The Anarchist Township

Fight the war, fuck the norm!

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The Case of Right-Wing Youth and Other Problems

Nick’s Notes: This was an excerpt from a Youth Liberation 101 essay I’m currently working on. I decided it’s a little 201 and tangential so I cut it for theoretical and space related reasons so I could keep the 101 a little shorter.

Enjoy!


One of the problems of youth liberation as well as anarchism is that most youths, even when presented it, may simply reject it. What do we do in that case?

Surely the easy answer of forcefully impressing our ideas on them more goes against the spirit of both anarchism and youth liberation. If in trying education we discover that the people around us, youths or not, do not want to be a youth liberationist or an anarchist what are we to do?

This is a similar quandary that Andrea Dworkin tackled in her 1971 book Right-Wing Women. In it, she discusses the phenomenon of both women and self-described feminists deciding that it’s better to be subordinate to their husbands than embrace feminism. Part of the explanation for that was the allure of mainstream society as opposed to fighting it tooth and nail. Trying to move to a different culture and way of thinking about people (whether women or youths) is a difficult thing for many individuals to face and for entirely understandable reasons.

Thankfully we don’t need to rely on condescending ideas of these women being “duped” by the patriarchy or that they have some sort of “false-consciousness” as Marxists sometimes argue. All we need to recognize is that there’s a lot to get yourself invested in with the current system. For all of its many evils, there are still some parts that people understandably want to keep. And sometimes they want to keep it for a basic sense of security but other times they may want it for what they think is a totally logical reason.

So first thing’s first, apply the basic principle of youth liberation applies here: Take youth seriously.

If an individual disagrees with your ideas then regardless of their age we should take whatever concerns of theirs seriously, but this especially applies to youth given the level of incredulity we often aim at them.

On the other hand your interlocutor may not have any concerns but may instead feel threatened by the idea that in accepting this radical change they’d have to make personal changes in their life. Changes that could range from disobeying their teachers or arguing with them about facts to outright “disrespecting” their parents when they think they are being abusive. These are all risky behaviors and in certain contexts it makes total sense for youth to distrust advice to do these things.

That’s partly because youth are not always in a good place to resist the power structures that society places above them. This is one of the many reasons why adult allies are (at times) essential to the success of youth movements. Although it should be stated that the ingenuity of youth and their ability to create networks of safe spaces for each other through should not be underestimated. Especially through the internet, smartphones and other methods of communication.

That said, there’s a certain kind of logic to the youth against youth liberation.

If you expose this logic for the faulty sort that it is, you may have a shot at convincing them of your ideas. Often the youth in question doesn’t feel like other youth could handle the amount of freedom you are giving them, but conveniently they think they’d be able to handle it just fine.

This is a similar logic that authoritarians often have when arguing for laws that affect and target society in general instead of just youth. Most people think that they would be a perfectly moral person without someone telling them what to do. But if you introduce the idea that maybe things would work better if everyone was like that and suddenly it’s an issue and other people cannot be trusted.

It should be stated as well that the youth liberation project is not the kind of ideological movement that should aim for 100% ideological adherence. Not everyone (or even a majority) of youth need to agree with youth liberation for it to have large-scale success. While education is an essential part of any good movement, it shouldn’t be seen as the holy grail of it either.

Further, no movement should have education as its only tactic and in practice almost never does. In which case youths themselves can show the benefits of youth liberation by doing instead of arguing.

Perhaps youths themselves and their own ideas that they get to see through autonomously are the best hope for youth liberation, not the adults who try to play with logic until they can just get the arguments right. Intuitively it seems to make the most sense that in the end youths are going to know better about how to address youths concerns than the ideas of adults.

In No! Issue 6 Sven Bonnichsen has an article entitled Youth Against Liberation: An Exploration which tackles many of the issues and also uses the Dworkin comparison (which I lovingly pilfered) but comes to rather lackluster conclusions about how to resolve these issues. Bonnichsen sees youth liberation as a world expanding viewpoint and while I think that holds validity we shouldn’t only rest our laurels on what we see in youth liberation.

If we want to convince right-wing women of feminism and right-wing youth of youth liberation then we need to put our thoughts into practice, not just glorify our thoughts more. And ideally we should leave the doing to youths themselves because they’ll know best how to organize themselves and other youths concerns, not adults. This is a basic insight even most American right-wing libertarians would accept via the economist Friedrich Hayek and his ideas on knowledge being at its best when it’s localized and kept to those individuals it actually concerns.

Advice for a Budding CSJW

Take all the time you need…

Sara Lynn Michener has a (mostly) solid article on Medium called SJW Behaviors that Hurt Social Justice and I have very few problems with it. CSJW means “Counter-Productive Social Justice Warrior”, for the record.

But, there’s this:

There was a short-lived thinkpiece that circulated among CSJWs surrounding the mixed criticism of the Women’s March on Washington. Its thesis was that some trans people felt excluded from the march because there was so much emphasis on genitalia (pussy hat, use of the words describing female genitalia to be empowering, etc).

Nowhere in the piece did its author even mention the literal elephant in the gynecology office; the GOP’s relentless, decades-long policing of actual vaginas, the shame, stigma, and creepy control issues associated with female genitalia by patriarchal religious groups, and that Women’s Health, including affordable cervical cancer screenings, contraception access, and abortion legality, are perpetually at risk. The presence of genitalia at the march was a clear response to all of these specific and huge issues.

Do women need to do more to be welcoming to trans women? Absolutely, but not at the expense of silencing other equally valid issues. If you felt excluded by the emphasis on genitalia at the march, spend more time reading about those issues until you are as angry at the poor treatment of women with vaginas as you are of women without them. We are here to support and amplify each other’s lived experiences. Intersectionality goes both ways.

My response was this:

First off: There’s no such thing as “female” genitalia and that way of wording only reinforces the lack of inclusion that transwomen and non-binary folks (it wasn’t just transwomen who found this march isolating FYI) felt.

Second: The GOP’s “relentless…” etc. also harms transwomen and trans people more generally. If intersectionality goes both ways then why not mention that as well? Would it take many more resources? If so, why?

Third: The march was a response to *specific* issues but those *specific* issues don’t *only* harm cis women. And acting like they do through “pussy hats” and centering cis women’s experiences is a really poor way to get your message across.

Fourth: Is opening the floor up more to transwomen and non-binary folks necessarily closing off the floor for cis women? That seems unlikely, especially given their relative population sizes. It seems like a trivial thing to me to open it up for both parties. Where’s the problem?

Fifth: Your “spend more time” remark presumes ignorance on the part of anyone criticizing the march which seems pretty uncharitable to me. While it may be the case that some folks didn’t read everything there was about the march (I certainly didn’t) some of us saw enough news, conversations and popular symbology to feel excluded from a discourse we knew we weren’t meant to be included in from the start.

Lastly: If we’re here to “support and amplify each other’s lived experiences” and it “goes both ways” then the march utterly failed at that in some basic ways.

I thought this was a fairly solid response and a few of my friends agreed (confirmation bias, yay!). It accurately tackles and counters some of the language and framing that Michener chose to use while being, on the whole, friendly.

But Michener, didn’t think so:

You said “There’s no such thing as “female” genitalia and that way of wording only reinforces the lack of inclusion that transwomen and non-binary folks felt.” but language isn’t by itself a function of judgement, but of the rational utility of describing one thing vs another. So when you come up with a term that means “woman who has a vagina” let me know and I will happily use that. I *did* specify “women with vagina” vs “woman without vagina” I did not, at any time, even imply, that a woman who doesn’t have a vagina is not a woman. Nor would I ever say that.

As to the Women’s March, yes, I followed allllll the march criticism (and then some) in the couple of months leading up to it. I have a vast collection of SJW friends, 90% of whom are the ones “doing the lord’s work” so I saw all of it. I agreed with roughly half of it and disagreed with roughly half of it. For instance, I agreed that the organizers erred originally in how they approached various intersectionality issues, however I liked that they quickly corrected this wherever possible. What I disagreed with, was the decision by some to not attend the march because of its perceived faults, even though I agreed with the presence of many of those faults.

I also disagreed with those who asked for more than an apology once that apology had been issued. However, the pussy hats, etc, are not remotely one of those faults. Happy to agree to disagree with you on that. I then flew three thousand miles to attend that march. It turned out to be the most diverse (genderwise and racialwise) I had ever attended and I agreed with every single social justice issue represented there, from Black Lives Matter and inclusive bathroom laws, to “White Feminist” issues like Equal Pay.

The reference to “White Feminist” seems unnecessary given I never said a word about equal pay or what counts as “White Feminism” or what doesn’t. But regardless while I appreciated this response, I wasn’t impressed:

And here’s my last response before things get…well, you’ll see:

“…but language isn’t by itself a function of judgement, but of the rational utility of describing one thing vs another.”

I’m not sure how you’re coming up with the taxonomy here but either way the language you use is a function of the judgments that society has formed. And the language here is particularly narrow in its conception of who has a certain kind of genital organ and who does not.

“So when you come up with a term that means “woman who has a vagina” let me know and I will happily use that.”

I mean, you can just use the classic AFAB thing, right? I don’t see why we need to talk about genitals at all. It just unnecessarily drives the conversation towards irrelevant biological aspects of bodies which also unnecessarily discriminates (intentionally or not) against transwomen and NB folks. So I don’t even see it as necessary.

And AFAB still highlights all of the things the march was trying to address via abortions, etc.

“I *did* specify “women with vagina” vs “woman without vagina” I did not, at any time, even imply, that a woman who doesn’t have a vagina is not a woman. Nor would I ever say that.”

The language you used in that particular instance struck me as a poor way to frame it. I’m not accusing you of seeing transwomen as not real women, nor do I think you’d say something like that.

“What I disagreed with, was the decision by some to not attend the march because of its perceived faults, even though I agreed with the presence of many of those faults.”

For me it’d depend on their reasoning. If they feel alienated (and I think they have good reason to) then I don’t think they should feel obliged to go to a space they don’t feel welcomed in. The good can become the enemy of the perfect as much as the other way around.

“However, the pussy hats, etc, are not remotely one of those faults. Happy to agree to disagree with you on that.”

I don’t see how that’s true because it’s implicitly defining womanhood with your genitals. But OK, we can agree to disagree if you want.

“I then flew three thousand miles to attend that march. It turned out to be the most diverse (genderwise and racialwise) I had ever attended…”

I mean, that’s great and should be celebrated to some extent but I also don’t think it makes the other issues go away. (emphasis mine)

Now, I want it to be clear:

I do not think that we should never bring up genitals at all

This is what Michener is about to misconstrue my argument as.

She’s about to take the specific constraints of the conversation (her particular essentialist language and the woman’s march and the way it centered cis women) to a general claim about conversations. Which, you know, is such a terrible misread of my argument, I’m not even sure where to start.

And I understand that I said “at all” explicitly but I thought it was clear I meant that from a linguistic standpoint with regards to her own wording and how the women’s march was conducted, not a critique of mentioning genitals per se’. That’s a much larger discussion and not one I was trying to have with Michener.

It’s also not one I was even thinking of. That concept never even popped into my head because it would be such a ridiculous statement that I wouldn’t ever take it seriously if that’s what I really knew someone was saying. But I’d want to make sure that this was what someone was saying before leaving the conversation…

Instead of that though, here’s what she says:

Yikes.

You said “I don’t see why we need to talk about genitals at all. It just unnecessarily drives the conversation towards irrelevant biological aspects of bodies which also unnecessarily discriminates (intentionally or not) against transwomen and NB folks. So I don’t even see it as necessary.”

Thank GOODNESS the trans women I know and love would never, ever say something like this. This is one of the most ignorant, privileged, and misogynistic things anyone has written in reply to any of my essays, ever. And the lack of reason on display so openly is as terrifying as what is coming out of the far right.

I would be very happy to live in the fantasy world you apparently live in where we don’t need to talk about vaginas. Half the population has one, yet needlessly suffer because vaginas are persecuted all over the world. Thus, vagina-havers suffer. Especially poor ones.

The GOP has been actively warring against the rights of people who happen to have vaginas for decades. I’d stay and explain that in detail, but 1. I would need to fill several books and 2. your reply has made me lose all respect and is not worthy of my time.

So, there’s Google: Read about rape victims who are not believed, and are then denied abortions, and then tell me we don’t need to talk about vaginas. Read about poor women who didn’t get cervical cancer screenings they needed because they could not afford them early on, and then tell me we don’t need to talk about vaginas.

Read about the male chiropractors who invent a glue to keep period blood inside to fester because they don’t understand periods are healthy, and then tell me we don’t need to talk about vaginas.

Read about little girls who are raised in religious patriarchies and taught their primary function is breeding, and then tell me we don’t need to talk about vaginas.

Read about the depressingly high number of men who believe all women experience orgasm from penetration and then tell me we don’t have to talk about vaginas.

Read about politicians holding all-male panels to discuss women’s health, rape, abortion, cervical cancer, and then tell me we don’t need to talk about vaginas.

But for godsake, educate yourself. If that sounds patronizing, in your case? Good. Intended this time. (emphasis mine)

Holy.

Shit.

It’s hard to even conceive of how poorly my argument was just misconstrued.

And the idea that I need to be lectured to about rape culture, patriarchy, what trans people think (hi, I am a trans person and she isn’t!) is astonishing and patronizing to say the least.

I was under the impression that this author knew that we were narrowly talking about issues of overly gendered language in their post and the women’s march and its dumb hats but apparently I grossly overestimated that awareness on their part.

The most ironic part?

Instead of asking me, “Hey, did you mean X? Because if so, that’s really fucked up and I don’t want to talk to you anymore.”

She just goes, “You mean X! I know you do! And so I’m gonna lecture you, block you from responding and insult you!”

…Doesn’t this sound a little CSJWish to you?

I understand that Michener doesn’t know me and maybe for all anyone could know in that situation, that is what I must have meant. But I don’t think so.

I think you’d have to drive a wedge pretty far between intellectual charity and lack thereof to come up with this. I think you’d have to disregard quite a few variables in the conversations which include: The specific quotes I was responding to, the particulars of the conversation, the language I’m using (which is trans-inclusive and also trying to be inclusive of cis women) and a lot more.

It also strikes me that for Michener to think this is a misogynistic statement (that we should never talk about genitals, e.g. vaginas) wouldn’t that require her to think that vaginas mean women? I’m not trying to be funny here, it really does seem like that’s what Michener would need to believe in order for that to be true.

But perhaps she could reason we’d moved to genitals more generally rather than vaginas in particular. And that sort of response would change the conversation in terms of what is or isn’t misogynist to more appropriate angles. Even if what’s “misogynist” shouldn’t be defined by genitals in general at least it’d make more sense than narrowing it to the field of vaginas…which is a phrase I just said.

I guess being the most misogynist, far-right sounding, privileged person is better than being a CSJW. Because unlike Michener, I don’t insult, block or patronize other people who disagree with me, or use the worst sort of intellectual charity.

Instead, I ask questions, explore alternatives and generally try to figure out what’s the most logical thing they are trying to say. And if it seems out of character for someone to say then I try to double back and check my premises (thanks Rand).

Michener decided to do one of the most SJW (CSJW?) things and dive right into righteous fury and indignation. No clarifying questions, no intellectual charity and nothing to speak of in the way of friendliness. Just stereotypical leftist insults, blocking me and telling me I’m a bad person for disagreeing.

If she had simply say: “Hey, do you mean A? Cause if you do, then I’m done here.” And I would’ve said, “What? Fuck no. I’m not saying that we should never talk about genitals in the general sense. I’m saying that we shouldn’t use them in the particular linguistic sense you are using and in the particular circumstantial sense that the women in the women’s march chose to.”

At this point I think I’ve made it clear what I meant and how this conversation went so terribly wrong for me. In the future I’ll try to think more about what my interlocutor could interpret my claims as if they stand out but otherwise, I think I did all I could here to try and have a nice conversation.

Damn CSJWs! Ruining our conversations!


Also, here’s a gem from my friend Mikayla:

White cis woman: I’m so down with intersectionality. I get it, I’m hip, I’m trendy.

Same white cis woman: My perspective is the most important. However I might act in a given situation is the way everyone should act. I have no idea how my comfort moving through the world affects my opinions. Stop bogging me down about privilege.

The Case Against Hahnel’s “Case Against Markets”

Robin Hahnel

Introduction

I was linked to this talk by someone who would fit within the label of anarcho-communist back in April of 2016 but didn’t get around to it until a few months ago. It was an interesting talk and not one I disagree with on all fronts, but at the same time I had many criticisms.

The following is my notes, slightly re-worded into essay form. I don’t claim that this essay will be the most in-depth response to Parecon critiques of market economies, just that it’s a response to the ones I saw in this specific talk by Robin Hahnel.

As y’all may or may not know, I come from a left-wing market anarchist perspective, generally. So my viewpoint of markets is different of that from, say, anarcho-capitalists but also different than anarcho-communists. It’s more comparable to the individualist anarchist and mutualist traditions within anarchism.

Within that framework I think my responses to these objections from Hahnel are slightly unique and worth denoting more publicly. My hope is that they will spark more discussion and interest over what markets can and cannot do and lead to both a moderating and a radicalizing of viewpoints.

Ideally, market advocates and Parecon folks  can both admit where market failure could happen while radically challenging the extent to which it currently and genuinely happens under capitalist and governmental societies.

But I’m getting ahead of myself…

The Two People You Meet in Markets

According to Hahnel, there are two types of people when it comes to markets:

The best policy, saying we just need to get the politicians out of the market place, no regulations, no control of the market

It doesn’t in fact turn out well for us or environment.

I have three responses to this separation of people:

  1. Policy is a generally applied word here but what does it mean concretely? The idea that we could have one centralized way of interacting with markets doesn’t appeal to those who think that markets should be free from governmental regulations or control. And this is very different from saying there shouldn’t be any regulations or controls. After all, people within communities could still come up with consensus-based guidelines in order to better resolve problems and disputes.
  2.  The fact that current capitalist markets aren’t being regulated by governments and that this doesn’t turn out well for anyone isn’t a point against markets unless we conflate markets with capitalism. But a market is just a system whereby people are allowed to trade goods through selling, buying and haggling, etc. There’s nothing in the definition of a market that tells us what the means of production and its role in the larger economy has to be. This is why there is a historical precedent of folks who even call themselves “market socialists” (as Hahnel himself points out) for example.
  3.  The environment and the rest of the economy (and indeed individuals within that economy) are certainly hurt by regulations from time to time and often in disastrous ways. Whether regulations involve the patent process which stalls the much needed development of medicine or they involve the ways in which licenses keep poorer individuals out of the market from competing with well-established players. There are many reasons to be skeptical of regulations that don’t involve thinking the environment is an expendable factor when it comes to economic efficiency.

What’s so Great about Democracy Anyways?

Hahner doesn’t really get into what “democracy” means which is unfortunate because it has many connotations. He also doesn’t discuss what it takes to design an economy to begin with. Typically, designing an economy, or at least the one in the US, revolves around institutions and institutions that are often tied to the government in some way, especially corporations.

Hahnel and I likely agree that this is an unfortunate scenario but I also suspect we disagree on the solutions to it. Hahnel may favor something much more like democratic planning within a given locale that gives much more power to decentralized nodes than centralized ones. I’m sympathetic to this approach to an extent but I also think there’s a danger of centralizing control within localities and mostly relying on social capital, instead of material capital.

I also agree with William Gillis that anarchism is, at its core, a scale-independent proposal and that we need anarchic communities to be much more than localized efforts. Our lives should be bigger than the communities we are born in.

Within that spirit it seems limiting to me how many anarcho-communists want to focus our anarchism on communities instead of individuals. How all of the neighbors should know their other neighbors. Everything needs to be a potluck, a gathering, an ice-breaker between human beings. There’s parts of me that enjoy the anonymity of loose-communities that are sprawling and (dare I say it) cities, that have positive qualities to them that anarcho-communists (and especially anti-civ folks) are much inclined to disparage.

Some people don’t want to know their neighbors, bake them cookies or share in the common good and I think any self-respecting anarchic order should respect that. Which isn’t to say that Hahnel or people who’d describe themselves as anarcho-communists wouldn’t want to respect it as a right but I think as a cultural norm it’d be implicitly (maybe even explicitly) discouraged in subtle or not-so-subtle ways.

These points are somewhat tangential to Hahnel but I do feel like they speak to the Parecon idea of centralizing democracy within communities.

Hahnel also denotes the rise in the mainstream for “singing the praises of markets”, that
there are louder voices, more voices and while I wish this was true, it’s not.  Those voices are often conservative ones and not ones who have any serious interest in removing government regulations so we can have freed markets. They want the removal of certain governmental regulations so that their favored corporate interests can gain favor in a captured market.

The so-called “market failure” that Hahnel tries to assert are part of an inherent problem of markets themselves isn’t very convincing, as the economist David Friedman has persuasively argued. Friedman’s arguments depend on a particular interpretation of what a market failure is like, he defines it as:

…a situation where individual rationality does not lead to group rationality. If each individual makes the right decision, the group make the wrong decision. In the pure case, every individual ends up worse off than if each of them had made a different decision.

Friedman argues (and I agree) that market failure is a real issue but it’s an issue of both markets and government and even individuals and groups on a general scale. The prisoner’s dilemma is an example that Friedman cites of that last part and isn’t one that’s typically discussed by conventional economists. But then, as Friedman points out, most economists aren’t libertarians, much less anarchists.

And when it comes to governments, they have more than their fair share of “market’ failures (which is more generally a rationality problem):

A voter who takes the time and trouble to figure out who the best candidate is and vote for him is producing a benefit for everyone else in the country, at least if “best” means best for everyone.

He has no control over who gets that benefit. The rational voter is producing a public good. Rational ignorance is the underproduction of that public good.

Rent-seeking is another example Friedman uses and it’s one I’ve highlighted as well to show that government can often be inept at controlling market economies. More often than not, the people who are up at top use their power to benefit themselves as much as possible. They’re partly able to do this because the political means allow politicians to subsidize the costs of their action and making “their” citizens pay for them. One of the most obvious examples is sending out American citizens to fight wars for the people in congress and the military industrial complex.

But Hahnel wouldn’t likely be persuaded by these points because he seems to think we have markets that are ruled by non-interference. This is a common claim from liberals and even some anti-authoritarian leftists of varying stripes, but it strikes me as immediately implausible given the existence of intellectual property, licenses and corporate subsidies which are all prime examples of governmental intervention.

And even if it were true, it’s clear that the “non-intervention” aspect of markets favor those who are the richest, the ones at the top and those who the most well-connected are. That’s certainly not a free market, but, well, that’s the point.

Markets and Capitalism: Natural Allies?

Hahnel makes the point that when we look at the markets that exist now we see that they are inefficient, produce a wide-range of harmful externalities, increase inequality and substitute meaningful freedoms for trivial ones.

I don’t think Hahnel is completely off-base here. I think when we look at present day markets we can rightly perceive many of these things. We can look at things like income inequality that spurred Occupy Wall St. We can see the disparities of power and access to capital between workers and bosses, etc.

When we look at present day markets we can see a lot of environmental damage comes from corporations such as the infamous BP Oil spill years back. There’s a lot of smog in cities like Los Angeles and Salt Lake City that are the byproducts of corporations and their wasteful operations. There’s also the many pipelines that destroy people’s homes, the environment and disrupt communities.

And when it comes to trivial freedoms as opposed to meaningful ones, we can look to Voltairine de Cleyre’s arguments about thing-worship in her The Dominant Idea:

We dabble in many things; but the one great real idea of our age, not copied from any other, not pretended, not raised to life by any conjuration, is the Much Making of Things, – not the making of beautiful things, not the joy of spending living energy in creative work; rather the shameless, merciless driving and over-driving, wasting and draining of the last bit of energy, only to produce heaps and heaps of things, – things ugly, things harmful, things useless, and at the best largely unnecessary.

But this overzealous production of Things, of externalities, of perpetuating inequities that are far-reaching within society are aspects of capitalism and not necessarily markets. And no, this isn’t just a semantic point.

It’s important that when we look at the historical development of marketst, they are impacted by the development of ruling classes seizing markets for themselves and also for those who tend to hold the most capital.

And as you’d imagine these two groups tend to overlap, a lot.

This makes it vitally important to me that advocates of anti-capitalist markets distinguish ourselves from market anarchists who may or may not nebulously support or at least passively dismiss the issues that Hahnel is rightly bringing up. The actual problem with Hahnel’s analysis isn’t the substance but the framing. He sees this as an issue with markets but that’s only because he conflates markets with capitalism.

Hahnel also contends that the argument about markets is that if we leave things to “market processes”that things will run smoothly in an economy. But this argument misses the fact that the “market process” isn’t some unnameable and invisible force.

Contrary to what economists suggest via the “invisible hand”, the “market processes” are actually us. We are market forces. And while it’s true that the outcome and consequences of complex market systems in societies today are hard to map out that doesn’t make them as abstract as both libertarians and leftists like to think.

And yes, I’m not going to let libertarians off of the hook here. They’re one  the reasons (along with conservatives, to be fair) why Hahnel is making this argument and using this framework to begin with. We’ve treated market processes as completely impersonal and invisible transactions. But market processes can be incredibly dynamic in how they work along social lines.

As Charles Johnson argues in his article Markets used to be Celebrations:

In classical Athens, the open market, or agora, was famous as a place for conversation, company, and positive human interaction. In medieval Europe, the market fair was a festive occasion, which drew people together from throughout the country.

Markets were seen not just as places to meet the needs of the day; they were places to meet people, places to interact with each other on a positive and mutual footing, and places that were central to the best and happiest experiences of social life, and the most distinctive local institutions, entertainment and culture.

Socrates’ life work was not speaking to people in the assembly, or the temple, or the academy, but in the marketplace.

The “invisible hand” is just the outcome of millions of tiny different day-to-day economic interactions between people. Sometimes those interactions are positive and sometimes they aren’t but either way we can study trends, pool data and do research instead of wholesale condemning markets, as Hahnel would have us do.

Around the 10:00 minute mark Hahnel starts talking about markets providing Pareto outcome and says that:

If there are no externalities, if there’s perfect competition, if there’s perfect knowledge, if all of the markets are in equilibrium.

This quote made me think about the work of Steve Horwitz who has, in turn, cited Israel Kirzner and his book Competition and Entrepreneurship :

What we mean by competition, Kirzner argues, is not the perfectly competitive market of mainstream economics, but instead the process by which people constantly engage their entrepreneurial alertness to see new and better ways of doing things that others have not seen before. Much of his book is devoted to explaining how this Austrian conception of competition as a “discovery procedure” (to use Hayek’s phrase) is more helpful than the very different conceptions of competition and monopoly used by many economists.

Which is just to say there is at least some discussion about how to best portray the markets that libertarians support. Not all of us find the discussion of “perfect knowledge” and “perfect” competition compelling.

And more to the point, I tend to see markets as heading towards but never quite achieving a Pareto outcome. I don’t think there’s any way for markets to be “perfectly” run in any meaningful way, but I do think there are ways to approximate the equality we may want out of market processes.

That being said, Hahnel does somewhat defend the use of these assumptions in the theorem he’s criticizing. He points out that we all make assumptions, assumptions never fully pan out like we want them to and they’re still needed to have assertions.

Hahnel then revises the theorem by including the key words “only if” as in, “only if there are no externalities will we achieve Pareto outcome”. But he also criticizes the theorem (at least implicitly) for saying almost everything about efficiency and nothing about fairness, which for Hahnel is an important part of a just society.

And while it’s true that the theorem doesn’t say anything about fairness does it need to? And are efficiency and fairness necessarily mutually exclusive traits? What does fairness mean? This brief aside raises more questions than answers.

Nevertheless I agree with Hahnel that “efficiency” (whatever that may mean) doesn’t and likely shouldn’t be the only trait of markets that should matter to us.

Lastly, Hahnel briefly mentions 2008 and the US housing crisis as a demarcation of  markets failing. But this reference point doesn’t make any sense given that the housing crisis was caused by governments and corporations, not markets acting in free ways.

Are Externalities a Sufficient Argument Against Markets?

One of the big topics Hahnel uses to criticize markets are externalities, which Hahnel illustrates here:

When a buyer and a seller get together and make a decision, a car producer produces a car, a car buyer buys the car, they negotiate a price, we produce the car, we consume the car  … but what if there are other people out there who are affected by the decisions they come to? If there are, we call those people external parties and we call the effects on them … external effects.

Hahnel uses this example because it’s easy to see on a macro scale what a potential externality could be: environmental damage. Individually the buyer and seller are only thinking about themselves and their own costs and benefits. And according to mainstream economics this is the rational thing to do.

But this “rational” action on the micro scale becomes a much bigger problem on the aggregate when others start copying these patterns. Then we are faced with issues of pollution and environmental damage. It reminds me of the Kantian idea of considering to ourselves, “what would happen if everyone did this?” and if it’s unworkable then you should at least reconsider.

What are defenders of markets to think about this?

Well first off, the framework presumes individuals only think for themselves but that doesn’t seem plausible given the rise of eco-friendly cars. The widespread adoption and marketing of cars like the Prius seem to point against the idea that market actors will never think outside their own individual good.

But even if they didn’t, as with market failures, people will always be externally affected by the decisions of people. And so it’s the level of which that makes the difference, not the fact that it happens that’s the issue.

For example, we can easily imagine that folks might use social media and community organizing to socially and economically punish a local car dealership which has been shown to contribute to local environmental issues on a notable level. On the other hand, I can understand arguments that it could be difficult for the entire community to be perpetually knowledgeable about these local issues.

But at the same time being knowledgeable about local and economic issues is becoming easier thanks to social media and so community organizing really only takes a handful of people these days. So just having a few people in a community passionate about a given issue can result in a multiplying effect of many more people becoming similarly passionate. Especially through modern technology such as sites like Facebook, Meetup and organizations starting their own sites.

None of which is to say that the issue of externalities within markets when it comes to environmental affair is a simple matter. Nor am I arguing that it’s handled very well right now with corporations profiting off the real concerns of environmental groups. But it at least gives us reason to doubt that externalities can’t be dealt with.

The other problem when we talk about things like green house emissions is that we  can’t very well measure out future harms to imagined people, much less develop large scale economic policies based on such unstable prediction models. We can very well say that global warming is real and certain things contribute to this phenomenon but measuring out the particular harms on a global scale and using that as a way to decide justice seems like a model fraught with potential issues.

There’s also the fact that in recent years automated and electric cars have become more and more mainstream. Now, I can’t blame Hahnel for not addressing this since he gave this talk in 2012 where Tesla wasn’t as prominent as they are today.
But either way, it seems like markets (even capitalist markets) can innovate, given enough time, around these externalities. Which bodes well for markets that are rid of the capitalist consequences that Hahnel rightly criticizes.

In addition, I think the economists in question who are using the theorem about optimum outcome and externalities are actually wrong that market processes don’t take into account externalities. It’s true on the individual level but perhaps the collective “invisible hand” level is more up for debate. In any case there are ways for markets to learn, just like people learn and use our mistakes to better operate as I’ve pointed out through eco-friendly cars, electric cars and automated cars.

The rise of automation in cars would particularly affect our gas emissions because wed need far fewer cars than we have now. If every family had an automated car (which is admittedly ways away) then it seems a less necessary to have multiple cars and it also seems likely that highways would be less congested.

A lot of that is speculation, but I don’t think it’s very unlikely that any of that could happen with the rise of automation in the car industry. Which is already happening with popular services like Uber (which I have my criticisms of).

Moving forward, Hahnel comments that perhaps we could discover that the “free market” has made 1% “too many cars” but what does “too many cars” actually mean? And how do we decide this, presumably without markets?

Obviously Hahnel supports Parecon economies but he doesn’t actually offer any compelling alternatives to markets throughout the presentation, which is perhaps the most glaring issue in his talk. I’m aware that he discussed it in other places but since he doesn’t do so here, there’s not much for me to grapple with.

Hahnel thinks that market supporters have a presumption that maybe markets do have externalities but thinks that these externalities are small and mostly unimportant. But it’s worth mentioning that this presumption is mostly floated around by people who don’t actually believe in freed markets but rather some sort of corporate configuration of what we already have. The idea that we don’t have externalities in current marketplaces or that the ones that currently exist are small ignores so much social context that I’m unsure how seriously it should be taken.

All actions have externalities to one extent or another, especially in complex economic systems, whether market run or not and people who support markets should embrace that by also embracing anti-capitalism and anarchism. This way we can embrace both the worst of markets and the best of markets and try to clear a way towards the best of them.

As is most economies aren’t actually controlled by markets, certainly not free ones..

Markets are largely owned by corporations who get large subsidies from governments and who owe their cultural and legal existence to governments in the first place. The relationship between governments and corporations is a synergistic power struggle that ends up being parasitic on society in the forms of taxes and unnecessary price increases, haphazard steps taken to overcome burdensome regulations, inventory mismanagement to keep up with state-capitalism and so on.

And while it’s true (as Hahnel points out) that the American system is a system that externalizes cost on to other that’s not because of something inherent to markets. It’s because the way that capitalism works is. As Chomsky puts it, capitalism is highly adept privatizing the profits and socializing the costs on to the public. And while I agree that this is how capitalism is and has operated that’s not necessarily what markets need to do in order to function efficiently and (dare I say) fairly.

For example, we have farmers markets where people are able to grow their own produce, bring it to the market place and sell and trade it with people who are well aware they have other alternatives still might pay more to support local farmers. Or they might do it for environmentalist reasoning because the farmers don’t use pesticides in their vegetables, etc. Whatever their reasoning may be, we have ways to get around the huge externalities through decentralized market places that rely chiefly on individuals owning their own means of production.

Not by exploiting and subjugating workers, but by being able to be self-reliant and socially productive in some sense. This is what flea markets, farmers markets, cooperatives and things like the really really free market show, that markets can come in many different forms and from many different places.

Around the 26:00 mark, Hahnel discusses a few studies that have taken externalities into calculation and lays out their premises and arguments. I didn’t go over the studies themselves so I won’t contest the claims. But I will say that the figures Hahnel gives don’t tell us much about markets as a process. They really only give us a picture of the harmful effects of current markets, at best.

And when we have multiple options for the forms markets can take, that doesn’t seem like a particularly compelling reason to give up on markets entirely.

Perhaps the most baffling part of this presentation is what Hahnel says soon after:

 You want to know why the renewable energy industry is “not competitive” ? Well there’s two reasons: The first is that, well, we don’t actually have free market economy, we actually have a considerable amount of government interference, we have a considerable amount of government welfare programs, actually a lot of corporate welfare programs. (emphasis mine)

If we don’t have actually free markets then what would it look like to have free markets? Doesn’t the fact that we don’t have free markets cut against Hahnel’s points thus far? Honestly, this admission is so baffling that I’m not even sure where to start with regards to how it undermines Hahnel’s case against markets.

Needless to say, at this point (nearly half-way through the presentation) I was beyond flummoxed at Hahnel’s arguments and so I only have a little more to say in terms of his comments on free competition, so let’s get to that and wrap things up.

Free Competition and How to (Not) Get There

A little before the 30:00 minute mark Hahnel tries to use the accurate observation that the trends of current markets are towards less and less competitive markets, not more. And while I don’t dispute this point it’s helpful to ask why is this?

The answer is obvious given what Hahnel just admitted about our lack of free markets. So we tend to get less competitive markets because of the government intervention that was mentioned by Hahnel himself.

And none of that proves that this is what markets must be. One of the biggest problems about Hahnel’s argument is that he does nothing to show that current or historical trends prove that this is all markets can be or have been.

Hahnel asks a logical question about the externalities within current markets: If they’re so large and demanding attention, isn’t there something we can do?

Unfortunately, Hahnel wants to implement policies, for example special kinds of taxes. One such tax he names is a Pigouvian Tax that is supposed to measure the negative externality and then tax it. The market will then incorporate this new data and use it to lead to a more efficient outcome.

But ideas like this raise far more questions than answers: How do we measure externalities in an efficient way? How do governments do this? Is there a history of them doing this successfully? Why would corporations allow this sort of law to be passed? What are the chances of such a policy actually being passed through government?

Hahnel admits that this policy intervention while theoretically correct would be very difficult to pull off given there are so many externalities. I agree with him and would add that the level of information and knowledge one would have to have to make this work is more or less impossible.

Besides that, Hahnel rightly points out that fixing one externality in one market could theoretically just offset another externality, or just create another one. There’s no way to tell how shifting this or that would play out in a market. And here Hahnel is proving why government interventions are generally frowned upon by folks who advocate free markets in a genuine way. At this point he’s almost making my own case for me about why government interventions are a bad idea.

Hahnel goes as far to call this idea a “logistical nightmare” and says that there’s a problem of even knowing how high to put the tax to begin with. Part of the reason why he believes this is that the market gives us no “signals” to determine how high a given tax should or shouldn’t be.

Now, I’m not an economist. Not by trade, profession or even by hobby. So I’m not going to pretend I’m an expert (or even an amateur) when it comes to questions like this. But what I can say is that I’ll presume Hahnel is right about this and treat it as a positive feature of markets. The market can’t determine how much taxes should or shouldn’t impact the economy? Good! I don’t want any taxes anyways.

Hahnel also says that any debate about policies like this would likely be won by those voices with the most amount of political sway. Which makes the idea of reform seem hopeless, luckily we have direct action.

That being said, the next idea Hahnel advocates are anti-trust movements. He wants it so that governments can help one big corporation become 300 smaller ones. This way there’s much more competition within markets.

And while I support more competition within markets, I don’t think the government is the best agency to figure that out. One of the most monopolitic organizations in the world is not likely to know much about how to create free competition among big businesses. And even if they did, what incentives would they have to put ideas like this in process? Rent-seeking and regulatory capture are powerful incentive creating phenomena that would make these decisions much harder to come by, let alone enforce in any meaningful way.

But even assuming we could do this, Hahnel himself points out that these efforts within the scheme of general regulations and new regulatory agencies often fall prey to regulatory capture as I just said. And sometimes regulations end up being crafted by (as Hahnel points out) the folks with the most political connections and thus it disproportionately benefits them.

That’s where the corporate subsidies that Hahnel recognizes come from to begin with!

Counterintuitive as it may seem, sometimes corporations want regulations to be strengthened because it helps people on top who have the economic ability to easily go around them, while the smaller businesses can’t. So it’s often the case that regulations and policy interventions make the economy less competitive, not more.

From 30:00 to 40:00 is 10 minutes of Hahnel undercutting his own proposals at almost every turn. Whether it’s taxes, anti-trust movements or new regulatory agencies or even using public distrust of corporations. The last point is undermined by the fact that corporations tend to have much more time and resources on their side when it comes to fighting regulations than the public has time to actively pay attention to them and to make sure they’re effectively enforced by the government, instead of regulatory capture, etc. getting in the way.

Hahnel says all of this and then immediately undercuts it to lead us to the notion that something “drastic” must happen to improve society. Well, I’m not necessarily against proposals that may be considered “drastic” by some. Let’s hear it.

…He wants to nationalize industries.

Hahnel doesn’t explain why such a move wouldn’t fall prey to any of the previous issues or what effects this would even have on an economy. But I guess at this point, it doesn’t really matter. The Parecon alternative(s) seem to be nothing but progressive hopes and despair with their most “radical” options being hopelessly economically conservative and protectionist.

He does explain that he’d trust “stupid government bureaucrats” over corporate officials due to the perverse incentives that those in the financial industry faces. But he doesn’t explain why those incentives would somehow go away if we nationalized them. Because politicians would be held accountable to their constituents?

How’s that working out for the US right now?

Concluding Remarks

At this point I lost most of my interest in Hahnel’s talk. He starts discussing ideas about “macroeconomic stabilization” and bases it on government intervention during the Great Depression as well as Keynes. But he gives us no compelling reasons why any of these things could pragmatically happen.

I also don’t think we should just assume those things helped the economy. Again, I’m not an economist, but the picture of the Great Depression seems a lot more complicated than the government swooping in and saving the day for the economy.

The rest of the talk focuses around criticizing austerity which I don’t have much to say about and taking ideas like unions, a minimum wage and progressive taxation as checks against the market system. But there’s no substance alongside mentioning any of these tactics, just a claim that “markets hate them!” which sounds more clickbait article than compelling argument.

In addition, Hahnel makes points about income inequality that I don’t have huge issues with, just that he’s doing his usual conflation about the effects of capitalism with the nature of markets. Also, there’s this moment which is easily the highlight.

One point I’ll rest this essay on is Hahnel’s criticisms of “market democracy” which he’s using to shed light on the lack of freedoms we have in market systems. But I’m not so sure that the alternative that he wants, the political market (as I’ll call it), is much better. To argue against this point I return to David Friedman, whose compared the two in his book The Machinery of Freedom:

When a consumer buys a product on the market, he can compare alternative brands. In the case of protection, he can compare how good a job different agencies do and their prices. His information is imperfect, as it is in making most decisions; he may make a mistake. But at least alternatives exist; they are there to be looked at. He can talk with neighbors who patronize different protection agencies, examine the contracts and rates they offer, study figures on the crime rates among their customers.

When you elect a politician, you buy nothing but promises. You may know how one politician ran the country for the past four years, but not how his competitor might have run it.

You can compare 1968 Fords, Chryslers, and Volkswagens, but nobody will ever be able to compare the Nixon administration of 1968 with the Humphrey and Wallace administrations of the same year. It is as if we had only Fords from 1920 to 1928, Chryslers from 1928 to 1936, and then had to decide what firm would make a better car for the next four years. Perhaps an expert automotive engineer could make an educated guess as to whether Ford had used the technology of 1920 to satisfy the demands of 1920 better than Chrysler had used the technology of 1928 to satisfy the demands of 1928. The rest of us might just as well flip a coin. If you throw in Volkswagen or American Motors, which had not made any cars in America but wanted to, the situation becomes still worse. Each of us would have to know every firm intimately in order to have any reasonable basis for deciding which we preferred.

In the same way, in order to judge a politician who has held office, one must consider not only how his administration turned out but the influence of a multitude of relevant factors over which he had no control, ranging from the makeup of Congress to the weather at harvest time. Judging politicians who have not yet held office is still more difficult.

Not only does a consumer have better information than a voter, it is of more use to him.

If I investigate alternative brands of cars or protection, decide which is best for me, and buy it, I get it. If I investigate alternative politicians and vote accordingly, I get what the majority votes for. The chance that my vote will be the deciding factor is negligible.

Imagine buying cars the way we buy governments.

Ten thousand people would get together and agree to vote, each for the car he preferred. Whichever car won, each of the ten thousand would have to buy it. It would not pay any of us to make any serious effort to find out which car was best; whatever I decide, my car is being picked for me by the other members of the group. Under such institutions, the quality of cars would quickly decline.

That is how I must buy products on the political marketplace. I not only cannot compare the alternative products, it would not be worth my while to do so even if I could. This may have something to do with the quality of the goods sold on that market. (p.69)

Hahnel argues against market democracy by citing the lack of access to doctors with indigenous communities in Oklahoma as opposed to the rich in Hollywood. But there’s many many reasons for the current state of affairs that have nothing to do with markets. Imperialism, white supremacy, cultural assimilation aren’t all uniformly products of historical markets but also of historical governments.

And it’s arguable to me that this legacy of interference in the natives way of life accounts for their current lack of access better than the abstract institution of the marketplace. That isn’t to say markets had nothing to do with any of the horrible things I’ve just mentioned, but they also hardly seem central.

I’m also not sure (as Hahnel argues) that markets actually do accurately respond to people’s intensity or desire or even what that would look like or has looked like in practice. What would it mean for a system to so closely operate in relation to people’s wants? I presume Hahnel thinks Parecon is the answer here, but he gives us no reason to consider it as a useful follow up.

It’s true that the folks in Hollywood are richer and therefore have better access in a market, but it’s capitalist markets that specifically privilege these sorts of individuals. Markets aren’t inherently a mechanism whereby those with the most material capital gain the most advantage. It’s played out like that because markets are a particular tool that anyone can grab a hold of and it’s been grabbed by governments who then and privilege capitalists over laborers, the rich over the poor, the feudal lords over the peasants, etc. etc.

But this historical process doesn’t inherently prove markets are always going to lead us to capitalism. And in fact there are many arguments against that proposition. In any case, we can’t say that it’s the case from such weak evidence, given there’s a litany of alternative factors we could just as easily point to.

In the end, what Hahnel advocates as a way towards a better world is state-socialism, whereas I want a form of anarchic socialism to lead the charge against governments, corporations, bureaucracy, hierarchy, centralization, etc.

I’m more inclined to describe myself as an individualist anarchist than an anti-authoritarian socialist or anarchist socialist, but I’m certainly against capitalism and favor much of the analysis Hahnel uses here. I just think it goes to waste on big ideas about government that won’t happen.


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This Post Might Make You Uncomfortable – But is that a Good Thing?

Introduction

The above is a popular image macro amongst my friends and more generally a popular image for social justice orientated people to post. The character in this macro is Garnet from the animated television show Steven Universe and is well known for her rather blunt and forceful ways of making her point. Given that Garnet also has black and pink (which is known as the anarcha-feminist colors in some circles), they seem even more appropriate in this context.

Being the naturally skeptical person that I am, I tend to question how much we should make “discomfort” the center of our options when trying to making folks unlearn oppressive behaviors. It’s true that expanding our comfort zones is a good way for us to grow, but growth is sometimes a painful and complicated process.

As such, it may not be wise to rush it, much less try to fit the necessary amount of growth that you think the other person needs to go within (for example) the span of a single conversation. This may not even be the explicit expectation that folks have about others but sometimes people treat these complex situations as if they can be boiled down to their own personal project. Whether for the admiration of their peers (“Look, I helped dismantle oppression!”), for social capital (“Look how great I am!”) or simply for the pleasure of proving themselves right (“Look, I was right!”).

Which isn’t to say that these are always the motivations that are involved when discussing these issues, but sometimes they are. Sometimes the motivations of discussing your ideals is less pure than you might like to think it is. For all it matters, you could be right that systematic racism is born out of X social phenomenon but trying to convince someone of that with the expectation that you’ll get some sort of reward isn’t the best way to keep the well free of poison.

Generally, people are either coming into The Discourse, with way too many expectations (“I can change the world!”) or way too few expectations (“This shitlord is gonna get his racist ass handed to him!”).

Tangent on Aesthetics and The Discourse

In either case the principle of charity would probably call upon us to resist these temptations and try to go something like, “Well, I probably won’t change their mind, but hopefully we can both walk away learning something.” Which isn’t so coincidentally my train of thinking when I engage in The Discourse about social justice issues or anything else. The only matters I tend to over-extend myself rather habitually is aesthetics where I like to pretend I’m an objectivist and have a Supreme Knowledge of what is Good and Proper about “art”.

It’s actually a somewhat interesting dynamic to create because it makes me take intellectual discussions of art a bit more seriously than I might otherwise. I mean, sure, there’s the people who hate The Force Awakens who I just can’t take seriously (the worst you can say is that it’s too similar to an amazing movie from 20 years ago or so, really?). But generally, I like conversations about aesthetic concerns because the matters often seem less loaded with expectations.

This is partially because the stakes are inherently lower, for better or worse. Art is inherently a “subjective” thing and a matter of “taste” so people bickering over it just seems preemptively silly to anyone around the bickering. But to me, this means that the stakes can be upped so as to make it seem like so much more is on the line.

On the other hand, I do also feel like people underestimate how important these “subjective” conversations can be, simply because they are subjective. Just because there is no One True Way doesn’t mean the discussion can’t be lively or interesting in some way, there are plenty of ways to make subjective discussions appreciable.

Tangent over, back to social justice.

We can Rebuild the Discourse, Make it Better

This essay was promoted by besides the aforementioned image macro) April Daniel’s Social Justice Discourse Fallacies (SJDF), which is just brilliant. Read it before you keep reading this post and make sure to read the geek version that she drew inspiration from, it’s got some good points as well, particularly the first part.

In particular a mixture of  SDJF1 (“Tone Arguments Are Bullshit, Therefore I Can Treat You Like Something I Found In A Sewer.”) and SDJF2 (“Intent Isn’t Magic, Therefore It Is Irrelevant.”) can be, as April explains:

…explosive, and for the person who stepped on the landmine, bewildering. Nobody comes away from one of these incidents a better person, aware of their shortcomings but committed to change. They come away from it with the idea that people who use the word “privilege” are dangerous drama bombs who must be avoided.

I’ve seen this happen, as I’m sure many of us have at this point.

Person A is a well-meaning white person who thinks that Black Lives Matters might not want to use X tactic because it seems to be doing more harm than good.

Person B feels like the first person must be some sort of racist who is simply using this sort of language so they can safely criticize people of color.

In this scenario, I wouldn’t say that B is unreasonable for thinking about this as a possibility but actually acting on that possibility without finding out more can lead them to Nowhere, very fast. It’s especially bad with a mix of dismissing intentions to the extent that you see them as irrelevant and thinking that “tone policing” is such a monstrosity that it must be snuffed out in (ironically) through the most vile tones possible.

But again, I don’t blame B for thinking this because we’ve probably all also seen the white person who  is just using their idea of respectability politics so they can more safely criticize activist movements  they strongly disagree with. The problem is that because this is such a heated issue, they try to cloak it up in these tactics that’ll make their dissent seem less hostile, which is disingenuous at best.

In any case, whether I blame B or not, I think that SJ activists are sometimes too quick to jump on the train of presuming the worst in others. I think there is a lot to be said for the appeal of pessimism and fatalism regarding people, but I don’t think that in the end these are approaches that are conducive to helping folks unlearn oppressive, behaviors, if that’s what you’re looking to accomplish.

On the other hand, some folks might not feel like some people are worth educating. Perhaps they think they’re only worth derision, mockery and general bullying at a certain point because the ideas of the other person are in fact so ludicrous that they can’t see any other viable option than to engage in bullying.

Ironically I recently had this experience not with a “Social Justice Warrior” but with a libertarian. He decided that because one of my friends is fairly vocal about conspiracy theories, anti-vaccine ideology and so on, that the only way to get them out of the movement is to simply bully them out of the movement.

Now, I think anti-vaccine theories are ludicrous and conspiracy theories are often a waste of time. But neither of these things gives me the time, energy or drive to harass my friends (let alone total strangers). I don’t really understand how a movement could be said to be successful if it relies on truth-telling via bullying.

The point of this anecdote is to illustrate that anyone can engage in these SJ fallacies, even if SJ folks are more likely to engage in them. In this case, my friends intentions of protecting children (even if in a very wrong-headed way via anti-vaccine ideas) was thought irrelevant because its lack of scientific credibility.

I don’t have any argument against pushing these sorts of parts out of the libertarian movement, but that “push” should revolve around folks discussing ideas freely with each other, not constant and vigorous harassment.

When I asked how effective this had been on my friend, they said,

“Not very.”

Best Practices for the Uncomfortable

But the effectiveness doesn’t matter for the bully, the bullying itself is what matters. This feeling that you’ve got something sacred and by gum, you’re gonna protect it from them, the out-group!

Scott Alexander of Slate Star Codex actually had an interesting concept of the “fargroup” which makes use of the near/far distinction that I think is relevant here. The people who are strangers might be in the “fargroup” (AKA less of a threat because they’re more alien to you) but people you know (and especially within your own movement) are a threat that you can much more visibly recognize as a threat and so your response to this is likely to be much more hostile.

One particularly good example of (historical) “farness” is the Boston Tea Party vs. Basically Any Modern Riot, Ever. You can see the hypocrisy when a woman is interviewed during the documentary If a Tree Falls and asked what she thinks about the people during the Seattle protest. She says (paraphrasing) that it’s horrible but when asked about the Boston Tea Party (a protest that caused over 1 million dollars in property damage) she smiles and says, “Well, I think it’s lovely!”

And of course we can just dismiss this woman as some sort of nationalistic stooge but as I’ve hopefully made clear, it’s a little more complicated than that. Not only is it more complicated but it’s also a pretty relatable scenario. For example, most people would have a knee-jerk reaction that The Boston Tea Party was nowhere near as destructive as the recent flooding in Louisiana.

And while this is true (in case you were curious), it’s something that people wouldn’t even consider because of the near/far distinction. And it’s that lack of consideration that I think is worth highlighting and criticizing. The fact that the Boston Tea Party happened more than a few hundred years ago and its intentions were supposedly “noble” doesn’t erase the fact that anyone who did that today would be vilified as a “hooligan” and some sort of destructive element in society.

So what to do when your in the Nationalist Lady’s spot? What are some good ideas when you’re experiencing your share of cognitive dissonance?

It’s a hard question in part because those experiencing cognitive dissonance often don’t realize they are, which is part of the problem to begin with. But keeping these biases and concepts in mind beforehand can help us recognize when we’re acting on irrational biases instead of legitimate concerns. It’s not perfect by any means but identifying our biases and what helps us be more rational can get us better at practicing our social justice concepts during discussions.

On a somewhat related note, some people tend to think that “rationality” is just a concept made up by The West and The Enlightenment and there’s some truth to that. But the concepts of reason, logic and so forth aren’t uniformly informed by those historical currents and to posit that would be reductionist. There are many forms of logic  to get from point A to point B and chalking the ones you don’t like up to some sort of abstract concept like “The West” can often just lead to dismissing folks instead of actively engaging in conversations with them.

Granted, there are plenty of “logical” things  that predominantly came out of Western (by this I mean North America and Europe) styles of thought and came along with the notions of imperialism, Manifest Destiny, Trial of Tears, etc. The logic of othering people and putting them in places of subjection and exploitation didn’t exactly originate in Europe, much less North America, but they certainly weren’t helped by these continents either.

Which brings us back to discomfort and unlearning oppressive behaviors because recognizing this history, is obviously an uncomfortable fact. Look at all of the white people who start getting nervous once you discuss things like reparations for people of color or Native Americans for instance. But is the discomfort part the important thing or is the recognition by itself the important thing?

If I feel uncomfortable about the fact that most of the ground I walk along was once owned by Native Americans who were slaughtered by people possibly related to me, what does this accomplish? This sort of exercise in discomfort reminds me of the stereotypical feminist meeting where everyone goes in a circle (it’s always a circle) discussing their various privileges that they have and how they’ve used those privileges (consciously or not) to harm others.

While I think recognizing our various social privileges is important, even vital, to having better communication, it’s not the only part that matters. Recognizing our privilege doesn’t stop us from exercising it in really harmful ways. A friend who commits various emotional harms and soon after apologized isn’t much better of simply because they recognize they’re being an asshole, that’s not enough.

Consider the show BoJack Horseman (better yet, go watch all three of the seasons and then come back to this essay) where the main character, BoJack, constantly messes up in very big ways and constantly recognizes that, lambasts himself for it…and then just does it all over again. How much does this really do for those people around them that BoJack happens to be in tune with his mistakes?

None of this is to say that recognizing your privilege is unimportant or makes you similar to an emotionally abusive talking horse but recognition of your privilege is necessary but insufficient to actually challenging oppression in society. Recognizing that the land I walked on was largely a product of colonization and expropriation from the indigenous people is vital to getting a historical context of my surroundings…but what does it do besides that?

It might inform my disposition towards native folks, it might inspire my to do certain actions of advocating for some sort of reparations program for natives, etc. These are all (potentially) great things and come from the root recognition I keep discussing but that’s because that recognition is treated as a jumping off point and not just the beginning and end of the conversation.

When I come into a feminist meeting, I’m not sure I want to discuss all of the privileges I have. There are plenty of things about me that are privileged (I’m white, for one thing) but it doesn’t seem especially productive to belabor all of our privileges in some sort of collective cleansing process. It doesn’t get us, as SJ activists, much further within dialogue and action to keep rehashing our obvious historical contexts just to simply say, “Hi.”

There’s a constant refrain from other people that SJ communities and conservative Christian ones seem to share the idea of “original sin” which I always thought (and still somewhat do) is a bit of a forced metaphor. The notion of us all being privileged and born with it isn’t the same thing as it being inherent to people. If SJ activists really felt the same as Christians do about original sin, then there would likely be no point to be an activist to begin with.

On the other hand the way that privilege is sometimes treated…yeah, I can get the metaphor more than I used to be able to when it mostly came from outside SJ circles. Now that this idea has had some time to be shared around a lot (even if often in a wrong-headed manner) it’s been recounted by SJ folks in much more convincing ways.

And by all means, if your privilege is relevant, bring it up! I wrote a poem about police brutality about a month ago and presented it at a poetry slam. It was entitled I love you like the police loving beating the shit out of [insert marginalized group here] which, in retrospect was a shitty and inconsiderate title that comes off as trivializing the experiencing of marginalized folks. I was trying to put some humor on the situation and obviously came up flat (in my mind and others).

But even so, I recognized before I even started doing the poem that the fact I am white means my experiences with police are going to be much different. And the poem reflect this preface. It’s a very abstract poem and in many ways it really was a love poem that I wrote about someone who had recently broken up with me. I had just decided to give it a political edge because of very recent political events that I had heard about and decided I was tired of being silent on the matter.

Even in this case though, my poem wasn’t seen as “appropriate” even though I prefaced it because, as one (white) trans woman said, “You just sound like you’re rubbing your privilege in other people’s faces who aren’t white.” Which, yeah, it may have some off like that, I’m not sure. But then it’s a no-win situation where even if I recognize my privilege and use this recognition as a way to challenge oppression in some sort of abstract artistic way (that doesn’t claim I share the experiences of PoC) that I’ve still said too much.

To me, this is absurd. It’s basically telling white people to stop recognizing their privilege, or else we’re throwing it in PoCs face. Which means, ostensibly, that we should remain silent and let PoC handle everything. And given the fact that we’re the assholes who put them in that spot to begin with, that hardly seems reasonable to me.

Not that I want white folks to dominate PoC spaces or movements (as if we need another space to dominate…) but it seems to me that if white people had even minorly reflected on their privilege that maybe racism for the past few hundred years wouldn’t have been as horrid?

Is that so awful to think about?

Gendered Discomfort and Uncomfortable Genders

In other news: I’m trans.

So, in case you didn’t know, now you do.

I was going to write a whole Thing about it (exploring gender as a maze, etc.) before I wrote this essay but I’m skipping around and now I’m combining another idea I had (separate from the maze one), so whatever.

My everyday is filled with discomfort, anxiety and whatever else my mind can throw at me in response to a world that sees me as what they’ve been told to see (male) instead of how I wish I was seen (a non-binary femme person). So that’s super fun and so is being called “sir” a million times at work (I work at a convenience store).

The point being is that I go through discomfort rather daily and it hasn’t exactly helped me unlearn my oppressive habits in the most conducive way. Notice I didn’t say that it hasn’t done that at all because that’s probably untrue. I used to (weakly) argue that preemptively saying “they” for people was harder for me because I already have so many communication issues, but really, it’s fine and it goes a long way for the few people who it means a lot to, so why not?

Years ago there was someone at the Boston (A) Book Fair who I was referencing and I presumed they were “he” and they (in a large group setting during a talk) corrected me on their gender (I don’t remember what it was but I’m going to say it was “they” for right now) and I immediately went, “Oh! I’m so sorry! Well anyways, as they were saying…” and just moved on with my response.

After the talk though they came up to me and thanked me for respecting their pronouns and I was simply baffled. Why wouldn’t someone respect their pronouns? Especially in an (A) space why wouldn’t someone respect the simple request of someone not identifying with the way they were (forcibly) categorized when they were younger? Isn’t (A) all about encourage self-expression and individual freedom? Given all of these presumptions in my mind it simply seemed like the decent thing to do and I shrugged it off and said you’re welcome.

I then proceeded to walk off while talking to a friend and make a somewhat ableist joke (not relating to the aforementioned trans person) and then feeling like a dick more acutely than I had before. But it hadn’t come from any sort of discomfort (well except the usual social anxiety that comes with People, but I don’t think that counts) but rather a simple acknowledgement of an action I did.

Now, years later,  as a trans person myself I can see why it meant so much to this person. That I would simply recognize their agency as they saw it without question or hesitation may have been something they never really got in their day to day lives. Who knows, maybe that was the first time they really asserted their identity to someone and felt really grateful to me that I helped it go so well? I can’t say for sure  but I can say now, as a trans person, that I get it a lot more.

The constant discomfort in my life and the sort of cognitive dissonance that SJ activists want folks to feel aren’t the same thing. But they’re both types of discomfort and they’re both ways that we can unlearn ways of oppression.

On the other hand, discomfort is a paradigm that (like many SJ conceptual frameworks) can work against the most marginalized. I brought up my identity as trans and this larger discussion to address this frustrating article written in November of 2015 about rape survivors and trans folks in bathroom.

When I first read it, I was irate. It was using the paradigms of feminist rhetoric such as rape culture as a way to keep transgender folks out of the bathrooms that they feel like they belong in. Why? Because predators might misuse these policies to their own advantage and rape women or, worse still, little girls.

And as we all know as feminists, rapists are almost never “properly” (a misnomer, but I digress) punished for their crimes against women. And as well all know as feminists, women’s liberation means they must not live in fear and so we can’t just simply give a free pass to predators in the name of “progress”!

On and on this article continues to use feminist rhetoric or concepts to justify the exclusion of transgender people based on the authors discomfort. Discomfort has therefore in this case gone from a tool for oppressors to unlearn their behaviors to actually reinforce them and make them think they are even more correct.

How does this happen?

For starters, the emotions involved with discomfort are tricky and manifest differently among different folks. This is especially the case with different preconceived biases and certain experiences in our lives that may have made a large impact. In this case the author has many feminist biases (by that I only mean a predisposition towards feminist notions) and has had a common experience for women (being violated by men) but then uses the consequence of the second thing to justify certain conclusions. In essence, the author decides it is justified to punish transgender individuals for the crimes of other people.

She is using her own discomfort as a way to write off the discomfort of others, it becomes a “discomfort Olympics game” made up of saying that the feelings of the “minority” (transgender folks) isn’t as important as the majority. Never mind that this same logic has been the driving force behind many repressive laws such as the Jim Crow laws in the 60s where people of color were often barred from entering the bathrooms with everyone else because of the possibility for “predators”.

But then if the author was as familiar with feminist rhetoric with regards to rape culture she’d also likely know the fact that most rapists are not strangers. Most rapists and people who engage in sexual assault are going to people you are intimately connected with in some way.

And the people she tells us about in the article to explain why we should all feel uncomfortable about trans folks using the bathroom?

I’ll let blogger Libby Anne handle this one:

I googled Jason Pomares, Norwood Smith Burnes, and Taylor Buehler, just as Triller suggests, and do you know what I found?

Not a single one of them pretended to be transgender or claimed to be transgender.

In actual fact, all three were cisgender men who donned women’s clothing and went into women’s restrooms pretending to be cisgender women. While there they engaged in illegal activity—in one case, public exposure, in another, voyeurism, and in the third, videotaping.

In fact, it turns out that there is a long history of cisgender men dressing as women and going into women’s bathrooms to ogle women—and worse.

Anne’s whole post is great and makes many good counter-points to the common conservative claims about letting transgender folks simply using the bathrooms we’d prefer to. On a sidenote, I’ve also made points about this at C4SS here, here and here if you’re interested in my own thoughts on the matter.

There’s plenty of studies (also see here and here) showing that transgender folks are the ones who are going to suffer under a lack of non-discrimination laws. There’s plenty of data that shows that when men pretend to women they’re already either violating business rules, violating the law in the ways Anne mentioned or they had nothing to do with the anti-discrimination laws existing or not existing, people just did it anyways because laws aren’t magic.

But because people feel like they aren’t safe, they feel they can dismiss the experiences of transgender folks. Take this article for instance on whether the level of sensation transgender people feel is “bathroom discomfort or oppression?”:

Oppression is a word that has been used to great effect in America’s history. Slavery, Jim Crow laws, socially-ingrained homophobia, all of these include some aspect of real oppression. People were beaten, abused, and forced into subpar and unequal conditions because of bigotry and hate.

These instances stand in stark contrast to the most recent epoch of oppressive behavior in our history, the Age of the Gendered Restroom. Those little signs on the bathroom door in malls and gas stations are now, somehow, oppressive.

This is a classic example of the fallacy of relative privation, take it away Wikipedia:

Fallacy of relative privation (“not as bad as”) – dismissing an argument or complaint due to the existence of more important problems in the world, regardless of whether those problems bear relevance to the initial argument. For example First World problem.

So, in this example, because oppression has historically been used for things like people being beaten, enslaved and homophobia that means that these complaints about gender-segregated bathrooms isn’t actually oppressive. But hold on, if “socially ingrained homophobia” was something we can call oppressive and the past (and presumably now) then why not this display of socially ingrained transphobia? Because it’s inherently a transphobic statement to say (much less institutionalize) that that there are (somehow) only two genders.

And why wouldn’t it be? It’s inherently an invalidating statement about our existence and shows a foundational lack of respect for their identities. It tells us, as trans people, that we don’t actually exist and are just figments of our imagination.

Not only that but it reinforces to other people that that there are only two genders and significantly lowers the costs of giving trans folks shit for going in the “wrong” bathroom. Which, by the way, is a big part of why this practice is probably oppressive because it does lead to the beatings of many trans people.

Ya know, because they’re in the “wrong” bathroom.

I’m trying to wade carefully here between the “Offending My Deeply Held Convictions is Indistinguishable from Material Harm” fallacy April Daniels mentions in her previously referenced article on SJ discourse fallacies. But at the same time it’s obvious to me that denying folks their personhood is a great way to have them inflict violence on themselves if nothing else.

But again, our own feelings of discomfort and more generally “discomfort” itself is taken and used as a weapon against marginalized people. Hell, in this case the author isn’t even arguing against trans folks in the bathrooms. They just don’t think referring to it as “oppression” is correct because it’s obviously much more about our feelings than the fact that we’re getting beaten and sexually assaulted.

Even their definition doesn’t really strengthen their argument at all:

Oppression, as defined by Merriam-Webster, means an “unjust or cruel exercise of authority or power” or “something that oppresses especially in being an unjust or excessive exercise of power.”

I can’t see what could be more cruel or unjust then institutionally burying our heads in the sand and furthering the ignorance of trans folks in popular culture. It seems excessive to me to see bathrooms that are so tightly regulated around lines of gender instead of letting everyone enter as they please.

And in case you think my claim about relative privation is a bit too tenuous for the first example, I provide Exhibit B from the same article:

We can have this discussion on the basis of discomfort all day long, but as soon as we equate discomfort with oppression, we’re hurting people. People who are actually oppressed need that word to remain powerful and unsullied by “first world” contrivances.

They don’t need to fight against our conception of oppression as a bathroom sign when trying to relate their real, everyday struggles against dictators, military regimes, social paradigms, laws, or whatever power is actively unjust or cruel to them in their world.

Here, they literally use the textbook example that Wikipedia uses in its example that I cited before. Our struggles of identity and personhood are boiled down to mere signs and compared to literal dictators and military regimes.

And against that, I mean, who could say we are truly oppressed?

Lastly, with regards to this article I wanted to highlight this horrifying passage:

I would submit the following: If you have a single minute of a single day to consider the discomfort a bathroom sign causes you, you are not oppressed.

Imagine the sort of life you must live to fulfill this kind of special condition.

If you have a minute to think about the pain, suffering and harm that so many trans folks have gone through because of those “little” signs then you probably have any number of things going on your life.

The fact that this author would make this sort of prescription about oppression is more likely harmful than simply conflating oppression and discomfort. Because they are telling us that if we even have 60 seconds to consider the effects of gendered segregation in society we must not have to deal with crippling debt, or issues of sexual assault, no we must just have a lot of goddamned time on our hands or something.

I can’t think of a more privileged statement then telling people that the amount of time they can spend thinking on something directly correlates to how much privilege they do or don’t have. This is such a 1:1 correlation that needs some real hammering out and defending before being accepted, but the author gives us no such thing, instead they just say it matter of fact, as if it’s obvious.

All of this is to say that the issues of “discomfort” are real and that they shouldn’t be used carelessly. Especially because we’ve seen folks use it carelessly for their own harmful ends, whether intentional or not.

Discomfort and Mindfulness

I’m not uncritical of mindfulness (for example this video is a good criticism of it) but there does seem to be benefits behind meditation and trying to live in the present moment, etc.  Generally then, there might be some benefits to mesh the SJ concept of “education through discomfort” and encouraging mindfulness.

Before we continue, let’s review a definition of mindfulness:

Mindfulness is about being here, fully present with all our activities and thoughts, with body and mind united, and not in a state of dispersion (Chödrön, 1997; Thich Nhat Hanh, 2000).

It means paying attention in a particular way: in the present moment and non-judgementally .

The definition there is provided by Yuk-Lin Renita Wong who was an assistant professor at York University in Toronto, Canada.

Wong integrated these ideas of mindfulness with a course they were teaching entitled Identity and Diversity in the Summer of 2000. They decided that it might be worth incorporating these ideas because of the various feedback they got from students (many white) about how she was teaching the class previously and how it constituted “white bashing” despite her focus on gender and class as well.

Here is how Wong described their experience:

In the first class, I prepared the students for the discomfort the course might bring up for them. I told the students that this course would probably be very uncomfortable for many of them because it would unsettle many of their old beliefs and conceptions about themselves and the world.

Integrating the practice of mindfulness, I asked the students to stay in touch with and embrace their feeling of discomfort, not to judge it wrong and push it away. To encourage the students to relax into and befriend their discomfort, I invited them to take their feeling of discomfort as a teacher and a friend – as a precious opportunity for learning and growth – by greeting their discomfort with a gentle smile and a friendly hello.

I encouraged students to “stop” and “rest” when they felt uncomfortable, to listen to what their feeling of discomfort may tell them, instead of busying themselves with reacting, defending or hiding: “What is my feeling of discomfort trying to tell me, about myself, about my social locations in the society?” I also suggested the students to see the place of discomfort as a place where change begins.

Only when we feel uncomfortable would we begin to feel the need for change.

That last part feeds back into the opening image macro: When we feel a sense of discomfort with the world around us, do we really feel as if the world needs to be changed. But even if this is necessarily true that doesn’t mean we have to experience discomfort purely in a negative way. There are many ways for us to deal with our emotions in positive and healthy ways.

For example, there was a thread where a few women got together and put on some sort of facial mask that resembled black face. None of them intended any harm or thought that it would be perceived as anything but makeup. But instead of simply accepting that it could have been taken the wrong way (and for good reason) one of them decided to lose their cool at everyone else.

They exclaimed they should be trusted to not do something so racist even though many people in the group didn’t really know them. They also seemed to be saying that other people were wrong for feeling discomforted and commenting, instead of simply moving on. But people were being very respectful during their call-ins and there was no real reason to lash out, besides the fact that they felt uncomfortable.

This doesn’t mean that the call-in folks (including myself) were wrong but that, in this case anyways, the individual in question had no real coping skills to deal with this call-in through. So teaching these sorts of coping mechanisms seems like a beneficial thing for social justice people to do, if discomfort is such a vital tool to affecting change.

As I’ve hopefully made clear by now, I’m a bit ambiguous about using discomfort as a tool to cause change in folks dispositions. I think, coupled with mindfulness and other ways of thinking about discomfort, it could be more effective. And even without those things I think it can still have beneficial side-effects, but those effects are less likely to be totally received and effectively interpreted by the person.

It’s also worth returning to my earlier point that the way SJ folks use the “discomfort teaches anti-oppression narratives effectively” is to basically treat people like utter shit because they’re “privileged’ and therefore have the mental capacities of an Elder God or something.

I think these sorts of attitudes can stem from lack of intersectionality in folks analysis, i.e. thinking that just because you’re white you can deal better with stress even when you work 40 hours a week, are poor and don’t get to see loved ones much.

I’m not saying this excuses white people (including myself) for being ignorant of racism (white privilege doesn’t either) but it makes sense why white folks wouldn’t have as high of a threshold for stress if you’re just seeing their racial identity and not thinking about issues of gender, class and so forth.

Anyways, back to the classroom and the methodology:

Throughout the course, I introduced simple breathing exercises to facilitate students to pause and go back to their body after some intense class discussions or disturbing videos about systemic oppressions, to allow room for their feelings and for insights to unfold in the moment of “listening silence.”

Asking student s (sic) to stay fully in touch with their thoughts and feelings as they arise in a gentle and non-judgmental way, and to look deeply into what the feelings reveal to them is in fact mindfulness practice. Mindfulness, as Pema Chödrön (1996) puts it succinctly, is about “diving into your real issues and fearlessly befriending the difficult and blocked areas and deep-seated habitual patterns that keep us stuck in ignorance and confusion” (p.301).

Just to be honest about my biases, I’ve done meditation before. Never for long periods of my life (I think the longest I’ve ever gone is about a week straight or a few weeks straight), but enough to certainly think there’s something to it.

I do deep breathing at times when I am very stressed (lately especially) and it seems to marginally help. It doesn’t clear my stress away but it makes it more understandable so I can figure out what I might want to do next, instead of, you know, just continuing to cry and breakdown.

So all I’m really claiming here is that these methods have done some things for me and I could see them aiding other folks as well. I don’t think it’s some sort of cure all and the popularization of meditation and mindfulness more generally hasn’t been a clear cut victory for the movement.

But at the same time, I think it’s been good to get people to see that they don’t always have to act with judgement towards themselves. I know that I struggle with these things myself and know many other folks who do the same.

Here were the results from the classroom, if you were curious:

In this course, a number of students expressed in their reflective journals how they engaged with their discomfort and noticed their emotional and mental reactivity to the course materials, lectures, and discussions.

A student talked about her growing awareness of how she had always tried to run away from her discomfort, rather than facing the challenge of looking into what made her reacted in certain ways.

Another student recounted her “uncomfortable” feeling and even “resentment” at “having to rethink her notions” after watching a video which intensely deconstructed the stereotypes of Muslim women in North America. Learning to befriend and engage with her feelings, this student was gradually able to appreciate the experience as “an excellent learning opportunity.”

Another student took her uncomfortable feeling as “a good thing” when she was confronted with the relations of oppression between the aboriginal people and the dominant (white) Canadians. One student began to recognise how her failing to critically examine the policies and institutions of the society had allowed her “to find comfort in ignorance.” For this student, the teachings in the course “have removed the security of ignorance and have illustrated that ignorance is not bliss.”

Another student recognised how her saying to herself that she had no culture when she felt uncomfortable with class discussions and activities related to culture and race was “just an easy way to escape feeling uneasy with racism.”

Instead of pushing away her feeling of discomfort, she took it up as “a good place to be in” and opened herself to the questions about her social locations. Her discomfort thus became a “learning opportunity” for her to move out of her “protective cocoon” towards “taking personal responsibility” for her growth as a person and a social worker by inviting her to examine the power and privilege which she “pretend[ed]” she did not have.

Obviously this isn’t a proper study and I’m not claiming this is some sort of “end” to any discussion, ever. But it’s an interesting experiment with promising results (granted it was done back in 2000) that I hope will spark more experimentation in how SJ folks decide to cultivate their anti-oppressive messages.

Utilitarianism, Oppression and Discomfort

I used to have a friend who got me thinking about a lot of these topics. They would explain that, from their perspective as a utilitarian, it seemed like it was fool hardy to reduce people’s pleasure of the world in order for them to enjoy it more.

Granted, this was a while ago and I’m not sure if I’m completely and accurately reconstructing this person’s opinion. But regardless they were a utilitarian who seemed to be of the opinion that focusing on displeasure within SJ discourse could have negative effects on the people we’re trying to talk to.

At first, I was slightly defensive about this but over time I began to see that they at least had some sort of point. How much of a case can you really make if people can’t feel comfortable in their own skin every five minutes?

And especially if you’re talking to people with mental health issues within the depression, anxiety and low self-esteem ballpark, it seems counter-productive to edge around these feelings they may already generally feel in their lives.

I’ve discussed utilitarianism before as well as my preferred theory of virtue ethics through the philosophy of anarchic egoism. I have done so in a rather lopsided way admittedly because my bias is heavily against utilitarianism for both philosophical and personal reasons that likely color the amount of focus I give towards it as opposed to deontological theories of ethics or other theories.

Which isn’t to say I don’t think those theories are worth discussing in similar fashion but I see a lot more of my friends getting sucked into the appeal (and it has real appeal) of utilitarianism and the larger consequentialist family of theories.

But to me, doing otherwise would be like if I focused on the anti-work movement’s tendencies to focus on post-scarcity instead of focusing on its ability to get locked into the reformist notions of Universal Basic Income (UBI).

Sure, both ideas have their issues and their prominence within the anti-work community but (at least in my own experiences) I see many more anti-work folks getting sucked into UBI ideas and it seems potentially much worse to me given its very real and obvious appeal.

Despite my large amounts of personal experience with utilitarianism the sample size therein is rather small and it’s heavily tinged with personal biases and other things that weight my opinion in my mind. Even so, while I think this particular interpretation of the utilitarian philosophy makes some sense (as I often think of various things utilitarians are wont to say) I don’t think it goes very far.

Most of our lives are made of various pleasures and displeasure and situating ourselves within this vortex of different feelings can be a tricky process. It’s certainly worth our time to be careful with how we approach making people feel uncomfortable in the pursuit of some larger goal, but at the same time there’s no actual wrong-doing in using displeasure as a way to further conversation.

Especially if you already have social anxiety or any of the other mental health issues I previously mentioned conversations are already likely a minefield for you. And yeah, making that more difficult probably wouldn’t help things but it’s also possible for you to have devised various coping mechanisms (like mindfulness or various CBT and DBT theories of mental health) to deal with this inherent discomfort.

For example, I go to a poetry slam on Thursday nights and it’s a great time. I know a handful of people there and often I actually have a group of friends who I go with and hang out. But it’s also unbearably uncomfortable because my social anxiety gets triggered really badly when the center state is on someone and it’s not a formal (read: routine orientated) presentation.

If someone’s doing a prepared speech and has been approved by their peers to do so and there’s some sort of process to all of it, I’m usually fine. And even when I’m not I can using various coping mechanisms like looking at my smartphone, thinking to myself about what I want to do or simply listening and trying to keep myself calm.

Sometimes, when I know I’ll get more displeasure than anything else, I decline going. If I am already in a bad mood due to anxiety, depression or something else then I can tell that going there is going to be more trouble than it’s worth.

So it’s totally valid to make decisions based on levels of pleasure but there’s also considerations of character. What kind of audience would you prefer? An audience that is there because they feels some sort of misinformed obligation to show up because their friends do or one that is there because they want to be there?

There’s a form of utilitarianism called negative utilitarianism which argues that instead of maximizing happiness we should think about minimizing suffering and that seems to be at least part of an argument against the SJ tactic of using discomfort as a main strategy (at the very least) to affect social change.

It’s a relevant question of whether there’s too much or not enough discomfort in the world as it is. We’re always being shown new experiences that are largely out of our control to one extent or another and furthering those processes may or may not be a good idea given on what framework you are using.

If you are a utilitarian it might be easier than others to say that causing people significant amounts of displeasure just for the chance of influencing their opinions is wrong. On the other hand I could also easily see the counter-argument from other utilitarians that the oppression that these people may be inflicting on others could be far worse than the discomfort you are making them feel.

But again, this can be taken to bad and dehumanizing places where we take folks individual privileges and substitute that with their general identity. We presume, based solely on their oppressor identity, that they can simply take whatever we dish out and goddammit they deserve every bit they’re going to get anyhow!

This might not be a very good idea for many reasons as I’ve argued at length by now. But the discomfort question particularly around levels of discomfort and what sorts we should see as good or bad reminds me of a tangential question of whether “the system” (that is to say the current political system) is “fixed” or “broken”.

Some people think the political system is “broken” because it doesn’t work for “the people” (whatever that means) and some people think it’s supposed to be that way so it’s “fixed” to be like that. It seems to be a matter of perspective how things balance out and one of the issues I find with utilitarianism (and I by no means am original in this critique) is its ability to properly calculate these levels out to just proportions.

Because while I (now) somewhat sympathize with that friend, I don’t think there’s any useful way in which we can think about this through consequentialist or utilitarian reasoning. At least not without involving some levels of deontology too and thinking about the sort of individuals we want to be.

Do we want to be people who stand up to injustice even if it’s difficult and makes other people’s lives slightly more difficult? Or do we want to resign ourselves to incalculable processes whereby we enter a sort of epistemic paralysis?

Conclusion

I try to go as long as I can with these posts because I want to get out as many thoughts as I can on a given subject. But at this point I feel like I’m rambling and I think I’ve said all I can say on this part of social justice rhetoric for now.

If you enjoyed this essay you can donate monthly to my Patreon and you can find my much more compact and (at times) structured essays on Abolish Work.com.

I also have a book coming out next month about anti-work, so look for that!

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A Gang of Individuals Against Totality by Campaign to Play for Keeps

Nick’s Notes: I found this at the NYC (A) Book Fair back in April and while I don’t necessarily agree with it at all (nor do I necessarily agree with everything with any given thing I re-post here) I find it worth transcribing for your perusal.


All too often anarchism as a movement and a discourse is orientated towards collectivist ideology. I mean this in a literal sense of ideology. Much of what is called anarchism seems to be more of a form of Hegelianism. Possibly it becomes a way for Marxists to smooth out the more and more obvious contradictions of their ideology. To many so called anarchists, freedom means freedom for the megamachine, the Leviathan man, the super organism they inhabit.

The emphasis of anarchism should always be individual freedom.

Individualism doesn’t mean nonsense like capitalism. Capitalism is a collectivist ideology as well, a structure of interlocking components,. Individualist is not even the avoidance of other people. Most people want to be around others, with the exception of some hermit types. It strikes me as unreasonably misanthropic to mandate communal organization, as folks like anarcho-communists do.

Organizational and meeting fetishist seem to think that if they should cease their ritual, their revolutionary ideology would collapse. And there is truth to this, the perpetual meetings of Bookchinists and Occupy drones are intended to indoctrinate participants into an insular subculture (who’s the lifestyle anarchist, college boy?)

The ritualistic behavior creates structures which keep the participants in line and possible push a leader (or two) into a position of self aggrandizement at the expense of other participants.

I am often pessimistic about others but this is due to the social roles we inhabit. Pushing individualism and egoist liberation functions to break down these social roles. The liberation of one is the liberation of others. Most individuals want the presence of others. Liberated individuals will probably choose communalism.

Mutual aid will take the form of a union of self owning ones. The coming together enhances individual freedom and pleasure, becoming synergistic mutuality, where our freedom together is greater than the sum of our isolated and atomized parts.

It is difficult to determine how this individual freedom will be assured. It has been suggested that it should be formalized as a document, such as a bill of rights. I think this is the wrong way to go. As it is formalized and put into a static written form it becomes legalistic. Once it becomes legalistic it becomes a game of east manipulation and can be turned on its heard by any lawyer or logician.

It may make sense to include it in forms such as mission statements for shared spaces and projects, but this is always of limited utility.

The only way to assure the continuation of freedom is a continual struggle. Any time authoritarian structures begin to form they must be destroyed.

This process never ends.

Life becomes perpetual struggle, becomes perpetual war for perpetual freedom.

This is okay, life is struggle.

Insurrection never ends and civil war becomes the definition of a free society.

How Many Egoists Does it Take to Have an Aristotelian Friendship? (The Answer May Surprise You!)

Chilling.

Introduction

Last year I had a fight with a friend and I wondered how to solve the issue and what it said about friendship. I thought to myself about the limits of friendship and  how to define them What if a friend asks me to support them no matter what? Is that what a friend would do? Would a friend ask me to erase my own personal boundaries for their own comfort and then blame me when I failed?

There are many questions I asked myself during the discussion that followed from that fight. Especially about what made a friend a friend and what sorts of boundaries I should have about this.

But here’s a fun fact: I suck at drawing lines in the sand.

Throughout my time on the internet I’ve blocked very few people. My reasoning is that I consider just about everyone to have something of interest to say even when I don’t care for them very much. There’s even a small group of individuals who I would never even talk to online, yet I haven’t blocked them. Mostly because I’m sometimes genuinely curious how their mind works and why they act and think like they do. Sure, I’m unlikely to get any answers (let alone satisfying ones) but it’s just one of the many excuses I make to not block someone.

Be that as it may, I’ve gotten better at my own boundaries over the years. I assert myself and what I want and don’t want out of someone else. If a relationship is purely for political reasons then I’ll likely make that clear to the other person. But my relationships with people are rarely that simple. And even those who might fit better in that category often overlap with a friendship I also have for financial reasons or for other reasons that are supportive even if not emotional.

There are friends who I only talk to so I can get certain transactions done with them. Maybe they’re helping me with my upcoming book (plug!) or they’re going to write an article for C4SS or something. Whatever the case may be, I likely don’t talk to these folks outside of these contexts. And it’s not because I don’t care about them or don’t wish them well (I generally wish folks well unless they give me reason not to) but because I can only have so many friends who I consistently keep up with.

I would say the amount of friends who I try to keep up with to that extent are rather small. Certainly less than 10 people and probably around 5 or so at the most. But that doesn’t matter to me since I’d rather have quality over quantity anyways.

Still, all of this raises what I should think about these different types of relationships with others and how I can categorize them.

Here I think we can take an extended tour through Aristotle’s thoughts on friendship in his book Nichomachean Ethics, specifically in Book VIII and Book IX. We’ll take a look at how he explains friendship, some problems with his analysis and we’ll be Cool Kids and discuss egoism too, just for the hell of it.

Three Types of Friendship: Utility, Pleasure and Good

Utility

Let’s say I have someone who I see at the local supermarket every so often and I am on friendly terms with them. We exchange pleasantries and sometimes we even say a line or two out of goodwill, etc. This employee eventually quits and goes to a different line of work and now when I go to the supermarket I no longer see them. I may feel a twinge of loss for a time but I’ll likely move on.

Were we friends?

Maybe in part, but on the whole it seems like our relationship was based on utility. It was relationship that lasted only as long as I was able to exchange goods and services with them and as soon as that ability disappeared, so did our relation.

The marketplace is actually quite good at facilitating this relationship and I’d argue (as Aristotle does) that cities at least in part depend on this sort of relationship.

How else would enemies get along so well if not for market exchange? The beautiful thing about markets is that we don’t necessarily have to like the other person we are dealing with to make the relationship worth it to both of us.

On the other hand, eliminating markets from the equation naturally gives an uneven balance to social capital and people’s ability to merely shun and shame those who don’t fit their criteria of “good”. There’s a great possibility that simply relying on people’s ideas of “gift” and who is deserving of one would impact folks individual freedoms in negative ways.

Along these lines Aristotle claims that:

Friendship for utility’s sake seems to be that which most easily exists between contraries, e.g. between poor and rich, between ignorant and learned; for what a man actually lacks he aims at, and one gives something else in return.  (Section 8, paragraph 2)

How marketplaces help people who are often contrary to each other is exemplified here as well:

For the sake of pleasure or utility, then, even bad men may be friends of each other, or good men of bad, or one who is neither good nor bad may be a friend to any sort of person, but for their own sake clearly only good men can be friends; for bad men do not delight in each other unless some advantage come of the relation.  (S 4, P 2)

Pleasure

But let’s move on from political disputes and suggest another sort of relationship.

In this scenario I have a lover or perhaps I have someone whom I spend much time with and we share similar political views. In either case, I like the person because of what they give me in terms of affection or reaffirmation of my views.  I may speak well of them and act with kindness towards them and so on.

However, once the passions have dispersed or this person’s affiliation changes, I may start seeing them in a different way. No longer does this person interest me as much and I start to wonder whether we should continue this relationship.

As with before, is this a friendship?

It’s possible it could become a friendship but here again, Aristotle would tell us it is not. I’m inclined to agree as a relationship based upon only pleasure instead of utility is not a very stable relationship.

As Aristotle says:

Now those who love each other for their utility do not love each other for themselves but in virtue of some good which they get from each other.

So too with those who love for the sake of pleasure; it is not for their character that men love ready-witted people, but because they find them pleasant. Therefore those who love for the sake of utility for the sake of what is good for themselves, and those who love for the sake of pleasure do so for the sake of what is pleasant to themselves, and not in so far as the other is the person loved but in so far as he is useful or pleasant.

And thus these friendships are only incidental; for it is not as being the man he is that the loved person is loved, but as providing some good or pleasure. Such friendships, then, are easily dissolved, if the parties do not remain like themselves; for if the one party is no longer pleasant or useful the other ceases to love him. (S 3, P 1)

The point about intentions are important here. When you think of your friendships with others, what qualities do you usually assume they must involve to stay stable? Usually it takes more than business transactions or simple pleasures for a good friendship to last and as such it takes much more intentional efforts.

Simply happening upon the supermarket employee, making love to someone or seeing Bob at the Local In-Group Reaffirmation Meeting and enjoying their company isn’t quite enough to have the best sort of friendship possible.

For Aristotle the best sort of friendship are those better situated within the mutual benefit of our shared virtues rather than pleasure or utility. So the hedonist and utilitarian may argue that friendship can be most importantly defined by how much we get out of someone for some sort of external pursuit, i.e. pleasure or utility.

And it isn’t so much that Aristotle would disagree that they are important components of a friendship.

A blogger on The Wire named TY makes this point clear:

Those with the moral virtue to enter virtuous relationships are a major part of this but friendships of utility and pleasure are also needed as friendships of virtue are severely limited in number.
It is the friendships of utility and pleasure that keep the city together. however; it takes the character of those in the virtuous friendship for a solid community to exist.

After all, if your relationship with someone had no pleasure or utility then it wouldn’t make sense to have a relationship with them.

For example, if Doreen and I are in a relationship (of any kind) where neither of us get anything out of it and/or derive no pleasure from it, then it seems like the relationship is likely forced in some way. Perhaps external society pressures put us together for as innocuous reasons as being in the same classroom or perhaps it’s as strong as an arranged marriage. Whatever the reason, most individuals would rightly be skeptical with regards to the existence of friendship between us.

Goodness

But let’s re-imagine the scenario.

Let’s propose instead that Doreen and I are friends because of our shared virtues.

So, for example, Doreen and I both tend to be practical thinkers who rely on both our emotions and reason for a given situation and not just one or the other. We both tend to be generous towards our friends and enjoy the company of squirrels.

It seems much more plausible to say that this sort of relationship, one based on each others goodness (and love of squirrels) is going to be more stable than whether either of us are getting some sort of utility or pleasure out of the other.

That’s partly because, as Aristotle suggested earlier, the links between individuals merely on the basis of pleasure and utility are unstable by themselves. What gives us pleasure and what gives us some sort of benefit can change much more quickly than what is within us.

But this doesn’t mean that people’s attitudes can’t change. Children can have friendships that can last throughout their lives but it can also dissolve (as any relationship can) because people change as they grow.

So perhaps one friend’s past interest in architecture and math not only changed but their general demeanor towards others. They’ve become colder towards people we consider friends or even casual strangers.

In such a case Aristotle counsels,

If they are capable of being reformed one should rather come to the assistance of their character or their property, inasmuch as this is better and more characteristic of friendship. But a man who breaks off such a friendship would seem to be doing nothing strange; for it was not to a man of this sort that he was a friend; when his friend has changed, therefore, and he is unable to save him, he gives him up.

(S 3, P 2)

Professor at Auburn University, Roderick T. Long suggests something similar in his paper, Thinking Our Anger but within the context of enemies:

Surely we should wish our enemies to be more virtuous and more rational; after all, if they were more virtuous and more rational, they wouldn’t have hijacked two airplanes and sent them crashing into the World Trade Center. Any move, by anybody, in the direction of greater virtue and greater rationality should always be met with approval.

But if Aristotle is right about happiness, then to wish for our enemies to be more virtuous and more rational is ipso facto to wish for them to be happier.

I think this must be what such moral teachers as Socrates, Jesus, and the Buddha mean when they advise us to wish our enemies well.

Obviously we should not wish success to our enemies’ projects; for those projects are evil, and they could not cease to be evil without ceasing to be the projects they are. Hence hatred for those projects is quite in order. But people can always cease to be evil without ceasing to be. If they refuse to cease being evil, we may find it necessary, in self-defense, to make them cease to be; but we should always prefer that our enemies cease being evil.

But what is that, but to prefer that our enemies become better people — that they live better, more worthwhile, less destructive, hate-filled lives? And if that is what we ought to prefer, then we ought to wish our enemies well.

What Constitutes a Friendship From “Goodness”?

Goodwill

With all of this talk of wishing people well and acting towards them with goodwill, it seems as if this would be a very important factor in friendship. And of course, it is, but we can see from Long’s quote that it is necessary but not sufficient.

I certainly sometimes wish people whom I share no pleasure, utility or sense of goodness a general wellness. But without those feelings of mutual respect, equality of virtues, utility and pleasure, then the sort of goodwill I can actually act towards them becomes relatively flat.

We’ve also seen the importance of agreement and unanimity amongst friends to some extent. After all, the shared interest of squirrels between Doreen and I are fairly important to our friendship. In fact, should we ponder this more we may realize that many people emphasize shared interests in trying to find friends.

But a friendship purely based on mutual interests takes us back to a friendship dictated by pleasure. It isn’t a stable friendship built on the qualities or traits of each individual but rather a shared pleasure.

None of this is to say that this relationship, because it isn’t the best sort of friendship is not good at all. There are surely many benefits from having many sorts of friends in your life. Sometimes it’s great to have a casual lover and other times its great to have a trusted business partner. It’s great to have some friends for short-term benefits and others for long-term benefits.

And that’s another distinction that Aristotle draws, the relationships based on pleasure and utility are distinct in that the former tends to be shorter. The passions erupt and then they fade while utility is usually based on longer term plans.

And while long-term relationships may be more beneficial it won’t do it much good if the business partner finds a better individual to trade with.

Ty explains it this way:

For example, say a person visits the same barber shop every month. However, a new barber shop has opened up and provides better service for a cheaper price. The friendship built between the barber and person getting their haircut will likely dissolve, as it is cheaper to use the services of the cheaper barber.

But when we have a relation based upon goodness Aristotle would argue that because we are both wishing the other well it will tend to last long. This is partly because mutual goodwill often coincides with things like mutual respect, mutual interests, mutual benefit and general reciprocity between equals.

Equality of Virtues

By “equals” I don’t mean equals in a physical sense but rather in a sense of people’s virtues. As mentioned, people’s character changes throughout time and if it happens enough it becomes much more difficult to maintain a relationship.

One experience I have with this was a loved one.

They had undergone some experiences in the past year and it had affected their ideas and attitudes in fundamental ways. At first these changes were small and we underplayed them because we were both tolerant of each others idiosyncrasies. But over time it became clear that this was untenable as basic discussions about politics would often turn into bitter disputes between us.

We both had a sort of mutual respect, mutual interest and mutual goodwill for each other but the virtues that we found most respectable were no longer as applicable. The sort of goodness that we thought were important to ourselves and desirable in others had changed in one of us in rather big ways.

Unfortunately for both of us it took much frustration before that could be admitted and we could move on from the relationship we had once held so dear.

Which isn’t to say differences can’t be undone amongst friends but that they also shouldn’t be underestimated either.

To quote the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy:

If they are equally virtuous, their friendship is perfect. If, however, there is a large gap in their moral development (as between a parent and a small child, or between a husband and a wife), then although their relationship may be based on the other person’s good character, it will be imperfect precisely because of their inequality.

But not all inequalities are bad, as Aristotle points out:

In all friendships implying inequality the love also should be proportional, i.e. the better should be more loved than he loves, and so should the more useful, and similarly in each of the other cases; for when the love is in proportion to the merit of the parties, then in a sense arises equality, which is certainly held to be characteristic of friendship. (S 7, P 1)

In addition, one can see friendships between children and adults, as incomplete as these friendships may be at times. I’ve had great friendships with kids who aren’t even teenagers  adventuring, talking about the world and watching movies. Generally I find kids are much more interesting than adults because they tend to speak their mind about how they feel and don’t feel as constricted by social norms.

Kids can also be creative in their ideas of what constitutes fun and what doesn’t. They often aren’t limited in their imaginations like many adults are and though this is sometimes for ill it can also make them more interesting to be around.

In general Aristotle treats both children and younger individuals are more interested in pleasure short-term benefits than longer-time ones. There’s also comments about children deferring to their parents given the inequality of virtues between adults and children. But as I’ve pointed out, I think there’s much adults can learn from children as well and this point often goes under-emphasized if not totally ignored, even by radicals.

Proximity

To close out the discussion of goodness and friendship one of the things Aristotle constantly stresses is the importance of how close the two individuals are. By this he means the literal closeness of the friends. Do they spend much time together? Do they live together? What is the state of their relationship? Surely people who exchange letters with each other and have mutual goodwill and a proportional equality of virtues could be considered friends in some sense.

But on the other hand how meaningful is this friendship if they never actually share the same space? There’s something to be said for friends who are mostly friends away from each other then ones who decide to move in with each other.

For example, I’ve had friends who I’ve lived with and in most of the cases (though not all) the inequality of virtues between us eventually deepens to the point where cohabitation becomes untenable. These are just my experiences and I don’t claim they are the norm by any means.

But be that as it may, it’s an important test of friendship and within that test there’s even popular discussion about that amongst our society. That friends who are mostly casual, talk online and see each other once in a while in person are very different from the sorts of friends who live together and enjoy it.

One of my best friends in college and I would see each other almost every day. It was great at first as we got to know each other and discover what we liked and didn’t like about the other. But as the months got by they started feeling it was a bit repetitive and tried branching out and hanging out with other people.

This didn’t end our friendship, in fact it strengthened it.

That’s because we could better moderate (an important concept within Aristotelian ethics) our frequency of time together.  This led us to appreciate the other more, have more to say when we got together and so on.

One of my favorite Humans of New York pictures involves two old men playing chess. To paraphrase, they say that they get together once every couple years to catch up with each other. You might not call this the most intimate of friendships but it’s clear that it works for them all the same.

So too with my best friend from college, who I probably see once every season or so. And there’s another person who I’d consider a best friend who I am going to see shortly but probably only see twice a year and don’t talk much online with.

But whenever we re-connect it’s like none of the magic was ever lost.

To quote Tim Madigan in Aristotle’s Email:

Some psychologists have been studying a recent phenomenon: old lovers coming together again, sometimes after several decades of being out of contact. Nancy Kalish’s book Lost & Found Lovers: Facts and Fantasies of Rekindled Romances (William Morrow and Company) provides a fascinating introduction to such ‘rediscoveries’.

Today thousands of people in their fifties and sixties, after divorcing or losing a spouse, wonder whatever became of their first love. After a quick Google search or two, they often find out that their old lovers too are now alone, and the original romantic spark is rekindled.

Aristotle, who understood the intensity of friendships formed in youth, would not be astonished by this.

The article was written in the mid-late 2000s so it doesn’t (and can’t) comment on the explosion of such interactions via social networks such as Facebook which has only made this phenomenon increase I’d imagine.

To quote Aristotle more directly on the subject of proximity:

But such men may bear goodwill to each other; for they wish one another well and aid one another in need; but they are hardly friends because they do not spend their days together nor delight in each other, and these are thought the greatest marks of friendship.
(S 6, P 1)

This is one of the few things I question Aristotle on, when it comes to friendship

I agree that these used to be thought as the greatest marks of friendship but clearly the friends whom I talk to on Facebook every day and with whom I share my dreams, desires and love with are not any less friends simply because I cannot touch them or do not share the same physical space as them.

There’s this whole concept (mostly from older folks in my experience) that the “friends” you have on social media (particularly Facebook) aren’t real. And I think part of that idea comes from this notion that proximity is an essential part of any friendship. And while I agree that proximity can undoubtedly help I think it’s easily shown that it can just as easily harm too. Sometimes friendships are at their best when they are kept distant but loving and affectionate.

Sometimes there are good reasons to keep your friends close and enemies closer.

In any case, the internet has surely changed much of this dynamic. I used to think of my Facebook friends as “friends” and I’d word it exactly like that.

But eventually it occurred to me that this was wrong and said as much:

I really hate it when people say that you shouldn’t take “friends” online seriously. You can make valuable networks online and they can be really fruitful and when they are and people sever them it still hurts as if you lost a good acquaintance or, depending on the level of connection you made, a really good friend.

It hurts when you lose someone whose opinion you values. It hurts if you lose a fruitful connection and you can’t get it back. Even if you’ve never met that person face to face or only have talked to them on Skype and have only heard their voice. That person can still be really important to your life and I think it’s shitty and awful when people act like somehow that connection doesn’t matter as much than the other “real” people in your life.

Well you know what? Fuck you.

It’s especially hard for people like me with autism and social-anxiety as well as problems with communication in general. Having online friends means a lot to me sometimes and it’s been really important to me in some cases.

Furthermore, people can matter inside and outside of meat space. We don’t have to all know each other within a few inches from each other to give a fuck about each other and if we did we’d be living in an awful world indeed.

I’ve met several people online who I’ve become good friends with, who I have become reacquainted with through who I may never have re-met otherwise and I’ve forged new connections that last to this day.

There are just so many wonderful people in this world and it really bothers me when people think we should just disregard some of those people because they’re “on the internet” and thus not “real”.

Fuck you.

When Aristotle said:

One must, too, acquire some experience of the other person and become familiar with him, and that is very hard.

He obviously couldn’t have predicted the rise of the internet or technology in general which allow us all to become familiar with each other in very deep and personal ways. And being able to do that, being able to share wonderful experiences, emotions and everything else with people through text and video makes these friendships all the more real.

So yes, your internet friends count.

Polyamory and Friendship

There are some remarks that Aristotle makes about proximity that he thinks are even more likely given how he understands love:

One cannot be a friend to many people in the sense of having friendship of the perfect type with them, just as one cannot be in love with many people at once (for love is a sort of excess of feeling, and it is the nature of such only to be felt towards one person)

(S 6, P 1)

Aristotle doesn’t give much in the way of convincing argumentation here. He simply states that it is “the nature of such” that “excess of feeling” (i.e. love) can only be felt by one person. But given that even back then infidelity was something that happened and happened (at least sometimes) because of multiple loves, this seems implausible to me. Moreover, Aristotle is just making an appeal to nature and not a particularly convincing one given the history of human attraction in tribal societies.

And of course there are ethical non-monogamous practices that have been done throughout history as well. One such example is polyamory, a style of relationship where multiple individuals engage with each other romantically with  full knowledge and consent of everyone involved.

Poly folks (including myself) like to retort to the idea that you can’t have many different loves through the idea of family or friends. Which isn’t to conflate different sorts of love but just to say that if there are certain kinds of loves you can have for multiple people at once (again, technology has increased our ability to do this) then why can we not do this for romantic love too?

But let’s go back to familial love for a second.

If a mother has three children does she love them any less than the other? Perhaps she loves them differently and in their own individuals ways. Perhaps she loves her son Max for his outgoing spirit and his ability to problem solve under pressure. But she also loves her daughter Maxine because she is an excellent at speaking up, defending herself and is overall very confident.

You could try to break this down and perhaps say that the mother because of these differences she loves individual traits in one child more than in the other. This goes back to Aristotle’s inequality of virtues. It’s perfectly fair and reasonable to love someone because they do better at traits you admire than someone else whom you also love (in whatever form). But that doesn’t necessarily mean your overall love is lessened for the person. This primarily depends on the trait and how important it is to you as a person and for your friend or whomever.

I admit that these rejoinders are not perfect.

Different sorts of loves take different sorts of mental states. That being said, polyamory is not for everyone and anyone who claims it is “natural” or that “monogamy is evil” is worth considering but with much skepticism.

It seems to me that some people simply don’t have the time, energy or interest to give romance a try with multiple people. Some people (like myself) don’t have the time, energy or interest to do casual things, so I get it.

But just because many people don’t have the desire to do polyamory doesn’t mean the practice is wrong or impractical. Indeed, I think one of the biggest reasons folks don’t give enough time to even considering polyamory is something called “cultural monogamy”. This is a phrase trying to evoke the notion that monogamy is seen as the default choice and if you’re doing anything else then you’re likely cheating or acting unethical in some way. This is clearly wrong but it’s something many people seem to accept either implicitly or explicitly.

This belief within society limits people’s abilities to engage with polyamory as a viable alternative. It’s one of the few ways in which I think monogamy clearly and obviously limits our personal freedoms by implying we have no choice but to be monogamous. Of course, not all monogamous folks buy into this and some have obviously tried polyamory or some number of alternative relationships and found that monogamy works best for them. And that’s okay too.

But it’s really not okay to me and many other poly folks that we’re just presumed to be doing something morally nebulous if not outright immoral. Especially when the reasoning is only that we’re not practicing monogamy.

If love is considered part of the “perfect type” of friendship and this sort of friendship is rare (as I’ll happily agree) it still doesn’t follow that you can’t have multiple loves. Aristotle didn’t claim in Ethics that, for example, you could only have one friendship of the perfect type.

Instead, he seemed to suggest it’d be possible to have small circle of such friends or however the amount may go it’d likely be more than one. So Aristotle’s own arguments cut against his own for love.

Aristotle elaborates further in Book IX:

It is found difficult, too, to rejoice and to grieve in an intimate way with many people, for it may likely happen that one has at once to be happy with one friend and to mourn with another.

Presumably, then, it is well not to seek to have as many friends as possible, but as many as are enough for the purpose of living together; for it would seem actually impossible to be a great friend to many people.

This is why one cannot love several people; love is ideally a sort of excess of friendship, and that can only be felt towards one person; therefore great friendship too can only be felt towards a few people.

(S 10, P 3)

This depends on what one counts as “intimate”.

When a good friend of mine who I had lost touch with died, I went to his funeral and wasn’t able to really be personal or close with many of his new friends. But when I decided to get some air and leave the funeral house, I cried over not keeping in touch and now never getting the chance to reconnect.

I still obviously loved this person but were they my friend? I would consider them a friend but at that time they were a rather distant one and someone who I felt like I couldn’t spend time with anymore. They had become a different person (though not necessarily in a bad way), had gotten into new music, we moved away from each other and they had many new friends who I wasn’t friends with.

So the whole time at the funeral I felt really out of place, as if I didn’t belong there. I felt I was some sort of relic who had failed as a friend by not keeping up with them. Which was and is bullshit, of course. But when you lose someone who you didn’t take the time to stay in touch with, it’s hard to look at things rationally.

In any case I’m not sure why we should “presume” it’s not possible for us to be happy with one friend and mourn another. Is there some sort of emotional limit that everyone has? I’m imaging a sort of “you must have these many emotions to ride” sign above the advertisement for a ride called “friendship”.

Ditto for love, I can’t imagine why I can’t love multiple people or how this is impossible. Is it hard for some folks or so difficult that it’s not worth trying? Sure. But that doesn’t mean it’s impossible for everyone.

But let’s stop talking about others and talk about our favorite people: Ourselves!

Egoism and Aristotelian Self-Love

Aristotle goes to Stanford

There’s a three part paper by Carolyn Ray that focuses on Aristotle and Ethics.

Particularly she focuses on friendship, eudaimonia and egoism.

While eudaimonia is important for Aristotle’s ethics it seems pertinent to focus on egoism and friendship given the subject of this essay.

Ray argues at length that other commentators on Aristotle and his belief in altruism are mistaken.

I’m inclined to agree given passages like this:

But the facts clash with these arguments, and this is not surprising. For men say that one ought to love best one’s best friend, and man’s best friend is one who wishes well to the object of his wish for his sake, even if no one is to know of it; and these attributes are found most of all in a man’s attitude towards himself, and so are all the other attributes by which a friend is defined; for, as we have said, it is from this relation that all the characteristics of friendship have extended to our neighbours.

All the proverbs, too, agree with this, e.g. ‘a single soul’, and ‘what friends have is common property’, and ‘friendship is equality’, and ‘charity begins at home’; for all these marks will be found most in a man’s relation to himself; he is his own best friend and therefore ought to love himself best. It is therefore a reasonable question, which of the two views we should follow; for both are plausible.”

(S 8, P 2)

When discussing friendship as a “single soul” then Aristotle is relying on each individual as themselves for the friendship to be just and fair. It doesn’t seem like Aristotle is simply relying on sacrificing your own self-interest for others when it comes to friendship. Especially because doing so, according to Aristotle, would be doing such to yourself as well.

Aristotle starts the top passage explaining that one’s best friend is often someone that wishes the best for you and often has the qualities that you most often desire within yourself. In either case it seems obvious that Aristotle’s conception of the best kind of friendship is a sort of reciprocal egoism that relies on the individual coming first and the relation second.

His argument goes even farther by implying towards the end of the first passage that neighborhoods are also built through this reciprocal egoism. Which means for Aristotle that politics (in the social sense of communities, polities, etc.) have a lot to do with how egoist the individuals within those communities are as well.

The previously cited Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (SEP) article on Aristotle’s Ethics is a little less certain of this though:

When he makes friends, and benefits friends he has made, he will be aware of the fact that such a relationship is good for him. And yet to have a friend is to want to benefit someone for that other person’s sake; it is not a merely self-interested strategy.

Aristotle sees no difficulty here, and rightly so. For there is no reason why acts of friendship should not be undertaken partly for the good of one’s friend and partly for one’s own good.

Acting for the sake of another does not in itself demand self-sacrifice. It requires caring about someone other than oneself, but does not demand some loss of care for oneself. For when we know how to benefit a friend for his sake, we exercise the ethical virtues, and this is precisely what our happiness consists in.

I agree with SEP that there’s no good reason to see acts of friendship as partly for the good of one’s friend and for one’s good. But on the other hand whose good does the friends resemble, exactly?

According to Aristotle it seems to resolve around our own good. The good of our friends is rather similar to our own and that’s because the best friendships are going to involve folks who are ultimately similar to us with regards to our character.

Showing care for someone else as the SEP notes doesn’t require us to care less for ourselves but it also does fundamentally require ourselves on some level and the friend being ourselves on some level. Without this sort of connection we likely wouldn’t have the same sort of connection we would have otherwise.

But the SEP later clarifies that:

It may be tempting to cast Aristotle’s defense of self-love into modern terms by calling him an egoist, and “egoism” is a broad enough term so that, properly defined, it can be made to fit Aristotle’s ethical outlook.

If egoism is the thesis that one will always act rightly if one consults one’s self-interest, properly understood, then nothing would be amiss in identifying him as an egoist.

This cuts strongly against Ray and her issue with most philosophers seeming almost “afraid” of egoism. To be clear, I am not using hyphenated words or modifiers of the word “egoism” (i.e. reciprocal egoism) to show some sort of ideological fear.

I’ve been published in the egoist pamphlet My Own and re-posted several egoist or egoist related essays and articles on this site. I am also having an upcoming book published with the anarchist distribution group Little Black Cart who are well known for publishing books centering around egoism among others.

So I don’t use such qualifiers to say that I’m concerned that Aristotle might be an egoist. No, I think Ray makes many convincing arguments for Aristotle being an egoist but I do agree with the SEP that there are different kinds of egoists. A lot of this comes down to definition based disputes and some definitions I’d be more comfortable applying to Aristotle’s thoughts on friendship than others.

The SEP makes this clear:

But egoism is sometimes understood in a stronger sense.

Just as consequentialism is the thesis that one should maximize the general good, whatever the good turns out to be, so egoism can be defined as the parallel thesis that one should maximize one’s own good, whatever the good turns out to be.

Egoism, in other words, can be treated as a purely formal thesis: it holds that whether the good is pleasure, or virtue, or the satisfaction of desires, one should not attempt to maximize the total amount of good in the world, but only one’s own. When egoism takes this abstract form, it is an expression of the idea that the claims of others are never worth attending to, unless in some way or other their good can be shown to serve one’s own.

I think a good portion of this is true but I am unsure of the conclusion.

If it were true that an egoist even in the stronger sense would never attend to the claims of others then it seems unlikely they could attend to their own claims under Aristotle’s reasoning. What egoists seek (for example among the Union of Egoists) is a world full of themselves. So in other words, we’d surely see the egoists attending to the needs of others but only insofar as it satisfied themselves.

And this is much the same thing that Aristotle is saying good friends do for each other. Aristotle constantly emphasizes the mutuality of good friendships or friendships rooted in virtues but he also constantly emphasizes the importance of each individual in each relation above all else.

There are exceptions to this rule and I’ll address them further down but it’s first worth noting that out of a friendship based on utility or pleasure, Aristotle prefers the latter saying that:

…[W]hen both parties get the same things from each other and delight in each other or in the things, as in the friendships of the young; for generosity is more found in such friendships.

Friendship based on utility is for the commercially minded. People who are supremely happy, too, have no need of useful friends, but do need pleasant friends; for they wish to live with some one and, though they can endure for a short time what is painful, no one could put up with it continuously, nor even with the Good itself if it were painful to him; this is why they look out for friends who are pleasant.

Perhaps they should look out for friends who, being pleasant, are also good, and good for them too; for so they will have all the characteristics that friends should have.

This again highlights the reciprocal nature of friendships for Aristotle which means at best the friendships are neither “selfish” nor “altruistic”, they are something in between. This fits in nicely with Aristotle’s concept of the golden mean which states that virtues tend to be at their best when moderated.

For example when it comes to showing courage would you want to be brave, rash or timid? Being rash means you have an excess of bravery which leads to foolish decisions and the individual often ending up hurt But timidity is insufficient as you’ll often act unjustly in situations where justice demands action.

The answer here is to then not fall to the extremes on either side but to be brave.

Bravery involves practical wisdom as well (another virtue) and thus must include when it is proper to confront danger and when it isn’t. There isn’t any glory in jumping into a challenge you have little background information on and have no strategy to deal with. If you do a “tactical retreat” so you can better formulate a plan and defend yourself and/or others later on, that seems perfectly brave to me.

Some may argue that this “defending of others” is “altruistic” but I disagree. People often defend others for reasons other than the people they are defending. That’s not to say the people themselves aren’t important because if they were not then they wouldn’t be defended to begin with. Instead, people often attach things like honor (personal sense of ethics), pride (personal sense of worth in your accomplishments), dignity (personal sense of others) and so on.

We have all sorts of egoist justifications for why we may go to war as Ray argues:

These complications can be avoided by trying to understand what the soldier can get out of a fight to his own death, an approach that is amply justified by Aristotle’s own suggestion that the soldier engages in such an act because he wishes to avoid shame and disgrace (1116a20-29)[8], and prefers a short intense pleasure to a prolonged but mediocre one (1169a18-29)[9].

First, his friends will certainly benefit from victory; second, he himself will benefit (perhaps it is safe to assume that he will not fight for an ignoble cause or one which would ruin his virtuous life were he victorious); third, his choice is between death and a life not worth living (as one used to the democracy of Athens would consider a life under tyranny).

Thus, the soldier’s conduct is consistent with an egoistic point of view, and Aristotle’s own description of the motivation makes it sound like the soldier is not so much ready to sacrifice as willing to pay for the goods he enjoys.

But I think we’ve reflected on the SEP quote enough, let’s continue:

The only underived reason for action is self-interest; that an act helps another does not by itself provide a reason for performing it, unless some connection can be made between the good of that other and one’s own.

There is no reason to attribute this extreme form of egoism to Aristotle.

On the contrary, his defense of self-love makes it clear that he is not willing to defend the bare idea that one ought to love oneself alone or above others; he defends self-love only when this emotion is tied to the correct theory of where one’s good lies, for it is only in this way that he can show that self-love need not be a destructive passion.

Given the quote I gave previously on self-love and Ray’s own reasoning in her essay I think we have great reason to attribute this “extreme” form of egoism to Aristotle.

I don’t think egoism means only loving ourselves alone but rather all things that are like ourselves as well. For loving others who are like us is much the same as also loving ourselves and both Aristotle and egoism are in favor of this.

The SEP article seems to be taking this form of egoism as a form of hermitism but that seems like an unfair reduction of egoism. The concept that you are the center of the universe, it is correctly countered, doesn’t have any merit unless there’s a universe to live in to begin with. But this doesn’t make the universe somehow higher than individuals in terms of a self-interest totem pole.

Rather we can acknowledge side-constraints on our individuality, i.e. what gives us perspective to begin with and what helps us be more flourishing individuals as well. And of course friends and fellow egoists are a great way to do this no matter which form of egoism you support. And to be fair to the SEP and just about anyone discussing egoism there are a lot of variants of egoism.

My claim here isn’t that egoism is correct but I am convinced by Ray’s argumentation that Aristotle was an egoist of some sort. What sort you want to call him depends but overall I think it’s clear that for Aristotle friendship revolves around the individual first and foremost even when we consider others.

The SEP has a fair counter-example however so let’s take a look:

He takes it for granted that self-love is properly condemned whenever it can be shown to be harmful to the community. It is praiseworthy only if it can be shown that a self-lover will be an admirable citizen. In making this assumption, Aristotle reveals that he thinks that the claims of other members of the community to proper treatment are intrinsically valid.

This is precisely what a strong form of egoism cannot accept.

Being the slacker I am, I’ll just let Ray take this one:

The political leader is not to act on his own behalf but on the behalf of the citizens. Contrast this opinion, with the fact that the egoist is to act on his own behalf all the time. How can we understand this passage, in light of the egoistic claims that abound in the Nicomachean Ethics? Must we now say that Aristotle just did not know what to think, that the set of principles that he set down are inconsistent and there is nothing else to be said?

I think the answer to this question is “no”.

There is a very simple way of understanding this passage.

We are concerned in this debate with who is acting for whom, so the obvious thing to do is to ask who acts and who benefits. Since we are talking about a political leader, a man with a job, it is also important to ask what job he is meant to do. The actor is a citizen, a member of a community, who has accepted the role of decision-maker for his city. The beneficiaries are the citizens. Since the leader is a citizen himself, it would be ridiculous to say that the decisions that the leader makes do not benefit him, and that each decision he makes in his capacity as leader is a personal sacrifice. But that is exactly what one would have to say if one were to interpret this passage as an altruistic message.

Rather, it should be clear that the leader benefits as a citizen; what is actually recommended is not self-sacrifice at all, since one can’t sacrifice what does not belong to one in the first place, and the resources of the city are not his to spend on himself.

In other words, bribery, nepotism, and embezzlement of public funds are all out of the question. Some would say that one must be an altruist if one can resist such temptation. But think back again to the fact that the citizens, as citizens, are the ones who will suffer from such action, and so the leader, as citizen, will do himself harm.

This ties into the SEP’s further claims about Aristotle and his Politics wherein he they paraphrase him saying, “…[T]hat the political community is prior to the individual citizen—just as the whole body is prior to any of its parts (1253a18–29).”

But again, you would have difficulty understanding such claims as altruistic because you can see someone as prior to yourself but also constituting yourself in some way. It’s a similar argument for the politician or for friends, ultimately the relationships that we form from social bonds whether it be political or non-political (in Aristotle’s language) are first derived from individuals qua individuals.

Generally speaking there’s no way for the individual citizen to regard something that crucially involves themselves as prior to themselves as well. There’s a logical contradiction here and I think SEP and other commentators are missing that.

Wrapping up with the SEP article:

An individual citizen does not belong to himself, in the sense that it is not up to him alone to determine how he should act; he should subordinate his individual decision-making powers to those of the whole.

The strong form of egoism we have been discussing cannot accept Aristotle’s doctrine of the priority of the city to the individual.

It tells the individual that the good of others has, in itself, no valid claim on him, but that he should serve other members of the community only to the extent that he can connect their interests to his own. Such a doctrine leaves no room for the thought that the individual citizen does not belong to himself but to the whole.

Granted, it has been a while since I’ve read Politics and I found it boring and unhelpful to developing any of my own ideas. But even if what SEP says here is true it says everything bad about non-egoist lines of thought and everything good about egoism.

Why should the individual allow themselves to be claimed by others? If egoism is a philosophy that would resist such a claim then I think it would do so justly and I’m surely on its side than the proposed alternative.

Ray can’t give me much help here as she’s mostly focusing on Aristotle’s Ethics and not his Politics as I am, but in any case I think we can at worst compartmentalize  and say that Aristotle may have had egoist ethics but non-egoist politics at the same time. Many folks throughout the centuries have done far worse things to contradict themselves and so I could believe that this is the case.

On the other hand it may be less of a contradiction and more of a progression of thought that Aristotle went through from his book on ethics to politics.

Whatever the case may be, I think it’s true that Aristotle’s ethics are egoist and his politics may be up for dispute. But I also think Ray makes some compelling arguments that gives us some good reasons to be inclined towards egoist conclusions there as well, if nothing else.

Anarchism and Irrationality in Friendship

Personal

Me and that friend I mentioned at the beginning made up and they admitted that they need to work on how they deal with their behaviors. We’ve since had sporadic fights since then reconciling each time and recently coming to a breaking point where I seriously considered breaking things off.

I considered the fact that in that situation they apologized, never intended harm and that they thought that they could do better and would try to. On the other hand they insulted me along the way and dismissed some of my concerns as if they were trivial. The whole thing was a mess and had no neat conclusion that worked for us.

A few weeks later this friend and I have a lovely discussion concerning personal boundaries and using explicit, open and honest communication we were able to figure out a lot of our issues surrounding these topics. This positive discussion and their assurance that they would improve reassured me things would work out.

But was any of this rational of me?

I admit some of not breaking off the friendship was social blowback. Friends tend to hang around other social circles that you’re involved with and thus breaking off with them can make things awkward.

Another reason was sentimentality. We had been friends for a while and ending it would have been really painful even though I felt like it was the right thing to do at the time. Adding to that I was unsure of myself and  decided I would sleep on it and try to talk to them in the morning. This only helped marginally but I did what I could to try to alleviate both of our concerns and it’s yielded fruit so far.

Part of this came from their goodness (character, virtues, etc.) and the one I most commonly cited was that I knew they could be a good person. But for them it takes a bit of effort to rise to the occasion and it isn’t as if my standards are unfair. They consist of someone who tries to be honest and open with me about whatever is going on and admit when they mess up, be open to criticism and be someone whom I can share exciting ideas with.

But criticism can be difficult for some people and I’m no exception to this as sometimes it’s hard to see criticism as anything but personal.

For example, after a long day at the Open Borders Day @ Harvard University I organized a few months ago I had someone make a (by that time common) comment that the panelists should have been more differentiated on their positions about borders. I got slightly irritated having heard this comment made many times before and one of my friends later commented themselves, “How often do you hear the open borders position anyways?”

Even so it was difficult after such a long and tiring process to not take it a little personally even if the other person claimed that they weren’t trying to do that. I have an issue with being defensive and it’s one I strive to work on.

Political

For anarchists I think Aristotle’s egoist concept of friendship has a lot to offer and I think it also has a lot to offer with how we deal with irrationality in our relationships. More specifically biases that interfere with our abilities to make the best decisions possible with regards to strategy in undermining state-capitalism.

Considering whether our relationships are simply for pleasure, for utility or whether they are more grounded in what we see in each other cannot only help us personally but politically. Associations based around utility for a given single-issue action might make some sense but longer term institutions may be better suited by individuals coming together on the basis of their character instead.

Additionally, reflecting on the friendships based on utility should remind left-wing market anarchists the benefits of market transactions. And it should also help us situate ourselves more in line with the supposed “interpersonal market” and even embrace it to some extent. Being an introvert and autistic person I know that I for one don’t want everything (or even most things) situated around the needs of the community which will surely favor neurotypicals, the able-bodied and extroverted over people who’d rather sit at home with their private collections.

In this way communism becomes a sort of social systematic excuse for “party culture” whereby the people with the most social capital get to dominate the social landscape of everyone in a given landscape. Whether it’s through their charm, their social privilege, their able-bodiedness or something else. The chances that I as a trans person who is also autistic and introverted are going to have my needs attended to in a given communist society seems dim.

Aristotle’s ethics more generally can remind anarchists the importance of trying to moderate our claims to reach radical conclusions. One of my favorite anarchist-capitalist thinkers Michael Humer’s ideas is that if we use the most plausible way of arguing for radical conclusions then we can be more persuasive.

I think Aristotle’s ideas of the golden mean and virtue theory more generally can help us cultivate those kinds of arguments.

And his ideas on friendship can better help us shape the sorts of relations we want to see that will help propagate those approaches.

Conclusion

This has been just the first essay I had in the back of my mind.

If you’re wondering what else I have in mind then don’t worry.

I told you a while back.

Also, the answer is 1.

It’s Autism Acceptance Month!

This is my personal blog so to quote Eric Cartman, “I do what I want!”

So in that vein: Hi, my name is Nick Ford and I have autism.

More specifically, I have aspergers which is a “mild” variant of autism.

The month of April is known to many autistic folks as Autism “Awareness” Month but for some of us, this simply isn’t good. Anyone can be aware of us, anyone can take notice of those who have to put up with ableism in their life. But none of that means you’re actively trying to make that person’s life better by treating them with the respect and kindness they should get so long as they treat you the same.

“Awareness” is a campaign put on by an organization named Autism Speaks which is a very controversial (see also here) organization.

I’ve listed reasons before but just to summarize:

1) As far as I am aware they’ve never had any autistic people on their board

2) Many people associated with AS spread fear-mongering and prejudice against autistic people. That we’re “broken” or we need to be “fixed” or perhaps the worst of all, we need to be “cured”

3) They have very little financial accountability and very little of their money actually goes to researching and helping people with autism.

  1. They did have one autistic member higher up in their organization at one point (though not at the board level)…but he quit.
  2. This, as far as I am aware, hasn’t changed. They do have an acceptance page but I’ll go over that another time to see how good it is/isn’t.
  3. For 2010 here was their results broken down, they have more recent years if you want to see if they’ve done better but without handy graphics it’s hard for me to tell, honestly.

If none of that is convincing I highly recommend Amethyst’s channel which features their series Ask an Autistic and in particular one on Autism Speaks:

 

If none of that is convincing then there are alternatives you can check out:

So why acceptance and not awareness?

Amethyst lays it out fair well:

 

Here’s some steps you can take to improve acceptance of autistic folk and here’s a much longer list if you’d like to learn even more!

I’ll have much more to say when I’m not so exhausted from my other writings and travels but for now I urge you to consider the rights of autistic folks and how “awareness” simply isn’t enough.

Let’s try acceptance instead.

14 Questions and Answers on Left-Libertarianism

What follows are some 101 questions and answers I designed for a Students for Liberty meeting at Ohio University in Athens, Ohio.

None of these questions or answers were needed because the group was so well engaged, but I decided to repost them here anyways because of the more general use they may serve.

The logo of the Alliance of the Libertarian Left

  1. What does the “left” in left-libertarian mean?

Left libertarianism can mean “left” as in a Georgist, someone who agrees with the philosophy of the economist Henry George. George tended to believe that the problems of the world revolved around landlords and that a single tax might alleviate social inequalities.

It can also mean “left” in two different anarchist senses.

One sense is anarchist-communism represented by folks like Peter Kropotkin or Emma Goldman.

But left-wing market anarchism (LWMA) is what the Center for a Stateless Society (C4SS) advocates. Markets for us tend to have separate meanings.

This philosophy stems from thinkers like Benjamin Tucker, editor of the individualist anarchist magazine Liberty in the late 19th and early 20th century. This form of “left” often involves an interest in solidarity, equality and liberty for the individual and the communities they inhabit. These cultural norms are meant to work against oppressive elements in society like capitalism (which is differentiated from markets), government and things like sexism, racism, etc.

As Gary Chartier puts it in his The “Left” In Left Libertarian,

An authentically leftist position, I suggest, is marked by opposition to subordination, exclusion, and deprivation.

This doesn’t mean no one else can oppose such things or have sympathies towards such opposition. But it’s often not the main cause of conservatives, for example, to challenge things like racism or other exclusionary cultural norms.

2. What does the “libertarian” in left-libertarian mean?

The “libertarian” in left tends to mean anarchist. This isn’t universal as we have some notable folks like Chris Matthew Sciabarra and the Bleeding Heart Libertarians who may consider themselves allied with left-libertarianism in some way, yet aren’t anarchists.

But for the most part, the “libertarian” in “left libertarian” involves anarchism. This a particular form of anarchism that has been advocated all the way from the 19th century by people like Pierre-Joseph Proudhon. Proudhon was mutualist living in the 19th century and one of the first individuals in history to call himself an anarchist.

“Anarchism” within this context doesn’t mean a desire for disorder, chaos or violence. Anarchism instead refers to a political philosophy that advocates the abolition of the state, capitalism and all other oppressive exercises of authority.

Despite whatever his other flaws, Noam Chomsky has a particularly good definition of anarchism:

…any structure of authority and domination has to justify itself- none of them are self-justifying. Whether they’re in individual relations, or international affairs, or the workplace, or whatever- they have a burden of proof to bear, and if they can’t bear that burden (which they usually can’t), they’re illegitimate and should be dismantled and replaced by alternative structures which are free and participatory and are not based on authoritarian systems.

3. What thinkers do left-libertarians tend to draw from?

Given how big of a tent left-libertarianism even within the specific branch of left-wing market anarchism is, the thinkers may vary.

Regardless, here are some common sources of its thought:

Benjamin Tucker
Lysander Spooner
Voltairine de Cleyre
Kevin Carson
Roderick Long
Sheldon Richman
Karl Hess
Murray Rothbard (60s and early 70s Rothbard)
Gabriel Kolko (New Left Historian though not an LL himself)
Samuel Edward Konkin III

4. What differentiates between left-libertarians and other libertarians?

Left-libertarians, in comparison to minarchists, tend to be more explicitly anti-political. In the sense that we’re more fundamentally hostile to government. We also tend to favor non-electoral means or at least downplaying their importance within our own tactics. This, as opposed to minarchists who may support candidates like Rand Paul, Gary Johnson, etc.

Left-libertarians in comparison to anarcho-capitalists tend to be more critical of things like corporate culture and bureaucracy within large non-governmental firms. Examples may include things such as non-profits or corporations. Our predictions for what a freed market would end up looking like tend to be more conventionally leftist. For example, we think independent contractors and worker cooperatives will be much more likely to spring up than the traditional hierarchical and large firms we see today.

It should be noted that some anarcho-capitalists care more about anarchism than capitalism and these sorts of anarcho-capitalists may tend to overlap with left-libertarians more. Particularly in that they have no real preference of whether corporations should still exist, or if everything should be privatized or not. They merely want to abolish the state, free the market, and leave it up to individuals and communities from there.

Left-wing market anarchists tend to sympathize with this position though we’d also remind these sorts of anarcho-capitalists that we are market forces and furthermore that some systems tend to be more conducive towards sustaining liberty than others.

5. What differentiates between left-libertarians and anarcho-communists?

Generally speaking, left-libertarians being market anarchists don’t want to abolish markets, money or material capital like anarcho-communists do. On economic questions then, anarcho-communists and left-libertarians may share some overlap with wanting a more fluid way of exchanging value, but on the whole we disagree about how to do that.

Anarcho-communists also tend to favor violent revolutions, expropriation and violent direct action. While there is by no means a consensus on these things within LWM(A) circles, we generally see peaceful gradualism or immediatism as preferable to violence whenever possible. Things like self-defense should be taken seriously but used carefully and strategically even when it’s morally right.

And just as LWM(A)s tend to disfavor monocentric systems of privatization we also tend to dislike the monocentrism via communizing. We’d prefer to socialize/mutualize (see also here and here) functions in society so that individuals, cooperatives, collectives, partnerships and any other sort of collaboration that happens can be done on people’s own terms.

Adding to this, some market anarchists advocate a sort of commons advocated by Elinor Ostrom or a peer-to-peer production model as opposed to a communist based commons. Kevin Carson has written about Ostrom’s approach here and the larger anarchist themes in her work. He has also written about P2P relations in a freed society through the topic of intellectual property.

6. What roles do thick and thin libertarians play within left-libertarianism?

Some people see “thick libertarianism” and “left-libertarianism” as synonymous but this is inaccurate.

The terms “thick” and “thin” libertarian refer to a matter of internal and philosophical consistency questions. Can libertarianism be joined to, as Charles Johnson writes, “absolutely any non-coercive set of values and projects” as with Leonard Reed’s famous “anything peaceful” mantra? Or should it be integrated into other social commitments such as anti-racism or religious freedom of various sorts?

To be clear, to be a left-libertarian you do not need to be a thick libertarian.

Although it is true that this is a rare combination it does happen. Historically, you could argue Benjamin Tucker’s version of anarchism was thin. Tucker only saw the goal of an anarchist society to be a lack of physical violence and no state. Whatever else was not the business of anarchists.

To add to this, it is entirely possible to be a thick right-libertarian.

For example, Hans Herman Hoppe has some (in)famous cultural commitments some may see as conservative. A notable example is his as exclusion of queer folks in his favored covenant communities. I may disagree with this view but it’s still a thick one.

7. Is left-libertarianism just a rhetorical device to attract the left?

More than a few people have accused left-libertarians of merely trying to change the rhetoric and not the substance of libertarianism. We would be doing this, so the narrative goes, to appeal to left-wing people. Usually this is implying more moderate liberals and progressives ala Hilary Clinton or Bernie Sanders supporters.

But given that most LWM(A)s are anarchists this would seem to be very counter-intuitive. It appears unlikely that organizations such as the Center for a Stateless Society has, at least as their number one goal, to win over a Bernie Sanders supporter, for instance. Especially with articles like this and this.

Now, it’s entirely true that left-libertarians tend to focus more on things like prison abolition, LGBTQA+ discrimination, racial discrimination, problems with corporations, etc. But that’s often because we genuinely believe these things are important in of themselves and that they connect to radical libertarianism in important ways that are often under-emphasized within the broader libertarian movement.

And even when we do talk about conventionally left-wing topics we usually tie in the state in some way. Whether it’s mentioning the privileges that the state gives to corporations, the laws that help discrimination or something else. In which case we’re not toeing the mainstream leftist line there either.

So again, it seems unlikely that the main purpose of left-libertarianism is to only appeal to moderate liberals and progressives. As a side-effect of our tendencies, sympathies and interests, it’s plausible. But we’re doing this for a free society, not to market libertarianism a little better.

Moreover, this claim seems to rely on the notion that left-libertarians are lying in some sense. Either to our audience, to ourselves to the person that’s accusing us or some combination thereof. This is a dishonest tactic to use and even if the claim were true it isn’t the best way to go about establishing the idea that we’re only in it as a marketing plot.

8. Who are some contemporary left-libertarian thinkers?

Some notable contemporary LL thinkers are:

Kevin Carson
Sheldon Richman
Gary Chartier
Charles Johnson
William Gillis

9. What are some of the most important left-libertarian works?

This is a(nother)non-exhaustive list of the most important left-libertarian works and should be taken as such:

Markets Not Capitalism (audiobook here, YT series here)
The Conscience of an Anarchist
Studies in a Mutualist Political Economy
The Iron Fist Behind the Invisible Hand
State Socialism and Anarchism: How far they Agree and Wherein They Differ
Advocates of Freed Markets Should Embrace “Anti-Capitalism”
FMAC: The Unknown Ideal
Instead of a Book by a Man Too Busy to Write One
Liberty, Equality, Solidarity: Towards a Dialectical Freedom
What is Left-Libertarianism?

10. What means do left-libertarians generally advocate for advancing towards a freed society?

Jason Lee Byas summarizes it beautifully in his article What is “Left-Libertarianism”? published on the Students For Liberty blog:

…left-libertarians tend to focus on interacting directly with the thing they’re trying to change (society), rather than making appeals to the thing they want to eliminate (the state). Not only does this include educational efforts, but also find methods for circumventing state repression and building alternative institutions for handling problems states create or fail to solve.

Historically this includes experiments like Lysander Spooner’s American Letter Mail Company, the radical labor efforts of Dyer Lum, and Sam Konkin’s idea of “counter-economics.” Today it can be found in left-libertarian enthusiasm for projects like crypto-currencies, radical labor activism, 3D printing, file-sharing, grass-roots mutual aid, and cop-watching.

As Kevin Carson explains, the left-libertarian aim “is not to overthrow the state, but to ignore it. Anyone who wants to continue to support the state and obey its laws is free to do so, so long as they leave us alone. Our goal is to build the kind of society we want, and prevent the state from overthrowing us while we’re doing it. The last person out of the state can turn off the lights.”’

11. Are left-libertarians and Bleeding Heart Libertarians the same?

As Thomas Knapp explains in, Now Hear This: There’s a Difference Between Left Libertarians and Liberaltarians:

Most, if not all, left libertarians are anarchists. Most, if not all, liberaltarians consider the state at least inevitable and possibly necessary; and following from that,

Most, if not all, left libertarians eschew electoral politics and “public policy,” while most, if not all, liberaltarians consider those two things part of their program of action.

In addition, Roderick T. Long in his post, Left-Libertarianism: Its Past, Its Present, Its Future says:

Insofar as BHL represents a fusion of the free-market commitments of libertarianism with the social-justice concerns of the left, left-libertarianism may be counted as a subset of BHL; but left-libertarians tend to be more radical, in both their leftism and their libertarianism, than the majority of those self-identifying as BHL proponents. … Most BHL proponents appear to see their libertarian commitments and their left-wing commitments as at least to some extent moderating each other; left-libertarians, by contrast, tend to see their libertarian and leftist commitments as mainly reinforcing each other.”

12. What is mutualism?

Mutualism is an anarchist school of thought founded by Pierre-Joseph Proudhon in the 19th century.

Mutualism more contemporaneously has two schools of thought

Carsonian Mutualism
Neo-Proudhounian Mutualism

Carsonian Mutualism (CM) is much like Benjamin Tucker’s mutualism. Tucker mixed Proudhoun and the first American anarchist, Josiah Warren, who was himself an individualist anarchist. This approach is mainly an economic one that relies on the minimization of usury (interest, profit and rent), worker directed cooperatives, etc.

Neo-Proudhounian Mutualism (NPM) is more “classical” in its approach. It may attach insights from Tucker, Warren and other individualist anarchists but it depends less on them than CMism. In addition, NPMism is more of a philosophical approach that relies on concepts like reciprocity, the golden rule, and approximation.

It should be noted that both schools of thought have much overlap and that economics and philosophy are important in both schools. One just tends to emphasize one over the other.

In either case the goal of mutualism is a more “mutual” society. One where people encounter each other in a more equitable way that depends less on hierarchy and command. Instead mutualism urges us to depend more on fellowship, respect and understanding. Institutions like mutual banks, cooperatives and communally owned institutions tend to be favored by mutualists as expressions of their desired political economy.

The CM tends to be a “minarchist” when it comes to usury. Profit, rent and interest are likely to exist (and perhaps even be necessary) on some level, but likely drastically less than what the situation is currently. While the NPM may be less flexible in its lack of necessity.

Both schools of thought tend to advocate a private property of sorts but one that is based on personal use and occupation. Contrary to some people’s claims this does not mean the milkman can come and take your house when you leave to buy groceries from the local co-op. Proudhon described mutualism as a “synthesis between communism and property” which is the “liberty” he desired most.

I recommend Shawn Wilbur’s The Gift Economy of Property and In Defense — Such as it is — of Usufructory Land Ownership by Kevin Carson for more. You can also see the C4SS Mutual Exchange Symposium on Land which Carson and Wilbur both took part in.

And for a fairly comprehensive overview of mutualism I recommend Clarence Lee Swartz’s “What is Mutualism?” published in 1927. Carson and Wilbur have also recommended this work to others.

These two schools of thoughts are still very new and as such my descriptions should be taken as my personal experiences mixed with some of the originators own terms. As such, make sure to look up Kevin Carson and Shawn Wilbur’s work to see for yourself.

It should be noted that in recent years Shawn has distanced himself from left-libertarianism and ALL/C4SS. Still, I believe there is much of value to be found in his work that relates to the efforts left-libertarians do. More recent work by him that may better encapsulate his current positions can be found here and here.

13. What is individualist anarchism?

Individualist anarchism is a bit more complicated as the strands that exist under its labels are much more diverse and numerous.

For example, left-wing market anarchism is very different from egoism. Egoism was a philosophy most notably subscribed to by Max Stirner who was against the state and morality. LWM(A)s tend not to be against morality itself (though this is by no means essential).

There was also European individualist anarchism that was embraced by people who engaged in what was called illegalism (also see here). These people were involving themselves with illegal activities of one sort of another, often to upset the established capitalist order. Either by robbing banks, shooting officials or fighting cops. They had much overlap with the egoist philosophy.

The historical individualist anarchism of America was naturally more informed by American values. As such Lysander Spooner heavily relied on natural law, Benjamin Tucker only became an egoist later in his life and other individualist anarchists would even rely on spirituality to some extent to justify their beliefs.

It should also be stated that the lines between mutualism and individualist anarchism can sometimes be blurry.

Early Benjamin Tucker drew heavily from Proudhon and it may be difficult to say whether he really neatly fit into one category or the other. Similarly Dyer D. Lum drew heavily upon mutualism and in his “The Economics of Anarchism: A Study of the Industrial Type” seemed to mostly agree with Proudhon but also have some of the same Tuckerite caveats as well.

14. Where can I find left-libertarians?

Besides at C4SS you can find us on the Alliance of the Libertarian Left which has a Facebook page and a distribution site where you can buy our pamphlets as well!


If y’all liked that article consider donating to my Patreon!

You can donate for as low as $1 a month but I especially encourage $5!

Donating helps articles like this one come out more frequently. : )

 

Coming Attractions…

It’ll be quite a show – all at my expense, I assure you!

I’ve been itching to write some full-scale blogs on various topics here but so far my Patreon just isn’t making me enough to invest too much time into that. So I typically focus on Abolish Work and C4SS (and its Youtube channel) instead.

Nevertheless I want to commit (or attempt to commit!) to writing one full-length essay a month even so.

What does “full-length” mean? Well, I consider blog posts 0-500 words, articles 1000-2000 and “full-scale essays” to be somewhere from 5000-10,000 words.

So yeah, I’ll be aiming pretty big. I may not even meet this word-based goal every month but basically each post would be an attempt to do a really fleshed out piece on a given subject. Complete with links, sources, references, lots of quotes, statistics, etc. etc. etc.

Anyways y’all aren’t really here for that (I hope), so here’s a sneak peak at some ideas I’ve either had brewing for a while or some ideas that I’ve gotten recently, I’ll give some descriptions as well so you’re not going into ’em totally blind:

  • We Could Be Friends But You’re Playing (With Irrationality) – Basically a bonafide screed on what friendship means to me and why it never relies on immutable support
  • Gender as Auto-Pilot (note, maze metaphor, ) –  I’ve been struggling with gender a lot lately, so this would probably be one of my first essays channeling this struggle within me. It’d likely be intensely personal and get pretty long and pretty heavy pretty fast.
  • Discomfort, Privilege and Oppression (Utilitarianism) – Is it necessary to make others uncomfortable so that we highlight privilege in society? How powerful of a strategy is this and if it is powerful does that just mean it’s worth doing even less? I’ll also make some casual remarks about how utilitarians (see less casual comments here) tend to conceive this question (in my limited experience).
  • Trans and bathrooms (report, response, to this) – This ones pretty obvious. (The second link is obnoxious and also contains references to rape  so be warned on both fronts)
  • The Soul of Man Under Individualism – A play on some obscure essay.
  • “Because I said so,” is the frustrating exception that proves the general rule.” –  An essay on youth liberation. Fuck  yeah. Youth lib has been bouncing around in my head for a while now and this’d be my chance to expound upon why.
  • The Killer is Me (Philosophical) – An essay on self-esteem, I think. I’ve had this title (named after an Alice and Chains song I particularly like) in my head for years but I’ve finally found some use for it! Huzzah!
  • “You’re Actually Being Really and Truly…” (No True Scotsman history) – Criticisms of (gasp!) social justice and how social capitalism, social positioning and more tend to play into games of tribes, signaling and ah fuck, just call me a Less Wronger right? (Except don’t)
  • Building Monuments to Death (Thinking our Anger) – Or, “In Response to Folks Celebrating Scalia’s Death” Oh yeah, I’m going there. Bring on the hate!

So yeah, if you want to see these not only happen but happen more frequently than, I dunno, once a month? Feel free to donate to my Patreon!

And hey, if I get $50 or over a month then I’ll do my best to do two a month.

…And shit, if I ever get to $100, I’ll commit to four a month.

…But no more than that, OK?  Please?

I Want Friends, Not Community + My Comrades

Nick’s Notes: “I Want Friends, Not Community” is republished with Apio Ludd’s explicit permission.

I’m republishing “My Comrades” as a nice additional piece under Apio’s recent and generous permission to reprint anything appearing in his publication My Own.

“I Want Friends, Not Community” and “My Comrades” are both  located in My Own: Self-Ownership and Self-Creation against all Authority #18.

I have added minimal formatting to make it slightly more visually appealing.


Who needs this?

Who needs this?

I Want Friends, Not Community

Communities .. are best defined in terms of food relationships – we are asking who eats whom. –Marston Bates

Damn near everywhere I go, I hear talk about community.

It’s apparently something everyone needs, something to which everyone should be willing to give herself. In big cities, it’s easy to ignore these calls to belong, since it’s hard for the unarmed proponents of community* to intrude personally into other people’s lives. I now live in a rural area. It has many advantages, but its human population includes far too many liberals, activists, do-gooders, in short, busybodies for whom community is sacred, an impersonal deity to whom these believers want everyone to know.

These local communitarians make what they mean by “community very clear in their complaints about those who don’t conform to community standards and their attempts to enlist others against these anti-social elements.

Indeed, it is a question of “who eats whom” – who spends their time gnawing away at the reputation of those who don’t fit into their code.

Community, as an ideal, stands in opposition to individuality, because it requires in the reining in of the unique for a supposed greater whole. I recognize no greater whole to whom I am willing to give such power, so I have no interest in community.

Does this mean I want to be isolated?

Well, at times, I do I value my solitude.

But at times, I want to play with others. I simply don’t want to give myself over to any “greater whole”.

And “community”, as its proponents use the term, is just such an imposed greater whole. These proponents use it to enforce a conformity to roles that make you and I intro mere electronic bits coursing through the cybernetic social machine, suppressing the particularities that make you and I interesting to each other.

This increases isolation, as it becomes more and more difficult for anyone to meet each other except as these social functions. And your function doesn’t really interest me. Your particularities, those unique properties through which you create yourself, are why I desire to know you, to interact with you, and community standards serve to suppress them.

So I have no desire for community.

I desire friends, companions, lovers, comrades and accomplices.

In other words, I desire to intentionally and passionately create relationships with specific individuals, because I see a potential for mutual enjoyment and mutual benefit. Friendships, companionships, loves comradeships and compliciters are not things to which I belong, but interactions I willfully create with another.

The origins of some of these words make this clear.

  • A friend is someone you prefer to spend time with out of a love for them.
  • A companion is someone with whom you are willing to share food.
  • A comrade is someone with whom you would share your room.**
  • An accomplice is someone with whom you would join forces for some purpose.
  • And a lover is someone with whom you are able to share a mutual enjoyment and such delight in each other.

In every case, there is no greater whole, no hgiher power, enforcing obligations, merely two or more individuals choosing to itnerwave their unique particularities in order to better enjoy their lives or accomplish an endeavor mutually beneficial to them.

The individuality, the utter incomparable uniqueness of each one involved, provides the basis for the mutuality of these types of relationships – relationships that are never “greater than the some of their parts”, but rather enhance the greatness of each o the individuals taking part in them.

There are two other relationships that I may not desire or treasure as much as those I just described, but that I still prefer to the mutual tolerance and acquiescence necessary to community: enmity and contempt.

To merely tolerate others is intolerable to me.

If your projects, aims or desires conflict with mine, we will be enemies If you are not a worthy enemy, I will scorn you.

To do otherwise -in the name of community, of “getting along” – would be an insult to your individuality, to your uniqueness, and would reinforce the lie of community.

*Of course, the armed enforces of the community, the cops, are there in force to impose community standards.

**Of course, there are imposed “comradeships” in this since: the prisoner with a cell-mate or the conscript in the barracks.


 

A Meeting of The Minds – The Fool Meets the Blind Man

My Comrades

As for me, when I want to break my solitude, I prefer to go and seek my comrades, elsewhere, among the thieves of fire, the revilers of public authority, the walking dreamers, the furious night owls, the seducers of nuns, the libertines depraved by vice, the dabblers in underground cinema, the hunters for wild strawberries, the madcaps who harangue the clouds, the hooligans of the word, the polishers of the stars, the lone wolves who feed on the Golden Fleece, the drunkards of the absolute … and all those vagabonds of the spirit who will never bow their heads before good people.

These, and these alone, are my comrades.


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