Mutualist Blog: Free Market Anti-Capitalism
To dissolve, submerge, and cause to disappear the political or governmental system in the economic system by reducing, simplifying, decentralizing and suppressing, one after another, all the wheels of this great machine, which is called the Government or the State. --Proudhon, General Idea of the Revolution
- Name: Kevin Carson
- Location: Northwest Arkansas, United States
Friday, May 29, 2009
Friday, May 22, 2009
Thursday, May 21, 2009
An Open Letter to Keith Preston
It was suggested to me some time ago that my blogroll linkage to Keith Preston, of the Attack the System blog, placed me in the uncomfortable position of endorsing someone whose values I do not share.
More than anything else, Keith pushes a sort of meta-strategy for anarchism which aims at pluralism and ecumenicalism and which suggests that all anti-state tendencies ought to unite against the principal enemy of liberty, the state itself, in preference to choosing lesser targets of activist action such as sexism, racism, homophobia and so on. The biggest tent possible, in other words, for the advance of anarchism as anti-statism, absent the baggage of a myriad of other issues.
Of itself, I believe this has great strategic value.
In his posting yesterday, though, Keith unambiguously betrays his own ugly prejudices in a bilious piece entitled “Is Extremism in the Defense of Sodomy No Vice?“
My views are identical to Mike's. I expressed them in a letter to Keith Preston:
It's hard for me to do this--not only because of your early help to me in publishing my work online, and because of your very kind support and promotion over the years, but (as Mike Gogulski said in his recent post) you have an amazing mind and have written much of incomparable value.
But I believe the line you crossed in this recent post puts me in a position where I cannot in good conscience remain silent:
I have consistently defended you against the charges of fascism, racism, homophobia, and all the rest of it, that arose in response to your "big tent" strategy of offering solidarity to secessionists of all kinds. I still think you went too far in promoting active solidarity with national anarchist groups and racists. But I also still agree with your general assessment back then that the corporate state and Empire presented an extreme danger, and that religious and racialist separatists had no credible ability to enforce authoritarian rule on a local level. In fact I supported a weaker version of the same strategy, seeking common ground with many of the
constitutionalist and militia groups that Dees, Berlet et al reflexively condemned--drawing the line only at expressions of solidarity with explicit racists.
When Aster kicked you out of her Salon Liberty, I thought (and still think) she did so on inadequate grounds, and that nothing you'd said up to that point on your strategic approach (as outlined above) warranted such a reaction. As I recall, I said as much on her Salon at the time.
But since she evicted you, I've noticed that your general language toward gays and transgender people has become increasingly "colorful" (i.e., deliberately demeaning) and hostile, by what seems like an order of magnitude or so. Likewise, you have become increasingly dismissive of all who express concerns about racism or fascism--even when they do not endorse thuggish "antifa" tactics--purely out of what seems to be your own increasingly knee-jerk hostility toward the "cultural left."
For some time I was willing, if not to excuse, at least to understand this as a personal grudge in response to your unjustified treatment. And I have tried to stay out of this not only out of a debt of gratitude toward you, but also because cultural issues are not my primary interest, and I don't like to get side-tracked by anything that takes time and energy from my work on economic, tech, and organizational issues. And besides that, I just hate personal drama and feel that getting caught up on emotionally volatile personal conflicts between other people just sucks the life out of me. Finally, I just hoped you would get over your personal grudge and put things in some perspective.
But I continued to grow uncomfortable with my stance, given your increasingly strident rhetoric. The issue, for me, was not that you merely endorsed a "live and let live" attitude toward cultural preferences, or that you believed gays and transgender people were being "hyper-sensitive"; it was that your choice of language seemed calculated--gratuitously, and for no other apparent purpose--to offend gay and transgender people for the sake of doing so.
And to repeat: this latest offering of yours draws a line that I cannot ignore. You declare the need to make "hard choices" and "establish political priorities." The calculation on which you base your choice, your priority is, as you state it:
As for the rest of us in the anarchist milieu, I say it’s time for a purge, if not an outright pogrom. Does the spectacle of a bunch of white college students crying about “racism, racism, racism” and pretending that they’re Black Panthers do anything to actually increase the number of Actually Existing People of Color in our ranks? It hasn’t yet after decades of trying. The typical convert to anarchism is an angry, young, white, male from an upper strata working class to upper middle class socio-economic background, one who possesses above average levels of intelligence and education, and an interest in history, philosophy, political science and related fields. Do we really attract more people into our ranks by having so many self-hating whites, bearded ladies, cock-ringed queers, or persons of one or another surgically altered “gender identity” in our midst? Is this really something the average rebellious young person wants to be associated with? Could we not actually attract more young rebels into our ranks if all of this stuff was absent?
Ironically, that's the mirror image of the question I asked myself about your strategic approach from the beginning: "Do we really attract more people into our ranks by having Nazis, Klansmen, Christian identity, white nationalist, and outlaw biker gang people in our midst?"
Even though I disagreed with the extent to which you took your strategic approach, I could at least respect your assessment that the "greatest harms" were "imperialist war, mass imprisonment of harmless people, and severe economic failure," and that the fight against this centralized concentration of totalitarian power justified a "big-tent" coalition of secessionists.
But while I could respect your willingness to tolerate loathsome people on pragmatic grounds, I can't remain neutral when you advocate purging the anti-state movement in order to appease those loathsome people. You have "evolved," if you can call it that, from a willingness to share a tent with racists and homophobes for the sake of defeating Empire as the primary enemy, to promoting an active purge of anti-racists and gays from the anti-Empire movement because the majority of your anti-state coalition might find them offensive. In short, you have "evolved" from tolerating racist and homophobic groups as a means to an end, to withdrawing support from the "cultural left" in order to appease the right wing of your coalition.
You've drawn a line that requires me to take a public stand, and publicly disassociate myself from your statements. If my choice is between "self-hating whites, bearded ladies, cock-ringed queers, or persons of one or another surgically altered 'gender identity'," and Nazis, Klansmen and white nationalists, I know which side I'll take.
As I said before, I continue to recognize that there is much of enormous value in your work. It pains me to see you apparently revelling in pariah status. I would like nothing better than to be
able to resume endorsing your work without moral qualms, even if I disagree with your tactical judgments. But I cannot do so as things stand.
I do not ask that you revise your original strategic assessment that the threat of Empire justifies a broad secessionist coalition that includes some (in my opinion) very objectionable people on the right. I do not ask that you share my judgment that such objectionable people alienate more potential support than do those on the cultural left. I ask only that you 1) repudiate the flame-war quality of demeaning rhetoric that you have increasingly adopted toward sexual minorities since your breach with Aster, and acknowledge that you allowed a personal grudge to goad you into overreaction on that score; and 2) repudiate your call for a purge of anti-racists, gays, transgender people and the cultural left in order to appease the majority.
I bear you no personal animosity, and remain grateful for your help in the past. And although I wish very much for a change of heart on your part, and for a failure of your political project as you have most recently defined it, I continue to wish you the best personally.
Postscript. Since writing the above, it occurred to me (as Mike Gogulski put it) what a deficit of empathy is reflected in Keith's reactions. As an outsider to the conflict, I still feel very strongly that Keith's increasingly demeaning and strident homophobic language is a personal overreaction based on his resentment at being purged from Aster's Salon Liberty. It's odd, therefore, that he fails to admit the possibility that what he regards as "hyper-sensitivity" or "victim culture" among racial and sexual minorities might reflect their own subjective response to what they have experienced as a lifetime of exclusion.
In any case, this post may (or may not) evoke some reaction in the blogosphere and in my own comment thread. I doubt I'll participate much in the debate, either way. I've said what I have to say on the subject. As I've already stated, I try to stay out of debates on cultural issues because I've got a limited amount of time and energy for writing about the stuff I feel personally engaged with, and dealing with personal drama or emotionalized issues sucks the life out of me.
Thursday, May 14, 2009
The Terror of Constantinople, by Richard Blake
The book, Blake's second, is set in early seventh century Constantinople. Although a play-by-play of all the plot permutations would take up a story's worth of space in its own right, the general outline can be summarized fairly simply. Kentish scholar Aelric, the hero of Blake's earlier novel, is commissioned by the papacy on what is officially a research junket to Constantinople aimed at scouring the patristic literature for thelogical ammunition against the Arian minority in Spain—and unofficially a quiet diplomatic mission to secure the Emperor's recognition of the Pope as as supreme head of the Church.
The environment into which he is thrown is suggested by Aelric's description:
"According to what I've picked up on the Exchange, …the Danube frontier has collapsed and Slavs are pouring into the Balkans. The Persians have invaded Mesopotamia and may already be in Syria. The Exarch of Africa is in revolt against the Emperor, and his people have taken Egypt. These are all converging on Constantinople and it's an open bet who will get there first. Whoever does get there will find an emperor who is incompetent for every purpose but murdering anyone who might have some ready cash to steal, or who may have given one of his statues a funny look."
The imperial capital is torn by struggle between the papacy and the emperor, between the emperor and the Exarch of Africa, and the Machiavellian maneuvers of the old eunuch Theophanes (a high official to the Master of Offices—in contemporary terms something like chief of staff to the chief minister) to play all the factions against one another in pursuit of his own shadowy agenda. Before the story concludes, we see Constantinople terrorized by the emperor's secret police, wracked by civil war, and captured by the forces of Heraclius, Exarch of Africa.
Like any good spy novel, Blake's work offers many layers of intrigue. Every seeming resolution of the mystery on Aelric's part, no matter how plausible and seemingly conclusive, turns out to have been either a dead end or only a partial understanding. Every time Aelric seems on the verge of a “locked drawing room scene,” he finds there is a larger plot in the background.
Aelric's character is not calculated to evince sympathy on initial acquaintance. To a superficial first (and maybe second and third) glance, he is a superficial libertine and a vain clothes horse, in search of nothing but a good party. But by the fourth glance or so, we begin to suspect there is more than meets the eye. By means of a series of hints from incidents minor in themselves, and from showing Aelric's reaction in a variety of circumstances, Blake shows us an unsuspected depth of character. Aelric reveals himself as a man of principle, not only through many small acts of decency, but through his efforts to behave justly even when it is costly and inconvenient—not with idealistic speeches or even with any particular attempt to make a point of it, but just doing it. The parallel of Oskar Schindler—who in his “real life” was a Sudeten German nationalist, Nazi collaborator, and opportunistic war profiteer—comes to mind.
Perhaps the most complex character in the book is Theophanes the eunuch, the cynical and amoral master of bureaucratic in-fighting. Despite his seemingly total lack of moral scruples regarding torture and assassination, and his willingness to do whatever is necessary to promote his ends, he comes across as remarkably sympathetic. First, we see that much of his character is not of his own making. Through his colorful history, starting with his capture as a young Syrian shepherd, and his odd detours as nursemaid and entertainer before entering imperial service, it becomes clear that if Theophanes has survived forces beyond his control, those forces have also stamped their imprint on him. Second, among all the maneuvering factions, he alone seems motivated by anything even vaguely resembling principle—in his case, an attachment to the Roman imperial ideal and a desire to preserve a polity capable of preserving order in a disintegrating world. That was his motivation in putting Phocas on the throne, and his motivation in handing the City over to Heraclius. And finally, through all else, Theophanes is displays a genuine attachment and sense of loyalty to his friends, and an appreciation and yearning for companionship. As amoral, indeed wicked, as were many of his actions, Theophanes comes across as one who has suffered much, and been hammered and twisted by the world into a monstrous form—and yet remains very much a human being. Looking on Theophanes' severed head at the end of the book, Aelric finds himself of violently mixed feelings, and grieving despite himself.
While you shouldn't weep for a man like that, I had to fight myself not to. How he must have dreamed of a return to the burning wilderness of his childhood—free to pass the remainder of his life without lies or betrayal. He'd come close to that. Then he'd given it all up for the child of his worst enemy and for a barbarian who'd tried his hardest, without knowing what it was, to wreck his plan.
I reached forward and pulled the eyes shut.
I suspect many readers will have similarly mixed reactions.
Blake reveals some libertarian sympathies, without hitting us over the head with them.
Aelric, taking advantage of the opportunity to read near-lost works of the classical age in the imperial library, mourns for the “vanished age of light and freedom.” Having dug out “the complete letters of Epicurus on government,” for example, this was Aelric's reaction:
I'd guessed right about his political opinions. A wise man, he said, is one who wants to be left alone, who wants to leave others alone, and who wants others to be left alone. Therefore, the sole functions of government are to secure individuals in the possession of life and property.
“Most unlike our own dear world of universal love and justice,” I muttered....
Aelric also cherishes the surviving poetry of Sappho, and tries to recapture what the words meant to the world before the Old Faith was supplanted by the New Faith of the Jewish carpenter.
It was impossible to know how these words had sounded amid the fountains and perfect buildings of ancient Mytilene when they were first written. But they could still be appreciated by those prepared to make the effort.
And beyond the words, the stars on which she had looked remained. They were the same stars on which the first rational being of all had looked in some remote past. They were the stars on which the last rational being would, in some perhaps still more remote future, choke out his final breath.
They had shone for Sappho. They shone for me.
Or as Robert Penn Warren would say, “...nothing is lost, nothing is ever lost.... And all times are one time....”
The Empire resembles the contemporary United States in some ways. Weakened internally by corruption and exhausted by foreign wars and provincial revolt, it comes across as a hollowed-out state. As Theophanes says to the papal legate,
Can you imagine what it's like to collect taxes when there are no taxpayers? To direct armies and ships that have their only existence on a sheet of papyrus? To govern cities that are for the most part become heaps of smoking ruins?
It is also terrorized by the kind of police state—in particular, the “Black Agents”—that Bush didn't quite manage to foist on us, even after “9-11 changed everything.” Here are the words of the Tall Man, chief of the Black Agents, holding Aelric at his mercy in the immense labyrinth of dungeons under the Ministry:
“I will show you how pain is very like pleasure. It too has its rituals and instruments. It too has its orgasms. It too can be prolonged by those who understand the responses of the body.”
In another dialogue a police agent, with the chilling frankness of O'Brien in Room 101, describes the real purpose of the police terror:
“Why do you suppose we do this, day after day?” he asked....
“The official answer, I said, … “is that they are traitors. Really, of course, none may be guilty of anything at al. It's really a matter of keeping control, isn't it?”...
If I'd annoyed Alypius by draining the surprise out of his answer, his face said nothing.
“The function of terror is to break up all the guilds and clubs and professional groupings of the City into an agglomeration of individuals, each looking over his shoulder to see what the others might be saying about him. If no one speaks his mind, no one joins forces....
“How anyone gets on our death-lists is left to chance. The use of those lists, though, is wholly deliberate. Kill enough people and you can announce that the sun rises at dusk and wait for the applause.”
The followers of the African Exarch resemble the true believers of twentieth century totalitarian ideology, referring to their leader as “Blessed Heraclius,” and looking forward to the days when Heraclius rules the world as God's Universal Exarch and “Justice and Peace and Glory will be restored.”
Blake brings to the story the obvious erudition of a classical education—but with his gift for complexity and realism of character, he makes his characters seem as real as people we know.
I highly recommend it.