Saturday, June 6, 2009

Anarcho-theism For Beginners

Recently I've been feeling the need to revisit or restate some of the presuppositions and prejudices of my political philosophy (should you accept such an outlandish title for my motley collection of opinions).  Since it's always nice to have a starting point for this sort of exercise, Marc Thoma on Bruce Bartlett seems as good a departure point as any.

In my heart of hearts, I'm pretty libertarian. I really don't want government looking over my shoulder and telling me what I can and cannot do.

Where I part with many libertarians - perhaps due to my background - is in the idea that government is almost always at odds with liberty. In my case, government played a key role in providing me with opportunity - education is one example, without tuition of $100 per semester at a state school, I probably would not have gone to college

Governments also need to intervene to prevent monopoly and political power from building up. Without such interventions, power will tend to concentrate and we will likely be exploited in one way or another, so government needs to ensure that our opportunity to enter a particular business - that our economic opportunities generally - are not limited by these factors.

I sympathize with this sentiment as well.  I feel like I'm pretty capable of deciding for myself, and I want the government to stay the hell out of my way, and keep everybody else out of it too.  However, phrasing it this way already opens up a can of worms.  Even if you agree that government only exists to keep us free (and not, principally, to create a fairer or 'better' society), one of its principle aims is bound to be keeping us free from each other, and not just from the government.  In fact, the basic purpose of government is to keep us from sliding back into that free-est of all markets -- the protection racket of a mafia.  In its inception then, the government is not only not at odds with liberty, but is the very stuff of which (more) liberty is built.  We get a government in order to solve problems of collective action that stand in the way of us expanding our ability to act.  This is what freedom is -- the ability to do more stuff.  Some of these problems are positive, like organizing a bunch of people to build a bridge that will benefit everyone, and some of these problems are negative, like agreeing to have  dedicated police force and not waste time and effort in the zero-sum game of going around bonking each other on the head and making off with each other's wives.

Nozick has outlined this theory of government-as-freedom better than I can possibly hope to.  I realize that modern libertarians have fallen very far from this tree, but to me, the idea that all libertarians believe that government (rightly conceived as self-organizing politics) is always the problem is just ludicrous.  You can't be in favor of the "free" market, as we love to call it, without also being in favor of some organization that writes and enforce the rules for it.  Without this there is just chaos, or not even, there is just a return to the needless suffering and collective self-oppression of routine head-bonking and wife-stealing.  That is not more freedom, that is less; less freedom -- less power to act.

So then how did this debate get so perverted that liberals can just naturally assume that libertarians almost always believe that government and liberty are at odds?  I can think of two reasons, one blaming each side.
  1. The government got so fucking ginormous that it became obvious that most of what it did was so far beyond what any reasonable person could justify on the grounds of providing an infrastructure for cooperation.  The government itself become the very mafia state it was invented to protect us from.
  2. Libertarians lost sight of the fact that their beloved private industry was so deeply in bed with the government that the two were as indistinguishable as good cop and bad cop.  They are both just pigs feeding at each other's trough.
These two points turn out to be connected, and point us to the deeper reason that this debate has gone astray.  The problem is that we have created a false dichotomy between government and industry, between public and private.  Once you imagine that on one side you have gallantly self-reliant free private industry and on the other the decrepit hand of a stupid bureaucracy, you cannot fail to confuse the issue.  On the other hand, the same thing happens from the opposite direction if you imagine a grubby corrupt and narrow-mindedly profit seeking private sector opposed only by that great bastion of justice and fairness, the state.  Government doesn't reign in private industry and industry doesn't compete with government.  Government and industry are not enemies but allies in their desire to control us or liberate us (depending on how they are working) for the simple reason that these two forms of power resonate and reinforce one another so strongly that they have become symbiots.  It doesn't matter which side opresses you, especially when they become indistinguishable.

So to get back to the original quote, while I'm sympathetic to the idea that government is not inherently at odds with liberty -- after all, somebody has to lay out the rules of the market, and if a real market is created it can be an incredibly powerful tool -- I'm not so convinced that the net effect of government is to prevent monopoly power from building up.  In fact, governments don't intervene to prevent the build-up of monopoly power because they are generally the cause of the build-up of monopoly power. This is really the dirty secret of capitalism.  The problem isn't money or markets or industrial production as such, but the way these interact with the governments we inherited from Charlemagne (this is perhaps even what Marx had in mind in his more coherent critiques).  Once you lay out a set of rules that gets cooperation off the ground and establishes a market, you immediately start to run the risk of some part of that market captures the process by which new rules are written.  If the winners write the rules, they are likely to win even bigger the next time around. 

To respond to the Bartlett article in turn (the click through is worth it), where he complains that libertarians are too focused on economics, I would say that the real problem is that they're not focused enough on how economics actually shapes the political machine.  How can they ignore the way money buys influence and so disrupts the competitive utopia they imagine?  How can they ignore the fact that a large chunk of the world lives in what amounts to economic servitude -- a lack of freedom, lack of ability to do more stuff, that is due at least as much to economic as to political power for so many people.  There could be a meeting of the minds (to a point) between liberals and libertarians if both could be made to see that the current industrial-political complex is conducive neither to fairness nor to freedom.  Both camps would simply have to admit that their proposed remedies represent two sides of the same danger.

Freedom is threatened by getting either the beginning or the endpoint of government wrong.  Without organizing rules at all we get chaos.  But with the ability to create many rules you get the danger -- no, really the near inevitability -- that the winners will rewrite the rules in their favor.  The first situation creates a total absence of government, and also a total absence of functioning private markets.  The second creates a gigantic government, but also a gigantic concentration of private power that goes right along with it.  Whether the power or the absence of power is public or private simply isn't the key question.  The key thing is to see that once you set up some rules, the outcome of the game is coupled to the writing of the rules.  Social organization touches off a feedback loop that increases our power but is always in danger of spiraling out of control.  Whether this feedback loop is operating to increase our freedom or restrict it does not depend fundamentally on whether the public or the private side is driving it -- in fact, the two are inevitably coupled.

I think that this insight is as deep as it is simple, and modifies the whole political debate once you grasp it.  I find that it cuts right across the political right-left lines we are used to drawing.  Because if you start with the basic premise that we invented government to keep us free, and try to work out what type of organization will keep us the most free, that is, able to do the most stuff, you can leave behind all the doctrinary debates about whether the government should be bigger or smaller, and focus instead on the open-ended empirical question of whether the system it is actually working

It is impossible to overstate how important this difference is.  Political philosophy needs to give up the idea of utopia.  It needs to start with some principles and work forward instead of starting with a final goal and working backwards.  Once you start working from a principle, adapting it to the circumstances without trying to know the final outcome, and treating politics as a process, you quit worrying about whether it is industry or government or your fellow apes who are impeding your freedom.  You start to realize that it doesn't matter why you are cut off from your ability to do stuff, all that matters is changing things so that you can do more.  If this ends up looking like communism or a free market or anarchy, then so be it.

And so there it is, I have finally tipped my hand.  Because the name for a political philosophy based around the principle of freedom, a political philosophy defined by a trajectory towards more freedom, without any preconceived idea of what the rules should be or what the final outcome should look like -- that is Anarchy.  Anarchy is a principle and a trajectory, a commitment to continually trying to organize and reorganize political structures to expand our freedom.  There is a fine line between anarchy and chaos; even chaos has its rules, they just are too many and too conflicted to produce anything coherent.  And there is a fine line between anarchy and democracy; democracy sets a few rules in stone and so has no defense against the spiraling centralization of power that builds up when someone hacks those rules.  Anarchy is less well defined and more flexible, it has a "broad-back" that endures anything, as someone once put it.

I'm sure that sounds terrifically vague and idealistic.  Not at all "actionable".  But actionable is the hobgoblin of politicians.  We have plenty of politicians who justify everything in terms of actionable.  Someone has to have a vision here as well, or we will just continue to action ourselves right into slavery.  Beyond that though, the claim that anarchy is not actionable or is somehow impossibly naive and unworkable is already unfair.  The idea of anarchy not only gives a direction to move in based on some principles, but it involves a particular (and particularly non-partisan) diagnosis of what the problem is -- the feedback loop between political and economic power.  With that diagnosis in mind we can search for some imminently actionable solutions.  These aren't really revolutionary solutions, though of course anarchy has nothing to do with revolution because it never imagines itself overthrowing the current order and ushering us into some political paradise.  The solutions are things like greater transparency in voting records and donations, greater awareness of the point I am making here about corruption, and perhaps, ultimately, public funding of elections.  You don't have to be an anarchist to want these things, but they are entirely in the spirit of the idea.

But the truth is that if we were only going to talk politics, there probably wouldn't be any reason to invoke the charged term Anarchy.  Not that I want to soften my points about feedback loops and freedom or the superiority of thinking about political process instead of utopian endpoint.  However, summing these ideas up as Anarchy would probably be entirely polemic, and just meant to piss people off.  Much as I love that, I actually have a more respectable ulterior motive for self-labeling my political philosophy as a form of anarchy.  Anarchy is the only political philosophy that puts human political institutions into the correct historical and philosophical light.  It's the only idea of politics that can be applied to our nearest (past and future) relatives, the apes and the computers.  Autarky or democracy or liberalism or conservatism don't share this advantage.  Those concepts only apply to humans (and only even to the most recent 500 years worth of humans).  They presume that people have intentions and essences.  They presume that humanity is somehow different, special, and that human political problems are of a different order.  Concepts that only apply to humans are not philosophical concepts.  If you want to be able to say something useful to Google when it reads you three-thousand years hence, you will have to say something philosophical.  I'm not saying that has to be your goal in life, but if it is, you will have to find some way to integrate human politics into a continuum of forms of animal behavior.  Anarchy is the only political concept I have come across that does this (unless we include it's mirror image -- fascism).

All this is again due to anarchism's broad back.  The central concept is just the self-organization of power.  In human political terms this means the self-organization of some government that enables us to cooperate and prevents us from all ending up in an arms race to the bottom.  Almost certainly, the first form of this was ethics and religion (I wonder if this is tied up with the history of language in an interesting way).  Hierarchies and rituals evolved that held a community together and ensured its own propagation alongside that of its members.  If you roll this proto-government forward you move towards the states we are familiar with, and if you dig further back into history you quickly get to the monkeys.  In all of these cases you have some political machine that results from the interactions between economics and aesthetics and culture.  Politics, broadly construed, is the name we give to the process by which these forces operating at a lower, more individual level, work themselves out in the context of a group.  Which is why politics is everywhere and politics precedes being.  Politics is the way a new entity or system gets organized.  Politics, anarchy, is all about the production and sustenance of novelty.  This process is going on all around us all the time, with units fighting to organize and increase their power, their freedom, their ability to act, with other units fighting to be born, and with yet others clinging to the toehold they have carved out. 

Which brings us finally to the theological aspect of anarchy.  The concept doesn't work just to connect human political systems back to the monkeys.  That's just the first step.  After that you realize that you can expand it to talk about how ants cooperate to find food, or genes manage to cooperate in meiosis, or protons and electrons cooperate to form atoms -- each level broader and deeper, each having its own peculiarities, but each, perhaps, benefiting from being seen as a process by which more or less stable solutions form new units out of the interactions between other more or less stable solutions.  Follow this too far and you will end up back at the idea of a god who is little more than the name for this principle of connection, a non-zero god who draws life together and pulls it apart, and always keeps it in motion.

Anyhow, I could drone on endlessly about the usefulness of the concept of anarchy, but eventually it will just end up sounding like a tautology, which it mostly is.  In the meantime, anybody up for a No Gods No Masters book club?

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