Approach With Caution: A Newbie Reflects on the Culture of Firearms and Radical Politic

Writing is one of those unique endeavors through which a person can come to terms with his life, his values, and the path that led the former to the latter. My recent introduction to firearms culture prompted a serious personal inquiry into its social and political dynamics. It is the process of writing that has strengthed my grasp of concepts and rounded out my growth in the past, so an essay is the perfect lens to frame my stance on guns and the political ramifications of the surrounding culture.

The discovery and appreciation of firearms and radical leftism provided a spark of passion to an otherwise mechanistic and empty embrace of individualism. I’m delighted to find a print magazine that provides an alternative to the status quo militarism of the mainstream gun culture. I feel compelled to engage in the conversation occurring outside the right wing about the proper place for firearms owners in society, especially if we can sidestep the implicit value-judgments of the Right and cover new ground.

As a longtime libertarian, my relatively more recent identification with the Left is somewhat puzzling, yet it continues to feel right. Especially in the present context of ever-expanding, authoritarian, intrusive government -- brought to you by a bible-thumpin’ cowboy, no less - the Left no longer stands for a single alternative to the leviathan State so much as a coalition of different ideologies opposing the establishment agenda. This is in keeping with leftist tradition reaching back to the French Revolution, when those who opposed the privileged monarchy occupied the left side of the national assembly. It is telling that as supportive of gun rights as I've always been, I never became a gun owner until I rejected the conservative and mainstream libertarian politics that permeate the popular gun culture in this country.

It's not that I didn't have experience with firearms; I shot rifles in Boy Scouts and pistols with my brothers. But to elevate enthusiasm for weaponry to a aspect of my personal identity seemed needlessly macho and intellectually irrelevant. There were plenty of examples of gun culture that I found repulsive - not just the right wing views and attitudes, but the lack of reflection that otherwise informs responsible firearms use. It was easy for me to defend the rights of others to arm themselves without feeling personal participation necessary. As a typical paranoid libertarian, I also wanted to stay off government lists and hold out for a trusted private seller.

My discovery of left libertarianism and the anarchist approach to politics expanded my concept of the role weapons in society. It should have always been clear that there was nothing inherently right wing about guns. Almost every left-leaning individual I met in my life, including an outspoken, self-described marxist, was actually in favor of popular gun ownership, despite dittohead fear-mongering to the contrary.

Indeed, it seems absurd for a leftist to argue that the U.S. government would have any authentic authority to place limits on firearms. After all, it’s an organization made possible by individuals who not only took up arms against their "conservative" rulers, but claimed a perpetual right to do so at will in the future -- as bottom up and proletariat as revolutions come. An armed population provided the fertile ground for our present State; therefore, the sanctity of that armed populace necessarily precedes any laws or bureaucracies that derive their legitimacy from it. Gun control as a policy position comprises a thorough rejection of the altogether unique foundation of our laws, something which any gun grabbers should be compelled to address.

Of course, anarchists reject any concept of "authority", particularly its hierarchical realization by the modern, institutional nation state. While I find an appealing consistency in the approach of pacifists who prefer to regard violence as the sole domain of antisocial thugs (among which the State is a criminal syndicate without peer), it seems clear to me that there is at least a need for deterrent force in any society that seeks a modicum of stability. The question isn't whether people want stability, but whether it will come from popular, organic consensus or via imposition from outside the community.

Nor can it be argued that only governments can effectively utilize modern weaponry. Firearms need not be high tech products of the military industrial complex to be effective in reigning in foreign or domestic aggression, technocrats like Rumsfeld be damned (the Iraqi insurgency is proof positive). Widespread arms ownership is as democratizing and civilizing a force as any known, given a shared culture and compatible values -- something the Right emphasizes much more consistently.

As a matter of fact, it was my personal search for the ideal peaceful organization of people - anarchism 101, as it were - which convinced me that a well-rounded, self-governing individual knows how to use firearms. Trusting authorities to exercise force on one's behalf should appear absolutely futile to the consummate anti-authoritarian - a wolf among sheep. Even setting aside the problem of arming one's oppressors, counting on third parties to defend people encourages atomization of individuals in a community by mediating the feedback loops inherent in organic social relationships. Excessive bureaucratization of what is ideally a spontaneous, "bottom up" order ossifies the ability of individual to coordinate to meet collective needs.

Professional defense services have an upside to be sure, but they also serve to stratify society based on political access to the "legitimate" use of force (just ask anybody who lives on the proverbial "wrong side of the tracks" how soon they get a police response - that is, one not targeting them as the criminal!) with obvious social engineering and profiteering privileges. An influential "protector class" is created, and the hierarchical resemblance to feudalism should not surprise anarchists. Police and military institutions may be necessary to society, but they cannot be everywhere at once. If we can't escape violence completely, then the individual who is invested in the community will still tend to serve as a better judge of when force is appropriate than an outside interloper, regardless of criminal justice training.

For the intellectual, the investment in firearms promotes crucial reflection. Weapons ownership challenges an individual to entertain hypothetical instances which would necessitate the use of force. The thought experiments and value judgments that flow from this experience are invaluable, due not only to the urgency that such powerful tools lend to the discovery of a comprehensive ethical framework, but also because split-second, emergency decisions are so common in crisis situations but rarely appreciated by intellectuals. Unless one is a utopian, the real world requires a practical and thorough approach to the proper uses of force -- violence, like it or not, is part of the human condition.

Only the most despotic should agree with the proposition that society must forego peace and true civility and accept the violence and "stability" arising from the State's monopoly on legitimate force - least of all because some people, some of the time, commit aggression. It is important for us on the Left to be honest with ourselves about our ethical and moral principles, and that's something many of us could stand to clarify. This is all the more important for those who engage in radical politics, because without giving proper care to the moral implications of one's beliefs, one can become unbalanced and hostile. The destructive power involved in discharging a weapon should humble all but the most sociopathic (who don't need any excuse to go nuts in the first place!).

No leftist should promote stability at all costs, but we should be even handed about how a popular, egalitarian society would follow from a popular, egalitarian distribution of coercive power. The alternative of wishing that the destructive potential inherent in human nature would simply disappear is indeed the true "infantile Left", but that still presumes no one successor organizing principle. Remember, it is the Left, not the blindly faithful of the Right wing establishment, who are members of the "reality based community". Empiricism demands we discover the authentic human without the bias of preconceived and coercively enforced notions in order to arrive at the ideal society. We must reexamine the ideal of individual liberty and find the common good and shared interests there, where they bubble up without P.R. massaging by coordinated, subsidized, artificial institutions.

For all these reasons, I believe one can benefit richly from gun culture, not just personally and socially, but intellectually - even spiritually. For good or ill (by no means has it been historically uniform), the Left has always stood against the status quo and for "social progress", whatever that means*. I identify with a left libertarian, anarchist approach to answering that question honestly without presuming outcomes or dismissing theories out of hand. In a world of arbitrary regulations and limitations upon the creativity of society, access to the means of self-defense should be prized at least as dearly by the Left as by the Right, perhaps more. That the latter dominates gun culture and political culture so thoroughly in this country shows how little of the revolutionary, do-it-yourself spirit remains in the supposedly populist Right.

The Left can win back the people, but it must provide them with a real alternative to institutions of coercion and privilege. With the consolidation of power instigated by the neoconservative warmongers and faux-liberal social managers, it remains more important than ever for the Left to assert itself as impossible to marginalize, its dissent quelled only at the greatest expense to our rulers. Supporting gun ownership establishes the Left as uniquely and radically American, where all sides of the political spectrum have access to the primordial guarantee of self-defense and security.

* One genuine area of discomfort for libertarians like me with the Left is the legacy of progressivism, which of late has simply meant a leftism more radical than the mainstream but less radical than anybody who they feel is unelectable. It would understate the record significantly to describe the historical Progressive Movement as racist, anti-democratic, corporatist, elitist (in a way totally different than Rush Limbaugh uses the word), demonstrably dishonest, and unthinkingly coercive. Progressives such as the Fabian School sought to reinforce class distinctions through social engineering and introduce them in places where they were absent or less pronounced. The Left needs to have a serious discussion about the ideology and whether the error is just in its science and maturity but also it intrusive, coercive tactics.

written by Jeremy Weiland on Summer 2007 with these tags: firearms, left-libertarianism, politics, anarchism