Tuesday, 24 November 2009

I Know What They Are, but What Am I?

In the wise words of Agatha Christie's immortal detective Hercule Poirot, I have a thoroughly bourgeois attitude towards murder - I do not approve of it, even if the victim deserves it. I think, too, that we can agree similarly upon abduction, robbery, and many other such unsavoury but familiar behaviours. Where we differ is that M. Poirot considers 'legitimate authority' to be the only tolerable excuse for killing, capturing, shaking down for money and so forth. For him, subordination to church and state is the only thing that stands between us and an earthly hell in which everyone is their own stealthy and ever-more-corrupt judge, jury, and executioner. Rebellion may be right and moral on occasion, but only in the direction of forbearance and mercy. Well and good, as far as it goes.

This doesn't quite satisfy me. (At the very end, it does not entirely satisfy the great detective, either.) If I disapprove of murder and all the other business, it is not clear to me that leaving it to a wholesale monopoly called the Government is improving either my character or the public situation. Worse, because unlike M. Poirot I am a raging malcontent in these matters, I would argue that 'government' itself is just exactly the power relationship where rulers have a licence to commit what would otherwise be recognized as crimes, and ruled persons an obligation to suffer them quietly, and both sides generally believe this to be legitimate or at least inevitable.

It is that last clause which both stabilizes government and makes it, in most societies, somewhat tolerable. Rulers may claim 'sovereignty', i.e. a licence to commit any crime whatsoever against anybody, but it is doubtful whether any ruler in history has really possessed the full Monty. There is always something you cannot safely do to somebody, because if you do then sooner or later it will cause talk, and more and more of that talk will eventually be along the lines of "The Senate sends you this!" Unfortunately, not having absolute sovereignty does not exclude having inexpressibly more power than is good for anybody, as me old mucker Kim Jong Il was wont tearfully to confide over a pint of Old Genocide after honking up his third lobster thermidor 'n' chips.

On this fancy rock set in its polished pewter sea, we still have some pretty strong constraints on what the rulers may get away with as rulers, as opposed to what they may do only on pain of being hunted down in their capacity as ordinary criminals. This distinction is what is called the constitution of government, and every nation state other than the UK has also got a paper version which sets out the official story. In places where the real constitution is strong, the paper version serves as a vividly blazoned shield against the worst kinds of abuse. In places where the real thing is weak, the paper version might as well be printed on perforated rolls, with the motto Now Wash Your Hands on every leaf.

There is a good argument to be had about the merits of constitutional government as a means of limiting, channelling, and minimizing the total crime in its domain. Accepting that theory solely for the sake of argument, I still think I am entitled to count the actual acts of 'government' that do take place as crimes that are to be minimized, just as if a criminal had done precisely the same things. I do not care whether the perps are doing it for God, or Society, or Their Ineffable Entitlement. I only care about what it is they are doing.

This sentiment, since I am not persuaded that government is the least possible evil, makes me an anarchist. It does not make me in favour of what is usually called anarchy, which is what happens in places where government collapses. Nature abhors a vacuum. Where people believe in government, and one is taken away, a hundred candidate governments instantly spring up to fill the void, each essentially at war with everybody who does not submit to them. Most of these candidates will, for obvious reasons, be pretty bad. The war will be bad, by definition. The winner, if any, is likely to be determined by excellence in delivering the crudest kinds of unpleasantness to the disobedient. None of this is conducive to a general improvement in civilization.

Likewise, a sudden coup replacing one government overnight with another is apt to be all about ruthlessly single-minded specialists in acquiring power and using force. So I can't be a willing revolutionary, either, without defeating my own ends (and supporting the sort of crime I am supposed to detest, into the bargain).

I do not approve of government. I also do not approve of destroying government. What am I, then, if not just tooooo gooooood to liiiiiiiive?

Well, let us reason by analogy. I do not approve of murder. I disapprove, though, even more profoundly of the sort of measures that would be needed to ensure that there was no murder at all - universal lobotomy, or suchlike. But I most heartily approve of condemning murder, and teaching children that it is evil; of learning self-defence, and coming quickly to the defence of those who are menaced by thugs; of doing one's bit, in fact, to build up a more civil society in which the law against murder becomes more generally effective. This will never lead to a totally non-murderous society. But it can surely lead to one with less murder in it.

Taking that stance for all the Big Crimes, and never nodding them through whenever they happen to come under the aegis of government, is a beginning. Consistently declining to confuse society's rulers with society itself is a lantern in the dark. Living as far as possible in civil society, relying on and being relied upon in rich networks of voluntary friendships, compacts, and support - that is meat and drink. And the wisdom to know when to avoid bandits; when to bolt from them like lightning; when to meet them and yield to their demands for a time; and when there is nothing for it but to fight forlornly back-to-back until a rescue comes, or an ending - why, that is just survival, and always has been.

But there is no ending, no Utopia on the other side of the forest where the bandits are no more. There are only places where bandits prosper less, or are bored of visiting, or are tending to think it a better life selling you venison instead. Government may wane as civil society waxes, and the things we know as governments may conceivably one day pass from the earth - but the process of government, like the processes of murder and theft, will haunt us as long as we are human. The price of getting rid of any of them would be too great. That is not a good reason to want any of them in themselves!

That is the kind of anarchist I am. I am for rolling back government by undercutting consent for it. I also think that this can only endure, in any sphere of life, where there is something voluntary to which people can switch their support - and which works well enough that most will do so on its own merits, rather than because they have been sold the idea in high-falutin' screeds like this. The screeds might, after all, be wrong.

And at the moment, most people really do consent to the idea of government, even if they think their particular Government a right shower. To roll back government without the consent of the governed is doomed to failure, and also looks like an act of... y'know, government!

So I am a Gov-Sceptic, a Very Patient Anarchist - perhaps even a Fabian anarchist, though the adjective presently has such dubious associations that I hesitate to invite people to throw it at me. Fabian strategies have been known to work once or twice before.

As for which particular tactics this day calls for, I have seen more clever and ardently-defended suggestions than a runaway dog has fleas. I shall occasionally examine some of the more interesting in subsequent posts.

Luckily, which anarchist faction is best-suited to oversee the heavy labour of reform is... not a sensible question.

And even if it were - it could be murder making the answer stick!

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