Grasping the Nettle

Certainty and choice

In the future, intellectuals will debate at what exact point in time the United States in particular, and the world in general, entered into the present era. Perhaps it was at the turn of the century and of the millennium; more likely its roots go deeper, perhaps to the fall of the Berlin wall or the equally difficult to pinpoint 'end' of the Cold War. The irreparable structural infirmities in the foundations of American political society existed prior to September 11th, 2001. The 9/11 attacks and their aftermath go far in revealing the extent of those infirmities, but were not their cause.

What is certain is that the United States has entered into a revolutionary situation. Severe financial exigency, a failing economy, a failed foreign policy and an increasingly draconian domestic situation have combined to produce the circumstances under which a fundamental reorganization of American political society is not only desirable, but necessary; not only necessary, but inevitable.

Equally certain is that the primacy of the United States in international affairs, combined with the decreasing relevance of geographically based nation-states to the lives of the people constrained by the borders and governments of those nation-states, dictates that the revolution be international -- or, more accurately, supra-national -- in character.

I do not make these predictions lightly, nor am I an historical determinist. But while I do not believe that people are predestined to run over cliff edges, I do believe that it is possible to say with a high degree of certainty of a particular person that, having run in the direction of a cliff's edge at a certain speed, for a certain time, past a certain point, he has developed sufficient momentum that the fall is inevitable.

Anarchists and libertarians face a stark choice: to take up the banner of liberty and carry it forward, or to ignore the call of history and stand idly by as humanity plunges itself, and us with it, into a new Dark Age.

The time of decision is already upon us; no matter how distant the revolution may seem, it is in fact already occurring. There will be winners and there will be losers. Events will take their course, whether we choose to affect that course or not -- but an early and wise decision to do so enhances our prospects of victory and minimizes the likelihood that the gutters of the path we tread will run red with blood.

That last point bears reiteration: Violence is not inevitable. We have a compass -- the Zero Aggression Principle -- to guide us, and it dictates the character of our revolution. That compass will prove indispensable at the intersections on the path of revolution.

Is this an advance renunciation of armed insurrection? No, it is not. Our principles forbid us the use of gratuitous force. They forbid us the use of force against the innocent. They do not, however, shackle us in the event that the state forces the struggle down the path of violence. The revolutionist has not only the right, but the obligation -- if he intends to see the revolution through to victory -- to use such force as is required to defend that revolution and to destroy those who initiate force against it.

It is time for libertarians and anarchists to grasp the nettle -- to dedicate themselves to a struggle which will occur with or without their participation and to lay the foundations for victory in advance of its darkest days.

The organization of the revolutionary movement

This process, of course, requires at least a modicum of organization -- a concept which, while not foreign to us, is not among our strong points. When we get together, be it in meatspace or online, our primary relationships might best be described as mutually good-natured antagonisms. We like to debate; action is our short suit if it involves much in the way of scale or coordination.

How can we organize to pursue this struggle without sacrificing our shared values? How can we turn what might be seen as a handicap into an advantage? That's the issue I've been grappling with in recent months while contemplating this essay.

The answers I've come up with are not new ones. If anything, they are simple restatements of our primary characteristics as a movement: decentralization and autonomy, harnessed to common goals.

The common goals, of course, are themselves subject to debate, and what the freedom movement needs at this juncture is a program to rally around -- a program that is principled enough to command the allegiance of the most ardent anarchist, yet 'reasonable' enough to attract the participation of principled minarchist libertarians.

It is not within the scope of this essay (which is intended as nothing more than an opening note) to provide such a program. Nor are the antagonisms between most existing anarchist and libertarian organizations conducive to the adoption of a program offered by any particular such organization. The Movement of the Libertarian Left cannot be expected to enter the Libertarian Party, or vice versa, and so on and so forth. Yet all must be appealed to!

It is my hope, within the week, to see such a program promulgated using the same methods that served Russia's 19th century revolutionists well: that is, promulgation under the auspices of a publication which has no prior affiliation of sole loyalty to any organization (although some of its members may).

This program will set goals, and ask the freedom movement to coalesce in pursuit of those goals -- while also clearly permitting the individuals and organizations doing so to preserve their personal and organizational autonomy in all respects.

Additionally, the program will call for actions to be taken by those autonomous individuals and groups on their own initiative. While congresses or coalitions may certainly arise under the auspices of the program and its publishers, the freedom to act -- and the responsibility for action -- will remain diffuse.

It is to those actions that we should now turn our attention, for they are of even greater importance in this revolution than in any prior one.

Revolutionary institutions

As society and polity develop in an environment of statism, the state's claim for its own necessity becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. It encroaches upon more and more areas of social activity, corrupting, destroying or bringing about the stillbirth of the market institutions that previously served or which, allowed to spring into being, would have served, those sectors.

This is not a new or novel observation: Jean Francois Revel explores it with reference to communism and other manifestations of totalitarianism in Democracy Against Itself. After more than a decade, the Russian Federation is still waiting for a true market economy to rise from soil in which the Soviet Union spent 70 years sowing the salt of state control.

If the totalitarian state represents the extreme, the fact remains that by comparison to even the most minimal state at the dawn of the 21st century, the British monarchy was a minimalist libertarian paradise. A Cromwell or a Washington could shatter the throne knowing that, although the state itself might require rebuilding, civil society would go on in any case. Capital formation, commerce and the infinitude of daily activities that we take for granted would continue much as before. The state sat atop them; it had not yet put roots down in them.

Intended or unintended, the consequence is the same: the statist, over the course of the 20th century, has built new requirements into the revolutionist's job. The institutions of society are cocooned in red tape -- and beneath that tape, some of them are mummified remains, not living, vital creatures that can be expected to continue functioning if the tape is unwound.

The revolutionist is faced with the task of building alternative institutions of civil society as he overthrows the state. He cannot count on the current incarnations of those institutions to survive the fundamental transformation which he proposes to carry out.

The program of our revolutionary movement must begin with a statement of its goals; but it must also provide for a means of reaching those goals. The formation of alternative institutions in advance of the final crisis is of paramount importance.

We must create the alternative economy.

We must create the alternative dispute resolution systems.

We must create the agencies of security and defense.

Our timeframe for doing so, while uncertain in duration, is certainly limited in duration. Many of these institutions are already functioning in embryonic form or another; but they must be built, expanded, improved and made ubiquitous.

We cannot rely on a 'transition period' during which the old institutions will continue to function or through which they will 'evolve' into market institutions. The state has suppressed the market in these institutions. As the state dies, those institutions will die with it.

The silver lining, of course, is that these institutions, in addition to making civil society possible after the revolution will also serve to strengthen our position in that revolution, versus the state and versus other movements that seek to come out of the state's disintegration as society's chosen instrument of renewal.

The counter-economy will choke the state for tax revenue. The private courts will weaken the monopoly of the bar. The agencies of security and defense will shorten the reach of the state's officers of 'law' and reduce the fear of the masses at losing the state's inferior equivalents. All will present themselves as obvious beacons for a populace left adrift and seeking a new society in the wreckage of the old one.

How much time do we have? I do not claim to know. My personal belief, based on the study of past revolutionary eras, is that the moment of crisis and disintegration lies less than two decades in the future. The most accurate, although not necessarily most pleasing, answer, is this one:

Not enough.

So let's get to work.

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Thomas L. Knapp's picture
Columns on STR: 6

Thomas L. Knapp is publisher of Rational Review.