Notes On Anarchism: Earning and Deserving

In capitalist societies, human life is not inherently valued. It is something that must be bought, and in order to afford it, one must sell oneself to the capitalists, prove oneself profitable, and in return will receive wages which will (hopefully) be enough to purchase life’s basic necessities–viz., food, housing, healthcare, etc. When the things that are necessary to survive are conceived as things to be earned, as things which one does not deserve simply in virtue of being human, then human life itself cannot be said to be held as inherently valuable. If it were, the things necessary to sustain this supposedly inherently valuable life would not be a matter of being earned just in case one meets certain conditions. The only inherently valuable thing in a capitalist society is capital. And I have a real problem with any system that values something–anything–above human life.

Notes On Anarchism: Are People Inherently Good or Bad?

Apparently, my ongoing–albeit intermittent–“Notes On Anarchism” series has morphed into a way to (attempt to) briefly and succinctly respond to frequently asked questions regarding anarchism (and socialism more generally).

Thus, today I am taking up the annoyingly common objection that, because man (it is always man–I suppose the jury is still out on woman) is inherently evil, socialism (especially libertarian socialism) could never work, because man [sic!] would have to be inherently good. Therefore, it is concluded, the state is necessary and capitalism is our best bet economically.

What I find particularly odd about this objection is that it seems to be essentially saying that, because humans are inherently evil, we should–indeed, we must–build an economic system that encourages greed, selfishness, and the valuing of profit above all else (i.e., capitalism); and that, furthermore, we should give some of these inherently evil people a monopoly of force over the rest of society. If it is true that humans are inherently evil, this hardly seems like a solution.

Secondly, the “inherently evil”-“inherently good” dichotomy is, in my opinion, a red herring. Why does it have to be one or the other? Why do people always say to me, “Well, either you believe people are inherently good or you believe that people are inherently evil.” My question is: Why should we assume that people are inherently anything? This thinking strikes me as incredibly reductionistic, and I have addressed it in further detail, spelling out what I take to be serious problems with the idea of “human nature” here.

Now, to be clear, I do believe that empathy and mutual aid are an “inherent” (if we must use that word) aspect of the human species, developed over the course of evolution and without which we would never have survived. I absolutely believe that humans are social creatures and that if anarchy (in the pejorative sense) were to prevail, most of us would probably not run around killing, raping, and pillaging (and if the threat of the state’s use of force is the only thing that prevents you from doing so, I don’t think I want to hang out with you.) There is, to my mind, plenty of good and convincing evidence for all of this. Why, for example, is the lack of empathy (i.e., psychopathy) considered psychologically aberrant? Why is it so damaging for soldiers who experience firsthand the ravages of war? Why do babies who aren’t held enough often become psychopaths? Because we are social creatures!

The principles of “rugged individualism” and Social Darwinism still enjoy a considerable amount of prominence among right-wing politicians, but, quite simply, I think the evidence is completely and utterly lacking that these ideas come anywhere near accurately describing the human species and how we relate to one another. I have written on this in more detail before as well.

So, no, I don’t think people are “inherently good”, but I also don’t think people are “inherently evil.” Such reductionistic categories ignore perfectly good evidence to the contrary, as well as encourage vacuous thinking when approaching social and political problems. (I.e., “There is a lot of crime, which obviously just means that people are inherently evil”, rather than, “There is a lot of crime; why might that be? What social, political, economic, or other forms of power relations might be contributing to that?” To say nothing of asking what the historical evolution is of such ideas as “human nature”, what kinds of social and historical contingencies surrounded and contributed to the development of those ideas, how one’s own social and cultural background might be contributing to one’s adherence to these types of ideas, etc. etc.)

Social and political issues are incredibly complex, and, as is clear to anyone who is actually interested enough to do a minimal investigation into the political philosophies of socialism and anarchism rather than just assaulting us with right-wing talking points (if the reader will forgive a brief lapse into cynicism), anarchism and socialism attempt to address these issues with respect for their complexity. Anarchists do not deny that people do bad things, and that they would continue to do bad things in an anarchist society. However, anarchists also believe that there are many, many ways in which current structures–the state and capitalism chief among them–which serve to exacerbate these problems, often to an extreme degree. Capitalism, for example, must discourage and suppress sentiments of collectivity and communality among the working classes, as such sentiments encourage people to work together for mutual benefit rather than for the profit of their capitalist bosses. It is therefore in no way surprising that Milton Friedman said that “few trends could so very undermine the foundations of our free society as the acceptance by corporate officials of a social responsibility other than to make as much money for their stockholders as possible.”

Anatheism: A Third Way

Note: I originally wrote this for my recently created second blog, anatheistchristian. However, it occurred to me that the topic is very much in line with the original intention of this blog as a sort of depository space for my thoughts on all things philosophy, politics, theology, and culture–especially at the intersection of all of these. Before long, obviously, this blog became primarily a place for me to write about anarchism and other political issues. And while this is certainly no cause for complaint in my book, I thought that this entry, perhaps taken as a companion to Mutual Aid and the Kingdom of God, could serve to sort of tie everything together again. Finally, while I do not explicitly draw out the political implications of anatheism in this paper, I think it very clearly does have political implications–especially for current issues such as the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and the US-Mexico border crisis.


 

The biggest no to theism in our modern era,” writes Richard Kearney, “was not Nietzsche’s philosophical announcement of the death of “God” in 1882 but the actual disappearance of “God” from the world in the concentration camps of Europe in the 1940s.” (58) Following this disappearance, the question, according to John Caputo, is, “Who–or what–comes after the God of metaphysics?”

Richard Kearney presents ana-theism as a sort of third way between theism and atheism–a way of conceding the atheist critique of theism while maintaining the sense of the sacred, of transcendence and divinity in theism. He writes in the introduction: “Ana-theism: another word for another way of seeking and sounding the things we consider sacred but can never fully fathom or prove.”(3)

The term, anatheism, is taken from the Greek, ana, which could be translated as “after”, “again”, or “return”, and theos, which is, of course, God. Kearney thus uses anatheism as a way to say, “Returning to God after God.” In the wake of the death of God, it is an attempt, not to resurrect theism, but to embrace “a form of post-theism that allows us to revisit the sacred in the midst of the secular.” (57) Anatheism is a humble third way that

differs from dogmatic atheism in that it resists absolutist positions against the divine, just as it differs from the absolutist positions of dogmatic theism for the divine. It is a movement—not a state—that refuses all absolute talk about the absolute, negative or positive; for it acknowledges that the absolute can never be understood absolutely by any single person or religion. (16)

I.

A central component of anatheism—perhaps, indeed, the central component—is hospitality. Kearney begins by examining moments of hospitality in the three great western monotheisms: Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. In each episode that is considered, when hospitality is extended to the stranger, the guest, it is revealed that it is in fact God who has been welcomed.

Abraham is confronted by three strangers and faces the choice between hostility and hospitality. He chooses hospitality, opens his home to the strangers, shares a meal—breaks bread, we might say—with them, and it is then revealed that they are in fact messengers of God. Had he chosen hostility—perhaps the more rational choice in a hostile world—he would have effectively closed the door to the divine who arrived in the form of a guest.

Similarly, Mary is confronted with the choice between hostility and hospitality when the angel Gabriel appears at her door. She too chooses hospitality, and in so doing receives a message from God.

Jesus also appears to have a sense of this mysterious-mystical relationship between God and the stranger, identifying himself, in Matthew 25:31-46, with the stranger who is in need of food, water, and clothing. Those who followed Jesus’ advice to “Give to everyone who begs from you” (Matt. 5:42), it is revealed, have in fact extended their hospitality to Jesus.

The Gospel of Luke goes further in illustrating this point when Christ, having resurrected, appears to his disciples as a stranger whom they do not recognize. It is only after inviting in this strange guest and sharing a meal—again, the breaking of bread—that the stranger is suddenly revealed as Christ himself. As Kearney writes, “God is revealed après coup, in the wake of the encounter, in the trace of his passing . . . When God is revealed as having been present all the time, God is already gone.” (22)

Finally, Kearney discerns a similar moment of hospitality to the stranger-as-God in Islam, when Muhammad is met with an unfamiliar voice in the middle of the night in the solitude of a cave. Muhammad must choose whether to open himself up to the strange voice or recoil in fear and hostility. In choosing the former, he, like Abraham and Mary before him, receives a message from God.

All of these examples illustrate the way in which, as Kearney writes, “Love of guest becomes love of God.” (29) Rather than occupying some far off heavenly realm, “The divine, as exile, is in each human other who asks to be received into our midst.” (20)

II.

Anatheism, therefore, is a call to radical hospitality. Not uncritical hospitality, for “Not every stranger is divine” (45), but a hospitality that refuses to close the door to difference, to stop one’s ears and cover one’s eyes to the stranger simply in virtue of her being a stranger. To instead devote one’s discerning attention to the needs of the Other, who “is sacred in that she always embodies something else, something more, something other than what the self can grasp or contain.” (152) Our task is to translate the stranger without transforming her into what is familiar and comfortable—into another self. “But to open oneself to such radical attention one must,” Kearney writes, “abandon the old God of sovereignty and theodicy. That Master God must die so that the God of interconfessional hospitality can be born.” (52)

This Master God is the tribal God, the omnipotent deity who is decidedly one our side and not on the side of our enemies. “Anatheist hospitality,” however, “opposes such gnostic divides between friend and enemy, where God is always my ally and the Stranger my adversary.” (172) Rather, it is precisely through the face of the stranger that we discover God—a God who “is a promise, a call, a desire to love and be loved that cannot be at all unless we allow God to be God.” (52-53) This is the God of whom Bonhoeffer writes from his prison cell, who “is weak and powerless in the world and that is precisely the way, the only way, in which he is with us and helps us.” (67) Kearney similarly writes that “the only God worthy of belief is a vulnerable and powerless one who suffers with us and is incapable of being relieved from this suffering unless we act against injustice.” (61)

III.

Anatheist spirituality, then, is not one of metaphysics and ontotheology but one of temporality and immanence: “[F]aith becomes a commitment not to some transcendental otherworld but to a deep temporality in which the divine dwells as the seed of possibility calling to be made ever more incarnate in the human and natural world.” (142) Again, it recognizes the atheist critique of theism and does not make attempts to cling to the Alpha-God of old, but rather to find a post-theist language which can, in conceding the death of God, nevertheless not ignore or categorically dismiss “this radical and recurring sense of something more—something ulterior, extra, and unexpected—that various religions call God.” (183)

It is a faith—if we dare use such a loaded term—that maintains “a deep mystical appreciation of something Other than our finite, human being: some Other we can welcome as a stranger if we can overcome our natural response of fear and trauma.” (180) In this sense, “God thus becomes a God after God, a God who no longer is but who may be again in the form of renewed life.” (80)

IV.

The reader may finally be wondering whether or not the anatheist will just come out and say whether or not she believes in God, and why or why not.

“[T]he anatheist,” according to Kearney, “at least when philosophizing, provisionally brackets out questions of ‘God’ and ‘religion.'” (75) In other words, it seems, the anatheist is, in addition to a hermeneutist, a bit of a phenomenologist, with this statement recalling Joseph Dabney Bettis’ following description of the phenomenologist as one who “brackets out the question of truth as ‘actually being the case’ to expose the question of truth as meaning.” (8) He continues:

If I should say, ‘I believe that the Bible is the Word of God’, the phenomenologist might say in reply, ‘Let us bracket out for the moment the question of whether or not your statement is true and ask the question, what do you mean by ‘believe’? It is not self-evident what you mean. Describe what you mean. (8)

In other words, the phenomenologist is not, at least in the first instance, as interested in the arguments for God’s existence that fill the pages of philosophers of religion’s books, but rather with the question of what names such as God even mean. After all, can we really discuss the existence of God before having agreed upon what we mean when we say God? W. Brede Kristensen recognizes this difficulty when he writes

When we consider the idea, ‘God’, even ignoring the fact that this is absent in Buddhism, we must conclude that there is no particular idea of deity which is everywhere applicable. And if we relinquish the given forms of particular ideas of deity in order to find that which is common behind them, we are then left with empty concepts. (44)

God, while perhaps having a fairly unified identity in the southwestern United States, where I grew up, is in fact a difficult figure to pin down. There are even different theological positions in Christianity—take the differences between Calvinism, Arminianism, and Open Theism, for example—which, while agreeing upon the basic shell of who/what God is, seem to ultimately present deities with some pretty radical differences, and the acceptance of one or the other will likely affect one’s entire practice of Christianity (i.e., how one prays, worships, reads and interprets the Bible, etc.).

Does anatheism therefore simply ignore the question of God’s existence? No. Rather, “Anatheism tries to introduce reasonable hermeneutic considerations to the theist-atheist debate.” (171) It looks for meaning in the narratives of religious texts and indeed the name of God itself beyond the questions of literal history and existence. “Mindful of the inherent art of religion,” Kearney writes,

we are more likely to resist the temptations of fetishism and idolatry—that is, avoid taking the divine literally, as something we could presume to contain or possess. The figural saves God from the literal. For faith is not just the art of the impossible but an art of endless hermeneutics. Spiritual art may thus teach us that the divine stranger can never be taken for granted, can never be reduced to a collective acquis, but needs to be interpreted again and again. (14)

Anatheism recognizes that “The Bible, like most spiritual texts, is an assembly of fables, histories, chronicles, polemics, letters, and moral teachings as well as some inevitable primitive prejudices and errors” (169), while at the same time recognizing that “to say that holy Scriptures are made up of stories is not to say that they are just made up . . . For stories . . . can often reveal more essential and profound truths than histories that chronicle a mere sequence of events.” (170) Anatheism is, as has been said, a third way. A way of puncturing the false binaries and either/or reasoning of our western minds and suggesting that maybe—just maybe—there is more to the story.


 

Notes

Bettis, James Dabney, ed., Phenomenology of Religion. (New York, Harper & Row, 1969).

Kearney, Richard, Anatheism. (New York: Columbia University Press, 2011).

Kristensen, W. Bede, From The Meaning of Religion, tr. John B. Carmen, Martinus Nijhoff, The Hague, 1960, in Phenomenology of Religion, James Dabney Bettis, ed., (New York: Harper & Row, 1969).

Breast feeding and Elliot Roger

Originally posted on renegade~betty:

I realize that the topic of this post is a bit of a departure from my norm. I also realize that I haven’t blogged in a very long time. Things have been crazy lately with the end of the semester coming and going and preparing to move across the country for graduate school. Also, I feel as if lately I have been in a position of learning rather than speaking. There are a lot of personal questions I have been trying to sift through, and over the last couple of months, I haven’t felt like I was ready to share my partially formed thoughts. That being said, with news breaking over the shooting in Isla Vista, and the twittersphere a flutter with controversy and activism, the feminist in me has been rather active lately in terms of the things I have been turning over in my head and attempting to…

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“Human Nature”?

Poor human nature, what horrible crimes have been committed in thy name! Every fool, from king to policeman, from the flatheaded parson to the visionless dabbler in science, presumes to speak authoritatively of human nature. The greater the mental charlatan, the more definite his insistence on the wickedness and weaknesses of human nature. Yet, how can any one speak of it today, with every soul in a prison, with every heart fettered, wounded, and maimed?

John Burroughs has stated that experimental study of animals in captivity is absolutely useless. Their character, their habits, their appetites undergo a complete transformation when torn from their soil in field and forest. With human nature caged in a narrow space, whipped daily into submission, how can we speak of its potentialities?

Freedom, expansion, opportunity, and, above all, peace and repose, alone can teach us the real dominant factors of human nature and all its wonderful possibilities.[1]

It is commonly assumed that “human nature” severely limits our potential for improving our social, political, and economic situation. The concept is used almost exclusively as a negative to counter so-called utopians and radicals. “Human nature,” say the dissenters, will take over without a centralized government (read: monopoly of force), or capitalist economic system, and society will devolve into a Hobbesian war of all against all. However, if we must talk about something called human nature, I think we need to take into account all of the scientific evidence—which I take to be pretty convincing—that not only does human existence include a self-interested struggle for survival, but also strong elements of empathy and mutual aid, which are the foundations of our moral thinking. In this case, human nature—if it exists—might not be such a terrible thing.

I would begin, however, by pointing out that if human nature truly is as ultimately selfish and greedy a thing as this argument seems to assume, how are the best preventative actions against this to a) give a few of these selfish and greedy people a monopoly of force over the rest; and b) to construct an economic system in which the one and only goal is the maximization of profit? It seems to be a truism that if the maximization of profit is the singular goal of our economic system, this will result in slavery, exploitation, and abject poverty, as these are quite profitable for the capitalists! And how much worse would these things manifest themselves if the human nature camp were correct! What more could expect? This argument seems to essentially lead to the conclusion that if we can’t beat ‘em, we may as well feed ‘em. But then again, why would we want to beat them at all? If we are all ultimately bad, evil, corrupt, depraved, or whatever term we choose to use, why would we ever have decided that being bad was, well, bad? Why do the overwhelming majority of moral theories developed by philosophers over the centuries praise selflessness over selfishness? If the human nature camp is right, it seems that this would be akin to praising not breathing over breathing. In other words, it wouldn’t be a moral issue at all!

However, as I suggested at the beginning, I think that the entire concept of “human nature” is incredibly suspect. For one thing, if, for example, states and capitalism (and state capitalism) are necessary to prevent the destruction and chaos that would be wrought by allowing human nature free reign, how did we survive so long before figuring this out? Both Peter Kropotkin, in Mutual Aid, and Frans de Waal, in The Age of Empathy, have convincingly argued that we would never have survived the evolutionary process if Hobbes and friends were right. De Waal, for example, dispels three of the most prevalent myths concerning human origins: “that our ancestors ruled the savanna”[2], “that human society is the creation of autonomous men”[3], and “that our species has been waging war for as long as it has been around.”[4] “Empathy,” de Waal concludes, “is part of our evolution, and not just a recent part, but an innate, age-old capacity.”[5]

We survived the evolutionary process because we are social creatures, who depended on one another and took care of one another, and “It is evident,” according to Kropotkin,

that it would be quite contrary to all that we know of nature if men were an exception to so general a rule: if a creature so defenseless as man was at his beginnings should have found his protection and his way to progress, not in mutual support, like other animals, but in a reckless competition for personal advantages, with no regard to the interests of the species.[6]

The man (it is always a man) of rugged individualism, who is at bottom self-interested, greedy, and perhaps even evil, would have died off before such a time—over 100,000 years into his existence—when such things as states and profit developed to prevent him from killing all the other members of his species. As David Graeber writes in Debt,

There is a direct line from the new Roman conception of liberty—not as the ability to form mutual relationships with others, but as the kind of absolute power of “use and abuse” over the conquered chattel who make up the bulk of a wealthy Roman man’s household—to the strange fantasies of liberal philosophers like Hobbes, Locke, and Smith about the origins of human society in some collection of thirty- or forty-year-old males who seem to have sprung from the earth fully formed, who then must decide whether to kill each other or to swap beaver pelts.[7]

“Social Darwinists may disagree,” says de Waal, “but from a truly Darwinian perspective it is entirely logical to expect a “social motive” in group-living animals, one that makes them strive for a well-functioning whole.”[8] This social motive, however, arguably runs counter to capitalism. Milton Friedman recognized this when he wrote that “few trends could so very undermine the foundations of our free society as the acceptance by corporate officials of a social responsibility other than to make as much money for their stockholders as possible.”[9] Graeber concurs that the capitalist corporation

is a structure designed to eliminate all moral imperatives but profit. The executives who make decisions can argue—and regularly do—that, if it were their own money, of course they would not fire lifelong employees a week before retirement, or dump carcinogenic waste next to schools. Yet they are morally bound to ignore such considerations, because they are mere employees whose only responsibility is to provide the maximum return on investment for the company’s stockholders.[10]

So, again, if human nature truly were such an evil thing, this fact would hardly constitute an argument in favor of capitalism.

Furthermore, it is an incredibly reductive way of thinking. I often hear that we are faced with an either/or choice between affirming the ultimate goodness or badness of humanity. But it’s unclear to me why we have to face this either/or at all. In doing so, we nihilistically resign ourselves to our supposedly evil natures. We know that this or that will never work—whether it be anarchism, socialism, an end to war, the abolition of economics that centralize greed—because of human nature, so why bother even trying? If we are determined that such things can never be achieved, it will be a self-fulfilling prophecy. If, for example, we never try to end war, because we have become convinced by the concept of human nature that it’s not possible, we will never actually know if it is possible or not! To be sure, from the standpoint of the state and capitalism (and many religious institutions), this is an incredibly effective tool against dissent. Convince people that they are ultimately evil and need Big Brother to curb their evil instincts and they will fall in line and not question your authority.

According to Graeber, the idea of “self-interest”—that we are all ultimately self-interested—originated in St. Augustine’s doctrine of original sin. But “When it was first introduced,” Graeber writes, “most English authors seemed to view the idea that all human life can be explained as the pursuit of self-interest as a cynical, foreign, Machiavellian idea, one that sat uncomfortably with traditional English mores.” Nevertheless, “By the eighteenth century, most in educated society accepted it as simple common sense.”[11] Why did society suddenly jump onto the self-interest bandwagon? According to Graeber,

Part of the term’s appeal was that it derived from bookkeeping. It was mathematical. This made it seem objective, even scientific. Saying we are all really pursuing our own self-interest provides a way to cut past the welter of passions and emotions that seem to govern our daily existence, and to motivate most of what we actually observe people to do (not only out of love and amity, but also envy, spite, devotion, pity, lust, embarrassment, torpor, indignation, and pride) and discover that, despite all this, most really important decisions are based on the rational calculation of material advantage—which means that they are fairly predictable as well.[12]

The idea of the ultimately self-interested nature of human beings, then, was useful and served as a way to cut past all of the messiness of daily life, reducing it all to economic cost-benefit calculations. It was a means of simplifying the complexities of human actions and emotions. A convenience perhaps, but in the end it remains unclear why such a singular explanation is necessary in the first place.

Let me be clear: I am not arguing that human beings are “ultimately good.” I am not arguing that human beings are ultimately anything. While I do believe that, per Kropotkin and de Waal (and others), empathy and mutual aid are evolutionarily wired into us, my claim is that such explanations as “human nature,” which depend on there being one basic principle by which everything else is constituted are unnecessarily—and dangerously—reductive. Again, why do human beings have to be either ultimately good or ultimately bad? Why can’t we look our history, riddled not only with war, greed, and profit, but also with heroism, selflessness, love, compassion, and mutual aid, and simply conclude that human beings are capable both of great evil and of great good? Doing so can certainly be frightening, as we are forced to accept responsibility for our actions—rather than blaming it all on human nature—and must realize that the future, far from dragging us helplessly into a world that is just as selfish, greedy, and war-torn as our past, is actually undecided and undetermined and waiting for us to act to bring it into reality. And we have a say in whether that reality is better or worse than our current condition. “To begin to free ourselves,” writes Graeber, “the first thing we need to do is to see ourselves again as historical actors, as people who can make a difference in the course of world events. This is exactly what the militarization of history is trying to take away.”[13] The concept of human nature would have us believe that we are slaves to fate, but I do not think that such nihilism is at all necessary.

To my mind, human nature is in the same camp as determinism, reductive materialism, and Nietzschean will to power—viz., I think they are reductionist and self-referentially inconsistent. As I mentioned earlier, if we are all ultimately selfish, where did the idea of selflessness even come from? And why did we decide that such a mode of action, which apparently runs contrary to our very natures, is in fact desirable and even morally superior? Some might argue that a psychological and/or ethical egoist position could quickly do away with this objection, but to my mind de Waal effectively dispenses with such alternatives when he writes that “Explanations in terms of mental calculations (“If I help her now, she will help me in the future”) don’t cut it: Why would anyone risk life and limb for such a shaky prediction? Only immediate emotions can make one abandon all caution.”[14] We are empathic, social creatures, who thrive on community, compassion, and mutual aid. As de Waal concludes, “A society based purely on selfish motives and market forces may produce wealth, yet it can’t produce the unity and mutual trust that makes life worthwhile.”[15] (De Waal also tellingly notes that, statistically, “Less egalitarian states suffer higher mortality,”[16] whereas more egalitarian states and societies tend to produce greater happiness and overall well-being.)

Therefore, I would propose that we dispense with the fictitious and oppressive concept of “human nature” altogether, and open ourselves up to the possibility of doing better. After all, apologists for the state and capitalism often also believe that the founding of the United States was a great improvement for humanity. But if the utopian revolutionaries of the 18th century were able to make humanity’s situation a bit better, why should “human nature” stop us now?

 

Notes

[1] Goldman, Emma (2009-10-04). Anarchism and Other Essays (pp. 43-44). Public Domain Books. Kindle Edition.

[2] De Waal, Frans. The Age of Empathy. (New York: Three Rivers Press, 2009), 18.

[3] Ibid., 20.

[4] Ibid., 22.

[5] Ibid., 205.

[6] Kropotkin, Peter. Mutual Aid. (Mineloa, Dover Publications, Inc., 2006), 62.

[7] Graeber, David. Debt: The First 5,000 Years. (Brooklyn/London: Melville House, 2012), 210.

[8] De Waal, 36.

[9] Qtd., De Waal, 38.

[10] Graeber, 320.

[11] Ibid., 331.

[12] Ibid., 331.

[13] Ibid., 383.

[14] De Waal, 106.

[15] Ibid., 221.

[16] Ibid., 197.

On Consumer Choice

It is often said that one of the great merits of capitalism is that it allows retailers to respond to consumer desires, so that when a consumer wants, for example, shoes, a retailer is there to sell her said shoes, and a nice little exchange happens and everyone’s a winner. Furthermore, if the consumer is displeased with the service she receives (poor quality shoes, for example), she is free to “take her business elsewhere”, as the saying goes.

However, things are not this simple in the real world.

Let’s start from the beginning. The goal of a business in capitalism is maximization of profit, plain and simple. Selling things for which there is a high demand seems like the easiest way to achieve this goal. Not only is profit maximized, but consumer needs/desires are fulfilled. Again, everyone’s a winner. Unfortunately, when the business’s primary goal is to make profit for itself, the most obvious implication is that we can expect lies and deceitful tactics to be employed in order to sell products. A quick look into present-day advertisement shows this to be the case. Look at Monsanto, for example. They are unloading literally billions of dollars into lobbying against bills that would require its food products to carry labeling when–as is overwhelmingly the case–they contain GMOs. Why is this a problem? Well, what the consumer wants is healthful food. What Monsanto wants is profit. And if using GMOs is cheaper, then from the standpoint of capitalism, the obvious choice for the corporation is to continue using GMOs, regardless of the health risk to its consumers, and, as much as possible, to prevent the consumers from even finding out about these health risks so that they continue to buy the product!

Some will object that it is better business to not deceive one’s consumers, as upon finding out, they will “take their business elsewhere” and you will lose your profit. But again, look at Monsanto–or, better yet, Wal-Mart. Wal-Mart sells food and clothing (among other things) at very low prices, so that low-income people can buy them. However, it is no secret that much (if not all) of Wal-Mart’s clothing is produced by slave labor in countries such as Vietnam, Bangladesh, and China. Is that what consumers want? Presumably not. Why do so many people still shop there? Because it’s the only place they can afford! Do you really expect consumers to boycott the only place at which they can afford to shop, even if they know that its products aren’t healthful or are produced in morally outrageous working conditions? Of course not!

And besides that, capitalism is necessarily short-sighted. What is important is not the perceived long-term effects of the product being sold (whether on the consumer, the environment, or one’s grandchildren), but the short-term effect of ensuring profit for the next quarter. One might say that in theory this is not how capitalism is supposed to work, but in practice it very obviously is exactly how capitalism works.

Maximizing profit and meeting consumer needs–truly meeting consumer needs–simply do not go hand in hand. Next time you’re in an outlet store (or any kind of store for that matter), think about whether all of the manipulative and deceitful methods that are used in attempts to convince you to purchase expensive, superfluous things (that are often unhealthy, environmentally destructive, and produced by slaves, to boot) truly reflects a system that is as free and mutually beneficial as free market advocates say it is.

[As an aside, I have known people in commission-based sales careers who often truly seek the customer's best interest, and consequently--and I think this is telling--often end up losing money by doing so. I think it's great when this happens, but it's not so good from the capitalist point of view wherein, quite simply, profit maximization takes precedence over everything--including the best interest of the customer. It is worth noting that markets do not necessarily equal capitalism. For example, mutualism, the form of anarchism advocated by the first political philosopher to call himself an anarchist, Pierre-Joseph Proudhon, is a type of anti-capitalist market anarchism.]

Notes On Anarchism: “Don’t People Need Incentives In Order to Work?”

This is a common objection to anarchism (and socialism more generally): without incentive (i.e., the promise of more money, or the threat of no money), no one will do any work! According to this line of thinking, then, the carrot must be dangled in front of our faces in order for us to pull our master’s load a little faster and a little farther. In a certain sense, this is true. We do not sell ourselves to capitalists because we want to–we do it because we must eat! However, the idea that this is the only possible way that any necessary work could ever be done strikes me as incredibly problematic. It perpetuates the idea that human beings are too stupid and selfish to do anything for the benefit of others without the carrot and stick that the beneficent state so graciously hold before us. (Somehow, apparently, we have figured out that we should work together and help each other out, but that we can’t and/or won’t without someone to offer us cookies when we do and the stick when we don’t.)

Furthermore, I think this mindset can serve to dehumanize those who take jobs that supposedly no one else wants to. Essentially, this thinking seems to imply that these jobs, though certainly valuable and necessary for the successful functioning of society, are not respectable jobs. Nevertheless, in order for a privileged few to do what they love, some poor schmucks have to get stuck with the so-called “dirty jobs.” And, again, the thinking goes, without some sort of incentive (i.e., do this or else you don’t eat), these jobs would never be done (because apparently the privileged few simply cannot be bothered to pick up their own trash and clean their toilets).

On the contrary, it seems that things tend to go better in society when people are free to follow their passions without fear that doing so will not put bread on the table. And when people are free to follow their passions, they give the world the best they have to offer–whether it be through artistic, educational, mechanical, medical, or any other skill. I think that is a world worth fighting for. Let’s quit devaluing ourselves with all this talk about needing incentives to do anything. We are social creatures and we never would have survived this long without mutual aid and community.

A Pacifist and A Utilitarian Walk Into A Bar

Often when discussing utilitarian ethics, the following sort of hypothetical scenario will be posed as an interesting thought experiment: Say you are at a dinner party with twenty friends and family and suddenly a group of goons bursts in, guns drawn, and informs the group that they will all be killed.  However, if you agree to take one of their guns and kill your closest family member in the room–say, your spouse–the other nineteen people will be spared.  What should you do?

More interesting for my own purposes is the question, what could a pacifist possibly do in this situation to emerge with her pacifist principles intact and unscathed?

I hope that I can safely begin with the assumption that in order for an action to have moral weight, it must be freely chosen.  After all, how can I be accused of acting immorally when I could not freely choose to do otherwise?  And it is precisely upon this assumption that my response–as a pacifist–to this problem depends.

Put simply, I’m not sure how we can meaningfully speak of either one of the possible choices in the above situation as moral or immoral.  As a pacifist, I take human life to be inviolable–never to be destroyed except in the most extreme of cases.  And this, I think, is precisely one such case.  

What, after all, is the real choice in this scenario?  It seems that it is a choice between death and death.  And if, furthermore, human life is inviolable, we could say that the choice is more specifically between two evils of equal measure.  In other words, it is not a choice!  And if there is no choice, I would submit that neither decision can meaningfully be seen as moral or immoral.  

Now, presumably, the utilitarian would say that you should kill your spouse and spare the others, as according to utilitarian logic we must not give preference to our loved ones in choosing the greatest good for the greatest number of people.  However, I would take issue with utilitarianism on two points.

First, it’s unclear to me how utilitarians can maintain the inviolability of human life.  And perhaps this is simply not a problem from a utilitarian perspective, but, quite simply, I vehemently disagree with any moral theory that puts the greatest value in anything other than human life–whether that be happiness, money, or anything else.  Without human life, none of these things can possibly hold any value.

Secondly, it seems that utilitarianism–and consequentialist theories more generally–has another fatal flaw in regard to knowledge.  If whether or not my action is moral or immoral depends on the consequences of that action, unless I can look into the future and know with certainty what said actions will be, I will never actually know beyond a guess whether or not my action will be moral or not!  In the above scenario, for example, I could as a faithful utilitarian kill my spouse in order to save the others only to discover that the goons–being goons–were lying and are going to kill everyone else anyway!

Utilitarianism may be practical in certain every day situations, but as a moral theory I think it fails.  At a certain point, we must put aside speculations and hedonic calculii regarding the possible consequences of our actions and do what is right regardless.  

Some Further Thoughts On the Im/Possibility of Anarchy

A few months back, I took a stab at responding to one of the most commonly asked questions about anarchy and anarchism–namely, is it really possible?  I tried to engage some of the scholarship surrounding the issue in order to answer the question, but in every day conversation, my response essentially consists of two basic points that I think are worth elucidating.

First–and this is a point on which many anarchists might disagree with me–I’m not sure that the question of possibility is the best question to be asking.  Quite simply, I don’t know if anarchy is possible.  As I noted in the previous post, it has been attempted with relative success on a small scale in the past, but to be perfectly honest, I don’t know if it would or could ever happen on a global scale (and by global I mean a world comprised of many, many small anarchist communities and federations).  However, I’m not really interested in speculating on whether or to what extent it is possible.  Possibility and impossibility are, I think, largely contingent on what we take to be possible or impossible.  (More on this below.)  As I mentioned before, the most important aspect of anarchism for me is that it is the endless pursuit of justice and freedom from all forms of oppression, coercion, domination, etc., whether in the form of the state, capitalism, patriarchy, racism, homophobia, environmental destruction, or other forms.  In short, it is the pursuit of a society in which the inherent value, dignity, and equality of every human person is radically affirmed.  Is such a world possible?  I don’t know, but it would be foolish not to try for it.

And secondly, I think it’s important to remember that we have a say in what is possible and so long as we continue to convince ourselves that certain social, political, and economic ways of organizing are impossible, they will be.  So long as we stubbornly hold on to the belief that “human nature” (an oppressive, fictitious concept, in my view) just is such a way that it will never allow us to live in a radically antiauthoritarian, radically egalitarian society, it will be impossible–we’ll never even bother to try!  How fatalistic!  How nihilistic.  And yet, it seems that, the same folks who talk this way about anarchism, will in the next breath praise the founding fathers, the American Revolution, and our Constitution as great leaps forward in human history.  If the democratic (read: bourgeois) revolutionaries of the 18th century could achieve what was at the time considered by many to be utopian, why must we assume that we can’t do the same–and maybe even more–in the 21st century?

All of this to say: I’m not interested in discussing the “possibility” of anarchy; I’m interested in action*.  And I’d rather fail in the pursuit of justice and equality than to never try at all.  It would be an experiment, of course, but the American government was an experiment as well!  Why should we not continue trying to do better?

*As should be abundantly clear to anyone who reads this blog, the action I advocate is nonviolent action.