Bakunin’s Anarchy

Review of Mikhail Bakunin, Statism and Anarchy, 1873

Statism and Anarchy offers a collectivist anarchy, an anti-capitalist communal vision that emerges within the Marxist/socialist orbit but against Marx’s reliance on a statist transitional period. Bakunin sees an “anarchist social revolution” as “an elemental force sweeping away all obstacles. Later, from the depths of the popular soul, there will spontaneously emerge new creative forms of social life.” This sounds a little like the 1960s Age of Aquarius, but Bakunin remains, like Marx, economics-centric and reliant on violent upheaval over pacifist incrementalism. He is still in the age of homo economicus, per my fine previous blog on the topic.

The attacks on Marx’s “statist” phase for its inherent contradictions ring true. The so called proletarian elite, “the Communist party, meaning Mr. Marx and his friends,” will be just like old elite statists. This is well-argued, borne out by history, and most coolly captured by The Who in the 1969 song, “We Don’t Get Fooled Again.”

But Bakunin seems to have his own contradictions to wrestle with. Unlike the Marxists on one side or capitalists on the other, Bakunin does not want to “thrust upon our own or any other people any scheme of social organization.” And yet he needs some kind of general superstructure. He even admits that “the principal evil which paralyzes the Russian people, and has up till now made a general uprising impossible, is the closed rural community, its isolation and disunity.” On the one hand, he seems in principle committed to total local autonomy, and yet without some larger superstructure, the local unit gets wiped out, as Bakunin himself complains in regard to experimental pacifist communes like New Icaria. As much as he reviles any stage of statist superstructure, it’s not clear to me that he has figured out a way around it, at least during some revolutionary transition phase, and then in perpetuity if his collectivist anarchy is not global and thereby free from external threats.

Now, 150 years after Marx and Bakunin, it might also seem like overthrowing a government is easy compared to dismantling the powerful multinational formations of capitalism. Autonomous anarchist collectives sound great, but how can they overcome these gigantic formations of wealth and power without aggregating themselves into something like a statist block with enough concentrated power to rattle those formations? The hippies perhaps struggled with this and lost. But might the grass-roots collectivist anarchy of the hippies, refueled by the decentralized energies of social media, come back again with greater force next time? May the Age of Aquarius be still rising?


Good anarchy and bad

Bad anarchy is like life in the state of nature described by 17th-century philosopher, Thomas Hobbes: “nasty, brutish, and short.”

Good anarchy is the Age of Aquarius vision of the flower children, who were fed up with the convention-bound thinking that had brought us the world of war, machines, and straightjacket moralities. “Rules and regulations, who needs them?” sang hippie icon, Graham Nash, in 1970, with bandmates David Crosby, Stephen Stills, and Neil Young.

The risk, presaged by The Beatles (“Revolution,” 1968) and The Who (“We Don’t Get Fooled Again,” 1971), is that you might expect one kind of anarchy but you can’t be sure you won’t get the other.

(For my academic friends, thus Bakunin’s charge against Marx redoubles back upon Bakunin.)

Piketty’s Capital

Review of Thomas Piketty’s Capital in the Twenty-First Century

So this is the book Nobel Prize winning economist Paul Krugman lauds and billionaire apologists decry. No need for such drama, though. This book – a close reading of the historical trajectories of capitalism with special attention to things like growth and inequality – is no call to storm the walls of capitalism. Indeed it is a reformist attempt to save capitalism from its own excesses, to save it from the kind of sweeping revolution that Russell Brand heralds.

Of course, Piketty, unlike Brand, is a professional economist, more wonkish than visionary, and still working in the Adam Smith to Karl Marx tradition of homo economicus, which presents homo sapiens fundamentally as economic units and human relations fundamentally as economic relations (compare to the dramatic conclusion of my “Taxes, Private Property, and the Age of Aquarius). But Piketty, with his line graphs and tables, his sorting of economic laws that are mathematically fixed from economic laws that are subject to political intervention, is like a hungry badger digging into the internal mechanics of today’s capitalism. At least he seems a good “inside game” player to liaise with our visionaries when the Aquarian revolution comes.

Indeed, in his appetite for detail, the hungry badger sometimes seems unsure of his audience. He wants to pitch to a general audience, which means high-level narrative instead of “showing your work,” but, always aware of the secondary (academic) audience, he gets bogged down for pages on disclaimers, caveats, apologies for methodological imprecision, etc., that really just bore the general reader. And although the stats and charts are great for the most part, here also he sometimes gets bogged down in the numbers. It reminds me a little of Darwin’s 200-page digression (or so it seemed) on the tail feathers of the rock finch in Origin of Species (a book that was otherwise quite compelling for the average reader).

What the wonkish Piketty can and does give us, however, is a layman’s way into one of the basic problems in the trajectory of capitalism: Since return on capital always outstrips growth (r > g), the tendency is toward greater inequality (the capital/income ratio increasingly favors capital). This inexorable feature of capitalism was temporarily obscured by the shocks of the 20th century (1914-1945 and a recovery period through the 1970s). This period was anomalous in two ways: (1) growth of 2-3% came to seem normal (Piketty’s centuries of data show that 1% is actually robust growth in long run); (2) those shocks and after effects reduced the role of capital/inherited wealth, so it seemed capitalism was on a “natural” track toward increasing meritocracy and diminishing importance of inherited wealth. Now that the shock waves are over, both trajectories have returned to normal – growth is coming down and will probably level out at about 1%, and the role of capital/inherited wealth is concurrently going back up. Some of Piketty’s points are debatable, but the overall argument is compelling and the urgency real.

So how do we check the underlying forces of capitalism now pushing toward a renewed importance for inherited wealth and increased inequality? State expropriation of private property has been tried and failed to deliver on its promises. National taxes on capital won’t work because today it is too easy for the wealthy to relocate resources. Only an annual global tax on capital will do the trick, according to Piketty, and that means greater financial transparency and greater cross-national political collaboration. So he may not see beyond the age of homo economicus, he may not see into a future where self-actualization is detached from purchasing power and from the age-old struggle for resources, but if he develops his thesis with the restraint of a reformer, these final recommendations reveal a little bit of the visionary idealist in Piketty after all.

Professionalism and Alienation

I recently heard (or perhaps instigated) someone at work talking about how proper attire promotes professionalism. My faithful readers will recall that I, as a fashion anarchist, have commented on Jeffrey Tucker’s suggestion that people should dress properly at work (Bourbon for Breakfast, Chapter 37).

Now to tackle the tangent idea that a dress code promotes professionalism. First, if professionalism is meant in the narrow sense of an individual’s competence to complete the tasks at hand with rigor, efficiency, and integrity, the fashion anarchist wins this one easily. Obviously, my engineering or accounting or design skills are not affected every time I change clothes.

If professionalism is meant in the general sense – the sense that it is generally easier to maintain professional relations where people are dressed professionally – this is a little trickier. On this level, I say good riddance to professionalism, which has been a scourge on human contact for some 300 hundred years.

The Age of Bourgeois Capitalism, which began in roughly the 18th century, could also be called the Age of Professionalism.  In the previous age, the frame of reference for human relations was the landed hierarchy of commoners, gentry, aristocracy and various subsets. Doctors and lawyers and such were generally commoners, subject to much mirth and ridicule in the literatures of the day. Even where respected, their professions (or one might call them “occupations” in that pre-professional age) conferred no class status. As bourgeois capitalism replaced landed hierarchies as the defining scaffold of power, the “professions” came to confer the kind of class status we see today, with grandmas encouraging grandkids to grow up to be doctors or lawyers (and not, on good authority of Waylon and Willie, cowboys, those residual personae of the land). The old frame of reference for human relations in the landed order – things like de facto respect for those above you in the hierarchy and generosity towards those below you in the hierarchy – was replaced by the public sphere paradigm to “behave professionally.”

“Professional behavior” presupposes human connections that are less vertical and more horizontal/democratic, and that may well be a step forward toward the ideal of a human community of mutual fulfillment, but it comes at a cost. The cost is alienation. Human relations becomes the “business of human relations.” When Karl Marx says that under capitalism “human relations take on the fantastic form of relations between things” (Capital, Vol. 1), this can be applied on the social as well as the economic level.  Human relations become a little bit icier. The other person is objectified, which enables us to treat him or her as an object in some market-driven game and not as a concrete human being. One scene in The Godfather (dir. Francis Ford Coppola, screenplay Coppola and Mario Puzo) nicely encapsulates human relations in the Age of Professionalism. Tessio has betrayed Michael and now realizes that Michael has discovered the deed and set him up to be killed. Tessio, knowing the end is near, tells Tom: “Tell Mike it was only business. I always liked him.” Tom replies with some pathos, “He understands that,” and then goes forward with the hit. Lift the veil on professionalism’s polite exterior, and this is the model of human relations you have underneath. It brings everyone one step closer to the version of human identity manifested in the “officials” of Kafka’s novels, who epitomize ad absurdum the sloughing off of all human responsibility in the execution of the office.

The alienation that takes place in the Age of Professionalism indeed gives us another reason to look to the Luddite/technophobe point of view. In particular, the technophobe distrust of mechanization may raise valid points about the impact of technology not just on labor markets but on human relations generally. If professionalism takes a subjective toll on the fullness of human relations, new technologies, without moral steerage, can give a kind of exoskeleton to the process of alienation, abstracting us from the human warmth and human consequences of our actions. The person who pushes a button in Nevada to launch a drone strike on a Pakistani village and then stops by Walmart on the way home probably does not see his actions the same way as one who had to stand toe to toe and push the steel blade into his opponent’s belly.

Now for the optimistic conclusion: In our collective reach for higher ideals, professionalism has served its purpose, weaning us away from hierarchies that were antithetical to the fullest form of human relations and giving us a basis for something more democratic and fully reciprocal. But we have paid a cost in terms of the objectification of, and alienation from, our fellows. It’s time take the next turn, put professionalism to bed, and reinvest full humanness into our relationships, even into our relationships in the workplace and with remote clients and customers. And one way to start that slow tectonic shift is to gently undermine the professionalism paradigm by bringing, so far as we can manage it, a little fashion anarchy into the workplace.  It might look funny, but it beats becoming characters in a Kafka novel.

The Devil’s Aphorisms

These are selected re-posts of my Facebook status quotations, but some of you may recognize the title nod to William Blake’s Marriage of Heaven and Hell, so I’ll start with a quote from that fine work:

“Man has no Body distinct from his Soul: for that called Body is a portion of Soul discerned by the five senses, the chief inlets of Soul in this age” (Blake)

“Break a rule when it doesn’t work” (Chicago Manual of Style)

“Who knows, the world might wake up and burst into a beautiful flower” (Jack Kerouac)

“Set your heart upon your work, but never on its reward” (Bhagavad-Gita)

“Christ is God externalized” (Karl Marx)

“Forge of blue metal, nights of still combats / my heart revolves like a crazy wheel” (Neruda)

“Where there is no echo … there is only silence” (Mark Danielewski, House of Leaves)

“The sea is like music; it has all the dreams of the soul within itself and sounds them over” (Jung’s letters)

“The lights of the impure, illusory six realms will shine: the soft white light of the gods, the soft red light of the jealous gods, the soft blue light of human beings, the soft yellow light of the hungry ghosts, and the soft smoky light of hell-beings. These six will shine together with the pure light-rays of the four wisdoms. At that moment do not grasp or be attracted to any of them, but stay relaxed in a state free from thought.” (Tibetan Book of the Dead)

“You can only protest effectively when you love the person whose ideas you are protesting against as much as you love yourself” (Baba Ram Dass)

When you look into your hand, you can see thousands of generations before you and thousands of generations after you … All our ancestors and all future generations are present in us. Seeing this, we will know what to do and what not to do. (Thich Nhat Hahn)

“There is no way to peace; peace is the way” (A. J. Muste)

“Religion is like a banana skin. And spirituality the banana itself. The problem with this era is that people have thrown away the banana and are holding on tightly to the banana skin” (Sri Sri Ravi Shankar)

“When the average American senior is squeaking by on only $19,000, we shouldn’t be subsidizing millionaires’ yachts with $140,000 in tax breaks every year” (Congressional Asian Pacific Caucus Chairman Judy Chu)

“Beware of all enterprises that require new clothes”
(Henry David Thoreau)

Taxes, Private Property, and the Age of Aquarius

Re: the argument against ending the tax cuts for the wealthy because “it’s their money,” not the government’s (and the corollary that to think otherwise is to be a vile socialist)

It doesn’t require a socialist to argue as billionaire investment banker Warren Buffett does — that the wealthy are far better off than they ever have been, are disproportionately benefiting from the productivity of the nation, and can chip in a little more as they used to do. However, my position goes beyond Buffett’s and perhaps beyond socialism, or at least beyond Marx’s version of socialism. To see how profoundly dangerous my world view really is, see below (but please don’t assume that one has to be as radical as I am to advocate letting the rich keep their full tax cut on the first 250k and pay Clinton-era rates on what falls over that).

1.      Private Property and the Age of Capitalism

The capitalist notion of private property as the fundamental basis of political economy, which is presented as a kind of “natural order,” has only really emerged in the last few hundred years. To be sure, there was private property prior to that, but the realm of private property was a kind of second-tier ownership, a veneer covering the world we all shared. Consider the UK, the very cradle of capitalism. Traditionally, land was fundamentally common grazing land. A rare spot or two may be set aside for the king. And vast areas might be – not owned really, but held for the king by the Duke of Cornwall, the Duke of Northumberland, etc. But in practice, it was pretty much commons. Then the initial seeds of capitalism were sown, of all places, in the field of agriculture. The enclosure movement. The old norm of common-use land (albeit with exceptions and conditions) yielded to a new norm of “all land is essentially private property.” Common rights disappeared in village after village, and a new class of landless workers was created.

A great philosopher, I forget his name, said that in every age, the ideology of the dominant class presents itself to all classes as the “natural order.” So during the precapitalist landed order, based on patrilineage and aristocratic tiers, the idea of a “Great Chain of Being” was successfully promulgated through all classes of people as the eternal, natural order. Pretty much everyone at every station in life bought into it, except for a few lonely radicals.

As economic power passes from the landed order to the capitalist order, the paradigm for the eternal, natural order changes in ways that suit the new dominant class. The view of the cosmos changes from an organic view to a mechanistic view. (Isaac Newton will lock this world view in for at least a couple of centuries – one could argue that this is still the dominant view, or one could argue that Einstein’s theory of relativity is a fundamental shift – a shift perhaps commensurate with the rise of multinational corporations as a new kind of decentralized power that replaces an older, more nationalistic form of capitalism.)

A second paradigm shift with the emergence of bourgeois capitalism over landed aristocracy is in the realm of private property. The enclosure movement was already gaining speed when Locke wrote his treatises on government. But Locke, by making private property the cornerstone of the social order – indeed, the cornerstone of human identity – gave emerging capitalism its master narrative – the “discourse” through which it becomes presented to all as the eternal, natural order. Just as decades of impressionistic speculation about evolution suddenly all came together under the powerful gaze of Darwin, and similar decades of speculation about the unconscious were pulled into a powerful, coherent master narrative by Freud, so “the ingenious Mr. Locke,” as he was often called in the 18th century, provided a powerful, coherent discourse for socioeconomic trends that were forcing a paradigm shift at the end of the 17th century.

2.      Gary’s Conclusion: Two Visions

So if “private property” is not the natural relationship between people and resources, but merely the relationship between people and resources that controls the present age, do I believe private property should be eliminated?

Short Term Vision

I am all in favor maintaining private property in the foreseeable future. But recognizing that there is nothing “natural” or “eternal” about this paradigm liberates us to rationally re-think the relationship between people and resources. (One thinks of that great passage in Frederick Douglass where his biggest problem was convincing his fellow slaves that slavery was not the natural and necessary order of things.)

Don’t get me wrong. I’m not advocating a Bolshevik or Castro-like seizure of resources. My immediate ideal is much, much closer to the socialist/capitalist democracies of Western Europe– and “immediate” is actually ambiguous. One cannot skip steps and leap to the Western European ideal before the cultural and material infrastructure is in place. Not even looking at foreign countries, New Orleans is less ready for that ideal than the Northeast, and my local votes in New Orleans would be comparatively more conservative than if I were up there. However, once you see that the “private property” paradigm, like all paradigms, is historically determined and not an eternal part of nature, you can step back and re-envision the building blocks of how we see the world. Our GDP is $15 trillion a year. Let’s say that’s the sum total of our productivity as a nation. Of all the wealth generated by this productivity, the top 1% sucks out about 21% for its own use. Is it their money? I can see why one might say that. But at least consider the counter view. That’s the slice of our collective productivity that they are taking home. The vast majority of infrastructure, labor, and other economic formations were in place before they came along. They didn’t print their own money; they didn’t personally generate the productivity; they merely did their part in the collective enterprise of generating productivity. In the case of CEO salaries, let’s say that their part involves a higher level of expertise and risk. I think it’s fair that they make 10, 20, say 42 times as much as the average worker (as in 1980). But can they really suck out 354 times the average worker’s salary (2012) on the grounds that “it’s my money.” I think that’s excessive. Or if they continue to suck wealth out at that accelerated level, I don’t think it’s too much to ask that they put a little extra back in on the percentage that falls above a certain cap. You may convince me that they deserve 42 x the average worker’s salary, or that their tax rate should only go up on the part that falls over that 4200% line, but the evil socialist in me will not accept that it’s “their money” until you can show me that they generated it without drawing on any pre-existing infrastructure, labor, or other economic/cultural formations.

Long Term Vision

Does private property survive my long-term vision?

I take no position on that. Future generations will be better equipped to make that call. I can only recommend keeping private property into the foreseeable future.

For the full long-term vision, the hippie world view deep in my brainstem (perhaps in the form of LSD residue) is key. The hippie vision was much more revolutionary than Marx’s vision. Marx was a man of his time. Since Adam Smith, homo sapiens was recast as homo economicus. Homo economicus is the foundation of classical political economy and perhaps still the dominant paradigm of human nature. Marx did not break from this. He was all about economic redistribution, but it was still all about economics and who gets what share of the pie. The radicals of the 1930s were still in this pattern. The radicals of the 1960s, however, envisioned human nature in a fundamentally different way — in a way that would transcend homo economicus. In some ways, the “cultural” liberals of the 1960s were very strange bedfellows for the “economic” liberals rooted in the 1930s and the trade unions. The economic liberals, like Marx, were looking for a revolution within the age of homo economicus – a centennial kind of revolution. The cultural liberals of the 1960s were looking for an Age of Aquarius somewhere past the horizon line of homo economicus – a millennial kind of revolution. Private property may survive such a paradigm shift (for all I know), but it couldn’t survive as the primary relationship between people and resources (or the primary end of human relations, as it seems to be for homo economicus under capitalism). The idea is that the species has technologically evolved, or very nearly evolved, to a point where the production and distribution of resources can easily accommodate the entire world population, were it not for the intransigent barriers of politics and the primacy of private property as a paradigm for self-actualization. This means that the time is right for some whole new paradigm to emerge. Astronomers for centuries (possibly millennia) have said that between 2012 and 2026 the Age of Pisces will pass into the Age of Aquarius (technically one constellation passes a certain point relative to another constellation, but I don’t know the details). And of course we all know about the Mayan calendar. The end is near, brothers and sisters, but it ain’t what you think it is. The Age of Pisces is over.  A new wave of hippies is coming. Brace yourself.

(For expansion and follow-up, see From Fashion Anarchy to German Socialism.)