by Keith Preston
In his very thoughtful reply to my “Smashing the State” article, (I)An-ok expresses concern that I do not criticize local governments and instead focus only on the American federal regime. I see how one could get the impression that I am arguing for simple local sovereignty or states’ rights conservatism rather than anarchism per se from the contents of my article. When I wrote the article, I was operating on the assumption that, given the forum, the reader would take for granted that comprehensive abolition of the state was the ultimate objective I was striving for. Perhaps I was too bold in this presumption. I am certainly opposed to local governments. These engage in all sorts of heinous deeds including the maintenance of metropolitan police forces as occupying armies in poor communities, enacting and enforcing repressive economic legislation in countless areas, using the power of eminent domain to arbitrarily seize private property, robbing local citizens through taxes and squandering the proceeds on favored cronies and countless other wrongs. In fact, I referred to some of the hazards of local government, such as zoning ordinances and the public school system, in my article. I criticize and ridicule “my” local municipal government on television and in print all the time.
That being said, I do regard the battle against the US federal empire to be a matter of primary concern. (I)An-ok hints in his rebuttal that intermediate goals and a hierarchy of priorities are legitimate in the struggle against the state. Whatever else could be said about local governments, they typically do not amass vast nuclear arsenals, maintain four hundred billion dollar standing military forces, invade other countries, incinerate entire cities, subject entire national populations to disease and starvation via blockades and sanctions, plot three-front wars, exterminate millions of people in international counterinsurgency programs (1), consume more than a quarter of annual economic output, debase the currency, accumulate trillions of dollars in public debts, enslave young people through military conscription and send them off to be slaughtered or lay the foundation for a global totalitarian state. The US federal government has done all of these things and will continue to do so as long as it still stands. Local governments do not have the technological resources or the surveillance powers that the feds do. In fact, much local oppression is often carried out at the behest of the federal government and with federal funds. Local paramilitary police forces are often trained by federal police or military agents. As Americans, we are in the unique position of living under the most powerful state in history. This state is the greatest threat to the peace and security of the contemporary world. It is not simply an inconvenient nuisance that sponsors sporadic crimes against individuals the way local governments typically are.
I regard the type of radical decentralization described in my article as a means rather than an end. I am for abolishing the state altogether. In North America, this might involve the eventual establishment of a collection of anarchies modeled on the Icelandic Commonwealth, or the Spanish anarchist collectives, or Pygmy tribes, or the Old American West, or whatever, depending on one’s personal vision of anarchy. Whether or not this will ever happen I do not know. I am not a historical determinist. However, it seems to me that the best way to weaken and eventually destroy the state is to gradually discredit, deconstruct and dissolve it. I doubt the entire apparatus of the state will ever be “swept away and made impossible” at all once. Look at it this way. Would the anarchist “movement”, the world as a whole or all of us anarchists as individuals be better off if the US government were to collapse and disappear a la the Soviet Union circa 1991? I suspect this would be the case. I view radical decentralization as having three essential purposes. First, to eliminate the special dangers posed by the present US government. Second, to accommodate the vast ideological and cultural differences to be found in American society and that would likely exist in an antigovernment movement. Third, to create the socio-political framework for the further evolution of a culture of liberty which might serve as a cultural backdrop favorable to further anti-state struggles as anarchists continue to agitate for complete abolitionism. This approach is consistent with historical precedent. The American Revolution emerged from the decentralized structure of the colonies. The intellectual culture of the Enlightenment emerged from the decentralized structures of the Holy Roman Empire and the Protestant Reformation. The Greco-Roman civilization of antiquity which served as the petri dish of Western civilization evolved out of the Greek city-state system of the Socratic era.
(I)An-ok is troubled by the reformist/electoralist aspect of my overall strategy. I should emphasize that I do not consider this to be a primary or even tertiary component of my program. Rather, I believe that the “working within the system” dimension of an anti-state movement would be a type of by-product, or side effect, of the impact of a decentralized, grass roots, popular movement working against the state on many different fronts. I specifically state in my article that local or revolutionary politicians cannot be trusted. Rather, I insist that such politicians would be responding only to natural pressures imposed upon them from below by popular organizations and intermediary institutions functioning independently of the state. It is true that I do not completely share the aversion of many anarchists to reformist political activity. I am a Machiavellian. I regard the struggle against the state as a chess game with the aim being the consistent outmaneuvering of one’s enemy for the purpose of continually expanding the sum total of human freedom against the state. Simply ignoring the state rather than directly engaging one’s enemies does not seem strategically feasible.
Perhaps I can clarify my views on this matter by describing the history of my own activities in this area. I have worked with groups that have successfully lobbied against the creation of a death penalty for the distribution of small amounts of drugs. This was something that actually came up in the legislature of my own state of Virginia. I have worked with people who have blocked legislation increasing the penalties for prostitution. I have worked with homeless advocacy groups who have successfully overturned local ordinances attempting to regulate private relief services to death. All of these were serious matters with dire consequences for real world people. Fighting these things by any means necessary seemed to me at the time and continues to seem to be the wise and prudent thing to do. I am not fond of voting and rarely do so. Yet there have been times where this has been a necessary course of action. In 1988, I voted for Bob Dole in the Super Tuesday Republican primary. Why? Because one of Dole’s chief rivals was the Reverend Pat Robertson, a man who had been documented on video and audiotape as stating that only Christian fundamentalists and Zionist Jews should be allowed to hold public office, that alleged telepathic orders given by God should be admissible in court as a criminal defense, that the Bible prophesied of an eventual nuclear Armageddon between the US and the Soviet Union and that Nuremberg Laws against homosexuals should be established. Having a man like that come that close to the Presidency was ominous. (2) Similarly, I voted in the 1994 Senatorial election for Charles Robb, a careerist more interested in pussy and cocaine than ideology, over his opponent, Iran-Contra figure Oliver North, a principal architect of a contingency plan to suspend the US Constitution and impose martial law by executive order under the administration of the Federal Emergency Management Agency. This guy needed to be kept away from high office by whatever means expedient. (3)
(I)An-ok is skeptical of the idea of a mass movement or collective action as a method of fighting the state. For him, this creates too great a potential for the reemergence of the state. I may be understanding his arguments incorrectly, and I apologize if I am indeed doing so, but from the content of his rebuttal it seems as if he opposes not only the state but popular organizations, intermediary institutions and political activism of any kind. All of these involve a form of “authority” and absorb the identity of the individual, thereby becoming prototypes for a new state. He argues that individuals should instead pursue their “own good” and forget about “social goods”. However, I do not believe that “individual goods” and “social goods” can be so easily divorced from one another. Individuals do not exist in a vacuum. The whole idea behind free market economics is that markets provide a means for individuals to voluntarily cooperate for the sake of advancing both their own personal as well as their collective interests. For me to achieve my own “individual” good of not paying taxes, I have to band together with others seeking a similar individual good and collectively we can create the “social” good of a tax-free and therefore more prosperous and stable economy. Virtually all human achievements worth doing have been the result of actively engaging the external world, initiative, effort, cooperation with others, struggle and, in some cases, even sacrifice. It seems to me that if (I)An-ok’s line of thinking was to be taken to its logical conclusion, one would have to argue that medieval subjects who revolted against their lords and whose efforts led to achievements like the Magna Carta were simply wasting their energy. Spartacus shouldn’t have made the effort. Thomas Jefferson was just wasting ink when he wrote the Declaration of Independence. Runaway slaves should have stayed put on the plantation and those who assisted them via the Underground Railroad were just foolish, self-sacrificing altruists. The movement against the war in Vietnam was certainly a mass movement and unfortunately included many statists, yet this movement effectively ended military conscription which has not existed in this country for thirty years now, saved the lives of thousands of American soldiers who would have died had US involvement in the war continued (it was probably too late to do anything for the Southeast Asians), created a culture of increased skepticism of American imperialism that prevented a similar war in Central America in the 1980s, and rattled the government to the point where it fell into traps like COINTELPRO and Watergate that dealt blows to the government’s prestige from which it has still not recovered.
In my article, I specifically mention the need to appeal to the immediate self-interest of those whom we wish to interest in the anti-state cause. I specifically criticized those who focus on ideological or moralistic appeals. I referred to efforts of this type as “evangelical” anarchism. (I)An-ok misunderstands my position on the creation of ideologically diverse coaltions around anti-state issues and consequently ends up comparing apples and oranges. He cites the examples of anarchists who were stabbed in the back by statists at various points in history. For instance, Kronstadt and the Spanish Civil War. Yet the idea of anarchists aligning themselves with Communist armies back by Josef Stalin, as was the case in Spain, is not exactly what I had in mind. I was thinking more of the types of ad-hoc coalitions that form in our own society all the time among diverse groups with common views on a particular issue. For example, the opposition of the National Rifle Association, American Civil Liberties Union, Rutherford Institute and People For the American Way to the USA PATRIOT Act. If a coalition against war with Iraq including everyone from Buchananites to Marxists were to emerge, I think this would be wonderful. As to how this relates to the broader anarchist struggle, when enough coalitions of this type organized around enough anti-state issues triumph, the state will have been rendered obsolete. These issues would of course include everything from opposition to gun laws to tax resistance to dismantling of the police department to private mail delivery. The idea I have in mind is to gradually hollow out the state by stripping it of its functions to the point where it is nothing more that a hollow monolith that subsequently falls by the wayside, kind of like state laws criminalizing adultery and fornication.
(I)An-ok hints that he objects to my use of “ruling class” theory in my analysis. Yet the concept of a ruling class is to be found in the work of many of the most important anarchist and libertarian theorists including Oppenheimer, Nock, Rothbard, Konkin and Hoppe, not to mention the classical anarchists. It should be obvious enough that there are those who are primary beneficiaries of the state and those who are the state’s primary victims. Granted, there are a lot of people in a sort of in-between category, yet I don’t think this discredits the idea that there are indeed classes privileged by the state. This brings us back to my point that individuals do not exist in a vacuum. They seek security, identity, self-preservation, self-advancement and self-actualization in groups of all kinds-businesses, religions, races, cultures, gangs and many other things. I agree with traditionalist conservative thinkers like Russell Kirk and Robert Nisbet that intermediary institutions and associations of this type can also be an important bulwark against the state.
I actually agree with many of (I)An-ok’s criticisms of my own position. I do not think my program is infallible. It has its weaknesses and potential pitfalls. I simply think it is the best option among imperfect choices. (I)An-ok cut his political teeth in the same sort of hard leftist milieu that I did and he has been away from those sort of influences for a much shorter period of time. At the risk of libel, I am going to suggest that perhaps he still carries some of that baggage. For example, he speaks of “authority” and “domination” and emphasizes a change in individual thought processes and behavior. While certainly thinking for one’s self, striving for intellectual clarity and consistency and using means that are compatible with the ends one wishes to pursue are important, I do not think a focus of this type effectively addresses the problem of power itself. Nock conceived of human social history as an ongoing battle between liberty and power. For power to be combatted, it has to first be engaged. (I)An-ok’s approach seems to smack of a type of retreatism where “anarchism” is just another lifestyle matter along the lines of vegetarianism or yoga. Implicit in his view is a type of quasi-Hegelian, progressivist view of history and a Rousseauan conception of the alleged plasticity of human nature so common to many with leftist roots. According to this view, if only human beings were to become enlightened by education or ideology, or a better set of social institutions, then the species might achieve a permanently higher level of evolution towards moral perfection, however defined. This approach seems to me to ignore the problem of what the theologians call “original sin” or what a secular Hobbesian like myself might call “the predator instinct”. Human beings can improve themselves through effort to be sure. Few, if any, current human cultures regard human sacrifice as a sacrament. Yet compared to the gas chamber and gulag states of recent history, even the Aztecs look like a model of easy going mellowness. Incidentally, if you believe the people who built those gas chambers were all insane, then you’re probably as crazy as you think they were. To live as a civilized man requires effort and discipline which many do not seem to be able to obtain. For this reason, human beings in the possession of power will always be exceedingly dangerous. Hobbes drew the wrong conclusion from his otherwise perceptive analysis. Power is a naturally occurring phenonenom, like gravity or the earth’s orbit around the sun, that cannot be wished away, legistlated away, educated away, confined to a bottle by a Leviathan state or disengaged from through lifestyle changes. At the time of the American Revolution, Jefferson recognized that the achievements of the revolution would not be permanent. As he put it:
“The spirit of the times may alter, will alter. Our leaders will become corrupt, our people careless…From the conclusion of this war we shall be going downhill. (The people) will be forgotten…their rights disregarded. They will forget themselves in the sole faculty of making money, and will never think of uniting to effect a due respect for their rights.” (4)
Sounds familiar, doesn’t it? It was not for no reason that Jefferson insisted that “eternal vigilance is the price of liberty”. Even the sophisticated anarchy of medieval Iceland lasted only a few centuries before succumbing to statism. (5) As the anarchist anthropologist Harold Barclay reminds us:
“(There is) a perpetual struggle between ‘freedom’ and ‘authority’; neither one of which will be annihilated. It appears, indeed, that we are left with a politics of perpetual protest. There cannot be any point at which those dedicated to liberty can sit back in security and assume the world is in peace, harmony and freedom…(E)ven if anarchy were to be achieved, eternal vigilance would be the bare minimum price for a modicum of success…(T)here is no final battle. The battle is forever.” (6)
1) A number of scholars, including Peter Dale Scott, John Stockwell, Noam Chomsky and Johann Galtung, have concluded independently of one another that the CIA alone has been responsible for the death of six million people worlwide. This is a phenomenal stastistic when we consider this is the same amount commonly believed to have died in the Holocaust.
2) “Salvation For Sale”, by Gerard Thomas Straub. “The Mind of the Bible-Believer”, by Edmund D. Cohen.
3) “Drug Warriors and Their Prey: From Police Power to Police State” by Richard Lawrence Miller. “Out of Control” by Leslie Cockburn.
4) quoted in “Anarchism and American Traditions” by Voltairine de Cleyre.
5) The Icelandic anarchy is described in detail by Harold Barclay in “People Without Government: An Anthropology of Anarchy”.
6) Barclay, p.150