How do we get from here to there? That is, how do those of us who preach the virtues of neighborhood solidarity and mutual aid propose transitioning from a world where people tend to live atomistically and rely on government programs for support in times of misfortune to a society where people can lean on those in their our community?
It’s a tough question and one posed by a recent post
from Jim Henley pointing out some of the problems with conservatives who argue private charities can fill the void for social welfare programs they – and many Democrats, don’t forget – would like to slash. However much we would it not to be so, charities today lack the capacity to deal with the problems of poverty and inadequate health care currently besetting a nation of 300 million.
The chief problem with conservatives appealing to voluntarism and making the let-them-rely-on-charity argument is that those on the right would by and large only like to cut those aspects of government that, however modestly, actually help people, while at the same time keeping intact the multitude of state-granted corporate privileges, from patent monopolies to corporate personhood, that impoverishes them.
Those of us on the more radical end of the spectrum don’t have that problem. When we speak of a post-welfare state society, we’re not imagining the status quo minus the social safety net, but rather a world where intellectual property doesn’t exist, the corporation doesn’t exist, and where private property isn’t a sacrosanct right that entitles one person to exploit natural resources for their own personal gain while those around them are mired in poverty.
If I had to quibble with Henley’s post – and this is the Internet, so I must – it would be his suggestion that left-libertarians and anarchists have any desire to form an “anti-welfare state coalition” with those on the right whose idea of a more perfect society is the status quo but with Bill Gates at the helm. An anti-warfare state coalition? Sure, by all means: let’s invite all the conservatives and liberals and libertarians who oppose empire out to the next anti-war rally. But no anti-state leftists I know are interested in slashing the social safety, at least not until after we’re done smashing corporate privilege.
Oh, but we radicals have a problem of our own, let’s not kid ourselves: our ideal society largely exists in our imagination. And though our radicalism gives us more street cred, how the hell do we institute the more radical change that we seek?
I certainly wish I had an easy answer to that. While I’ll admit to some residual fondness for pointless third party runs, I don’t think electoral politics is the way to go
, and I certainly don’t think there’s much hope in reforming either the Democratic or, clearly, the Republican Party. I’m not in the business of condemning people as sinners if they do participate — partisan cheerleading is a different story — as our options suck and people are often at a loss of what else to do. I just think the time and resources that go into elections could be put to better use
actually building the institutions of the world we’d like to live in.
So far, what I’ve got is essentially living one’s life as an example to others. Reject violence, including in your language. Volunteer. Build up the organizations you’d like to see fill the void left by slashed government social programs. Turn your back on materialism and live frugally. Basically, be the person you would like to see more of in society. What we need isn’t some anarchist political revolution, we need an anarchist social revolution: we need a society of anarchists. Help make them.
Will it take a long time? Absolutely. But reducing coercion in our society is a worthy goal that, however much it might seem hopeless and as fruitful as tilting at windmills sometimes, is something worth pursuing in and of itself. I agree with Henley that American culture as it exists right now isn’t terribly conducive to an anarchist, consensus-based society. But I would counter that, with bipartisan agreement that the social safety net needs to be slashed, it isn’t conducive to social democracy either, so if we’re playing the who’s-more-realistic game, I’d call a draw.
For a long time, the institution of slavery was held up as just and right, as something that, because it had been around for thousands of years, was the fruit of inalterable Human Nature that wouldn’t be going anywhere anytime soon, hippie. Abolitionists were pretty much the silly, limp-wristed idealists of their day. But, slowly, opinion began to change. And while we still have plenty of repression in our society, people no longer leap to the defense of the outright enslavement of other human beings.
Social transformation is long, arduous process. But the same change in opinion that took place with slavery can, I believe, take place with how a society views the use of violence and voluntary communalism; the hierarchies and coercion accepted as normal today need not, and I trust will not, be accepted as such forever. For now, the task of the radical is to educate people on the evils of violence, be it perpetrated by individuals or states, and the benefits of cooperation. More important than evangelism, though, is to live life in the manner you would like others to live; people tend to respond better to actions than sermons.
Transforming society will take time but, at the risk of provoking groans, anything worth fighting for usually does. And I haven’t heard any better ideas.
UPDATE: Some liberals really don’t like it when you suggest that, perhaps, electing more and better Democrats isn’t the best or only way to affect radical social change. Here’s how American Prospect writer Jamelle Bouie interprets this piece:
At least I know they’re reading.