Reply to Brian Oliver Shepard’s "Anarchism vs Right-Wing Anti-Statism"

Brian Oliver Sheppard’s timely and poignant article “Anarchism vs. Right-Wing ‘Anti-Statism” correctly points out the failure of the anarchist movement to provide an adequate response to and critique of the attacks on so-called “Big Government” that are so widespread in contemporary American political culture. Both Democrats and Republicans, liberals and conservatives, play at this game, hoping that the use of such rhetoric will serve to marshal popular frustration with ever-widening repression towards hypocritical and demagogic politicians promising to “end big government as we know it”. Sheppard points out the sham behind such rhetoric eloquently. Now more than ever, anarchists need to develop a comprehensive and penetrating critique of the role of the state as a self-imposed monopoly of armed, coercive force that exists for the purpose of protecting and expanding class privilege and exploitation, war and imperialism, racism and tyranny.

Perhaps some of my own past experiences could be helpful here. About a decade ago, I was on a television talk show discussing anarchism with the show’s host, a notorious liberal, and another guest, a Libertarian Party member. The more I attacked government, the more the host would reply, “God, you’re starting to sound a lot like Ronald Reagan”. I was left in the position of having to explain, through sound bite, the difference between the mercantilist, corporatist, fake “anti-statism” of the Republican-oriented Right and the genuinely liberatory class struggle traditions of classical anarchism. I am still having this debate with “conservative” minded relatives and associates who utterly fail to grasp the elitist, classist nature of the “antigovernment” rhetoric of mainstream political figures. I currently co-host a talk show on a public access cable channel and sometimes confused callers and letter writers will ask, “How can you be against government and corporations at the same time?” or “Don’t you know that without government we would all be at the mercy of corporate predators?” Persons who think this way, whether from the left or the right, are showing that they have fallen victim to the false dichotomy between state and corporate power created by established state-capitalist ideology. If anarchists are going to win this debate, it is essential that we develop a system of analysis that consistently and effectively debunks the pseudo-analysis put forth by the apologists for the system.

The American political/economic system might be best described as “state-capitalism” ( as Noam Chomksy calls it) or “corporate socialism” ( a term Russell Means of AIM prefers to use). The primary purpose of the state is to maintain a monopoly of force over a particular geographical area, suppress internal dissent of any effectiveness and promote American imperial interests in other parts of the world. Economically, the U.S. system is a form of advanced mercantilism or, again quoting Chomsky, a “welfare state for the rich”. Irrespective of rhetoric to the contrary, the U.S. elite class wants neither a genuine “free market” nor a genuine “socialism”. Market discipline is to be used only to keep the proles in line. Subsidy and protection are the main orders of business for the state-corporate elite. On these points, I believe most anarchists would agree. Current “anti-state” rhetoric utitilized by spokespersons for elite class interests represents a shift in elite class strategy for subjugation of the masses that has been taking place over the last quarter century. It is important that these matters be recognized and effectively addressed and, in the process, a number of flaws in contemporary anarchist thought and rhetoric might be detected. By “flaw”, I am referring to the acquiescence of so many anarchists on the question of the so-called welfare state.

A dozen years ago, I would have argued ( even though I was a left-anarchist at the time and still am) that a welfare state and its various trappings ( social security, “public” housing, “public” schools, state-paid medical care, “civil rights” legistlation, etc.) were a necessary and vital part of the transitional phase between capitalism and a worker-controlled, socialized economy. I viewed “progressive” legistlation and “big government programs” (as the right likes to call them) as forms of concession gained from elite class interests. I now believe that I was profoundly mistaken due to my own naivete and ignorance of political and economic history. This is the position that many anarchists, including Chomsky, continue to maintain and Sheppard hints that this is his position as well. However, I feel that a position of this type is woefully inadequate in the formulation of a comprehensive anarchist critique of state and corporate power. Before I explain my position further, I want to digress a bit and mention what, I believe, has been a serious mistake that anarchists have made throughout much of our history. Namely, our reliance on Marxist analysis for economic guidance and our understanding of political economy.

For Marxists (including Marx himself if I read him correctly), the state is simply an expression of capitalist class power. The state is the capitalists’ political arm, its “executive committee”, as I think old Karl once described it. The solution to the problem of class exploitation is for the workers and their allies to simply seize control of the state and convert it into an instrument of working class power, a “workers’ state”. However, this position, as anarchists from Bakunin onward pointed out, ignores the essentially coercive and authoritarian nature of the state, whether feudal, capitalist, socialist or whatever. As anarchists, we oppose not just capitalist power and authority but power and authority of any kind. This fatal error in the realm of class analysis employed by many anarchists ( including myself at one point) has brought us to the point where, I believe, we have often ended up taking contradictory and, to an outside observer, seemingly absurd positions on the role of state intervention in the economy. It is not enough for anarchists to take positions on economics virtually indistinguishable from those of liberals or even Communists (our historical archenemies). A better approach is needed.

The purpose of the welfare states maintained by state-capitalist regimes is not to assist the workers and the poor but to coopt, subjugate, weaken and control them. Historically, as modern welfare states have expanded, genuinely revolutionary workers movements have declined. Ideologically, the earliest proponents of the welfare state were elite class intellectuals such as the utilitarians Jeremy Bentham and John Stuart Mill. These and others like them viewed welfare states as a means of controlling and pacifying the unruly masses. The first modern welfare state was the military dictatorship of Otto von Bismarck, who implemented a social security system as a means of inculcating allegiance to and piety towards the state among the general population. The American version of the welfare state ( admittedly pale by world standards) began as a response to the labor upheavals of the twenties and thirties. What purposes of population control do the various features of the welfare state serve?

State-assistance programs condition the people to regard the state as a benefactor, a type of bureaucratic “sugar daddy”, rather than as an instrument of their own exploitation and repression. I once had an elderly relative ask me, “Why would you want to overthrow the government when they do so much good for us like social security, school lunch programs, student loans….” and on and on. The welfare state is used by the elite class to create dependency by the masses on themselves thereby weakening their spirit of resistance. Those who feed you can control you. Of course, this does not mean that we adopt the standard right-wing line of blaming the poor for their own exploitation at the hands of the welfare state created by the elite class. Rather, it means that we work for the empowerment of the people rather than the bureaucracy. What should the stance of the anarchists in regards to the welfare state be?

For starters, we should follow the advice of the late Sam Dolgoff who maintained that workers should demand their entire pay without deductions of any kind ( income taxes, social security, corporate insurance programs) and instead create our own health care, old age, disability, etc. programs under our control through our own mutual aid and solidarity organizations ( unions, cooperatives, clubs, community groups). We need to organize claimants’ unions for the recipients of “public” assistance and demand direct cash payments to the beneficiaries themselves rather than vouchers, coupons and stamps issued by government agencies. “Public” schools, institutions created for the purpose of indoctrinating children with elite class ideology, should be scrapped in favor of progressive educational services established by our own working class oriented revolutionary organizations ( perhaps modeled after Summerhill or the Modern School). Workers organizations should demand the expulsion of both corporate overseers and government sponsored “regulatory” bureaucrats from our workplaces in favor of direct self-management and self-regulation by the workers themselves. “Public” housing authorities should be scrapped, their offices destroyed, and tenants should assume direct management of their own housing facilities. These same principles would, of course, apply to tenants renting from “private” landlords, the self-employed and farmers dealing with state-supervisory agencies, consumers’ interests and so on. The final aim, of course, should be the dismantling of the false dichotomy between the “public” and “private” sectors and the socialization and communalization of state and corporate resources under the direct control of our worker, consumer, tenant and community organizations.

As I mentioned, current “antigovernment” rhetoric employed by elite class mouthpieces represents, I believe, a certain laziness and complacency that the “powers that be” have sunken into. So successful have their efforts of the past thirty years to coopt and subjugate the people through social democratic welfare state policies that they no longer think it is worth the bother. They no longer see the need to even put on the charade of maternalistic government, which they view as costly and not generating enough profits for corporate interests in the same way that the rapidly expanding prison-industrial complex and other recently emergent forms of repression are doing. Consequently, we see renewed attacks on our class in every area. Gentrification and “urban revitalization” are displacing the traditional urban poor. “Welfare reform” is displacing those enslaved to the state via “public assistance”. Nearly ten million people have been dispossessed of their traditional lands across the farm belt of the American heartland. Three million people, perhaps more, are living in the street and repression against the homeless is rising. One in thirty people, perhaps more, are in the direct clutches of the state by means of the prison-industrial complex and the repressive apparatus of so-called “criminal justice”. The availability, affordability and quality of health care has declined due the centralization of health care services under oligopolistic HMO’s. Now that U.S. warmongering and imperialism can no longer be justified with shallow Cold War rhetoric, the American regime simply undertakes violent assaults on other societies on whatever whim it fancies at the moment or for no apparent reason at all. The elite class is creating a powder keg that will eventually erupt in a rather big way.

Although I agree with Sheppard’s analysis of elite class “antigovernment” propaganda, I disagree with his apparent failure to distinguish between the corporatist, mercantilist, semifascist Republican oriented right-wing on one hand and the more populist, decentralist, libertarian right on the other. To illustrate this distinction I would refer to a statement issued by Ted Kaczynski regarding his conversations with Tim McVeigh at the federal prison where they were both being held:

“McVeigh told me of his idea (which I think may have significant merit) that certain rebellious  elements on the American right and left respectively had more in common with one another than is commonly realized, and that the two groups ought to join forces. This led us to discuss, though only briefly, the question of what constitutes the ‘right’. I pointed out that the word ‘right’, in the political sense, was originally associated with authoritariansim, and I raised the question of why certain radically anti-authoritarian groups ( such as the Montana Freemen) were lumped together with authoritarian factions as the ‘right’. McVeigh explained that the American far right could be roughly divided into two branches, the fascist/racist branch, and the individualistic or “freedom-” loving branch which generally was not racist. ( Ted Kaczynski, quoted in American Terrorist, by Lou Michel and Dan Herbeck)

When two individuals who, as much as anyone else, have given their lives and freedom to take up arms against the system, suggest a libertarian-left/libertarian-right collaboration, perhaps we should give them ear (1). I have had rather extensive contact with the militia/patriot movement and other similar elements, so perhaps I could shed some light on these matters for anarchists. The overwhelming majority of militia members and right-libertarian populists are not racists. The racist element in the militia movement is largely confined to small groups, usually consisting of four or five people, who comprise, at best, ten percent of the movement and are steadily disavowed by other militia groups. Most organized hate groups specifically oppose the militias because they are antigovernment rather than anti-Jewish or anti-African. Militias have essentially the same enemies that we do-government, corporations, banks, cops, prisons, schools, the corporate media, the military-industrial complex, etc. The difference is primarily cultural. Anarchists stand for the liberation of all the oppressed regardless of national or cultural identity. Militia/patriot people view themselves as standing for “American values” which they regard as the Jeffersonian/classical liberal idea of “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness” and all that. Now, this might seem quaint and childish to us but it is hardly ominous. Many of these people are also strong cultural conservatives and, predictably, have less than enlightened views on feminism, gay/lesbian issues, religion, but no more so than many ordinary Palestinians, Iraqis or, for that matter, American trade unionists, many African-American and Hispanic-American working class males, many prisoners, traditional Catholic Latin American peasants and plenty of others whose struggles we would otherwise support. I’ve seen more than a few militia people reading Noam Chomsky, Michael Parenti, William Blum and other similar writers. Most patriot groups I have encountered generally favor a decentralized society, extensive individual freedom, abolition of state-run militaries in favor of a volunteer civilian militia, a common law legal system based on neogtiation between contending parties, and other similar ideas that are not quite so far removed from those of many anarchists. They typically oppose the drug war, the prison industry, U.S. imperialism and the corporate-state. I have seen militia publications criticizing the police attack on the MOVE group in Philadelphia in 1985. There is an all-African militia in Detroit and similar groups in other cities. Many militia people express sympathy for the EZLN, IRA, PLO, the Black Panthers and AIM. We do ourselves a disservice by dismissing these people so cavalierly. We need to expand our outreach efforts and find new allies whenever and wherever we can whether they be left-wing, right-wing or no wing at all.

Note: (1) Although I am pro-armed struggle, I disagree with the specific actions taken by both McVeigh and Kaczynski. McVeigh killed people who had absolutely nothing to do with any of the issues including office workers, janitors, truck drivers and children. Kaczynski’s targets were mostly small fish only peripherally connected to the problems he perceived.

Copyright 2001. American Revolutionary Vanguard. All rights reserved.

Leave a Reply