Wave the White Flag
As I write this, America is creaking under the third day of a shutdown of the federal government, forced by as low a group of petulant time-serving cretins as ever bore the title of elected official. It’s a dark time for anyone who believes in the high-school-civics conception of good government; most polls are showing that the current Congress ranks somewhere between Stalin and food poisoning in terms of popularity, and were votes of confidence available to us as they are in other democracies, the entire 113th would likely be replaced by a nice set of flatware by Halloween. The majority of Americans are only vaguely aware of what their elected officials do to begin with, and now, they’re convinced that the answer is nothing, and at great expense. No one is fooled by grandstanding senators who say “Oh, we didn’t mean to shut that service down”, and the distinct possibility that John Boehner will fiddle as New Orleans drowns (again) is enough to put even the least cynical voters in a killing mood.
While a handful of delusional partisans (and, of course, the six-sides-of-the-same-coin media) are still insisting this was brought about by intransigence on both sides, even most staunch Republicans — including hack propagandist Newt Gingrich, who authored the last government shutdown — think this is a pretty shitty deal, and is likely to jeopardize the G.O.P.’s election chances in the immediate future. But, given the glee with which many of the Tea Party die-hards are pursuing this dead end strategy, one has to wonder: do they even care about being elected? Ever since the “Republican Revolution” (speaking of Newt Gingrich), the bewilderingly effective extremist wing of the party, the so-called radical right, don’t seem to care about electability. The presidency, to them, seems to be a promotional bauble that’s not worth the candle, something only a truly compromised leader would seek out in the first place; they don’t even want to dominate the party, since their small minority seems enough to cow the mainstream into submission. As the Democrats move further to the right, so, too, does the Right move further to the right, until the space once occupied by left liberals is as empty and desolate as a South Side playground, and the G.O.P. stakes out territory that would once have terrified the Reagan Republicans.
Indeed, as ably covered by the Baffler Boys back when Clinton was in flower and as a friend reminded me recently, these people don’t act like elected government representatives at all. Their virulent hatred of the entire concept of government, their hostility towards the public sector, their fear and mistrust of the executive branch marks them as something more like, well, a bunch of anarchists. This is hard for me to hear; after all, anarchism as an idea, if not as a practice, is still near and dear to my heart, and my progression from the teenage Communist I once was to the crotchety old Democratic Socialist that I am now was marked by an extended spell as a proud waver of the black flag and the circle-A. I walked the talk and sported the tats, and I even ran with a black bloc crew when that was a dangerous rather than quaint thing to do. A number of anarchist thinkers were crucial to my political development, and I still think of a stateless society as an ideal, albeit one that is impractical on anything approaching a large scale. So how am I supposed to feel about my freak flag being flown by a bunch of self-made capitalist cut-throats, creatures farther to the right than I ever was to the left, who are having more success tearing the system down from within than I ever dreamed of doing from without?
The answer lies, as all answers do, in the problem of definition. The whole idea of right-anarchism has been a problematic one from the beginning. Libertarianism, while it skirts around the edges of anti-statist doctrine in theory, has always in practice been a conservative, even reactionary, creed. As has been repeatedly pointed out, you cannot want what the state wants and not want the state, and what we have seen from the Libertarian right, from its communes and communities to its criminal organizations, has always been more or less supportive of existing power structures — just a little bit greedier, a little bit more sunk in vice, and a little less willing to contribute to the societies that make it possible. The robber barons of the Gilded Age were just as scornful of Big Gummint as any latter-day web billionaire or Reason contributor, but it was not that brand of anarchism that society feared; it was the bomb-wielding, working-class, foreign-tongued madmen of the left, huddled in their black masses in sinful Chicago.
So, too, are the prophets of destruction in the radical right. If there is such a thing as right-wing anarchism — and I am not convinced that there is, for in some form or another, all right-anarchists seem comfortable with the accumulation of power as long as it is not sanctified by the state, and to me, Webster’s notwithstanding, anarchism must necessarily be against authority as much as it is against government — it is not embodied in this tawdry gang of wreckers and vandals. When Marx spoke of the withering away of the state, he didn’t mean the complete disappearance of authority, but rather its transformation into an instrument of the will of the working class; this idea would be anathema to the rich men’s tools who fancy themselves saviors of the common man from government oppression. Despite how it might look, they aren’t even pure Darwinists, favoring society as a state of nature where only the strong survive and the weak are culled away. They might picture themselves a Conans, wielding a pitiless sword and crushing the unworthy, but they are just normal, fat, soft, American businessmen who would shit purple if a real state of lawlessness dawned and they found themselves facing down the wrong end of a looter’s shotgun. No one is as quick to call out the law or the Army when capital is invaded than bosses and their toadies.
No, these are no anarchists, these men and women busting up the halls of power like school kids trashing their lockers on the last day of school. They lack even the juvenile commitment and self-awareness of some rowdy man-teen reading Bakunin for the first time. The flag they fly is not red or black, but white — not the white flag of surrender, but the white flag of the royalist, the monarchist, the conservative, the reactionary, of the White Terror that would butcher thousands rather than see the germ of social responsibility infect the body of authority. And even that gives them too much credit, for they lack even that level of political sophistication. They have no special problem with statism, with the imbalance of power, with authority and social control; their issue is not the whip, but who’s holding on to the reins. In their every action, from sulking about a perfectly legitimate law they were unable to block to their one-sidedly forcing a national embarrassment and then, like an abusive husband, demanding why their victims made them do it, they manifest no theory or design, only id, spite, and greed.
Even more so than the Bonnot Gang, they are a group of self-enriching criminals, greedy, egotistical, and deeply incompetent, hiding behind a child’s notion of ideology. If they can play at anarchism, then I can flirt with authority: for them, let us have the labor camp, the guillotine, the gibbet. Fuck ’em!