October 26, 2009

Contemplating a Different World

[An important Update now added at the conclusion.]

I agree with IOZ's major points here, and I want to offer these additional thoughts.

By way of personal background: I haven't called myself a libertarian for several years. Even when I did, I wrote about what I called "contextual libertarianism," and that essay explains why I considered that approach so crucial. The essay proper was first published in November 2003, which seems a lifetime ago. In terms of how my ideas have progressed (and, I would hope, improved, but you will properly judge that for yourselves), the introductory comments I added to that post two years later were only another stop along a longer road. My view of both libertarianism, certainly as represented in contemporary American thought, and Ayn Rand has grown steadily more negative. One of these days, when I have time to kill completely -- I won't, so don't hold your breath -- I'll explain why I have virtually nothing positive to say about Rand, and a great deal to say which is negative in the extreme. The sole exception on the positive side of the ledger concerns a very limited aspect of her work, one which I view as meaningless given the totality of her views (although it does explain the very limited attraction her work once held for me, and which I mistakenly tried to convince myself represented a broader positive response). I recognize that some sort of Rand "resurgence" is occurring at the moment. I consider this renewed interest in Rand's work perfectly understandable, and I also view it as not remotely approaching a good thing. On second thought, I may have a few things to say about that in the future.

(I identified what is perhaps my most basic criticism of Rand in very broad terms in the introductory comments to this article: "I hope to return to the 'Systems of Obedience' series in a few months, after completing some other writing. And Rand's 'philosophy,' such as it is, fits perfectly into that series: despite the protestations of her followers and of Rand herself that her philosophy reveres reason and independence above all else, the opposite is true. With regard to how her ideas actually work in the lives and thought of her admirers and, I would submit, the only way those ideas can work, Rand's notions ultimately and inevitably reduce to a demand for obedience to principles that are often defended very poorly or barely at all, that are frequently incoherent and contradictory, and that are extraordinarily damaging, in ways both small and tragically large." As long-time readers will know, my entire life revolved around Rand and "Objectivism" for close to a decade, and I worked in the office of her last publication during its entire five years of existence in the 1970s. I had regular contact with Rand and many of her associates, and a few of them -- although certainly not Rand herself -- became very close friends. So I know all this from extensive and very painful personal experience, in addition to now considering all these observations to be fully and necessarily accurate given the nature of Rand's ideas and her approach themselves.)

I described my own journey in more detail just before my sixtieth birthday:
It is often noted that many people become more conservative as they age. The opposite is true in my case. Over the last three or four years in particular, I have become more and more radical. I once described my political beliefs as libertarian in nature -- although, I hasten to add and I think the record will show, my libertarianism was of the genuine and serious variety, as opposed to the utterly phony libertarianism that will be found in today's culture, and especially among many bloggers. I opposed the very dangerous authoritarianism of the Bush administration from the time I began blogging in September 2002, and I opposed the invasion of Iraq before it began. I always recognized that the corporatist-authoritarian state at home and an aggressively and violently interventionist foreign policy are inextricably linked, that they are but the two faces of the same coin. But as my political-cultural critique has hopefully deepened, my political views altered. I now describe myself as a leftist-anarchist: the leftist part of the description designates the cultural-economic-historical-political perspective I try to employ, while the anarchist label indicates that I view the State as the primary problem. As I have said (and I will have more to say about this at some point), I view anarchism as useful in theory only at this point, although the theory is of immense importance. Until and unless a critical number of individuals alter the primary motives that move most people (the desire for power and control, and the demand for obedience, being chief among them), any state of affairs approximating anarchism will lead only to more chaos and death. If humanity manages to evolve through several more stages, which assumes we don't kill ourselves in huge numbers in the meantime (a fragile hope, indeed), then peaceful anarchism might have a chance.
As to those circumstances in which anarchy would be immensely beneficial and life-enhancing and not merely destructive, I offered these further brief thoughts:
I will be writing more on the following point shortly, so now I only mention this glancingly: for anarchy even to be possible (and to be a positive good, rather than only immensely destructive), a profound transformation of human consciousness would be required. I don't mean that fancifully; I intend it quite literally. The disavowal of a single overriding authority -- a power that commands the obedience of all under its sway, under penalty of law -- could only rest on a radically different conception of our own nature and, of equal importance, of how we relate to one another, in contrast to the ideas almost all people accept today. In fact, I think evolution may take us to that point at some time in the future; there are small indications supporting that possibility to be found here and there. But I doubt it will occur on any significant scale when you or I will see it.
With regard to the State as the primary problem in political analysis and in our lives at present, I direct your attention to "The State and Full Spectrum Dominance," and especially to the Robert Higgs article I excerpt. From Higgs:
With regard to large-scale death and destruction, no person, group, or private organization can even begin to compare to the state, which is easily the greatest instrument of destruction known to man. All nonstate threats to life, liberty, and property appear to be relatively petty, and therefore can be dealt with. Only states can pose truly massive threats, and sooner or later the horrors with which they menace mankind invariably come to pass.

The lesson of the precautionary principle is plain: because people are vile and corruptible, the state, which holds by far the greatest potential for harm and tends to be captured by the worst of the worst, is much too risky for anyone to justify its continuation. To tolerate it is not simply to play with fire, but to chance the total destruction of the human race.


[E]verything that makes life without a state undesirable makes life with a state even more undesirable. The idea that the anti-social tendencies that afflict people in every society can be cured or even ameliorated by giving a few persons great discretionary power over all the others is, upon serious reflection, seen to be a wildly mistaken notion. Perhaps it is needless to add that the structural checks and balances on which Madison relied to restrain the government’s abuses have proven to be increasingly unavailing and, bearing in mind the expansive claims and actions under the present U.S. regime, are now almost wholly superseded by a form of executive caesarism in which the departments of government that were designed to check and balance each other have instead coalesced in a mutually supportive design to plunder the people and reduce them to absolute domination by the state.
All this goes to IOZ's observation that libertarianism's "relentless insistence on state-supremacy ... commits precisely the sin that [Howley] identifies: it reifies that which it claims to seek to undermine," which is entirely correct.

I note that I well understand the concerns that prompt IOZ's question, "why must you call yourselves anything at all?" -- which is in part why I always offer an explanation, however brief, as to precisely what I mean by the terms I employ, excepting only those contexts in which the meaning should be obvious. But using terms such as those I utilize here and in the above excerpts is not only useful, but unavoidable. We do, in fact, live in a particular culture at a particular time. All terms, including those of political self-description, have associations and meanings, even when they are vague and approximate, or represent even dubious connections. That is why it behooves us to explain what we mean when we use them. In the political context, we are building on thought which has evolved over hundreds, even thousands, of years. In significant part, we thus formulate our views in response to how those ideas have altered over time, as well as to how societies have changed. And when we conclude it is necessary or desirable, we reshape those ideas and their associated terms to our own ends, and/or we alter the terms we employ as required.

What I find of special interest are these comments from IOZ toward the conclusion of his entry: "What has [libertarianism] got to say about the construction of community, the nature of cooperative endeavor in the absence of coercion? Most libertarians aren't even willing to accept that property, their central fetish, is itself a cultural artifact, not a constant of nature." The property issue is an intriguing one, and it is undeniably true that the concept of "property" has manifested itself in countless forms throughout history, and sometimes vanished altogether. But that's a subject for another time.

Consider IOZ's preceding question, concerning "the construction of community, the nature of cooperative endeavor in the absence of coercion." Now that is a goddamned fascinating subject. Early in 2008, I offered somewhat related thoughts in the form of a fanciful fable, "The Tale That Might Be Told." I say "somewhat related," because that fable was primarily addressed to the centrality of coercion in our lives, and what might happen when that coercion was removed. I wrote that piece in the form of a "tale" because I hoped to bypass the strictures of our thought and approach the question on a more basic, even emotional, level. Contrary to what some peabrained critics thought, such a tale was never intended as any kind of explicit political program. It never occurred to me that a reader would believe I seriously entertained the prospect of a future where events actually unfolded in that manner. Here's a clue for the cognitively-impaired: not everything you read is a plan for political action, at least not on this blog. (Given the realities of our lives today and the ongoing deterioration, and even collapse, of the United States in every area, in either slow motion or on a faster schedule depending on events, it is much more likely that a major rupture and/or transformation will be accompanied by widespread violence, brutality and death. But such a naturalistic depiction of what the future may tragically hold had nothing at all to do with the purposes of my fable.)

There was one, but only one, real-life political point contained in my fable, and that is the idiocy of voting for national office. Local, even state, elections might have some limited purpose, although even that depends on circumstances of a particular kind. But voting on the national level for candidates of the two major parties -- and especially for president -- in our current, all-encompassing corporatist-authoritarian-militarist system is goldplated idiocy of the first degree, period. My extensive, indisputable proof, a proof which requires nothing further whatsoever, consists of but a single word: Obama. (If you tiresomely insist on a full proof, start here and follow the numerous links. And don't neglect "A Choice of War Criminals." A few of us regarded voting for a war criminal as determinative. Go figure. Both Obama and McCain are war criminals not because I say so, but because the Nuremberg Principles compel that conclusion. See that essay for the details.)

Aside from that single issue, my fable sought to encourage people to consider what I often view as the only question that ultimately matters: What if...? What if there were no ultimate authority that dictated the manner in which you live? What if there were no State? For those with sincerely and deeply-held religious beliefs (which is not most people despite what they say, an issue I will soon be discussing in the tribalism series, along with many related issues), what if there were no God? What if you were free -- genuinely free of all outside compulsion, real or imagined -- to fashion your life in a way you chose in total independence, assuming nothing and questioning everything, with only those people as company who chose to join you in the effort? What would you do? How would you act? How would others act? What are the possibilities? Why those possibilities, and not others?

I'm sorry to disappoint you, if I do, but I don't have the answers. How could anyone have the answers? As my headline expresses the idea, it would be a completely different world. And as one of my earlier essays suggests, it would be a world resting "on a radically different conception of our own nature and, of equal importance, of how we relate to one another, in contrast to the ideas almost all people accept today." As against a world dominated by authority, obedience, control and violence, it would be a world where a critical number of people were primarily moved by the inviolable sanctity of an individual life, by genuine, profound compassion and empathy. Some of us seek to make that world real in our own lives to the extent we can -- but what if that world grew larger, if only to encompass a self-sustaining community linked to other similar communities?

I might be able to discern the general outlines of such a world, but I don't know the details of what it would look like or how it would operate. But isn't that worth thinking about? Making it real would be the joyous task of those of us who shared the vision. As we contemplate that vision and consider the possibilities, we see more clearly the limitations that restrict us in both thought and action today, in a world largely ruled by violence and cruelty, a world which all too often cripples and kills the innocent, those people who are most deserving of honor and protection.

Those moments in which we contemplate such matters are immensely valuable in themselves, and also for the light they shine on the issues and controversies that often overwhelm our daily lives. They can be a source of pleasure and inspiration, and even of joy and wonder. Such moments are often among the most precious we have, at least I find them so. And the inherent value of such moments must never be dismissed or underestimated, for it is crucial to the thought to which I often return these days:

Live ecstatically.

UPDATE: By email, IOZ reminds me that Kevin Carson has done an extensive amount of enormously valuable work on the kinds of practical questions I mention in the concluding section of this essay. I thank IOZ for the reminder, and I offer my profuse apologies to Mr. Carson for the grievous oversight. I confess that I don't read Carson's work nearly as regularly or as thoroughly as I should, and the error and the loss are entirely my responsibility. But all of his work that I have read is consistently illuminating and instructive. So I direct you to his site forthwith, and I recommend you begin investigating his extensive offerings as soon as your schedule and interest allow. I shall do the same myself. And I offer my most sincere apologies to Mr. Carson once more. I'm more deeply sorry than I can say.