The governing ethos of the far Left at Wesleyan (and this is speaking relative to Wesleyan, not relative to the real world, where most of Wesleyan constitutes the far Left) is ably summed up by Mr. Jon Booth in his most recent columns. Now, Mr. Booth’s sincerity and willingness to follow his principles to their logical conclusions are not to be doubted, nor are his aggressively principled stances to be disparaged. In fact, to the extent that I can say that someone whose views I frankly view with the deepest contempt and almost instinctual repulsion is admirable, I think much in Mr. Booth’s advocacy is admirable, simply as a positive description of the passions and dedication underlying his cause.
But this dedication and passion can only to be taken as evidence of the integrity of Jon Booth, not of the aesthetic or ethical desirability of Jon Booth’s vision, which is why I take it upon myself to levy this critique against his work, with the understanding that it will engender some level of controversy more substantive than the almost comically one-sided “debates” which I am sometimes forced to engage in. The most easy accusation one could make against Mr. Booth is that he is an anarchist, but in his mind, this is doubtlessly as much an accusation of negative normative weight as the accusation that Charles Manson believes he is the Messiah. Neither Mr. Manson nor Mr. Booth would object to such an accusation, and it would be pointless to make it, just as it would be pointless to accuse the author of this piece of being a “reactionary” or a “right winger” (not that people who mistake belligerence for persuasiveness haven’t tried this particular “attack”).
But unlike the accusations levied against the author, the correctness of the accusation that Mr. Booth is an anarchist is worth investigating. Mr. Manson, as most of us know, was not the Messiah and Mr. Booth, for all his bluster and vigor, is no anarchist. Rather, he belongs to a species which easily conflates itself with anarchism because of its cosmetic similarities, while in fact its objection to authority springs not from the Satanic (I use this term in a non-pejorative sense) inability to bear all authority, temporal or spiritual, but rather from specific aesthetic objections to the placement of authority in certain hands. As to what one ought to call Mr. Booth, there is only one term – an obscure, but useful one – that can describe him: Mr. Booth is an ochlocrat. In other words, he is a supporter of rule by the mob within the doctrine of “might makes right,” at least if one assumes the honesty of his first blog entry. To put it still more controversially, Mr. Booth subscribes to a theory of social Darwinism which places the mob as superior to the individual, and therefore entitled to rule by virtue of political natural selection.
So be it. I do not intend to simply accuse Mr. Booth of support for mob rule and leave my accusation to rot among the ad hominem detritus. I do intend to suggest several pointed questions, however, about what his vision may entail, and then see if those Wesleyan students who find the vision attractive are not somewhat confused.
As we all know from reading his work, Mr. Booth supports the general strike and the student protest as the enforcing arm of the mob he seeks to empower. In his mind, at least, the students and laborers are something like J.M. Barrie’s “Lost Boys,” who continually fight a winning battle against the capitalistic Pirates. Unfortunately, the “Lost Boys” possessed a member who could suspend the laws of gravity, and Mr. Booth does not possess a leader who can suspend the laws of economics, but more on that later. The point is that Mr. Booth sees mob rule as a defensive move against people who perpetuate their authority through the cruel fictions of law and institutional, mechanistic rules systems. His attacks by the mob are simply the brutal mirror image of what the current State does under cover of darkness, and are intended to foster something of a realistic balance of power. Were Mr. Booth’s mob to gain control, one presumes “social justice” would triumph.
Now, suppose he is correct in the respect that the State is corrupt; one still has to know in what this corruption consists, and whether it is truly unavoidable. If it is unavoidable, then the obvious route to justice is to overthrow it for good, but this in itself raises a problematic issue: States have existed for the totality of human history, and it has never been more than a small tribe or minority that could survive without one. One of Mr. Booth’s intellectual heroes is obviously the leader of one such tribe, namely Comandante Marcos of the Zapatistas, but does he propose that we should all live like the Zapatistas? And if so, how can he reconcile this normative prescription with the fact that the Zapatistas have loudly declared themselves to be a voluntaristic organization? Moreover, if the argument against the State is that it is non-voluntary, than how can Mr. Booth justify the use of coercion in opposing a coercive entity? Is it merely a temporary solution, which will end once the revolution is over? And even if we set aside these questions, does not the persistent historical nature of the State suggest something in human nature which has either been socialized or hardwired into existence? How does Mr. Booth plan to undo this wiring or this socialization without the use of force? Moreover, how does he plan to persuade the disenfranchised Statist, who may still feel loyalty to the State at certain times, to side with him, without the use of violence?
There is an even more serious critique which can be leveled against Mr. Booth’s world view, which is that it is grounded in nothing but a romantic, aesthetic and irrational preference for the downtrodden over the well-off. Mr. Booth may counter by suggesting that the author has a romantic, aesthetic and irrational preference for the well-off over the downtrodden. The author denies two thirds of the accusation, as his preference for the well-off (or, to put it bluntly, the managing and producing class) is not grounded in romanticism or irrationality, though it is partially aesthetic. The author has good economic and historical reasons for preferring a society with orders and classes, as they are almost universally more successful and enjoy higher standards of living, more advanced technology, more artistically defendable artwork and generally people with higher levels of utility than societies without them. In both the author’s view and the view of Alexis de Tocqueville, this is largely due to the aspirational tendencies of a society with inequality. But in Mr. Booth’s case, both history (which has made mincemeat of socialist utopias, even in their voluntaristic forms) and economics (which has not considered socialism a viable alternative since Oskar Lange, a theorist of “market socialism”) are against him. It seems all he has to repudiate these powerful attacks are his beating heart and his moral urges, neither of which can sustain the stomach, defy historical necessity or even convince a majority of any nation of their correctness without engendering backlash.
But finally, and herein lies the critique of Mr. Booth’s self-avowed anarchism: his attacks on political authority are not grounded upon sincere desire for a world without a State, but merely for a world with a different kind of State, and a different kind of compulsion. He does not support pure freedom. If he did, he would not belabor the bandwidth of this website with attacks on truly voluntaristic organizations like corporations (which have no legal means to force people to work for them or buy from them), or with appeals for mobs to use institutional mechanisms against those who disagree with them. His world view may persuade him that neither exploitation nor inequality will persist in a world without a State, but what will happen when the smoke from the consuming conflagration of human selfishness begins to fog his rose-colored glasses? Advocating liberty as the highest political end of man requires a willingness to tolerate both the freedom to be good, and the freedom to be selfish and exploitative, so long as neither is done under the cover of psychopathic Statism, and Mr. Booth possesses only half of the equation. If he is “down and to the Left” (that is to say, Southwestern), than the author is very proud to be firmly in the Northeastern camp.
Mr. Booth can feel free to pursue his ideal world, probably located at the second star to the Left, and straight on til’ morning. For my part, I prefer to seek out not the first, not the second, nor even the third star to the Right, but the furthest star to the Right I can find, and then to follow it until there is Morning in America again.