One of the things that I said in my speech about ALL to the Libertarian Party of Clark County, which was deliberately provocative and carefully worded, wasI am here today to bring you two messages. So let me cut to the chase and deliver both of them right now. They are the point of this entire talk, and I can put them both in ten words or fewer. Here’s the first: Las Vegas will be free soil in our own lifetimes. And the second is: We are all going to make it happen.That may seem ridiculously optimistic, given the immensity, the scope, the pervasiveness, and the ruthlessness of the many-headed monster we call the modern State. I try to discuss a bit in my speech why it is not overly optimistic, focusing on the second claim — that we all, meaning not ALL or the Libertarian Party, but just about everybody in Las Vegas — can and will take part, if those of us who care about these things play our cards right, through the use of populist organizing, coalition building, direct action, and counter-economics.
But another thing that I didn’t focus on much, which I’d like to mention, is the importance of the first thing I said, when I said Las Vegas will be free soil. I said that, and not something else (the U.S. will be free soil;the word will be free soil) because I think that’s an achievable goal. It’s not that I don’t want the whole U.S., or indeed the entire earth to be free soil; it’s not even that I think either couldn’t be free soil in the forseeable future. They could; I hope they will; if I can help, I will. But Las Vegas is where I live, and where Southern Nevada ALL intends to act, and I think it’s immensely important to begin there, and not to sell yourself on the idea that action has to be directed against the largest possible targets, or, more importantly at trying to strike some decisive blow at those targets that will somehow defeat Power everywhere and forever. Real empires almost never fall that way, unless they are conquered by some outside force, usually another rising empire, and for anarchists that’s not an acceptable option. So we need to think about getting the empire to crumble, not to implode, and to help it along by chiseling wherever and as hard as we can. If we win, it will crumble in some places faster than it will crumble in others. The basic problem is that a central aim of the imperial State has always been to get people to forget, effectively, about their neighborhood, their friends, their family, and everything else actually around them, and to understand theirhomelandin strictly political terms, in terms of a flag and a set of lines on the map and a capital hundreds or thousands of miles away. If anarchists ever want to get anywhere, we’re going to need to break that link, to pry people’s notion of home from out the talons of the State and its notion of political citizenship. Which strategic point brings me to a really excellent recent post by Jeremy at Social Memory Complex (2008-06-13), which is working towards some of the analysis that goes along with:
Or does our whole approach to this dissonant national endeavor need retooling?
I think it does. Is the lobbyist-driven agenda of corporations, special interests, and political culture really any less distant than U.S. foreign policy? Do we have any authentic control over the decisions in our society that affect us? Or are we just treated as fungible units of polity that have only to be deftly mobilized by public relations wizards in pursuit of an agenda fundamentally alien to us? What, in other words, is the difference between our powerlessness within the borders of the U.S. and the powerlessness endured by the residents of Iraq and Afghanistan?
Instead of contrasting our experience under our government with that of its foreign victims, we might do well to compare the experiences. We’ve been taught from a very young age to distinguish American citizenship from that enjoyed by citizens of other countries, chiefly by virtue of our unique institutions of governance. But it is these same institutions that are being built in Iraq: a democratic, constitutional government with corporate control and obedience to international capital, with an established U.S. military presence to ensurestability in the region. These features are proving just as confounding to their freedom as their American counterparts are for us.
Through overwhelming military force, claims of moral privilege, and alleged threats - not unlike the P.R. which allowed the U.S. to conquer the west and the south in the 19th century and frame it asliberation- the U.S. government is imposing a democratic government and a market economy on an unwilling people. Meanwhile, the U.S. government is also continuing to ratchet up the police state at home even as it practices martial law in Iraq. Just as there were Tories and other people loyal to the crown during the American Revolution, the federal government finds plenty of lackeys in the fifty states, Iraq, Afghanistan, and indeed throughout the world to do their dirty military or paramilitary (law enforcement) work. Legislative creep and sheer audacity constantly expand the scope of lawful authority, defining down the degree of liberty an individual can expect to enjoy. Participation in the decisions that affect us is framed as a set of predetermined choices provided by the establishment rather than a direct say at the local level. And all of these features bring more and more of the world under direct control of Washington - both the world within U.S. borders and the world outside them.
For it is into Washington, in the District of Columbia, that all the spoils of these policies flow. The D.C. metro area is among the fastest growing in the nation, despite having no productive civilian industry to speak of (except perhaps I.T., but no more than any other city if you discount government contracting). Not only is it the seat of governance for the country, it is the clearing house for the international policy of most nations. By enticing Americans to “work within the system” to influence policy, citizens legitimate the process by which power and authority are steadily concentrated. An entire lobbying industry has sprung up from the need to have some say in this process; doing business in the empire has a high cost of entry, and once you get a seat at the table it’s plunder or be plundered. As more people see D.C. as the place where decisions are made, rather than local governments or foreign capitals, the amount of money and people pouring into the city will continue to grow, while localities and other countries become bureaucratic appendages of D.C. policy.
But it’s not just that Washingtonians rule over an overseas empire; it’s that domestic U.S. territory is increasingly treated as part of the conquered territory, rather than as the source of state legitimacy. Sure, we have elected representatives we send to D.C. from all over the country, but experience shows that only in the rarest of occasions do they not adopt the Beltway outlook of going along to get along with the system. Instead, theyplay the gameto bring home as much of the spoils of empire (taxation and government contracts for further imperialism) as possible. In the process, they cease to represent their constituents in D.C., preferring to represent the Washingtonian agenda in their respective localities. They become little Paul Brehmers, advocating policies that promote the more effective rule of the domestic and foreign empire. They measure success in terms of how they can coax or coerce the locals into compliance with necessarily foreign interests.
If it is policies in Washington, D.C. that are changing this country into an empire, it is inaccurate to label the empireAmerican. Clearly, the vast majority of Americans are not participating in it, but are merelypreferred subjectsin territory as occupied as that in Iraq and Afghanistan. […] If the decision-making bureaucracy, military might, and economic clout are all based in Washington, doesn’t it make sense to call this system the Washingtonian empire, rather than conflating it with the disenfranchised subjects in the fifty states? It’s no more an American empire than it is an Iraqi or Afghan one.
The Washingtonian Empire is the largest, richest, most powerful, most hierarchically distributed, and most subtly maintained in history. It is so successful that it has even managed to proceed with its agenda without much notice as to its true nature. We should stop trying to get people to take responsibility for the decisions of a foreign city-state, because this only encourages the conflation of their American identity with an alien one.
By drawing on our revolutionary, anti-colonial legacy, we can frame the American political experience as one of historically consistent subjugation. We can then find common ground with other victims of American imperialism while articulating an authentically decentralist agenda.
Make sure you read the whole thing, especially Jeremy’s very salient discussion of the impact of this kind of analysis on strategy.
Let me just add that one of the most important dimensions in which to emphasize the nature ofAmericaas occupied territories is the connection with the daily lives of the most thoroughly oppressed and exploited people under the bootheels of the United States government and its praetors and proconsuls: especially black people, brown people, poor people, immigrants, people labeled crazy, women (especially the women most marginalized and criminalized by the government and civil society), etc. etc. etc. During the 1960s, the Black Panthers, the Young Lords, and many other New Left liberation groups explicitly linked the conditions and struggles of people in the brutally police-occupied, white-controlled ghettoes of the U.S. — which were founded in slavery, lynch law, apartheid, and immiserating land grabs, which were treated politically as presumptively criminal, unruly elements of the body politic, to be reformed, contained, or eradicated; which were regimented and patrolled on every street corner by the occupying paramilitary forces of the white government — with the conditions and struggles of colonized peoples throughout the so-called Third World, recognizing that just because the lines on the map separated Harlem and Watts from Johannesburg and Nairobi, the people in each had far more in common with each other than any of them had with the handful of white men sitting in the halls of power in D.C., in London, and elsewhere. The false dignity of a morally and practically meaningless imperial citizenship was dismissed; in its place was offered self-understanding for people facing the violence of colonization and solidarity with people rising up against Power in their own homelands throughout the world. In the 1970s, Detroit feminists elaborated the thought by pointing out that, in an important sense, women throughout the world constituted aFourth World,which faced subjugation and colonization at the hands of petty patriarchs and male States, whether those sites of colonization were located in the capitals ofFirst,SecondorThird Worldregimes. Anarchists can and should learn these lessons well, and take the thoughts to their logical completion, by showing how the State, just as such, always and everywhere, operates as a colonizing force, against all its subjects, and for the profit of the handful of beneficiaries who constitute the ruling class. (Of course, the fact that it operates like this against us all does not mean that it operates this way against all of us to an equal degree. The point here is not cheap sympathy; it’s solidarity, especially with those who are the most trodden upon by this monster State.)
While the legacy of 1776 is worth understanding and learning from, and an important weapon to turn against the power in Washington; but so are many other things, and I think it is vital for the Libertarian Left to take up and learn from this tradition in articulating our anti-imperial theory and practice.
Archive for June, 2008
As promised, here is (finally) the text (more or less) of my speech at the Libertarian Party of Clark County. There was a scheduling mix-up, so I got about half the time I expected in which to speak; parts that are struck out are parts that I omitted in the interest of time. I should note that, if you’re not familiar with public speaking, reading from a more or less completely prepared script like I did can be both a crutch and a handicap at the same time; if you’re nervous it provides a guaranteed route from where you are to the end of the line, but having it ready at hand also encourages nervous tics, including obtrusive glances down to the sheet, that can really detract from the reading. In my own case, I’m fairly familiar both with talking from notes and with reading prepared papers, but the written-out script was mainly the result of time pressures, and, since I didn’t have time to rehearse it, and also found out, too late to do anything about it, that I wouldn’t have a lectern to make my glancing at the sheet less obtrusive, I know my delivery suffered a bit because of it. The best thing to do in your local groups is, no doubt, to try to make sure you have enough time to meet beforehand and practice your talk. Anyway, on to the content:
I am here today to bring you two messages. So let me cut to the chase and deliver both of them right now. They are the point of this entire talk, and I can put them both in ten words or fewer. Here’s the first: Las Vegas will be free soil in our own lifetimes. And the second is: We are all going to make it happen. And when I sayWe all,I don’t just mean the people in this room. I don’t just mean the people in this political party, either. I don’t mean the people in my own organization, the Southern Nevada Alliance of the Libertarian Left. I mean all of us, everybody. The LP and Southern Nevada ALL and you and me, yes—but also our friends and our neighbors and our fellow workers. I believe that in my lifetime, all of us in Las Vegas will rise up and we will make ourselves free of the oppression and exploitation inflicted upon us by government laws, government regulation and regimentation, government cops, and government bureaucrats—local government, county government, state government, federal government, and transnational governing bodies like the UN, WTO, and IMF. We will become free because we have, individually and cooperatively, made ourselves ungovernable. We will do this with or without the cooperation of the rest of the world, and whether or not the political powers that be have been persuaded of the truth and virtue of the freedom philosophy; if the souls of politicians and political institutions can be cured, then that will make it so much the easier, but even if they cannot, we can and we will make it no longer worth their while – no longer even sustainable – for them to rule us against our will. We can and we will dump the bosses and the bureaucrats off our backs—politically, socially, economically—and we will stand upright, in control of our own destinies.
I’m saying these things today because I think they are important. I think they are important because they seem impossible, and yet they are true. It’s easy to doubt that Las Vegas can be free—really, totally free—in our own lifetimes. Government is big. Government is everywhere. Government consumes somewhere between one third and one half of every dollar that you make. Every dollar that you make and every dollar that you spend is itself part of the world’s largest and most powerful government monopoly—the government-centralized banking cartel and its fiat money monopoly. City government patrols every street. The federal government of the United States is the richest, most technologically advanced, and most militarily powerful organization in the history of the world. The two major parties, which thoroughly dominate the electoral process at every level, show no real signs of wanting to roll back government in any major area of policy, or even to contain it at its current levels; no matter whether a Demopublican or a Republicrat candidate wins, the party in power is more or less guaranteed to aggressively push government further and further into our lives. It’s easy to get dizzy just looking at the size and scope of government. It’s easy to lose hope entirely in the face of such an enemy. And it’s just as easy, and just as destructive, in the long run, to lose hope by deferring it, by concluding that freedom is only for our children or our grandchildren or our great-grandchildren, that it takes a long and slow process of chipping away at the edges of invasive government, in the hope that, after the next several four-year election cycles, we might begin to get a little freer, and we might be able to contain or even roll back government a little, leaving the rest of the task for future generations. I am here today to say that that’s not good enough. I am here to say that freedom is much closer than any of us think, if we fight for it, and if we know where to take that fight. And I am here today to ask you all to get into that fight by having the hope to believe in, and the courage to say some things that are both crazy and true.
Well, O.K., then. Now that I’ve said all that, let me back up a bit, so that I can give you an idea of where I’m coming from, and then come back around to the details of where I think we can go from here. My name is Charles Johnson. I’m here on behalf of a new radical libertarian project called the Southern Nevada Alliance of the Libertarian Left. I write for a weblog called the Rad Geek People’s Daily, at radgeek.com. I’ve been a libertarian writer, activist, and organizer – both inside and outside of the Libertarian Party, especially the Libertarian Party of Alabama – since about 2001. Since 2000, I’ve also been a writer, activist, and organizer for many groups and causes within the radical Left and the radical feminist movement. Depending on where you are coming from, that may or may not seem strange; it may even seem incoherent. I think that with the right understanding of both the Freedom Movement and of the radical Left – or, rather, the right understanding of the particular tendencies within the Freedom Movement, and within the radical Left, that I am working in – it won’t seem that way anymore. But I’ll come back to that in a bit.
First, I want to say a few words about Southern Nevada ALL. We are a new organization, a local chapter of the Alliance of the Libertarian Left, which also has active chapters in Kansas City, Richmond, Virginia, and a new chapter forming in the Chicago area. The locals are autonomous and work together as equals: there’s no big central ALL office that tells local chapters what to do, but we keep in touch with the locals in other towns and we share our experiences and our materials, which each local chapter can adapt to the conditions in its own community. We use the ALL name because our groups have certain principles and strategic priorities in common with each other. Let me try to break down what some of those are. The Alliance of the Libertarian Left believes in….
Radicalism – we pull no punches, and we make no compromises, in our presentation of the freedom philosophy. We don’t shy away from emotional and controversial issues, either. We are anarchists, not limited-governmentalists; we are extremists, not moderates; and we’re not afraid to say so.
Populism – we believe that libertarianism is for everybody, and the people who have the most to gain from, and the most to contribute to, the movement, are the people who are the most downtrodden, the most thoroughly oppressed and exploited, in our current social and political regime.
Solidarity and social justice – we believe in many of the goals associated withProgressivesor the statist Left today – anti-racism, anti-imperialism, gay liberation, feminism, environmental sustainability, radical labor solidarity, and many of the other commitments that are commonly grouped together under the heading ofsocial justice.Unlike state Leftists, we believe that these goals can and should be achieved by free people in a free society, using free association and cultural activism to change existing social and material conditions, without getting government regulations or bureaucracies involved. We intend to achieve Lefist goals through libertarian means.
Non-electoral social change – we are not affiliated with any political party or any candidate for political office. We do not try to achieve change by petitioning the politicians currently in power, or by trying to replace them with other, better politicians. There’s a place for that kind of activism, but lots of other organizations – including the Libertarian Party – are already working on it. If we tried to do it, we wouldn’t be very good at it, so what we specialize in are other means of social change: mass education, targeted persuasion, non-violent direct action, and the creation of alternative institutions that counter or bypass the State.
I’ll have more to say about all of this later. But for now, let me say a few things about what Southern Nevada ALL has done so far, and where we are going from here.
Right now we are a new organization, and we are in the process of getting our bearings, making contacts, and looking for allies. Southern Nevada ALL’s first public action was a bit of guerrilla education that we did on Tax Day, April 15th – by posting these flyers around town in Las Vegas, mainly on UNLV campus and in the surrounding neighborhoods. The action had two immediate goals. First, to get out a radical anti-tax message that would appeal to anti-authoritarians of all stripes, and also specifically to anti-war Leftists. Second, to get our name out and let likely new ALLies and contacts know that we were forming this new organization. I consider it to have been a smashing success – at least, insofar as it ended up almost tripling our membership (growing from the two founders, David Houser and myself, to five members after the flyering), and laid the groundwork for future actions. I’ll come back around to talk about those in a minute.
First, though, I want to say a few things about non-electoral methods for social change, and then about the Left.
I’m not about to deny that electoral politics – voting, party-building, running better candidates – has some role to play in making social change. I think it has played a very important role in the past, and that it can play a very important role in the future – both through efforts to destabilize or reorient the major parties, as with Ron Paul’s campaign within the Republican Party, and also through efforts to create alternatives to the two-party system and open up new spaces for libertarian ideas, as with the Libertarian Party. What I do want to stress today is that it’s important for us not to limit ourselves to electoral politics. There are all kinds of ways that social change happens, and electoral politics is only one of them. While it can be a very powerful method, it’s also a very difficult one, and a time consuming one, and a slow one. So while I encourage you all to do whatever you find it worth your while to do through electoral politics, I am here to stress the need to add other forms of activism to your toolbox. If we are going to become free in our own lifetimes – and I believe that we will – then relying on electoral politics alone will never be enough. After all, running candidates and voting can only effect a change once you have managed to convert 50%+1 of the electorate over to your position; there’s very little room for accomplishing small changes on the margin. It also imposes a very rigid and quite slow schedule on making social changes: you only have a shot at changing anything for one day every two to four years. And an elections-only strategy necessarily excludes large numbers of people – including especially the very people that are the most thoroughly oppressed by the current political regime, who have the most to gain from a fight for freedom – people like drug war prisoners, and illegal immigrants, who are legally excluded from voting at all. If we want to make lasting change within our lifetimes, we will need to adopt some other methods of social change – methods that don’t have to wait on the next election, methods that don’t have to wait on 50%+1, and methods that can be for everybody, with or without a permission slip from the State.
To give you an idea of what I mean, let me tell you a couple stories.
[Spokane Free Speech Fight, 1910]
I know this story more or less by heart, so I told it off the cuff instead of writing it out. If you haven’t heard it told before, my version was just a slightly shortened version of Utah Phillips’s version. —R.G.
There are a lot of ways of doing direct action. Here’s a recent one that I read about, from a group of middle-schoolers in Readington, NJ. [Pennies work-to-rule in Readington, NJ]
Another special kind of direct action that I want to mention, which is very important to the ALL and to many other libertarian Leftists, is the concept of counter-economics. Counter-economics is the underground practice of radical libertarian theory. Counter-economics means creating your own, unregulated institutions, independently of the State, in which you profit by ignoring or defying the institutionalized requirements imposed by the government and by the business establishment. Counter-economics builds alternative institutions through illegal black markets, and quasi-legalgrey markets.And counter-economics is everywhere: it’s the unlicensed pharmacist slinging drugs to willing customers on the street corner. It’s the illegal immigrant dodging government border controls and then working under the table, without turning over the fruits of her labor to the IRS. It’s the waitress building up a nest egg from cash tips that she doesn’t report to the IRS. It’s e-gold and the Liberty Dollar and the Ithaca Hour producing durable currencies as an alternative to the Fed’s fiat money monopoly. It’s your cousin downloading free MP3s on his college network, in defiance of government-enforced copyright monopolies. It’s agrey marketoutfit like Food Not Bombs, where activists cover their own food costs and provide hot meals to homeless people by dumpster-diving surplus food from grocery stores (which is still fresh enough to eat, but no longer fresh enough to sell under existing government food regluations), cooking it, and serving the food for free in public spaces like parks.
It’s important to see that this kind of black market and grey market activity is itself a form of direct action, no less than filling the jails, and no less than a sit-in or a work-to-rule action. One of the ALL’s chief goals is to promote freedom through direct action, including through counter-economics, to encourage people who haven’tgone counter-economicyet to support the legitimacy and the importance of counter-economic businesses, and to encourage people who are already engaged in counter-economics to become self-conscious and organized counter-economists – that is, to see that what they are doing is not only personally profitable, but also politically valuable, and to see themselves as part of a larger movement to evade, undermine, and ultimately eliminate the invasiveness of the State.
One of the great advantages of counter-economics is that it’s one of the few forms of political activism in which people can strike a blow for freedom without having to become something that they are not, and which most people never will be – that is, die-hard, self-sacrificing activists who have a perfect grasp on libertarian philosophy and consistently make the right policy decisions. Counter-economics puts libertarianism into practice naturally; a practicing counter-economist is a practicing anti-statist as a matter of day-to-day business, whether or not she understands the whole philosophical theory that backs up her practice. And counter-economics also does something that almost no other form of political activism does: it produces direct, immediate profits for the person practicing it (because she makes money she wouldn’t otherwise be able to make, or keeps money she wouldn’t otherwise be able tokeep, or gets goods and services she wouldn’t otherwise be able to obtain). Part of the reason I said that I believe that we are all going to be part of Las Vegas becoming free soil is because I believe that if we take this fight not only to the electoral arena, but also to the streets, in the form of self-conscious direct action and counter-economics, we will have a tool at our disposal which will empower the most marginalized and least privileged people to join the struggle, and which will also make fighting for freedom the most selfish and most profitable thing for people – especially poor and oppressed people – to do.
Now, of course, there’s a downside to direct action, and especially to counter-economics: it can be dangerous. Nobody in ALL saying that you should get out there and start your own multimillion dollar heroin ring. (If you have started one, anyway, I’m not about to talk about it, and I’d rather you didn’t tell me about it. The first rule of a counter-economic business is, you don’t talk about a counter-economic business.) I’m the first to acknowledge this, and also to acknowledge that that means we shouldn’t put all our eggs in the counter-economic basket. I don’t think we should put all our eggs in any tactical basket. Counter-economics is important, and other forms of direct action are important, but so are a lot of other things. For the LP, that can mean electoral politics. For Southern Nevada ALL, it means mass education and targeted persuasion – through our flyers, through literature drops, through our website, through public speaking events like this one, and by creating alternative institutions (which I’ll come back to later) for distributing information and views through new channels. Neither education alone nor direct action alone will bring about victory; but when they are put together, each can become much more powerful than they were alone. Educating the people at large about libertarian ideas, and trying especially hard to persuade a handful of people who are especially open to radical politics, can make direct action much more powerful by creating the above-ground and underground networks of supporters that direct action needs to be successful. On the other hand, putting libertarian ideas into practice through direct action also reinforces education and persuasion, and makes them much more powerful than they would be on their own: people are much more likely to get involved, and to stay involved, in a project that leads to concrete action and real results. Libertarian talk accomplishes little if libertarianism remains nothing more than a talk shop; but talk can accomplish a hell of a lot when talk pulls people towards public and private action, and when public and private action get more people talking.
Now, some words about the Left. From the mid-20th century onward, movement libertarians have mostly conceived of themselves as the enemies of the Left (and vice versa), and the radical Left especially. Many libertarians came directly out of Right-wing or conservative movements (such as Young Americans for Freedom, the Republican Party, or the Right-wing talk radio scene). Libertarians mixed fairly freely with, and often worked with,small-governmentconservatives, and, even when they criticized conservative forms of government intervention (especially socially conservative policies, such as the Drug War or anti-abortion laws), they generally reserved their harshest words and most of their political activism for Left-liberal politicians, for redistributionist government social programs such as welfare and food stamps, and forsocial justiceorganizations like the anti-sweatshop movement and labor unions.
Well, to be clear, I for one have no problem attacking Left-liberal politicians, or government welfare programs. I oppose all efforts to expand the scope and power of government, and all forms of government-directed regimentation of trade or redistribution of wealth. But it is important to realize that criticizing the political means that many Leftist reformers have adopted over the past century doesn’t necessarily involve criticizing the ends that they adopted. And it is just as important to remember that the relationship between libertarians and the Left has not always been so chilly on either side. If we distinguish radical Leftists – think the Industrial Workers of the World, or Students for a Democratic Society, or the Black Panthers, or Noam Chomsky – from establishment liberals – think Albert Shanker or Teddy Kennedy or the AFL-CIO – then we’ll find that, while the establishment liberals have always been rock-ribbed defenders of the State, the radical Leftists – especially the radicals of the late 19th century, early 20th century, and, for a few years, the New Left of the late 1960s and early 1970s – have been some of the fiercest critics of the welfare-warfare State, as opponents of imperialism and COINTELPRO domestic surveillance, and also as proponents of people-powered, grassroots projects that provided mutual aid directly to people in the community, without any government welfare bureauracy. (Teddy Kennedy pushed for government welfare and healthcare. The Panthers argued that black people should forget about the government bureaucracy, and served voluntarily-funded free breakfasts in the ghetto instead—while they derided government welfare as a means of alienating poor blacks from their own community and keeping them dependent on the white man’s government.)
Similarly, there was a time when libertarians saw themselves not as the enemies of the Left, but as the most radical and consistent part of the Left. Nineteenth century libertarians such as Lysander Spooner and Stephen Pearl Andrews came out of the radical wing of the Abolitionist movement, and, after the Civil War, allied themselves with other culturally and politically radical movements against political and social privilege – including the labor movement, the anti-racist movement, thefreethoughtmovement, and First Wave feminism. The individualist anarchist Benjamin Tucker, whose magazine Liberty was one of the most influential libertarian publications in America from the 1880s through the first decade of the 20th century, described his position asAbsolute Free Trade; … laissez faire the universal rule,but he and his circle also routinely identified themselves as socialists – not because they were setting themselves against the ideal of the free market, but rather because they were setting themselves against actually existing big business. They argued that a handful of men exercised control over finance, capital, and (thus) the daily lives of ordinary workers, not because of free market processes, but rather because of plutocratic government economic regimentation and government-granted monopolies – especially theBig Fourmonopolies of government centralization and regulation of banking for the benefit of finance capital, government protectionist tariffs for the benefit of industrial fat cats, government-granted monopolies on the use of ideas through patents and copyrights, and government seizure of control over wild and unused land. The Tuckerite individualists saw the invasive powers of the State as both the root of, and the reason for, the dominance of Big Business and entrenched capitalists over smaller competitors, workers, and cooperative shops. And they suggested that the Freedom Movement should strike at the root of the problem by organizing workers into countervailing organizations such as boycott leagues and labor unions to expose, challenge, resist, and ultimately simply to bypass the economic regulations that the State and the bosses were conspiring to impose on them by force. In the early 20th century, American individualists like Dyer Lum and immigrant anarchists like Emma Goldman fought for much the same vision, and their influence produced one of the largest and most influential labor unions of the early 20th century – the Industrial Workers of the World, which viewed government planners and bureaucrats as the tools of the bosses and the enemies of workers, and who urged workers to look not to the government, but to themselves, through the creative use of free association, agitation, direct action in the workplace, voluntary strikes, union solidarity, and voluntary mutual aid between workers, which would bypass the State, and create alternative, non-coercive institutions like union hiring halls and workers’ co-ops, which wouldbuild a new society within the shell of the old.
If the labor movement is statist today, it is only because it is now what State regulation and patronage have made it. The I.W.W. was targeted for massive government repression during the 1910s and 1920s, most notoriously in the Wilson administration’s World War I political prosecutions and the laterPalmer raids,in which Wilson’s goon squad rounded up, jailed, and deported thousands of I.W.W. unionists and other anarchists, solely on the basis of their political beliefs. In the 1930s, a conservative, pro-government wing of the labor movement collaborated with theProgressivebusiness class and theNew Dealpro-government liberals to create the modern National Labor Relations Board system, in which centralized, establishmentarian unions like the AFL-CIO have been granted government privileges in organizing and negotiating, in return for submitting to extensive government regulations on the methods and goals that they can adopt. These new laws served as both a subsidy for conservative unionism as against radical competitors like the I.W.W., and also as a form of insurance that the subsidized labor unions would not do anything that fundamentally challenged the fundamental principles on which the state-corporate system and the interventionist political regime were founded.
The reality is that, through government regulation of the labor movement, export subsidies, the Big Four monopolies, government support for regulations that benefit entrenched market players, and through corporate welfare (whether in the form of direct monetary pay-offs, or in the form of land seized, Kelo-style, through eminent domain), big corporations like General Motors have benefited at least as much from government patronage as big unions like the UAW. Yet libertarian criticism of the magntes of state capitalism is hardly expanded into criticism of all businesses as such; while many 20th century libertarians have written as if the labor movement did not exist before the passage of the Wagner Act in 1935, and as if the faults of existing conservative unions are a sort of original sin for which all labor unions ought to b condemned. This difference in treatment is no doubt closely connected with the emphasis many 20th-century libertarians placed on defending the free market against the attacks of Communists and other state socialists. While they were right to argue that existing modes of production are distorted by government intervention, should not be even further distorted by increasing government regimentation, this insight was often perverted into the confused belief that existing business practices – the way that Wal-Mart does business, say, or the way that Nike treats its workers in third-world sweatshops – are themselves the natural outcome of an undistorted market. But these practices did not emerge from a free market in the first place; they emerged from a market already heavily distorted by government intervention. The answer, then, is clearly less government, not more; but there is also good reason for libertarians to condemn the economic distortions that already shape the state-capitalist labor market, and to promote anti-statist models of labor organizing as an essential part of the libertarian defense of free markets.
It’s for precisely these reasons that those of us in the ALL support wildcat unions and state-free forms of voluntary mutual aid, and look back to the history of those radical Leftist efforts that organized the oppressed and made use of people-power to challenge, resist, or simply bypass the State – such as the I.W.W.’s free speech fights. Or the nonviolent civil disobedience campaigns against British imperialism in India and against government Jim Crow laws in the Southern United States. Or the Jane network in Chicago, in which radical feminists learned how to perform simple first-timester abortions, and provided safe, affordable illegal abortions to hundreds of women in Chicago years before Roe v. Wade. Or the Black Panther Party’s efforts to replace white-controlled government policing and government welfare in black neighborhoods with community-based, non-governmental mutal aid and self-defense. And so on.
So, with these tools in hand and with these examples in mind, what can we do?
As I mentioned, Southern Nevada ALL is a new organization, and what we have done so far has focused on getting our name and our basic message out, on networking and making contacts, and on preparing a base for future activism. Our choice of present and future actions has been guided by a particular understanding of the situation in Las Vegas, and of the place where we can best fit ourselves into the existing activist scene. Southern Nevada ALL can act as a partner for, and as a sort of interface between, three different groups of activists within the Las Vegas area, each of whom we have some significant differences with, but also many overlapping interests: first, voting libertarians such as y’all in the Libertarian Party, and the movement that has grown out of the Ron Paul MeetUps; second, other non-electoral, anti-statist activists, especially Black Flag anarchist groups and projects; third, Leftist social justice groups working on issues such as immigration, civil liberties, police brutality, abortion rights, or the decriminalization of sex work.
Our role and the issues we have chosen come from our analysis of the particular situation here in Las Vegas. There’s clearly a tremendous thirst for anti-war, radical libertarian ideas in Las Vegas – as demonstrated by the groundswell of support for Ron Paul this past year, in direct opposition to the old guard of the state Republican Party. And also as demonstrated, in a different way, by the massive turn-out for immigrant freedom marches two years ago, on May 1, 2006. But this interest has not yet been converted into effective action, and there is a danger that, when election season ends five months from now, and the excitement of campaigning fizzles, a lot of that interest and that organizational energy may dissipate back into the background. We believe that at this point it is vital to reach out to energized, creative activists, and give them a channel for their enthusiasm and their activism that doesn’t require them to wait four more years before they see any action. Now is the perfect time to advance non-electoral methods of social change, and the building of alternative institutions that don’t revolve around multiyear election cycles, in order to keep the push for freedom going beyond the end of the election season.
And here in Las Vegas, the peculiar issues that we face have informed our decision of what sorts of groups to work with and what sort of issues to stress most in our activism. We have chosen to focus most closely on issues that intimately affect the lives of ordinary people in Las Vegas – such as police brutality (especially relevant, in light of the heavy police presence in Las Vegas and the recent string of brutality complaints lodged against the Henderson police), freedom from government border restrictions (especially relevant in a town with as large an immigrant population as Las Vegas, and where so many turned out for immigrant freedom marches only two years ago), and the collusion between politically-connected real estate developers and government interventions such as eminent domain and politically-drivendevelopmentschemes (especially relevant in a town so thoroughly dominated by the Convention Board and other private-public partnerships, not to mention a town which has been hit so hard by the collapse of a government-driven real estate development bubble).
With that in mind, since our Tax Day flyering on April 15th, Southern Nevada ALL has also:
Done literature drops of left-libertarian pamphlets around town, getting our message out on labor solidarity, freedom of immigration, voluntary mutual aid, how government creates and entrenches urban poverty, and so on, using these pamphlets – from William Gillis’s excellent Market Anarchy zine series, and a Vegas Anarchy series of our own;
Done some low-level networking and outreach events with this chapter of the Libertarian Party, the United Coalition for Im/migrant Rights, and local feminist and gay liberation organizations;
Started holding informal dinner meetings of ALL members and sympathizers, for networking, talking shop, and launching new projects. (The next one is planned for June 18th; if you’re interested, I’ll hook you up with the details later tonight.)
Participated in the May Day immigrant rights rally at the federal court house in Las Vegas, where we called for the decriminalization of all peaceful immigrants.
Worked together with other organizations to help build the infrastructure for anti-statist and social justice activism in Las Vegas – by creating a listserv for all libertarians in the Las Vegas area, and by helping to organize, and marching in, the United Coalition for Im/migrant Rights’sMarch for the DREAMon May 23rd.
We are just getting started. Our plans for projects in the immediate future include:
We will distribute literature more widely, both through contacts with other anti-statist and social justice groups (like the LP and UCIR), and also through literature drops in stores and public spaces.
We are planning a second, wider flyering event, focused on police brutality. (This will be coordinated with distributing pamphlets on police brutality, connecting it with the legal privileges involved in government policing, the militarization of police, and the effects of the racist War on Drugs.)
Over the longer term, we intend to use Southern Nevada ALL as a spring-board for creating alternative institutions that will help us more effectively push for freedom, and help create a more vibrant activist community within Las Vegas. In particular, we plan to help re-organize a couple of projects which have mostly lapsed over the past few years – a Las Vegas Independent Media Center, which will provide an open, grassroots publishing forum for anti-state and social justice activists in the Las Vegas area, and which will create new channels for information and analysis outside of the mainstream local media; and also revitalizing the Las Vegas chapter of Food Not Bombs, which provides agrey market,counter-economic form of mutual aid outside of the State welfare bureaucracy and the corporate food market. As Food Not Bombs becomes more stable and sustainable, we plan to regroup and begin to talk about other grassroots mutual aid projects, in order to take stock of what’s most needed in the community, and what sorts of projects present the most transformational opportunities.
Each of our plans and projects is a fairly small undertaking, especially when you compare it to the size of the problems that we face. But I am confident that these small pieces, loosely joined together, can serve as the building blocks for something much larger. Something which I believe Southern Nevada ALL will be an important part of, but in which we all will have a role to play, and in which our power standing shoulder to shoulder will be much greater than the power any of us have separately. Electoral politics can pressure the powers that be and soften up their will to strike back at us. Education can create public support for freedom and make it dangerous or disastrous for government to try to strike back. Direct action, combined with education, and when carried out through a large and vibrant network of people-powered Leftist and anti-statist organizations, can and will make us ungovernable – without depending on petitioning or begging, and without depending on the good will of the powerful. I believe that it can be in our hands sooner than any of us realize, if we make full use of non-electoral, radical, populist methods to create alternatives to the State, to bring everyone into the struggle, and to take direct action against government oppression. That’s a fight we can begin right now, by reaching out to our friends and neighbors and our activist comrades. We don’t need to wait until the next convention or the next election. We don’t need to wait for sympathetic politicians. We can take the power into our own hands. And when we do, we will become free.
Thank you for your time, and your very gracious offer of a forum in which to speak. I’ll be glad to take any questions you may have and to talk some more about anything that you’d like to hear more about.
All power to the people!
As far as success goes, the discussion following the talk was lively and interesting. We got a certain number of folks staring at me like I was from Mars, which I expected, but also a fair amount of interest and sympathy, and we made a couple new contacts who may be good prospects for ALLies or fellow travelers. I hardly convinced the entire LP of Clark County to join the Revolution, but I hardly expected to, and I’d call the whole affair a reasonable success, given my goals for the talk. As far as lessons for the future go, the main ones that I’m keeping in mind for myself, and which you may want to keep in mind if you’re going to give a similar talk, are the following:
The most interested people will always seek you out after the talk, but if you want to get a little something into everybody’s hands — e.g. pamphlets, contact sign-up sheets, handbills, etc. — don’t count on people to come up to your table for anything. Remember to hand it around at the start, if you possibly can.
Because of time pressures, some sections of the talk drew pretty heavily from material that I had already written elsewhere for print publication. Historical references are important but I intend to make the talk for future events somewhat less bookish, somewhat more attuned to my speaking style, and somewhat more present-oriented.
Go to some meetings beforehand so that you can scope out the audience and the space. If you make an appointment at one meeting, to give the talk at a later meeting, and there’s a substantial time period between the meeting where you made the appointment and the meeting where you’ll speak, make sure that you touch base (on whatever pretext; information, double-checking, follow-up, whatever) with the people who will be in charge at the meeting where you give your talk. I went to LP meetings beforehand but neglected to do the follow-up contacts I should have done; as a result there was some unclarity about who they were expecting to give the talk, and I wasn’t confident enough from a previous paper trail to speak up. Touching base more often would have resulted in having more time for the talk. (On the good side, having attended previous meetings gave me a much better sense for who I was pitching to and how to pitch it.)
Keep your audience well in mind. This talk is pretty directly calculated for voting libertarians, like LP members or Pauliticos. If you want to talk to social justice groups, antiwar groups, lefties, and so on, obviously you will want to cover much of the same ground, but probably from a different angle of approach.
Remember that, especially for a new radical effort like ALL, for any large group you are really looking for only a handful, maybe only one or two, new contacts in a much larger audience. Make sure that you have a gaff for anybody who bites — contact sheets, handbills, literature, and especially a well-defined upcoming event (like the dinner meeting, or even better an action that you’re planning) — to pull in likely new ALLies. But don’t worry if many in the audience give you the blank stare. You’re not there for them, except to give them some notional idea of your existence. You’re there for mass education and targeted persuasion, and the one or three or five potential ALLies or fellow travelers in the audience are your target.
Anyway, as I said, I consider the talk to have been a reasonable success and a good start. I hope that we can continue giving talks like this to other local groups in the future.
Other ALLies who are thinking about hitting up local groups for similar talks should feel free to appropriate, repurpose, and re-use the material in this talk.
Have y’ALL given any talks for your local chapter of ALL, or made any plans to give talks in the future? Let me know in comments. I’ll be glad to discuss any questions you might have about how my talk went, and to use the blog to talk up any talks that you have given or will be giving in the future.
Rad Geek Speaks: a talk on the Southern Nevada ALL TOMORROW, at Libertarian Party of Clark County meeting. Las Vegas, 3 June 2008, 7:30 PM.
The Southern Nevada chapter of ALL has been busy over the past few months doing some outreach, literature drops, and making contacts with the local networks of anti-statist and social justice activists. In addition to our April 15 Tax Day flyering action, and some informal get-togethers, Southern Nevada ALLies have also:
Done literature drops around town, using William Gillis’s excellent Market Anarchy zine series, and a couple of Vegas Anarchy pamphlets of our own (more on that, soon, I promise) using a version of his template adapted to our local situation;
Put on a small networking and outreach event for the Libertarian Party of Clark County’s last monthly meeting, to get our name out and pass out some literature;
Participated in Las Vegas’s May Day rally against the criminalization of peaceful immigrants; and
As a result of our outreach event last month, I have been invited the give a talk about Southern Nevada ALL, and left-libertarianism more broadly, at the next meeting of the Libertarian Party of Clark County, TOMORROW, Tuesday 3 June 2008. The meeting will last from 7:30 PM to about 9:00 PM; the LP hosts an informal coffee-klatsch (or bier-klatsch, or whatever) sort of meet-and-greet after the meeting from 9:00 PM onward. I plan to pass out some literature, give a prepared talk — about 1/3 about Southern Nevada ALL itself and what we do, about 1/3 about anarchist and left-libertarian goals broadly, and about 1/3 about direct action, counter-economics, and other means of effecting social change outside of electoral politics — and then to field some Q&A. Mild-mannered and uncontroversial as I may be, I hope for some lively discussion.
Here are the details on the event:
- WHAT: Talk by Charles Johnson on Southern Nevada ALL, left-libertarianism, and non-electoral activism
- WHEN: Tuesday, 3 June 2008, 7:30 PM
- WHERE: Boomerang’s, 6650 Vegas Drive, Las Vegas, Nevada; located on the corner of Vegas Drive and Rainbow Blvd.
One logistical note for those in the area: Boomerang’s is way out on the edge of town; it takes me about half an hour to get their by car. If anyone wants to go but needs help with transportation or wants to carpool, get in touch with me either privately or in comments, and let’s see what we can work out.
For the record, Southern Nevada ALL does not work through electoral politics and is not affiliated with any political party or candidate. But the talk should provide a good opportunity to do some outreach, get our name out, pass out some literature about ALL and left-libertarianism, and maybe find a few new ALLies or fellow travelers. It’s also a good chance to practice some good old soapboxing, and if it goes tolerably well, I hope that we can use it, or something like it, as a model for outreach and talking with other groups — voting libertarians, organized Pauliticos, non-libertarian lefty social justice groups, social anarchists, etc. — with whom we have significant differences but also substantially overlapping interests, and amongst whom might be possibly find a few new ALLies or at least fellow travelers.
It will also be a good opportunity for anyone in the area who’s interested in learning more about ALL to do so, independently of how much or how little interest they may have in the Libertarian Party specifically. So if you know anybody in Las Vegas, or in the area of southern California, southern Nevada, or northwestern Arizona, more broadly, who might be interested — whether or not the Libertarian Party is particularly their thing (after all, it’s not particularly my thing, either, but I’m happy to talk with and work with them on many issues of common concern) — then please do forward the announcement on to them.
More to come soon; watch this space.