The Critic Responds, and My Reply 7

A few days ago, I posted this response to a left-anarchist critic.  The critic has offered an analysis of my earlier reply. Read it in full here. First, a clarification:

I got into a prolonged scuffle on the LeftLibertarian forums with Jeremy Weiland who identifies as a “Left Libertarian” and hosts AttackTheSystem.com(ATS), for free, mind you.  Naturally, fate intervened when Keith Preston, who was the subject of much debate in that thread, picks up my post, publishes on ATS (without accrediting me at all mind you) and then tries to haul me over the coals in front of his Third Positionist buddies.  All I have to say is that if Preston felt threatened enough by a forum post to rebut it to a post published on ATS, and in such a condescending manner, then I must be doing something right.

The critic’s name is Royce Christian, whom I believe resides in Australia and is a left-anarchist/left-libertarian. I did not use his name in my earlier reply out of respect for his privacy as I was uncertain about to what degree he is “public” about his anarchist beliefs. Royce’s reply is rather wordy, and often redundant, so I’m not going to attempt a line-by-line rebuttal of his analysis of my work. Instead, I will focus on what seem to be the major or at least the more substantive points of his arguments.

So, at the risk of being drawn into a “my Anarchism is bigger than yours”, let’s clear some things up: Anarchism is the rejection of the right to rule over others and the rejection of the right for others to rule over you.  And to make it abundantly clear, ‘rulership’ is given a broad definition to encompass all forms of rulershipThis includes all specific forms of rulership including government and state, but also, importantly, those behaviours which reduce one individual to a position inferior to another on the basis of some abstract marker of identity. In short, it is opposition to all forms of authority.

This is simply a restatement of the common left-anarchist claim that anarchism is not merely anti-state, but “anti-hierarchy.” I regard this as a revisionist definition of anarchism and one that is difficult to glean from the writings of the founding fathers of anarchism given a proper understanding of their ideas in relation to the context of their times. But I suppose others can define “anarchism” in any way they wish, just as they can define communism or Christianity in any way they wish. I would suggest that the state needs to be differentiated from other forms of “hierarchy” or “authority.” The state has unique powers of physical coercion and claims on a monopoly of violence that other kinds of institutions, organizations, or forms of social relations do not have. Who but the state engages in world wars? Genocide? The amassing of nuclear weapons? Other institutions such as churches, families, universities, or even corporations do not have, for instance, the power to sentence someone to capital punishment for violation of its edicts. Only the state has such powers. This does not mean that other institutions cannot be interrelated, intertwined, propped up, or even directly created by the state, with unsavory or destructive results, and traditionally anarchists have indeed attacked such arrangements. Hence, the classical anarchist opposition to feudalism, state-capitalism, established churches, etc.

Regarding “authority” or “hierarchy,” it is necessary to distinguish between natural and artificial arrangements of this type, and voluntary and coercive ones. A Tibetan Buddhist monastery is certainly “authoritarian” by left-anarchist standards, but membership in such an institution is purely voluntary, and therefore not a matter of political concern. A hospital certainly has a “hierarchy” and rightfully so. Surgeons do not consult with janitors and parking lot attendants on how to operate on patients. The opinions of a first year nursing student on how to treat diseases is fortunately not weighed equally with that of physicians with decades of training or experience. This is not to say that there is no gray area in any of this. Certainly, cultic religions can be psychologically abusive of their members even if no direct physical coercion is involved and even if members are not physically prevented from leaving the group. Businesses can endanger the physical health of workers or consumers by exposing them to hazardous working conditions or products without giving them the information necessary for informed consent. Family relationships can be abusive in a variety of ways, ranging from physical violence to domineering attitudes by an individual spouse or parent. But these pale in comparison to the harms inflicted by the state. The state is a unique force for destruction.

In my original post I wrote that Preston’s whole approach to discrimination and oppression is pragmatic; he aims to convince the Left to join his alliance by saying that oppression such as racism can be dealt with after the revolution (FYI, when there are 1000 governments operating instead of 1).  Elsewhere in his response, Preston responded by dismissing this and making irrelevant claims about how he has read widely the works of writers belonging to Indigenous rights activists, marginalised minorities and anti-globalist’s aiming their pens at the “American Empire”.  In answer, I point out that just because Preston has read widely and cherry-picked ideas from marginalised peoples which reinforce his ideological stance is of no consequence to the argument itself.

This is a contradictory claim. Royce asserts that I have argued that the oppression of indigenous peoples, marginalized racial minorities, etc. should be ignored until “after the revolution” but then attacks me for actually incorporating issues raised by black nationalists, native peoples’ movement, anti-globalists, etc. into my own paradigm as core components of the anarchist struggle against the state.

The point still remains; for  Preston there is nothing else, all that should be opposed is tied to the state, if it is not, it is valid and legitimate and “natural”.

This is evident where Preston writes:

Instead, it means that all issues and matters of controversy must be evaluated on their own terms, with an attitude of civility towards all but the incivil, and a fair hearing for all contending points of view, on which no one is to have the last word…

…sexual minorities who claim they are oppressed by sodomy laws, legal repression of gay-oriented businesses, or violent crimes by private individuals who target them on the basis of their gender or sexual identity are legitimate within the anarchist paradigm. Neo-Nazis who claim they are oppressed by the mere existence of Jews are not legitimate. Racial separatist whites (or of any other race/ethnicity) who claim their rights of property and association are being violated by discrimination prohibition are legitimate. Feminists who would legally require churches to accept women into the ranks of the clergy are not as this violates the associational and religious liberties of others. At the same time, there would be nothing inherently un-libertarian about feminists within a church organization agitating for altering church policy regarding gender exclusivity in the clergy if they so desired.

Under this construction, racism, sexism, gender discrimination and bias only become relevant issues to be targeted and challenged when they are institutionalised as acts of state power.

This ignores a core passage of my original response. As I said: “…if private discrimination against particular demographic groups (races, religions, cultures, genders, sexual orientations, occupations), even if not legally required,  is so pervasive as to severely undermine the economic, social, or even physical health of those on the receiving end of such discrimination, then what sorts of remedies may be in order? These may be situations where the Ghandi-MLK paradigm becomes applicable, e.g. people using their liberties of speech, assembly, association, trade, boycott, etc. as a means of opposing or at least reducing such discrimination.”

His first sentence asserts that it is necessary for marginalised people to allow those with privilege to adjudicate over whether those who are marginalised are oppressed in the first place.

What did I actually say in this “first sentence”?: “…all issues and matters of controversy must be evaluated on their own terms, with an attitude of civility towards all but the incivil, and a fair hearing for all contending points of view, on which no one is to have the last word…”

Royce is here asserting that a mere fair hearing for all sides to an argument, in a spirit of civility, with recognition that one’s own point of view could be flawed and that conclusions reached ought to be tentative in nature, by itself constitutes “privilege.” Rarely I have seen such a flagrant example of the psychology of totalitarian humanism expressed in such a direct and concise way. What Royce is essentially saying here is that some people’s opinions must always be deemed correct by virtue of their “underprivileged” status while the opinions of those who are deemed “privileged” (by whatever selective or arbitrary criteria) should automatically be ignored or dismissed. This is a rather extraordinary statement, and one worthy of your typical medieval inquisitor or Stalinist bureaucrat.

Despite repeated assertions that he does not support racism and the like, Preston’s shared assumption that there is ‘a natural inequality of persons at both the individual and collective levelsonly has a limited number of interpretations, and, just to make it abundantly clear, all of them are bad.  Use of the qualifier “natural” to allegedly justify a belief that, for example, “those little brown people have lower IQ’s than us, civilised white men” is hardly consistent with Anarchism as a political philosophy.

For the record, I am agnostic on and indifferent to the claims raised by “IQ realists” and proponents of HBD, as these are irrelevant to my wider political outlook. I favor meritocratic individualism, meaning I favor protecting the ability of every individual to rise or fall, succeed or fail, on his/her own merits, including people of all races, ethnic backgrounds, cultural origins, genders, religions, sexual orientations, etc. One of the problems with systems of thinking like those advanced by HBD enthusiasts in that it relies far too strongly on over-generalizations. Ethnic and racial populations, for instance, contain many millions, even billions, of individuals in some cases. Generalizations about groups that large, even if rooted in some factual basis, ignore the plethora of variables that inevitably arise in such an enormous sample size. Claims of that type are hardly a sufficient basis for the organization of society. Besides, even if the claims of the HBD fundamentalists are correct, all it really means is that, all other variables being equal, there will be fewer high achievers in certain fields drawn from some populations than from others. So what?

Of course, there is natural inequality of persons and groups. Who is more likely to produce a large number of children? Heterosexual or homosexual men? Who is more likely to be an Olympic athlete? A paraplegic or someone lacking any substantive physical disabilities? Is the fact that there are no female players in the NFL simply a matter of sexist, misogynist conspiracy? Who is more likely to be a theoretical physicist? Someone with an IQ of 170 or an IQ of 70? What populations are more likely to write political constitutions recognizing separation of church and state? Secularized Westerners or Muslims? Why do natives of central African countries like Kenya seem to have such an extraordinary ability at distance running? Who is going to be a more productive and contributing member of a business, family, or community? An alcoholic who consumes two quarts of vodka and a case of beer every day or someone who drinks only in moderation or not at all? Who is going to be a better soldier? A ten year old, a twenty year old, or a seventy year old?

To translate, the rest pretty much states an opposition to egalitarianism of any kind, opposition to multiculturalism  and asserts an absolute freedom of association which acts as a limit on other freedoms.

I can’t really respond to this as Royce does not mention what these “other freedoms” are nor does he provide any explanation of how  “freedom” is to be defined. Nor have I stated “an opposition to egalitarianism of any kind.” As I said in my response: “If he means equality of legal and political rights in the classical liberal sense, then I would be for “equality of individuals.” If he means equality of individuals to rise according to their own merit, without being hampered by statist, feudal, theocratic or capitalist institutions, then I would be for equality of individuals. If he means opposition to genuine systems of class or caste exploitation, then I am for equality of individuals.”

However, this all assumes that Preston only rejects “Leftist cultural orthodoxy” when it is involved with Government and the State.  Fact is, Preston regards “Leftist cultural orthodoxy” as “totalitarian” and rejects it irrespective of whether it is “in power” or not.  As Johanna pointed out during an exchange with  Jeremy Weiland:

My impression was that Preston’s idea is that leftist cultural “orthodoxy” (not clear what that means) is totalitarian. IIRC, someone asked him this point blank on some forum (may have been LL2, but I don’t really remember now) and he answered with an unequivocal “yes”. No need for the “in the service of the state” business to pretend that this is necessarily an anti-state position.

and later:

It was intended to nail him down on whether the “totalitarian humanism” he’s talking about is, for instance, hate-speech laws where the state is enlisted and then the word “totalitarian” is doing something in his formulation, or cultural leftism itself where humanism=totalitarianism. Being it’s the latter, then TH is nothing more that “Preston hates lefties”…

The original quote from myself is not provided, and Royce simply relies on the questionable interpretation of a second hand source.  When I refer to “totalitarian humanism” I am specifically referring the the welding of cultural leftist fundamentalism to the state and the use of such by the state as a means of its own self-legitimation. As to whether cultural leftism could be “totalitarian” in some non-political sense, it could be in the same way that racism, religious fundamentalism, misogyny, homophobia, etc. could become so pervasive in the wider society that an attitude of extreme intolerance develops towards those who dissent from cultural left orthodoxy and such people become victim of severe social or economic discrimination. In other words, it’s two-way street.

Third Positionist’s generally outright reject both Marxist ideas liberal ideas.  Preston is no different in this regard (Preston refers directly to Jacobin, Marx and Marcuse in particular), but, like his use of the Anarchist label and libertarian terminology, he incorporates “classical liberalism” to the extent it frames and validates his strategy of “pan-secessionism”.  Similarly, the idea of Preston promotes a concept of a greater, abstract ultra-nationalism, which he  from which all individuals spring, an aspect of his philosophy that remains the domain of the Right.  The ultimate aim of rebirth is  expressed through a network of racial and ethnically pure communities where property is distributed evenly among members, free of interference from the “Left” which is characterised as having held down society with their “totalitarian humanist” views.

This is a rather grotesque misinterpretation and misrepresentation of my actual views, and a reflection of Royce’s own singularity of mind and tunnel-vision. It’s not worth responding to.

It is from this analysis that any claim by Preston to have transcended ideology is farcical.  The concepts being promoted are rooted firmly in far-Right ultra-nationalist ideology.  The “synthesis of ideas” Preston claims does not exist and are merely cherry-picked thoughts grafted onto a far-Right ideology.  More importantly, despite claiming to distance himself form European neo-fascists, his “Third Positionism” is not much different and meets, to borrow a phrase of Griffin, ‘the fascist-minimum’.

….And the beat goes on. It gets better…

Preston’s populist rhetoric, his embracing of the ultra-nationalist doctrine of Third Positionism as outlined above, over-emphasis on the American Empire as the only real oppressor and his narrow definition of rulership from which he constructs his “Anarchism” is an issue of serious concern to any Anarchist, any outsider and any individual belonging to a marginalised or alienated minority.  It is a means by which people are gradually introduced to attitudes and behaviours which they would normally reject.  These attitudes and behaviours then become normalised and the individuals identify increasingly with the Right.

Couple this with common techniques of propaganda and spin and a more developed picture emerges.  There is a tendency of Prestons to equate or use interchangeably the terms, Anarchist, Radical, Libertarian and Conservative which, though a curious aspect of American political discourse, is imprecise, misrepresentatitve and breeds confusion.  Further, in my original post, I noted the use of common techniques of propaganda and spin, which I called out.  These include appeals to “everyday people” and stating that “most people agree,” to stand in for coherent arguments.

What I have always found to be one of the most interesting characteristics of my critics from the Left is the way that they interpret my views in a precisely inverse manner from what is intended. They tend to proceed from the assumption that I am a nationalist/fascist/racialist/third-positionist/ultra-conservative, whatever who is simply borrowing from anarchism and libertarianism in a selective manner. Actually, the opposite is true. I’m a classical liberal-libertarian-anarchist who borrows from the far Right selectively in order to correct for some of the deficiencies of the Left, and who incorporates into my program those elements of the Right that are reconcilable with anti-state radicalism while simultaneously taking an identical approach to the Left, i.e. borrowing from the far Left selectively to correct for the deficiencies of the Right and incorporating into my program the aspects of the Left that are consistent with the anarchist paradigm. Most people who encounter my work seem to be able to recognize that. It is only these ideologues of the hard Left who cannot. That is more of a reflection on them than on me.

Anarchists and Left-Libertarians have long recognised the need to work with and build large coalitions composed of all groups fighting oppression in some form, but this does not mean they should they form these alliances with reactive forces who outright reject any attempts to combat oppression against minority groups, or at least do so under the guise of “pragmatism” and “realism”.

These are rather narrow definitions of what constitutes “oppression” or a “minority group.”

Better yet “pan-secessionism” combined with self-segregation (absolute freedom of association as a express or implied limit on other basic freedoms) are said to be the only “realistic” means of solving oppression.  Otherwise it is argued that the average person is too stupid to understand such ideas that “women/people of colour/indigenous people/gay/lesbian/transgender people are people too” or that oppression and privilege is so ingrained in people that it is “unrealistic” to try to change it and any attempt to do so is that evil “Leftistism” or “Leftoidism”.

Once again, this is a rather narrow and selective “understanding” of my actual outlook. I’ve already summarized my views on virtually all of these questions comprehensively in my “Liberty and Populism: Building an Effective Resistance Movement for North America” essay. Read it here.

After all this, I can only conclude that Keith Preston is little more than a petty demagogue in a black satin dress.

And I can only conclude that Royce Christian is a small-minded ideologue unable to engage or comprehend ideas that disturb his own sense of moral superiority or the rigidly constructed ideological prism through which his world view is discerned.

7 comments

  1. Royce is here asserting that a mere fair hearing for all sides to an argument, in a spirit of civility, with recognition that one’s own point of view could be flawed and that conclusions reached ought to be tentative in nature, by itself constitutes “privilege.

    What is truly tragic about this from a leftist point of view is that it is clearly an elitist approach. As if the ability to realize potential truth is not a matter of demonstration but of identity. It is not egalitarian; it is reactionary. It distrusts the ability of humans to recognize truth and falsity, and I shudder to think where that leads. Of course it’s important to recognize privilege (I think privilege is at the heart of classical anarchism, to be frank with you, not necessarily the state) but we can’t recognize ANYTHING unless we’re attempting to look at this stuff honestly and squarely.

    It’s like you said in an earlier comment: if there’s some aspect worthy of elevating over a commitment to free thinking, then we can have discuss it, but the conversation is not going to be an anarchist one.

  2. Another critique from a left-anarchist has been posted on the same blog.

    http://urbandissent.wordpress.com/2011/01/18/exclusive-we-dont-want-a-cake-or-let-them-eat-cake/

    This critique is intelligently and civilly argued, and it’s the best effort of its type I’ve yet to see. That said, it’s essentially the same product in a more sophisticated package. It’s a serious enough effort that I’ll go through it and pick it apart when I have time to do so thoroughly.

  3. “Of course it’s important to recognize privilege (I think privilege is at the heart of classical anarchism, to be frank with you, not necessarily the state) but we can’t recognize ANYTHING unless we’re attempting to look at this stuff honestly and squarely.”

    I agree that classical anarchism was largely a movement of the lower orders against the institutions of artificial privilege that existed at the time. So is ARV/ATS. But from where does artificial privilege arise? According to Carson’s analysis (which is really just an expansion of Proudhon in its core arguments), artificial privilege is the product of institutional or economic arrangements imposed by the state or derived from it.

    Of course, we have to distinguish between artificial privilege and natural privilege derived from meritocracy. It follows that we also need a reasonable set of standards for approaching the question of how to make this distinction according to some kind of objective, consistent criteria. That’s where a lot of the Left really gets confused about my perspective.

  4. According to Carson’s analysis (which is really just an expansion of Proudhon in its core arguments), artificial privilege is the product of institutional or economic arrangements imposed by the state or derived from it.

    Well, I think many left-anarchists worry about losing momentum on social progress they care about above and beyond class privilege. That’s a valid concern, but it’s in my opinion not sufficient to give up entirely on a unified front against class privilege.

    I frankly just don’t know what you mean by “natural privilege”. I don’t really understand “natural elite” either. But I just wrote a post on that and may be too much in my own head at this point. Suffice to say that chalking it all up to “meritocracy” doesn’t deal with the question of “what qualities have merit?” That question in particular is not one decided on a basis I consider necessarily legitimate.

  5. Just to put a finer point on it:

    But from where does artificial privilege arise?

    My take on this is that political action against institutions that promote privilege is more effective precisely because there is something other than “the platonic form of privilege” to attack. It doesn’t mean that other forms of privilege are not worth fighting; it means that if we want to use the political means, we must identify political targets and not cultural or social or psychological abstractions. That, for me, is the only real difference, because the “body count” argument is a value judgment that I can see many rejecting (“no coalition occupation authority soldier ever called me the N word!”).

    To talk of a political coalition against the state means something. To speak of a political coalition against “discrimination” in the abstract demands fundamentally different means than the political (the personal may be political, but not in the same sense that the state is political). To articulate a fight against an abstraction via mass political means necessitates the adoption of coordinated thought police regimes like political correctness which use a guillotine where a surgical scalpel is called for.

  6. > But from where does artificial privilege arise?

    I’m not sure that there is enough of a ‘natural privilege’ to warrant the distinction between such and ‘artificial’ privilege, and besides, it clouds the issue.

    If the lingual root of the word is true, then privilege is ‘private law’ in the sense of law that exclusively benefits specific private parties, whereas law *ought* to be a public good, ie. an institution that benefits all members of a community or society (not equally, which is impossible in the real world, but intended to benefit equally).

    What this stems from, is legal institutions so entrenched in power (usually from its state superstructure) that its subjects are not free to choose alternatives to, that is lock-in (or not free to choose at all, aka lock-out).

  7. I’m not sure that there is enough of a ‘natural privilege’ to warrant the distinction between such and ‘artificial’ privilege, and besides, it clouds the issue.

    That’s my view as well.

    Unless I’m mistaken, Keith and I have a similar position on the usefulness of the term “natural law” – sure, there’s a sense in which certain principles seem to resonate throughout myriad experiences, but the sense in which this is consonant with “law” as understood in any other political connotation is confusing at best. For my part, “natural law” or “natural rights” seems to be an attempt at some level to sneak in constraints on people and point to something “out there” as responsible, something that cannot be challenged.

    The concept of natural privilege seems similar – something that’s “out there” incapable of being challenged and, therefore if that’s a valid ideation, unnecessary to single out as relevant. In other words, it’s either normative and you have an argument for it, or its descriptive, in which case it doesn’t need to be promoted and simply is.

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