Reformist Political Action as a Diversion, Part Three

In the first post of this series, I quoted assorted Coffee Party member statements to the effect that civic engagement and political participation are the only game in town.  If we want to change things, we have to participate in the political process.

I argued that, if that’s the case, then we’re screwed.

But I don’t believe that political participation and reformist politics are, in fact, either the only feasible or the best path to change.

Charles Johnson, of Rad Geek blog, has repeatedly argued that it’s far more cost-effective to find “effective means for individual people, or better yet large groups of people, to evade or bypass government enforcement and government taxation,” than it is to work within the political process to change this or that aspect of policy.  I mean, if you’re a good little Do Bee like the Coffee Partiers, you could (as Johnson put it) “start with the worst aspects of the law, build a coalition, do the usual stuff, get the worst aspects removed or perhaps ameliorated, fight off the backlash, then, a couple election cycles later, start talking about the almost-as-bad aspects of the law, build another coalition, fight some more, and so on….”  Or you could simply put a tiny fraction of those resources into developing means of evading enforcement of the law, so you could ignore and break it with impunity.

Trying to outspend and outlobby our enemies is like teaching Grandma to suck eggs:  “If you put all your hope for social change in legal reform, and if you put all your faith for legal reform in maneuvering within the political system, then to be sure you will find yourself outmaneuvered at every turn by those who have the deepest pockets and the best media access and the tightest connections.”

Take, for example, the new ACTA digital copyright treaty:  We could volunteer thousands of hours of our time writing letters, calling our representatives, organizing demonstrations, and attending public hearings in order to get one tiny seat at the table, alongside the proprietary content giants, and perhaps obtain some minor tweaking of the language that would make enforcement less onerous.  Or we could simply use proxy servers and darknets to copy and distribute proprietary content, and actively do all we can to promote awareness of such methods, so that digital  copyright becomes unenforceable.

The real way to achieve change is by living the way we want right now, without waiting for the state to legalize it.  The Wobbly slogan “building the structure of the new society within the shell of the old” is a good one:  building a society here and now, based on the kinds of counter-institutions we want to work through, starving the institutions of state capitalism of our money and labor as much as possible, working for the day when our new society eats the old one from inside-out and supplants it–and whether that day comes soon or late, in the meantime living the way we want without anyone’s permission.  I quote from Johnson at length:

“Instead of protecting people’s homes and livelihoods with government paper, they can be protected by organized people.  We need new techniques, new institutions, and new social relationships that will ultimately help us to insure against, to evade, to undermine, to resist, and ultimately to disarm government coercion when it comes for our homes or our jobs. Barn-raising instead of bank credit to build unlicensed homes, and social solidarity and people-powered blockades to protect them from government demolitions. Tools for confidential exchanges, underground communication, and mediation outside of political courts. Networks for wildcat strikes and boycotts and shop floor actions to resolve labor disputes rather than bureaucratic arbitration…. We don’t need their stinking legality. What we need is a consensual alternative.

“There ain’t nothing wrong with illegality that can’t be fixed with more extralegal grassroots social organization.

“Don’t legalize; organize.”

Exactly.  We’re engaged in an extended, offensive-defensive arms race with the enforcement organs of the state.  The advantage is almost always to the defense.  A government policy can almost always be evaded for a small fraction of the cost of enforcing it.  In the case I’m most familiar with, the file-sharing movement, the forces of free culture are always several steps ahead of the forces of proprietary content.  Despite all the DRM and anti-circumvention laws, it’s generally a matter of minutes between the official release of a movie or record and the appearance of the first DRM-free version at a download site.

We don’t need to change the law.  We just need to make it irrelevant.

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