A Force Much Fiercer

August 31, 2011

If an armed band of brigands is determined to take your land, or your crops, or your resources, or impress you and your friends and family into slavery, or establish some other kind of permanent control or direction over all of you, you can hardly prevent them from doing so just by ignoring them. You have to repel them and defeat them.

Now I suppose you can succeed here and there in repelling and defeating threats by adventitiously banding together temporarily into an organized, rule-governed unit for that limited purpose, and then dissolving back into a less organized form of existence. But the threats are persistent and many, and it’s both inefficient and ineffective to keep forming and dissolving units of organized power only when threats arise. For one thing, you will want to deter threats from acting against you in the first place, rather than continue paying the high price of only banding together and acting once threats have arisen, and have begun to do their damage. The practical thing to do is to preserve the band as an organized society; to debate, refine and improve the rules under which you live and organize your cooperative activity and common life; and to establish settled practices for keeping these rules and in place. And then you are a government.

Nope. This is the problem underpinning Dan Kervick’s whole line of thinking here (along with that of people like Gus diZerega and others in the state-as-self-organizing-network camp). He has convinced himself that anarchism is the lack of persistent institutions or organizations because he seemingly defines governments or states as any persistent institution or organization. Either that or he thinks this is the case in matters of large-scale defense. But why should we accept this? I find that to be a weird way to think of it.

If you’re going to tell an anarchist that they don’t really oppose the state if they support any kind of “organized, rule-governed unit” for defense (as Kervick suggests is prudent), then it probably helps to know what they mean by a “government” or “state”:

I won’t hazard a definition of either “government” or “state” here, but some essential features can be described. States have governments, and governments, as such, claim authority over a defined range of territory and citizens. Governments claim the right to issue legitimate orders to anyone subject to them, and to use force to compel obedience. But governments claim more than that: after all, I have the right to order you out of my house, and to shove you out if you won’t go quietly. Governments claim supreme authority over legally enforceable claims within their territory; while I have a right to order you off my property, a government claims the right to make and enforce decisive, final, and exclusive orders on questions of legal right—for example, whether it is my property, if there is a dispute, or whether you have a right to stay there. That means the right to review, and possibly to overturn or punish, my demands on you—to decisively settle the dispute, to enforce the settlement over anyone’s objections, and deny to anyone outside the government the right to supersede their final say on it. Some governments—the totalitarian ones—assert supreme authority over every aspect of life within their borders; but a “limited government” asserts authority only over a defined range of issues, often enumerated in a written constitution. Minarchists argue not only that governments should be limited in their authority, but specifically that the supreme authority of governments should be limited to the adjudication of disputes over individual rights, and the organized enforcement of those rights. But even the most minimal minarchy, at some point, must claim its citizens’ exclusive allegiance—they must love, honor and obey, forsaking all others, or else they deny the government the prerogative of sovereignty. And a “government” without sovereign legal authority is no government at all.

-Charles “Rad Geek” Johnson, “Liberty, Equality, Solidarity: Toward a Dialectical Anarchism”

Kervick has not demonstrated that simply reaching the point where an institution is “preserved,” where there are “settled practices,” or where there is enough continuity to “deter threats” requires anything of the sort Rad Geek describes. If an organization hangs together despite lacking these essential features, then it is not a state, but anarchy. If we accept, as Kervick says further down, that “[objectionable forms of bondage or coercion] are only actively prevented by an organized power that has more coercive heft than the potential oppressors” then why must we also accept that this can only take the form of something with sovereign legal authority?

For example, all kinds of forms of male domination and female subjugation that existed just a few decades ago have been altered and pushed back in the US and other societies.  That’s in large part because many of the constitutive practices of male domination are now illegal, and the institutions and claims of right that once underpinned these practices have been abolished.  Those who seek to engage in those practices, and there are many who do, are now thwarted by the law and by the imposition of punishment, or at least the threat of punishment, on a continuing basis.  So if this is a triumph on behalf of liberty, it is a triumph of democratic government and the rule of democratic law.

Why is this any more likely to be the case than the idea that the Civil Rights Act is in large part the reason that many of the constitutive practices of racism “have been altered and pushed back in the US and other societies”?

And none of these changes would ever have occurred without the extension of the voting franchise to women.

Yes, it’s probably true that legislative changes would not have occurred without the extension of the voting franchise to women. That’s very different from saying that any change would never have occurred without the extension of the voting franchise to women. (I say this not to suggest that women shouldn’t have obtained the right to vote when men continued to have it, but rather that a sovereign legal authority that uses voting shouldn’t exist and that this state of affairs would be better at ending patriarchal domination.) Yes, men face threats of legal force to curb their domination. To the extent that this domination is a violation of rights, they should. But to the extent that it isn’t, they “should face a force much fiercer and more meaningful—the full force of voluntary social organization and a culture of equality.”

In addition to these kinds of consequentialist considerations, (to quote Rad Geek again, somewhat out of context):

But even if you concede that immediate repeal of statist controls, without the preconditions in place, would eventually result in disaster, rather than cultural adaptation … you would need to add some kind of further moral argument that would show that people are entitled to continue invading the rights of other people in order to maintain a particular standard of living, or to stave off aggression that would otherwise be committed by some unrelated third party at some point in the future.

Rad Geek is speaking here against gradualism as a strategy for moving toward statelessness but I think the moral (no pun intended) applies as well to the question of whether we should move there at all. From the perspective of the anarchist, you are arguing that we should trade coercion for coercion, and that, in light of the idea that it doesn’t need to be a choice, isn’t a very appealing argument.

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