Put Not Your Faith in Revolutions

Brad Spangler pointed out some time ago, in “You’ve got half your anarchy tied behind your back,” that “politics makes you stupid.”  Namely, it leads to a destructive obsession with the non-aggression principle.  Treating libertarianism primarily as a political movement means we focus mainly on whether or not the use of force is justified in a particular situation.  We consider issues entirely in terms of “state violence or the lack of it.”

“We don’t give ourselves the opportunity to advocate, talk about and think about the non-violent socially normative mechanisms that would arise in the spontaneous order of a stateless society… [or] to understand the tendency toward mutually-reinforcing social structures that would develop in a free society….”

This set of blinders is sometimes exemplified by those who are skeptical towared “thick” libertarianism, which ties libertarianism in with social values of equity and fairness, even when violations of those values aren’t strictly “unjust” in the sense of resulting from aggression.  “Is it non-coercive?” the thin libertarian asks.  “Then it’s outside the scope of plumb-line libertarianism.”

But critics of non-coercive unfairness like racism and sexism are also in danger of being led astray by the same tendency.  Libertarians, in advocating for libertarianism on the left, are constantly confronted with the objection that people would be “allowed” to engage in racial or sexual discrimination, to deny food to the needy, etc.

But as Brad points out, this word “allowed” is perverse insofar as it “conflates ‘allows’ with what would be more precisely understood (in terms of libertarian theory) as ‘does not necessarily justify use of violence to compel restitution for in all cases’.”  But this obsession with what’s “allowed,” in the narrow sense that nobody’s entitled to use force to prevent it, ignores “the holistic integrity of a stateless society arising from non-violent mechanisms of social normatization that cross the arbitrary topical boundaries one imposes on one’s self when analyzing and advocating various potential state policies.”

Civil society is prior to the state, and those “mechanisms of social normatization,” voluntary social safety nets, etc., predate it by millennia.  One of the worst evils of the state is that it has crowded out or actively suppressed such mechanisms of civil society, as described by Pyotr Kropotkin.  As Kropotkin argued in both Mutual Aid and The State, for most of the human race over most of human history, the state was merely a parasitic layer of tax collectors and feudal landlords superimposed on the peasant commune—the latter including the Russian mir, the English open field system, and Marx’s “Asiatic mode of production.”  Had the Tsar and nobility vanished in 1700, Russian village life would have continued exactly as before—only with the peasants keeping all they produced.  It was only in the past few centuries that the state actively attempted to supplant civil society, and to suppress private associations for mutual aid and social cooperation as rivals to its power.

For all these reasons, it was encouraging to see Elinor Ostrom awarded a Nobel Prize.  She celebrates the wide range of possibilities for voluntary social organization outside the state, like the commons, in a way that reminds me very much of James Scott.  To those who think the only possible forms of property rights, let alone social organizations, are the capitalist corporation and the state, Ostrom is a reminder that there are more things in heaven and earth than are dreamt of in their philosophy.  As Louis Uchitelle of the NYT put it, there are many possible governance mechanisms beyond taking orders from either a government or a corporate boss.

There’s another reason the political approach has such perverse effects.  The traditional political model of revolution is a dead end.  As one of the characters in Kim Stanley Robinson’s Mars Trilogy put it,

“…[R]evolution has to be rethought.  Look, even when revolutions have been successful, they have caused so much destruction and hatred that there is always some kind of horrible backlash.  It’s inherent in the method.  If you choose violence, then you create enemies who will resist you forever.  And ruthless men become your revolutionary leaders, so that when the war is over they’re in power, and likely to be as bad as what they replaced.”

Political action may be useful, as one small part of our toolkit.  But its primary purpose is to run interference and shield us from violent attacks on our primary order of business:  building the kind of society we want, here and now, outside the state.  A character in Marge Piercy’s Woman on the Edge of Time, describing the revolution that led to her future decentralist utopia, summed it up perfectly. Revolution, she said, was not uniformed parties, slogans, and mass-meetings. “It’s the people who worked out the labor-and-land intensive farming we do. It’s all the people who changed how people bought food, raised children, went to school! ….Who made new unions, withheld rent, refused to go to wars, wrote and educated and made speeches.”  Or as David Pollard put it, the new society wins through “incapacitation—rendering the old order unable to function by sapping what it needs to survive.”

The way to achieve victory is not by seizing the state, or violently overthrowing it, but quietly confronting it with a reality already on the ground:  the reality that a rapidly expanding share of its laws are either no longer enforceable or cost more to enforce than it’s worth.

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