Everybody knows it’s coming apart, 15

8 12 2014

Ironically, in seeking to curb the individual will to power in favor of equality, leftists invest their own subterranean desires for freedom-as-power in the activist state. In my view, the revival of the left depends on relinquishing this investment. We need to recognize that despite appearances the state is not our friend, that in the long run its erosion is an opportunity and a challenge, not a disaster. I don’t want to be misunderstood: I’m not suggesting that we stop supporting social security or national health insurance or public schools or antidiscrimination laws. If my immediate choices are the barbarism of unleashed capital or a state-funded public sector, the tyranny of uninhibited private bigotry or state-enforced civil rights, I choose the state. Or rather, I choose the social goods and civil liberties that are available under state auspices.The distinction is important, because the idea that the state gives us these benefits is a mystification. Basically [Charles] Murray is right: government does not cause social improvement. In actual historical fact, every economic and social right that we’ve achieved since the nineteenth century has been hard-won by organized, militant, and often radical social movements: the labor movement; the socialist, communist, and anarchist movements; the new left student movement; the black and feminist and gay liberation movements; the ecology movement. . . . The role of the state from the New Deal and the postwar compact till the start of its present no-more-Mr.-Nice-Guy phase was to manage potentially destabilizing social conflict by offering carefully limited concessions to the troublemakers.

. . . The government’s current rush to abandon any pretense of social responsibility ought to make this painfully clear: what the state supposedly giveth it promptly taketh away as soon as the balance of power shifts. In this case, of course, social power is shifting away from the national state itself; liberals and social democrats are still trying to board a train that’s already left the station.

In parallel fashion, the statism of the cultural left does not further equality so much as it reinforces law and order. . . . Insofar as the demand is to outlaw overt, provable discriminatory acts by employers, landlords, store, owners, and so on, it simply aims for public recognition that (pace [David] Boaz and Murray) discrimination is a coercive act as unacceptable as violence or theft. But the problem, from the social movements’ point of view, is that overt, deliberate discrimination is only the crudest expression of a deeply rooted culture of inequality. For many opponents of that culture, it has seemed a logical next step to invoke state power against patterns of behavior that reinforce white male dominance and exclude, marginalize, or intimidate vulnerable groups.

Actually, it’s a plunge into a dangerous illusion. The ingrained behavior and attitudes that support the dominant culture are by definition widespread, reflexive, and experienced as normal and reasonable by the people who uphold them. They are also often unconscious or ambiguous. A serious effort to crush racism and sexism with the blunt instrument of the law would be a project of totalitarian dimensions—and still it would fail. Transforming a culture and its consciousness requires a different kind of politics, a movement of people who consistently and publicly confront oppressive social patterns, explain what’s wrong with them, and refuse to live by them. . . .

It’s time for the left to become a movement again. That means, first of all, depending on no one’s power but our own. . . .

Ellen Willis, Their Libertarianism—and Ours, 1997

There is much which is provocative—in the best sense of the word—in Willis’s work, and much of her left-libertarianism with which I agree.

But she doesn’t confront the contradiction in her own essay: the gains of past movements, gains which she wouldn’t give up, were accomplished through the actions of that compromised, unfriendly, authoritarian state. She criticizes the right-libertarians for not recognizing the coercive power of the marketplace and warns leftists of the coercive power of the state, but merely criticizing parallel coercions does not in an of itself offer an escape from them.

Yes, by all means, we need a new, new-left movement (NL x.0?), a new vision of freedom and equality in which we live in “voluntary cooperation” with one another. But we can’t get their simply by dismissing either the state or the market as coercive—and not only because coercion (or, if you prefer, power) itself may be inescapable.

It’s nice to say we ought to rely on no one’s power but our own, but is that enough? And what if it isn’t? That is the dilemma, and the work.


We don’t need no thought control

29 05 2013

Does it infringe upon the rights of parents to raise their children to insist that they educate their children up to a certain point and to certain standards?

Yes. So?

We in the US (and most other places on the planet) sensibly grant parents the right to raise their children as they see fit, but this particular right is conditional, not absolute. If they neglect or abuse or deny medical treatment to their children they will lose those rights, and once the children reach certain ages (these vary depending upon the circumstances), the parents lose those rights, regardless.

(“Right” is an awkward term to use in this case, largely because rights are assumed—not by me!—to be absolute and inalienable, such that to speak of “conditional rights” seems nonsensical. “Privilege”, however, seems too cramped a term; “authority” works pretty well. . . so, ah, yeah, I’ll use authority here on out.)

In any case, what I now call “authority” and what others might insist is a “right” has nonetheless come to be seen as something which, unfortunately unique among our understanding of rights, is paired tightly to “responsibility”. The default mode is parental authority/right/responsibility for children, such than an abuse of authority/failure to meet responsibility leads to loss of said authority/right.

Christ, I’m really talking around the issue, aren’t I? Nothing like spending two days in a writing seminar to unmake one’s ability to write.

Anyway. That we as a polity might infringe upon parental authority is neither new nor necessarily unjust. We might have good reasons to be suspicious of state mandates regarding children—see the history of removing Native American children from their homes, as unjust a policy as there was—but it is also the case that, absent state action, children suffer at the hands of their parents.

I can’t really object to religious or cultural communities wanting to instill their values into minor members of their communities (even though I do), because as deep a civic republican as I am, I am also a narrow civic republican who thinks pluralism is the bee’s knees (even if I am occasionally exasperated by those bee’s knees).

I”m losing the thread again, aren’t I? Shit.

Okay, I’ll just skip to the conclusion since I”m obviously skipping all over the place anyway. Requiring parents to educate their children is not an unjust limitation of their freedom to raise their children as they see fit, because parents ought not have the freedom to deny freedom to their children.

And the parts I skip over? All of the tough balancing between parents’ rational desires to pass their values along to their children and what to do when those values hinder their kids’ abilities to make, when they come of age, their own decisions. Amish and Satmar and FLDS children are not just Amish and Satmar and FLDS members, but individuals who, like every other individual, deserve to be recognized in and covered by the law, and not merely covered by their parents.

Or something like that.