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June 10, 2010

Follow-Up on Property Rights and Racism

Filed under: Anarchy,State,Utopia — rmangum @ 8:28 pm
Tags: , ,

This article by Sheldon Richman, inspired by Rand Paul’s infamous appearance on Rachel Maddow, is almost two weeks old now, which is like two months in blog time, but since it covers (more articulately) many of the same points I made in my last post, plus one important elaboration, I ought to mention it. Previously, I had mentioned that the bulk of what was accomplished by the civil rights movement had nothing to do with government legislation, but I failed to mention one notorious feature which almost certainly conflicts with the libertarian theory of property rights: the sit-in, which is a property-violation almost by definition. Richman admirably addresses this point:

Isn’t a sit-in at a private lunch counter a trespass? It is — and the students who staged the sit-ins did not resist when they were removed by police. (Sometimes they were beaten by thugs who themselves were not subjected to police action.) The students never forced their way into any establishment. They simply entered, sat well-behaved at the counter, and waited to be served. When told they would not be served, they said through their actions, “You can remove me, but I will not help you.”

So without resisting forcible removal and without damaging any property, the violation is minimal enough that owners would not even be due recompense (and if the force used to remove the protesters exceeds what is necessary, they might be liable for damages themselves). So with the costs of such action being so low, we might expect more of this type of demonstration in a libertarian society, not less. A comment by Brad Spangler elaborates:

It’s also important to understand that the libertarian theory of justice is that violation of the non-aggression principle justifies compulsory restitution for damages. In some cases, it will make sense to voluntarily assume those costs and approach it as a matter of calculation — rather than holding a pseudo-religious view in which one is either in state of grace or held to have fallen from same.

For example, in a stateless society of private law and security, there would be no such thing as a “search warrant”. No private arbitrator would be empowered to license burglary or home invasion. Searches for evidence would still happen, though. Investigators would have to do enough of the serious, hard work of a conscientious investigation first in order to make a rational gamble that they could commit a crime to search for evidence and wind up owing less restitution than the subject of the investigation would.

Lunch counter sit-ins were trespassing — but so what, if the restitution owed was trivial in comparison to the larger issue?

Indeed, and the logic applies to any other form of civil disobedience directed at private property, such as the sit-down strike. Spangler is right to bring up the example of police investigations, since it emphasizes that in a free society, the law applies to the cops just as well as to the rest of us, whereas in our society they are “the law.” Police violate the property rights of the poor pretty much every day and are never required to pay restitution, even if it turns out that they harmed innocent people. (And of course it is no accident that state police are the primary aggressors against peaceful protests throughout the history of civil disobedience as a political tactic.) Murray Rothbard addresses the issue in a different context in The Ethics of Liberty:

Take, for example, the police practice of beating and torturing suspects—or, at least, of tapping their wires. People who object to these practices are invariably accused by conservatives of “coddling criminals.” But the whole point is that we don’t know if these are criminals or not, and until convicted, they must be presumed not to be criminals and to enjoy all the rights of the innocent: in the words of the famous phrase, “they are innocent until proven guilty.” (The only exception would be a victim exerting self-defense on the spot against an aggressor, for he knows that the criminal is invading his home.) “Coddling criminals” then becomes, in actuality, making sure that police do not criminally invade the rights of self-ownership of presumptive innocents whom they suspect of crime. In that case, the “coddler,” and the restrainer of the police, proves to be far more of a genuine defender of property rights than is the conservative.

We may qualify this discussion in one important sense: police may use such coercive methods provided that the suspect turns out to be guilty, and provided that the police are treated as themselves criminal if the suspect is not proven guilty. For, in that case, the rule of no force against non-criminals would still apply. Suppose, for example, that police beat and torture a suspected murderer to find information (not to wring a confession, since obviously a coerced confession could never be considered valid). If the suspect turns out to be guilty, then the police should be exonerated, for then they have only ladled out to the murderer a parcel of what he deserves in return; his rights had already been forfeited by more than that extent. But if the suspect is not convicted, then that means that the police have beaten and tortured an innocent man, and that they in turn must be put into the dock for criminal assault. In short, in all cases, police must be treated in precisely the same way as anyone else; in a libertarian world, every man has equal liberty, equal rights under the libertarian law. There can be no special immunities, special licenses to commit crime. That means that police, in a libertarian society, must take their chances like anyone else; if they commit an act of invasion against someone, that someone had better turn out to deserve it, otherwise they are the criminals.

As a corollary, police can never be allowed to commit an invasion that is worse than, or that is more than proportionate to, the crime under investigation. Thus, the police can never be allowed to beat and torture someone charged with petty theft, since the beating is far more proportionate a violation of a man’s rights than the theft, even if the man is indeed the thief.

The upshot of all this is that in situations which may involve rights violations for which restitution would have to be paid, such as searching a home for evidence or interrogating the suspect, the libertarian police would tend to be far less violent than the state police. Doubly so, for there is not only no sovereign immunity for their actions, but they would be either a for-profit firm disinclined to pay out reparations and lose business to competitors, or they operate are at the behest and under the watchful eye of some kind of autonomous community who may deny their legitimacy at any moment.

But while what we are now obliged to call “the authorities” have the incentive to mind their manners or pay the price, the calculation might be quite different for the oppressed and marginalized.


March 1, 2010

These are the ways the world ends

Filed under: Literature,Utopia,War — rmangum @ 9:58 pm
Tags: , ,

The latest episode of Battleship Pretension is on Post-apocalyptic film. The related ideas of apocalypse, eschatology, utopia and dystopia, have a special interest for me, and they have come up in the past week without my seeking them. First, I have been reading William Langland’s medieval visionary poem Piers Plowman, which is apocalyptic, but more in the classical sense. Second, my Dad calls to tell me of  his concern about my state of emergency preparedness because of a near-death-experience book he has recently become aware of which contains prophecies of, among other things, a terrorist attack on Salt Lake City and an invasion of the Rocky Mountains (a la Red Dawn) by Russia and China. Now this BP episode. Okay, so I’ll buy some bottled water and some extra round for my .38.

Now, the boys are a little fuzzy on the definition of “apocalypse“, its specific theology within Christianity, as well as its parameters as a film genre (it’s a book genre, too, counting J.G. Ballard, Stephen King, and recently Cormac McCarthy as notable practitioners, and this might or might not complicate the issue). However, they wisely stick to specifically post-apocalyptic film rather than apocalyptic films, the latter being mostly disaster films such as those made by Roland Emmerich (rightly disdained by Battleship Pretension). Case in point, I’d classify Night of the Living Dead as apocalyptic, and Dawn of the Dead as post-apocalyptic. They mostly avoid the novice mistake of lumping these in with dystopian films, which are a different bag altogether. Post-apocalyptic fiction concerns what happens after society falls apart. Dystopian fiction concerns societies which “work”, more or less, but are oppressive and/or perverse. The confusion comes because both typically concern societies in the future, and a dystopia may well come about because of an apocalyptic event (such as a world war). I could go on and on. I would like to quibble, however, about the inclusion of Planet of the Apes which, despite its twist ending which reveals the world to be post-apocalyptic from Chuck Heston’s perspective, seems to me more dystopian than anything. The portrayal of ape society is meant to comment on human society, as much as the non-human worlds visited by Gulliver do in Gulliver’s Travels.

Apocalypse strikes me as a uniquely Western theme, perhaps because of the legacy of Christianity, the most successful of the many apocalyptic sects of the ancient near east. St. John of Patmos is the first great apocalyptic poet, but it seems to me that the apocalyptic imagination only gets stronger the further we get into modernity. It is particularly strong, for reasons I can only speculate about, in Britain and America. The whole Dawn of the Dead/I am Legend/28 Days Later/The Road strain of horror and sci-fi in particular comes from British Romanticism. Check out Lord Byron’s poem “Darkness” if you don’t believe me. In America and Australia the genre is concerned with a particular vision of the wasteland, and is tied to the genre of the Western.

My other complaint is that they simply didn’t mention enough movies. Those interested in more books and movies of this type should visit Empty World. They do include dytopian ficiton, but you can argue the point that a dystopia counts an eschatological, or end-of-history narrative, but you’d have to do so on a case-by-case basis. For instance, Kurt Vonnegut’s short story “Harrison Bergeron” is dystopian though not apocalyptic (the world changes through acts of congress, not divine judgment), or eschatological, (since the title character shows the cracks in the system which might lead to its downfall), while his novel Cat’s Cradle ends apocalyptically, but is not a dystopia.

June 29, 2009

Utopian Quotes of the Week

Filed under: Utopia,who said it? — rmangum @ 5:39 am

The new civilization, which may take centuries or a few thousand years to usher in, will not be another civilization- it will be the open stretch of realization which all the past civilizations have pointed to. The city, which was the birth-place of civilization, such as we know it to be, will exist no more. There will be nuclei of course, but they will be mobile and fluid. The peoples of the earth will no longer be shut off from one another within states but will flow freely over the surface of the earth and intermingle. There will be no fixed constellations of human aggregates. Governments will give way to management, using the word in a broad sense. The politician will become as superannuated as the dodo bird. The machine will never be dominated, as some imagine; it will be scrapped, eventually, but not before men have understood the nature of the mystery which binds them to their creation. The worship, investigation and subjugation of the machine will give way to the lure of all that is truly occult. This problem is bound up with the larger one of power- and of posession. Man will be forced to realize that power must be kept open, fluid and free. His aim will be not to possess power but to radiate it.
-Henry Miller, Sunday After the War

A nihilist is someone who bows to no authority, accepts no principle at face value, no matter in how much respect that principle may be held.
-Ivan Turgenev, Fathers and Sons

June 17, 2009

Modern Procrustes, or consumerism is too important to be left to the consumers

mixed54Capitalism is dead, consumerism is king.
-Aldous Huxley, Brave New World Revisited

The great disease of modern life is that coercive institutions, or institutions which ultimately derive from and reap the spoils of coercion, are justified to the masses on the basis that they serve the needs of people both collectively and individually. But even when they most obviously cease to do this (public education, high finance, national defense, representative democracy), they are not done away with, and only halfheartedly, slowly, and irrationally are they reformed. Indeed, it should be obvious to anybody upon a moments reflection that none of our institutions- not a one- actually serve any need of ours. We serve their needs. We must change for their sake, for they will never (barring a crisis, which may be forthcoming) change for ours. For instance, I wrote a couple of months back:

“Keynesian policy insists that if aggregate demand falls, producers should not scale back or close up shop, but rather the government should pump them full of funny money to keep them going. Does this not mean that we are to serve a preconceived, ideal structure of production, rather than having it serve us? Does it not make a fetish of ceaseless GDP-growth at the expense of actual human desires? . . . How is it that few have called this an absurdity on its face? I am reminded of Chesterton’s critique of his friend and intellectual sparring-partner George Bernard Shaw’s ideas of progress:

Having come to doubt whether humanity can be combined with progress, most people, easily pleased, would have elected to abandon progress and remain with humanity. Mr. Shaw, not being easily pleased, decides to throw over humanity with all its limitations and go in for progress for its own sake. If man, as we know him, is incapable of the philosophy of progress, Mr. Shaw asks, not for a new kind of philosophy, but for a new kind of man. It is rather as if a nurse had tried a rather bitter food for some years on a baby, and on discovering that it was not suitable, should not throw away the food and ask for a new food, but throw the baby out of window, and ask for a new baby.”

I have just begun to read Kevin Carson’s book on organization theory, which begins by challenging assumptions shared, oddly, by many Marxists, corporate liberals, and libertarians, about economies of scale- in short, that a modern economy requires the organization of capital on a massive scale. To the vulgar libertarian, this means that gargantuan corporations are destined to stand triumphantly astride the globe, and only a motley crew of petty Washington bureaucrats and deluded left-liberal dreamers in American universities and the media conspiring with leftist demagogues and ignorant peasants in the third world could complain about it. To the vulgar Marxist this means that the bourgeoisie does their historically appointed role of dragging those same peasants kicking and screaming into the modern world before duly stepping aside and into the guillotine so that the proletariat can take over the means of production. The corporate liberal . . . well, we’ll get to that. I haven’t yet absorbed Carson’s full dissenting argument about economies of scale, but I find a quote from Keynesian John Kenneth Galbraith which relates to my point about how the people are made to serve the institutions rather than the other way around.

The need to control consumer behavior is a requirement of planning. Planning, in turn, is made necessary by extensive use of the advanced technology and capital, and by the relative scale and complexity of organization. . . . Thus it comes about that, as the industrial system develops to the point where it has need for planning and management of the consumer that this requires, it is also serving wants which are psychological in origin, and hence admirably suited to management and by appeal to the psyche.

A feverishly paranoiac and primitive brain, such as the one I possess, would be tempted to recall Huxley’s infamous- but quite misunderstood- consumerist and administrative dystopia Brave New World where the needs and tastes of the public are not left to chance, but rather inculcated in the very womb- or rather, in public hatcheries where budding little humanoids receive behaviorist conditioning and  hypnopoedic instruction.

In the nurseries, the Elementary Class Consciousness lesson was over, the voices were adapting future demand to future industrial supply. “I do love flying,” they whispered, “I do love flying. I do love having new clothes, I do love . . .

This is Galbraith’s “planning and management of the consumer” taken to its logical conclusion. Of course Galbraith is famous for an essay called “The Dependence Effect” where he complains that corporations don’t really sell people what they want, but rather insidiously use advertising to tell consumers what they want. Hayek dismissed Galbraith’s claim as a “non-sequitir“, and Murray Rothbard concurred, but I think they should have taken him more seriously. After all, it’s not as if Galbraith, as a Keynesian corporate liberal, is against this manipulation per se, but only wishes it to entrust it to wise technocrats- the Mustapha Monds and Benito Hoovers of the world- instead of greedy Madison Avenue types (or perhaps in partnership with them). Far from wanting to abolish corporate capitalism, Galbraith sees some purpose in it other than that intended by the capitalists.BraveNewWorld_FirstEdition

. . . a benign providence . . . has made the modern industry of a few large firms an excellent instrument for inducing technical change. It is admirable equipped for financing technical development. . . . Technical change has long since become the preserve of the scientist and engineer . . .

Not for Galbraith a decentralized and competitive economy. You won’t see him bandying the rallying cry “Small is Beautiful” or desiring “human scale” technology and industry. Indeed, “there must be some element of monopoly in an industry if it is to be progressive.” Carson writes about how Galbrath’s “New Industrial State” takes the economy out of the hands of the consumer, whom it ostensibly serves.

For Galbraith, the “accepted sequence” of consumer sovereignty, or Misesean “dollar democracy,” in which consumer demand determines what is produced, has been replaced by a “revised sequence” in which oligopoly corporations determine what is produced and then dispose of it by managing consumer behavior. In contemporary terms, the demand-pull economy is replaced by a supply-push model.

But what is this progressive inducement of “technical change”? It behooves us to return to Huxley’s nightmare conception of the highest state of liberal technostructure. From his introduction to the 1946 to Brave New World (first published in 1932):

All the existing patterns of human life will have to be improvised to conform with the nonhuman fact of nuclear power. Procrustes in modern dress, the nuclear scientist will prepare the bed on which mankind must lie; and if mankind doesn’t fit- well, that will be just too bad for mankind. There will have to be some stretching and a bit of amputation- the same sort of stretching and amputations as have been going on ever since applied science really got going into its stride, only this time they will be a good deal more drastic than in the past. These far from painless operations will be directed by highly centralized totalitarian governments.

That the specific technology that concerns Huxley is nuclear power is irrelevant. What is relevant is how often the Procrustean theme is sounded in relation to technology. In playing the liberal technocrat as scientific Procrustes, Galbraith is in a long line going back to at least August Comte, and especially in America John Dewey, who saw the purpose of modern education as preparing the individual for the “conflict between institutions and habits originating in the pre-scientific and pre-technological age and the new forces generated by science and technology” (Liberalism and Social Action). These “institutions and habits” are clearly what Huxley meant by “existing patterns of human life” or in other words, what we would all be doing if scientific social planners didn’t come along to dragoon us into schools and corporations and the military. (Or, let me be more sophisticated about it, allowing us to choose which of these wonderful career paths we’d prefer after they’ve destroyed all the alternatives they don’t like.) Speaking of schools, it’s important to note that these precursors to Huxley’s mass hatcheries and conditioning centers are what dissident teacher John Taylor Gatto has called an “administrative utopia”, which he describes in Procrustean terms as,

a peculiar kind of dreaming by those in power, driven by an urge to arrange the lives of others, organizing them for production, combat, or detention. The operating principles of administrative utopia are hierarchy, discipline, regimentation, strict order, rational planning, a geometrical environment, a production line, a cellblock, and a form of welfarism. Government schools and some private schools pass such parameters with flying colors.

Huxley later called his World State the “welfare-tyranny of Utopia”, which is what Gatto appears to be describing. Actually, many of our institutions pass such parameters. It also recalls Michel Foucault’s famous observation, (glib and grandiose like most things he said, but resonates nonetheless) “Is it surprising that prisons resemble factories, schools, barracks, and hospitals, which all resemble prisons?”

(By the way, if you doubt the authoritarian streak in modern liberals, try an experiment and tell one that you don’t believe anyone should be forced to go to school.)

Carson addresses the issue of the Austrians dismissal of things like advertising and the dependence effect when it comes to corporations managing consumer demand, insisting that not only do the former get great assistance from the state but that they should be viewed as part of the same apparatus of propaganda as the government schools austro-libertarians complain about.

. . . government schools and the USDA were integrally involved in the effort to manufacture a mass consumer culture. The USDA through most of the 20th century conducted a large-scale barrage of cheerful, taxpayer-funded agitprop on behalf of the denatured, factory-farmed produce of corporate agribusiness, with propaganda handouts as late as the 1970’s dismissing as “myths” the belief that some foods (e.g., bleached white flour) were less nutritious than others, or that soil depletion affected the nutritional quality of food. Home economics classes from the 1920’s on stigmatized home-grown vegetables and home-baked bread as old-fashioned and atavistic, and heralded the modern, up-to-date housewife who fed her family scientifically out of tin cans.

Recall Dewey’s desire to rid the populace of its “pre-scientific and pre-technological” habits. The politics of food-production and consumption and its environmental and health effects have become important in recent years with popular books like The Omnivore’s Dilemma. Usually these issues are pushed by liberal critics of the market, and dismissed by its defenders. But as we see, not only is the situation not a natural outgrowth of free-market conditions, but is another instance (along with urban sprawl) of liberals trying to remedy a problem their intellectual predecessors helped to create.


Taking our cues from Galbraith and Huxley, we really should see government and business leaders as co-captains of the corporatist ship, which explains why Keynesian economics, with its obsession with “full employment” and insistence on perpetual spending and no consumer saving, makes the most sense for this system. Carson quotes from Jeffrey Kaplan article called “The Gospel of Consumption” that describes how business leaders were upset to discover that the basic needs of consumers could probably be taken care of with “three days work a week”. National Association of Manufacturers President John E. Edgerton set the tone for elite opinion, both governmental and corporate:

“I am for everything that will make work happier but against everything that will further subordinate its importance. The emphasis should be put on work- more work and better work.” “Nothing,” he claimed, “breeds radicalism more than unhappiness unless it is leisure.”

Apparently it never occurred to Edgerton that one of the things which might make work happier is the subordination of its importance. At any rate, more work (if not better work) has always been at the top of the Keynesian agenda. Ever wonder why unemployment per se should really be such a vexing problem? What if we really don’t want to work all that much? Edgeton’s words could come right out of the mouth of Huxley’s World Controller Mustapha Mond, and indeed Mond, explaining the operating principles of Brave New World to John the Savage, describes their economy in similar terms:

“Technically, it would be perfectly simple to reduce all lower-caste working hours to three or four a day. But would they be any happier for that? No, they wouldn’t. The experiment was tried, more than a century and a half ago. The whole of Ireland was put on to the four hour day. What was the result? Unrest and a large increase in the consumption of Soma; that was all. Those three and a half hours of extra leisure were so far from being a source of happiness taught people felt constrained to take a holiday from them. The Inventions Office is stuffed with plans for labour-saving processes. Thousands of them.” Mustapha Mond made a lavish gesture. “And why don’t we put them into execution? For the labourers; it would be sheer cruelty to afflict them with excessive leisure. . . .

What compassion for the happiness of the workers! And Big Brother surely loves them, too. Perhaps also, though, the workers might in their leisure time, rather than drugging themselves with the state-provided intoxicant, contemplate what a bizarre society they live in and how it might be made different, and what exactly they needed these World Controllers for. Obviously that would be the beginning of the end for Brave New World.

Of course all this work should not indicate that there ought to be no play. One of the most prominent features of Brave New Worlders is their promiscuity, addiction to fleeting pleasure and childlike need for instant gratification. Mond says “Industrial civilization is only possible when there’s no self-denial. Self-indulgence up to the very limits imposed by hygiene and economics. Otherwise the wheels stop turning.” Spend spend spend! The thrifty are robbers of the public good! More credit! More debt! Hence also the obsession with never having “idle resources”. What a neat arrangement: Huxley’s Keynesian utopia simultaneously achieves the goals of the state, the corporation, and the counterculture. Huxley later wrote, “As political and economic freedom diminishes, sexual freedom tends compensatingly to increase. And the dictator (unless he nees cannon fodder and families with which to colonize empty or conqured territories) will do well to encourage that freedom.” I am amazed at how much Huxley got right. With the “unless he needs cannon fodder” proviso he even foresaw the neoconservatve program of family values!

Another text that is brought to mind is one that does not have a high reputation with libertarians: Adorno and Horkheimer’s essay “The Culture Industry” from Dialectic of Enlightenment. I must confess I reacted very strongly against it when I first encountered it. But it basically applies the Procrustean theme (and the Dependence Effect) to radio, movies, television, and publishing:

It is alleged that because millions participate in it, certain reproduction processes are necessary that inevitably require identical needs in innumerable places to be satisfied with identical goods. The technical contrast between the few production centers and the large number of widely dispersed consumption points is said to demand organization and planning by management.

When I first read this, I thought, “alleged by who?” But even then, in my vulgar libertarian phase, I should have known who. Of course Adorno and Horkheimer do not examine the role of the state in concentrating “production centers” or extol the virtues of a freed market. But in school I wrote a reaction essay about how they did not understand “how the market works” which involves feedback mechanism and Hayekian disbursed knowledge and so on and would not allow the culture industry such a captive audience, which I now see as an overly rosy view of the current market. That’s how culture would work in a free market, but we do not have anything close to a free market. The culture industry described by Adorno and Horkheimer is precisely the Galbrathian model “in which oligopoly corporations determine what is produced and then dispose of it by managing consumer behavior.” (I should note that in media we do have a much more competitive market than when the essay was written in 1944, and also that Adorno’s pessimism and snobbery colors everything he wrote, including and especially this essay. Even during that low period in modern life, culture never was quite “a system which is uniform as a whole and in every part” as bombastically claimed.)

1252202295Speaking of culture, I don’t want to get into where exactly the management of mass society is heading, but I would look to the denizens of Brave New World for a clue. Chesterton accused Shaw of desiring “a new baby” and the phrase is apt to describe both the products of Huxley’s “welfare-tyranny of Utopia” (as he brilliantly put it in the 1946 intro) and the culture industry of America today. (By the way, Jeffrey Herbener suggests in a speech* that Keynes’s Utopian goal with things like aggregate demand-management and the socialization of investment was to make people more present-oriented, less action-oriented, and to bring about a society of instant gratification. The old romantic dream of the death of homo-economicus could well become Huxley’s nightmare of “false, lying happiness” or Adorno’s “ecstasy without content”*.)

But the question should be asked, does technological society actually require reconstructing humanity? Not at all, if it is emergent, decentralized, voluntary. At the time he wrote his dystopia, Huxley gave us only one other option to the perpetual babyhood of consumerist civilization, which is the primitive mysticism of John the Savage, who ends the book flagellating himself like some visionary monk from the middle ages. The average libertarian, who is a committed rationalist (as I am) is likely to say, “No thanks, I’ll take my chances with the feelies and centrifugal bumble-puppy and sex-hormone chewing gum thank you.” (And no doubt many “cosmopolitan” Reasonoids would find Huxley’s World State a fairly groovy place to live.) But though Huxley never rid himself of his mystic streak or discomfort with technological civilization (which probably involved some family romance issues, given Huxley’s lineage), by his 1946 introduction he had come to regret not providing a “possibility of sanity”. For his third option he invoked two names well known to left-libertarians. “In this community economics would be decentralist and Henry-Georgian, politics Kropotkinesque and co-operative.” This would be close to the mutualism Carson is arguing for. Now I’m not a mutualist, but I have some mutualist sympathies, and certainly I’d take Carson’s, or even Kropotkin’s, version of anarchy over the Brave New World Order prepared by the Procrustean technocrat any day of the week.

*You’ll have to scroll to about 3/4ths of the way through to get to the part about Keynes.

* A phase which appears in a dour but fascinating Adorno essay from the 1930s called “The Fetish-Character in Music and the Regression of Listening” which assails the taste for pop as well as a prototype of the tech-geek, the “ham radio enthusiast”.

June 12, 2009

My idea of heaven

Filed under: Literature,Utopia — rmangum @ 2:13 am

I have always imagined heaven to be a kind of library.
-Jorge-Luis Borges

Heaven is a place where nothing ever happens.
-David Byrne






More library porn here.

June 4, 2009

Zoning: this aint no roadside picnic*

Santelia01Kevin Carson has an excellent new Center For a Stateless Society commentary about the problem of urban sprawl, which is usually assumed to be an unwanted market byproduct in need of government planning, but is in fact an unwanted byproduct of government in need of a freed market. The new urban planning philosophy meant to limit sprawl is only made necessary because the old urban planning helped to create it.

suburbanization and the car culture were central to urban planning in the decades after World War II, and were in fact mandated by the planners.

Now a friend of mine involved in urban planning in Salt Lake City gives me the expected retort: “What about Houston?” Houston, Texas, would indeed seem to be the embarrassing example of anarchy in urban design and spontaneous disorder. I briefly lived outside of Houston and worked at its Natural Science Museum downtown. The striking thing about the area is that how confusing and irrational it is. But certainly zoning is not the only tool of government interference, as this article illustrates. Its municipal land-use laws were seemingly designed to create a hell for pedestrians and heaven for car-dealers (not car drivers; it sucks to drive around that city) by mandating large lots and blocks, wide streets, and huge parking spaces, with the result that “Houston’s municipal code creates auto dependency by artificially spreading out the population.” In other words: sprawl. (Oh, and by the way, Houston is infamous for being one of America’s fattest cities as well- more fodder for social planners.) Of course we should not forget the role of construction companies and other commercial interests lobbying for Roads Roads Roads! But once the new urbanism takes over in Houston, which it is bound to since their problems are so obvious even if their causes aren’t, planners will artificially contract the population, duking it out with the commercial interests in a political process that will be anything but rational.

But if Carson is right, we can fight sprawl by rolling back the state. The question is how to get both liberals and libertarians on board with it. Liberal blogger Matthew Yglesias suggests the type of argument to be used.

One thing we could do as a country that could help reduce carbon emissions in a relatively pain-free way would be to ease regulations around what you’re allowed to build where. This would reduce emissions because people living in high-density areas tend to drive less and have lower home energy usage. It would be relatively pain free because we wouldn’t be talking about taking people’s cars away or forcing anyone to live in densely built cities who doesn’t want to. Instead, we’d be talking about letting people build denser structures if they can find people who want to live inside them.

Yglesias is an ally on this issue at least, though there are some problems with his attitude about planning in general. It appears to be an area like so many others where liberals simply cannot let go of their stance of benevolent authoritarianism. But this is not the worst obstacle yet, which is suggested by the final paragraph of Kevin Carson’s article:

Fighting sprawl isn’t a matter of imposing new government mandates.  It’s a matter of scaling back existing restrictions on mixed use development, and prying the mouths of the real estate industry and the automobile-highway complex off the taxpayer teat. It’s not clear that can be done without abolishing government completely.

The most obvious problem with this is that Carson suggests that fighting sprawl commits one to anarchism, and I don’t see many not already favorably inclined to it giving us much heed in this regard. The second problem is more about general strategy. Those of us who are full-blown anarchists usually find our political allies with various kinds of decentralists and secessionists of the left and right. The idea is to reduce the political unit to the local level, the organic community or Polis. But this will do nothing about planning problems, since this takes place at the local level anyway (although urban planning philosophy is a national, if not international, phenomenon, which makes it suspect). Certainly it leaves room for all kinds of local tyrannies, even in with mostly libertarian movements. Take for example Norman Mailer and Jimmy Breslin’s secessionist mayoral campaign of 1969 (enthusiastically supported by Murray Rothbard, who failed to get his fellow conservatives on board), which proposed the decriminalization of drugs, including heroin, but would ban private cars in Manhattan and (less plausibly) mandate a shutdown of all electricity except for emergency services once a month. Paul Goodman had already suggested getting rid of cars in Dissent (a publication Mailer was a regular contributor to) in 1961, suggesting that

The problem and our solution to it are probably unique to Manhattan Island, though the experiment would provide valuable lessons elsewhere. Manhattan is a world center of business, buying, style, entertainment, publishing, politics, and light manufacture. It is daily visited in throngs by commuters to work, seekers of pleasure, shoppers, tourists, and visitors on business. We have, and need, a dense population; and the area is small and strictly limited. Manhattan does not sprawl. It can easily be a place as leisurely as Venice, a lovely pedestrian city. But the cars must then go.


Due to its physical geography, “Manhattan does not sprawl”. Furthermore, why anyone would want to drive there without being paid to I don’t know. Goodman and Mailer probably ignored some free market solutions to the problem of congestion. Nevertheless, Goodman displays an admirable awareness that planning solutions are fitted for the place where he lives, and not a scheme for a utopian world-city. I wonder if today’s deracinated urban planners can say the same. But Goodman goes even one step further. “Every street and avenue should be studied as an individual artistic problem.” He sought “variation and experimentation.” Unfortunately  he lamented in the same article that “there is no agency in our city to attend to the multi-purpose problems of community.” I think a community in need of an agency to attend to it is hardly a community at all. The formation of a bureaucracy is the end of natural, active community and the beginning of a passive, administered condition.

But I am getting far afield of my topic (which turns out to be not so much zoning after all) and a bit out of my depth. I am sure that others have dealt with these problems elsewhere. I think in the meantime we should do what we can to educate for freedom and fight the state on the national and local level.

* Forgive me, a geeky reference to a 1979 Tarkovsky film called Stalker, adapted from a Russian science-fiction novel called Roadside Picnic, about an expedition to an area called “the Zone” which has been declared off-limits by the government, and where normal rules of physics do not apply.

April 1, 2009

Public-spirited pigs

georeorwell2t_s_eliot_simon_fieldhouse1It seems strange now, given the book’s near-universal acclaim, but George Orwell’s political allegory Animal Farm was once controversial for its attack on Joseph Stalin. It was initially rejected by publishers, including Faber and Faber, whose then-director, T.S. Eliot, rejected it personally. London’s Sunday Times has an article on the release of some of Eliot’s private papers, including a letter to Orwell concerning his novel. Eliot wrote:

We have no conviction that this is the right point of view from which to criticise the political situation at the current time.

pc70In other words, this was 1944 and England was allied with the Soviet Union against Germany, so a novel attacking their allies was bad form. But this was just the sort of political bravery characteristic of Orwell, which would later earn him admiration from literate people of many different political persuasions. History has been much less kind to Eliot’s politics, which were conservative with a capital “C”. He once famously described his outlook as, “classicist in literature, royalist in politics, and Anglo-Catholic in religion”. Eliot wrote that he was “unconvinced” by Animal Farm‘s “Troskyite” politics. Although  the “good” pig, Snowball, is generally regarded by critics to be a Trotsky-like figure, and the “bad” pig Napoleon who drives him away and tries to turn him into an enemy of the animals was modeled after Stalin, I’m not sure this is enough to call the book “Trotskyite”. The main thrust of the book, and what readers usually take away from it, is not an advocacy of a particular set of political remedies, but its critique of revolutionary movements and ideas, and how they get corrupted. This includes everything from the strong-man type in Napoleon, or the sheep who are unable to comprehend much of the new creed, yet go around repeating what they do know of it (a few slogans like “two legs bad, four legs good”) incessantly. Whether things would have been better had Snowball remained is a debatable point. It could be that in such a revolution the strong-man is bound to win out over the idealist. At any rate, Eliot himself succumbs to a delusion similar to those who think the U.S.S.R could have been a real workers paradise had only Trotsky been at the helm.pc1

After all, your pigs are far more intelligent than the other animals, and therefore the best qualified to run the farm – in fact there couldn’t have been an Animal Farm at all [possibly a good idea] without them: so that what was needed (someone might argue) was not more communism but more public-spirited pigs.

T.S. Eliot as Stalinist- who would’ve thought? (Why do I say “Stalinist”? Because the Soviet New class, and its inevitable strong-man, surely figured justified their rule because they were “the best qualified to run the farm”.) The idea that a dysfunctional political system can be made better simply with better people is one of the most naive, yet most common, of fallacies. It needs a name. Let’s call it the “public-spirited pigs fallacy”.

P.S.- Since writing this, it has been pointed out to me that the “public-spirited pigs” argument is not Eliot’s, but rather his interpretation of Orwell’s view. Even if this is what Orwell thinks, I find it a dubious reading of the novel. Snowball is a public-spirited pig, yet this does not save him from being deposed by Napoleon. Indeed, it is hard to think of what would prevent Napoleon’s rise to power except structural changes to Animal Farm. That Eliot says in parentheses that “someone might argue” the public-spirited pig position indicates that Eliot himself did not in fact hold this view. But his statement that the pigs are the best qualified to run the farm because they are smarter than the other animals (and is Napoleon not the smartest of them all?) is unqualified, and jibes with what we know about Eliot’s authoritarian predilictions in politics.

March 9, 2009

Brief thoughts on Anarchism(s) and Anarchists

Filed under: Anarchy,Literature,Philosophy,Utopia — rmangum @ 3:53 am
Tags: , , ,

aTemperamentally, I’ve always been a libertarian, even though I’ve only been familiar with the literature and specific ideas of that political tribe for a few years. I’ve self-identified as an anarchist for little more than a year, and came to it by way of the writings of the anarcho-capitalist Murray Rothbard. Of course, traditionally anarchists have opposed capitalism as much as they have opposed the state, so there is naturally a rift between (for lack of a better designation, which I am not convinced is appropriate) right and left anarchists. I suspect, without having developed a coherent theory about it, that there is an insuperable gulf between these two anarchisms in either theory or practice.

As of late, I have become more interested in the intellectual history of anarchism as such, and have taken up the task of reading the literature of the classical anarchists. Thanks to Librivox, I have just finished Kropotkin‘s Mutual Aid: A Factor of Evolution an impressive work that, while I don’t feel I agree with entirely, has caused me to rethink my assumptions about social cooperation, capitalism, and the state. At the moment, I am engaged in an interesting experiment: listening to the audiobooks, in alternating chapters, of Bakunin‘s incomplete anarchist manifesto God and the State and Conrad’s novel of political intrigue, The Secret Agent, which presents an extremely unflattering portrayal of anarchists (though a not exactly positive portrait of police and government agents, either.) Perhaps I shouldn’t be writing about these books until I’ve finished them and developed my thoughts some more, and since I have only the audiobooks, I won’t be able to provide direct quotations, but for whatever they’re worth, here are some of my impressions:

Anarchism as a political theory has gotten a raw deal. In the first place, it is generally not viewed as a political theory at all, but rather a 605px-kropotkin_nadarromantic passion, or some sort of pathology. Never is it assumed to have any philosophical foundations. Even on the political far left, which is most sympathetic, it is often assumed to be a form revolutionary practice, as opposed to radical theory, which was handed down on stone tablets by Marx coming down from Mt. Sinai. First of all, anyone who bothers to read Kropotkin will find someone with a careful, scholarly mind, not given to make emotional statements for the sake of shock value, unsupported by fact. Mutual Aid is an attempt to revise the understanding of evolution as understood by the social Darwinists, showing that cooperation is in fact the dominant factor in both human and animal societies, from the primitive on up to the modern. I don’t personally accept the view he presents wholesale, but that is an issue for another post. The point is that it is a scholarly work that deserves more attention than it has received. My impression of Bakunin, thus far, is someone who, while not a very original or prefound thinker, knows his philosophy and presents his arguments in a coherent and lucid way (thus putting him way ahead of Jameson, Rorty, Baudrillard, and a half-dozen postmodern academics whose fame and influence on intellectuals far surpasses Bakunin’s).

449px-bakunin_nadarFurthermore, it becomes clear in the writings of both of these anarchists that they have an enormous respect for science and reason. Bakunin, in particular, deserves credit for recognizing that while the hope of civilization lies in the Enlightenment aspiration to spread rationality, there is a danger in making a new priesthood out of scientists and social engineers, for two reasons: one, it is destructive of liberty; two, it misunderstands the nature of scientific knowledge, which is a decentralized process where no person has any innate authority- all may criticize all.  Bakunin is likely criticizing here the notion of “scientific socialism”, but one also thinks of the views of Comte and Dewey and the rise of the managerial/theraputic state of educrats in the 20th century, whose story is masterfully told in Paul Gottfried’s After Liberalism. This is a subtle insight, lost on the majority of modern intellectuals and social reformers.

As for anarchists generally, when they have not been feared as bomb-throwing terrorists, they have been dismissed as utopian dreamers. Again, I have to stress my recent status as a convert and a sketchy impression of the history of the movement, but my understanding is that there is some evidence to support this view, though not nearly as much as you would think. As I understand it, anarchism is nonviolence or it is nothing, and those committing violence do so in the name of chaos, not anarchy. As for utopianism, what political movement could not have been accused of this at some point. In my own view, the real utopia is limited and responsible government. bn

Conrad’s portrayal of anarchists in The Secret Agent consists of some of each of these caricatures, and something more. They are shown as comical and pathetic figures, a motley crew of pretentious bumblers incessantly arguing with one another to no purpose whatsoever. In the midst of this group is an agent provocateur (himself a rather ineffectual lackey of the state bureaucracy), Verloc, who is tasked with blowing up the Greenwich Observatory in order precipitate a government crackdown on subversives (especially of the foreign variety). This situation is all-too reminiscent to the American militia groups in the late 1980’s to mid 1990’s, as portrayed in Jess Walter’s Every Knee Shall Bow, about the white separatist Weaver family, and the remarkable first part of Abrose Evans-Pritchard’s The Secret Life of Bill Clinton, on the connections between the Oklahoma City bombing and separatists at Elohim City (which was rife with informants to various agencies and bureaus). These groups were mostly not anarchists (they usually identified themselves as “patriots”), but the similarity is there. The novel also contains a memorably fearsome character known as “The Professor”, not so much an anarchist as nihilistic sociopath. Theodore Kaczinski, a.k.a. the Unabomber confessed his identification with this character. He read the book over and over again and once gave the book to family members so that they might understand him.

Conrad’s portrayal ultimately does not capture the breadth of anarchist ideas or personalities, but there is a grain of truth here that must sting. Marginalized philosophies may attract marginal people, the kind of maimed resenters bent on revenge against beauty and truth Nietzsche spent his career railing against; and movements which aim for a revolution in society and ideas may attract those with a rage for destruction for its own sake. We must therefore teach the love of freedom as much as the hatred of exploitation, love of art and intellect without making gods or politicians out of artists and intellectuals, radicalism without narrow-mindedness. If there is anything we must hate and put down ruthlessly, it is pessimism and cynicism, (while at the same time respect the truths brought to us by those who insist that we live in the worst of all possible worlds) not because we belief in the inevitable progress of civilization or the perfectibility of man, but because the idea that the world and the people in it are worthless is the next step to exterminating the brutes, to wishing mankind all had one neck for the chopping, to giving the world over to the Professor.

All things fall and are built again                                                                                                                                             And those that build them again are gay. – Yeats, “Lapis Lazuli”

January 22, 2009

Something is happening here, but I don’t know what it is

Filed under: Anarchy,Economics,Utopia — rmangum @ 12:51 am
Tags: , ,

Apparently the economic bad times have caused some local communities to start using alternative currencies. Now, as a follower of Rothbard and Ron Paul, and therefore a sound money, gold standard, anti-fractional reserve banking kind guy, I have a great deal of skepticism about the sustainability of such schemes. But as a proponent of decentralization and secession, I find myself quite pleased with such openness to experimentation. It means that our independent spirit hasn’t totally atrophied and prostrated itself before Leviathan. It means that not everyone in the world believes nothing moves if not pushed from Washington DC, that economic “policy” can only originate in the op-ed spaces reserved for court intellectuals in the New York Times and Wall Street Journal. But yeah, it looks like this stuff is funny-money not backed by anything and susceptible to inflation, but to paraphrase Robert Anton Wilson, it can’t be any more hilarious than that given us by the Fed.

January 4, 2009

The Intellectuals and Anarchism

Filed under: Anarchy,Utopia — rmangum @ 1:12 pm


Anarchism is not a passport for reentry into Eden. It is simply the best that there is.-American Revolutionary Vanguard

I have read little by Pierre-Joseph Proudhon, what I have read about him seems far more appealing than Marx. An essay on Proudhon by Larry Gambone suggests that the decline of anarchism in the late 19th century has to do with the move away from Proudhon’s mutualist and libertarian thought to the collectivism of Marx and Bakunin. “A shift in leadership from self-educated artisans to aristocrats and bourgeois also occurred,” he writes. “In many instances this led anarchism away from the concrete and practical to the abstract and utopian. It is the nature of the upper class radicals, so distant from the realities of working class life, to look at the world through abstractions and self-created ideologies. This is also the very group which tends to glorify and romanticize violence.” The armchair romanticism of the intellectual class has to be admitted, and has perhaps reached its vertiginous apex in academic postmodernism, which is thoroughly Marxist, statist, collectivist and irrationalist.

I have to quarrel, however, with Gambone’s yoking together of “abstraction” with utopian thinking, and opposing that with practical thinking. Abstraction is the beginning of philosophy. Various reformers have tried to change the world, but what is the point if they do not understand it? The critique of abstraction has its roots in the conservative apology for the ancien regime, and is still favored today by conservatives.

On utopian thinking I am more ambivalent. Of course, Utopia means literally “nowhere”. The best attack on utopian thinking of this sort is Rothbard’s “Egalitarianism as a Revolt Against Nature”. Basically, Rothbard argues that what egalitarian intellectuals are anguished over is reality itself. However, I think this has to be balanced with Hayek’s “The Intellectuals and Socialism” where he credits the spectacular success of socialism as an ideology with its utopianism. “The very courage to indulge in utopian thought is a source of strength to the socialists which traditional liberalism sadly lacks.”  I would add that Christianity succeeded as an ideology  for precisely the same reason. He ends by recommending a “liberal utopia, a program which seems neither a mere defense of things as they are nor a diluted kind of socialism, but a truly liberal radicalism which does not spare the susceptibilities of the mighty (including the trade unions), which is not too severely practical, and which does not confine itself to what appears today as politically possible.” The irony is that Hayek never provided the path to such a utopia, but Rothbard did, in works such as For a New Liberty.

Unlike Hayek’s classical liberalism, however, Anarchism suffers a major p.r. problem in being perceived as too utopian, which is what Gambone’s article addresses. People will admit it is a noble, romantic, ideal which is however impractical an unfit for mere mortals. In reality, however, it is the ideal of a benevolent state which knows its limits and keeps to them that is the true utopian pipe-dream. But the state is what we have, and that is a huge advantage. Anarchism, in order to compete, must not just be better than statism, but address and solve every problem, from global warming to halitosis, before people will accept it. Never mind that government has no solutions either.  We must put the state on the defense, chipping away at its legitimacy bit by bit. Then there is the intellectual grunt work of theorizing and promoting an anarchy that is inspiring in Hayek’s sense without claiming it can turn the seas into lemonade. But hey, isn’t  “No Gods, No Masters” a better rallying cry than “Smaller Government, Less Taxes”?

At any rate, Hayek’s article suggests that we cannot dispense with the intellectuals as a class. But the intellectuals, insofar as they are revolutionaries, cannot do without the working class. It would be refreshing to have more working-class autodidacts like Proudhon than PhD’s, like Marx. An article on vanguardism in the anarcho-left by David Graeber discusses the enormous popularity of Marxism in academe compared with the poverty of attention paid to anarchism.

Marxism has always had an affinity with the academy that anarchism never will. It was, after all was invented by a Ph.D. ; and there’s always been something about its spirit which fits that of the academy.

Part of that spirit he finds in a cult of personality that prevails in the academy, the tendency to turn a surname into an “ism”. Marxism comes from Marx; Anarchism was not invented by anybody. If this is so, it may also be why there are so many anarchists of various stripes in the blogosphere, which is a leaderless network of self-starters, an example of spontaneous order par excellence.

But Graeber also finds the failure of (left-wing) anarchy in academe in its incompatibility with high theory. Instead of being primariliy analytic like Marxism, he calls it “an ethical discourse about revolutionary practice.” On the libertarian right, however, it is a different story. Anarcho-capitalism is all high theory, and tends to be organized in schools who follow a marquee theorist like Mises, Friedman, or (especially) Rothbard.

If anarchism rarely makes headway in academe, it tends to be the rage in bohemia. It attracts artists (who qualify as intellectuals in Hayek’s sense for being “second-hand dealers in ideas”), precisely for its utopianism, its thorough rejection of The Way Things Are. An aesthete by temperament myself, I understand this and find the appeal to artists as indispensable as the appeal to the working masses. But there is a danger here as well. Court artists, and you court genius and vision, but also clownishness, frivolity and destruction. The infiltration of “aristocrats and bourgeois” that Gambone discusses was probably primarily bohemian in nature. And there is no group which outdoes artists in romanticizing violence.

“Why, how can you ask such a question? You are a republican.”
“A republican! Yes; but that word specifies nothing. Res publica; that is, the public thing. Now, whoever is interested in public affairs – no matter under what form of government – may call himself a republican. Even kings are republicans.”
“Well! You are a democrat?”
“What! “you would have a monarchy?”
” A Constitutionalist?”
“God forbid.”
“Then you are an aristocrat?”
“Not at all!”
“You want a mixed form of government?”
“Even less.”
“Then what are you?”
“I am an anarchist.”
“Oh! I understand you; you speak satirically. This is a hit at the government.”
“By no means. I have just given you my serious and well-considered profession of faith. Although a firm friend of order, I am (in the full force of the term) an anarchist. Listen to me.”
– Proudhon

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