"By pursuing his own interest [every individual] frequently promotes that of the society more effectually than when he really intends to promote it. I have never known much good done by those who affected to trade for the public good." ~ Adam Smith
Everyday Anarchy - Part 4 of 7
Part 4 of 7
June 4, 2008
Anarchy and War
I may have been doomed to this particular perspective from a very early age. I grew up in England in the 1970s, when the shadow cast by the Second World War still fell long across the mental landscape. I read war comics, saw war movies, heard details of epic battles, and sat silent during rather uncomfortable family gatherings where the British on my father's side attempted to make small talk with the Germans on my mother's.
I could not help but think, even when I was six or seven years old, that should my paternal uncle leap across the table and strangle my maternal uncle, this would be viewed as an immoral horror by everyone involved, and he would doubtless go to jail, probably for the rest of his life.
On the other hand, should they be placed in costume, and arrayed across a battlefield according to the whims of other men in costume, such a murder would be hailed as a noble sacrifice, and medals may be passed out, and pensions provided, and tickertape parades possibly ensue.
Thus, even in those long-ago days of soft white tablecloths and gently clinking cutlery, I mentally chewed on the problem that murder equals evil, and also that murder equals good. Murder equals jail, and murder equals medals.
When I was a little older, after 'The Godfather' came out, endless slews of gangster movies sprayed their red gore across the silver screens. In these stories, certain tribal 'virtues' such as loyalty, dedication and obeying orders, were portrayed as relatively noble, even as these butchers plied their bloody trade in slow motion, generally to the strains of classical music, and came to grimly spattered ends on bare concrete.
This paradox, too, stayed with me: 'Murdering a man because another man orders you to ' and pays you to ' is a vile and irredeemable evil.'
Then, of course, another war movie would come out, with the exact opposite moral message: 'Murdering a man because another man orders you to ' and pays you to ' is a virtuous and courageous good.'
I do remember bringing these contradictions up from time to time with the adults around me, only to be met with condescending irritation, often followed by a demand as to whether I would in fact prefer to be speaking German at present.
As I got older, and learned a little more about the world, these contradictions did not exactly resolve themselves, but rather were added to incessantly. We fought the Second World War to oppose National Socialism, I was told, as I munched on awful soy burgers, shivered in the cold and was told I could not bathe because the nationalized state unions were crippling the British economy.
I was told that I had to be terribly afraid of the selfish impulses of my fellow citizens ' and also that I had to respect their wisdom when they chose a leader. I was told that the purpose of my education was to allow me to think for myself, but when I make decisions that those in authority disagreed with, I was scorned and humiliated, and my reasoning was never examined.
I was told that I should not use violence to solve my problems, but when I climbed a wall that apparently I was not supposed to, I was taken to the Headmaster's office, where he assaulted me with a cane.
I was told that the British people were the wisest, most courageous and most virtuous group on the planet ' and also that I was not to disobey those in authority.
When I was taught mathematics and science, I was punished for thinking irrationally ' and then, when I asked sensible questions about the existence of God, I was punished for attempting to think rationally.
I was mocked as cowardly whenever I succumbed to peer pressure ' and also mocked for my lack of interest in cheering our local sports team.
When I proposed thoughts that those in authority disagreed with, they demanded that I provide evidence; when I asked that they provide evidence for their beliefs, I was punished for insubordination.
This is nothing peculiar to me ' all children go through these sorts of mental meat grinders ' but I could not help but think, as I grew up, that what passed for 'thinking' in society was more or less an endless series of manipulations designed to serve those in power.
What troubled me most emotionally was not the nonsense and contradictions that surrounded me, but rather the indisputable fact that they seemed completely invisible to everyone. Well, that's not quite true. It is more accurate to say that these contradictions were visible exactly to the degree that they were avoided. Everyone walked through a minefield, claiming that it was not a minefield, but unerringly avoiding the mines nonetheless.
It became very clear to me quite quickly that I lived in a kind of negative intellectual and moral universe. The ethical questions most worth examining were those that were the most mocked, derided and attacked. What was virtuous was so often what was considered the most vile ' and what was the most vile was often considered the most virtuous.
When I was 11, I went to the Ontario Science Center , which had an interesting and challenging exhibit where you attempted to trace the outline of a star by looking in a mirror. I have always remembered this exhibit, and just now I realize why ' because this was my direct experience when attempting to map the ethics and virtues proclaimed by those around me ' particularly those in authority.
Nowhere were these contradictions more pronounced than in the question of war.
It took me quite a long time to realize this, because the spectacle, fire and blood of war is so distracting, but the true violence of war does not occur on the battlefield, but in the homeland.
The carnage of conflict is only an effect of the core violence which supports war, which is the military enslavement of domestic citizens through the draft ' and even more importantly, the direct theft of their money which pays for the war.
Without the money to fund a war ' and pay the soldiers, whether they are drafted or not ' war is impossible. The actual violence of the battlefield is a mere effect of the threatened violence at home. If citizens could not be forced to pay for the war ' either in the present in the form of taxes, or in the future through deficit financing ' then the carnage of the battlefield could never possibly occur.
I have read many books and articles on the root of war ' whether it is nationalism, economic forces, faulty philosophical premises, class conflict and so on ' none of which addressed the central issue, which is how war is paid for. This is like advancing merely psychological explanations as to why people play the lottery, without ever once mentioning their interest in the prize money. Why do people become doctors? Is it because they have a psychological need to present themselves as godlike healers, or because they are pleasing their mother and father, or because they are themselves secretly wounded, or because they possess an altruistic desire to heal the sick? These may be all interesting theories to pursue, but they are mere effects of the basic fact that doctors are highly paid for what they do.
Certainly psychological or sociological theories may explain why a particular person chooses to become a doctor rather than pursue some other high-paying occupation ' but surely we should at least start with the fact that if doctors were not paid, almost no one would become a doctor. For instance, if a magic pill were invented tomorrow that ensured perfect health forever, there would be no more doctors ' because no one would pay for the unnecessary service. Thus the first cause of doctors is ' payment.
In the same way, we can endlessly theorize about the psychological, sociological or economic causes of war, but if we never talk about the simple fact that the first cause of war is domestic theft and military enslavement, then everything that follows remains mere abstract and airless intellectual quibbling, more designed to hide the truth than reveal it.
We can only point guns at foreign enemies because we first point guns at domestic citizens.
Without taxation, there can be no war.
Without governments, there can be no taxation.
Thus governments are the first cause of war.
The truth of the matter, I believe, is that deep down we know that if we pull out this one single thread ' that coercion against citizens is the root of war ' we know that many other threads will also come unraveled.
If we recognize the violence that is at the root of war ' domestic violence, not foreign violence ' then we stare at the core and ugly truth at the root of our society, and most of our collective moral aspirations.
The core and ugly truth at the root of our society is that we really, really like using violence to get things done. In fact, it is more than a mere aesthetic or personal preference ' we define the use of violence as a moral necessity within our society.
How should we educate children? Why, we must force their parents ' and everyone else ' to pay for their education at gunpoint!
How should we help the poor? Why, we must force others in society to pay for their support at gunpoint!
How should we heal the sick? Why, we must force everyone to pay for their medical care at gunpoint!
Now, it may be the case that we have exhausted all other possibilities and ways of dealing with these complex and challenging problems, and that we have been forced to fall back on coercion, punishment and control as regretful necessities, and we are constantly looking for ways to reduce the use of violence in our solutions for these problems.
However, that is not the case, either empirically or rationally.
The education of poor children, the succor of the impoverished and the healing of the sick all occurred through private charities and voluntary associations long before statist agencies displaced them. This is exactly what you would expect, given the general modern support for these state programs, because everyone is so concerned with these genuinely needy groups.
Where violence is considered to be a regrettable but necessary solution to a problem, those in authority do not shy away from talking openly about it. When I was a child in England in the 1970s, I was repeatedly told with pride by my elders about their courageous use of violence against the Axis powers in World War II. No one tried to give me the impression that the Nazis were defeated by cunning negotiation and psychological tricks. The endless slaughterhouses of both the First and Second World Wars were not kept hidden from me, but rather the violence was praised as a regrettable but moral necessity.
American children are told about the nuclear attacks on Nagasaki and Hiroshima ' the slaughter and radiation poisoning of hundreds of thousands of Japanese civilians is not kept a secret; it is not bypassed, ignored or repressed in the telling of the tale.
Even when the war in question was itself questionable, such as the war in Vietnam , no one shies away from the true nature of the conflict, which was endless genocidal murder.
I do not for a moment believe that all of these genocides and slaughters were morally justifiable ' or even practically required ' but mine is certainly a minority opinion, and since the majority believes that these murders were both morally justified and practically required, they feel fully comfortable openly discussing the violence that they consider unavoidable.
However, this is not the case when we talk about statist solutions to the problems of charity and ill health. You could spend an entire academic career in these fields, and read endless books and articles on the subject, and never once come across any reference to the fact that these solutions are funded through violence. Just so you can understand how strange this really is, imagine spending 40 years as a professional war historian, and never once coming across the idea that war involves violence. Would we not consider that a rather egregious evasion of a rather basic fact?
This is a rather volatile comparison I know, but we saw the same phenomenon occurring in Soviet Russia. Almost no reference was made to the gulags in official state literature, particularly that literature intended to be consumed overseas. The tens of millions of concentration camp inmates showed up nowhere in the general or academic narrative of the Soviet Union ' when the book 'One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich' finally appeared, even this relatively mild account of a day in the life of a prison camp inmate was greeted with shock, derision, horror and rage by those charged with defending that narrative.
It cannot really be the case that when society is genuinely proud of something, the truth is kept mysteriously hidden from view. Can we imagine fans of the New York Yankees actively working to repress the fact that their team won the World Series? Can we imagine the Communist leaders of China suppressing news that their athletes had won gold medals in the Olympics? Can we imagine a police department feverishly working to censor the facts about a large reduction in the crime rate?
Of course not. Where we are genuinely proud of an achievement, we do not refrain from talking about its causes. An Olympic athlete will speak with pride about the years of endless dawn training sessions; a successful entrepreneur will not hide the decades of hard work it took to succeed; a woman who has successfully struggled to lose weight is unlikely to wear a fat suit when she goes to her high school reunion.
However, when a core reality conflicts with a mythological narrative, academics, intellectuals and other cultural leaders are well-compensated for their ability to completely ignore that core reality ' and usually savagely attack and mock anyone who brings it up.
Anarchy and Protection
One core reality that anarchists focus on ' which surely is at least worthy of discussion ' is that governments claim to serve and protect their citizens. When I was a child, and questioned the ethics of World War II, I was asked if I would prefer to be speaking German. In other words, the brave men and women of the Allied forces spent their lives and blood defending me from foreign marauders who would have enslaved me. This approach reinforces the basic story that the government was trying to protect its citizens.
In the same way, when I question the use of violence in the supplying of education, people always tell me that in the absence of that violence ' even if they admit to its existence ' the poor would remain uneducated. This approach reinforces the basic story that the purpose of state violence in this realm is to educate the children.
You can see the same pattern just about everywhere else. When I talk about the violence of the war on drugs, I am told that without such a war, society would degenerate into nihilistic addiction and violence ' thus the purpose of the war on drugs is to keep people off drugs, and their neighbours safe from violence. When I talk about the base and coercive predation of Social Security, I am told that without it, the old would starve in the streets ' thus reinforcing the narrative that the purpose of Social Security is to provide an income for the old, without which they would starve.
When we examine the narrative that the state exists to protect its citizens, we can clearly see that if we unearth the basic reality of the violence of taxation, a malevolent contradiction emerges.
It is very hard for me to tell you that I am only interested in protecting you, if I attack you first. If I roll up to you in a black van, jam a hood over your head, throw you in the back of my van, tie you up and toss you in my basement, would you reasonably accept as my explanation for this savagery that I only wished to keep you from harm?
Surely you would reply that if I was really interested in keeping you from harm, why on earth would I kidnap you and lock you up in a little room? Surely, if I initiate the use of force against you, it is somewhat irrational (to say the least) for me to tell you that I am only acting to protect you from the use of force.
This is a central reason why the aggression that governments initiate against their own citizens in order to extract the cash and cannon fodder for war is never talked about. It is hard to sustain the thesis that governments exist to protect their citizens if the first threat to citizens is always their own government.
If I have to rob you in order to pay for 'protecting' your property from theft, at the very least I have created an insurmountable logical contradiction, if not a highly ambivalent moral situation.
In general, where coercion is a regrettable but necessary means of achieving a moral good, that coercion is not hidden from general view. In police dramas, the violence of the cops is not hidden. In war movies, shells, bullets and limbs fly across the screen with wanton abandon.
However, the coercion at the root of war and state social programs remains forever unspoken, unacknowledged, repressed, hidden from view; it is mad, shameful and imprudent to speak of it.
A hunter who proudly displays a dead deer on the hood of his car, and puts the antlers up in his basement, and barbecues the venison for his friends, can be considered somewhat proud ' or at least not ashamed ' of his hobby.
A hunter who uses a silencer, shoots a deer in the middle of the night, and carefully buries the body, leaving no trace, cannot be considered at all proud ' and is in fact utterly ashamed ' of his hobby.
Thus, when an anarchist looks at society, he sees a desperate shame regarding the use of violence to achieve social ends such as the military, health care, and education. Any anarchist who has even a passing interest in psychology ' and I certainly put myself in this category ' understands that this kind of unspoken shame is utterly toxic, both to an individual and to a society.
Thus it inevitably falls to anarchists to perform the unpleasant task of digging up the 'body in the backyard,' or pointing out the widespread, prevalent and ever-increasing use of violence to achieve moral goals within society. 'Is this right?' asks the anarchist ' fully aware of the hostile and resentful glances he receives from those around him. 'How can violence be both the greatest evil and the greatest good?' 'If the violence that we use to achieve our supposedly moral ends is in fact justified and good, why is it that we are so ashamed to speak of it?'
To be an anarchist, to say the very least, requires a strong hide when it comes to social hostility and disapproval.
When people have genuinely exhausted all other possibilities, they tend not to be ashamed of their eventual solution. Even if we take the surface narrative of the Second World War at face value, the victors were able to express just pride because the narrative included the significant caveat that there was no other possible response to the aggression of the German, Italian and Japanese fascists.
Parents tend to be pretty open about hitting their children if they genuinely believe that no rational or moral alternatives exist to the use of violence. If hitting a child is the only way to teach her to be a good, productive and rational adult, then not hitting her is obviously a form of lax parenting, if not outright abuse. Hitting your daughter thus becomes a form of moral responsibility, and thus a positive good, much like yanking her back from running into traffic and ensuring that she eats her vegetables.
Such a parent, of course, reacts with outrage and indignation if you suggest to him that there are more productive alternatives to violence when it comes to raising children ' for the obvious reason that if those alternatives exist, his violence turns from a positive good to a moral evil.
This is the situation that an anarchist faces when he talks about nonviolent alternatives to existing coercive 'solutions.' If there is a nonviolent way to help the poor, heal the sick, educate the children, protect property, build roads, defend a geographical area, mediate disputes, punish criminals and so on ' then the state turns from a regretfully necessary institution to an outright criminal monopoly.
This is a rather large and jagged pill for people to swallow, for any number of psychological, personal, professional and philosophical reasons'
This is Part 4 of the free book 'Everyday Anarchy,' available at www.freedomainradio.com/free