Sunday, December 19, 2010

My respectability vs. their legitimacy

Over the past few years, I've been conversing with a bunch of anarchists, and have come to accept their basic arguments. Anarchists have a bad reputation, so I've been using a pseudonym for these online conversations. In fact, I now use the name Ricketson (from Benjamin Ricketson Tucker) in all my online political discussions, though this is simply because I prefer that a Google search of my real name points to my professional writings and not my political opinions.

The core doctrine of anarchism is that all coercive power, particularly the state, is illegitimate and should be resisted. As such, it can be difficult to support anarchist causes while maintaining respectability in mainstream society, where state power is generally taken for granted and is often considered an essential part of a good society. On top of that social pressure, there is also the fact that anarchists position themselves directly at odds with an institution that regularly deprives people of property, liberty, and life; so associating with anarchists brings some physical risks, and it is very important for anarchists to know what actions will provoke the state to action and stay within those bounds.

Fortunately, the USA and its citizens are generally tolerant of abstract political opinions, so there is a lot of room for advocacy of anarchic social reforms. However, anarchists necessarily push the limits of that tolerance in their attacks on the legitimacy of the state and its laws. If laws of the state are illegitimate, then interfering with the enforcement of those laws is implicitly legitimate, as long as the circumstances are appropriate.

However, not all law-breaking is the same. Anarchist "direct action" can come in the form of scofflawry*, civil disobedience, and outright resistance against the enforcers of the law. Anarchists are safe as long as their opposition to the law is kept abstract (even the American Declaration of Independence advocates the right to resist the state), but they could get in hot water if they were to support particular acts of resistance. Even if they stay within the formal limits of the law, they would risk attracting the attention of law enforcement agencies and facing extra-legal harassment from these powerful groups. I've got a family to support, and don't want to go there.

The recent brouhaha surrounding Wikileaks illustrates these dynamics. For details, go to Wikileaks Watch at the Ruling Class Blog, but there are two important points relevant to the topic of this essay: first, a person who says "the wrong thing" can be targeted for extra-legal harassment by the USA; second, reciprocal harassment of the state and its allies will be taken very seriously by the state.

The harassment of Wikileaks is a prime example of extra-legal (i.e. no due process) harassment in response to "saying the wrong thing". Following their publication of a whole bunch of slightly confidential documents, Wikileaks' website suffered a denial-of-service attack, law enforcement agencies effectively froze several accounts associated with Wikileaks, and several high profile politicians called for extra-legal action to be taken against Wikileaks.

In response to this harassment, several of the instigators and collaborators have been themselves targeted for similar harassment, such as denial-of-service attacks on their websites. This has sparked debate among anarchists over whether this counter-harassment is justified. Some of the rhetoric has made me question whether I can openly associate with these people (for instance, by making a donation) and maintain my mainstream respectability (i.e. avoid unwanted attention from powerful institutions).

It's one thing to make abstract arguments for breaking the law; it's another to provide moral support for people who are breaking a specific law as we speak. The difference is even greater when the law-breakers are physically interfering with another person's activities (an "attack", in the broadest sense of the word).

Finally, the justification of the law-breaking is important. The DoS attacks by "Anonymous" are often portrayed as Civil Disobedience; such cases are treated as limited threats by the established powers, but they can still be met with substantial retaliation. However, if the attacks are viewed as resistance (i.e. an attempt to directly block the exercise of power) , the full power of the state will be brought against the lawbreakers and their supporters. In this case, Anonymous has really escalated the seriousness of the Wikileaks situation. Compare the "Civil Disobedience - Resistance" of Anonymous with the "Scofflawry - Civil Disobedience" of Wikileaks. It isn't even clear that Wikileaks did anything illegal, but there is no doubt that the acts of Anonymous are illegal. Furthermore, Anonymous has a clear victim. This type of escalation had better be necessary, or else I am going to stay a mile away.

Through my associations with anarchists, I have been comforted by those who swear off confrontation, insisting that their goal is to expose the illegitimacy of the state and start building the institutions that will replace the state. Not only do I believe that they make an important point about what is the most productive strategy for improving society, but I feel comfortable that associating with such people will not bring me to the attention of the police.

I hope this doesn't sound like I'm whining about how hard it is for me to contribute to "the cause"; I did not write this to make excuses for myself or belittle those who have shouldered the responsibility for developing and communicating anarchist ideas. I just want to make a small point about the tactics of a political movement -- if we want to gain mainstream influence, then mainstream people need to feel comfortable associating with us.

*I believe that I have coined the term "scofflawry". Is there a better term for the habit of evading law enforcement? Scofflawry is a bit awkward, but is conveniently parallel to outlawry.

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