Anarchism by Fools: “What’s Left?” February 2014, MRR #369

Part Two: Anarchism of-by-for Fools

I think it was Bill Clinton that once said that if you thought the ’50s were great, you’re probably a Republican, and if you thought the ’60s were great, you’re probably a Democrat.

Bill Maher, “Bill Maher Isn’t Sorry,” Politico (11-21-13)

And if you thought the ‘70s were great, you’re probably a libertarian. Libertarianism is just anarchy for rich people. Libertarians are big business fucks who don’t want to smash the state, but instead lobby the government for more tax cuts.

The number of prominent entrepreneurs, politicians and entertainers who openly declare themselves to be libertarian is legion. Mark Ames has done an excellent exposé regarding how libertarianism became the house philosophy for capitalism [“When Congress Busted Milton Friedman (And Libertarianism was Created by Big Business Lobbyists),” NSFWCORP, 11-16-12], and Bruce Gibney has revealed how libertarianism has infested the tech industry (“Silicon Valley’s Libertarian Problem,” Inc., 8-13-12). Science fiction has long speculated about the consequences of a free market capitalism run amok, from the cyberpunk of William Gibson’s Sprawl trilogy and Neal Stephenson’s Snow Crash to mainstream SF like Heinlein’s The Moon is a Harsh Mistress and oddities like Max Barry’s Jennifer Government.

Flipping from science fiction to history, it needs to be made clear that the use, or rather abuse of the term libertarianism in America has almost nothing to do with the use of the term libertarianism historically. Of European political origin, and synonymous with social anarchism, historic libertarianism belonged to the broad category of socialism, and for the most part was leftist in orientation. It was extremely hostile to and ardently opposed to the classical liberalism of the Manchester School of Economics. Classical liberalism propounded a limited state assigned the narrow task of strictly protecting life, liberty and property while a laissez-faire capitalist economy was allowed unfettered activity, regulated only by the invisible hand of the market. Social anarchism in the European context was the majoritarian collectivist, mutualist, syndicalist and communist anarchism advocated by Bakunin, Proudhon, Rocker and Kropotkin in the 18th, 19th, and early 20th centuries. It was challenged by the minority individualist anarchism of Mackay and Stirner. Yet even then this minority tendency was highly critical of capitalism and bourgeois individualism. Nevertheless, noted anarcho-communist Albert Meltzer raised objection that “Individualism (applying to the capitalist and not the worker) has become a right-wing doctrine […] the ‘Individualist Anarchist’ approach that differs radically from revolutionary anarchism in the first line of descent. It is sometimes too readily conceded that ‘this is, after all, anarchism’.”

The rugged individualism and self-reliant frontier ethic of American society proved inimical to social anarchism and nurturing to individualist anarchism. The waves of revolutionary anarchist immigrants to this country, while responsible for extensive labor unrest and the founding of May 1st as International Workers Day, tended to de-radicalize and assimilate quickly. The anarchist individualism of Josiah Warren, Benjamin Tucker and Lysander Spooner fit right into and bolstered the American conservative mainstream, even as it remained critical of the capitalism of its day. Yet it took American conservatism’s confrontation with the ebullient, if somewhat crazed politics and counterculture of the 1960s, to separate out the individualist, pro-capitalist and limited government strains of the conservative movement proper into a bona fide anti-statist, radically individualistic quasi-anarchist capitalist movement by 1969. Anarchist capitalists like Murray Rothbard, and former Goldwater speechwriter Karl Hess (before he moved to the anarchist left), actually attempted to forge alliances with compatible New Left individuals and organizations between 1965 and 1968. Jerome Tuccille’s pair of books, It Usually Begins With Ayn Rand and Radical Libertarianism, detail this history for anyone interested.

Bona fide means genuine, but the existence of American capitalist libertarianism doesn’t absolve it from being full of shit, despite having multiplied and broadened in the last fifty odd years. Today, the American libertarian spectrum includes those with libertarian tendencies like quirky liberal Bill Maher and eccentric conservative Clint Eastwood, the mainstream of corporate libertarianism described above and the Libertarian Party proper, and the pure libertarianism of anarcho-capitalist economist Murray Rothbard and free market anarchist, 3D gun printer Cody Wilson. To quote an old saying, “the dose makes the poison” (or as Tom Waits sings: “She always had that little drop of poison.”) There is plenty of evidence that toxins like arsenic or radioactive iodine, in tiny amounts, are not just harmless, but might actually be healthy (See Henry I. Miller’s “Can Tiny Amounts of Poison Actually Be Good For You?”, Forbes, 12-20-11). In science, its called hormesis. Just so with capitalist libertarianism. A little bit, in the form of Bill Maher, can be bracing, invigorating and healthy. Too much, as with corporate libertarianism, can be sickening, and the pure libertarianism of anarchist capitalism are out-and-out deadly.

The reason I extended Bill Maher’s quote above is because the 1950s didn’t actually end until 1965, and the 60s in truth spanned from roughly 1965 to 1975. Similarly, the 70s actually covered from 1975 until 1985. I attempted, with a couple of left anarchist friends, to explore some form of left-right association with an equally small group of anarchist capitalists around 1975, a story I’ve told many times before. Big mistake. Aside from constantly babbling about their secret stashes of gold and silver bullion, those free market anarchists were all talk and no action. All they pontificated about were the blessings of capitalism without a state, until I shot back that, if the US government was overthrown today, US corporations would buy and install another government tomorrow, because American capitalism needs a state to protect it, regulate it, keep it safe and healthy. Free market capitalism is a myth, because capitalism requires government. Unfortunately, corporate capitalism in this country has already bought off the government lock, stock and barrel, even as a strand of corporate capitalism advocates a privatizing, deregulatory, anti-tax libertarianism that is fundamentally unhealthy for our body politic, what Rothbard in 1994 called “Big Government libertarianism.”

The 70s were also formative to the rise of capitalist libertarianism, in part because of the anti-Keynesian turn to the right produced by the election of Margaret Thatcher in Britain and Ronald Reagan in the United States. This quasi-libertarian variant came to be known as neoliberalism, which combined domestic privatization, deregulation, financialization, rolling back organized labor, and dismantling the welfare state with an aggressive, interventionist foreign policy. In its neoconservative permutation, it preached a democratic imperialism spread internationally by military power. Most recently, the Tea Party movement has distinguished itself from both establishment Republicans and orthodox conservatives with a virulent strain of libertarianism. While libertarian-like tendencies seem to be proliferating like a plague, attempts to build alliances between rightwing libertarians and congruent left libertarians have never amounted to shit. From the demise of the Radical Libertarian Alliance to the recent hard times experienced by Lou Rockwell’s Antiwar.com, time and again the idea of libertarian left and right working together have amounted to delusion and derangement.

As you might have noticed, this discussion of American style capitalist libertarianism has veered toward ill health and affliction, from the explicit analogy with poison to the implicit comparison with pathology. Well, let’s take the metaphor a step further. Matt Taibbi, in his Rolling Stone article “The Great American Bubble Machine” (7-9-9) described the role of Goldman Sachs in crashing the economy and bringing about the Great Recession. “The world’s most powerful investment bank is a great vampire squid wrapped around the face of humanity, relentlessly jamming its blood funnel into anything that smells like money.” Classical liberalism, capitalist libertarianism, corporate libertarianism, anarchist capitalism, neoliberalism, Tea Party libertarianism; they are all structural capitalist modifications encompassed by this vampiric theme, first explored by Karl Marx in volume one of Capital:
As capitalist, he is only capital personified. His soul is the soul of capital. But capital has one single life impulse, the tendency to create value and surplus-value, to make its constant factor, the means of production, absorb the greatest possible amount of surplus-labor. Capital is dead labor, that, vampire-like, only lives by sucking living labor, and lives the more, the more labor it sucks.

Time for a wooden stake, beheading, and fiery cremation.

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Digital bodies, virtual communities: “What’s Left?” May 2011, MRR #336

William Gibson once replied to critics of his cyberpunk science fiction, of his portrayal of dark, dystopian futures, that he considered his early novels rather optimistic. At least he believed there would be a future. Given the Cold War standoff of mutually assured nuclear destruction, which generated so many apocalyptic nightmares and end-of-the-world scenarios among Baby Boomers and subsequent generations, the prospect of a future, no matter how bleak, is considered a plus.

Or is it? It’s oh-so-punk to proclaim “No Future.” Perhaps it’s more punk to acknowledge there is a future, but that the future blows. For me, a rather dismal future is right around the corner, because I never got my wish that “I hope I die before I get old,” to quote another great rock’n’roll band.

A central technological and cultural dynamic for the past sixty plus years has been the transformation of the analog into the digital. To date, this has meant the increasing use of digital recording methods over analog, and the switch from analog distribution methods to digital. As someone born in the ‘50s and raised in the ‘60s, I grew up with all sorts of analog media—records, books, comics, newspapers, photographs, movies—as well as a panoply of real world distribution options— record shops, bookstores, comic book nooks, newsstands, singleplex movie theaters. Daily existence, whether as artistic performance or real life, remains analog. Yet, in the last forty years, recording and distributing reality has shifted to the digital. Today vinyl, film, printed material, analog media of every sort is rapidly disappearing. Retail distribution for music, art and print is fast vanishing, and independent versions of such establishments are virtually extinct in huge swaths of this country, including major cities like LA and New York. The extant analog and digital media are distributed more and more online, via the Internet, which makes every computer a virtual store.

I don’t need to argue to readers of Maximum Rock’n’roll that analog media is better than digital. The qualitative superiority of music on vinyl over CDs is common knowledge to this crowd, and lets not even talk about that godawful crap called MP3. Less well known is the difference between analog and digital photography/film making. For instance, those involved in old-fashioned photography and darkroom photographic printing contend that the depth and nuance of black as a color cannot be matched currently by digital photographic techniques and printing methods. I might then assert that an art form like film noir is impossible using digital media, but my point is not to rehash all the endless debates over analog versus digital media. Much more important for me is the loss of the tactile world as a consequence of moving from analog to digital distribution of whatever media that exists.

But first, a confession. I am complicit in the destruction of analog media and analog distribution. In 1983, I tested whether an Apple Lisa could come close to matching CAD-CAM blueprinting systems of the day for a corporation doing government contract work. In 1984, I purchased my first Mac, upgrading to a Mac Plus in 1985 to learn PageMaker in particular, and desktop publishing in general. I’ve been a Mac user ever since. I published most of my zines and political propaganda, and formatted my first novel, on Macs. I earned my living as an Apple tech for nearly a decade and a half. At my last job, a book publishing company, the art department made the transition from Apple’s Classic operating system (OS 9) to unix-based OS X (10.2, Jaguar, to be exact). I worked with a particularly arrogant independent contractor to make the conversion, and I admit to being surprised when I noticed that Apple had changed its startup from a version of the colorful Happy Mac to an ominous grey Apple logo.

“Yep,” the asswipe consultant said when he noticed my shock. “It’s a whole new community now.”

I was even more appalled by his abuse of the word community. It was the first time I realized how thoroughly the term had been degraded. From meaning a group of people sharing everything—geographic location, work, play, raising children, creating local culture—“community” had been reduced to meaning a group of people owning or using the same kind of computer. And this grotesque, deforming reductionism is what is essential to the dynamic of transforming the analog into the digital. Clearly, as record shops, bookstores, comic book nooks, newsstands, and movie theaters evaporate, to be replaced by online, Internet shopping, consumption, and other sterile interactions, traditional, analog community is fast devolving into virtual, digital community. There is the loss of the sensuous, the tactile, the concrete.

And so we return to William Gibson. “The body was meat,” to be digitally transcended. Real life is to be replaced by Second Life, a collection of digital avatars pretending to community. A longtime friend, and fellow Mac aficionado, got so immersed in his Second Life that he would come home from work and plug into his computer, entirely ignoring his wife and his actual life. Finally, out of desperation, his wife joined Second Life in order to have some sort of interaction with her husband.

Now, that creeps me out.

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