Anarchism against the masses

In Federalist No. 10, James Madison prefers the elite to run the country, arguing that their experience of high culture makes them wiser and that their wealth reduces their need to act in their own interests. He also clearly fears that, if given power, the masses would deprive the wealthy of their property. In this view, the cost of television advertising, for example, becomes a legitimate price of admission to high office.

Capitalists rationalize their wealth based on property rights; and money, being readily exchangeable for property, serves as a proxy for property. As Karl Marx pointed out, return on monetary investment is a higher value than return on labor investment; when times are tight, laid off workers still have bills to pay, but incorporation shields investors from bankruptcy.

In contrast, anarchists argue that wealth and culture do not translate into qualifications for high office, that only popular support can legitimate hierarchy. We would strenuously deny that control of resources is a legitimate source of authority. We invest great faith in people and we specifically deny that the wealthy are any less self-serving than ordinary folks. So how can we address scenes of gun-toting protesters (including one with an AR-15) outside the venue of an Obama speech?

Whatever one thinks of gun rights, such tactics are astonishing for their stupidity. They manifestly threaten a popular president around whom assassination rumors have swirled since his election last November. They contribute an aura of racism and threatened violence in recent political discourse. They escalate the fears of those who oppose gun rights.

Madison draws further support from polls showing very similar proportions of people who either believe or don’t know whether to believe hysterical claims that 1) health reform legislation will mandate “death panels” and 2) that Obama was born outside the United States. For fear of the alternative, then, we should trust those who are already powerful, both economically and politically.

Such logic obscures the failings of the present order, which has bailed out the rich and neglected the poor, with increasing visibility. It diminishes the crimes of the wealthy, which many sociologists believe outweigh those which the criminal so-called justice system focuses upon. And so the image of a pitchfork and torch bearing mob actually serves to reinforce a social order whose credibility has been challenged.

Accordingly, it also challenges anarchists. Already associated in the popular mind with violence and disorder, we appear naïve for our faith in those who have been blind in their patriotic support of the “war on terror” and every war that comes along at least until it is clear that “our” side is losing, those who preferred George W. Bush over John Kerry to drink a beer with, and those who are often portrayed as beer-guzzling couch potatoes watching football somehow abusing their dingbat wives. Bush blatantly exploited public resentment at this caricature when he derided academic elites for their stance on global warming; liberal denials on health care reform and about Obama’s birth certificate likely resound in this same way among the same people.

Republicans have long exploited working class resentment to persuade workers to vote against their own interests, to oppose affirmative action and immigration reform, even as capitalists exported their jobs. Democrats are weak to the point of worthlessness even as they control the presidency and both houses of Congress. Violence threatens not merely to replace one set of thugs with another, but to favor a rising fascist tide. And it is far from clear that anarchists can gain traction in offering an increasingly desperately needed alternative.

But the time for declaring a crisis of “democracy” is past. The time for satisfying ourselves amongst ourselves is past. It is time, at the top of our lungs, to ask what Republicans do for us and what Democrats do for us. And it is time to demand, at the top of our lungs, real answers to those questions.