The Need to Think

Last year I wrote a post in which I admitted confusion about an anarchist position towards voting. On the one hand, I reject the State and don't want to legitimize it by participating in its ceremonies. On the other hand, there are better politicians than others, and there's immediate dangers at hand. Not only that: as much as we may seek a community based on the principles of voluntary association, it's undeniable that the political system is not immediately extricable from the civil society. To reject that system root and branch divorces you in some way from the authentic political conversation that (though we don't like it) co-exists with the statism we abhor. What is an anarchist to do?

I've come to accept Charles Johnson's argument that to participate in elections is not the same thing as legitimizing them:

Well, I think the problem here is that you're giving too much credit to the State's own legitimating myths. There are cases in which participating in a process means tacitly accepting the legitimacy of the proceeding, and tacitly consenting to the outcome. But voting, at least, is not among them. For participation to count as consent, even tacit consent, it must be the case that refusing to participate would have exempted you from the outcome. Otherwise, I can't see how the "permission" you give to the government by voting is any different from the "permission" you give a mugger to take your money instead of your life when you hand over your wallet.

I think that reasoning holds up very well. If the State is illegitimate and just a big, mythical system, then how can it possibly matter what role I play in it? What ultimately matters is what individuals do in particular contexts. The superficial, systemic context only informs that ultimate analysis, in my opinion. I'm not saying there's no place for institutional analysis - we can gain a lot of understanding about what's actually going on through that - but that's the point: the analysis is supposed to give us data about what's going on behind the scenes, not to confuse the scenery for the substance.

I think one problem libertarians tend to have is that they confuse their principles with their identity. Somebody comes to a conclusion about the world based on his experiences and reasoning, and voilla - it's suddenly part of who he is, and he'll defend it as fiercely as his own head. It's something we all do and it's abjectly human, not something to reject but rather to understand. But in libertarians and other ueber-intellectuals it takes on a dimension or rigidity and just plain ol' chickenshit judgement too often, I believe. The need to hold a consistent and principled position becomes a barrier to open-mindedness and thoroughgoingness in critical thinking. It's as if principles become reasons to no longer challenge one's beliefs and values.

I can't trust the conclusions I reach through my own exploration of myself and my world unless my principles are constantly exposed to challenges. Of course we generalize about the world, because we can't live without a certain consistency. That's not the same thing as confusing the consistency with morality or correctness, though. Too often, libertarians take a puritanical approach to politics and claim that X is always and ever wrong - which is fine - but that therefore our personal preoccupation should be to never, ever, ever be wrong in that way, not even to consider it at all. And it becomes a vehicle for personal puffery when we get to condemn others for it (if anybody's seen my attack posts on Right Thinking Girl you know what I mean). At some point, it becomes a dogma, obfuscating the need to think about each situation as a unique opportunity for realizing the world's nuances through our mental matrix of conclusions and beliefs.

But more importantly, I can't live - I can't be the type of person who experiences reality as it truly is instead of an abstract, solipistic utopian drama - unless I'm willing to take a chance that I may be wrong. I need to come to grips with the fact that I will make mistakes, that I wil mispercieve things, I will do the immoral. It will happen, and it doesn't detract from that intrinsic identity in the slightest. I am who I am, and my life rests or falls contingent on my confidence in that identity, not on an unwavering adherance to a series of rules that I decided on back when I read some books.

I don't believe the State is inevitable - if I did, I wouldn't be an anarchist. After all, it's just a big, abstract game that is of no consequence save individuals' belief in it and the actions those beliefs engender. However, it seems reasonable to me to at least consider the possibility that while the institution isn't inevitable, the human nature that makes it possible is. There is something in the State that addresses a real human phenomenon.

Now, anarchists are interested in addressing this phenomenon through different means than the State, and I am 100% committed to that project. But at some point we begin conflating the State with that problem, rather than realizing that the big myth we oppose has weight only because so many individuals have invested in it. What is the nature of that investment? Where does it come from? Is it itself dangerous, or is it a misguided impulse? Or is it that the State is in fact inevitable? We don't know these things, and may never know them, but it does no good to pretend that our principles and preconceived notions somehow make this glaring question irrelevant. They do not, they cannot, because we are in a real world that is bigger than our minds.

This utopianism and need for a consistent political identity doesn't just alienate us from those we seek to persuade, but it even distorts the conversation we have among our own. I brought up a similar argument to the one I'm making here in a comment thread related to Brad Spangler's post on the agorist theory of revolution. Brad argues that we need to be concerned with finding an approach to permanently abolishing the State and preventing its reemergence. I'm sympathetic, but why should that be our ultimate goal? After all, libertarians don't claim that the policies they advocate will rid us of crime, drugs, prostititution, etc. even when they do assert that these things will be minimized. We excoriate liberals and conservatives when they propose another goverment program that will rid us of some timeless social ill. Well, why should the problem of the State be any less foolish of a absolutist crusade? Why should victory be any more contingent on the total eradication of the State? Isn't that just as utopian? What are we really working towards - not just in our minds, but in the real world?

Somehow, anarchists and libertarians need to find a way to talk about the psychological, emotional, historical, and generally human conditions of Statism, and not just bang on an abstraction. Otherwise, we risk misidentifying an authentic and important aspect of the man we seek to liberate while our heads stay in the clouds. Anarchism and voluntary society is about getting rid of the pretending and the contrived myths of how people relate and, instead, realizing a less distorted reality to which people can adapt, transmit higher fidelity signals to society, and receive higher resolution social feedback, and thereby live more sustainably (at least I think that's what it's about). If we have any hope of achieving this, we need to approach the human as he is, not merely in the way that is convenient to our ends.

So, to wrap this up, my approach to voting is to take each election on a case-by-case basis, to trust myself to make moral decisions given the particulars of the event, and to have compassion for myself if I err. After all, individuals, not abstract institutions, commit crimes, make mistakes, and take or eschew responsibility. I agree in a type of vicarious liability that politicians incur when participating in a overarching system of State violence, and individual voters may or may not be liable as well. However, since I don't have enough knowledge to draw a sweeping conclusion, I'll have to perpetually reflect on this to ascertain the morality of voting. It's not quick and easy - it requires ongoing mental effort and a continuing understanding of myself. It's even a little scary. But I can't just decide on an identity and be done with it without expressing a fundamental dishonesty. Holding principles and following your own rules doesn't banish the need to think.

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Written on Thursday, November 08, 2007