Introit for the Third Sunday in Lent

Mine eyes are ever looking unto the Lord, for he shall pluck my feet out of the net: look thou upon me, and have mercy upon me, for I am desolate and in misery.
Unto thee, O Lord, do I lift up my soul: my God, in thee have I trusted; let me not be confounded.
Glory be to the Father, and to the Son, and to the Holy Ghost; as it was in the beginning, is now, and ever shall be, world without end. Amen.

Monday, October 14, 2013

Christianity and Anarchism, Part III: The Collapse of the American Experiment

I'm advancing a rather more controversial theory in this piece than usual, so I'd like, correspondingly, to take more trouble to emphasize that I do so as an amateur. I learn rather slowly, but I am open to learning, and I ask readers and commenters to have both facts in mind.

Now then, on to offending people.

That oughta do it.

The Pledge of Allegiance, the Constitution, and the high school civics class that none of us paid attention to, set forth for our belief that our country is a democratic republic. Our essential concept of governance is self-governance; our mode of governance, rather than direct democracy, is through elected representatives. We thus combine liberty with order and individuality with stability. This was really the whole point of the Founding Fathers' endeavor in declaring us an independent nation: to create, for perhaps the first time in history, a country that really ruled itself.

It was a noble experiment. I posit that that experiment has ended, and that it has ended in failure.

It would be easy, if time consuming, to run through the petty, face-saving dishonesty of literally everything that every politician and press agent says; it would be even easier to merely list the number of unelected and unwanted governmental agencies, even without going into the ways they meddle incessantly with our daily lives and, for some people, make them effectively unlivable; easiest of all, maybe, to point out the current hypocrisy and destructive self-regard of both the White House and Congress* in refusing to arrive at any type of compromise, while collecting the paychecks they have very effectively blocked others from receiving, because they are too stubborn to concede anything at all, even provisionally and for the sake of the American people -- especially those who depend upon the government for their livelihoods and even their health. But I don't really have the expertise to treat that in detail; and besides, it is the special vice of the state to make corruption and incompetence dull as well as destructive. At least other kinds of evil make a bit of a bang with it.

The point doesn't lie in any one instance of corruption or stupidity, though. It doesn't even lie in the trend. Many anarchists espouse anarchism because of the actual corruption of governments, without stopping to consider that states are made of people, and behave that way -- a stateless society would not solve the problem of the human heart.

No: the problem lies in what we consider the state to be. It's a problem of Us versus Them. Them should be Us, but they're not. Take it from an extremely, a seemingly inordinately personal perspective for a moment. Do you actually know the President? How about your Senators? Your Representatives? The members who represent you in your state's own government? Local government? Do you even know their names?**

Self-government means self-government. When it starts meaning something else, when it starts meaning "This person I don't know can have free rein to handle my affairs," self-government has ceased to exist. This has not only happened in America, it has happened so totally as to be, in all likelihood, irrevocable. When once it has become not only acceptable, but natural and even expected, that a minority of voters shall actually vote, and that an even smaller proportion shall dictate the outcome of an election (regardless of office), self-government is dead. The mass of people have handed over their crowns, to be watched by the public guardsmen while they slumber. (Who put them to sleep is a different question, which need not for the moment detain us.)

The experiment of classical Liberalism has failed; we do not govern ourselves any more than our seventeenth-century ancestors did. One difference is that our ancestors knew quite clearly that they didn't govern themselves, and could tell you who did govern them; another is that their governors, amid all their own corruption and incompetence, at least had style.

A statist and a womanizer, but damn the man had class.

There are, at this juncture, two directions we can go in. 

One, which is the direction I think Liberalism logically leads into, is the Anarchist approach properly so-called. Unlike the other schools of thought (such as Communism) that formed largely in response to the French Revolution and its consequents, Anarchy puts no more trust in a supposedly revolutionary state than in its monarchic or republican*** predecessor. Well, let us suppose that, whether by violence or through a massive withdrawal of obedience on the part of the people -- non-violent civil resistance, which Gandhi practiced to such great effect in India -- the state has ceased to exist. What then replaces it? Strictly speaking, nothing. Actual communities -- not arbitrarily created districts, but organic communities -- govern themselves, according to their own needs and choices.

Okay, maybe "needs" was a strong word.

The difficulties with such a scheme are many, and I intend to deal with them at greater length in my next. The only difficulty I will cite here is that nobody will do this. Everybody will say, "Oh, wouldn't that be nice," and then dismiss it as completely impracticable. To that particular critique, Emma Goldman made a very intelligent reply:

"What, then are the objections? First, Anarchism is impractical, though a beautiful ideal. ... A practical scheme, says Oscar Wilde, is either one already in existence, or a scheme that could be carried out under the existing conditions; but it is exactly the existing conditions that one objects to, and any scheme that could accept these conditions is wrong and foolish. The true criterion of the practical, therefore, is not whether the latter can keep intact the wrong or foolish; rather it is whether the scheme has vitality enough to leave the stagnant waters of the old, and build, as well as sustain, new life." -- Anarchism: What It Really Stands For, p. 49

That is not in itself an argument for Anarchy, as opposed to either Despotism or (ostensible) Democracy. But it is, in my opinion, a proper framing of what the argument is about.

The alternative to Anarchy, in the aftermath of the American experiment, is Monarchy. And that is what we will almost certainly adopt. Over and over again, and without necessarily losing their enthusiasm for individual liberty as a way of life, human societies return to one form or another of Monarchy. (Most likely, as post-Republican Rome did in the years leading into the Empire, we shall do so with a full facade of continuing institutions whose real powers and purposes change completely -- as, some would argue, all the major branches of our government already have done.)

Dozens of reasons could be cited for this perennial monarchic tendency: revisiting Oscar Wilde, who said that the trouble with Socialism was that it left you with no free evenings, the same comment could be made about all forms of self-government, whether direct or indirect. Monarchy allows ordinary people to get on with their ordinary lives, rather than bothering about the fiddly needs of the commonwealth -- and that is a good thing as well as a bad thing. Monarchy, as I have touched on, characteristically displays patronage of the arts and sciences, and is in general a more beautiful and romantic thing than unmodified republican government, allowing loyalty and courtesy to flourish in a way democracies rarely manage. Monarchy, contrary to popular American belief, does not actually display itself to be reliably worse than any other form of government. Indeed, G. K. Chesterton pointed out in What's Wrong With the World that Monarchism is very democratic in sentiment, at least where it has not been infected with the notion of Divine Right: Democracy is the notion that every man can rule, he says, while Monarchy is the notion that any man can rule.

But even from a strictly revolutionary -- nay, from an entirely Anarchist -- point of view, the Monarchist state has one decided advantage over the state run by an elected committee. A committee is harder to catch than a king.

*I decline categorically to play the blame game as to the Democratic Party and the GOP. I consider both bodies equally reprehensible in this matter; and in any case, my approach to them is to wish a pox on both their houses.

**To those of you who have your hands up, put them down. First of all, you are filthy liars, and second, local government is marginally less important to daily life than the return policy at the supermarket.

***Republican, not in the sense of resembling the GOP in some way, but in the sense of operating on principles of representation, election, and official power, in contrast to the principles of suzerainty, inheritance, and personal power that may be loosely said to characterize monarchies and aristocracies.


  1. Since you've been kind enough to tolerate my questions on masculinity, here's another one that likely to be troubling. You speak of "organic" communities. After a half-century of post-civil rights culture and legal change, we remain a greatly segregated-by-race country, I'd be curious if your ruminations have assessed the role that race would play in such post-American groups.

    1. They haven't. To call my ruminations elementary and tentative would be a somewhat extravagant compliment. About race relations, and their history in this country specifically, I am as ignorant as the next man, with perhaps the sole distinction being that I am just familiar enough with history and historiography to have a guess at the vast scope of my ignorance.

      To the extent (an extent I have no intent of defining, because I just don't know) that racial conflict and racially defined communities exist in our current state of affairs, I imagine they would transfer into an anarchist society. And that might easily lead to inter-societal conflicts; it might, also, lead to some communities having a chance to stay out of one another's hair and gladly availing themselves of that chance, but there's no guarantee of either outcome.