In Defense of Anarchism is an extended essay that is not so much the titular defense of anarchism as it is an offensive against the moral authority of...moreIn Defense of Anarchism is an extended essay that is not so much the titular defense of anarchism as it is an offensive against the moral authority of the state, i.e., that there is a case where the state can command an individual even against that person’s moral beliefs. Since Wolff insists on the total autonomy of the individual, it’s not surprising that he can’t find any polity that can claim the de iure right to compel obedience, with one exception. That exception is the case of a unanimous universal democracy. A condition found only in small groups, and – even there – one that breaks down in a short time.
I’m catching up on a depressingly large backlog of reviews and I don’t want to devote a lot of time to this so I offer up the notes I took while reading, which may interest readers sufficiently that they will read the book themselves:
• [author] can find no de iure justification for “the state”
• i.e., there exists no form of government that in some manner doesn’t deny individual autonomy, even democracies
• all states rest on violence (cf. Jensen), economic coercion and the myth of legitimacy
• a state can be de facto legitimate in the sense that the majority of its citizens accept its prescriptions but there is no moral imperative to obey, esp. since most citizens forfeit autonomy when accepting state authority
• [author] holds out possibility of such a state because social and political conventions are manmade, not natural, and some genius could someday create the conditions where individual and state were reconciled
• I think the issue is unresolvable. We can aim for an ideal – the least amount of coercive authority and the greatest amount of individual autonomy* – but we must recognize that we’ll only achieve an approximation. We should strive for a society that can best handle that constantly moving target.
• Whatever legitimacy a state possesses comes from its ability to promote the welfare of all its citizens and provide opportunity for them to influence its policies. If power is concentrated in the few or the one, then a state has little or no legitimate authority.
* And this point is not universally accepted. A Neo-Confucian, for example, would be appalled at the idea of individual autonomy (at least as conceived by myself or Wolff). And even in the Western democracies there are far too many (IMO) who would grant the state enormous coercive and intrusive powers.(less)
There’s a scene early in Asimov’s Foundation when Hari Seldon is on trial for sedition (he’s been prophesizing the collapse of the Empire) and the pro...moreThere’s a scene early in Asimov’s Foundation when Hari Seldon is on trial for sedition (he’s been prophesizing the collapse of the Empire) and the prosecutor asks him about the group of people he’s assembled, if they’re there to save the Empire. Seldon replies (and I paraphrase freely since I don’t have the book in front of me):
“Oh, no, the Empire’s toast. The most we can do is make sure the ensuing dark age doesn’t last as long as it might without our intervention.”
Another author who’s brought to mind is Olaf Stapledon, who, in Last And First Men, recounts the fall of the First Men – having exhausted all the energy and mineral resources of the planet, they were unable to cope mentally or physically with the ensuing catastrophes:
“The collapse of this first world-civilization was due to the sudden failure of the supplies of coal. All the original fields had been sapped centuries earlier, and it should have been obvious that those more recently discovered could not last for ever…. (A) superstition had arisen in the clouded minds of the world-citizens that it was in some mysterious manner inexhaustible….
“The sane policy would have been to abolish the huge expense of power on ritual flying, which used more of the community’s resources than the whole of productive industry. But to believers in Gordelpus such a course of was almost unthinkable. Moreover, it would have undermined the flying aristocracy….
“(T)he race was now entering upon an unprecedented psychological crisis, brought about by the impact of the economic disaster upon a permanently unwholesome mentality.” (pp. 70-71) (Note 1)
There’s also Mike McQuay’s duology, which I read 15+ years ago, Pure Blood and Mother Earth. That series ends with civilization destroyed, and the survivors reduced to the Stone Age.
And then there’s H.M. Hoover’s Children of Morrow>, one of my favorite books when I was a kid. It’s the story of a post-apocalypse world where ecological collapse has left the planet oxygen starved, and the survivors struggle to eke a marginal living out of the depleted soil.
And what would a review be without a reference (two actually) to the Malazan Book of the Fallen?
“There is something profoundly cynical, my friends, in the notion of paradise after death. The lure is evasion. The promise is excusative. One need not accept responsibility for the world as it is, and by extension, one need do nothing about it. To strive for change, for true goodness in this mortal world, one must acknowledge and accept, within one's own soul, that this mortal reality has purpose in itself, that its greatest value is not for us, but for our children and their children. To view life as but a quick passage alone a foul, tortured path...is to excuse all manner of misery and depravity, and to exact cruel punishment upon the innocent lives to come.” The Bonehunters
Separated at birth? Perhaps not but both have the same goal – to bring down civilization.
I’m reminded of all these books (and more) because all reflect Derrick Jensen’s view of human civilization. As he succinctly puts it on p. 231 of volume one:
“We are fucked. We are so fucked. “Not in the good sense of the word.”
Or in a more nuanced – and less scatological – version:
1. Industrial civilization is unsustainable. It’s not a question of “if” but a question of “when” it’s going to fall. 2. The fall is going to be messy. 3. The longer it takes civilization to fall, the worse the tragedy. In that light there are two things we should be doing: Bringing about the fall sooner rather than later; and preparing to survive it.
He puts forth his case in 20 premises (which I list below in abbreviated form), and the pages following present his evidence and his arguments. (Note 2)
Civilization is not sustainable.
Traditional communities do not voluntarily give up their resources.
Industrial civilization requires persistent and widespread violence.
Civilization is based on a hierarchy. Violence done by those higher on the hierarchy to those lower down is invisible or rationalized as necessary; violence done by those lower on the hierarchy is taboo.
The property of those higher on the hierarchy is more important than the lives of those lower down.
Civilization is not redeemable; it cannot undergo a transformation to a sane and sustainable way of living.
The longer civilization takes to fall, the worse the crash and the longer it will take for humans and nonhumans to recover.
The needs of the natural world are more important than the needs of the economic system.
The current level of human population will be reduced drastically.
That reduction will be violent and involve privations – not necessarily because the means are violent but because violence and privation are the defaults in our culture.
Civilization is driven by a death urge, an urge to destroy life.
Civilization is a culture of occupation.
There are no rich; there are no poor; there are just people. The “rich” make claims against the “poor” and enforce them with police and other instruments of authority, aided by the deluded collusion of the poor.
Those in power rule by force.
From birth, humans are conditioned to hate life, the natural world, themselves and others. If they weren’t, they would be unable to destroy the world around them.
Love does not imply pacifism.
The material world is primary.
It is a mistake to base decisions on what to do about the situation on whether or not it will frighten fence-sitters.
Our sense of self is no more sustainable than our use of energy or technology.
Civilization’s problem above all is the belief that controlling and abusing the natural world is justifiable.
Economics drive social decisions that are justified by how well they are able to control or to destroy the natural world.
I wish I had the time and the endurance to look at each premise and discuss it here in this review. But he covers such a wide range of topics in such a discursive manner that it’s difficult to summarize them or to mount rebuttals (if you have a mind to). Like many reviewers on this site (at least the ones who’ve written anything), I agree with Jensen that civilization is moribund. Even if it is not doomed to utter collapse, its fate will be an unhappy one for the foreseeable future.
But there’s something troubling about his prescriptions.
For me, the first is an overly romanticized view (IMO) of indigenous cultures. For example, he mounts a hysterical (in the Victorian sense of the word) attack against Charles Mann’s analysis of pre-Columbian tribes and their exploitation of the natural environment (in 1491: New Revelations of the Americas Before Columbus), excoriating Mann for suggesting that Native manipulations of forest and wildlife were in any way similar to industrial civilization’s manipulations of the same environments – examples of humanity’s desire to control nature. He even goes so far as to call Mann “evil,” which (I think) is going a bit far. I don’t know – and I doubt Jensen knows – what Mann’s position on the merits of the respective exploitations is. I’ve read the book in question and, if anything, would be inclined to think Mann prefers the Indian’s management over the cock-up we’ve made of things.
The second concern I have is that Jensen’s language is the fanatic’s or fundamentalist’s. I understand his fear and his anger; that the elites who control the wealth and thus politics and economic development seem to be unreachable by anything short of violence; and that most of us act like battered wives, refusing to see how destructive and deadly our relationship is, but I fear his certitude – that he’s right and there’s only one thing we can do – hinders convincing more people that we have a problem. I’m accepting of his premises because I was already a convert but if I were one of his “fence-sitters” or a mainstream environmentalist, I’d probably shut out his arguments when confronted with the anger and his advocacy of violence (Note 3). His attitude is too cavalier and dismissive of the consequences. Violence has a way of spiraling out of control, of hurting unintended targets, and of provoking responses that are even more violent. It prompted me to reread Emma Goldman’s essays on the subject because she ultimately rejected violence in most circumstances (Note 4).
At the end of reading these volumes, Jensen’s question – What are you going to do? – is still the correct one, however.
What am I going to do?
The problems are overwhelming but the solutions are awful to contemplate.
I don’t know…. I sincerely don’t know. ________________________________
Note 1: While prescient, Stapledon did give our species 4,000 years of supremacy before he drew down the curtain. In think in Jensen’s view, we’ll be lucky to have 40 years of continued civilization before everything we know of the world and how we live in it ends.
Note 2: Mostly “arguments.” The hard facts and figures he usually relegates to a citation in the notes.
Note 3: Jensen is very coy about this advocacy. He argues that violence is about the only method left to effect real change at this point, but he doesn’t tell anyone to commit a violent act. He says that, after reading Endgame, it’s up to you to decide how you are going to respond – if that includes blowing up a dam, committing arson, toppling cellphone towers or hacking into computer networks, that’s your choice.
Note 4: Emma Goldman is one of the saints in my pantheon (it’s she and not Jane Austen’s Emma after whom my cat is named). Her essays on violence and the prison system read as if they were written only yesterday, and she anticipated Derrick with some of her conclusions, e.g., “(I)f the production of any commodity necessitates the sacrifice of human life, society should do without that commodity, but it can not do without that life” or “The ultimate end of all revolutionary social change is to establish the sanctity of human life, the dignity of man, the right of very human being to liberty and well-being.”
And, unlike Jensen, who claims never to have had the nerve to commit a violent act, Emma “walked the walk.” It’s that experience and her observations of the Russian Revolution that informed her subsequent conclusions. “Though Goldman grew skeptical about the value of individual acts of violence…she never doubted the necessity for collective revolutionary violence against capitalism and the State…. After her experience of Bolshevik terror in Russia…she began to reexamine her feelings about sustained collective revolutionary violence as well…. ‘I know that in the past every great political and social change necessitated violence…. Yet it is one thing to employ violence in combat as a means of defence. It is quite another thing to make a principle of terrorism, to institutionalize it, to assign it the most vital place in the social struggle. Such terrorism begets counter-revolution and in turn itself becomes counter-revolutionary.’”
And, “The one thing I am convinced of as I have never been in my life is that the gun decides nothing at all. Even if it accomplishes what it sets out to do…it brings so many evils in its wake as to defeat its original aim.”(less)
I quote some graphic excerpts in the review below. If you have a low threshold for such, skip the blockquotes. You’ve been warned.
It is impossible for...moreI quote some graphic excerpts in the review below. If you have a low threshold for such, skip the blockquotes. You’ve been warned.
It is impossible for me to objectively review this book for the reason that I do not think it’s possible for any sane human being to justify war, violence, or any culture or tradition that denies a voice to half of our species if they read this book. (Or similar ones: From my own bookshelf I can list The Great War for Civilisation: The Conquest of the Middle East and Vietnam at War, and there are more.) When you read books like this, it’s also difficult to swallow what passes for reasoned discourse in our public sphere where you see the appalling arrogance, ruthlessness and ignorance of our governing classes (who are only too happy to keep the hoi polloi equally arrogant, ruthless and clueless).
In War Is Not Over When It’s Over, Ann Jones argues that war is only the most visible face of violence and that its consequences destroy lives well after any peace accords have been signed and all the politicians have gone home. Even when it’s over, war ingrains the habits of violence and dehumanization, which leak over into civil life. Jones doesn’t address the issue in relation to the U.S. but you can easily find stories about increasing domestic violence and rape perpetrated by returning veterans or by soldiers in the field.
The origins of this book come out of Jones’ work with the UN and the International Red Cross (IRC) in their efforts to aide and protect refugees and the victims of the myriad wars afflicting our planet. Jones visited several countries where she organized groups of women who would photographically document their lives. It wasn’t meant to be a witness to the atrocity of violence (though that was a part of the project) but the women were meant to document their communities’ needs and the positives in their lives. At the end of the projects, the women hosted an exhibition displaying their efforts. In every case, Jones found that the experience made its participants more confident. In some cases it helped bring about real change. For example, in one village in Côte d’Ivoire, its chief, Zatta, declared that the violence documented in the photos must end and began including women in his council (which he continued to do even after the UN mission left, according to Jones). Among the Burmese refugee camps along the Thai border, the women learned to document rape and abuse cases and have made some progress in having offenders prosecuted. Both examples point up to the forces of inertia and tradition women struggle against. Everywhere she went, Jones faced societies that relegated women to second-class status and blamed their oppression on them (an attitude the enlightened West still falls prey to all too often).
I’ve written enough – let a few representative excerpts speak for themselves now:
From Sierra Leone:
“Official reports document appalling crimes: fathers forced to rape their own daughters; brothers forced to rape their sisters; boy soldiers who gang-rape old women, then chop off their arms; pregnant women eviscerated alive and the fetus snatched from the womb to satisfy soldiers’ bet on its sex. A brother is hacked to death and eviscerated; his heart and liver are placed in the hands of his eighteen-year-old sister, who is commanded to eat them. She refuses. She is told that her two children and her sister have been abducted. She's taken to the place where her sister and two other women are held. She sees them murdered. Their heads are placed in her lap. Such crimes deliberately violate primal taboos; they aim to crush not only the individual victims but also those who physically survive the violence. They are meant to destroy a way of life and the values that inform it. Yet the individual victims are important in their own right, and in most cases they are women and children.” (pp. 96-7)
“Charlotte had become a leader in CFK, working on the cases of young girls who had recently been raped, not by militiamen but by civilians right there in Kamanyola. A twelve-year-old girl was raped by her teacher. A nine-year-old was raped by a young boy. A seven-year-old was raped by a middle-aged man. An eleven-year-old was raped by her father. A seven-year-old was raped by her pastor. Charlotte was one of the women who visited the parents, persuaded them not to compromise, and helped them take their child’s case to court. But the rape of these young girls by civilians – by teachers, pastors, fathers – this was something new in the community, since the war, and the women of CFK were struggling to understand it. Later I told Charlotte and others about the way the habits of war carry over into peacetime, the way the habits of soldiers are taken up by civilians. I told them about the civilian rapes of little girls in Liberia, snatched even from church, and in Sierra Leone. Unknown before the war, civilian rapists and child rape in Kamanyola – like gang rape – were becoming normal.” (pp. 146-7)
And two examples from our “glorious liberation” of Iraq:
“The violence done by ordinary men to other ordinary men like Othman and Sayed destroys the victims. Men told me of being kidnapped as teenagers, beaten, confined without food or water, and coerced to provide sexual gratification to their captors. They spoke without apparent feeling, having retreated behind some psychic barrier where safety lay. Although most men won’t tell - `A raped man is not a man,’ one said – UNHCR in Amman had recorded nearly three hundred cases of sexual violence against men. Captivity and torture of men in Iraq always seemed to have about it this peculiar quality of homoerotic sadism, the effluence of a culture that adores men far more than women yet sets them officially out of reach.” (p. 215)
“Mona was attacked in her Baghdad home by a gang of men in black who broke down the door at four o’clock in the morning. They dragged her about by her hair and slapped her around, demanding to know where her husband was. She told them the truth, that he had fled to Lebanon for fear of kidnapping. She said she had stayed behind so that her children could finish school…. They told her to write down the names of people in the neighborhood and whether they were Sunni or Shia…. She refused. They broke her arm, they ripped off her nightclothes, they twisted her broken arm behind her back, and they raped her. She begged for mercy, saying, `I am Muslim, like you.’ One of them said, `You are a Sunni infidel. If you were a Muslim you would not let your daughter do gymnastics.’… `They raped my sister, too,’ she said, gesturing toward the corner where a skeletal figure lay on the floor, staring at us with vacant eyes. `She was an invalid; she couldn’t use her legs. The rape finished her. All those men. Now she just lies on her mat and pisses herself.’ That night, Mona feared for her children, but after the men left the house, the two little boys crept out of the cupboards, and she found her daughter on the roof, hiding in the water tank. She phoned her husband, and he blamed her. A year later, long after her brother helped her move the family to Damascus, her husband came to join her. He raped her too, and she became pregnant, but before long he beat her so badly that she miscarried. He left again for Lebanon and sent notice of their divorce. Her daughter was not able to finish school.” (pp. 223-4)
Jones also points out the iniquities and hypocrisy of the U.S. government. In Iraq we’ve (the U.S.) managed to refuse a significant number of refugees by the simple expedient of accusing them of violating the PATRIOT Act: “Families that had redeemed relatives from kidnappers were excluded on the grounds that paying ransom amounted to providing `material support’ to terrorists…” (p. 232). Refugees in Jordan get more aid than those “fortunate” enough to reach the U.S., and many of those advise their relatives still in Iraq to reject the U.S. if they can.
When you’ve come to the end of a book like this, the inevitable question is, “What can I do?” It’s a depressing situation, and it seems intractable. On my part, inadequate as it may be, the IRC has joined the list of charities I support. It’s amazing what they manage to accomplish in the face of misogynistic tradition and political indifference. And I’m going to pester my representatives to stop frakking around with our obligations under the UN and international law, and to support family planning even if it does include (gasp!) abortion counseling. (I’m fortunate in that all my reps are Democratic women so I hold out the hope that they might listen – an admittedly faint one, I’ll grant you.)
There are a few flaws in the book that, I believe, weaken its impact (and make it a 3- rather than a 4-star on my shelves):
There’s a certain lack of passion or connection in the first few chapters that only begins to lift when we reach Congo and makes the second half more intense and memorable. Perhaps Jones had a more personal interest invested in these later venues. Whatever the case, the greater passion she’s capable of while still maintaining the necessary distance makes me want to see what she’s written about her experience in Afghanistan – Kabul in Winter: Life Without Peace in Afghanistan.
Not enough photos. I don’t mean that I wanted to see photos of torture or rape victims but I did want to see more evidence of the conditions these people endure and of the good things they were able to find in their lives.
I wish there was a section dedicated to resources and sources. They are there but buried in the Notes section.
These are decidedly minor quibbles and certainly shouldn’t deter you from reading this important witness to the atrocity of violence.(less)
The Age of American Unreason is another road-trip audio CD adventure so I couldn't take notes, I got distracted on occasion, and I can't review the te...moreThe Age of American Unreason is another road-trip audio CD adventure so I couldn't take notes, I got distracted on occasion, and I can't review the text as I write this. Consequently, this review will be brief (perhaps blessedly so) and lacking in much detail but, for what it's worth, here it is:
Jacoby traces three streams of American culture: A low-brow, ignorant-and-proud-of-it tradition that's wary of education and distrustful of the educated; a high-brow tradition of educated elites, who have striven against feelings of inadequacy vis-a-vis their European counterparts; and a middle-brow tradition that values education and rationality but doesn't invest so much effort in acquiring arcane knowledge as, say, a professor of philology. According to Jacoby, examples of this latter group include the Lyceum movement of the 19th century and the post-WW2, newly middle-class families subscribing to The Book of the Month club and buying the Encyclopedia Britannica on the installment plan of the mid-20th. I suppose a group like GoodReads might qualify as a 21st century manifestation of this middle-brow phenomenon: A community of like-minded people discussing literature, politics, movies, current events, etc. but not weighed down by experts or esoteric debates about deconstruction or "contextual discourses" (usually).
Jacoby argues that in the last 30 years or so, the lowest-brow, most ignorant (and ugliest) aspects of the American tradition have been winning the "culture wars" to the detriment of politics, science and education, and civil society.
I think Jacoby makes a good case for the dangers of anti-intellectualism and how modern culture exploits it to dumb down everything - politics, education, popular culture, civil society, personal relationships, etc. I'd like to think that we're just at the nadir of a cycle she tracks throughout American history, and that the generations growing up wholly immersed in an Internet-enabled world will revolt against the unrelenting "stupidifying" (?) of our lives. That, perhaps after the dust settles, we can re-establish a public arena where positions are based on facts not faith and poseurs like Palin and Beck are, once again, relegated to public-access cable stations in rural Montana, viewed by sleepy-eyed dairy farmers who need some background noise over their morning coffees.
I don't know if I can maintain that hope.
In an odd coincidence I just came into possession of a Modern Library Book edition of Dostoyevsky's Crime and Punishment with the original dust jacket (95 cents per copy). The Modern Library series is a perfect example of the middle-brow culture Jacoby celebrates in her book - nicely bound, hardcover books of "outstanding contributions to literature...at a price within everyone's reach" (from the dust jacket).
Just consider some of the authors in the series: Aristotle, Chaucer, Dinesen, Dumas, Forster, Hardy, Melville, Moliere, Proust, Steinbeck, Tolstoy and Voltaire. What mass-market publisher would even consider such a series today? And how many families would consider acquiring them?
Stephanie Meyer's Twilight may be a more prophetic title than we realize.(less)