Sunday, October 03, 2010

Class Consciousness, Not Warfare

The tagline of this website, “life is the process of resolving conflicts that have no basis in reality,” isn’t just some fluff I made up with no relevance to what this blog/journal/whatever-you-want-to-call-it is about. The world is full of ideas -- most of which are incomplete, presupposed, incoherent, flawed, or flat out wrong -- which determine our actions. When these wrong and incompatible ideas meet, humans often tend to interpret it as a threat rather than as a possibility and, thus, resort to conflict with their newfound “enemy.” Rather than actually attempt reaching an understanding, it’s far more convenient to look at and frame debates in terms of “us vs them.” Furthermore, it’s profitable. And therein lies the State.

The State is a physical organization, yes. But it is very commonly omitted that the State is entirely dependent on the perception of its legitimacy over those it controls. Where the State presides, it is taboo to submit the State to scrutiny. When’s the last time you heard those within the major media discuss with or without any seriousness the provision of law enforcement through community and markets or the provision of welfare and social safety nets through mutual aid? Appeals to circumvent or dismantle the Department of Education and return control over education to parents, students, and teachers is balked at on the rare occasions it is even mentioned. Despite the wasteful and violence inducing failure of drug prohibition, discussion of marijuana legalization is still rare. And god forbid anyone bring up legalizing heroin! “Are you telling me that heroin and meth should be legalized and sold to my kids!” No, irate media goon, I’m telling you that policies “designed” to address the issues of drug addiction and drug related social problems have exacerbated them and resulted in a myriad of “unforeseeable” consequences. Whatever it is, if the State is involved, the State is presupposed to be necessary “for why would they ever have become involved had the poor not been dying in the streets?” The State exploits this naivety.

It’s not too difficult to see how limiting the range of debate can be profitable especially when the rhetorical line in the sand stops just short of letting anyone encroach on the State’s market. It is constantly reinforced in every instance it is referred to that the State, as it exists, is the only way of addressing an issue. It be like if Pepsi Co argued they were the only ones who could and would make soda (and then imprisoned anyone who did try to sell it). That’s the State: an effective and functional means of limiting our range of solutions to problems by the establishment of a de facto monopoly. And that is how it maintains it’s luster. Otherwise, it be far too expensive.

But how does it acquire its status as seemingly unbreakable? By establishing a phony conflict. The transition from bringers of violence to unquestionably legitimate institutions can be achieved through a common enemy, either abstract or physical. In defending its conquest from overthrow, as Franz Oppenheimer might put it, the State became understood as benefactors rather than beneficiaries. But where there is no enemy, one can be invented. An imaginary enemy is a lot safer and cheaper to fight and all the more profitable anyway. Suddenly, it’s “us” vs Iraq or “us” vs drugs and their users/suppliers. Where a real problem may exist, the State is capable of greatly exaggerating its negative effect on society and capitalizing on that exaggeration.

This is why the entire notion of “class warfare” as a way of looking at anarchism and libertarianism is fairly unsettling. Whether it’s over political or economic stature, race, sex, gender, etc, a number of anarchists have been overly willing to frame debate once again in terms of “us vs them.”

Conflict creates its own conflict. This shouldn’t be any surprise. The inability of those who are “in” and those who are “out” to be properly distinguished from one another generates a source of tension that will likely devolve into infighting and factioning. Feminism can serve as a decent example. For the sake of argument, let’s say that all women agree that there is a need to address “patriarchy.” Within the agreement, there will be a diversity of thought regarding how serious a problem patriarchy actually is and which strategies for addressing it are most appropriate. But even though the original goal is shared in common, the more differences that become apparent between the original “in” faction, the more factions emerge. The louder and more vociferous the voices become in opposition to the original conflict -- the more things come to resemble a true conflict -- the more intense the internal conflict begins. As a result, no one is capable of working together and no ends are achieved because no one is “pure to the cause.” It seems to be forgotten that a cause with no hope of anything being achieved is lost. And what was it all for? “Purity.” As if it’s achievable or knowable!

Anarchist class conflict undermines anarchism to begin with. The State creates “us” and “them.” It’s the false impression that I am somehow in a life or death struggle with “those people over there” that represents the delusion on which everything started everything out in the wrong direction. Class warfare just perpetuates the false separation between people and their interests without actually presenting any good evidence that those divisions are in fact indicative of reality. The problem which class conflict fails to address is that the class is a result of conflict. All new conflicts will do is create new classes. Anarchism is an ideological transformation, not a physical one. To treat ideology as something remedied by abrasive rhetoric or physical force really misunderstands, you know, how people respond to abrasive rhetoric and physical force. The function of the anarchist is to point out the fraud, not create some new one.

That being said, while anarchists on the more communist end of the spectrum have erred when it comes to class conflict, anarchists on the market end have woefully neglected class consciousness. Knowledge is infinitely important. Understanding your position within the entire framework of State hierarchy is knowledge. It does me no good to neglect the fact that I’m a white, college educated, heterosexual male living in California from a middle class background when considering the hierarchy and how it affects me. Likewise, it does me no good to neglect the fact that blacks, hispanics, women, homosexuals, poor, wealthy, etc have their own specific problems within the hierarchy. Ultimately, however, it comes down to the individual. Gender, race, and socio-economic background can not provide the whole answer. I am my own class, overlapping with others.

I recall a speech by David Friedman where he challenged the idea of “classes” (though not in so many words) saying that the State is harmful to all. I genuinely agree with him. But his explanation did not take into account the inequality of harm that occurs. For one drug entrepreneur may lose his livelihood while another his life. And while the State may facilitate the living at the expense of others, all costs eventually get capitalized into the position. No one really wins.

In order for anarchism to be truly revolutionary, the focus needs to be on education and we have a long way to go, obviously. It is our role to delegitimize the figureheads of the State as nothing more than talking heads and extinguish the hopes that any replacements could make it all better. Once the State is understood by a large enough portion of the population, we can assume our defensive roles in protection of our workplaces and communities from any reactionary Statist forces that may exist. Instigating conflict is the Statist thing to do, so don’t do it.

Follow up: "The State"