Wednesday, 28 March 2012

White Cedar

White Cedar, from the Mountain Goats' new album, which is tentatively called 'Transcendental Youth'.

I'll be reborn someday, someday
If I wait long enough
I don't have to be afraid
I don't want to be afraid

And you can't tell me what my spirit tells me isn't true - can you?

It's an upbeat song - very upbeat, compared to Darnielle's general work - and although it's not as objectively pepped-up as, say, Amy Grant, it somehow feels like a happier song. White Cedar emerges from a context of suffering and is richer for it. Like the ending to the first season of Deadwood!

Monday, 26 March 2012

Anarchism Lost, So Go Vote

If we conceive of politics as a struggle between the forces of liberty and the forces of authoritarianism, political events become transparent. This is perhaps the primary advantage of anarchism over standard liberalism or conservatism: it more accurately accounts for the tendency of politicians to accrue more power to themselves. Every time the citizen's right to autonomy is defended, we score a small victory; every time the State enforces another restriction or corporate subsidy, we suffer a defeat.

Let's not shit ourselves, then: we lost. The State isn't winning, it won centuries ago. Is there any route by which we might extricate ourselves from involvement in its bloody machinations? Well, no. Can we meaningfully impair its ability to imprison people and kill people? Again, no. Can we defend ourselves against it, or ensure that we won't be caught up in its next wave of violence? Of course not.

In fact, if we want to involve ourselves in politics at all, we are forced to do so along statist lines: by voting for political parties that, to put it mildly, are not compatible with an anarchist position. I contend that we actually have an obligation to vote according to small differences - slight improvements in domestic policy, like abortion rights, gaymarriage - and ignore the rest. It makes me almost physically sick to recommend this.

Some people argue that we ought not to vote, and that by doing so we lend legitimacy to a dreadful institution. The only appropriate response to this, of course, is a hearty laugh. The dreadful institution will not be legitimized or de-legitimized by our voting; it gains its legitimacy by the simple fact that it has all the guns. If you vote for a political party that goes on to start a war, you are at best only symbolically responsible. Actual responsibility presupposes a chain of cause and effect that, where foreign policy is concerned, is totally absent in the electoral process (as many of the same anti-voting anarchists will happily tell you.) This is the final victory of the State: it restricts our moral choices so that voting for the slightly, slightly less evil party is the right thing to do.

Friday, 23 March 2012

Coercion 2: Electric Boogaloo

Recently I posed a definition of coercion as the existence of a difference in power. In that post I said the following thing: "we need to exert constant effort to avoid coercing others." I've just realized that, as stated, that sounds a little incoherent. Here's an attempt to clear that up.

On my definition, coercion is impossible to avoid. If you have more power than the person you're interacting with, you are by definition coercing them (at the very least, to make nice and be friendly to you). How, then, even with "constant effort" can we avoid coercion? Well, this is one way: work to reduce your own power over others. In other words, making a commitment to non-coercion means making a commitment to non-power.

This entails a certain sort of pacifism, since obviously acting violently is only possible through power. However, I don't think that my definition and its associated principles strongly condemn 'punching up the power differential': violence against those clearly more powerful than you.

There's an interesting related question: if you're interacting with somebody more powerful than you, do you have an obligation to increase your power accordingly?

Tuesday, 20 March 2012

Power Is Poisonous

"I felt physically sick. It was a long time since I had received a letter from my wife. I had forced her to write it and I could feel her pain in every line. Her pain struck at my pain: we were back at the old routine of hurting each other. If only it were possible to love without injury - fidelity isn't enough: I had been faithful to Anne and yet I had injured her. The hurt is in the act of possession: we are too small in mind and body to possess another person without pride or to be possessed without humiliation."

Graham Greene, The Quiet American

This applies equally well to considerations of power. We are too small, in mind and body, to hold power over another person without pride, or to be at the mercy of somebody else's power without humiliation. Whenever I interact with police, there is a constant undercurrent of humiliation - often it takes me a few hours to notice how it affected my actions. Whenever I am made responsible for a child, say, I have to consciously ignore my feeling of pride, with varying degrees of success. Power is poisonous: it introduces negative elements to any relationship by the very fact of its existence. A king can never be friends with a subject. Anyone who says otherwise has either accepted humiliation as a way of life or is unwilling to recognize their own pride.

Saturday, 17 March 2012

Fear Of God

It occurs to me that my previous definition of coercion has an interesting theological implication: any interaction with God must be entirely and infinitely coercive.

This is intuitively plausible: to a rational mind, infinite power begets infinite fear. The undeniable existence of God's infinite love might assuage that fear, but any doubt whatsoever would bring the fear back in full force. Given the seemingly endless causes of doubt in this world, from toothache to the threat of nuclear war, I think terror is an appropriate response (perhaps the only appropriate response) for anybody who seriously believes that an omnipotent God exists - and, worse still, is interested in them.

Wednesday, 14 March 2012

What Is Coercion?

Here's a fairly radical definition of a central anarchist term:

Coercion is the existence of a difference in power, where power is the ability to exert one's will on the world.

I haven't seen this explicitly stated anywhere, although you can see it in Crispy (and others') idea that it's impossible for a citizen to consent to be ruled by the state that they were born into.  Holding my definition entails believing that coercion is always present and unavoidable, and that you can at best minimize it. It also entails believing that there's no such thing as a non-coercive hierarchy of power.  Lastly, and most importantly, it entails believing that we need to exert constant effort to avoid coercing others. There's an ethical imperative here that, in areas where you're privileged, you should take steps to reduce your own power.

An interaction between a citizen and a policeman can never be entirely free of coercion, since both parties know that the policeman has a huge power advantage conferred by his job (if he assaults you, then it's your word against the cop's, for instance.) The policeman, then, is obliged to try and minimize this power by doing things like setting up or at the very least allowing himself to be recorded.

An interaction between a man and a woman can never be entirely free of coercion, since both parties know that men have much greater social privilege (if he abuses her in a non-obvious way, the legal system will unofficially presume that it was her fault, she was asking for it, and so on.) The man, then, is obliged to try and minimize this power as best he can - avoiding all implied physical threat, whether in jest or not, for instance.

Of course these interactions can have coercion of a different kind flowing the other way - if the woman's a cop, for instance, or if the citizen is rich. Mostly, I suspect, this won't be the case.

Sunday, 11 March 2012

Christina Rossetti, Scotsmen And Burning Airports

The cry of "No True Scotsman" comes up so frequently in internet debates - especially religious ones - that a few heavyweights have tried to sort out when it's a fallacy and when it isn't. For anyone who doesn't know what that means, it usually goes like this:

A maniac burns down an airport, and in the investigation it's revealed that he considered himself a fan of obscure Victorian poets - Christina Rossetti in particular. People who have always disliked Christina Rossetti jump at the opportunity and claim that her poetry is degenerate and of course it leads to violent behaviour, and frankly her brother Dante Gabriel's work is far superior in style and content. Part of the community of Christina Rossetti fans respond that nobody who really understood her poems could show such a lack of concern for airport architecture. At this point, Christina Rossetti's detractors accuse the fans of twisting language so that any misbehavior would automatically disqualify one from counting as a Christina Rosetti fan.

 As the most influential religious and philosophical blogger on the internet, I feel I must give my perspective. On the one hand, beliefs do usually have actual content - for instance, I think that a non-privilege-aware anarchist is either inconsistent in his belief or not a real anarchist - and it's reasonable to claim that somebody who lacks that content lacks that belief, whatever they identify as. On the other hand, saying but so-and-so doesn't really like Christina Rossetti is used to hide and minimize negative effects of a belief. Look at how often we hear that the thug-of-the-day isn't a real policeman, because real policemen protect and serve; or that they're not a real patriot. If you class every bad person as not part of your group, you've made it literally impossible to even ask whether your group supports bad behaviour.

Here's my solution: it's okay to say that somebody doesn't really hold a particular label if there's a clear dogma associated with the label and they're in conflict with it. It's still okay - albeit dicey - to say the same thing when there's no clear dogma, so long as you're in the majority in your group. When the vast majority of Christina Rossetti fans denounce the burning of airports and all violence, and the attitudes that lead to violence, then what they're doing is ejecting airport-burners from their community - and groups do have the right to police themselves. However, if you're doing this often enough, you might want to ask yourself why your community seems to require such frequent purges. You might want to ask yourself why your community seemed attractive to somebody with airport-burning tendencies. And if the majority of your community doesn't speak up with you, you might want to consider getting a new community.

Thursday, 8 March 2012

Pulse For Pulse; Breath For Breath

By Christina Rossetti, presented without commentary:


Come to me in the silence of the night;
Come in the speaking silence of a dream;
Come with soft rounded cheeks and eyes as bright
As sunlight on a stream;
Come back in tears,
O memory, hope, love of finished years.

Oh dream how sweet, too sweet, too bitter-sweet,
Whose wakening should have been in Paradise,
Where souls brim-full of love abide and meet;
Where thirsting longing eyes
Watch the slow door
That opening, letting in, lets out no more.

Yet come to me in dreams, that I may live
My very life again though cold in death:
Come back to me in dreams, that I may give
Pulse for pulse, breath for breath:
Speak low, lean low,
As long ago, my love, how long ago.

Monday, 5 March 2012

No True Anarchist

Although politics is part of our identity - and therefore self-determined - it also depends on our actions. Political philosophies have definite propositional content: dogma, sets of rules. In other words, you wouldn't call Thatcher a communist or Cheney a pacifist, regardless of what they told you.

If anything is part of the dogma of anarchism, it's this: coercion should be avoided whenever at all possible. All the anti-statism flows from two premises, one minor and one major. The minor one is that the state is the primary source of coercion; the major one is that coercion is a bad thing, ethically speaking. Liberals, for instance, don't think that coercion is that bad - in many situations, such as to make a society better fed and educated, they consider it a very positive thing. Anarchists might concede that some goals are worth a little bit of coercion, but they'll do so reluctantly and with a multitude of caveats.

Would you call somebody an anarchist who is pro-coercion? But Philboyd, you say, how might I find such a strange creature? Well, it's easy: look for somebody who professes anarchism but is content to coerce others in their daily life. I'm not talking about, say, Professor Crispy, who thinks some coercion is justified to stop worse coercion (this is a very charitable summary of his position on military intervention). I'm talking about a person who happily abuses their children, or bullies their spouse, or is casually racist. A person like that, despite their protestations, is not an anarchist.

Here's a simpler formulation: regardless of your thoughts on the behemoth that is the State, your attitude to coercion is most easily determined from how you treat those with less power than you. Likewise, whether you are an anarchist or not is most easily determined from your attitude to coercion.

There's a philosophy that's similar to anarchism that 'anarchists' who don't mind coercion might hold. Here it is, courtesy of IOZ: I dislike being rattled by cops; having to buy and take drugs in secret; having to pay taxes; and I suppose that I am viscerally repulsed by wars and the like.  Therefore, I am anti-state. Who else is anti-state? Pretty much just the anarchists; therefore, I am anarchist. Note that this philosophy doesn't even try to be ethical; that is, it places no obligations on you to do much of anything. It's an escape clause, a reassuring pablum for the shallow thinker, and I wouldn't in a thousand years call it anarchism.

Friday, 2 March 2012

The Dangers Of Inconsistency

It's interesting to consider whether a code of ethics really needs to be consistent.  On the one hand, we intuitively accept a certain amount of inconsistency in how we think we ought to act: sayings like "do what you can" partially demonstrate this, for instance.  On the other hand, I'd argue that many past atrocities - slavery, wars, and so on - were committed from fundamentally incoherent ethical positions.  Anarchists generally claim that mainstream liberalism and conservatism are inconsistent within themselves, and therefore dangerous.  Should we make ethical consistency a high priority when we think about what we ought to do, even at the cost of what we feel is right?  If so, it's going to be hard to reconcile, say, caring about animal welfare with eating meat, or holding strong anarchist positions with calling the police.

I think it's worth doing, even if the task is hard or thankless.  In examining the consistency of our intuitions, we'll necessarily clarify why we believe what we believe - and find effective ways to convince others.