Crumbling from Within: Anarchism and the Anarchist in Academia, Or: Political Science is based on Faith and Bullshit, Or: University is only fun if you have no soul, are a genius, or are too stupid or too tired to care anymore

 

 

 

This blog post originally was conceived in regards to a single facebook rant I wrote about Political Science specifically, and academia in general, but I had been writing about this subject in so many disparate places that I figured I could collect the various posts and writings here, along with some links and editing so the reader may find agreement and bemusement in this piece, but I also consider this may make a few professional scholars upset. I would apologize in advance if criticism wasn’t your job, and for some of you, standing in the middle of the highway dressed as a pylon is more educational and relevant. So, I will begin with a straight up copy and paste from my wall with some addendum notes if needed, then throw some other stuff in here and there for a longer, more coherent read, one which may or may not lead the reader to the library, or perhaps promptly to prison to burn that motherfucker down. I write this not so much to convince people of my points, though I do put a minimum amount of effort in supporting my ideas, the main purpose of this essay is so other anarchists in the academy know similar feelings are felt here and elsewhere. So without further ado, let’s recapitulate a few of my recent facebook postings and look at them together, see if more connections and examples can be drawn, and so on.

On July 8, 2018, the online magazine Aeon published an article titled, “Is it moral to respect the wishes of the dead over those of the living,” written by Barry La, an associate professor of philosophy at Vassar College, New York. When Aeon posted it to facebook, they selected a paragraph more or less from the article itself to accompany it. This is facebook’s version of the epigram. It was this short little passage that would set the foundation to make some seemingly reaching connections, but those who would only see such connections as “reaching,” would be those who listen enthusiastically to professors and academics, as somehow the privileged elite are somehow immune to bullshit. In fact, some of the richest and elitist subscribe to such unbelievable snake-oil as Gwenyth Paltrow’s Goop, or for the less rich, but still fully prostrate before the “old ways,” we find the hero-forever-oppressed dingleberry of dingleberries: Jordan Peterson. But I digress.

Aeon’s epigram for that article, the thesis for the article basically, read “The current state of wealth inequality together with the ongoing practice of honouring the wishes of the dead could result in a future economy that will reflect the preferences of a past aristocracy, rather than the majority of those living. On the ethics of wills. Archive pick: http://ow.ly/gnRh30kPJO6

This is not a profound or novel observation, however what I did take from this is something else I’ve hit on in other places on this blog. When I shared the article (and it is a decent read, rarely am I disappointed with the output from Aeon magazine) my epigram wrote thus: “What is “the social contract” and our “voluntary servitude” to Hobbes’ Leviathan but fulfillment of the wishes of the dead long past? Sovereignty has always been about serving the dead. The state is the original zombie, a dead apparatus feeding on the flesh of the living. And the modern state is ubiquitous, amorphous, and insidious in its capacity, as Foucault would say, “to let live or make die.”

This notion of the state serving the dead was touched upon by a little piece of poetry/prose/something titled, “Against Solutions” (mentioned above and again here for its significance and necessity) and is a useful segue to the rant on political science and its underlying thought in this subsequent (edited) blog post:

A Foundation of Bullshit

The only thing you need to do when it comes to engaging a political scientist is demand an intellectually satisfying justification for the state.

No one ever has. Any political scientist worth a handshake will agree. And any honest one is going to tell you they’re just doing their job, which basically studies a completely abstract concept with no basis for existence; how it operates, how it can be utilized, and how it can be maintained “peacefully.” They can do that with nuance and predictability and simple heuristics, sort of. But that’s because the state is ever totalizing power (see Bauman’s Liquid Modernity, don’t be a cum stained assless chap about it. Read the book.) The state is what Stirner would call a spook. It is not real. It is not tangible. It does not exist. It merely consists of paperwork and punishment. We reify the state every moment of every day. Like God, the abstraction becomes real through some zealous and often inane justifications for God (he works in mysterious ways), but mainly through terror and obedience. Acts of terror, including sacrifices and murder, and acts of demanded sheepish prostration are both signs of faith. All of these intersecting practices, where punishment meets community, are built on the assumption that God exists. All the rituals and dogmas, murders and rape, are tools to control. [The state is dead. It has no sentience. It’s a poorly constructed algorithm – I’ll talk more about this later when I talk about language.]

The state operates in a much similar manner, with political scientists, even if they are critical of the state and maybe even read some Emma Goldman (Haven’t met one yet), they, nevertheless, mostly all start from Thomas Hobbes’ Leviathan. If the tactics of the church seem like the tactics of state, they are. Rarely is Hobbes, or the entire field of political philosophy that he played a great role in creating, critiqued with any passion or indignance – at least from within the field of political science. Only recently have people started to, at the lower levels of university (educated fools), begun to include, in what I’ve so far seen as their lazy pedagogy, evidence from other fields of study (like my beloved anthropology) that Hobbes’ State of nature, where it is kill or be killed, and life is “nasty, brutish, and short,” never existed. Neither does any kind of social contract where we implicitly give up rights (as if rights are an actual thing) to a Leviathan figure. This hypothetical is routinely given as a sufficient justification for the existence of the state. A paternal figure of quite literally mythological proportions limits individual action for the common good. It is a justification completely fabricated based on what some bootlicker thought. It has no basis in reality. Thomas Hobbes wrote his magnum opus after two huge armies battled it out. It doesn’t even make basic logical sense to arrive at the conclusion he did; he arrived at that conclusion because he wanted to.
Bootlickers will always lick boots, they’ll even write whole books that justify the activity. It is little wonder that Hobbesian justification for the state went unchallenged for so long. Knowledge is power, power is knowledge, as Foucault explained. And Marx, with Gramsci following closely thereafter would explain ideological hegemony. Taken together, it boils down to something simple. Occam’s razor is a useful tool, but professors won’t have jobs if the simple shit they’re teaching you isn’t separated from the pupil by centuries and further distanced from the reader through the unnecessarily dense, loquacious, obfuscatory nature of so much of the “classical” political science writings. Of course, William Godwin, sometimes called the father of classical anarchism, wrote a book, On Political Justice, wherein he laid the theoretical and moral foundations for the abolition of the state. It’s not a hard read. It’s actually pretty easy to get through, especially if you have a professor willing to go into the details with you. At an undergrad level, I bet the basic acknowledgment of Godwin’s existence, let alone understanding or finding value in his writing is tellingly sparse.

Like I said, political scientists make great pylons, but they’d make terrible anarchists – they’d be the first to put you to the wall or shove you in the gulag. They don’t know anything but statism. They’re living in the political version of Plato’s cave. It took years before a critique of Hobbes became acceptable and then normalized. It took so long because of the structure of the university and its reflection on, and its shaping of, powerful society. (For further discussion on anarchism in the university, see Resisting the Alt-Right: The Power of Definitions, Anarchy and the University, you can tell I wrote it really high on drugs. How high am I right now?)

I’ve been shit talking specialization in universities since I was 15 or 16 years old. My critique now is a bit more sophisticated than it was at 16, probably because I do better drugs, but essentially my critique says the same thing: that specialization creates power imbalances and stupid people. I was 16. Why were “adults” enthusiastically reinforcing power structures through specialization? Specialization creates a Tower of Babel situation. And I wasn’t alone thinking this then, I’m not alone in thinking it now. Amazing things happen when people stop caring about fame and recognition, and instead focus on the cultivation of knowledge through innovation, sharing, and cooperation
(cue the throng of people who have been told the opposite is the basis of our modern, progressive, technological society, and that is why capitalism is “natural” and the best economic system ever developed – i.e. every professor and their pupils who either intentionally or unintentionally misread Adam Smith, or all the people who tout the “free-market” and then cite Smith as a major proponent thereof. He wasn’t. End of story. Nobody, from the professors on down the hierarchy of commodified knowledge to the lowly pupil, has the time or the incentive – usually money – to read Wealth of Nations in full. Analogous to so many other works we ostensibly study, we rely on interpretations, or interpretations of interpretations. Always interpreted through a biased lens and then “taught” through that lens or another lens. Using the dead to justify the realities of life. Not only can social sciences never be objective, if they claim objectivity it simply further discredits the field of study – this is especially the case for the fields that are the aim of my detestation, and of this writing – economics and political science.)
The challenges the university faces today under austerity programs, neo-liberalism, crony capitalism or whatever words you want to use (since the university is built to create useful idiots who can define fascism like nobody else but can’t use excel, or vice versa), that word or combination of words is increasing the commodification of knowledge. This is why anarchists care at all.

Knowledge is power and when a university becomes a business, everyone suffers except the capitalist. This may hold especially true for physical science and the sort that deal with tangible, accurately measurable things. Political science, as discussed deals with the zombie state.

(What’s the equation for entropy? I have no fucking idea, but it probably applies closely to states as well. The rule certainly does, the only variance is method and formula. As Mumia Abu-Jamal said, “Today’s Empires are Tomorrow’s Ashes.”)

Political science is for dweebs who think the state is neutral, static, an apparatus disconnected from “society”…as if people are algorithms and governments are calculable. If this is the case then the state is an object held together by subjects, thus one could remove the stupid and useless details like, oh I don’t know, freedom and acceptance of others, and simply study the state as “moving parts in the death machine.” And while this may have been applicable reasoning in Tsarist Russia or the France of 1760, we cannot apply this reasoning to the modern state.

Again, however, as many people have observed, many back in ’68 after les eventements in Paris and the disintegration of the “movement,” which can be narrowly and broadly defined, but here, I posit that resistance to state power was not only met with force, but other insidious tactics were used like FBI infiltration into the Black Panther Party, spreading of rumours, jealousy, drugs. These tactics of surveillance and repression were novel and challenging, both for praxis and theory. I posit that in today’s world where there is no Bastille to storm, no single center of power, no winter palace that is a strategic and informed place for violent resistance to state power, we need a Liquid conception of Anarchism (the details for this will be hashed out with more care elsewhere).

Post-panopticism, postmodern surveillance, and the need for Liquid Anarchy

The state has evolved before we even have the capacity to perceive the reasons we fail to be able to describe this “liquidity,” and part of that reason is the university and its specialized jargon, its cliquey bourgeois academics and scientists, and the inaccessibility of knowledge to vast amounts of people who, unharmed by the trauma of being Pavlov’s proverbial dog in the academy, are unfazed by proper (sorry, colloquial) language use, which academics, partial to reductionism, centrism, and essentialism (the trifecta of Identity Politics – more on this later), wittingly or not, ascribe to a person’s intelligence. The more “lower class” like a person sounds, the dumber they are. Languages, like states and traditions, belong to the dead and dying. We follow arbitrary rules because that’s the law, and it takes effort to change or remove laws. Language is the same.

Trying to engage in a dialogue with a medical doctor as a construction worker is difficult, unless the topic is construction, but then the conversation may be difficult to follow for the doctor. They speak different languages, or in linguistic terms are adapted to using different ‘registers’ in their occupations. For practical reasons, languages adapt and modify (e.g. Pidgins).

In regards to intelligence, for many, once pressed, will say intelligence is relative and slippery; hard to define. But when no one is pressing them, academics know that even with all the systemic inequalities, it is the privileged and educated that possess intelligence. Because intelligence can also amount to agency. For all its liberal lip service, the modern university is still a major propagator of the myth of meritocracy. I mean, all the people who made it into Columbia must deserve it, right? It must be because they’re smarter, right? No. Columbia basically creates a lottery to select its 3000 or so new admissions each year out of the 30000 or so that apply. This lottery of life is everywhere, chance, fortune, wealth… you are nothing but the product of SOME of your choices, but those choices you feel so strong about were heavily influenced, guided or denied, by chance. Anyone who denies this is delusional, anyone who propagates the delusion is a tyrant. The myth of meritocracy reigns, in my experience, in university courses on economics. There is not a stronger counterargument that will prevail from within the field of economics. It doesn’t fit the paradigm. The myth of meritocracy fits the capitalist paradigm and the lie of the American Dream perfectly. In fact, you can’t lie as much as America does about its supposed dream without an equally unrealistic mythology everyone tells each other to sustain it. Remember, this is how states turn from abstractions to tangible operations that have the power to kill you. So the counterargument of the myth of meritocracy, just like the counterarguments to Hobbes came mostly from Anthropology. Sociology, in my view, is best suited to counter the myth of meritocracy.

Just as anarchists must be, through the sharing one or more loose ideas, principally at odds with state power and what the state ACTUALLY IS. I believe the state needs to be redefined, and as such Anarchism, in light of a newly defined state also, and I’m so sorry to do this, but it’s not pedantic or unnecessary. Anarchism needs to be redefined, or at least I think it can be better defined in light of a modified definition/reality of the state. [I personally am working on, thinking about, sketching out, the application of Zygmunt Bauman’s Liquidity to Anarchism. As we find the state to be omnipresent, ubiquitous, and insidious, this Foucaultian understanding of power allows an anarchism much more akin to Max Stirner and his conception of an assortment of Unions of Egoists. More on this will come, but let’s make fun of academics some more…]

The state is not a hammer people can just use for anything, as I heard Judith Butler backhandedly describe it at some hoity-toity dinner party here in Vancouver. You would think she would know better but damn. The fact Judith Butler straight up claimed the state is NECESSARY to distribute resources is quite dumbfounding and ahistorical. In Rebecca Solnit’s book A Paradise Built in Hell, she gives four case studies where after a disaster, “non-hiearchical forms of social organization” (Anarchism, but if you say that word you are bad, context doesn’t matter anymore and words mean nothing) was well run, efficient, and, according to some experiential reports, the best part of the disaster. Until the state fucked everything up. The same type of account can be found from those that experienced hurricane Sandy – modern civilization gets a partial shut down, people organize despite the supposed necessary state authorities and then when the state does show up, they cause a mess. In the context of this piece and in my disregard and heavy criticism of academics one has to wonder why Solnit’s thesis isn’t based on the sabotage of the machinations of industrial capitalism. She doesn’t for obvious reasons. Liberal bourgoise feminism and activism are only ok with state violence aimed at Brown skin. People like Solnit and Naomi Klein are great for ideas and facts and figures but they, too, have a job to protect. They are the Resisters Inc.

Anarchism is the thing that is happening all the time. Anarchy works all the time, yet in the lower level undergraduate courses on social and political philosophy, anarchism is treated as quaint, or in the past, something that creates the topic question for an essay, “Is Anarchism a Viable Ideology” which I answered in the negation of answer. You can’t make me answer a leading question like that. Is capitalism a viable ideology?Political Scientists are the fucking Gomer Pile of intelligentsia.

Professors of political science are either cowards or sycophants.

They either know the fallacies of their “science” and the ruse it is, or they agree with it and assume the mantle of “social awareness.”

Either way, like all anarchists, Political charlat…. scientists. McCompromise with the existing order. They just adjust more agreeably. The anarchist may or may not, I can only speak for myself (We’re not Marxists, ya know?) suffer from sometimes paralyzing cognitive dissonance; moral, ethical, political, social, and medical doubts, everyday. Anarchists, as the feminist movement elucidated, see the personal as political. For anarchists the compromise can be life or death, prison or “freedom.” Nothing is taken at face value.

Any dingbat that spews bullshit about politics for hours on end and builds all their arguments off a provably false assumption, is selling you something (other than the commodity of knowledge we are already implicated in), or worse, they actually believe some eclectic mix of philosophy that still does not address the foundational problem with political science.

If Political science, and more particularly (the university is limited too), any one who cares to study politics needs to first start at the beginning. Give a sound reason for the justification of the state, and don’t do it through some bootlicking coward and opportunist like Hobbes. Actually do it. (It has not ever been done, not ever.)

Until then, Political science is the science of power, but power with masks. Masks like “general welfare” and “social insurance.” Just enough “socialism” that both socialists and sycophants don’t start doing the logical, well informed thing of killing cops and roasting their bones on an open fire. The gun control problem in America resolved if all the people who enforced the law took one to the temple.

The people who take political sciences are just like economists. The lesions of ideology that make visible the education systems social biases. If a person just wants to have every day myth drilled into them as fact, and subsequently parrot myth. That person probably still thinks the icecaps aren’t melting.

And both economics and political science summon up some kind of social contract justification for being a shit person and butt rubbing their dingleberries on other people and then blaming human nature arguments and invoking the non aggression principle.

My criticism of economics is structured almost precisely the same, but the obviously false assumption in economics, that people are self-interested and rational, is quite often openly debated in a first year economics class as soon as anyone thinks about that statement they’ll see it is false. The field of economics has reached a level of piety on par with political science, and while these false assumptions my be entirely fabricated, built of bullshit to support more bullshit, what is pious must be accepted. So while the foundational assumptions may be “misguided,” apparently everything else should be accepted, as if on faith. Both economics and political science are secular religions spawned from the Enlightenment. God is Dead and we have turned him into an accountant!

My facetious question for economists follows the reasoning of philosopher Emil Cioran. Though he does not say it explicitly, he maintains that a person does not kill themself in moments of despair or misery but in “moments of unendurable lucidity.” I would for the purpose of this argument equate lucidity with rationality. He also condemns people as weak-willed and cowardly if they grow accustomed to suffering instead of killing themself. So one must ask the economist, if a person is inherently self-interested and rational, why are there so many people walking around. Surely it’s not rational or self-interested to work, pay bills, eat McDonald’s and then die. I suppose the old adage is true here, that if you want twelve different answers you ask twelve different economists. For my exploration of a sociology of suicide check out: Suicide as Agency: A fight against Time, a Temporal solution 

Maybe the more pointed question is why are so many economists not killing themselves out of an egoistic altruism of sorts? That is, indeed, very curious. However, I feel like picking on political science and economics is a bit of a…
What’s Latin for dead horse?

 

The Crushing Weight of Liberalism
So, as has been shown there is a critique of the academy and anarchism. Let me introduce you to a critique of a self-proclaimed anarchist in the academy, to preserve anonymity I will not mention them by name, but I will give some context and then copy and paste my rant about it.

It’s a short story because it is ridiculous. A few days ago or so, there was a protest in London, where a “baby-trump” balloon was “permitted.” The anarchist in question here, they are a professor, they have some clout. They could argue against being permitted to do anything in the first place. But, instead this professor directed his ire at the protesters. And no, not for their passive non-violence that nobody cares about. He got upset at “Childism,” as if a “baby-trump” balloon denigrates children. I called him petulant and puerile, and a weak-ass liberal. Here is a more detailed response, which will also touch on other things relevant to our discussion:

_______________ finally blocked me. Don’t let me end up like that dude. Academia has destroyed that man’s anarchist spirit and he doesn’t even realize it. Hyper politically correct and obsessed with identity politics and “equality.” Going down the same road as countless before him, from writing a paper called “fuck neoliberalism” to getting offended for all the innocent babies out there who apparently are denigrated when that baby-trump balloon flies above London in this egregious display of #childism… one more way for us to monitor our speech and thoughts. One more leftoid tactic to elevate themselves from the rest of the world – to make bland and unoffensive everyday language.

Let’s criticize the so-called childism at the protest in London (never mind the fact that babies aren’t children) instead of the plethora of other issues the left keeps perpetrating on itself with its ineffective whining. Critique non-violence and balloons and banners as theatre, spectacle allowed by the state to keep up the show as if our voice matters? No, let’s critique a baby-trump balloon for Othering children, and let’s get righteously indignant about it.

Will somebody please think of the children?! (Sarcasm dripping)

Shit like the above is exactly why it’s called the Ivory Tower, because nobody except those in it give a shit about “childism”… not in this case anyway, especially since it’s not a case of childism.

Criticism and debate is a major part of academia; arguing about things is useful and necessary, just as conflict is necessary, for growth. And endless critique of critique of critique is wonderful. But with all that pedantry we run the risk of over-analyzing and making mountains out of mole-hills. We risk becoming out of touch with the things that “matter” and begin to lose ourselves in abstraction and begin to speak a different language. This ultimately is a destructive process for the anarchist, especially the social anarchist.

Everything and everyone is problematic in some way, what this hyper focus on oppressions like childism, racism, and whatever else may offend does is it creates a multitude of opportunities to never move beyond a word in a situation, or a balloon at a protest. If you want to find something that will raise the ire of the marginalized and Othered it’s not hard, offensive shit is everywhere. This post will offend somebody. Being offended by racist jokes is the new alleviation of white guilt. It doesn’t do anything but make oneself appear moral and part of the in-group. These traps should not trap anarchists. We should be able to understand context and history and ideology that leads to racist jokes without getting offended by them and calling them out every time. It’s exhausting and wasted energy. It’s simply performative outrage for what? Proof of allyship? Allied to what? Black people are not homogenous (more on this later), allyship is for states.

I’m not saying don’t call out racist bullshit, I’m saying pick your battles. The wall is hard and our heads are soft, bashing one’s head against the wall over hyper politically correct behaviour is a task for centrists and liberals, who seek uniformity and no conflict.

Academia is poison for the anarchist. It perpetuates liberal biases everywhere. And getting offended FOR others – to protect babies from the childism of a baby-trump balloon – is up there in the peaks of liberalism.

Returning to racism, just think about the colloquial, every day usage of that term in the layman’s world 30 years ago. It was dictionary definition. Now, we understand that racism is systemic and is not just prejudice but prejudice plus power. Ok, now tell someone who is white and living on a reserve that they aren’t experiencing racism when they get beat up based on the colour of their skin. In fact, double down and tell them that simply by being white they are racist as they benefit from settler-colonialism and white supremacy. Furthermore, now get mad at them and call them stupid because they don’t agree. How can they disagree with your $60,000 education?

This is what a liberal identity politics does. It essentializes people and creates assumed histories and biographies of an individual based on superficial characteristics. And we are all mired in this toxic thought. We reinforce state power based on racism through liberal identity politics. What does this have to do with ______ and Academia?

Everything.

Instead of a balloon conveying a message that is fairly universal in its understanding – all sorts of cultures and people know what is meant when you call someone a baby – we get a problematic balloon that others and strips agency from children. It’s not that children are not othered or that they are not stripped of agency. They are. But the same lens that sees a problem in this balloon sees it as automatically problematic when a white man voices an opinion on the black community. Context is everything. There is nothing inherently wrong with either of the above, unless we look for them. Adults and children are connected. Black and white people are connected. This is kind of a bad analogy and it’s slipping away from me, the relationship between adults and kids and white and black people are not at all the same. But that’s my point. Essentialism creates false assumptions and from those assumptions we build.

I’m just writing this as I go on my phone and I can’t go back and read it until I post it so this probably isn’t making much sense.

Basically my arguments can be summed up in that _______ has been swallowed up by academia, seemingly in toto. Creating issues where there aren’t any, does a disservice to the issue. Childism is a thing and we’ve all experienced it, but using the baby-trump balloon to call it out is some weak-ass liberal shit for two reasons 1) it’s not childism as babies aren’t children, but also, 2) it is an analysis only a few will come to, understand, or care about. Seeing childism in a baby-trump balloon is so out of touch with reality that I can find no other word for it but liberal. There are other reasons, but they don’t matter because even arguing about it is stupid.

My main point and request is this: don’t ever let me get so divorced from the world I become upset at stupid shit like this. I’m ok with the irony of being upset at his being upset. Critique is a tool all anarchists should wield well, but we should not wield those tools in support of the state, or to bolster reductionist and essentialist perspectives.

We should continue to fight, against ourselves, against the state, against society, racism, homophobia and all of the usual bullshit. We need to destroy the institutions that confine our minds and bodies, and this cannot be done through discourses of identity and rights, jargon befitting a philosophy class isn’t gonna change (or not) the world. It will be human beings taking action, and every single one of those beings is problematic. The actions they take, more so. Critique is necessary. Pedantic petulance is for those with the time and space.

I have no answers, as stated, I may even be said to be against them, but I do know that protests at this point in time deserve exhaustive critiques, very little of which has anything to do with balloons purportedly Othering children.

Next thing _______ will be doing is denouncing all violence as problematic and alienating. In the comfortable world of academia it is enough to get mad at balloons, there’s no jobs for professors if all the protests actually start becoming effective.

“No one is going to give you the education you need to overthrow them.” – Assata Shakur

 

 

 

 

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Shelley’s Anarchism: The Role of William Godwin

“Once annihilate the quackery of government, and the most homebred understanding might be strong enough to detect the artifices of the state juggler that would mislead him.” – William Godwin

Percy Bysshe Shelley was a poet who infused his verse with radical politics. Two of the most well known of these poems are “The Mask of Anarchy” and “England in 1819.” Both poems carry the sentiment and message of Anarchism in its broadest sense: disregard for state institutions and authority, and a belief that every person should have equal social, economic, and political power instead of power being concentrated in the hands of the few. Since people are capable of self-determination and autonomy, it follows that the state, in all its forms, is not only unnecessary, it is harmful. “The Mask of Anarchy,” written in direct response to the Peterloo Massacre, is a ballad addressed to the everyday worker using everyday language. In contrast to the simplicity and style of “The Mask of Anarchy,” “England in 1819” is a sonnet, written with elevated, elegant language. This poem was targeted for a learned audience, intended to be included in a book of political poetry that never materialized (Norton, 790).

In a discussion of Percy Shelley’s political views it is imperative to mention, and hard to overstate, the influence William Godwin’s An Inquiry Concerning Political Justice had, not just on Shelley but on many poets and thinkers of the time, including Samuel Coleridge and William Wordsworth. In London, Shelley made a concerted effort to become acquainted with Godwin, whose debts Shelley eventually subsumed, and whose daughter, Mary, he eloped with. William Pitt, England’s Prime Minister at the time Political Justice was published, considered bringing charges against Godwin for his book but decided against it, reasoning that, “a three guinea book could never do much harm among those who had not three shillings to spare”(Marshall, 191). Shelley’s willingness to take on Godwin’s debt, then, becomes beautifully ironic in hindsight. In fact, not only did Godwin get his debts taken over by an enthusiastic son-in-law, but his Political Justice was to inspire, and arguably give birth to, a rich and vibrant socio-political movement and philosophy: Anarchism. Thus, leading Peter Marshall, in his 812 page tome Demanding the Impossible: A History of Anarchism, to describe Godwin as the “first and greatest philosopher of anarchism” and Percy Shelley, in turn, “the greatest anarchist poet by putting Godwin’s philosophy to verse” (192).

The fusion of politics and poetry by Shelley was not new, but then, as of today, according to some, politics is not the subject of poetry proper, whatever that means. Perhaps it was Shelley’s rejection of this notion that made his work so popular among everyday people, as he spoke of tyranny and revolution in a way many were thinking but could not articulate. The Norton Anthology of English Literature states that it is Shelley’s “Queen Mab” “which owes much to Godwin’s “optimistic conviction,” which can be clearly seen in the poem’s “denunciations of institutional religion, aristocracy, and monarchy” (749). However, it is plainly obvious that these denunciations run like a river through the various poems and essays created by Shelley. Two poems rife with such denunciations are “The Mask of Anarchy” and “England in 1819.”

In “The Mask of Anarchy,” Shelley utilizes irony to both criticize the government and its sycophants, while simultaneously re-appropriating the word “Anarchy” itself. Then as now, the word anarchy was ignorantly aligned with chaos or disorder and often used in a derogatory sense. To be called an anarchist was to be essentially labelled a nihilistic terrorist. Of course, there have been violent anarchists, but their violence pales in comparison and magnitude to the violence of the state – capitalist, socialist, or otherwise. Anarchy simply means “without rulers,” not without rules. It is an important distinction to make and it is one every anarchist will need to point out at some point in their life. Intentional misuse of, and negative connotations surrounding Anarchy, due to government propaganda and general ignorance, only grows. Shelley provides a poetic lens through which he aims to show the ironic and tragic way humans come to believe that anarchy is chaos, when in fact what creates chaos are state institutions: “God, and Law, and King” (37). Shelley gets this line of reasoning directly from Godwin, who Marshall refers to as, “The Lover of Order” (191). It is the state that takes and taxes and commits violence daily, through the prison, or the Old Lie: Dulce et decorum est pro patria mori. By connecting Anarchy to images of a skeleton King, riding a pale horse splattered with blood, waving a sword as he tramples over the “adoring masses,” Shelley’s hyperbole is highly effective in elucidating the disorder that is “God, and Law, and King.” His description of the masses as “adoring” is swift and incisive, highlighting the general apathy, ignorance, and feebleness of those who worship their own oppressors. For Shelley, just as it was for the first self-proclaimed anarchist, Pierre Joseph Proudhon, “Anarchy is Order without Power” (Marshall, 234).

Of course, the reigning political ideologies in Shelley’s time, just as in ours, were Hobbesian. Different variations of the same assumptions held hegemony as justifications for the state, the monarchy, or the church. The story goes that in the ‘state of nature’ it is a war of all against all, where humans grapple for resources and mates in a brutal cacophony, until the emergence of a Leviathan – a metaphor for the state – brings order. This assumption, based on a “state of nature” which anthropologists debate ever existed, is turned on its head by Godwin, and in turn by Shelley. According to Marshall, it was Rousseau’s philosophy on human nature – that it is the social institutions of the world that corrupts an individual, who otherwise is born free and good – that influenced Godwin the most (193). Godwin’s influence on Shelley can therefore be traced back to Rousseau and his critique of society. Thus, Hobbes’ vision of chaotic competition due to lack of a Leviathan could not be possible for these Rousseaueans since each person, being born free, desires freedom, and freedom requires a society of equality and justice. In “England in 1819,” Shelley detests the monarchy, describing them as a “dull race /… who neither see nor feel nor know,” who are parasites, “leeches,” sucking the blood of starving people (2-7). For Godwin and Shelley, equality and justice are antithetical to monarchy. Contrary to Hobbes’ view of the ‘state of nature’ being violently chaotic, Shelley, following Godwin and Rousseau, saw the state as violent and, in the interest of society, should be done away with as soon as possible.

For Godwin, it was by necessity that the society he envisioned, a society that has rendered the state useless and unneccessary, was brought about gradually through peaceful means. Shelley, in “The Mask of Anarchy,” echoes his father-in-law through the figure Hope, who articulates a sort of proto-Gandhian non-violence, when in the face of tyrants it is suggested, “With folded arms and steady eyes, / And little fear, and less surprise, / Look upon them as they slay / Till their rage has died away” (144 – 147). Knowing Godwin’s influence on Shelley and how peaceful, gradual reform was what Godwin advocated, the last verse of “Mask of Anarchy” becomes intriguing, when Hope repeats the command:

Rise like lions after slumber
In unvanquishable number –
Shake your chains to earth like dew
Which in sleep had fallen on you –
Ye are many – they are few. (368-372)
One has to wonder if Shelley is questioning Godwin’s principle of non-violence here, as nobody thinks “peaceful reform” when imagining lions.

The ambiguity towards violence becomes more apparent in “England in 1819,” where Shelley pronounces monarchies, with their armies and churches, as good as dead. Describing revolution as a “glorious Phantom” (13) that may manifest itself in the wake of the aforementioned dead, Shelley seems to be suggesting we have a choice in the matter in regards to violence. (Revolutions are always violent.) Indeed, according to Marshall, “Godwin… believed there are no moral rules which should not give way to the urgency of particular circumstances” (197). The mutual lack of moral dogmas held by both Godwin and Shelley (and most anarchists) is apparent in their personal lives as well as their writing, as both had strong critiques of the institution of marriage, yet married anyway. Godwin condemned marriage as the “most odious of all monopolies,” but when Mary Wollstonecraft, after having tried to commit suicide twice, and becoming pregnant with Godwin’s baby, begged Godwin to be married, he obliged to spare her the scorn and ostracism having a child out of wedlock would carry during their lifetimes (Marshall, 196-7). These contradictions and compromises are what make them human, as they show how social pressures can mold individual choices, reinforcing Godwin and Shelley’s Roussean view of human nature and social institutions as oppressive.

… What the Bible was to Milton, Godwin was to Shelley. The creed of Political Justice was transmuted into the magnificent and resounding verse of the greatest revolutionary narrative poems in the English language… Shelley openly professed an anarchist creed and systematically celebrated the Godwinian principles of liberty, equality, and universal benevolence. (199)

 

 

 

Works Cited

 

Lynch, Stillinger, et al. The Norton Anthology of English Literature: The Romantic

            Period. 9th ed., D, Norton & Company, 2013.

 

Marshall, Peter. Demanding the Impossible: a History of Anarchism. PM Press, 2010.

 

 

 

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Suicide as Agency: A fight against Time, a Temporal solution

“Then both ourselves and seed at once to free
From what we fear for both, let us make short,
Let us seek Death, or he not found, supply
With our own hands his office on ourselves;
Why stand we longer shivering under fears
That show no end but death, and have the power,
Of many ways to die, the shortest choosing,
Destruction with destruction to destroy.”
– Milton,
Paradise Lost[1]

 

There are many ways to approach the topic of suicide. From the micro level of neurology, genetics, and psychology, to the macro level of anthropology and sociology, hard questions concerning the phenomenon of suicide receive no easy answers. The literature is vast, the analyses and prognoses varied, and the subject saturated with statistics, emotion, and intense debate. There is an entire field of study devoted to suicide – suicidology. An entire essay could be written just explaining suicide statistics, which is not the purpose of this essay. Apart from boring the reader and writer to death (pardon the pun) with discussions of statistics ad nauseam, reducing suicide to the numerical dehumanizes the subject of suicide, a subject that is all too real for many of us. Here, the focus will be on sociocultural factors in suicide, specifically in the west, but noting that suicide is a transcultural phenomenon dating back to antiquity. For the purpose of this essay, these sociocultural factors will be discussed in general terms as capitalism and patriarchy. Far from treating suicide as socially determined, however, it will be argued that suicide is a performative act, one that requires intense internal debate and reasoning. Suicide is an expression of agency, however limited that agency may be by external factors. Suicide then is not a free choice, nor is it inevitable. It is at once preventable and desirable, fascinating and repulsive.

Any discussion of suicide and society inevitably turns to or brings up Emile Durkheim’s Suicide. As contentious a study as it is (I wish not to dwell on or critique Durkheim here except to say that Durkheim’s study is more a contribution to methodology in sociology than it is to the subject of suicide) his definition of suicide is extremely useful and important: “Suicide is applied to all cases of death resulting directly or indirectly from a positive [e.g. shooting oneself] or negative [e.g. refusing to eat] act of the victim himself, which he knows will produce this result.”[2] This definition is important for two reasons: 1) it excludes deaths that arise from a person’s act in moments of delirium, intoxication, or accident, and 2) in order to commit suicide proper, one must be cognizant and lucid enough to make the decision to end their life. Durkheim conceded that suicide could be studied and understood at the psychological level (As Camus approached it: “The worm is in man’s heart”[3]), yet it was social factors that were the dominating force regarding the suicide rate.[4]

Of these dominating social factors, capitalism and patriarchy are the hegemonic ideologies (read: social pathologies) that dictate most forcefully individual choices. In Karl Marx’s only discussion of suicide, “Peuchet on Suicide,” in which Peuchet is quoted extensively, it is asserted: “Although penury is the greatest source of suicide, we find it in all classes, among the idle rich, as well as among artists and politicians. The varieties of reasons motivating suicide make a mockery of the moralists’ single-minded and uncharitable blaming.”[5] Marx/Peuchet goes on to list a number of other possible motivations for committing suicide, from jealousy to terminal disease. The notions of suicide as unnatural, selfish, or cowardly are scoffed at as, “Philisophical tirades have little value in [suicidal people’s] eyes and are a poor refuge from suffering.”[6] Likewise, Marx/Peuchet admonish such ideas as punishment, or threats thereof, to stave off suicide. The reasoning for this should need no articulation. Suicide is seen as just “one of the thousand and one symptoms of the general social struggle ever fought on new ground.”[7] Important to note here is Marx’s critique of the family as reflecting the same issues as society, implying that patriarchal domination as a social force seeps into the home, creating the same problems at the micro level, some of which lead to suicide.[8] Durkheim also highlighted the gendered nature of suicide, which sees men achieve suicide more often and more effectively, which is to be expected given “toxic masculinity” and the denial of emotions and fostered egotism that it demands. (“Only real men use guns, pills are for pussies.”)

At the time Marx published his essay in 1846, industrial capitalism was just beginning to flourish. Marx saw the way capitalism and its division of labour turned people into machine-like producers, seeing the factory as a prime example. A process that Adam Smith claimed would lead to an ignorant and stupid population.[9] This furthermore creates a separation from a person and their labour, they also become disconnected from themselves, and they become alienated. For Durkheim, in his theory anomie, a person in the same situation, being a former peasant turned urban wage-slave, becomes aloof from society, isolated, and wracked with normlessness and uncertainty. Following Freud and his work Civilization and Its Discontents, an embracing of both perspectives is crucial in an attempt to understand suicide, as it befalls upon or is taken up by a vast variety of human beings.

Both Marx and Durkheim could see society taking an evermore rigid, structural, bureaucratic form. Central to this industrialization of society was the homogenization of time. Here is not the place to recount the history of the clock, however important and however it may be interpreted, but the imposition of a social schedule is a major factor regarding the alienating effects of capitalism. Or, as E.P. Thompson poetically describes it: “When the watch is worn about the neck it lies in proximity to the less regular beating of the heart.”[10] Thompson’s work would highlight the importance of time in industrial society, arguing that without standardized time the modern state and capitalism could not have arisen. Arguably, this standardization of time has severe and deadly consequences. It also has a patriarchal aspect to it in regards to “working-hours,” being “on the clock,” and “women’s work.”

Recent developments in evolutionary psychology and biology attest to the alienating and disturbing effect of the modern state, of which the necessity of punctuality is but one part.[11] As Yuval Noah Harari, in his book Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind, puts it:

This is the basic lesson of evolutionary biology: a need shaped in the wild continues to be felt subjectively even if it is no longer really necessary for survival and reproduction. The tragedy of industrial agriculture is that it takes great care of the objective needs of animals [including humans], while neglecting their subjective needs.[12]

 

While Harari’s statement can be argued, seeing as many animals’ objective needs are not met (or explicitly denied), the main point – that we are biologically evolved to live as hunter-gatherers, not domesticated serfs – holds sway. What this means, to extrapolate and infer, in the context of social factors regarding suicide, is that, simply put, humans are maladapted to our infrastructure, our mode of social organization, and the dictatorial commands of the capitalist state; hence, the presence of “diseases of civilization,” such as obesity and anxiety and, most important to our discussion, depression.

In light of all this, it becomes easy to see at least some suicides as a form of rebellion or liberation, as the outcome of a rational decision, as an expression of agency. Take, for example, the self-immolation of Norman Morrison or Thích Quảng Đức. I hope I will be forgiven here for not expounding on these examples and simply deferring to the work of David Lester, in his chapter “Self-immolation as a Protest” in the anthology he also co-edited, Suicide as a Dramatic Performance. The suicides of Morrison and Đức, as Lester says, are heavily analyzed and discussed and so anything I produce will simply be a reiteration of such analyses and a recounting of a repeatedly told story. For the sake of brevity the details and specifics of their deaths will not be reproduced here, as the main plot is well known. Their stories and subsequent analyses are well aligned with the purpose of this essay; they are vivid and clear cut examples to show suicide as performative and an expression of agency amid structural violence.

However, it is one thing to see agency in the politically motivated suicides of Morrison and Đức, but what about the depressive? Is suicide in the midst of a depressive episode an expression of agency, or the outcome of atypical neurochemistry? To be quite honest, I do not believe anyone, experts or laypeople, can answer this question. Only those who have killed themselves know, and they cannot speak. That said, we look at the various opinions offered on the subject.

Voltaire and Zapffe provide the clearest examples of opposite opinions on the matter of depression and suicide. For Voltaire,The man who, in a fit of melancholy, kills himself to-day, would have wished to live had he waited a week.”[13] This assumption implies that depression is a fog or a lens that skews reality and those who commit suicide in depressive episodes are not thinking clearly. Voltaire counsels, as many do today, “a little exercise, music, hunting, the play, or an agreeable woman.”[14] The naïvety of such a “remedy” befoggles the mind, it also negates social forces and pins depression on the individual. In contrast, Peter Wessel Zapffe, in “The Last Messiah,” asserts, “When a human being takes his life in depression, this is a natural death of spiritual causes. The modern barbarity of ‘saving’ the suicidal is based on a hairraising misapprehension of the nature of existence.”[15] This seems grotesque from certain standpoints, and perfectly logical from others. Just as within the field of suicidology, which encapsulates in its definition suicide prevention, there are those who dissent and posit that suicide prevention does not logically follow from the study of suicide.[16] The ubiquitous, transcultural reality of suicide means accepting that in some cases there is no remedy. No amount of fresh air and vegetables will ameliorate the existential despair of the body that wants to die. Furthermore, there is the theory of depressive realism,[17] that those who are depressed are seeing things clearer than most. Emil Cioran, nihilist pessimist philosopher, whose musings on suicide are highly valuable (at least to me), once asserted that, “A man does not kill himself, as is commonly supposed, in a fit of madness but rather in a fit of unendurable lucidity…”[18] These speculations on the part of Voltaire, Zapffe, and Cioran highlight the nature of studying suicide and its etiology and prevention. The study of suicide is an examination of subjectivity and the tensions between self and system.

Returning to Marx, considering the arguments above and from the perspective of one who may wish to prevent suicide, Marx’s assessment, or rather Peuchet’s assessment, that “short of total reform of the organization of our current society, all other attempts [to prevent suicide] will be in vain”[19] seems fair. The problem with this assessment, however, is that there is no way to prove it. And, even if one could prove, without a doubt, that capitalism and patriarchy are central motivations for suicide, and that abolishing both and finding alternatives to these structures is paramount to prevention, the rich and the powerful are capitalist patriarchs. (I also have not broached the subject of suicide in stateless societies in any way, which is an important counter-argument to my thesis.) The whole problem with power of any sort is nobody ever wants to let it go. That was Marx’s main mistake in his purported “scientific” plan for revolt. The notion that anyone will seize power via the state and then relinquish it is more naïve than Voltaire’s good-hearted advice of music to alleviate depression. The attraction to power is a trait of the narcissist and the psychopath. Nobody in power cares if you kill yourself, unless, as Lester said regarding Norman Morrison, your suicide is obvious, public, motivated, and political in nature.[20] Would Marx prevent the suicide of Norman Morrison?

To describe suicide as a form of agency then, as an assertion of personal, even political, power, is to modify Durkheim’s definition of suicide. This has already been done by others and repeated by Ludek Broz and Daniel Münster in the recent anthology Suicide and Agency: Anthropological Perspectives on Self-Destruction, Personhood, and Power. Quoting De Leo et al. the modified definition of suicide is thus: “an act with fatal outcome, which the deceased, knowing or expecting a potentially fatal outcome, has initiated and carried out with the purpose of bringing about wanted changes.”[21] The ability, or at least the potential to effect change, any change, is the bread and butter of what we call agency. As Broz and Münster inform, “The World Health Organization has even replaced the terms ‘suicide’ and ‘suicide attempt’ with ‘intentional self-harm’ in its lexicon, which clearly highlights the centrality of intentional agency.”[22]

To bring all of this home, so to speak, let us turn to what the state of Canada, in its callous hypocrisy and denial has called, in various ways, an “epidemic of suicide” afflicting several First Nations reserves, keeping in mind the above discussion. To combat this “epidemic” Canada has called for a “state of emergency” regarding the crises (see Agamben and “State of exception). Again, here, for the sake of brevity the details and specifics will be omitted, as they can easily be found elsewhere. Here, I want to inquire and speculate about the motivations behind those who succeeded in their achievement, their “nirvana by violence.”[23]

If the contention concerning the etiology of suicide is correct, or partially correct, the effects of capitalism and patriarchy (both contained under the umbrella of colonialism), have wrought miserable circumstances upon First Nations people, leading to suicide rates that are astonishingly egregious. This seems obvious. What remains enigmatic is the act of suicide itself. If colonialism has created such a hostile environment, from a social deterministic point of view, all First Nations people who experience the psychosocial dislocation and anger wrought through the tragedy of the Canadian state would commit suicide. However, if we understand suicide as a form of agency, albeit limited, as a means to effect change at a macro level, the “epidemic of suicide” makes much more sense. And it is effective, just as Norman Morrison’s protest was effective – to a certain extent, anyway.

The Canadian state cannot be decolonized. To paraphrase Ward Churchill, it is not possible to enter the court of the conqueror, argue a case against their conquest, and then see the conquest relinquished.[24] It is, however, possible to kill yourself. In doing so, one brings attention to the social problems endemic to First Nations reserves in Canada (or whatever the context happens to be) and at the same time ends the misery of subjugation and despair brought about by those conditions. Was this multi-faceted understanding of the complexity of the problem at the forefront of the minds of those who killed themselves? Do the suicides of adolescents on reserves in Canada count among the ranks of Morrison or Đức? We can only speculate, and I choose to refrain from speaking for the dead with any kind of certainty.

There are a few popular clichés, pithy retorts, about suicide that become obviously false in the conscious investigation of suicide. We have all heard them before. “Suicide is selfish”; “Only cowards kill themselves”; “A permanent solution to a temporary problem.” These vacuous platitudes are insulting to me, as a person who has struggled, and continues to struggle, with addiction, depression, and suicidal ideation. I am inclined to agree with Cioran, that:

You kill yourself, we are forever being told, out of weakness, in order not to have to face suffering or shame. Only no one sees that it is precisely the weak who, far from trying to escape suffering or shame, accommodate themselves to such feelings – and that it requires vigour in order to win free of them decisively. In truth, it is easier to kill yourself than to vanquish a prejudice as old as man, or at least as his religions, so sadly impermeable to the supreme gesture [suicide].[25]

 

It is not until you are holding a knife to your wrists that you understand the courage it takes to refuse biology and society, to negate the contingency of mortality and free yourself from the bondage of flesh. Academic inquiry and debate have their place in regards to suicide, but the subjective knowledge that informs the truly suicidal is beyond metric or measure. Understanding the social forces that combine and collude to create circumstances that encourage, promote, or pressure human beings to kill themselves, is paramount to suicide prevention, insofar as suicide is to be prevented. I am of the opinion that some suicides should, on the contrary, be supported and cooperative, just as Đức’s fellow monks helped him prepare for his final assertion of will and power.

 

 

Bibliography

Suicide (1897). Accessed April 10, 2018. http://durkheim.uchicago.edu/Summaries/suicide.html.

 

Alloy, Lauren B. Cognitive Processes in Depression. New York: Guilford Press, 1988.

 

Broz, Ludek, and Daniel Münster. Suicide and Agency: Anthropological Perspectives on Self-destruction,

Personhood and Power. Farnham, Surrey: Ashgate, 2015.

 

Camus, Albert. The Myth of Sisyphus. London: Penguin Books, 2013.

 

Carrera-Bastos, Pedro, Maelan Fontes-Villalba, James H. O’Keefe, Staffan Lindeberg, and Loren Cordain.

“The Western Diet and Lifestyle and Diseases of Civilization | RRCC.” Research Reports in Clinical Cardiology. March 09, 2011. Accessed April 09, 2018. https://doi.org/10.2147/RRCC.S16919.

 

Churchill, Ward, and Mike Ryan. Pacifism as Pathology: Reflections on the Role of Armed Struggle in

North America. Oakland, CA: PM Press, 2017.

 

Cioran, E. M., and Richard Howard. The New Gods. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2013.

 

Durkheim, Emile. Suicide. Place of Publication Not Identified: Www Snowballpublishing, 2013.

 

Enright, D. J. The Oxford Book of Death. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008.

 

Harari, Yuval N., John Purcell, and Haim Watzman. Sapiens: A Brief History of Mankind. London: Vintage

Books, 2015.

 

Lester, David, and Steven Stack. Suicide as a Dramatic Performance. London: Routledge, 2017.

 

Maris, Ronald W., Alan L. Berman, Morton M. Silverman, and Bruce Michael. Bongar. Comprehensive

Textbook of Suicidology. New York: Guilford Press, 2000.

 

Marx, Karl, Eric A. Plaut, and Kevin Anderson. Marx on Suicide. Evanston, IL: Northwestern University

Press, 1999.

 

Smith, Adam. An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations. Chicago: Encyclopædia

Britannica, 1955.

 

Thompson, E. P. “Time, Work-Discipline, and Industrial Capitalism.” Past & Present, no. 38

(1967): 56-97. http://www.jstor.org.proxy.lib.sfu.ca/stable/649749.

 

“VOLTAIRE(1694-1778)from Philosophical Dictionary.” The Ethics of Suicide Digital Archive. August

21, 2015. Accessed April 09, 2018. https://ethicsofsuicide.lib.utah.edu/selections/voltaire/.

 

Zapffe, Peter Wessell. “The Last Messiah.” Philosophy Now: A Magazine of Ideas. Accessed April 09,

  1. https://philosophynow.org/issues/45/The_Last_Messiah.

 

 

[1] Eve is speaking, as quoted in The Oxford Book of Death

[2] As quoted by: Jones, Robert Emile Durkheim: An Introduction to Four Major Works. Beverly Hills,

CA: Sage Publications, Inc., 1986. Pp. 82-114 <http://durkheim.uchicago.edu/Summaries/suicide.html&gt;

[3] The Myth of Sisyphus, 2

[4] Suicide, 193

[5] Marx, Karl, Eric A. Plaut, and Kevin Anderson. Marx on Suicide. Evanston, IL: Northwestern University Press, 1999.

[6] Ibid 47

[7] Ibid 51

[8] “The revolution did not topple all tyrannies. The evil which one blames on arbitrary forces exists in families…” Ibid. 51. “What kind of society is it wherein one finds the most profound loneliness in the midst of many millions of people, a society where one can be overwhelmed by an uncontrollable urge to kill oneself without anyone suspecting it? This society is no society, but, as Rousseau said, a desert populated by wild animals.” Ibid. 50.

[9] “In the progress of the division of labour, the employment of the far greater part of those who live by labour, that is, of the great body of people, comes to be confined to a few very simple operations, frequently to one or two. But the understandings of the greater part of men are necessarily formed by their ordinary employments. The man whose whole life is spent in performing a few simple operations, of which the effects are perhaps always the same, or very nearly the same, has no occasion to exert his understanding or to exercise his invention in finding out expedients for removing difficulties which never occur. He naturally loses, therefore, the habit of such exertion, and generally becomes as stupid and ignorant as it is possible to become for a human creature to become. The torpor of his mind renders him not only incapable of relishing or bearing a part in any rational conversation, but of conceiving any generous, noble, or tender sentiment, and consequently of forming any just judgment concerning many even of the ordinary duties of private life. Of the great and extensive interests of his country he is altogether incapable of judging…” An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations. Chicago: Encyclopædia Britannica, 1955.

Book Five, 340

[10] Thompson, E. P. “Time, Work-Discipline, and Industrial Capitalism.” Past & Present, no. 38 (1967): 56-97. http://www.jstor.org.proxy.lib.sfu.ca/stable/649749.

[11] “It is increasingly recognized that certain fundamental changes in diet and lifestyle that occurred after the Neolithic Revolution, and especially after the Industrial Revolution and the Modern Age, are too recent, on an evolutionary time scale, for the human genome to have completely adapted. This mismatch between our ancient physiology and the western diet and lifestyle underlies many so-called diseases of civilization, including coronary heart disease, obesity, hypertension, type 2 diabetes, epithelial cell cancers, autoimmune disease, and osteoporosis, which are rare or virtually absent in hunter–gatherers and other non-westernized populations.”
Carrera-Bastos, Pedro, Maelan Fontes-Villalba, James H. O’Keefe, Staffan Lindeberg, and Loren Cordain. “The Western Diet and Lifestyle and Diseases of Civilization | RRCC.” Research Reports in Clinical Cardiology. March 09, 2011. Accessed April 09, 2018. https://doi.org/10.2147/RRCC.S16919.

[12] Harari, Yuval N., John Purcell, and Haim Watzman. Sapiens: A Brief History of Mankind. London: Vintage Books, 2015. 344

[13] Philosophical Dictionary, “Cato: On Suicide, and the Abbe St. Cyran’s Book Legitimating Suicide” https://ethicsofsuicide.lib.utah.edu/selections/voltaire/. Accessed April 09, 2018

[14] Ibid.

[15] “Philosophy Now” Issue 45 https://philosophynow.org/issues/45/The_Last_Messiah (emphasis in original_

[16] Maris, Ronald W., Alan L. Berman, Morton M. Silverman, and Bruce Michael. Bongar. Comprehensive Textbook of Suicidology. New York: Guilford Press, 2000. 4

[17] Alloy, Lauren B. Cognitive Processes in Depression. New York: Guilford Press, 1988.

[18] The New Gods 55

[19] Marx on Suicide 50

[20] Lester, David, and Steven Stack. Suicide as a Dramatic Performance. London: Routledge, 2017.
Lester cites Hendrickson, who claims that Morrison’s death helped changed Robert McNamara’s opinion on the war: “And yet what I fervently believe, and cannot prove, is that the fire [Morrison’s flaming body] in the garden became the deep sensitizing agent for a revelation that began seeping into the secretary of defense a fortnight later.” (1996:198-199) 275

[21] Broz, Ludek, and Daniel Münster. Suicide and Agency: Anthropological Perspectives on Self-destruction, Personhood and Power. Farnham, Surrey: Ashgate, 2015. 12

[22] Ibid 12

[23] Cioran, The New Gods 50

[24] Churchill, Ward, and Mike Ryan. Pacifism as Pathology: Reflections on the Role of Armed Struggle in North America. Oakland, CA: PM Press, 2017. 15

[25] The New Gods 54

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Resisting the Alt-Right: The Power of Definitions, Anarchy and the University

In finding ways to resist the emerging movement, collectively known as the “alt-right,” the most important and, arguably, the most difficult task is to form a coherent understanding of what exactly the alt-right is and what it is not. This step is important for two reasons, one being that in order to solve a problem it is essential to grasp, with clarity, the exact nature of the problem. Second, it follows that properly defining the problem with clear and accessible language, creates better discourse and dialogue. In the context of political resistance, proper definitions and clear understanding allow an opponent to better understand their enemy. Properly defining one’s opposition, beyond understanding motives and goals, allows one to situate oneself accordingly, as will hopefully be made clear by the end of this short(ish) piece.

 
Perhaps the biggest challenge in defining the alt-right, is not just the vast amount of ideologies the term encapsulates (neo-conservatives, anarcho-capitalists, neo-nazis, white nationalists, and more, all fall under the umbrella of the alt-right), but the semantic tricks some under the umbrella use to create confusion in public communication so as to appear as one thing (respectable, ethical), while advocating another (white nationalism). For example, through rhetorical panache, semantic arguments, and manipulating the ignorant, Richard Spencer has somehow managed to convince a fair number of followers that advocating for a “white, ethno-state” is not a form of white supremacy or even racist, and furthermore, that such a “purified” nation can be achieved through peaceful measures. Beyond his followers, through appearing respectable, wearing suit and tie, using multi-syllable words and dropping Big Names, like Freud or Nietzsche (ripped from their context and misread), to impress the easily manipulated, Richard Spencer managed to get large swathes of people saying that, even though he advocates for what can only amount to genocide or ethnic violence, he deserves a platform – the right to speak, be heard, and essentially be given space to organize to further his political ambitions. And he most certainly does not deserve to be punched in the face, as he was by an anonymous person in hood and mask, labelled, “Antifa member, ” by the media and most others. Otherwise sensible people will defend the views (if only tacitly by provided those views space) and “free speech” of a person advocating the removal or displacement of large swathes of people, while decrying the “violence” of a punch or scuffle, as long as that person seems “civil” and “polite.” It is a lesson many have learned in extremist circles, on both the Left and the Right. But I digress.

 
So we see above one aspect of the problem in defining the alt-right, in that they either use semantic tricks (advocating a white ethno-state through peaceful and voluntary movement of people, instead of calling for Nazi Germany Redux). Calling Richard Spencer a Nazi, therefore becomes a problem for two reasons – he can deny it, and he can rightfully accuse his opposition of labelling everyone on the right “fascists” or “Nazis.” It is a veritable accusation, even if in the case of Richard Spencer, the label “Nazi” applies, many times the label does not apply, is misapplied in honest ignorance, or more often the case, used in the pejorative sense to discount a person’s views simply because they’re disagreeable. This is the second reason why clear definitions and proper usage are important. If a person is in the habit of labelling everyone under the alt-right umbrella, “Nazi,” it becomes difficult for them to even begin to comprehend the emergence of actual Nazis and the potential for violence they bring, and as a result, tactics, strategy, and methods of resistance are not suitable.

 
This is, arguably, how there came to be liberals and centrists, even some socialists, who decry the “political violence” of Antifa, and condemn both sides as equals. Not only through a lack of historical knowledge regarding fascism and anti-fascism, but through the liberal usage of the terms “fascism” and “Nazi” they no longer signify the threat they should signify. People can only condemn the violence and suppression of speech, of shutting down a rally or punching Richard Spencer in the face, when the things he is advocating for are no longer understood as what they are, what ideas such as his always have been – fascism. What he advocates is no longer seen as the egregiousness it is because nobody knows what fascism is anymore, let alone how it is essentially the same as “white, ethno-state.” The liberal usage of the term, rendering it meaningless, is one reason. Another is that “fascism” has never been properly defined, as it is itself, much like the alt-right, an umbrella term. Slippery and elusive, trying to pin-down a definition of fascism proves to be much like modernity. No definition seems complete, there is always something lacking, something somebody missed, or in the case of the alt-right, things that are novel and different get thrown into the mix. (However, there are key points or tenets of Fascism that most would agree with: National and Racial identity is superiority, dominant over the individual. Strong central government heavily merged with private businesses with a propagandistic media arm, social programs for whoever belongs to the chosen people, as well as health care, employment, and other perks for being [whatever nationality/race], the need for an enemy, from within or without – this unifies a people under fear of attack, convinces them they are morally correct and civilized in comparison, and making virtues of obedience, honour, duty, strength, with the goal of the fascist society to unite as a common people in order to restore a mythological golden age or promised land. Walter Benjamin is the best source for understanding Fascism, in my opinion.)

 
This splintering, synthesizing, re-thinking ideologies is the case with the Internet and politics in general, but is especially noticeable today in regards to the extreme Left and Right. Both Anarchism and Fascism are seeing a recent resurgence, with new twists on old tales forming on both sides. The Post-Left and the rise of Stirnerite, individualist anarchism, nihilist anarchism, and a host of other anarcho-whatevers have emerged in recent years. Some consider anarcho-capitalists anarchists, but I can’t accept that capitalism can ever be non-hierarchical, hence, it cannot be anarchist. In fact, since they advocate for what is, for all intents and purposes, a corporate feudalism of sorts, I’d say they’re perfect examples of the frat-boy at Oxford thinking he is being edgy and rebellious by reading Murray Rothbard and that self-ownership is a radical idea because, you know, people, especially yourself is property. There’s nothing anarchist about that. As Proudhon said, Property is Theft.” But I digress… The neo-nazis and fascists, as well as others on the right are also experiencing something akin to this. Obviously, or we would not be in need of new definitions for a New Right (see: Peter Marshall’s Demanding the Impossible: A History of Anarchism, for a good run down of anarcho-capitalism and the New Right). The Post-leftists and nihilists in the last decade or so have come up with some genuinely interesting critiques of both the Left and Right, trying to form new understandings of postmodernity and articulate a second wave anarchy, or post-structuralist anarchism (post-1968 and the Situationists).

 

 

(Un)Fortunately, much of what is re-branded as “alt-right” is just better marketed conservative white nationalism. The majority of the “alt-right” is not the Nazis who showed up in Charlottesville, or the member of Atomwaffen (a neo-nazi gang, organized mainly online) who recently shot dead 17 people at a Florida high school. Most people who originally, before the emergence of actual Nazis and fascists, identified as alt-right, were white college kids – boys – undergoing a period of anomie and alienation in a changing society that no longer, or is less likely, to see their skin or their gender as a marker for power and privilege. Why did they cease to identify as alt-right, then, if what Spencer and others have advocated all along has not changed? Possibly it had something to do with the physical display of violence in Charlottesville by swastika adorned Nazis, and the realization that they really have been advocating for fascism all along, but convinced themselves “white ethno-state” meant something different. Something unique. (Interesting to compare to the Black Bloc tactics made famous in Germany by the Autonomists, and utilized often in North America since its successful employment in Seattle, 1999, shutting down the WTO, and kicking off a trend to “summit hop” … it may be a fair assumption that not too many on left who don’t partake in Black Bloc tactics, who may even hate their “hi-jacking” of peaceful protest by using “violence,” stop identifying as Left or Socialist because a few broken bank windows.) Essentialist identity politics, and its inevitable racism and authoritarianism, is not new. In fact, it may be the oldest manifestation of politics and power, recurring again and again, from Sumer to Iraq, all throughout the history of states.

 
The fact that the “alt-right,” and its extremists, are not anything new means that many tried and true tactics of resistance are readily available in any history book. While the liberals can lament the supposed suppression of “free speech” and “violence” when Richard Spencer or neo-nazi organizations like the Traditionalist Workers Party get their events disrupted, “no platform” is a successful method of fascist resistance. Fascists understand one important thing about this world: violence is very effective, and those willing and able to use it to obtain power will crush opponents that are unprepared, unable, and unwilling to engage in violence. Politics may be war by other means, but those wars are not always fought between states and standing armies.

 

 

We are seeing the violence of the politically powerless play out in the streets when we witness events like Charlottesville. Only they are not fighting for seats in Congress, as those tickets have already been sold. When we see these street fights as of late, much like the punk scene in the 80’s and 90’s, we are seeing the rise of racist hatred and dominance in reaction to a perceived political shift. When Nixon became president, the restoration of “law and order” the backbone of his election promises, it emboldened all sorts of squares and pencil-pushers to push back against the cultural changes taking shape. Nixon also had the public support of George Rockwell, a patriarch of American Nazism. Nixon’s presidency of “law and order” is unnervingly paralleled by Trump’s America. Racists are emboldened, and similar to the punks in the 80’s during Reagan and Bush, who had to fight, sometimes quite violently, to keep Nazi Skins from coming to shows, forming bands, or even living in their vicinity, people are giving “no platform” to fascists today. We are all punks now. And the tried and true tactics – of street fighting Nazis, of shutting down their events, of outing them to the public and shaming them, of getting them fired, in essence ostracizing them, as one would a misbehaving clan member in some tight-knit community – they’re working.

 

 

They’re working because the tactics are congruent with anarcho-communist (who constitute most of what can be called “Antifa”) principles, whereby direct action, negation of the state, and mutual-aid form the core praxis. By not relying on the state and taking matters into their own hands, Antifa creates more than effective resistance to fascism, it cultivates new ways to be, or at least new possibilities in the way we relate to each other beyond fighting fascists. Perhaps that is what is most dangerous about them in the eyes of centrists and liberals – they represent a living example of other modes of existence, modes that, under the assumptions of liberal democracy, should be chaos and disorder. Indeed, if you just read media reports, with no depth of knowledge of the subject, it does look like the rag-tag anarchists and the Nazis are two-sides of the same coin, equally violent and extreme. The dangerousness for the liberal comes from the dissonance of seeing anarchists, who have been maligned with disorder and chaos, fight against those who wish to dominate through violence.

 

 
Again, with a poor grasp of anarchy and anarchism, Antifa appear as hooligans, trampling on the precious “free speech,” – that inalienable right, the bedrock of American democracy, the metric by which we measure civility – of those we disagree with the most. As they repeat Voltaire, “I may not agree with what you have to say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it,” over and over to themselves, they forget that Anarchists don’t believe in rights, inalienable or otherwise, but reject intangible social contracts in exchange for voluntary associations and real-life, organic, structures, which born, grow, and when their time is up, they die. That’s the paradox of calling Antifa an organization, like most anarchist projects, each group is autonomous and soluble. There are no leaders, no fees, no central committee or board of directors. Antifa, properly defined, is more a stance, a position, than an organization. If you believe that the state has no place in the world, least of all in their ability to squash your upcoming fascist collective, you can firebomb their hang-out, or spray-paint giant penises on the building, and you are now Antifa. Congratulations. Again, poorly defined words become used incorrectly. When Trump or some other mouth-breather speaks of Antifa as a terrorist organization and wants their activities monitored, it is entertaining and also good to know that the anarchist position that government is unnecessary for many reasons, but one that should be apparent by now, is that nobody has any idea better than you do how you should live. The sheer incompetence and ignorance of Trump should elucidate this. I’m not optimistic. …Again, I digress.

 
The danger posed by anarchists is not so much their ability to shut down fascist rallies, but the liberal sees the community come together, taking lessons from anarchists about agency, power, and politics. And it creates a dissonance in the liberal, as Antifa shows in real-time, on the street, the raw power of solidarity and direct action in the absence of the state. Indeed, oftentimes the state’s allegiances are laid bare in these skirmishes and protests, as they guide sieg heiling neo-nazis safely through their pre-planned, state approved, and permitted march route to exercise their “freedom of expression.” Everything the liberal believes about the success of modernity, the progress narrative or the achievements of the Enlightenment (brings to mind Zygmunt Bauman’s contention that modernity was necessary for the Holocaust), if they’re aware enough to make the connections, is threatened when the police maintaining “order” are providing a safe platform for Nazi organizing and recruitment, and the only people who are prepared, able, and willing to engage in violent defense (and that’s what violence against Nazis is, it is defense) are the anarchists, who are characterized by media, pop-culture, and of course the state, as wantonly violent themselves.

 

 
No one clarified for the liberal that the word violence can be used to describe very different things, and that not all violence is equal or even comparable. The importance of clear definitions seems to be especially needed in the case of the liberal, who muddies discourse time and again with tired arguments against violence (violence begets violence; if you use violence you’re not any better; violence doesn’t work), but who has never heard any good arguments, or even bad arguments, for violence (violence can prevent further violence; a person who kills their rapist is not the same – morality is not total and objective; if violence was not effective the government wouldn’t use it everyday and maintain a monopoly on it). The liberal, who confuses anarchism for chaos, violence for property destruction, and Nazism as the end-result of socialist government, can hardly be expected to grasp the nuances of social and cultural war fought outside the parameters of accepted, legitimized, and sanitized tactics. For the ever-flummoxed liberal, petitions and boycotts are direct action and representative democracy and free-market capitalism, “may not be perfect, but they’re the best we’ve got!”

 
However, back to reality, in the face of a dwindling and fractured alt-right movement, as the Guardian reports on Tuesday, 20 March, 2018:
“Spencer gave his pitch for a white ethnostate to an almost empty auditorium. He issued 150 tickets, but only managed to get 20 people along. Spencer himself blamed the protesters for the event’s failure, just as he is blaming them for his movement’s declining ability to muster any numbers in public. [He has cancelled all events]” (Jason Wilson, “The ‘Alt-Right’ is in Decline”)

 
The liberal is forced to come to conclusions one way or the other. They can accept that the state having a monopoly on force is dangerous, as it leaves minorities (especially the poor and racialized) vulnerable in the face of legitimate threats such as the KKK, or Blood and Honor, or the police. If they admit this, they would have to acknowledge the racist history of gun control in America (assuming they follow some form of deductive reasoning at some point); they might even find out the civil rights movement was awash with guns and MLK’s home a “cache of weapons” according to Charles Cobb in This Nonviolent Stuff’ll get You Killed. Of course, they’d have to pick up a book other than Rawls or Pinker, quit feeling morally superior in their privilege of being able to condemn violence against Nazis. They would have to take off their rose-tinted glasses first.
Other scary conclusions the liberal may come to are, that somehow, history is just a string of isolated events, and each time this happens it is fundamentally new and different each time. They may conclude that while the police clearly protect white nationalists, corporate property, and their own gang of class-traitors, all the police killings and botched internal investigations are, like economic booms and busts in the market, a disconnected string of isolated incidents.

 
Now that it has been shown that a lack of proper definitions, even if not agreed upon by everyone all the time (which isn’t very realistic; but they can at least be defined within the context they’re being used), is a major reason why people with no real convictions, or stake in matters such as Nazis organizing in Portland, who also seem to always, in their ignorance, have an extremely rigid and loud opinion. And that opinion is usually akin to “Antifa are the real fascists.” They have had the world, or at least their political vocabulary, defined for them by lazy pop-journalists and twitter pundits and are thus political philosophy experts, because it is nice to be the superlative when it comes to binary thinking using improper jargon. It is nice to know one’s voice is heard, especially when you’re white, middle-aged, unhappily married, no one takes you seriously anymore, you can’t get an erection, and you can’t stand the fact your kids are grimacing when you call the landscaper a “wetback.” What is the world coming to when you can’t even be overtly racist anymore without social disgust? All these people shutting down racist rallies are the new Gestapo! And to top it all off, those criminal anarchists fighting modern manifestations of manifest destiny in your own town are getting support from black academics such as Colonel West, praising their courage to stand up and defend Othered people against the “free expression” of Nazi hatred.

 
Before I end this rant, which I haven’t opened a book, or researched for, except to pull the quote from the Guardian, no lament of the improper use of ill-defined political terms and their misconceptions and misuse, would be complete, if I did not capture in my critique, a perhaps reluctant but witting, party in the dissemination of bad political discourse: the education system and anarchism. Here, the issue is not mainly, though definitely secondary, the ill-definition of Anarchism. Anarchism, as taught in political science, may lack depth in definition, but I’d argue it is better defined than Fascism, if only because Fascism is taken seriously, while Anarchism is treated as quaint and idealistic, something of a thought experiment, as it is conceded the only long lasting Anarchistic society (Catalonia 1936) that was given any room to breathe only “failed” because it was crushed by Fascists and Communists. Granted, there were hiccups and internal contradictions and tensions, yet for a place surrounded by war, the anarchists showed that even while defending their land from much better equipped enemies, they successfully pulled off anarchist practices on a fairly large scale.

 

 

Today, similar events are unfolding in Rojava, with revolutionary Kurds taking anarchist theory, such as that of P.J. Proudhon’s mutualism, and gender equality, and putting them to the test. However, Anarchism is usually taught, if it is taught at all, as a blip, and a chaotic one at that, in the early labour movements in the U.S. and in the Russian Revolution. There are more examples than I can list, just in my 2 or 3 years coming back to school, where the word anarchy has been used to describe a state of lawlessness and chaos by professors of political science. The textbook I used in an intro to contemporary political ideologies course gave about 20-30 pages to each ideology, including Fascism and Islamic Fundamentalism. Anarchism received 4 pages, under a subheading in the section on Socialism. And the information was false. The book, which students who wouldn’t now know better, written by people who should, described the FLQ (Font Liberation du Quebec) as anarchists, not because they were – they were Marxist-Leninists – this textbook, written by professors, Doctors in political science, felt warranted to call the FLQ anarchists because they were violent. The same text also refers to Ted Kaczynski, the Unabomber, as an anarchist. Also false, as Kaczynski has written numerous critiques of anarchism of different strains too. His critique of anarcho-primitivism is actually highly regarded by many (the guy is a PhD, after all). Even today, in my English class discussing Percy Shelley, he was referred to as a champion of democracy. As an adamant admirer and son-in-law of William Godwin, who wrote An Enquiry Concerning Political Justice, a book which lays the foundation for much of classical anarchist thinkers to build on, names such as Petr Kropotkin (Mutual-aid: A Factor in Evolution), Leo Tolstoy (Patriotism and Government). Shelley was an anarchist. My textbook on social theory, covers black feminisms and queer theory, there’s writings by Heidegger, an unrepentant Nazi, but in speaking early 20th century feminism? Not a single mention of Voltairine de Cleyre, Emma Goldman, or Lucy Parsons, all champions from the era that contributed valuable thought and who were heavily active in many different causes. The professor teaching that class doesn’t even know who Max Stirner is, one of the most influential thinkers among the Young Hegelians, whose work The Ego and its Own, is a classic repudiation of all states and systems that enslave the individual. Karl Marx and Engels wrote letters about him. A good 1/3 of Marx’s The German Ideology is basically a polemic ad hominem attack on Max Stirner. How can someone teach a class on Karl Marx, possess a doctorate in sociology, and have no idea who Max Stirner is?

 

 

Anarchism is written out of academia, and shrugged off as idealistic, optimistic, and impossible. Yet we spend countless hours slugging through Marx, a false prophet, whose purported scientific socialism was bastardized and eventually killed mass amounts of people, including Anarchists. We learn about Karl Marx but not Mikhail Bakunin. The evidence keeps piling up that anarchist philosophy, which both the philosophy and those who have been ardent proponents of it, is intentionally written out of our so-called education, meanwhile, who is defeating fascists in the streets? Anarchists. Who is most disturbed by the anarchist’s use of violence? Liberals. Of the two, it is Liberals steeped in the ideology of humanism and progress, as they are pillars of the modern university, which most anarchists reject for obvious reasons. For an institution that propounds and exalts the notion that critical thinking is a skill that can be taught, it is fairly obvious that with all the money students give in tuition, the university fails to put its money where its mouth is.

 

 
In closing, then, in a struggle to define properly the conglomerate of ideologies and organizations that make up the alt-right, we have found that once the problem becomes articulated as the fascist fringe emerging from their cave-dwellings; the most likely to be educated (liberals) are the least likely to effectively stop fascism, not in any early stage of formation or organization, and most certainly, if history is any indication, if fascists do take power, the liberals will hand them the keys to the house and step politely out of the way. In contrast, it is the Anarchists, whose intellectual and social contributions to philosophy, science, sociology, anthropology, are omitted, downplayed, or mocked. Whereas, it is people carrying on that rich and vibrant tradition of Anarchism, who have been ill-defined, maliciously misrepresented, jailed, executed, murdered, and equated to Nazis for having the courage and the knowledge of what fascism is and how to contain it, it is those Anarchists that Liberals see as “just as bad” as Fascists, bend on destruction and chaos. Perhaps, if the modern university spent more time producing quality ideas, which actually conformed to the standards the university claims to uphold, people receiving an education in social or political science would receive an education that doesn’t omit entire strands of relevant thought to the subject being taught.

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Genocide, Authority, and Agency: Abolishing Human Nature

 

“Nobody knows themselves. Sometimes when somebody is really nice to me
I find myself thinking, ‘How will he be in Sobibór?’”
– Toivi Blatt

From 1941-1942, the Reserve Police Battalion 101, made up of “ordinary men,” set out to kill Jews on the eastern front. These ordinary men often took considerable pleasure from killing in horrific ways, such as lining men, women, and children up and executing them with gunshots to the back of the head.[1] Anti-Semitism alone cannot fully explain why men would take part in such atrocity. Regularly, when such dumbfounding acts take place, there is talk of it being simply a part of “human nature.” But what is human nature? Human nature is often treated as static, fixed and set into the human condition – it “implies that our species is characterized by a common core of features that define us.”[2] If human nature were concrete, there would be no exceptions to the rule. Yet, repeatedly humans have defied what is conventionally, or contemporarily, recognized as human nature. Clearly, an essentialist concept of human nature is inadequate in explaining the motivations of ordinary men who make up such death squads as the Reserve Police Battalion 101.

Breakthroughs in understanding the psychology of such aforementioned ordinary men, who submit to authority and do its bidding, came in the 1960’s and 70’s in the form of experiments lead by Stanley Milgram and Philip Zimbardo, respectively. These experiments showed that human behaviour is not merely ingrained, but moulded and shaped by physical environment, a person’s upbringing, and social pressure.

The Milgram experiments, in which a subject was put in a room with a perceived authority figure and ordered to give electric “shocks” to a non-visible confederate, showed that over half of the subjects would obey authority to the point of “killing” the confederate – albeit with some instances of extreme trepidation.[3] The implication here being that when put in a position of subordination, over half the population is fully capable of murdering a complete stranger at the behest of an authority figure, as long as the culpability lay on authority and not on the person following orders. This is unnerving, however it does not say much about so-called human nature, seeing as about 40% of individuals refused to administer fatal “shocks,” with some refusing to give any shocks at all.[4] This experiment, however it may make for good television and scary stories, elucidates Zygmunt Bauman’s contention that “the process of rationalization facilitates behaviour that is inhuman and cruel.”[5] Rather than showing that there is an essentialist human nature bent on killing, the Milgram experiments show the effects of environment and social conditioning. So ingrained in our culture is the value of obedience to authority, that it is shown to override our personal moral sensibilities.

The Stanford prison experiments, facilitated by social psychologist Philip Zimbardo in 1971, further attest to the role of environment and social pressure on human behaviour. Without delving into too much detail regarding the experiment,[6] it must be noted that the experiment was shut down after one week due to the cruelness and hostility of the “guards” and the physical and mental harms done to the “prisoners.” These were ordinary men put in extraordinary conditions and their behaviour reflected this:

The construed superiority of the guards rebounded in the submissiveness of the prisoners… The guards forced the prisoners to chant filthy songs, to defecate in buckets which they did not allow them to empty, to clean toilets with bare hands; the more they did it the more they were convinced of the non-human nature of the prisoners, and the less they felt constrained in inventing and administering measures of an ever-more appalling degree of inhumanity.[7]

 

The social roles people fulfill create self-reinforcing behaviours, in both positions of dominance and submissiveness. As Zimbardo himself would articulate, “within certain powerful social settings, human nature can be transformed… good people can be induced, seduced, and initiated into behaving in evil ways.”[8] Yet, even in Zimbardo’s prison experiment there were guards who “resisted” and did their best to “help the prisoners when they could.”[9] If Zimbardo can speak of a “transformed” human nature, then, again, clearly an essentialist view of human nature is inadequate to describe human behaviour, and must be considered flexible or fluid in response to social context and environment.

Or perhaps, the concept of human nature itself is not very useful. Many authors have recently taken opposition to human nature. As Peter Richerson states, “Useful concepts are those that cut nature at the joints. Human nature smashes bones.”[10] Tim Ingold, in “Against Human Nature,” writes, “… human capacities are not genetically specified but emerge within processes of ontogenetic development. Moreover the circumstances of development are continually shaped through human activity. There is consequently no human nature that has escaped the current of history.”[11] Or, as Wolfram Hinzen argues, “… human nature is obsolete because, if it exists, it must be grounded in biology, and biology does not vindicate any such thing. Hence a human nature does not exist.”[12] In my view, what ties these eclectic authors’ views together is an uneasiness to approach human predicaments with an absolutist or essentialist understanding of humans. The Milgram and Zimbardo experiments lend credence to this unwillingness to ascribe “core features” to humanity.

In the context of genocide and its history, eschewing an essentialist human nature has at least two positive effects: 1) genocide is not seen as an outcome of inevitable forces that arise deep from the human condition, but as a complex interaction between a species and its environment, and 2) moving away from a kind of soft determinism leaves humans able to create and build societies – environments – that do not lend themselves to inhuman cruelty through “cold rationality” and strict hierarchies of power. Gillian Barker, in Beyond Biofatalism, grapples with modern limiting essentialist human natures evoked by evolutionary psychologists, and responds to “pessimism about social change that, while not involving a commitment to genetic determinism, is nonetheless based on a particular set of presumptions about the biological underpinnings of human behaviour.”[13] Baker calls the above “biofatalism” and is convincingly insistent that such pessimism is unwarranted and unsubstantiated. Beyond Biofatalism shows a “different picture of human nature, one that shows us to be more open to some important varieties of social change”[14] than most leading thinkers purport. Echoing Zimbardo, Barker speaks of a “feedback loop,” wherein “[o]rganisms respond to their environment, but they also change them… organisms respond to the environments they themselves have changed, and their responses then affect how they go on to change those environments.”[15] This grants agency to human beings, rather than stripping it away under the cloak of human nature.

The role of the immediate environment was central to Milgram and Zimbardo’s findings, yet social development was also central to Adam Jones’ understanding of rescuers: “Rescuers were significantly more likely than non-rescuers to describe their parents as benevolent, loving, kind, tolerant, compassionate, non-abusive, prone to explain rather than punish, extensive rather than restrictive in their orientation towards others.”[16] These values instilled a sense of conviction and autonomy in rescuers, which in turn lead rescuers to disobey illegitimate authority and help when and where they could. It is not unreasonable to assume that fostering the above values on a societal scale would create such a “feedback loop” between our species and our environment that would “accomplish major reductions in inequality, intergroup conflict, [and] gender role differences”[17] and therefore eradicating much of the pretext for genocide. If we want to do more than simply understand authority, obedience, and genocide, it would behoove us, as human beings, to abolish from our lexicon any notion of a fixed human nature, and see ourselves as reactive and active within the environments we create.

[1] Adam Jones, Genocide: a comprehensive introduction. London ; New York: Routledge, 2017. 542

[2] Peter Richerson, “Human Nature,” This Idea Must Die: scientific theories that are blocking progress. edited by John Brockman. New York: Harper Perennial, 2015. 88

[3] Jones 543

[4] There were many variations on this experiment. For instance, when the confederate could be seen, only 2.5% of people administered the full “450 volts.”
Milgram’s Experiment on Obedience to Authority. Accessed November 23, 2017.
<https://nature.berkeley.edu/ucce50/ag-labor/7article/article35.htm&gt;

[5] Zygmunt Bauman, Modernity and the Holocaust. New York: Cornell University Press. 2000. 155

[6] The format of the experiment can be found here:
Saul, McLeod, “Stanford Prison Experiment.” Simply Psychology. January 01, 2017. Accessed November 23, 2017. https://www.simplypsychology.org/zimbardo.html.

[7] Bauman, Modernity and the Holocaust 166-7 as quoted in Jones 547

[8] Philip Zimbardo, Lucifer Effect 210-11 as quoted in Jones 548

[9] James Waller, Becoming Evil 238 as quoted in Jones 547

[10] Richerson 88

[11] Tim Ingold, “Against Human Nature,” Evolutionary Epistemology, Language and Culture: a non-adaptationist, systems theoretical approach, edited by Nathalie Gontier, Jean-Paul van Bendegem and Diederick Aerts. Dordrecht: Springer, 2006. 259-281

[12] Wolfram Hinzen, “Human Nature and Grammar,” Human Nature: Royal Institute of Philosophy Supplement: 70, edited by Constantine Sandis and M.J. Cain. UK: Cambridge University Press, 2012. 56

[13] Gillian Barker, Beyond Biofatalism: human nature for an evolving world. New York: Columbia University Press, 2015. 3

[14] Ibid. 5

[15] Ibid. 53

[16] Jones 558 (emphasis in original)

[17] Barker 3

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Modernity and Democide

Here, in the affluence of what some may claim is the most advanced civilization, on the highest rung of the ladder of human progress, we live with some pernicious, self-indulgent and congratulatory myths. First among these myths: the myth of human progress and a baseless view of modernity as positive, inevitable and absolute. Second is the myth of democratic nonviolence and noble cause. Third, a belief that together, human progress and supposedly peaceful democracy brings to light a modernity to be cherished and celebrated. However, lack of critical analysis and valuable self-doubt, critique, and awareness has led to a complacent populace and an even more acquiescent intellectual class. Here, in the land of “coke and honey,”[1] we’ve convinced ourselves of our achievements and put ourselves above the rest. There is a sinister arrogance and naïve optimism present that must be dispelled. We are not immune from regression. We are not immune from horrible acts of violence – from committing them or from suffering them. The sooner we understand our fragile and delicate position the sooner we can embolden ourselves and resist the ever-present “banality of evil”[2] we’ve duped ourselves into thinking we are above.

Growing up in a self-oblivious, wilfully ignorant country such as Canada, we are repeatedly told of our moral superiority. And our peaceful, liberal, heart-on-the-sleeve interventions are sold to us as ‘humanitarian’ as we ride the coattails of war against Nazism, on a moral magic carpet, dancing above the rest of the world. We are cocksure that, given our highly democratized state and multiculturalism, such egregious and heinous mechanized violence, such as the Holocaust, could never happen here. We conveniently forget Japanese internment camps or the treatment of the Doukhobours. We tell ourselves bedtime stories, so we sleep well and proud, rested for another day of wage-slavery and ignorance. Yet, if one was to dig deeper, one would find Canada’s own genocidal history as a stooge for British colonialism and, therefore, a purveyor and proponent of “progress” and “civilization” – a progress and civilization that could only have happened on the bones and blood of indigenous peoples.

See, democracy works ‘best’ in a homogenous society. Take, for example, modern day Myanmar. It is an infantile nation in the process of “democratizing” and, in this process of “democratization,” thousands of Rohingya Muslims have been killed by Buddhists who make up the majority of this burgeoning country. One of the main reasons for this is that Rohingya Muslims are a perceived threat to Myanmar Buddhists regarding elections and politics. They have mutually exclusive interests and pursuits. And while it is tempting to blame religion (always an easy scapegoat) the truth is that environment, culture and socio-political realities are also heavily at play. Here, the specific details are not pertinent, though they deserve to be understood and analyzed elsewhere. Here, the purpose of this example is to provide a contemporary situation to the reader of something that has happened time and again throughout history. Time and again, and not only in emergent or early democracies but also in established democratic states, an “other” has been targeted and deemed fit for removal – physically, socially, culturally, or any and all combinations thereof. Arguably, this is necessary for a functional democratic state.[3] Through public desire for homogenization and exclusion of the “other,” democracies, especially in their fetal stage, lend themselves to violent exclusion.

Louis-Ferdinand Céline once wrote, “I have never voted in my life. I have always known that the idiots are in a majority so it’s certain they will win.”[4] It is with this simple understanding one can perceive democracies – established democracies – contain the very mechanisms by which they destroy themselves. (In simple terms, people vote to demolish their democracy.) In the context of genocide, this happens through a process, which can be brought together under the rubric of Democide.

Here, we are concerned with bringing together two definitions of Democide. One, elucidated by R.J. Rummel, is the “intentional killing of people by government,“ as it extends to all manner of murder brought upon the individual by the state, from capital punishment to street executions.[5] Second, there is the definition of Democide put forth by Mark Chou, where Democide is not an outward killing but an act of suicide. For Chou, Democide is a process whereby democracies, due to their intrinsic contradictions and faults, have a tendency to self-destruct.[6] In this essay, Democide refers to the combination of both definitions, as through both mechanisms combined it becomes evidently possible for democracy to become a catalyst for atrocity.[7]

Moreover, along with a pattern of self-destruction, democracy brings with it an illusion of progress. It convinces its subjects they have reached pinnacle achievement, ‘modernity’:
… repeatedly reiterated in today’s democratic discourses is the belief that, once consolidated, democracy will naturally yield order, peace, liberty, reason, and deliberative practices. Being entwined with the project of modernity, it is hard to view democracy as anything other than a vehicle that ferries human societies to the sandy shores of progress and rationality.[8]

So what? It sounds decent, right? Progress, democracy, rationality, order, reason. These all sound laudable, desirable, and worthy, right? However, one must pay attention to the words ‘entwined in the project of modernity.’ What is Modernity?

In his tome on the subject of genocide, Adam Jones quotes Alex Hinton,
“Modernity is notoriously difficult to define.”[9] We are presented with a definition of modernity from four perspectives: Political, Economic, Social, and Cultural. Hinton describes modernity as the emergence of a “set of interrelated processes” and dates the flickerings of its emergence to the 15th century, the early Renaissance. Modernity seems a conglomeration of views and values, by-products of the Renaissance and the Enlightenment. Espousing a liberal humanism and secular faith in the state and science, Modernity is the existential answer to Nietzsche’s God problem. Rationality, bureaucracy, and science replace faith and submission, and the intelligentsia struggle to replace a void once filled by religion and simple, God-given morality. Kant, Hume, Schopenhauer, and an entire gaggle of privileged academics put forth mechanisms, suggestions, rejections, and questions for, of, and to morality. This is the birth of the modern age. Nietzsche’s concern regarding the death of God was not that God was dead but that humans could not replace Him.[10]

But we did. We replaced God with “progressive” causes and science and utopian schemes that claimed to mesh both. We killed each other en masse in the name of liberty, fraternity, and equality. We praised the virtues of objective rationality above all, in a blind empiricism that had utility. We reaped the benefits of the scientific method and a neutral, “valueless” science. We applied Bentham to our streets and Descartes to our minds. We multiplied. And we multiplied. And we multiplied. Yet, no one seemed to notice that amongst all the progress and pushes for positive programs, we never figured any of the ‘big questions’ out. Every moral theory presented was picked apart. Scientists who proclaimed objectivity held dearly to personal views, convictions, and biases. We found new reasons, rationalizations to kill each other. Humanity, this new invention of the Enlightenment, was lost astray. Confined and bound in political philosophy and newfound “sciences” like Sociology and Anthropology. We had killed God and we thought we could replace Him. Heroes and charlatans alike swept us asunder. Marx and Engels convinced thousands upon thousands that their dialectic was scientific. Some are still convinced. Adam Smith’s apostles misread him. So did Darwin’s. Many are still misreading both. We fought, killed, and died on a global scale unprecedented and unimaginable in World War I and all its surrounding skirmishes. In the grip of technological progress and scientific achievement we found Modernity.

“Mass murder is not a modern invention,” Zygmunt Bauman reminds us.[11] Yet, he insightfully articulates that “Our evolution has outpaced our understanding; we can no longer assume that we have a full grasp of the workings of our social institutions, bureaucratic structures, or technology.”[12] Bauman reminds us of Max Weber’s caveats regarding modern industrial democracies: “modern bureaucracy, rational spirit, principle of efficiency, scientific mentality, relegation of values to the realm of subjectivity etc. no mechanism [is] capable of excluding the possibility of Nazi excesses [genocide].”[13] There is nothing intrinsic to democracy to keep it from killing itself or killing others, in part or in whole. Furthermore, blind faith in progress and rationality – staples of modern societies – aid in delusional effects upon sycophants and commanders alike. Notions of, ‘it can’t happen here,’ or that democracy is a safeguard against oppression and terror, are mythological sentiments, provably false and dangerous.
[1] “Music is banned in Khomeini’s Iran/
On the grounds that it stimulates the brain/
We’ve done him one better in the land of coke & honey/
Using music to put people’s brains to sleep…”
Dead Kennedy’s “Triumph of the Swill” Bedtime for Democracy

[2] Cliché saying taken from Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil Hannah Arendt

 

 

[3] Democracies – new, old, or beginning – that have “othered” and exterminated people, could fill a soul with dread and fill these pages. There is nothing about our situation convincing enough to argue we are different. I challenge the reader to present me with a modern democratic state that does not have a history of genocide of some kind.

[4] Celine

[5] Rummel, R. J. “Democracy, Power, Genocide, and Mass Murder.” The Journal of Conflict Resolution 39, no. 1 (1995): 3-26. http://www.jstor.org.proxy.lib.sfu.ca/stable/174320. <Accessed Sept. 25, 2017>

[6] Chou, Mark. Theorising Democide : Why and How Democracies Fail / Mark Chou. Palgrave Pivot. 2013. 10

[7] This is the author’s own understanding and contention.

[8] Chou, Mark. Theorising Democide : Why and How Democracies Fail / Mark Chou. 22Palgrave Pivot. 2013.

[9] Adam Jones pg 596 n5

[10] Geneaology of Morals

[11] Bauman 88

[12] Ibid 82

[13] Ibid 10

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Against Solutions

I am against solutions to our current crises, however you may describe them (ecological disaster, kamikaze capitalism, white patriarchal oppression).
I am against providing solutions.
I am against accepting solutions. Not only do I have a nagging sense that there are no solutions, I am of the opinion that we have been provided solutions numerous times before by silver-tongued charlatans and sophists pushing an agenda. I am against accepting solutions provided for me without my consultation and commendation. I am against being answered for.
I am against providing solutions for precisely these reasons elucidated above. I am against being asked for solutions I can only respond to in a language that has trapped me. I am against providing solutions in an environment hostile to ‘otherness.’
I am against providing solutions because others, long dead, provided solutions for me.
We all collectively suffer under a ghostly yoke of laws and customs, provided by dead aristocrats as solutions.
I am against providing solutions.
I am against accepting them.

I am for absolute destruction.

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