Posts Tagged ‘ RoBATs

Multinational Corporations: The Roving Band of Armed Thugs Argument Writ Large

I’ve introduced Jim Rigby in a post before. He’s a thought provoking writer and an open-minded conversationalist. He posted recently in support of a Noam Chomsky article. I responded to the shared post on Facebook (I think it’s a public post). In short, I’m responding to Chomsky’s point, reiterated in Jim’s article, that the state is the correct means to keep corporate power in check:

. . . the idea that increasing the power of the state would somehow decrease the power of the corporations that are protected and funded by the state requires some explanation at the least. To imagine that by voting, petitioning, protesting, etc., the government can be made to protect people from concentrations of capital and privilege requires deviating from all historical precedent . . .

Skipping down a bit to where Jim responds, with his usual politeness:

Jad, I am certainly happy to discuss where we disagree. I just didn’t want seem like your excellent arguments were unwelcome. I see corporations as concentrated private power. They are undemocratic and so unaccountable to the people. The state may create the legal definition of a corporation, but those private powers would still exist if we were to shut down the US government tonight. It is true that a corporation like Monsanto would not have to go through the charade of getting around government regulations, and they wouldn’t get government funding were there no government, but they wouldn’t not whither and die in my opinion. I believe they would simply take what they want as they do all over the world where governments are weak and cannot protect their people. If like some foreign corporations they hire their own private army, there would nothing to stand against them. However bad our situation is in the States, it is infinitely worse in nations where corporations are stronger than the local governments. The smaller the government the more tactics like capital flight make it impossible for people to collectively stand against corporate tyranny.

Here beginneth the actual post:

The power of concentrated corporate wealth is astounding, terrifying, and is a daily menace to the well being of humans all across the globe. No informed person with any empathy or degree of integrity can defend the existence of these behemoths who are, as you rightly note, undemocratic and unaccountable to . . . well, anybody–other than, perhaps a heavily invested shareholder.

It’s true, as well, that, were the United States government shut down tonight, Monsanto wouldn’t simply go away. But it would begin a very rapid decline. Contrariwise, since the US government isn’t likely to shut down any time soon, Monsanto will continue to grow in size and strength. Even if GMO’s fall out of favor, Monsanto has reinvented itself before (after DDT and PCBs became unpopular). It’s essential to understand that the unimaginable amounts of capital that Monsanto and the few thousand largest corporations have gathered didn’t come to them overnight. It’s been assembled, almost entirely through political means and specifically war profiteering, over the last 100 years.

One paragraph, super-brief history: After it’s founding at the turn of the 20th century, Monsanto grew rapidly as the fledgling American Empire found the need to assemble and enshrine a domestic chemical manufacturing base as it faced war with its suppliers in Europe. As the American war machine grew and spread around the world, Monsanto was contracted by the United States government to help develop the nuclear bomb and build the cold war nuclear arsenal. They also made a fortune selling DDT which the US military sprayed all over in Europe and the South Pacific to protect invading soldiers from disease. Monsanto was also an important manufacturer of Agent Orange during Vietnam. Despite not having almost no success in creating products for consumers, Monsanto has become one of the largest concentrations of wealth on the planet.

Besides channeling wealth from the working class to the war profiteers, the federal government provides key protections without which Monsanto and its ilk would quickly disintegrate. Perhaps the most important is protection for intellectual property. The United States legal system and enforcement apparatus recognizes Monsanto’s absolute ownership of certain genetic patterns. Independent farmers using non-GMO seeds are sued and have their land and products seized when Monsanto crops cross-pollinate. Other farmers who choose to stay out of the Monsanto GMO supply chain face a constant threat of losing their livelihood should an unfortunate wind blow.

The decisions of legal system are enforced, not by the private armies that you fear, but by federal agents. US corporations get their private armies, intelligence services (CIA) and diplomatic corps (State Department) without even having to pay for them. The relevant power dynamic isn’t between the corporation and the weak national governments, as you mention above, but between the weak national governments and the US government. Monsanto has an “in” anywhere around the world where the US government has influence over the local government. This global enforcement of “free trade” is paid for by the working class here at home, while the corporations reap the profits and the poor around the world suffer the side-effects.

Click to enlarge: An unweildy but informative graphic showing the degree of “regulatory capture” Monsanto holds over the Federal state.

Corporate concentrations of capital and power do not obtain despite government interference; they would not have been achieved without government interference. Precisely the same is true for most of the monstrosities that sit astride the chest of humanity: GE, Dow Chemical (very similar trajectory to Monsanto), Exxon, Shell, General Motors, and so on.

This is not to say that everything produced by chemical processes and industrial manufacture is a priori bad. The organic nature of production for things of general (accountable, democratic) use to humanity is extraordinarily decentralized. This is wonderful for consumers, who can hold small, localized entities to account, but terrible for a centralized, militarized state, who needs single points of audit and control to drive industry in particular ways.

Gabriel Kolko demonstrates this rigorously in The Triumph of Conservatism. His evidence was among the most important in convincing me that there was no golden age of government regulation. The history of regulation is the history of eliminating small, local businesses and manufacture to assist in the ascendency of todays awful multi-national corporations.

If you’ve read this far looking for a reference to The Roving Band of Armed Thugs Argument, there it is. In short, a common argument for the necessity of a centralized, powerful monopoly on violence is that, without it, we’d be overwhelmed by crudely armed bad actors (roving bands of armed thugs). Because of that abstract (and fairly absurd theory), most folks put up with, encourage and pay for roving bands of armed thugs which actually are a plague in most metropolitan area (the police) and around the world (the US military). Similarly, in the name of preventing unaccountable accumulations of private wealth, most folks put up with encourage and pay for an agency of force that expropriates or destroys small accumulations of wealth and channels the resources, protections, and patronage into a few hands. Thus, in both cases, people are bamboozled into accepting something precisely the opposite of the actual solution to the problem they imagine.

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.


Download this episode of the bikecast

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]

Download this episode of the bikecast

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