Saturday, March 6, 2010

Anarchism, Violence, and the Law of Liberty

Over the last few months, there've been some dark and disturbing echoes of the early 1990s. Back then, the political dynamics of American society echoed with the shouting of the Angry White Man. Because people were mad as hell, and weren't going to take it anymore. Mad about what? Well, you name it. They were mad about the Man. They were mad because they felt out of control of their lives. They were mad because things were changing, and they felt that this wasn't their country anymore, and dammit, someone out there was to blame.

That inchoate, formless, aimless rage was mostly directed against the gummint, and was tolerated right up until Timothy McVeigh detonated his van next to the Oklahoma City Federal Building. The bloody reality that the rhetoric created tamped down the hatred for a while...or at least the public acceptance of that form of speech.

Now, many Americans are up in arms about health care auguring in the Union of Soviet American States. There are again twitchings towards force of arms to resist the taking away of our fundamental right to be bankrupted by little Billy's hernia operation. Obama's election really did rile folks up, and the rhetoric on the blogs of America's ultra-conservatives has again become almost indistinguishable from the manifestos written by McVeigh.

Truth be told, the kamikaze attack on the IRS building in Texas and the recent shooting at the Pentagon aren't really Tea Party related. Both attackers were libertarian/anarchist, with a healthy dose of plain ol' disturbed human being thrown into the mix.

The challenge, of course, is that the radical and anarchic individualism that lives deep in the American id can swiftly turn to the use of force to fight the powers that be. It's a classic tool of the anarchist on both left and right, as sabotage and terror are used to undermine the power structures that oppress. You can't build a new world where you're free to do whatever you damn well please without doing some ending-of-the Fight Club destruction, or so the argument goes. Put on your black bandana! pour yourself a Molotov cocktail! You need to blow it all up, tear it all down, and then do a tabula rasa hard restart.

Problem is, this perspective doesn't strike me as truly anarchic. Anarchy is, as I grasp it from my admittedly Jesusy perspective, the radical opposition to human beings having coercive power over other human beings. It stands against both cultural and economic power structures because those power structures are almost invariably used to aggregate power in the hands of a few. It isn't really a particular socio-economic system, because the underlying assumptions of both societies and markets depend on coercive power.

The popular image of the anarchist, which many self-proclaimed anarchists have embraced, is completely at odds with the core ethic of anarchy. For those who reject the power of government and the market, the use of violence to resist that power means that you have internalized and are acting upon the very ethic of coercive power that you purport to reject. Inflicting harm or the use of violence to bring about a particular end is totally at odds with renouncing power over others.

When an angry soul strikes out against the Fed, or the IRS, or Wall Street, or the Pentagon, they aren't serving the cause of freedom from coercion. They are only showing that they haven't really internalized their resistance to power, and that they don't understand the Law of Liberty.

Which, I suppose, makes the Amish the only true anarchists. Or perhaps the Shakers.