On the Preston Affair

I've written a few drafts of this basic essay over the past two months or so, but never published any of them because I was still trying to remain open to having my mind changed. In following the dialogue surrounding this brouhaha, my hesitancy to write something of my own has allowed me to get sidetracked into some harsh debates about other topics, such as moral universalism. Realizing that I left much unsaid about my thoughts on the original matter, I went through and found something I wrote that says it best. It also represents what I thought a month ago, but I stand behind all of it (though I might be less polite now).

I suppose it's high time I compose a coherent, integrated statement on the conversation surrounding Keith Preston's recent essay, Is Extremism in Defense of Sodomy No Vice?. The delay in consolidating my thoughts into an "official" response has been fortunate; I stood a good chance of succumbing to my own certainty on quite a few occasions there. Many participants in this dialogue probably discount the debt I owe them, for I am taking some fundamental lessons away from this episode.

My motivation through all this has not been to defend words, but rather to protect those fragile threads which moor egalitarianism and anti-privilege to this troubled planet. The nascent spirit surrounding pan-secessionism reminds me of the Free State Project. And anytime libertarians escape the familiar, comfortable world of cerebral debate to materially advance our condition and our consciousness, I am optimistic. Not for the ideology, towards which Robert Anton Wilson displayed the only proper attitude; rather, for the people who presently suffer while we argue how many psychological pathologies of authority can dance on the head of a heteropatriarchy. As exactingly consistent and logical as they may be, libertarian writing and debate constitute the epiphenomena of resistance, not the thing itself. The latter exists outside the safety of self-validating opinions and clear sociological ontologies; it is dangerous precisely *because* it is of consequence.

If I have a core critique of Keith's essay, it is not its offensiveness. Sure, I would have preferred it if Keith had refrained from pissing off my comrades. His selection of words cuts those who have flocked to our movement as a refuge from worldly hopelessness. Why anybody would publicly call for a purge or a pogrom escapes me - even as a bad joke (along the lines of prescribing "Antifa-style beatdowns" for non-believers, just to pull an utterly random example out of thin air). Yet we libertarians have never been a particularly reverent bunch, and these flirtations with politically correct outrage don't serve our cause nearly as much as they serve our sense of self-righteousness. Thickness should apply to our skin and not simply our politics if we take the project of the individual seriously - that the task doesn't end at developing one's social environment but also includes self-development.

Keith has disappointed me most by abandoning a disciplined approach to revolutionary politics. Pan-secessionism is not an easy cause for which to advocate, but if any quality is required to bring such different political tendencies together it is diplomacy. It's my understanding that bigoted language serves little practical purpose unless you're on the writing staff of "Family Guy". I sympathize with his frustration at being so misrepresented by my comrades in the libertarian left (see Quasibill's comment); he has been maligned unfairly and often, and the natural reflex is to defend oneself. But if we cannot keep our cool in response to such trivial taunting, how can we withstand the onslaught of the ruling class's P.R. complex should our revolution gain any traction?

Without self-discipline there is no individual freedom, let alone a politics of such that stands any chance. We either condition our behaviors and impulses consciously or others will practice science in the laboratory of our own weaknesses. Mindfulness, presence, perspective - we cannot hope for success until we exceed our enemies in these qualities. Of what use is a vanguard which cannot keep its eyes resolutely fixed on the prize?

Pan-secessionism should promote an image of genuine particularist diversity for tactical reasons at the very, very least. This is not just a matter of rhetorical consistency or political expedience; rather, it is a demonstration of our sense of urgency to not subordinate the fight against the empire to our personal grudges or petty biases. Our task should be to prefigure the future revolutionary coalition through our careful words and calculated actions. This requires a stoicism and detachment which I would be unfair to deny attributing to Keith in practically every other instance.

That last point bears reiterating, because pan-secessionism is not the only thing we can choose to steal from Keith's approach. Central to his outlook are two rather unique strains of thought: a detached approach to the political condition and a sort of anarchist realism. The libertarian left would do well to start considering these concepts as among the candidate mentalities for realizing a just, egalitarian society.

A detachment from political conditions need not be absolute; our humanity requires us to feel deeply in order to motivate our act of defiance. Anger is an appropriate response to the sickness of the world, grounding our analysis and struggle in something human rather than technical. But there is a seduction to the inner dialogue of radicalism; we begin to identify with our marginal position in the spectrum of political opinion, and the emotions of defiance become comfortable and familiar. When outrage, not action, defines us as revolutionaries, we tend to focus on the cultivation of outrage instead of the necessary work.

It is perhaps a conceit of radicals to place excessive significance on their own inner experience of condemning the present state of affairs. Yet unless this rejection translates into actionable strategies, it is mere fashion, fodder for conversation and thought experiments. This is not to say that an intellectual and reflective approach should be abandoned, for part of what makes detachment possible is a reliance on the soundness of one's philosophical conclusions. But much of the obnoxiousness of radical politics, especially its demand for a confrontational tone, arises from personal insecurity surrounding one's core ideological foundations. Our rejection of the myths of legitimacy constitutes an important step on the road to genuine transformation, but more is needed than mere disapproval and its forceful rhetoric.

A confident and resolute radicalism promotes a long view rooted in practical, on-the-ground conditions. Here is another feature distinguishing Keith's approach: a political realism. If one is serious about revolution, then one must work towards it in the imperfect world we occupy. Resistance is a means to an end; secure in our conception of the end, the means become concrete choices. Political realism need not compel one to apologetically embrace unacceptable dynamics; properly understood, it disciplines the activist to apply his thinking to this world.

There is much to learn from this application of abstract political concepts to real world conditions. A detached and realistic revolutionary can acknowledge mistakes without needing to deny the human impulse for freedom. There is no revolution more tragic than one based solely in thought experiments. Conversely, revolution with real bodies in the real world is dangerous, but this is no reason to avoid it. It is only a reason to question one's thinking more carefully, to evaluate the strategy more thoroughly and critically, so that the resolve to act arises from someplace authentic and honest. More than this we cannot ask of humans.

It is in this context, I believe, that Preston takes such a favorable view of pan-secessionism. An idealist starts at the root of the problem; a realist starts at the most actionable part of the problem. This doesn't mean the recognition of the root is useless, nor does it mean that actions should be taken just because they can be. But with the philosophical and practical considered in tandem, creative strategies can emerge in the interstices. Even radical philosophies can ossify without being tested.

The libertarian left has attacked Keith's deplorable choice of words, but I fear their dismissal of the man has less to do with bigotry and more to do with his challenges to prescriptive universalism. Keith is willing to break bread with people who have different ideas about the human condition. Us left libertarians are quick to condemn this because we're scared of these people. Are they really scary? Are they really so unacceptable, so evil? They may, in fact, be just as bad as some think, but Keith is one of the few among us who has an informed opinion - because he's actually talked to them, and he's delineated the territory of practical disagreement between his views and theirs. Keith has given no more aid to objectionable political ideologies than those who seethe with anger and disgust at them.

Of all people, anarchists should understand the lunacy of a one-size-fits-all approach to the human condition. We often expose the myths of state legitimacy by pointing out how people actually behave. Yet when it comes to empowering these people, we cannot abide that they may not agree with our ideals. For all our advocacy for a society that resolves problems by negotiation and persuasion, we can be pretty blithe about realizing it in the real world. No, not in that we're willing to use force against our brothers and sisters, but in that we tolerate (however petulantly) the empire while it exercises force.

Pan-secessionism envisions a society in which oppression would be small enough to confront, where disputes only occur when the parties can afford them, where intolerance can be tempered. These may not be ideal conditions, but they are at least conceivable. We sometimes seem more interested in protecting ideals of humanity than actual human beings. But a worldview that identifies the entire human sociological and psychological experience as its project has arrested itself. Actions pursuant to such a broad agenda are too vague, kicking the can of human liberation down the road to some distant future perfect where we need not be accountable for suffering and injustice today.

If this sounds like a love letter to Keith, then let me also be clear: I do not regard pan-secessionism as a perfect strategy, either. I have yet to see viable articulations for how exactly we get from here to effective cross-ideological coalition that is actually making progress. Pan-secessionism actually has yet to test many of its premises and ideas. Much of what I say about the left libertarian agenda's stasis in the cerebral applies to Preston's agenda.

Ideas need to be tested to be trusted; they need to be demonstrated to be adopted. Political strategies are not just pragmatic means to organizational ends; they are laboratories where we engage abstract values and ideals. If left libertarians disagree with Keith, they should at least step up to the challenge he has provided. Pan-secessionism may not be the right approach - it may, in fact, be dangerous - but our movement won't get very far until we start confronting real world conditions in an honest manner. Last time I looked, the world was a dangerous and confusing place - I'd expect the resistance to be perilous, both to our bodies and our minds.

An afterword concerning ARV and ALL

I regard American Revolutionary Vanguard in a very similar light as the Alliance of the Libertarian Left: they consist of people I'm interested in working with. There are people in both groups I do not appreciate, and should the latter number grow beyond the former I will disassociate myself from them.

To my mind there is no reason why the groups need to, or should, accept (or reject) one another. They are geared towards different purposes, and in any case both paths have dangers. I think that as long as people accept that you can be thoroughly left libertarian and see pan-secessionism as a viable strategy, that should really be the end of the matter and everything else breaks down into the same old ideological disputes and theoretical arguments we so enjoy.

As to the morality of tactical alliances with racists, homophobes, authoritarian leftists, and other groups I find objectionable, I can only say I neither accept nor reject all of them out of hand. Ideologically pure alliances can also have dangers - in fact, working with people who agree with you completely can be its own kind of blinders. I evaluate each opportunity on its own merits, though as late I've had precious few to consider. While this may lead to me making mistakes, so does adhering to an ideology and letting it filter my world without me considering each question, each moral actuality anew. My best bet is to stay vigilant, pursuing my interests as I best understand them. If people balk at my refusal to make "ideological commitments", then perhaps we don't know each other well enough to be allied.

Written on Tuesday, July 14, 2009