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Stateless society and the uprising in Egypt.

February 5, 2011 10 comments

Can the events in Tunisia and Egypt reshape the way libertarians, anarchists and communists think both about a stateless society and how this stateless society can emerge?

I think it should.

The popular uprising, somewhat discredited as a means of achieving a stateless society until recently, appears to be in vogue again. What makes it of particular interest to me is that the uprising is itself a voluntary cooperative act by members of society against an intolerable state machine. It doesn’t take much curiosity to wonder if this voluntary association can do more than simply challenge the existing order.

Can it replace the existing order as was attempted with the Paris Commune?

I have been reading the French philosopher Alain Badiou’s recent talk “Alain Badiou on Tunisia, riots & revolution”. As usual, this monumental thinker clarifies a lot of things in my opinion. Just reading his talk aided my own understanding of the Egyptian uprising going on now.

Here is how Badiou analyzes the Tunisian uprising:

The particular problem of the riot, in as much as it calls state power into question, is that it exposes the state to political change (the possibility of its collapse), but it doesn’t embody this change: what is going to change in the state is not prefigured in the riot. This is the major difference with a revolution, which in itself proposes an alternative. That is the reason why, invariably, rioters have complained that a new regime is identical to an old one…

The power of the uprising, Badiou argues, “is essentially negative (‘make it go away’)” All uprisings are acts of despair and desperation and this desperate act is a striking out against, and throwing off of, the intolerable burden of the existing State.

The problem with this act is that it does not, of itself, address the question: “What now?”

The riot is a desperate rage against an intolerable State, which, even when successful, has no affirmative design beyond getting rid of the existing order. Absent a positive conception of a new order to replace the old one it offers no obvious solution to the problem of the intolerable power whose overthrow it has just effected. The danger posed by the absence of a positive aim after the overthrow of the old order is that the old order merely reconstitutes itself in a new form. In a remarkable passage in which he identifies Egypt as a potential target, Badiou explains this reconstitution of the old order:

The Western press has already responded by saying that what was expressed there was a Western desire. What we can affirm is that a desire for liberty is involved and that such a desire is without debate a legitimate desire under a regime both despotic and corrupt as was that of Ben Ali.  How this desire as such suggests a Western desire is very uncertain.

It must be remembered that the West as a power has so far given no proof that it cares in any way whatsoever about organising liberty in the places where it intervenes. The account of the West is: “are you walking with me or not?”, giving the expression “walk with me” a signification internal to the market economy,* if necessary in collaboration with counter-revolutionary police. “Friendly countries” like Egypt or Pakistan are just as despotic and corrupt as was Tunisia under Ben Ali, but we’ve heard little expressed about it from those who have appeared, on the occasion of the Tunisian events, as ardent defenders of liberty.

Without a positive conception of its aspirations the uprising will fall prey to the reconstitution of the old order that is not merely the Mubarak regime, but the empire headquartered in Washington, for which the Egyptian state is only the local outpost. The hallmarks of this reconstitution are constitutional reform, replacement of the most odious personalities, a reshuffling of the cabinet, and a promise of “free and fair elections” — what Badiou calls the “Western inclusion”. Beneath all of this reshuffling, however, the existing State continues undisturbed.

Badiou asks: “Is there another possibility?” He answers: “Yes.”

If it is true that, as Marx predicted, the space where emancipatory ideas are realised is a global space (which, incidentally, wasn’t the case with the revolutions of the Twentieth Century), then the phenomena of Western inclusion cannot be part of genuine change. What would genuine change be? It would be a break with the west, a “dewesternisation”, and would take the form of an exclusion.

If there were a different evolution than the evolution toward Western inclusion, what could that attest to? No formal response can be given here. We can simply say there is nothing expected from the analysis of the state’s process which, through long and torturous necessity, will eventually result in elections.

What is interesting about Badiou is he never feels the need to tack on some finishing touch to his analysis. He goes only so far as his analysis takes him and leaves it there. This gives his analysis the appearance of being unfinished, but it is actually his most powerful argument. Badiou simply tells us that, so far as he can see, there is no reason why an uprising has to end up with “free and fair elections” and the perfunctory reforms orchestrated by Washington. In the case of the Tunisian riots, he concludes only by stating that what the riot lacks in terms of an affirmative statement can only be discovered by studying the events themselves:

What is required is an patient and careful inquiry among the people, in search of that which, after an inevitable process of division … will be carried by a fraction of the movement, namely: statements. What is stated can by no means be resolved within Western inclusion. If they are there, these statements, they will be easily recognisable. It is under the condition of these new statements that the development of the organisation of figures of collective action can be conceived.

So, what can we learn from Egypt about the possibilities for a stateless society in light of Badiou’s analysis of Tunisia? In my opinion, the following:

In his inquiry Badiou poses the alternative affirmation as an essentially negative act: “an exclusion” or break with the West. It is expressed in the form of a declaration of intention by the uprising that is fundamentally incompatible with the existing order — with globalization and empire itself.

However, so far as I can tell, the uprising in Egypt is this negative act of exclusion already. By challenging the legitimacy of the Mubarak regime the uprising called into question the entirety of relations of which Mubarak and his henchmen are only the local expression. Confirmation of my conclusion can be seen simply by reviewing Washington’s response to the uprising — the Obama administration certainly believes that its fundamental interest are at risk.

What Badiou demonstrates, therefore, is that the uprising must become aware of itself as an active challenge to “the West” — to globalization and empire. To become more than a mere riot, the uprising must recognize that it is the first act of a voluntary association — the first act by which this voluntary association establishes itself as a new basis for society. Badiou demonstrates that it is not a question of organization, but a question of consciousness on a mass scale that is wanting.

The question we all have to ask ourselves at this point is simple: What separates the uprising of January 25 from the Paris Commune?

In the case of the Paris Commune, the uprising recognized itself as the solution to the intolerable burden of the State. It did not merely sweep away the existing order, but set about to manage society itself in voluntary association. It invited the rest of France to join with it.

Every local uprising like January 25 should aspire to become a non-local event – to declare itself as the new basis of social organization and to appeal to the oppressed of the world to join with it. The call for a transitional government, constitutional reform, new elections, etc., should be rejected. The January 25 uprising must avoid being defined as something of significance only to Egypt; it cannot win if it is confined to Egypt — it must strip off its national form. In response to the secret negotiations directed by Washington, the January 25 uprising will have to aggressively declare its intentions to go global.

If the January 25 movement does not acquire a consciousness of its own global significance it will be isolated and suppressed. It has to aspire to more than changing local personalities and declare that the empire, headed by Washington, is the enemy.

What is truly revolutionary in the uprising in Egypt is that it can become a universal event, spreading beyond Egypt – a general rising of the oppressed. To do this, the uprising will have to reject every attempt both to confine it to Egypt and pacify it with minor changes in the existing State.

The target is Washington and its empire; the aim is to replace this empire with the voluntary association of individuals.

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Can government be reduced without limiting hours of Labor?

January 27, 2011 Leave a comment

Is it possible to get rid of government, either by abolishing it outright or gradually reducing it, without, at the same time, ridding society of Labor? This is a question posed by libertarians and marxists who declare their opposition to abolishing one or the other.

First, let’s define what I mean by Labor. As I am using the word, Labor is not work; I define work as any form of productive activity during which we create some useful object by mixing our human effort with natural objects. It is the metabolism of life: the exchange between nature and humans which is essential to life itself. Labor, on the other hand, does the above as well, but the aim of the activity is to create value — a commodity with a price.

Among Marxists, one would think this question had already been settled by the experience of the Soviet Union. There, despite Marxist expectations that the State would whither away once wage slavery was thought to be abolished, the State never even shrank. It continued to expand up until the point it collapsed entirely. Even if we accept the idea that the Soviet Union was confronted by an implacable enemy, it is hard to accept this as an explanation for the Soviet occupation in Eastern Europe, its massive accumulation of troop and military power, and the willingness of Moscow to sacrifice basic material standards of living of the country, when the United States is presently bogged down and slowly being defeated by isolated bands of mostly illiterate guerrillas in the mountains of Afghanistan — much as the USSR was previously. How, under any reasonable scenario, was the US supposed to occupy and pacify a population of freely associated, well-educated, highly skilled persons, spread over one sixth of the planet’s surface and eleven time zones?

But, marxists seem unable to absorb this lesson of history. Among libertarians, I am often in conversation with, and reading the posts of, those who are quite seriously opposed to the State, but fierce opponents of any limitation on hours of Labor.

In all honesty, folks, how is this supposed to work?

Total federal, state, and local government employment (not including the military) in 2008 stood at 22.46 million persons according to the Census Bureau (pdf). At the same time, total employment in the US stood at 145.36 million persons (pdf). Government provided approximately 15 percent of all direct employment — and this does not even begin to take into account those persons who owed their jobs directly or indirectly to government expenditures: those employed as a result of contracts with various agencies of federal, state, and local bodies — Blackwater, GE, Raytheon, and the entire Fortune 500 come to mind — and those whose jobs are at least in part the result of demand generated by various transfer programs, like Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid, school lunch programs, etc.

If we could remove all of these expenditures overnight by means of a magic wand, what would happen to the economy and the tens of millions of other jobs only indirectly affected by this? Where would all of the goods produced for this massive body of entirely superfluous laborers be sold? Even if we did not remove it entirely, but only limited it by refusing to raise the debt ceiling and preventing the expenditure of some 3 trillion additional dollars by Washington over the next two years, what now fills that void?

If libertarians and others who are seriously determined to get rid of the State have no answer to these questions, what answer will your congressperson have when Obama and Boehner grab them by the lapel and show them, in very graphic terms, exactly what their vote against raising the debt ceiling will do to employment?

The argument can be made that any limitation on hours of labor requires State coercion and limitations on the individual’s right to enjoy her property — every wage contract is a voluntary agreement between two property-owners, even if one of the parties has no choice but to make the agreement. However, thirty, forty, or fifty percent unemployment is also the coercive application of market competition. If some make the argument that capitalist coercion is somehow more “natural” than State coercion, I need only remind them that the State, having been around for thousands of years longer than Capital, is clearly far more “natural” than the latter.

I am not for coercion in any form — political or economic. I am not trying to abolish State coercion in order to allow the mechanisms of economic coercion room to expand, further intensifying the already Hobbesian environment of Civil Society. The vast majority of the population of the United States is dependent on selling their Labor Power — even those who are self-employed. The idea that they will come to see Washington as a greater threat to their well-being than the Koch brothers, WalMart, or BP is laughably naive. Start abolishing regulations, reducing the minimum wage, breaking pension plans, and slashing Social Security, and you will see how little love folks have for a stateless society that leaves them at the mercies of the owners of capital.

This really doesn’t require a doctorate in economics: those who are really serious about a stateless society, and not simply using it as a screen to advance their own agenda, will understand that State coercion cannot be abolished without also abolishing the coercion of the market in Labor Power.

Update: Courtesy of Zero Hedge, a list of Russell Index companies that generate 50 to 100 percent of their revenue from the federal government.

Update 2: Someone asked me a good question: Am I suggesting there should be no reduction in the size of government until hours of work can be reduced? Absolutely not. It would be a mistake not to do the two together, but the biggest mistake would be to do nothing until both can be done together. If the debt ceiling increase can be voted down today, it should be voted down; in time it will be obvious that hours of work must also be reduced.