Saturday, August 06, 2011

The value of radical political thought

the conservative presumption
conceptual limit: ideals
conceptual limit: the ambiguity of tradition
contextual limit: the existence of problems
contextual limit: the sustainability of the status quo

Gary Chartier recently tried to outline how the state harms the most vulnerable members of society ("Should Bleeding Hearts Be Anarchists?"). The post was basically a "hit-and-run", lacking any substantial explanation or examples, and the comment thread was largely a muddle of semantic ambiguity and unsupported assertions about moral values. However, one of the arguments against anarchism stood out as being worth a considered response:

Damien S. wrote:
The anarchist bears the burden because the anarchist is arguing for change, radical change even. I can look around the world and see dozens of states that are pleasant though not perfect places to live in. The anarchist brings no such evidence to the table.
This is essentially the conservative case against any radicalism. Or rather, it is the conservative presumption against radicalism. It is a rule of thumb that helps to generate good strategies, as long as circumstances don't clearly demand alternative strategies. On its own, it is quite reasonable, but it also has very limited applicability, which I wish to explore here. I hope to provide an explanation for why it is worthwhile to give serious consideration to radical ideas, even if this conservative presumption is itself taken seriously.

As a preliminary note, the conservative presumption is not the only good presumption out there. In particular, I consider it to be equal to the libertarian presumption. Here's how I phrase the two:
  • Conservative: If there is no problem, don't change anything.
  • Libertarian: If a person is causing no harm, don't interfere with his actions.
Clearly, in a somewhat authoritarian/communitarian society like ours, these two principles are often at odds. For instance, the libertarian presumption would weigh in favor of decriminalizing drugs, whereas the conservative presumption would favor continuation of the existing policy (assuming that the drug war has no substantial problems). However, this tension is not insurmountable, and can be resolved with compromises such as incremental decriminalization resulting in a heavily taxed and regulated drug market. The two presumptions can even reinforce each other; in America, this is most prominently seen in the arguments over gun-control.

With that being said, I'd like to consider the limits of the conservative presumption on its own merits, and how this affects our interaction with radical political ideas such as anarchism.

The first limitation is that the presumption only applies to actions and institutions, not to thoughts and ideas. The fact that the state exists does not mean that we have to accept every argument put forth extolling its benefits, even if those arguments have seeped into mainstream political culture. A person is perfectly capable of holding the opinion that the state is a worthless if not dangerous institution, while still going to work and paying taxes; the conservative presumption encourages us to continue acting like a "responsible citizen" regardless of these theoretical conclusions. A convinced anarchist does not have to seek constitutional reforms that would undermine state power (as if an anarchist would consider this line of activism worthwhile to begin with), nor does the anarchist need to assassinate state agents or instigate riots.1

The second limit on the conservative presumption is that it does not always indicate that one course of action is preferred over another. This is most obvious when we are seeking a solution for a problem that has never been seen before: if both solutions are novel, then we will have to evaluate them on the basis of other criteria, such as which one most favors one's ideals. More subtly, this limit arises when it is impossible to truly maintain traditional arrangements, and we are forced to chose between two aspects of the status quo. An example of this is the American Civil War, where the southerners were faced with either the abolition of slavery or rebellion against the USA. This sort of limit is also encountered when we consider the diversity of traditional behaviors; for instance, America has always been a "government of law", yet many Americans have openly or covertly resisted laws that they deemed unjust or misguided. Examples include the fugitive slave laws, alcohol prohibition, the military draft, Jim Crow laws, and laws against homosexuality. Once these scofflaws are recognized as part of the American tradition (indeed, they are heroes of American history), it becomes less than clear that an anarchist is encouraging radical behavior when he asserts that we have no obligation to obey bad laws.

In addition to these conceptual limits to the conservative presumption, there are also contextual limits. As I described it above, the conservative presumption assumes that there are no problems; once we encounter serious problems in our lives, the presumption against change is discarded. When the status quo is bad enough, a change may be worthwhile even if the final outcome is uncertain. Especially when a person's hardship can clearly be attributed to a particular institution, their best strategy may be to undermine that institution, even if they suspect that the elimination of their target will have sweeping and unpredictable consequences.

Many Americans may live in conditions that provide rational incentive to attack fundamental social institutions. For instance, many Americans are impoverished or in jail. Indeed, poverty and police supervision (such as incarceration) tend to be focused in particular cities and neighborhoods, creating an environment that justifies radicalism even among those who are not personally impoverished or in jail. Those who manage to avoid outright poverty and incarceration may still feel that the dominant institutions of our society have failed them. Living in fear of thugs and gangs, hemmed-in by a transportation system designed for the benefit of others, or condemned to malnutrition by geographical and financial inaccessibility of nutritious food-- many people have good reason to doubt that existing social institutions will allow them or their loved-ones to live fulfilling lives.

Historically, the promise of progress and the myth of democratic authority have persuaded many dissatisfied Americans to go along with the powers-that-be and relinquish control over their own lives. But over the past few decades, it has become unclear whether "progress" sill includes Americans with lower socio-economic status. Likewise, the traditional vehicles of working-class political power have withered, thereby undermining confidence that the political system is truly democratic. If people in this situation abandon faith in the authorities and take responsibility for their lives, the conservative presumption will hold little sway over them (and to address the original question -- bleeding-heart elites may want to support them).

It's worth noting that the above paragraphs refer to other people; I have lived my life comfortably in the upper half of the socio-economic scale. I feel no pressing need to change our fundamental social institutions, even if several of them limit the flourishing of myself and my peers. Presumably, most of the readers and writers at blogs like "Bleeding Heart Libertarians" have similar security. But even for the comfortable middle-class (and elite), there is good reason to seriously consider -- and even promote-- radical political ideas.

Those of us who are served well by existing institutions still need to consider the conditions under which these institutions might collapse, what sort of institutions we would build following a collapse, and how we could minimize the hardships associated with the transition from failed institutions to new ones. We need to consider these scenarios because collapse is inevitable-- all systems collapse; political/economic systems are prone to crisis every few generations, and they only survive their crises if they are substantially reformed.

Our current institutions could last for several generations more, or they could collapse in the next decade. The fact that America is "the strongest nation" should not be taken as evidence for the stability of the American system, since even powerful political systems can collapse in the space of a few years (for instance, the USSR). Furthermore, our institutions are showing signs of strain from several chronic problems, and similar troubles are faced by other liberal capitalist nations: unbalanced financial systems, natural resource depletion, high unemployment and economic stagnation, political paralysis, and frequent military interventions that fail to produce a clear victory...but could easily instigate a exhausting arms-race or devastating war.

Radical political thought prepares the American middle class for the eventual crisis that we will encounter. It helps us to avoid getting excited over false crises (such as high levels of immigration), and recognize the decisions that are likely to provoke a true crisis (such as military adventurism). It will help us to recognize when our institutions have outlived their usefulness, and prevent us from desperately clinging to them as they collapse. Overall, radical political thought will help us to prepare ourselves -- economically, socially, and emotionally-- for the inevitable transition to new social institutions that are better adapted to our current conditions and desires.

When the time comes to replace our current institutions with new ones, we will either undertake the project guided by a set of principles that will ensure the greatest opportunities for our children and grand-children, or we will cling to past glories and desperately grasp for solutions to unanticipated hardships. If America does not prepare itself with radical political theory, then it will devolve into an emotionalist mob that is easily manipulated by the empty promises and scapegoating of demagogues.

1: Of course, there are many reasons for a person to refrain from violence, regardless of ideological opinions or a unwillingness to upset the existing system. Two that come to mind immediately are first, a pacifist presumption, and second, a rational limit on how much one is willing to personally sacrifice to promote a political agenda.

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