Saturday, 31 August 2013

Anarchy: The Basis for a Civilized Society (An Interview with Crispin Sartwell)

Crispin Sartwell is someone you should know. He is doing important work in recovering forgotten greats in America’s anti-authoritarian tradition. Among other works, he’s put forward a lean and powerful book titled Against the State.

In what follows, you’ll see why he’s my favorite living philosopher. Sartwell will take you on an intellectual tour de force covering quirky politics and people from a neglected part of America’s history.

I went to visit Crispin Sartwell at his house, a converted 19th-century schoolhouse that sits on a quiet country road amid lush cornfields northeast of Gettysburg. Sartwell is a professor at nearby Dickinson College, but you’d never guess it. He was unassuming and totally casual. It was like I was meeting an old friend.

Once inside, Sartwell fixed me a cup of tea, and we sat at his kitchen table by the window, on which sat a fruit bowl full of delicious local donut peaches, and talked about all things liberty.

We began with the big picture.

The cover of The Economist featured a story titled “Liberty’s Lost Decade,” marking Sept. 11 as the beginning of a great loss of freedom in the U.S. I started by asking Sartwell if he thought liberty was losing ground to the state.

“Absolutely,” he said. “I wish that the structure of history was moving toward liberty. I fear not, though. State power has consolidated in the U.S. after Sept. 11 in a scary way.”

Yet there are countervailing movements. I asked him about the Occupy and tea party movements, for example. He said:

“I was very heartened by Occupy and by the tea party. It’s hard to find people who appreciate both, because most people are looking at everything from a left-right spectrum. But I saw them as having a lot of commonalities. They both kind of petered out, or have been co-opted by more mainstream forms, but I thought they were both heartening.

“Personally, I like to see the rise of Rand Paul. I’m amazed that man is in the U.S. Senate. It was outstanding that Ron Paul was in Congress all those decades. To elect someone who is pretty much a straight-up libertarian to the U.S. Senate, that’s an amazing success for that side of the spectrum. But people are so bewildered by the left-right thing that people who should otherwise be able to regard Rand Paul as important are going to disregard him as a crazy right-wing nut.”

The left-right spectrum has been something Sartwell has been writing about in his blog and books. It’s the main lens through which people tend to sift political opinion. And it has major flaws. Sartwell explains:

“I think the whole left-right way of understanding politics has been incredibly unfortunate. It obscures many similarities and papers over many differences on both ends. The left-right spectrum was more or less invented by the left in the late 19th century, probably. The first use of left-right in the modern sense, in English, was by Thomas Carlyle in 1837. The concept dates from a little earlier than that in France. It was used to account for the different factions in the French Revolution.

“That way of thinking about politics is also associated with Marxism in the late 19th century as capitalism versus anti-capitalism. That’s one way to think about the spectrum, I suppose. But in application to contemporary positions, the left-right spectrum forces everybody into an enthusiasm for one kind of hierarchy or another. It’s either a capitalist-corporate hierarchy or a state-oriented political hierarchy. That appears to be your choices. But there have to be spots outside that spectrum where you’re skeptical of any and all forms of power and hierarchy. And that’s what I’m looking for.”

This brings us to one of Sartwell’s excellent books, Against the State: An Introduction to Anarchist Political Theory. Anarchism doesn’t fit the left-right spectrum either, I said. Sartwell gave his take:

“Well, people try to make it fit. A lot of anarchists I know are uncomfortable with my take on anarchism because a lot of people who identify with anarchism now are anti-capitalist. They tend to be younger folks, Occupy types and anti-globalization people. When they think of anarchism, they think of a far-left anti-capitalism. They are less concerned with this question of state power that, for a lot of traditional anarchists, would be definitional.

“I regard libertarianism and left-anarchism as potentially compatible positions. They have obvious commonalities. Both are highly skeptical of state power or authority in general. That’s one reason I’m looking at these figures that came before the left-right way of conceiving the political spectrum came about. People like Thoreau, let’s say. You couldn’t call him a progressive because there was no such category in 1850. But he was an abolitionist. He certainly supported feminism. He supported everything that would be considered progressive reform, but he’s an individualist.

“Thoreau combines these elements that are central in the American political tradition but are now obscured. He combined an individualism that we now think of as right-wing with various positions of human liberation that we would tend to think of as left-wing. That, to me, is a perfectly coherent philosophy. There doesn’t seem to be any conceptual tension in that.”

I pointed out that anarchists could coexist with many sorts of social and political styles. The basic point, it seems to me, is that no one is forced to be a part of anything. All kinds of social arrangements might exist.

“Precisely,” Sartwell agreed. “This is an advantage of anarchist political theory, in my view. We don’t have to design the future. We can try to find out how people want to live and how successful they are.”

This brings us to the question of how practical anarchism is. The chief objection all anarchists face is the charge that we’re pie-in-sky crazy types. Sartwell says even if anarchism were not practical, it doesn’t follow that it has no value.

“Just the skepticism of power that’s involved in the basic stance of anarchism is something we need all the time,” he said. “I think an anti-authoritarian streak is always worthwhile in the discussion.”

This is not to put aside the question of practical application.

“In some ways, I underestimated the positive possibilities of anarchism,” Sartwell admits.

In this, we both shared a similar evolution. He pointed to the works of anthropologists James Scott and David Graeber, whose work independently has shown how anarchism has worked in a variety of settings.

“[Reading Graeber and Scott,] you just become aware of the anti-authoritarian or nonauthoritarian ways in which people have actually organized,” Sartwell says, “including in our lives now.”

Bowling leagues, to use an example from Sartwell’s book, are anarchist organizations. They are completely voluntary. No one is forced to join. So when you think about it, our lives are full of anarchist organizations built on voluntary foundations. Suddenly, anarchism doesn’t seem like such a radical idea. You come to appreciate that the basis of civilized society is anarchic to its core.

“There is this whole anti-authoritarian history. It just hasn’t been written,” Sartwell said.

An important point we talked about was just how far an anarchist political philosophy ought to go. Most of the time, anarchists seem like relentless critics of existing institutions and societal structures. People tend to think of anarchists as engaged in mindless destruction. But Sartwell has an artful retort.

“Anarchism is mindful destruction,” he writes in his book. “It is precisely its refusal to shape and impose a future that distinguishes anarchism from ideologies.

“I don’t think there should be an anarchist political philosophy that’s going to tell you what the future is going to be like once we release you from state power or whatever,” Sartwell said.

This can be a weakness when debating with statists, I pointed out, who want us to tell them what an anarchist world will look like.

“My mother’s been pounding on me like that since I was 12,” Sartwell laughed. “I know all about that!”

On that note, we’ll end it for today. Keep an eye on your inbox tomorrow for the second part of my interview. Sincerely, Chris Mayer. (Source)

Part 2

The position that there need be a state is too often taken for granted.

The main body of Sartwell’s book Against the State is dedicated to destroying the arguments for a state from the likes of Hobbes, Rousseau and Hegel. In fact, one thing that becomes crystal clear in reading Sartwell’s book is how bad the classical theories of the state are.

“Amazingly bad,” Sartwell said. “It’s shocking, really. The way the book came about was that I taught a basic political philosophy course for three or four years. Every time I read Rousseau, Locke or Hobbes… I’m saying to myself, ‘This is so bad. Don’t people realize how bad this is?’ I think what goes wrong is that these figures — Locke or Hobbes or Hume — are so secure in their position [that there must be a state] that all they have to do is wave in that direction and people will follow. One function of anarchism, it seems to me, is to put forward challenges to them. There have been some who have tried. Robert Nozick at least tried to articulate an alternative. There have been people who have tried to bring anarchism to the mainstream, but it’s always been marginalized because it sounds so crazy to people.”

I asked Sartwell what he thought was the stronger argument for anarchism: a moral argument against force and violence or a more utilitarian defense based on outcomes.

“I think the moral argument is the stronger,” he said. “That’s the center of my commitment, anyway. The problem with utilitarian arguments is how do you really judge? Look at what’s happening now. How do you really know what the effects of what the U.S. government is doing now are going to be, say, over a century? You can’t really know. I like to turn those utilitarian arguments around on state. You start talking about the disasters of states. Holocausts. Genocides. World wars.”

In his book, Sartwell cites the work of Matthew White on the mass killings of the 20th century. It’s a blood-soaked indictment against states. Safe to say it’s hard to imagine such large-scale slaughter happening in a world without states.

“It’s not completely unimaginable,” Sartwell ventured, “but you have to have a very organized body of people to come up with nuclear weapons or the Final Solution. It’s going to have to be something that is, in effect, a state anyway. And in fact, the only bodies of people who have perpetuated death on such a scale are states.”

I agreed that the moral arguments are stronger. I mentioned one of my favorites, Lysander Spooner (1808-1887), to whom Sartwell makes reference in his book. Spooner is a good old-fashioned natural rights-based anarchist, relying on the language and concepts used by the Founding Fathers and Enlightenment figures that man has certain inalienable rights.

“Spooner is so amazing on that,” Sartwell agreed. “You give him some minimal concept of natural rights, and everything else flows from that. It’s almost Euclidean. As a philosophy professor, I worry about its conceptual underpinnings. I can’t formulate a philosophy that makes natural rights obvious.”

Sartwell puts forward a moral argument for anarchism in his book. I like one example he uses. He writes how he knows he doesn’t want to be tortured, so he assumes others don’t want to be tortured either.

“You don’t have to have a concept of natural rights to say that,” Sartwell points out. “But natural rights are a compelling way to formulate why that should be.”

This brought us to one of Sartwell’s favorites, Josiah Warren (1798-1874), a remarkable figure and a wonderful human being in the anti-authoritarian tradition. Josiah often gets credit for being the first secular American anarchist.

Sartwell has edited a great book of his writings with a lengthy and useful introduction as well as various notes. I highly recommend this book. (It’s called The Practical Anarchist: Writings of Josiah Warren. A true labor of love, Sartwell edited all of Warren’s writings and pared them down to a healthy sample of the most important ones. What remains are sparkles of clarity and one of the most extreme individualist philosophies you will find in American letters.)

Warren too builds his individualism on moral grounds.

“He grounds it on the reality of human individuality and the reality of human differences,” Sartwell explains.

I mentioned that Warren is the first secular anarchist in America, at least that we know about. But many people don’t know the history of anti-authoritarian thought in America and how much of it sprang from the Protestant Reformation. Sartwell explains the fascinating link:

“I have a certain reading of this American libertarian or anti-authoritarian tradition that does trace from the Protest Reformation. Luther’s teaching was that each person is his own priest and that there need be no hierarchy between a believer and the believer’s god. It was a very radical idea. And very anti-Catholic, obviously. Although there are elements of that kind of dissent even from the very early days of Christianity.

“Luther himself allied with the state powers and princes in northern Europe to survive the onslaught of the Catholic Church, which is why the Reformation was more successful than other rebellions had been previously. But many radical figures in the Reformation extended that kind of anti-authoritarianism to political institutions. This would include groups that later came to the U.S., such as the Mennonites; Anabaptists; and, even later, the Quakers.

“These are radical groups that came here with an individualist kind of ethos. So there was an immensely complicated religious geography in early America. But it is primarily British Protestant of one sort or another. This is central to the whole American political tradition and central to the idea of natural rights. John Locke, for example, comes from a Puritan background. But this early American anti-authoritarianism is a more emotional, focused, and less educated version of individualism, and it is faith-based…

“It is a way of articulating individual rights in the early republic that focuses on religious practices and respect for different practices and different believers. This yields an entirely different conception of what a human being is on Earth and what a human being owes to any authority. Each of us is equally assigned the task of our own conscience and conducting our own moral life.

“For example, a Quaker believes, ‘My conscience is not answerable to any outside authority.’ This thought drove Lucretia Mott [a great 19th-century feminist and abolitionist], drove early feminism and early abolitionism, and is secularized in Thoreau’s Civil Disobedience…

“This is the history I’m trying to uncover, not that I’m the first to try to do this. I want to draw out these connections in early 19th-century reform movements… And you can see this also as the growth of libertarianism. It is a very noble history, actually.”

We talked about various figures, such as William Lloyd Garrison (1805-1879).

“William Lloyd Garrison is a fascinating figure,” Sartwell said. “He is one of the most important political figures in 19th-century America. He is an absolute pacifist, one of the first to articulate it, and a radical individualist of this very Protestant variety. He’s over-the-top for Jesus. Lysander Spooner, by contrast, is a deist or an atheist, perhaps… He’s got a completely different orientation, but still emerges out of the same tradition and has the same basic commitment to individualism.”

We talked how many of these anti-authoritarian figures tended to be on the right side of history.

“They tended to be,” Sartwell said. “Absolutely. You can’t be an individualist and be an advocate of slavery, not with any consistency, anyway.”

In his excellent introduction to his book on Josiah Warren, Sartwell writes almost poetically about the beauty of individualism as against the abstractions of statists:

“Every abstraction from the world is… an abstraction from the world, a digression or diversion from it, and a devaluation of it. For millennia, we have been bundling things together to try to comprehend them; now the point is to appreciate their strangenesses, their excesses to categorization. Individualism is an attempt to remake the world by affirming it.”

Although Sartwell is describing Warren’s philosophy, I offered that this sounded a lot like Sartwell. As the old saying goes, there is no political philosophy, only autobiography.

“Yeah, that sounds like me,” he said. “Josiah Warren goes far with individualism. It’s not just a philosophy for him. It’s a metaphysic. He appreciates things in their specificity. You see the same thing in Thoreau. His commitment to the specific observation of the real world is total. That’s what he’s interested in. It’s a whole way of comporting yourself in the universe. It’s about really understanding the position you are in and not covering it up with abstractions.”

Such noble thoughts seem a long way from the Snowden-Manning-Abu Ghraib-drone fest we live in today. We finished our conversation where it began, marveling at the backlash to Snowden and the encroachments of state power.

“What would Thomas Jefferson think of that?” I said. “What would Thomas Paine think? Is this our American tradition?”

“Not enough people are asking those questions anymore!” Sartwell said.

When I said we were perhaps fighting a rear-guard action as anarchists, Sartwell said, “Maybe not. Maybe we’re the future.”

Let’s hope.

You can follow Sartwell at his blog at I am a regular reader, and that’s the best endorsement I can give. He also has another blog with longer essays at On the latter site, I’d recommend you at least check out “a pantheon of American anti-authoritarians, 1820-1850.” I guarantee you’ll learn about some history — and meet amazing characters — that you knew nothing about before. In the same vein, don’t miss his paper on “abolitionist saints, anarchist freaks, and feminist ass-kickers.” Print ’em out, find a comfortable chair, grab an adult beverage, and enjoy. Sincerely, Chris Mayer

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