Wednesday, 29 February 2012

fight the power

killer wisdom from anonymous 4:30 in the comments chez ioz:

capitalizing is exactly what capital wants from us

Monday, 27 February 2012

Anarchy As Personal Relationship

Let's start with a few unpalatable truths. Anarchy - understood as a society that rejects power, where all associations are voluntary - is never going to happen.  Neither, for that matter, will communism, or unrestricted free-market capitalism.  The human race as we know it is probably not going to survive for much longer, either: there are too many outside forces that can kill us and ways that we have devised to kill ourselves.  Even if somehow, in the limited time we have left, we were able to isolate all the anarchists on the planet and let them form a society, we would still not arrive at anarchy.  For one, our cultural biases (mostly statist, patriarchal, power-loving, violent) are too strong to let us arrive at a peaceful arrangement.  Secondly, very few anarchists today are in agreement.  In the absence of a realistic political goal to move towards - or even the possibility of such - we've taken refuge in theory, becoming 'hyphenated anarchists'.  So what's the point of being an anarchist?

You might say that anarchism is right inasmuch as any political philosophy is right. It diagnoses the problem with society as concentrations of power, primarily state power, and you might think this is more accurate than the communist view that the problem is with the way money works. You might even think they amount to much the same thing! But all this thinking and thinking is sterile: it provides no course of action other than revolution, which is both bloody and futile. Can anarchism guide our actions in a more useful way?

I think it can. As a Stoic, I dismiss out of hand any wish to involve myself in the realm of large-scale politics - voting, for instance, joining a revolution (to some extent, even protesting) - because large-scale politics is totally out of my control.  I dismiss out of hand any wish to prevent further concentrations of state power or exercises of state violence - sabotage or raising public awareness, for instance - because to prevent this is totally out of my control. What's left, after these two wishes are dismissed? Only anarchy as it pertains to daily life.

When IOZ and Jack Crow claim that anarchism entails radical feminism, they're arguing for the practicality of anarchism.  Being aware of and repudiating rape culture, trying to avoid situations where women justifiably feel threatened, listening to what women have to say - these are useful things that all anarchists should do, since they minimize the amount of coercion one exerts on others. Joining rallies and vandalizing government buildings are secondary, since they have far less positive effect.  So practicing feminism is one useful way to practice day-to-day anarchism.

There are other things we can do as well. We can treat those with less power than us in ways that don't rely upon the difference in power. We can think hard about using insults that are insignificant for us but significant for other people, insults that usually highlight their lack of power. Does this sound familiar? It should: it's pretty much the idea that we should be aware of our own privilege, or the myriad of power structures that we're embedded in at birth. Health, ethnicity, wealth, gender, sexual orientation, nationality - all these things let us coerce others in socially acceptable ways that are invisible not just to those around us but to ourselves. If we anarchists are committed to rejecting coercion - rather than just rejecting state coercion - then we need to regularly check our privilege.

This is something like Charles Dickens' idea of revolution: not a revolution put in place by force, but a revolution inside the heart of every individual. In short, anarchists might not be able to create a decent world, but - if our politics is valuable in any way - we should be able to make ourselves into decent human beings.


Thanks to Prof Crispy for his definition of anarchy as a society where all human interactions are entirely voluntary.  Thanks to Jack Crow for, somewhere in the comments chez IOZ, saying that 'his anarchism was not hyphenated'.  I've used both of these in my post.

This, if anything, is the anarchism I believe in - this is the core of my political philosophy. In other words, my personal anarchism entails my political anarchism, not the other way around.

Friday, 24 February 2012

Religion Doesn't Divide People, People With Religion Divide People

Ivan, at From Wine to Water, sets out a commonly-used religious argument. In religious conflicts, it goes, religion is the excuse, not the cause. The elimination of religion would not reduce the amount of conflict in the world; we'd simply switch to a different excuse and keep on murdering. It is true that religion doesn't seem to occupy the same fundamental psychological status as things like tribalism and fear of the unknown - but if we atheists accept that religion's not responsible for religious conflict, we lose a key plank of the argument that religion is harmful.

Probably the most common response to this is that hoary old Steven Weinberg quote: it takes religion for good people to do bad things. However, I'd agree with Verbose Stoic that any ends-justify-the-means ethics (especially utilitarianism) can also serve as a motivator for good people to do bad things, countering Weinberg's response as stated. So at the moment Ivan's argument seems pretty solid.

Still, I disagree with Ivan. Why is that? Well, imagine this parallel argument. In war, armies are the method, not the cause. The elimination of armies wouldn't reduce the amount of wars in the world, we'd simply switch to a different method and keep on warring. This is pretty unconvincing, since it doesn't matter whether armies make war more likely - they're a tool of war and should be opposed by people who oppose war.

Religion doesn't create strife (at least, not most of the time) any more that it creates sexism or class war. Instead, religion was created (probably unconsciously) by the same forces that created conflict and oppression, as a tool for justifying and perpetuating conflict and oppression.  Opposing religion opposes strife in the same way that opposing automatic weapons for cops opposes police brutality.

Wednesday, 22 February 2012

The World Is An Illusion, Trying To Change You

I've liked this video for a while, but I just realized that the general sentiment - the world is an illusion, trying to change you - is pretty Stoic.  Of course, the rest of the song (especially the idea of begging anybody for anything) is very un-Stoic, but a philosopher can dream, can't he?

Monday, 20 February 2012

The Monsieur Strikes Back

He follows through spectacularly!  Rarely is the good IOZ serious, but when he is it's something to behold. Anti-feminism, of the direct or concern troll variety, is never a pretty thing to read. It's worth noting that the two anarchist blogs I follow most avidly are the two generally woman-friendly ones: IOZ and Jack Crow.

Interactions between men and woman rest on the foundation of rape; this, as I read it, is a simple expression of rape culture. Every piece of subtle macho posturing, every little joking intimidation would not work without the accepted social position of men as powerful studs who take what they want. Likewise, that accepted social position would not make sense without the awful prevalence of men raping women. Here, maybe, is a radfem twist: even if you don't posture, even if you try to repudiate the idea of a strong, rape-y man, your interactions with women still rest on a foundation of rape - just as a policeman who tries really hard not to use his nightstick still interacts with people on a foundation of violence.  In our society, that's what a policeman is. That, unfortunately, is also what a man is, and that is a direct result (or foundation, whatever) of the patriarchy.

Sunday, 19 February 2012

How Would Anarchy Deal With Global Warming

How would anarchy deal with global warming?  Street thugs?  Intestinal blockage?  This is a really, really common question among people new to anarchism, and for good reason.  One of the main strengths of statism - communism, democracy, dictatorship, what have you - is that it offers a solution.  We'll solve global warming through co-ordinated state action, through public awareness programs, through our leader's dictates, and so on.  We'll deal with crime by re-educating, by locking up and separating, by simply killing the offenders and so on.  When somebody familiar with these philosophies hears about anarchism, that familiar question - what do we do  about [random problem] - generally gets no answer or an unconvincing one, like 'we'll let go and see what happens'.  Naturally, statism seems to win this round by at least having a plan of action.

However, look at these supposed statist solutions, and (in general) they don't work.  A lot of the time, like the way crime is dealt with, these solutions make the problem much worse!  Certainly global warming is hardly being, shall we say, arrested by state intervention.  Perhaps only the state can solve the problem it's caused by this point, although I suspect that there is no hope and we're all screwed.  In any case, it must be recognized that a plan of action is only a merit if it is to some extent effective; that a vague desire to 'do something' about a problem is only praiseworthy if it does not, in fact, create a dozen new problems on the way.

Friday, 17 February 2012

Anarchism Begins In The Home

IOZ unleashes some heavy bait. For what it's worth, I agree with him. Since any serious anarchism demands a rejection of coercion, a serious dude-anarchist needs to reject the coercive structures he is embedded in, foremost of which is usually* the patriarchy.  This is why I keep saying that anarchism is primarily a personal matter, not a public matter; or that its public nature is merely a side-effect of its personal nature. Anarchism begins in the home, if you like.

* Exceptions can be made for prime ministers, presidents, and cops.

Thursday, 16 February 2012

Stoicism: One Last Try

This is going to be the last post in my series on Stoicism (although I reserve the right to bang on about it in future).  The major criticism I've received so far, on the internet and in real life, has been this: why would anybody want to embrace a philosophy that requires them not to enjoy things? If I've misunderstood the criticism, let me know. For now I'm going to argue forcefully against it, in an attempt to either salvage the value of Stoicism or establish that it has none.

Can we avoid pain without avoiding pleasure?

I consider it fairly undeniable that Stoicism does a good job at minimizing pain.  In other words, a proper Stoic is indifferent to any outside event that befalls her, by definition.  Now you might claim that some pain ought not to be avoided - losing a loved one, for instance - and I think the root of that claim is a belief that if you avoid pain, you necessarily avoid pleasure.  Can we construct a Stoicism where we can enjoy pleasures like sex and at the same time cultivate indifference to pain?  I don't think so.

Rousseau said famously (I can't find the exact quote, so feel free to correct me) that without property, there is no harm.  What this means, roughly, is that harm can be exactly defined as damage to property - if I pick your pocket, I'm stealing your property, and if I break your leg, I'm damaging your most fundamental possession: your body.  To enjoy pleasures like, for example, good health, we need to accept our body as part of our property.  When our body improves, our property improves, and we are made happy.  The Stoic way of avoiding pain is accepting that our body should not be considered our property, since it can be damaged by outside forces.  When we do this, we necessarily prevent ourselves from enjoying improvements to that property.

Should we avoid pain at all?

So I can't see a way in which we can avoid pain without being a Stoic and avoiding pleasure.  However, you might think that, on balance, the pleasure of life is worth the pain!  If, looking back, you can honestly say that   your life has been overall positive, then I can hardly argue that you should be a Stoic. Epictetus would say that you're a base animal, driven by urges, but honestly I wouldn't go that far.  On my view, Stoicism is for people who consider the level of pain in their life to be greater than the level of pleasure - like much philosophy, it serves simultaneously as explanation and consolation.

I'd personally side with Schopenhauer and say that pain in the world outweighs pleasure, and that if it doesn't for you (or me), then that's either momentary luck, delusion, or an artifact of extreme economic privilege (or all three).  Still, if you happen to be lucky or rich, then I don't want to harsh your buzz, man - Stoicism isn't for you.  Basically, the choice of whether you should avoid pain or not is an entirely subjective choice: there's no objective reason for everyone to embrace Stoic principles.

Are you already practicing stoicism?

Finally - still with me? - I'd like to argue that you're probably already to some extent a Stoic.  Western society has been influenced heavily by the Bible, of course, and as Ivan mentioned in the comments earlier, the book of Job contains some pretty heavy proto-Stoicism.  Shall we accept good from God, and not trouble? Anyone who believes that 'such is life' or 'what will be, will be' is practicing Stoic principles on a small scale.  Moreover, anyone who makes a conscious decision not to 'be a whiner' - a sick person, for instance, who pretends to be well because she doesn't want to be the kind of person who complains - is approaching Stoicism.  The claim that the Stoics are making is that this kind of small-scale behaviour can be extrapolated into a large-scale ethical philosophy - and while they might be wrong, there's at least a little intuitive weight behind them.

Monday, 13 February 2012

Intertextuality and Mad Beats

Compare that with the track it's a homage of:

Guru and Zion put together a dark re-imagining of the original that's as clever as any literary re-interpretation out there.  It reveals the underpinnings - the social and cultural context, if you will - of A Tribe Called Quest's original song, and while purists will probably judge it as not quite as good, it is still a goddamn amazing track.  Listen, and when you do, pay attention to how flow mirrors flow.

Friday, 10 February 2012

One Peal Of Perfect Thunder

"An artist is identical with an anarchist," he cried. "You might transpose the words anywhere. An anarchist is an artist. The man who throws a bomb is an artist, because he prefers a great moment to everything. He sees how much more valuable is one burst of blazing light, one peal of perfect thunder, than the mere common bodies of a few shapeless policemen. An artist disregards all governments, abolishes all conventions. The poet delights in disorder only. If it were not so, the most poetical thing in the world would be the Underground Railway."
"So it is," said Mr. Syme.
"Nonsense!" said Gregory, who was very rational when anyone else attempted paradox.

A rather violent passage from The Man Who Was Thursday, by GK Chesterton.  Must anarchists prefer a great moment to everything?  Certainly Chesterton himself didn't think so - just look at his essay The Anarchist.

Tuesday, 7 February 2012

Stoicism: Justice Is Revenge

I know what you're thinking.  You're thinking: Phil, you do go on about Stoicism, but where's the practical application?  What's the takeaway?  Well, let's take a look at one way Stoicism gives a practical and un-intuitive ethical result.  Most people think that justice (roughly defined as 'just deserts', or making it so that individuals don't profit from immoral actions) is ethically desirable.  Most people think that revenge (roughly defined as emotionally-motivated-justice) is ethically desirable in extreme circumstances.  Stoicism, the way I construct it, classes both justice and revenge in the same category.  On this view, justice and revenge aren't just obviously unethical, but motivated by a fundamental misunderstanding of the nature of harm.

Here's a brief review of the Stoic concept of harm.  The only things that should be important to us, it says, are things we can control.  We can only be harmed by damage to things important to us - 'no property, no harm', for all you anarchists in the audience.  Since the only thing we can control is our own will, our own moral choices, then we can only be harmed by making immoral choices.  Therefore, the only person who can harm us is ourselves.

What ramifications does this have for justice and revenge?  Well, both exist as responses to harm, as ways of punishing the person who caused us unfair harm.  But if we accept that nobody can cause us harm but ourselves, then we can only justifiably take revenge or exact justice on ourselves!  Back up another moment: both justice and revenge seek to even the scales, to ensure nobody profits from sin.  If we harm ourselves, then that harm is punishment enough for having caused it, and no further retribution is needed.  So, on the Stoic view, there's no instance of permissible revenge or justice.

I'll set out a little example to show how this might work in real life.  Stoical Sam is summoned before a mighty king, who commands Sam to go forth and assassinate a rival's children.  Sam, being a stand-up guy, refuses, and is tortured.  Now, for Sam, the torture itself doesn't consitute harm - it's a necessary consequence of the moral decision not to kill children, that's all - and the only potential harm in the situation is the possibility of him giving in and acting in an immoral way.  In fact, the torture gives him a chance to demonstrate his moral fortitude, and practice the important skill of bearing up under pressure.  The king's rival executes a stunning coup and frees the prisoners, including Sam, who is given the chance to decide what will happen to the king.

What happens if Sam walks away, deciding not to punish the king at all?  Nothing - and it's a reasonable response, since from Sam's perspective the king has (unwittingly) done him a service.

What happens if Sam decides to have the king tortured?  Sam becomes a torturer, thereby harming himself (his soul, if you will) irreparably.  Worse still, from a Stoic perspective, he doesn't harm the king at all through doing this.

And what about practical applications today? Turns out I was right to tell you not to call the cops! So there.

Saturday, 4 February 2012

Nothing (If You're Taliban)

Because never let it be said that I only listen to hip-hop, here is some dreadful twangy white-boy country music:

If you liked that - and of course you did - go look up another of Hayes Carll's songs, KMAG YOYO, on the Youtube.  Is it Subterranean Homesick Blues, re-written by a drug addict soldier working a covert assignment for a shadowy government agency?  Reader, it is.

Wednesday, 1 February 2012


In a lot of ethical discussions I've been having recently, the issue of responsibility has come up, in the sense of being morally responsible for a particular action.  Is there a philosophical school of ethics that deals with responsibility and blame - a kind of 'blameology'?  If there is, I'd love someone to point me towards it.

Utilitarianism, of course, has a coherent theory of blaming: someone should be publicly blamed when doing so increases utility (by socially deprecating the actions of the person in question, for example) and privately blamed when doing so increases utility (by shaping one's own preferences not to act like the person in question.)  I imagine that Kant had clear ideas about when to blame people as well: putting it simply, whenever people run afoul of his deontology they become bad people, and ought to be blamed by all good people.

Where I run into trouble is in thinking about the way blame relates to responsibility.  Here are a few ethical questions that I think are non-trivial:

Is responsibility a zero-sum game?  For instance, if somebody else assumes some amount of responsibility for an action A that I have taken, does my responsibility for A lessen by that amount?

Does responsibility require knowledge?  For instance, if my action A has an effect that I am unaware of, whether positive or negative, am I responsible for that effect?

Are blame and responsibility directly related?  Should people be blamed for all morally negative actions that they're responsible for - and if so, should they be blamed only to the extent that they're responsible?