Wednesday, February 28, 2007

Libertarianism, Anarchism, and Me

So one of my favourite lefty bloggers, Mike at Rational Reasons, has disassociated himself from the NDP in favour of adopting the anarchist/left libertarian label. To which I say, good for him. It always better, in my view, for people to refine, and redefine, their political beliefs over time. I know I've probably moved away from the most extreme left positions I've held when I was, oh, 16 or so. (I blame my father's side of the family for warping my childhood with too much talk of the 1960s.) And so long as Mike keeps producing that sweet, sweet bloggy goodness I'll keep reading.

But anarchism/libertarianism/whateverism? Not for me. This isn't to say that anarchism doesn't have important insights for the left -- and I've quoted Jim Henley enough to value the insights of libertarians on occasion -- but as a coherent ideology, I think anything that starts from the position that the role of the state needs to be minimized has some fundamental flaws for anyone calling themselves "progressive".

You would have a hard time convincing me of any historical occasion where the poor, the working class, the environment, or any of the left's myriad causes have been well-served by a small state. Indeed, the period of American history where social justice was best-served (roughly 1940-1970) was marked by a massive expansion of the state: first for war, then for peace. Outside of a government guarantee of things like a minimum wage, the right to organize unions, and other minimum labour standards, we've seen what happens. The mean living standard stagnates, and the poorest actually fall behind. Is it possible that the left could organize without the, frankly, distasteful aspects of the state? Sure. But it hasn't happened yet. Which makes me skeptical about its chances in the future.

That skepticism is only reinforced by the simple fact that states, national governments, whatever you want to call them, are violence machines. The international arena is one of anarchy, where states rely primarily on their own means for self-defense. (Thank you, Intro Poli Sci!) What this means in practice is that the states which survive are those that use violence most effectively. You can argue a lot about World War II, but at the end of the day the Allies simply used more, and more efficient, means of violence against the Nazis and Japan. 20 years later, no less than the Reverand Martin Luther King said that the United States government was "the greatest purveyor of violence in the world...." He wasn't wrong, but that violence is inherent, it's not a particular sign of degeneracy on America's part. The greatest power in the world is by definition going to be the most violent.

(This would be why states that aspire to world power, or states that have world power, are suspect on those grounds alone. And why I find the US liberal debate over "soft power" vs. "hard power" laughable and insane.)

What does this mean for the left? Well, the state isn't going away anytime soon -- if nothing else, the state protects its interests very well. But it doesn't just protect its own interests, it also protects the interests of it's constituents. Read: the very wealthy. We know what it looks like when the state is controlled by reactionary forces: the 1920s and 30s, the worst days of Reagan, or any other example you can name. In the absence of a strong left within the state the state is free to serve the right -- breaking strikes, eliminating worker protections, allowing more discrimination of all sorts.

I once alienated a few classmates in a first year class by, um, calling them all stupid. It was a class on the US Civil Rights movement, and we inevitably got to debating the differing historical treatments of MLK vs. the Black Panther Party. While a few of the young men (and a surprising number of the young women) were enamored with the direct resistance of the BPP, I said something to the effect of "it's just unimaginably stupid to think you can beat the US government with violence or direct resistance. If you fight them, they'll destroy you. If you try to resist in other ways, they'll probably throw you in jail, which amounts to the same thing." Recall that even MLK himself spent a lot of time in jail simply for posing a non-violent, moral challenge to American Apartheid. And then there was that small matter of him being murdered.

The point is not that the state has always served the left well -- hah! -- but that without a strong lefty voice inside the state, all of the other flavours of the left are at the mercy of the state.

By all means, the left needs anarchists, and libertarians, and even liberals and conservatives. (Democracy, right?) We need people who want to smash the state as well as the people who want to build it. When I say anarchism isn't "for me", that's only and exactly what I mean. I do think it's a mistake to believe that left-wing people will be well served in the absence of state power, but a) I'm always willing to hear evidence, and b) that exludes very little, really, of the debate.


Mike said...

Thanks for the post John. I didn't expect many people to understand, but rest assured I went through a very long process before I cam to my conclusions. I did see the issues you address and initially that's what kept me a way, but I have managed to get beyond it. There is a sweet-spot, in my opinion, in anarchism that takes the best from both the left and the right and brings them together quite nicely. Its not just the state, its also the corporations, just in case you thought I suddenly became a CATO Institute fan. and its not "by a small state." its no state. ;)

Its hard for some people I suppose. Josh Gould and Declan seem to be trying a blog-based intervention, as if I just admitted to a crack addiction.

Yes, I will still dish out the bloggy goodness. I feel, if you'll pardon the term, liberated as I can now comment on and explore alternatives that I personally would not have considered. Alternatives that, in my opinion, can still reach the goals I have always had of social justice and a free society, but in a different way.

I will not try to proselytize or attempt to convert. Except for a few things, I expect no one would really notice a big difference in my stuff.

Oberlinblogger said...

Well put, John. I think your argument about the downsides of the state, in terms of violence, is pretty convincing. In terms of supporting the state, to me, it's not just that in the 60's or whatever, the state was good for the poor, environment, etc.. It is that there are certain things, (like taxing externalities, for example) that you simply need communal action for. As far as I'm concerned, that's one of many examples where you simply need some sort of organization to enforce the rules. Let it be democratic, global, limited, transparent, let its role be strictly defined, but you really need something. That said, there are lots of left-libertarian initiatives I really like, and its important to have those on the left who will call us out on waste, corruption and inefficiency.

-Sam L.