‘Libertarian Anarchy: Against the State’, ‘Revolutions in Reverse’ reviewed by Alex Sager

Libertarian Anarchy: Against the State

Continuum, London, 2012. 208 pp., $24.95 / £14.99 pb
ISBN 9781441144676

Revolutions in Reverse

Minor Compositions, London and New York, 2011. 120pp., $18 / £12.99 pb
ISBN 9781570272431

Reviewed by Alex Sager

About the reviewer

Alex Sager is Assistant Professor in Philosophy and University Studies at Portland State University. …


Gerald Casey’s and David Graeber’s rival versions of anarchism share a revulsion for the state which Graeber sees as a violent bureaucracy that crushes alternative visions of society and Casey condemns as a criminal organization that robs through taxation, kidnaps through imprisonment for victimless crimes, and murders through war. They differ in their vision for a better society. Casey’s libertarian anarchism is a form of anarcho-capitalism that privileges voluntary contract and private rights. Graeber’s anarchism emerges from his activism and privileges egalitarian discussion over ideology or expertise.

Casey’s Libertarian Anarchy is a pithy introduction to libertarian anarchism: libertarian because the use of force is immoral except when necessary to resist aggression or privately enforce contracts and anarchist because the state is illegitimate and superfluous. After a brief introduction, chapter 2 traces the evolution of the state and presents the case that its origin and nature are violent. Casey defines and defends libertarianism and anarchism in chapters 3 and 4, and provides an account of the nature of law and a discussion of legal systems in stateless societies in chapter 5. Chapter 6 presents arguments for why neither representative democracy nor constitutionalism can justify the state.

Casey’s book is a philosophical meditation that attempts to show that anarchism is possible, but does little to defend anarchism as desirable under current socio-economic conditions. His case rests explicitly on libertarian freedom, voluntary contract, private property, and the right to own natural resources. It rests implicitly on claims about how markets and bureaucracies function. Though Casey does an admirable job of representing the philosophical case for libertarian anarchism, he does not seriously address criticisms from liberal and socialist philosophers or tackle more practical concerns in depth. On the philosophical side, Casey is unlikely to persuade those who are skeptical about the “voluntariness” of contracts between unequal parties, who do not see a principled distinction between state violence and the violence that private parties use to protect their property and enforce contracts, or who see some redistribution as desirable.

Readers wondering what libertarian anarchism would look like in practice in today’s work will also be disappointed. Casey’s view of the state as a “stationary bandit” (17) ignores market failures, the ways the state and markets interact, and denies the fact that well-run bureaucracies are highly effective at certain tasks (31). Casey’s libertarian anarchism does not distinguish between state violence against peaceful protests and coercion to support taxation to effectively solve collective action problems. Much of Casey’s case relies on the conviction that unfettered markets can operate efficiently without the state and the hope that third party enforcement will not degenerate into competing protection rackets extracting rents and waging war against all. Libertarian Anarchism’s axiomatic approach to political philosophy and its reliance on desert island thought experiments to establish private property (69) and the wrongness of one party commanding another outside of a binding agreement (119) does little to assure those who have concerns about what a libertarian anarchist world would look like.

Casey shows that the state is unnecessary for law and order, but fails to see that the possibility of anarchism is not at issue, but rather its desirability. He argues for philosophical anarchism in which the state is illegitimate “regardless of whether or not any of the alternatives to it are productive of better outcomes for individuals apart, of course, from the enhancement of liberty.” (5) Most people would hesitate to abolish the state if this substantially destroys other values, even if this did lead to an enhancement of liberty (as libertarians understand it). Since there are relatively few primitivist anarchists who reject economic growth and seek to abolish the agricultural revolution, attractive vision of anarchism needs to explain how it can retain the goods and services provided through market-state interactions.

In contrast, Graeber is what Casey terms a “practical anarchist” who argues that anarchy is feasible, that people would be better off with anarchy, and that we should act to bring it about. Much of Graeber’s theorizing emerges from his political activism – he suggests that revolutionary practice has outpaced revolutionary theory (65) – and the essays in Revolutions in Reverse meditate on theory and practice, imagination, hope, and revolution without violent overthrow of the state.

“The Shock of Victory” defends the thesis that the global justice movement was successful in achieving its medium-term goals. “Hope in Common” charges the security state and rampant economic financialization with destroying the ability to imagine alternative futures. “Revolution in Reverse” draws on the parallels between progressive political movements and avant garde artists – principally the Situationists – to speculate on the difference between Right and Left. “An Army of Altruists” suggests that capitalist markets succeed not because they allow people to further their self-interest, but because they promise people an opportunity to acquire enough resources to behave altruistically. In “The Sadness of Post-Workerism,” Graeber reviews a session at the Tate Modern that featured Toni Negri, Franco Berardi, Maurizio Lazzarato, and Judith Revel. He criticizes these theorists for neglecting political economy and for their general failure to engage with empirical reality, but then redeems them as prophets. The final essay, “Against Kamikaze Capitalism” consists in a series of reflections on activism, productivist/consumerist ideology, and debt.

Readers of Graeber’s other books and essays will be familiar with most of the ideas expressed in these “minor compositions”: market society is a historical and anthropological anomaly, people gravitate toward mutual aid, violence perverts human relationships, ordinary people can bring anarchism into reality through the imagination. At a basic level, Graeber insists that all societies sustain themselves through relatively egalitarian communication and subsist on mutual aid: communism, understood as “from each according to their abilities, to each according to their needs” (35), has a substantial place even in most private corporations because mutual aid is the most efficient way to work together to maximize profits. There is more than a grain of truth in his statement that “Capitalism, which is reduced increasingly to simply realizing the value created by such communistic practices, is thereby reduced to a purely parasitical force, a kind of feudal overlord extracting rent from forms of creativity intrinsically alien to it.” (100)

His analysis of violence as “perhaps the only form of human action that holds out the possibility of operating on others without being communicative” (48) captures a fundamental reason why many of us detest bureaucracy. In particular, violence creates “lopsided structures of the imagination” (51) in which victims are forced to spend a great deal of energy interpreting the intentions of those in power; those in power have no need to reciprocate because they can compel, rather than persuade.

Similarly, his suggestion that “American society is better conceived as a battle over access to the right to behave altruistically” (70-71) helps explain why people endure the “mind-numbing labor and cut-throat competition” (70) of bureaucracies and the market. On Graeber’s account, the only reason many people submit to the current socio-economic regime is because of the promise of being able to take care of their children, hang out with friends, and, in the case of affluent people, help others in need.

Graeber’s reflections on direct action and its possibilities, tactics, and frustrations are often astute. His observation that “radical projects tend to founder, or at least become endlessly difficult, the moment they enter into the world of large, heavy objects: buildings, cars, tractors, boats, industrial machinery” (44) vividly captures the obstacles preventing escape from state regulations. He traces the parallels between revolutionary social movements and avant garde artistic movements to the conviction that “the ultimate, hidden truth of the world is that it is something that we make and, could just as easily make differently” (47), clarifying the purpose behind the pageantry of many anarchist protests.

Graeber resembles a prophet more than a careful social theorist. Is it really true that “working class people and sensibilities [are] the source of almost everything of redeeming value in modern life (111)?” Should we accept his characterization of “the essence of Right-wing thought” as a “social ontology that through such subtle means, allows violence to define the very parameters of social existence and common sense?” (46) Is the characterization of violence as “the preferred weapon of the stupid” (49) revealing or does it hide how violence is also the preferred weapon of those who have no need to give their victims reasons for their actions?

More fundamentally, when Graeber turns to the actual success of radical movements in “The Shock of Victory” he is more provocative than plausible. He argues that the global justice movement succeeded in destroying the Washington consensus, blocking new trade pacts, delegitimizing the World Trade Organization (WTO), International Monetary Fund (IMF), and World Bank, and disseminating models of direct democracy (24). If anything, the WTO has a more hegemonic status than fifteen years ago and the failure to make significant progress in recent trade rounds may be better explained by the fact that the gains from trade at this stage of capitalism have largely been realized. The IMF recently loaned the Ukraine $18 billion US on the condition that it devalue its currency, cut natural gas subsidies, and restructure its economy to reduce corruption – market-friendly austerity measures from the height of neoliberalism that went more or less unchallenged.

The global justice movement may have won the rhetorical war – people do not usually call themselves neoliberals – but it left much of the neoliberal international structure in place. It also fed the securitization of domestic police forces and legitimized counter-insurgency tactics against peaceful protestors: the know-how that helped crush the Occupy Movement in the United States owes as a debt to the Battle in Seattle.

Anarchism has enormous plausibility as a moral ideal. Among the radical left today, the only game in town appeals to mutual aid, voluntary association, and horizontal networks. History has taught us the perils of attempting to violently seize the state and use it to transform society. For Graeber, states are unequivocally violent institutions and unsuited to usher in a better era. In the place of mass revolution, he sees “endless moments of cooptation, endless victorious campaigns, endless little insurrectionary movements or moments of flight and covert autonomy.” (30) Mainstream libertarians, while generally parting ways with Casey by accepting the minimal state, are less likely to emphasize mutual aid and are more inclined to privilege private property, contract, and the market, but they share with the anarchist left revulsion toward coercion.

How well does anarchism do as a revolutionary ideal or the basis for a new society? Casey and Graeber both privilege the imagination. This theme is more explicit in Graeber who sees the imagination as fundamental to progressive movements, capable of reshaping reality and overcoming alienation when it is able to break free from state violence. Graeber and Casey both despair at how social theorists are often trapped in the present, refusing to acknowledge how history and anthropology reveal the many different ways people have lived together. Graeber suggests that the combination of mutual aid associations and mass struggles over debt might help remake the world, but prefers to leave how this process could unfold to coalitions of activists. Theory is subordinate to practice, serving more to analyze the logic of consensus-based deliberation rather than to instruct activists about the world.

This theoretical underdevelopment is more troublesome for Casey who ultimately appeals to dubious economic ideologies to support the viability of his utopia. In contrast, Graeber sees anarchism as a mindset and a set of processes carried out today in pockets where state violence does not intrude on voluntary association and mutual aid. Nonetheless, the appeal to the imagination is not sufficient for understanding. In many respects, it is a refusal to theorize and leaves open the question of whether anarchism has the intellectual resources to construct a stateless society. This task will need to go beyond moral philosophy to incorporate political-economy and other disciplines to understand the world and to examine current and historical anarchist experiments. 

15 April 2014

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