Friday, December 7, 2012

Towards a Disparate View of Anarchy

There's been a couple of thoughts floating around in my mind for a little while that have sort of coalesced recently. I haven't really fleshed it out completely yet, and I'm not even sure the distinction I'm trying to make is meaningful in the philosophical sense - it may be just a matter of semantics at its base. But I thought I would share my thoughts about it here, if for no other reason than personal record.

When we get into politically theoretical arguments with people it generally revolves around the merits of one political system or another. People talk about democracy, dictatorship, anarchy, etc., and they compare and contrast the (likely) outcomes of their implementations. But I've always had a hard time thinking of anarchy as a "political system" (like the others). And, to be clear, I'm speaking of anarchy in the libertarian context here. While critics of such flavors of anarchism are quick to remind libertarians that it is just as coercive or forcefully structured as any of these other systems, there's something about this I just don't quite buy. And I think it has less to do with their points about libertarian idiosyncrasies than what I believe may just be a categorical mistake.

Let me start by pointing out a common issue among/between radical libertarians. We have a hard time labeling ourselves. Some prefer mutualism, others voluntaryism, and still others anarcho-capitalism or even just plain old anarchism. I think the reasoning behind the use can actually tell you a bit about the reason that person supports anarchism, or even what they believe the result of anarchism to be; the primary conclusions are still fairly similar. But each group often has a subset of people which are vehemently against people using the other labels for various reasons. Within the last couple of years, it's been the terms "anarcho-capitalism" and "anarchism" that have fallen more into disrepute than the rest. The largest driving factor here seems to be the confusion that it might spring on a public less knowledgeable about actual anarchism and more knowledgeable about its caricature in popular culture. But this isn't the only reason.

Others believe the term to be contradictory, or at least they believe that the word can't properly describe what a radical libertarian actually believes. This is tied into the (fairly nuanced) claim by libertarianism's critics that libertarians believe in things like rules and force just as much as supporters of other political theories. So a system of an(no)-archi(rules/structure)sm could seem conflicting. However, several very bright and thoughtful "anarchist" libertarians have used the term and been fully aware of the implications of the verbiage and the political theory itself - so what gives? Well, I think anarchism is also often defined as "no rulers", which is actually a very important disctinction from the previous reading...especially for libertarians. Having no rulers may simply mean something closer to what Roderick Long calls "equality of authority", meaning that no individual or group can obtain more or less rights than other individuals. Now this is a much more intelligible interpretation for libertarians, and one that libertarian "anarchists" could/would probably stand by.

Now, what constitutes our "rights" is a matter for a much longer and in-depth discussion to be sure. For libertarians, those rights are positively grounded in the framework of property, and more specifically self-ownership. But the rights themselves are negative, our conception of property merely defines its contours. And a strong conception of equality in authority can, at least hypothetically, get you to that positive conception of property, deductively (a la Rothbard). So, or at least as it goes in some libertarian circles, if we can make a strong argument for the equality of man when it comes to rights, we can get to libertarianism as a normative political theory. This kind of "political authority" is, in turn, what actually defines libertarianism, negatively, in the abstract. And this is the crux of my musings.

When we talk about various "political systems", we're typically talking about bundles of political and/or meta-political prescriptions. Libertarianism, and more to the point the radical kind I'm talking about here, is thought about in the same way. But I think that's misleading. In the abstract, libertarian anarchism is an ideal - in its purest form it is a world without political aggression. So it's political prescriptions, to the extent that they have any, are relative, and marginal. So while they may act in symphony with other political factions on any given action or prescription, it will generally be only to the extent that such actions lessen political aggression.

So, let's suppose that a bill is being proposed that would effectively lower taxes on the lower middle-class by 10%. Radical libertarians may overwhelmingly support it. So may Democrats. But the structure and reasoning behind that support may be (and probably is) very different. Libertarians would support such a move because, generally, it should result in less political coercion on net, pushing things further towards the ideal. Democrats may support it because they believe it would "help" the poor; that it would more fully approximate their conception of social justice perhaps. And, in that way, it could and would be argued that Democrats too are pushing toward their own ideal conception(s). The important political distinction here, though, is that the Democrats actually believe in the efficacy of the underlying political structure that would enforce such a prescription, the underlying subjugation of one man's "authority" to another's. And it's in this way that I believe an-archism is a-political.

It's somewhat reminiscent of the dichotomy between theism and atheism. It is likewise posited by (angry) theists that a-theism is also a religion, while atheists insist that they simply have a lack of belief of the religious sort. But it would seem that this is more of a quibble about the proper conception of religion. It follows from a common understanding of "religion" that a-theists hold a negative claim. In the same way, it follows from a common understanding of "property" that an-archists also hold a negative claim. I don't want to call "anarchy" a political system for the same reasons I don't want to call "atheism" a religion. As has been pointed out, there are arguments to the contrary, but I find them generally unpersuasive, and possibly even irrelevant in most contexts. Atheism is not a religious view, it's a lack of one. Anarchism is not a political view, it's a lack of one. I don't believe that one man can, even by explicit conferrence, diminish the rights of others nor inflate his own. And when I say I'm an anarchist, this is precisely what I mean.

Again, I haven't completely fleshed all this out. I still find arguments to the contrary compelling enough to give them a good hearing. But this is where I sit at the moment. The reason that I think this distinction is important, if there is a meaningful distinction at all, is that I think it may garner an incorrect approach for libertarians trying to make the best of their arguments. I think when we simply offer libertarianism as a competing political system, and more specifically one of the type that can simply be voted into mandate, I think we diminish its message and cause confusion. Engaging facets of our current political system is surely important. Some of our most significant gains (and losses) have obviously been on this front. But, I think, it's also important to remember that the political means we embrace are purely instrumental.

Too often libertarian anarchists step back and present this gigantic institutional worldview as if we would somehow politically implement such a system from the top down. But this project isn't a game of musical chairs. It's not an "all-or-nothing" endeavor. Effective change, of a radically libertarian sort, will not come about purely because of popular political imposition from inside the current system. It will likely only come to fruition through popular dissent and the building of competing institutions outside of the current political sphere.

And, perhaps more importantly, I don't think it makes sense for us to talk about "anarchism" as a system that can be implemented in any real sense. As we elaborated above, anarchism is negatively defined. It's an ideal. In that sense, true anarchism can never be achieved until there is a true cessation of force and coercion. So I don't imagine it to be some kind of switch that will be thrown if the monopolistic Leviathan of State should ever fall apart for one reason or another. The deviations are numerous, both public and private; our whole project is about a constant push to rectify these usurpations of personal authority no matter how they're institutionalized. This means that our vision should not be so myopic as to look at our goal as some singular and finite overthrowing of the State, but rather our scope should be much broader - the development of various strategies to keep all institutions in check and to ensure, as best as is possible, the political autonomy of all individuals.

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