Resistance and Radicalism in the Hour of Trump with Kevin Carson

If there's a political bias to Secret Transmissions, then it's unabashedly an anti-authoritarian one. While not being an exclusively anarchist blog, the influence of that philosophy and creative spirit is well represented here. It speaks to my early suspicion and distrust of power that grew up around my love of punk rock and subversive art.

Since 9/11, we have witnessed a massive build-up of oppressive and authoritarian governmental actions and executive branch expansions. The drastic erosion of the economy, civil liberties, privacy and a constant state of war has brought us to a morally bankrupt and inevitable Trump presidency. I say inevitable because who else do you wind up with when even a "liberal" rule appears by most measures to be authoritarian? In an environment of corporate control, banker and lobbyist influence, mass surveillance, indefinite detentions, police brutality and so much war, the ground has been well paved for an outwardly nationalist aggressor to take command. The toxic blend of neoconservatism and neoliberalism have created this Frankenstein's monster. And their will be Hell to pay.

King Doofus  

The last shreds of our liberty and autonomy currently dangle over the abyss. There's no telling how severe or dire it will get, especially for minorities, Muslims and the LGBTQ community. Many frightening threats now loom. The only prospect looking ahead to regressive, hard-right elitists taking the reigns is that a truly radical uprising might once again spread amongst the populace. An enthusiastic, mobilized counterculture of resistors. 

Instead of returning again and again towards leaders who lie and cheat to represent their own selfish interests and power, maybe now is the time to resist and build dynamic counter institutions that place people first. Many centrists will wait it out until midterm elections and "reshift the power balance." Back to who, I ask? Back to the neoliberals, who picked up right where the Bush Doctrine left off? Is that what counts as a victory to the left these days? If this election shows anything it's that the entire paradigm we are forced to comply with is fraudulent and corrupt to it's core, not the result of just a few loose screws. 

Now is the time to ask philosophical questions about the legitimacy of the state, our current economic model or our workplace structures. Now is the time to draw attention to the overlooked and dismissed radicals of all political traditions. Now is the time for these various radicals to perhaps burry some wedge-issue hatchets and find common ground against a clear enemy. In order to pursue such an undertaking, we will have to turn to those thinkers and radicals who have invested much time in studying and scrutinizing the various organizational alternatives to government and society as we know it.

Of the handful of great radical writers I follow on a regular basis, Kevin Carson always delivers 
provacative commentary. His writing examines current events from a unique political and social perspective. Not a communist, not a capitalist, he has his detractors. For me, his lack of die-hard allegiance to one economic model is a strength, not a weakness.

His study of counter-economics, mutual aid societies, horizontal workplaces and micromanufacturing have inspired me for a long time. I'm very honored and excited to have his thoughts here on Secret Transmissions and to deliver them at such a crucial time. This is truly an opportunity for radicals to thrive and show their intellectual soundness and daring. If only the people will listen.

Author, anarchist and political theorist, Kevin Carson

Where did you grown up and under what circumstances?
I grew up in Springdale, Arkansas, which at the time was a town in the Ozarks of between 10 and 20,000 people. My dad was a cop and my mom worked on the eviscerator line of a chicken processing plant. I was raised in a fundamentalist church.
Looking back, when can you pinpoint your own characteristics or preferences that hint at a future disposition towards anarchism?
I learned at a very young age, just from my own upbringing, that authority is irrational and self-serving and that the best way to be allowed to do anything in peace is to "ask forgiveness rather than permission."
On a basic level, which writers have had the most influence on your own values and principles?
On an ethical or philosophical level, I honestly can't think of anything in particular. Probably the single biggest influence pointing me towards anarchism and decentralist economics was Human Scale by Kirkpatrick Sale.
What’s the history behind the beginning of your work as an anarchist writer? Was it preceded by professional writing work that was non-political?
After I read Sale's work I started mining his footnotes for further reading on decentralist economics, economies of scale and so forth. 
I became increasingly convinced that the main function of the state is to serve big business, and that corporate size and power are possible only because of the state intervening in the market to prop them up. 
I also first encountered Chomsky in 2000 and similarly began mining his footnotes for further reading, which radicalized my understanding of foreign policy. 
This process began not long before my discovery of the Internet in 2000, which first enabled me to reach an audience. My first pamphlet was "Iron Fist Behind the Invisible Hand," published by Red Lion Press in 2001. I published my book Studies in Mutualist Political Economy in 2004, which was possible only because I discovered the possibilities of on-demand publishing. 
I have some partial manuscripts from the early and mid-90s which were never published. One of them is two chapters on the organizational structure of the Soviet high command and the formulation of Soviet military doctrine (I specialized in strategic studies in college), and the other is several chapters of a historical work on the role of state sovereignty in the American federal system.
You describe yourself as a left-libertarian in favor of freed markets. For the pure leftist, how do you begin to sell them on the positive effects of a freed market when their view of free market economy is so deeply entrenched with deregulation on Wall Street, tax-breaks for the 1% and an Ayn Randian Social Darwinism?
I just point out all the concrete ways that big business as we know it depends on the state actively suppressing the market, protecting corporations from competition and subsidizing their operating costs -- as well as conducting a foreign policy that enables them to loot the world's resources.
You also identify with the Mutualist philosophy. For those unfamiliar can you provide a synopsis of the elements at work there and where the theory came from?
I really don't identify as a mutualist any more. I've gradually shifted towards "anarchism without adjectives." I basically take the position of David Graeber of being open to whatever local, concretely situated expedients people work out with each other, dealing with one another as equals, so long as nobody has armed force at their back to impose their preference on others.  
Anarchism without adjectives
But mutualism did have a big effect on my development. Proudhon was probably its biggest contributor. He saw privileges like absentee landlordism and the capitalist credit system as enabling the propertied classes to enclose and appropriate the productivity gains of collective labor and cooperation. 
He wanted to replace absentee property in land with possession, and use mutual credit to enable workers to keep the gains of their cooperative labor for themselves. And generally, he wanted to devolve state functions into society at large and organize society around cooperative institutions like workers' associations. 
I was also heavily influenced by the economic analysis of the British radical Thomas Hodgskin and the American individualists, who emphasized the role of artificial property rights as a source of rents to capitalists and landlords.
American individualist anarchist, Benjamin Tucker
You have the distinction of being run-down online by both anarcho-communists and anarcho-capitalists. What is it about your positions that make you unpalatable to the two camps?
With the communists I suppose it's because they're wedded -- perhaps aesthetically -- to one particular organizational model and to an insurrectionist approach to achieving anarchism, and anyone who favors an eclectic mixture of organizational models or a gradualist/evolutionary vision of change is hopelessly liberal. 
With the ancaps, I think it's 1) that my understanding of markets is pretty un-Austrian and not especially friendly to hard money goldbuggery, and 2) my sympathies are consistently on the side of workers, tenants, etc. and generally hostile to the kinds of business interests they're used to defending.

In terms of hyphenated anarchists, you reassert the idea proposed by Fernando Tarrida del  Mármol and Ricardo Mella of an “anarchism without adjectives.” Can you talk about the strength of that approach?
The main strength is that it doesn't envision an entire society organized around one monolithic, schematized model (syndicates, agro-industrial communes, workers' councils, market firms, or whatever) or converting everybody in the world into supporting a common approach to social organization and towards the transition process.  
In my opinion that's much more realistic because the end of capitalism and the state will not be brought about by any single organized movement with a common ideology. They are decaying and collapsing because of their own crisis tendencies. And the society that replaces them will coalesce and emerge from a wide variety of building blocks that all result from different groups of people pursuing their own ends, and experimenting with different technologies and organizational forms for the practical purpose of surviving the crises. 
What comes out of all that may be predictable in terms of certain very broad and general tendencies, but the concrete form will be an emergent phenomenon whose outlines we can't foresee. 
In following your work, you do a good deal of responding to right-wing leaning libertarian publications to provide your counterpoint. You have some particularly creative descriptors (“human dumpster fire”) for various writers over at Reason magazine  for instance. The general public really doesn’t see that there’s a left and a right application of libertarianism. Is that why you feel compelled to answer the right’s more media dominate narrative?
I don't know if my rationale is anything that coherent. I mostly just respond to whatever pisses me off at the moment. 
Aside from distancing your position from the right-libertarians, you don’t hesitate to point out the flaws of a libertarian socialist like Noam Chomsky. Where does Chomsky go wrong in practice when in theory, he claims to advocate a vision of self-governing, decentralized societies? 
Mainly, I think, in his incoherent understanding of the relationship between the state and capitalism. I've benefited greatly by much of his analysis of the ways in which the state props up capital and guarantees the profits of corporations that would otherwise spiral into bankruptcy. But at the same time he argues that if the state were removed as a restraint on big business, it would dominate society. He can't have it both ways.
Graphic by Jeff Wolfe

In your book, Organizational Theory: An Individualist Anarchist Perspective, you wrote strongly in favor of decentralizing the workplace towards a horizontal structure. Why is that important and where can we see it effective in practice?
We see it on only a limited basis because the legal framework of the corporate form, and the structure of the state capitalist economy, are all structured to serve the interests of the owners of large concentrations of capital and of the managerial oligarchy. But where we do see experiments in self-management, worker stock ownership, etc. within the interstices of the present system, it has a great effect on productivity. And if you look at the work on worker self-management in other societies, like Sam Dolgoff's The Anarchist Collectives in Spain, the improvement was remarkable. 
It's important because the exercise of hierarchical power always creates conflicts of interest. It enables those at the top to externalize effort and negative consequences downward on those below them in the hierarchy, while appropriating the benefits of their subordinates for themselves. So it creates incentives to minimize effort by those doing the work, because they know any increase output will be expropriated by the bosses.  
At the same time, power distorts information flow from bottom to top so that those in charge of the hierarchy are living in imaginary worlds (much like the people at Gosplan in the Soviet Union).
Spanish Civil War anarchists

What is the general plight of the worker today and how is it different and the same as in the early Industrial era?
It varies a lot between different parts of the world and sectors of the domestic economy, obviously. The absolute standard of living of workers in the West is much higher than in the early industrial period, and hours of work are shorter. But there's been a great increase in precarity and fragility over the past generation. And a great deal of labor has been offshored to sweatshops worked by evicted peasants in the global South, who work under the most precarious and unpleasant conditions of all. 
I’m going to introduce a quote from your book, The Iron Fist Behind the Invisible Hand, and ask you to provide a few additional words that close the case on the assertion that what capitalism is synonymous with a free market:

“From the outset of the industrial revolution, what is nostalgically called "laissez-faire" was in fact a system of continuing state intervention to subsidize accumulation, guarantee privilege, and maintain work discipline.”
The distribution of property in the "laissez-faire" period reflected the massive robbery and looting of the early modern period (the enclosure of the open fields, and Parliamentary Enclosure of common pasture and waste). And nationwide corporations arose in the Gilded Age in the context of a subsidized national transportation system that enabled them to distribute on a national scale for the first time, and the use of patent exchange and pooling to enforce industrial cartels. 
Among the many state interventions against working class radicalism was the suppression of the 8-hour day movement after Haymarket, the use of troops to break the Pullman Strike, and the use of martial law and deployment of the National Guard in many states during the Copper Wars. 
The Pullman strike of 1894

Can you elaborate on models like peer production, cooperatives, open-source, micromanufacturing and other methods that will help make huge corporations and mass-production multinationals obsolete?
Very briefly, the general idea behind all of them is cheap, ephemeral technology. In the case of micro-manufacturing, the mass-production model of expensive, specialized machinery for large-scale production is being supplanted by artisan production with much cheaper general-purpose machinery scaled to local production in small shops, that can be quickly switched from one product line to another in response to incoming orders.  
Because the production machinery is cheap, it's a reversal of the technological changes that led to the factory system and wage system two hundred years ago. Since it's affordable to individual workers or small groups of workers, they can produce outside the factory system. And networked communications eliminate many of the transaction costs of organizing coordinated activity, so that they no longer require managerial hierarchies. The cumulative effect is to make large, hierarchical, high-overhead organizations obsolete.

You have written in favor of circumvention as a tactic over resistance. Can you explain that position that includes examples?
Generally it is far less expensive and effort-intensive to circumvent authority than to work within the system to change it, or to confront it head on through insurrectionary politics. 
Enforcement is the weak link in any system of power. And technology is rapidly cheapening the cost of circumvention and further increasing its comparative advantage over enforcement. The classic example is encryption and file-sharing technology, compared to political lobbying to reform copyright law or roll back the surveillance state. 
Turning to the recent election, I know, I know... But seriously, why did Trump win because there’s about a 100 explanations being asserted. 
I think it was mostly Democrats staying home out of disgust with Clinton, along with some energizing of rural conservative whites and voter suppression in Midwestern swing states. If the people who'd shown up to vote for Obama in 2012 had voted, Clinton would be president-elect. The "identity politics lost the election" view is nonsense in my opinion; but to energize voters we need more attention to class issues in addition to -- not instead of -- racial and gender politics.
Even though you’re an anarchist, you don’t reject strategic and pragmatic voting. In this cycle you backed Jill Stein of the Green Party. Can you explain the commitments you balance and weigh when going to the ballot?
I'm not sure it's anything all that well thought out, to be honest. This time, given that Arkansas wasn't a swing state, my main concern was to strengthen pressure on the Democratic establishment from the Left by voting Stein for future party-building purposes. The sooner the Tea Party-dominated version of the GOP and the neoliberal Clintonista version of the Democratic Party die, the better. 
There is a wave of opposition in the streets against Trump with no signs of slowing up. Writers at C4SS and among the broader anarchist community have differing views in regards to protest tactics and purposes. Where do you fall in that conversation?
In general I think the protests are good because the perception of widespread public opposition at every step, and the fear of popular resistance, is one of the best ways of deterring consolidation of police state power. 
Ant-Trump Protest

I have observed some rank and file Democrats on the internet making comments in response to Trump that sound very libertarianish: limiting executive power (now that they feel threatened), seceding, refusing to recognize the President’s moral authority, even arming up. Among the general left of recent memory, when words like that where nowhere within their vocabulary, is this a new leaf being turned or a fleeting outburst?
To me it sounds exactly like the Democratic Party under George W. Bush. Mainstream Democrats ceased to worry about executive power and the surveillance state at noon on Inauguration Day, 2009. 
Is there reason to hope that a situation similar to what went down in the 60s can reemerge? A powerful antiwar/antifascist block made up of sympathetic actors from the radical left as well as classical liberals or libertarians? 
It seems likely. People are still occupied with recriminations over who caused Trump's victory -- leftists vs. Clinton liberals who also still feel a grudge over the treatment of Bernie in the primaries, and Clinton liberals recycling the "Nader cost us the election" myth for use against Bernie and Stein. But Trump is already so unpopular going in, and there's such a broad consensus that he's awful, that I think there's likely to be an overwhelming move to vote him out in 2020. 
What is your focus now that we know we’re in for a seemingly severe authoritarian crackdown coming?
First, as much public outcry as possible, and as much effort as possible to exploit divisions in the state (e.g. pressuring enough GOP Senators to join the Democrats in voting down Trump's worst nominees, etc.), into preventing an authoritarian consolidation of power. 
Second, encouraging as much adoption of circumvention technology as possible to minimize the state's power over us. 
And third, continuing the ongoing development of the building blocks of a future society, that continues regardless of which party's in power.
Can you talk about your latest book, Exodus: General Idea of the Revolution in XXI Century?
It's a book on the obsolescence of the Old Left transition model based on organizational mass and insurrectionary assault on the commanding institutions of the old society, and the emergence of a counter-model based on horizontalism, prefigurative politics, counter-institutions building and so forth (which the autonomist Marxists Negri and Hardt refer to as "Exodus" in Commonwealth).
I’m sure you need to give your mind a break from constant thought about repressive workplaces and state actions. Where do you find joy outside of the political sphere?
Mainly working on the huge beds and edible landscaping on the land I bought last year, taking care of my animal friends, and interacting with friends online.

Check out Kevin's website to learn more about his books. Also, much of his article writing can be followed at The Center for a Stateless Society. 

Selected works
   The Iron Fist behind the Invisible Hand, (2001)
   Austrian and Marxist Theories of Monopoly-Capital, (2004)
   Contract Feudalism, (2006)
   Studies in Mutualist Political Economy, (2007) - includes theoretical sections attempting to integrate marginalist critiques into the labor theory of value. The book was the subject of a symposium in the Journal of Libertarian Studies.
   Organization Theory: A Libertarian Perspective, (2008)
   The Ethics of Labor Struggle, (2008)
   The Great Domain of Cost-Plus: The Waste Production Economy, (2010)
   The Homebrew Industrial Revolution, (2010)
  The Desktop Regulatory State, (2016) 


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