Sunday, September 18, 2011

Blogging our way to social transformation (or: How to change the world)

How do we get from here to there? That is, how do those of us who preach the virtues of neighborhood solidarity and mutual aid propose transitioning from a world where people tend to live atomistically and rely on government programs for support in times of misfortune to a society where people can lean on those in their our community?

It's a tough question and one posed by a recent post from Jim Henley pointing out some of the problems with conservatives who argue private charities can fill the void for social welfare programs they – and many Democrats, don't forget – would like to slash. However much we would it not to be so, charities today lack the capacity to deal with the problems of poverty and inadequate health care currently besetting a nation of 300 million.

The chief problem with conservatives appealing to voluntarism and making the let-them-rely-on-charity argument is that those on the right would by and large only like to cut those aspects of government that, however modestly, actually help people, while at the same time keeping intact the multitude of state-granted corporate privileges, from patent monopolies to corporate personhood, that impoverishes them.

Those of us on the more radical end of the spectrum don't have that problem. When we speak of a post-welfare state society, we're not imagining the status quo minus the social safety net, but rather a world where intellectual property doesn't exist, the corporation doesn't exist, and where private property isn't a sacrosanct right that entitles one person to exploit natural resources for their own personal gain while those around them are mired in poverty.

If I had to quibble with Henley's post – and this is the Internet, so I must – it would be his suggestion that left-libertarians and anarchists have any desire to form an “anti-welfare state coalition” with those on the right whose idea of a more perfect society is the status quo but with Bill Gates at the helm. An anti-warfare state coalition? Sure, by all means: let's invite all the conservatives and liberals and libertarians who oppose empire out to the next anti-war rally. But no anti-state leftists I know are interested in slashing the social safety, at least not until after we're done smashing corporate privilege.

Oh, but we radicals have a problem of our own, let's not kid ourselves: our ideal society largely exists in our imagination. And though our radicalism gives us more street cred, how the hell do we institute the more radical change that we seek?

I certainly wish I had an easy answer to that. While I'll admit to some residual fondness for pointless third party runs, I don't think electoral politics is the way to go, and I certainly don't think there's much hope in reforming either the Democratic or, clearly, the Republican Party. I'm not in the business of condemning people as sinners if they do participate -- partisan cheerleading is a different story -- as our options suck and people are often at a loss of what else to do. I just think the time and resources that go into elections could be put to better use actually building the institutions of the world we'd like to live in.

So far, what I've got is essentially living one's life as an example to others. Reject violence, including in your language. Volunteer. Build up the organizations you'd like to see fill the void left by slashed government social programs. Turn your back on materialism and live frugally. Basically, be the person you would like to see more of in society. What we need isn't some anarchist political revolution, we need an anarchist social revolution: we need a society of anarchists. Help make them.

Will it take a long time? Absolutely. But reducing coercion in our society is a worthy goal that, however much it might seem hopeless and as fruitful as tilting at windmills sometimes, is something worth pursuing in and of itself. I agree with Henley that American culture as it exists right now isn't terribly conducive to an anarchist, consensus-based society. But I would counter that, with bipartisan agreement that the social safety net needs to be slashed, it isn't conducive to social democracy either, so if we're playing the who's-more-realistic game, I'd call a draw.

For a long time, the institution of slavery was held up as just and right, as something that, because it had been around for thousands of years, was the fruit of inalterable Human Nature that wouldn't be going anywhere anytime soon, hippie. Abolitionists were pretty much the silly, limp-wristed idealists of their day. But, slowly, opinion began to change. And while we still have plenty of repression in our society, people no longer leap to the defense of the outright enslavement of other human beings.

Social transformation is long, arduous process. But the same change in opinion that took place with slavery can, I believe, take place with how a society views the use of violence and voluntary communalism; the hierarchies and coercion accepted as normal today need not, and I trust will not, be accepted as such forever. For now, the task of the radical is to educate people on the evils of violence, be it perpetrated by individuals or states, and the benefits of cooperation. More important than evangelism, though, is to live life in the manner you would like others to live; people tend to respond better to actions than sermons.

Transforming society will take time but, at the risk of provoking groans, anything worth fighting for usually does. And I haven't heard any better ideas.

UPDATE: Some liberals really don't like it when you suggest that, perhaps, electing more and better Democrats isn't the best or only way to affect radical social change. Here's how American Prospect writer Jamelle Bouie interprets this piece:

At least I know they're reading.


  1. Yeah, things are tough all over. I'm just a hard leftist, not an anarchist, but I see how hard it would be to even come close to social democracy. Although there is one Senator already in the fold. I'm not going to give up on electoral politics, but I will concentrate on reforming elections, not electing candidates. Instant Runoff Voting could allow viable third candidates and eventually parties. It's bubbling up from cities right now. National Popular Vote would be a step towards ending the ridiculous malapportionment of the Senate. (okay a small one) that's my two cents.

    The third cent is a suggestion. I hope you're writing a book down there. Your opportunity cost and overhead are extremely low right now.

  2. Great essay, Charles. It reminds me of what Buckminster Fuller said, which is pretty much the thesis statement of my entire world view: "You never change things by fighting the existing reality. To change something, build a new model that makes the existing model obsolete."

  3. I like the post, but I'm not convinced by your analysis. The radical left (quite correctly) attacks Democrats for collaborating in the dismantling of the welfare state. But the anarchist left (which is really the only exciting game in town when it comes to the left these days) opposes the social democratic politics that create these hoary old programs in the first place. I'll accept, for the sake of argument, that the welfare state is functionally just a handful of peanuts the elites choose to toss to the subordinated classes. But those peanuts make a very real difference in people's lives. If we minimize that fact we risk alienating our discourse from the very multitudes we hope to organize and mobilize. Por ejemplo, when the EZLN demands that its affiliated autonomous communities reject government schools and clinics, those communities very often reject the EZLN instead. And who can blame 'em?

  4. Adrian,

    Didn't I say the same thing? I'm not sure where I minimized the difference the existing social safety net provides to some people. I started with the premise that we shouldn't cut it and shouldn't ally with those who would, while at the same time we should work on building up the mutual aid networks to help those still falling through the cracks and to eventually supersede what the state provides. I don't really see the disagreement.

  5. Adrian10:55 PM

    I think we all agree we're opposed to slashing social services. But can our positive program include fighting FOR an extension of unemployment benefits, nutrition assistance, etc.? Or is that just the road to establishment liberalism? It's an honest question; I don't have a clear answer.

  6. This is very good, Charles - as was Jim's post to which you link. I'm blogging Gary Chartier's book right now, and I'll hopefully find a way to tie into this post. There's a very important space between statist (I hate that term) leftism and anarchist leftism that needs more exploring - something's missing for me still and you've helped me steer a little closer in right direction.

  7. I think it's possible to fight for the Commons, as Commons - even though they are currently captured by the various iterations of the State.

    And that's how we ought to present it, as well.

    The State obviously has its policing, warmaking, punitive and property protecting functions, serving as the long arm of the ruling class in protecting their prerogatives.

    But, it also exists to recapture publicly created wealth which the ruling class was forced to cede, or which it failed to seize in the first.

    Any struggle to protect the provision of welfare, or the maintenance of schools (even the horrible mandatory ones), or the national and state parks system is best understood as a fight to protect the public wealth which the State regularly steals by way of force, fraud and law.

    The issue is less confusing - perhaps despite objections from right-leaning libertarians who cannot distinguish what the government does from what it has stolen - if we differentiate the captured Commons from the punitive functions of the State.

    Or something like that.

  8. So far, what I've got is essentially living one's life as an example to others.

    This is absolutely correct and we are inevitably led to this conclusion if we think far enough.

    We could fight for the extension of unemployment benefits but what will people do when they run out? They need jobs that don't depend on the largess of big business. It is inevitable that we will create an alternate system to serve the needs of those pushed out of our winner-take-all capitalism.

    We could try to reform the political process but we have been working within it for decades and are still losing civil rights and economic power. We no longer have enough money to win against monied interests and we have already reached the point in which we cannot gain any power through political means. We just refuse to admit it and send good money after bad.

    The only power we have left is the power of choice. The only thing we can control is our own actions. Therefore the only thing that counts at this point is making the right choices and turning our backs on a society that demands we make the wrong choices in exchange for the false hope of gaining power some time in the future, as long as we obey now.

    We will either stand up for each other or we will live on our knees for the powerful to use and abuse.

  9. To build on Jack's point, I think as anarchists, we should tactically be opposed to the federal government as a governing body. The administrative infrastructure, read social safety nets, could be decoupled from the political decision making body, which should be destroyed.

    Recurse over this process over time. The country dissolves into several mini countries (likely groups of states formed into one entity). Then work on breaking down those countries as political and judicial authorities, and continue recursing until you are left with autonomous local economies who determine the rules and regulations of their locality while maintaining trade and social relations with other local economies.

    "So far, what I've got is essentially living one's life as an example to others. Reject violence, including in your language. Volunteer. Build up the organizations you'd like to see fill the void left by slashed government social programs. Turn your back on materialism and live frugally. Basically, be the person you would like to see more of in society. What we need isn't some anarchist political revolution, we need an anarchist social revolution: we need a society of anarchists. Help make them."

    I highlight this for the reject violence part. I agree with you on Tuesday and disagree on Wednesday. The Nation State was built with colonial violence. Another way of saying this is that where the nation state encountered alternatives to its order as it expanded its scope, it used violence to destroy those alternatives. It is likely that should people like you or us actually begin creating alternatives within it, it will react violently to destroy them. If that is true, and I live to see it, I would have no qualms defending myself with violence.

  10. As an anarchist, this kind of makes me want to turn socialist...

  11. Mark,
    Back when I was not an anarchist, but merely a democratic-socialistic Naderite, I developed an unhealthy obsession with alternative voting systems, some of them batshit crazy in their convolution (you should check out the Schulze method if you get the urge for your head to explode). Eventually I realized that the trouble with all alternative voting systems is unless you've already reformed ballot access, campaign finance, corporate media influence, debates dictated by the two parties, etc., you're actually neutralizing what little impact third/independent would have. That is, the very point of these runs is to "steal" votes and hurt one of the two parties, therefore bending their platform to your will. IRV neutralizes this impact, because all the third party candidate votes would go to the second ranked two party system eventually. Frankly, I'm surprised the two parties haven't pushed for this themselves - let the Nader's/Perot's of the world have their little glamour runs, soak up the votes anyway.

    By all means, fight for things like public financing (it's the only electoral engagement I'm even remotely interested in anymore), but I'd think twice about IRV if I were you.

  12. Brian M9:33 AM

    I just don't know.

    I am definitely adrift in anomie, so I'm not sure I find your ethos that comforting.

    I see your world as an island of small towns, authoritarian in their own, perhaps more stifling ways even if there is not a "Big Government" lording over it. Is the village, tribalism, or hunting and gathering clan, where everyone not only looks after everyone else but also knows everything about you, the only or best social structure?

    Amusing article today in the (evil, I know) New York Times about how local internet discussion boards are taking small town intrusiveness to new levels.

  13. Brian M9:37 AM

    Especially as many, if not most, of these alternative social networks will often, based on history, be authoritarian religious cults or ethnic gangs. Is social peace more likely in such a setting? I don't know.

    I'm not being a concern troll here (at least not on purpose). I am honestly struggling with this, because the basic ethos of "small is beautiful", anti-violence, etc. is appealing...and more so than traditional "marxist leftist" statism. I just keep flashing back to the Neil Stephenson novel, The Diamond Age.

  14. Brian M9:42 AM

    Justin: What about the reality that in American history, in a significant chunk of the country, the federal government, flawed as it was, was the force for liberation in many ways? Effectively, the devolved mini-states that existed in the Deep South did not seem to be going away or breaking down until they were forced to by federal intervention, flawed as it may be and have been?

    I more multiple posts.

  15. Brian,

    I don't think it's true at all to say that historically many, "if not most," alternatives to the state have been based on religious cults or ethnic gangs. If you read Peter Kropotkin's Mutual Aid, I think you'll find a pretty persuasive case that historically such alternatives have arisen out of broad community needs. I'd argue the modern-nation state and the jingoistic nationalism that comes with it is more akin to a cult or gang.

    And while I believe decentralization is wise for political institutions, I envision those institutions accompanying a more interconnected where solidarity transcends geography, no longer hindered by nationalistic prejudice.

    Finally, you're right that some states in the U.S. have pursued reactionary policies that the federal government has stepped in to address. But I'd point out that powerful central governments have more often than not been reactionary forces capable of imposing evil on a massive scale; the same federal government that stepped in to stop segregation also upheld and helped sustain slavery, even requiring abolitionist states to return fugitive slaves -- and now it's created a situation where more African-American men are imprisoned than were ever enslaved. Large nation-states are also capable of carrying out aggressive military campaigns and maintaining violent global empires that places like, say, the Republic of Vermont, would be unable to even if they so desired.

    Also, while any state is capable of repression and I'd like to see them all done away with, at least with decentralism that repression is limited. Rick Perry could become the president of Texas, for instance, but not of a nation of 300 million like he can. And there are many ways to fight repression that don't entail a powerful central state, from strikes to boycotts to voting with one's feet, which is easier to do from state-to-state than massive nation-to-nation.

    Anyway, I appreciate the questions as I'm still trying to figure this stuff out myself.

  16. Brian M7:56 AM

    Thanks, Charles. I probably could make many of those arguments myself but it's good to read them so clearly articulated.

    I always shock my friends when I pompously announce that "Lincoln was wrong" vis a vis strneghtening the centralized state, which is what the Civil War did. :)

    I really enjoy your blog, so keep up the good work!

  17. Well said. I think the change starts individually and hopefully will spread to those closest to us.

  18. So long as the state is redistributing the wealth upward from workers to rentiers with a backhoe, safety net programs that give back a tiny fraction of this wealth to the underclass with a teaspoon are the least of my worries. Do away with state-enforced privileges and monopolies, and barriers to comfortable subsistence and self-employment, and the safety net will become mostly a moot point.

  19. Brian M10:45 AM

    Hey Charles, this is amusing.

    I am actually arguing YOUR "side" to a degree here! So I am not merely a concern troll!


  20. Anonymous10:51 AM

    You say that one must give up violence, in both their words and deeds, but then you talk about the social transformation that led to the end of slavery, but that practice died only through the imposition of laws, which are inherently backed by the monopoly of violence of the State, or through direct violent actions against the slaveholders.

    Claiming that individuals can change the world by just becoming better individuals themselves sounds lovely, but change is the act of groups, whether they are led by a charismatic single individual or not, and all change is a form of violence, as it destroys what once existed.

  21. "[Slavery] died only through the imposition of laws..."

    Slavery was upheld through the imposition of laws -- laws, like the Fugitive Slave Act, that were even imposed on non-slaveholding states. It's when the state stopped imposing these laws that slavery was ended.

    As for, "Claiming that individuals can change the world by just becoming better individuals," yeah, I'm not arguing that. Change comes when a critical mass of people share one's values, which I argue comes not from electing more and better politicians, but by setting examples and creating the world you'd like to live in. One need not live in an anarchistic world to live as an anarchist. People like Henry David Thoreau showed that.

    And the change I seek isn't the kind that could be led by a "charismatic single individual" -- I'm not pursuing change for change's sake. I'm seeking a world that doesn't rely on violence; one based more on consensus and less on coercion. Such a world isn't achieved through aggressive violence.

  22. This might be relevant: