Until about 1910, in both England and America, a liberal could be defined as someone who believed in limited government under the rule of law, and who opposed state regulation of interactions between consenting adults. Since then, the word has been applied to various kinds of statists – some of them rather totalitarian. One day, it may come back to us. But there really is no point in sharing a word with people like Nick Clegg and Hillary Clinton. For this reason, we grabbed the word libertarian back in the 1960s. It had been coined by, and was first attached to, leftist anarchists in the 19th century. However, they did little with it after about 1917, and it was almost bona vacantia when we took it up.
There is a further difference between us and the old liberals. Twentieth century statism was so frightening that many of us lost all faith in even a limited state of the 19th century kind. I don’t know what proportion of self-defined modern libertarian are anarchists. But it might easily be half.
Sean Gabb, quoted in “Wayne John Sturgeon talks to Sean Gabb of the Libertarian Alliance”, Sean Gabb, 2013-08-26.
March 6, 2016
March 9, 2015
I first found a copy of this book at a friend’s place in Toronto in the late 1970s and wondered a) how it had managed to get published in the first place and b) how it had found its way into Canada (of all places). In Harper’s Magazine, Gabriel Thompson talks about the author’s attempts to get the book out of circulation:
Written by nineteen-year-old William Powell, The Anarchist Cookbook included sections such as “Converting a shotgun into a grenade launcher” and “How to make TNT.” The book’s message wasn’t subtle. In the forward, Powell expressed “a sincere hope that it may stir some stagnant brain cells into action.” The final sentence reads: “Freedom is based on respect, and respect must be earned by the spilling of blood.” When it was published, in January 1971, Powell was young and angry in a country where the young and angry had started to blow things up. But by the time the bomb detonated in the Bronx — marking the first of many connections between the book and real-world carnage — Powell had become a father and converted to Christianity and was having reservations about what promised to be his life’s most enduring legacy.
Powell is now a sixty-five-year-old grandfather. He still speaks with a slight English accent from a young childhood spent in London and has the professorial habit, before answering a question, of raising his eyeglasses to his forehead and pausing a beat to think. In 1979, he left the United States and has made his home in outposts throughout the world: Dar es Salaam, Tanzania; Jakarta, Indonesia; Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. He has become a respected leader within the field of international schooling, heading several schools before launching an organization called Education Across Frontiers, which seeks to support international students with special needs. A recent book of Powell’s is entitled Becoming an Emotionally Intelligent Teacher. Much of his work has been funded by the U.S. Department of State.
When I first contacted Powell, he didn’t sound interested in revisiting the past. “The AC story is old and I’m not sure I can add much to it,” he wrote. This wasn’t surprising — he rarely speaks to the media. But as we continued to exchange emails and then talk over Skype, I learned that he had recently been working on a memoir. He later shared the manuscript, much of which deals with the circumstances that led him to his writing the book, along with his inability to fully get out from beneath its shadow. “The book has hovered like an awkward question on the rim of my consciousness for years,” he wrote, “and has the annoying habit of popping into mind every time I am about to be absolutely certain about something.”
Powell’s politics were vaguely left but sharply antiauthoritarian. He considered the older Hancock, a dedicated anarchist, “a trail guide” to the chaos of the times, where people were taking to the streets, marching and publicly burning draft cards, with some promising to “bring the war home.” Hancock was a member of the Industrial Workers of the World, and told Powell about a plan the group once discussed to post recipes as broadsides throughout the city, instructing passersby on how to make everything from Molotov cocktails to LSD. Nothing came of it, but Powell filed the idea away in his head, intrigued by the possibility. Together, they attended a number of antiwar protests. At Grand Central Station, they watched police attack people with clubs. During the melee, officers shoved a Village Voice reporter into a glass door, bloodying his face. Hancock went out and purchased two motorcycle helmets for future demonstrations. The scene was turning heavy.
Dropping out of school meant that Powell was eligible for Vietnam, and he met three times with the Draft Board’s psychiatrist. While he’d been granted extensions — he showed up drunk and on speed and mouthed off during interviews — by 1969 he felt the walls closing in. “Get your ass prepared for Vietnam” is how he remembers the last interview had concluded. He didn’t believe in the war, didn’t want to move to Canada, and certainly didn’t want to spend time in prison. His personal life was slowly stabilizing: he had a girlfriend and, after a long struggle, finally kicked his speed habit. He purchased a used typewriter for twenty-five dollars and dreamed of becoming a writer. Yet the government seemed intent on tearing everything away by sending him across the globe to an early grave. (His fears were, in fact, unfounded: the government eventually classified him as 4-F, or unacceptable for military service, for reasons he never discovered.) On a return trip from a demonstration in Washington, D.C., Powell concluded that peaceful protest was too easily ignored to be effective; he decided instead to write a book that expanded on the broadside idea he’d heard from Hancock, teaching ordinary people how to blow things up.
December 9, 2014
In his latest Maclean’s article, Colby Cosh talks about the recent “freelance” terror attacks on Canadian soil and points out that no matter what the reporters say, they’re hardly “unprecedented”:
There has been much discussion about how to think of the type of freelance Islamist terrorist that has recently begun to belabour Canada. What labels and metaphors are appropriate for such an unprecedented phenomenon? I possess the secret: It is not unprecedented. This has been kept a secret only through some odd mischance, some failure of attention that is hard to explain.
I discovered the secret through reading about 19th-century history, particularly the years from the 1848 revolutions to the outbreak of the First World War in 1914. The key was Bismarck, the Prussian minister-president who unified Germany. If you want to learn about Bismarck, you will probably pick up a book by some historian of international relations, such as A.J.P. Taylor. That’s the right place to start. But it means you can read a lot about Bismarck before finding out about the time in May 1866 when a guy shot him.
Ferdinand Cohen-Blind, a Badenese student of pan-German sentiments, waylaid Bismarck with a pistol on the Unter den Linden. He fired five rounds. None missed. Three merely grazed his midsection, and two ricocheted off his ribs. He went home and ate a big lunch before letting himself be examined by a doctor.
The point is not that Bismarck was particularly hated, although he was. The point is that this period of European (and American) history was crawling with young, often solitary male terrorists, most of whom showed signs of mental disorder when caught and tried, and most of whom were attached to some prevailing utopian cause. They tended to be anarchists, nationalists or socialists, but the distinctions are not always clear, and were not thought particularly important. The 19th-century mind identified these young men as congenital conspirators. It emphasized what they had in common: social maladjustment, mania, an overwhelming sense of mission and, usually, a prior record of minor crimes.
In my Origins of WW1 series, I quoted from The War That Ended Peace (which I still heartily recommend):
Margaret MacMillan describes the typical members of the Young Bosnians, who were of a type that we probably recognize more readily now than at any time since 1914:
[They] were mostly young Serb and Croat peasant boys who had left the countryside to study and work in the towns and cities of the Dual Monarchy and Serbia. While they had put on suits in place of their traditional dress and condemned the conservatism of their elders, they nevertheless found much in the modern world bewildering and disturbing. It is hard not to compare them to the extreme groups among Islamic fundamentalists such as Al Qaeda a century later. Like those later fanatics, the Young Bosnians were usually fiercely puritanical, despising such things as alcohol and sexual intercourse. They hated Austria-Hungary in part because they blamed it for corrupting its South Slav subjects. Few of the Young Bosnians had regular jobs. Rather they depended on handouts from their families, with whom they had usually quarreled. They shared their few possessions, slept on each other’s floors, and spent hours over a single cup of coffee in cheap cafés arguing about life and politics. They were idealistic, and passionately committed to liberating Bosnia from foreign rule and to building a new and fairer world. Strongly influenced by the great Russian revolutionaries and anarchists, the Young Bosnians believed that they could only achieve their goals through violence and, if necessary, the sacrifice of their own lives.
The “peaceful century” from the defeat of Napoleon to the outbreak of the First World War was far from peaceful — we only see it as such in contrast to the bloodbath of 1914-1918. And terrorists of a type we readily recognize from the front pages of the newspapers today were prefigured exactly by the anarchist revolutionaries of a century ago.
November 8, 2014
Yet another of those “answer this set of questions and we’ll tell you what you believe” tests. According to 5 Dimensional Policial [sic] Compass, I am:
You are a: Right-Leaning Anarchist Isolationist Cosmopolitan Liberal
Collectivism score: -33%
Authoritarianism score: -100%
Internationalism score: -67%
Tribalism score: -33%
Liberalism score: 33%
H/T to John Donovan, who is a “Left-Leaning Anti-Government Non-Interventionist Nationalist Liberal”. Splitter!
May 10, 2014
The ideal government of all reflective men, from Aristotle to Herbert Spencer, is one which lets the individual alone — one which barely escapes being no government at all. This ideal, I believe, will be realized in the world twenty or thirty centuries after I have passed from these scenes and taken up my home in Hell.
H.L. Mencken, “Le Contrat Social”, Prejudices, Third Series, 1922
June 17, 2013
In the latest Libertarian Enterprise, Paul Bonneau makes a case for — gasp — collectivism. Well, certain kinds of collectivism:
This is of course a disease of the political “right”; those on the left generally embrace collectivism so there is nothing hypocritical about their behavior. Sometimes their honesty is refreshing, even when I don’t agree. Anyway it’s easier to make an argument directly against collectivism, than it is to first have to convince the person you are talking to that he is advocating collectivism — and then arguing against it. Thus, collectivist leftists are easier to deal with than are collectivist rightists in denial. This is assuming any argument needs to be made, of course; generally I don’t have any dispute with collectivism per se, but only against the imposition of it on me and mine. If someone wants to live as a cog in a commune, who am I to complain? How is it my business?
To know how not to be a collectivist, for those rightists who are interested in that, we first have to know what collectivism is. Merriam-Webster online says:
1: a political or economic theory advocating collective control especially over production and distribution; also : a system marked by such control
2: emphasis on collective rather than individual action or identity
Already we can see some problems. This is such a broad definition that it includes, for example, members of a church getting together to voluntarily build a church school, at least by the second definition. Few reasonable people of any stripe would have a problem with such actions; indeed, any free/anarchist country would crucially depend on large amounts of voluntary collective action for society to function. What we really mean when we argue against collectivism is the first definition, particularly the political aspect. In that case, people are forced to participate in the schemes of others.
This point raises a question. When leftists say they support collective action, are they thinking of the voluntary sort, against which no reasonable person would argue? Is that the picture they have in their mind as they speak? Perhaps we are wrong to argue against collectivism at all, since we are in fact voluntary collectivists; and what we should be arguing against is coercion. Coercion would be much harder for a leftist to defend — assuming he goes along with it at all (which might or might not be so). Maybe we should remove “collectivism” from the libertarian Lexicon of Bad Things. Maybe we should force leftists to argue for coercion, which is really what we object to, rather than collectivism, which we don’t — that is, to draw him out from behind his usual euphemistic veil. Maybe I should change the title of this article!
May 31, 2013
Jonah Goldberg talks about a new book from Kevin Williamson:
Kevin Williamson’s new book is quite possibly the best indictment of the State since Our Enemy, the State appeared some eight decades ago. It is a lovely, brilliant, humane, and remarkably entertaining work.
Though he sometimes sounds like a reasonable anarchist, Williamson is not in fact opposed to all government. But he is everywhere opposed to anything that smacks of the State. There’s an old line about how to carve an elephant: Take a block of marble and then remove everything that isn’t an elephant. Williamson looks at everything we call the State or the government and wants to remove everything that shouldn’t be there, which is quite a lot. In what may be my favorite part of the book, he demolishes, with Godzilla-versus-Bambi ease, the notion that only government can provide public goods. In fact, most of what government provides are nonpublic goods (transfer payments, subsidies, etc.), and a great deal of what the market provides — from Google and Wikipedia to Starbucks restrooms — are indisputably public goods.
[. . .]
Williamson’s core argument is that politics has a congenital defect: Politics cannot get “less wrong” (a term coined by artificial-intelligence guru Eliezer Yudkowsky). Productive systems — the scientific method, the market, evolution — all have the built-in ability to learn from failures. Nothing (in this life at least) ever becomes immortally perfect, but some things become less wrong through trial and error. The market, writes Williamson, “is a form of social evolution that is metaphorically parallel to biological evolution. Consider the case of New Coke, or Betamax, or McDonald’s Arch Deluxe, or Clairol’s Touch of Yogurt Shampoo. . . . When hordes of people don’t show up to buy the product, then the product dies.” Just like organisms in the wild, corporations that don’t learn from failures eventually fade away.
Except in politics: “The problem of politics is that it does not know how to get less wrong.” While new iPhones regularly burst forth like gifts from the gods, politics plods along. “Other than Social Security, there are very few 1935 vintage products still in use,” he writes. “Resistance to innovation is a part of the deep structure of politics. In that, it is like any other monopoly. It never goes out of business — despite flooding the market with defective and dangerous products, mistreating its customers, degrading the environment, cooking the books, and engaging in financial shenanigans that would have made Gordon Gekko pale to contemplate.” Hence, it is not U.S. Steel, which was eventually washed away like an imposing sand castle in the surf, but only politics that can claim to be “the eternal corporation.”
The reason for this immortality is simple: The people running the State are never sufficiently willing to contemplate that they are the problem. If a program dedicated to putting the round pegs of humanity into square holes fails, the bureaucrats running it will conclude that the citizens need to be squared off long before it dawns on them that the State should stop treating people like pegs in the first place. Furthermore, in government, failure is an exciting excuse to ask for more funding or more power.
January 29, 2013
TechEye looks at the “gamification” of resistance against CCTV surveillance in Berlin:
A group of German activists has come up with an intriguing campaign to counter state surveillance — turning the destruction of CCTV cameras into a game.
Dubbed ‘Camover’, the aim of the game is simple: destroy as many CCTV cameras as possible.
Once your target is destroyed, you can upload a video of the act to YouTube for internet points and kudos. The rules say players should come up with a name starting with ‘command’, ‘brigade’, or ‘cell’, followed by the name of a historical figure, then destroying as many CCTV cameras as possible.
“Video your trail of destruction and post it on the game’s website,” the activists suggest, but warn that the homepage is continuously being shut down. It’s recommended that players conceal their identities, but this is “not essential”.
January 11, 2013
December 30, 2012
Another article from earlier this year looks at the fascinating career of Prince Piotr Kropotkin (who I really only knew of as a fictionalized minor character in L. Neil Smith’s books):
Darwin’s publication of On the Origin of Species sparked major battles. The most famous may have been between science and religion, but there were disputes within science as well. One of the most heated was whether natural selection favored cooperative or competitive behaviors, a battle that still rages today. For almost 100 years, no single person did more to promote the study of the evolution of cooperation than Peter Kropotkin.
Kropotkin traveled the world talking about the evolution of cooperation, which he called “mutual aid,” in both animals and humans. Sometime the travel was voluntary, but often it wasn’t: He was jailed, banned, or expelled from many of the most respectable countries of his day. For he was not only the face of the science of cooperation, he was also the face of the anarchist movement. He came to believe that his politics and science were united by the law of mutual aid: that cooperation was the predominant evolutionary force driving all social life, from microbes to humans.
[. . .]
One of the perks of being the top student at the Corps was that when he completed his studies in 1862, he had first choice of any government appointment. To the utter amazement of his friends and the bewilderment of his father, he requested an appointment in the newly annexed Amur region of Siberia. The odd choice caught the attention of Czar Alexander II, who inquired, “So you go to Siberia? Are you not afraid to go so far?” “No,” Peter replied, “I want to work.” “Well, go,” the Czar told him. “One can be useful everywhere.” And so, on July 27, 1862, he went.
Kropotkin’s adventures during his five years in Siberia were the stuff of movies. He crisscrossed 50,000 miles of the region, often “lying full length in the sled … wrapped in fur blankets, fur inside and fur outside … when the temperature is 40 or 60 degrees below zero …” His job was to inspect the dreaded prisons of Siberia, full of not just criminals but political agitators. He did so dutifully, but with disgust. The border of Siberia, he wrote, should have a sign like that from Dante’s Inferno: “Abandon Hope All Ye Who Enter Here.” The rest of his time was devoted to learning more about anarchist philosophy (often from anarchist leaders who had been banished to Siberia) and, most importantly, studying the natural history of animals and humans there.
Kropotkin expected to see the brutal dog-eat-dog world of Darwinian competition. He searched high and low — but nothing. “I failed to find, although I was eagerly looking for it,” Kropotkin wrote, “that bitter struggle for the means of existence, among animals belonging to the same species, which was considered by most Darwinists (though not always by Darwin himself) as the dominant characteristic of the struggle for life, and the main factor of evolution.”
H/T to Derek Jones for the link.
July 24, 2012
July 5, 2012
This is a list you never want your country (or your neighbours) to appear on: the “top ten” failed states.
For the fifth year in a row, Somalia is ranked as the most failed failed state on the planet. This ranking was made by The Fund for Peace and Foreign Policy Magazine. Over the last decade, it’s become popular for think tanks, risk management firms and intelligence agencies to compile lists of “failed states.” This is what unstable countries, prone to rebellion and civil disorder, are called these days. What they all have in common is a lack of “civil society” (rule of, and respect for, law), and lots of corruption. The two sort of go together. Somalia consistently comes in first on most of these failed state lists. This year the top ten list of failed states (from worst to less worse) was Somalia, Congo Democratic Republic, Sudan, Chad, Zimbabwe, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Guinea, Cote d’Ivoire and the Central African Republic.
Not surprisingly, the best example of a failed state has long been Somalia, and that’s largely because the concept of the “nation of Somalia” is a very recent development (the 1960s). It never caught on, which is a common feature of failed states. Same could be said for the Palestinians. Sudan is accused of being a failed state, but it isn’t in the same league with Somalia. Sudan has had central government of sorts, on and off, for thousands of years. Not so Somalia.
Another common problem in failed states is a large number of ethnic groups. This is a common curse throughout Africa, which why the majority of the worst failed states are there. Europe, and much of Asia, have managed to get past this tribalism, although that has not always resulted in a civil society. It usually takes the establishment of a functioning democracy to make that happen. This tribalism has kept most African nations from making a lot of economic or political progress. The top five failed states are all African. Somalia is also unique in that it is one of those rare African nations that is not ethnically diverse. Instead, Somalia suffers from tribal animosities and severe warlordism (basically successful gangsters who establish temporary control over an area).
April 9, 2012
November 6, 2011
Mark Steyn in the Orange County Register:
I don’t “stand with the 99%,” and certainly not downwind of them. But I’m all for their “occupation” continuing on its merry way. It usefully clarifies the stakes. At first glance, an alliance of anarchists and government might appear to be somewhat paradoxical. But the formal convergence in Oakland makes explicit the movement’s aims: They’re anarchists for statism, wild free-spirited youth demanding more and more total government control of every aspect of life — just so long as it respects the fundamental human right to sloth. What’s happening in Oakland is a logical exercise in class solidarity: the government class enthusiastically backing the breakdown of civil order is making common cause with the leisured varsity class, the thuggish union class and the criminal class in order to stick it to what’s left of the beleaguered productive class. It’s a grand alliance of all those societal interests that wish to enjoy in perpetuity a lifestyle they are not willing to earn. Only the criminal class is reasonably upfront about this. The rest — the lifetime legislators, the unions defending lavish and unsustainable benefits, the “scholars” whiling away a somnolent half-decade at Complacency U — are obliged to dress it up a little with some hooey about “social justice” and whatnot.
[. . .]
America is seizing up before our eyes: The decrepit airports, the underwater property market, the education racket, the hyper-regulated business environment. Yet, curiously, the best example of this sclerosis is the alleged “revolutionary” movement itself. It’s the voice of youth, yet everything about it is cobwebbed. It’s more like an open-mike karaoke night of a revolution than the real thing. I don’t mean just the placards with the same old portable quotes by Lenin et al, but also, say, the photograph in Forbes of Rachel, a 20-year-old “unemployed cosmetologist” with remarkably uncosmetological complexion, dressed in pink hair and nose ring as if it’s London, 1977, and she’s killing time at Camden Lock before the Pistols gig. Except that that’s three-and-a-half decades ago, so it would be like the Sex Pistols dressing like the Andrews Sisters. Are America’s revolting youth so totally pathetically moribund they can’t even invent their own hideous fashion statements? [. . .]
At heart, Oakland’s occupiers and worthless political class want more of the same fix that has made America the Brokest Nation in History: They expect to live as beneficiaries of a prosperous Western society without making any contribution to the productivity necessary to sustain it. This is the “idealism” that the media are happy to sentimentalize, and that enough poseurs among the corporate executives are happy to indulge — at least until the window smashing starts. To “occupy” Oakland or anywhere else, you have to have something to put in there. Yet the most striking feature of OWS is its hollowness. And in a strange way the emptiness of its threats may be a more telling indictment of a fin de civilization West than a more coherent protest movement could ever have mounted.
October 25, 2011
“For strong personalities, the hyper-egalitarian mantras of anarchism act as a smokescreen for authoritarianism”
Jonathan Kay discusses the contradictions of Julian Assange and his dictatorial control of WikiLeaks and uses the Occupy Wall Street “anarchists” to explain why anarchy usually turns into dictatorship:
In a fascinating report filed last Thursday, New York Magazine’s Alex Klein found that the protesters had splintered on the question of music. Many of the Occupiers, apparently, have been passing their time with daily 10-hour drum sessions. The tom toms help keep up morale, apparently. But they also anger those protesters who are trying to sleep, and have disrupted classes at a local high school.
So, the leaders of the Occupy Wall Street “general assembly” — a sort of self-appointed protester executive body — decreed that drumming shall be limited to two hours a day. The general assembly has also imposed a 50% tax on the donations that drummers earn from passersby.
“They’re imposing a structure on the natural flow of music,” complained one drumming protester. “We’re like, ‘What’s going on here?’ They’re like the banks we’re protesting,” said another.
And that’s not all. The general assembly is also ordering protesters to clean up their camp sites in advance of a local community board inspection. In some cases, they’re taking down tents and sending people away, so that new protesters can set up shop. Fist-fights have ensued. But Lauren Digion, a leader of Occupy Wall Street’s “sanitation working group” isn’t phased. “Someone needs to give orders” she told Klein, after barking commands about who could use the communal sleeping bags and who couldn’t. “There’s no sense of order in this f–king place.”
And that’s anarchism in a nutshell for you. It’s all drum circles and “natural flow” and “consensus” — until the time comes to actually get something done; at which point the self-appointed dictators start emerging naturally from amidst the protesters, like mushrooms after a week of rainstorms. For strong personalities, the hyper-egalitarian mantras of anarchism act as a smokescreen for authoritarianism.