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Revolutionary Pacifism as the best of anarcho-liberalism

Consistent with Muste’s “revolutionary pacifism,” the Sydney Peace Foundation has always emphasized peace with justice. The demands of justice can remain unfulfilled long after peace has been declared. The Santa Cruz massacre 20 years ago can serve as an illustration. One year after the massacre the United Nations adopted The Declaration on the Protection of All Persons from Enforced Disappearance, which states that “Acts constituting enforced disappearance shall be considered a continuing offence as long as the perpetrators continue to conceal the fate and the whereabouts of persons who have disappeared and these facts remain unclarified.”

The massacre is therefore a continuing offence: the fate of the disappeared is unknown, and the offenders have not been brought to justice, including those who continue to conceal the crimes of complicity and participation. Only one indication of how far we must go to rise to some respectable level of civilized behavior. – Noam Chomsky, Revolutionary Pacifism: Choices and Prospects

The ABC National presentation on this speech can be heard or watched here. There are lots of beautiful notions in this piece, lots of hard facts, and an erudition that is impressive. Yet listening I couldn’t tell if Chomsky was an anarchist, a pacifist, or a social democrat.  While Chomsky’s analysis of the historical situation is deadly accurate, but in this analysis we see best of anarcho-liberalism.  Now, I never use that word in a positive sense so why the best:  His assertion that pacifism with justice comes simply from the population holding leaders to elementary moral principles.

History provides ample evidence to support Muste’s conclusion that “The problem after a war is with the victor, [who] thinks he has just proved that war and violence pay.” And the real answer to Muste’s question, “Who will teach him a lesson?,” can only be domestic populations, if they can adopt elementary moral principles.

Yet in all his historical analysis–other than the media obfuscating the truth which is media analysis is correct on–I must note that one is not offered any analysis as to exactly and structurally why this happens? Indeed, Chomsky offers us an appeal to the universal injunction and reciprocation of the other.  But this sort of injunction is not actually universal:

The principle is universal, or nearly so, in three further respects: it is found in some form in every moral code; it is universally applauded in words, and consistently rejected in practice.

Every major religion makes exceptions on morality for the other: Muslims do not have to treat non-believers the same as believers, Confucian ethics is filled with category types with specific and not universal duties, Christianity has historically make exceptions for non-believers, and I could go on and on.

Instead with good a barrage of examples of injustices, but no real definition of what peace with justice and revolutionary pacifism even truly is. Is this pacifism after justice has been rendered? Or is it pacifism than demands justice non-violently?  I didn’t understand A.J. Muste or Chomsky on this,  Muste’s saying that “one must be a revolutionary before one can be a pacifist.” It seems that Chomsky is arguing for the former, in that he quotes Muste again which I paraphrase as saying that we must not be too quick to judge violence against oppression even if it is wrong. Or we to aid these people in their violent struggle?  What about the odds?  Chomsky and Muste do not make that clear.

Chomsky makes a point about Obama that I endorse though:

The specialist literature and even the US Embassy in Islamabad warn that the pressures on Pakistan to take part in the US invasion, as well as US attacks in Pakistan, are “destabilizing and radicalizing Pakistan, risking a geopolitical catastrophe for the United States – and the world – which would dwarf anything that could possibly occur in Afghanistan” – quoting British military/Pakistan analyst Anatol Lieven. The assassination of bin Laden greatly heightened this risk in ways that were ignored in the general enthusiasm for assassination of suspects. The US commandos were under orders to fight their way out if necessary. They would surely have had air cover, maybe more, in which case there might have been a major confrontation with the Pakistani army, the only stable institution in Pakistan, and deeply committed to defending Pakistan’s sovereignty. Pakistan has a huge nuclear arsenal, the most rapidly expanding in the world. And the whole system is laced with radical Islamists, products of the strong US-Saudi support for the worst of Pakistan’s dictators, Zia ul-Haq, and his program of radical Islamization. This program along with Pakistan’s nuclear weapons are among Ronald Reagan’s legacies. Obama has now added the risk of nuclear explosions in London and New York, if the confrontation had led to leakage of nuclear materials to jihadis, as was plausibly feared – one of the many examples of the constant threat of nuclear weapons.

The assassination of bin Laden had a name: “Operation Geronimo.” That caused an uproar in Mexico, and was protested by the remnants of the indigenous population in the US. But elsewhere few seemed to comprehend the significance of identifying bin Laden with the heroic Apache Indian chief who led the resistance to the invaders, seeking to protect his people from the fate of “that hapless race” that John Quincy Adams eloquently described. The imperial mentality is so profound that such matters cannot even be perceived.

There were a few criticisms of Operation Geronimo – the name, the manner of its execution, and the implications. These elicited the usual furious condemnations, most unworthy of comment, though some were instructive. The most interesting was by the respected left-liberal commentator Matthew Yglesias. He patiently explained that “one of the main functions of the international institutional order is precisely to legitimate the use of deadly military force by western powers,” so it is “amazingly naïve” to suggest that the US should obey international law or other conditions that we impose on the powerless. The words are not criticism, but applause; hence one can raise only tactical objections if the US invades other countries, murders and destroys with abandon, assassinates suspects at will, and otherwise fulfills its obligations in the service of mankind. If the traditional victims see matters somewhat differently, that merely reveals their moral and intellectual backwardness. And the occasional Western critic who fails to comprehend these fundamental truths can be dismissed as “silly,” Yglesias explains – incidentally, referring specifically to me, and I cheerfully confess my guilt.

This is a valid point about the modus operandi of the Obama administration, yet the exact reasons why Obama would work against U.S. interests. Furthermore, for a man respected by many as an anarchist, he speaks of international law frankly but as if it has legitimacy.  There is a tension always felt in Chomsky: his critiques are never explicit if he thinks the “system” can be overthrown or if we can just tweak it here and there.  Indeed, one is left confused to whether Chomsky is advocating revolutionary pacifism or reformist pacifism.

Yes, Yglesias is making explicit what you’d expect to come out of John Yu’s mouth.  Many of my liberal friends will ignore this, of course, and the fact that this is actually a bit more radical than the Bush administration.  However, in another way, Chomsky is being slightly silly indeed.  He should know that sovereignty, even prior to when Carl Schmidt articulated it, is almost always rooted in the ability to make a state of exception.  The person who makes the laws must have some, if not total, immunity from them. Indeed, there is a simple Hobbesian logic to this: the primitive society is so violent that we give the monarch the only legitimate use of violence.  This is explicit in the traditions that created the modern nation state. In this Chomsky seems to make implying, although not making, an anarchist argument but then again he does not seem to be willing to say jettison the international institutions in order to fix it.    One can see this again:

These are among the natural consequences of rejecting Muste’s warning, and the main thrust of his revolutionary pacifism, which should direct us to investigating the grievances that lead to violence, and when they are legitimate, as they often are, to address them. When that advice is taken, it can succeed very well. Britain’s recent experience in Northern Ireland is a good illustration. For years, London responded to IRA terror with greater violence, escalating the cycle, which reached a bitter peak. When the government began instead to attend to the grievances, violence subsided and terror has effectively disappeared. I was in Belfast in 1993, when it was a war zone, and returned a year ago to a city with tensions, but hardly beyond the norm.

The tensions in Belfast have no been resolved, only lessened.  Tactically this makes good sense, and having an open hand is a smart tactical move. But this is tactics, not a political vision.  In a sense, this is what is to be decried in ethics as a maintainer of only the current.

Chomsky’s list of facts is dizzying, but his analysis of what those facts constitute systemically is facile in the end.   Furthermore, seems fundamentally unclear and unable to explain why people who consider themselves moral are unable to break the grit-lock on peace.  This is why I call Chomsky the best of anarcho-liberalism: it is coherent on the surface and sustained, but it is not systemic.  Chomsky is roote din analytic philosophy with the same concerns for describing and limiting the current as opposed to positing something outside of it.  This divide is a philosophical one ultimately.  In my mind there are several reasons why “moral” people cannot hold a government accountable: alienation from other humans in the means of production, cognitive dissonance and prior investment logic, formal as opposed to substantive democracy, and the nation of the interaction between capital and the state themselves.

I ask you then for all our Chomskys valid historical critique does this not ultimately lead to people quoting facts without systemic analysis, pleading on moral whether than substantive grounds, and arguing about beliefs.  While I do not think it would be fair to tar Chomsky as anti-intellectual, but he does encourage lifestyle rebellion. So he may not be an anarcho-liberal himself, but a lot of his analysis lends itself to the people who sound like Sunkara was describing. 

We need answers to why, not just what.

Hedges and ambivalence

So, apparently, by accident I have started series on figures that are beloved by leftists, progressives, and liberals that I am deeply divided with myself about.   Even in February of 2009, I found Hedge’s jeremiad tone to be more reactionary in attitude and elitist in rhetoric than reality really allows for.  In his book Empire of Illusion, I thought he was essentially making a conservative argument that took an idealized form of the American past as a given.  Historians at HNN agreed with me:

Again: the coarseness, even brutality, Hedges describes in modern popular culture is real and may even be growing in relative prominence. But most of the culture of any time and any place is mediocre at best, and if Hedges assumes that the viewers of pornographic movies or wrestling matches uncritically accept everything they’re shown as a transparent description of reality, he betrays a lack of respect for ordinary Americans not all that different from conservative critics of popular culture (like Jose Ortega y Gasset, also unselfconsciously invoked here) who are at least clear in their own minds about their contempt for the masses whose culture they decry.

At the other end of the social spectrum, Hedges’s critique of the academy is similarly ham-fisted.”Our elites replicate, in modern dress, the elaborate mannerisms and archaic forms of speech employed by calcified, corrupt, and dying aristocracies,” he writes.”They cannot grasp that truth is often relative. They base their decisions on established beliefs, such as the primacy of the unregulated market or globalization, which are accepted as unquestioned absolutes.” Maybe so. But most critics of university culture would say that if there is one thing that characterizes academic life in the humanities, whose influence he rightly notes is shrinking, it is skepticism about the market economy and a doctrinaire insistence on the constructed nature of reality, a form of relativism that Hedges also decries (indeed he’s quite bitter about the state of the humanities on this and other counts). He also manages to lump together the oft-commented upon narcissism of our contemporary meritocratic elite of Ivy-League universities with the old-boy network of George W. Bush — a conflation of two admittedly unattractive, but hardly interchangeable, demographic segments

Hedges is a polemical writer and some hyperbole can be allowed him, but reading his Truthdig columns for four years indicate that this is his pattern.  Take this one from August 29 of this year:

We have begun the election march of the trolls. They have crawled out of the sewers of public relations firms, polling organizations, the commercial media, the two corporate political parties and elected office to fill the airwaves with inanities and absurdities until the final inanity—the 2012 presidential election. Journalists, whose role has been reduced to purveyors of court gossip, whether on Fox or MSNBC, descend in swarms to report pseudo-events such as the Ames straw poll, where it costs $30 to cast a ballot. And then, almost immediately, they blithely inform us that the Iowa poll is meaningless now that Rick Perry has entered the race. The liberal trolls, as they do in every election cycle, are beating their little chests about the perfidiousness of the Democratic Party and Barack Obama. It is a gesture performed not to effect change but to burnish their credentials as moralists. They know, as do we, that they will trot obediently into the voting booth in 2012 to do as they are told. And everywhere the pulse of the nation is being assiduously monitored through polls and focus groups, not because our opinions matter, but because our troll candidates understand that by parroting back to us our own viewpoints they can continue to spend their days lapping up corporate money with other trolls in the two houses of Congress, the White House, the Supreme Court and television studios where they chat with troll celebrity journalists.

It’s not even that I disagree with him–although I don’t think decrying how money is worse really understands the situation. This has always been part of the American electoral system, its just moved from illicit to explicit. It’s just Hedges knows way more about how to write with spleen than with either a systemic answer or a focused historical critique.  It’s the polemic of the bile and the anecdote.  Agitprop, reactionary agitprop even, that missed some lost notion of the center-left in America.

Let’s look at this one from December of last year:

The two greatest visions of a future dystopia were George Orwell’s “1984” and Aldous Huxley’s “Brave New World.” The debate, between those who watched our descent towards corporate totalitarianism, was who was right. Would we be, as Orwell wrote, dominated by a repressive surveillance and security state that used crude and violent forms of control? Or would we be, as Huxley envisioned, entranced by entertainment and spectacle, captivated by technology and seduced by profligate consumption to embrace our own oppression? It turns out Orwell and Huxley were both right. Huxley saw the first stage of our enslavement. Orwell saw the second.

We have been gradually disempowered by a corporate state that, as Huxley foresaw, seduced and manipulated us through sensual gratification, cheap mass-produced goods, boundless credit, political theater and amusement. While we were entertained, the regulations that once kept predatory corporate power in check were dismantled, the laws that once protected us were rewritten and we were impoverished. Now that credit is drying up, good jobs for the working class are gone forever and mass-produced goods are unaffordable, we find ourselves transported from “Brave New World” to “1984.” The state, crippled by massive deficits, endless war and corporate malfeasance, is sliding toward bankruptcy. It is time for Big Brother to take over from Huxley’s feelies, the orgy-porgy and the centrifugal bumble-puppy. We are moving from a society where we are skillfully manipulated by lies and illusions to one where we are overtly controlled.

Orwell warned of a world where books were banned. Huxley warned of a world where no one wanted to read books. Orwell warned of a state of permanent war and fear. Huxley warned of a culture diverted by mindless pleasure. Orwell warned of a state where every conversation and thought was monitored and dissent was brutally punished. Huxley warned of a state where a population, preoccupied by trivia and gossip, no longer cared about truth or information. Orwell saw us frightened into submission. Huxley saw us seduced into submission. But Huxley, we are discovering, was merely the prelude to Orwell. Huxley understood the process by which we would be complicit in our own enslavement. Orwell understood the enslavement. Now that the corporate coup is over, we stand naked and defenseless. We are beginning to understand, as Karl Marx knew, that unfettered and unregulated capitalism is a brutal and revolutionary force that exploits human beings and the natural world until exhaustion or collapse.

We stand naked and defenseless?   What exactly is your point, Mr. Hedges if it is already too late, which you seem to think it is.   Furthermore, why are you so focused on culture as if it trumps material conditions?

Hedges always speaks as if culture was the sign and economics the manifestation.  For someone invoking Marx, he seems to  have utterly missed the point.

“A culture that does not grasp the vital interplay between morality and power, which mistakes management techniques for wisdom, and fails to understand that the measure of a civilization is its compassion, not its speed or ability to consume, condemns itself to death.”
― Chris Hedges, Empire of Illusion: The End of Literacy and the Triumph of Spectacle

This sounds like it could have been written by Edmund Burke or even Oswald Spengler.   If our rulers where just more moral like in the good old days is essentially Hedge’s argument.    As even Chomsky has pointed out to Hedges, this is ahistorical (the second question is Hedges):

Chomsky says to Hedge’s question about the decline of intellectuals

Which brings me back what Jim Cullen wrote for HNN:

Which brings me another source of confusion. Hedges was trained as a seminarian, and a fierce moral energy is what gave War Is a Force that Gives Us Meaning is intensity. Righteous anger has its place, and it really worked there. He has also written jeremiads against evangelical Christians and atheists alike. At some point, though, it seems to me that an effective social critique has to move beyond complaining about what you hate and describing what you love, because, as Hedges made clear in that book, love is a force that gives us meaning, too. The power of positive example — in generous and engaged writing no less than in the subject of that writing — can furnish a powerful lesson in its own right. After all these years on the front lines, I really wish Chris Hedges would finally come home to the place that made him — and the place that sustains him still. If he could map thosecoordinates, perhaps a few more of us would find ourselves with him.

Which, by the way, brings to another point about Hedges.   I agree with his critique of Sam Harris and Christopher Hitchens, but he liked to expand this view to all “atheists”:

Most of these atheists, like the Christian fundamentalists, support the imperialist projects and preemptive wars of the United States as a necessity. They see the war in Iraq and the greater conflict in the Middle East as an attack on irrational religion and a fight for the civilizing values of western culture. They too divide the world into superior and inferior races, those who are enlightened by reason and knowledge and those who are governed by irrational and dangerous religious beliefs. Hitchens and Harris — who asks us to consider a nuclear first strike on the Arab world — describe the Muslim world, where I spent seven years, most of them as the Middle East Bureau Chief for the New York Times, in language that is as racist, crude, and intolerant as that used by Pat Robertson or the late Jerry Falwell. These authors are as culturally, historically, and linguistically illiterate as Christian fundamentalists, reducing one-fifth of the world’s population to their cartoonish visions of what it means to be a Muslim. They are a secular version of the religious right.

As P.Z. Meyers wrote about the same quote, it’s more or less bullshit: 

“Most of these atheists”…who has he been talking to? Hitchens and Harris are most emphatically not representative of atheist views on war. When Hitchens spoke at FFRF on the need for strongarming the Muslims in Iraq and Iran into surrender, people walked out on him, and he was loudly decrying atheists as wimps who were weak on the war and were too pro-Democrat, too anti-war. Atheists are politically diverse, and if anything, tend to lean away from the views Hedges assigns to us.

So Hedges likes to condemn what he actually doesn’t understand very well often. For all his railing against the society of Spectacle, which Debord did in a much more coherent and consistent way that him, his jeremaids are part of that same spectacle and, honestly, a bit of a reactionary part of it at that.

Yet, and I do mean yet, it is also this very trait and pension for hyperbole that I admire in Hedges. I too love that he has a big mouth. It almost seems like a dialectical synthesis: for all I reject Hedges’ romanticized view of the past and his ideological incoherence, I must admit I like some of his ideas:

I keep my distance from the powerful. I distrust all sources of power regardless of their ideological orientation. I do not want to be their friend. I do not want to advise them or be part of their inner circle…. I made a conscious choice to report from the developing world and war zones during most of my career. What I witnessed rarely matched the version of events spun out for the media courtiers in Washington by the power elite. As a foreign correspondent I often fought my own Washington bureau, where reporters in suits were being fed a partial version of reality and had a vested interest in reporting it as fact. The longer reporters spent in Washington, the more they looked, sounded, and acted like the power brokers they covered. — from the introduction to The World As It Is: Dispatches on the Myth of Human Progress.

But yet it also gives us:

Financial collapses lead to political extremism. The rage bubbling up from our impoverished and disenfranchised working class presages a looming and dangerous right wing backlash…. (The unemployed and the poor) have lost hope. Fear and instability have plunged the working classes into profound personal and economic despair, and, not, surprisingly, into the arms of the demagogues and charlatans of the radical Christian Right who offer a belief in magic, miracles, and the fiction of a utopian Christian nation. — from “Death of the Liberal Class.”

You see Hedges’s own reactionary nature often gives him clear vision, but in another way, Occupy Wall Street has hit him in the face as well: A populist backlash that’s not right-wing or religious? He’s sees hope in it, but he’s not clear yet:


So seeing Hedges, the left reactionary prophet, is often right. For all the problems I have had with Hedges’s hoping for a center left past, I have to admire his distancing from power. In short, while a journalists who speaks with moral clarity and saw a lot of things develop entirely quickly, but seems to see things in almost Manichean terms, is someone that I want on my side even if sometimes I want him to wipe the foam off his mouth and admit to ideological complexity in some of his opponents. But if Occupy Wall Street gives Hedges something akin to a positive vision that isn’t moaning about how much better the progressives used to be, it’s about damn time.



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