Sunday, January 09, 2011

Statism

Allen Small defines Statism as
the theory or practice of concentrating economic and political power in the state, usually resulting in a weak position for the individual or community with respect to government
It is too much to expect Allen himself to have more than a superficial, dogmatic attachment to this definition, but this definition is susceptible to substantive analysis.

One problem is that it's ambiguous whether an anti-statist using this definition objects to concentrating political power in general, or concentrating political power in some specific way, i.e. in the state. I don't know which horn of the dilemma Allen wants to get stuck on, so I'll address them both.

The second sense is trivially stupid. A state is a concentration of political and economic power (and the distinction between political and economic is itself only the most superficial distinction; they are two sides of the same coin); when you concentrate power, what you get by definition is a state: a collection of individuals who act to maintain and perpetuate — by force and propaganda — the power that they have concentrated. The only coherent reading of the second sense of anti-statism is that power should not be concentrated democratically; it should be concentrated, rather, in that class of people (i.e. the owners of capital property) who somehow deserve concentrated political-economic power.

(It is instructive to note that Libertarians typically disclaim loyalty to the Republican party, but they denounce Republicans only when they appear to act democratically instead of protecting de facto capitalist privilege. I know many Libertarians who "hold their nose" and vote Republican; I don't know a single one who would vote Democratic even if a Republican government were to start two wars of aggression, bail out the finance monopolists, increase the size of the government and deficit, nakedly interfere with the private individual rights of women over their own bodies, and generally act in the most egregiously "statist" manner possible. But I don't know that many Libertarians, I don't really like any of the ones I know, and I have a smidgen of grudging respect for exactly one.)

The first sense of statism is at least not trivially stupid; indeed I myself tend to prefer more distributed rather than more concentrated political-economic power. But there are two problems with this sense.

The first problem is that our modern technological civilization requires a considerable degree of economic concentration. A Boeing 747 costs about $318 million (about 13 million person-hours at the average wage, or about 127 person-lifetimes). And that's just for one aircraft: the production facilities are a couple of orders of magnitude larger: Boeing's present market capitalization is about $51 billion dollars, or about 20,000 person-lifetimes (and that doesn't count direct external, public costs, such as Boeing's share of academic and scientific research that has been conducted at public expense). That's not a trivial amount of concentration. If one is against concentration per se, must we therefore sacrifice air travel?

The second problem is how to distribute or prevent the concentration of political-economic power. We've been concentrating political-economic power since the dawn of civilization, and we have seen a succession of states that have achieved preeminence by more effectively concentrating political-economic power. This concentration hasn't been imposed by space-aliens landing in their flying saucers and enslaving humanity; this concentration has been always the work of human beings. If, as left anarchists and (some) Libertarians assert, it is somehow "natural" for human beings to cooperate on a large scale without the concentration of political-economic power, then why has it not happened, ever, anywhere on the globe, over at least five millennia? This kind of large-scale voluntary cooperation might be desirable (I myself find the idea appealing) but I really cannot see how it can be called natural in any reasonable sense of the word. Allen demands that I "show [him] an example where [communism] has worked or even partially worked now or in the past." I can ask the same of him: Show me an example where Libertarianism has worked, or even partially worked, now or in the past. Presumably he cannot hold as examples
communists, fascists, NAZI's, socialists (called New Democrats in Canada), Liberals (in Canada), Conservatives (everywhere), Democrats, Republicans, Greens and on and on. They are ALL statists according to that definition and my usage, and they differ only in degree of application.
(Of course the demand itself is nonsensical; on these grounds one would have to denounce human civilization itself.)

When we study economics, political science, sociology, psychology, game theory, anthropology, literature, humanities or any other intellectual field having to do with the behavior of human beings on any scale from the individual to the world, we see that "individualism" and "collectivism" (enforced cooperation) are in an extremely complicated dialectical relationship. Our progress as a world civilization (such as it is) has been not a movement from one to the other, but rather an elaboration of the dialectical relationship between the two. We have been working out precisely what should be in the domain of individualism and what should be in the domain of collectivism. And we cannot work out this trade-off analytically; we have to work it out dialectically, evolutionarily, by trying things and seeing what works and what doesn't work.

I am certainly willing to admit that Lenin, Stalin and Mao's attempts at communism didn't work in the long run. I want to know precisely why they didn't work, and what we can do differently. I have some theories — I think explicitly democratic political institutions are absolutely necessary; neither dictatorial, oligarchal nor republican solutions will work — but simply dismissing anything that has anything in common with these experiments — or, more precisely, anything in common that threatens one's own political, economic and social privilege — as "statism" is uncritically and unskeptically ridiculous.

11 comments:

  1. Your example of Boeing is humorously ironic; it's a private entity which started and grew without government planning. Central planning of "economic concentration" isn't a requirement for developing complex products or entire industries. These things evolve on their own and are fully manageable within private enterprises.

    "The company's first government contract was not for airplanes at all -- but for 161 sets of pontoons for observation planes in service with the U.S. Navy."
    http://www.boeing.com/history/narrative/n021naa.html

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  2. Your example of Boeing is humorously ironic; it's a private entity which started and grew without government planning.

    God damn, son: were you born a moron, or did you have to study? Given the prevalence of this sort of stupidity in our society, maybe idiots like chucky really do deserve to be slaves.

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  3. Hi Larry,

    I`m a friend of Allen`s and stumbled across your recent exchanges with him via his postings on facebook. As a libertarian I`m disappointed, but not surprised, at your frustrations in debating some of my fellow travel travelers. I think some of your impressions about libertarians are mistaken, so I thought I`d jump in with a few points and see what happens.

    1) The state is more than just the concentration of power. Bill Gates has a great deal of power, but he is not the state, or even part of it. The state is often defined as having a monopoly on the legitimate use of force, and I think that`s a better definition than the one you provide.

    2) Some libertarians do vote for Democrats, here`s how the staff at the libertarian-Reason Magazine voted in 2008: http://reason.com/archives/2008/10/29/whos-getting-your-vote

    3) Libertarianism isn`t opposed to the concentration of power, merely the use of force. To use your example of Boeing, a libertarian would have no grievance against this necessary concentration if it were achieved through voluntary means such as loans, selling shares, and profits from sales. We are opposed to Boeing receiving money from the state.

    4) Just look around and you`ll see endless examples of human cooperation. I imagine just about every item in your home was made by someone else, who made it voluntarily to exchange with another. There hasn`t been a perfect libertarian society anymore than there`s been a perfect communist society. But the past 300 or so years have seen a steady increase in freedom (that may be controversial even among libertarians, but I stand by it) and we should continue to work for more freedoms - economic and political - so that life will keep getting better for more people.

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  4. Some libertarians do vote for Democrats, here`s how the staff at the libertarian-Reason Magazine voted in 2008: http://reason.com/archives/2008/10/29/whos-getting-your-vote

    I stand corrected. Given the degree to which the Democratic party has become co-opted to the interests of the rich, though, I'm not completely shocked.

    Libertarianism isn`t opposed to the concentration of power...

    That's my general impression. Allen does not speak precisely (and I want to speak to left anarchists as well) so I covered both horns of the dilemma.

    So you favor the first horn, concentration of absolute power to those who "deserve" that power? People — perhaps surprisingly — much like yourself?

    The state is more than just the concentration of power. Bill Gates has a great deal of power, but he is not the state, or even part of it.

    We disagree on this point. The actual government — at least in a capitalist society — exists to protect and defend Bill Gates' economic and social power, except when the capitalist government occasionally must act in interests of the people to prevent an immediate revolution. As best I understand Libertarian dogma (and y'all use almost as much doubletalk and bullshit as theologians) your goal is to remove even the veneer of populism and democracy from the government and to employ force only to protect the rights of Bill Gates and those like him.

    The only difference between a capitalist government such as our own and a feudal government is that hired functionaries publicly exercise the power of the government on behalf of the ruling class.

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  5. Just look around and you`ll see endless examples of human cooperation.

    Of course. And we see these examples primarily in "statist" societies, where a government exists to facilitate that cooperation. Show me a bunch of anarchists with no government who can build a 747.

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  6. Now you're straw-manning me.

    On Power - You claim that if I'm not opposed to concentration of power I must be in favour of a concentration of absolute power. What I actually mean is that if Bill creates a product that a million people would like to have and those people each pay him $100 to have it then he "deserves" whatever "power" that $100 million will get him in peaceful exchange. That's a far cry from absolute power.

    On Government - Government should protect the rights of all equally, safeguarding your Chevy to the same degree as Bill's Bentley. Presumably if government did not protect these rights you'd have more to fear from him then he from you.

    On Cooperation - If by facilitating cooperation you mean enforcing contracts you have a point, but beyond that I fail to see how government is a necessary for exchange.

    The political views of those building the 747 are irrelevant. If they're using their specialized skills to produce one thing in order to exchange for the many things they need/want they are embodying libertarian ideas.

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  7. Now you're straw-manning me.

    Not really. I'm just having a bit of fun.

    What I actually mean is that if Bill creates a product that a million people would like to have and those people each pay him $100 to have it then he "deserves" whatever "power" that $100 million will get him in peaceful exchange.

    Bill didn't create any products outside of a tape loader for a stolen BASIC interpreter.

    On Government - Government should protect the rights of all equally, safeguarding your Chevy to the same degree as Bill's Bentley.

    I love how Libertarians with no sense of history or literature. Anatole France said it first, and said it better: "The law, in its majestic equality, forbids rich and poor alike to sleep under bridges, to beg in the streets, and to steal their bread."

    On Cooperation - If by facilitating cooperation you mean enforcing contracts you have a point, but beyond that I fail to see how government is a necessary for exchange.

    Seriously, do you have any fucking clue the intellectual, legal and physical infrastructure necessary to "enforce contracts"?

    Libertarians make as much a fetish of ignorance and selective evidence as any Christian. Perhaps I should start featuring Libertarians on my "The Stupid! It Burns!" series. (I won't, though: Nobody takes Libertarians seriously enough to make the series worth the effort.)

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  8. I made the mistake of thinking you might be interested in an actual discussion of libertarian ideas beyond the natural rights perspective.

    You're exhibiting the same closed-mindedness you (rightfully in many cases) accuse libertarians of. It's no surprise you don't attract the kind of discussion you claim to be looking for.

    Enjoying living a libertarian world. Every day more people gain political and economic freedoms, while the last failed experiments in communism move in our direction.

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  9. I made the mistake of thinking you might be interested in an actual discussion of libertarian ideas beyond the natural rights perspective.

    You made the mistake of thinking I was interested in the content of your delusions.

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  10. @Matt: I made the mistake of thinking you might be interested in an actual discussion of libertarian ideas...

    You gave him way too much credit. If it weren't for demagoguery and ad hominems, he wouldn't have anything meaningful to say.

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  11. An ad hominem argument is a rhetorical fallacy where one draws a conclusion about the position held by a person based on their personal characteristics. I make no such fallacy: I just like insulting stupid people.

    And I have plenty to say; the demagoguery and insults are just a bonus.

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