I don’t want to lay much stress on what the study showed or did not show about participation in Occupy Wall Street in New York — let alone make any very definite claim about #Occupy in general or what it may illustrate about the whole history of political movements in the United States. Thaddeus has made some interesting points on this, but I think there are also important counter-points to be made (not least what terms like professionals, political, movement, etc. are even supposed to mean in context). But whether Thad is right or wrong on this particular point — or on the more general point he is trying to drive home — I think the reactions to him making this kind of claim have invariably been illustrations of something that it is really important to keep an eye out for. From the Facebook thread:

Joe Lowndes (28 Jan 13, 10pm): So?

Thaddeus Russell (29 Jan 13, 6pm): Joe, the tendency of political activists (and academics) to speak on behalf of others isn’t important?

. . . Joe Lowndes (29 Jan 13, 6pm): All political claims inherently involve speaking on behalf of others, unless you believe in some Rousseauian fantasy of authenticity through general will. Why does it bother you? In any case Occupy was many things in many places. In Eugene it directly involved hundreds of homeless people speaking and voting in GAs. But even if that weren’t the case, there is no reason why middle class folks should not engage in politics or make demands for fear of not representing everyone.

. . . Thaddeus Russell (29 Jan 13, 9pm): Paul, I am not talking about all political activism. I am talking about the common practice of making claims about the needs, desires, and ideas of people whose thoughts are not recorded — like the great majority of the poor, the working class, etc.

Thaddeus Russell (29 Jan 13, 9pm): Joe, what I am describing is often called cultural imperialism. Do you reject that concept or do you think I am misapplying it?

. . . Thaddeus Russell (29 Jan 13, 11pm): When Americans say the people of the world “need” or “want” capitalism it is cultural imperialism, right? But when Occupiers say Americans “need” or “want” New Deal liberalism or socialism it’s not?

Joe Lowndes (29 Jan 13, 11pm): By this overwrought logic, no one can assert or fight for any vision of collective life without it being imperialist.

You can read the whole thing to get a flavor of the whole discussion; there are some perfectly fair points (and also some cheap talking points both ways) about Occupy, the relationship between politics and shifts of identity or affiliation, representation, Gayatri Spivak, etc. But without wading too much into that (or the details, my own experience with several #Occupy projects, which I’m happy both to defend and also to criticize) the overwrought logic is what I wanted to take a look at. Because this is in many ways a digression from the specific argument about Occupy, but a digression that I think has something important to teach — and especially ought to have something to teach for those of us who want to find something of value in #Occupy and the process that emerged out of it. If the practice of occupying public space, open-air General Assemblies, consensus decision-making, spokescouncil models and all the rest was really supposed to mean something, to illustrate and to build an alternative to the political status quo, then we have to remember that the very things that attract us to the GA also have to remind us not only of the value of what we’re doing but also its limitations.[2] So as I wrote in the Facebook thread:

* * *

. . . no one can assert or fight for any vision of collective life without it being imperialist. . . .

Then maybe no one will assert or fight for any vision of collective life. Or, more accurately, shaping collective life will depend on actual explicit agreements among the people collected, rather than on one class of people’s vision being taken as representative of everyone else’s needs and desires. I don’t see this as a problem with the view that Thad is gesturing towards; I see it as one of its most desirable features.

One of the things that has actually been most valuable about Occupy was the extent to which the process explicitly confronted and tried to develop alternatives to political representation, in favor of an ideal of direct participation and negotiated consensus. And if that’s going to be the lesson learned then you also have to be willing and able to take the critical distance to apply the lesson to your own self and to your own projects as a whole: that however open and freewheeling it may be, there are always going to be people who aren’t participating, aren’t necessarily interested at all, and that you as a social actor have a responsibility to acknowledge that and try to question and actively limit your attempts to represent, speak on behalf of, claim expertise about, or impose a vision-of-collective-life upon, those others who were not part of the process or the milieu.

(Charles Johnson on Facebook, 30 January 13, 3pm)

  1. [1]And justly so — the sample they had available to study was from a single protest event, not widely representative of #OWS, and as a general thing virtually all newsmedia reports on any kind of statistical research are more or less always terrible, and much in need of clarification about basic points of definition and statistical reasoning.
  2. [2]It’s great to have open-process G.A.s, and it’s great to create spaces where you try, as much as possible, to invite everyone to take the chance to speak, and to take a hand in the decision-making process. But the G in G.A. can cause problems if you forget (or willfully ignore) the fact that your General Assembly will always be incomplete. There will always be people who aren’t there, aren’t available, or just aren’t interested. Every General Assembly is really a Particular and Peculiar Assembly. But if I point this out then that’s not because I want to give you a reason not to have incomplete General Assemblies. It’s a reason for you to get as familiar and as comfortable as you can with the spaces that the I.G.A. always leaves open — to try to adopt a kind of process, and a kind of social action, that not only aims at being inviting and open to everyone affected, but also holds itself back in claiming to speak for those who didn’t accept the invitation, and leaves space open for consensed-upon ideas or projects to be questioned, challenged, revised, ignored, competed with or routed around by the inevitable others who were not interested in or available for the process, and did not become part of forming the consensus.
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