An Anarchist Goes To Court

An Anarchist Goes To Court May 18, 2016

I concur with Thoreau’s words in “Civil Disobedience”:

I heartily accept the motto, — “That government is best which governs least”; and I should like to see it acted up to more rapidly and systematically. Carried out, it finally amounts to this, which also I believe, — “That government is best which governs not at all”; and when men are prepared for it, that will be the kind of government which they will have.

and with Kerry Thornley’s in Zenarchy:

ZEN is Meditation. ARCHY is Social Order. ZENARCHY is the Social Order which springs from Meditation.

As a doctrine, it holds Universal Enlightenment a prerequisite to abolition of the State, after which the State will inevitably vanish. Or – that failing – nobody will give a damn.

To be a philosophical anarchist is to realize that the state has no moral force, that the fact that something is or is not legal has no bearing on the question of whether it is ethically proper. It does not necessarily mean opposing the physical power of the ruling institution, or denying that it may be “an expedient”, as Thoreau puts it; it just means that in making any moral judgment the state is to be treated the same as any other group of people who might seek to use force of arms to compel a certain type of behavior. It means denying the state mental and spiritual power over one.

Thornley drew an interesting parallel between this power of the state and the mental and spiritual power of organized religion. One of my treasures is a signed copy of his book Zenarchy, which the author adorned with a sketch of a tiger and the words “Kill the Buddha! Smash the State!” I can’t speak for Lord Omar,* but it seems clear that he’s drawing an analogy with the famous advice of the Zen master Linji: “If you meet the Buddha on the road, kill him!”

[* One of Thornley’s Discordian “Holy Names”.]

DSCN0590Now the historical Buddha was a thousand years dead when Linji said this, so he was not advocating violence. The “Buddha” that one might meet on the road can only be a socially-conditioned mental construction. And if you wish liberation from your socially-conditioned state of mind you must deconstruct that “Buddha” that you think you see.

Just so, unless one is dealing with its armed agents, the “state” that one encounters is a socially-conditioned mental construction. And in order to experience subjective liberation, in order to feel free, one must deconstruct — “smash” — the state.

That’s all well and good as philosophical theory.

On the other hand we have nuts-and-bolts reality to deal with. To pay the bills I sometimes rent out the spare bedroom in my house, and one former tenant owes me over $1,700 in back rent and has made no effort at payment in over a year.

Post-Univeral-Enlightenment, when we are prepared for Thoreau’s government that governs not at all, he and I would both be bodhisattvas, pure in our observation of the precepts and diligent in repaying debts, and the issue would not arise. (Observation of the precepts would also have prevented him from giving a false address in order to avoid service of the lawsuit.)

But we’re still some distance away from Universal Enlightenment. So meanwhile, what’s a practical Zenarchist to do?

In a non-enlightened but stateless society — say, like that depicted in Ursula K. LeGuin’s The Dispossessed — I might just hunt him down and take stuff out of his possession to cover the owed value, using whatever force was necessary. Of course I can only consider that because I’m able-bodied and somewhat competent in the use of physical force; someone else might have to use hired muscle.

And there are advantages to having a dispassionate third-party do the forcing. I might be ethically justified in using a certain level of necessary force to resolve the debt, but surely there’s a temptation to go beyond that and get in a little extra for revenge. A disinterested third party acting with professional judgment may be safer for all concerned.

So it may be expedient to have a body of dispassionate hired muscle available, with a careful procedure governing its use — and right there we have the nucleus of a state. And once that nucleus grows to a certain size it looks unfavorably on those who might operate with direct force, so both do-it-yourself and hired-enforcer styles of debt resolution become declasse, to say the least.

But it’s important to realize that using state force instead of my own does not relieve me of moral responsibility. Whether I do the forcing myself or hire a private enforcer or draw from the state’s public pool of force, a fellow human being will find himself the target of a threat of violence, however indirect.

Image by Brian Turner via Wikimedia Comm
Image by Brian Turner via Wikimedia Comm

That is a weighty thing. So it is only with reluctance that I have filed a lawsuit against my former tenant, and have hired a private detective to locate and serve him with the summons. (It is interesting that our system still keeps roles for private enforcement, in a sense denying access to the theoretically public pool of enforcement to those who can’t afford process servers, attorneys, and the like, not to mention court costs. Every machine has its friction but at some point, as Thoreau noted, the friction comes to have the machine.)

But if I let him go, he will do the same harm to others. I can afford to absorb the loss if I must — certainly not without pain! But it won’t destroy me, where a less economically secure housemate or landlord could be ruined by his behavior. So the impulse towards justice is not solely selfish, but has a communitarian aspect.

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