Friday, December 23, 2011
The other night I found myself, along with my left-libertarian/agorist friend Nick, spending time at "Milly's Mingle" out in Manchester. I had been invited to the get-together by several free staters online. According to their blog posts and videos, they seemed to portray this evening as one of freely buying and selling goods amongst the eating and drinking. I told Nick we'd be going to a black market, though I'd probably not buy anything since I have no gold or silver to exchange with.
Manchester comes across as a rather cold town (not city). The roads are always grimy and most of the non-brick buildings are painted gloomy grays and mucky blues. People there never seem very friendly, probably because the atmosphere of this place creates a sense of aloofness. It's not much of a place to go, but it's where you do go if you're looking for things to do within the borders of Libertopia. Nick and I spent a bit of time waiting after we arrived at Milly's Tavern. I gave him the book on prison abolition which I picked up at Red Emma's a little while ago. It wasn't too long before Ridley and a few other free staters showed up. Along with Ridley was a free stater named Craig, who moved to NH from the Houston, TX area, a lawyer who told me he was an NH native from Pelham (which borders my hometown of Windham), and another free stater whose name I didn't catch (his accent sounded very similar to a Boston one, so I'm assuming he was from some other New England state, probably Massachusetts; he sat at the end of the table and ordered food).
Ridley asked me how my life was going. I told him everything was going fine, the generic response. I didn't want to get too heavy early on, after all he was the one who suggested I come up here. He asked me what I plan on doing after college. I said I'm thinking about going to grad school for something like comparative literature or anthropology (perhaps I could study the libertarian culture in Manchester, no?), but after that, as I told him, I'll go wherever the wind takes me. I went on by telling of my friends' difficulties in finding jobs. One of my friends has applied to every store with a "HELP WANTED" sign in the Salem area and she still can't find decent work. It's a troubling sign of the times.
The free stater against the wall butted in, "There's no reason why anyone shouldn't have a job. Everyone has a skill other people will pay for. Everyone." He made pounding hand gestures as he spoke.
I said, "But it takes more than just a skill to get a job. People need resources."
The free stater responded by laughing a bit and then said, "See, my thing is, children are taught at a young age to be obedient. They're taught that they don't have the skills to be self-sufficient. The state schools dumb them down and set them up so they're dependent on others. They come out of the education system not knowing what to do except be obedient."
I paused for a moment and then asked him, "You know, I was thinking: I'm a philosophy major in college and a lot of times we imagine different worlds based on different ideas. Like in metaphysics we're always coming up with imaginary worlds. Now, what if we took the next generation of children who are infants right now and brought them up in a society where they weren't taught to be obedient? Like, if no one made them go to school or told them that they had to shut up and take orders from a teacher or anyone? What do you think the system would look like in 18 years when those children become adults? How do you think it would affect the economy?"
He sharply answered with his mouth full of food, "I see it going two ways. On one side you'd have people who are self-employed voluntarily exchanging with each other. On the other side you'd have disaster."
Disaster. It was too obvious what he was trying to get at. The same idea that horizontally-organized democratic workplaces "don't work" because they aren't "efficient", so say the economists, yet with no evidence from reality or history to show why or how. Just the usual a priori reasoning since nothing outside the textbooks proves what you say. For one thing, I can think of many cases in history where autogestion has worked on a large scale (Paris Commune, Free Ukraine, Anarchist Catalonia, the FaSinPat in Argentina, Mondragon, Emilia Romagna, the growing worker cooperative and credit union movement in the US, or just the simple fact that over 800 million people worldwide are members of a coop) where I can find no such example of an economy of hierarchical firms existing without a state.
His assertion begs another question: if the economic system needs a portion of the population to be schooled in obedience, whose children get subjugated and whose children are not? If we accept that capitalism would cease to exist - or just fall apart very quickly - if no one was taught to be subservient, then we'd have to find a way to preserve a hierarchical social order to preserve a hierarchical economic system. It's much easier to think of the economy as a set of voluntary transactions between parties, but when you look at things holistically you start to see how the society in question is far more complex.
"Look," he went on with that same semi-aggressive tone-of-voice, talking to me as if I were a little kid, "it's like this: you have a group of people who are self-employed and they do very well. You have other people who don't have the means to be self-employed but you have people who need others to work for them. Now that boss is offering you work. No one is trying to take anything from you. No one's trying to exploit you. You get what you want, boss gets what he wants. Everything works out. This is all basic economics."
Sure. You get your wage, the boss gets your labor, looks fair on paper. But when you understand what's really going on in this relationship you notice a gross inequality of power. The boss already received the fruits of his labor years ago back when he produced, so now he is entitled to the fruits of the laborer's labor? That doesn't make any sense and comes across as fallacious. You may claim that the theft is not theft because the laborer voluntarily consented, but under what conditions? What's the context? People don't sell their liberty for wages without a reason.
It wasn't long after that Ridley and I went into the other room to do a little interview. Looking back, I should have told him a lot more about my concerns over implementing the kind of system which so many free staters desire to have in New Hampshire (things like the free market acting as karma, or trying to apply a 1770s-style economic model to a 2010s economy, for example) but I thought I did well for the most part. Again, I was trying to hold back on being contentious. This was a friendly conversation without controversy. I spoke about things like using dual-power strategies, building alternative institutions, worker cooperatives, all the activities which us libertarian socialists are doing right now. Cutting social services without providing alternatives, or assuming that "the market" will take care of everything, is a bad idea. I also spoke of all the divides I see within NH's libertarians (which, as I said, were only what I've heard): Rothbardians (libertarian-capitalists) vs. Tuckerites (free market libertarian-socialists) and intellectual types with GMU degrees vs. off-the-grid types. The thing is, in NH (especially among the libertarian crowd, or among everyone during primary time) it's very common to ask people how they define themselves politically. He told me about certain free staters he knows who were elected as state reps and how many of them voted for bills which he considered to be quite anti-libertarian in certain ways. I told him, that's what social anarchists have been saying forever, that it's not the people in power who matter but the institution itself. Overall, I thought my interview was decent. Here is the video:
Afterwards, Nick went off with Ridley to conduct an interview of his own. I sat at the table with Craig and the lawyer. I asked Craig about how it is to live in NH today, seeing as how I rarely hear about the overall living experiences free staters have once they come here. He admitted that financially it's a much harder region to live in: the cost of living in NH is much higher than in Texas, the rent is considerably higher in Manchester than it is in most of Houston, and most of the jobs in NH don't pay enough to the point where many movers have to break with their principles and find an income-taxed job in Massachusetts or Vermont. Even with income tax, a Mass (Boston) or VT salary tends to be higher than a tax-free one from NH, not to mention Boston has many more opportunities for work than Manchester or Nashua.
A lot of these statistics about the quality of life in NH are part of a huge red herring. Most of the people who move to NH from Mass tend to bring their job with them, meaning they still work out-of-state. Unless you're being gentrified out of Mass, chances are you're not going to be moving to NH if you're dirt poor and unemployed in the first place, hence all the data toting NH's (supposed) lack of poverty. (Here is some more evidence for the skeptics who still want to deny NH has any problems.) I would also make the argument that NH's high property taxes act as "poverty repellent" as they help keep housing prices too expensive for most working people. Manchester itself is being carved into a bourgy suburb of Boston with whatever "city" elements it still holds being flattened out. Of course it's not comparable to most other urban areas in the US; it's a town of 110,000 people surrounded by other upper-middle class suburbs and no-man's-lands. Most of these "NH is wonderful because it's not the city I moved from" stories don't really make all that much sense. By all means, it's not an entirely bad place to live; it's just that the statistics and stories championing this area as some kind of Disneyland are misleading or based on half-truths.
I asked both Craig and the lawyer about how the free staters would be able to preserve a libertarian government in NH, especially with all the much more statist Massachusettians moving in. Both of them laughed it off. They explained that all NH's political system needs is a significant minority (to use Nick's words) of libertarians involved in the political system to keep the government from "growing". They assured, it would be very easy to get around a majority opinion if the majority of "shirites" were to turn on the FSP.
I talked to them more about building a new kind of society in NH. Nick told everyone about left-libertarianism and its pillars. The free stater who had been talking to me earlier that night (the one who sat against the wall) was telling us all of his theories regarding human behavior and economics (which, for the most part, were verbatim repeats of the things you can find on mises.org). He went on about the evils of the government on the economy and how regulations fuck everything up. Some of it I agreed with, some of it I didn't. For one thing, it seemed like he (along with the other free staters who were there) were very quick to blame "the government" for everything, as if every problem in society is linked to "the government" in some way, and then the majority of the blame is put on "the government" regardless of the government's actual role in what's going on (it's basically like saying, "If I trip on a banana peel, it's the government's fault for subsidizing the fruit industry; if I have a bad hair day it's the government's fault for regulating organic shampoo companies and forcing me to buy crappy shampoo full of sulfates...," that kind of thing). A lot of problems in society are a lot more dimensional than that.
I looked him in the eye and told him, "Okay, I understand a lot of what you're saying. The power the state has is extremely evil. We need to do what we can to create a totally new society. But I mean too, there's way more forms of oppression in society than just barriers to entry in the market. I mean, you see white privilege, patriarchy, homophobia -"
"Wait just a second," he cut me off. "White privilege? I'm white and I'm not privileged. Are you trying to make me feel guilty?"
"No, I'm just pointing this fact out. You still see a lot of racism -"
"Yes, and where do these people learn racism?"
I tried to explain, "From a lot of -"
"The government," he fired. "It's the government which makes people racist."
"It's not just the government which teaches racism. It's also the media -"
"Oh, but the government owns the media. They own the education system. They own everything." He kept shooting his finger towards me as his voice got more intense.
"But it's also the culture," I tried to explain again. "If you grew up in a society where racism was the norm then you're not going to know anything else. If I'm white I have a much easier time being hired for a job than if I were black or hispanic -"
"No, like I told you everyone has a skill people want to pay for," he said. "In a free market the only thing your boss will care about is your skills. Now, do you agree that oppression is just a state-of-mind?"
"Oppression is a state-of-mind. You're oppressed because you think of yourself as oppressed. And a lot of that is the fault of the government."
He was completely missing the point. Even if the state were to disappear tomorrow, the social conditioning it has (most likely) created will remain. Saying that ending the government will end racism is like saying that a forest fire can be put out simply by putting out the match which started it.
"Listen," he continued, "people always want power over others. There's always going to be people with more power than others. People are naturally controlling. Racism will never go away. Now what you're saying should happen is that people should be forced to integrate -"
"I'm not saying that at all -"
"Yes you are. No one has the right to force other people to integrate with people they don't want to integrate with." He was now becoming extremely intense. He talked to me as if he were my parent trying to scold me. I said I feel that his assumption that all voluntary actions have a positive outcome is extremely dogmatic. He accused me of making an argument for statism. On the contrary, I told him, I was making an argument for personal responsibility. There's way more forms of social injustice in the world than the state taxing and regulating you which I feel we can't ignore, and assuming that an unhampered free market will eventually solve everything by itself has nothing in reality to back it up. Markets are akin to karma where you get whatever you put in, not a personal god which grants you goods just for praying.
"Okay, listen," I finally said after a long amount of argumentation, quite loudly, "Listen. When you talk about coming here to New Hampshire to create a new system, it's not just enough to make your system 'free' and 'voluntary' and whatever. You also have to make your system desirable. No one is going to want to fight for your system -"
"My system? How do you know what my system is? -"
"Let me finish. No one is going to fight for your system -"
"But you don't know what my system is. How can you say? -"
I was infuriated. "Let me finish," I shot at him. "Okay, no one is going to fight for your system if it means being worse off than they were under statism. Now I could be wrong. I don't know. But no one is going to want to fight for your system if it means gross inequalities of power and the same oppression. I know, personally, that I will never be free if others are not free."
"Look," he said, now extremely agitated, trying to drill every word of his into me, "there's always going to be inequalities of power. Let me tell you something about psychology. People want to have power over others. It's in our nature. You're always going to see oppression. People are always going to be oppressing everyone else. But what you have to do is remove the state. See, war is very expensive and people only wage it because there's a monopoly on violence. If you made the stakes higher then you'd see oppression go down. Let people move in with their own people -"
Before this guy could go on much longer, Nick jumped in. "Okay," he said, "yes, there's always going to be some forms of oppression. But what Julia is saying is, the state is not the only cause of racism. Yes, the state facilitates a lot of it, but it's also culture. White privilege exists. And it's not about making white males feel guilty. I know that when I walk down the street a police officer isn't going to be staring at me in the same way if I were black. You can't just blame the state. You can't ignore the culture."
I sighed in relief. Nick had put that guy in his place. Ridley taped the end of our argument and with that agreed to take me and Nick back to our homes.
All during the drive back I thought about the things that guy was saying, and how alarming it is that anyone would think such things or want to base a new social system around them. The consensus among the propertarian crowd: the government is the source of every problem known to humankind, the free market and voluntary interaction (as they define it) can fix any of these problems, and the problems they can't fix can never ever be fixed in the first place, so why even try? Though, supposing that we may never have a society completely free of oppression and social hierarchy, is that a reason to not even bother fighting against it and doing what you can to ensure that you can create more social equality? If racism, patriarchy, homophobia, authoritarian family structures, religious discrimination, etc. continue to exist after the state is abolished, then I will continue to fight them. In fact, I'm almost 100% certain that most anarchists would continue to fight these unjust power structures if such things remained in a stateless society as many of them do right now. If the whole mantra of the FSP really is "end aggression", then why do they not see anything beyond the ill actions of the government as forms of aggression that should be ended?
On a side note, since I've been back home I've found myself listening to quite a few lectures by Derrick Jensen. Now, I don't agree with everything he says, most certainly not (for one thing, I don't see civilization as being inherently evil) but I do think he makes some extremely good points which we should all take into consideration. For example, he talks a lot about how capitalism, the state, and (to him anyway) civilization foster a culture of violence where people commit endless aggressive acts against each other and the earth. It goes way beyond politics and economics. I have to agree with that, though I'll say we don't just live in a culture of violence but also in a culture of exploitation, a culture of greed, a culture of dominance over each other. Even "anti-statists" who are so quick to denounce the evils of government (taxation, regulation, monopolies, social control) will then champion a controlling and dominating economic system, or very controlling and dominating social structures, and then try to justify the need for it all.
If that's the case, if you decide to ignore all the social injustice which you have the power to fight, or work towards replacing the old tyranny with a new, then I am not an ally of your project, because that's not the new society I want to create. But that's why you chose to live here NH, a low poverty state with plenty of bubbles and relatively few people of weak populations, so you won't have to see their faces or hear them begging.