Is the Government Routinely Guilty of Murder?

A quick question. We typically make a distinction between killing someone (which is murder, outside of certain defined cases, like self-defense), and acting in a way, a consequence of which is that they die.

Part of that distinction is intent, and part of it knowledge (it’s not murder to do something which causes death, if it was accidental, or if the result couldn’t have been foreseen). But those are obviously not the whole difference – I can knowingly, and deliberately, say, engage an ambulance driver in conversation, so that they are delayed in responding to my rival’s injury, which I did not cause but know about. And that is a very wrong thing to do, but not quite murder, it seems. Certainly at least, it is not ‘violent murder’.

(note that intent is not the same as motive. I can commit murder for noble motives – I may even be right to do so – as long as I am doing so deliberately. I can also regret that they must die, while still intending to kill them)

A big part of the remaining distinction, though, is about types of action, about the means used. Part of why the person above is not a murderer (if we think they’re not) is that the only action they performed – striking up a conversation – is a generally acceptable and benign sort of action. Stabbing, poisoning, or sabotaging equipment, so that someone (predictably) dies, would count as murder because those sorts of actions have some kind of directly ‘violating’ nature.

This reflects the sort of things a non-consequentialist ethical theory might say: even if the consequences (death) are the same, it’s still important that certain sorts of actions are different from others. Let’s grant this for now then. There are rules of action (do not poison people, do not physically attack people, etc.) that must be obeyed, and they are to some extent independent of consequences.

Now here’s my thought. If someone, with knowledge and deliberation, takes a violent action, or threatens violent action, and by so doing, brings about a certain person’s death, is that sufficient to count as either murder, or as something ‘morally equivalent’ to murder? Even if the ‘direct’ cause of death is something other than said action, or even if the person who dies is not themselves the victim of violence?

I wonder this because it seems that at some level, all state decisions are carried out with at least the threat of violence; the reality of violence is also fairly common. And it’s also the case that many state decisions lead to many deaths that might have been avoided, even if none of this violence is directly lethal. For example, on day 1 the police forcibly arrest and imprison someone for stealing food from a shop: a second person sees this and comes to fear the law. They are, however, financially destitute and this fear of the law prevents them from stealing food from that shop, or from forging health insurance or immigration documents, or some such things. As a result, they or one of their family dies, say from a childhood infection made dangerous by malnutrition.

Now, this seems to be a situation in which the state or some agent of it has carried out violent actions, which led to someone’s death – which death is predictable, if not individually then as part of a statistical average. (I’m here abstracting away from questions of who exactly in that great apparatus of decision-making and -enforcing is responsible – let’s just speak of ‘the state’)

Does this make said state guilty of murder, or of something morally equivalent to murder? If so, that seems to be quite serious – though of course it need not imply condemnation of the state. One might say that this sort of murder is justified by the particular circumstances that attend being a state.

But I do find my pedantic mind wondering about this. If it’s not murder, why not – what makes the difference? If it is something like ‘directness’ of causal link, then 1) what exactly is directness – how is the causal chain to be ‘segmented’ into distinct chunks? 2) why is directness – when distinguished from, say, reliability of connection – morally important? Is this just like the squeamishness of being more willing to support something unpleasant if you don’t have to see pictures of it?

How Should Anarchists Fight a War?

A few thoughts on ‘anarchist warfare’ and ‘statist warfare’.

In normal wars (though to varying degrees), the contest is between two or more territory-controlling forces. The activity of ‘controlling’ territory is distinct from the activity of living there; the contending forces are thus distinct from the populations inhabiting the areas fought over (again, to varying degrees). Consequently, the inhabiting population tends to appear as a passive ‘background’, as what is ‘fought over’.

As long as this pattern is in place, I would call the conflict ‘statist’ regardless of whether it’s one ‘official’ state against another, one ‘rebel’ group against another, an established government against rebels, etc. The point is, insofar as the dynamic of the war divides the population in general from the contending forces, and makes one passive and the other active, the essential dynamics of statehood are in play.

So what would an anarchist war look like? The ideal (however closely it is or isn’t acheived) is that this division between warring force and local population not exist. That is, the ideal would be that the activity of ‘controlling’ territory be simply an aspect of living there; that local populations at each point be actively organised to maintain something like a ‘monopoly of violence’ in that area.

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Discussion between Bakunin, Marx, and Warm-Fork

I was reading this recently – it’s some extracts from a book by Bakunin (prominent Russian anarcho-communist) which Marx had written notes in (the online text, on libcom, unfortunately doesn’t distinguish between who’s saying what, but I think I’ve worked it out from context – who’s calling who an idiot, generally). The topic, as one might expect, is the ‘workers’ state’ and the ‘dictatorship of the proletariat’ (hereafter DOTP). It stimulated some thoughts in my brain, so I reproduce some of the exchanges, with my comments.

My sympathies are mixed – partly I agree with Bakunin, partly with Marx, and I think a lot of the time their exchange may be clouded by their rivalry and dislike of each other.

Bakunin: We have already stated our deep opposition to the theory of Lassalle and Marx, which recommends to the workers, if not as final ideal then at least as the next major aim — the foundation of a people’s state, which, as they have expressed it, will be none other than the proletariat organized as ruling class. The question arises, if the proletariat becomes the ruling class, over whom will it rule? It means that there will still remain another proletariat, which will be subject to this new domination, this new state.

Marx: It means that so long as the other classes, especially the capitalist class, still exists, so long as the proletariat struggles with it (for when it attains government power its enemies and the old organization of society have not yet vanished), it must employ forcible means, hence governmental means. It is itself still a class and the economic conditions from which the class struggle and the existence of classes derive have still not disappeared and must forcibly be either removed out of the way or transformed, this transformation process being forcibly hastened.

Warm-Fork: Is Bakunin denying that the proletariat is likely to have many enemies, even after the threshold of revolution has been passed? Surely not. Nor, presumably, is he denying that the proletariat will have to ‘struggle’ with them in some sense, nor that it will have to meet force with force, nor that it will have to organise itself for such purposes.

So the precise dispute is when Marx says “it must employ forcible means, hence governmental means”, about which Bakunin says “It means that there will still remain another proletariat, which will be subject to this new domination”. So what is meant by ‘governmental means’ – my instinctive definition would be ‘establishing a centralised apparatus for initiating physical force against not-immediately-violent targets’. It’s certainly a plausible allegation that this inevitably makes people other than the intended counter-revolutionaries vulnerable to such an apparatus.

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How to Work out who the Goodies and Baddies are

As my last post might have suggested, I’ve been reading about the 2nd World War a bit recently. It’s been quite confusing, not so much to understand as to evaluate – who, I feel myself asking, should I ‘support’? Should I accept the very mainstream view that this was the best example of a just war, or should I treat it as a nationalistic and imperialistic enterprise similar to other wars?

The problem is quite tangled because there’s three layers of confusion. The first is just factual – there’s a lot of details, and each account will emphasise some and leave others out, so it’s hard to feel in command of all the relevant data. The second is counter-factual – that is, it’s very hard to say what would have happened if things had gone differently (e.g. if Hitler had ‘won’ in Europe, how long would Nazi rule have lasted?).

But the third difficulty is more properly philosophical. I’m not really sure how to approach the facts, how to make these decisions. What sort of claims would I be making if I said ‘yeah I support Mussolini’, and what sort of justification would they demand? What, in short, should be my criteria of evaluation? This is what I want to approach here.

Note that I think a lot of this is also relevant to other ‘contests’, like an election campaign or the war in Afghanistan.

There are, I think, three competing requirements at work here, or alternatively three things to avoid.

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Abolish Lawyers

This is going to be another post where I cast aspersions on the legal system from a position of relative ignorance. In fact, it’s that ignorance that I want to talk about in particular.

(also, I’m going to use ‘law’ to mean simply the standing rules and regulations of a society, including those of an anarchic society, although I’m aware that many anarchists are ‘against laws’ because they define ‘law’ slightly differently)

Because, why are we ok with the fact that we don’t really know what the law says? I mean, I could probably tell you a good number of legal facts, especially those most relevant to my life. But I doubt they would add up to 1% of the legal facts that there are, and even if we added in all those which I might have a chance of guessing based on common sense, I think it would still be a minority. And I don’t imagine many other people are much better off. In a word, law functions as a specialism.

Now we might be fine with that if we were dealing with a scientific discipine, or a complex craft – we’re not surprised that most people understand only a minority of medicine or of chemistry. But law’s not a scientific discipline, it’s a public creation, and it’s meant to be something that we all give assent to – indeed, which at some level exists because we all assent to it. And of course, it’s supposedly our responsibility to be familiar with it, because ignorance is not a defence.

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The Tyranny of the Majority

‘Tyranny of the majority’ is an interesting phrase. I’m going to throw out my thoughts on it, without saying anything particularly profound or complex. In particular, I’m going to talk about the role this concept sometimes plays in anti-democratic ideologies or in suspicions of democracy – where ‘democracy’ is defined as the ideal of collective self-rule that representative political systems such as are now fashionable claim to offer but don’t.

So I think there are two sorts of things that people often have in mind when they speak of majoritarian tyranny, two sorts of ‘victims’. One sort is the ‘deviant’, those who are, for whatever reason, in violation of society’s norms, such as nudists, schizophrenics, asylum-seekers, transsexuals, baha’is, etc. The other sort is the rich person who falls foul of ‘the mob’, and has their ‘freedom’ taken away when the baying crowd strip them of their property.

Now I think the first of these is a valid fear, while the second is not – but that the first, valid, fear, doesn’t require democracy and indeed thrives on its opposite.

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Peace and Anarchy

I was at a discussion today on the prospects for world government and world peace. It’s an interesting topic, and I intend to tell you all what I think about it, without making that much of an effort to justify it.

So first off, what does world government mean? Is there a sense we can extract from it while dispensing with the ‘government’ bit?  Taking a relatively weak interpretation, it would mean standing and established procedures for making decisions and resolving disputes, all the way from the individual level to the world level. At the moment we have established procedures for making decisions up to the national level in many cases, but above that level chance, power, and the looming threat of megaviolence start to take over.

That doesn’t specify what those procedures are, except that they are such as can be part of a well-designed system, not orgies of senseless violence. It is consistent both with world government, extending the coercive and elite nature of current national procedures, and with an ‘anarchic’ world-wide federation. We might lump both together as ‘world order’.

Now in the abstract, I think there’s quite a compelling case that world order is a desirable thing. It’s main difference from the status qup would be to remove the possibility and threat of war international war, and to enable easier global economic planning, which is a necessity for environmental reasons if nothing else.

Now it might be thought that in practice, world government is more likely than world anarchy. But I think actually it’s the other way around. World government is extremely unlikely, because of how states work.

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The State is Incapable of Submissiveness

A topic of abiding interest to me is the analogy between the individual person and society, and its limits. We habitually speak of collectives, especially states, as acting, perceiving, desiring, etc, in the same sort of language that we speak of human individuals as doing. Clearly there is some practical use and validity in such a turn of phrase – but equally clearly, we cannot expect a state to precisely mirror an individual. What then, are the precise and detailed differences?

I’ve argued before that one difference is that states are liable to be megalomanic (i.e. pathologically concerned with power) in proportion as they are hierarchical, since the desires of the more powerful will exert a greater influence on collective decision-making (in its most extreme form, a theoretical absolute and total autocracy would act out the particular psychology and desires of its autocrat), and those who have won themselves most power tend to be those with most interest in power.

But I now want to offer up a related observation: states are incapable of submissive desires.

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Hegel, the Family, the Market, and the State

I’ve been reading a lot recently about Hegel’s political thought, and one aspect in particular provoked me to comment, namely his division of social life into three ‘moments’: the family, the market, and the state.

(‘Moment’ is a quasi-technical term in Hegel drawn from its usage in physics. The moments of something are the constituent elements which compose it but which, unlike mere ‘parts’ cannot be separated from each other except by a simplifying abstraction but rather determine what each other are)

The three sorts of social life could be roughly characterised as ‘particular altruism’ (I care about my family members for their own sake, but this applies only to a contingent few people, not to all people), ‘universal egoism’ (in a market, although I respect the rights of each other person, I use them simply as means to my own satisfaction), and ‘universal altruism’ (in considering a state policy I concern myself with the common good of all other citizens, for its own sake).

Why is this worth remarking on? Isn’t it just an obvious little list? But what Hegel wants to say with this three-fold distinction is that the three are all different and all equally basic – none can be derived from or understood in terms of the others.

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Anarchism and al-Qaeda

I’m not at all an expert on Islamism, but by my limited understanding, al-Qaeda, insofar as they base themselves on the writings of Sayyid Qutb, are in a certain sense anarchists.

In a converse sense, however, they are the precise opposites of anarchists. How so?

(note that this is specifically al-Qaeda, in whatever sense it exists, that I’m speaking of, not any of the more successful and mainstream groups like Hamas or the Iranian government)

Anarchism could be defined either more broadly, as, 1, “opposition to authority and hierarchy in general”, or more narrowly, as, 2, “rejection of states” (compare socialism as “support for economic equality” vs. “rejection of private property”).

The typical anarchist would accept point 1., and therefore accept point 2. on that basis. What (at least one reading of) al-Qaeda’s ideology does is to invert this: they vigourously reject 1., and therefore accept 2. on that basis.

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