Authority is not inevitable

August 3, 2018 Leave a comment

“That is what I have always understood to be the essence of anarchism: the conviction that the burden of proof has to be placed on authority, and that it should be dismantled if that burden cannot be met.” – Noam Chomsky

Anarchists are informed every day that authority, hierarchy and law are inevitable, universal and necessary. Without them, society would collapse into chaos. These critics do not realize their point of view comes from their immediate culture and the beliefs that inform it. There is more to the story.

First, let us think about what authority is. There are two basic meanings in common usage. The first is of superior knowledge. I accept the authority of the plumber because they understand where the water in my home comes and goes from better than I do. I listen to them, pay them and let them work unimpeded because of their superior knowledge. However, I do not let them force me to accept their services or their prices. I have the final decision.

Not so with the second use of the word “authority”. Authority is also used to mean the people in power, usually government and its agents (the police). In this case, I have no choice but to submit to their will or be attacked. Their superiority lies not in some greater knowledge, some claim to moral authority or even, as is the case with (some) parents, a plausible claim to care about my welfare. It lies only in their greater capacity for violence. As such, if I do not submit to the authority of the state, I am liable to be fined (my money forcibly taken), incarcerated (kidnapped and thrown into a cage), beaten until I submit, or killed. It is clearly wrong to conflate these two definitions of “authority”.

Has authority, by the second definition, always existed? The answer is no. History has countless examples of societies free of authority. Indeed, such authority, in any form that could be recognizable today, did not come into existence until about 5000 years ago–a blip on the monitor of humankind’s history. And when it appeared, authority, which led eventually to the state, consisted only of slavers and warlords.

Society existed long before the state. As the latest research indicates, proto-states came into existence when a few people decided to steal the surplus of other people’s labor on the land. Appropriating the surplus of the labor of the majority is the constant of all states, the one defining trait that all states, regardless of time or place, have in common. They must have had a society whose labor they exploited in order to establish their states, one which grew and gathered more food than it needed, so that the few could live parasitically off the many. And those societies must have had governance.

It is often assumed by those arguing against anarchism that government has always existed. This thinking confuses government with governance. Governance is simply making and enforcing rules. Government is a monopoly on making and enforcing rules, thus creating a class that rules over the majority. When people say we need some form of law and law enforcement, they are probably correct. Few anarchists would disagree. Their mistake is in believing authority to make and enforce laws needs to be in the hands of the few. Most societies throughout history let everyone, or all adults, or perhaps some group of “elders”, come up with and enforce laws. (As an example, you can read how John Hasnas explains how laws were enforced in Britain before law was monopolized by the state, or how laws are enforced in kin groups in Somalia.) None of these groups were thought to be unchallengeable authorities.

In his book The Art of Not Being Governed, James C. Scott explains a number of ways people have avoided both the states that threatened them and the hierarchy that leads to illegitimate authority. There is no reason the rest of us could not also avoid being ruled by other people. We could band together to prevent others from forcing us into their regimes and laws. People have at many times in many places. We do not have to submit.

Moreover, why would want to impose authority on yourself and others? Do you need to be ruled by others? Would you run around killing if there were no police? Or is that only everyone else? Many people want to be free of rule by authority they consider illegitimate. Why would you not support them?

I have elsewhere pointed out the dangers of hierarchy and inequality. Here I have shown why history tells us they are not inevitable. They will continue as long as people continue to make excuses for them. But even if things like hierarchy and authority were constants throughout human history, it would still beg the question to assume that meant we needed states. Today’s states are vastly more powerful than anything history has ever seen. Anarchists are called extremists, but what would you call concentrating trillions of dollars in the hands of a few hundred people while billions go hungry? What would you call waging war on the other side of the world? What would you call locking millions of people away in jail for stealing food, smoking a plant or moving to a new part of the world? If anything, the status quo is extreme and anarchists merely want to restore some balance.

In conclusion, those who assume we need modern institutions to have any semblance of society need to prove their point far beyond merely asserting they have always existed, because they have not.

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Principles

July 21, 2018 Leave a comment

Are you tired of getting duped by politicians? Perhaps the problem is you are too pragmatic. Have you seen people say you should vote for “anyone but [insert the wrong candidate’s name here]”? Have you been told to vote for “the lesser evil”? When someone says something about a politician or other elite, do you find yourself defending them by referring to something done by their supposed rivals? Have you believed things about politicians and then conveniently forgotten them because they did not do what they promised? You might lack principles.

Having principles means not compromising (or doing so only under duress) on the most important things. Principles help guide your choices and improve your understanding of the world. My biggest principle is justice (which to me includes freedom). For example, why is racism wrong? Aside from an argument from science, the simplest answer is it necessarily leads to injustice. Most people I talk to seem to realize that, because they also believe in justice. However, it is clear from their actions that justice is not actually their principle but more of an ideal.

If justice is my principle, it helps me cut through the political discourse. I don’t care what a politician says. Will this or that person advance the cause of justice? Since the answer is nearly always no, I know I will not vote for that person. (Likewise, I do not waste time debating people like fascists who have no interest in justice.) People without principles spend thousands of hours online and in person arguing over unimportant details they heard on the news, while telling you voting only takes a minute out of your day. I, meanwhile, can look for more productive outlets to spread justice.

Democrats Republicans president

For another example of how principles make the world clearer, consider bullying. Most people oppose it. Why? Because they realize the violence, coercion and theft involved are unjust. Yet many of the same people approve of laws that take away people’s freedom. Making decree and getting people to force others to follow them is bullying, isn’t it? Or is it no longer bullying because the state is doing it? Would you be fine with forcing people to pay for things they don’t believe in? Then you will see that taxation is also bullying.

So how can I live the principle of justice? I could educate myself and then others on the many injustices in our world. I could encourage downtrodden workers and oppressed communities to organize. I could join or start movements whose actions demonstrate they are committed to spreading justice and freedom.

Principles liberate the mind from the people who seek to control it.

Bullies don’t deserve civility

July 16, 2018 1 comment

There is a lot of talk among the politically interested about how we should be nicer to politicians and their hired enforcers. The power of propaganda is so strong you could wear an anti-bullying ribbon and still not realize who the bullies are. No one is ever expected to respect or thank their playground bully. But most people believe, whether they realize it or not, that bullies should be in charge of all the most important aspects of their lives.

I can’t stand bullies.

It’s bad enough for kids to have to put up with shitty parents or their angry little peers. At least at some point you leave school or leave home. When you get older, you can’t get away from bullying.

You’ve got the molesters and the rapists. You’ve got the racists. You’ve got other bigots who harass you for having a different sexual orientation or gender, or for whatever reason they have. I’m lucky enough never to have been bullied by those types, but I would gladly step in to stop them.

Not all bosses are bullies, but like the physically stronger in school, many bully you because they know employees that do not belong to unions are in no position to fight back.

Then you’ve got the ones who bully all of us. They threaten you into paying their salaries so they can threaten you with punishment for anything they want and tell you it’s for your own good. Politicians, bureaucrats, police, TSA, ICE, DEA, NSA, FBI and occupying militaries bully us professionally.

The professional bullies claim a monopoly on violence–they can use it against you but you can’t use it against them. They claim a monopoly on making and enforcing laws–you can’t do anything without their permission. In fact, with the power to regulate food, drugs and sex they even claim a monopoly on what you are allowed to put in your own body. They demand “respect”, by which they mean obedience, and if they use violence against you it must be your own fault for not being “respectful”. If you don’t follow all their rules (and remember, they’re watching you), you face whatever kind of punishment they decide is necessary. Sounds like bullying to me.

Bullies prey on weakness and fear. They try to pick you off one by one. They goad you into fighting back and then tell you you deserve every punishment they inflict on you. If we stand united there is much less they can do. The professional bullies know these things, which is why they spend so many resources on propaganda to divide us by race, class, religion, nationality and every other way.

How do you think bullies react to civility? DO you think they are willing to listen to people they consider weak and inferior? Do you think you can simply make a cogent argument to a police officer or bureaucrat about why punishing people is wrong? They have their excuses. They will tell themselves anything to justify their paycheque. When you get paid better than most people to bully, you are not likely to be interested in reasoned arguments about why your job should not exist.

Grown-up bullies deserve their faces kicked in and their heads dented with rocks. We should be burning down their homes and places of work. Making fun of them in restaurants and making it hard for them to go home to dinner is the bare minimum we should be doing. Civility is for slaves.

Resistance in Harry Potter

June 11, 2018 Leave a comment

As an unusually popular series, the Harry Potter books have been broken down and analysed from a variety of viewpoints. As both a big fan of the books (less so the movies) and an anarchist, I would like to look at the theme of resistance.

Harry encounters two major foes and their supporting groups: Voldemort and his Death Eaters, and Dolores Umbridge and the Ministry of Magic. These groups are two different iterations of concentrated power. Both want to monopolize the creation and enforcement of law, impose a hierarchical social system and destroy anyone who gets in the way. The more liberal-inclined reader may consider the Ministry more legitimate, but to an anarchist, any hierarchy must be accepted by all its subjects’ express consent to be legitimate. If the hierarchy cannot justify itself to all those under its rule, it should be dismantled. Though attaining and concentrating power may start with noble if misguided motives, in the end, it always means power for power’s sake.

This post focuses on resistance to Dolores Umbridge in Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix. Resistance to Voldemort is more widely scattered throughout the series and corresponds less to our reality than resistance to Umbridge does.

Alongside the theme of resistance we must consider the idea of consent. Dumbledore was at the top of the hierarchy we know as Hogwarts. Yet, because he had proven himself worthy of respect, most of the parents of witches and wizards consented to send their children to him. In Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows (HPDH), it is pointed out that parents always had the freedom to homeschool their children, whereas under Voldemort’s new regime that right was taken away. (Note that rights or freedoms are only ever one law or decree away from death.) Dumbledore reminds us that authority and leadership can be legitimate, provided it is based on consent. (Indeed, from my point of view, consent is the distinguishing feature of leadership as opposed to government.) Parents positively consent to send their children to Hogwarts. Today’s liberals and conservatives say you consent to the rule of the state by not moving away. If they were consistent, they would also consider Voldemort’s rule based on consent. But they are wrong. Consent must be given, not assumed, or else it is not consent.

Moreover, it needs to be given constantly. If Dumbledore had turned tyrannical, parents should not be forced to continue sending their kids to Hogwarts, just because they consented some time before. Dumbledore consistently showed he was a worthy teacher and his school was worthy to send their children to, and that is why parents consented every year. If you consent to the rule of someone who leads a successful revolt that does not mean you have consented to be that person’s subject your entire life. You always retain the right to refuse and rebel.

The right to rebel against illegitimate authority, to resist tyranny, to fight back against bullies, has a long history in the philosophies of many cultures. Wherever tyranny is found, you can find some people believing the flimsy excuses for it (such as divine right of kings or “government of the people”), some who follow tyrants for their own enrichment and victims of or witnesses to injustice who fight back.

Lysander Spooner

Some have even argued one has not only the right but the duty to rebel. Martin Luther King Jr said “one has a moral responsibility to disobey unjust laws.” Henry David Thoreau said “if [the law] is of such a nature that it requires you to be the agent of injustice to another, then I say, break the law.” The Declaration of Independence states when government in any form destroys our rights to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness, we have the right and the duty to abolish it. And you can see their point: if you have some measure of ability to challenge those in power, you should use it to lighten the burden on everyone else. That is where Harry comes in.

In Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix (HPOP), the Ministry installs Dolores Umbridge as Hogwarts High Inquisitor in order to interfere at the school. She is a great example of why we retain the right and duty to rebel.

Authority has more than one meaning, two of which are often conflated. It might mean superior knowledge. I hire plumbers and mechanics because they are authorities in things I am not. However, I do not let them push me around just because they know more. In my relationships with plumbers and mechanics, I have the final decision. It does not follow that because they know better, they should have the right to impose their decisions on me. That right is a feature of another common meaning of authority: the people in power. Having power means not needing the consent of others to impose one’s will on them. The people in power do not have superior knowledge about how you should run your life, how millions of people should run their society, or how Dumbledore should run his school. They only have the means of force dressed up in uniforms and smothered in myths. That is all they need to force most people to comply.

Umbridge exemplifies the rule of law in its pure appeal to the authority of the people who made those laws. Hermione puts forward a proposition: “Surely the whole point of defense against the dark arts is to practice defensive spells.”

“Are you a Ministry-trained educational expert, Miss Granger?” (Should students have no say in what they learn? Only the state’s approved experts should decide?)

“No, but–”

“Well then, I’m afraid you’re not qualified to decide what the whole point of any class is. Wizards much older and clever than you have devised our new programme of study.” All Umbridge has to do is invoke the authority, both in terms of expertise and the state she represents, the authority that comes with the power to impose one’s will, also known as the because-I-say-so technique. She wields her authority in the same way later in the same conversation. “You have been told that a certain dark wizard is at large once again. This is a lie.” As the authority figure, the representative of power, Umbridge decides what the truth is. She says Harry is “spreading evil, nasty, attention-seeking stories.”

“It is not a lie,” said Harry. “I saw him. I fought him.”

“Detention, Mr Potter!” As authority figure in the second sense, Umbridge lays down the law to shut up anyone who might threaten her control.

As the number of laws increases (thus limiting allowed behaviors) and the exercise of power becomes more objectionable (thus creating malcontents who could become rebels with the right trigger), law enforcement tends to become more overbearing and obnoxious. Umbridge used increasingly strict punishments to keep troublemakers scared. Her purpose was to remind them she was in charge and there was nothing they could do about it.

Surveillance is a powerful tool for keeping people in line. Surveillance under the Umbridge regime followed a path similar to that of the modern state. Wanting to bring every aspect of life at Hogwarts under her control (in stark contrast to Dumbledore’s hands-off approach), Umbridge got one decree after another written to empower herself. She naturally used the Ministry to create these decrees, rather than simply take power, because official decrees (or laws) bring the veneer of legitimacy. She began monitoring every form of communication she could, like the modern state does. It is not necessary to monitor every minute of a citizen’s life, as long as citizens are afraid they might be monitored at any given time. It was not necessary for Umbridge to see literally every piece of mail or every fireplace herself, of course, only to lead everyone to believe she could.

She granted a few students and the caretaker, Filch, power in order to multiply her own: the Inquisitorial Squad (a selection of students whose parents were close with Ministry officials) became her eyes on the ground, an extension of her own authority, answering only to her. The Inquisitorial Squad may be analogous to the multiplying of security or law-enforcement agencies under the modern state, such as the thousands of intelligence agencies, the FBI, NSA, DEA, ATF and so on that answer to the President of the United States. Alternatively, they may be likened to informants or snitches. (Also in HPOP, as Dumbledore had predicted, the dementors join Voldemort’s side. The dementors are well known to represent depression but as prison guards they also represent people whose job it is to cause misery–prison guards, torturers, etc. The Ministry, while giving them some power to terrorize, did not give them full reign, so they defected and lent their powers to those with similar ideologies.)

Fortunately, these obscene abuses led the braver students to resist.

One thing Harry learned in Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix (HPOP) was to play the game until he found his opportunity. At first, he was punished for speaking the truth. Umbridge gave him detention and inflicted pain on him, just as one might face jail and torture when a state struggling for legitimacy gets openly questioned. As the most likely to rebel against the shunting aside (and later deposing) of Dumbledore in favor of Umbrdige, Harry was singled out for particular cruelty. The object was to break his spirit. As Neville explained later in HPDH, his speaking out encouraged others to do the same. It is harder to justify detaining and torturing all students. In a revolt, states detain and torture in large numbers, but if this abuse encourages others to fight back, eventually the state will be overwhelmed. Harry learned to keep his head down and began to organize.

Hermione revealed the solution on the second day of term: “Don’t you remember what Dumbledore said at the last end of term feast? About You-Know-Who. He said ‘his gift for spreading discord and enmity are very great. We can fight it only by showing an equally strong bond of friendship and trust.’ This sort of thing is exactly what Dumbledore was talking about. You-Know-Who’s only been back two months and we’ve already started fighting among ourselves. And the Sorting Hat’s warning was the same: stand together; be united. I think it’s a pity we aren’t trying for a bit of inter-house unity.”

So Harry learned the value of solidarity. At the beginning of the school year, the Sorting Hat urges the school to unite against “external, deadly foes”. Hermione invites students not only from her house, Gryffindor, but also from Ravenclaw and Hufflepuff. (There is no doubt people not considered trustworthy should be kept out of the circle of trust. Slytherins seem to represent some vaguely upper-middle class that cannot be trusted to join in an uprising.) Harry learned unity is about teaming up with others who have not the same ideas (eg. searching for “left unity” or “bottom unity”) but merely common interests (eg. waking up and organizing one’s neighbors and coworkers).

There are many ways to resist and they depend on many factors, from time and place to what we and the people around us believe in. There are a variety of ways of engaging in direct action. Those of us who are exploited at work (so most of us) can attempt various forms of workplace resistance. Harry Potter fought back in his way.

Harry and his friends founded Dumbledore’s Army, or as they referred to it, the DA. Under Harry’s guiding hand, they learned defensive magic in a secret location. Members were forbidden to discuss the DA openly for fear of getting caught. They found a secret space in which to organize. They devised a secret method of communication, much like we muggles defend ourselves online. They varied their meeting times, so their enemies had difficulty tracking them. Not only did they work strictly with people they thought they could trust; Hermione even devised a way of dealing with snitches. In public, they pretended all was well. They smiled and nodded. In these ways, they learned the value and application of security culture.

Non-compliance is one way to resist. Gene Sharp wrote at length on the effectiveness and viability of non-compliance as protest.

You all have done various things in your lives you don’t tell everybody about. When you were a little, screaming brat, you got mad at Mummy and Daddy: ‘I’m not going to eat!’ You engaged in a hunger strike.

Or, if Mummy or Daddy were going to wallop you on the bottom and they hadn’t touched you yet, and whoever was your defender in the family was in the other room, you started screaming like mad, lying on the floor, as if you had been slaughtered, and they hadn’t even touched you. You were appealing to martyrdom and sympathy against the persecution of a poor, non-violent, helpless person.

Or you wouldn’t take out the garbage, at least not on time. This was a refuse workers’ strike.

Or you wouldn’t clean up your room until someone was standing there, saying ‘now take that and put that in that drawer’. That is non-obedience without direct supervision or slow and reluctant compliance.

Or you wouldn’t study when you went to school. You would look out the window, daydream or even sleep in class.

Many animals and pets do all these things. Haven’t you had dogs or cats act this way? They want to go with you in the car somewhere when they know they are not supposed to and they jump right in. It’s a sit-in.

Or they know very well what you’re saying to them but they pretend they don’t, just like you’ve done yourself.

Or you say ‘move’ and they lie down, whimpering, and look up at you with the saddest possible look, like some demonstrators do to police.

Sometimes they are being ignored, particularly if company’s coming, and there is a big fuss in the house and nobody’s paying attention to them when they are trying to say ‘come and play with me’. The dog then goes into the middle of the living room rug and does a non-violent intervention, not biting anybody, not growling at anybody but getting attention.

But is non-violent resistance the only way to fight back? Is it the best way to fight back? It depends on your time and place. Those protesters who lie down and whimper still get beaten and hauled off to jail. Those police go home, smother their consciences and get up the next day to beat and jail again. That is why the central argument of books like How Nonviolence Protects the State and Pacifism as Pathology are that, while non-violence might have a place in resistance, it should not be the only thing considered. Hogwarts students did not look up at Umbridge and whimper as she put them in detention. Such behavior would probably have strengthened her. They found novel ways of resisting, some of which involved the magic equivalent of what today’s “non-violence fundamentalists” would automatically disapprove of.

Fred and George Weasley had a flair for misbehaving. Twice during HPOP they carried out major acts of resistance. First, they set off a series of fireworks–explosions that kept Umbridge and Filch busy for hours. Second, they created a kind of swamp in the corridor (along with some other things for the purposes of diversion, but we do not learn what those things were). After the second act, Fred and George escaped. In the next chapter, we get to see how their last act set off a series of spontaneous and decentralized acts of resistance from students, teachers and Peeves, the Hogwarts poltergeist. However, Hermione points out “They must have been planning this for ages.” While various types of resistance are useful, you also need to have a plan for something big, and an escape plan doesn’t hurt.

The teachers could have reversed both of the Weasleys’ acts of sabotage, but they approved of giving Umbridge a hard time. As Professor Flitwick said cheekily, “I didn’t know if I had the authority.” In such a way, they were demonstrating non-compliance by work-to-rule, a form of industrial action in which employees do no more than the minimum they are required to do.

“In the aftermath of [Fred and George’s] departure, there was a great deal of talk about copying them.” Students irritated and tied down Umbridge, Flich and the Inquisitorial Squad, much in the same way rioters tie down the police so protesters can march. Students put nifflers through the door to Umbridge’s office, regularly dropped stink bombs in the corridors, attacked the Inquistorial Squad and put its members out of commission, used Fred and George’s products to develop conditions that let them out of class, leading to the detention (arrest) of four whole classes (which would overcrowd a prison) and still failing to find out where the products were coming from, giving up and letting the students leave her class.

Peeves, the poltergeist, has parallels with an egoist. He was always a troublemaker, but when Umbridge threatened to forcibly expel him from the school, he turned the place upside down in chaos. “Cackling madly, he soared through the school, upending tables, bursting out of blackboards, toppling statues and vases. Twice he shut [Filch’s cat] Mrs Norris inside a suit of armor…. Peeves smashed lanterns and snuffed out candles, juggled burning torches…, and whenever he fancied a break, spent hours at a time floating along after Umbridge and blowing loud raspberries every time she spoke.”

In the muggle world, we could easily come up with just as many ways of fighting the state. Consider how Otpor (“Resistance”) fought back against Slobodan Milosevic, leading to his ouster. According to the International Center on Nonviolent Conflict,

Some of the major strategic actions of the civil resistance campaign included:

Protest and Persuasion

• Street theatre and humorous skits mocking Milosevic performed throughout the country to transform the political culture and empower widespread opposition;
• Ubiquitous postering and displays of public symbols (such as Otpor’s iconic clenched fist) and slogans on posters, leaflets, and T-shirts, and in television spots;
• Large public rallies, marches, and demonstrations;
• Electoral politics – coalition-building and campaigning;
• Holding music concerts and cultural celebrations;
• The widespread distribution of anti-Milosevic materials;
• Use of the Internet, cell phones, fax machines, and alternative media to disseminate resistance messages and organize opposition;
• Public and private communication with security and church officials, media, union leaders, municipal politicians, and others to cultivate potential allies and defections;
• Petitions, press releases, public statements and speeches;
• Workshops and training sessions for activists, distribution of training manuals.

Noncooperation

• Strikes and boycotts by workers and students, artists, actors, business owners;
• General strike;
• Defections by security, military and police forces cultivated by careful communication with them and public calls for their noncooperation;
• Defections by members of the media;
• Organizing by Otpor outside of the electoral system;
• Parallel election monitors and an election results reporting system to detect and report election fraud.

Nonviolent Intervention

• Blockades of highways and railroads with cars, trucks, buses, and large crowds of people to shut down economic and political activity and demonstrate parallel sources of powers and debilitate the political regime;
• Physical occupation of space surrounding key public buildings (e.g., parliament and media), then in some cases, storming and nonviolent invasions of the buildings;
• Bulldozers moving aside police barricades (a later symbol of the resistance).

These movements take time, of course: Otpor fought back for two years before Milosevic was dethroned, as did the protesters who made the Iranian Revolution of 1978-1979. As such, they take patience, planning, secrecy, bravery and commitment.

Were Harry and his friends just as bad as the Death Eaters for fighting back? Should he have followed the law and obeyed authority? Should he have engaged his enemies in dialogue, under the illusion he could change their minds? Should he have joined their ranks and worked his way up in order to turn systems of rule into systems of benevolence? No. They set out to tear down the structures of illegitimate force and succeeded. The world was freer, fairer and happier as a result.

There is no “alt-left”

February 22, 2018 4 comments

The alt-right (or perhaps just the corporate media) have invented the term “alt-left” to smear leftists like antifa who actually do something (as opposed to progressives who just vote). They seem to think if you imply they are simply the left-wing version of the alt-right (whatever that would mean) they must be as bad as the alt-right. The problem is, the term is meaningless.

It might be useful to point the difference between right-wing and left-wing. These terms are somewhat hazy, but I might, after fifteen years of hearing the terms bandied about, have figured out the difference.

political chart compass

The standard “political compass” looks like the image above. The more libertarian (ie. believing in freedom for all), the lower down. The more authoritarian (ie. willing to impose one’s vision for the world on others) one is, the higher up on the chart one is. Right and left are less often defined but no less significant. Here is what they seem to mean.

The right wing believes different people deserve to be treated differently, and it is inevitable different people will have different amounts of wealth and power. The top right thinks it is fine to use force to keep these structures in place, while the bottom right thinks if you reduce the amount of force (usually by reducing the amount of government) it will (inevitably) mean inequality. That is why racist ideology is essentially right wing: it holds people should be treated differently, regardless of what they did to deserve it.

The left wing believes people are essentially equal and should be treated equally. People should have roughly equal social power. The top left thinks redistributing wealth and social power should be effected by authoritarian means, while the bottom left thinks the ideal is to eliminate structures of power and authority, as those are the root of the problem.

Bill and Hillary Clinton, Barack Obama and Tony Blair are not left wing, nor are the progressives and “liberals” who support them. They waged war all over the world, threw people in jail for selling and buying drugs, deported millions of people and gave trillions of dollars to large corporations. These are right-wing policies. The only reason they were ever called left wing is their political opponents were even further to the right, wanting more deportations, more incarceration and more war. Or perhaps more accurately, the people who hated Hillary, Barack and others like them did not realize how right wing they actually were. One could also argue these people are centrists: they stand for nothing.

Castro Tony Blair war left

The alt-right, being mostly in the top-right quadrant, are willing to use violence to remove from society those they believe do not fit in their vision for it. They want to ethnically cleanse whole countries of non-whites, non-Christians and leftists.

Alexander Reid Ross, author of Against the Fascist Creep, explains why “alt-right” is still a useful term.

Here’s why I call them the “Alt Right” instead of just “Nazis.” The Alt Right is a composite of a number of far-right tendencies including anarcho-capitalists, silicon valley neo-reactionaries, MRAs, Klansmen, and other forms of fascists. Broadly, it’s a fascist movement, but it’s a fascist movement of a certain character. Calling them the Alt Right makes a clear, descriptive identification specific, and shows that this is a discrete group, or rather group of groups, with a set of visible, self-proclaimed and established leaders.

Alexander might have added that many American conservatives approximate the alt-right position. Fascists know conservatives are easily manipulated by feeding their prejudices and do so through media such as Breitbart and Facebook pages.

You may have heard of the “[right-] libertarian-to-alt-right pipeline”. There are several possible reasons why many right-libertarians have joined the alt-right. (See this video for some of them.) One of them seems to be that racists have convinced libertarians only white people appreciate or can be taught to appreciate freedom. They have thus embraced Hans-Hermann Hoppe’s ideas about “physical removal” of anyone who they say does not believe in freedom, which in practice is anyone to the left of them, plus Muslims, plus anyone from another culture. You will likely hear much more about “anti-communism”, as many on the right label all those to their left communists.

Charlie Kirk socialism

The idea of the “alt-left” comes from horseshoe theory, the belief that the more extreme one’s politics get, the more one comes to resemble the other side. This theory is nonsense. The extreme left would never accept the enormous concentrations of wealth that have created so many problems in the world. The extreme left would not tolerate racism, discrimination against disabled or LGBT etc. people, class society, wage labor or slavery. I am thus bottom left and have nothing in common with the top right. There is no horseshoe.

the true political compass

Themes of Power in the Great White Hype

October 26, 2017 Leave a comment

Easily my favorite Samuel L. Jackson role is that of the Reverend Sultan in 1996’s the Great White Hype. Indeed, this often overlooked movie is one of my favorites, and the Rev is largely to thank. An imposing figure in gold and a turban, owning the screen with his wide grin, the Reverend Sultan is a boxing promoter clearly modeled on Don King. He understands and wields power as effectively as anyone in Game of Thrones, just in a different context.

It is easy to think the central theme of the Great White Hype is racism. The story revolves around a heavyweight boxing champion, played by Damon Wayans (in a role slightly reminiscent of Mike Tyson), who has become so good no one wants to pay to see his fights anymore. The Rev solves the problem of falling ticket sales by finding a white guy to challenge the champ. The Rev uses racism–not the vicious kind but a more subtle, competitive version that is easy to deny–to whip up interest in the fight and sell tickets in one fight between the champ, James Roper, and the man who beat him as an amateur, named Terry Conklin. His strategy works. White and black Americans become divided (again, not viciously; the fighting stays in the ring) on which fighter they support, and all are inflamed with the excitement of “their side” beating the other.

The subject of race is reasonably well explored for an average-length comedy that doesn’t preach to you. It is not treated as a simple division between black and white or whatever other color. We see how clever people use racism as a tool to blind others and then lead them in a certain direction. “It ain’t about race,” says the champ on hearing of the Reverend Sultan’s plan, “it’s about boxing.” The Rev laughs in his face. Divisions among black people are touched on here and there, as when the champ says “A white contender? The two words don’t even go together. It’s like saying ‘black unity’.” And the challenger gets named “Irish” Terry Conklin because “it’s boxing: it just means you’re white.”

But to end our search for themes there is to miss the point of this movie. Racism is a tool to divide people and motivate them, but motivate them to do what? Divide and conquer is an old a strategy for getting people to do what you want, and it works. The people fork over their money in return for the thrill of competition. I cannot help thinking arbitrarily dividing the masses is a story that, though (or perhaps because) it is so common as to be essential to modern-day political power, is not clear enough to people. People do not realize how divided they are. They are unaware how these divisions sap their empathy, break up their community and make the prospect of solidarity in the face of power harder. They compete with each other in ways ranging from supposedly harmless sports to total war, fighting each other when they should be uniting to guillotine their kings and banish the aristocracy.

Power is always at risk. People are always trying to take power from you, and the more you have, the more you have to lose. Power is certainly a means to an end, as it means more of some of the luxuries of life (including people surrounding you willing to kill to protect you). But it becomes an end in itself. Powerful people constantly pursue and expand their influence. It is their 24-hour job. They often become paranoid, so even if their power is secure they could feel the need to lop off a few heads for good measure. They may find ways to imprison, kill or otherwise incapacitate more of their enemies. They may find ways to enlarge their armies, bring in more gold, build more castles or force more peasants into servitude. They might do all those things on the same day.

On that note, let’s go back to the Reverend Sultan. The man is the center of the boxing world. He lives in a palace with all the finest things. The Rev covers all his bases. His chosen title alludes to both Christianity and Islam and implies someone holy and trustworthy but also a man of power. All that in two words. The first thing he says to the media is “Glory be to God, all praises to Allah, God bless America”. He creates and cultivates this image so he can be all things to all people, much like a state that claims to represent everyone, uphold various rights, manage the economy, provide healthcare and education and keep people safe. He talks smack in front of the cameras but in person is steady, charming and intimidating, as the situation calls for. After he breaks his promise to the champ at the beginning, he, with the aid of his employees, puts on a big act to convince the champ of his contrition. Though the champ is never quite convinced, having dealt with the Rev’s bullshit before, this tactic works. It calms the champ down. The Rev proceeds to explain his plan to “create” a white contender for the heavyweight title. The champ is sold on the idea.

The Reverend Sultan came a long way

He is a skilled manipulator, painting a picture others want to believe in. Terry Conklin is skeptical when first informed of the Sultan’s plan. “I give my money to the homeless.” Terry puts his motivation in front of him for the Sultan to use against him.

“Good,” replies Sultan, “because if you take me up on my proposition and [fight the champ], I guarantee that you will personally wipe out homelessness in America.”

He tells Terry, “You can still kick [the champ’s] ass!…He’s scared shitless of you,” later confiding to Terry’s trainer, “When the bell rings, he’s dog meat.”

“This could be the fight of the century,” Sultan claims, but Terry sees through it:

“Yeah, right, until the next ‘fight of the century’.”

“You’re a shrewd man,” says Sultan, knowing complimenting most people’s intelligence puts them off their guard, “but if not for yourself Terry, do it for the tired, the poor, the teeming masses yearning to breathe free.”

Like Terry, Jamie Foxx’s character (whose name is never spoken) falls to the Reverend Sultan. Foxx plays the manager of the top contender. He attempts to act boldly on several occasions and always falters under the influence–sometimes no more than a look–from the Reverend Sultan.

The character that I think best illustrates how the Rev wields power is Mitchell Kane. In an exemplary performance by Jeff Goldblum, Mitchell Kane is an independent journalist making a documentary about the Reverend Sultan. He appears to us several times at the beginning looking into a camera and narrating his report. It begins, “You and I are going to take a very close look at this boxing promoter, this exploiter, embezzler, charlatan and demagogue.” Kane is the only one outside the Rev’s inner circle who knows how dangerous he is. Anywhere with a “free” press is likely to have some radical journalist speaking truth to power, but they, like Mitchell Kane, go mostly ignored.

Kane attempts to blackmail the Reverend Sultan. He forces Sultan to arrange a meeting. But the meeting is not in some coffee shop or even an office. It is in Sultan’s home, on his turf and his terms, in his sauna. He naturally has the advantage.

“So what do you want?” asks Sultan jovially.

“I want to destroy you,” answers Kane, as if he has been wanting to say those words for some time. He hands over photographs of the Sultan in compromising positions with prostitutes. Sultan laughs as he goes through them. “I like you. You have a goal and you have the balls to reach that goal. You have a blind, stupid belief in yourself.”

“Flattery is not going to work. I–”

“No, no, no, I want to offer you a job.”

After an apparently long discussion, Kane exits the sauna to find his documentary crew waiting for him. He addresses the camera. “Some have said this upcoming title fight is built around racism. But…” The Rev had co-opted him, appointing him his new PR guy with a nice, new salary. As is sometimes the case, the journalist (or the academic, or the social worker, or the more highly skilled union employee) likes what the powerful guy has to offer and sells out. Kane is soon throwing out nonsense like “In the cynical age that we live in, it’s rare indeed when someone or something becomes so transcendent as Terry and this fight have become.”

Julio Escobar gives the Rev more opportunities to show how he wields power. Cheech Marin plays Julio, president of the boxing association and thus the guy in charge of ranking professional boxers. Naturally, the Rev has Julio in his back pocket. The Rev has the money, so he is in charge. We see an example of this power imbalance in every scene featuring Julio. In Julio’s first scene, the Reverend Sultan finds out Julio’s assistant is smart, so he hugs her and says “You work for me now.” Julio objects:

“Hey, wait a minute, she works for me!”

“Uh, Julio, she works for me.”

“Okay, fine.”

Later, the Rev meets with Julio after finding Terry.

“I want the WBI to rank [Terry Conklin] in the top ten so I can give him a title shot,” says Sultan.

“You know Reverend, over the years I have bent and greased and stretched the rules for you…but even I cannot rank a fighter who has not had a professional fight!”

“Now, what’s it going to take for you to make this happen?” asks the Sultan suavely. “Money? Sex? Drugs? …Power?”

“Yeah, power.”

“You’re fired.”

“Okay! Money, sex and drugs.”

The Reverend knows you do not ask someone for power; you bargain for it, you demand it, you take it, but you do not get it by simply asking those people actively wielding their power over you.

“Don’t pull your shit out if you ain’t ready to use it.”

In the next scene, at a press conference, Sultan calls him “the honorable, estimable, incorruptible Mr Julio Escobar.” If you want to lie, lie big: turn the truth upside down. Smother the truth under articulate, high-quality bullshit.

Controlling one’s image requires controlling the message and only admitting being wrong if it benefits you strategically. Part of being in power therefore means somehow avoiding answering the tough questions. We have all heard politicians do it: attacking the interlocutor’s character; “That’s not the question. The real question is…”; etc. While leaving the room of the press conference, a white man accosts the Reverend Sultan and shouts “Julio Escobar is a whore on your payroll.” This man speaks the truth. He must be silenced, his comment forgotten.

“That is a libelous statement and a racist comment simply because Julio Escobar is of Latin descent.” Both barrels. The Rev continues the deflection as the man shifts uncomfortably. “Are you saying something about brown-skinned people? Do you hate Jews and Negroes as well?”

“I am a Jew.”

“Then you’re an Uncle Tom!”

The Rev turned another man from one who literally speaks truth to power into a “racist” in a brief exchange of words, discrediting him in the eyes of his peers and shutting up anyone else who might make the same accusation as he did.

Image is reality, and in the following scene the Reverend is complaining about initial media coverage after the announcement. He is addressing his PR guy, Saul, played by Jon Lovitz. “Why are they saying these things?”

“Because it’s the truth,” says Saul.

“The truth needs to be shaped and molded and framed, Saul.” Sultan is describing how PR (propaganda) works.

With threats, intimidation and co-opting for people who might present him with a challenge to controlling perceptions and images, the Reverend Sultan shows us both how to use power and why people with power are so hard to dislodge. Of course, the Great White Hype is about the world of boxing, not the coercive power of the state. The power of the state is incalculably more dangerous, and as a result, political-power relations are far more competitive and even more lucrative for the winners.

So what happens to the Rev? Does he lose his empire, or does he come out on top? Do you need to ask? He is the only one in the movie who truly understands power. He’s not going anywhere.

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What is the state?

September 17, 2017 2 comments

“The State represents violence in a concentrated and organized form. The individual has a soul, but as the State is a soulless machine. It can never be weaned from violence to which it owes its very existence.” – M.K. Gandhi

When looking at the US government today, one can barely fathom the tiny government it started with. The US became such a powerful and destructive government by constantly enlarging the scope of its action. Since the beginning of the federation it has expanded, from the westward march of federal government jurisdiction to the cause of the Civil War: the president’s war on secession. All told, 50 states were incorporated into the union. Now the government controlled resources on an entire continent, like China and Russia. Once the land was conquered, the US government expanded its ability to capture the wealth and challenge the sovereignty of other countries. Sometimes it used trade agreements; sometimes it used guns. There were many civil liberties, and a productive free market, but as the economy grew, the state grew. That is the state’s purpose: to expand the power of those who control it. Liberty quietly slipped away.

Max Weber defined the state as that organisation that has a monopoly on the legitimate use of force within a given (national) territory. “Legitimate” here merely means legal, as actual legitimacy is ultimately in the eye of the beholder. That is why Albert Jay Nock countered Weber by saying the state “claims and exercises a monopoly of crime” over its territory. Statism is the belief that this monopoly of crime is good or necessary. David S. D’Amato explains its effect: “the state’s principal manner of acting is to make peaceful interactions crimes while protecting the institutional crime of ruling class elites.”

After all, what does the state do? It steals, but it calls its theft taxation. It kidnaps, but calls kidnapping arrest. It counterfeits, but refers to state counterfeiting as monetary policy. It uses force and compulsion which it calls the rule of law. It commits murder on a wide scale, but prefers terms such as war and execution. The state claims to act to protect person and property, but in practice claims ownership of both (through, for instance, laws that tell you what you can and cannot put in your body). It claims to protect freedom while taking it away. It claims to aid the less fortunate when in fact it benefits the powerful at the expense of everyone else. If I go to another country to kill people I do not know, I am a murderer. When the military does it, it is fighting terrorism and promoting democracy. This sleight of hand and clouding of truth is how the state manufactures legitimacy.

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The state pursues petty criminals partly because they threaten the stability of the system the state has erected and the security of the wealthy, but also because it claims a monopoly of crime. Mafia organisations are even more dangerous, as they pose a more fundamental threat to the state as competitors for plunder and dominance.

I think it is fair to include any state-protected monopoly as part of the state. Monopolies are a large part of the problem. Monopolies tend to lead to abuse, and they destroy the wonderful benefits of spontaneous order. A monopoly is always held together by force, except in the rare case of companies like Standard Oil, which was so popular because it lowered the price of heating oil to a fraction of what it had been (and competitors—not customers—used the state to break it up). In a communist society or even just a freed market, monopolies cannot exist, at least, not for long.

Anarchy is, in fact, the destruction of monopoly. Nearly all monopolies are created by the state. Monopolies and oligopolies, whether on patented medicine, oil supplies or national security, are protected by law. The state thus gains a measure of control over the distorted market and the government works for those rich people it creates. The relationship is symbiotic. The Federal Reserve system is not technically part of the government but a cartel institutionalised by the state. By my definition, it is part of the state.

I also consider the people behind the scenes who pull the strings part of the state. For example, what might be called the US foreign-policy establishment is not merely members of the State and Defense Departments. It includes high-ranking businesspeople. Executives, directors and shareholders in large oil companies probably have far greater influence over the use of the US military than, say, a couple of senators taking stands against war. It includes the Council on Foreign Relations and other influential think tanks, academics and “consultants” (often retired officers) affiliated with those who craft US foreign policy. Intelligence agencies—and not only those in the US government—influence the process as well. Andrew J. Bacevich points out “‘Military-industrial complex’ no longer suffices to describe the congeries of interests profiting from and committed to preserving the national-security status quo.”

This is the world behind the curtain, detailed in the work of Bacevich, among others, that can be described as the permanent foreign-policy establishment. The faces of the state change, but the clear continuity of US foreign policy reflects the interests of those truly in power. The same is true, to one extent or another, for all areas the state attempts to control.

The state’s raison d’être has had different pretexts as times have changed. It was originally a tool for conquering and controlling territory around a kingdom. Social scientists studying the emergence of states note the state began with the divine right of kings: the sovereign, or totalitarian king, kept his subjects in awe of the wrath of gods. Franz Oppenheimer, in his sociological survey of the state, describes its origins.

The State, completely in its genesis, essentially and almost completely during the first stages of its existence, is a social institution, forced by a victorious group of men on a defeated group, with the sole purpose of regulating the dominion of the victorious group over the vanquished, and securing itself against revolt from within and attacks from abroad. Teleologically, this dominion had no other purpose than the economic exploitation of the vanquished by the victors. No primitive state known to history originated in any other manner.

As European states grew in technological power, they spread outside Europe as overseas empires. The ambition of conquering and subjugating the weak had not ended. To demarcate their possessions, states drew lines on maps. Countries are only countries today because of the movements of empires. States are products of conquest. Borders are the geographic limits to the power of individual states. States owe their existence and their growth to war. That is why Randolph Bourne called war “the health of the state” and Charles Tilly said “war made the state and the state made war”.

An empire is simply the growth of a state beyond its previous borders. A look at the pre- and post-imperial world gives us no reason to believe that uninterrupted rule by indigenous elites would have been any better than by empires. The liberation of most of the world from the colonial yoke was heralded as a new era of freedom, but in most cases results were very disappointing. Government by locals and foreigners alike leaves the governed wide open to abuse.

Today, states are still about a monopoly of crime over a given territory, but the humanist direction of the moral evolution of society has demanded new functions of the state. Due in part to the pressure from anarcho-syndicalist unions and the supposed alternative to capitalism in the USSR, for example, Western states felt compelled to mitigate the worst aspects of capitalism and introduce the eight-hour work day, the five-day work week, breaks, vacation time, and so on. It is now expected that, since society is rich enough to afford education, housing, health care and so on for everyone, those things will be provided by the state, the organisation with the most resources. The only reason people believe the state is necessary for social programmes, scientific research, relations with other states and so on, is because it has taken on those functions. The state does not exist to provide social programmes; it provides social programmes so it can continue to exist.

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The state is not about social programmes and emergency rescue. It is about domination, power over others. People who believe otherwise do not know how to think like the state.

Thinking like the state

What does the state want? In a word: power. Power could be defined simply as the ability to enforce one’s will on another. A further definition is the ability to carry out violence on another if necessary to get one’s way. An abusive husband and father is violence on a family level. The state threatens and employs violence on a local, national and global level.

Its power to carry out violence everywhere exists in the form of local, national and international police; armies, navies, air forces, spy drones, national guards and special branches; intelligence services, surveillance cameras, wiretapping, reading mail, reading email, reading instant messages and collecting data on everyone; and spy satellites in case you try to escape Earth without authorisation. The state has evolved from the small confines of localities to go global. It has a measure of power over us everywhere we go. Such power over so many concentrated in the hands of a few is dangerous.

The state is a monopoly on force, but the constant expansion of the state has led it to take on other monopolies over time. Modern states came to control land, the money supply, infrastructure and the security of the streets. As it has grown, the state has created new monopolies and oligopolies. Having a monopoly on the provision of law, it has created corporations, which relieve their owners and operators of responsibility; granted patents, enabling some of the biggest corporations, from Disney to the pharmaceutical giants, to attain their current size; and used complicated and unnecessary regulations, tax codes and barriers to foreign trade to prevent competition for the big players in the market. The state creates monopolies. Monopolies promote abuse, because they grant power and power corrupts.

Thinking like the state means understanding it expands its power in every direction by every means. If it can close a loophole enabling a citizen’s freedom, it does; if it can write a new one for its friends, it does. But instead of thinking like the state, most of us think the way we are told.

Thinking like the state wants us to

“The voice of the people expresses the mind of the people, and that mind is made up for it by the group leaders in whom it believes and by those persons who understand the manipulation of public opinion.” – Edward Bernays

“They don’t want a population capable of critical thinking. They want obedient workers, people just smart enough to run the machines and just dumb enough to passively accept their condition.” – George Carlin

An even subtler power is the state’s ability to shape our thinking. Through its control of primary and secondary education, its influence over tertiary education and the media, the state sets the agenda for what we are to think and believe. The prevailing norms of any statist society are those that benefit the ruling class, until that brief interval of revolution which, so far, has inevitably led back to statism. What kind of person does the state want to create?

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The ideal citizen is one who believes he or she thinks for him or herself but does not. Our socialisation comes, to a great extent, from the state. The ruling class has certain ideas it benefits from: statism, nationalism, militarism, consumerism, fear, and to a lesser extent in today’s world, religion. We are surrounded by these ideas and bombarded with “evidence” they are correct. As such, we take so many things as given that we have considerable trouble thinking independently. But those who are told they are free believe it, while they fall in line with the orthodoxy of the ruling class without question. They come to love the symbols of the state: the flags, the uniforms, the songs, the slogans, the language of family, honour, duty and sacrifice. They come to think of them as representing the family of the nation, rather than the institutions of the state. They chastise those who go against the truth they have been given. How dare you question democracy? You are unpatriotic! As George Orwell said in 1984, “Orthodoxy means not thinking—not needing to think. Orthodoxy is unconsciousness.”

On the other hand, people who do not follow conventions are bad citizens. H.L. Mencken described these people.

The most dangerous man, to any government, is the man who is able to think things out for himself without regard to the prevailing superstitions and taboos. Almost inevitably he comes to the conclusion that the government he lives under is dishonest, insane and intolerable, and so, if he is romantic, he tries to change it. And even if he is not romantic personally he is apt to spread discontent among those who are.

The state exists to establish a social order that benefits the ruling class, protect that class and its property, expand its power and wealth wherever possible, fool the people it rules into believing this is all for their own good, and subdue those who do anything counter to its interests. I think we need more bad citizens and less state.