Sunday, September 14, 2008

Proposed Roads to Freedom, Chapter V

Chapter V (pages 111-138), “Government and Law”

[An e-version of Chapter V is available here.]

Even accepting that “freedom is the supreme aim of a good social system [p. 111],” the Anarchist program is unlikely to be desirable. The lack of state-imposed constraints upon individual behavior does not imply that liberty will prevail; rather, the strong will impose their will upon the weak, or the majority upon the minority. This still will be the case in a world where the possible accumulation of power (which builds its own appetite) would not be as great as in current circumstances. “It would seem, therefore, that, while human nature remains as it is, there will be more liberty for all in a community where some acts of tyranny by individuals are forbidden, than in a community where the law leaves each individual free to follow his every impulse [p. 113].” Coercion by private individuals, then, suggests a role for the state, but not for anything beyond that limited role which maximizes overall liberty by restraining private tyranny.

Marx’s approach to the state seems muddled. He wants the state to have significant power, but claims that the state, or at least its class nature, will disappear after socialism is established.

Guild Socialists present a sort of compromise between Socialists, who are really believers in a strong state, and Syndicalists, who take from Marx the class war theme but eschew working through the state. Guild Socialists maintain a state to represent consumers, but offset its power in part with the guilds, which represent producer interests and also will have coercive authority.

Anarchists maintain that all collective coercion is unnecessary -- a view that is far from absurd. As Kropotkin notes, there are many coordination-type problems in which unanimous consent already has occurred, such as issues that arise in international express rail traffic. Anarchists think that once the current system of property relations is abolished, more issues will be of this coordinating type in which unanimity is feasible. Russell finds this view to be a species of wishful thinking. There will still be violent crime, some stemming from lunacy, some from jealousy, even if equality eliminates acquisitive crime. There would be further threats to an Anarchist equilibrium. “Is it to be supposed, for example, that Napoleon, if he had been born into such a community as Kropotkin advocates, would have acquiesced tamely in a world where his genius could find no scope [p. 120]?” People who love power can only be contained “by means of the organized force of the community [p. 121].”

So Russell concludes that a system of Anarchism cannot form a stable equilibrium. At a minimum, coercion must be aimed against (1) theft, (2) violent crime, and (3) armed insurrections. How can criminal law be applied in such a way as to maximize freedom? The current approach, which is based on the infliction of pain, tends to brutalize the criminal. “He must emerge from such a treatment either defiant and hostile, or submissive and cringing, with a broken spirit and loss of self-respect. Neither of these results is anything but evil [p. 125].” It would be better to treat criminals more like carriers of infection, who also must be removed from society, but who are not considered to be guilty of anything. Any suffering imposed upon convicts should be viewed as a regrettable cost, not as the point of the exercise.

Russell continues by detailing how the treatment of prisoners is almost sure to make them less enamored of society, and he mentions that warders “often become brutalized by their occupation [p. 127].” This sentence is accompanied by a remarkable footnote, which reflects the fact that Proposed Roads to Freedom was completed just before Russell was imprisoned for six months in connection with his vocal opposition to World War I. The footnote reads: “This was written before the author had any personal experience of the prison system. He personally met with nothing but kindness at the hands of the prison officials [p. 127n].”

“At present a very large part of the criminal law is concerned in safeguarding the rights of property, that is to say – as things are now – the unjust privileges of the rich [p. 127].” The actions that some men take to become rich are more harmful to society than the petty crimes of poor men, and the law should reflect the seriousness of the crime. Law that is attuned to socially harmful acts, and treats crime more like disease than sin, would be better than the Anarchist vision of a world without law.

The state derives power not just from the criminal law but also from economic regulation and bureaucracy. This is where the State Socialists take a misstep, because they underestimate the power that bureaucrats would have in their preferred system, and the tyranny that would result. “The only changes they [the bureaucrats] will desire will be changes in the direction of further regulations as to how the people are to enjoy the good things kindly granted to them by their benevolent despots [p. 129].” Democratic representative institutions have not proven themselves adept at preventing the state from repressing a progressive minority. But for all the shortcomings of democracy on this score, it is not clear that the Anarchists or Syndicalists offer a workable alternative. They point out that industrial workers can grind things to a halt via a strike – for instance, by controlling a power station – but this is just an “appeal to force”. “The attempt to thrust liberty by force upon those who do not desire what we consider liberty must always prove a failure…[p. 131].” That is, the means that the Syndicalists appeal to are ultimately ineffective and illegitimate.

What of Syndicalist aims, however? Would a Guild Congress, representing producer interests, matched against the parliamentary institutions representing consumer interests, be an improvement over the status quo? Russell fears that a powerful Guild Congress would soon ally itself with Parliament, and prove a tyrant to a Guild that dissented from its strictures. To secure liberty, society needs not just good institutions “but also a diffused respect for liberty, and an absence of submissiveness to government both in theory and practice [p. 136].”

Russell recapitulates his argument. A state with some coercive powers is necessary. (Russell cites, among other functions, the need to restrict the trade in opium!) This state should have minimal powers, only what is necessary to accomplish its highly circumscribed role. Limits on state power require groups that are “jealous of their privileges [p. 137],” even to the point of dissenting from oppressive laws. “The glorification of the State, and the doctrine that it is every citizen’s duty to serve the State, are radically against progress and against liberty [p. 138].” Serving humanity is not the same as serving the State: “the free growth of the individual must be the supreme end of a political system which is to re-fashion the world [p. 138].” This paean to individual freedom, which concludes Chapter V, is yet another Russellian trope that would fit seamlessly into John Stuart Mill’s On Liberty -- an essay which ends as follows:
A government cannot have too much of the kind of activity which does not impede, but aids and stimulates, individual exertion and development. The mischief begins when, instead of calling forth the activity and powers of individuals and bodies, it substitutes its own activity for theirs; when, instead of informing, advising, and upon occasion denouncing, it makes them work in fetters or bids them stand aside and does their work instead of them. The worth of a State, in the long run, is the worth of the individuals composing it; and a State which postpones the interests of their mental expansion and elevation, to a little more of administrative skill or that semblance of it which practice gives, in the details of business; a State, which dwarfs its men, in order that they may be more docile instruments in its hands even for beneficial purposes, will find that with small men no great thing can really be accomplished; and that the perfection of machinery to which it has sacrificed everything, will in the end avail it nothing, for want of the vital power which, in order that the machine might work more smoothly, it has preferred to banish.

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