Monday, November 22, 2004

Notes on political philosophy: did someone say anarchy?

If you were paying close attention to my previous note on political philosophy, you noticed that I likened left-leaning libertarians to anarchists.

Yes indeedy, I meant anarchists. In my continuing quest to envision alternate political futures for America and the world, this note on political philosophy will bring to my adoring public's attention that little-known but much maligned movement known as social anarchism.

First, I 'll refer you to the extensive online FAQ on social anarchism. I'll make no attempt to try to encompass the far reach of this rather extensive document. Instead, I'll offer a brief introduction and overview.

According to the authors of the FAQ just mentioned, social anarchism is a political movement and personal lifestyle characterized by a promotion of 'community, self-reliance, direct participation in political decision-making, respect for nature [not sure how they snuck this one in there -- but I'm not complaining] and a nonviolent approach to peace and justice.'

So, apparently, it's not just anarchy -- chaos.

In terms of the political compass (see my previous note on political philosophy), this movement falls squarely within the lower left quadrant of the grid -- libertarian with respect to attitudes on authority and left of center with respect to economic approach. The social anarchists take pains to distance themselves from the more run-of-the-mill right wing libertarians of the U.S., although it's readily apparent that they share many common features.

The motivating idea is not to have a lawless state in constant turmoil, but rather to give the individual person maximum freedom and maximum participation in the political process. In the ideal anarchist society, individuals would be substantially self-policing. Authority would be largely irrelevant and unnecessary due to the strong ethos of tolerance, self-control and respect that would pervade the community.

You're probably thinking, 'this will never work in the real world.' I'm inclined to agree with you. But still, couldn't this be an ideal to aim for? Wouldn't it be possible to at least move toward a more libertarian and more community-based world?

Social anarchists are also strongly anti-capitalist. The idea here is that corporate capitalism is far too hierarchical and authoritarian. It unfairly concentrates power in the hands of the wealthy few. It certainly is the case that the large corporation -- granted the rights of persons even though a legal fiction -- has too much sway over American politics. On the other hand, I don't think social anarchists should contemplate getting rid of the free market. I could support a market where the players were small worker-owned collectives, individual proprietors or community enterprises. In other words, why not a free market without the capitalism?

It is unlikely that social anarchism will catch on anytime soon, especially under that name. But perhaps in small ways, it could be put into practice -- in fact, in some areas it already is in practice:

For example, witness the open-source software phenomenon. I was first made aware of the social anarchism FAQ because an version of the document was included in the distribution of Linux (Debian GNU/Linux) that I'm currently running on my home computer. Here we have a voluntary association of programmers and others who work collaboratively to create an operating system and applications that far surpass either Windows or Mac in stability and functionality (albeit, at a slight cost in glitz). What's more, this software is available for FREE -- in many cases, free of charge, but in all cases, FREE as in FREEDOM of SPEECH.

Many liberal-minded people are becoming increasingly alarmed at the longer and longer reach of copyright and patents. Ideas and knowledge that should be the common heritage of all citizens of Earth are being commodified and controlled. This is akin to a restriction on freedom of speech. As an alternative to this, witness such phenomena as Creative Commons, 'copyleft' and the GNU Free Documentation License. All of these schemes seek to preserve what's best about copyright (giving credit where credit is due) while also preserving the free expression of ideas and the free exchange of knowledge and said ideas. All of this is yet another aspect of social anarchism.

Okay, so maybe we'd better not call it social anarchism. Perhaps libertarian socialism, or if you're like most Americans and find the word 'socialism' unpalatable, then social libertarianism.

Whatever you call it, it means individual self-determination, a direct voice in community governance, freedom of speech, equality and a fair distribution of the fruits of production.

What else could we do? Here are some wild ideas to consider: What if each and every one of us could vote on the bills that our legislatures currently take charge of? It seems entirely feasible in an internet-connected world. Or, even better, what if you could say exactly how your share of the tax burden is spent? For example, if I am a pacifist, I could include in my tax return directions that none of my tax dollars be spent on the military.

All of this may be a daydream. But we have to start somewhere.

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