The problem with “folk activism”

7. April 2009

A tip of the hat to Perry Metzger for alerting me to the essay by Patri Friedman on the Cato Unbound site, “Beyond Folk Activism.”

Friedman provides a cogent theory for why electoral politics and what we normally think of as “political activism” cannot achieve libertarian goals. Rather than restate that theory here, I invite readers to peruse Friedman’s essay.

Friedman also highlights a quartet of alternative strategies, which he denotes as “Free State Project,” “crypto anarchy,” “market anarchism,” and “seasteading.” He examines what he sees as the strengths and weaknesses of each, and seems to regard seasteading most favorably.

“Free State Project” here refers to the movement seeking 20,000 libertarians to relocate to New Hampshire, so as to provide a sufficiently large concentration of activists to wield political clout at the state and local levels. As Friedman himself notes, this is really a variant on traditional activism, and the only really “alternative” aspect of this strategy is that it’s a response to the libertarian movement’s failure to develop the massive following necessary to change national policy.

(I should note here that I am nominally a part of an alternative to this alternative, the “Free State Wyoming Project,” promoted by Boston T. Party, attempting a similar strategy in Wyoming. Boston felt that FSP chose the wrong state, and I was inclined to agree with him. So far, FSW appears to only be a tenth the size of FSP, and is currently focused on just getting libertarians here and so far has had zero impact on Wyoming politics at any level.)

The second strategy, “crypto anarchism” refers to employing the Internet and encryption technology to carry on economic activities outside the state’s purview. So far, this strategy has not had much success either. PayPal was reigned in by the state and now reports cash flows to the IRS. E-gold’s principals have been arrested and are being prosecuted on money-laundering charges. Other digital-currency schemes simply don’t have the kind of widespread participation needed to liberate its participants from the Federal Reserve-run economy. I can’t spend e-money at the grocery store, or the gun shop, or the furniture store. However, this strategy yet holds some promise, when combined with other strategies, as I’ll explain in a moment.

The third alternative Friedman lists is “market anarchism,” which he lauds mainly as a promising “ecosystem” with the sort of institutions and incentives built-in to serve a free society. And I agree. The problem, according to Friedman, is that there seems to be no path from here to there. Contemporary state institutions have formidable inertia and a strong tendency to preserve and propagate themselves. Market anarchism as developed by, for example, Murray Rothbard or David Friedman, lacks a cogent strategy for establishing itself.

But it is here that Friedman is mistaken. For one variant of market anarchism, developed by Samuel Edward Konkin III and denoted as “agorism,” does have such a strategy. In a nutshell the strategy is for libertarians to withdraw from the legal economy as much as possible and participate in the black and grey markets, and in the appropriate times and places to develop alternative institutions which will replace the state’s monopoly on such things as dispute resolution and law enforcement. SEK3, who died in 2003, outlined his theory of revolutionary change in his book The New Libertarian Manifesto, currently available in print from KoPubCo and in PDF form at the site. Konkin’s other book, An Agorist Primer, also available from KoPubCo, presents a more general outline of agorism, including his theory of how-to-get-there.

I note here that this is an area where “crypto anarchism” may be employed to enhance the development of alternative institutions, while the state is still strong enough to otherwise suppress them. In this sense, agorism might be regarded as a combination of market and crypto anarchism.

Agorism is a relatively under-developed branch of market anarchist theory, but also a very promising one. In fact, novelist J. Neil Schulman wrote a science-fiction story, Alongside Night, dramatizing how agorist theory might someday rescue civilization from a future crisis — a crisis which looks alarmingly similar to what we face presently. Schulman has developed a screenplay adaptation of his story and is endeavoring, with the aid of activist Jim Davidson, to raise the capital needed to produce a feature film.

(I have also been asked to produce a graphic novel version in the event the screenplay is green-lighted.)

Friedman’s fourth alternative, seasteading, involves developing floating cities which would float about the world’s oceans, outside of any current state’s jurisdiction. Currently various technologies are in development which promise to create stable floating platforms which could be linked together, (or un-linked, where appropriate) to form stateless communities. Friedman notes the principal weaknesses of this approach: 1) the dangers of the ocean environment (think hurricanes and tsunamis); and the likelihood that states will interfere either to prevent establishment or to destroy or enslave these communities after the fact in the name of “fighting terrorism” or closing tax havens or what have you.

This suggests a rather more fanciful fifth alternative — space colonization. If some technological breakthrough or breakthroughs can allow inexpensive access to space, then we have a “new frontier” similar to that which eventually birthed the United States. Colonies on the moon, Mars, the asteroids, etc., could be established beyond the easy reach of existing governments wherein stateless societies may develop. This of course is an idea my writing partner Sandy Sandfort and I explore in our adventure web-comic, Escape From Terra.

Kategorie anarchy, Big Head Press, comics, movies, Posts, Wyoming | 20 Kommentare »


5. May 2006

Okay, I have to admit I’m just a bit excited about the new Superman movie. It’s kind of embarrassing to admit that — not for reasons you may think — but I fell in love with that big goof when I was three years old and he never let me down.

Warner has put up a new trailer here, which seems to also provide a handy synopsis of the plot. Supes returns to earth after a years-long, unexplained absense. Lois has married a mortal and has a 9-year-old son. Lex Luthor has stolen technology from Superman’s Fortress.

The clip shows some really impressive super-power effects. The feel I have is that this film pays tribute to the 70s movies but builds on them with state-of-2006 effects and a more serious tone, probably also a tribute to the X-Men movies.

Until the X-Men and Spiderman movies, it always seemed like the makers of these things felt a little bit silly making such a project and had to throw in either a bit of clownishness, for the Supes movies, or an over-wrought style, for the Batman movies, to cover their own sense of self-importance. (“Yesss, I am workeeng with a vul-gahr cheeldren’s pop icon to decontstruct zee adventure gennnn-re and eks-a-plore zee intehrsticeez of zee recurseev space I am createeng.”)

It took the Raimi brothers abandoning all nerdly hang-ups with Spiderman, and playing him in a straightforward, unapologetic manner, to finally show what a super-spandex story could be like in cinema.

But there’s a side of me that wonders, is this a good thing? I’ve long had a theory of the super-altruist genre and archetype as having an overall negative quality. Get paid for providing a useful service? Heaven forfend! The gifted hero must give generously of his own self, forsaking all manner of self-gratification which might be his if only he acted like a normal human being.

I don’t disparage people who choose social goals as their inspiration in life. But if they aren’t getting paid by the people they serve directly, then someone else has to support them, and that means someone else has to fix cars, stock shelves, transport goods, grow food, manage factories, etc., etc., in order to feed, clothe and shelter these social workers, in addition to their own selves.

But people who work primarily to serve themselves and their children are not as “heroic” as the heroes. If the super-heroes must work to support themselves, they have some job not involving their super-abilities, and under secret identities, so you don’t know it’s really Suspenders Man who’s measuring you for a new suit. The secret identity might be explained as needed for privacy in “off-hours” or to protect friends and relatives from the hero’s enemies. But I think the real reason is so that people won’t know that these amazing demi-gods have to punch a time-clock, or shuffle paperwork, or wax floors to keep eating. The readers know, but the persona of the costumed hero is in this way kept separate from the work-a-day real person.

Why is this model of schizophrenic unreality presented as an heroic ideal? And why do we respond to it, even those of us who should know better?

Kategorie comics, movies, Posts | 10 Kommentare »

V is for Vaseline

21. March 2006

Saw the movie, read some of the reviews, and the “verdict” for “V” is somewhat complicated.

Caution: there be a spoiler or two here.

If one looks at the story without considering the source material, I tend to agree with Butler Shaffer that it’s one great libertarian flick (although not the greatest — I still think Serenity holds that title). The movie demonstrates clearly how ambitous politicians use fear, with the help of a compliant media, to manupulate relatively free people into giving up their freedoms. And it very pointedly demonstrates that only by overcoming fear can one be truly free.

Based on that alone, I would say this movie is worth seeing, and sharing with friends, or one’s older children. That, plus the fact that Natalie Portman turns in a terrific performance as Evey Hammond, (who is really more the central character of this story, than is the titular hero “V”) and that the overall production quality is very, very good.

And yet. And, yet.

The movie also explicitly illustrates the importance of integrity — something all too cheaply sold, yet the one thing which thugs can’t take away unless you give it up — and of ideas in shaping a society. “You can kill a man, but a ideas are bullet-proof,” or words to that effect.

An idea cannot be killed, but it can be suppressed, and as this movie demonstrates, it can be date-raped.

Now we come back to the original source material. While most of the plot points from the graphic novel are carried into the movie, certain critical ones have changed or gone missing. For a fairly thorough review of what was changed, go see William Alan Rich’s review on SciFiDimensions.Com. I will touch on two points here.

Firstly, in the original book, the new tyranny grew from the ashes of Britains two larger parties — Conservative and Liberal Labour (a leftist party associated with the Socialist International. At the time the original book was written, Britain also had a “Liberal Party” but it was marginalized and now merged with the Social Democrat Party to become the Liberal Democrat Party — thanks to Gene Berkman who clarified this for me). In the movie, it’s just “the Conservative Party.” This would seem like a rather small change on the surface but in fact it’s huge.

This change basicly lets leftists, or “liberals” as we call them this side of the pond, off the hook. It lets them point their fingers at “conservatives” as being fascists-in-sheeps clothing while retaining their own cover of respectability. It also lets conservatives dismiss the story as a shrilly defamatory partisan screed.

I think this was best demonstrated by America’s favorite liberal-in-conservative-drag, Stephen Colbert. Citing this movie as one of several “Movies that are Destroying America” he declares that the chief villain, Chancellor Sutter, is really George Bush, Evey Hammond is really Cindy Sheehan, and V is really Michael Moore. Que audience laughter.

But the fact of the matter is that liberals are just as much on the hook for our current state of affairs as are conservatives. In Britain, it is the Labour Party which is in power, and which is fervently destroying what’s left of British liberties. In America, only a tiny handful of liberal politicians have stood against the Bushevik onslaught, while the majority have voted to renew the so-called PATRIOT Act twice.

One of the biggest obstacles to free-ing up society is this tribalistic rivalry between liberals and conservatives, between Democrats and Republicans. You point out to a liberal the hypocracy of his heroes, and he’ll just say that conservatives are worse. If you point out to a conservative the hypocracy of his leaders he’ll just say that liberals are worse. And with each change of the political winds, the bar for “tolerable despotism” gets set lower and lower.

My second point: This story’s original author, Alan Moore, is not a liberal. He’s an anarchist. We may differ on certain points of economic theory, but on the basic point that no one is fit to be another one’s master, and that all governments are basicly gangs of thugs cloaked in pseudo-respectability, we are in agreement. And on the point that the real “political axis” is not conservative versus liberal, but fascism (I would call it “statism”) versus anarchism, we are also in agreement.

As Rich explains in his above-referenced review, Moore was quite explicit in the original novel about his anarchism. For the uninitiated, anarchism is not chaos. It is an entirely alternative way for individuals to cooperate in a social context, in which everyone has equal moral status — including especially those who may be employed for the task of protecting life and limb from criminal or atavistic violence.

Moore’s anarchism is made explicit in the original story. Early on, V addresses the statue of Justice atop the Old Bailey and declares the story’s major theme: I loved you (liberalism) once, but you betrayed me, so now I have a new love — anarchy. Later, as the totalitarian government begins to lose its grip and a crime wave sweeps London, Evey asks V, “Is this anarchy?” and V replies “No, this is the time of take-what-you-want. Anarchy comes later.”

In the movie, the only time “anarchy” is mentioned is during this same time-frame, as a robber jubilantly shouts “Anarchy in the UK!” while firing his gun through the ceiling.


As I commented to Alan Moore’s friend and fellow comics-writer, Warren Ellis, “Hollywood always fucks with its source material. But in this case, they used Vaseline and cooked breakfast in the morning.”

But despite its flaws, is the movie still worthwhile? Does it contribute, at least a little, to understanding our current problem and suggesting a solution? Judging by how statists have reviewed the movie, one might think not. But these people may be gripped by fear of losing their cushy jobs if they go radical. Or it may take time for the message of this story, however corrupted, to sink in.

And what of the Wachowski Brothers, who are responsible for the screenplay adaptation? One interesting bit in the movie is that a very popular television commedian decides to tweak the government by portraying Chancellor Sutter as a buffoon, complete with Benny Hill riffs. A few hours later, the government’s goons come to bag our liberated commedian, and he is later executed.

This never happened in the original story. Perhaps the Wachowski Brothers were trying to tell us something.

I also told Ellis that “I would not be embarrassed to have my name associated with this film.” Obviously, illustrator David Loyd wasn’t embarrassed, because he’s in the credits, and he’s also getting what would have been Alan Moore’s share of both the book’s and the movie’s royalties. So if he’s troubled, he can easily afford therapy.

But as soon as I sent that message off to Ellis, I started having second thoughts. I’m still not certain what I would do were I in Alan Moore’s position. Yes, he’s given up a lot of easy money, but he not only still has his integrity intact, despite the fact that his name has been removed both from the book and the film, everybody in the entertainment industry still knows he wrote that story. And this will likely, sooner or later, afford him the opportunity to do really great things in the future.

According to Ellis, the movie’s $26.1 million weekend opening was a disappointment for Warner. They were expecting at least $30 million. Ellis speculates that Moore’s interview in the New York Times, published just before the opening, wherein he castigates DC Comics and parent company Warner Brothers for their sordid business practices, may have cost Warner that $4 million margin.

I hope it did.

Because writers should not be afraid of their publishers, publishers should be afraid of their writers.

And yet, I plan to take Son the Elder to see this movie next weekend, and then I’m going to buy him a copy of the graphic novel. Because this story is important. And as Son the Elder also aspires to be a cartoonist, the meta-story of how Moore’s work was corrupted is likewise an important cautionary tale.

Kategorie anarchy, comics, Free speech, movies, Posts | 5 Kommentare »

V for Vendetta

15. March 2006

What might be the most important movie-based-on-a-comic-book of our age, V for Vendetta, premiers this Friday.

I say “might be” because Hollywood has a notorious record of screwing up my favorite stories when adapting them from their original media. I recently read an interview by Heidi MacDonald of Alan Moore, who wrote the original story, and he’s not happy with changes that were made. The only particular change mentioned in the interview, though, is that the story’s hero has been transformed from an “anarchist” into a “liberal.”

Well, this is hardly surprising. Anarchism is way too hot a topic for a stodgy institution such as Hollywood to deal with, at least in any intelligent fashion. It might be better, ultimately, that anarchism is avoided here, rather than see presented a fun-house-mirror distortion of the concept.

This revelation does cool my enthusiasm for the movie somewhat, but I’m going to see it anyway and decide for myself whether the movie does justice to the original. Will this be another League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, (based on another Alan Moore book) which barely resembled its original but was still a servicable-if-flawed story, or will it be more like Starship Troopers, a deliberate, snarky parody of its source material?

V is important because the original story, and apparently even the movie version, presents the sort of cautionary tale this society really needs to think about at this juncture — the descent of a formerly free society into totalitarianism, and the courage, determination, and thought required to defeat totalitarianism.

The movie’s producers apparently hope to discredit neo-conservatism. although that sad ideology has gone a long way in discrediting itself already. But I’m hoping that despite the changes, some kernel of the anarchist idea — that we really don’t need men in very fine hats ordering our lives, regardless of what color the hats are — will survive, and be spread and reinforced by this movie.

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