Monday, May 26, 2008

Political Agnosticism

It probably comes as no surprise that I've been thinking about politics.

I've written before about why I think that radical democracy ought to be the central focus of any political system that claims to care about justice. I think that, contrary to popular belief, very little about our present political system in the United States is actually democratic (demos "people" kratos "power"). We live in an oligarchy (oligos "few" archos "ruler"), and the fact that we get to ratify the decisions our few rulers make through elections every two, four, or six years doesn't magically make "rule by the few" into "power of the people."

I have advocated anarchism on this blog before, but almost any discussion of anarchism is bound to end in disaster. For one thing, the vast majority of people still associate anarchy with chaos. Anarchy can mean "chaos," which doesn't help, but the fact that there is actually a rich history of political philosophy that also happens to carry that title is entirely foreign to most Americans, and many elsewhere. For another, a fringe sect of the so-called "libertarians" (e.g., capitalist market fundamentalists) have latched onto the word as well. Googling anarchism, particularly if you focus on material from the United States, will often get you websites promoting stateless capitalism. This, of course, is utter bullshit as anarchism (an- "no" archos "ruler") is entirely incompatible with capitalism since the latter requires the few (owners) to rule the many (employees). That this rule is economic rather than political is irrelevant. There is no such thing as "anarcho"-capitalism, nor "libertarian" capitalism.

Furthermore, even within the actual political philosophy of anarchism, there are a multitude of tendencies and beliefs. These range from labor-union syndicalism to gift economy communism to technology-shunning primitivism. The anarchisms of Mikhail Bakunin, Piotr Kropotkin, Leo Tolstory, Emma Goldman, Howard Zinn, and Noam Chomsky may share many features, but they are not identical. Then you've got a lot of young kids running around who just want to "smash the state" because they don't like obeying rules. Some anarchists are against representation, some anarchists are against voting, some anarchists are against rules at all. Anarchism as a singular coherent movement is essentially dead.

For this reason, my anarchism is best thought of as a critique of power rather than a plan of action or a blueprint for the future. Anarchism, to me, simply asks of all authority: is this justified? Anarchism is in many respects, political agnosticism.

I am an atheist. I do not believe in any gods, or anything supernatural at all. I can state "there is no god" with just as much confidence as I state "there is no Santa Claus." But at the same time, I am ultimately agnostic. I cannot know there is no god, just as I cannot know that gravity will continue working. But in both cases, the odds are so astronomically slim and the evidence so overwhelmingly against that there is no reason to suspect otherwise. Agnosticism does not mean that one can't take a stand once the evidence comes in, it merely means one accepts that they may be wrong before it does, and they may be proven wrong later.

In politics, the case is never quite so clear. We can rather simply rule out many things that fail to lead to a just outcome, one that maximizes people's ability to influence decisions that affect tham. Authoritarianism and capitalism are immediately discarded as horrific. But what exact combination of direct democracy, delegation, representation, laws, norms, and the interplay of personal versus collective power and rights will optimize outcomes for all involved is impossible to say.

But we can nonetheless make our best predictions on the basis of the evidence available. I think the modern "democratic" state as we know it is not that answer. But I suspect that the answer is not as simple as direct democratic communities as most anarchists seem to prefer. I suspect that there is a place for representation in decision making, but representation subject to far more constraints than exist in any state that exists today, and representation that doesn't ever take the place of direct democracy when such is preferred by those who are affected. I suspect that there is a place for codified laws and a constitution, and indeed a "government," but one which is entirely voluntary to submit to, in which dissenters may personally seceed at any time (though they will obviously lose any benefits participation grants, such as access to the society's economy). I suspect that the best economy is not a market, but is not centrally planned. I suspect that people will compromise on some issues, but fight tooth and nail for others. I suspect that people don't mind delegating authority over things that they simply don't care about, but want the ability to take it back when they do care.

Yet I don't know any of these things. I do know that we will never find out as long as we simply obey the rules that are handed down to us, and pretend that choosing between a handful of rotating rulers will ever give us the opportunity.

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