Anarchists will remain unwise, unjust, and anxiously anti-capitalist to the extent they remain suspicious of reason.
Consider this puzzling parable: a young anarchist leaves the tribe, lives to tell about it, speaks about it publicly, and inadvertently reveals nihilism’s nihilism. It’s no fable. It’s all fantastically true. It’s also illuminating for those deciding whether capitalism should be defended, amended, or ended. Conor Barnes’s odd journey won’t surprise today’s enlightened fans of capitalism, but his “insider’s report” is itself enlightening, because it exposes crucial lessons learned and not-yet learned. He deserves credit for shining light on a dark place, but hasn’t yet seen the light.
Anarchism means “no government” but Barnes’s story of his time with today’s anarchists reveals more of a deep hatred for capitalism than for the state. Why might that be? Barnes reveals that when he became an anarchist he was “a depressed and anxious teenager.” Anarchism appealed to him, he says, because it “explained that this [mental ill-health] was the result of living in capitalist alienation.” Might other anarchists also blame capitalism for mental illness? For more than fifteen decades, Marxists (including the anarchist variety who foresees an ideal future nirvana in which the state will “wither away”) have criticized capitalism for the “estrangement” and “alienation” of labor. Echoes of the view persist today, not only in Barnes.
In the 1960s Marxist psychologist Erich Fromm insisted that under capitalism “man worships things” and thereby “he is lost and becomes himself a thing” (see his essay, “Marxism, Psychoanalysis and Reality,” 1966). According to Fromm, “industrial production emphasizes this alienation even more since man creates such gigantic organizations and products that he feels weak and powerless when facing them and rather submits than that he attempts to rule them,” adding that “this is precisely what Marx had in mind when he said that things and circumstances put themselves above and against man.” In his widely-touted book, The Sane Society (1965), Fromm said an unfree, socialist system was pro-sanity while “excessive” leisure and choices under capitalism made us insane. “We have reduced the average working hours to about half what they were one hundred years ago,” he wrote, such that “today have more free time available than our forefathers dared to dream of,” but this is terrifying because “we do not know how to use the newly gained free time” and “we try to kill the time we have saved, and are glad when another day is over.” The capitalist society, he concluded, was “lacking in sanity.”
Set aside for now anarchism’s odd choice-a-phobia. What about its hatred of government? That’s supposed to be its essence. Yet Barnes is silent on the point and finds instead that anarchism harbors a conspiratorial hated for mankind per se. Anarchists, he says, “live in a paradigm of suspicion,” leaving them “exhausted and misanthropic.” Yet they also urge their “non-anarchist families and friends” to cease “developing a relationship to God,” to surrender a belief in their “own imperfection,” and “recognize their complicity in the evil of capitalism.”
There it is again: the “evil” of capitalism. Barnes writes not of the evil of the state – or of statism (a theory that condones abusive states). The supposed evil is: capitalism. What’s going on here? Anarchism lures the young, says Barnes, because it is “a thrilling and actionable alternative to the discouragement that haunts radicals after each loss in conflict with capitalism.” Hooligans have a home, too, for anarchism “attracts people looking for an excuse to be violent illegalists.” By now Barnes is escorting us through the caves of nihilism, laden with desires to destroy things for the sheer hell of it; capitalism itself is hellish, so terrible humans lose nothing by losing it.
Is there any rationality in any of this? No. Barnes sees that anarchism resembles religion; each employs an irrational, faith-based approach to the world which, he admits, makes people “crash into reality.” He further explains that “the only gatekeeping that goes on in radical (anarchist) communities is that of language and passion; if you can rail against capitalism in woke language, you’re in.” The term “woke,” in today’s parlous and pompous parlance, means to be “awake” or enlightened, after an intellectual slumber in “false consciousness” (aka, belief in freedom and capitalism). Anarchists are not very “woke” to what it really means to be woke.
Why do anarchists today feel a deeper hatred for capitalism than for the state? It’s contradictory on its face. They reject the state not so that capitalism might flourish but precisely because capitalism requires it, albeit in a certain, objective (non-cronyist, non-corporatist) form: i.e., a state that’s constitutionally-limited to protecting individual rights, including property rights, by the dispassionate and just rule of law. Today’s anarchists reject not statism – the improper use of states to destroy genuine rights – but the state itself; they deny the legitimacy of any type state, even if it is constitutionally-limited to protecting rights, because, fundamentally, they believe in nothing, and they believe in nothing because at root they deny the efficacy of reason.
Most anarchists, despite being nihilistic, are at least logically consistent in avowedly hating capitalism and seeking to destroy it. The less-consistent anarchists are a worse brand and damage capitalism far more, by surreptitiously pretending to defend it. They pretend, because they’re uncomfortable defending its root causes (reason, egoism, individualism). No worse case for capitalism is made than that made by the hybrid, oxymoronic, contradiction known as the “anarcho-capitalist.” You can be for anarchism or for capitalism, but not, in logic, for both; you must “pick a lane,” but never assume these two vehicles move in the same direction. Anarchism travels the wrong way on a one-way street, always threatening to smash capitalism head-on.
More incoherent than “anarcho-capitalism” is any “defense” of capitalism on the false premise that reason is impotent, while skepticism yields toleration, liberty and prosperity. The latter, in fact, yields intolerance, tyranny and poverty, for when reason is gone, arbitrary feelings alone rule the day. Capitalism can’t exist without proper (morally-practical) governance, be it private or public; the latter requires morally legitimate states, but their legitimation requires reason, not emotion. Those who cannot defend reason cannot defend humanely capitalist governance.
Barnes provides a welcome and fair expose of the mental ill-health and anti-capitalist mentality that drive young anarchists today and beguile new recruits. Sadly, he has no cure. He concludes his heartfelt essay with the thought that “there is no justice without wisdom and no wisdom without surrender to uncertainty in the pursuit of truth.” In other words, Barnes doesn’t learn the crucial lesson. He believes skepticism is the antidote to anarcho-nihilism, when in fact it’s the gateway drug; in truth, the antidote to skepticism and nihilism is reason, which he rejects.
Barnes believes the source of anarcho-militancy is certitude, which in fact is a product of reason and reality. He denies certitude because he denies its source. Today’s youth should realize that absent reason, there’s no wisdom, and absent wisdom, no justice either. Anarchists will remain unwise, unjust, and anxiously anti-capitalist to the extent they remain suspicious of reason.
 Conor Barnes, “Sad Radicals,” Quillette, December 11, 2018. https://quillette.com/2018/12/11/sad-radicals/.
Richard M Salsman
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