Authoritarian-Libertarian?

I’m an on-and-off fan/non-fan of the blog Another Angry Voice (AAV) – it’s broadly okay, I suppose. It tends to have decently thought-out opinions and is at least macroeconomically literate. But there’s a lot that grinds me about it: the insistence on using “mainstream media” to mean “anything that isn’t my blog and disagrees with me”, for instance, smacks of an irritating-as-fuck persecution complex.

For those unaware, AAV tends to summarise key points as these colourful little meme images, one of which is today’s subject. And this one seems to have something extra specially fishy going on.

(oh, for the uninitiated: “workfare” – a portmanteau of “work” and “welfare”, of course – is where someone who is unemployed and receiving unemployment benefits and welfare must work for those benefits. Yes, someone is employed.. but receiving unemployment benefits. They must work for their benefits while they’re out of work. Hopefully the problems with this are immediately and abundantly obvious to you. Anyway…)

The only time you see people try to re-frame arguments by definition – just by changing the nouns used to describe things – is because they’re desperate to grab hold of some extra connotations associated with a word, without actually demonstrating them. Think about a broad example: is it “art” or is it “not art”? A deep-sounding question superficially, but actually just bollocks-ridden pointlessness. It doesn’t matter. A painting remains a painting regardless if you call it “art” or not, and an unmade bed remains an unmade bed through the same token – but if you get to call it “art”, you can grab some freebies associated with “art” regardless of what the “it” actually is. Connotation-freebies like value, the ability to exhibit it, the nodding approval of people and critics, and descriptions of yourself as “talented”. Notice how this change of wording doesn’t actually change anything about the argument at all, the “it” remains the same.

In this case from AAV, is it a left-right issue or an authoritarian-libertarian issue? Doesn’t matter. The issue is what is important. We’ll get onto the connotations that they’re trying to drag across with this re-framing in a moment.

There’s another layer to this re-framing; it’s just an excuse to dig at people for “misunderstanding” something. If you can frame something as a misunderstanding – even if it’s a trivial one – you can sell a position as novel, and therefore valuable. You can grant art value merely by labelling it “art”, you can make knowledge valuable simply by making it hidden and then revealed. There has to be a reason people pay for Scientology, right? So it doesn’t matter if it’s true, if you appear to be myth-busting, your information appears more valuable. It’s how conspiracy theories spread – it really, really, really doesn’t matter if it’s true or untrue, if it’s framed as a counter-narrative the information becomes more unique, and therefore valuable, and people will buy into it (even if not literally buying it).

I’m not saying that anything put like this is wrong automatically – hell, I’m sure I do it all the damn time – but I have to note how near enough everything that comes from AAV is phrased like this: “here is something the mainstream, the Crowd, the Man believes is true.. and now here’s our Revealed Truth for you.” It raises a lot of alarm bells for me when an organisation or a person or blogger or author does this not just on occasion, but as a matter of course.

Anyway…

Pretty much every time you see someone describe something as a libertarian-authoritarian issue, it’s because they’re motivated to make you think libertarianism is awesome and the solution to everything, and that Ayn Rand is a total genius and everyone shouldn’t have to pay taxes. In fact, any time you see someone phrase it as a “[something]ism-authoritarianism” it’s only ever because they want to sell [something]ism to you. Think of the connotations that people want to bring in by using those terms. No-one likes being told what to do, so authoritarian is Bad. Authoritarianism is Bad because Authoritarianism is Bad. So anything diametrically opposed to it must be Good. Because Logic, right?

That’s the power of the connotation, and it’s also a strong argument for not letting people dictate the terms of a debate to you – atheists have to justify their source of absolute morality only because theists and believers have dictated that this is important, pro-choice proponents of abortion need to effectively justify the killing of an unborn child because the “pro-life” side own the terminology, and so on. So I absolutely don’t think that AAV should have the right to unilaterally dictate whether anti-workfare is automatically libertarian – and especially not if it’s only an argument from definition and prefaced by a bit of trickery to make the opinion seem more valuable to people.

But the real strange thing about this specific post is that a libertarian stance would more likely say that workfare is only wrong because the State does it. This usually applies quite literally. Take some of the episodes of Penn & Tell: Bullshit! that are, let’s say, more than a little politically skewed by their politics; often their only argument against something is that the government does it, therefore it’s bad – and if that’s not their sole argument, it’s at least the founding keystone that causes their entire episode to collapse if you remove it. Because in principle, libertarian stances put individual motive above all else, and in practice this usually means companies can and should do what they like without government interference. Even if that ends up being shitty for vulnerable people. If the private sector engaged in the equivalent of workfare (that is; taking the unemployed and systematically abusing their labour with low wages) and did it through a system of wage repression or out-sourcing to make labour uncompetitive, then it would be a Good Thing. The libertarian stance would suggest that this is simply the free market expressing itself and the end result is that companies make money because people were willing to sell their labour so cheaply (the key to this being the context around the word “willing”, there, as you can find plenty of people very willing to work for poverty level wages when the alternative is “starve to death” – hence why the super-free market definitely isn’t a moral place to live in). And if there’s no authority from the State controlling it or preventing it, doubleplusgood!

A more socialist or left-wing stance (yes, this is probably better described as a left-right issue, not that that truly matters) that opposes workfare would be, near enough by its own admission, authoritarian – because it’s still an edict from on high that tells companies they’re not allowed to exploit people, and it would still be telling people that the State knows how best to spend your tax money, i.e., on welfare and benefits, and without conditions that you have to go into indentured servitude in exchange for it. A State-sponsored solution is usually what we mean when we say “socialist” or “left” – authoritarian. The State would declare that there was a minimum wage – authoritarian. The State would declare it to be illegal to employ people for less than an assigned amount – authoritarian.

So if you really, really, really want to phrase the workfare issue as libertarian-authoritarian, we should really side with the authority. Just on the provision that the authority isn’t a complete cunt about it, which is the actual point.

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The Citadel

This is The Citadel, one of a myriad  hyper-libertarian utopia projects based upon the idea that if you just get enough people with the same views and values in the same place, then everyone will live happily ever after. It’s unusual compared to most grandiose pipe dreams of this type in that it’s actually situated within the country of origin itself, rather than an attempt to create a new one from scratch (often called seasteading). It’s a sort-of hybrid between the usual attempts of creating an autonomous floating tax-dodge, that emphasises independence and tight community, and the Free State Project, which attempts to create a libertarian utopia only via the democratic process, by migrating like-minded voters to the same region.

By no means am I saying this is going to work. These projects never do. The FSP is one of the largest and best known, but is moving at the pace of an asthmatic ant with heavy shopping, having only got a thousand or so signatures pledging to do it and no one actually doing it. Meanwhile, the most successful seastead (based on longevity) is arguably Sealand, which when you look into it reads more like a situation comedy than a serious attempt at starting a country/state. Hell, even the 1978 invasion of Sealand by Dutch and German  mercenaries reads as quite hilarious despite the injuries and actual seriousness of the situation. The history of Sealand should be accompanied by the Benny Hill theme tune.

Nor am I saying that this sort of thing is a good idea. After all, critics of the libertarian view often point to Somalia as a pime example of government-free paradise and we all know that there’s nothing wrong with that place. Not at all. When you bung a load of people together assuming they’ll just get on and mind each others business, you’re setting up for failure. Good luck trying to kerb the rapid spread of disease when you realise there aren’t any hygiene regulations keeping unscrupulous individuals in check.

And don’t immediately assume some form of consumer natural selection, or the Invisible Hand, will fix all this. Shops in the UK have been selling “beef” burgers featuring horse meat (a problem mostly due to the accountability and traceability of the product rather than any factor about what animal people are consuming) for months and sales weren’t magically hit. Now imagine how much such retailers could hide in the name of profit margins and meeting demand if they weren’t regulated on any level. Got that? That’s the natural consequence of living in “Liberty” Town for you. It may sound like a weak argument from over-simplified and cherry picked examples, but the entire concept of these gated (or walled) communities based on live-and-let-live principles works purely on trust. And evidence suggests that we simply can’t trust people not to start preying on the vulnerable with some scam or another.

Speaking of scams, back on topic. The Citadel is likely to join the ranks of other laughable failures. Or, at least, it’s unlikely to advance to the point where it can be even considered a failure. So far there’s a website and a pipe dream to go with it, in its current state there’s little or difference between The Citadel and the layout for a D&D game, so if it fails to produce a great big castle at the end of the decade, no real harm done. Except to the dignity of people who may have fell for it and signed up in all seriousness, intrigued by the prospect of being required to carry a gun to the town centre at all times (yes, that’s in the Agreement you have to sign, more on that later).

There area  few specific areas of the project worth looking into, though.

The language used by the people who think this is a good idea is really interesting. They repeatedly refer to their marks, I mean, potential Residents, as Patriots – capital P and all – as if this automatically makes it a Good Thing. Remember, people who would fall for this sort of con, I mean, erm, proposal, are the kind who are easily swayed by such flattery. Say the right words and they’ll be yours. Kiss a few babies and they’ll worship the ground you walk on. Agree with all their prejudices and enhance their fears and you’ll be raised up to the level of a visionary. Call them any positive word you can think of and they will flock to you to be part of such a club.

But Patriots? Really? I’m not political philosopher, but last I checked “Patriot” referred to someone who was loyal to a country, or that loved a country unquestioningly. Now, regardless of whether unquestioning patriotism is a good thing or not, somehow I don’t see it as entirely compatible with building a whopping great big wall around your town specifically to isolate yourself from that country. Surely, Patriots want to live in their country, not try to put a barrier between themselves and the rest of it. After all, a Country or State is a group of people all banded together, it can’t exist without basic kinship and co-operation. The way The Citadel is set up to work (not that it will work, of course) means that the suckers drawn to it would be pledging allegiance not to America – a legitimate State by most acceptable and meaningful definitions – but to the personality cult of its self-appointed community leaders and the ideology they claim to represent. That doesn’t really sound like Patriotism. Unless it’s the kind of Patriotism you’re using only to lure in the people who think Alex Jones tells it as it is.

Now let’s look at the layout for a moment. The designer clearly has no interest in looking at the realities of building a realistic community, and instead has focused on everything to do with the pseudo-romance of building a castle. In reality, it’s more feudal than anything else, based on concepts rightfully buried in the past. The logistical difficulties of walling off two square miles of land from the outside world are immense. To fortify on that scale is a grander project than building the town itself.

Why build a wall anyway?

The answer to this appears in the mission statement of the Citadel where it hints at “man-made” catastrophes, and this goes beyond the “power failures” mentioned on the front page and into economic collapse and invasion. Yes, these people are the paranoid nuts who think the US is literally just days away from government (specifically the Kenyan Muslim Atheist Homosexual, Barack Obama) coming to take their guns by force. Personally, of course. You can see that plain as day from their advert telling people to buy an AR-15 “before it’s too late”.

But back to the walls and a quick history lesson on fortifications. Walls allow people to retreat behind a barrier from an invading force. It keeps the bad guys out and at bay, so that the population couldn’t be mercilessly slaughtered. The trouble being that walls could only encompass the smallest amount of space, and couldn’t really include things like fields and farmland. Hence the way to take on castle walls was to simply surround them and starve the population out. Disease and famine became rife during any siege, and often techniques to exploit this were used by invaders. Techniques such as lobbing dead and rotting carcasses over the walls to help spread pestilence. Walls only let you stay alive long enough for reinforcements to arrive and wipe out the besieging army. The idea of castle walls repelling invaders directly basically ended the day gunpowder was invented. The ability to throw heavy metal or stone cannon balls at greater speeds than catapults and trebuchets ever could reach, and the sheer kinetic force of such weapons, meant that walls had to change. From an average of only a metre thick at the time of bows and arrows, to 4-5 metres by the time cannons were a realistic and common threat. The layout of defensive walls also had to change to react, and walls become something that had to be structured by design as well as brute thickness. The layout of the average later fortification looks nothing like the artists impression of The Citadel, nor the medieval castles that it seems to be based on. It seems to suggest that the strongest physical threat the designers want to ward off is a crossbow. And Communism, of course, as if potential invaders are going to throw nothing bigger than The Little Red Book at them.

The realities of any modern fight that this structure would have to work against are much different. In short, that cute little “inner defensive wall” is going to last less than 6 seconds against an F-22, or an M1-A2, or even a drone strike, as that would be far more efficient. They’d be better off forgetting the wall and trying to build some actual social amenities… No, wait, that would be a little too close to socialism. Indeed, dispense with the walls and build larger bunkers, or individual basements and shelters for each home. That is something that might be realistic. It would still be based purely in the spirit of paranoia The Citadel is born from, but it would at least be true to the realities of modern defences.

But why worry about this? After all, this isn’t a serious endeavour, that much is plain to see. It’s just a publicity stunt for a gun shop, III Arms. Let’s review the evidence that even the founders of this project aren’t entirely convinced that it’s going to actually happen.

  • “III Arms” being emblazoned on the layout impression.
  • The III Arms factory getting pride-of-place in the design.
  • The “get an AR before it’s too late” advert all bold as brass at the top of the website, linking directly to III Arms.
  • The III Arms factory being at the very top of the list of features of the Citadel, as if it was a higher priority than things like houses.

…and finally, the Patriot Agreement. It’s all well and good having plans and designs, but it’s these contracts and agreements that form the meat of trying to form a new community based on ideology. The “agreement” uses the usual sort of magical wording to make it seem like a Constitution, no different to the Facebook meme of “I hereby declare by this communique…”. It’s all there. Number-by-number clauses, the entire thing being prefixed by “we the people”, and the general wording of each clause. It tries to make it look like a nice tight legal document, but it really isn’t. The content does nothing of the sort. Firstly, a matter of confusion. Is it voluntary, or not? The wording suggests voluntary, but the context suggest obligations. It says you take it freely, but you must take it. How does a voluntary obligation that you must agree to make any coherent sense? If you opt out, are you still in the group, or not? What rights do you get, or by opting out does it mean you’re just acting like any other sane person and just not involved at all? It’s all unclear, and obfuscated by the kind of language that makes it seem like these people believe agreements and contracts consist of just magic words.

At best, we can accuse them of naivety with respect to how communities work. Their entire nod to the concept of law and governance is covered in a couple of lonely sentence at the end of the agreement, where it says disagreements will be presided over by an arbitration panel. But of who? And how? And how do we prevent favouritism and unfairness? Or are these things just how hyper-libertarian culture should work? Presumably, The Citadel runs by US Law, in which case how is this Agreement amending that, and does it really overrule local, state and federal laws? Can the FBI or ATF come in and investigate their arms stashes? Will their defence drills include shooting at local police? Who knows.

Instead of this sort of essential clarification, the Agreement, the apparent pseudo-constitution of the Citadel, is dedicated entirely to firearms proficiency. In fetishistic detail it explains how everyone must use a gun, and demonstrate their use of it. Not just any gun, but a range of handguns and rifles – all of which are happily sold by III Arms – on a range of targets. So, serious endeavour, or an advert for a gun shop? Most sane people will probably spot that it’s the latter from this alone.

Defence drills, military training, battlefield medicine. All of this is enshrined in he agreement – basically all people joining the group are actively conscripted into the militia of the collective. Quite how such enforced militarism matches up with the concept of live-and-let-live liberty isn’t explained. This is do-as-you-please, without infringing on the rights of others, keep your nose out of other peoples business, liberty. A simple concept to grasp until you realise it’s not always that  straightforward.

How is freedom compatible with conscription? Where are the provisions for getting food, doctors, educators, maintenance, infrastructure, fuel, lighting, heating or social events? Why are the obligations of people simply restricted to shooting a rifle and not on gathering resources to live? Life in the Citadel looks far from free, and more harsh and boring. By the content of the agreement it’s a near-Fascist militaristic state. Everyone can wield a gun to defend themselves against invaders, but no one will be able to defend themselves against simple starvation, or illness, or getting old.

Everything in the concept relies on there being an America outside the walls to support it, which doesn’t exactly bode well in the face of the massive economic meltdown that it’s supposed to survive. “Provisions for a year” isn’t going to help there. You need self-sufficiency, and simple stockpiling that paranoid lunatics involve themselves in won’t help. What’s the power source, and how do you fuel it? I can assume based on inference from other Right Wing groups that renewable energy isn’t on the cards here, windmills and water wheels are a bit too Commie, a bit too Hippy and Pinko for them. Which, naturally, is just denial about where oil and other fossil fuels actually come from. And let’s not even begin on the hard work required to make sure water is drinkable.

This little project, even though it’s never going to come to fruition, has nothing to do with forming a utopian community to get away from Marxists and socialists, nor about surviving an economic apocalypse, and everything to do with worshipping the cult of the gun. Buy your AR-15 before it’s too late!