Capitalism, Anarchy & War

IOZ devotes a bit of time to snarking at that Karl Smith post everyone’s been linking to and talking about:

When people say that the job, purpose, goal, intent, etc. of something is to do something entirely different and often at near total odds with what it actually does, because someone once proclaimed these unsubstantiated and never-happening outcomes to be the job, purpose, goal, intent, etc., it calls into question their analytic framework. When someone says that the drug war is a failure because instead of stopping drug use, it destabilizes narco-producing regions of the world, brutalizes the underclass, perpetuates inequality, and foments the expansion of the police-prison state, then that person has mistaken a slogan for a product. When someone muses that our "strategy" in Iraq or Afghanistan is a failure because it is not producing "a durable, non-violent resolution to . . . political conflicts", then that person is a fool. And when someone says that late, post-industrial capitalism fails to "bring together willing buyers with willing sellers in order to produce value," then I wonder in what idealized world of pure form and meaning has this man been living, because obviously, if you consider the current American economy and the global system in which it is embedded, the production of "value" is incidental to the continued concentration of material wealth and political influence. That is the point. It isn’t a failure of the system. It is the system. […]

And you can be very worried and confused by this. It might strike you as unsustainable. Politically destabilizing. Socially dislocating. Deeply inequitable. Harmful to the long-term project of republican governance.

Which, I’d say, is precisely the point. Cui bono, motherfuckers? Last time I checked, there were still some fuckers getting rich. Meanwhile, the American citizen is increasingly a cash-poor, at-will worker whose docility is enforced by his total dependence on the whims and good will of his employer. Capitalism! Ain’t it grand?

Yep, crony capitalism is alive and well in America.

IOZ is also absolutely correct about the drug war and the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Whenever anyone labels something a war it should be immediately distrusted. There are only two kinds of wars: Defensive wars and wars of Plunder.

There is no such thing as a Nation-Building war or a Spreading-Democracy war. There is no just war except a war fought in self defense – not preemptive defense, not some abstract defense of freedom. And if our wars in Iraq and Afghanistan are not defensive wars (and they aren’t) then they must be the other kind. Likewise, if our war on drugs is not a war of defense (and again, it isn’t) it must be the other kind as well.

When our government wages a war overseas against terror or domestically against drugs (or overseas against drugs and domestically against terror) or when they tell you that they’re trying only to stabilize Afghanistan or resolve the conflict in such a way as to make a graceful exit, etc. these are lies.

When we are told that the mission in Iraq is drawing to a close while tens of thousands of American troops remain, and tens of thousands of international private mercenaries are required to prop up our continued diplomatic presence in that country – this is also a lie. And even if the politicians and bureaucrats who have inherited these wars think they are doing what is right and what is just, well they should know better. They should see the lie more clearly than anyone, because they’ve inherited it, too.

Likewise, it is a lie to call our capitalist economy truly free or to excuse the government from its elaborate collusion in propping up monopolies and crowding out small businesses and entrepreneurs from the marketplace. The military-industrial complex is one of the favorite targets of progressive antipathy, but this sort of incestuous big business/big government relationship is alive and well across the economy. Even the healthcare reform bill, which I supported, is a great example of big business and big government working together to profit off the little guy. (I supported it because I think it can be improved upon and made to work more for the little guy and less for the big insurers, medical cartels, and other supply side beneficiaries, whereas the status quo made such reforms impossible.)

I’m not an anarchist, but I’m quite sympathetic to anarchism as an ideal. If we could strip away all the stupid government regulations and subsidies and protectionism from the market – those things which allow capitalists and corporations to so utterly dominate commerce and rob people of their capacity to say, run a bakery out of their house instead of forcing them to rent commercial space and invest in expensive equipment, we would have a much freer, much less corporatized world. We would cleave away the foundation upon which so many of these corporations sit, upon which so many of these hugely overpaid and overrated CEO’s rest their laurels.

Where my anarchist tendencies run their course, however, is when it comes to our basic services and our basic safety nets. I am a staunch supporter of public education though I am very critical of the way we have implemented it and believe we could learn a thing or two from the unschooling movement (and of course, private schools are generally no better in this regard); of public healthcare (though I think it would benefit greatly from the open-source movement) and so forth. I think the government should be in the business of paving roads, even if we’ve paved far too many. The public sphere is important and, at least in this world where most people are not civic minded enough to be good anarchists, we should maintain and nourish it in whatever ways we can. We should not ‘privatize’ it – government may often be bad, but private enterprise operating within the protective wing of the state and under the guise of privatization is often much worse.

For instance, here in Arizona they are talking about ‘privatizing’ some of our state parks. (I use scare quotes because this word does not mean what they say it means…) This would amount to giving out rents to private businesses so that they could charge fees and earn profits off of people wanting to come spend time on public land. In an ideal world, these parks would simply be protected from development and people could come and go freely, little to no maintenance required. Perhaps volunteers could be brought in to help clean up and so forth. But in a less ideal world – in this world – I think managing state parks with state employees is far preferable to ‘privatization’. Ditto that for ‘privatized’ prisons. If we want to save money on prisons we should look at ways to make fewer Americans criminals, rather than making up silly crimes so that corporations can profit off of them.  And yes, I realize that anarchists and mutualists like IOZ and Kevin Carson are not in favor of this sort of ‘privatization’.

In any case, I think we can learn a great deal from anarchy, however implausible its application in this particular society.

P.S. – I meant to say, but didn’t, that unlike war our capitalist system – however flawed – is not intentional. As a system it has no goal. It is not a conspiracy of warmongers. The results may be that the little guy is often screwed by government/business collusion – but more often than not this is unintentional. Or rather, often good intentions lead to bad results. There is not, as IOZ suggests, some elaborate plan – some purposeful, guided effort to screw everyone – built into our economy. But it often happens none the less. War, on the other hand, really can be the result of powerful people making conscious decisions which end up fucking us all over.

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43 thoughts on “Capitalism, Anarchy & War

  1. This is quibbling with a broader point, but regarding park privatization in Arizona I highly recommend reading Coyote’s thoughts on the matter. Not only is he a thoughtful, Arizonan libertarian, but park privatization happens to be his day job.

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  2. There are only two kinds of wars: Defensive wars and wars of Plunder.

    No, I want to say that there is a third.

    Wars of spreading ideology. Bringing Christ to the Heathen, if you will.

    Iraq isn’t exactly a war of plunder (what are we plundering?), but it certainly isn’t a defensive war either…

    What it is, is a war to bring Christ to the Heathen.

    Bush even said as much.

    “We hear doubts that democracy is a realistic goal for the greater Middle East, where freedom is rare. Yet it is mistaken and condescending to assume that whole cultures and great religions are incompatible with liberty and self-government.

    I believe that God has planted in every human heart the desire to live in freedom. And even when that desire is crushed by tyranny for decades, it will rise again. As long as the Middle East remains a place of tyranny and despair and anger, it will continue to produce men and movements that threaten the safety of America and our friends.

    So America is pursuing a forward strategy of freedom in the greater Middle East. We will challenge the enemies of reform, confront the allies of terror and expect a higher standard from our friend. I will send you a proposal to double the budget of the National Endowment for Democracy and to focus its new work on the development of free elections and free markets, free press and free labor unions in the Middle East. ”

    That’s from his 2004 State of the Union.

    There’s a third type of war. It’s worse than the other two.

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      • @Rufus F., wars of vengeance? Yeah, I reckon Honor wars probably fall in a different category too…

        The Hatfields/McCoys (have you ever dug into this one? It’s amazing) don’t really fit the whole Defensive/Plunder template… and it’s not about bringing Christ to the Heathen either.

        Yeah, that fits.

        (Heck, the Civil War doesn’t fit the neat paradigm either… though, I reckon, it does fit the definitions of bringing Christ to the Heathen.)

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      • @dexter45, this strikes me as off.

        As wicked and venial as Bush/Cheney are, I don’t really see a deep “let’s plunder the Americans!” idea behind Iraq. That’s incidental.

        It’s like saying that Osama deliberately set out to make sure that Americans had to take their shoes off at airports.

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        • @Jaybird, I think that President Bush is a clueless twit that might have thought he was doing God’s work, but I really believe that Cheney is a loathsome creature that would do anything to make a buck. Also, and unfortunately, I think the American government is a wholey owned subsidiary of the corps. I wish I did not feel this way, but I do. Do a little research on how much Haliburton has made off the wars.

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    • @Jaybird, what really disgusted me about that State of the Union address was how Bush (and most of the other presidents of our time) love to give photo ops to those Middle Eastern tyrants. They were set up by the West, and they are sustained by our modern oil barons and the politicians who support them. The reason for Bush’s invasion of Iraq was exactly analogous to a mob boss giving an unruly underling some cement shoes. In that sense, it was taking back territory, and so a war of plunder.

      If you look back, all the wars supposedly fought for religious ideals were wars of plunder. Religion is just how you get your soldiers excited about going to die for their country.

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  3. “I’m not an anarchist, but I’m quite sympathetic to anarchism as an ideal. If we could strip away all the stupid government regulations and subsidies and protectionism from the market – those things which allow capitalists and corporations to so utterly dominate commerce and rob people of their capacity to say, run a bakery out of their house instead of forcing them to rent commercial space and invest in expensive equipment, we would have a much freer, much less corporatized world.”

    Yes. Like in Somalia.

    This makes no sense to me. Anarchy as an ideal, isn’t even an ideal. It depends on the belief that people in our “natural state” would be just happy without government. It’s a fixation on a fantasy that never even came close to existing, even in pre-agrarian societies. I’m sure people felt oppressed by their local shaman too back in the day (and currently now! some cultures still run like this). People are going to organize, whether it’s in something as small as a tribal council – this is till government, albeit very small. I just don’t get this.

    I can fantasize about having a unicorn – this doesn’t mean that fantasy is useful to me in anyway. Some ideals are great to hold up as an impetus for motivation. Some ideals are just fantasies – I think anarchy is like this.

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  4. … these are lies…

    Well, yes. But one of the most important ways of exposing a lie is to show how the consequences just don’t follow. What’s IOZ got against modus tollens?

    Seriously I guess I really don’t see his point about analytic frameworks, but the rest holds up just fine by me.

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  5. When you talk about “privatization,” are you also talking about public-private partnerships? These seem like a real win-win in my view. Not to mention, probably the only sensible way local governments will be able to pay for infrastructure projects in the foreseeable future.

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  6. According to ED’s theory than the US has only had one defensive war in it’s history (WWII).

    Neither the Civil War or the Revolution were defensive wars. The south didn’t invade the north. The war was a defense of the union and to increase freedoms of individuals. But you could argue that there were unjust parts (did states have a right to secede, Lincoln’s removing Habeas corpus, etc).

    Revolution had only 1/3 that wanted independence (1/3 Loyalists, 1/3 indifferent), we decided to declare independence and thereby had to attack. You could call a defense of liberty or freedom or whatever but it wasn’t defense.

    Also as others have noted, what are we plundering in Iraq and Afghanistan? We don’t have exclusive oil rights in Iraq, there isn’t anything of value in Afghanistan, etc.

    Also what plundering was done in Vietnam and Korea exactly? They were geopolitical food fights. Unjust but not plundering.

    There are other reasons for war that some simple kindergarten definition. War and military operations are very complex and involve many layers. Some could be called just, while others are unjust and some may be both.

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  7. Thanks a lot for the mention. Re what passes for “privatization” in the AEI/Adam Smith Institute agenda, I don’t think it qualifies as privatization at all. The politically connected firms that buy out the government operations or get the contract may be nominally “private,” true enough. But they are part of the coalition of class forces that control the state, and their operations are taxpayer-funded in exactly the same way as a nominally “public” entity. IMO this makes them part of the government, regardless of their nominal status as “businesses,” just as the great landlords were components of the state under the Old Regime.

    I agree that nominal “privatization” is worse than the straightforward performance of functions by avowed state entities. All “privatization” does is add another layer of parasites to the state apparatus, with profits and corporate-scale CEO salaries funded at taxpayer expense.

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  8. I say we bring back privatized tax collectors. Let private companies pay the gov’t for the right to collect the taxes. It’s a tried and true model. What could go wrong?

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  9. The war in Iraq was rationalized by Bush et al. as clearly a war of defense. Many might not buy that it really was, but the non-existent WMD was what we were supposed to be defending ourselves against. But basically stated in so many words that invasion could be considered defense if one had reason to believe the country to be invaded was likely to take offensive action against the U.S.

    Likewise, the war in Afghanistan is being sold as a defensive war. Certainly all the hostilities in the mid-East are sold as defensive wars. As far as I can see, most wars today are rationalized as defensive. Again, not saying that there aren’t other motives, but this is the way the perpetrators are justifying their actions.

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    • @Andy Smith,
      And let’s say that Iraq actually had WMD’s like many people thought they did. What if we didn’t have evidence that they would use it on the US. Should we invade?

      Or what about Iran, what if we do find concrete WMD evidence and also plans for the to attack Israel. Is that defense? What if we can’t find plans?

      ED’s definition of war is just far to simplistic.

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      • @Bob,

        I tend to agree that defense and plunder is too simplistic, still it does cover a lot of ground. As I noted, the invasion of Iraq was justified as a war of defense–the nation-building rationale was only raised near the end of the invasion, when it had become clear that there were no WMD. But one could also describe it as a war of plunder. We were trying to secure better access to oil in that region.

        In fact, nations, like organisms, must balance two basic drives: growth and self-maintenance. Wars of plunder are motivated by the need to grow; wars of defense are motivated by the need to preserve/consolidate what they already have.

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  10. Yeah, remember a few weeks ago when I said that we’ve pretty much come to the same place in our thinking from opposite directions?

    This. This is exactly what I meant. Actually, I’ve pretty much agreed with what you’re saying here for as long as I’ve been politically aware, to one degree or another. What’s changed is that I don’t really understand anymore the people who look at this situation and say that what we need is to use the tools of law and government and democracy to turn back this stuff, or who claim that all that is needed to fix it is to wake the people up to what is happening. The former is just more of the same, and as for that the latter – well it’s clear that people are happy to be crass and ignorant and hateful.

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  11. My two cents, for what they’re worth, is that as far as I can see the original Smith post is mostly right and sensible, and most everything that has flowed from it this way is pretty much dogmatic, ideological abstraction. No offense to anyone intended.

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  12. If we could strip away all the stupid government regulations and subsidies and protectionism from the market – those things which allow capitalists and corporations to so utterly dominate commerce and rob people of their capacity to say, run a bakery out of their house instead of forcing them to rent commercial space and invest in expensive equipment, we would have a much freer, much less corporatized world.

    I’m skeptical. Regulation is why our cities have breathable air now, because there’s a limit to how many pollutants corporations can pour into them. It’s expensive to limit those pollutants – corporations aren’t going to do it out of the goodness of their hearts. Regulations are why we have drinkable water, for the same reason, and why we have food that (the vast majority of the time) won’t make us sick. They – along with government action in the areas of water treatment, public sanitation, and vaccination – are a major part of the difference between the urban mortality rate in the 1870s and the urban mortality rate in the developed world now. Regulation of wages and working conditions are why a lot fewer people in the developed world die from factory work than did in the heyday of the Industrial Revolution, and why most people can make enough money to feed themselves (and, granted, also part of the reason why there’s higher unemployment and factory jobs move overseas to places lacking such regulation). Regulation is why we’re not dying from corporations deciding to dump toxic waste near our houses, like they do in countries whose governments aren’t powerful or assertive enough to stop them.

    Regulation is the difference between the world of the Gilded Age – or the Third World now – and the developed world today – I prefer the latter, and I’m not entirely convinced that corporations as a group are stronger today than they were then.

    When people can point out specific regulations that are more damaging than they are useful, I’m fine with getting rid of them. But wholesale demonization of regulations ignores the fact that they’re responsible for a lot of quality-of-life issues that we take for granted now.

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