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Anarchy is Love, or, Why I’m not an Anarchist, Part One

I have thought for a very long time that anarchy has been unjustifiably derided.

It is used as a pejorative too easily, synonymous with chaos.

A ‘descent into anarchy’ seems so akin to a descent into Hell, doesn’t it? It must be evil.

Yet at its heart, anarchy is love.

Anarchy is, after all, an absence of hierarchy and an acknowledgement of mutuality of power.

It is a rejection of exploitation by one of another.

For anarchy to thrive we must each see one another as equals, as deserving of our needs and of peace.

Anarchy requires that every individual is able to consider their own needs and the needs of everyone else and choose that course of action that respects all needs.

Who could argue with that?

Here’s the but…

But perhaps anarchy merely has the potential of love, and is truly more likely to result in violence.

‘Anarchy as love’ falls down whenever an individual is incapable of or simply chooses not to respect the needs of others and reverts to violence to claim for themselves disproportionate and selfish use of one thing or another. Such expropriation is exploitative and anti-anarchist.

Anarchism also, then, provides that each individual is entitled to exercise their own violence to prevent such expropriation.

It also provides that to claim an anarchist future (some say reclaim, but I’m not convinced anarchy ever truly existed) it is appropriate to use violent means to overthrow capitalist patriarchy (I’m not sure if that’s a tautology but will take my chances).

If, for anarchists, might does not necessarily make right, nor is it necessarily wrong.

I’m a pacifist (though one prone to fits of anger from time to time which manifest as some swearing and shouting which I always regret).

So, for me, violent overthrow of patriarchy isn’t an option.

And I’ll always be prone, won’t I, to anyone who wants to gratify themselves violently or is prepared to take my stuff by force. And I’m a 180cm bloke in full command of my muscles. I’m sure you don’t need to imagine the circumstances of someone with different physical attributes similarly disinclined to violence. Or simply incapable of it.

Who do I licence to protect me (and is such a licence even OK)?

I’d rather I wasn’t assaulted or my stuff nicked, so maybe I need to be protected. As soon as I admit to this need I empower the person whose role it is to provide my protection. I am indebted to them, and must pay a price.

So long as that person doesn’t exploit their relative power to my detriment, perhaps anarchy can persist (although leaving us with the problematic position of the pacifist apparently licencing violence by another).

Far more likely, though, is that violence between those agents will progressively escalate and formalise. That’s what history shows us, anyway, and perhaps it’s OK to take past behaviour as indicative of future behaviour in this regard.

If we’re going to have people who are authorised to exercise violence on behalf of those who don’t want to or can’t then they ought to be constrained from doing so arbitrarily and to their own advantage in an exploitative way. There ought to be rules we agree to apply to those who accept the responsibility to exercise violence on our behalf.

In short, out propensity to violence means that we need a state in recognition of the fact that we simply do not all share equal capacity for violence, even if we all had the will, and the controlling minds of that state must be accountable for their decisions.

That’s not anarchy.

So is there a place for anarchist thought in a statist society?

I do believe, though, that we should be considering public policy from, in part, an anarchist perspective.

My expectation, my demand, is that the entity to which I contract my right to violence does not abuse that contract by exercising violence to entrench or deepen exploitation and disadvantage.

Our society is improved every time we find a way to peacefully and kindly resolve differences using our individual agency. Talking to our neighbour about their noise and agreeing to a compromise on how it may be reduced is superior to calling their landlord or the police. It is more respectful and loving. Collectively and voluntarily providing a safe space to meet the needs of children is superior to locking them up.

The state isn’t going anywhere in a hurry, if at all. But its controlling minds can, in considering how to respond to any particular public policy question, look to how they can best empower individuals and communities to agree to solutions rather than impose measures upon them.

Public servants already, in proposing particular policies or programs, report on the consequences of their proposal by way of ‘impact’ reports. They consider, for example, the impact on families, on small business.

I say let’s have ‘Anarchy Impact Statements’, where a proponent must reflect on how a particular proposal either dismantles or entrenches hierarchies that rely on violence to sustain exploitative relationships. In particular, proponents should be required to defend measures that defends or advances exploitation that relies on recourse to the ‘lawful’ violence of the state without which those who suffer from such exploitation would resist it.

If the state is going to continue to be used to protect expropriation and entrenched disadvantage, its controlling minds ought to be required to at least acknowledge that they are doing so every time they act.

Fixing what ain’t broke

By Rewi Lyall

For a while I’d been trying to convince myself that I could write about this in a general sense and move on to specific arguments later. But then Tony Abbott reminded me of the time that the phrase ‘If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it’ really started to get my goat.

You see, this is a nonsense axiom.

The notion that humans should only fix what is broken stands in the face of some of the most wonderful of inventive leaps our species has made. I’ll illustrate with what seem to me to be a couple of stand out examples.

What was it about the way homo sapiens lived that was ‘broken’ and which led to the invention of the wheel? Sure, it’s easy in hindsight to say that the wheel clearly made life better, but that’s not the point in this argument. Making life easier, or better, isn’t the criteria, it’s fixing something that’s broken.

Was candle-power a ‘broken’ way of providing light? In order to really come to terms with this we have to try and conceive of how people felt about those prior ways of life in which only a handful of people conceived of the possibility of change. Did our great-grandparents think that the horse and carriage was a ‘broken’ mode of transport?

What about how humanity conducted its affairs was ‘broken’ that was later ‘fixed’ by space flight?

We’re often told that some of the great inventive leaps have resulted from defence industries, which leads to the question – particularly since World War Two – what was ‘broken’ about the way we kill each other? What’s broken about that now? Isn’t it the case that defence industries are still working at better ways to kill people?

Tony Abbott forms part of this argument because he used the axiom to devastating effect in the constitutional debates of the 1990s. It was one of those clichéd phrases which form part of his apparently superhuman power to ‘cut through’.

The problem (or at least one of a few problems) faced by the republicans at that time was that they denied themselves the obvious and critical repost: the Australian Constitution is broken. They could have made the argument, implicit from the above examples, that we as a species don’t and have never only fixed things that were broken. We’ve sought to improve our lives for the sake of the improvement. We’ve made inventive and creative leaps because we can, not just because we must.

But republicans didn’t even get that argument going particularly well, and in any case it’s a little hard to see how the minimalist approach could be perceived as ‘improving’ our lives in any meaningful way.

Even worse, by pursuing a minimalist agenda which merely changed the names on the letterhead and redirected the mail, the Australian Republican Movement gave us no reason to change. Constitutions are, after all, pretty important things. Symbolism doesn’t really get us there in terms of a need for change.

The glaring, slap you in the face and steal your lunch money problems which come with a nineteenth century constitutional model that was out of date 50 years ago are real and have daily repercussions.

Like the complete absence of the language of rights.

Or the… messed up division of responsibilities between the Commonwealth and State governments.

Health reform, anyone?

Political radicalism in Australia is so hamstrung by some weird combination of a belief in incremental change and an inability to forcefully argue the need for radical change that we’re left in a limbo land where it’s apparently OK to concede that a constitutional bill of rights is unlikely to be successful at a referendum and to, from there, rationalize that we don’t really want constitutional rights anyway.

As if in forcing the Northern Territory Intervention on Aboriginal communities the Commonwealth government’s suspension of legislative rights flowing from the Racial Discrimination Act didn’t actually happen. Wasn’t it a good thing that the Commonwealth stepped in to ‘fix’ that?

But I guess the existence of those rights, and the ability of people to rely on them to ensure that they were not subject to discrimination, must have been at the heart of what was ‘broken’ about the broken lives of Aboriginal people in the Northern Territory.

Good thing our parliamentarians are able to tell us what’s broken about our houses, even if they refuse to do anything to fix their own.

Private surveillance

By Rewi Lyall

In the light of suggestions that Japanese whalers have, through a third party, hired aircraft to conduct surveillance on anti-whaling group Sea Shephed, the ABC reports that Deputy Prime Minister Julia Gillard is seeking legal advice on the issue.

Professor Don Rothwell has already said, though, that there seems little recourse under existing law to stop Australian airspace from being used in this way.

Now, maybe some people would prefer that such activities not be conducted, and see something sinister at play. They may be right.

But, then, a broader question arises concerning private surveillance generally.

The issue appears to be whether or not a private person, in this case in the form of a corporation or other entity, should be able to use private resources to undertake surveillance of persons they feel may act contrary to their interests. In this case, such surveillance probably wasn’t as covert as it sometimes can be: it’s pretty hard to see how civil aircraft circling the Southern Ocean could be effectively concealed.

If we’re really worried about such private covert surveillance, though, surely such concern should extend to a whole range of ways in which private persons engage investigators to covertly monitor the activities of their competitors, their former spouses, and for any number of other reasons. If we’re going to draw a line on such activity, where should it lie?

WA Labor’s new strident approach on stop and search powers

By Rewi Lyall

In an earlier post I criticized the trend of successive Western Australian State governments and Local Government Authorities to ever harsher policing powers, from the expanding surveillance of citizens to the proposed police powers to stop and search any Western Australian who seeks to enter certain events or public spaces. That post was subsequently republished on Larvatus Prodeo, with an ensuing engaging discussion by visitors to that site.

One of the comments was a pointed observation that I had omitted any reference to the Labor Party. Indeed, I replied, it didn’t mention any specific parties.

The fact is that I haven’t always been impressed with the approach of the Labor Party on ‘law and order’ issues. The initial statement by Eric Ripper that Labor had sought to introduce similar measures, I’ll concede, was one I found less than inspiring.

However two recent excursions by Shadow Ministers into the field have given me fresh hope.

A story in the West Australian on the 28th of October covered comments by Shadow Minister for Police Margaret Quirk:

Shadow police minister Margaret Quirk called on the Government to address causes of crime rather than continually resorting to harsher penalties. The Government recently announced a range of measures to curb alcohol- related violence in Northbridge.

“I think the focus is very much going hard on the offenders, and while that is legitimate the overall focus should be on there being fewer victims,” Ms Quirk said. “You need a much more complex approach to law and order.”

She said cutting money from the office of crime prevention and a reduced focus on education campaigns hindered the battle against increasingly violent attacks.

“It’s no consolation for a victim to have the Attorney-General and the Minister for Police waving their finger at the offenders after the event,” she said.

This line of argument is, while cast within the continuing frame of a law and order debate, at least getting closer to some of the concerns raised in the discussion on Larvatus Prodeo about root causes. I hope to write some more about that at a later date.

It has been followed up by recent comments by Shadow Attorney General John Quigley regarding the proposed stop and search powers (with thanks to the Western Patriot – hard to get access to the Perth Voice over here):

Mr Quigley told The Perth Voice that the new powers are, “extreme laws giving unheralded powers to the commissioner of police, the likes of which you would only see in a fascist or totalitarian regime.”

Combined with mandatory terms of imprisonment for assaulting police officers, these new laws significantly erode the rights of individuals against the State.

Mr Quigley told The Perth Voice that the State Government could “get away with [it] by…inducing the people of Perth to believe they are living in the most dangerous city in the country, or the western world, and it is just not true.”

This is a distinct and welcome shift in approach from the previous statements by the Opposition Leader. Although the rhetoric might be a bit stronger than I’d use, it represents a strength of resolve on the issue that we should embrace.