On Collective Liberty

Individual liberty has a long history of thought and writing, but very little work has been done on collective liberty.  In fact, there is an open conflict between individualism and collectivism that deeply shapes our global and local political engagements:

Q: What's the difference between capitalism and communism?

A: In capitalism, one man exploits his fellow man, and in communism it is just the opposite.

America's grand experiment with democracy is founded in classic liberalism, and the fuel for a lot of political engagement, particularly on the right, is libertarianism.  This is most visible currently in the Ron Paul insurgency in the Republican Party, and rhetorically the right paints any move to collectivism as a return to Stalinism.  Meanwhile, the big money players are perfectly happy to deal with China, as long as they respect our contracts.

Central to libertarian thought is the non-coercion principle (NCP), the idea that our interactions and contracts should not be based on arm twisting, ultimately on the threat of violence.  Collective liberty depends not only on our ability to enter into individual agreements or contracts, but also on our ability to associate freely and to create collectives.  We will argue that this collective aspect of liberty is not only very weak, but it is currently under attack by both the political process and the government itself.

The financial system we have, the one based on contract and fiat money, is not a libertarian system.  Rather than respecting the sovereignty of individuals in general, it enshrines the individual right to contract and the money system reduces value from a full spectrum of moral sentiments to what can be measured in monetary terms.  This system is one designed to coerce with money.  If you don't connect sufficently to this system to earn a living, you will find yourself outside the system and unable to survive unless you take what you need (against the NCP) or depend on the goodness of others which is in short supply in this scarcity based system.

We will call this kind of libertarianism, propertarianism, as it enshrines the right of those with property to keep it.  It is easy to see why this idea is poplular and how it balances on the NCP, nobody wants to empower the government or anyone else to come and take what they possess, but it becomes distorted when you consider the great accumulations of wealth represented by large fortunes held by a small number of individuals and families.  The fact of those large accumulations makes the system itself coercive.  Those who hold the most money can make the rules (laws), and they can enforce them without limit.  In the US, this has reached new heights as large donations, often from corporations with dubious citizenship, largely dominate the political field.  Although this is concentrated on rightwing republican politics, corruption and hidden money influence both sides of the political duopoly.  The political base and rhetoric of Democratic leaders is more collectivist, but money dominates and shape those legislators as well.  It can't go against the propertarians.

If we are to take liberty seriously, we have to also take seriously our right to freely associate. Our leaders lack the courage to respect the Bill of Rights in the face of a fear based in a collective pathology.  The events of September 11, 2001, could have led to collective healing, but it simply became a shift from the old enemy of communism to a new one in Islam.  It still can but it is not an easy course.  It is a necessary one.

The victim in all of this is our ability to organize collectively for our collective liberty.  The government can and does spy on anyone they call enemy.  Whistleblowers are routinely persecuted, and made enemies of the state.  Sadly, whether someone thinks these whistleblowers are heros or villains is largely determined by whether we identify with them politically.  Individual liberty means nothing if it is only afforded to those who think like us, and that is central to how the founders structured the Constitution and why they insisted on the Bill of Rights as well.  Collective liberty is simply an extension of individual liberty, and an essential one.  Freedom to associate isn't quite spelled out directly in the Bill of Rights, but the Supreme Court has said that it is part of the first ammendment.  We need to keep standing up for our right to stand collectively.  It is a weak interpretation of the second amendment that is concerned only about our ability to defend ourselves physically with arms, but does not defend our voluntary associations from assaults on our privacy and ability to operate securely.  Targetting activists goes back at least to the Nixon administration and is alive and well today.

Thinking strategically about power in nonviolent struggles, we in the US do not face the kind of open violence from the state that we witness in the struggles in other countries for the simple right to organize and address grevences to power. However, our struggle may be even more difficult as most are complacent and even co-opted by the powerful.  It isn't just a struggle for the right to organize, but for the public mind and its capacity to make collective decisions.  Sharp contends that:

Sharp's key theme is that power is not monolithic; that is, it does not derive from some intrinsic quality of those who are in power. For Sharp, political power, the power of any state - regardless of its particular structural organization - ultimately derives from the subjects of the state. His fundamental belief is that any power structure relies upon the subjects' obedience to the orders of the ruler(s). If subjects do not obey, leaders have no power.

The powerful have often deployed strategies of divide and conquer to keep nations and communities divided against themselves.  For example, mine owners intentionally brought in diverse ethnic communities and kept them isolated in divided communities in an attempt to stave off union organizing.  The political rhetoric of left vs. right, blue states vs. red states is the same old tactic to keep people arguing about small differences while a hidden elite makes off with all the wealth and power.  We need to find new ways to come together in mutual understanding; to understand our differences and respect each other while we create the collective will to fight oppression in all of its forms.

The new political movement we seek to build cannot fall into easy categories of right vs. left.  I am well aware as I write this that my thinking trends towards democratic politics, but I am also aware that we cannot make progress with rhetoric that creates and widens divisions.  Yes, I see my side of the debate to have the stronger points and respecting diverse points of view; that is the nature of liberalism, but I also see seeds of hope on the other side.

When I was a young man, I was deeply attracted to the ideas from Ayn Rand's fictional works and the idea of the heroic individual, but I have also come to see these ideas as deeply flawed by a lack of balance.  The individual has no power without a stable and powerful collective system of shared values.  The social contract is the philosophical ground of our society and laws.  What I see in the world is a social contract that is imposed on the weak by the powerful to justify an unjust system, and it is the source of the joke that introduces this essay.  I was and remain an individualist, and I cheer on the libertarian insurgents in the political system.  I don't want an oppressive socialist state, nor do I want an authoritarian state run by the most rapacious thugs who specialize in grabbing power whether their instraments are the weapons of warfare or political rhetoric deployed with equal violence.

Oppression by Fear and the Rule of Law

Whether you fear economic desolution and seek out a more robust social safety net, or violence in the streets and join the call for more law and order, the driving force is fear.  Depending on which category of fear dominates your thinking, and often it is both in different measures and different times, you will be driven by one pattern of political rhetoric or the other.  The invitation in this essay is to never loose sight of the forces driving you and to learn to stand up to the fear with courage.  As Sharp says, they have no power if we do not obey.

Note that the social contract cannot be established by force, and make no mistake, the law is force even if we do not feel its immediate threat.  The libertarian objection to socialism is that the state takes one man's property for the welfare of another, but it ignores the way the laws and contracts are deployed to keep the richest individuals in power over the rest of us.  It is inescapable in a world where Wall Street can steal billions, even trillions from the economy and hold the whole economy hostage unlil Congress is forced to cede to their demands.

When the motivating fear is of crime and drug dealing in the streets, the call goes out for more oppressive laws, more strict enforcement and no mercy for the perpetrators; yet the biggest criminals remain outside the law.  The political leaders from both parties endorse the Patriot Act and build up fear of the other.  Then we find out the the other is us in the form of anyone with the timerity to challenge the system as a whistle-blower.  For the bin-Laden's and the Bush' families, the blowback created when young men explode in anger is exactly the result they desire.  Only the powerful want our cities to explode in anger over Trayvon they way they did for Rodney King because it scares the middle class and justifies the call for more law and order.  The blowback from "unintended" victims of drone strikes justifies the pursuit of Edward Snowden and the unconstitutional acts that he exposes.

When one or two of us stand up, we can be struck down with ease and discredited, made an enemy of the people dismissed by many.  When we stand together in solidarity, the people's will is more powerful than any force of violence and fear.  This is the legacy of the American Revolution and our collective gift to the world.  Let us continue to be worthy of it.