image from The Non-Anarchist blog
Crudely speaking, there are two kinds of commentators on American anarchism: those who deny the Haymarket conspiracy, and those who admit it. The former are the majority, while the latter merely have the facts of the case on their side. Strobe, who blogs at The Non-Anarchist: Anarchism Without Adulation, appears to be among the latter.
Anarchists often use the convolutions of their doctrine as sand in the eyes of their critics. Fortunately, Strobe is not intimidated and defines their doctrine cogently:
Anarchist diversity doesn’t necessarily imply complexity. The anarchist George Woodcock identified anarchism’s unifying objective as “the replacement of the authoritarian state by some form of non-governmental cooperation between free individuals.” This is a good a working definition, though it contains assumptions and fallacies also typical for a range of anarchists. Let’s take a look.
Woodcock’s term “non-governmental cooperation” could be reworded as “social cooperation” without offending any anarchists. The anarchist Joseph Proudhon polarized “social organization” and “political organization,” believing the first to be the realm of liberty (good) and the second the realm of authority (bad). Here is the libertarian thrust of anarchism.
Proudhon described social organization as “innate in humanity, liberal, necessary” and made up of economic forces such as labor, commerce, and competition. While anarchists continue to argue about what constitutes good social organization, and how social organization can be mobilized to replace the State, they all accept that the two are the poles of total war. (And also, like Proudhon, many anarchists regard as inferior those of us who do not recognize this polar opposition.) Quasi-anarchists who waver on this point face rejection from all corners of the anarchist milieu.
Another common element of anarchist thought, and the most charming, is the belief that all humans are anarchists, just most of us don’t know it. The unenlightened among us may be shown the light in multiple ways, depending on which anarchist you’re speaking with. We can be educated in anarchist schools or workshops, inspired by the example of anarchist communes, shown the joy of enlightenment with anarchist antics, or shocked to sanity by profane actions. Or property destruction. Or the provocation of riot cops.
Strobe also noted three grandiose conceits about liberty in anarchism: anything less than absolute liberty is tyranny, this absolute is “not the daughter but the mother of order,” and this order is uniquely anarchist.
He was also lucid on the vexed matter of anarchist violence:
Occupy Oakland had by last year’s May 1 riot successfully propagated the notion that “not all anarchists are violent,” a quibble that neatly sidestepped the fact that, whether or not anarchists choose to participate in Black Bloc actions, most of them nevertheless support their comrades in what they see as a Star Wars insurrection against evil cops and “the State.” Watercolorists see nothing wrong with the bolder strokes of oil painters, they just work in a different medium, goes the logic of anarchist artistic pretension.
Never mind that while requiring journalists to refrain from “caricature” and painstakingly detail the various contours of anarchism before discussing anarchist violence, they eagerly promote a fantastically Manichean vision of the police force. The Occupy Oakland website last year expended what little remaining credibility it had by endorsing a May 1 general strike that was little more than the latest Fuck the Police provocation. Oaklanders greeted the preposterous strike with irritation or indifference, the subsequent riot as illegitimate and ineffective, but this was fine for anarchists.
Police are always the Devil, no matter what actions are taken to provoke them. Maintaining this insurrectionary, conspiratorial mindset is their ultimate and ongoing goal. For an anarchist riot to be successful, however, they need non-anarchist pupils on whom to bestow their grand lessons of police repression. This means you. Remember this the next time you’re in a crowd, perhaps at one of Oakland’s monthly art events, where anarchists attend.
At its best, caricature can draw out what is obscured but essential in the original. The trouble for anarchist enragés is that they are so prone to self-parody (see: anarchistnews.org).
Strobe also recognized that anarchist ideas of “occupation” predated Occupy Wall Street:
Let’s take for example a slightly earlier anarchist artifact entitled Pre-occupied: The Logic of Occupation. “Avoid them at all costs,” this particular manifesto advised about those it called “radical liberals.” The document was published shortly after the first of what would become annual student protests at The New School for Social Research in NYC, in January 2009. The anarchist demand? Claiming university space as an autonomous “New School for Social Revolution.”
It was that silly.
Written with the bombastic romanticism characteristic of anarchist writing since Raoul Vaneigem and Guy Debord, and embracing the temporary autonomous zones of Hakim Bey, the manifesto denounces the goal of political engagement, presenting occupation as “the general strategy of sabotage.” Anarchists at The New School regarded non-anarchists as a problem in their mission to “unleash the void.”
The radical liberals had learned too many lessons from the 1960s and were prone to politely term anarchist actions and rhetoric as counterproductive. They thought a strike should come with demands. Instead, wrote Q. Libet of the farcically-named Inoperative Committee, “Every demand is already a defeat.” Another student strike at the University of California at Santa Cruz would rally around a similar slogan in Fall 2009: “Demand Nothing; Occupy Everything.”
The Occupation manifesto, according to Strobe, went on to advise how to conspire against liberal sympathizers. “Rather, like certain villagers do to state authorities when they come by to see how their colony is doing, one should nod and agree, and then act according to their complete irrelevance. Indifference can be a weapon if it used right. These individuals should be made redundant, entirely superfluous.” There is candor in this advice, as anarchism is all about turning liberal values against liberalism.
There is more I could say, but for now, I’ll simply recommend Strobe’s blog.
Last Sunday, rapper Lupe Fiasco tweeted:
A Marxist theory today: Actual Revolution which affects wholesale societal change is only seen via technological advancement i.e. industrial—
Lupe Fiasco (@LupeFiasco) May 12, 2013
It suggests a negation of ideals as truly transformative and that true force behind changes across the board in society is technology—
Lupe Fiasco (@LupeFiasco) May 12, 2013
If last week’s Philosophy Sunday was about Marxism, perhaps this one should be about Positivism. After all, the two are not so far apart from each other. Positivism originated with Henri de Saint-Simon, a French socialist, and was further developed by Auguste Comte, a founder of sociology. The name Saint-Simon may be largely forgotten, but his ideas still seem eerily fashionable.
Karl Marx said of Saint-Simon, “almost all the ideas of later socialists which are not strictly economic are contained in his works in embryo.” Granted, the differences between Marx and Saint-Simon were significant. Saint-Simon did not believe class war between labor and capital was inevitable. Although Saint-Simon’s account of human development was in part technical and economic, it also included the “progress of ideas.” And yet, Saint Simon created, as the historian Felix Markham said, “a complete philosophy of history, explaining the development of the human race in terms of the rise and fall of classes according to changes in the state of society.” He also conceived “a science of history, based on discoverable laws, producing inevitable and predictable results, independently of individual human wills.”
Positivism’s legacy was recently noted in review of Jonathan Sperber’s book Karl Marx: A Nineteenth-Century Life. The reviewer, philosopher John Gray, called Sperber “a surefooted guide to the world of ideas in which Marx moved,” including the ideas of Saint-Simon and Comte:
Asserting that science was the model for any kind of genuine knowledge, Comte looked forward to a time when traditional religions had disappeared, the social classes of the past had been superseded, and industrialism (a term coined by Saint-Simon) reorganized on a rational and harmonious basis—a transformation that would occur in a series of evolutionary stages similar to those that scientists found in the natural world.
Sperber tells us that Marx described Comte’s philosophical system as “positivist shit”; but there were many parallels between Marx’s view of society and history and those of the positivists:
For all the distance Marx kept from these [positivist] doctrines, his own image of progress through distinct stages of historical development and a twofold division of human history into an earlier, irrational era and a later, industrial and scientific one, contained distinctly positivist elements.
Astutely, Sperber perceives fundamental similarities between Marx’s account of human development and that of Herbert Spencer (1820–1903), who (rather than Darwin) invented the expression “survival of the fittest” and used it to defend laissez-faire capitalism. Influenced by Comte, Spencer divided human societies into two types, “the ‘militant’ and the ‘industrial,’ with the former designating the entire pre-industrial, pre-scientific past, and the latter marking a new epoch in the history of the world.”
Spencer’s new world was an idealized version of early Victorian capitalism, while Marx’s was supposed to come about only once capitalism had been overthrown; but the two thinkers were at one in expecting “a new scientific era, one fundamentally different from the human past.” As Sperber concludes: “Today, a visitor to Highgate Cemetery in North London can see the graves of Karl Marx and Herbert Spencer standing face to face—for all the intellectual differences between the two men, not an entirely inappropriate juxtaposition.”
Isaiah Berlin claimed this peculiar way of seeing the world had influenced, not only Marxism, but progress narratives in general. You can read Berlin’s elaboration of Saint-Simon’s original vision here.
Abby Rapoport reported this week on FixMyJob.com, a site created by the union group Working America to connect with non-union workers. The website bills itself as a tool to help Americans “identify problems” and share “info about what others have done in similar situations.”
Aruna Jain, a spokesperson for the project, told Rapoport they are “trying to find new ways for workers to have representation on the job.” They “want to train and educate people on how to self-organize, and to learn collective action—the single most effective way of improving their working conditions.” The site explains how to contact the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA). It also offers advice on confronting bosses or making common cause with coworkers.
Unions in this country face a real threat of extinction, and Working America is the AFL-CIO’s answer. As Rapoport said:
Rather than organizing workers into unions, Working America, an AFL-CIO affiliate, focuses on engaging non-union workers on a number of policy issues, from unemployment insurance and banking reform to education funding and campaign finance. The group uses the same door-to-door, grassroots strategies that have long been the hallmarks of labor organizers. But rather than emphasize relations between workers and their employers, the group focuses largely on policy changes. Members don’t have to pay dues, instead, at meetings and on sites like FixMyJob, they just have to sign up.
The effort has achieved some real gains: paid sick days for workers in Portland, Oregon, and a higher minimum wage in both Albuquerque and Bernalillo County, New Mexico. However, Rapoport said, the emphasis is more on policy changes than on “helping employees negotiate with their employers.” But the latter should be a major priority.
Most working Americans don’t have a union, and it seems unlikely we’ll get one any time soon. Yet, without a traditional union, we still have the right to organize. Under the National Labor Relations Act, employees may engage in “concerted activities” other than unions “for the purpose of collective bargaining or other mutual aid or protection.” Concerted activities are actions taken by two or more employees (or one who represents them) to address compensation, working conditions, or job-related problems.
As I said last June, Americans need new methods of organizing. We need to experiment and learn by doing. Any lessons learned should be shared across workplaces. If the idea behind FixMyJob is for unions to engage the non-union majority and create better means of organizing, it’s a great one. As Karen Nussbaum of Working America said in the piece, “There’s nothing sacrosanct about the form of the union in the United States.”
I am turning off comments. The debate over this issue is so old and so tired that I have no hope of adding anything new. If you wish to respond, there is Twitter, email (through “Contact” above), and, of course, posting your thoughts on a website of your own.
Back in January, 2011, after the electoral “shellacking” of 2010, Josh Marshall was taking flak for TPM’s coverage of Sarah Palin. Some readers were saying, “Why are you giving her so much attention? You’re just pumping her up. If you and the other places would stop giving her so much oxygen, she and her whole circus would just wither away.” This refrain had been around long before Palin, and it persists today as she fades away.
There is a case for liberals to spend less time on populist demagogues and more time arguing our own cause, on our own terms. But the criticism TPM received was about something else. It was a demand to transcend the circus. Rightly, Marshall responded:
This is actually a real blind spot for liberals in general—the idea that things that are crazy or tawdry or just outrageous are really best ignored. Don’t give them more attention. You’re just giving them what they want. Or maybe it’s not so practical and utilitarian. Maybe, they say, it’s just beneath us. Focus on the important stuff.
On so many levels this represents an alienation from the popular political culture which is not only troubling in itself but actually damages progressive and center-left politics in general no end. It’s almost the fatal flaw. Democrats often console themselves that even when they don’t win elections, usually their individual policies are more popular than those of Republicans. Too bad you can’t elect a policy. It’s true for instance that Health Care Reform—which still has more opponents than supporters—is pretty popular when you ask people about its individual components. But why is that? It’s not random, because that pattern crops up again and again. It’s another one of the examples where liberals—or a certain strain of liberalism—focuses way too much on the libretto of our political life and far too little on the score. It’s like you’re at a Wagner opera reading the libretto with your ear plugs in and think you’ve got the whole thing covered.
Politics can never be separated from policy, unless you’re in a political science class or getting a Phd in health care economics. The two are inextricably combined. And any attempt to pry them apart in a deep way is not only hopeless but also deeply wrongheaded.
Yet, I doubt liberals of this strain are reading the libretto in silence. Instead of ear plugs, I suspect too many are wearing ear buds that play a different score.
It is the theme of “competence, not ideology.” It is the promise of transforming political conflicts into knowledge problems. By rising above the fever swamp of politics, we shall find common-sense solutions. As in science and technology, which progress through cumulative advances in knowledge, so, too, in civilization. It is a progressive persuasion.
The historian Marvin Meyers defined a persuasion as the political expression of “a matched set of attitudes, beliefs, projected actions: a half-formulated moral perspective involving emotional commitment.” Irving Kristol said the word “hits off exactly the strange destiny of ideas in American politics.” A persuasion is less rigorous than a formal philosophy but more explicit than a misty sentiment.
The persuasion of “competence, not ideology” need not be liberal, though it’s been bound up with American liberalism since at least the Progressive Era. It resonates with Americans general aversion to political conflict. As an injunction to think rigorously and inquire how the world works, it has its virtues. It also checks the antinomian conceits of hyper-activists. As a way of governing, however, it is woefully incomplete.
A social problem can only be a question of technique if the desired ends are taken as given. Before a problem can be solved, it must be defined. This definition is not a neutral matter of common sense; it’s embroiled in both contests for power and conflicts between incommensurable values.
Consider Representative Paul Ryan. From his perspective, the core problem facing America is that looters are preying on the Promethean elite. Ryan’s budgets are only coherent if you recognize his aristocratic persuasion. Then it all becomes clear: liberal solutions are Ryan’s problem.
Liberals can dent Ryan’s budget by drawing out its consequences, but they cannot defeat his policy by citing numbers alone. Numbers no more “speak for themselves” than do ventriloquist dummies. Irving Kristol was caustic but right to say a person’s notion of inequality has “extraordinarily little to do with arithmetic” and “almost everything” to do with their political persuasion.
Granted, much of the social world is not what we assume. We need good measurements to know what’s actually happening. The outcomes of our actions are not bound by our intentions, hence the need for good theories of policy mechanics. Without technical guides to viable action, the ends we desire are likely to elude us. But policies are only comprehensible—and defensible in the electoral arena—if people have a compelling sense of their purpose.
There is a tendency among journalists, politicians, and the general public, Dani Rodrik said, “to attribute greater authority and precision to what the experts say than the experts should really feel comfortable with.” Experts actually know less than many non-experts want them to know. For the sake of honesty, Rodrik said, they should not pander to this yearning.
Rodrik’s salutary post was concerned with individual authorities. His warning was more professional than political. If there is a similar warning in politics, it came from Isaiah Berlin in his essay on “Historical Inevitability.” The essay is rich with insights, but one particularly struck me. It was what Berlin said about the allure of determinism:
The more we know, the greater the relief from the burden of [moral] choice; we forgive others for what they cannot avoid being, and by the same token we forgive ourselves. In ages in which the choices seem peculiarly agonizing, when strongly held ideals cannot be reconciled and collisions cannot be averted, such doctrines seem peculiarly comforting. We escape moral dilemmas by denying their reality; and, by directing our gaze towards the greater wholes, we make them responsible in our place. All we lose is an illusion, and with it the painful and superfluous emotions of guilt and remorse. Freedom notoriously involves responsibility, and it is for many spirits a source of welcome relief to lose the burden of both, not by some ignoble act of surrender, but by daring to contemplate in a calm spirit things as they must be; for this is to be truly philosophical [or scientific]. Thereby we reduce history to a kind of physics; as well blame the galaxy or gamma-rays as Genghis Khan or Hitler. ‘To know all is to forgive all’ turns out to be, in Professor Ayer’s striking phrase (used in another context) nothing but a dramatized tautology.
Dealing with gun violence, according to the righteous believers in spontaneous order, is a simple matter of self-defense. There is no need for any stricter policing of weapons, because nothing secures freedom like millions of armies of one who live in mutual suspicion of one another.
It is magical thinking to assume the “good guys” would instantaneously agree on the necessity of the means, and the greatness of the danger. They could just as easily turn their weapons on one another. The practical meaning of self-defense is not universally self-evident. Granted, we should make some allowance for self-protection, but within narrow and well-defined bounds. The more we expand the scope for individual judgments about killing, the more internecine violence we should expect.
Before a killing, there may be no obvious distinction between who will become a hero and who will become a villain. Armed “bad guys” may only be recognized as a threat after the corpses accumulate. The aggressors also have the initiative, because they choose the time and the place of their attack. And the more powerful their weapons, the greater their advantage. But if you fire first and mistake a false threat for a real one, you become the deranged gunman.
As for insurrectionary self-defense, remember some precedents in American history. John Wilkes Booth shouted to the audience in Ford’s Theatre that he had shot a tyrant in the back of the head. After Leon Czolgosz murdered President William McKinley, Emma Goldman justified the assassination as “an act of self-defence.” In Goldman’s imagination, Czolgosz might as well have donned a Guy Fawkes mask and called himself V:
You may question this, since Czolgogz was not personally attact [sic] by McKinley, quite true, but Czolgogz belonged to the Oppressed, to the Exploited and Disinherited Millions, who lead a life of darkness and despaire [sic] owing to those, of whom McKinley was one, therefore he was personally attacked by the ex President, or rather he was one of the Victims of the McKinley regime and those McKinley catered to. The act of Czolgogz may have been imprectical [sic] or inupportune [sic], I will not argue this point now, but I insist it had nothing unanarchistic about it, since, as I said before Anarchism claims the right of Defence against Invasion and Aggression of every shape and form and no one, who has his eyes open will and can deny that those in Power are the Invadors [sic], McKinley certainly was one of them.
Anyone who invokes a right to insurrectionary self-defense, whether they are part of an “unorganized militia” or a revolutionary anarchist, owes the rest of us a limiting principle. Without one, it permits any assassin to execute any elected official that offends them.
The choice is not simply between freedom and tyranny. It is also between freedom with peace and anarchy without either. Thomas Hobbes may have been wrong to call this emergent chaos a “state of nature,” but we would be right to call it anarchy—the self-immolation of freedom.