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The music and not the lyre

October 3, 2011

The ongoing “Occupy Wall Street” and “Occupy LA” protests have been intended to draw attention to the negative effects of capitalism.  However, they have also unintentionally highlighted the greatest difficulty that movements in general – and anarchists in particular – face in achieving practical results: how to accurately decide on worthwhile targets.  For all the growing hatred that Americans have for big business, attacking corporatism does nothing to resolve any of the problems which the United States faces.  Instead, it merely indicates an inability to distinguish between ultimate and proximate causes which will be a handicap to reform in the long run.

The reform-minded anarchist should never attack government itself, or  its manifestations such as the army, or the businesses which flourish under its protection.  These may be causes of injustice, but they are all proximate causes, and eliminating proximate causes one by one is a very inefficient way of solving problems.  Governments do not spring into being, fully armed, from the head of Zeus.  A government only arises when a society has need of it and intentionally creates it.  Or, to be more precise, government is the mechanism developed by society in order to enforce the latter’s strictures.  Societies are defined by what they exclude.  They are based upon limitations and prejudices, upon the least common denominator of a population’s beliefs.  As they evolve, they create laws and customs to mark these boundaries.  Governments then develop to administer these laws as society grows in complexity and size. Government may precede the development of organized society, if it is needed for functions such as defense, or it may be produced directly by the demand for ethical oversight, but it will always be co-opted by society in the end.

As such, it is not the armed forces which are the appropriate target for the anarchist; they are merely a side issue, and an unimportant one at that.  Nor are businesses any more to be blamed, as they are the outcome of individual effort and must at least be respected even if their effects are disparaged.  As for the government itself, it is nothing more than the disposable tool of society.  An anarchist who wishes to make a difference for individuals and for humanity will turn his efforts to disassembling the society in which he lives, rather than wasting his time attacking sub-units of that society.

Even with society as his chosen target, the anarchist must avoid the greatest fault of any soldier: the desire to vilify his enemy and give it a dimensionless personality that he can blame for its faults.  Society is not a sentient being; it cannot be a ravening beast or a sinister Presence or an incarnation of evil.  It bears no grudge against the anarchist and it does not indulge in spite.  Instead, it should be viewed no differently than a rock in the middle of a traveler’s path would be.  Its existence is inconvenient, but the rock cannot help that.  Nor can society.  Both are simple physical obstacles whose removal should be approached with reason and calmness.  Hatred is a weapon effective only against its bearer.

Societies can never be eliminated altogether, of course.  But better a world of many small societies, where individuals have the ability to thrive, than one of few societies governed by a vast number of petty jealousies.  Still, before such a world can be achieved, anarchists must learn to target society itself rather than its effects.  They must learn to distinguish between the music and the lyre.


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