Wednesday, September 13, 2006

obligatory book meme post

i like things like this. especially when they're about books. here we go.

1. One book that changed your life.

lots have, but if i had to choose one i suppose it would have to be the one that this blog is named after. william s. burroughs' naked lunch. burroughs is a true scientist and this is a wholly dispassionate appraisal of the human organism. you can't deny that the man had character flaws (and a dodgy aim), but his unrelenting anti-authoritarianism wasn't one of them. it's also incredibly funny - just check the talking asshole routine.

2. One book that you've read more than once.

don't generally do that. but one i have is a wizard of earthsea, because it's a book that works at different levels for different aged people (like all good 'childrens' books).

3. One book that you'd want on a desert island.

it would have to be something timeless, poetic, philosophical. maybe throw in a few warriors and gods. i think the bhagavad gita would do nicely.

4. One book that made you laugh.

zaat by sonallah ibrahim. there were lots of good bits, but i particularly remember the two husbands seruptitiously meeting in the middle of the night to watch porn being particularly funny.

5. One book that made you cry.

i seem attracted to melancholy books so this happens a lot. the god of small things by arundhati roy was one that i found particularly moving. the story is so beautiful but soul-crushingly sad. even the funny bits about the kids are tinged with darkness, about how their mother loved them "a little bit less".

6. One book you wish you had written.

any of the really stirring anarchist works, but i'll settle for the revolution in everyday life by vaneigem. ok, it's pretty laden in continental philosophy, but the situationists' total irreverance and cutting wit combined with their vision of total transformation of human relations are a pretty hard act to beat.

7. One book you wish had never been written.

strange one that. would have to be something really mediocre and self-indulgent. and expressing awful political views to boot. i reckon the world according to jeremy clarkson fits all of those.

8. One book you're currently reading.

only forward by michael marshall smith. humorous/twisted sci-fi thing with evil babies.

9. One book you have been meaning to read.

ulysses. yes, i am a masochist (and a poseur).

Thursday, August 10, 2006

No2IDeas (part 2)

in my previous post i highlighted some of the major shortcomings i see in the No2ID campaign. mainly a) that it panders to the arguments of authoritarian government, essentially supporting rather than attacking statist invasions into "private life" and b) that its chosen methods are disempowering to individuals, providing yet further support to agents of the state.

i am not alone in these views, and recently a friend who has been involved in both no2id and defy-id had an exchange of views with an anonymous no2id organiser (let's call him X) about some of his concerns. X labelled himself "an extreme libertarian... one who would normally be classified as on the right." he continued:
So I constantly compromise my principles and keep my mouth shut about my unrelated opinions in order to work with people whose bullying authoritarian and collectivist presumptions repulse me.
In particular I'm very sympathetic to the point that "It won't stop illegal immigration," is pandering to the idea that most immigration ought to be stopped. But I accept that changing the public mind at such a fundamental level is neither necessary nor by any means sufficient to progress the campaign. That it isn't is a good thing, because it would actually be a hugely difficult task, perhaps impossible, and while not actually successful would be counterproductive for the campaign as a whole.

The same is true of any number of other themes: the (un)reality of the terrorism threat, "organised crime", the construction of paedophilia, health and education services assisted bureaucratic centralisation, the idea that more policing is better, safety and security in general...
so X acknowledges that many of the arguments of no2id's campaign are not libertarian arguments, and that they are statist, but doesn't think that changing these commonly held views are "necessary" or "sufficient" for "progressing the campaign". so why does he remain with this campaign in spite of the "bullying authoritarianism" and "collectivist presumptions" of his fellow no2iders?
My approach has always been pragmatic. I'll do whatever it takes. I don't believe we can win without appealing to the mainstream. Perhaps even then we can't win, since the real problems of public choice and bureaucratic decision and control are too abstract for, and seem benign to, many of our immediate supporters. But there is no chance without the mainstream.
it seems to me that the no2id organisers, and those members of the public who are against id but don't believe they can change the debate, are essentially conforming with the government's wishes as regards the demands and scope of the campaign against id. it is in the state's interest that we be entirely dependent on them for almost all aspects of our existence, including the bringing about of social change. beliefs that "it would actually be a hugely difficult task, perhaps impossible" to counter the common perception that immigrants are to be criminalised, or to have a "pragmatic" approach (i.e. working within the existing system) are not the beliefs of a libertarian, of any shade. it's a bit of a cliche, but "demand the impossible" is a great anarchist riposte to those whose "pragmatic" approaches help to support the status quo. changing public attitudes on immigration is no more impossible that halting the id card scheme. we won't win any battles with the state whilst strengthening its hand on other front. this is true whether you're a libertarian of the right, the left, or neither.

i also take issue with the idea of "appealing to the mainstream", or rather, what this phrase commonly denotes. the mainstream here means only the socially included for a start, not the whole of society. as such it means pandering to the views of those who speak loudest in a capitalist, patriarchal, neo-colonial state. inevitably the predominant influences on "mainstream" opinion in society will be those that have benefitted most from these influences. the idea of pandering to the mainstream, rather than challenging it, is fundamentally conservative. how can we claim to be supporting the freedom of the individual whilst constantly altering our arguments to fit the views of an abstract, collective mainstream? what this really entails is the scenario that has already been described by X: "I constantly compromise my principles and keep my mouth shut". that's not something i would ever want to do.

all in all, i think the flimsy "libertarianism" of the no2id ideologues should be exposed for the conformism that it is.

for more information on an anarchist campagin against id see defy-id. the nottingham group's site is also particularly useful.

Wednesday, August 09, 2006

No2IDeas (part 1)

i expect that readers of this blog will be relatively aware about the government's proposed identity card and national identity register (NIR) scheme. you will also, no doubt, be aware that there are various campaigns that have sprung up in opposition to the proposals, the most prominent being No2ID. perhaps unbeknownst to you is the reality that No2ID is largely organised and run by the so-called libertarian right. the anarchist anti-id card network is called defy-id, and whilst it does not boast the support of assorted MPs and lords, or political bedmates ranging from global-/monopolise resistance to UKIP and the Libertarian Alliance, it is, in this blogger's opinion, a more principled and consistent campaign.

no2id has become the biggest anti-id campaign and the default organisation to turn to in order to register a protest against the id scheme. this is worrying, because they use the government's own socially exclusive, anti-immigration, anti-terrorism rhetoric, in a manner that surely many of the campaign's official supporters (such as CAMPACC for example) would surely reject. for example, on their site they list the following reasons why the id scheme won't work:
ID does not establish intention. Competent criminals and terrorists will be able to subvert the identity system. Random outrages by individuals can't be stopped. Ministers agree that ID cards will not prevent atrocities. A blank assertion that the department would find it helpful is not an argument that would be entertained for fundamental change in any other sphere of government but national security. Where is the evidence? Research suggests there is no link between the use of identity cards and the prevalence of terrorism, and in no instance has the presence of an identity card system been shown a significant deterrent to terrorist activity. Experts attest that ID unjustifiably presumed secure actually diminishes security.
this is the wrong place to start. the government realises that it won't stop terrorism - they've admitted it publicly in the past. terrorism is a smokescreen for the real aim of the identity scheme which is a step closer to a total surveillance society, and the encroachment of state control over everyday life. no2id state this themselves in the paragraph, but they still give credence to this reason by putting it as the first of the government's arguments to refute. more importantly, by talking about terrorism as something that should be of prominent importance in everyone's minds, and that we should be expecting the state to counter, no2id lends their support to the idea that the state should be protecting us. it also ignores the fact that most terrorist atrocities are carried out by states like the UK, and feeds into racist and religious prejudice. these are not libertarian arguments, they are statist.
Illegal immigration and working
People will still enter Britain using foreign documents—genuine or forged—and ID cards offer no more deterrent to people smugglers than passports and visas. Employers already face substantial penalties for failing to obtain proof of entitlement to work, yet there are only a handful of prosecutions a year.
from pandering to the government fear-mongering about terrorism to pandering to government fear-mongering about "illegal immirants". again this reinforces the idea that immigration is something we should be worried about and that the state should be something to protect us from immigrants. again it panders to racist untruths about "foreigners" and demonsises some of the most vulnerable people in society, asylum seekers. this argument stems from the assumption that immigration is undesireable and that immigrants are to be kept out, and that it is the state's job to do this. there is no attempt to dispel any of the myths about the extent of immigration, or the reasons why people are entering the country. where is the place of a true libertarian in a campaign that fails to question borders? then we move on to:
Benefit fraud and abuse of public services
Identity is "only a tiny part of the problem in the benefit system." Figures for claims under false identity are estimated at £50 million (2.5%) of an (estimated) £2 billion per year in fraudulent claims.
(dramatic drum roll). that's right people, it's not the tax-evading superrich who are the parasites in our society, it's those who try a dodge here and there to get a slightly bigger fraction of the meagre scraps doled out by the benefits system. not only do no2id support the state, they also support the wealthy power elites that run the corporations. you'd think the libertarian right-wingers would be supportive of the entrepreneurial skills of the benefits blaggers but in fact they foam at the mouth at the suggestion that anyone at the lower end of the economic scale might be cheating the system.

aside from their arguments, no2id support the state in their methods as well. apart from supporting no2id, they suggest the following options for taking action against id: writing to your MP, lobbying your council, and renewing your passport. in other words, their best ideas for taking on the id scheme are lobbying your elected representatives, thus supporting the very system that has produced the unaccountable government and its id scheme in the first place. nowhere is there any suggestion that anyone might be able to make change through their own actions, except in the timing of renewing their passport. whilst there was a "pledge of resistance" that was doing the rounds a while back, it seems that no2id only support legal (i.e. state-sanctioned) resistance to id. the mass illegal resistance that beat the poll-tax is presumably not what they have in mind. however, the government has brought in all manner of new offences to fine and imprison those who refuse to be registered, and so mass resistance by legal means is unlikely to be possible for long.

to be continued...

Wednesday, June 28, 2006

mass consciousness or individual consciences?

i think it would be nice to continue with the rousing theme of 'getting rid of leftist ideas that were never any good anyway'. i'll return to some comments of tom's, in response to hal draper: give me a break that i never really got round to dealing with.

tom wrote:
You say you reject the idea of ‘mass consciousness’. I find this startling. How do you explain events in history? Is history the product of minority action? ‘Mass consciousness’ does not mean ‘everyone thinks the same’ but that a militant majority takes action in its own interest.
perhaps we are talking about different things here. i find the idea of mass consciousness a frightening one. we are all different, sometimes radically so, and the idea that a majority of people have the exactly the same interests is a massive oversimplification of what is usually an organic situation with considerable variation. the idea that there can be a single political scheme or single action that will be in the interests of a mass is, in my opinion, dangerous. what normally happens is that the mass works in the interests of its leader. if the individuals that tom would describe as constituting a mass are acting on their own initiative for their own interests they do not, in my opinion, constitute a mass at all. that doesn't necessarily mean that they will not cooperate in order to achieve their different goals - often this is the easiest way of getting the job done (mutual aid as kropotkin termed it) - but it does dispel the myth that the situation is one of 'mass consciousness'. mass consciousness, to me, implies the mass psychology of fascism (or red fascism), where people are rigidly hierarchised and have set roles within a machine-like society. as such i oppose mass psychology of any kind. likewise, any attempt to characterise history or the present in the grossly simplistic and deterministic language of mass psychology is something i see as deeply worrying.
The corollary of your position leads exactly to the sort of criticisms that Draper makes. You seem to be saying ‘political leadership’ is inseparable from an ‘elite’. The idea that leadership = elite is just as well evidenced by the actions of so-called-anarchists as it is by so-called-socialists.
yes, a political leadership is an elite. that is why i reject it. let everyone be their own political leader. any political leadership that is privileged over other people in terms of its powers will become oppressive. the idea that power corrupts is not particularly controversial, although perhaps the term consolidated power roles would be a more accurate substitution for the word power. there is no such thing as an anarchist leader, as i'm sure tom is aware. so-called-anarchists implies that they do not really follow the ideas of anarchism, in which case we shouldn't consider the merits or faults of anarchism based on their activities. draper's idea, or what i gather from it, is that the best way of combating this hierarchy forming is through democratic (mass) voting. such systems are, however, open to massive subversion by those in existing positions of power, and would only serve to produce new leaders, and new masters for the slaves below.
If you consistently judge your political actions by the response they get from 'real' people you have more idea of what needs to be done to achieve your objective (revolution?).
again tom seems to fall into the trap of resorting to mass psychology and the problems inherent within it. who are these 'real' people (i note that he puts the term in quotes as if he is unsure about what it means!) ? what defines them? there is no such group as real people (presumably we would have to contrast them with unreal people - any ideas for whom they would be?) it is ridiculous to rely on a fictitious spook for feedback. why individuals shouldn't judge their actions by their own intellectual and emotional appraisal of the outcomes of those actions, rather than constantly submitting to a concocted external moral authority?

this is where the real revolution lies. in each individual realising her/his own ability to act and interact with the world, and giving up all illusionary 'cops in the head' like religious ideas, party doctrine, and mass psychology.
I could never satisfy myself with single-issue campaigning and actions as an ends in themselves.
nor could i. but i see these campaigns as rational bases for collective action. everyone has different ideas about strategies of overcoming oppression, and the party framework is hopeless in dealing with this. anarchists have similar ideas about the way in which action should occur, but because we are all different, different ideas about where these actions are needed at any given time. the freedom of temporary association seems an excellent way to tackle different issues without straightjacketing people into accepting a whole program for social change. whilst there is a real danger of single issue campaigns evading politics, i think that possibility can be avoided as long as links are made from the issue to others.
I hope that everything I do is in an effort to get as many people as possible acting in their own interests – I think this is a point of difference.
i disagree. i would describe the above as one of my aims in political activity. the point of difference is that i assume that each individual is unique with a unique psychology, and that everyone's interests are different. as such, the autonomous individual is the best judge of their own interests, and such autonomy and defiance of mass psychology is to be encouraged. anything less than this, like draper's call for more democratic systems of leadership, is simply a call for 'bigger cages, longer chains'. that is something that is certainly not in my interests.

Tuesday, April 11, 2006

who will represent us? we will of course

just read this great response to hilary wainwright's who will represent us? by simon tormey (i'm sure i've heard that name before...) wainwrights' piece was the usual startlingly original lefty appeal for a new party to unite us all, and tormey's reply is a great rejection of the whole idea of representation. whilst i have a few reservations about his rather rosy view of chavez, who appears to be more than a little guilty of acting as a representative (i.e. subverting the desires of venezuelans for his own purposes), but all the same, tormey has picked up on something that many of this blog's leftist detractors don't seem to have:-
Similarly, the new politics of the ‘left’ in Britain will be a complete irrelevance if it is does not see that the desire for autonomy and self-definition is not something that can be corralled into a political party, which is altogether too rigid and boring a format for individuals with plans and projects of their own. What we need, and increasingly, what is being created, are spaces in which the anger and disillusionment we feel can be channelled into productive and effective resistances against incorporation into the schemes of the politicians, benign, ‘progressive’ or otherwise.

Wednesday, April 05, 2006

hal draper: give me a break

in response to my recent post on anarchism over marxism, tom u, a local comrade, directed me to hal draper's criticisms of anarchism. i couldn't find the 'critiques of other socialisms' piece that tom was referring to, but looked at his 'the two souls of socialism' with horror. in the section entitled 'the myth of anarchist libertarianism', draper simply drags up lots of personal issues he has with proudhon (which, to be fair, paint him as a thoroughly nasty piece of work) but barely comments on his political philosophy. as we are anarchists, not proudhonists, these personal failings are irrelevant. for a more insightful look into proudhon's work, check out gambone's 'proudhon and anarchism', whose opening paragraph contains the line
Marx did a hatchet job on Proudhon and Marxists such as Hal Draper took quotes out of context or dug up embarrassing statements that made Proudhon look authoritarian or proto-fascist. There are also anarchists who claim he is "inconsistent" or "not quiet an anarchist"
When I finally read his works, far from appearing "inconsistent" or "not quite an anarchist", the "Sage of Besancon" had created a practical and anti-utopian anarchism - An anarchism based upon a potential within actually existing society and not a doctrine or ideology to be imposed from outside.
i'm certainly not convinced that comments about proudhon's personal life make for a compelling critique of anarchist theory.

next up for the 'razor sharp' criticism is bakunin. draper writes:
The story is similar with the second "Father of Anarchism," Bakunin, whose schemes for dictatorship and suppression of democratic control are better known than Proudhon's.
so much so, in fact, that draper doesn't feel the need to actually document any of them. seeing as most of these assertions seem to have been made up by marx who had a personal dislike of the man, it's hard to see that this has any credibility at all. the behind-the-scenes string pulling an wrangling marx employed to expel both bakunin and his social democratic alliance from the first international, surely illustrate who the anti-democratic party was in that dispute. the allegations come from a wilful misinterpretation of bakunin's term 'invisible dictatorship'. whilst this has clearly been taken out of context by many marxists, once again it should be stressed that we do not follow the writings of bakunin, or have him as our political idol. as bakunin himself wrote in a letter:
These [revolutionary] groups would not seek anything for themselves, neither privilege nor honour nor power. . . [but] would be in a position to direct popular movements . . . [via] the collective dictatorship of a secret organisation. . . The dictatorship. . . does not reward any of the members. . . or the groups themselves. . . with any. . . official power. It does not threaten the freedom of the people, because, lacking any official character, it does not take the place of State control over the people, and because its whole aim. . . consists of the fullest realisation of the liberty of the people.
for an anarchist interpretation of bakunin's invisible dictatorship see this piece.

finally draper comes up with something resembling a thesis:-
Anarchism is not concerned with the creation of democratic control from below, but only with the destruction of "authority" over the individual, including the authority of the most extremely democratic regulation of society that it is possible to imagine...
Anarchism is on principle fiercely anti-democratic, since an ideally democratic authority is still authority. But since, rejecting democracy, it has no other way of resolving the inevitable disagreements and differences among the inhabitants of Theleme, its unlimited freedom for each uncontrolled individual is indistinguishable from unlimited despotism by such an individual, both in theory and practice.

The great problem of our age is the achievement of democratic control from below over the vast powers of modern social authority. Anarchism, which is freest of all with verbiage about something-from-below, rejects this goal. It is the other side of the coin of bureaucratic despotism, with all its values turned inside-out, not the cure or the alternative.
but surely democratic voting can result in terrible mistakes, and those opposed to its intended consequences have a duty to act and prevent those consequences? if a referendum were to be held in the uk right now on whether asylum laws should be tightened, undoubtedly the majority of people would vote for that measure, in spite of its repressive consequences. anarchists would reject the legitimacy of that vote, and act in order to prevent its implementation. what about wildcat strikes? they're the decision of a minority to resist their oppression, and surely not 'undemocratic'.

the anarchism website has some rebuttals to draper, that question his proposed alternatives to anarchism:-
Draper argues for "democratic control from below" instead of anarchism. Of course, anarchists like Bakunin had argued for elected, mandated and recallable delegates long before the Paris Commune but let us forget that little fact. So what does Draper's scheme actually involve. Marxism, as Lenin made clear, does not aim for direct working class power, but power to the party, which we have to obey (or else!). As Trotsky put it, "a revolution is 'made' directly by a minority. The success of a revolution is possible, however, only where this minority finds more or less support, or at least friendly neutrality, on the part of the majority." So Draper's "democratic control from below" simply results in power being centralised into fewer and fewer hands. The "dictatorship of the proletariat" becomes, in fact, the "dictatorship over the proletariat" by the party.
my own view is that the empowerment of individuals is the only effective brake on the development of authoritarian hierarchical structures. this is not anti-democratic, and indeed many anarchists of today call for the achievement of true democracy. david graeber claims that
[Anarchism] is a movement about reinventing democracy. It is not opposed to organization. It is about creating new forms of organization. It is not lacking in ideology. Those new forms of organization are its ideology. It is about creating and enacting horizontal networks instead of top-down structures like states, parties or corporations; networks based on principles of decentralized, non-hierarchical consensus democracy.
direct democracy is what we seek, and hal draper aint got a clue.

Tuesday, April 04, 2006

the left and anarchism

after some back and forth at workers' liberty, i decided to conclude what seemed like a fruitless argument by clarifying some of the political ideas that i find important and useful, and areas where i thought it might be possible for socialists and anarchists to work together. i've reposted it below.


i don't feel that this debate is taking a fruitful path as we both [myself and an awl member] seem to be convinced of our own viewpoints and unconvinced by the other's. you say that my theories are vague and wishy-washy, i say that yours are rigid and authoritarian. you point to revolutions of the past, i point to insurrections of the present. whilst this can be frustrating, hence my rather over the top statements at times, i don't wish to be rude or invasive. my only purpose in engaging with this debate was to say: yes, i do agree with socialists on a lot of points. there can be no doubt that a revolution of class and property relations needs to be achieved, for the benefit of humankind. this alone is enough to draw anarchists and socialists together on a great deal of issues. on these it would be mutually advantageous to work together where possible.

on the other hand, i feel that the classical anarchist critique of the state and political parties is important, and too easily ignored by socialists. power does corrupt even those of us with the best intentions, and the dictatorship of the proletariat, in anarchists' opinion, is bound to corrupt the struggle for a just society.

further, more recent post-left tendencies within anarchism, critique the workerist approach of traditional left-wing socialists and anarchists. this approach questions the paramount importance given to the worker within leftist traditions, and indeed, whether work itself is a force for good or bad. a good exposition of this kind of thinking can be found in bob black's 'the abolition of work', but the start of a trend towards this mode of thinking can be traced through the work of the situationists, who derived their theory from traditional marxist thought, whilst taking it further. work, post-leftists would suggest, is resolutely not "what defines human beings", but is merely a spook (in stirner's terminology). spooks are those abstractions instilled by religion, the state, morality, etc. that prevent the satisfaction of desire. (for more on desire, repression, and revolution, the works of wilhelm reich, who was a marxist writing in the '30s who became disillusioned with the cause, are instructive. maurice brinton gives a good introduction in 'the irrational in politics'.) the work ethic is clearly a spook, as it does not benefit the worker, only the worked-for. work means the continual delaying of satisfaction both in work time and in leisure time, that rationed portion of time left over when the best part is already consumed by work. we surely do not want to align ourselves with the statement 'arbeit macht frei'.

related to this is the post-left critique of technology. whilst most socialists, like most others in society, consider advancements in technology to equal 'progress', many in the green anarchist movement are opposed to technological 'advance'. technology and industry, they argue, are at the heart of our lurch towards ecological collapse. there can be no maintenance of our current technology without the total devastation of the climate and biosphere. most socialists imagine technological fixes to these problems, but the only answer that i see as pragmatic is a massive shift towards local organisation of production, and away from heavy industries. many, like yourself, see these changes as a regression, but this is, i would suggest, a reference to the myth of progress as inextricably linked with technology. for me, it would not be "going back to the Middle Ages" because the middle ages were marred by an intensely oppressive feudal social organisation. obviously, we would wish to arrange our society according to principles of consent, rather than repression.

this is linked to the abolition of work, because, were we to embrace a ludic rather than workerist view of life, we would necessarily need to live without factories and large-scale industry. after all, who would choose to work on a production line?

the primitivists, like john zerzan whose 'future primitive' is a classic text, would go further still. their beef with technology is that it out of necessity requires a division of labour, and the creation of specialists. specialism means that some individuals have access to knowledge and skills that others don't, and can subsequently use that as social leverage, in coercion. this cannot create a harmonious society, say the primitivists. instead they take inspiration from hunter-gatherers who are self-sufficient, have a much greater awareness of their ecosystems, and 'work' for very little time each day, leaving the majority of their lives free for socialising with their families. whilst there can be no doubt that it is impossible to expect an immediate shift towards such a lifestyle, i think that many of these are desirable aspects of society that many of us would want, if we were able to obtain them.

i hope that this has given a flavour of some of, what i find, the more relevant and consistent tendencies within anarchism of the recent past. whilst there are many who might call themselves libertarian or anarchist who cling to spooks like nation, organised religion, rights, or the principles of capitalism, as i find them inconsistent with the core anarchist principle of antiauthoritarianism i do not consider their pretentions to those titles as credible.

as far as practical progress is concerned, i also have a tendency to agree that many of the tactics pursued by socialists are important. collective action within the workplace is, of course, an important way of challenging the bosses, and capitalist thinking. however, we must be careful to avoid mediation by union hierarchies, or disempowering petitions to authority. that is why i would promote, not fetishise, direct actions (not 'Direct Action', a label that seems to be limited to jumping in front of bulldozers, blockading roads, and smashing american bombers), actions that allow an individual to realise their power and act for themselves. these are actions that make the corruption of unions and other organisations by power-seeking individuals harder, because people are more likely to think critically, and for themselves, rather than following the leader.