Archive for July, 2010

All are Sustained by the Sword

What is called human government is usurpation, imposture, demagoguism, peculation, swindling, and tyranny . . . Unquestionably, every existing government on earth is to be overthrown by the growth of mind and moral regeneration of the masses. Absolutism, limited monarchy, democracy — all are sustained by the sword; all are based upon the doctrine, that ‘Might makes right’; all are intrinsically inhuman, selfish, clannish, and opposed to a recognition of the brotherhood of man.
– William Lloyd Garrison

(source: Patriotic gore @ google books.) H/t Jesse Walker @ Reason

The Bikecast Episode #28: RoBATs, Privilege, and Discernment

Shortly after recording the material in the last podcast[1], I had a conversation with a very wise friend about the Roaming Bands of Armed Thugs (RoBATs) argument. Her response blew my mind and highlighted, as if it needed highlighting, the invaluable nature of collaboration in thinking about these topics.

Most of the time, I’m equally happy with the recorded material in the bikecast and the post, but this time I would recommend listening to the podcast instead of/as well as reading the post. But hey, I’m not the boss of you.


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My friend pointed out that the fear of being violently overwhelmed by a superior force is something most non-white/non-male people face on a regular, often continuous, basis. The vast majority of the population live day to day with zero protection from arbitrary violence. Almost half the population[2] operates under the constant threat of harassment, kidnapping or other violence from the forces that are supposedly constituted for their protection.

For people who have not experienced this, i.e. for people who have always had a superior position in social relationships, the idea of navigating a social setting in which everyone is a peer can be terrifying.

A trope from the leftist-authoritarians is that the disintegration of the state will result in a crystallizing of the stratified socio-economic classes with female, ethnic and poor on the bottom and rich white males on top.

In reality, removing the police and military power from the hands of a small cadre of white males will compel this ruling class to interact with the rest of society as peers instead of rulers. The rest of us white males, who may not be ruling, per se, will have to navigate a society where everyone is equally privileged as we. By most (sane) accounts , such a situation will be wildly beneficial for everybody who doesn’t suck. Why then is the prospect daunting for rank-and-file white guys?

My very wise friend made a second, brilliant follow-on observation addressing this question: having lived a life of privilege, free from the consistent threat of arbitrary violence inherent to the lives of women, non-whites and the poor, privileged white males are not experienced in discerning threatening situations from non-threatening. Without this discernment, it’s understandable that a world populated by peers is frightening and something like the possibility of RoBATs seems sufficiently likely to cling to the police state.

As I wrap up the second RoBAT podcast, I feel that I’ve got a good grasp on the origins and nature of this argument. Thanks to my friends for being both the source and the solution of this pseudo-problem. On to the next.

  1. [1] Apologies for the repetition of some of the arguments from the last podcast. There was actually a week or two between the recording of the two podcasts and I was mostly resetting the conversation for my benefit.
  2. [2] Of the united states.

The Bikecast Episode #27: The Roving Bands of Armed Thugs Argument

The Roaming Bands of Armed Thugs argument is common when discussing the nature of the state with people who “get it,” but are still convinced statelessness is impossible. They “get” that the state is an institution whose sole purpose is the protection of privilege, wealth and power from just distribution. They get that U.S. foreign policy is a long series of mass murders for the benefit of a handful of wealthy oligarchs. They get that the justice [sic] system is racist, sexist, pro-business and reactionary and that all efforts to check state power only increase the predations against the powerless. Still, they cling to the necessity of the state because they claim, in its absence, Roaming Bands of Armed Thugs would take over everything.[1]

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From a recent email conversation:

“You will soon find you are on your own, if you haven’t already. If you do nothing, you will suffer the predations of gangs, militias, and corrupt bureaucracies that will fill the void left by retreating nation-states. If you want to avoid this fate, you can build resilient communities that not only allow you and your family to survive intact, but to thrive.” — John Robb

And where are these armed thugs? In our military, police force, private security forces, and jails. And the very reason for the drug trade being so lucrative is the existence of the War on Drugs, perpetrated by federal governments. Without it the drug trade would not be so lucrative, and without that kind of profit those thugs would have to seek other employment…such as shaking down the powerless, perhaps.

The logic of this doomsday scenario is that, as the state implodes and is unable to continue to pay it’s armed minions, they will form into gangs roaming the countryside pillaging the weak and helpless. Despite the various disadvantages of the state, continues the reasoning, we need it to keep the police and army “on our side” and to protect us from the unscrupulous poor who would rise up and overwhelm us when the police vanish.[2]

This post/bikecast and the next comprise two solid arguments against the concern for RoBATs.

My primary argument is that the thugs in the police and military are already engaged in thuggery against the powerless. RoBATs can’t take 20-50% of the fruits of your labor at the point of production, they can’t put you 250,000 dollars in debt.[3]. The state, backed by the police, the military, and the prison system, can and have done this to you and to each of your children born and unborn.

There’s an important difference between RoBATs and the uniformed thugs of the police and military. Thugs without badges are universally despised. We understand them to be terrible people and a blight on society. Even the most sympathetic mugger or burglar is not to be praised and not to have their deeds honored and lauded. Nobody will argue that you are acting inappropriately (or “illegally”) when you defend yourself against a thug–most people will probably offer to help you.

Uniformed thugs, on the other hand, are beloved by the political class. They are called public servants and heroes. Their most disturbing crimes, too numerous to count, are covered up, excused, and ignored. Anything that can be done to praise and honor badgecarrying thugs can and will be done, forever and ever, amen. If anyone defends themselves against official thuggery, they become candidates for summary kidnapping or assassination. Regardless of the circumstances, the defender will be universally condemned by political society.

For this reason, thugs as thugs are few in number and their lives are complicated, dangerous and short. Thugs with badges are exploding in number and variety because their lives of crime are honored, praised and completely subsidized.

Why are we better off with thugs that can hide behind a collective illusion of goodness, or at least necessity, than with thugs that everyone recognizes as parasites on civil society?

There’s a two prong fallacy that plagues leftist-authoritarians with regard to this issue:

  1. They incorrectly believe themselves to be members of the ruling class. They believe that they will be the future targets of robbers and thieves where today their lives and possessions are protected by the police.. This, despite the evidence that the modern police state stops few murders and almost no property crimes.
  2. They believe that there are teeming hordes of would-be thugs that are held in check by the state. If freed from the police state, rather than exploiting the millions of new opportunities available to them, they will form RoBATs and begin looting.

The source of these misperceptions are manifold, and I don’t want to belabor the point since the next bikecast addresses this issue in some depth. In this bikecast, my best guess was that it was to do with public education–12 years of daily worship of state agents. It’s a cultural plank that can’t be easily dislodged since it’s put into place and protected universally by authority figures as we grow up. More on this in the next bikecast . . .

  1. [1] I know it sounds odd, but very smart people have voiced this concern.
  2. [2] Yes, it’s equally implausible on the second telling too.
  3. [3] Assuming no further deficit and no further expansion of the money supply

The Bikecast Episode #26: From Here to There, The Unimaginable Future

All manner of blueprints exist for future societies in which human interactions are governed by a principal other than might-makes-right. While these are brilliant in their own right and demonstrate the human capacity for problem solving, they are the tip of the iceberg of ideas and models of human social and economic relations. As alternatives to violence are explored, the number of people who have experienced a life free from domination will increase. At the same time, the ways in which people can communicate are growing ever richer. We can’t even imagine the scope and nature of the solutions that groups of increasingly healthier humans will generate to approach social and economic problems.

Download this episode of the bikecast

The transitional model that seems to be the most developed with the greatest number of practicing adherents is agorism. To oversimplify, agorists aim to replace the current economic system piecemeal by developing alternative relationships. As the state recedes, these alternative economic arrangements become the foundation for the future society. Obviously, “alternative economic arrangements” covers alot of territory: communes, cooperatives, worker-owned businesses, as well as more traditional business/property models insofar as they don’t require violence to conduct their affairs.

The Free State Project was an effort to overwhelm a political region (New Hampshire was eventually chosen) with sufficient “liberty minded” people to take over the government. While that effort has largely failed, a secondary effect has been the attracting of a large number of anarchists to the region. These non-political activists have had a much larger effect and are constantly spinning off new projects and media outlets. They openly commit crimes against the state (victimless crimes) and then refuse to participate in the legal process–this would be difficult or impossible except that they have sufficient numbers to fully support jailed activists.

Other, slightly more fantastic scenarios include the foundation of “free cities” which are exempt from the legal system of the larger political structure. Free cities could also result from secession or other decentralizing processes. The advantage of numerous social structures in a small geographical area is evidenced by the free cities of the renaissance, the Hanseatic league, and the modern city-states of Singapore, Hong Kong, and Monaco.

Finally, along the same lines, Sea-steading promises to, essentially, create additional geographical areas where governance structures can be crafted from scratch.

As brilliant as these ideas and experiments may be, I doubt we would even recognize the proposed forms that will exist at the end of our lifetimes. We are currently trapped in an iron age paradigm of social organization, and are unable to see the kinds of solutions that will seem obvious to future generations freed from arbitrary hierarchy. The fundamental inequality of human beings is an axiom of governance. It has been for 5,000 years. In every conceivable way, we have blown past the primitive tools and technologies of antiquity, except with regard to social organization.

The primary value of the current ideas, in my opinion, is not that they will provide us with the long term patterns that human society will trend towards. They may get us started, but more importantly, they will seed the next generation of models and experiments for social and economic interaction. These in turn, along with the current blueprints, will seed the next generation, and all of these ideas will collectively seed the next.

Each subsequent human generation will be raised in a world that is increasingly aware of alternative means of social organization and increasingly intolerant of the violent, historical forms of human interaction.

The result will be a Cambrian explosion of ideas, models and experiments for social organization and an explosion in the number of humans who’ve lived lives free (or nearly so) of institutional violence. This rapid proliferation of ideas is the analog to the rapid spread of understanding of the natural world and increase in technological innovation during the recession of religion during the enlightenment.

With the creativity of billions of minds working independently and collaboratively, locally and globally, on addressing–really addressing–the problems of human society, the greatest problems will fall beneath thousands of competing and cooperating solutions.

We can’t even begin to imagine how fantastic that world would seem to us.

The Bikecast Episode #25: From Here to There, Dispelling Illusion and Golden Moments

Mankind are more disposed to suffer, while evils are sufferable, than to right themselves by abolishing the forms to which they are accustomed. – Declaration of Independence

Continuing the thoughts from the last bikecast: positive social change doesn’t require the affirmation of everyone or even the majority. Most people are content to live under a given social system as long as they have access to basic necessities and the system doesn’t interfere overly in their enjoyment of life–I realize this is broadly defined, but speaking broadly, as Jefferson rightly notes, people prefer social stability to revolution.

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The Large Effect of Small Minorities

This preference will always work in favor of the status quo. Currently, it means that despite global war, crumbling infrastructure, ongoing environmental calamity, massive debt, a collapsing economy, wholesale theft of public wealth by the corporate capitalist class, all funded by a broad spectrum of theft from the working classes and all backed up by an enormous police state, most citizens are content to pretend that the current regime is legitimate, necessary, and even good.

On the positive side, once the state is gone, there will be the same resistance to undergo a period of chaos and uncertainty to reestablish it–especially given the increased wealth that comes from peace and freedom for corporate ownership.

Again, hearkening back to the last bikecast, historically, a small minority of people, as long as their numbers are growing, has been sufficient to end state support of objectionable practices. When the writing is on the wall, nobody leaps to the front of a movement faster than the government, both to take credit for social progress and to diffuse the radical movements that brought about that progress.

This tendency, combined with the cost of enforcement and the threat of political instability can push the state out of enforcement of a policy with only a small number of people actively agitating for it[1].

Golden Moments

In the podcast, I refer to the “golden moment” when a critical mass of the population stops supporting a given regime’s use of violence. In it’s most dramatic form, this can include the refusal of the police or the military to follow orders–usually to fire on unarmed people. It is in these moments, with all legitimized violence temporarily absent, that a society can reinvent itself.

Historically, at these times, various political factions vie for military/police support and/or a popular mandate. Upon their ascension, the new rulers take control of the land and the people and the golden moment has passed.

In the future, a sufficient number of the people present will understand the necessity of societal organization free of violence. It will be during one of these moments that the minority will sway the majority to establish a society of equals.

The closest we, as a species, have come to this is probably the founding of the united states. There, the ruling class had to push for decades to get a legal framework in place to control the population. As part of convincing the people to support their own subjugation, some of the most cogent arguments for the necessity of protecting the individual from the state were made.

In the end, as we know, white male financiers, merchants, and military men were able to take control of the country. A mere two hundred years later, the country founded in the 18th century spans the globe as the most violent and oppressive nation-state of all time. This demonstrates, conclusively, that no hierarchical society can be crafted which will check the power of the ruling class.

Between these golden moments are countless smaller, personal moments where the decision must be made about how a relationship will be structured or a problem approached. Every time that non-violence is chosen, those concerned are consulted as peers, and consensus sought, community is formed, individual strengths are identified, and a sustainable solution is likely achieved.

When violence is chosen, resentment is stoked. People don’t respond well to having their humanity repressed in order to make them malleable objects under the control of another. The problem addressed violently does not have a sustainable solution. Rather, it will fester until such a time as the repressed anger can be expressed. Then, reprisals will be sought and further violence unleashed. As we know, the pendulum of violence does not stop until all parties renounce it as a means to resolving shared problems.

More on the Inevitability of a Stateless Society

Building on another point from the previous podcast, we are already in the process of moving “from here to there,” because that move is simply the discarding of the illusions that plague humankind. The homogeneity of religious belief and, to a lesser degree, of the belief in the efficacy and justness of violence as a means of social control are shattered. Where there is dissent, a safe space exists for further dissent. Where the dissent is from iron age superstitions and social systems that fail to cohere upon the most basic examination, this safe space will grow rapidly as the foolishness of the past is left behind.

This is happening rapidly in the realm of religion where opposition to religious beliefs are commonplace and supported by the reality based community. With respect to the state, progress is slower–the state has a far more pervasive propaganda system as well as an army–but the idea of living without serving a ruling class is at least an established idea. It will move from the margins to viability as an increasing number of  advocates make themselves known.

As with atheism, most of the opposition to anarchy stems from reactionary propaganda about anarchists and the consequences of a society without a state (analogous to a world without god). Positive examples of anarchism will advance the ideas into the popular discourse in the same way that positive examples of atheism has done.

All around the children of the near future will be people who rightly see religion and the state as anti-human tools for the protection of privilege and the destruction of rational discourse in social organization. They will be able to compare the world view of their cultures, religions, and political factions to those of a growing reality based community, and will find the claims that some humans should wield unbridled power over another to be sick and preposterous.

For we adults, repetition is the key, the brain will likely discount a “low-probability” claim a number of times before engaging in a deeper analysis. Once engaged, however, there are near-infinite resources to aid the honest seeker. They are footnoted and have extensive bibliographies and are updated in real time. Evidence supporting the opposing viewpoints is non-existent: here-say and rank opinion from ancient texts, superstitions, and philosophers.

Where humanity has acted on the concept of universal equality, society has flourished–slaves have been freed and women have been granted personhood. When the concept is ignored, principally in the lack of recognition that the members of the ruling class are equal to everyone else, violent dominance, warfare, and deprivation result.

Related

In the podcast, I mention Portugal as a state that legalized drugs. They’ve actually decriminalized drug use–selling drugs is still illegal. Even this half measure has had predictable benefits.

  1. [1] This isn’t a call for political action however, in the time it takes for to tear down an unjust policy, a thousand more have leapt into place and must, in turn, be opposed. My point is simply that social change doesn’t require universal buy-in.

The Bikecast Episode #24: Getting From Here to There, The Arc of History

Let us realize the arc of the moral universe is long but it bends toward justice. — Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

In this podcast, I continue with the theme of “From Here to There,” with a look at the big picture, the “arc of the moral universe,” and the accumulation of information that fuels exponential growth of human knowledge and the corresponding shedding of illusions and heightened moral clarity.

Download this episode of the bikecast

The bending of the arc of history, I propose, coincides with the increased ability to encode information in such a way that it can withstand the rigors of time to serve as a record for the analysis of later generations.

As ideas are encoded, copied, compared, modified and spread, those corresponding to reality and resulting in advancement and flourishing will drive out those that fail by these criteria.

As an example, even a medium as fragile as paper was enough to encode sufficient writings from the classical western world to ignite, or at least propel, the renaissance and the enlightenment [1].

My claim is that, once an idea is captured on a sufficient number of decipherable media, we can guarantee that it will have a chance at future evaluation. Thus, the idea that knowledge comes from favoring evidence from the physical world over the conclusions of of human reasoning survived in the writings of Aristotle. When brought back to the west, the truth value of Aristotle’s proposed manner of understanding the world swept back into widespread acceptance aiding the rediscovery of the scientific method.

Now, the premise that “all humans are equal” has gained evidentiary as well as moral grounding and has been encoded countless times in countless media. Wherever/whenever the ideas of human equality encounter societies in which a sufficiently frustrated majority are held captive to a supposedly superior minority, the traditional forms of social organization will not stand.

The ideas and evidence for the sustainability and societal superiority of equality, freedom, and nonviolence have been established, encoded, and distributed so widely that they will survive any purge or dark age that could possibly occur (may it never be!). This underlies my claim that, after some number of collapses of the dominant violent power structure(s), these ideas and the history of the implementation (and more often and disastrously, their non-implementation) will provide a sufficient basis for non-hierarchical societies to form. Once this process begins, it will be subject to the exponential growth that successful technologies and organizational structures undergo in human society.

Even today, with imperial collapse looming, these notions are rapidly spreading because of their clear practicality and liberating nature. Each additional person who examines these ideas and sees their role in a just and non-violent world becomes a vector for these ideas in their communities.

Hopefully, they will spread widely enough quickly enough. There are always cries for an increase in violence and an increase in the disparity of power between the rulers and the subjects. When the current social structure fails, there must be a critical mass of people calling for an end to dominance based social orders. If this is not the case, a new hierarchical society of some sort will be built on the ashes of the old, and the process will begin again. This next time, however, there will be an expansive, highly redundant and variably scoped set of records, accounts, and ideas for future opponents of hierarchical social orders.

Sounds Like the Arc of History is Really Damn Long

I understand this doesn’t sound hopeful. With the majority of the west believing in God and the necessity of violent hierarchy for social order, the peaceful world that we imagine seems impossibly far away.

It may be so. However, these types of societal changes tend to explode out of kernels of social enlightenment. I talk about this more in the next podcast (I think), but the span of time between the first meeting of abolitionists and the end of slave-states in the western hemisphere is less than 100 years. The time between Martin Luther proposed the Doctrine of the Two Kingdoms
and governments with the separation of church and state as a founding principle was less than 200 years.

An additional hopeful factor is the degree of popular buy-in that is required for societal change. It’s very small. There’s no need to convince everyone that, for example, all people are equal and that, therefore, slavery is immoral. All that’s necessary is to get the state to stop subsidizing slavery. The cost of controlling a human being is extraordinary. Without the police, military and legal system providing support at community expense for slavery (i.e. without a slave-state), slavery quickly ends.

The majority of white people in the early 19th century were likely neutral or in favor of the continuation of slavery–after all, if slaves were freed, social upheaval and eventual societyal collapse were inevitable (sound familiar?). Nevertheless a combination of state self-interest and the spread of abolitionist ideas by a small-but-growing group of clear-eyed human beings brought about the end of the western slave-state.

Without a state providing coercion, mandatory religious affiliation is also impossible. It’s prohibitively expensive for the church to compel an entire population to participate in their activities–the cost far outweighs any tithe that could be stolen. For this reason, a society without a state sponsored church doesn’t experience religious homogeneity.

When the idea that the church and state should be disassociated was first put into practice, the majority of people probably would have been in favor of a political mandate that their particular religion be the one true faith in a legally compelling way. Again the small but growing sentiment that governance should be divorced from superstition was able to prevent the state from supporting a particular church, ending compulsory religion.

The arc of history is clarity driving out illusion. It’s the replacing of false beliefs that lead to stagnation and despair with truths that lift up, ennoble and invigorate all of humanity allowing for increasingly complex and beneficial technologies and modes of social organization to be put into practice. This process is rapidly accelerating and cannot be stopped. It’s simply a question of “how long?” No matter what the answer, it’s too long.

  1. [1] I note in the podcast that many of the scrolls that survived burning, theft and entropy are lists of works that no longer exist. For example, there are 123 recorded plays by Sophocles, only 7 of which survive. Only 1/3 of Aristotle’s work survive to the modern day. Oh, and Archimedes was not cataloged there, but his writings were also mostly lost.

I also included the audio from this clip in the podcast. This guy–I have no idea who he is–may be a transhumanist. He’s a little over the top, but I find myself striking the same notes many times.

The Bikecast Episode #23: Getting from Here to There, Global Guerrillas

I’m more concerned about the state of transition – how do we get from where we are to where we want to be? This transitional state could last anywhere from decades to thousands of years. I largely agree with your stance when it comes to a stable society of rational, kind, post-religious humans. But getting there will be hugely difficult.

This comment kicked off a number of days of thinking about “Getting From Here to There.” Transitioning from violently coercive social structures founded on superstition and bigotry to a society of peers with no person in institutionalized control of another.

I don’t have a strong opinion about the exact course of events, but it’s interesting to think about and it’s pretty amazing the scope and depth of ideas–some actually being put into practice–that exist around the various levels of this topic.

I say, “various levels,” because the transition can be examined on all levels, from the personal to the global. How did “we” get from monarchic governance to corporate governance or from slave states to a world in which overt slavery is, mostly, abhorrent? How did we transition from a species in which females were owned by males to one in which female equality is the majority opinion worldwide? These event have narratives with individual, local and global scopes.

In most respects, I believe we’re mostly swept along by events, like a kayak in a flood stage river. We can make very small local choices that affect our disposition relative to the current of events, but we have very little control over the big picture.

I’m convinced that the destination is a “society of rational, kind, post-religious humans.” This end is inevitable given continued human existence–for more detail, check out Episode #7a: Human Futures, The Race Between Complexity and Chaos and Episode #7b: Human Futures, Inevitable Ideas.

At the level of global events, or the factors that, with or without our consent, will move us from here to there, I feel comfortable making a handful of predictions and outlining some likely scenarios. As far as the likely institutions and types of human organizations that are in existence or will come into existence throughout the emergence of a non-hierarchical society, I’ll point to some ideas and existing movements that make sense to me. As to the long term, I have some strong opinions about the aspects of present-day humanity that will explode into full expression and those that will fade away, never to return.

I hit on all these topics and more in the next couple bikecasts.


Download this episode of the bikecast


Just before recording the first “From Here to There” bikecast, I stumbled across an interview with John Robb and his blog Global Guerrillas.

John’s claim to fame is that he predicted the failure of western military tactics to secure Iraq and Afghanistan for western purposes. He did so in the language of modern business: he claims that guerrilla groups are using

open source organizational models (drawn from the software industry), networked super-empowerment (freely available high tech tools, network information access, connections to a globalized economy), and systems disruption (the targeting of critical points on infrastructure networks that cause cascading failures) to defeat even the most powerful of opponents, even a global superpower.

He further claims that the western powers will be compelled to engage in radical austerity measures by the holders of sovereign debt. This is the model imposed on Argentina after their financial crisis and, more recently, on the bankrupt government of Greece.

These austerity measures will require the weakening and removal of social safety nets, police “protection” and other state services. Into this vacuum, something most go. Either it will be . “the predations of gangs, militias, and corrupt bureaucracies” or locally organized communities providing their own essential services and engaging with the rest of the world on their own terms–as peers rather than subjects or citizens.

This sounds alot like the ideas of agorists, mutualists, and syndacalists who favor worker controlled businesses, unregulated interactions between free agents, and a networked, prosperous humanity–in contrast, for example, with primitivists or survivalists who favor isolation and heavy armament during any coming societal upheaval.

From my limited exposure, I don’t believe John Robb is an anarchist and his political views are fairly conventional. However, he’s one of the most mainstream voices I’ve heard who is aware of and speaking about the reorganization of the western world that will inevitably come. Of those voices, he’s one of the even fewer hopeful voices that understands that the disintegration of a state has little to do with the well being of its subjects, so long as a critical mass is practically and philosophically prepared for the transition.