Pur Autre Vie

I'm not wrong, I'm just an asshole

Monday, April 14, 2014

The "No True Anarchist" Fallacy

This is just some stream-of-consciousness philosophizing, not intended to be rigorous.  And, importantly, not intended to be original.  I apologize if I've unintentionally replicated someone else's idea, no doubt expressed better there than here.  (I have, luckily or unluckily, almost no education in this area.)

Start with a sort of cynical premise.  People generally treat each other according to their respective power (which might vary depending on context—in the courtroom, the judge is more powerful, but on the golf course he commands less respect).  When people treat each other well, it is out of self-interest and not magnanimity.

This may not matter much, except as an attitudinal matter.  Humanity is still humanity.  I'll quote from Venedikt Erofeev's Moscow to the End of the Line, which is set in Soviet-era Russia.  A character has visited the U.S. and is recounting his experience to other Russians, who quiz him:

"But, tell us, was there no freedom there either?  And freedom thus remains a phantom on that continent of sorrow, as they write in our newspapers?  Tell us."

"Yes," I responded, "and freedom thus remains a phantom on that continent of sorrow, and the people, thus, have become so used to it that they almost don't notice.  Just think, they don't have—I walked around a lot and observed them closely—not in a single grimace or gesture or remark do they have anything like the awkwardness to which we have become accustomed.  On every rotten face there is as much dignity expressed in a minute as would last us for our whole great Seven Year Plan.  'How come?' I thought, and turned off Manhattan onto Fifth Avenue and answered my own question:  'Because of their vile self-satisfaction—nothing else.'  But where do they get their self-satisfaction??  I froze in the middle of the Avenue in order to resolve the thought:  'In the world of propagandistic fictions and advertising vagaries, where do they get so much self-satisfaction?'  I was heading into Harlem and shrugged my shoulders.  'Where?  The playthings of monopoly's ideologues, the marionettes of the arms kings, where do they get such appetite?  They gorge five times a day and always with the same endless dignity—but can a man have a real appetite in the States?' "

"Yes, yes, yes," old Mitrich nodded his head.  "They eat OK there, but we almost don't eat at all . . .  all our rice goes to China, all the sugar to Cuba . . .  so what will we eat?"

"Nothing, Pops, nothing . . .  You've already eaten yours, it's a sin to talk like that.  If you get to the States, remember the main thing:  don't forget your Homeland and don't forget its goodness."
Okay, I probably could have ended the quotation a bit earlier, but I love it.  Anyway, the false dignity of those self-satisfied North Americans is perhaps not so bad as the Russian propagandists had implied.  In other words, maybe you can grant that human interactions are mostly self-interested without huge implications for the world.  "False" humanity may be just as good as the "false" dignity of the North Americans.  Another analogy may be free will:  one can, perhaps, grant that human affairs are deterministic/random without major implications for traditional notions of responsibility etc.  In fact this may be more than an analogy, since my supposition is that altruism is essentially mechanical.  Who cares if, on some level, your mother loves you for biological reasons, which are in some sense arbitrary?

But I don't buy it.  For one thing, the blessings of humanity are not equally shared, and that is mostly because of the way power works, not because of human hearts.  In other words, if you want to think about how people experience fairness and unfairness, you'll do well to focus on how our institutions shape power and self-interest rather than on more high-minded concerns.  The slaves were freed by force of arms, Little Rock Central High School was desegregated at bayonet-point, moral authority grows out of the barrel of a gun.

And so appeals to morality can seem empty, or rather, they can seem like mere power plays in a corrupt, disgusting game.  Even when raw force is abandoned in favor of gentler or more subtle exercises of power, it comes to the same thing.

And so the possibility of justice as a concept seems to disappear.  Justice can still happen by coincidence, but it has no substance.  It is an interpretation of the world, a property ascribed to the world, not a thing in the world.  (I don't mean this in some deep sense.  I mean only that justice has no explanatory power in terms of what we observe.  We can apply it as a label only.  What they did was just.  But they did not do it because they were seekers of justice.  Rather, because of some sort of power dynamic.  There may be debates about what is just and what is unjust, but those debates will be won by the more powerful, who will call the result justice.)  And so we might be tempted to abandon justice altogether as a pointless abstraction.

I think this is wrong.  Let's turn to a highly artificial example, a sport.  Our sport has rules, both formal and informal, and it has people charged with enforcing those rules.  Without pretending that there will ever be a game with perfect rules or perfect enforcement, you can see how something like justice can play a meaningful role in the design of the game.  And, crucially, you can see how norms of fairness might emerge that are strong enough to overwhelm the usual might-makes-right dynamic.  In other words, everyone agrees that it's unfair to break the rules in a particular way, and so there is no point in trying to rally the troops to force a different outcome.  Even the rule-breaker might agree that what he did was wrong and should be punished.  The sport itself might have emerged out of some kind of power struggle, but within the logic of the game you can meaningfully speak of fairness and rules and (if you get a little carried away) justice.  Something good can come directly from the concept of justice—we don't just take something good and label it "just" after the fact.

We haven't really escaped the power-determinism that we assumed earlier, we've just seen that in spite of it something like justice can emerge as a real thing in the world.  And it doesn't have to be limited to the insides of sports games.  In submitting to an institution designed to achieve fairness, people willingly give up their ability to exert power in any particular case, and submit to the demands of justice.  Moral authority doesn't have to grow out of the barrel of a gun anymore, it can grow out of some kind of garden that we have agreed to cultivate far from the battlefield.

And so here is what I take from all of this:

1.  Justice is conceptually distinct but functionally inseparable from the power that protects its domain.  You need power brokers, Lincolns, LBJs, to carve out space for these cultivated gardens, and then to defend them.

2.  There are many forces that tend to tear apart our justice-promoting institutions.  I use the metaphor of a garden because that is what it is like.  Justice is not what happens when things are left to themselves.  Justice is highly artificial, even if not all of it is subject to human control.  (A well-designed economy will be largely decentralized, but a truly unregulated economy is a fantasy.  You don't just say that this amount of rice goes here, and that amount of copper goes there.  That would be micro-managing, trying to build a garden up molecule by molecule.  But you also don't abandon it to the weeds.)

3.  A good life and a good society are both concerned with building these gardens, preserving them, and articulating the rules that govern them. A major concern of politics is the extension of justice beyond small units like the family and the church, to ascribe moral status to everyone and to encompass the whole world within the domain of justice.

4.  You are called to join the struggle.  You must do your part.

5.  This is no excuse to be judgmental.  In fact, quite the opposite, you must respect other people's ways of seeking justice.  If they are seeking justice, and they are at all sane, then you are on the same side as them and you must try to pull together.  One of your most important duties is to understand other people and make yourself understandable to them.  The people who are against you, however similar to you they may be, are those who put themselves above the demands of justice and flout the rules or deny that we should be guided by rules or burdened by moral duties.  These people would build a society where justice is a luxury good to be enjoyed by the powerful and the affluent in their private gardens, and denied to everyone else.  Don't let their cynicism and affected world-weariness divert you from your duty.  To quote a line from Spanish Civil War-era propaganda:  "True Anarchists are against the false liberty invoked by cowards to avoid their duty."

6.  To quote Churchill:

But if we fail, then the whole world, including the United States, including all that we have known and cared for, will sink into the abyss of a new dark age made more sinister, and perhaps more protracted, by the lights of perverted science.  Let us therefore brace ourselves to our duties, and so bear ourselves, that if the British Empire and its Commonwealth last for a thousand years, men will still say, This was their finest hour.


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