Update (Saturday, January 4, 2013)Glenn Greenwald has asked me to make certaincorrections to reflect the facts, and I'm grateful for the opportunity to make them. You can find a copy of the old post here. I apologize to Laura Poitras and Ryan Gallagher if I misled folks about their roles, and I hope this sets the record straight.
As the year rolls to an end, I'd like to compile a few thoughts on the handling of the NSA secrets leaked by Edward Snowden to Glenn Greenwald, Laura Poitras, Ryan Gallagher, and others. This debate has occurred on ephemeral media like twitter, and these matters deserve a more extended treatment. There have been many developments since my last post on the subject; one of the most interesting has been the journalistic issues surrounding this episode.
Throughout this post, keep in mind that I approach this as a radical, anti-institutionalist anarchist. My values place very little weight on compromising secret government plots for any reason. I disagree fundamentally with Snowden's desire for selective leaking, though it shouldn't surprise anybody that an ex-NSA employee would maintain very different priorities than an anarchist. Nothing could be more useless or moronic than to expect relatively establishmentarian, statist folks like Snowden, Greenwald, or Poitras to act exactly like I might were I in their shoes.
They don't create oppression; they just make it possible
What I'm about to say may surprise you, but I assure you it's the honest truth: in my personal experience, cops are overwhelmingly decent folks. They almost always conduct themselves "professionally" and have generally treated me with respect. I'm not saying stories of law enforcement abuse haven't affected me--they absolutely have, and I'll get into that. I'm not saying my arsenal of privileges haven't colored my experiences. But as far as my personal dealings, I've encountered very few who were anything but by-the-book and courteous.
Because they are so frequently decent, I'm sometimes tempted to reconcile the profession of policing with the kind of free society I dream about. After all, I have several friends and family who are police officers, and I'm loathe to let ideology darken my opinions of them as individuals. I want to believe policing is possible outside the hegemony of a state, and that these people can be meaningful participants in a stateless community.
But I never persist in that belief very long. I cannot think of any acceptable justification for the existence of law enforcement as an institution at all. The entire enterprise is abominable, root and branch. There is no escaping the conclusion that, everywhere they exist, police are mercenary occupiers serving a power hostile to the authentic human flourishing. As I intend to show, so long as our society exhibits privilege and injustice, I cannot pretend law enforcement does not prop it up in some fundamental manner.
I'm a big fan of Glenn Greenwald; just about every position he takes is anti-authoritarian, liberal in the best sense, and based on rule of law (which, in this age, is as close to fairness as one can expect). However, he wrote an article on the Chick-fil-a controversy that bugs me. On the narrow question of whether governments should be able to punish corporations for political advocacy, I agree with him that such punishment is unconstitutional. I take issue with his reasoning, though.
Greenwald invites us to consider a series of bills that enlist government in punishing corporations for views they express, money they donate to causes, etc. Some examples:
Congress enacts a law that states: No business incorporated in America, whether for-profit or non-profit, shall be permitted to donate any of its money to groups espousing liberal ideas. Any business found to be in violation of this prohibition shall be guilty of a Class A felony. Corporate donations to groups espousing conservative causes shall still be permissible and legal.
A city enacts an ordinance that states: Any business found to have donated money to any group that advocates same-sex marriage or abortion rights (including Human Rights Campaign and Planned Parenthood) shall be barred from doing business within the city limits. Businesses shall still be permitted to donate money to groups which advocate against same-sex marriage or against abortion rights.
I agree with him that the above laws are unconstitutional. Government is prohibited from discriminating or giving unequal protection to the free speech rights of corporations as currently settled law stands (that was indeed one of the caveats he made). Indeed, Greenwald took pains to point out that even in the Citizens United case, not one Supreme Court justice questioned the legitimacy of corporate personhood at all (I addressed Greenwald's commentary on this matter in more detail here). I also agree with him that The Nation's Lee Fang takes an unprincipled, politically expedient position against corporate personhood -- one cannot confine one's critiques of the doctrine to only those cases where it acts against one's sense of justice. Nobody wants to be allied with a hack like Fang less than I.
Thoughts on Obamacare from an anti-statist perspective
So the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act (Obamacare) is constitutional, according to the Supreme Court. Does it actually conform to the United States Constitution? And does that question actually matter to anarchists? I'd argue "no" on the first question, but I think the latter is a more important question if we are to be effective in building institutions and relationships that serve our interests and crowd out the state's monopoly on legitimacy.
As anarchists, we find ourselves in an environment run by statists who attempt to get away with all manner of illegitimate actions and policies. For us, those acts and policies are not illegitimate because they are inconsistent with the state's own internal rules. We believe there are no rules that can justify the state or its coercive actions.
However, the statists who claim to rule us are in thrall to the myth of the constitution's legitimating power. Of course they get away with a lot that any plain reading of that document prohibits. This is the origin of "loose construction" in the first place: if they could just ignore the constitution to get what they want, they wouldn't bother framing their acts in any construction of the constitution at all. Clearly, the constitution doesn't matter to them in the way it's supposed to, but it does play some sort of role in the state's performative exercise of authority and power.
Gary Chartier talks about the need to free oneself psychologically and emotionally before one can even free others. This dovetails with my thoughts on an inwardly-looking anarchism, one that sees society at large as only one half of the project. We need to become balanced people before we can effectively advocate for the balanced society that is amenable to voluntarism. Gary even goes so far as to identify love as the ideal basis for anarchist activism.
It is so gratifying to see this maturity of thought from the anarchist sector I consider my closest allies. Let this powerful presentation start the conversation on how we prosecute this next era of the struggle against privilege. If this presentation is representative of the topics discussed at the recently concluded AgoraI/O conference, then I really missed out, and will be there with bells on next year!
Many on the right assert that elitism is an approach to social problems that recognizes inherent differences in individuals. Elites belong in leadership positions where their natural talents can be used to best benefit society. Most people are not cut out for responsible positions within the social apparatus, according to their argument.
Understood in this narrow sense, I do not find elitism dangerous as an abstract analysis. Indeed, there are a vast variety of competencies inherent in people, whether through their choosing to develop them or whether they come "naturally" (whatever you think that means). That some should gravitate to a place where their talents are best used is not a problem; it is a core purpose around which we associate.
The problems enter in when a mere measurement of talent distribution is expanded into an individual or group identity. Without elitist pretensions, there is no need for a purposeful elevation of the more competent over the less. There is no need for institutional structures that maintain elite predominance. Why go to great lengths to stress differentiation between non-elite and elite if those differences are obvious?
I just discovered the RAW Illumination blog that carries on and promotes the philosophy, attitude, and perspective of one of my very favorite authors and thinkers, Robert Anton Wilson. There's a great interview with Douglas Rushkoff on his book "Program or Be Programmed" which I reviewed here. However, this transcription of Robert Shea's speech upon accepting the Hall of Fame award from the Libertarian Futurist Society for the book he co-wrote with Wilson, The Illuminatus! Trilogy, is quite gratifying to me. It provides comfort for the long, hard slog of being intellectually free and curious, not so much as some demonstration of autonomy as a will to self-definition and self-discovery. The final paragraph is powerful:
We say in the novel that the original Illuminati were dedicated to religious and political freedom and that this secret organization somehow became perverted so that in recent centuries the Illuminati had become a vehicle for a monstrous authoritarianism. Thus the myth of the Illuminati is an archetype for every political movement, from Lenin's Bolshevism to Reagan's Republicanism, that has promised people greater freedom while loading them down with more government. People can be fooled in this way because they are not sure what freedom is. Freedom is a word whose meaning has been worn away by overuse, like a coin that has passed through too many hands. We need to be clear about what it means to us when we use it and maybe not use it quite so much, but use other, more precise words instead.
It's been almost two years since mutualist Shawn Wilbur left the Alliance of the Libertarian Left. While I hated to see him go, his stated reason for the departure was unimpeachable to my mind. Wilbur felt he could neither articulate what brought the Alliance together nor see any way in which the disagreements within the Alliance were able to be overcome. How could the Alliance accomplish real work without real consensus? In what sense are we allies if we have fundamental disagreements that merely get glossed over?
At the time, Allies were debating the proper reaction to an inflammatory essay that had been written by a non-left libertarian. This debate turned into a crisis: one left libertarian denouncing the other as out of bounds and beyond the pale. As all parties stood their ground, things digressed into nasty insults and accusations that mainly exhausted us. It got to be surprisingly ridiculous, but what surprised me the most was the fact that, of all people, Wilbur - the one who likely understands the historic trajectory of this movement more than anybody else, and therefore would have the most to say about where all this is headed - was the one to leave.
Among Wilbur's arguments, as I understand them, was the absence of any way to resolve the dispute to everybody's satisfaction. The Alliance had always been a vague and inarticulable one, grounded in shared tendencies but no shared principles that had ever been made clear, let alone binding. Add to that the concept of ALL being a place where "we all agree to disagree" and you have the basis for neither ideological commitment nor ideological boundaries. Personal attacks were all anybody had, because there was no shared premise of alliance, and I imagine Wilbur couldn't see the point of continuing to associate with such a meaningless brand. If all we were going to do was be an online club of likeminded malcontents, why bother winning this fight?
Hey, anarchists, or really any reader who believes passionately in your political ideals for changing this world: depart with me on a thought experiment.
Your revolution succeeds. Through whatever means you think it possible, your fellow ________s have defeated the authoritarian/fascist/totalitarian forces and are ascendant. You, of course, know that your side will not rule in the same ruthless manner your enemy did.
Now what do you do with all these enemies whom you haven't killed or converted yet? The same beliefs that motivated them to oppose you in the past are likely not to be simply cast aside. After all, you didn't cast yours aside when you were out of power. As somebody experienced with dissidence, you know all too well that such people can take a long term view of their agenda and undermine the society you want to build in countless subtle ways.
Does this sound like a certain left libertarian group you know?
It is true that there existed among us "social study groups", but we know how ephemeral and precarious they were: born out of individual caprice, these groups were destined to disappear with it; those who made them up did not feel united enough, and the first difficulty they encountered caused them to split up. Furthermore, these groups do not seem to have ever had a clear notion of their goal. Now, the goal of an organization is at one and the same time thought and action. In my experience, however, those groups did not act at all: they disputed. And many reproached them for building all those little chapels, those talking shops.
This is Amedee Dunois at the 1907 International Anarchist Congress in Amsterdam. Read the full speech here. We can learn a lot from the example of those who have gone before.
"If voting changed anything, they'd make it illegal," declared Emma Goldman in a ringing indictment of the feeble mechanism by which the state claims to be restrained and directed. Of course, in invoking this quote anarchists argue against counting upon elections to change the status quo. We aren't going to bring about the voluntary society by listening to politicians, casting votes for them, and pressuring them to abolish their own offices. The statist means and the anarchist ends are clearly opposed.
But there's another argument against voting: that by casting a ballot, one registers endorsement of the state and its violence. Advocates of this argument do not hold that you must have chosen the politician who wields power. They disregard personal intent, interests, and any issues at hand. The argument is quite simple: by participating in the election, one is bound to its results. Given the anarchist view of those results - violence, fraud, and lies - one can only conclude that voting makes one an accessory to the crime.