Wednesday, May 27, 2015

Guess Who's Coming to Dinner?

There has been an ongoing debate, or controversy (depending on one's frame of mind), that I have been aware of pretty much the entire time that I have been an anarchist, and at various points it has even had some big effects on my own life. I am referring here to the infamous debate between the “anarcho-capitalists” and the “regular” anti-capitalist anarchists.

This debate has been taking place in some form continuously since the 1990’s when the internet first started becoming a big thing. I have yet to find any evidence that this debate was taking place before the internet, which leads me to suspect that this is essentially an internet phenomena. Nevertheless, this is certainly taking place now and this has been having a big effect on online discussion spaces that are adorned with the label “anarchist”.

The issue is this: in the 1960’s, about one hundred years after “regular” anti-capitalist anarchist started up, a radical laissez-faire economics philosopher in the U.S. named “Murray Rothbard” decided to create a new ideology by fusing together the individualist anarchist philosophy of Benjamin Tucker and his “Liberty” magazine cohorts with the philosophy of classical Liberalism and the political-economic approach of the “Austrian school of economics”. As a result of this, various friends and disciples of Murray Rothbard generally started adopting the label of “anarchist”, and more specifically, the label of “anarcho-capitalist” came into existence. That trend has continued on to this day, and it appears to be growing, although there is no way to accurately assess numbers on this. This social milieu of “anarcho-capitalists” mainly appears to stay within the social venues adorned with the label “Libertarian”, but with the advent of the internet they have been found in online “anarchist” discussion forums as well. And that is where the conflict begins.

To summarize the problem, imagine the philosophy of “anarchism” as being a kind of big family, comprised of different distinct yet related ideologies all living together under the same roof. Then imagine “anarcho-capitalism” as being a distant cousin to that family, related, yes, but through a common relative who passed away long ago whom most family members forgot even existed. Now imagine that this cousin is somebody who talks a lot, and loudly, and who behaves in a way that most of the family members view as being both strange and irritating. This cousin now wants to come over to the house all the time, they invite themselves over to every family gathering and Sunday dinner, and also have invited some other cousins in who are similar to him. This is basically what is happening with the “anarchism” vs. “anarcho-capitalism” debacle.

Philosophically-speaking, anarchism and anarcho-capitalism are on the same page in that both are ostensibility anti-state and for purely voluntary, consensual relationships and free association. The world of industry and corporations as we know them have always existed because of the strong support of the state, and the world that the anarcho-capitalists argue for has technically never existed. And there lies a big source of the conflict - what the anti-capitalist anarchists and the anarcho-capitalist anarchists are advocating for has never really existed in either case. Some small, temporary, fleeting examples may have existed long ago in the past, but there are no good real-life examples of what they want to see in the world to point to in either case. In their arguments with each other they each try to hit the other over the head with examples that do not really represent what the other is actually advocating for. In the case against the anarcho-capitalists, the horrors of global corporate capitalism are given. In the case of the anti-capitalist anarchism, the atrocities of the various “communist” regimes are listed. Neither of these really apply, because what each side is arguing for is a castle in sky - a fantasy that has never existed in reality.

Then there is the recurrent topic of “What would an anarcho-X society look like?” I want to point out that all speculation about these ideal future anarchist societies is essentially just science fiction. It is the same kind of gee-whiz mentality about how humans can be in future worlds. Which is not a bad thing, but it is not in any way indicative of "the way that things will be" in any kind of anarchist society. I say that a "future anarchist society" will be a crazy unpredictable thing, because human beings are often crazy and unpredictable. What I believe a real anarchist society would look like, if one were to ever be created, is whatever the people involved with it would want it to look like. This could be anything. The future is completely indeterminate and unpredictable. To have it be enforced to look any one particular way is to have a state in place.

I would like to see less emphasis being placed on the imaginary future utopian society that our valiant armies of anarchist revolutionaries (or insurrectionaries, or organizers, or agorists, or whatever) are supposedly fighting for. Also, less emphasis on the dystopian hell-holes that our supposed enemies are scheming to imprison us in. Instead, I would like to see more focus on the world that we live in here and now, the current trajectories that it is set on, and our options within it.

When it comes down to it, the actual real-life practice, or praxis, of anarchists of all stripes is not all that different. The anti-capitalist anarchists like to paint the anarcho-capitalists as all being well-funded and on the payroll of the large corporations of the world, and likewise the anarcho-capitalists all like to paint the anti-capitalist anarchists as having the armies of Stalinist Russia all laying dormant waiting at their beck and call. The reality is that both sides are comprised of some rather unspectacular people. We are all pretty much working class people from Western countries, with the surveillance state and law enforcement looking on at our every move. We are also all marginalized, misunderstood weirdos, as far as how our political beliefs relate to those of mainstream society. What we do in response to all of that, in terms of real-life anarchist projects of subversion and survival, is where we have much to learn from each-other.

For example, the anarcho-capitalist concept of Agorism, or “counter-economics”, of living financially outside of the state’s economy, could be of much benefit to anti-capitalist anarchists. Likewise, the anti-capitalist practice of having cooperatives and collectives to live outside of the corporate system and to do away with having bosses could be of great benefit to those who want more freedom in their lives. Can we have counter-economic cooperatives, perhaps?

One of the basic arguments against working with the other side is that they are all a bunch of assholes. It’s hard to argue with that, since you should work with who you want to work with and not be forced with anyone you don’t want to be with. Having some degree of affinity and trust with those whom one is working with is essential towards projects of any kind being successful. That being said, I have met a number of complete jerks and assholes among BOTH the anarcho-capitalists and the anti-capitalist anarchists. I can honestly say that neither side holds a monopoly in this area. Likewise, I have also met a number of different really awesome people in both camps, and I think that both “sides” contains some really talented and intelligent folks.

The incessant debating and arguing can still happen, and probably will continue on until the end of time. The important thing is that the quality of these interactions change for the better. For example, are people learning anything new from these exchanges, or are preconceived views just becoming further entrenched? Is any kind of creativity or innovation taking place, or are old arguments just being rehashed and recycled? Is any kind of mutual understanding being developed, or is each person just focusing on their own particular opinions and perspectives on the world? Interactions between people can be toxic and lead to dead-ends, or they can help lead to the positive growth and development of those involved in them.

What I would like to see come out of the continued interactions of the anti-capitalist anarchists and the anarcho-capitalists is NOT seeing one side acquiesce to becoming a bunch of ruthless capitalists or control-freak communists, but to rather have those engaged become individuals who have more capacity and skill at living free lives, which hopefully can develop into an inter-connected culture of more effective resistance to the state and all of the different forces that would have us not be free. I can only hope that this particular culture clash between two peoples that are so seemingly strange and alien to each other can be a learning ground for better navigating all of the different social attitudes and cultures that exist among people throughout the world. Differences exist between people, both in this world now and in whatever future utopian society our imagination is preoccupied with, and the sooner we learn how to more productively and harmoniously deal with these differences, the better off we will be.

1 comment:

Tracy B. Harms said...

Hi, Ian. Thanks for that post. This is a topic that has often been on my mind.

I assure you this debate was underway before Internet brought us all into such connected conversation. I have some experience in this matter.

One clear statement of a sense of conflict will be found in the introductory portion of the catalog published in 1984, International Blacklist: A Directory of Anarchist and Anti-Authoritarian Groups and Publications. There they note with patent venom that they had excluded all so-called anarcho-capitalists when compiling their list. As my "group" was listed in the directory I was glad to have slipped through the cracks. I'm confident that I passed muster for them not because I had concealed my opinions, but because my writings had a flavor and tone with which they felt comfortable. Had they known me better, though, I'd have been kept out.

One publication from that same era where anarchist conversation crossed and muddied these boundaries was the SRAF Bulletin.

You are certainly correct that Internet was the greatest magnifier of attention to this division. One important event was Bryan Caplan's posting of his Anarchist Theory FAQ, and the subsequent castigation of it by anarchists who disagreed with him.

I hear your hopes that anarchists of all varieties might come to more worthwhile involvement, aiding one another in practical improvements of local autonomy. I find them beautiful. In them I see a reflection of your personality and character.

Tracy Harms