Tuesday, July 29, 2008

Where do ya draw the line?

Besides being a great Dead Kennedy's song on their swansong -- Bedtime for Democracy, Jello Biafra perhaps best states his political dilemma. "Anarchy sounds good to me / then someone asks 'who'd fix the sewers?'/ 'would the rednecks just play king / of the neighborhood?'" Of course, true anarchy would have a response for both of these problems: the sewers would either be maintained by those who were willing to self-organize to do it (especially in the anarcho-socialist direction) or sewers wouldn't exist, and it's a false problem.

The second point is perhaps more distressing to the anarchist project. Or maybe not. But it certainly reveals part of the anarchist impulse: its primitivism. B. Traven, a noted anarchist of mysterious origins (either Chicago of Swedish parents or the illegitimate child of a Polish countess seem to be the favored hypotheses), situates the arrival of government in his aptly named novel Government as something that subverted their Eden. If anarchy privileges small communities, the technological advances of the past two hundred years or so would not have happened. Unfortunately, many advances have come about due to international competition and wars. That doesn't mean, of course, that we're better off. Of course, we couldn't have this discussion in this medium without those advances. Maybe we'd be better off living a different life in a radically different society, but all that is merely hypothetical in any case.

Maybe Jello Biafra, a professed anarachist I believe, should have known better than to ask questions that seem to be voiced by someone less familiar with anarchy -- someone who associates anarchy simply with chaos rather than radical self government. Maybe he was having doubts about anarchy or was merely beginning to express his anarchist tendencies. Of course, the voice in the song doesn't have to be him and may be someone else, asking the more important question of 'where do you draw the line?' Where do we decide that someone should intervene in a situation -- be it a squabble between a couple kids at school, a couple having a fight (or just not getting along), some thugs getting together and running amok, some armed groups in a country fighting over their place in the government there. When should someone intervene and when should someone stay out of the situation and allow the participants to resolve their differences -- in whatever way they can or want to?

After numerous school shooting incidents it is clear that something has to be done about bullying. After witnessing the terror in Rwanda or ex-Yugoslavia or the Taliban in Afghanistan it is clear that someone should intervene. Dictatorships in all of Latin America (Somoza, Pinochet, et al) should not have lasted even half of how long they did, but geopolitical interests governed those and other situations. We know that abused women (and men) stay in relationships that are dangerous for numerous bad reasons. It is easy to say that individuals should stand up to bullies and should even be taught how (but how do you make sure that the bullies don't learn these techniques; how can you make sure that you aren't going to 'create' bullies in the process?), but that doesn't mean that those methods are going to work. Many dictators have been overthrown -- Somoza, Porfirio Díaz, and Bautista being just a few examples -- through popular insurrection (directly or indirectly). Others simply died and the death allowed for a transition to democracy, as was the case in Spain. Others faced humiliating defeats and disappeared -- Argentina after the brief war over the Falkland Islands (Islas Malvinas). Other forged a gradual transition like Pinochet.

My main concern with an anarchic project is not the question about the sewers or even the rednecks. It's its primitivist component that disheartens me. The technological advances have enriched us in many ways, although they certainly have been bad for the earth and for those who live on it (witness the high percentage of individuals in advanced societies that have a bonafide psychological disorder -- about 25% for the US and almost as high in other places). Should we sacrifice our ability to move around this planet, to experience very different things, lest we create a climate that will force us to make radical changes in our lifestyle? As Jello put it, "I'm not telling you I'm asking you."

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