08 May 2013

Negative collectivism: Anarchy in the USA

The appearance of a new book by one of the intellectual stars of the Occupy movement has provoked some reflections on the state of anarchism in the latest New Yorker magazine. David Graeber, a proponent of debt cancellation, claims to have been among the first to suggest identifying the movement with the mythical "99%," taking his own inspiration from statistics showing the scandalous proportion of national wealth owned by the richest 1% of the population. If so, he helped get the movement to a bad start, since any observant observer will tell you that the country's problems are caused by more than 1% of the people, and maybe not even by the top 1%, no matter how unfair their share of wealth. Be that as it may, Graeber hopes to re-stimulate the movement with his new book The Democracy Project. According to reviewer Kelefa Sanneh, Graeber advocates "a kind of decentralized socialism" with an emphasis on local autonomy and, being an anarchist, a rejection of coercion. For Graeber, a "zone of freedom" exists "every time we come to understandings with one another that would not require physical threats as a means of enforcement." In Sanneh's summary, Graeber believes that "serious economic inequality wouldn't endure without a state to enforce it," but abundance might not, acknowledging that "a truly anarchist revolution would mean less production, and less consumption." Sanneh hears an odd echo of austerity politics in Graeber's inferred assumption that people in an anarchic society will "have learned, at long last, to live within their means." That echo provokes a commentary on the odd affinities between Occupy and the Tea Party movement. Sanneh focuses on the figure of Murray Rothbard, a self-described "anarcho-capitalist" idolized by more intellectual TPs like Rep. Justin Amash. While Graeber doesn't consider Rothbard a true anarchist, the fact remains that both major grass-roots phenomena of the Obama years take some inspiration from anarchism. For Sanneh, this illustrates "the slippery nature of anti-government arguments." In his view, Graeber "is speaking the shared language of the Tea party and the Occupy movements" whether he realizes it, or admits it, or not.

The great divide among anarcho-capitalists and anarcho-socialists, obviously, has to do with capitalism in particular and wealth in general. Seeing wealth as the product of essentially voluntary exchanges of goods, including labor, anarcho-capitalists see no incompatibility between free enterprise (and its profits) and a non-coercive polity. Some might even say true capitalism doesn't exist without one. The sticking point is whether inequality counts as injustice. Anarcho-socialists, and most anarchists since the movement was born, assume that inequality becomes unjust at some point. Unlike just-plain socialists, they believe that the state is the main force perpetuating unjust inequality. They go further to suggest that the state itself generates inequality, most obviously on the political level. This idea goes back to Mikhail Bakunin, an enemy of Marx, who predicted that the leaders of any self-styled workers' state "will cease to be workers and will begin to look upon the whole workers' world from the heights of the state."

David Graeber's attitude toward government is ambivalent. He considers himself a critical ally of liberal Democrats, but echoes the "nanny state" carping of libertarians when he complains that governments treat citizens "like children." Yet he seems to believe, at least in Sanneh's account, that anarchy can perpetuate the more benevolent functions of a welfare state, like providing health-care, through voluntary collectives. If it's all voluntary, of course, not even libertarians could complain. But the insistence on volunteerism arguably demonstrates the limits of anarchism as a means to a collective good. Anarchists and libertarians -- or anarcho-socialists and anarcho-capitalists -- may disagree about what counts as imposing on others, but Utopia for both is a universal non-imposition pact. Both might be characterized as negative collectivism, as communities united by their renunciations of coercion, "force and fraud," etc. But can we have this without an implicit renunciation of any actually collective good, or any possibility of collective imperatives?  Can anarchists recognize an imperative to preserve human life, collective and individual, that places obligations on them contrary to their free impulses? Are they capable of a sense of positive duty to a community or a species? Problem solved if so: if they can feel a sense of obligation or duty spontaneously, and act on it, everything should work out. Perhaps some anarchists assume such feelings as a matter of human nature, but "individualist anarchists" certainly don't. And if anarchism itself ultimately says that you can't force anyone to save that helpless person over there, or to save the environment, you can see how it might appeal outside its expected ideological zone. But if you believe to any extent that humanity's survival depends on people doing something together, the appeal of any ideology that boasts of what it won't do is probably limited. We readily recognize something inhumane in libertarians' prioritizing of freedom over life. Should we see the same thing among anarchists of all kinds? They may hate rich people as much as anyone, but if they hate the state more, who cares?

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

And again, Mr. Graeber fails to take into account basic human failings. It's all well and good to believe that under ideal circumstances, individuals will act in an ideal fashion. But history tells us that that is NOT the case. There will always be at least a minority who convince themselves they are better then the rest and so deserve more than the rest. Greed will always exist. Idealists fail to take this into account.

Show me historical evidence of any power structure that, of it's own volition and in acknowledgement of it's own failings, has willingly stepped down, given up it's power and accepted less. To my knowledge, this has never happened.

Insofar as inequality/injustice goes, it all depends on the basis of that inequality. "I own the ball park so you play by my rules or don't play at all" is a form of unjust inequality.

As I have stated time and again, the creation of wealth depends as much (if not moreso) on the workforce and the spending power of the consumer base than on the investor or management. This is a fact that cannot be disputed with any logical or reasonable argument.

The bottom line is that any politics based on an idea of non-coercion is doomed to fail as long as there are human beings will to stoop to coercion to get what they want.